Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Real Son of a Boss


The last time I can remember feeling close to my father was when I was six.  A large fire had broken out in the foothills behind our neighborhood.  Houses were on fire.  Fathers were on roofs.  And mothers were busy packing cars with trinkets and things in frames.  It was chaos.  But just before we got the last of our valuables into the Volvo, my dad gazed down the street, and then turned to me, “Come on.”  He extended his hand and I hopped out of the car and followed him.  We walked to the edge of a gully.  The Vincente house was on fire.  They built too close.  My father scooped me up, hoisting me to his shoulders, and we stood there mesmerized, watching another family’s house, life, and memories being destroyed by smoke and flame.

Something on a wooden power pole popped and then exploded.  He pressed down on my knees with his calloused hands.  “We'd better go.”

Our home was spared that day, and despite the trauma, I have fond memories of the whole event.  It was the first and maybe only time I was perfectly aware that my life was completely in the hands of another human.  That day, my father was brave, and strong, and willing to protect me when it mattered.  I felt safe and connected.

But years passed and somewhere between the big fire and adolescence, my father and I lost each other.

He liked baseball.  I liked the computer.  He liked real news.  I liked fake wrestling.  He believed in hard work.  And I believed in being 10.

Now when I say hard work, I mean it.  He loved it.  A lot of it.  For us.  For him.  For the whole damn world.  It made boys men, and men more so.  My father left the house before the sun rose, and returned right before I went to bed.  He’d come in, usually in a bad mood, have an iceberg salad with “french” dressing on it, turn on pbs, and “goddamn liberal” everything they goddamn said.

His job was stressful and the hours were long.  He was a chemist.  At first.  But that’s not really why he was gone or angry all the time.  Somehow, while mixing chemicals for chemical plants, he had started a weekend plumbing company with his friend, where he made "real money".  Two cowboys herding pipe in the desert, making wild money.

So when he had time off from work, he spent it working.  Always.  And he made sure we did, too.  He bought an acre, built a house and a small farm, all by himself, just to make sure I had work to do later.

And it worked.  Every weekend I was digging a trench, moving corn, or picking up oranges.  Sometimes I swear we were just moving piles of dirt around.

“Dad, I think we put this dirt here last year.”

“Yeah?  Well it’s a good thing I don’t pay you to think.”  Obviously forgetting he didn’t pay me at all.

But I know he meant well.  His dad died when he was 12, leaving his family penniless and destitute.  They didn’t have things.  Anything, according to him.  They had to do without.  And he reminded me all the time.  Talking about orange juice and camping like they were silver and gold.  My father was crazily determined to not be poor.  And he wasn’t.  His tiny plumbing company that everyone made fun of had grown into a thriving business turning plenty of money each year in state and federal contract work.

So, while I never spent a day hungry, I spent most of my youth fighting with my mother and waiting for my father to get home.  My relationship with him quickly became nothing but digging, spankings, and finding the damn remote.   It’s not like we hated each other.  He tolerated my rock throwing, pellet gun, varying levels of vegetarianism, and teenage ideas about anarchy; but with each year that passed, this looming cloud of awkwardness settled a little deeper between us.

My mother tried to intervene.  She said it was good for a father and son to spend time together. That’s what families did. They spent time. It made them normal and healthy and families.

So, anytime she got a new issue of Reader’s Digest, we’d find ourselves out on a fishing boat, or at a car show, standing around, looking at each other uncomfortably. He’d grunt. I’d roll my eyes. And then we’d both shrug and go home.

Eventually my mother’s subscription ran out and we were both very grateful.  It just didn’t look like we were cut out to be father and son.  And, as sad as that was, we both had to uncomfortably accept it and go our separate ways.

Then I hit my mid twenties.  And suddenly, the novelty poverty I had taken on as an undergrad started to lose its charm.  Free pizza from the dumpster turned into dirty pizza with ants on it.  Taking the bus turned into not having a car to stuff girls in.  Needless to say, I was ready to take the bait when my father dangled a tech job at me upon graduation.

Admittedly, I was excited by the prospect.  Big family business.  Late nights hovering over plans. Eating Chinese food from boxes. Just me and my dad figuring it all out, besting our competitors, slaying our enemies, laughing in piles of money.  It was going to be big, exciting, just like the movies.

But it wasn’t.  Mostly, I spent a lot of time pulling cables, figuring out why something wouldn’t print, and graphing what people were doing on the internet.  He didn’t include me on any big decisions.  And really only talked to me when he wanted to yell and throw pens at someone.  My father was not impressed with my work.  He made sure I knew he was doing me a favor, and was lucky to be getting paid what I was.  Worst of all, we never had Chinese food even once.

Years have passed, and while my position in the company has grown, at 34 I’m starting to wonder if I didn’t make a bad decision by coming here.  Maybe the worst  decision of my life. And, no, not because I could have been a lawyer or an actor or some kind of internet asshole.  I’m talking about a gross, long-term miscalculation in sacrifice vs reward, career vs quality of life, having a dad vs not having a dad.

I fear I have inadvertently orphaned myself by way of nepotism.

That guy I see at the coffee maker every morning isn’t my dad. That’s my boss. And to him I’m just the guy who came in a few days late this month.  On Christmas, I’m just the bozo who could have done a better buyout on the last project.  I imagine on my wedding day I’ll just be that guy that never combs his hair or changes his clothes for work.

I’m not a son. I’m an embarrassing business expense.

And, sadly, now that I’m mature enough to recognize and possibly bridge this emotional gap, with conversation or normal father-son activity outside of work, I no longer have an unadulterated environment in which it can be fixed.  He spends his life worrying that I may not be working hard enough and possibly resenting me for having had it too easy; while I resent him for not allowing me the opportunity to grow and succeed on my own.

So when I’m on my way out the door and he suddenly stops and wants to talk to me about a kayak trip he has planned this summer, I listen for as long as he’ll talk.  Sure, traffic is worsening by the minute, but I nod and ask him about the mileage, the details on the fiberglass/polyurethane kayak construction he’s read so much about.  He tells me about a rowing machine in the garage he’s conditioning on, “I’m no spring chicken you know.” And I can’t help but picture his arms pulling against the cables, the sinews and tissues inside stretching and snapping back into place, remembering those same arms that could once lift my entire person into the sky, protecting me against the wildfires of the foothills so long ago.

As his truck pulls cautiously from the lot I lift my hand and wave. One day I’ll fire you, boss man.  And get my dad back.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why I Love Football & Hate Myself (For It)


I didn’t get to play football as a kid.  My parents wanted a baseball player, but got a fat kid instead.  A big, fat kid who couldn’t see baseballs.  Because he needed glasses.

Deep in left field, running like I’d never done it before, I did nothing but drop the ball and embarrass my parents.  I endured a never ending barrage of heckles.  From my own team.   They booed me when I struck out.  And chanted “tugboat” when I didn’t.  I couldn’t win.  My parents were disappointed in me, and my athletic peers hated me.

I tried my hardest to quit every season, reasoning with my parents that it would be “best for everyone”, but they still made me play.  Year after year.  I never got any better.  Just found new and different ways to be bad.

In 6th grade some of the other fat kids in my class started playing for the local peewee football team.  They got to wear their jerseys to class, brag on the tackles they made, and size seemed to be working in their favor.

One afternoon I asked my mom if maybe I could play football instead. She made a face and turned back to the stove, “No.  It’s stupid.  And too expensive.  You’ll just quit, anyway.”

I asked a few more times throughout the year.  The answer was always no, but my interest in the sport slowly grew.  Video games, television, and neighborhood street ball.   I found ways to keep my budding but oppressed interest alive.

For my birthday, after pleading, my father reluctantly took me to a Rams game.  I bought a  Bengals flag and cheered at the wrong team.  It made the people around us really angry.  They made fun of us and smelled like too many beers.  My dad had a horrible time.  “See.  People who like this are stupid.  They’re slobs and drunks!”

In high school I awkwardly tried to befriend some guys on the team.  I’d wear a Rams shirt.  Or bring my football.  But these people were men.  Men with fathers who knew better than to buy junior-sized footballs.  Busting with muscles I could barely understand, they had no patience for my weak stature or boyish demeanor.  They laughed at me and threw my rubber football over the fence.  I quickly learned to stay away, but they still found me somehow, managing to pull my pants down or slap the pizza out of my hand.

Naturally, I grew to hate what I understood as sports and the idiots that played them; and eventually, my alienation and hatred evolved into a love/passion for the arts.  I stayed in classrooms at lunch, nodding my head to They Might Be Giants and reading about dragon wizards.

I abandoned/rejected athletics and the culture that went with it.  I chose a college sans football team, started bands, wrote stories, and never looked back.

Until now.

Suddenly, I find myself, a 34 year-old man, in love with football.

Sitting on my couch, Sunday after Sunday, I have to sometimes remind myself that these people hate me.  I shouldn’t be doing this.  Watching Michael Vick take the ball and deftly dance his way through eleven men trying to kill him, I am reminded that these are the same people that beat me over the head with my own shoe.

I’m that guy, you know, the one who seems to perpetually fall in love with women who could care less about him.  I’m that idiot now, pathetically obsessed, wanting something I can’t have. I have interest, skills, hobbies with potential.  Why waste my time on this this sad parade of aggression and growth hormone?

Don’t get me wrong, if pressed, I could list a hundred reasons beyond it’s seemingly barbaric appeal why I find it so engaging.  Rationalizing to my girlfriend’s playwright father, I hear myself rambling about the skill; grace; hundreds of creative and complex plays designed by old men that have been thinking about football for 50 years; the camaraderie of a group of guys bound together, acting as an athletic entity greater than the sum of its parts, and completing that legendary trick play worthy of six slo-mo replays.

But the more I think about it, I realize that it’s something else that allows me to enjoy the sport as much as I do.  Past the the highs of impossible plays and deeper than the intellectual aspects of the game, lies the source of my interests and emotional vestment, swaddled in a bassinet of regret and oblivion I've accidentally created for myself.

Unlike most of my creative aspirations, football never got to waste ten years of my life and then send me packing.  Since I never played, I was never really rejected.  I can watch an entire NFL game and never once feel a twinge of bitter jealousy or cynicism.  Because I never had the chance to find out I wasn’t good, let alone good enough, I get to fully indulge in an untempered fantasy.  Instead of bitterly wishing I’d made it to the pros after a disappointing run in high school or an injury in college, I get to throw my hand-crafted, fair-trade, free-range, organic football to my girlfriend in the park and believe that I actually have a pretty good arm. You know, for a guy who likes quinoa.

I have no idea how good I’m not, and I don’t care.  I’m absolutely free to whisper to that the little fat kid inside me.  “We could have gone...all...the...way.”   We just...didn’t.

I’ll never get to play football.  My time has passed.  And even as I acknowledge how this very fact has allowed me to enjoy the sport as much as I do, I can’t help but think I will inevitably try to pass this interest onto a child of my own one day.  Pushing and prodding, I can see myself eagerly teaching tiny hands to grip the ball, to send it flying across the park in a perfect spiral.  Sure, I’m hoping to end up the dad in the bleachers, clutching my camcorder, documenting my son’s natural propensity for short, tight passes. But just in case, for his sake, I promise not to look too disappointed when he tells me he’d rather play baseball.