On Raising Wolves

When I meet people I often tell them I was raised by wolves. I do this as a way to excuse my sometimes pointed comments. This sentence is delivered like a joke, and often get a laugh. Usually the laugh is followed by a look of recognition, as the other meaning starts to sink in. I was raised by wolves.

I was thinking of this as I was listening to my son play with a friend this morning. The friend stayed the night, which was a first for our son. Teri and I were both a bit nervous, needlessly so as it turned out. His friend is easy to deal with, good at grasping his own needs (for a 12 year-old), and gracious with adults. The friend is also smart and verbally gifted, like out boy. Listening to them play, really more like riffing on each other, is an interesting peek into that strange time of growth called pre-adolescense.

As I listen to them casually trade verbal barbs so pointed and sharp that they would considered terribly rude if spoken among strangers, I am reminded of tiger cubs playing. Each swat and bite a cute and playful treat, yet at the same time this  behavior will eventually lead into something terrible. Fully grown tigers bite and swat with lethal force. Once they hit a certain age, there is absolutely nothing cute or charming in them.

The same can be said, of course, for wolves and their cubs.

Teri and I, because we are adults and mindful of the pain our words can inflict, are forever warning Trevor. “Find a nicer tone, son.” “These are your friends, be nicer to them.” or “Do you think you could have said that is a nicer way?” We say these things because we know from painful experience how amazing sharp and deadly harsh words from an adult can be. But Trevor is not an adult. He lives in a different world.

In middle school tough words are an art form, and being quick with a quip is a valuable skill. This is his world. There is where he lives. Boys and girls at this age are verbally vicious, yet at the same time their words are usually completely ineffective. Stand on a corner as middle school kids get out of school and you’ll hear insult after insult, sometimes repetitively, sometimes with whole groups of kids ganging up on one another. But the funny thing is all these harsh words seem to have little effect. Kids will gleefully insult each other, and then turn around and talk about their favorite video game, exactly as if nothing untoward was said. Its as if middle school kids survive by having a thicker skin than adults. Or perhaps, like the bites of young tiger cubs, the verbal skills which as an adult will prove to be lethal, are  playful and largely ineffective because they are still so young.

And that is what he is. So young, yet at times so adult. One day his words are going to carry far more weight. Like that tiger cub’s bite, they will mysteriously transform from playful to lethal. I don’t envy him this transition. It was not a easy path for me, nor was it for Teri. But its also a part of growing up.

I wonder if tiger cubs have a similar experience, if they wake up one day and say to themselves, “Holy shit. I just bit a hole in my sister’s face! How’d that happen?”

I know Trevor will eventually have this experience. I can only hope that when he does his behavior will be easier to monitor because he’s learned at an earlier age to be more compassionate for his friends, and more mindful of his words. Then again, if he doesn’t, he can always retort, “I’m sorry, I was raised by wolves.”

The irony is, from his lips it will be just as true.

Success

I dreamed about my father last night, something I have not done since he passed almost four years back. In the dream he was talking to me, telling me that some obscure thing I had invested in would pay off really well. Later in the dream this proved to be true. Since I don’t do much in the way of investing in the real world I assume the dream, the investment, and the succeess are all metaphor.

For all that he grew up a cowboy, my father was ever the banker, and worried about money and its intendant security more than anything else. He never really grasped why I am self-employed. The idea was almost abhorrent to him. For years whenever we would talk he would ask if I had gotten a job yet. Never mind that I was making more money freelancing than he ever did, it was the insecurity of my position which worried him. The irony is of course that his “secure” job never proved to be any more secure than mine, but that is the nature of people and parents. At least I can say is that he spoke out of the concern of a parents, and I cannot honestly say that  this concern was always misplaced. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart.

It wasn’t until after he passed, at his funeral in fact, that his wife (my step mother) appreoached me to say, “You’re father wanted you to know he was very proud of you.”  Kind words. I would like to say it would have meant more coming from his lips, but that was not his way. Perhaps I am biased, but I seemed to recall hearing more of my father’s concerns than I did his praise. My sisters had this experience as well so if I am biased, at least it is a shared one.

So when my father spoke to me last night in my dream, his words were pretty much like always. He was telling me, not really talking with me. He used the same tone he used when asking, “Are you sure your client’s are going to pay you?” Anything I might say in response didn’t really matter, and would likely be ignored. He would simply bring up the subject in our next conversation exactly as if we had never spoken of it before. In short, he was stating something completely obvious, and with his voice of authority. Mind you, I do this myself sometimes, the manners of the father are often passed to the son. So much so that a friend of mine often jokes, “Eric Tolladay, Master of the Obvious, Curator of the Plainly Seen.” I can only hope that my pronouncements from on high of “the obvious” are not as painful as his were to me. Doubtless this is not always the case. Lucky for me most people are willing to overlook this annoying habit of mine. Those that cannot, well I can’t say that I blame them.

But I find it odd that my father would be speaking as he was in my dream. He was so very concrete, speaking in metaphor was not his way. I can only hope it is a sign I am doing well. I suspect this investment metaphor refers to my writing. I certainly hope so as it is an investment. Especially as a time when I really should be more mindful of filling my spare time with paid work. The vagrancies of freelance work means I often stumble into stretches of no work. I try to fill that time with writing, when I can afford to do so, but it is costly in terms of money not earned. Lucky for me, Teri does not mind this investment, or is kind enough to bite her tongue when I do. Since I’m not heavily invested (be it time or money) in anything else, other than my family and our home, I can only assume this obscure hobby of mine will eventually come with a paycheck.

The funny thing is Teri is forever dreaming about friends and family who have passed. It one of the things I truly respect about her. For her such dreams are a way of letting go, saying goodbye. They don’t always start well, but they end with a sense of balance and closure. I’ve not had dreams like this, at least until last night. Do you supposed some of her is rubbing off on me? God I hope so.

Not knowing your future is a feature, not a bug.

Over the holidays I got to see one of my nephews. He’s a fantasic young man, but visiting with him, especially in my home town, brought me back to when I was his age and trying to work out my place in the world. This post, and hopefully a few others that will follow are both a letter to him, and the voice of an older man attempting to pass on all the wisdom that 48 years of hard knocks and stupid mistakes can provide.

A long time ago, at least as reckoned in internet years, I worked in the software industry. It was an interesting field to make a living in, especially at the small “startups” where I worked. Its a field custom made for people who like to wear a lot of hats, can think on their feet, and can learn quickly. One of the phrases I learned from that experience was substituting the term feature for the term bug. It was used when someone complained about a bug in your software. What you did was deny there was a bug, and instead claimed it was an undocumented feature. The concept is nothing but pure marketing bravado. The phrase was referred to often by everyone in the industry, but I never actually saw it in use. It is an inside joke about the nadir of software marketing finesse, and it is an expression of the deep anxiety that one feels when they know they are selling a less than perfect piece of software.

That being said, the saying does have its uses. And one of those uses is in looking at your future.

You see a lot of people go around with the annoying confidence that comes of knowing what they want to do for a living. It is trifling easy to be angry at such individuals, especially if you are like me, someone who has never known what they wanted to “be”. And it is easy to look at yourself and assume there is something wrong with you for not being like those other “knowers”. After years and years of living as a “not knower,” I now contend that the bug of not knowing is actually a feature; that not knowing is actually better than knowing.

To support this contention, lets us first look at the causes of not knowing.

Not knowing your future avocation does not stem from a lack of ability. Far from it. In fact, not knowing usually stems from an overabundance of ability. It is when you can literally do almost everything and anything that choosing a direction has a consequence. Those poor mundane souls with less IQ and raw ability do not share our quandary. They do not wake up thinking, “Fuck! I wonder if I should be a brain surgeon?”  Why? Because they recognize it is not something they will ever be able to do. They understand their choices in life might be between being a auto mechanic and a security guard. Being a brain surgeon is simply not on their list, more importantly neither is the existential angst associated with making that choice. When your choices are fewer, you have a lot less to get wrong. Which can be translated to, when you have less options, you have less to be depressed about. True, you could be an auto mechanic, if that is what makes you happy, but you can also be a brain surgeon, and therein lies the rub. You at least, have the option for both choices, and because of this, have the anxiety that goes with it.

So not knowing is a position of ability, not disability. It carries with it an anxiety based upon a greater risk than most people face; a greater chance of success (and presumably failure) than your less well thought peers. Fortunately for us, we both have been though therapy, and have a decent idea of how to deal with anxiety. Who knew that depression would eventually prepare you for a career? Funny how that works, eh?

But there is another reason why not knowing is a feature, not a bug, and that has to do with a thing called change.

You see, one of the ever constants of the universe is change. It is easy to miss this as a young man (I know I did), or to discount its value, but either position would doing yourself a disservice. By change I mean that we all face several massive changes in our lives, and quite frankly most of them we are not expecting or well prepared for. This is just how life goes. An auto accident, a random chance with cancer, a bit too much alcohol, a casual word misspoken, all of these things (and more, much much more) can, and will, fuck up our lives. Hey, shit happens. The thing is, our avocation is just as open to big change as any other part of our lives. For you, having to change careers would be a pain, maybe even a major inconvenience, but it would not necessarily be crippling. Why? Because you are not “set” on a particular career, you are merely doing the one that came along (and looks best) now. Now imagine the poor slob who, unlike us, knew exactly what he wanted for all of his life, and suddenly discovers he can no longer work in that field. What will he do? Panic, I tell you. That and more. Depression would be the least of his issues, as his self-identity will be taken out from under him. Why? Because he is now facing what you and I have had to deal with for all of our lives; not knowing. Only he will be terribly unprepared for this ordeal as it will be new to him. And “new” is not a nice word to those who have their lives all planed out. In essence, change has brought this man down to our default position (not knowing) and it is terrifying to him.

So who is the strong one here, and who is the weak?

There’s more to my position than just the two arguments above. For instance, there is a very good chance that 20 years from now you will have a thriving career in a field that has not yet been invented. Don’t believe me? This is exactly my position. 20 years ago there were no digital retouchers. Today there are thousands. There was no school, no college, no way of learning what I do for a living, short of trying it out and seeing if you could do it. What engineers call trial and error. And yet, I make very good money at it, and find the job deeply fulfilling. I see no reason why you cannot have a similar experience as my own. Based on the rate of change I see happening today I suspect you have a much great chance than I ever did, of working a job which has not yet been invented.

And when such future jobs become available, who do you think is going to be better prepared to switch to them from the field they are in? A knower or a not knower? Who is going to be less entrenched in their field? Who is going to have less of their identity tied up in their job, and more of their identity tied up in themselves? The answer to all of these is the not knower. In other words, men like us.

So you see, knowing you future doesn’t necessarily give you one.

Crazy Morning with Kittens

We got two new kittens about a month and a half ago, and they are integrating nicely with our madness household. Today, however, they really got into hot water.

You see Trevor was in the middle of his toaster waffles, and got up to tell me something while I was reading through my morning email in the office. This is normal behavior for him, the getting up part, so much so that in ten years I don’t think the verbs “sit” and “eat” have ever been used in the same sentence to describe him. After he told me his joke, he left the office, and in doing so left the office door open. The reason I knew he left the office door open was that not much longer after his exit one of the kittens climbed up the back of my office chair, and proceeded to stroll out onto the desk looking for trouble. The reason why we keep the office door closed is precisely to keep the cats out of trouble, otherwise known as the drifts of stuff in the office all of which must be amazingly tempting to a kitten based upon their behavior.

As I was putting the cat out, Trevor came by again, so I called him in to show him a web page I had up on the screen. It was a report of the recent invasion of our local waters of Humbolt Squid. Since the lad is a budding Marine Biologist (as has been since he was in kindergarten) we like to point out things like this which might be of interest to him. The photos led to a discussion, which led to some wild imagining on both our parts of an invasion of giant squid and robots, and such. Little did we know a real invasion was going on while we were talking.

We stepped out of the office, and while I was closing the door I heard Trevor give a shout. Walking into the living room I found the two kittens on top of the dinning room table happily eating his waffles. They leapt off the table at our shouts, but were soon up on it again while we were preparing more waffles that were not “ruined” by the cats. The second time they were removed by the more effective method of a water bottle spray shot into the face. This lead to a discussion of the idea (presented for the one-thousandth time) of sitting and eating, (the key idea being the two are done simultaneously) as well as the idea of putting one’s chair back under the table when one is not sitting in it so it doesn’t make an excellent cat ladder.

Over all, I suspect little was learned today, except that the kittens now know that human breakfast foods, especially those dripping in syrup, are especially delicious and usually left unprotected in a place they can quickly get to.

I dream of peaches

I had a strange dream last light. I was opening up a bag of frozen peach slices, and eating them. For some reason I knew these slices had been prepared by my paternal grandfather. The taste triggered a memory of his large wrinkled hands carefully cutting and bagging the slices, before putting them in the freezer. It gave me a sense of connection to him, the peach piece was something he had touched in his hands just last year, and now it was in my hand.

When I woke up I remembered that Pops, as we called him, hadn’t died last year. He’s been in the grave for 30 years come this fall. Funny how your time sense is distorted by dreams. i also don’t recall him ever freezing fruit, although I’m sure he did it. The man kept a HUGE garden, and was happy to pass off fruits and vegetables to us whenever we visited. As a kid we thought that anything grown by Pops was bigger and sweeter then anything else you could buy. This was a rule we all believed earnestly up until his death made it impossible to prove otherwise.

He did freeze the trout we caught every time we went fishing, but I don’t recall peaches. Except for last night.

Full fathom five

When my father died,
he took with him,
things I will never see,

Yet are as much a part,
of the man I am,
as these lungs which help be breathe.

-ERK
7/10/2011

For some reason the term Full Fathom Five fell into my head today, so I looked it up on wiki. Reading the Shakespeare poem/song that is the source brought to me a whole host of emotions, all associated with the death of my father, and my father-in-law. Hence the poem above.

As I write this, I am 48.  On the whole I have found being older to be a great benefit. Its as if the dross of your life is burned away slowly by time, leaving nothing but the hot undiluted self behind. Every year I feel like my thinking becomes clearer, at least in terms of being me, while my surety that the world runs only a particular way falls off more and more. That is, I am more sure about myself, but less sure about everything else. This I think is a wonderful trade-off, a nice balance of pride and humility. Something I actually look forward to, and see as a benefit that more than overcomes the physical imperfects that also come with age. But there are parts about becoming older that are not so fun. One of them is burying your parents.

It is easy to assume if you are male, and over 18 that you are in fact a man, but I will tell you right now, you really do not know what it means to be a man until the day you bury your father. That day, and all the days that come after. That is when you really sense the full weight of manhood resting hard upon your shoulders.

My father does not lie five fathoms down. One was sufficient. And let me tell you, that one fathom is the heaviest amount of dirt I have ever felt.

So the other evening Teri and I were sitting in the office at out respective computers, doing something like surfing the net or writing email, when Trevor walked in and start sniffing us. First he came up behind my back, and sniffed around my neck and shoulders. Then he went over to Teri, and did the same to her. Its a bit unnerving to have a 10 year old walk up behind you and start smelling you, but we are used to our son being slightly eccentric. (For instance, he will not refer to either Teri or myself as Mom or Dad. He only calls us by our first names) Since it was near his bed time I think we both thought he was tired, and trying to get our attention so we could tuck him in bed. Rather than be upset, we both stopped and turned to him asking “What are you doing?”

“I’m sniffing,” he said with a smile. “Sniffing for guilt.”

Father’s Day

Over on Facebook, a lot of people I know are replacing their photo with one of their father, in honor of Father’s Day. Its a wonderful conceit, sort of like putting up a flag on flag day (which we did btw), but it is not one I feel like doing. This post is about why.

My father was an interesting man. Strong, handsome, sharp as a tack, and oftentimes quite funny. He grew up a honest-to-goodness real cowboy, like the rest of his family. A tough independent bunch of hombres if you ever saw ’em. Unlike the rest of the family, however he also looked the part. His looks and his manner branded him the quintessential cowboy, the hero of every western. Had he grown up is Southern California, there’s a good chance he would have ended up in the movies. Unlike the popular cowboys of radio and the silver screen, Dad was also a “real” cowboy. He knew how to ride, knew how to manage cattle, he competed in rodeo events, and he won a gold medal in the FFA nationals his senior year in high school.

Growing up, he cast a big shadow.

Dad was a good father in terms of making sure there was meat on the table. He worked hard so I could go to college, and do well in school. I never lacked for much materially as a child, thanks to a large part by his efforts. I never went hungry, never lacked for shoes, clothes, coats, that sort of thing. Now mom worked too, so it wasn’t all him, but he did provide for his family.

He also was happy to lead us on summer vacations, whether it was sailing in the Lido 14, or fishing in a creek. Dad was always game for taking us to the great outdoors.

This, and many other things made my father a great father. I respect him for his efforts, and I wish he were still alive today so I could thank him for them.

When Trevor was born, and it was my turn to be a father, I had to really think about what I wanted to be as a father. Since that day (a bit over 10 years ago) I have tried to follow my father’s footsteps in terms of leadership, in terms of visiting the great outdoors, and in terms of making sure my son does not want for anything materially. But I have also been careful to not be like my father in some ways.

My son will know he is loved by his father. It will never be a question for him. Sure he will think me an ass at times (I am an ass at times), but he will always know my love. Likewise he will always know when I fail. When I have done wrong, especially when I have caused him pain, he will hear my heartfelt apology. I need him to know that being a man is not about being right all the time, but about owning your successes, and your failures, for surely there is no man alive who does not carry both. Finally, my son will always know my support. Mind you he will always know my criticism too. If he pisses off a gang of hoodlums, and they are right outside our door demanding his blood, I will call him a stupid ass, but I will do this while I am loading up my rifle. There is no direction he can go I will not back him, as long as he is not harming himself or others. Even if I think it is a damn stupid thing to do, I will support him. Why? Because no man can see the future. If Lady Gaga had approached her father 5 years ago and said, “Dad. I want to dress up in freaky outfits, and sing bizarre pop songs,” I’m quite sure his response would have been WTF??!!! Now because of her dream, he gets to choose which house he will live in this month.

My father (and my mother) taught me a lot, and gifted me greatly, but when it came down to how I wanted to parent, I needed to toss some of their ideas out the window. I can only hope that my own son, when he becomes a father, will have the wisdom to do the same.

Shoes

Today, a little tool that looks like this saved my life.

Well, not really my life, but it did save my shoes.

You see, I have me a bit of shoes. About 10 pair or so. The problem is they all reside in a vary narrow closet space, stored in sort of an amorphous pile. This was starting to annoy me as some of them would fall out every time I opened my closet door, so I thought I would build some shelves to corral those suckers (maybe it was from reading This Old House Magazine on my lunch break). Anyway, I went out to the garage to look though the spare lumber pile, picked a likely piece, and prepared to start cutting. Seeing this, Teri came over and casually mentioned, “what about your old shoe rack? You know, the one collecting dust in the garage?”

“Oh yea,” I said intelligently as I went to go look for it. “The shoe rack.”

Now this shoe rack was a hold-over from our old house. It was sitting in the garage because it could not fit in the narrow (23.5″ wide) closets of the new place. I intended to sell it off at the next garage sale. That was 10 years ago when we moved here. So I pulled the rack out, and looked it over. Besides it’s width, it was perfect. The problem was that the darn thing is made of metal tubes with plastic interlocking end pieces. Somehow, the metal tubes had to be cut.

I don’t know if you know anything about cutting metal tubes, but they can be a right pain in the ass. Put too much pressure on them, and they deform (meaning compress). After that, they are a ring-tailed bitch to get the ends round again. The problem is, the ends needs to be round so they can be pressure fitted (read jammed) into the plastic end pieces.

Enter the tool: The Superior Tool model # 35030 Mini Tubing Cutter. I bought my Superior Tool tubing cutter to cut the small brass tubes used for converting the motors on CD-ROM drives into model airplane motors. That was about 8 years ago, and the darn thing has been spending all its free time hanging out with the other model airplane tools. So I dusted it off, attached it to one of the metal tubes for my shoe rack, and gave it a go. Sure enough the darn thing worked flawlessly. Not only did it cut the tube without deforming it, but it also rolled the ends of the tube inwards so they would be easier to fit in the plastic end pieces.  Within an hour I had cut all 8 tubes, filed and sanded their edges, and reconfigured the new thinner shoe rack in my closet.

Boy my shoes are happy right now. And I feel like a manly man. The best part is there is one less thing in our garage I have to deal with. Until we move again, that is.

Darn that life thing, it so gets in the way.

I’ve been very busy for the past couple of months, and have neglected my poor blog. All two of my fans are now obviously despondent. Sigh.

The reality is my Father-in-law passed away a while back, and we’ve been spending all our free time out at the Davis Ranch (where my lovely Mother-in-law lives) trying to help her get a handle on the drifts of interesting stuff he left behind. And I do mean drifts.

The main priority has been to get her a running truck so she can drag stuff to the dump, and generally be more independent. Of course, because it is this family, the beater truck is a 56 Ford with a big back window. Like the photo below, only more beat, and with a hood that open the proper way. Just working on it is pretty cool, and the luxury of all that space, and the absence of computers makes it a project perfect for a poorly trained shade-tree mechanic like myself.1956 Ford F-100, big back window

A real blessing is the ability to work with my delightful brother-in-law, Rob, on this project. He and I have always clicked, from the day we met, and we seem to work well together, which makes the process so much more fun. He also knows about a billions times more than me about cars and such, growing up with his hot-rodding father like he did. I got some of that growing up, but not nearly the same super sized helping of advice and tool use.

Father Juan and the novel is going a pace, I’ve got two new chapters, and a few corrections to put up. I also last week, put together a time line in which the whole novel plays out. The was needing a backbone to help locate the various bits in time and place, and I think I hit just the right mix of structure and open endedness to make it work. This will mean minor structural changes to all the chapters, adding in some details early on to fit the story to that backbone. The basic story will remain the same, but now much of it (hopefully) will benefit from a more concrete context. time will tell.