Red wasps and summertime

May 19, 2015

Ah, summer. Most kids like the end of school. For me, it marked the beginning of exceedingly long, hot days and hours upon hours of boredom, except when I managed to do something really stupid.

There was a do-it-yourself carwash at the corner of Texas Highway 94, where we live, and Farm to Market Road 706, about a quarter mile away. The carwash had two stalls, its high walls and roof made of corrugated tin. Each stall had its own high-pressure hose and gun that shot water at a powerful rate as soon as you deposited three quarters and pulled the trigger.

One summer, a large colony of red wasps built a nest right in the middle of the ceiling in one of the bays, amid the arm mechanism that allowed the hose to swing 360 degrees. I noticed this nest, some 15 feet or so off the ground, because red wasps and I had been battling each other for two solid summers. I was stung so many times I lost count.They dived at me from under the eaves of our house, from our porch ceiling, from the corners of windows where they had taken up residence and from almost anywhere in the barn. They were aggressive, with their boiling red bodies and large, menacing black eyes. The hotter the day, the meaner they were, carrying fire in their hypodermic stingers. Each shot I received was worse than the previous one, and no home remedy chilled the poison, not chewing tobacco, or Skoal, or baking soda. Even an application of ice made the sting hotter.

At first, I thought wasps, like the honeybees we kept, died after they stung me, which provided some consolation. At least the little bastards couldn’t sting me again. Then I learned that wasps don’t give up their innards when they land a sting. It’s more like a scorpion sting that gets under your skin. I hated red wasps, maybe more than I hated snakes. The feeling seemed mutual, because wasps sought me out, tracking and attacking me as prey. So, I learned to look up whenever I walked under a roof or through an out building doorway.

On a 95-degree day in the middle of the week in the middle of the summer in practically the middle of nowhere, the carwash typically was not busy. One day I decided to ride my bike through and around the carwash to break the monotony of watching Perry Mason reruns. As I passed through one stall I looked up and saw the biggest wasp nest I’d ever seen. It was as big as a dinner plate and teeming with little red devils.

Despite my repeated run-in with wasps, and the many resulting welts of burning poison, I couldn’t pass by a nest without stirring them up. My mission was to destroy every nest I saw. It was my duty. It was a matter of honor. It was really, really stupid.

The carwash wasps provided a unique attack. I wouldn’t be a hapless target on foot, I had wheels. I decided to grab a handful of rocks from the side of the road and throw them as hard as I could straight up as I rode my bike through the stall. It was scary. It was dangerous. And it was just what an 11-year-old needed to cure mid-week boredom.

I road through without rocks a time or two, planning the attack, deciding exactly when to let loose the barrage of rocks. I planned my escape down the concrete driveway at the back of the carwash that led to the highway, which led to my house. There was an understanding among boys that during an altercation or the threat thereof, if you weren’t going to fight on neutral ground, one boy didn’t pursue another boy into the other boy’s yard. It was a rule.

Finally, I drummed up enough courage to override any potential rational thought I might have had. I rode through the bay and just as I crossed the metal grate in the center, I threw up a handful of rocks as hard as I could. Bambambambambam! They bounced off the tin and rattled around the twirling mechanism. I rode away as fast as I could toward home base. Nothing happened. So I did it again. This time the wasps were on alert. I could see a few of them scouting around for the source of danger. I let loose another handful of rocks — bambambambambam! — and rode like hell out of the carwash. Safe again.

Two attacks had been successful in that some of the rocks seemed to hit the nest. I had delivered my message that I was there for battle, determined to take them down. One more barrage ought to make them mad enough to leave the nest, then I would knock it down by throwing larger rocks at it. Off I went, confident in my conquest.

Once again I scooped up a handful of rocks. I aimed for the center of the bay, rode over the grate and flung my hand up as hard as I could. Bambambambambam! I hauled ass down the driveway, not caring at all to look for cars that might have been speeding along the highway, and peddled for home. The wasps were, apparently, aware of the home base rule and were determined to catch me in open territory. They caught me.

I say “they,” because one wasp represented the whole nest. They were all in on it together. One wasp found me, caught up with me and zeroed in on the middle of my back, right between my shoulder blades. I felt the familiar fire, as if I’d been shot, and let out a yell. I saw in my mind’s eye the lean, red, angry insect land on my shirt, position itself carefully and ram its stinger deep into my skin as hard as it could. I saw the poison pour into my body, dripping off the wasp as it removed itself, satisfied, and flew back to the nest.

Right in the middle of my back. Where I couldn’t reach it. I got home and looked in a mirror. There was a red welt at least two inches … at least eight inches in diameter! I don’t remember much after that. My grandmother probably applied baking soda because she didn’t chew tobacco. But I remember the rocks — pebbles, really, but we didn’t use that word because it sounded feminine — the dirt that came with the rocks and sifted through my fingers, the hot glaring sun of summer in Texas, riding away as fast as I could and the sting I suffered.

I didn’t go back to the carwash wasps. I figured I’d made my point, and they’d made theirs, and that was good enough. I never threw another rock at a wasp nest, either. Soon after this episode some genius at Dow Chemical or somewhere invented a can that shot a stream of wasp killer thirty feet. I haven’t been stung again. Eventually, a few years ago, I overcame the painful memory of that sting. I’ve taken out a few nests, one by using a spray adhesive, which was pretty cool. But by and large the red wasps of the world and I have reached an armistice. But I still look up at eaves, and under roofs. Those tricky little assassins could renege without warning.


Cowboy poem 1

November 13, 2007

It weren’t the cowhides

Weren’t even the hot irons

nor the brilliant, glowing fire

But the fire and the irons,

when mingled a while,

and then met the leather,

created the smoke,

the smell of burnt hair

deep in my nose

that reminded me of you.


November 13, 2007

He was plagued by the horrid memories of tragedies that never happened.


Unexpected lesson

November 12, 2007


“Unexpected lesson”


3,401 words


Clinton Colmenares


Oct. 7, 2007


            It’s not yet seven thirty on a frost-bitten November Saturday morning in Nashville, 2002, when men start filing into what used to be called the Workhouse, an old red-brick building where misdemeanor criminals once made amends. Now the Metro Sheriff’s Training  Center, it’s a labyrinth of corridors and dark, dungy rooms. A female deputy sits in a secured booth inside the door giving the same directions over and over with an amused smile. “Uh, huh. End of the hall, to the right.”    

            Through a steel-bar gate, past doors without windows, all the men follow the signs tacked to cheap paneling — “Johns School” — finally arriving in what must be the largest, darkest, dankest room in the place. This is where the men, all of them convicted johns caught soliciting prostitution, will spend eight hours listening to a parade of people preach to them about the laws and illnesses associated with their proclivities.    

            Local TV news has been sharing with Middle Tennesseans a series of raids on massage parlors, the embarrassed faces of half-dressed men and the angry, defiant faces of the women paid to service them flashing across the screen amid a swarm of plain-clothed cops. The newspaper has also covered the raids and mentioned the Johns School. The well-planted stories are a front-end deterrent of the Metro vice crackdown while the Johns School is post-arrest aversion therapy. The men caught in the stings, who either missed the news or whose temptations trumped the threat of arrest, find themselves here with men who had been shopping for street prostitutes, and in this dark, dank room, they will continue to support the type of women they wanted to employ in the first place, but the $5 trick has cost them several hundred, and most of it will help women get off the street and dry up the supply the men so eagerly demanded. The irony of the program piqued my interest.      

            The johns’ faces are young and old, poor and middle class, bored and anxious. They’re the everyman. All of them grew up down the street from someone, maybe you; went to high school with someone, maybe your sister. You see them in restaurants, stand across from them when you fill up at gas stations. You work with them.  I stick out because I’m carrying a pen, a notepad and a tape recorder, and that earns me several wary looks. But I know these men better than they think I do. If they’re the seedier side of society, I met them long ago, thanks to my sister.


            My sister was born into misery, the result of our parents’ affair, in 1955. I was born thirteen years later, the third child, when our parents’ marriage finally tore asunder. I have very vivid early memories — of a party for my third birthday, a house my grandparents rented before then. But I never remember my sister living at home. My first recollection of her is on a Christmas morning. I awoke and ran into the living room, eager to open gifts. “Shh,” my mother said. “Your sister’s home. She’s sleeping.” I rushed into the bedroom to pounce playfully on her, and she said, “Shut up and go away.” It’s a phrase I would hear regularly.

            Our Houston neighborhood was sliding from its middle-class roots into homes for the working poor. Drugs were rampant. My brother was regularly threatened at his junior high school for his lunch money. My sister seemed to be in the middle of it. I was told that she was a run-away, a juvenile delinquent, a drug addict. Her friends were to be held at arm’s length; they didn’t join us for Sunday dinner. Most of them, like the johns, appeared normal, at first. Two of them, a white guy and a black girl, both teen-agers, stood in our driveway one day and threatened to kill my sister for a wrong she’d done them. I’d never seen them before, but it was apparent, and puzzling, that these people, not my family, were who my sister spent most of her time with. Other friends were regularly stoned, some were grungy, tired-looking, walking around in the same kind of hollow skin that often cloaked my sister.

            My sister’s life — whatever it was — fueled an ongoing fire between she and my mother. I watched and listened as the sparks roared into flames. I remember, at least once, riding in my mother’s truck when she was arguing with my sister. My mom slammed on the brakes, pulled over to the side and kicked my sister out. I stood on the seat and looked out the back window at a sad, aimless kid, cursed out of our lives for the time being.

            When she blew back in there was always caution in the air. She regularly terrorized our brother, a child caught in the middle of a family’s beginning and its end. When she left, our whole house bobbed and gasped and struggled for a breath in her wake.

            Through all the screaming and yelling, all the anger, my sister was my heroine, a tragic figure, but one who spoke up for me, one who introduced me, in very small doses, to her world. Once at a bowling alley, when I was about five, she and her friends laughed and joked as I sipped their beers.

            My sister usually carried a guitar or two, although she couldn’t have afforded them. Her fingers danced over the strings like the long slender legs of a garden spider, and when she sang I heard the cigarettes she smoked and the bus-station phone calls she made, asking to come home, from Kansas or Alabama or a small West Texas town. I could hear how she was never completely rested.   


            Each town has its dark side. I’ve seen them everywhere I’ve lived: Montrose in Houston, barrios in south San Antonio, projects in Montgomery, Ala. In East Texas, where I lived from second grade through high school, there was a part of town called The Front. Any white man seen in the front was either buying drugs or women.

            In Music City, where I moved in 2000 to work for the daily newspaper, Dickerson Road was a dark, broad avenue lined with pawn shops, hourly-fee motels, tire stores and worn, tattered retail space that lay dormant for thirty years. It was on the northern side of the Tennessee River, across from the famed music row and glitzy tourist traps.

            In 1996, Nashville was an upwardly mobile city, its previous reputation as a hamlet for vagabonds had been polished by then-Mayor Phil Bredesen, now Tennessee’s two-term governor. But prostitution continued to plague Dickerson road, so the mayor created the Working Group on Prostitution to examine the issue.

            Rosemary Sexton, a lawyer in the district attorney’s office and a member of the working group, says street sex was getting out of hand, hitting close to schools like Shwab Elementary. She often tells the story of “the twelve-year-old girl who was walking home from school when a fifty-year-old man asked her for a blow job.” She pauses for effect. “How would you like that to be your daughter?”    

            Public health was also at stake. In 2000, Metro Nashville had the highest syphilis rate in the country. Housewives in the city’s classy Green Hills neighborhoods started worrying, for good reason, that their husbands were visiting ladies on Dickerson Road and bringing home more than the  bacon, according to another working group member.    

            The good people were complaining. Something had to be done. But the jails were already crowded, and expensive. In 1996, it cost $245 to keep a prostitute for the mandatory seven-day sentence, and these weren’t Miss Kitty’s saloon girls. A survey of thirty-eight women incarcerated for prostitution found that every one was addicted to cocaine, forty percent tested positive for  HIV and ninety percent had a past STD. They turned tricks for an average of fifteen johns a day (one reported twenty-five) for about $15  each. The women had sex for the first time at an average age of eleven. Jail also lacked rehabilitation. Some of the women were arrested hundreds of times, and the working group reported that “A return to prostitution is inevitable.”     

            Another key finding of the group’s research: “Women were getting jail time, and the guys were walking away with nothing,”  Sexton says. So the group suggested a direct-to-consumer approach to law enforcement and the county’s public health blight. The state  had passed a law making solicitation of prostitution within a mile-and-a-half radius of a public school — just about everywhere — a felony that carries a $1,000 fine and a week in jail, with a maximum of eleven months, twenty-nine days incarceration.    

            The working group crafted the Johns School as an option for first-time offenders. Instead of paying $1,000, they can pay $250 for the day-long school, get six months’ probation, get tested for STDs and, if they behave, have their records expunged. The money, kept separate from municipal fines, goes to Magdalene, a residential drug and prostitution rehabilitation program started by Nashville’s Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal minister, wife of a successful song writer and shepherdess to former women of the night.


            By eight a.m. the line to get in has gotten longer. Ultimately, fifty-three men will assemble, the largest group Kenneth Baker remembers. Baker runs a company called Behavior Intervention Programs that contracts with Metro to counsel the fine, upstanding citizenry arrested for spousal abuse or domestic violence. Every six weeks he runs the Johns School with a cognitive behavior-modification tack: make the johns aware of what they’re doing, tell them it’s bad, that it’s illegal and that it has consequences. This is a new concept for many.

            Baker sits at a table and checks the men’s names off a list from the district attorney’s office. He asks for proof that they were tested for STDs and collects $250 in cash. One old man shuffles in wearing bib overalls and tells Baker he has Parkinson’s. One young man arrives with two older women, maybe his mother and grandmother; he doesn’t have enough cash and quietly sends the ladies, who seem kind and embarrassed, to get more. About 20 Hispanics show up. They’ll eventually huddle in a corner listening to a female translator.  

            At the end of the line is a figure whose fingers, wrists and neck are weighed down with gold. He yells, “I got framed! I’m starting a lawsuit! There wasn’t even a  woman in the vicinity!” He’ll repeat his claim, loudly, throughout the day, and nobody will seem to care.

            Around eight-thirty, Baker starts class by explaining his “bucket of shit” philosophy.    

            “The world is like a checkerboard,” he tells them. You move to a certain square “and a bucket of shit falls from the sky. Even being near one of those squares, you get hit by a bucket of shit. You ever been hit by a bucket of shit?”    

            The crowd offers a collective, “Uh-huh.”

            The buckets are more likely to fall at strip clubs, on Dickerson Road, renting porn or going to a massage parlor,  Baker calmly explains. Then his voice rises a little. “You have to go to court, hire a lawyer and waste a Saturday. And,” starting to yell, “if you  still don’t understand after this, you know what you are? You’re just plain stupid!” A calming pause. Nobody voices disagreement. “And possibly sex addicted.” Beliefs, he tells them, cause behaviors. “We do what feels good,” he says, then he introduces the first speaker.

            Jim McNamara, a public defender, begins by dispelling the fallacy that a cop on a sting has to admit to being a cop if someone asks. “That’s entrapment, man,” the gold-clad one says, and mumbles about his constitutional rights. “They’re allowed to lie to you,” McNamara says. They can also make the first move. And they only have to establish that men are soliciting, asking or engaging in some sort of negotiation, he says. “And one-hundred percent of the time they wear a wire.” Then he dispels another myth. “The life of a prostitute is hard,” McNamara says. “The decoys the cops most often use are the most beautiful women on the street.”

            Next, Brad Beasley, an STD surveillance officer with Metro, steps in and passes out envelopes, results from the required STD  testing. The room goes quiet. Then Beasley walks around showing photos of active syphilis and  herpes in various locations on the body. Everyone’s disgusted. He tells them about gonorrhea of the eye. Later, Beasley and his coworker, Dederick Yeargin, tell me that very few of the johns test positive, mostly because they use condoms, but also because they only hire a prostitute’s hand.

            At eleven a.m. Regina Mullins, a rather large, young black woman who turned tricks for a dozen years, addresses the crowd like she’s at a twelve-step meeting. “Good morning. I’m an addict recovering from drugs, alcohol and also prostitution,” she says. “I came this morning to give you some hope for your life.”

            When she was desperate for money a friend convinced her to be an escort, an idea that seemed exotic. “What started as a $300 date without sex turned me into a $5 ho,” she says. “Most of you guys come out power trippin’ and you would rape me. You’d take what you want, my dope, my sex. A lot of girls have gotten smart,” she says. “You can find yourselves being raped or robbed, or getting an STD … then you take that shit home to your girlfriend or your wife. They don’t know you’re fucking off. You can put it back on them.”

            The cycle of prostitution, she says, runs from an anxious addict eager for money to one who’s depressed and apathetic, and finally to a woman bent on revenge, armed with syphilis or HIV. “My thing was to get y’all (with a disease) before you got me,” she says.


            I like Mullins instantly. She’s sure of herself, both where she was and how far she’s come to be clean, and she seems intent on not going back. Listening to her story I start to wonder about my sister, and how much of Mullins’ story could be hers.

            After I was in my 20s I learned through a half-brother that my sister had overdosed several times, attempting suicide. She tried to kill herself twice when I was in high school; once with a gun and another with pills. What else had she done? What else had she been through? I suspected Regina Mullins might know more about my sister than I did.


            Mullins softens and tells the johns how their money is being spent at Magdalene, how she got off the street and has been clean and legitimate for three years. She works 20 hours a week as a weekend manager in the program’s group home and volunteers at the hub of  Magdalene operations, in the St. Augustine Episcopal Chapel on the campus of Vanderbilt University, where program founder Stevens is the residing minister.    

            Stevens, in her early-forties, seems both intensely passionate and carefree. She has a runner’s build and an activist’s simplicity of fashion. Sitting in her cramped church office she explains that Bredesen was in favor of the Johns School if the fines went to help women. All of the speakers volunteer their time, and the money represents about one-sixth of Magdalene’s operational budget. Last year, Magdalene started Thistle Farms, a cottage industry operating out of St. Augustine in which the women make and  sell fragrant potions that soothe and heal; bath salts called Lot’s Wife and an ointment called Balm of Gilead. “Thistles are the gangly weeds that grow along Dickerson Road,” Stevens says. But the weeds have beautiful flowers. Magdalene has helped 100 “drug addicted, streetwalking women,” according to the reverend. The first step, she says, is breaking a chain of  hard-headed myths — that women want to be prostitutes, that they’ll never change, that prostitutes can’t be raped. (Eighty-seven percent of the women who have gone through Magdalene are clean and are not working as prostitutes, a statistic twice  the national average, Stevens says.) “Prostitution is not the oldest profession. Sex abuse is. To heal that, we have to heal the  men as well as the women,” she says. She has sympathy for the johns, but adds, “When you disregard the humanity of  another just to get your needs met at the most basic level, it’s sick.”


            After a lunch break, Baker explains to the johns the term “activating event.” Something happens, he says, that leads men to believe, “‘I’ve got to have some.’ It’s the same thing in domestic violence or alcohol abuse. You didn’t get your way. But what if everyone in this room had stuffed their feelings of horniness? You wouldn’t be here.”

            Another speaker, Dr. Reid Finlayson, a Vanderbilt University psychiatrist, describes sexual addictions and passes around a list for people to sign if they want to be considered for an addiction study.  Several sign up. One is James, who says he’s in the restaurant business. He’s married and has children, and says he’s been  going to prostitutes for 18 years, “at least,” to get away from his problems. “I never realized that it was selfish indulgence. They made me realize the actions of one person go a long way.”

            Bill, 49, graduated college from Lipscomb University, a Church of Christ school in Nashville that prohibits drinking, profanity, pornography, sex and other behaviors, on and off campus. Bill was married twice, was a Church of Christ minister, sold men’s clothes and most recently worked for the state in human resources. He’s been on disability for bipolar disorder for almost a year. He knows he’s an addict. Several years ago he started visiting a porn store near his home. (One prominent building in downtown Nashville is the Southern Baptist Convention’s publications headquarters; another is a large sheet-metal building along the Interstate 35 called “World’s Largest Sex Store.”) “I kept them in business. I’d go two or three times a week and get three to four [videotapes] at a time.” Soon, he says, “I had to reach out to something more exciting.” He trolled for women. And then a different woman each time. He didn’t consider their looks. Over the course of a couple of years, he spent several thousand dollars on his daily habit, one so automatic, he says, “I didn’t even think about getting in my car and heading [to Dickerson Road].”

            After the class, the men file out slowly. The one with the gold chains leaves surprisingly quietly. Mullins had caught a cab earlier. Bill and James say being arrested was the best thing that could have happened to them. They’re being evaluated for Finlayson’s research and hope to turn their lives around. Bill’s in therapy.


            I hadn’t come with my sister in mind, but I leave thinking that I had just witnessed part of her mysterious life as a kid, a stray wondering Houston. I think the worst thing that might have happened to her was a desperate decision to trade sex for money, for drugs. Had she been abused and beaten, raped, exploited, like Mullins described? Probably. Maybe by women, too, by people who looked as typical as the johns. She survived, but not like Mullins, with the help of a program like Magdalene. She survived her way. She married twice, has two kids and she’s a grandmother. She keeps a job, a house, for a year or two, then tosses it all out and tries again. She has a partner. She turns 51 this year.

            Sometimes I wonder if my sister might have turned out like Stevens — smart, attractive, settled and comfortable, her life put together and working toward an end — if she’d been born into a kinder world, if she’d made better choices, had better friends. It’s almost like wondering what she would have become if she hadn’t died.

            I hear about her now and then from my brother or my dad. It’s been 10 years since I’ve talked with her, or heard from her. Our lives have grown too far apart, and she still produces a powerful vortex; I’m not strong enough to be near it without being sucked in. I know of no balm for my sister’s life, no Saturday antidote.


In the beginning

April 3, 2007

My father looked youthful, sitting in his desk chair, almost a bystander to the conversation I was having with my stepmother about what to do when the two of them die.

We were in my parents’ basement office. My daughter rolled golf balls around on the floor. I was prepared for a serious discussion. My stepmother, Margaret, started explaining what to do with their bodies. I’m certain that this was the first time in their combined 172 years that they’ve both seriously discussed their last wishes.

“We both want to be cremated,” she said. But her sister had requested that her ashes be scattered around the property at home near the mountains. Margaret and her brother-in-law complied the day after Thanksgiving last year. “That was a very difficult thing to do,” Margaret said, which is as close as she’ll come to saying she was sad, or crying. So, she said, she wanted to be buried in her family’s plot, both because she feels no special connection with the land under her feet and because she doesn’t want to put anybody out. “And,” she said, “Daddy said he wants to be buried where I am.”

I looked over at my father. He sat quietly. I had never before seen the expression on his face, or his posture. Dad usually has four emotions: serious and all business, as when he’s explaining how to drive; critical, which usually involves sarcasm and incredulity; jocular, when he’s joking around with his old-fart buddies over a few beers; or silly, like when he makes faces and wiggles his ears at Ella. But at this moment, when we were talking about his death, he was relaxed, serene, sober. He seemed calm.  He literally looked young. He smiled lightly. His blinked away mist in his eye. Maybe his heart felt heavy, maybe his body tingled, but he was definitely in his own skin. He wasn’t someone’s husband, or a father or grandfather. He wasn’t entertaining a crowd. He was himself. He said in response, simply, “yes.”

My father will be 90 this year. His age — rather, his health at his age — inspires awe in people. Men 20, sometimes 30 years younger often look older, appearing as though life served them more hard knocks. They just didn’t know how to bob and weave like my old man. Just yesterday, someone stopped us as we were drivining out of the snack bar at my dad’s golf course. “How old are you going to be?” Dad told him. “Well, bless your heart. That’s really great. I’ll be 72 this year.” The deep wrinkles on the man’s face was covered with gray stubble, his eyes looked tired, he speech a little faulty. He looked like a recent discharged from an ICU. Dad is always clean-shaven, sharply dressed, ready to discuss world affairs.

It’s not surprising that Dad is only now talking about his will, his death. He is the last man on earth who wants to die. He has always made playing hard a very serious endeavor. He was a tennis pro when he was young. He married four times, had seven kids. He ran his own company until he was 75, and he continues to chair boards and committees, always looking for the next opportunity to create a legacy, finding ways for people to remember him fondly while running as far ahead of sedentation and death as possible.

Dad complains of aches and pains, and he recently had surgery to repair damage done to his right knee when he wasn’t agile enough to make it up a hill. Still, it’s hard to believe that this man will die soon. It’s easier to imagine that he’ll be around another 10 years or more. His grandmother lived to 103.

I agreed to have durable power of attorney for health care for both Margaret and my dad. She sought and collected the proper forms. She studied them closely and chastises my dad for not doing so. She’s engaged in the topic, firing off  questions.

We wade through their end-of-life requests and get to their will, and what they want done with their belongings. Again I’m surprised. It was as if I’d suddenly been dropped into another family. Margaret entered my life when I was just a baby, younger than Ella is now. I spent more time with her and my father — summers, school holidays — than my other siblings. I wanted to be around them. Margaret is a hard person to get to know. She’s very private. She can seem very cold. One time one of my dad’s golfing buddies came to the house, and he met Margaret. This man was a retired Army general. Big John. He was trying his best to be charming, and he asked Margaret if she ever went by “Maggie.” “Yes,” she said, “some of my very good friends call me that. But you can call me Margaret.”

Maybe it’s been her toughness that I’ve liked, her willingness to draw a line, even for my old man, and dare someone to cross it. She is, no doubt, the most intelligent person I’ve ever met.

I’ve always interpreted her privacy as distance, her close emotional boundaries (my father always says, “I love you,” but she never has) as disapproval.

I learned many things from my dad and stepmother, mostly manners and protocol. I also learned that I don’t want to raise my daughter the way I was raised. Many things I experienced as a child I strive to make sure Ella does not. I’ve recognized the gaps in their parenting that I’ve already started filling in for Ella. That also means trying to be a better husband. Many things they didn’t teach me, but I learned just the same.

But Margaret has entrusted me with her life. And she has decided to leave many of her possessions to me. It’s not what she’s leaving that’s important, or how much. At one point, she said, “you’ve been closer to us [than my six siblings], and I don’t just mean you’ve spent more time with us.” That’s as close as she’ll get to saying how much she cares. And it’s close enough.

Two hours after we sat down Dad and Margaret started annoying each other, bickering like (very!) old married people, and I knew the discussion was over. Life had returned to normal.


New blog address

February 14, 2007

These days I’m posting mostly on shelookslikeme.wordpress.com

Feel free to drop by.

— Dadontrainingwheels


Verbal misuse

February 13, 2007

It’s 3:30 this morning. Myowndaughter had a tough time going to bed, finally nodding off around 8:30. She woke up at midnight. She woke up again at 3. Her sexy mom has gone to check on her each time, staying a little while until Mod drifts off again. She’s there now.

I walk into Mod’s room to see if there’s anything I can do (as if).

That’s when I hear it. It makes me cringe. At 3:30 in the morning it makes me cringe.

“Lay down, Mommie. Lay down. No, Mommie, lay down.”

Lay down?!

Lay down?!

Lay?! Down?!
Where does this kid pick up this kind of language? She’s not in child care. She doesn’t hang out with the playground thugs. She’s not whiling away the hours in front of a TV, ever. She reads books … well, you know. We read books to her. She loves books. She’s very literary. She’s very language-oriented. She used sign language before she could talk. When she started talking she very creatively linked words together, like a lot of kids, to make her point: “Abby. … mmmm Biiiiig. Happy.” “You want to throw Abby the dog a birthday party with a great big cake?” “Yes.” (She speaks English like I speak Spanish.)

Her father’s a writer! Hello?

Lay down? I can’t believe it. It took all I had to keep from shouting, “Lie down. Lie down. Say it with me now, lie.” I knew that would have kept the kid awake, maybe even startled her, and could have landed her in our bed, and all sleep goes out the window when that happens.

She gets it from her mother. From Sexymom. Sexymom, sexy as she is, was not reared in a family that scrutinizes every spoken syllable. As a young boy, if I slipped and, say, forgot to use a possessive pronoun preceding the gerand form of a verb, a wrath of criticism flew from my father’s mouth, damning me to a life in the gutter if I kept up that talk. At dinner we would diagram, aloud, with our fingers in the air, the sentences of entire arguments about the influence of cultural identity on late-20th century residential architecture, communal behavior and domestic norms and the increasingly urgent need to erect legal and social barriers around the commonwealth and all that is Southern and good from northern invaders (my step-mother is Virginian).

Sexymom’s father was not an immigrant. My old man was born in Mexico. When his parents arrived in Houston they quickly began the process of assimilation. English was part of my dad’s ticket into Anglicanism, part of the mannerly and intellectual uniform he wore to distinguish himself from the common Mexican. Mastering English meant my father could talk his way into or out of anything — ask any one of his three ex-wives.

My father-in-law, however, was American, born and bred. He didn’t need the English language as an identity crutch. He grew up on a farm in western Kentucky, growing tobacco and corn and raising hogs. He earned a master’s degree and had a very successful career that’s provided a comfortable retirement … he worked with farmers.

Child development researchers at the University of North Carolina discovered recently that fathers influence their children’s language development — vocabulary, complexity of language, etc. — more than mothers do, despite the parents having similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

This offered some comfort at the time. I can’t even understand my Sexywife half the time, she talks in sentence fragments that might or might not be interrelated. And, she says “lay down.”

As a teen I rebelled from perfect English skills. I can’t spell worth a dam. I started to notice that despite some people’s language skills, they still survive, even thrive, in society.But even now the old man takes me down a notch if I dare to dangle a modifier.

But I did become a writer, and not by accident. Too much of this heretical linguistic influence could endanger my work (there’s probably examples crept into this post!). But even more harmful, it could corrupt my child, turn her against me, in the wee hours of the morning, looking for parental comfort from someone who’ll lay by her side.

I can’t take it! Lay! Lay! Why can’t I say “lay down?!” All I want is to talk good and have someone love me!
I take all this in, take a few deep breaths. I back away down the hall, make my way back to bed, and feel the callow emotions rapidly rise from their shallowly submersed subconscience shelf and linger long enough to prick like a thorn the tender trills of longing and let bleed these tiny drops of sorrow.