Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Keeping it Surreal

On the first day of class, my eighth grade English teacher breezed in on a cloud of patchouli, hopped up on the desk, assumed a half-Lotus and introduced herself. "Greetings, everyone; welcome to English and Composition. My name is Mary Something-really-long-and-Eastern-European, but I'm cool with 'Mary.'"

Wow, I thought; a real, live hippie.

Mary went on to say we could read whatever we felt like reading and write about whatever we felt like writing about, "as long as we kept it real."

But it turns out old "maryjane" (what most of us called her behind her back) hadn't meant "whatever" as I'd always understood it to mean, and that keeping it real was serious business - no place for potboilers, S.E. Hinton, J.D. Salinger, Tom Robbins, or even Ray Bradbury.

She approved of Pablo Neruda, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, and Carlos Castaneda, "but I don't want you reading these authors just because I approve of them."

Phew, I thought.

"I want you to want to read them," she said.

And all I wanted was an "A," not to have my head shrunk by this Woodstock refugee.

"What about biographies?" I asked.

"What sort of biographies?"

"Oh, only real ones, about real people - no celebrity exposes or rags-to-riches stories." Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she spoke. "I think that's an excellent idea. Especially at your age, when you're shaping your worldview and are at your most inspirable. Why, I'm still drawing a lot of inspiration from a biography I read about Gandhi..."

At that time, I didn't know what, exactly, a worldview was, and even if I did, I certainly didn't give a hoot for shaping it. I just wanted to keep it real enough to get my "A."

But a funny thing happened on the way to that "A": I discovered I really liked biographies, maybe even more than fiction.

By the end of the semester, I was much more in awe of Thomas Jefferson than I was the TV Jeffersons (even if they did manage to break the cursed White Ceiling and get themselves a "deluxe apartment in the sky") and would have, given the choice, rather spent an hour with the enigmatically one-eyed Moshe Dayan than collected a week's worth of one-eyed Peter Falk's "Columbo" residuals.

I've had short-lived crushes on everyone from Che Guevara to Teddy Roosevelt over the years; I've been uplifted, inspired, moved, and occasionally enraged by people I only "know" on paper.

But no one has shaped my worldview quite like the Honourable and eminently quotable Sir Winston Churchill, whose, "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire" just about made me fall off my chair.

I thought about calling old maryjane and telling her, but somehow I don't think she'd see the humor in it. After all, keeping it real is serious business.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Heir-Raising Lessons

My dad can beat up your dad - not that my dad would ever be so uncouth. He just can, that's all.

My dad never played catch with my brothers or me, but I can't remember any of us ever wanting to play catch with him. I don't even think he knew how. We picked it up, as they say, in the street.

What he did do was show us the great outdoors, even if he had to drag our citified, whiny carcasses outside to do so. He showed us what kind of bush you could eat if you had to (even though I never understood how anyone would ever "have to," there being 7-Elevens and Auto Clubs and call boxes and simple common sense, i.e., why would I ever be by myself and more than a mile from any of those things?) And he tried to show us how to ride a horse, although only one of us ever managed to do so to his satisfaction (and it wasn't me; any horse I ever rode always knew he was boss) because "everyone needs to know how to ride a horse."

My dad also thought everyone should know how to play at least one musical instrument, or at least "want to know, damn it," which is why one of us was always taking some kind of music lesson when we were younger, although none of us mastered a single instrument.

My dad, on the other hand, plays piano, guitar, violin - which he, naturally, calls "fiddle" - harmonica, banjo and drinking glasses (his "I Dream of a Jeannie with a Light Brown Hair," using only four 8 ounce tumblers, is pretty amazing), and never took a lesson in his life.

That's because, in my dad's day, "we didn't have fancy schmancy music teachers coming to our house after school. Hell, we were lucky to have a house at all or even go to school" - which was, of course, thirteen miles away from anywhere Dad, as a lad, ever lived (snowy places all, even in the summer) and only accessible by foot.

One lesson we did manage to learn from my dad was that there was no situation, conundrum, or difficulty that couldn't be improved, explained, or made easier with an adage, and he had an adage for every eventuality. Sniveling, whining and all manner of ugly self-absorption could be cured with a stern, "Get out of the coal bin, mother, you're making a fuel of yourself." When my brother's teenaged heart was broken (over some hussy, per my ever-loyal Mom) Dad, who believed no man should marry, let alone fall in love, before 40, put it all in perspective for him: "She was only a moon shiner's daughter, but you loved her still."

Somehow Dad's aphorisms even helped me with algebra. "Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?" he'd bark, whenever I asked him to just "give me the answer" or struggled with the purpose of it all.

My dad believes every gift is a treasure, and every gift he gets touches him deeply - much to my mom's consternation. Indeed, his side of their bedroom and their entire garage is stacked to the rafters with useless geegaws, gadgets, garish ties, and whatnot he's amassed over the years - many, if not most, of these things from his children.

My dad, though not for lack of trying, never embarrassed me, not once, not even when I was at the age when everything embarrassed me, even other people's dads. How did he manage this remarkable feat?

By doing his darndest to do the exact opposite, i.e., embarrass me, that's how. Mornings when he'd take me to school - junior high school - he'd drop me off right in the most populated area, say goodbye, then whip out a white handkerchief, wave it madly in the air and trill, "toodle-oo!" And he'd do this, that is, look ridiculous, for me: "It'll put hair on your chest."

My dad, like Will Rogers, never met a man he didn't like. (Again, much to my mom's consternation. "You picked him up where?," she'll gasp, when he apologizes for being late on account of picking up another hitchhiker. "A hot dog stand in East L.A.? You're lucky he didn't kill you!")

My dad forgives anything, and when I say "forgives," I mean he forgets - the essence of true forgiveness - as well. He's forgiven all the hitchhikers and shady characters he's picked up over the years, guys who've stolen the watch right off his wrist as they were getting a lift hither and yon. And he's forgotten everything I've ever apologized for, even every misdeed I didn't apologize for.

And I may be a girl, but I forgive him for putting hair on my chest. Heck, I love him for it. Happy father's day, Dad!

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