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101 Dalmations

Bedtime. We’re watching 101 Dalmations on the creaky VHS machine perched way up high on the bookshelf. The twins are in their loft beds. I’m down on the floor with Finn in my lap, leaning against his modified crib, trying to get him to sleep.

The loft beds provide Max and Violet with pretty good viewing angles, and even though they’ve seen the movie a thousand times, they’re engaged. In contrast, I have to crane my neck to follow The Puppies (as Finn calls them) and I’m considerably less interested. Actually I’m approaching nod-off stage.

But now comes the scene in which the puppies are watching “Thunderbolt,” their favorite TV show, and one of the boy puppies declares that Thunderbolt, the canine hero, is “even better than Dad.” One of his many siblings replies that “no dog is better than Dad.” The dalmation dad smiles big and wide.

Violet immediately wonders something aloud, but she’s too high up and I can’t quite hear her. It’s something like “Do kids… feel sorry… really mean…”

Maybe I need a hearing aid, but even so, my ears go on alert as if they belong to one of the cartoon dogs. “What’s that, Violet? I didn’t understand you.”

She turns on her side, resting her chin on her wrist. “What do kids mean when they say things like that to their parents? Like, ‘You’re the best dad in the world.’ Do they say it because they feel sorry for them and they don’t want them to feel bad? Or do they really mean it?”

Hm.

Briefly Violet gets me in her sights, but with some effort, I think. I’m sitting too far back behind her bed. It’s easier for her to search the rug patterns below for answers. If she weren’t such a good solid kid, if her questions weren’t infused with such courtesy and scientific curiosity, she could be a hawk patrolling for small mammals.

“Well,” I say, “what do you think kids mean? What did that puppy mean?”

“I don’t know. Kind of a mix, I guess.”

Believe me, I’m eager to pursue this topic, but… all I can think is, they’ve seen the movie five million times before and never asked any questions about it. “I can tell you this,” I venture. “When I say things like, ‘I’ve got the three greatest kids in the world,’ I really mean it.”

A brief pause. I’m hoping that relief is part of the silence. I’d like them to feel relief that this particular human dad doesn’t dole out hollow praise. Max stays silent. Violet, keen on uncovering all the myriad dimensions of the subject, lets thoughts continue to waft down from the rail of her bed.

“With me, it’s kind of a mix. I sort of don’t want you to feel bad about yourself, so I tell you you’re the best dad. But I also really do mean it most of the time.”

He who consumes half-rack of beer in dorm room wake up with headache. I don’t know why that suddenly goes through my head.

I should feel relief. To be reminded of my limits, of any limits.

The half-rack thing, it’s a stupid joke I hashed over with somebody twenty years ago. It had to do with a fake Egyptian sarcophagus I had in the back of my pickup truck, and what kinds of things would be written inside the tomb? We were tossing out various lines, convinced we were comic geniuses…

Parameters are good. I’m relieved to see mine in a new light. They keep me rooted in realist estate.

“I like to hear you say that no matter what, honey. But, also, you don’t have to say it if you don’t feel like it.”

“Okay. That’s cool.”

“You’re a cool girl.”

“Thanks.”

The raggedy tape spools forward, my older son still silent, my youngest shifting and yawning meaninglessly, until the part comes when the thief Jasper complains to Cruella, “It’s here in the blinkin’ papers!”

For some reason Max thinks that is hilarious. The blinkin’ papers. He belly laughs on and on, enamored with the Cockney kookiness of the phrase, even though it never seemed funny before.

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Their lives mattered.

Their lives matter.

May we all find real peace and real justice one day.

Charleston victims

World turtle B

One of my favorite images from mythology is the world-supporting tortoise, common to a number of disparate cultures and traditions. It’s featured in creation stories from China, India, and more than one of the original nations of North America. Among these are the Lenape people of the Delaware Valley, the area I live in, the area they were uprooted from between two and three centuries ago.

And although I’m pretty sure that the world-tortoise has been reshaped and reassembled on its journey into our Western sensibilities, probably in the most ham-fisted way possible, its ancient core of genius is still visible.

Can’t you feel it echoing through time? Through forms?

What I mean is, in the 21st century it’s still possible to equate them—the gentle earth-green curve of a turtle’s carapace, like living obsidian, and the rounded pool of our planet’s backside, mottled with mountains and deserts and dying forests, observed from space.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

September. Walks by the lake with my kids are harder to come by, but we make them happen. We look for turtles basking on logs. One or two can still be found.

“Someday we’ll get binoculars and see them up close,” I promise the twins. But we’re talking about a sizeable investment. It’ll have to be next summer.

“Can we go to the pet store? Can we go to the pet store?”

The local Pets Plus doubles as a free-admission zoo. We go all the time but never buy anything, because as hard-hearted as it sounds we don’t currently allow pets in the house. We don’t have the money and the environment is already too chaotic. The kids hate us for it but that’s life. Anyway, you can’t buy turtles at pet stores in New Jersey, it’s a state law.

Meanwhile our resident scholars continue to gobble up all kinds of useful facts on reptiles and amphibians. They love reading about reptiles and amphibians, watching shows about reptiles and amphibians, making cardboard habitats for as yet un-acquired reptiles and amphibians. If they could forget about math and spelling and study only reptiles and amphibians all day, they’d be sleepless with delight.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I think back to a day earlier in the year, before summer. The twins were still in first grade. I was driving a block or so away from our house and spotted a young box turtle struggling in the street. Got out, picked it up, the Great Eco-Savior in his gas-guzzling Oldsmobile.

Jubilantly I anticipated the end of the school day. I couldn’t wait for those kids to get off the bus and hear about the living treasure we had at home.

It seemed to go as planned. We brought the critter out of its Tupperware motel and let it crawl in the backyard a while. Then we took it down to the lake (after I called various state and county agencies to determine the best option) and let it go, off to one side of a trail.

With some belated reading I learned that our release site might have been too wet. Box turtles like dry places and, worse, they don’t do well in the reorientation department – you’re supposed to put them back exactly where you find them. I regretted it but didn’t say anything to the kids.

The fact is there really weren’t any other choices. I wasn’t going to put Shelly back on the street or plunk him/her down on somebody’s front lawn.

Now and then one of the twins will say, “I wonder how Shelly’s doing.” “Fine, I’m sure,” I respond. My wife reassures me that Shelly is tougher than I think.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I “rescued” another turtle several years earlier. It had dragged itself halfway across Route 29 north of Titusville and I pulled over to get it. I knew even less about turtles then. Squeamish that it would be half-crushed or asphalt-fried or something, I almost didn’t want to pick it up. But it was in good shape. I looked around for the best place to take it, finally choosing a stream at the bottom of a fifteen-foot embankment.

Down, down, down – the helpless terrapin’s descent, secure as it was in my grip, had to have been alarming. In retrospect I realize it didn’t want to swim or bathe. It wanted to scratch its way along the sun-soaked cement, it wanted to be up in the daylight. But the stream was the best I could do at the time, ignoramus that I am.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

So it would seem for all self-congratulatory episodes in life. We think of ourselves as carriers of compassion and knowledge, but what are we really carrying? Aren’t we the ones being carried? Will we ever outgrow the bone-headed Dutch missionary, scribbling in his journal about the inferior cosmologies he encounters?

It’s hard to say. We ride along, we gawk, we get out and try to help. We barely comprehend what’s at hand. We resume our trivial journeys through the universe.

And yet what’s wrong with trivial, if we’ve accepted it, if we realize that small is big and big is small? Seasons pass and we wait faithfully and ritualistically on street corners for the slow yellow vessels that bring us our children. We might complain about the rain or the cold or central New Jersey’s blast-furnace heat, but the ritual is steeped in love. The bus doors fold open and for a moment love is the only thing we know. We offer rides home on our aging, curving backs.

We allow cities to grow there, we develop complex cultures and new ways to communicate as we travel, we build schools and highways and mazes of bizarre information. We pray that it’s all useful, helpful to the innocent people we’re delivering.

The sun goes down and small silhouetted hands point skyward next to ours. The Hunter, the Great Bear, the Little Dipper – they all rotate in the obsidian, full of warnings and reassurances about the world we stand on.

Arrows in the Branches

Looking UpSummer came and went like a migrating herd.

The children watched it pass, noting its panicky red-gold coloration, feeling increasingly disillusioned as tail after tail vanished over the fence. It was difficult to say how many children lived in the backyard. Not even the children knew. Maybe two dozen.

Birthdays came and went as well. A gift of lasting value—the only one, most of the children believed—was a bow and arrow set. The kind made of rubber and plastic. By some miracle they managed not to fight over it and took turns shooting.

Tall shadows bumped and shuffled in the house. Not having much to say or offer, or at least convinced that this was so, they only acknowledged the movements of the children now and then, bumping, shuffling, raising eyebrows. The way adult animals monitor cubs in the wild when they’re too exhausted to give fang-to-fur guidance. It didn’t matter, the children didn’t pay these shadows any mind, didn’t communicate with them, not in any meaningful sense. They were apparitions of no significance. Ghosts to be summoned when a need arose.

Now and then an arrow lodged in a tree’s branches. When this happened the children would bang on the sliding glass doors and a shadow hunched over a computer would get up and grunt open the calcified door frame. It would get a ladder from the shed and retrieve the arrow with ungainly movements. Step up. Step up. Step down.

Can’t it move any faster? thought the children. We have a trajectory. We have school in the morning.

Even so the pattern was set, with Arrows in the branches! a constant complaint. Paths were laid out, paths in the grass and between the trees and between the houses. Life followed these paths, it wasn’t open for debate. If you couldn’t keep track, if your aim was off, you had to try again and again or you’d never survive.

Eventually the children came to see the inside shadows as painted figures, moving only when colors shifted on TVs and computer screens. They were stony, ancient, fragile in sunlight. The shadow who got up to get the arrows wasn’t any different. We make him, said the children to each other. If we stop, he stops, so don’t stop.

But night seeped in and everybody had to quit and go to sleep. Children crawled into shelters, mumbled stories to each other, reassured themselves of a future. Far away summer could still be herd, stampeding and screaming and perishing. Inside, the computer phantom hunched, pressed buttons, looked things up and tried to learn. It looked up SMS and quantitative UX and arrow and trajectory, but nothing made any sense.

At two in the morning a child woke up quick and alert, remembering a final missile dangling from a knot of leaves. It was still up there. But we don’t have anybody now, thought the child. I might have to do this myself.

Autumnal chill had settled in. The shed seemed like a long walk away, and there wasn’t any light. When would it be light out?

Open your ears, everyone.

This is the sound of a cave door sliding open.

You think you’ve won. But you haven’t destroyed us, and you never will. We’re impossible to get rid of.

DSCN4142Yes, we’re melting. Fools that you are, you see that as a retreat. How blind, how stupendously, comically blind! Ha ha ha ha haaaaa!!!

Yes, we’re covered in the filth of your planet. Pollution is a weapon we didn’t expect from you. Congratulations.

Just kidding. Anti-congratulations, feeble Earth beings! We love the filth, it only teaches us more about you, it teaches us your weaknesses. In fact, we may adopt this new carbon-grey coloration permanently. We’ll absorb it into our very cells, and along with it the knowledge needed to annihilate you. Even now we’re transmitting the data to our homeworld.

Yes, we appear to be sleeping now. But you’re the ones who are asleep. Soon, very soon, you’ll wake up from your ridiculous dream of dominance. And it will be too late.

DSCN4143Go on, put your shovels and plows and tractors back in storage. Bring out your shiny motorized mowers and your voracious gas-powered hedge clippers. Pretend your puny lives are warming up.

When your world freezes over for good and we’ve assimilated you into the fabric of our icy existence, remember this warning…

You never had a snowman’s chance.

Lone figure w ice

Sailing Home

Night Flight 2.jpgThe trip to Seattle—he told you about some of it, but not about getting there. And getting there is half the fun, so they say. Bothersome things seeped through the Illustrator’s head while the plane sat on the tarmac, things that needed answers, things that begged questions, but the long-cultivated excitement and brewing sleep of his children comforted him. The baby already slept in his arms and appeared to be out for the night.

The Illustrator’s wife sat in the row ahead, her seat directly in front of his, the older kids to her right. Who would get the window seat posed a minor problem at first, but the twins worked it out non-violently. Although some violence of language may have occurred. Which was probably why the octogenarian in the row beyond felt she should issue a scolding. Evidently she mistook their brief and zealous negotiation as an omen of all-night rowdy behavior. The Illustrator’s wife got angry.

Words were exchanged but the octogenarian’s son or son-in-law proved to be extremely level-headed. It was all settled without the Illustrator’s involvement. Then the engines began their spiritual Tibetan chanting and the seat belt and no-smoking lights winked on, both of them the color of cigarette fire. A color he’d always liked. It reminded him of his best friend’s mother and her tobacco-encrusted laugh. A key Seattle memory.

The great winged salmon hurled itself skyward, up the ladder of clouds and currents into the glassy hemispheric darkness. Cushioned in its belly, surrounded by his quieted mate and spawn, the Illustrator rested his head against the seat back. Stupefying to think that the seat, his family, the old lady were all moving at 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet in the air, and yet the gravid vessel felt more beholden to gravity than ever. He appreciated this miracle. He put his trust, as he did almost anytime he flew, in the competence of the Boeing Company, his father’s former employer.

On fathers and families: it occurred to him, and he was pretty sure this wasn’t an original thought, that a family is a solar system with chaotic orbits. Ideally there is at least one radiant parent at its center. But it was hard work, shining for the nuclear family. He wasn’t completely sure that he was shining. In fact he doubted it.

He eclipsed when he should step aside. He got eclipsed when he should glow and guide. He was just along for the ride.

He spent most of his time flailing after his little wanderers, trying to keep them in the habitable zone.

His best hope was to prevent crashes.

And the Illustrator, wobbling now and then with the turbulence, asked himself if he ever intended to shine. Was his goal all along to sit inert, blinking in the dark like a cinder? Like a moviegoer or a passenger on a red-eye over the continent? Ensconced in semi-plushness, he imagined the behemoth’s metal fins reaching out for a terminus, an ancient destiny, a homeland. The luminous sea at the western end of the Universe. Over the mountains of the moon lapped a saltwater forest where schools of his loved ones still mingled and where he so rarely ventured, but always his thoughts were there, there, there.

He knew he should sleep the way the baby in his lap slept, because he wanted to be ready.

But sleep came only in mists and crests and stars. On and on they all swam, fishtailing across the celestial sluiceway, their fortune nearing wave by wave. It would come in the form of a beautiful church concert. His aunt, the woman who raised his three cousins radiantly and for the most part on her own, would be playing the piano. Her older son and two of her grandchildren, all gifted musicians, would accompany her. This was what the Illustrator was traveling for. He wanted to sit in a summer church pew with his wife and children, wanted to sit on the coast where he was born and let the music wash away his inertness.

All he had to do was get there.

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