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Thursday, May 28, 2009

treasure none-the-less...

I was fascinated with the idea of finding treasure in my boyhood.  I still am.  I was always looking for a message in a bottle on the lakeshore with a treasure map directing me to a buried treasure left by ancient pirates, or a package dropping off the back of a truck filled with unmarked hundred dollars bills, etc.  I really thought I would discover some hidden loot, some spoil from some war in some epoch of time.  Filthy lucre minus the filth.

I was convinced that this one stretch of shoreline would be the place of my life changing discovery, that my "ship would come in" so to speak.  I would throw bottles with messages in them out into the crashing waves fully expecting a response that would lead me to my next clue.  It took me a while to realize that the bottles would simply hit the water and float back to shore in a matter of ten minutes, powerless to fight the lake's relentless current.  Regardless, I would pluck the bottle from the surf and read the message inside to see if it had been responded to.  It never was, to state the obvious.  But I never tired in my attempts to contact signs of life out there in the vast blue sea.

I would scour the shoreline looking for gold, jewels, artifacts, items from sunken ships, hoping beyond hope that I would stumble upon something treasured.  For years I would pace this 150 ft. shoreline turning over rocks, picking up driftwood, and combing through sand with my fingers looking for buried goodies.  

I found what I thought were jewels of all colors lining the shore, undiscovered.  I would collect these colorful jewels in a little sack and then hide it under a big rock behind a big tree.  Little did I know that these jewels of all colors were nothing more than little shards of glass.  Glass primarily from beer bottles that had been reluctantly pushed ashore by years and years of wavy persistency.  A perfect war/storm between reluctance and persistence creates beautiful jewels, worthless jewels, but beautiful nonetheless.  These shards of glass had been filed down into smooth, rounded, colorful gems that looked like rubies and emeralds and diamonds.  I didn't know the difference.  To me, they were.

Dry, they looked shabby and cloudy.  But man-oh-man, when you baptize them in water they emerged with a brilliant shine and a vibrant sheen.  I collected those shards for years until I had the equivalent of a treasure chest full of them.  I  realized years latter that I was harvesting the remains of many, many drunken revelries, bottles broken over heads and tossed overboard with environmental hostility.  

Which goes to prove that one man's junk is another man's jewel.

How do they say it...one man's trash is another man's treasure.  My treasure.

The breakwall and the lighthouse...

We lived in Oswego, N.Y. which is a harbor for huge ships carrying cement, salt, and only God-knows-what-else.  We even had our own old-fashioned lighthouse.  I didn't know how unique this was until I travelled around a bit and noticed how precious few are really out there.  Lighthouses are stately.  They stand tall as guardians of the harbor, beacons of hope.  

Ours was built at the end of the breakwall that kept the west-to-east waves from overwhelming the shore line.  There were some storms that were so fierce that you could see the waves crashing into the breakwall around the lighthouse with explosions of white mist violently filling the sky.  It was such a glorious display of raw natural power.  And still the lighthouse would stand sure, amid the hostile conditions, it would stand.

I'll never forget the evening when one of my neighborhood friends initiated a "dare".  This was common among young boys looking for adventure.  "Truth or Dare", "I Dare You...I Double-Dare You!"...these where the dicey games we would play to keep life interesting.

My buddy floated a dare out there and waited for our response.  "Let's climb over the fence and walk on the breakwall to the lighthouse."   This would have been a no-brainer if there wasn't a tall fence with signs all over it saying things like, "No trespassing", "Intruders will be prosecuted" (I remember thinking that meant executed back then), "Violators will be fined x amount of money" and the like.  I knew I didn't want to be a victim of capital punishment and I also knew I didn't have x amount of money largely due to the fact that I was an unemployed eight year old that spent every red cent of my allowance on baseball cards.  I was a bit nervous to take the dare, needless to say.

But the peer pressure felt in a group of neighborhood 8 year old boys is second only to the pressure put on you as a terrorist being water-boarded at Guantanamo Bay.  Suffice it say, it's unnerving, and as such, I caved in with fear and trepidation.

I remember looking at the signs on the fence, looking at my friends scaling the crisscrossed steel wires and saying to myself, "Here goes nothing."  And with that, I swallowed the fear that was lodged in my throat, and hoisted myself over the barrier.  

The breakwall was way bigger than it looked from the shore.  It was constructed out of huge rectangular stones chiseled out of a stone quarry.  They had to weigh several tons a piece and they were fit together like horizontal Tetris pieces.  Put it this way, you could drive a bus out on this breakwall it was so wide.  I don't know why, but I thought we would be walking on the equivalent of a balance beam.  Not so.

This gave me a new confidence eliminating a couple facets of danger that were taking up space in my heart.  That was, until I thought about the coast guard checking their spiffy surveillance cameras and seeing a bunch of punks bouncing across the breakwall like little rubber balls.  This thought filled up the recently freed up space inside my heart and promptly caused my chest to pound with adrenaline.  I won't lie, I kinda liked it.  I was what you call an adrenaline junkie.

To make a long story short, we finally got to the lighthouse and stood their staring at it wondering what to do next.  I was waiting for someone to utter a "double dare" that suggested we break into the lighthouse and burn it down with a lighter, but instead the most peculiar thing happened.  The natural born leader who happened to be a couple years older than the rest of us abruptly said, "Let's go back."  Everyone turned and backtracked from whence we came.  And with that, the adventure ended as quickly as it had begun.

As we climbed back over the fence and returned to legal grounds, I felt sorta bad that we didn't go the distance with this "dare".  I've always regretted our premature retreat wondering what it would have been like to break into the lighthouse, explore every hidden nook and cranny, then climb to the top to see the light that helps ships find their way home.  What was I thinking?

I never braved the breakwall again...of this I'm deeply sorrowful.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

My little cocoon...

The winter months dished out some pretty cold nights.  It wasn’t uncommon to be below zero for weeks at a time.  For those of you who don’t live anywhere close to these arctic conditions, this is so cold that when you spit it turns to little pellets of ice before it hits the ground.  I remember inhaling through my nose and having my nostrils invert frozen together for a moment until my blood thawed them out and they expanded to back to normal.  It was brutal.

As you can imagine, heating our home on a shoestring budget during these dog-days of winter was no inexpensive feat.  We had an oil furnace that would run incessantly just to keep the house at 65 degrees.  Depending on where you stood in the house, you were either comfortably warm or annoyingly cold.  The back room over the porch was almost always a hydro-cooler fit for storing Macintosh apples in the winter.

The heat was turned down at night leaving our bedrooms brisk.  I remember my mom piling on the blankets so much so that when I would lie on my back and my feet would bend backwards eventually cramping my calf muscles.  I would flop my feet to the sides, but then my knee muscles would stretch taut and begin to feel like they were about to snap like rubber bands.  Even so, I loved the heavy blankets –like the protective garment they drape over you when you’re getting an x-ray--providing a sheathing of warmth in those frigid months of winter.

I remember mornings when I would wake up, grab a blanket, and mosey downstairs to the heat register that was directly above the furnace.  The air that shot up from that heating duct was almost hot whereas the heat from the other registers was lukewarm due to the second law of thermodynamics.  I would kneel down straddling the register as if to pray.  I would then grab my blanket pulling it over my whole body so as to trap the hot air inside its fabric membrane.  It was like being in a cozy uterus minus the fluidic mucus.  I would put my forehead on the floor holding down the blanket like a rock holding a musty tarp over a cord of wood.  My knees, feet, elbows and wrists pinned down the rest of the blanket.  It was sealed not allowing for any heat to escape or freezing cold air to invade. 

It would be pitch-black outdoors and I’d be kneeling in the dark over this register soaking in the heat like a ladybug in a winter windowsill.  I remember the air being so dry that every once in a while I would have to force my head out from under the blanket to get some fresh air.  When I did, it felt like I was taking in air from the top of the Adirondack Mountains.  Crisp, fresh, unadulterated oxygen.  After moistening up my throat with the cool air, I’d pull in my turtle-like head and place the canopy of cover back over my body only to start the drying out process again. Just picture beef jerky in a dehydrator and you’d be in the ball park.  I would repeat this cycle multiple times until I would hear footsteps upstairs marking the beginning of a new day.  It was usually my dad getting up to go to the bathroom.

Looking back upon this tradition I stumbled upon accidently, it felt like something a devout Muslim would have done--waking early, kneeling methodically and spending the first moments of the day in quiet solitude centering himself around his creeds.  Remove all the creedal devotion out of this metaphor and that’s what you’re left with--a little boy on the floor trying to survive a pseudo-Alaskan Oswego winter in the ‘hood.  Sometimes the furnace would shut off when the house temperature would appease the thermostat and I would kneel there waiting for the temp to drop again so that my little chrysalis would once again fill like a hot-air balloon.  Each second felt like a minute and I would hope the next one would usher in that all too familiar sound of an electrical detonation, the ignition of the oil, the revving of the fan and finally the blowing of the heated air up through the heat ducts through the register grid and into my little homemade capsule of goodness. 

It’s funny the stuff that you remember about your childhood.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My first pagan friend...

I remember well my first "pagan" friend.  I didn't know that he was "pagan" of course, because I was only 4 or five.  But I remember that he swore, didn't have a dad, watched WWF wrestling and MTV, had a mom that smoked cigarettes, and got in fights at school.  This made him a non-Christian in my book.  He was both my catnip and my kryptonite.  I was scared of him and drawn to him...sort of like the Vampires in the book Twilight.  

He was "Eddy Haskel" to the very jot and tittle.  He would come over to our house and call my parents "Mr. and Mrs. Holdridge" all kind and polite-like, talking with a voice that seemed like he was trying to sell them a knock-off Gucci watch on the streets of Manhattan.  He was a salesman/showman if I ever met one.  That's why I loved him.  He knew the ropes.  He was everything that "my little world" wasn't.  Cunning.  Daring. Dicey.  My "little world" was safe, nurturing, soft, and careful.  

I would invite him to VBS in the summer and he would come, ask Jesus into his heart, and then go about his life until the next summer VBS where he would go through the same spin-wash-rinse cycle, etc.  There was one time that I actually thought it might stick because he talked about it the next day while we were playing, but alas, it was just to see if church on the weekends had crafts, cool-aide, candy and good looking 9 year old girls.  I said something like, "No, it's more of like a class for two hours where they teach you about God.  No candy, no kickball.  It's hardcore."  Needless to say, he never came on a weekend.

Oh, his name was Kenny.  Kenny Clifford.  His dad left he and his older brother and sister when he was little.  He had never met his dad, he didn't care to either.  I will save his story for a later date.  His story was braided with mine until about age 11 when we moved out of Oswego into the countryside of Southwest Oswego.  But for 6 years, he was my rabbi.  My mentor.  My hero. 

It's not good to have a pagan as a hero when you're 5 or 6 years old come to find out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

bitter bed time...

I remember being put to bed (to a child, this is the same as being put to death).  You lay there at 7:30pm looking out your window wondering why your parents are doing this to you, wondering why God gave you parents that are so heartless, unfeeling and cooler-cold.  You can see the sun and it's still at least 7 inches from setting on the horizon.  The shadows are indicating that the night is young, so young that the day is far from ready to acquiesce and give up the ghost.  But still, you are laying there staring out the window chained to your bed with commands to "honor your parents in the Lord, for this is right".  Sometimes I wish the verse said, "Honor your parents in the Lord unless you're right" because I didn't think this early bedtime b'ness was anything but child abuse.  I remember thinking, "It just ain't right!"  But my mom told me that ain't ain't a word.

On that window next to my bed there was an oval sticker with a fireman on it.  I didn't know then, but it was a little "flag" to the fire dept. to get their ladders to this window first in case of a fire.  It was a sign, a purple cord of sorts, in the window to let the O.F.D (Oswego Fire Dept.) know where the children were in the second story of our dilapidated yellow house.  

There was also a crack in the corner of the window that I would run my fingers across while I laid their waiting for my eyes to close.  You could feel the uneven window pane where the crack was and I loved wondering whether it would shave off the skin on my fingers like a razor.  I would never press down hard, but I would play with danger, flirt with disaster...I lived this way the better part of my life.

The house next to ours was only about 4 feet away.  They were packed on this city block like sardines with little alley ways in between them leading to iddy bitty backyards with a plot of grass and fence to parcel off people's properties.  Let's be honest, it was a place to stick your kids when they drove you nuts fenced in like dogs with nowhere to go.  I remember the moans on the other side of the fence of young children-prisoners bellowing like hound dogs to their parents dying be released to the free world.  To no avail.

I remember looking out the window at the neighbors siding watching the paint peal over the course of time.  It was a fascinating case study in many ways, watching the weather patterns of our city and the direct impact of those weather patterns on my neighbors siding.  In the years I stared out that window, the neighbors house took quite a beating from the inclement conditions of Mother Nature.  The fact that I know this indicates how many boring nights I spent staring out the window.  It was torture.  

I have to imagine that many a child has a similar story minus the unique siding sidebar.  There is no wound so deeply lodged in my spirit than the endless nights of waiting for the sun to set nursing bitter feelings toward my mean parents.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

life without a boob-tube...

You must know that our family did not own a television, a T.V., or--as my dad affectionally call it--"a boob tube".  When I was younger, I knew very little about boobs or tubes.  As I got older, I wondered why my conservative, fundamental Baptist dad introduced me to such a "vivid word picture" at such an early age.  No bother, I now know what each of those things are and enjoy them immensely.  It was a foretaste of glory divine or as it's called in writing, foreshadowing.

Because of this boobtubeless existence, we read a lot of books.  My parents would plop us on their knees and read with ardent passion and dramatic fashion, complete with varied voice inflections, dramatic pauses, and a change of tone and tempo based on what character they were acting out.  It wasn't just reading books, it was entering the story and reliving the plot with vicarious joy.  I wouldn't give up a television-less environment now if you offered me a personal IMAX addition on the back of our house.  It bred into us a vivid imagination along with an affinity to transcending story.

We also had a little record player that would play vinyl records at different speeds.  There were a host of children's books with an accompanying record that could be played in the place of "flamboyant" parents, offering you sound effects and a narrator to supplement the picture book, adding a depth and breadth to the experience that "put you there".  My brother and I would sit in the hall next to the most exposed outlet, forging through books like a snowplow.  Like most children, we would enjoy them more the 15th time than the 14th, and so on.  As you can surmise, we memorized these stories so much so that we could sit down with books on our parents lap and just rattle of the whole thing without stuttering.  They thought we were amazing children, luminaries with hefty IQ's, prodigies of our time.  Really, we weren't that smart at all, we just didn't have a Television to eat our brains like caviare.  Not watching T.V. can make even stupid people seem really intelligent...something about the vegetative influence of amusement or something.

I was a year and half younger than Tim and I would love correcting him when he would mess up in his retelling of the story.  We have recordings of those early years and it's so funny hearing me interject little words that he would be forgetting from the record.  I was the annoying little brother who wanted to steal the thunder and make a splash whenever I could squeeze my way into the limelight.  All that to say, reading was the primary way of passing the time in those early years.  Bible stories, characters from history that were inspiring, and classic Disney animations that taught things like honesty, integrity and masculinity through fantasy.  

The one that stuck out the me the most was The Fox and the Hound.  I remember popping the vinyl onto the turn table, setting the speed correctly so everyone didn't sound like chipmunks and the music didn't sound oriental, and leaning against the wall with the book in hand leafing through the color pages taking in the animated renderings like a dry and thirsty sponge.  That's what a heart is at that age, you know.  A dry, thirsty sponge.

My brother wouldn't sit with me through this story.  He would cry when things would get a little dicey and the Fox and Hound had to part ways.  Because he knew the story, he would leave when it would take a turn toward tension and suspense.  This is when I would wake up.  We were so different in that way.  I liked action and adventure, he was more drawn to security and surety.  He would go upstairs until he would hear the song at the end of the story and then he would come back down and reenter society.  

It seemed like every story had some crisis or climax within it that would cause Tim to exit stage left, the Three little Pigs and the scary wolf, Pinocchio and the mean guy who turned little boys into donkeys, or the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz.  There wasn't a story, Biblical or otherwise, that didn't have tension, because as I came to learn in adulthood, anybody's story is chuck-full of crap.  Crap is part of our story, like it or not, and it's the really good stories where someone overcomes the crap and finds life.

I didn't know it then, but sitting there leaning against the fading wallpaper in entry way, I was learning that stories can't be good unless they are filled with a harrowing experiences that call out the hero in us to rise up and fight for good.  A truth that I'm grappling with even today.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Family Nights...

We were a rare family, indeed.  Not because we lived in low-income housing.  Not because my dad was making $9,000 a year as a Christian School Principal.  No, the reason why we were a rare family was that we had a Family Night.

Family Nights consisted of typically three basic things.  1. Singing around the piano as my mom played cheesy little Christian jingles and we chimed in with gullible glee.  2. Eating spaghetti and meat sauce with a some of mom's famous Italian-dressing-baptized-salad.  3. Capped off with a circus where my dad was acting as the ring master.  

These three things were augmented with other activities like reading books on the couch together, playing games outside on the lawn, walking down to "The Field" and seeing the lake, getting out board games like Shoots and Ladders and battling to the top, etc...these where the things that made Family nights so special each week.

Allow me to elaborate on each of the three main components...

First, the singing-around-the-piano deal.  I don't know anyone else who did this, and this is quite funny because I distinctly remember feeling like everyone sat around on Friday night, gathered around their family piano singing songs about God...you know, how His banner over me was love, and a fountain flowing deep and wide and that he loved me because the Bible told me so...and the like.  I remember feeling like everyone sang in harmony belting out unabashedly the fact that there was the "holy hush of angels wings" and the fact that "we're in the Lord's Army...yes sir!"  But to my amazement, I have yet to meet another family in the whole of my wanderings as a gadabout on this planet that shared in this tradition, making it either uniquely wonderful or uniquely weird.  I'm not sure which you may think it is, but I know what I thought it was...absolutely gladsome and idyllic.  

My mom would pound the ivories and my dad would bellow out the tunes with a smile on his face coming from a smile on his heart.  You see, my parents, little did I know, had just received Christ not too many years prior to my arrival.  They were just doing what they thought any Christ-follower would do on a Friday night with their family...sing songs, pray prayers, eat eats and play games.  So we did.  Singing was a part of the culture of our home.  It was as natural as breathing or eating or sleeping.  Like the song says, "I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free...for his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me."  We sang because we were happy and free.

We would also eat some of the best home cooked meals you could ever imagine.  Because we didn't have much money, there was alot of pasta, rice and uniquely blended leftovers of both.  Most dishes served up at our dinner table were creative concoctions of either of these delicacies.  And we loved it!  Our dinner table was anything but reverent and reserved.  We talked loud and laughed hard.  We yelled at each other and told stories.  The only way you could get all your story out was to become so good at story-telling that no one dared cut in on you.  If you were telling a story and it lacked for a plot or for pizzazz, you were promptly bumped to the back seat and someone else assumed the driver's seat with their story.  Sometimes Mom would prevent this "survival of the fittest" conversational style, but often it was the cultural grid that taught us to speak up, speak first, speak authoritatively and speak creatively...an art I try to use to this day.  We jockeyed for position, scrumming like rugby players for the upper hand.  It is a tradition that is carried on to this very day at family reunions.

Then we would participate in the Big Tent Circus held in our living room.  My dad would hum a circus tune that went something like "do-do-dodo-do-do-dodo-dute dute dodo..." over and over and over again while he laid down on his back and flipped us up and over his body with his feet.  He would bend his knees, grab our hands, place his big feet somewhere between our sternum and our abdomen, and proceed to flip us up over his head like trapeze artists.  After landing, we would circle around and repeat the gymnast-like regimen all over again until my dad was so weary that his legs turned to jello and we fell directly into his hairy chest.  

I remember the smell of my dad's scent to this day.  One of cheap cologne (Old Spice or English Leather) and sweat, with a twinge of Body Odor after a long day spent in a suit.  Not the kind of body odor that makes you want to vomit, the kind that lets you know who your parents are, like an animal that knows its parents by the scent they gives off.  I loved the smell.  I loved the hair on my dad's chest.  I loved how my mom would cheer for us on the side lines moving back and forth from the kitchen to see how the dessert was coming along.  I loved the colliding of bodies and voices and spirits that defined "Family Night".  I was shaped by those early years...more than I even now know.

These are memories that I cling to.

These are memories that cling to me.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The world is your bathroom...sorry, your oyster...

I was a boy of the first order.  I was hands-on.  Heck, I was body-on!  I loved throwing all of myself into anything I did.  Whether it was wrestling with my brother, playing Nerf basketball, or eating cereal...I was a boy on steroids (this is a manner of expression, of course...I don't want my parents to be questioned like A-Rod in the coming days!)


I remember sharing a room with my brother in the upstairs back room of our tiny home.  We would sleep in a double bed anally determining the invisible line that acted as a demarcation between our masculine territorial boundaries.  Whenever either one of us crossed this invisible boundary, we would punch each other violently like alpha males fighting for supremacy.  No one has to teach you these things, they are inherent to boyhood.

 

There was another unfinished back room connected to our room that my dad was working on refinishing.  He was dry-walling it trying to get it ready for the grand entrance of my sisters into the world, and more specifically, our home.  This room was actually over the back porch, so you had to step down two stairs in order to get to it.  As I look back, it was more like an attic than anything else.  We would play back there making toys from tools.  You know, drills are guns, hammers are clubs, nails are bullets, crowbars are swords, etc.  There was dust all over the place and it didn't seem like you had to be as conscientious about breaking things because things were roughed in and unfinished.  What I'm saying is that you could really let loose and be the barbarian boy you wished you could be the other 23 1/2 hours of the day.


Like I said, I was a boy-on-steroids, always curious, sometimes menacing.  A perfect hybridized mixture of Dennis the Menace and Curious George.  This penchant led to some interesting discoveries.  Some of which I'm sure my parents still don't know about.  Thankfully, I'm 34 now, and these revelations are things I can't be held responsible for in the court of law! ha.


One of these discoveries was the register that was over by the closet.  Warm air was coming from its lungs and I was always intrigued as to where it led.  Being young, there was this inability to put 2 and 2 together, so you were left to wonder if it led to another world or another house or another room.  Several times I took off the grate and slide my legs down into the duct work to see if I could shimmy down inside and worm my way to the end of this mysterious labyrinth, but I couldn't make it past the first elbow.  This made me very frustrated.


But I wouldn't be dissuaded.  My active little mind had another idea.  


I always hated that this room was so far away from the bathroom.  I guess the reason for this was that I would always wait to go to the bathroom until I was about to explode due to my insatiable desire to live life to the fullest.  Who has time to take a break from life to pee?  Not me.  And this rat's nest of frustration led me to a wonderful "idea"logical solution.  Pull down my pants letting my underwear and all hit the floor with the clank of my belt buckle.  Take aim with a precision that little boys are only just beginning to learn how to execute, and relieve myself letting the register become the pseudo-port-a-john for my burgeoning urine.  I can't tell you how many times I used that makeshift outhouse (rather, inhouse) to accommodate me.  Thankfully I never squatted down using it for #2.  Come on, I was smarter than that!


It wasn't until I was older that I came to realize where that register led to and what its purpose was, especially in the cold winter months.  Needless to say our furnace served a dual purpose for a couple years as I explored and expanded the utilitarian limitations of everyday, ordinary things.  This is the beauty of childhood, there aren't boundaries placed on any one item preventing it from being used for something else.  This is why children can turn anything into a toy, a game, or an adventure. 

 

Imagination is a beautiful thing, well, sometimes.