Archive for category: Fairly Odd Parents-Past

I Was a Pre-Teen Pro-Marksman

29 Oct 2006
October 29, 2006

In the last few days the Republicans have decided that they’re going to win. Everything they’re reading says they’re going to win…

Have you ever seen anybody fall off of the roof of a house? I used to be in construction. There’s a funny thing that happens. They usually laugh. Just before they go off the edge there’s this moment where they laugh. That’s what’s happening to the Republicans. They’ve just gone off the edge of the house.

Tom Bodett on the NPR program Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me

In Robert Siegel’s interview with Karl Rove on National Public Radio this week, Rove disputed recent polls by telling Siegel “I add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House. You may end up with a different math but you’re entitled to your math and I’m entitled to THE math.” Rove was seen laughing just before he fell off of, I mean, just before he made this statement.

With a week to go before midterm elections political mud and “new math” are being slung in speeches and on the airwaves. Funny things happen when people are desperate. And those looking ahead to 2008 are reminding voters of their youthful follies with the more lurid edges of our culture. It is the season for preemptive full disclosure.

NRA Junior Pro-Marksman diploma

Proof of my marksman abilities. Click image for full disclosure.

Because of our desire for neighborly bliss, we at Chez Gates have decided to keep our politics off our front lawn this year. However, I have just unearthed some interesting documentation from my own past and in an effort to come clean I, too, will admit to some youthful encounters with the other edge of the social spectrum. I was a pre-teen Pro-Marksman and I’ve got the NRA diploma to prove it.

Yes, dear friends of the Left and neighbors of the Right, I must reveal that I can shoot a gun with the best of the National Rifle Association’s finest. Oh, it’s been a while. But you know what they say: you can take the rifle away from the boy, but you will never take the boy away from the rifle.

Like the NRA’s Political Victory Fund, I also have an endorsement or two. And with this most important cred my views will surely be taken more seriously by the widest range of the American political electorate. But I will keep them to myself (this year reserving my sharpshooting skills for the voting booth). I wouldn’t want misuse my newest political collateral. I’ll wait until I decide to run for office. And I want to steer clear of laughing Republicans falling off roofs.

Cursively Speaking

15 Oct 2006
October 15, 2006

When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.

Margaret Webb Pressler
The Washington Post

I have always enjoyed writing. By writing I mean making marks on paper.

A sample of my high school writing

Sample of my handwriting from my high school biology notebook. Classmates said I wrote “like a girl.” Click image for larger version.

I have detailed memories of learning cursive in the fourth grade. I wanted handwriting just like my classmate Robin Hoenig. She had the best penmanship in the class. And I studied and emulated everything she wrote. It was beautiful, so beautiful I even asked her to sign my name on my Junior Fireman’s membership card. Of all the ephemera from my childhood, that was one of my most cherished possessions (now lost amongst the memories boxed in our attic). Crazy when you look back on it.

The Washington Post reported last week that teaching good handwriting skills, teaching any handwriting is close to extinction. Apparently, there are more important things to learn, like typing. My ten year old can type almost as fast as I can but sometimes it’s difficult to read what she’s written.

It’s not surprising that cursive is taking a back seat to other proficiencies. There seems so much more to learn these days and at such an accelerated pace. My wife and I are constantly amazed how early our children are learning basic skills: reading in kindergarten when we learned to “see Dick and Jane run” in the first grade; multiplication in the third grade and algebra in the fourth. I was shocked when I spied my eldest reading Langston Hughes in the first grade! It made me feel old and outdated. I wondered what she’d be reading when she was ten, the French Structuralists? (Luckily, my daughter, now that age, is more interested in fantasy and Pokémon rather than Foucault.)

We are being told there just isn’t time for handwriting instruction. Other tasks are now much more important. For example, months are spent in the second grade prepping children to take state standardized tests. The Post article suggests we are about to lose an art form:

“Scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research. And others simply lament the loss of handwritten communication for its beauty, individualism and intimacy.”

I remember practicing my handwriting for hours. It was one of the earliest memories of learning to control something in my life. Perhaps it was an early indicator of my future in art: an interest in form and its function. I was chagrined when my friends suggested I wrote “like a girl.” A putdown in the archaic 1950s and 1960s, I did it anyway. Even today I get these comments (interpreted now as a compliment).

In high school my father made me spend one summer taking shorthand and typing (when typing was an elective and desktop computers were in a distant future). He wanted me to be prepared for the rigors of college. I was the only boy in these classes. Despite my arguments about all the Nobel Prize winners who made it through college without learning shorthand, it was a futile effort. And I was a very obedient son. It was embarrassing but with Dad’s edict, there was no way out. I can still write my name using Gregg shorthand but the rest has been lost. I never used it in college but I could use it now during back-to-back meetings at work.

The immediacy of typing and reading words on a screen encourage quick and abbreviated thoughts. Paragraphs diced into smaller bits make essays easier to read online. Blog posts are shorter than short stories. I do it all the time.

I can’t remember the last time I received a handwritten letter in the mail. I have bundles of letters from my parents, written to me when I was away at college. When I look at them, their handwriting brings immediacy to their words. With each letter I reconnect with who we were. It’s as if I am hearing their voices. Will my children save all my emails and IMs and look back on them with the same sense of connection with me? Will they even be able to recognize my handwriting?

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’ve worked hard at my beautiful writing. It was my first artwork and it probably will be my last. My girls practice their cursive nightly at our house. Beautiful essays in their composition books will someday become their attic memories. Whatever the schools decide, we’re making sure an art form will be passed on.

Wanderlust Never Smelled So Sweet

08 Jun 2006
June 8, 2006
1950s Stewardesses Wish Me Bon Voyage

With little provocation, The Wanderlust wisks me away to polluted but exotic places.

As I walked out of my office building the other day I was suddenly hit by a faintly sweet and very nostalgic odor. What was that? Instantly I was transported to a mild and endearing part of my childhood. I stopped and tried to retrieve the memory of that smell.

Just as suddenly I began to laugh. Of course! A hot and humid day, the air was a tinge of moist brown. It was smog, that ozone groundcover that reunited me with my past.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s the narrow boundaries of my life were immersed in Southern California’s nasty air quality problem. I remember authorities informing this young asthmatic that pollution could actually improve respiratory problems like mine. Breathing bad air could miraculously make me immune to its effects. What were they thinking?

And what was I thinking now?

When the temperature hits 80°F (27°C) I am suddenly overcome with another disease: The Wanderlust. I am ready to move on, or in this case back to anywhere but where I am right now. The Wanderlust is a chronic and incurable disease, one I’ve had to live with all my life. And an attack can occur with just the slightest provocation: a whiff, a sound, or a news story –any trigger can bring on a Walter Mitty outbreak.

Abruptly I can be transported back to high school where I spent my summer days in residence at Playa del Rey, adjacent to LAX. The beach was a place to escape the Valley’s dirty air and my family’s dirty little secrets. I would spend my days lying on the sand, watching airplanes taking off for destinations unknown. At 17 I was ready to bolt my childhood. I would have given anything to be on one of those planes and I would have gone anywhere (even to Cleveland I remember thinking). The Midwest was exotic and inviting. Such are the ways this disease presents itself.

A year later when I actually caught my flight out of town to “exotic” Detroit my new college buddies thought I was nuts to leave LA for the cold steppes of Michigan. But to any 18 year old, home, no matter where it is, is a place to get away from. I learned to live with my chronic malady. And this was my first treatment.

Today when the thermometer rises I find myself setting my Summer Song playlist to repeat. Summer in the City mixed with the pungent scent of street-level sewage immediately transports me to far off places. Lately I’ve been dreaming about catching the next flight to Guangzhou. To be suffering The Wanderlust means journeys like this are easy and can happen at any moment. No packing and no applying for vacation leave. You’re simply there.

The other morning as I read the paper about Monaco’s Prince Albert and his newly found(out) daughter, I wanted to be his son. It didn’t matter that he’s actually younger than me (physical laws are no match for this disease). And yesterday I briefly considered becoming Sergey Brin, billionaire of Google. These daily trips to the impossible only last a second, my brain’s version of a spur-of-the-moment weekend getaway. The Wanderlust is brought on by thoughts of something new and exciting. Pondering wealth and privilege always trumps getting ready for work when the temperature climbs.

Guangzhou in June? The last time I was there it was the hottest and smoggiest summer since the Revolution. Sweet.

Related Story: Vacation 2001: West Meets East

The Perennial Good Boy

28 May 2006
May 28, 2006
Illustration of me as an eight year old

I had always been a very good boy.

I’ve been doing some spring cleaning. My home office is a mess. And after hours of sorting, filing, and tossing my desk is now pristine again. But much still needs to be done before this job is complete. On the floor lay boxes my wife has filled over the years with my “stuff.” There is so much stuff it’s hard not to be overwhelmed.

The first box seems to be laden with things from the 2003 period of my life. You know how it is. Every night you come home and empty your pockets of the flotsam du jour. Receipts, pens, change, reminder notes –whatever– are automatically placed on top of the bedroom bureau. Three years later you discover your loving wife unceremoniously threw them into a box. They have been waiting for you to deal with on your own time. She doesn’t like me to leave these artifacts from my life on the dresser. She likes things nice and tidy. The time is now.

Most of these things are easy to dispense with. I quickly throw most of them in the trash or shredder. 2003 was a pretty good year but these documents no longer need to be saved for anyone’s posterity.

But what have we here? How did this note from my distant past get misfiled into this 21st century receptacle?

What was I thinking back then? As a child I was always a very good boy. The curse of the first born. With apologies to my sister, I was the easy kid. I did everything and believed everything my parents told me until my early 20s when rebellion finally kicked in.

The origins of this note are now mostly lost on me (I do remember Mrs. Mandel was my Cub Scout Den Mother). What would make this perennial model-of-a-son so angry he was ready to bolt? Apparently I didn’t always accept everything my parents doled out. This document proves I had my eight year old limits. Things back then weren’t as tidy as I seem to have remembered.

GOOD-BY and I mean it for a short time.

On Writing That Last Story

25 Jun 2005
June 25, 2005

Funeral celebrants are part of a persistent move toward therapy and management to handle issues that used to be the realm of religious faith.

Dennis Martin
Associate Professor of Historical Theology
Loyola University Chicago

When Cliff died unexpectedly at 39 I went to his funeral. I wasn’t looking forward to it. He was young and left a wife and an eight-year-old daughter. It was shocking and I faced my own mortality.

Funerals are for the living I’ve been told: a way for us to come to terms with our loved one’s death. Cliff’s death, however, would be particular hard to accept. When someone in their 80s, or even better in their 90s dies their funeral is indeed a celebration of a long and hopefully happy life. But this was way too soon.

In the middle of the service people were invited to the pulpit to express their remembrances. I didn’t know Cliff well and these stories made him come alive for me. When Cliff’s wife Leila walked up to the chancel she began by saying “I wasn’t going to speak today but I’m about to tell you an inappropriate story about Cliff.” My ears perked up. Cliff apparently had a wicked sense of humor and Leila proceeded to clue us in. It was relief to the sadness of this very solemn occasion. It made me wish I had known him better.

I marveled at Leila’s where-with-all. To be able to tell a funny story about her newly departed husband was more than just an art. It required a faith and resolve I was surely lacking. I couldn’t have done that.

If you don’t think you could have either consider employing the services of a Funeral Celebrant, a hired emcee “and part of a new, increasingly popular twist in the way the dead are memorialized.” “For a practicing Catholic, it would be like replacing a priest with a therapist and manager,” said Dennis Martin, associate professor of historical theology at Loyola University Chicago.

This reminded me of my father’s funeral a few years ago. But when hiring outsiders to eulogize your relatives make sure they get the facts of their life correct.

When my father died I flew to Los Angeles for his funeral. His death was not unexpected and by the time I arrived my father’s wife had made all the arrangements. He didn’t belong to a synagogue so the funeral home provided a rabbi for his service. Just before his burial we met with him to go over the details of my father’s life. We thought we had clearly stated his accomplishments. The rabbi jotted notes as we spoke. But at the grave, things seemed to unravel.

The rabbi stood in front of the coffin and recalled my father’s life. His style was intimate. But his facts weren’t quite how we had described them to him. “He went to the University of Michigan…” “Michigan State” I whispered from the front row. “He went to Michigan State” he said without missing a beat. It was truly a Jewish recovery.

“After the war he attended UCLA where he got a degree in Engineering.” “He went to USC,” I said a little louder. “He attended USC,” he intoned. We used to chide each other, usually during football season about the rivalry between our alma maters (I went to UCLA). My stepmother began to squirm in her seat.

I pointed my finger at my father’s coffin and said “That’s what you get for going to that OTHER school!” It was one of the few “last words” I ever got with my father and one I could have only delivered spontaneously and unrehearsed. Everyone laughed. The rabbi continued.

“And he is survived by his first wife Betty.” “NO!” everyone said in unison. Someone put their hand on my stepmother’s shoulder. No, Betty died thirty years ago. “Wait,” the rabbi said. “You’re his second wife?” pointing at her. In a twist of fate, this hired rabbi had grown up with my mother some 60 years ago. And, it seemed he couldn’t get her out of his mind. It was truly a Seinfeldian moment. Was that Jerry, Elaine, and George standing behind Dad’s coffin?

I couldn’t have orchestrated a more fitting conclusion to my father’s life. He tried so hard to do it his way. While he was alive he was controlling and totally unaware of its effects on his family. But in death life has a way of making those important decisions for you.

A professional eulogizer –a funeral celebrant– couldn’t have done it better.

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On Death and Waiting

26 Mar 2005
March 26, 2005

Despite Terry Schiavo’s parents’ efforts to keep her alive and despite Congress’ deplorable actions, we wait.

Waiting for a loved one to die is a time full of anticipation. Waiting for them to pass –no euphemism can adequately describe that feeling. It’s so personal and so intimate, which makes the government circus surrounding Ms. Schiavo’s end-of-life so sad.

I remember another waiting.

• • •

Author with his mother, late 1960s

My Mother and Me in the Late 1960s

In 1960 when I was eleven my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was benign but the operation to remove it changed our lives forever. A once vibrant and beautiful woman became an invalid. She lost her sense of balance and had to walk with assistance. Her whole right side no longer functioned. Her right eye didn’t blink and had to be sewn shut. When she smiled, it was only a half smile.

But most of all, her mind felt muddled. As she described it, she was in a constant fog. She had to rely on others for everything. She had to rely on us for everything. The tumor didn’t kill her but it killed any semblance of normalcy we had as a family.

My younger sister and I had to grow up fast. My father became the sole caregiver for the three of us. The frustration, tension, and dysfunctionality of a long-term illness produced a grief that settled into our lives. There were no family social workers back then, only shock therapy.

Years later I went back to my old neighborhood to see the street and house where I spent those years. I saw a neighbor raking her leaves and stopped the car. “Do you remember me?” I asked. She invited me in for some tea. “We knew what was happening. But there wasn’t anything we could do.” she said as soon as we sat down.

Nine years after my mother’s operation she got lymphoma. Unrelated to her brain tumor this was terminal. My father and sister picked me up at the airport as I arrived back home from college that Christmas vacation. As we pulled out of the airport he veered towards the beach. “Let’s take a walk,” he said.

A walk in the sand was totally out of character for Dad. He was a methodical mathematician, not a romantic. We stopped at a large rock where he asked us to sit down.

“Your mother is dying…” She had maybe six months to live. “…and you are not allowed to tell her,” my father warned. He and her doctor had decided it was in her best interests to keep this from her. They were afraid she’d commit suicide. As it does now, America had a difficult time coping with death. When emotions fail you, seek other means. This was anything but neat and tidy.

I decided right there not to return to school after the holiday break. I couldn’t imagine leaving my mother. But my father vetoed that idea. So three weeks later I stood on our front porch saying “see you later.” I kissed her one last time and she whispered, “I will miss you.”

I wear that moment around my neck everyday. My mother thought I was just going back to college. But I was leaving her forever. And I couldn’t even say goodbye. It continues to be the hardest day of my life.

As it turned out, she lived for two and a half more years. I graduated college and returned home to attend graduate school. I was able to see her again but by this time she was in a long-term facility. Her lungs were being drained daily of fluid. And we never talked about her death. We never acknowledged it. I regret I was too young and too afraid of my father’s rage should I broach the subject.

But I knew she knew. On her final day she decided not to have her lungs drained. She made that decision. She lived to see her 25th wedding anniversary but decided not to wait for her 50th birthday. She made the decision when to go. It was a time before living wills. And even though technology could keep her alive we all finally agreed, albeit tacitly, it was time to go and let go.

I laid in my bed that night wondering if “it” had happened. Suddenly I remembered I hadn’t said goodbye, but then realized I had said it to her years before on that porch. We were really ready for this moment.

• • •

I understand what Michael Schiavo and Robert and Mary Schindler have struggled with these last fourteen years. Their differences are very personal and private. We know what’s going on but we are at a loss as to how to help.

We are at a loss and perhaps that’s just the way it should be.

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