Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Forgetting That Didn't Take

High School Graduation Day 2014

Dear Caleb,

I recently heard tell of a Jewish legend which conveys the belief that an angel visits each baby as it is growing in the womb. The angel teaches the child everything there is to know about life, love, and the journey ahead. After imparting this invaluable wisdom, the angel touches the baby’s upper lip in the moment before it is born, and the baby forgets all it has learned.

I don’t think the forgetting took hold with you.

You entered our lives more than eighteen years ago, at a breaking point in our marriage. Your mother and I were young, passionate, in love, and exhausted from fighting each other. So many reasons for giving up on a future together seemed to present themselves, but even as the hope for a happy marriage began to fade, a single reason to keep on struggling through the bad appeared on the horizon.


Caleb, you were the first unselfish thing that your mom and I did in our lives. We hadn’t yet figured out how to love each other without conditions, but together we loved you without so much as a hint of doubt, even before you were born.

But while I didn’t doubt my love for our baby boy, I was terrified by the thought of what kind of man he would become, having been raised by someone like me.

Enter the angel with the dodgy finger of forgetting. I think your angel told you a little too much about the two idiots that were to be your parents. When the lip-touch didn’t take and you looked out at your future, you decided to pass on becoming our son.

And so you refused to leave the comfort of your mother’s womb. She pushed and groaned and grunted for a few hours, and then heaved and screamed and cried for a few more, but you seemed determined to stay put. As the doctor applied the vacuum extractor to your head, I began to worry. As he began to pull on your head with all his strength, I began to pray.

I have never again heard your mother make such terrible sounds, and I hope I never do. After more pushing and pulling, the tired and sweaty doctor told your mother that she had one more chance to push you out. If it didn’t happen, he was going to push you back inside and perform a C-section.

You were born a few minutes later; your mother is strong in many ways.

You began to cry, and so did I, but not only for joy. I was beyond worried at the sight of your head; it was a mess. Your soft little skull had been pulled into a long and wrinkled half-arch, and my first thought was that the fragile brain inside it would be damaged beyond repair.

My first born would look like Abe Simpson, and be as dumb as his son Homer.

But you don’t, and you aren’t. Your head sprung back into a handsome shape, and your brain began to whir and hum.

The things I remember most about your younger years will always make me smile. A stack of books was never more than a reach away, bugs were your best friends, your cheeks were always red and rosy, and you pondered everything as if it held the answers to life’s most difficult questions.

A moment with you made any day my best day, no matter how good or bad it had already been.
People used to ask your mother what it was like to raise a mini version of her husband. It made me proud to think that people thought you were like me, because for me that meant that I was like you; smart, loving, cute, and wise beyond your years.

I think back to some of the biggest lessons I have learned in life, and you are a part of almost every one. You taught me the power of apology, the importance of owning who I am, and what it means to love without conditions.

You like to claim that you are not an emotional creature, and that feeling is not something you often do. I take issue with that statement, because you have always been there in my darkest moments, shining a light that chased away enough of the black for me to see my way out, back into happiness.

You will not be surprised to hear that the most powerful and lasting evidence of your ability to feel is the never-to-be-forgotten weed whacker incident.

In a moment of absolute despair, still mourning the death of your sweet Uncle Jared, I began to slam our gas-powered weed whacker against the rock wall at the edge of our back yard. Sobbing, cursing, and exhausted from the sudden outburst of violence, I fell to the ground in a contorted heap. In that moment I wanted nothing more than to die, sitting in the grass surrounded by hot bits of metal and plastic.

And then you touched my shoulder, and shined your light into my darkness. Your quiet hug restored my faith in living, and spoke more to me than any words could have conveyed.

An emotionless creature can’t do that.

Our road trip to celebrate your sixteenth birthday rests at ease near the top of my favorite Caleb memories list. Chasing dinosaurs through a teenage wasteland, inhaling puppy chow and nasty water, shadow-dancing behind an old-man-texter at the petroglyphs, and so many moments we will never tell your mother about; these memories will stay with me forever. Let’s do it again someday, preferably before I forget my name and start to pee my pants every twenty minutes.

I‘m gonna miss you like Lister missed Rimmer when he left for other dimensions to become Ace Rimmer, Space Adventurer. (I had to drop a Red Dwarf reference in here somewhere.)

At the very top off the list of reasons that I love being your father is the fact that you love to write. Since the moment your eyes could focus, you have loved reading. Over the past eighteen years you have spent months’ worth of time, perhaps even years worth, with your head inside your beloved books. To watch your love for reading develop into a love for writing has opened my eyes to everything that you can and will become.

Do it all, every last bit of it; I know you can.

This letter could go on and on through reams of paper. I have so much that I want to say, but just like the past eighteen years, there isn’t enough time for me to give or tell you everything I want to share with you. I shudder at the list of things I haven’t taught you, wonder if I did enough for you, and worry that I sometimes did too much.

I’ll end by taking you back to the moment that angle touched your lips, just seconds after teaching you everything about life, love, and the journey ahead. As I said before, the forgetting didn’t take; you came into this world with purpose, love, and wisdom.

In so doing you brought purpose, love, and wisdom into mine.

Thank-you Caleb, I love you.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sockin' It To Tyranny

This morning I read an online article written by a "momtrepeneur" who was upset that the new Entrepreneur Barbie isn't wearing yoga pants and a pony tail, and that her plastic eyes didn't exude the passion of a working mom.

I then read an article about a pregnant woman in Sudan that has been sentenced to death (after receiving 100 lashes) for apostasy.

Troubling times indeed.

I reflected on both women and their plights, and came to the conclusion that the world was becoming a discouraging cesspool. The thought came to mind that I had been better off back in the days when I read nothing but books and avoided the news altogether. Feeling that something must be done to set the world back on a happy course, I wondered what I alone could do to help this poor woman to escape her woeful situation. My purpose of thought was singular: I needed to call justice down upon the godless animals that call themselves human beings while oppressing, subjugating, and misguiding their own kind.

I started to write an angry letter, unsure of where it could be sent that would make a difference. The resulting flurry of words felt too light and empty for such devils; I needed something that packed more punch. But how could I, a single individual with limited resources, conquer such ruthless dictators? How could I get the nation, the continent, the world even, to stand up and stare down these brutes?

As I pondered the injustice that exists in the world and what I could possibly do to right such a terrible wrong, a memory from childhood came to mind. Years ago at the age of eight, I bought a Luke Skywalker X-Wing pilot action figure. He was dressed in a bright orange flight suit, wore a white helmet decorated with the red emblem of the Rebel Alliance, and his right sock was pulled up above the top of his shiny black flight boot. I still have that action figure, tucked away in a box somewhere in my office at home.

Wait, what?

It’s true, my Luke Skywalker looked as though he had gotten dressed in a hurry before that unforgettable attack on the Death Star. When donning his socks, he must have pulled the right one up higher than he had the left one, leaving it to stick out above the top of his boot. It also appeared as though he had tucked the cuff of his flight suit inside the sock.

The image of that disheveled action figure from more than thirty years ago was inspirational. Luke had been a young and inexperienced pilot, but when the moment came calling he had found an incredible, course-of-history-altering amount of courage, and with it he had beaten back a dark overlord that threatened the future of a galaxy far, far away and a long time ago.

And if my toy Luke was to be believed, he did it with one sock sticking out of his boot, the cuff of his flight suit tucked inside, like a bicycle courier in deep space.

And so my one man campaign against tyranny began anew, this time with a letter much more focused, a letter with harsh words for strong-arm despots.

Dear Tyrants (past and present),

How dare you manipulate the forward progress of humankind with your programs of hate, misinformation, and mind control! You should be dragged from your luxurious homes, calfskin office chairs, and exotic cars, out into the streets, where you can be held accountable to the people for your crimes against humanity!

You play with the future of your own people, and then count your money behind closed doors, rinsing your hands clean in the ill-gotten gains of your evil agendas that you hide in plain sight. Would that I alone could try you for your crimes, but so great is your tyrannical hold on the world, that it will take nations to drive you back to the dust from whence you came.

I refuse to sit back and allow you to win. This is a warning shot across the bow of your black-sailed dreadnought; if you do not cease from oppressing the good and honest people of this world at once, I will be forced into greater, more violent and terrible action.


Matthew Deane (a citizen of this good world)

P.S. I don’t have my receipt, but would you please send me a replacement Luke Skywalker X-Wing fighter pilot action figure that doesn’t have mismatched feet? The one I bought in 1978 must have been part of a bad batch, because it looks like Luke got dressed for the Death Star battle in a hurry. I just don’t think it is a true representation of a good X-Wing pilot; a good X-Wing pilot would be sheveled (rather than disheveled), because the people of the Rebel Alliance were looking to the pilots for the security of their future, and I don’t think a pilot with one sock pulled up above his boot and over his flight suit cuff inspires such security.

Oh, and your Entrepreneur Barbie needs some yoga pants and more passionate eyes.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Heart of Gold

Every six months or so, I submit to an inexplicable craving and eat at McDonald’s. This is my story.

The first sniff of the air inside a McDonald’s makes my taste buds horny. They wet themselves in anticipation while I stand in line waiting with feigned patience and love for my fellow man. Time slows to a belly crawl as the permanently baffled octogenarians in front of me order Whoppers for which they hope to pay with Burger King coupons. At last I approach the counter. I already know which meal I want, but I look past the cashier and up at the menu board anyway, scanning it with narrowed eyes and furrowed brow, as if it were written in an ancient language that I have never seen before but must de-code before being fed.

The ordering process is always the same; I include everything the pimple-faced cashier-in-training needs to know (meal number, size, to stay or go), and they proceed to ask me every question that I have already answered. Once they figure out enter my order into the new age push-button register, I hand over my money (always in cash so as to avoid a paper trail), ignoring the thought that a parking lot drug transaction would probably feel less shameful. It would certainly be faster and less complicated.

Moments later I carry my tray of “food” over to the soda and condiment station, taking a perverse pleasure in resisting the urge to claw a couple of fries into my half-open mouth.  At the aptly named soda fountain, I am torn between one particular beverage and everything else on offer. Diet-Coke and I share a sordid history. I love her like a hooker with a heart of gold that I might have in the past paid to do nothing more than hold me close and listen as I listed my fears, grief, hopes, joys, and regrets. The relationship wasn’t all that good for me, but she listened in the moment, and she was cheaper than a therapist.

After a moment of guilt-ridden memories, I sigh softly before filling my cup with more orange soda than any one person should consume in a week. I fumble with the wrong size lids before finding the right, then stab a straw through the hole, and push in all the little buttons that indicate cola, diet, root beer, or other. I then pump a half-quart of ketchup into a platoon of little white paper cups, grab a handful of pepper packets, and stock up for the impending global napkin shortage.

After choosing a table an acceptable distance away from the doors, trash bins, bathrooms, and homeless people, a table that is relatively free of soda spills, food crumbs, and unidentifiable stains, I am ready to consume.

Well, not quite yet. I have to break open the pile of pepper packets and sprinkle them one by one over my ketchup garden.

Now I am ready to consume.

A handful of french fries to start. If they are hot, the guilt burns away like flash paper. Cold, and a tickle of regret creeps up my spine, bowing my shoulders as if I want to hide. If the carton is full of soggy bits and the nasty burnt dregs, I take them back to the counter and ask for fresh fries. I paid for tasty poison, and that is what I want.

 I pull back the lid to the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. I still remember the first time I ate a Quarter Pounder. I was 15, working part-time at the westbound McDonald’s on I-95 in Madison, Connecticut. One night while going on break, I ordered two Cheeseburgers, a small fry, and a chocolate shake from the same beautiful cashier that earlier in the month had followed me into the walk-in freezer and showed me her freshly sun-tanned breasts.

My focus at work had blurred since that paradoxical moment of hot and cold. It had taken me three weeks to muster the function of speech in her presence, and after placing my order that night, she just stood at the register with her lips pressed together in apparent disapproval.  I waited beside her, wishing she didn’t smell of coconut oil and sunshine.  

“You should just order a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, it’s just a bigger Cheeseburger,” she said at last.

The information was unsolicited, much like her display in the freezer had been.

“What’s on it?” I managed to ask, my voice just a measure above a squeak.

“The same stuff, only the onions are bigger,” she answered, with emphasis on the word bigger.

I stood staring at her with open-hanging mouth for the second time that month.

“Just try it; I promise you’ll love it,” she said, and with that she entered my order into the register.

Her unsolicited advice had not gone unappreciated. I ate that Quarter Pounder with Cheese (in spite of those pesky sesame seeds) and never looked back. At some point I had somehow graduated to the Double QP, and I like to think it was by accident, because no one should ever knowingly choose to ramp up their consumption of something so hazardous to the heart.

My DQPwC never looks quite like the one in the print ads or commercials, which portray a happy, handsome, healthy guy eating McDonald’s food without actually taking a bite (or falling into a shame spiral). No, my DQPwC always looks more like something a three-fingered, career-depressed, mother’s basement-dweller in his late thirties threw together while blindfolded. Still, I have hope that each new one will taste good all the way through to the final bite in spite of its initial appearance. I discard the bigger chunks of onion and a pickle or two, then assemble the pile into something that looks like it will fit between my teeth. After wiping the grease, mustard, and ketchup from my hands, I pick up the DQPwC and take a bite.

It is probably written in fine print (or perhaps invisible ink) somewhere on the menu board that only the first bite of a McDonald’s burger is guaranteed to be free of self-loathing. Believing this, I always make the first bite a big one, full of that famous flavor known to billions every day. I follow this up with some fries dipped in peppered ketchup, a sip of orange soda, and the thought that I should quit while I’m ahead.

But I don’t.

Bite, savor, swallow, repeat…

Halfway through the meal, that scent, the one that caused a flood of saliva not ten minutes earlier, becomes an odor. It is important to note that a scent is something you notice casually, and if it’s good you seek out its source, while an odor is something unavoidable that ten-year-old boys make without trying, and then dare each other to experience up close over and over amid fits of laughter as you run the other way. The odor of a McDonald’s meal is a mix of grease, rot, and gluttony; it sticks to your skin like a scarlet letter, and no amount of soap or hand sanitizer can wash it away.

Bite, odor, guilt, repeat…

The odor gives me pause, but I soldier through; I’ve got a small beach bucket of fries to finish off, and I can’t let that last quarter-of-a-quarter-of-a-pound of meatish material go to waste. I punch through the disgust barrier and manage to feed the remaining bites into my mouth under the protest of my offended nostrils. The last few fries are never the biggest, and are in fact the smallest, coldest, and least desirable. I snatch them up like a baby eating Cheerios for the first time, eager to finally control his own food intake.

A quick disposal of the evidence in the nearest trash bin, and I burst through the doors and out into the daylight like an indicted mob boss leaving a courthouse to face an army of flashbulbs and microphones. I head for my car and try not to squeal the tires as I leave the parking lot.

And then the remorse absolute sets in.

A meal at McDonald’s is always followed by the same bloated regret that a pregnant teenager in her third trimester must feel when riding the school bus. I want to run home and take an Ace Ventura shower of shame, curled up into a ball of doughy flesh, the hot water blending with my tears as I mourn the loss of my innocence. I chew mint gum to fight the rotting of my breath, and a bottle of Tums becomes my constant companion for the next several hours as I try in vain to pop the bubble of fetid gas rising within me and putting pressure on my ribs. Eventually the bubble stops rising and starts to descend. This is not a good thing, however, because the gas seeks the path of least resistance. I banish myself from public places, and pray that my family will forgive the invisible cloud of greenhouse gases that surrounds me. There is no relief but time, so I settle into my regret and wait for the slow process of digestion and expulsion to take place.

At some point within eight hours after eating at McDonald’s I can be found on the treadmill, punishing myself for my indulgence. I imagine the great drops of sweat that seep from my pores and soak my shirt to be not a byproduct of my exercise, but rather a direct result of my poor choice of lunch, a siphoning of poisonous fat from my body. I watch the calorie counter climb, and the moment it hits 800, I feel an immediate easing of guilt. I slow to a walk and mentally pat myself on the back for my new found self-control and determination, until a voice inside reminds me that had I not eaten at McDonald’s but burned that 800 calories anyway, I would be ahead for the day.

I have never checked the chart, but a DQPwC meal has to measure at least 1,000 calories, and more than that, it is made of artery-clogging junk that my body is better off without.

And so I vow to never again pass beneath the golden arches of remorse; bad gas may eventually burn through an engine, but I wouldn't I knowingly put it in my car.

Unless I’m on a road trip; McDonald’s is delicious on a road trip!