Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pants on Fire

"Man, I just can't believe it."

The words came from the guy sitting next to me in study hall.  They were punctuated with a heavy theatrical sigh. Let's call the speaker Steve.

I sat there trying to focus on whatever I brought to study hall, but Steve wouldn't let up. He now complimented his heavy sighs with some dramatic head shaking.

I knew Steve would keep this up until I made some sort of comment, so I waded in.

"Uh...you OK?"

"Yeah...I guess. Sigh. I've got this girlfriend up in New York. Last week she was murdered by some drug dealers. Luckily, my uncle lives up there and he's got a bunch of friends from 'Nam who have all sorts of killer weapons. They know the cops can't do anything, so they're gonna take 'em down. I'm supposed to go up there for the funeral and meet them and blahblahblah..."

I had seen that Charles Bronson movie on TV last night as well, but let Steve keep whispering the plot, spiced in with declarations of his fighting and weapon abilities while I haphazardly went about my work. These stories had been going on for a while, and while I didn't really encourage them, they were fascinating just for their sheer audacity. He was taking a chance that I hadn't seen the movie he was plagiarizing as well as banking on the fact that I wouldn't call him out on any of his fantastical tales.

Which I didn't, so I guess the guy knew his audience.

It's funny - people feel compelled to share their secrets with me all the time. I've had countless conversations that start with "I'm really not supposed to tell anyone this..." or end with "I guess I really shouldn't have told you that."  It still happens, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe because I can be counted on to keep a secret unless it makes a really funny story. Maybe I have a trusting face?

But Steve's tales were something else. I was awed at the sheer audacity of them, if not their originality. They were generally blatant rewrites of whatever action movie had struck his fancy lately, interspersed with digressions on Steve's fighting skills.

I fancied myself an experienced liar, but my lies were utilized to get out of trouble or used as an occasional spice to liven up a story. I have completely grown out of such childish antics and would like to remind readers that all stories I post are run through a battery of fact-checkers, which explains why I'm down to like one story a month now.

But back to Steve. His penchant for stealing storylines was emblematic of a bigger problem. He was also highly susceptible to '80s media. At one point he became obsessed with the hit TV show Miami Vice, like a lot of people at the time. Unlike most people, he took it a bit farther and started dressing like a high school version of Don Johnson.

Of course, a lot of other people probably did that. What they didn't do, however, was go undercover.

Apparently there were a few convenience stores that would sell booze to underage kids. Steve would go into them dressed like a mini Don Johnson, buy some beer, then call the cops. Or maybe he was wearing a wire already, who knows.

I didn't really drink in high school, and honestly thought that the kids hanging out in parking lots getting drunk every weekend lacked imagination, but even I considered this a Benedict Arnold-like strike against the kids.

That was the last I heard of Steve. After we had both successfully completed study hall I didn't see him anymore, which was fine with me. It took a lot of psychic energy to act halfway interested in recycled action movie plots every day.

Occasionally I'd think about the guy, wondering if he had picked a new persona or had finally gotten comfortable enough with himself that he didn't have to do stuff like that anymore. Adolescence is a time to put on different guises and characters, and although most kids didn't take it to the extremes Steve did, we were all in the process of figuring out who our real selves were.

Then I'd forget about the guy, harnessing my mindpower to decipher the lyrics to punk rock songs, where the best skate spots were, or the best way to get my money's worth at the Wendy's buffet.

Years later I was working at a film developing place in the mall and I see Steve saunter up. He was a mall security guard, or possibly had bought a really good replica uniform from the same place he bought his Don Johnson getup from.

He didn't recognize me, and I didn't say anything to him. Actually, I couldn't even if I wanted to, since he was telling my co-worker some story about trying out for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had spring training in Bradenton. After he left, I told my co-worker, "Hey, uh, I know that guy, and he makes up a lot of stuff."

"Oh, that's just Steve," she said.











Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Old Follks at Home

Bradenton, at least my little corner of it, was a strange place to grow up in. When my parents first moved there, there weren't many kids in our neighborhood for my sister and I to play with. There was also a prevailing parenting philosophy at the time that if kids weren't doing yardwork or domestic work, they should be out doing ...something or other until dinner time. That's how my sister and I made friends with a lot of old people.

Our street was full of elderly people - I remember at least two of them referred to as "The Colonel." You'd see them out watering their yards or smoking cigars and they'd talk to you. Somehow my sister and I decided to take our old person relationship to the next level.

I definitely remember us hanging out in a lot of sun rooms, Florida rooms, and living rooms (I sort of think all of these are the same room). Sometimes our elderly neighbors would give us cookies or candy, and we'd talk about...jeez, I have no idea. School? What else could we talk about? The houses were shaded by palm trees and you could see the quartz crystals sparkling on the outside walls. The rooms were heavily air-conditioned, so much so that you could almost see your breath indoors. You could also vaguely smell the residue of decades worth of cigarette residue on the walls.

Sometimes WDUV would be on lightly in the background, making me think now that we were part of the entertainment for cocktail  hour.

Funny thing is, I don't ever remember an invitation, I just remember going up to the door, like you would with an age-appropriate friend.


I do remember a couple of the old guys telling me some pretty cool WWII stories, but I've forgotten most of them, only retaining the impression of hanging out in the cold Florida living rooms while the ceiling fans whirred above.

I don't know what the old people got out of these visits - I guess they got to hang out with some little kids for an hour or so until we all sort of mutually decided our visiting time was up.

I also remember cutting through people's yards and gardens regularly - whether on our way to the bus stop in the morning, or just deciding to play in someone's back yard other than our own. There were lots of houses with landscaping full of ferns and palms dark enough that you could pretend you were in a jungle. There was also a family of wild parrots in the neighborhood that would screech occasionally to add authenticity.

We didn't have a strong concept of property rights, and luckily this is before Florida became synonymous with shooting people, and I guess nobody really minded a pair of kids trespassing through their property at the time. If they did, they never said anything about it.

Again, I realize that this is another of those stories that makes it sound like I grew up in the '30s or something, but if you think about it, culturally, the early '80s were still really the '70s. Then you have to subtract a few years for it being Florida, then another few years for it not being Tampa or Miami, and ....uh, do a little more subtraction, and you've ended up with 1964. That seems about right.






Thursday, December 24, 2015

Elf Power

Nobody gives much thought to Santa's elves. Santa and his reindeer get all the love and recognition while his elven workers tirelessly churn out toys for ungrateful little kids day after day up at the North Pole and we don't even know their names.

I know what it is like to be an elf, for I have walked in those pointy shoes.


I went to an after-school art program when I was in second grade in Mississippi. It was on the first floor of a creepy looking two story-house with a wrap-around porch. The house was surrounded by weeping magnolia trees and majestic oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The class was taught by Mizz Elizabeth, a kindly but gnarled old woman who loved children almost as much as she loved her snuff and cursing the Yankees.

OK, so I made all that up, except for the two-story house with the wrap-around porch. However, my internet class, New Southern Writing: Hush Your Mouth is accepting applications.

It was actually taught by a college student. There were about 15 of us in there, and I was the youngest. We were making paper mache heads for the Starkville Christmas Parade, which apparently still exists. I don't know what everyone else was making, but I was going to be an elf.

Some are born elves, some achieve elfness, and some have elfness thrust upon them. I can't remember if I chose to be an elf, or elfness was thrust upon me for being the youngest in the group. Either way, I was fine with it. Elves were an important part of Santa's village, and I was going to be representing them in the parade.

It took forever for the paper mache to dry. I remember we added layers and layers of the stuff every week, although I mostly remember getting Cokes from the old timey machine on the porch and wondering what was going to be our snack for the day.

I had a dentist appointment on the painting day. Well, sort of. It had gotten cancelled or something, so instead of painting my big elf head, I sat on the porch and waited for my parents. When the other kids came out of class, I jumped from behind a pillar and yelled "Boo" at them.

The teacher asked to see me. I thought this was a bit of an overreaction to a Booing, but she was actually upset that I had skipped class on the important painting day. That got me worried. Was I going to have an elf head that looked like it was mummified with the Starkeville Daily News? That was no way to represent elfdom.

She explained that she had actually painted my elf head, which of course turned out way better than anything my 7 year old hands could have done. This taught me a valuable Christmas lesson that has served me well in life. Forget about it, and someone else will always come along and fix it.

The night of the parade, I was dressed in my huge-ass elf head and the elf suit my mom made for me. I don't remember what everyone else in the class was, or where they were. Maybe they distributed everyone throughout the parade to ensure adorableness equality? All I knew was that I was a solo elf.

"Just follow the band," said my handler.

And I did. I followed the high school band all down the parade route. People were cheering and waving. I knew they didn't care about the band. They loved the elf. The guy that made their toys. The guy that put in the hours. The unsung worker toiling for Santa was finally getting his due.

I waved. I brandished a plastic hammer, demonstrating the old world craftsmanship one can only get from elves. I affixed a few people with a stare (I really couldn't do anything else, since my eyes were painted on), showing that it wasn't just Santa who knew who was naughty and nice. Little children were in awe of me. Working people identified with me. I was the hit of the parade.
 
I struggled to keep my apron on and my arm was getting tired with all my hammering. My feet hurt walking the parade route, but I was a trooper. I was Elf. 

After walking like what seemed like hours, the crowds started thinning out. "This part of town doesn't have much Christmas spirit," I thought, and I kept walking, following the band.

The band wasn't playing much anymore. I figured they were as tired as I was. I kept up my antics. I couldn't let down Christmas.

We reached the high school where the band members got into their parents' cars. I finally took my head off. I was alone. Someone asked who my parents were. I had terrible pronunciation back then, so when I said, "Charles and Marilyn Adams," they said, "Saws Adams?"

Finally, my parents walked up. Apparently I was supposed to have stopped walking about a half mile ago, but with my only direction being "follow the band," what else was I supposed to do?

Later I was able to see myself on TV. I was hammering up a storm, waving to children, and being the best damn little elf I could be. I had done it. I had achieved elfness.







Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Aunt Mary's All Alone

My dad's funeral was on a Saturday. I left work early the previous Monday when I got the phone call and spent the rest of the week in a daze. I obviously knew he was gone, but it didn't seem altogether real, that someone I knew for my whole life (and had known me even longer) had just been sort of disappeared from the earth.

I spent a lot of time on the couch, sort of halfway paying attention to movies we had watched together, texting and talking to family and friends, and trying to wrap my head around his death.

Before my dad died, I had planned to drive down to Gainesville for a Radon reunion show that weekend. While by my estimations I have seen about 46,000 Radon "reunion" or "original lineup" or "final" shows, it's always a good time, and it brings all the oldsters out of the woodwork so we can drink and sing and act the fool away from our responsibilities and set the clock back about 20 years or so to recharge our worn out batteries.

While I obviously wasn't going to go to Gainesville Saturday night, I decided to spend Thursday night in Tampa, catch Radon in Ybor City, then drive down to Bradenton the following morning.

I was a bit conflicted about this plan. Should I really be having fun so close to my dad's death? Sure, I could tell myself that dad would want me to have a good time, but that seemed sort of hollow and somewhat disrespectful. In the end, I decided that it would be good to have a little fun to step into normal life for a little while and to steel myself against the funeral. Sure, that was a pretty cheap rationalization, but it was what I was going with.

I had a great afternoon; sure, sadness lurked around the corners, but I hung around band practice, drank some beers and talked with great friends that I haven't seen in a while, some of whom had gone through losing a parent and offered whatever advice or sympathy they could.

Remember that band in college, that one who might not be technically proficient, and maybe the drummer would slow down halfway through the set, or the guitars might be out of tune, or the singer might forget a verse, but it didn't matter, because after a few songs you and your friends transformed into a single organism, jumping and singing and making the wooden floor creak and bend under your weight while you could transcend, just for a second, the day-to-day cares and frustrations and become one, unified mass of humanity? Well, Gainesville was (and still is) lousy with those bands, and I was counting on Radon to bring that feeling back for a few minutes that night.

And they didn't disappoint. I knew the song that was going to kill me. "Grandma's Cootie," a song about an aunt left alone by the death of her husband who takes a ride on a roller coaster and sees the beach from the top of the coaster.



They played it about halfway through the set, right before "Stepmother Earth," a song that always made me think about the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, even though there's not really anything specific to that reading in the song.

Tears welled as I sang along with old friends and strangers, but they were different somehow. They were sadness mixed with that feeling of transcendence along with a bit of happiness. I could almost grasp a theory about loss and death and the power of friendship and love, but the music and gin and tonics clouded my thinking and it remains just out of reach.

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Most people freeze their musical tastes in their 20s, and while I have continued seeking out different genres and styles since then (just ask anyone who has had to endure my "Summertime Reggae/Ska/Rocksteady/Dub" playlist at a cookout), the music and friends I made in my 20s have a special place in my heart. You can use that feeling to live in the past and moan about how things aren't as exciting now as they were back then, or you can take a bit of that feeling now and then to jump start your heart, to realize that you are part of something, that you have friends and family who love you, and that no matter how shitty life can be at times, you will endure and thrive.

I'm not saying that that night cured me, I continued (and continue) to have bad moments and bad days. But it did help, and if the suits at the American Psychiatric Association will ever recognize my groundbreaking research into punk rock music as grief therapy, I feel many more people will be helped.





Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Spanks. Spanks a Lot

I'm always astounded when what I think are simple, universal experiences are anything but. I mean, yeah, I realize that some things, like your parents hiding ancient Indian skulls in your closet or being forced to pick up mangoes as a child are fairly esoteric, but most of what I write here I just naively assume are experiences that just about everyone who grew up in roughly the same time period as I did can share and laugh at.

So yeah, I'm always a little amazed that people are shocked that I went to a high school that still spanked students.

I grew up in a time when most parents spanked their kids. Most parents don't spank anymore which is probably a good thing. All it really teaches you (or taught me, anyway) is that there is someone bigger and more powerful than you who can cause you physical pain, so it's best to sneak around and not get caught. Or that you can inflict pain on someone smaller than you, like say, a convenient younger brother or sister.

I was spanked as a kid, and I hated it. Looking back, my parents had to live with me 24/7. I'm surprised they didn't beat me more just on principle. The weird thing was, it always seemed like any adult back then had free reign to grab you and start spankin.' I remember the first time I got spanked by a teacher. I was laughing at a comment someone next to me made in my second grade class. My teacher grabbed me by the arm, lifted me out of my desk into the dark, deserted hallway and gave me two licks with a ruler. While it hurt physically, the worst part was having to go back into class and sit down while everyone knew I was bad and got spanked. Also, I was shaking and trying not to cry.

Of course, that was in Mississippi, so I was probably lucky I didn't end up on a junior chain gang.

There were always teachers you had to look out for. There was a teacher later in elementary school who was notorious for shaking the hell out of kids. I know, because it happened to me. Once again, I was laughing, this time in a line, when she came up and said, "You think that's funny? Do you think this is funny," as she shook my little fourth grade body around like a paint can. This was a public high school in Florida. No other teachers came running up saying, "Hey, crazy teacher, I think you've shaken him enough," or "Hey! You know you can't shake kids, crazy teacher! We had that big staff meeting about that!" She wasn't even my teacher, just a woman who saw a kid who needed some shaking and decided she was the one for the job.

Most kids who grew up in the same era have similar stories; whether they themselves were spanked or shook, or they saw or heard about classmates getting similar punishments. This is probably why when a kid was called to the office, the entire class had to go "Oooooooooooooooh."

But what really throws people is when I casually mention that I was spanked in high school. In the 1980s. That's right, while everyone else in the country was dancing around to Kajagoogoo, having their John Hughes-esque day-glo good times, students at our high school were regularly spanked by adults.

I'm not sure what you had to do to get licks. I only remember getting them for talking/laughing in class (careful readers can detect a trend here) and once for getting three tardies. I don't know if girls got spanked or that was just a punishment for the guys. I do remember the last time I went in. I was a senior, which really seems too old for someone to get spanked. The dean gave me a choice of three licks or a three day suspension. I took the licks, since my parents wouldn't have to find out.

He called in a secretary. Apparently you had to have a witness. She looked at me and said, "Oh, I don't like it when they're little like this. They remind me of my grandchildren." I remember thinking, "You have the power to stop this, lady. Stand up and say something, and we can all walk out of here."

No dice. I grabbed a desk, took out my wallet, and spread my legs. Licks were delivered via an actual wooden paddle. The first one took a while, I guess he was warming up or trying to build suspense. It wasn't too bad, but holy crap did the next two sting. Just like elementary school, I didn't cry (plus, by now I had the advantage of being almost a full-grown man), but I was pretty shaky as I left the office.

In the years since I've had a number of jobs that required me to do things I didn't necessarily want to do, so I sympathized with the dean a bit more. The guy got a degree in education, thinking he was going to mold young minds, and instead he goes home each day with a sore shoulder and cramped hand from spanking teenage boys.

Years later, in my erotic life, I met several partners who liked the occasional spank. I am above all a gentleman, so I obliged. I'll admit, it was pretty fun, even though part of me was thinking, "didn't she get enough of this in high school?" Then I realized she probably had a normal upbringing where she wasn't getting spanked by deans for being late to class three times.

 It also made me wonder if maybe I was wrong in giving that dean the benefit of the doubt.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Welcome to the Working Week

For a fundamentally lazy person, I've always gotten along fairly well in the working world. My first real job was bagging groceries, and I soon found that not only was it less work than I would be doing at home, but it was actually scheduled and I got paid for it. Granted, in those ancient times minimum wage was a couple of shiny nickles and a handful of hard candy, but that was enough to buy records and keep my car in gas.

For a relatively simple job, there seemed to be about a thousand different things to know. Was it OK to put dishwashing detergent in the same bag as sealed food? How full should I pack the bags? And I only took a few tests after the interview. Was I really qualified to start bagging so soon?

On my first day a woman had some candles that weren't priced. I had to find them and report the price to the cashier. This is called a "pricecheck" in the business. I speedwalked through the crowded store looking for the candle aisle. I never remembered seeing any candles when I went to the store with my parents. Jesus, how may aisles does this store have, anyway? You know, those candles looked like they should be about 3 bucks. Sure, let's say that. I made my way back to my cashier and confidently lied, "Three dollars," hoping she couldn't see that I was sweating.
"Three dollars? Did you find them on aisle three," she asked.
"Oh yeah. Isle three. Yep, that's where they are."
"They're 5 dollars. They're right over there in that bin," she pointed out with all the scorn a cashier can muster to a lowly bagger.
If she knew the answer, why would she let me lie to her like that? I made it a point to find another cashier to work with as soon as possible.

I also made a friend that day. Well, he made me, I guess. He was this little weaselly looking guy who kept talking to me while I was trying to concentrate on bagging and price checks and what the cashiers looked like naked.

Kids - here's a tip on the house. When you're a young adult, the first person you meet at a job, school, church group, or extracurricular activity is generally someone who has burned through everyone else and sees you as a way to start fresh. Try to stay away from them.

Not to say this guy didn't have his good qualities. Cleaning up one night he showed me his favorite trick. He took an apple from a display, took a hefty bite out of it, and returned it to the display, with the bite side on the inside.

"Check it out," he said. "Tomorrow some old lady will be reaching for an apple and she'll pull out this gross looking bit one."

I had to admit that was pretty funny.

Overall it was a pretty good job - old people slipped me tips, and whenever I needed time to myself, I could go out and gather carts, watching the bank clock turn over as I counted down the hours til quitting time. I'd daydream about how in a few short years I could promote to stockboy, then a manager, and then maybe run my own chain of stores. It would probably be a short hop from grocery store magnate to President, I'd imagine.

Every month we'd have a night where we had to stay late and clean. We'd take out all the eggs and milk and spray bleach water in the display cases to clean out the grossness, mop up, and prepare the shelves and floors for a crew to come in late at night to scour the place. It was kind of fun, mostly because we weren't dealing with customers, the managers would play classic rock over the PA system, and we could sneak cookies from the bakery. There were rumors that some managers allowed workers to make huge Scooby-Doo sandwiches from the deli, but that never happened while I was around.

Every once in a while, I'll get a whiff of bleach with an undertone of sour milk and be transported back to my high school grocery career. I can hear Bad Company, Foreigner, and the Guess Who and wonder why I gave up on my dreams of becoming a grocery store magnate.

Then I'll remember how bad that sour milk in the display cases actually smelled, and how getting off at 1 a.m. really kinda sucked, and I'm kind of glad I left the world of groceries behind.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

You Were My Dad, You Were So Rad...

Once again circumstances have forced me to break my "funny posts only" here on the old blog. My dad died suddenly about a month after my grandma died. Well, it was sudden to my sister and I; my mom said he had been dealing with more and more health issues.

Your family members are your first role models, for good or ill, and mine did a good job; they kept my sister off the stripper pole and me from being a performance artist.

Among other things, dad taught me what lures work for what fish, how to read a body of water, how to smell an approaching rain storm, and how to punch without breaking your thumb. He also took me to all the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Superman movies. Did he fall as crazy for Star Wars as I did? Probably not, but he still looked at and encouraged dozens, if not hundreds of my artistic renderings of Darth Vader and assorted battle scenes.

He made up stories every night for both me and my sister when we were little. I don't remember much about them now, of course, other than vague themes.  I seem to remember his studies of Native Americans played a big role.

As a teenager and a punk rocker, I had to rebel against what I saw as his narrow-minded, old-fashioned ways. No matter how bad family battles got, however, there was always a reprieve on the river.

And as much as I fought against him, I've found throughout the years that I share many of his traits, along with a lot of the anxieties and neuroses which I had no idea at all that he had until recently. My annoying habit of coming up with a project idea and having to start right now? That's totally inherited, as is my nightstand covered with a pile of books to read before falling asleep.

Some of these projects seemed like sheer torture at the time, but afterwards, they gave me a sense of pride - like how I can now replace a car's cooling system, thanks to an all-afternoon project that I swore was never going to end.

Along with having us, dad served and was wounded in Viet Nam, which led to him discussing all the ways to keep me out of the hypothetical Gulf War I draft. It also stopped him from both hunting and attending church. We always wanted to ask him about the war, but never really felt comfortable, and now it's too late.

He saw six continents, earned a PhD, led a teacher's strike, was married for 48 years, taught science and history, and taught his kids how to make an impressive marinara sauce. Did he know how much we loved, respected, and appreciated him before he died? I hope so. Unfortunately I also inherited his tendency to keep my emotions and feelings buried and so a lot of our conversations were kind of surface.

So as hard as it might be, make sure to tell your parents how much they meant to you, even if you have to lie a little bit, or write an anonymous note or something. Trust me, it'll make everyone feel a lot better.

I'm looking forward to getting back to the funny soon.