Sunday, June 15, 2014

This year's Father's Day photo


[Not pictured: The Troubled Dog, left.]

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Dad

The other day at an event at his school, The Boy called out to me, “Daddy—I mean, Dad...!”

I am officially being transitioned from Daddy to Dad. It has been a sweet ride, as long as it has lasted. I will miss the hell out of hearing ‘Daddy’ whenever he talks to or about me.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sensei, Sunset


[The pic above is from one of The Boy’s first private lessons.]

It’s been almost two years since The Boy started taking private Taekwondo lessons.

When we began, there was this instructor at his school whose sleeves snapped when he punched, even when he was trying to demonstrate an unsatisfactory effort. He seemed like a logical place to start.

This instructor took great pains to not stand out, even more than the rest of the instructor staff at this place. I mean, if they’re running the class, the instructors stand out. But if they’re assisting someone else’s class, it’s their job to be everywhere and nowhere, and only in anyone’s sightline if specifically instructed.

As it turns out, this job description and the young man’s personality were a seamless fit. And that’s part of what intrigued me about him. Despite being a 4th-degree black belt, he was possessed of a very Kwai Chang Caine-like stillness of presence. In the common vernacular, “Thar was somethin’ different about that fella.”

Instructor-wise, I knew hiring this guy would be punching way above The Boy’s belt color, but I did it anyhow. It felt right, and I’ve never had cause to regret it.

The Otherness about this fellow is very much of a piece with The Boy’s Otherness, not to mention my own. At a time when The Boy was actively looking at a future of potential social ostracization because of his own oddness, this picture of him ten years down the road—happy, accomplished and head screwed on straight—walks into our lives.

Two words: Role Model.

And for about 20 months, The Private Instructor performed every part of his job at a black belt level. I give him personal credit for The Boy being able to run and do push-ups. And his name became the Ultimate Nullifier at home. If there was a fracas and we really had to wheel out the Big Guns, we would suggest we take the contested issue up with The Private Instructor and see what he thinks. Long after threatening The Boy with Santa had lost its efficacy, The Private Instructor’s name worked its magic. So well, in fact, that we haven’t had to resort to that old ploy in forever.

Turning our wet noodle white belt into a legitimately competitive red belt has been a team effort at the studio we attend; The Private Instructor’s relative contribution has been growing smaller en toto as his teaching schedule and The Boy’s class schedule diverged over the last year. But the confidence boost of having his very own private black belt—and to be completely honest, a pretty bad-ass one at that—added an immeasurable amount to what we have achieved so far on The Boy’s journey of self-esteem.

The Private Instructor, like The Boy, is no social butterfly and that’s by his choice. The Boy sees this and re-contextualizes his own social isolation. I have explained to him that he will probably never be the BMOC, that he will have to settle for having a few intensely good friendships over time instead of a flood of casual, meaningless ones. That being the Odd Man Out isn’t a curse, but a blessing. I had these talks with him before private lessons began, but with his instructor’s example at hand, my words took on a much deeper resonance.

The Private Instructor even taught me stuff from time to time. Once I was paying attention to the lesson, and I heard one of those things that’s so simple, you say, “Well, duh.” But it was still revelatory to me. He was asking The Boy, “What is a Leader?” And the answer he was fishing for—that he eventually had to supply himself—was “an example.”

Well, duh. But I had never put the two together before. And believe me, that was info I have been able to put to use. When I began to view my actions as examples for The Boy, you know, some of those actions had to change.

Plus, we have discovered an additional bonus: This Taekwondo thing attracts quality kids! Most of The Boy’s peers at the studio, who have stuck with the program as long as he has, are good and decent kids. Smart, focused and respectful. More good role-modeling, this time peer-to-peer, as well as a pool of potential play dates a parent doesn’t have to worry about going horribly sideways.

But The Private Instructor instructs no more. He has moved on as of last week’s lesson. He has allowed The Boy to snatch the pebble from his hand and kicked himself out of the monastery. He’s like a Clint Eastwood character whose work is done and he’s moving on to clean up the next town on the frontier. Or maybe the next young man who needs martial arts instruction and some on-the-DL role modeling.

After almost two years, Friday afternoons are going to have a whole different shape now. I’m glad he timed his departure to coincide with District tournaments and the end of the school year. By the time all that dust has settled, enough water will have gone under the bridge that Friday afternoons won’t feel like Friday afternoons anymore anyhow.

I told him that I hated change, and he pointed out to me the futility of that opposition with the uncomplicated courtesy he would point out that my shoelace was untied.

I will miss this young man, but I feel better about the world knowing that he’s out in it, and the future is in his hands, and his students’, and not mine.

[The photos below are from the last private lesson with The Boy.]



Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rojo


How Idaho does Earth Day:

With thousands of tiny non-biodegradable foam balls given away to schoolchildren paid for with government money. Because irony about our misuse of the environment and tax dollars takes balls!


Saturday, April 05, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier raises the bar


We have tickets to go see this tomorrow with friends, but I couldn’t wait.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the movie I wanted to see the first time. The first Cap movie, as well the first Thor film (and to some extent the second Thor film, too), both felt inert to me. They were like amusement park rides with poorly concealed mechanisms—knowing how the trick works sucked some of the joy out of the user experience. They were fun and perfunctory at the same time.

I did not have to work hard, however, to be wow-ed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Like The Dark Knight—its most apropos cinematic antecedent—the new Captain America film is a grown-up movie disguised as a superhero flick. Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) was on Letterman this week and when the host quizzed him about what made this movie’s plot different, Jackson guffawed and said, “This movie’s got one!”

Also like The Dark Knight, it nails the zeitgeist in a way you don’t see coming from a franchise popcorn genre flick. The fact that it is an airy fun ride at the same time is probably a reflection of the popular culture of 2014 as compared to that of 2008 when Dark Knight was released.

Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker was the embodiment of our worst external fears at the time—the lone suicidal terrorist with delusions of grandeur—The Winter Soldier explores the worst internal, or at least domestic, fears we are dealing with today; an over-intrusive government that plays with human lives like they are pieces on a chess board, in the service of a purported greater purpose.

Lately I’ve seen a bunch of movies with this theme, but CA/TWS works it much less hamfistedly than other recent efforts. It is anti-government agitprop with a touch so light as to be almost imperceptible. Or maybe it’s just all the cool shit blowing up everywhere that makes the zeitgeisty elements seem almost subliminal. (This graf has four words spellcheck hates. Must. Fix. Spellcheck.)

Whatever the case, the filmmakers’—co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—political agenda doesn’t interfere with the storytelling, or the sheer thrill of the execution. The hand-to-hand type fisticuffs are convincing throughout, there’s some early martial arts mayhem featuring a little-used Marvel villain that only old farts like me will recognize from their comic book source material, and as previously mentioned, lots of shit gets blowed up real good.

More than ever, Chris Evans as Captain America looks like a life-size Ken doll, but brings real acting chops and charisma to what could easily have been a thankless, stolid Good Guy role like Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent in last year’s Man of Steel. The filmmakers probably did themselves a large favor by opening the movie with Evans as Steve Rogers, cracking wise.  It’s a cute scene, and it sets up the flavor of the film to follow.

Scarlett Johansson is back as the Black Widow, with a lot more to do than in previous appearances as the character. Sam Jackson shines as the beleaguered head of S.H.I.E.L.D., the super-secret spy agency he heads that originated in the wake of WWII, which provenance turns out to be a mixed bag. Cap’s sidekick The Falcon, as well as his titular adversary are played by newcomers—well, I didn’t recognize them—both of whom acquit themselves ably and with gravity appropriate to their roles.

Upon re-reading this notice, I realize I forgot to mention the plot, other than that Sam Jackson approves of it. I always forget to mention the plot in my first draft.

I didn’t care much for the Winter Soldier storyline in the comic books. Liked the idea, but at the time, the book was into this gritty, neo-noir style of storytelling that I’ve never been a big fan of. Which turns out to be cool, because for a change, there were whole chunks of the movie where I didn’t know what was going on until it was revealed, that I would have had spoiled for me if I had read the comics.

Additionally, in the interlocking ‘Marvel Universe’ movies, throwaway lines referencing random characters like Stephen Strange don’t just feel like name-checks for the fan-boy contingent, they carry the weight of at least the possibility of more Captain America/Avengers-caliber franchises yet to come.

At 2 hours-plus, Captain America: The Winter Soldier flies by like a short 90 minutes. This movie has been cut to a fare-thee-well and not a moment seems forced or unnecessary.

CA/TWS looks to give The Avengers a run for its money; I don’t know if it will do the same box office—you have to respect the contributions of Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon to that previous Marvel megafilm, and its grosses—but like that film and The Dark Knight, it raises the bar for superhero movies to come.

Speaking of: The new trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is terrific. It took me straight from the “looks like fun” of the previous trailers to “I can’t wait!” If the feature plays as well as the preview, it should make a bazillion dollars.

Oh, and in one of the pair of teaser clips at the end of CA/TWS, two long-time comicbook siblings are introduced; characters I would have thought belonged to another studio, with their own Marvel franchise movie out this summer…

Have I mentioned I can’t wait??

Saturday, March 08, 2014

When The Man Goes To Ground


So my good friend Heather tells me she finished the copy of the new Johnny Cash biography by Robert Hilbun I sent her for Christmas and was somewhat taken aback. She was thinking of writing about it, with a working title so clever I’m going to riff on it for my own title. I believe plagiarism is still considered to be the sincerest form of flattery, isn’t it?

I had also sent a copy of the book to my mom, who had the same reaction as Heather did, basically, “Wow, this guy’s an asshole.” They were both shocked at the amount of drugs Cash did post-his alleged recovery. His stints at Betty Ford were fobbed off as exceptions to the rule in previous Cash biographies, but this one suggests they were just especially rough patches of a road Cash was constantly on and off of throughout his life.

I admit to being surprised myself. I had bought the official story too. But I always fall for the official story. I believed Bill Clinton until the infamous blue dress surfaced. Like most people, I want to believe, and be able to believe in, the celebrities I admire. It’s always a little blow to the ego to learn I’ve been bamboozled again.

I realized I was angry at myself for not seeing the signs—we junkies are supposed to have each others’ backs!—and getting suckered again.

And then I realized that Heather and my mom were both disappointed in Cash for his failure to live up to the public image he cultivated. We were all disappointed, but for a change, only I was disappointed in myself.

Cash was supposed to have gotten his shit together there in Nickajack Cave and emerged clean, sober and re-energized, the end.

And he might have, too, if that had been the end. That was the ending of the movie biography everybody references when Cash’s life story comes up these days. The official bill of goods gave us the Hollywood ending we wanted; we were happy to forgive Cash a lapse or two between afterwards and the bitter end.

The truth is much more logically consistent with junkie behavior: Cash battled his demons every inch of the way to the bitter end.

Yes, he was in constant pain the last couple decades of his life due to a jaw injury that never healed right. Every day, he had to choose how much pain to suffer and weigh it against the risk of falling back down the substance-abuse bunny hole.

But you know, Cash was a junkie. Even when he wasn’t popping pills, he remained a junkie, he was just a junkie successfully working his program. The same way Hank Williams stayed a drunk even when he wasn’t drinking, or Ted Nugent stays an asshole even when there isn’t a microphone around.

If a junkie falls over in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, we still make an awful racket. That’s just the way we’re built.

It occurred to me that the disparity between my reaction to the Cash tome and Heather and my Mom’s mutual response was because, being a junkie myself, I expect us to fail. As soon as I read the new revelations, I said to myself, “Oh yeah. Well of course he did. What a gullible fool I’ve been…”

But people without the addictive-personality disorder thing read it and think, “What, was he crazy? He had it all!”

Asshole.

And they’re right, too. Only assholes are narcissistic enough to believe they can not only grab the golden ring, but that they have it coming to them, too. If you really want to succeed in this world, it helps to either be an asshole or marry one.

For me, it comes down to your definition of “asshole.” Mine has always been as follows: An asshole is a jerk with redeeming qualities, whereas a jerk is an asshole without redeeming qualities. It’s like how rich people are eccentric and poor people are just crazy. And how Ted Nugent narrowly clears the jerk threshold by having given us “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Stranglehold” and “Great White Buffalo,” to name but a few of his classic compositions.

If you have brought added-value to this world by having been here, I will accept a lower standard of personal behavior from you as the baseline. And give you a lot more wiggle-room on the margins, too. As long as I don’t have to live with you and you are content to have me worship you from afar.

It’s time we took the onus off of ‘asshole,’ but like most asshole-related activity, the best place to do that is from a safe distance.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A farewell to Windy


My uncle Wayne died today.

When I was a kid, I was a pretty fucked-up, broken, nasty little piece of work, and grown-ups had a tendency to treat me that way, too.

Besides my Dad, Uncle Wayne was the only grown-up I remember going out of his way to be nice to me. He not only didn’t treat me like he expected my head to start spinning around any second, but he treated me like an equal. Not at all the usual grown-up/kid dynamic. He wanted to be my pal, and until we up and moved away across the country, I reckon he was.

I think the way I relate to kids, even today, has the flavor of the courtesy and friendly camaraderie with which he treated me. He always seemed interested in what I had to say, and in the late ’60s, early ’70s, that was mighty rare. It was still okay to wallop the hell out of your kids in public at the time. A popular maxim was, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Uncle Wayne, apparently, was unfamiliar with it.

When I got married, a whole lot of years later, Wayne showed up and so did a bunch of his kids—and they all had to travel a long way to get there, too. Another time we both happened to be visiting my mom in Tucson at the same time and ended up going to Saturday evening Mass with my nephew, which delighted Uncle Wayne to no end. The last time I spoke with him on the phone, he reminisced about it.

He visited my Mom more than any other of her siblings, maybe more than all of them put together. Not that her sibs were to blame; after all, my Mom was the one who decided to put a couple thousand miles of America between them. No, Wayne saw her a lot because he liked to travel. Even in retirement, he was always going somewhere, doing something, having fun and bringing it with him wherever he went. Usually with a cocktail or two nearby.

It was not a bad way to live.

He was also my Mom’s most dedicated phone correspondent among her siblings. Mom really lit up when she spoke about their phone calls; so what if the cocktail or two usually nearby occasionally made it hard to follow exactly what “Windy,” his longtime nickname, was saying. His tone was full of good will and easy humor. He didn’t judge, he didn’t preach, and he always left her with a bounce in her voice.

His ticker gave out today while he was off on holiday in Mexico. One assumes he went quickly—no horrid extended battles with pernicious disease, nor torturous gradual loss of faculty. One minute he was no doubt enjoying a refreshing beverage on the beach of one of his favorite vacation getaways, the next he’s knocking on St. Peter’s gate.

As these things go, it was not a bad way to go.

I’m going to miss knowing we are sharing the same world. His example gave me hope as a kid, and made me a better person toward kids as an adult; I salute you, Wayne Barker. Requiescat in pace.