Thursday, March 13, 2014

Burning, Man

The chainsaw bayonet roared as I cut through the heavy double doors. Splintered chunks of wood fell to the floor, leaving me exposed to the enemy. A hailstorm of bullets puckered the woodwork around me.

"Can I interest you in a replacement door?" I shouted over the sound of my return fire.

“Throwing frag!” Caleb yelled, then threw a grenade into the room.

I tucked and rolled backwards to escape the blast. I could hear the panicked scrambling of our humanoid enemies as they tried to avoid being blown back to hell.

The explosion slammed against my chest armor, sending me onto my back. After a few moments the shock subsided, and I began to take stock of my limbs. My most important bits accounted for, I suddenly noticed that my shoulder was shaking.

I rolled to one side, and heard Elizabeth’s voice in the form of a hissing whisper.

 “Matty, I think someone just pounded on the front window!”

The battle for humanity came to an abrupt halt as I passed from dreams to reality. I wasn't a cog in the gears of war after all, but rather a middle-aged husband and father dreaming my way through the night.

Oh well.

Wait, someone pounding on the front window? An intruder? A home invader? The dreams of war returned. Awake and alert, I jumped from the bed and stood beside it, listening for sounds of infiltration.


I looked through the dark towards my grandfather's shotgun, and my mind traveled back to a dark night and an even darker house that I had cleared room-by-room for a frightened neighbor who had come home to an open front door. Turning tight corners quickly and getting the jump on any potential intruders had proved to be a difficult task with the long barrel.

I really need to get a pistol.

A minute later, fully dressed but without my unwieldy shotgun, I made my way quietly to the front door. Peering out through the smoky glass, I could tell that something wasn't right; a dark and solid looking mass stood just outside the door, and beyond it moved a large blur of white. I turned the lock, grabbed the doorknob, and yanked the door open, ready to fight…

A big grey garbage can. It stood on our front porch, right up against the doorstep. Harmless. I looked beyond it at the moving blur of white.

A butt-load of toilet paper hung down from every tree in our yard.

Elizabeth spent a moment laughing at the scene before returning to bed. I however, knew that sleep was not an option. I grabbed a BB gun, donned my coat, and stepped outside to watch and wait behind a bush for the culprits to return. After several minutes of patience and no sign of the enemy, I decided to start the cleanup.

The first order of business was to gather the collection of garbage cans that our late night guests had placed around the yard. They must have stolen them from other houses, because ours was still in place at the side of the garage. I lined them up at the side of the road, making them easy to spot by their owners should they come looking for them in the morning.

The easy work completed, I looked up into the trees and chuckled. Our front yard boasted more white than a Klan rally. As much as I wanted to shoot the perpetrators in the butt with that BB gun, I had to smile at their handiwork and the memories of my own prankster days that it evoked.

The sunny day had melted most of the snow, and the exposed grass crunched beneath my feet as I gathered the easy to reach toilet paper from bushes and lower branches. I imagined myself to be a farmer harvesting a bright white crop that only grows by starlight. After gathering the lower hanging fruit into a pile on the lawn, I stopped and surveyed the long strands of white still hanging from the uppermost branches of every tree in my front yard, wondering how I was going to get them down. I had already tried pulling gently on a few of them, but each time the paper had snagged in the tangle of branches above.

Frustrated but not defeated, I stared up into the night sky and brainstormed. It didn't take long before thoughts of ladders, long sticks, and tree climbing gave way to sudden inspiration.

I snuck inside the house and made my way to our bedroom. Elizabeth hardly stirred as I tugged at the drawer of my nightstand, the drawer that always sticks. I managed to open it just enough to reach a hand inside and feel through the darkness until my fingers closed around my beloved Zippo. The chrome felt smooth, cold and welcome against my skin.

I had bought the lighter on a whim a few years ago, simply because I had always wanted one. Flicking it open and shut had become a nervous habit, born out of grief and a need to keep my anxious hands busy. The high-pitched metallic ”ping” of the lid flicking open had served to break up the lonely and heavy silences that often descended upon me in those days.  I carried it around with me for months, until my restlessness had calmed to the point that I no longer felt it necessary to keep in my back pocket.

Back in the front yard, I stood beneath the tallest tree, flicked open the Zippo with a satisfying ping, and lit it up. The familiar smell of butane filled my nose, and the warmth of fire crawled comfortably across my hand. I grabbed the nearest strand of toilet paper and paused, as if about to cut a ceremonial ribbon.

“I hope this works,” I said aloud with a laugh.

It did.

Soon the tree was burning without being consumed. Fire climbed each of the paper strands, turning them into smoke as it crawled along their white paths, snaked around branches, and wandered higher up into the tree to light the dark night. I dashed around the yard, setting every papered tree alight. The lawn danced with shadows, and little plots of snow glimmered with orange light as the flames ascended.

The absurdity of the moment took hold of me, and suddenly I was laughing out loud and leaping about beneath the flaming trees, staring up at the flames like a little child captivated by a fireworks display. I felt tribal, and had it been any warmer I might have stripped down to nothing and painted my body with mud. I wanted to run from house to house, wake the neighbors, and with joyful shouts invite them to take a happy part in my late night festival of fire.

Soon the paper had all burned away. The fun was over. My once bright and cheerful yard became a dark and lonely place. I turned to go inside, and noticed the pile of toilet paper that I had harvested earlier. A thought occurred, followed by a smile...


Tuesday, March 4, 2014


I don't remember what my son did that made me lash out at him with such spite and volume, but I will never forget the moment that he flinched as though I were about to hit him. I wasn't, but you couldn't have convinced him otherwise, and so he cowered below me with fear in his eyes. The sight shocked me into silence and sent me bolting from the room.

A few minutes later I stood behind a locked bathroom door, my heart racing and my chest heaving. A panic spread within me like a dark wet stain on white linen. I looked through wild eyes at my reflection in the mirror, and for the first time saw what I had become; a man covered in a crust of bitterness, self-righteousness and pride. It was so thick and ugly upon me that my own son feared my approach.

The monster in the mirror frightened me too.

That was some time ago; let's skip ahead to present day. Last week, an authority figure wrongfully and without any investigation other than an ASSumption accused my daughter and a few of her fellow students of having stolen a computer. After yanking them from a prior obligation, he informed them that they would not be going anywhere until the issue was resolved. The kids protested their innocence, but he did not believe them. He did eventually grant them permission to embark on their own investigation, and with little effort they discovered that another adult in authority had in fact taken the computer. Having proved their innocence, they were allowed to return to their prior obligation, but were penalized for having missed the major part of it.

I could be incensed over the fact that this man doubted my daughter's integrity. I could be enraged at his complete lack of respect for her, and his display of incompetence when it came to the thoughtful, intelligent, and level-headed wielding of authority. I could brandish my pitchfork, light my torch, and march down to his office to demand his resignation.

But I'm not (okay, I'm trying not to be), and I won't (really, I won't). The benefit of doubt, the fact that I was not there, and my own experience, both as a teenager and working with teenagers, afford him the presumption of innocence that he did not offer my daughter. Mistakes are sometimes made.

That being said...

No apology was offered up to the kids by their accuser after the fact, and no restitution was made in regards to the prior engagement that they missed. That angers, confuses, and concerns me. My daughter spent the better part of that day learning things that we as a nation deem to be critical to our children's future (topic for another day), but the most important lesson she could have learned that day wasn't part of the curriculum, in spite of the oppurtunity.

As a child I was taught to say that I was sorry whenever I wronged someone. For years I listened to teachers, parents, and adults in general, as they admonished me to apologize for my bad or insensitive actions. Along the way, however, I marveled at how few of them actually practiced what they preached. Their (in)actions demonstrated a "do as I say, not as I do" approach to adult life. I decided that I couldn't wait to reach the age at which I could counsel others on what was good for them, while at the same time ignoring my own advice and doing as I pleased.

Such an age never came, not in any official-stamp sort of way, but at some point, probably in my teenage years, I just stopped apologizing. I grew up, fell in love, got married, made mistakes and refused to apologize. I had kids, loved and nurtured them, made mistakes, and refused to apologize.

Back through time, to the monster in the mirror. Ten years into fatherhood, I remained apology-free and overflowing with self-righteous pride, a tyrant in the eyes of my children. I wanted, I needed to change, but did I know how to become something else, something better, something that my kids wouldn't fear? Even if I figured it out, would it be worth what was sure to be a mighty amount of effort? Wasn't the damage done? Wouldn't my kids look back at this version of their father no matter what I did or said over the next  fifty years? My bile-laden gut told me to stand my ground; I was the patriarch of the family, and my word was infallible law.

Fortunately, my heart told me otherwise, and for good measure it dredged up the image of my son's young frame cowering in my shadow.

I knew what I had to do.

I'll never forget the look on my son's face as I sat on the end of his bed and asked his forgiveness.

"I am sorry," I said, and meant.

He looked up at me, a look of confused relief on his face as he watched me struggle to shed the heavy crust that had constrained me for as long as he could remember. I made no excuses for my behavior, laid none of the blame at his feet, and demanded no concessions of him as I finished my apology.

A but free apology.

To say that it felt good doesn't cut it.

I'd like to think that the moment meant as much to my son as it did to me, but if it didn't, and if he doesn't even remember it, that's okay. He wasn't the one that needed to learn a lesson that day.

In spite of that lesson learned, I have yet to become a perfect father. I still make mistakes, and even let slip the dogs of my temper now and again. But my kids have kind hearts that allow room for my imperfections, so long as I keep trying. And I do.

One more jump through time, to the moment that my daughter and her classmates proved their innocence. In that moment, she could have been taught that even adults make mistakes, some of them really dumb, some of them really stupid, and all of them forgivable. She could have learned that humility makes weak men strong, felt the power of a sincere apology, and known the blessings that come from forgiving others.

But her accuser didn't apologize, and so instead she learned that pride makes strong men weak, and respect eludes some men for good reason.

I'm sorry, Hannah.