Friday, April 09, 2010

Gaw-lee!! It's Huell Howser!

I sent Huell Howser an email asking him if he'd like to come to a meeting of the Glendora Historical Society and give a presentation about his efforts in documenting California's history. I didn't expect a response, and I never get one from celebrities I've contacted in the past (I did speak with Ryan Seacrest on the phone once, but that was before American Idol). Much to my surprise, Huell actually called me. Below is the message I discovered on my phone later that day.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It’s Church, For God’s Sake

I don’t consider myself a very religious person, as in I don’t ask for God’s opinion as to what to do and I certainly don’t consult a man of the cloth when it comes to life’s decisions. I believe that there is a clear-cut moral difference between right and wrong, and that there are consequences for making mistakes… and redemption for the truly penitent; there is a Devil, there is a God, and you’ll certainly go to Hell if you don’t follow the rules…but Hell isn’t in the center of the Earth; it’s probably closer to Heaven. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I can’t be Buddha. I don’t believe anything written by Joseph Smith, so I can’t be Mormon. I don’t believe in supporting child molesters, the organization that defends them or the dogma of Catholicism, so I can’t be Catholic. And frankly, I have trouble believing Bible stories (how was Joseph okay with the fact that he married Mary and she suddenly became pregnant without him “knowing” her? Imaging that happening today. Genetically, how was Adam and Eve able populate the world?).


I was born Methodist, raised Presbyterian and married Catholic. Relations high up in the branches on my father’s side of the family tree are Jewish and probably Baptist equally high on my mother’s Germanic side. Throw some Muslim/Islamic into the mix somewhere (my folks just shuttered) and I’m quite a religious mutt, spanning the gamut of orthodox faiths.

On what pew do I hang my hat?

To put it bluntly, however, I don’t believe in organized religion any more, i.e. church, so that rather settles it. I’d like to; well, I think I’d like to, which makes me think that I should, and maybe I haven’t found the right one yet or I’m feeling guilty that I don’t.

Funny enough, there’s no word for people like me. Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist; agnostics don’t believe in anything they can see or touch; theists believe in a god, but not necessarily the God. Where do I fall in? Don’t get me wrong. I believe in The Church, as in a set of guidelines that will protect my everlasting soul from the torments of a fiery afterlife, but I don’t believe in the church, as a building created by a board of directors, a financial planner and a group of parishioners who need to attract an audience as a way of perpetuating a business in the shadows of the cross. It all seems sacrilegious and rather blasphemous.

Either way—any way—every time I step foot inside of a church, a wave of cynicism floods over me. Most of the people around me live a common life of general sin (of the Seven Deadly variety) and yet feel completely absolved come Sunday morning, a free respite to continue doing what you do and to not acknowledge any changes for the better. This happens because someone who went to theology school said so. These same sorts of people honk at others to hurry up as they’re leaving the church parking lot; there’s no need to follow the rules outside of church, right?

When Kara suggests that we should go to church, for the good of ourselves, for the good of the kids, for the good of the community, or for the good of whatever, I always groan a little inside and immediately hope she forgets the suggestions or we find something better to do that Sunday morning… or I’ll offer to let her sleep in, which is much more appealing than going to church. It’s subversive, sure, but at least I don’t have to sit in a building where someone tells me a Bible story and then asks me for money.

When did Jesus get so poor?

Kara said that an important part of Christmas for her was a trip to church on Christmas Eve, and as much as I relented, I didn’t put up too much of a fuss because it did sound nice. After all, she gave up on going to St. Matthew’s here in town, because we got dirty looks from one of the ushers that one time when a year-old Natalie threw a Cheerio into the main aisle…why weren’t we in the “Family Room” with the rest of the unbaptized kids his eyes glared. Well, church is for family, Kara glared back. The next time we went there, Matthew and I spent most of the service running around the church grounds, because he sits still in church about as good as a rabbit on a hot griddle. Since then, we haven’t been back, and I’m not too upset about it. I’d sooner avoid a Catholic church altogether. All the kneeling and the chanting… there’s nothing more annoying than having someone reciting the Lord’s Prayer three inches from the back of your head because you don’t feel comfortable kneeling to follow the doctrine of a religion you know nothing about, besides the fact that the Pope is as nearly a god as you can get and he’s worshiped as much as the real thing. I don’t kiss rings, and I won’t call anyone father unless he is my dad.

But it’s not all bad by comparison.

I’m sure there are a couple more Catholic churches in this town, but we haven’t yet tried them or found them, and that leaves only a couple of other possibilities, all within a half-mile of the house, which is nice. There’s the church that Matthew goes to pre-school at, which seems nice, but each time we go in there—just recently for Matthew’s debacle also known as the WWF Takedown Christmas Recital—I feel as though we’re sitting in a dark conference hall at a hotel, about to listen to a presentation on how to make more money buying and selling real estate.

Next on the list is The Big Church, Crossroads Church, the behemoth that comprises an entire city block, probably a 20-acre complex of buildings, parking lots, schools and open fields for expansion. It’s Christian, sure, but I don’t think they’re too picky with what comes through the door. As long as you have a beating heart in your chest and 10 percent to tithe in your pocket, you’ll get a slap on the back and a gracious “welcome to the flock, brother” as they pass you the shiny brass plate.

It was here, on Christmas Eve, that I had my last stand with churches, where I finally gave up on organized religion, where I lost faith in those whose job it is to save my soul. I decided that I was better off on my own, that my conscious seems to be much clearer if I’m left to my own beliefs. My soul doesn’t need saving, thank you very much, as my relationship with the Creator is on just wonderful standings.

So, we were going to church for Christmas, just like the other 90 percent of the population who chooses to get some religion twice a year—Christmas and Easter. Half the point is to enjoy the splendor of the holiday, to restore some Christ in Christmas and to understand that without Him, there’d be no Christmas. Of course, don’t get me started on the fact that Jesus was born in the Summer (Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census, and such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures in Judea often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition) and Christmas was started to combine two celebrations, the ancient pagan festivals of the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen and the Roman Saturnalia… and it wasn’t decided that Jesus was born on December 25 until 400 years after he died… and they didn’t call it Christmas until around five hundred years after that. Essentially, Christmas was a religious takeover of a pagan holiday by the Christians to further spread Christianity. Quite ingenious, really.

At any regard, it doesn’t change the fact that I own two suits (black and dark green), a dozen pre-tied ties and a sport coat, all for the prime purpose of going to church. I don’t wear the green suit for the sole reason that it fit me, perhaps, 15 years ago and I haven’t had the guts to try it on again—or I’ve had too much guts to try it on again. That leaves the black one, my marry ‘em and bury ‘em suit, an all-purpose “little black dress” for a variety of occasions mostly held inside a church. I got my last two jobs in that suit, saw many friends get married and several people greet the afterworld in that suit. It has served me well since its debut at my 10-Year Class Reunion eight years ago, and I get to wear it maybe twice a year.

Nevertheless, a full black suit is too much for church, just a shade lower than a tux, so I settled on the sport coat and a tie. Green for Christmas. If it wasn’t so cold out, I probably would have gone with just a shirt and tie, the lowest denominator for church attire, in my opinion. When I was in high school, I attended church with some regularity, for many reasons, one main one was that nice girls attended church and if you want to meet a nice girl, at church they were plentiful. One bright Sunday morning, I appeared in the living room wearing jeans and a button-up shirt, ready to visit God’s house. Needless to say, that didn’t fly with my folks, as much as I protested that everyone my age dressed this way and that I would be out of place if I were to put on a tie and a nice shirt. I don’t remember if I went to church that morning or not, but if I did, it was in a tie and a nice shirt.

Many years later, that lesson stuck with me, and today I believ, if you’re going to church, even if it is to scrub the toilets, you do so in a tie.

I had never been inside Crossroads before, but I’ve been inside lots of big churches. There were greeters passing out candy canes to the kids and everyone was wishing us a Merry Christmas (in itself a relief from the normal and all-inclusive politically correct “happy holidays”). It felt good, warm and inviting. We were going to church! Yet, that wave of welcome soon ended when we passed the coffee shop on the main patio… and the long line of people attached to it. It if I had any good feelings about church left after that, they were soundly decimated upon entering the “sanctuary room.” There wasn’t a pulpit. There was a stage. There wasn’t a choir. There was a rock band. There wasn’t a wall bristling with brass or copper pipes attached to an organ. There was a sound booth and two cameras on a riser toward the back. There weren’t pews. There were movie-style seats…each equipped with cup holders. Cup holders! Cup holders for the coffee they were selling outside. Cup holders so you could put your water bottle or Coke or baby bottle in while the service was going on.

Oh, and there wasn’t a service planned. There was a concert.

Forget finding a Bible or a Hymn book on the back of the seats. There weren’t any. Neither were there prayer cards, those little pencils, or tithe envelopes to modestly conceal your offering. They were gone. Instead, peer pressure came in the form of cash only when the shiny brass plates were Frisbee’d from aisle to aisle. Throw a $20 in there, pass it down the row and my $5 pales in comparison. Does God love me one-quarter as much as you? The church would like me to think so.

The “service” started about three or four minutes late. We got there about 15 minutes to five, enough time to find an empty row of seats in the stadium seating section, where I could get a good look at the vast room slowly filling with the masses of humanity. Walking in, I noticed lots of button-up shirts, sweaters, jeans, a few in shorts, some in sweat pants and t-shirts. The younger kids were in jeans and skater-style t-shirts, some with hats (inside). Among the people around me, I was the best dressed, which I found disappointing… and when we sat down, I took it to find anyone else wearing a tie. I was accepting ties only. If you were wearing swim trunks and flip-flops but with a tie over one of those tuxedo t-shirts, I counted you.

I saw four people wearing a tie besides me. Only four. One was in the group of people I’d call a choir but you couldn’t hear because of the band. One was the drummer in that band. One was an usher, an older man who guided people to their seats after it became crowded. And the other was just another poor slob like me with old-fashioned out-of-date ideals.

But the building holds 2,000 people. One person out of 500 felt that church on Christmas Eve, the eve of the (accepted) birth of our savior, was a good enough reason to wear a tie. To everyone else, it was just another day at the show… and that’s exactly what it was, a spectacle that probably Jesus himself would walk out on.

The first 20 minutes consisted of music, 20 solid minutes of guitars, drums, keyboards and singing similar to a hair band of the 80s, something like Stryper (a Christian rock band that gained some fame during that time). They sang “Come all Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night” and a couple other traditional Christmas carols, only sped up with a rock twist to garner the young crowd. The tie-clad drummer was wailing away behind a sound wall, while a camera crew crept around the stage to get some close-ups for the JumboTron behind them and the three other giant TV screens positioned around the room. And everyone had to stand. The lead singer asked that we all stand while they played. But why? Why did we have to stand for 20 minutes while they invaded our ears with twangy solos, hip drum fills and fitful keyboard riffs? Reverence? Reverence to what? Rock and Roll?

The people behind us sang along. Either they were the truly faithful and saved or they could read well, as the words to the song were not only splayed across the giant screen but also called out by one of the band members… “Okay, now we sing ‘Come and behold Him.’” For starters, I was bored, but also, I was a bit put off. If I wanted to hear a rock band’s rendition of “Silent Night,” I would have gone to an Aerosmith concert.

Call me old fashioned, but a choir should sing Christmas carols—as much as I don’t even like Christmas carols—or a group of people walking down the street to the annoyance of their neighbors should sing Christmas carols. What happened to tradition? What happened to ritual and custom of the King of all Holidays?

And what happened to the choir? It looked like they pulled two dozen people out of the audience and onto the stage to sing and dance.

When that finished and we were allowed to return to our seats, a couple of people were baptized in a wading pool above and to the left of the stage. I’m okay with that, because it was a full dunking instead of merely splashing some water on their forehead, but I assumed that a full-fledged baptism should come at the hands of a representative of God, specifically a pastor of some sort. Those that did the dunking were family members and that just didn’t seem official. And they could have removed the chlorine float from the pool first, but I’m just being picky.

We all applauded, and in situations like this, I rarely contribute much to general applause.

Then came the front man, the youth pastor, with his squirrely new-born daughter in his arms. I only know who it was because they flashed his picture and name on the JumboTron behind him. Like I said, there was no pulpit, so he wandered around in front of the stage with a head-set-style microphone to amuse the crowds and prepare us for the head pastor. He was the warm-up guy to the headliner, the opening act. He told a couple of stories about the church’s youth group, a few jokes to make us all seem like this was just a small gathering of friends in someone’s living room.

Then the band played again. Some song of some sort that everyone seemed to know except for me. We had to stand again, which was becoming as cumbersome and exasperating as having to kneel. At this time, I saw something that I found most irritating, something that hard-core Christians do during music that, to me, is the ultimate sign of religious idolatry and spiritual extremism. They raise their hands up, not really straight up as if they’re being robbed at gun point, but more outwardly as if Hitler was walking by: Palms facing out, arms outstretched in awestruck worship. Some had both their hands up and their head held back, swaying to the music, while others held out a hand and placed the other over their heart. In my opinion, it’s disgusting, but I watch too many World War II documentaries not to make the association, and suddenly, I’m surrounded by Nazis and Adolph himself is about to enter and give one of his riling speeches.

We’re nearly 40 minutes into this by now. I’ve heard music and some news about the church’s various services, youth members, couples retreats, etc. Finally, the pastor comes to deliver the main sermon. I’m not sure because there’s no program. There’s no list of hymns to follow the course of the evening’s events. There’s just the band and a rag-tag collection of men and women singing behind them that, like I said, is considered to be the choir but I can’t hear a word they’re singing over the drone of the lead guitar, the high-pitch of the solo and the rat-tat-tat of the drum kit, not to mention pious Paul singing his heart out behind me.

The collection plates are shuffled down each row, and as Kara dumped our $5 into the plate filled with $20s, I was wondering how much of my money went to film, the electric bill for the sound mixing board, microphone cable for the keyboardist, brooms to sweep up the Cheerios the little girl three rows in front of me was eating off of the floor, and high school expansion buildings scheduled to fill the northeast acreage.

Anyways, the pastor finally enters—frankly, I had forgotten we were in church—an older man in his mid-50s, black hair, black short cropped beard in nice slacks and a plaid shirt (no tie either). He also has a headset-style microphone on and the only thing that dwarfs his stentorian voice booming throughout the stadium is the size of his head on the JumboTron behind him. He doesn’t stride up to the pulpit with a Bible in his hand, nor his he wearing a traditional flowing robe. Instead he approaches a cafĂ©-style table, one of those waist-high round chrome tables you’d find in a coffee bar or tea house. On it sat a glass of water, similar to a stool and water I’d expect to see on stage at a comedy club.

He doesn’t talk about Christmas either. He doesn’t mention the holidays as far as I remember. At this time, it dawns on me that there are no Christmas decorations inside the main room at all. Besides the giant Christmas tree on the patio that shades the money-changers inside the temple… ahem, I mean the coffee kiosk, there is no sign of Christmas at all. What gives? Everyone was full of Merry Christmases until we got inside.

What exactly is he saying, really? Not much. He told some stories about a Christian retreat he recently went on, a story about a woman who decided that instead of trying to remove an ugly rock from her backyard, she’d polish it instead (and in doing so, she ruined her wedding ring on the rock, thinking the flakes of gold she saw on the rock were going to make her rich). The only thing that made sense was how people lose faith in prayer when they think God isn’t answering when nothing in their lives change. Instead of not answering their prayers, God actually is. He’s saying no. Other than that, his sermon lasted about 15 minutes. What came next was the commercial, and you always have to leave time for the commercials.

We prayed. He told us we were about to pray. He said we would do a regular prayer (not the Lord’s Prayer as I expected) and then we’d do the “let Jesus into your life prayer.” I’m okay with that. I’ve done it. I did it again. But, the part that bothers me is the timing. We’re a captive audience, fresh meat for the offering plates, the unusual visitors to church, so they took advantage of the situation to bring a few more into the flock. Do you like what you see? Why not join? Why not become one of us. Just pray with us and—get this—join us in this separate room for a few minutes until the end of the service. At which time we’ll pass out some literature about the church and what it offers. We’ve sold them! And this was the real message of church, a not-for-prime-time televangelism like all the ones I’ve rolled my eyes at on TV or scoffed at over the years.

And here I was a part of it.

We were free to go. The concert was over. The spectacle complete. Jesus quite shamed and embarrassed by what passes for church, I’m sure.

Of course Natalie liked it. Matthew was happy to leave, saying at the end, “Does this mean we can be loud again?” But later, Natalie remarked that they had to get ready for another show…and that was exactly what it was. A thinly veiled guise of rock music and friendly chit-chat masking a whispered religious message.

Me? I just want my five dollars back.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Michael, the Nerd

This semester I’m taking a couple of electives I really don’t need. Since there are budget cuts across the country, the college has slashed its normal schedule and dumped a bunch of classes. So, for Fall, the pickings were slim, which is why there were nearly 50 people packed into a room built for 25 on the first night of class. It’s a blueprint reading class, which I have always found fascinating, but I’ve also discovered it is the easiest class I have ever taken in my life.

Our first test was a couple of weeks ago. The instructor gave us a photocopy of the side of a house, showing all of the various framing parts, rafters, headers, etc., and we had to fill in the 36 different parts. It was easy, especially since he gave us the very same paper two weeks prior with the parts clearly labeled and the caveat that we will be tested on this very thing without changes. The test took me all of five minutes.

The thing I hate about this particular class is that it is being taken by construction workers. On the first night, we had to each stand up and tell a little bit about ourselves—which is death to me—who cares who anyone is and why they’re there? Well, the majority of the people in the class are in the construction industry, from plumbers to roofers, who have fallen victim to the hard times of the economy and are looking to either change professions within the construction industry or to better their knowledge of their current field so they can advance.

I’m the only architect, but the part I hate is that I think I’m the only one who doesn’t smoke. The classroom smells like a bar. When the instructor calls for a break, the room empties for 15 minutes save for a few souls like myself. When everyone returns, the air conditioner’s filter goes into double-time and I can feel my eyes start to sting. Kara’s complained that I smell like smoke when I come home.

At any rate, I sit there, count the instances the instructor uses the word “okay” and “you understand” thinking I could be elsewhere, just before we have to pile into group work.

One of my biggest anxieties about being with strangers is the moment someone in charge announces that we’ll be doing a lot of group work. I detest group work, and on previous times have related how it is always someone that gets screwed during the assignments. Someone always does the lion’s share of the work, and since I’m not one to hand my fate (and grade) over to a stranger, I’ll step up and take charge. I guess I wouldn’t mind it so much if the instructor created the groups, but they never do. In this case, he counted the number of people in the class (45 on the second night, 20 more than normal, he said) and told us to break up into groups of four to five people.

My stress level rose at that announcement. Acceptance is always a challenge for me. Not really an obstacle, but more of a blockade. I enjoy being accepted by others, and the moment I’m supposed to be placed in with a group of strangers of my own choosing, I have misgivings about myself. I know, it’s stupid and a little pointless, but how am I supposed to pick a group of people. I instantly picture everyone else in evenly numbered groups of four with me the odd man out.

This particular night, I sat in the second row, just to the right of the middle of the class, decidedly one column of desks over from being directly under the video projector that hangs from the ceiling. There are three reasons for this: 1) My angle is just right that nobody blocks my view of the podium where the instructors stand to lecture, and I won’t a head in front of me when a movie or PowerPoint is played—there’s nothing worse than hearing a speaker without seeing him or watching half of a movie; 2) If there’s an earthquake, I won’t be killed by a falling projector (I’m practical that way); and 3) I won’t be responsible for adjusting the volume on said projector. My other class, which meets on Tuesday nights is in this same classroom, and the instructor is admittedly not good with computers. The first movie she played (the computer is hooked up to the projector) had the volume turned up all the way, and since I was sitting right under the projector, she asked me to stand on my chair—in front of everyone like a nude model in art class—and turn it down… I’m just glad I was wearing clean pants. Plus, I was sitting behind a guy with the largest head in the western hemisphere, so I only saw around 30 percent of the screen.

Because of this, I moved over one column for the next class, making this new seat my own, and I get to class early enough that nobody else is ever sitting there. The move put me right behind a chain-smoking ex-Army sniper who roofs houses for a living and is taking this class so his boss “won’t jerk him around.” His words. Really, he’s a nice guy when he’s not talking.

Just after being tossed to the wolves and asked to form our groups, you could feel the thick pall of hesitation among everyone in the class. I mean everyone. I observed it keenly because I am very much in tune to abstract and uncomfortable social situations. Being a people watcher will help you see feelings instantly shared by groups of people.

When the instructor put the period on his sentence, nobody moved a muscle for approximately two seconds. Count that out… one… two… long seconds of silence… Then papers and books rustled and desk legs began to screech on the linoleum tiles.

Who am I supposed to group up with? After the first night of class, I came home just at the kids’ bedtime, so I went upstairs to kiss them good night. Natalie asked me how my class was (we’re kindred spirits because we’re the only ones in the family currently in school—at the time) and if I made any friends. It was cute. She asked me if I liked my teachers and if I had any homework… all things we asked her when she first started school. Well, by the third week of class, I had spoken to exactly zero people, and here I was supposed to integrate myself with three others to form some sort of club for the next 14 weeks.

Luckily, the solution was solved for me seconds after it was presented to me. The ex-sniper turned around and held his hands out to his sides in an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders that said, “You, me, why not?” I answered his silent invitation with a, “at least we won’t have to move our desks.” The guy behind us began to shuffle his desk our way, asking rhetorically, “Mind if I join?” Who were we to say no. “Sure,” the ex-sniper announced, clearly our leader.

And we got a fourth too. The fourth guy didn’t say a word. He just happened to be sitting next to me, and by that very act—contributed by no action of his—he completed a rectangle of desks, making for what could have been a nicely laid-out Bridge game.

The fourth guy—just a kid probably fresh out of high school—turned his desk perpendicular to the column and settled back down into his seat. Thin-framed glasses were perched on a long nose that jutted out from his thin face. He had jet black hair tussled on top of his head, random acne on his cheeks and a turned down mouth. He was skinny to the point of being lanky: all legs and arms with bony hands. He glanced approvingly at his three new compatriots, as the ex-sniper unrolled a multi-page house plan that took up all four of our desks. We huddled over it like we were in an action movie in these plans were our only way out. The spine of the roll faced the kid, and every time the ex-sniper lifted a page to see what was on the next one, instead of rolling against itself (which is what the plans wanted to do) he held it up in front of the kid’s face, which I thought was exceedingly rude.

At the same time, I wasn’t too surprised.

We were supposed to answer about 20 questions based on what we found in the plans, things like locations of junction boxes, the pitch of the roof over the garage and what classification of wood was needed for the floor joists. Some were difficult to find, but since the ex-sniper was a roofer by trade, he had the most experience working with plans. Of course, he seemed that he loved a good tangent too. The guy that was sitting behind me, a Hispanic kid probably around 20, just wanted to get the assignment done. He volunteered to write down the answers to the questions, because it was decided that he had the best penmanship; no, we didn’t test each other for it, we just took each other’s word that each of us wrote like a flailing chicken and he was the lesser of us all.

I don’t remember his name and there’s nothing remarkable about him to give him a nickname here, but he would read the question, the ex-sniper would profess that he knew where the answer would be and he would flip through the pages, making sure to hold them up in front of the kid’s face, per the usual. Even if we found the answer or not, the ex-sniper would drift off on a tangent about something very much unrelated to the current question… or the next question, or any of the questions for that matter.

The question would be “How many anchor bolts are used in the foundation under the kitchen?” and we’d dutifully flip to the appropriate page and the ex-sniper would pour over the drawing, searching for the answer. He looked with his hands, which is especially annoying because he had big hands (roofer, remember?) and nobody could see anything on the page but his giant hands. Then he’d find a tangent. He’d see something on the page that made him think of something completely different, like rafter braces, and then we’d need to find the page that showed us rafter braces.

Since we’re all strangers, nobody can tell him to zip it so we can count anchor bolts in the kitchen. We’ve got to find rafter braces, and when we did, the ex-sniper (and I don’t know how he could have possibly stayed quiet enough to kill anyone) would give us a little lecture on rafter braces. After all, he’s a roofer, right? I could tell the Hispanic kid was reaching the end of his nerves. He wanted to answer the questions, and when we were completely, we could leave for the night… but we couldn’t go anywhere as long as we were talking about rafter braces. He looked at me and barely rolled his eyes without being obvious, and I would announce, “What’s the question again? Oh yes, anchor bolts. What page were they on?” It would get us on track again until something else came along.

Meanwhile, the kid didn’t say a word. The whole time, he didn’t speak, didn’t offer to help with the answers and he only seemed to feign interest in the assignment at all. I didn’t give it much thought. Some people don’t care about things and I figured this kid was someone who would rather be somewhere else and is only going to college after high school because his folks are making him or it seemed like a logical progression in his life. Maybe he was an art major and his enrollment was a mistake, so he’s biding his time until admissions straightens it out. Maybe he’s not even in class at all and just came in off the streets to get warm and be in the company of strangers.

Twice as long as it should have taken, we finished the assignment, passed the paper around the group so everyone could write their name on it, turned it into the instructor and unceremoniously parted for the night. The ex-sniper and I walked to our trucks together (of course he drives a truck… ever see an ex-sniper driving a Prius?), and we absently and uninterestedly talked about guns and the Army. I may have mentioned what I did for a living too; I don’t recall.

The other two guys vanished into the darkness.

I missed the next class because of my hunting trip, but the following week—last week—it was just me and the kid. The Hispanic guy and the ex-sniper were absent, and for some reason, we reviewed the answers to the page we had done two weeks prior. So, our group was two, this kid and me.

I found out his name is Michael, and when I was a senior in high school, he was a newborn baby. It not only made me feel old but it made me wonder at how young he was. I am nearly twice his age, and yet here we were, sitting side-by-side in a temporary building in the corner of a college campus on a Monday night trying to find out the dimensions of a the foundation footing for a recycling center. We sat there for a while, and I started to ask him questions. He seemed perfectly fine sitting in silence, not talking to anyone, not having to engage a stranger such as myself. But when I walked into class that night and saw him sitting at his desk, reading a graphic novel (picture a comic book with a spine) and remembering that he hasn’t said a word in the four weeks I’ve known him, I decided to see what made this kid tick.

Of course, there was no question about it. Michael is the quintessential nerd. Not Anthony Michael Hall nerd from “The Breakfast Club” nor the Robert Carradine nerd from “Revenge of the Nerds” but somewhere in the middle. He had the glasses, the acne, the willowy physique and he even had a slight speech impediment, one similar to Christopher Mintz-Plasse who played McLovin in “SuperBad.” It was slight, some words were slurred and others stumbled upon, almost if he spoke a foreign language primarily…but there was no way this pasty white kid came from anywhere but here.

I went for the obvious, breaking the ice by asking about his graphic novels, and I feigned that I didn’t know what made them different from comic books. He seemed interested in sharing his opinions and how his friends got him interested in reading them a few months ago. When he said he had friends, part of me didn’t believe him, and I expected that next he would tell me he had a girlfriend who was a model who lived in Canada. But then I caught myself… of course he has friends, but it didn’t fit into the box I had already built for him. My quintessential nerd character has no friends, only online associates, and I kicked myself for that one.

After that, talking to him was like pulling teeth. I asked him about what happened the week I missed, and he simply said nothing, as if they all arrived to class and sat staring at the walls for three hours before going home. Nothing. The end. We started to work on the assignment, and he told me several times that he was probably wrong in his answers—which he wasn’t—and that he enjoyed working in the group but was happy to answer the questions without help.

My nerd paradigm I had been building for Michael was falling apart, and then I began to question what really makes up a nerd these days. When I was in school, I’d like to think that we didn’t have nerds at our school, but maybe my memory is selective. I’m sure we did, and I’m sure I brushed onto their fringes from time to time, if not completely falling into their ranks. I didn’t look the part, but I played the role all the same. I studied, followed the rules and got good grades. I didn’t wear fashionable clothes nor was I the captain of the football team… but I was friends with the guy who was. Also, I was friends with those in the audio-video club and I was president of the ecology club… and I was in Key Club, nerdy things all.

When I was a senior, a friend from Boy Scouts, David Phipps, was a freshman. He was a nerd, for certain. He was the quiet engineer type, always working out a problem or inquisitively discovering a solution to something. I liked David a lot (in fact, I just friend requested him on Facebook) as he was always very thoughtful and polite. Michael reminds me of the David I knew back then in a lot of ways.

I don’t know what it is, but my new project is to befriend this kid. He’s got plenty of friends, I know, so I’m merely deluding myself into thinking I’m doing him any good, but he seems like the most interesting person in class. Probably because he doesn’t like to talk to anyone, would rather read a comic book and has very little to add to a group dynamic.

As for the class? I’ll ace it, for sure, so I’m not too worried… after all, at least I know what a rafter brace is, right?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Matthew and Me In a Rut

I’m beginning to feel bad for the boy. Since Natalie started school a couple weeks back, she is gone from before he wakes up until about 4:30 every day. This is the first time Matthew has been without his sister to play with (and torment and torment some more) the entire day. Last year, it was acceptable because she was home by 12:30 and it was only a couple of hours without her. Now, when she comes home, she’s not surprisingly tired, but Matthew just wants to play with her and craves her attention. Being that he’s related to me, his way of playing is to bug her to tears until she bans him from her room in a raging fit.

As well, all day, Matthew has found in me a surrogate Natalie, as someone who he can tell jokes to, laugh with and play games with. He loves me. How do I know? He tells me all the time!

Unfortunately, some days I have to work during the day, as there are meetings to attend, phone calls to make, files to edit, emails to respond to and a host of little things that have to be done. Not all day, mind you, but there are a few times during the day that I have to be in the office for an hour or so at a stretch. This means that Matthew is up to his own devices during that time, something I know he must find dull and boring.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed the time alone. I could make my own rules; I didn’t have to share; and I never had to adjust my game for someone else’s ideals and suggestions. Matthew is not that old yet, so he still loves the interaction with other people. That’s all well and good on most days during the week when I can postpone many of my responsibilities until when Kara comes home, but on those certain days… Thursdays in particular… he sits around the house while I attend conference call meetings and take care of work things that have to be done during working hours.

He usually watches TV downstairs, which is great because there are no noises when I’m on my phone calls, but ever now and again, he’ll spread out his toys in the bonus room outside my office and play away. Some days, in fact most of last week, he would spend a couple of hours on the Internet playing games on Playhouse Disney, Noggin, PBSkids, or Nick Jr. He’s entertained for hours.

But lately, I feel like he is bored. More importantly, I feel like I’ve been neglecting him, pushing off my responsibilities as a father to him and his primary care provider during the day for my work responsibilities that I can take care of later when Kara comes home.

Granted, “neglect” is a strong word, and it isn’t as if I leave him in the closet while I go out to a bar and tie one on. It is just that sometimes he’ll spend a couple of hours by himself while I’m putting out a fire at work or handling an important meeting, and I’m feeling guilty about not spending as much time with him as I’d like.

He’s such a happy boy, too. He doesn’t ask for much, just that I get off the phone and come play a game of HoneyBee or Fishes or Don’t Break the Ice… the list goes on.

Also, we don’t normally go anywhere during the day. We have all of this time during the day, time we could be spending out somewhere, even if it is at the store or the library. Something just the two of us together could do.

Oh, but you’re saying that he won’t even remember any of this period of his life. He’s only three years old and he won’t recall the day-to-day activities… but I will. I’ll remember that I stayed up until three in the morning on Tuesday night because I had 30 files to edit, and the next day, I spent the whole morning dozing on the couch while we watched TV. That’s just an extreme example, but not an atypical one, as sometimes my work does keep me up until the small hours of the morning. I’m one for a good deal of sleep, and if I don’t get a full compliment of at least seven, I’m nearly useless the next morning.

So, where does that leave Matthew? Bored, I’m guessing. He doesn’t know what the word means or how those feelings equate to him running around the house looking for something to get into, but I can see it.

Basically, we’re in a rut. I like to stay close to home because I don’t want to miss a phone call or an email for work, and frankly, I can’t think of anywhere cool to go that doesn’t cost a fortune. We spend the day in our pajamas, me in the shorts and t-shirt I was wearing since I last showered, and we have nothing to do, nowhere to go, no friends to visit and nobody to visit us. We need a class or a sport, an activity to give us a break from the monotony.

The worst thing about all of this is that there isn’t much time left. In September, Matthew will be in pre-school three mornings a week… and after that, half days at Kindergarten all week, and then the first grade all day every day of the week! Pretty soon he’ll be in high school and college and married on his own with his own family.

Okay, after that, who started humming “Cat’s in the Cradle”? Raise your hands. I know, I know… I just packed the next 25 years of his life into the span of 50 words, but there’s a kernel of truth here. Regardless of the relevance of time, life doesn’t slow down and if I don’t take the time now to selfishly cherish the moments I have with my son, to build a foundation of loyalty and trust, who will avenge my death. No, just kidding. How will he be around me if I don’t foster this relationship at an early age? Distant and secluded?

I want him to be able to tell me anything, and he should be able to, because it is my job to make sure he follows along the correct path and does the right things for the rest of his life.

It starts now. It starts with trips to the library and to the store, or hiking or camping or maybe just kicking a ball around in the backyard… but it’s got to be something. I just need to get my lazy ass off the couch in the mornings and make it happen regardless of how few hours of sleep I got the night before.

Tomorrow, we’re going to the Splash Park, so that should be fun. I’ll take pictures to show him when he’s older and has forgotten.

The Accident


web site tracking
Sierra Trading Post