Gorilla Warfare

large-planet-of-the-apes-blu-ray1Growing up as the second of four kids in my family, it was essential that I assert my personality, that I find my niche. Everyone in our clan had slipped easily into their role. Why couldn’t I find mine?

To hear my parents tell the tale, I was the Worrywart — not exactly the most popular personality type in anyone’s book. Everything made me nervous and, try as I might, I just couldn’t summon the same cool, unflappable calm of my older brother, the confident Jock. My other two siblings only clouded the issue further. My younger brother was the Artist, possessing an early and uncanny natural gift, thanks to the creative talent on my mother’s side of the family. My sister was the Baby and the only girl, both of which stamped her with an identity as indelible as the one that I so desired.

I reasoned that in order to shake the Worrywart label, I needed to find my something else. I finally found it when I turned eight. It was the summer of ’72 and I’d discovered the Planet of the Apes.

I saw the first three films (1968’s Planet of the Apes, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes) with my father when our local theater ran the whole series for two straight weeks in an orgy of ape cinema that unquestionably changed the path I was to walk.

It helped that my movie-watching career up to that point consisted mostly of summer double-features of lighthearted Disney films like Bedknobs & Broomsticks, or The World’s Greatest Athlete. Those saccharine efforts could never have prepared me for what I was to behold in the Ape films.

For starters, the first movie introduced me to the thespian talents of the immortal Charlton Heston, who I thought was the greatest actor of all time. His portrayal of the film’s astronaut antihero, Taylor, contained zero subtlety. When he was mad, he screamed. Really loud. When confronted with the slightest obstacle, he groaned as if mortally wounded. The lack of nuance in his portrayal helped a budding young cinephile like myself to follow the plot without a hiccup. I didn’t care how much scenery he chewed up in the process.

Beyond Heston, there was the main attraction. Of course, I’m talking about those amazing apes. They were simply like nothing I’d ever seen before. These creatures were no ordinary simians. These apes were scientists, doctors, soldiers, philosophers, and senators. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when I became incontrovertibly hooked on the Ape mythology. At one point, there appeared onscreen an ape soldier riding on horseback, which I thought was impressive enough for a primate. But then he reared the horse up onto its hind legs while waving an automatic weapon in the air, seeking to corral the wayward humans into a frightened group. At eight years old, I wasn’t even sure a human could do those two things at the same time.

At that moment, I knew that the Planet of the Apes had officially become my thing.

It’s a well-established fact that the films resided in the science fiction genre, but in 1972, they seemed more history to me than fantasy. So many of the story’s elements had such a touchstone in reality that it was hard for my young mind to make the distinction between what was fact and what was fiction. For instance, the presence of astronauts in a NASA space capsule in the first film’s opening moments struck a chord immediately.

It’s easy to forget how much sway astronauts held in the cultural zeitgeist during that era, but we’re talking only three years removed from the first moon landing. Those hotshot flyboys were nothing short of rock stars. The US space program was universally revered — the last proud bastion of the Cold War battlefield on which our country could reliably count on besting the evil Soviet Union. Hell, every kid I knew had Tang on their breakfast table every morning. For the uninitiated, Tang was a vile, orange-flavored drink made from a powdery crystal mix, but we drank it anyway for the simple reason that the Apollo 11 astronauts told us to.

But, for me, the eerie reality of the films didn’t end there. The first film concludes with the now-famous scene in which Taylor discovers that the apes have blown up the Statue of Liberty. This punch in the gut to the progress of man was meant to signify the ascendancy of the Ape Empire, and it provided a chilling cliffhanger that left me quite uneasy as we left the theater. Growing up in Queens, only a few miles from the New York City skyline, I had actually seen the Statue of Liberty many times. The scene was frighteningly real, leaving me very nervous.

I needed to be reassured that none of these scary Ape stories could ever come true in real life. However, this competed with my other need to shed the dreaded label of Worrywart. After much soul-wrestling, I went to the wise, old sage who was the font of all knowledge throughout my childhood: my father.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, trying not to sound too skittish. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Making shelves for the kitchen,” he replied, clenching nails in his teeth. “Ya wanna help me?”

“Nah, that’s okay,” I answered. “So, Dad, uhh, what did you think of the movie? Pretty cool, right?”

“Yeah, it was okay. But you were so quiet on the way home, I thought maybe you didn’t enjoy it. Everything all right?”

He’d seen right through me. Laying his hammer down, he put an arm around my shoulders. “Listen, when I was your age, I was scared of the bad guys, too. It’s okay to be afraid.”

“I wasn’t afraid!” I lied. “It’s just that —”

“Charles, it’s all right. You just have to remind yourself that those apes on the screen are regular people. They’re all dressed up in makeup and costumes, like in any other movie.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Listen…remember the movie you watched at Grandma’s house last weekend about the boy and his horse?” He was always terrible at remembering the names of movies and shows, but that was my savant specialty.

“Ya mean My Friend Flicka?”

“Right. That’s the one. The kid in that movie played the ape in this movie, the main guy.”

“Cornelius?”

“Yeah, Cornelius,” he said happily, seeing me lighten up a little as this thought made its way through the apprehension I’d been wearing on my face. “Under all that makeup is that kid!”

I was almost sold. “So…the things they do in the movie, it’s — I keep wondering if —”

“No,” he guessed right, “none of that stuff can ever really happen. It’s movie magic.”

“For real?” I asked, longing to hear the right answer.

“For real,” he said. “Now, c’mon. Help me bring these upstairs.”

With my fears now fully dispelled, I happily re-embraced my Ape fandom, and couldn’t have timed it any better, as the fourth film in the series was due out in June of that very summer. It was called Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and my father took us to see it the weekend it opened. I was all a-tingle with anticipation as the film began, but that lasted only through the very first shot of the movie, which showed what looked like modern-day Earth transformed into an ugly, barren wasteland. Then a title appeared on the screen, reading “North America – 1991.”

I remember thinking, “Oh my God! I live in North America! 1991 will occur in the span of my lifetime! In North America!” I whipped my head around to glare at my father (or as I thought of him at that moment, the biggest liar in the world) to get some kind of explanation for the confusion and panic that were now fermenting in my head. My dad was blissfully unaware of my distress, though, and when I started peppering him with probing questions for the remainder of the movie, he only countered with a loud “Shhh!” What followed were the least calm ninety minutes of my entire childhood. Scenarios of what was to come were only strengthened by the mayhem occurring on the screen, in which the apes overran humans, taking control of the world. You could’ve slid me off my chair with a spatula when the movie ended.

The car ride home amounted to a cross-examination of my father by a completely unnerved me, seeking even more placating of my wildest ape-induced fears. I wasn’t as easy to coax in off the ledge this time, but eventually my resistance withered and I couldn’t help but believe my father was telling the truth.

What a sucker I was.

The good thing about being eight years old is that there’s an opportunity to embrace a new obsession or fad almost every hour of every day. The plethora of two-week-long crazes in my house must have driven my parents absolutely bonkers, but it seemed to be the natural rhythm of our hurly-burly childhood. If it was Monster Week on The 4:30 Movie, then our lives revolved around Godzilla and Mothra. If we’d seen Evel Knievel jumping a stack of 18-wheelers on Wide World of Sports, then we were daredevil bike-jumpers.

So it happened that into this morass of temporary trends stepped the least likely phenomenon of my youth: the Olympic Games.

It’s not that I wasn’t a sports fan. I loved watching sports almost as much as playing them, but up to that point, my sports interests had only ever been a regional story: you either liked the Mets or the Yankees, the Jets or the Giants. There was really nothing bigger than that in my sports sphere until my parents cajoled us into watching the Opening Ceremonies of those ’72 Summer Games. I was struck immediately by how far-reaching this event was, hearing the names of countries that may as well have been distant planets to me. The circus-like pageantry of that ceremony, along with avuncular announcer Jim McKay’s descriptions of the various customs and traditions of all these nations, had me in a big-time frenzy.

The fact that the Games took place during the summer made it seem like an unannounced two-week holiday. I watched them incessantly, the pull of my new obsession growing stronger with each passing day, a new idol or puppy-love-crush minted every hour. Mark Spitz collected gold medals like they were baseball cards and was easily the coolest guy I’d ever seen. I fell in love with each Eastern European gymnast who pranced onto the floor, but none of them caused the butterflies in my stomach like the pixie-ish Olga Korbut. The cute-as-a-button sixteen-year-old from the Soviet Union was the darling of those Olympics, and the breathless behind-the-scenes video features that ABC showed during breaks in the action made me feel even closer to her. Sure, Olga was twice my age, but I knew with a certainty beyond my years that she would one day be my blushin’ Russian bride.

As the Games forged ahead into their second week, I was as deep in their thrall as I had been with the Apes, which might as well have been a lifetime ago. So ubiquitous were they that I was even rabidly watching things like archery and team handball —fringe sports that would cease to exist for me once the Games wrapped up. But there I was at the gas station, collecting limited-edition glasses and dishes that celebrated America’s glorious gold medal win in Skeet Shooting…whatever the heck that was.

A strange thing happened one morning, as I bounded into my living room, ready to plop onto the couch for my daily helping of the Games. I was shocked by the sight of my mother sobbing in front of the TV set — great gushing sobs rocked her body as she held her head in her hands. I’d only ever seen her cry this hard when a relative passed away, so I was completely stunned to see her in this state. I eventually worked up the courage to ask her what’d happened, but this only served to coax another loud wailing sound from her which made me even more uncomfortable with the situation. Finally, she was able to compose herself enough to tell me the details, though what sense I was expected to make of them, I had no idea: hostages were taken in the Olympic Village during the night and several Israeli athletes had been killed.

I gaped at Jim McKay on the screen as my mom blubbered away. He spoke in the most solemn tones I’d heard during the first ten days of this transcendent event — a somberness unbefitting of the celebration of positivity that the Olympics had come to signify for me. How did this happen, I thought. Who would do such a thing? I needed to know who did this, and so I asked my mother.

“Jim McKay reported that it was a group of gorilla terrorists who broke into the Olympic Village, wearing masks and carrying guns. Then they kidnapped the…”

Mom’s answer went into more detail, but truthfully, I stopped listening when I heard the word gorilla. Christ, I almost stopped breathing when I heard the word gorilla.

Gorillas.

Gorillas with weapons.

Gorillas with weapons had kidnapped and killed Olympic athletes.

DID YOU HEAR WHAT I SAID?! GORILLAS!

I remember thinking, this is it. It finally happened. The day I long feared finally dawned, and life on Earth would never be the same. The Planet of the Apes had come true. At the Summer Olympic Games, of all places. My head spun as I tried unsuccessfully to calculate the astronomical odds of my two obsessions colliding in mid-air like this, causing complete and utter chaos.

Deep breath.

And another.

Okay. Collect yourself, kid. It’s not going to be easy, but you’re going to have to play it extremely cool if you wanna make it to the safety of the Forbidden Zone. Now think. What are your options?

Looking back, my thoughts probably weren’t that cool and calm. The Worrywart was a lot more scattered and frenzied in that moment than the above inner monologue lets on. Two things that I can recall thinking at that moment were: I have to pack and then I have to leave. So I slowly backed away, leaving my mother to her ramblings, and ran up to my room.

My mind raced as it mentally wrote the most bizarre to-do list of all time. Packing would prove tricky, but I knew I wouldn’t need any clothes where I was headed. The apes seemed to provide all their human subjects with a state-issued loincloth and leather choker ensemble set. Not very functional or comfortable, I grant you, but I came to regard this as a plus, as not packing clothes would leave me a ton more room for weapons. As it happened, however, being eight years old is not really conducive to having a very formidable cache of weapons. Or should I say, real weapons. I had no real weapons. But, boy, did I have some kickass fake weapons!

Like many a kid who grew up during that time, I had a veritable arsenal of plastic replica handguns, swords, knives, spears, cat o’ nine tails, maces, etc. You name it, I had it. But I needed to pack them in something. This was a no-brainer. I dumped the entire contents of my school knapsack onto my bed, feeling like a true revolutionary as those now-irrelevant textbooks spilled onto the floor. As bleak as an ape-controlled future might be, not having to go to school anymore was a nice consolation prize.

So I commenced packing my vast armaments into what was hereafter to be known as my Killing Sack, and was almost ready to leave when I spotted the pièce de résistance of my artillery. Leaning against a wall in the back of my closet was the Revolutionary War musket I’d gotten as a souvenir from the colonial village restoration at Old Williamsburg in Virginia. Realizing that this was as close to actual firepower as I was likely to come by, I slung it across my chest by its strap, envisioning myself firing it while riding on horseback, just like that iconic ape I’d so admired. Of course, being able to fire only one shot at a time might limit me a bit, but I figured that if I could get those murderous apes to stand really, really close together, and then also convince them not to rush at me so quickly, thereby affording me ample time to reload, then it was going to be a bloodbath in my favor. Humans 1, Apes 0.

As I turned to leave my room, perhaps forever (spine chill), I noticed for the first time that my older brother, Tony, was lounging on the bottom bunk, taking in the carnage that I’d wrought. I thought for a second about telling him what I’d unearthed downstairs — the cataclysmic doings I’d just stumbled onto, the unraveling of everything we held dear — but then I remembered who I was. I was the Worrywart. If I had any chance to redeem myself and carve out a new identity, a blood-soaked odyssey to the Forbidden Zone would be my best opportunity. Did I want to be known as the anonymous sidekick of the hero who bravely fought his way through Ape City, making it against all odds to the safe haven?

Hell no.

So I made up my mind not to say anything. I was ready to leave my brother in the path of marauding, power-mad apes who would undoubtedly put his suave athleticism to good use as slave labor in their new world order. I loved my brother, sure, but I was going to be the Charlton Heston in this new chapter of the story, and NOT that…that…whatever the second astronaut’s name was. Him. That guy.

My brother’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “What are you doing?” he snarled, eyeballing me and then the pile of books at my feet.

I wanted to stick to my plan of not telling him anything, but I was suddenly gripped by the power of knowledge — the power of knowing something that he didn’t know, something big, something huge. This didn’t happen to me very often, so I was seized by this inexplicable urge to gloat, to celebrate this peacock moment in which I was the one telling him how things were and how they were going to be. Not to make too much of how seismic a shift this was in the natural order of things in my world, but I thought right then and there that this moment could very nearly make up for losing our planet to the apes.

“Didn’t you hear?” I asked, baiting him, hoping to draw this victory lap out as long as possible.

“Hear what?” The skeptical smirk on his face practically screamed, If you heard it and I didn’t, then it can’t be worth hearing.

“I can’t believe you didn’t hear it! The Olympics. It happened at the Olympics.”

What happened at the Olympics?” he fired back, having had more than enough of this charade. “Spit it out already! What happened?!”

“Planet of the Apes.”

He sat up, confused. “What?”

“Planet of the Apes happened,” I said, trying but failing miserably to look menacing, “Planet of the Apes happened at the Olympics, Tony. I still can’t believe you haven’t heard!” Having the upper hand for the very first time was absolutely dizzying.

“Shut up! That didn’t happen. What’s wrong with you? Why do you make up stuff like that?”

“Oh, yes. It did happen,” I insisted.

And then I dropped the hammer on him.

“Ask Mom.”

“All right, I will! Let’s go!” he commanded, confident that his favorite arbiter would side with him again. My mom settled hundreds of our disputes, large and small, on a daily basis. Tony’s record in these contests was Muhammad Ali-like.

If I had the foresight, not to mention the physical capacity, to have grown a handlebar moustache at that moment, I would most certainly have been twirling it with dastardly glee as we stomped down the steps to have my mom weigh in on our great brotherly debate. I made sure to descend the stairs in front of Tony so as to set up what would be a most glorious reveal. It worked like a charm. When we could finally see my mother, still sobbing in front of the TV like a biblical weeping widow, my brother’s face turned a ghostly white. He wobbled like Goliath right before David dealt him death’s blow. But this wasn’t enough for me. I needed the full-on humiliation, with the oh-so-obvious ‘70s cop show exposition.

“See!” I gloated. “Told ya! You didn’t believe me, right? Planet of the Apes!”

The room got quieter all of a sudden, and I knew why in an instant: my mother stopped crying. On any other day, this would have been a great thing, but not today. As she turned to face me, wiping her tears, I could feel a sick sensation in my stomach.

“Honey, what did you say?”

I looked at her like a director wordlessly chastising an actress who’d fallen off script. Was she getting cold feet now, of all times? This was the gotcha moment! How could she falter here? I tried to urge her back on book.

“Mom, Tony doesn’t believe me,” I said, in what I hoped didn’t sound too desperate a tone, “about the Planet of the Apes thing you told me before. Tell him it’s true. Tell him!”

She looked quizzically at me and I could sense that the jig would soon be up.

“I’m sorry, Charles, but I’m confused. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gulp.

“C’mon, Mom,” I pleaded now. “Tell Tony about the apes that shot those people at the Olympics. The gorilla terrorists you told me about…”

I saw the light go on in her head at the exact same moment that I noticed the color returning to Tony’s face and I knew something had gone horribly and irreversibly wrong.

“Oh, Charles, I’m sorry, I didn’t—I should’ve explained that to you. When they say gorilla terrorist, it’s spelled differently than the gorilla you see at the zoo. It’s g-u-e-r-i-l-l-a. Guerilla.”

Had I been undone by a homophone? Yes, I had.

Mom went on to explain that this word guerilla meant a kind of fighting style, or a type of warrior who fights clandestinely in places like the jungle. “Thanks, Mom,” I imagined myself saying to her, sarcastically. “Maybe next time, you might want to tell me this very significant difference before I prepare for the end of the world!”

She gave me a big squeezy hug to try to take the sting out of my embarrassment, but it hardly did the trick. I forgave her linguistic faux pas, that is, until she started to chuckle while repeating her misinterpreted gorilla terrorist line, each time her amusement growing louder and more giddy. This wasn’t lost on Tony either, who jumped in on the mirth, laughing a little harder each time they pondered how panicky I had become over something so silly.

“We should call your father at work,” she announced with a giggle. “He’ll love this story!”

While my mom and Tony took turns relating my blunder to my dad, I realized that I was still wearing my weapons-stuffed school bag (yes, much like Cinderella’s pumpkin, my Killing Sack had reverted back). It would be the ultimate insult to injury if they noticed this. Could I slink away without them noticing?

When their wheezy laughter turned to tears of hysteria, I made my move, only to be busted by my brother.

“Mom! Look!” sang Tony’s giddy voice. “Look at the Worrywart’s bag! He’s ready to kill gorillas!”

As I hung my head to their peals of screaming laughter, I thought, better to have had the courage to go it alone against a bloodthirsty race of killer monkeys than to have simply waited for our ape overlords to lobotomize us, right? I’m still trying to believe this rationalization today, especially any time someone asks me to tell my Planet of the Apes story. And they ask me to tell it a lot.

Last year, I went with my thirteen-year-old son to see the remake of the first Apes film, and we enjoyed it immensely. It was beautiful to close this loop by sharing the legacy of such a memorable moment from my childhood with my son, who seemed much better equipped than I’d been to deal with the questions of ape fact vs. ape fiction. When he expressed how real the apes looked, I told him my story. He laughed, but after I’d finished, he looked a little unsettled.

“But, Dad, seriously,” he asked, a hint of uncertainty in his voice, “none of that could ever really happen, right?”

I looked my son squarely in the eye and said, “Hey, y’never know, Worrywart.”

THE END.

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Altared States

altar_boy_fredPeople are often surprised to discover that I went through twelve years of Catholic school, but it’s true. The collective trauma of those twelve years is most likely the leading cause of my lapsed Christian status today. But there was a time when I was nearer my God to thee in a very up close and personal way. I was an altar server, or as we sexist, Neanderthal pigs called it back then, an altar boy.

When our Pastor distributed a recruitment flyer in our class, the first thing I did (after sniffing the purplish page for a mimeo rush) was notice that there was a nine o’clock Mass every day of the week. I was so giddy with the possibilities this seemed to promise that I thought it might be a typo. This meant that at least one lucky altar boy would have to leave school for an entire hour to serve the mass. Miss Math or Social Studies to instead strut the walk on stage at Mass? That was a no-brainer. Add in the fact that I would appear extra-pious in the eyes of my teachers, and this really looked like a big win-win for me. I couldn’t wait to stroll out of class for the first time, my teacher gazing fondly at my halo, while those other suckers sat watching a public television show about the Metric System.

It turned out to be a decent amount of work to become an altar boy, which was an unexpected turn of events. We needed to learn, from memory, every single prayer recited during the Mass. No peeking, no pausing, no nonsense. Say the prayer from top to bottom without a hitch, or hit the holy bricks back to your nine a.m. class. If anyone in charge objected to the fact that we all sounded like auctioneers ripping our way through these very heavy, poetic verses, they never let on. I could say the Our Father like it was the eighth race at Belmont Park.

Of course, it wasn’t all work. There were perks—peeks behind the holy curtain that made a new altar boy feel special. I remember our instructor flinging Communion hosts at us when we got rowdy at Mass rehearsals in the church. We stopped, goggle-eyed, at this heresy, until he told us that it was okay because those hosts were unconsecrated. He should’ve realized this world-changing news would cause a mass rush to the altar for a host flinging free-for-all.

The feeling of being on stage was unmistakable, and a very new experience for so many of us. I was a nervous kid anyway, so the thought of walking onto the altar for the first time was terrifying, mitigated only by the thought of how jealous my classmates would be that I was in on the big production under the bright lights. Before becoming an altar boy, I hankered to ring the shiny, gold bells during the preparation of the Communion offerings. To think that I would be jangling those very bells not once, but three times per Mass! Three times! I couldn’t even stand it, a point not lost on our instructor who often had to give the throat-cutting enough! hand signal to this aspiring Quasimodo.

Once fully trained, big events loomed on the Altar Boy schedule, the sexiest of which we called the “paydays.”  Weddings and funerals involved getting some juicy cash tips, so those assignments were much sought after. The Church’s teachings would, no doubt, frown on the gleeful rejoicing we did upon receiving a twenty dollar tip at a funeral, but we weren’t hearing any of that. I can still smell the incense that the priest swung around in the censer during those events. To this day, when I smell incense, I think of money. That’s probably a reason to go to confession, right?

Less lucrative, but much more prestigious was the rare occasion when a Bishop would be present at the Mass. I got one of these plum gigs when I was assigned to serve at my older brother’s Confirmation Mass. My family loved this idea, as it would now be a true family celebration with both my brother and I in high visibility positions at the church. The Bishop was treated like a visiting Beatle, his presence even necessitating the service of two extra altar boys: one to hold his fold-up hat, and the other to hold his wooden staff. I prayed for the very light hat, but instead got the very heavy staff. I was a slightly built sixth grader at that time, probably under a hundred pounds—which is to say, only fifteen pounds heavier than that blessed staff. I had been instructed to not let it touch the ground, so I was soaked with sweat by the fifteen minute mark of a ninety minute ceremony. I felt muscle tremors in my upper body that made me long for just a simple eight o’clock Mass. No one seemed to notice when I rested the staff on the toe of my shoe at the forty-five minute mark, allowing me to tough it out the rest of the way. More confession necessary…

But all of these other occasions paled in comparison to the end-all, be-all date on the Church calendar. I’m talking about Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Being anywhere outside your house at midnight when you’re that age is exciting enough, but to stand up on the altar at that Mass, looking out and seeing everyone you know in your school and neighborhood dressed in their holiday best…that was the stuff of altar boy legend. Who didn’t want that assignment? Or, perhaps, a better question would be who didn’t get that assignment? The answer, of course, was me. I didn’t get the Midnight Mass assignment. But my older brother did.

Was I angry? Yeah, I was. Was I jealous? No doubt. How angry and jealous was I? So much so that when my parents offered me the chance to go to the Mass with them, I begged off, saying I was too tired. In truth, I was afloat in a Christmas stew of envy and bitterness. It should have been me up there. Had the Church forgotten the superhero strength and stamina that I displayed by holding the two-ton bishop’s staff for over an hour? Had they overlooked the tuneful jingle-jangle of my mellifluous brand of bell-ringing at the Offertory? Obviously, they had. Well, if that was how they wanted it, then they could keep their overrated Midnight Mass for all I cared.

I’ve often wondered if my feelings that night somehow manifested themselves in the incident that took place on the altar at St. Ann’s Church on that Christmas Eve. Not even a half-hour after they’d left for the church, my parents came barreling into the house again, rushing my brother to the bathroom for his second round of hearty barfing. Second, as in, after the first round of vomiting, which had taken place…wait for it…ON THE ALTAR AT CHRISTMAS EVE MIDNIGHT MASS!  They had to stop the proceedings in order to clean up the wicked mess my brother emitted on the most sanctified place in the church building. The parish priests also had to re-consecrate the altar before the proceedings could continue. All in all, probably a thirty to forty-five minute delay. At that point, it’s safe to say that the shine was off the apple for me. I’d take a simple funeral or wedding any day.

After a few years, I garnered a certain veteran altar boy status, which brought on a jaded arrogance that was very unbecoming of a young, Catholic school-educated gentleman. I shook my head at the rawness of the new recruits, scoffed at their misremembered prayers, and reveled in the nervousness they betrayed before their debut Masses. To me, they were just fodder, standing in the way of my coveted paydays, which piled up as I became the old hand. Someone on high may have sensed my growing greed, as a tip for the servers was withheld after one particular wedding ceremony, despite the bulging envelope I saw the Best Man pass to the priest in the sacristy.

I was irate at the snub, but really, what recourse did I have? I knew there was no form to fill out to file an official Church complaint about not making enough scratch as an altar boy. When I told my mother about the non-tip, she said that it was wrong to be chasing a buck instead of letting the Mass seep into my consciousness, helping to make me a better person. “Who becomes an altar boy to make money?” she asked me, obviously overestimating her son’s sense of religiosity. It wasn’t the reason I had first joined, but it was right up there at the top by now. I vowed to not let it happen again.

I wouldn’t have to wait long for another wedding assignment, and it was only minutes after my Mom dropped me off that the Groom and his Best Man came a-calling. As expected, they handed the priest their bountiful envelope full of cash, which prompted this infamous sentence from my inappropriate mouth:

“Hey, maybe THIS TIME, we’ll actually get the tip!”

I had provoked a Man of God, and I was to feel his full, Biblical wrath the very second the groomsmen left the sacristy. “You!” the priest spat through gritted teeth. “Get out! GET OUT! NOW!

I was thunderstruck, and not in the good way that they often talked about at church. I didn’t know what to do exactly, but I scurried out of there because it looked like he wanted to hit me and things were already feeling scandalous enough. My mother, who had only dropped me off a scant few minutes before, was still outside talking to a friend from the neighborhood. She was shocked to see me, but not as shocked as I must have looked at that moment.

“What happened?” she asked. “Why aren’t you inside getting ready?”

“I got FIRED!” I blurted out as tears began to gush out of my eyes.

Technically speaking, fired is probably not the word Jesus or the Church would use in this case, but it seemed perfectly apropos right then and there. At about the same time that I had started crying, my mother started laughing at my unfortunate verb choice. I recounted the whole episode as she drove me home, and when my villainy was finally revealed, she shook her head and then gave me a look that said, you know better than that. Again with the overestimating…

I’m not in church so often these days, but when I am, my eyes are always glued on the altar servers. It seems things have changed since my time as Jesus’ roadie.  I’ve seen sneakers poking out from under many altar servers’ garments. Sneakers?! We wore black dress shoes only, so you can imagine my shock the first time I saw a kid wearing Jordans at Easter Mass. And as I’ve said, girls now don the cassock, but they have so little to do now.  The ringing of the bells has, sadly, been purged from the Mass, and I feel a bit let down every time the priest holds the Eucharist up in silence.  I know the world moves forward, but I still recall the days when altar boys used to wield that sharp-edged metal dish near every Communion receiver’s throat, lest they spill the host.  Many times, a wiseguy sibling or school friend would turn up on the line, trying to coax a prohibited giggle by making a funny face at me. They didn’t think it so funny when they got the business end of that dish right in their Adam’s apple. Now, that’s power.

And probably another reason to go to confession.

Stay At Home, Dad.

Stay At Home, Dad!

Last week, I taught my son Antonio how to shave. He’s 15 years old now and sporting that little peach fuzz, caterpillar ‘stache that you can only be proud of when you’re that age. But, alas, as a member of his school’s JROTC program, he’s angling for some personal hygiene inspection points by breaking out the razor for his inaugural shave.

Wow. Shaving. Where did the years go? Has it really been that long since we took him home from the hospital? Yesterday, he’s chewing on his toes in a highchair and today, he’s shaving?!? How can that much time have elapsed since I took on the greatest challenge of my life? I’m talking, of course, about my Stay-At-Home Dad Period…

My wife, Carol, and I got the news that we were expecting in December 1996. It was soon after that when she first broached the subject of our possible role reversal, and it looked to me as if she expected a quick and emphatic “NO!” She nervously beat around the bush for a while, trying to set up the most compelling narrative possible in the hopes of convincing me to stay at home with my son while she went to work full-time. I had to stop her in her tracks, though. A look of defeat spread across her once-hopeful face as she braced for my rejection. That is, until she heard, instead, this fateful sentence from her dearly beloved:

“Stay at home? With the baby? At home, right? Meaning, at home and not at a job??!? I’LL DO IT!!! I will SO do it!!!”

She looked more than taken aback by my instant embracing of this idea, and she wrapped me up in a tight hug that said ‘I love you for understanding and letting me do this!’ And I was truly happy for her. Carol was the brightest woman I’d ever met, so to watch her toil for so many years at a long string of crappy temp positions that represented only a paycheck to us was heartbreaking. She was so qualified, but like many recent college graduates, she just couldn’t find a job that challenged her in the least. That changed, though, when she interviewed at a videogame company in Long Island in 1992.

As an origin story, her tale challenges the Apple Garage Myth for moxie. Interviewing for a lowly administrative position at first, she took a tour of the facility with the interviewer after the initial sit-down, and eventually ended up destroying him in a popular arcade fighting game made by the company. Thinking her chances were now shot, having over-competed her way out of the job, she was dumbstruck to find out that they now wanted her to supervise the company’s brand new Testing Department. At a videogame company. Did you hear what I said?? She would be playing videogames, all day, for a living!! What kind of job was that??? Who was I to stand in the way of that kind of nirvana?

So with the positive pregnancy test still in hand in late 1996, Carol must have been ruing her woeful timing just a little bit. She had climbed the mountain after a near-lifetime in the valley, only to be toppled by… a beautiful life-changing event like having a baby. Would her husband understand her need to follow through on this journey, to prove to herself that she was destined for and finally rewarded with a more satisfying work experience than just menial, secretarial tasks?

Oh yeah, her husband was cool with it. In fact, I was positively ecstatic about the whole turn of events. Just the thought of staying at home, Monday to Friday, while other people rushed off to work was enough to seal the deal for me. Who hasn’t dreamed of that very situation? I had. Often. The only difference was there would be a baby in the frame with me as well. No biggie, I thought.

I pictured myself sprawled out shirtless on the couch, eating potato chips off my bare chest, rocking the baby’s cradle with my foot as I watched NFL Films reruns from 9 am to 5 pm. In this scenario, the baby sleeps for probably 6 to 7 hours, waking only to smile and coo at me while I spoon-feed him his Gerber baby food, not leaving a single spot on his ‘Who Farted?’ bib. When Wifey arrived home with the bacon, I would happily fry it up in a pan, sated as I was by my blissful day of blazing new paths in the Dad Domain.

Ahhh, the dreams of a parenting rookie. They make me laugh now, and I mean a spit-your-drink-across-the-cafeteria laugh, not a grizzled-old-veteran chortle.

Another gem of mine, to cement the notion of how absolutely clueless I was in regard to the bee’s nest I was about to climb into: the first night with the baby, I asked my mother-in-law if I should set the alarm clock. When she asked, “What for?” I looked at her in disbelief before blurting out, “So I’ll know what time to feed him!” My mother-in-law is a stoic type, but she erupted with laughter after I’d finished with that corker of parental ignorance. “Oh, you’ll know when he wants to eat. Believe me, you’ll know.” She left the room laughing, and I still didn’t know.

Anyway, back to the Before-Baby Bliss. It was with visions of laborless freedom that I approached my new gig as SAHD. That’s what parenting websites and other Stay-At-Home Dads called us back then. That acronym didn’t catch on in a big way, did it? That’s probably for the best, as I came to discover that we SAHDs were not looked upon very fondly by the other parents at the local playgrounds, parks, and other child-friendly haunts that I frequented. And when I say ‘other parents,’ I mean mothers.

The mothers I encountered were pretty sure that something as biologically imperative as motherhood shouldn’t be left to someone without ovaries. Upon entering the playground, I was eyed with suspicion by packs of know-it-all moms. God forbid I tried to add to a discussion on parenting issues. The hairy eyeball was in copious supply on those days where I bravely offered any pearls of my very limited parental wisdom within earshot of the members of this Mommy Mafia. This freeze-out eventually convinced me to keep to myself at the park more often than not, causing me to miss a ton of virtual think-tank conversations on various childrearing topics, all beginning with the line, “Well, you know what Oprah says…”

The early going was fraught with a lot of rejection, much more rejection than I’d ever encountered in any other pursuit in my life. The ways that you could be wrong while caring for a new baby were manifold, and I sought out every one of those ways like a dying man crossing items off his bucket list.

“Bottle? You want a bottle??”

Bottle smacked to the floor.

“Wrong. Okay, no bottle. You need some Cheerios? Want some O’s? You love—”

Cheerios everywhere, thanks to a pudgy right hook to the cloyingly bright orange Cheerio container.

“Wrong. Wow, it’s not even 8:10 in the morning, my eyes are still half-closed, and I’m failing to keep a two-month-old happy at a land speed record pace. I should call my Mom. She’ll know what to do.”

I pondered getting a Batphone-type connection to my mother’s phone number—you know, the kind where Commissioner Gordon picks up the red phone and instantly reaches the Caped Crusader. Who had time to punch in seven numbers, or even one speed-dial key, with a shirt full of baby puke and a mind full of baby-induced mush? I needed advice, and I needed it now, dammit! My mom almost always answered on the first ring, and never betrayed any kind of ‘What does he want NOW?’ feelings during our many therapy sessions phone calls. She was an oracle, a guru, my Yoda. Sometimes I called just to say thanks, to tell her that I had just finished cleaning up a mess so gross, so putridly inhuman, that I had to call and thank her because, more than likely, she had done the same for me when I was making those gross messes. I’d have built her a shrine…if I’d had a minute.

Underestimating the time crunch that parenting presented was a critical error on my part early on in the game. Veteran parents counseled me (very wisely, it would turn out, but it was utterly lost on me) to ‘sleep when they sleep, you’ll be much fresher for it when you both wake up.’ Huh? Nap? In the middle of the day? What was I, a baby???

Besides, if I did that, I might miss The Jerry Springer Show, and that was not happening. Jerry and his inbred guests, not to mention the slavering audience members, would become some of my closest companions during my son’s late morning or early afternoon naptimes. I would vegetate on the couch, getting intimately involved with America’s hillbillies, a demographic that I had little interaction with during my childless heyday. I was obviously missing out on a lot of schadenfreude-cum-entertainment, and I ate it up. Prone as I was on the couch, I also ate up my share of junk food, although not off my bare chest, as previously fantasized about in my early, pre-SAHD reveries. Jerry vs. Napping? A blowout win for Jerry. Sorry, 2,000 years of civilization and human evolution. One giant step backward for mankind, thanks to me.

But after a few trying months of stumbling through the day-to-day caring for my son, a funny thing happened: I got better at it. I don’t know when, how, or why, but I just know it happened. Diaper disasters were anticipated. Bottles were ready when wailed for. Tantrums were quickly nullified by pressing the right button. It got to the point where I felt like I was one step ahead of everything, like the way athletes say the game slows down for them in crunch time. Things fell into a rhythm and it made the whole experience much easier to handle, and the rewards became as euphoric as the rejections had been soul-crushing. It was still the hardest job I’d ever had, but I no longer felt like I was on probation and one more written warning away from being let go.

When we were expecting our second son, Thomas, in 2001, Carol didn’t have to ask twice if she could stay home this time. As great a ride as it had been, I knew that a 9-to-5 day job would be many times easier than what I had just been through, and so we switched roles yet again. It was bittersweet, but I knew that Carol would get just as much joy out of the experience as I had. Now it would become my lot to be met by the miniature cheering section when I came through the front door at the end of the day, and that was its own separate but equal slice of heaven. Having done both sides of the Dad role, I would urge any young father to leap at the chance to stay at home, if only to get more of an appreciation for how hard a job raising kids on a day-to-day basis really is.

And so it was with a lump in my throat that I schooled my now-15-year-old Antonio in the mysteries of the clean-shaven face. It’s a long way from swabbing his butt with Desitin all those years ago, but it’s a beautiful journey that continues with each passing day. My early worries about him have been mostly assuaged as I’ve watched him evolve into quite a responsible young man. I remember his pediatrician counseling me during the toughest part of potty-training, saying “Don’t worry. He won’t walk down the aisle at his wedding wearing a diaper.” Good call, Doc.

And he won’t have 5 o’clock shadow at the altar, either, if I can help it.

Do You Hear What I Hear? A Christmas Tale (of the Tape)

Cassette_XMAS SONGS

I received a portable tape recorder from my parents as a 12th birthday gift, and it was an absolute game-changer for me.

See, up to that point, I’d only ever used the primitive tabletop recorder that my parents had owned for years, compete with its tiny hand-held microphone that plugged into the side of the bulky unit. As clunky as that dinosaur was, the thrill of hearing your own voice played back for the first time through that cheap, tinny speaker was close to magical, especially for anyone who can remember a time before smartphones and iPods.

My siblings and I would usually record everyday conversations, songs or just general goofiness, but most of the time we were limited to doing so at the dining room table, as we needed to be near an electrical outlet for the power. Batteries were an option, of course, but my parents weren’t going to allow us to burn through boxes of pricy ‘D’ cells so we could save our crappy rendition of the Brady Bunch theme song for posterity.

To be liberated from the old recorder’s tabletop tyranny was exhilarating. The portable unit’s very portability was by far its sexiest feature, and even though I still struggled to have anything remotely interesting enough to record, that didn’t stop me from wearing out the Record button over those first few months. I carried it everywhere I went, clutching it tightly, cub reporter-style, or swinging it by its flimsy plastic strap, which may still be the nerdiest tech accessory I’ve ever seen.

To say that my early recordings were eclectic is a gross understatement. I recorded everything. Nay, anything; I recorded anything. I taped TV reruns by sitting in of front of the television speaker with the recorder pressed right up against it. I taped spats between squabbling neighbors. I captured cats purring, dogs barking, doorbells ringing, cars revving. By far, though, the weirdest thing I recorded was the sloshy sounds my belly made after I’d guzzled a large glass of Coke. Playing one of those early cassettes front-to-back was as avant-grade as experimental sound could get, even for the 1970s. I’d like to think I was ahead of my time, but I think my parents were starting to worry that their gift to me was warping my young impressionable mind. That tends to happen when you spy your son with a tape recorder jammed up against his stomach at the dinner table.

And so it was that my parents came up with a plan to curb my wayward audio fetish. They were sensible adults, and, as such, they had come up with the very sensible idea to give me an honest-to-goodness recording job. They must have thought the machine’s utility would blow me away, once I used it for their Establishment purposes. It’s clear to me now why their plan failed: they couldn’t have known that their son was the Bertolt Brecht of the portable tape recorder scene! I was Kerouac with a built-in condenser mic! I couldn’t be tamed by a couple of squares like them. Even if the job involved Christmas Carols…

Yup. The job involved Christmas Carols.

Christmas Eve was, for as long as I could remember, the night that my mother’s side of the family came to our house to celebrate the holiday with us, every single year. They were an extremely musical clan, and they used to ring in Christmas at the stroke of midnight by singing a capella versions of carols starting at 11:45pm on the 24th. When midnight came, the youngest child in attendance would dramatically place the miniature figurine of the Baby Jesus into the Nativity scene. Beautiful, right? Enter my parents and their plan…

“Charles,” my Mom began, “we think it would be a nice idea if you could put some Christmas songs on your tape recorder for everybody to sing along with on Christmas Eve. What do you think? Wouldn’t Grandma love that?”

Hello? A chance for me to stand in the spotlight with my tape recorder held high (one-handed at that! Portable!) on the biggest holiday of the year?!? Yeah, I definitely wanted some of that glory, for sure. But with cassette tapes at a premium, I wondered what treasured piece of my collection would have to bite the dust to make way for “Silent Night” and the like. I wasn’t ready to erase any “Odd Couple” or “Honeymooners” episodes just yet; my arm had gone numb getting those half-hour shows on tape, and besides, I had to stifle way too many laughs to get clean recordings. Those were keepers, there was no way I was wiping those out, even for Grandma.

As the 25th closed in, it looked like a toss-up between some episodes of “The Gong Show” or the moody, atmospheric aural masterpieces culled from my digestive and intestinal canals. It was a tough choice, but eventually I decided that “Hey, it’s not like they’re gonna cancel ‘The Gong Show’ any time soon, right? I’ll get some new tapes after Christmas and beef the collection back up.” Sorry, Chuck Barris.

So I recorded 8 Christmas classics over Side 2 of my favorite “Gong Show” tape. I mastered that side like I was George Martin putting the finishing touches on a Beatles opus. No extraneous noise. No volume dips. Clean fades in and out. Nothing but pure sonic Christmasness. Perfect. Cue the spotlight, here came my big moment.

My relatives arrived with the usual Christmas Eve chaos at around 9 pm, and I could feel the very first flop sweat of my life trickling down my spine as I rewound the tape again and again to rehearse my cues for the “show,” as I had eventually come to call it. My 2 brothers laughed at me and warned me not to screw it up, but I knew they were just jealous that I was the one who had been chosen for this most important of positions on the grandest night of the whole year. In a few hours, I would have the room in the palm of my hand. I could hardly wait.

Many theories have been posited over the years to explain how the proceedings went so horribly wrong, but myself, I suspect sibling chicanery as the culprit. I envision somebody thinking it would be funny to flip the cassette over in the player while I was on a bathroom break to mop my sweaty brow before getting my ‘Roll Tape’ cue. However it went down, down is surely where it went.

As the room lights were lowered and candles were then lit, my mother proudly gave me the thumbs up to start us down the road to “Christmas Sing-Along, Mach 2: Like No Other Christmas Caroling You’ve Ever Heard Before.” She had printed out and distributed all the lyrics to the carols so that it would be an absolutely symphonic treat for the ears when music and voice became one in this most festive air. I pressed Play.

To my horror, what I heard next WAS NOT  the first plaintive strains of Perry Como’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” as painstakingly and very responsibly planned. No, instead it was the manic Duke Ellington riff that they played on the now-forever-accursed “Gong Show” to indicate that it was time for Gene! Gene! The DANCING MACHINE! to make his way out to the middle of the floor and do his boogie best.

Oh no. No. Just a big heaping bowl of No.

Needless to say, the room was split, quite unevenly, between hysterical guffawing from a very few areas, and apoplectic sputtering in most others. The only faces I was interested in seeing at that moment were those of my parents, if only to gauge how long the imminent grounding would last. Where was Dad? There he was. Uh-oh. The veins in my father’s head and neck had popped out so far that I thought they might knock his glasses off his face. He was a tightly-wound, Type-A teeth-gritter on his best day, but this… this, on Christmas Eve, of all nights… with the Baby Jesus waiting for his closeup… with a near-perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas Tableau now gone hopelessly awry… and my mother’s family almost certain to lay this at my father’s feet… No. As it happened, I lip-read for the very first time that fateful night, and it was not a pleasant read. What graced my father’s lips was what the newspapers called an “expletive deleted.” I finally understood that phrase, and why those expletives so sorely required deleting.

My mom, on the other hand, looked more than mad; she looked disappointed, which is so much worse. Mad blew over after a while, it was too stressful to try and keep that up for too long. But disappointed? Mothers can do that standing on their slowly-shaken heads for weeks on end. She tried to lighten the mood by making light of my gaffe as I frantically tried to flip the tape over to the correct side and get it to play some Christmas tunes, pronto. My sweaty hands fumbled the tape several times before righting it in its proper place and rolling the never-sweeter sounds of the late, great Perry Como. I will never be as happy to hear his voice ever again as I was on that night.

The singalong gathered a sad little head of steam once it finally got underway, but it never approached the euphoric levels that my mom had originally dreamed of. When we were done, my brothers clapped me on the back and congratulated me for what they thought was a most hilarious and memorable prank. My irate father also believed that I had done the ol’ switcheroo on purpose, in order to garner some cheap laughs from the big crowd.

Only my mother had anything resembling sympathy for my boneheaded move, and after all these years, I think I have finally figured out the reason why. At the very least, the Gong Show music was upbeat, happy, tuneful. She probably imagined what nether depths the room would have descended into had I instead mistakenly rolled the disgusting sounds of my stomach’s roiling digestive juices. How festive might that have left a crowd awaiting the Baby Jesus’ curtain call in the manger?

Thanks, Mom, for seeing how much worse it could really have been. Merry Christmas.

It’s OK, He Doesn’t Bite…

dog on leash

My family had pets growing up, we had all kinds. Dogs, cats, gerbils, hamsters, fish, guinea pigs… Some were held closer to our familial heart than others (sorry, gerbils, that’s not you), and like so many American families, it was dogs who occupied the #1 spot in the Pet Popularity Poll. Cats were a distant second, but if that fact bothered them at all, you would never know it from their demeanor. Even at a young age, I saw through the phony baloney of a dog’s talent for sucking up to its owner. All that drooling and humping and barking. OK, we get it, Rex. You like us. Great.

But cats? You have to love that ‘blow-it-out-your-ass’ feline attitude, the absolute ‘oh-it’s-you-again?’ indifference when you enter a room, all this as you’re busy fending off the dog’s obsequious fawning. As far as cats were concerned, if it was a soulless robot that filled the food dish and cleaned the litter box, that was just fine by them. Who needed to be stroked or cuddled? That was for those mindless, favor-currying mutts. The palpable whiff of disdain that I sensed from cats was powerful, so I gave very little thought to joining the cult of the dog as Pet Poobah. That is, until I did.

Of course, caving into that impulse would come back to haunt me later in life, so much so that I have even gotten to the point where I can honestly say that…

No, I can’t. I can’t say it. I don’t quite know how to put this without sounding like a serial killer… or a Nazi… or worst of all, an NFL quarterback. Ahhh, screw it, here it is: I don’t love dogs. Boom.

If that sounds like a hedge, it’s because it is. I got tired of the reaction to the statement “I hate dogs,” which often elicited horrified gasps of shock from people. I may as well have said I hate children or that I ATE children, even. I found myself on the defensive so often with the Hate position that my heels were rounded permanently after a while. I knew in my heart that somewhere, in a back alley on a dark side street, the entire membership of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Cats meeting was having a good hearty laugh at my expense. Couldn’t stick your neck out with us cats, eh?, they mocked. Had to go with the populars, right?, they taunted. And they were right. They were.

I hear the murmuring bubbling up through my keyboard, so let’s tackle straight away the question you’re all asking: how is it that I came to hate dogs? Good question. But it has a good answer, too. Nay, that’s not strong enough; it has a GREAT answer, which is that dog OWNERS sucked worse than dogs did.

In the same way that bullets aren’t bad until they meet up with a gun and its owner, so it goes with pooches. And that’s precisely the situation I found myself in some years back. The people who lived next door to me at that time seemed absolutely hellbent on putting together a Hall of Fame roster of annoying dogs, a real Dream Team this was. Listen to this lineup: a Doberman, a yippy little lapdog, and a mutt, just for good measure. These bitches ticked every box of neighbor nightmares imaginable: they barked too loud, too long, and too early. They stank up the yard constantly and scared my young kids every time we tried to play in the yard.

The Doberman was especially scary to me, thanks to a crappy old TV-movie I saw when I was 8 years old called “The Doberman Gang,” about dogs that robbed banks. Apparently, I must have thought the film was a documentary because I never shook this wariness of that breed, even into adulthood. The early morning barking, though, would eventually become the first straw, the last straw, and the 800 straws in-between. When I confronted my neighbors after one of the many unscheduled 4:30 am wakeup encounters, they couldn’t fathom why I was upset. “He only barked once,” said the defensive owner. “That’s all it takes, though,” I replied, as the owner brazenly stroked the guilty barker’s head right in front of me. I think I saw the dog smile at me. He also may have mouthed a swear word at me, but I can’t be sure. (I’m totally sure he did).

Welcome to the World of Amazing But True Dog Owner Logic. It’s the same thing I hear when I’m in a NYC park and I see a dog off the leash, marauding his way around wherever he wants to go, and often frightening many people along the way. When I remind the owners that it’s against the law to have an unleashed dog in the park, they look like they might spit on me. “He doesn’t bite, he’s very friendly. What’s YOUR problem?” is the typical riposte I hear.

He doesn’t bite? Oh. Sorry, I didn’t know that. That probably means he’ll NEVER bite, right? Wrong. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounds a lot like when a guy shoots up his office and then all his neighbors say, “Cain’t believe it, he was a quiet guy, real friendly, he never hurt a soul.”

The moral: Dogs never bite… right up until the moment that they do. I’d rather not be their first victim. But dog owners don’t wanna know. You’re just the old man buzzkill that hates dogs, so piss off. I know it’s not all dog owners, but it’s a lot. All I’m asking for is a little inter-species agreement: stop barking so early and we’re good. (Cue the hate mail. Commencing Hate Mail Sequence).

PS – I now love my mother’s dog, Bailey. And also my friend Susan’s dog, Floppy.

One Dog At A Time.

The 3 (with apologies to the late Donald Kaufman)

The 3 TITLE PAGE

The great Benjamin Franklin, in all his bald-yet-ponytailed glory, reminded us once upon a time that there was nothing as certain as birth, death and taxes. Well, based on that quip, I think it’s a safe assumption that this guy never had a social networking account. Otherwise, he’d know about the other absolute bankable lead-pipe lock of our time: that one Facebook Friend that everyone has who revels in posting the latest obituaries of the famous and not-so-famous.

Nothing gets by these Obituarians, as I like to call them. They are diligent and dogged in their pursuit of the scoop, so that you’ll be the first to know that the back-up bass player for Iron Butterfly has met his Maker. For no discernible reason, they’ve taken it upon themselves to be the Watchers, scanning the web for the last write-up of that marginal 50s sitcom actor or the long-forgotten utility infielder, and then slapping it up on their Wall for all to see. If your Obituarian has a literary bent, he might even tap out his own little maudlin tribute to the dearly departed.

But no matter who your Obituarian is, it is the accompanying Comments section that yields the secret prize of this morbid endeavor. For it is here that we encounter one of the strongest testaments to the depths of human stupidity; that’s right, I’m talking about the widely-held belief that death always seems to come in threes.

I’d love to know the genesis of this myth, if only so the culprit could be identified for posterity’s sake. I’ve heard some of the most educated people I know perpetuating the Myth of Three, so I know for sure it’s not just dummies to blame here, which was my first guess. I wondered if maybe three was as high as the grief-stricken could count, crushed as they were by the weight of their burden. Whatever the reason, it is a conundrum wrapped in a puzzle enveloped in a mystery. (You see what I did there? That’s 3 different — oh, never mind).

My heart always goes out to those poor celebs who may not be in the best of health after a second recent death is noted in the media. In this run-up to the completion of yet another troika, the typical Obituarian can smell blood. At this point, any cold body will do. Were you an extra on “Gilligan’s Island”? Boom! You’re the 3. An ex-member of the entourage of a B-list songstress? Trifecta, baby. The Libertarian presidential nominee from 1956? Tres bien, mon ami.

Of course, simple mathematical absolutes become unimportant when trying to plumb the depths of this curious phenomenon. “Why isn’t the next person who dies the fourth?” I’ve asked a true believer on more than one occasion. “Why does the tally start up all over again at one?”

Silence. Dead, uncomprehending, stupified silence.

The bewildered stares I’ve received in response to these simple questions more than confirmed to me just how enduring this myth is. Had these people misheard or misunderstood my queries? It seemed as if I might be suggesting that the earth was flat, so bizarre were the doglike head tiltings that I witnessed. It was very rare that I got a verbal response, but on the off chance when I did, it usually went something like, “Well, that’s just how it happens… ya know… in threes.” Like it was an indisputable fact of life, like Franklin’s triplets.

Eventually, it struck me that the power of small-talk was the clandestine culprit here. So desperate are people at times to fill an uncomfortable conversational void that it is entirely possible for something as foolish and baseless as this trope to get a foothold in reality. The amount of look-away it takes for such a large amount of people to buy into The Magic Myth of 3 can only be explained by the crippling fear of an uncomfortable social moment with a stranger. It probably dates as far back as the Jesus times. “Hey, d’ya hear? St. Peter died.” “No shit? Wow. First, John the Baptist, then Jesus, now Peter.” “Weird, right? Three deaths together like that?” “Yeah, that must be a thing, I guess.”

Oh yeah. It’s DEFINITELY a thing. It’s 3.

BlogosFear…

Well, here I am.

Just what the world needs right about now: another self-absorbed blogger parsing the crushing minutiae of his life.

Sigh…

I always swore that I’d never have a blog because I thought, who really cares to know what I think about this or that? But now, I’m doing it because it will serve the same purpose as another favorite hobby of mine, which is talking out loud about the goings-on around me while I drive the 23 miles to work every day. It is just the nuttiest stream-of-consciousness ramble, usually unprintable, but I find that it helps to clear my head before starting my day on the job. Sometimes these car rambles take the form of a rock opera centering around the guy in the Lexus who cut me off, or on a truck driver who is bearing down on me because I’m not driving fast enough for him. To say that these epic songs are politically incorrect is a massive understatement, and these villains of the road could never know that their misdeeds helped me pass some time entertaining myself. Far from being my own worst critic, I have evolved into my own best audience.

Naturally, if there was a hidden camera installed in my car during any of my daily one-man spectaculars, I’m guessing that I’d probably be under observation before too long.

So that’s the purpose of this blog: to replicate that gushing flow of unending nonsense brewing in my cranium, most of it directed at strangers that I presume to know everything about, except without the singing. But please, if you wish to sing it, by all means, do so.

OK, so I actually completed this first post without incident. My next post will be about Facebook Obituarians that we all know, and that concept about death always coming in threes… get ready.

See ya soon.

CC