Priceless?

A question of little ones (and big zeros)

There was no ghost. In fact, you could say it was the opposite that Kyle Daniels saw—or thought he saw—the morning he scrambled into work with panic in his throat.

“Hey. Hey James,” Kyle whispered over top of the cubicle wall. “What’s a kid cost?”

“Huh?” our coworker said.

“Kids. How much? Ballpark.”

“Is this another black market thing? I really don’t have time today.”

“No, I’m serious,” the twentysomething said, then regrouped. “Like, if I, um, ever wanted to have a kid, how much would I need saved up, right off the bat?”

The older man sighed. One of the few employees with children, James must have endured our curiosities so routinely that he figured this for another aimless probe.

“I dunno Kyle, it’s actually more about –”

“Goddamn it. Never mind,” Kyle said, flinging his shoulder bag to the ground and whirling toward the patio where we took our breaks. It was only 9:15, and he’d never needed one more.

James stared at me, both of us bobbing in the wake of the exit. “What the hell was that about?” he said.

I had a fairly good idea. Not the particulars of course—whether my friend owed his anxiety to a lapse in judgment or latex was uncomfortably immaterial—but the takeaway was clear. Kyle’s perch on the family tree was suddenly in danger of not being the closest to the ground.

I sympathized. Most people can cite at least one “close call” with their biological imperative. And whether that uncertainty lasts three weeks or three hours, the scenarios one’s brain streams on a constant loop are marvels of both a gloomy brand of fatalism and brass tacks crisis-management.

Kyle was no different. Short fuse and flop sweat notwithstanding, he had advanced to the proactive stage of his freak-out. Out on the patio, he paced the war room of his mind, factoring gestation periods against pay periods and running calculations based on a foggy recollection of the last bank statement he’d bothered to open. He needed definite, if not reliable, information. Anything that would say: This is what you’re up against. He was a commander on a mission.

Unfortunately, we were a sorry-ass bunch of joint chiefs. What’s a kid cost? I’d have sooner guessed at third world nuclear codes. And James just couldn’t get past the implausibility of the question. He seemed uncomfortable with, even aggravated by, its shortsightedness. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel for Kyle or had never experienced a “scare of his own. But after becoming a devoted father, he struggled to remember what there was to be afraid of.

That’s probably what led him to the humor of the situation in advance of others. We caught up eventually. Weeks later, long after the alarm had proven false, even Kyle wrung belly laughs from the joke his outburst had become.

What’s a kid cost? Don’t tell me you paid sticker. Whataya mean I can’t extend the warranty?

 It is a funny question, I remember thinking—reductive and insensitive to a knuckle-dragging degree. But I also remember finding something commendable in the logic. Kyle  was simply assessing his paternal fitness at what was then its weakest link. And when the realities of your existence still include laundry mats and security deposits, there’s a responsibility to be that caveman. It may be a crass reaction to new life, but “How many more wooly mammoths will I have to kill each month?” is also an incredibly appropriate one.

Still raking for quarters beneath the cushions of my own day-to-day, I understood Kyle’s fear that morning. However, distance from the situation also gave me the luxury of considering James’ perspective. With some squinting I saw my life one day looking more like his. I, too, would be the devoted father.

Now, nearly a decade later, I’m not so sure.

 MASLOW’S CHECKBOOK

 


Fortunately, short-term survival isn’t the hurdle it used to be. Though the wife and I will never be mistaken for One Percenters, odds are decent that we could keep an offspring or two out of the soup lines for the requisite eighteen years. I sense, however, that because this isn’t 1832, and we aren’t living out a Charles Dickens novel, the bar should probably be set a little higher. And if I remember anything about being a kid, it’s that “I’m bored” kicks in precisely where “I’m hungry” leaves off.  This is where the zeros pick up speed. A minute ago it was three squares and a crib. Now you’re in for My Gym, pre-k, t-ball, jazz-tap, band camp, boy’s state, and Virginia Tech[1].

Gulp.

Take a peek-a-boo at those margins through the prism of the so-called “Great Recession,” and it’s easy to see why one in five young Americans have put off having children.

Still, it can’t be impossible, I tell myself. I’m just going to have to play my cards right. Take the breaks where I can get them and keep the big stuff out in front where I can put my shoulder to it when the time comes. Remember, it’s the little choices that–Aha! So this is it, I think. That first step across the threshold of middle-class adulthood. The moment I commit to the pursuit of life’s epic questions. Namely, “Why is that light on?” “Who left this water running?” and “What happened to your old one?”

It’s fine, I assure myself. Best not to fight it. The key is to be honest and acknowledge exactly what’s happening. I am officially stepping into my father’s battle-scarred, orthotic shoes. I flash to them, Kiwi’d and yawning beneath the old recliner, and for just an instant I dread the Mr. Roger’s routine this will create at the gym. But no matter. The old man did all right by me and everyone else. I may not have always gotten, but I certainly never wanted. There are worse paths to walk.

“Goddamn it, these shoes will do just fine,” I say, kneeling down for a closer look. I’ve even begun to admire the seams when a jangling thought occurs. It’s something I’ve never even considered so it echoes now with a tinge of shame.

What if they’re too big?

 


WHO DOESN’T LOVE A CARVING STATION?

 


To hell with chocolates. The first quarter of your life is really more like the buffet at a nice hotel. Everything is bright and fresh, and it stretches so far out beyond you that imagining the end is impossible. The people who brought you are helpful. They seem to know exactly what to spoon onto your plate. They serve you straight up for a while, then take to making suggestions. Now and then something doesn’t taste quite like they led you to believe, but on the whole it’s a pretty sweet spread. So you pig out for the next twenty years or so.

At this point you see that not only is there an end, but you’re fairly relieved to have reached it. Suddenly some of the stuff those folks dished out isn’t sitting too well. Honestly, you’re stuffed. It all seems so restraining now and you feel like you can’t breath. Time to step away. So you say goodbye and, truth be told, spend the next few years walking around with your pants unbuttoned. It feels great. And you’re not hurting anyone, right?

Every once in a while something reminds you of the buffet, and you find yourself missing things that didn’t even occur to you when they were at arm’s length. It starts to dawn on you just how much work it must have taken to string the whole thing together. Definitely wasn’t cheap, you think. Those people sure were nice to take you. You hope you didn’t seem ungrateful there at the end. When the mints got passed around you said Thank You, but, hell, so did the mints. Oh well, you can’t sweat it now. You’ve got shit to do. Besides, they said it was their pleasure. And you never actually saw the bill come. Maybe they had a gift certificate.

So you’re out walking around, getting shit done, and one day you start chatting with someone. It’s about nothing at first, then a little of everything. You like the way she walks. There’s no rush, but you’re not holding each other back either. Crazy thing is, you’ve been walking for like three blocks, and you’re still talking. Eventually, buffets come up and she remembers a lot of the same things you do.

For the first time in a long time, you feel a little empty. A flicker of want under your last rib. It’s nothing major. But about about when you decide it’s not worth mentioning, she taps you on the shoulder.

You hungry?

I dunno. Seems early. You?

I could eat.

After that, it’s hard to think about much else, and there’s a place on the next corner. Something about the way the street lamps cut into puddles on the pavement catches in your chest. You’re not sure at first.  Then you recognize the way the hostess drops her consonants.  When she lowers her glasses to scan the seating chart, a bright, hot shock goes through your body. You’ve been here before. This is the place.

You and your walking partner talk it over. You’re definitely going. But doesn’t it seem kind of a waste: this spread that goes on and on and just the two of you? Shouldn’t you show it to someone else?

You sweet-talk your way around reservations and adding an extra chair or two—it’s hard to tell who might be joining. This is all going to work out. There’s just one thing. The hostess says at this place they take payment upfront.

Gotcha. Okay. How much?

It’s hard to say really.

Well then how can I—

I’m sorry sir, it’s just our policy.

Oh.

We also can’t hold the table indefinitely. I’ll need you to decide.

 ~

The minute you consider becoming a parent, the loan that was your own childhood comes due. Suddenly you know exactly how high the bar is set. Now the “what-ifs” start flying.

What if you can’t do for yours what yours did for you? What if, in stretching to provide, you neglect or even withhold something more important? What if you’re not cut out to endure the lifetime of what-ifs this first domino triggers?

The fearless may be right. “What if?” may very well get you nowhere. But don’t you remember a few faces at the buffet who looked as if that’s where they’d rather have been? Bad things happened in that line too. You saw pushing. You saw fatigue. You saw people lose their places and even each other. Worst of all you saw regret. Back then you just thanked God it wasn’t at your table; now you pray it isn’t contagious. See, you know this trip isn’t about watching. It’s about being watched.

 

 ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS?

 


If only.

Money. Patience. Wisdom. Faith. They’re all equally interchangeable in the high stakes Mad Lib I now wake in the middle of the night to play.

Do I have enough       _____       to guide and sustain a reasonably happy, considerate human being?

The prevailing cultural sentiment holds that love is the only resource that matters. Supply it in adequate measure and all the others follow suit. But the culture also likes to remind you that, until your finger anchors a tiny fist for the first time, you have no conception of what love truly is. The gap between these platitudes explains a lot about the world we live in. Scan the month’s top news stories and you can see just how conflicted we all are about who’s fit to be a parent and what those criteria might be.

How dare Snooki play Donna Reed? And just what makes Sandra Fluke think she’s better than biology? It’s a twisted captain that lumps Georgetown Law in the same boat with Jersey Shore, but so goes the S.S. Can’t Win For Losing. Get your bailing buckets ready girls; gunslinger Tommy Jordan joined the crew when he opened fire on his daughter’s laptop and became the 38th parallel of postmodern child rearing (currently 344,987 likes to 34,236 dislikes). Hope he takes to close quarters. We’ve got Tiger Moms and Deadbeat Dads. Jessica Simpson just dropped trou on the sundeck. And look up there! How’d all those damned Duggers squeeze into that crow’s nest? What’s that…Jim Bob’s got an announcement to make? Careful Padre. The wind is stiff, and it’s blowing in all directions.

Ask Stephanie Decker about wind. Or children. Or the raw instinct that thrusts you between the two without a second’s hesitation. When bricks and furniture funneled around her crumbling basement at 175 mph, the Indiana mother lay down on top of her son and daughter and told them, “You are not going to die.”

Think about that pronoun long enough and you physically ache.

As it happened, the storm ceded life and settled for limb—her right leg at the ankle, her left above the knee. Leaving the hospital two weeks after the amputations, Decker laid it out just as plainly for the New York Daily News.

“I feel pretty awesome,” she said.

 

ONE ANSWER

 


 I want to feel pretty awesome. I want to love something so much that I accept my own end as fair trade for its preservation. I want that involuntary smile and the selflessness that cues it as they measure for the prosthetics.

But I’m not naïve enough to think all that comes swaddled in pastels. And as intrigued as I am by the sense of purpose children seem to impart, I’m equally leery of the excuse some turn them into. Hang around enough of the wrong people after their third vodka tonic and you’ll be horrified to learn just how many groundbreaking inventions, novels, cures, performances and physiques the world has been denied on account of its youngest residents.  And if there’s anything more insufferable than a could’a-been’a-contender stifled by reproduction, it’s the martyr anointed by it[2]. The thing is, if you plan to have a child, I’m not sure “sacrifice” is a word you get to say ever again[3]. Your priorities may change. Your ambitions may evolve. But anything surrendered is done so on behalf of your desire to be a parent, not the child that results.

So what does a kid cost? Twenty years? Eight hollow-points and a new hard drive? Your own two feet?

Turns out it’s a hell of a question. And if you’re going to be worth a damn as a parent, there can only be one answer.

I don’t care.

It’s not the way I’m used to buying things. So for now, I’ll walk the hall at 3 AM to quiet my mind in place of a son or daughter. I’ll try to trust that the terms of this deal come to feel more natural with time. And I’ll assure myself there’s a bit of that left. Then I’ll return to the question, because, eventually, we’ll need to decide.

I know they can’t hold the table indefinitely.


- # -

[1] This will inevitably be their first choice, if only out of spite.

[2] Relax, I’m not talking about you. Unless this is you.

[3] Natural disasters, birth defects and chronic illness aside.


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No Choice

It came clear to me then that Mama was right. We couldn’t take the risk. And from everything I had heard, I knew that there was very little chance of his escaping the sickness…Quickly I left Mama and went to stand in the light of the burning bear grass. I reloaded my gun and called Old Yeller back from the house. I stuck the muzzle of the gun against his head and pulled the trigger.

 Fred Gipson, 1956

 

It took only six words to put official end to the most successful and dignified coaching career in college sports.

You are relieved of your duties.

After a university trustee said this to the elderly man he was probably raised to emulate, there was nothing more. And why would there be? What subsequent words could Joe Paterno have heard with those first six ringing in his ears?

Of course nearly all of this goes back to what Paterno did or didn’t hear a decade ago. Most have suggested that, at a minimum, the sequence of “grown-man,” “ten-year-old-boy” and “shower” should have been enough to incite proper action. And given the world we live in, it is nearly impossible to think otherwise. The question is, what world did Joe Paterno live in?

In a polarizing (i.e. thoughtful) piece on Wednesday, ESPN columnist Ivan Maisel suggested that advanced age, and the antiquated generational mores that accompany it, kept Paterno from fully grasping the specifics and significance of what took place in 2002. And though the column has generated its share of negative responses, I must admit Maisel’s theory was the first limb my own mind reached for in attempt to reconcile Paterno’s inaction with the sterling reputation that preceded it. Moreover, each time the 84-year-old appeared on his porch this week—looking confused, muttering seemingly sincere but hopelessly off-pitch directives to media and supporters—that limb seemed a little more substantial.

Say a little prayer for the victims.

It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you.

Be good, go study.

They sound more like the speech bubbles Norman Rockwell left out than levelheaded reactions to child rape.

The further the week progressed, the louder the voice in my head nagged, “what the hell am I missing?” Could the grad assistant have minced words in some bashful deference to the grandfather figure he so revered? Did the athletic bureaucracy willfully insulate the coach from key details and hush years of whispers to protect the brand? Is it possible that Paterno’s perch atop that tower of authority and reverence stretched so high that the even the most desperate cry for help couldn’t reach him?

Or is this limb really just a straw I’m grasping at because I can’t accept the horrible alternative; that Joe Pa heard the cries clearly and couldn’t be bothered to come down.

Regardless of whether comprehension or compassion failed the coach, the coach failed those in greatest need. And the emotional and psychological body count will not vary a bit for the difference. The distinction matters only in terms of how history will regard Joe Paterno. Which, for anyone with an inkling of respect for the victims, is to say that it doesn’t matter at all.

Unchecked authority corrupts men. The dimming of life compromises them.

Whichever you believe, Joe Paterno had a sickness, and it left Penn State with no choice.

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The Best Medicine

The most important exchange I will ever have with my sister was about drugs.

Neither of us were on any at the time (I was twelve years old; she nine). But I must admit that there have been moments since when I’ve been tempted to claim otherwise. You see, a chemical influence would go a long way in accounting for our bizarre behavior that day. It would also explain why neither of us can remember exactly how the whole mess started.

It might have been physical. Slaps to the head or a few cheap, irresistible pinches—we certainly weren’t above fighting dirty. It could have been fallout from one of us ignoring the other’s claim on some coveted leftover or the remote control. The truth is, I honestly don’t know what offense landed Leslie and me in the clink of our respective bedrooms that second Sunday of January, 1994. But I am positive it was our father who put us there.

As in most family bureaucracies, my mother wore the Social Services badge. Whatever bone Leslie and I were scrapping over, Mom would have talked us through negotiations or diverted our attention before hard time had to be handed down. But on this particular afternoon, the social worker was out, and all cases were proceeding directly before the judge. The honorable Jeffrey A. Powelson, presiding. Ours being a decidedly middle-class republic, the judge also served as chief groundskeeper. And so my sister and I found ourselves at the mercy of a man with brush to burn, gutters to clean, and nary a damn to give about the origins of our dispute. There were no questions asked, nor statements given. Only an exasperated, “Go to your rooms.”

In hindsight, that’s probably just as well. Like my father before me, I could now care less what two caterwauling miscreants may or may not have done to be sent to their quarters. But culpability for what would happen once we got there is an entirely different matter—one that still breeds fierce debate.

I blame the Chinese.

– WHY THE CAGED BIRD YODELS –

To gain any insight into the strange behavior my sister and I were about to exhibit, you must first consider the narrative that had taken root in our collective subconscious over the preceding weeks.  In addition to being the year that sibling violence peaked in our home, 1994 also boasted one of the worst cold & flu seasons in recent history, all thanks to a particularly vile strain called A-H3N2, or “The Beijing Flu.”  Don’t ask me about the name. Maybe this bug quashed autoimmune revolt with particular zeal. Or maybe it just multiplied more efficiently than other flus. I couldn’t tell you because no one in our house was sick, nor was there any evidence to suggest we’d been exposed to the virus. What we had been exposed to was the barrage of television commercials for products claiming to fight it.

Suppressants, expectorants, decongestants, analgesics: You name it, it was on TV, being used as directed. As the pandemic gained momentum, the frequency of ads grew so intense that they began to blur together and assume a collective voice. By Christmas there were no more thirty-second spots, just two-minute commercial breaks speaking to you in pharmacological tongues like an over-the-counter Hunter Thompson. Cable became a fever dream where every eight minutes the tambourine man returned to paint Kleenex-littered rainbows of transcendent possibility.  Relief was a given, you simply had to decide which way you wanted it. Up? Down? Internal? Topical? There were pills to open a person’s northern passages, liquids to clench the southern ones, and potions that promised to keep you just this side of comatose for the duration of your illness. The OTC industry and its media buyers had done their jobs well. Perhaps too well. The ironic side-effect of a single category dominating the airwaves was that nothing stood out. Well, almost nothing.

Alpine horns. Switzerland. Coughdrops.

You just heard it, didn’t you? Deep in the recesses of your brain, some sequence of neurons lit up and coaxed a long-neglected mountaineer to the edge of your frontal lobe where he cupped his mouth and released that spectacular, three-note warble into the hills. And four words were all it took. This is the beauty of lowbrow advertising. It’s like a kid before he understands cool and decides it’s something a person should be. There’s no vanity. No pretense. No apology. Cheesy ads simply do what they’re supposed to. They stick.

“REEE-COLA!”

I don’t remember which of us yelled it first. But I now realize that it couldn’t have happened had the gutters not been my father’s first priority that morning. You see Leslie’s bedroom was on the opposite side of the hall from mine, and both offered the most convenient access to our home’s two rooflines. Thus, twice a year our windows were relieved of their screens allowing my father to purge six months of leaf sludge from the overhanging troughs. As domestic duties go, this is an unpleasant one, the home-improvement equivalent of removing a dip of snuff from someone else’s lower lip. Consequently, the man had worked himself into a genuinely special mood even before sentencing us for the initial offense. And that’s probably what made it so irresistible.

“REEE-COLA!” I would scream out over the front yard. The echo would linger for a few beats, then, right on cue, her response would circle around from the back.

“REEE-COLA!”

Oscar Wilde observed that, “Opportunity may only knock once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.” Had he have driven down Cedar Lane that afternoon he could have completed the axiom, adding that “idiocy hangs out its second-story windows and yodels about Swiss throat drops.”

“REEE-COLA!”

You know that thing where you repeat a perfectly normal word so many times that it loses all meaning?  Right, well, it turns out there is no inverse phenomenon. After twenty minutes of yodeling, my sister and I still couldn’t tell you what Riccola meant or why it had become the funniest damned thing we’d ever heard. Nor could we anticipate the quantity of hell that would soon be paid for our lack of explanation.

Good questions all, but they paled in comparison to what had become the larger mystery of this fiasco: How had Leslie and I ended up on the same side of anything?

– A HISTORY OF INDIFFERENCE –

Some things just don’t make sense. Yes, incarceration breeds unlikely accord. Its canyons of boredom and isolation will lead a prisoner to build bridges with whatever he can. But I’m not sure that explains why my sister and I passed a Swiss epithet, at the top of our lungs, for nearly half-an-hour.

That commercial was nothing new. We’d seen it together literally hundreds of times and never commented, never shared so much as a smirk. Yet here we were, nearly incontinent with laughter, yelling ourselves ironically hoarse and unknowingly compounding the terms of our punishment with each volley. It just happened. Random and organic and intuitive in a way that our relationship had never been. For herein lies the unflattering-yet-undeniable truth about Leslie and me, a truth that should have been confessed from the outset: We were terrible at being brother and sister.

It wasn’t so much a question of love. We had good parents. Neither of us were particularly stupid as children. So we caught on fairly quick to the idea that we were supposed to love each other, and, of course, on a purely fundamental level, we did. But as any decent counselor, or former Eagle drummer, will tell you, ‘sometimes love just ain’t enough.’

The truth is that my sister and I had just never really connected. Some relatives blame this on our age gap. Others suggest the gender difference or point to two polar personalities. Individually, these explanations have always seemed insufficient to me. However I can see how various combinations of the three could, hypothetically, produce a pattern of alienation. For example:

  • Age & Gender

Adolescent males have new muscle mass. They have new surges of aggression. What they do not have are new, or even adequate, reserves of coordination and common sense. Thus, for an eight-year old girl, the prospect of driveway games of one-on-one with your 12-year-old brother is not only completely uninteresting, it’s also potentially dangerous.

Similarly, a 17-year-old boy sees no upside to his sister’s 13-year-old friends’ constant presence around the house. They’re not old enough to matter socially, but they have the opportunity to witness his most unflattering habits and any number of potentially mortifying occurrences. Translation: he can’t fool around with them, and they’re apt ruin his chances of doing so with all other mutually acquainted females.

  • Gender & Personality

When a little girl finds her talking Cricket doll dangling from the ceiling fan by a crudely fashioned noose, crying, “It wasn’t me” in a familiar falsetto, she does not stop to applaud the executioner’s burgeoning dramatic sensibilities. And should a young man return to his alma mater for a graduation ceremony, he will not fail to notice the stink-eyes and double takes from former teachers as they process his unseemly relation to the young woman giving the Salutatorian speech.

  • Personality & Age

A free-spirited child is unlikely to value the discipline and sacrifice on display at any of the bazillion piano recitals he is forced to attend in support of his younger sister. Likewise, when an ambitious high school senior stays at her brother’s college apartment the evening before an audition with the university’s music department, she will fail to appreciate both her hosts’ indomitable joie de vivre and its 3 AM implications. Having to brush her teeth where they drain the bong water will not help.

So much for hypotheticals. And I’m not sure a demographic matrix explains it either. Plenty of siblings fall into the same profiles and still manage to make perfectly meaningful connections. So what if it’s nothing more than luck? By that I’m not suggesting that Leslie and I weren’t lucky enough to be close. Quite the opposite, actually. Perhaps we were so blessed as individuals, cementing a strong sibling bond never became necessary.

Don’t ask me how or why, but the cards my sister and I drew in the existential lottery placed us in a genuinely warm, nurturing home that somehow still prepared us for the world outside its doors. In this sense, childhood gave us everything but a common threat. There was no angry drunk of a father to hide from, no philandering mother to resent or chronic illness to rally against. We were untouched by grief. Ungodly fortunate. Simply in each other’s way.

– THE RECKONING –

And then the judge became the warden.

If you’ve spent any time at all watching prison documentaries, you’re familiar with the “communication on the inside” segment. Invariably, sometime after the show’s narrator has introduced one to three sympathetically nicknamed inmates, but before he ponders the efficiency of a tobacco-and-oral-sex based economy, special care is taken to point out the novel ways prisoners share information. Whether it’s lowering notes with twine braided from one’s own pubic hair, or relaying instructions through subversive bursts of slang, no one conspires more resourcefully than the residents of our nation’s correctional facilities. If reality television has anything to teach us, it’s that, in the joint, a seemingly nonsensical hoot or holler can incite disastrous revolt.

“REEE-COLA!”

This is exactly what my father feared and sought to stomp out as he took stairs two at a time en route to our rooms. From my window I’d seen him leave his post near one of the brushfires, but I underestimated both his speed and the suspicion that accounted for it. Consequently, half of me was still hanging outside when my door burst open and the smell of kerosene and Levi-Garett proclaimed his arrival.

“What the hell is this Ricola crap?” he demanded, appropriately, of my hindquarters.

I wrangled myself back inside and turned as slowly as possible, hoping my face would straighten itself in time. This was a moot point once I took sight of him. Six feet and forty-one years standing atop the meanest pair of shit-kickers I’ve seen to this day. The down vest he wore overtop a flannel shirt leant extra heft to his shoulders, and its high collar scraped audibly against a beard flecked with sweat and sawdust. Red-faced and seething, he squinted behind a pair of thick, dark-tinted glasses and demanded answers.

“What does it mean!?”

It was like some twisted, backwoods version of Pinocchio, where instead of a puppet conferring the gift of fatherhood, the cover of a Hank Williams Jr. album had come to life for the sole purpose of whooping my ass. As I bit down on the inside of my cheek, reaching for some hidden reserve of composure, Bocephus summoned his other youngin’.

“One of you is going to tell me what in God’s name this is about, and the other’s going to wish they’d spilled it first.”

Silence.

“Now, damnit!”

What were we supposed to tell him? “You see Dad, there are these Alpinists, real hearty, Scandinavian types who know a thing or two about braving the elements and, well, calling in sick just isn’t an option at twelve-thousand feet…”

Lacking a succinct explanation, Leslie and I should have had the good sense to at least appear repentant. But the absurdity of this man asking these questions was too much. Unlike the rest of the family, my father does not average six hours of television viewing per day. Any more oblivious to popular culture and he’d sport half the beard and a calendar full of barn raisings. Shits and giggles are not in the wheelhouse. His sense of humor, keen as it is, grips the literal with both hands. And so the idea of repeating something simply because you’d heard it before and it echoed nicely and your windows happened not to have screens that day—these were dots we had no chance of connecting for him.

So we laughed. Hard.

— THE END AND THE BEGINNING —

Defining moments are hard to spot in real time. The first day Elvis left Sun Studio, all he had was a birthday present for his mama. Orville and Wilbur were up for less than sixty seconds. And when she realized she hadn’t made it to the dry cleaners at the end of a long February day, Monica Lewinsky probably just sighed and added another “to-do” to tomorrow’s list. Likewise, it’s not as if everything changed that day between my sister and I. Five years later you’d still have to squint to see the sprouts of an actual relationship breaking the surface of our day-today interactions. But step back far enough and it’s clear that seeds were planted amidst that afternoon’s shenanigans. Know it or not, we’d found our cause.

Granted, it’s no leukemia. It won’t trump a handsy uncle and probably doesn’t even register next to your average divorce or bankruptcy. But as rallying points go, the lampooning of one’s elders will more than suffice.  Enough time passes and you accept that there’s nothing sensational or remotely tragic about it. You embrace that it’s common. There’s nothing wrong with common. Common ground is common. And wasn’t that all you were looking for in the first place?

The older Leslie and I get, the more our relationship looks the way it did that day inside our bedrooms. We’ve learned to be a little more proactive, that our garden of sarcasm and parental mockery can use tending from time to time. Still, there’s no need to force things. We take the victories as they come: A recent New Year’s resolution to “finally get serious about the jug band”. The platter of home-smoked (read: entirely inedible) meat on a particularly ambitious Thanksgiving. Any number of long-distance tutorials in online shopping.

Even today my sister and I don’t talk all that regularly. Most pertinent information is still relayed through our parents. But, at the very least, twice a year when another of our birthdays rolls around, I can look forward to placing or receiving a call that forgoes all conventional greetings and begins instead with an abrupt dispatch of recent, home-front oddities.

JUNE

— Hello?

— Dad’s installing a gun safe in the powder room.

FEBRUARY

— McGee residence…

— Mom taught the dogs to use the ice dispenser.

JUNE

— This is Michael—

—    Dad says he can’t hear the TV over the crunching and he’s tired of stepping in cold puddles.

—    Ha!

—    No, this isn’t good.

— What do you mean?

— Turn right out of the kitchen, where are you?

— The powder roo—oh Jesus.

The calls are treasure to me. They make it almost worth turning a year older. But they’re changing. And with each one it’s a little harder to ignore the tinge of caution that’s creeping into the exchange. It’s a silent hitch, right there in the few beats of dead air after we stop laughing and before we work towards “take care” or “see you soon.”  Not sadness exactly, but something jagged and wistful. I know we both hear it. I know we ask ourselves what will happen when the father with the brush fires isn’t around to taunt. I know we dread the day that the mother who returned home and laughed with us seventeen years ago can’t be dragged in again to share the blame. I know we worry, and not just for the obvious reasons.

Yes, being parents, they are the only people who will ever love us that much, in that way. But they’re also our bridge, the filament that connects our current and makes the light come on. So we worry about what will become of us, as brother and sister, when that filament burns out. Will we recognize each other in the dark?

I like to think so, and there’s reason to be optimistic. New bridges are currently under construction. Last April, Leslie and her husband introduced me to a niece who laughs every bit as easy as her grandmother and flashes the same devil in her toddler’s grin. And in a few months I’ll stand up and swap promises with a beautifully disarming woman who’ll then have to continue sleeping with me, regardless of anything Leslie and friends tell her. All parties seem to enjoy each other’s company, perhaps simply because we want to, and I’m just about convinced it will stay that way. We’ll make the calls. Make the drives. Make the jokes. We’ll laugh, even if it hurts. It will almost be enough.

In the mean time, we’ll keep in touch the old-fashioned, lazy way. Just this morning, Mom tells me Leslie has come down with an especially brutal sinus infection, the kind that dumps broken glass down your throat when you charge your vocal chords with even the slightest whisper.

“Hmm, that sucks.” I say. I’ve always been the empathetic one.

But it does suck. Being sick isn’t the same for working moms. Getting time off will be difficult. She’ll worry about the baby catching it. The figurative headaches will rival the literal ones.

After considering all this, I waffle on whether or not to send the care package. “If she wanted them, she’d buy them herself,” I think. “This might not be the best time for an old joke.”

“Ah, what the hell,” I say, hearing the oversized envelope drum against the bottom of the mailbox. Tomorrow it will be alright.  She’ll open the package, see the smaller one inside, hear the warble. And she’ll laugh. Even if it hurts.

–#–

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1 Shining Moment For a 2-Sided State

There’s something I’d like to do before I die.

As lifelong ambitions go, it’s not decadent or even particularly grand. But it is something I have no control over, and so the self-actualized, better Spocks of my nature think it’s silly. They’d prefer I not talk about it, and prior to this writing, I never have.

Before I die, I’d like to wake up early in the morning and fight a searing headache to the local newsstand to buy a paper. The front-page will be one that might have gone to press in 1988 or 1993 or 2006, but didn’t; one that will have kept a frame above my workbench waiting for a very long time. The newsprint will be stamped with images of breathless young men and tearful old ones. And it will say that West Virginia University has won the National Championship.

I’ll be happy to do this in January or April—turf and hardwood being equally worthy stages in my view. But no matter how cold the air, or how thick the pollen, I’ll make the errand last as long as it possibly can. I won’t expect to do it again.

I’ll also never expect to fully understand why this matters or what makes me reluctant to admit just how much.

———

Being a West Virginian is complicated. It’s a small state in a geographically inconvenient region, in a country obsessed with big and easy. Those who live there can be among the warmest, largest-hearted humans on the planet. By turns, they can also become the most guarded and suspicious. Wikipedia is happy to provide in-depth reasons for both, but for now let’s just say the mountains keep in as much as they shut out.

Growing up a West Virginian is complicated too, especially if you did it during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Born on the bridge between commercial and information ages, I formed my self-image amidst the same media landscape as anyone, anywhere else in the country. MTV looks the same in St. Albans as it does in St. Louis. The Internet is identical. As a teenager I bought Nikes, ate McDonald’s, stared at Cindy Crawford, and emerged from it all as generically “American” as the next guy. I was just like everyone else.

Except I wasn’t. Because the first time I showed my passport to board an international flight, the airline agent leaned across the counter and pretended to be surprised that I was wearing shoes. And because  I spent an entire semester convincing my college roommate that I couldn’t find him a jar of moonshine during winter break. And because, after realizing he never had to ask me to vote for him again, the Vice President of the United States figured the best way to “loosen up” a press conference was to make an incest joke at my expense.

You learn quickly to roll your eyes at exchanges like these. “Ridiculous,” you say beneath your breath.

Except it isn’t. My state is one of the poorest in the union. Had I asked around that Christmas, I probably could have procured a jar on my roommates’ behalf. And I certainly can’t claim to have never dropped a kissing cousins reference.

Stereotypes may be nurtured by the imagination, but they are not born of it. Every place has a reputation to contend with, and it’s not surprising that people think these things of West Virginia. It’s frustrating, however, that this is all they think of West Virginia.

That is, of course, provided they think anything in the first place. It’s alarming, the number of people who treat the very existence and whereabouts of your state as if they were trick questions. Offense is rarely intended, but this too gets old. There are only so many times you can say “No, not like Richmond,” and keep smiling politely. There’s even an old joke that claims God must have anticipated this because he enabled us to jog a person’s geographical memory and vent our indignation in a single gesture. Should new acquaintances dismiss or struggle to place our state, we can simply present the back of our hand with its thumb and middle finger extended. Vulgarities aside, a truer likeness can’t be drawn.

Coincidence or not, the gesture speaks volumes about the split personality West Virginians share. One part of you longs to prove yourself to the rest of country; the other has learned better than to give a damn what it thinks.

———

Four years ago, West Virginia University hired Bob Huggins to lead its men’s basketball program. You’d think I’d have been thrilled. A two-time academic All-American during his own four years at WVU, Huggins had since become the fourth winningest active coach in the college game. Without question, the odds of me making that sweet, drawn-out trip to the newsstand improved the day he walked back into the Coliseum. So why did I hold my breath?

Bob Huggins is complicated too. He wins, but does so toting considerable baggage. Public battles with university presidents, an unforgiving demeanor on the bench, and an embarrassing DUI conviction have smudged the coach’s image. Further clouding the picture is his own reticence to present his side of these and other complex stories. He could have challenged the NCAA’s byzantine and often unjust method of computing graduation rates.[1] He could have brought a reasoned voice to the increasingly cacophonous debate about what it should mean to be a scholar-athlete in today’s culture. This is not, after all, a frivolous man. Certain things matter very deeply to Bob Huggins. It’s just that being understood isn’t one of them.

The guy simply cannot be bothered with matters of perception. Consider, for a moment, the comfort-at-all-costs sideline attire. When he grew tired of sweating through the dress shirts, neckties, and sport coats worn by his contemporaries, the coach took to calling the shots in a nylon tracksuit. This sounds bad; it looks even worse. And the symbolism is, much as I hate to admit, one of the things that gave me pause about Huggins’s tenure at WVU. If there was one thing my image-addled state didn’t need, it was our highest paid employee showing up for work in sweatpants, refusing to wear a tie.

———

Homesickness may not be contagious, but for a disproportionate number of West Virginia natives, it is chronic. Though recent strides have been made to counter a legacy of out-migration, my state has always faced a steeper climb than most. In this part of the world, opportunity calls long distance, and, more often than not, we accept the charges. It is not a coincidence that the voice in Country Roads is singing from somewhere else, nor is it surprising that there are tears in his eyes. Rear-view mirrors just seem to flatter their subjects in ways windshields can’t. Hearts do, indeed, grow fonder.

Like myself, many of the friends I grew up with now live elsewhere. It’s been this way for nearly ten years, long enough for a pattern to emerge in our phone calls and at our reunions.  Within minutes of hello we’re one-upping each other with the quirks of our respective settings. The Midwesterner tries to remember the last time he nudged the steering wheel more than ten degrees; the Southerner emails snapshots of decimated grocery aisles on the eve of a two-inch “blizzard.” We shake our heads, charmed and grateful for our experiences in the wider world, indebted to those who’ve adopted us and labored to extend a sense of belonging. Then we confess what can’t be said around our new colleagues, friends and spouses. We admit that something is, and will probably always be, missing; that we still glance into that rear-view mirror a little too often. It’s unlikely that any of us will return for more than a holiday visit or week’s vacation. And yet we’re even less likely to refer to any other place as “home.”

I know, I know. Hold the violins. Wistful as my song may be, it lacks the tragedy of a dirge and the injustice of a protest hymn. We shall not pretend to overcome. On the whole, my friends and I are a fortunate lot whose work and whereabouts were determined largely by choice. Live that kind of fairytale, and you can’t bitch because it didn’t come with ruby slippers.

Besides, who says cleats and high-tops aren’t every bit as enchanted?

You’d be amazed what a cable sports package and a cell phone full of faded accents can do to erase the miles. I talk more with the people of my childhood during half-times than I do the rest of the year. My mother and I rehash stats and commentary more intently than we plan Thanksgiving. New friends avoid spending Saturdays with me because I’m too preoccupied texting old ones.

After deconstructing a big win last season, a buddy put it best: “Move away,” he said, “and every game’s homecoming.”

———

I saw my first game at Mountaineer Field in 1986. It poured all four quarters. I don’t remember much about the game — I know we lost to a team called “Boston College,” but this didn’t leave much of an impression. Competition among new experiences was steep that day, and, for a six-year-old, it doesn’t get much more exotic than parking in someone’s yard and urinating in a giant trough. Beyond that, it’s all a cold, thundering, pruney, beautiful mess of a blur. Even the ponchos were blue and gold.

Since then there have been sunnier days in Morgantown. And though I’ve been present for a good many of them, like most West Virginians, I’ve lived out the majority of wins and losses via radio and television. Before moving away, it was effortless. In most small towns, you can walk down almost any street without missing a play as the broadcast echoes out nearly every door and window. I’m still waiting for someone to show me another state school that enjoys this singularity of focus from its population. Quite frankly, I just don’t believe it exists.

That could have to do with population itself. Only thirteen states have fewer people than mine. When there’s less of you, I guess it’s not as improbable to all be paying attention to same thing.

It could also be that little else is vying for bandwidth. There are no major league professional sports teams in West Virginia. We’re not a guaranteed stop for national music acts or theatre tours. And Marshall, the only other Division I school, has never been in a position to compete for allegiance.

It could be a combination of these factors and several more, but I’m inclined to believe it’s mainly just this one: For a state that’s unaccustomed to the country noticing anything but its mishaps, a sports program that gets positive national attention transcends sports. If you’re from West Virginia, Mountaineer athletics isn’t about being entertained. It’s about being represented.

I don’t believe the larger media makes a concerted effort to seek out the least of us. But for every Jessica Lynch, there are usually three Jesco Whites stumbling oafishly across the national stage. I’ve seen my state on the front page for mine disasters, meth labs, corruption scandals, class action suits, ecological trespasses, obesity indexes, and prison torture rings. Seeing it there for a championship—an admission from the rest of the country that, “yeah, you guys did this one thing better than all the rest of us this year”—wouldn’t even the score, but it wouldn’t hurt either.

Last year, as the NCAA tournament drew down to its Final Four, I was as optimistic as I’d ever been about this finally happening. But I was also still conflicted. “In two days that trophy could be on its way to Morgantown,” I thought. “But if so, a man in a track suit will be bringing it.”

What did that say about us? What would they say about us?

I didn’t have to wrestle either question long. In the semifinal, a Duke team that hadn’t played better all season, bested the Mountaineers in almost every metric and category including the one that sends you home. This would not be the year. The paper would not picture a triumphant West Virginia team or tell of an entire state’s elation.

I went out and bought one anyway.

There was another picture I wanted, an image of something else that occurred late in the losing effort, something that might mean even more than that championship scene, should they ever hang side-by-side in my garage.

This shot catches an imperfect man in an oddly perfect moment. It happened at the eleven-minute-mark when West Virginia forward Da’Sean Butler crumbled to the floor after tearing his ACL in a violent race to the goal. Collapsing with Butler were the team’s title hopes and, possibly, the professional career he’d worked nearly all his life for and had literally gotten to within days of. Watching the replay, you sense that everyone—on the court, in the stadium, on the other end of a television set—understands these things immediately. Butler too. His pain, though immense, is not enough to eclipse the larger implications, and as he screams, disappointment and fear are as distinct as the physical discomfort.

That’s when the man in the tracksuit lowers himself to the floor and, without thinking, wraps the weeping player in his arms.

It’s been said that Bob Huggins will do just about anything to get a player’s attention, and there have been innumerable episodes of vile language and snide challenges to substantiate that claim. But there is also the one you’re watching.

Cradling Butler’s head and pulling to within centimeters of his anguished face, Huggins issues a tender demand for eye contact, then uses his thumb to clear tears from the player’s cheeks. He speaks directly into Butler’s ear, saying, “I love you” and “don’t be sorry.” He gets as close as he needs to and stays there as long as it takes to calm the young man. It is pure, instinctual behavior from a coach who couldn’t be less concerned with how it will be interpreted. In this moment there are no fans, no critics, no reputation to uphold or excuse. There is only the player before him. The one he loves. The one who shouldn’t be sorry.

Days later, sports writers across the country discuss the exchange in their columns. A few jaded voices describe it as “awkward” or “uncomfortable,” but the overwhelming majority note its poignancy and commend the coach for a courageous display of intimacy rarely seen in men’s athletics. They acknowledge it as a personal triumph for Huggins. And still, they miss that it might also be the most fitting representation his state has ever received.

In that moment Bob Huggins proved himself to all of us. And it’s because he knew better than to give a damn what we thought in the first place.

———

After three newspapers and an online search, I finally find a photograph that does the moment justice. Taken from court level at a three-quarter angle, the shot marks the instant that connection was made. The eyes of both men say so, but the story lies as much in the unbroken space between them. It is just before the coach leans in to speak privately to his player, and there is still half a foot of nothing separating the two. Had the aperture opened a second earlier, it would show only chaos: one man reaching, the other alone. A second later and the tracksuit would have already enveloped Butler and blocked him from view. But as it is, the coach hovers, suspended above his player, and those six inches of nothing are perfectly preserved. Tracing the divide with your eyes, you instinctively look to pinpoint where attentions converge and the lifeline is grasped. The space between defines the moment. Staring into it, I shake my head and smile.

A tie would have gotten in the way.

—#—


[1] Under previous NCAA rules, universities did not get credit for athletes who completed degrees but began their career at other schools. Huggins is a prolific recruiter of junior college transfers.

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