Archive for September, 2009

A Good Dad Needs a Gun.

dadwithgun 001I’m in the basement, talking to the t.v. 

Rachel, Alani and I are watching Taken, with Liam Neeson.   Liam’s character is the father of a seventeen year old girl.  Like many fathers, he’s an ex-CIA operative, and so missed out on much of his daughter’s childhood.   He’s divorced now, and struggling to be a good dad.  I’m coaching him.

He told his daughter she could go to Paris with her friend, because she said it would be educational – she would spend all her time at the Louvre.  Seeing her off at the airport, Liam notices a map of Europe in his daughter’s open bag, with various cities in Europe circled in black marker and dated.  It turns out she’s not going to the Louvre – she’s really following U-2 ‘s concert tour across Europe.

She lied to her dad.

“Trip’s over.” I announce.  I’m sitting in the big easy chair, my feet up on the ottoman.  Alani and Rachel are lounging on the couch.

Liam, on screen, seems uncertain what he should do.

“Trip’s over, Liam!” I say.  “She lied to you.”

Liam confronts the mom, who has been in on the deception all along.

“She lied to me,” Liam says.

“That’s right,” I say.

“She had to lie to you,” his ex-wife says.  “You’re smothering her.”

“Oh, baloney!” I say. 

I’m outraged at the mom’s gall.  Telling a seventeen year old girl she can’t follow U-2 across Europe is not “smothering” her.  And that’s not even the main point.  The lie alone is grounds for cancelling the trip. 

But Liam seems to be wavering.  I try to shore him up:  “This is going to be a short movie,” I say.  “Obviously, she can’t go to Paris now.” 

The movie freezes in mid-frame.  I look over at the couch.  Alani is holding the clicker.  She just hit the pause button.  She’s glaring at me.

“Are you done?” she asks. 

“The talking?” I say. “Sorry.”

“You always do that,” Alani says.


Alani starts the movie again.  Liam relents and agrees to let his daughter transform herself into a euro-trash rock groupie.  His daughter, giddy with her narrow escape from adequate parenting, flings herself at Liam, hugging him.  A mushy smile appears on Liam’s tough, ex-CIA operative face.

“What an idiot!” I say.

The movie freezes again. 

“Sorry,” I say.

(Liam later uses his CIA skills to rescue his daughter from Albanian white slavers who kidnap her in Paris. He shoots, stabs, and maims about 30 unshaven bad guys in the process.  He’s a good Dad after all.)


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marleycolor 001My fling with the Unitarians is over.  They were too nice.  I missed the incense, holy water, and constant irritation offered by the Catholic Church. 

Rachel and I had gone to a second service at the Unitarian …. do they even call it a “church”?  The funny, irreverant, recovering-alcoholic lesbian minister wasn’t there the second time.  The substitute minister, in her sermon, urged us not to waste food, because some people don’t have any.

That was the theme of the service.  We sang a song about it.  We sang that we were thankful:

                  “For the ani-MULLs

                    And the vegta-BULLS

                    And the miner-ULLS”

I leaned over to Rachel.  “This sounds like a Barney song, ” I said.

And so, last Sunday, I returned with Alani to the Catholic parish I’d left in July. 

When I left, the congregation was locked in a fight with a new, conservative priest,  Father Obeymyrules.  This congregation had a custom of passing a microphone through the crowd during Mass so that anyone could offer a prayer: for a daughter with metastatic breast cancer, an unemployed husband, an alcoholic nephew. 

Father O. immediately decreed: No more microphone, no more individual prayers.  He re-installed the official drone of petitions from the pulpit – for the Pope, the Archbishop, the Bishop, and all the Saints and Martyrs.  He issued additional edicts to stamp out other heretical practices that had crept into the parish. 

I think the church piano player, Bob, especially irritated Father O.  Bob ocasionally slipped unconventional songs into the line-up.  Bruce Springsteen’s Into the Fire.  A  jazzy, swinging version of How Great Thou Art.  Patty Griffin’s Love Throws a Line.  Father O. stood stock-still and grim-faced during the toe-tapping tunes,  barely waiting for the last note to sound before he re-asserted control. 

I feared for Bob.  In a battle between a priest and a piano player, the priest wins, right?

Not this time.  When we returned to church I was relieved to see Bob still sitting behind his black Steinway.  Father O. was gone. 

Alani and I settled in and waited for Mass to start. 

“The processional hymn” Bob announced, “Is on the wall behind me.”

He flipped on an overhead projector.  Hand written music and lyrics appeared on the wall.  It was Bob Marley’s “One Love, One Heart.”  That explained the overhead projector.  Bob Marley is not in the official hymnbook.

The new priest, bald, portly, mid-forties, marched up the aisle as we sang One Heart.  He stepped up on the altar platform, and turned to face the congregation. 

“I feel like I should have worn my dreadlocks,” he said. 

We laughed. 

 He looked over toward the Steinway.  “Thought you’d slip that one by me, didn’t you, Bob?”

Bob just smiled.

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Mean Piano Teacher

meanpiano 001I got caught in a lie at the music store Saturday morning. 

I went to get a children’s piano method book.  For me. 

You may have noticed that people who take up piano as adults seldom achieve the same skill level as people who learned as children.  I think it’s because the adults start with the adult beginner books.  Those books use watered down arrangements of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and the other big names, but skip the fundamentals: Hot Cross Buns, Twinkle, Twinkle, Litte Star, and Fre’re Jacques.  I wanted a book that started with Hot Cross Buns.

Two music store guys were standing in the sheet music section when I came in.  They broke off their coversation and looked at me expectantly.  I told them I was looking for a piano method book.

“How old?” one of them asked.

If I told them it was for me, they’d try to steer me toward the adult beginner books.  I didn’t feel like explaining my Hot Cross Buns theory, or arguing with them about it. 

“Ten,” I said.  That seemed about right. 

One of the guys pulled a book off the shelf and opened it to show me the kid-friendly graphics.  Colorful cartoon illustrations, and quarter notes the size of large peas.  I frowned.  I’d said ten years old, not pre-school.  He saw my reaction, put the cartoon book away and moved down the shelf a bit.

“With an instructor, or without?” he asked.

I’d had a teacher before, seven years ago:  Every Tuesday, I sat in a claustrophobic university practice room with a doctoral music student.  Let’s call her Gertrude.  Gertrude’s teaching method was this:  1) Assign me a classical piece far beyond my ability; 2) Sigh heavily while listening to me trying to play it.  3) Imitate my playing by clunking spastically on the keys while I watched.  4) Flex her long white fingers and play the piece herself, beautifully.  After nine months of this weekly humiliation session, I quit Gertrude. 

“Without,” I said to the music store guy.  


He sounded incredulous.  Was I really going to force my ten year old (daughter?  son?) to learn piano without a teacher?  Was I too cheap to hire one?  What kind of parent was I, anyway? 

I was in too deep by then to tell him the book was really for me, and about my humiliation at Gertrude’s hands.  Better to just tough it out. 

“Yeah,” I said, “without”. 

I turned to the shelves of method books to look myself.  I ended up leaving with John Thompson’s first grade book.    I liked it because it has, for each section you learn, a little certificate of achievement to be cut out, signed by the teacher, and pasted into the book.  I’m only seven pages away from my first gilt-edged certificate.  Just have to master “The Merry Clown” and “The Scissors Grinder”.

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Alani Jumps Ship

illustrator 001My illustrator, Alani, has taken a sabbatical.  Her colorful “squarehead” artwork has dressed up my blog almost since it started, last April.  She has decided to leave her position as blog illustrator to pursue opportunties in the Eighth Grade.  Two of my favorite Alani illustrations are “Parenting Tips from Saddam Hussein”, under the Category “Bossing Other People’s Kids”; and “Hollywood Yuck”, under the Category “Alani Goes to Hollywood”.

I’m on my own.

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Borders Rip-off

Alani and I are at Borders, paying.  The cashier gestures toward small stack of children’s books on the counter and asks if I’d like to donate one.  He says something about “underprivileged children”. 

I always say no.  I’m cynical about corporate charity.  If they trumpet it to the world, it’s not charity, it’s business – polishing the corporate image to increase sales.  Especially when they’re  asking me to pay for the book.   If  Borders wants to help underprivileged kids, why don’t they just give them the books?

Last Sunday, I noticed an old woman sitting alone in the pew in front of me.  Scraggly grey hair.  Frail.   Hunched.  I felt the benevolent superiority I often feel around elderly people. 

She rose when it was time for the readings, and I realized she was the lector.  When she lifted her foot to step from the main floor onto the elevated platform holding the lectern, her leg rose so feebly I feared it would not clear the lip, and she’d fall.  She made it,  though, and walked painstakingly to the lectern while we all waited patiently.  Her crooked spine forced her head down, so she had to look up from under her eyebrows to see the congregation.

I’d already scouted out the New Testament reading.  The lesson is that religion, without good works, is meaningless.  Ho-hum.

But then she spoke, and the words came alive in her mouth.  Her tone was commanding, her gaze intent.   “Faith,” she said, “if it does not have works, is dead.”  

Why did she look right at me when she said that?

At Borders with Alani  – a few days later – I pick up one of the children’s donation books on the counter.  A waddling yellow duck is on the cover .  “So, how does this work?” I ask the cashier.  He tells me they give the donated books to pediatricians who care for underprivileged kids.  Oh, for chrissakes.  The books are for kids who are poor and sick.  I lay the duck book with my other purchases.  “Ok,” I say.  Alani smiles.

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Two Things About Jack

pianopicture 001

Remember Boris Yeltsin, in 1991, standing on top of a tank in Moscow, red-faced, shaking his fist, defending the new Russian democracy against the dictatorial powers of the Kremlin? 

Jack, my step-son, is like that.  When faced with the  tyranny of a parental order, he typically does not cry or whine:  He shouts. 

Last night, after his mother told him he could not have more vanilla ice cream:

“Yes I CAN!  That’s DUMB!  I AM going to have more!”

He yells from from the chest, deep and passionate.   He’s always been this way.  Jack is not without a repertoire of whines and tears, but his preferred weapon is to try to out-command any authority figure.   When his mother calmly informed him that, no, he’d had enough ice cream, he increased his volume and simplified his message: “YES I CAN! YES I CAN!”

The fact that this technique seldom succeeds does not deter him, which I respect.

But men like Jack and Boris have their tender side. 

This last Saturday was the first Notre Dame football game I watched since my Dad died.    My Dad played for Notre Dame, and I grew up watching them on t.v. every autumn Saturday.  In the past,  I would call my Dad during or after the game to bemoan a defeat or revel in a victory.  It was the most fun I had talking to him.  We always disagreed about politics and  religion, but never about Notre Dame football.

I watched last Saturday’s game by myself in the basement.  Michigan beat N.D. in dramatic fashion, scoring a touchdown in the final seconds.    When I trudged upstairs afterward Jack noticed I was down.  

I told him it was because Notre Dame lost.  

I sat down at the piano to noodle around.  Jack approached.

“Mike,” he said.  “I know something that will make you feel better.”

“Yeah?”  I turned on the piano bench to look at him.

He nodded.   He backed away toward the stairs.  “Turn around,” he said.  “Don’t look.”

I turned around.  I heard him going up the stairs, then coming down.  “I’m not sure,” he said.  “But I think this will make you feel better.” 

I looked.  Jack held a big framed black and white photo of my Dad in his N.D. uniform, a posed shot from his playing days, running toward the camera in his Number 34 jersey, cradling the football in the crook of his arm. 

I hugged Jack and told him thanks, it did make me feel better.  I took the photo from him.  He looked up to the top of the piano.  “You should put it up there,” he said.

“I think you’re right,” I said.  I put it on top of the piano.  I love that kid.

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When I came downstairs after the Monopoly game, I could tell that Rachel was steamed. 

“Why’d you give my mom the Electric Company?” Rachel asked.

 We played Up North, at her parents cottage.  I landed on the Electric Company, bought it, and handed it to Rachel’s mom.  I felt bad for her.  She had not yet landed on a single property she could buy.  She’d been fined, taxed, and sent to jail.  I was flush at the time, so I helped her out. 

I started to explain this to Rachel.

“I’m your wife,” Rachel said.  “Why didn’t you help me?”

Actually, I’d tried to.  There was a point in the game when I had the only monopoly and had piles of dough.  I hated to see Rachel, Alani, and Michael scraping for money to pay me.  I slipped Michael and Alani $500 each, without their noticing.  Rachel was at the other end of the table, so I tucked a $500 in my shoe,  sank down in my chair, and stretched my leg under the table.  I tried to tap her leg, but she didn’t notice.

When I tell Rachel this, it does not smooth things over.  “I wouldn’t have accepted it,” she says haughtily.  “I don’t take charity.”

If you are ever tempted to generate family togetherness by turning off the t.v. and playing an old-fashioned board game, I don’t recommend Monopoly.  I alienated the children, my wife, and in-laws by leaping up and performing a grotesque victory dance when I landed on Broadway, which I’d long coveted.  Rachel was not to be outdone.  When Michael was upset about a $1200 rent bill, she snapped, “There’s no crying in Monopoly!”. 

Eventually everyone skulked away, all bankrupt and some sullen, except Alani and I.  The dice went Alani’s way.  As I counted out my last dollars to pay her I looked up and saw her expression.  Bleak.  She took no pleasure in my financial ruin.  I handed her the last of my money and my sad, mortgaged properties.

“Congratulations, honey,” I said.

“I never want to play this game again,” she said.

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