It was Thursday morning December 20, just eleven days left in a very eventful year, and just some 100 days left until my nineteenth birthday. The thought of turning nineteen in April felt strange to me. All my teen years I had felt like an eighteen-year-old in waiting. That milestone was pretty much the age of majority, gaining one the right to vote, to drink, to smoke tobacco (if I cared to which I didn’t), plus the adult possibility of being drafted, and whatever decision I would have to make if that happened. But having achieved that iconic Alice Cooper “I’m Eighteen” thing, I really had no similar desire to get any older than that.
There was that iconic statement from a young activist, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!”, that was often repeated by those above or below that age. I couldn’t tell you who said it, but it was really very provocative for people on either side of that divide. I had no desire to get that old, and somehow lose some real or imagined revolutionary cred. I had lived in that zeitgeist of almost, and then actually eighteen, for years now. Comfortably so apparently, and the thought of turning nineteen somehow felt like the clock would start ticking, and before I knew it I’d be thirty. Weird!
I thought about all that as I was lying on my half of my dad’s bed in his little bedroom in his tiny apartment, in the back on the second floor of the house owned by his landlords on Xenia Avenue in the little town of Xenia Ohio. His “bed” was just an old double sized mattress on the worn carpeted floor. David, who had slept in the other half was already up and sitting at my dad’s big table at the foot of the bed, which basically took up the rest of the room. The subdued light of a snowy winter morning spilled in through the window next to my side of the bed, which looked out onto the backyard and the field across the street, both covered with a thin layer of freshly fallen snow.
Dad’s apartment was about as small as it could be and still have the four separate key rooms for home life. You walked up an exterior staircase and entered the apartment into an eight by ten foot kitchen. Besides refrigerator, stove, sink and cupboards, it also had a small desk where he would work when we were visiting. To the right of the front door was a doorway of sorts, though with no door, leading into an eight by ten living room, with an easy chair and couch, the latter which dad slept on when we were visiting, facing a big bulky wall heater unit in the other corner with a black and white TV on top of it. A similar doorway lacking a door led from the living room into a maybe ten by ten bedroom, with a double sized mattress on the floor against one corner of the room. Besides the mattress, there was a small dresser on the wall opposite the bed and a big table at its foot, which was normally dad’s desk, that is when David and I weren’t visiting. Finally, off the living room, was the bathroom, which actually had a door, with the requisite toilet, sink and tub, though the tub was one of those old-fashioned freestanding ones in the middle of the room with four legs that you could actually see under. And like our house on Martin Place, the tub had no shower.
When we were visiting, the kitchen was dad’s world, where he worked at the small desk grading papers or pounding out lesson plans or other documents on his small manual typewriter. He used the stereotypical two-finger hunt and peck of the newspaper reporter. He also would make us dinner. Spanish rice was his specialty, featuring tomato sauce, green pepper, onion and some hamburger, mixed with the rice. He was more short order cook than chef, also making spaghetti, hotdogs and beans, eggs and sausage, and sandwiches. But often we ate out at the spectrum of inexpensive fast food places around town.
David and my world was the bedroom. We slept on his mattress on the floor. Listened to records we had brought down from Ann Arbor on dad’s cheap little stereo. With dad in the kitchen, usually working, the bedroom was where one or both of us could have a small modicum of at least semi privacy. David would draw at the big table at the foot of the bed and I would sit or lie on the mattress and read a book I had brought up. I also would get some libidinal pleasure perusing and reading one of my dad’s literary magazines, particularly the Evergreen Review, which had excerpts from racy novels, like Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy…
I slipped a finger inside her to get the juice working. Then, pulling her on top of me, I sank it in up to the hilt.
If David say took a morning shower, and dad was at work in the kitchen, one whole eight feet of living room between our venues, I might even stealthily indulge in some relieving of that libidinal buildup. Quiet mornings in Xenia imagining those more ribald ones in Clichy. I knew that word “ribald” actually from a great satirical Tom Lehrer song, “Smut”…
Give me smut and nothing but
A dirty novel I can’t shut
If it’s uncut
I’ve never quibbled
If it was ribald
I would devour
Where others merely nibbled
As the judge remarked the day that he
Acquitted my Aunt Hortense
‘To be smut it must be utterly
Without redeeming social importance’
The three of us would interact mostly in the middle ground of the living room. We might all watch a movie, sporting event or favorite TV show on the television. Or maybe dad would read the paper or a book while David and I played some sort of board game there on the floor. Again, he seemed to enjoy mostly being a more passive “fly on the wall” to my brother and my conversations about this or that, than an active participant. He just enjoyed sharing the space with us and getting his glimpse into what made his sons tick.
Dad said he was intent on watching the Tangerine Bowl tomorrow evening. Not that he would not have demurred if David and I had wanted to watch something else on TV at the same time. All three of us knew the story behind the game, that a cinderella Miami of Ohio team, undefeated but from a second tier conference was taking on a top tier conference Florida team. Beyond his undying fealty to his University of Michigan alma mater’s Wolverines (go Blue!), he loved underdogs, whether in sports in particular or life in general. I think he had always seen himself as an underdog. A kid from an immigrant family of Polish ancestry going off to college and its academic world with mostly waspy peers from higher and more privileged stratas of society.
Though none of us were “jocks”, or had been real football players, other than the occasional pickup touch game, Dad, David and I were all athletically inclined and students of the game. We all had the sports enthusiast’s understanding of its strategies, key teams, players, stories and dramas around each college and pro football season. We were similarly knowledgeable of baseball, basketball and hockey.
His suggested activity for today was to spend the afternoon at Antioch College, just a ten mile drive from Xenia, where the gym was open and we could play some basketball on their indoor court and even maybe some racketball. Beside being a full-time English professor at Wilberforce University, his main teaching gig, he taught part-time at Antioch, so he had access to the gym there. He also taught English classes part-time at a number of other places in the greater Dayton area, including Central State University, Wright State Community College, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and even Lebanon prison. He loved nothing more in life than teaching people, young or older, free or incarcerated, civilian or military, how to write, and he had told me once that he had developed a specialty in teaching remedial English, basically how to write a coherent paragraph. And all those additional teaching gigs meant extra money earned towards paying child support to mom and supporting his modest lifestyle including lots of bakery goods (donuts particularly) and a smorgasbord of dining at local fast food restaurants.
So he apologized for having to spend the morning finishing grading his Wilberforce students’ finals plus giving them their final semester grades, and adjourned to his little makeshift desk in the kitchen. David and I retreated to the bedroom where we queued up a stack of LPs on the spindle of dad’s cheap stereo. The top side of each record would play and then the one above it on the metal spindle would drop down and play its upper side. David and I had brought up a mix of music and comedy records, including some old and new shared favorites.
This morning we started our set with Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, side one. It began with the title song, a little sappy for my musical tastes at that moment which craved more of an edge even in the pop songs I listened to. But Art Garfunkel’s high soaring voice did kind of create the space and a backdrop for what followed, and reminded me a bit of our dad’s high tenor croon, so it kind of fit this little space he called home. Next was “El Condor Pasa (If I could)” with Paul Simon’s quiet but quietly gnarly lyrics…
I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail
Yes I would, if I could, I surely would
I’d rather be a hammer than a nail
Yes I would, if I only could, I surely would
Wanting to be a hammer rather than something that got hammered seemed a far cry from offering oneself to another to help them through a troubled time. I thought about my mom and dad and their difficult relationship. Did she wield the assertive person’s hammer, releasing her anxieties and frustrations with each swing, while he took the pounding quietly, but with gathering sublimated anger, like the passive-aggressive nail? I still kind of faulted her for it, but hers was a persona with an emerging character arc that I was beginning to understand and even resonate with. I had never figured out what really made my dad tick. He would be there for you when you needed him, but seemed ill equipped to be helpful in an emotional rather than a physical sense.
Then came “Cecilia” which always taunted me, like Henry Miller’s Quiet days in Clichy, with its sexual world that I longed, but somehow feared, to be a part of…
Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia
Up in my bedroom (making love)
I got up to wash my face
When I come back to bed someone’s taken my place
Where some guys might have felt a sense of betrayal on Cecilia’s part, for me, there was only a sense of loss, since I probably didn’t deserve her anyway. That said, I had never consummated that sort of love in order to understand what it felt like to maybe feel entitled to it.
My favorite track at that time was the next one, “Keep the Customer Satisfied”, which was the anthem of the whily and unrepentant rebel, a character that my mom always accused me of being…
It’s the same old story, yeah
Everywhere I go
I get slandered, libeled
I hear words I never heard in the Bible
And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine
Two steps away from the county line
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied
“Are you really going to make a difference or are you just a rebel?” she would ask me.
The next record to plop down on the turntable was side one of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The first song, “Come Together”, was another of John’s edgy tunes with weird darkly intriguing lyrics…
Here come old flat top
He come groovin’ up slowly
He got joo joo eyeballs
He one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker
He just do what he please
The lyrics proceed to get weirder from there, I mean, what the hell was “toe jam football” and “walrus gumboot”? And then by the third verse he seems to be lampooning his earlier “hair down to his knee” line…
He got feet down below his knees
Like now he was just making fun of himself, or of you, trying to take his narrative seriously. But they were the Beatles after all, and that’s what we all had come to expect and love about their albums, that amidst it all they were going to mess with us, clandestinely try to rewire your brain somehow with a dose of the absurd. Like “I am the Walrus”, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”, or even more so, “Revolution 9”, with all that playing tracks backward stuff.
And then of course there was George’s “Something”…
Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
Something indeed, in that erotic ennui, punctuated by his moaning guitar, that I could only imagine and fantasize about. Like Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay’ or Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul”…
And when the clothes are strewn
Don’t be afraid of the room
Touch the fullness of her breast
Feel the love of her caress
Dad’s apartment seemed all about ennui. The place where he bided his time, teaching and eating donuts, waiting for the day that mom would somehow take him back. The place where I would listen to these records with nothing much on my agenda but pondering my life back up there in Ann Arbor. Xenia an entire little town just seeming to exist for no particular compelling reason.
Then came comedy, side one of Cheech and Chong’s Los Cochinos, with their “Pedro and Man at the Drive-In” sketch. A tale of two stoners who sneak their friends into the movie for no charge by locking them in the trunk of their car, but then once it, break the key trying to unlock the trunk. Pedro then makes several unsuccessful efforts to secure a crowbar to pry open the trunk, but of course, high on weed, gets distracted in the snack bar, buying treats instead, finally returning to the car…
Man: Did you get a crowbar?
Pedro: No man, but I got a mocha crunch bar!
Their edgy topical comedy followed by side one of George Carlin’s Class Clown, with the sketch about the origins of his comedy in his youth and making people laugh to build his own self esteem. Making light of his lifelong mission/obsession with comedy, he joked about someone asking him about it…
Them: Did you always want to be a comedian?
Him: Well not in the womb… but after that!
David and I had grown up listening extensively to the spoken comedy records of Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart, along with the musical satire of Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer, plus the Smothers Brothers who were a bit of both. Extensively, that is, to the point of having many of their routines and songs memorized. I suppose it was not surprising that the progeny of a highly literate father and a highly articulate mother would relish the comic beauty of the spoken and sung word, and how it gave profound insights to our human condition.
Though both the Smothers Brothers and Lehrer in particular were critical of the established social order, now we were into the edgier, more counterculture stuff coming out of the Hippie and drug culture closer to our own generation. Marin, Chong and Carlin were also speaking from more of a working class, non-elite perspective, where the others we had listened to were more comfortable having more nuanced humor for a more elite audience.
Next was side one of Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies. Of the six albums stacked on that spindle, it was not so much a consensus choice between David and I like the other five, but perhaps David conceding to me on one choice that might not have been his. An “older brother’s prerogative” that I might have jokingly, though semi-seriously pointed out if he had pushed back. As I listened to “Hello Hooray”, “Elected”, and the other tracks, I realized that their snarky bombast did not fit the acoustic space of dad’s apartment in the same way as our first two musical album choices.
Finally it was side one of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which seemed to me to be David’s favorite album at the time, because he played it constantly. Perhaps his concession on Billion Dollar Babies was to ensure that Elton John’s latest was in the the mix. In fact, if the stereo’s spindle could have held a seventh platter, side three or four of the double album would surely have been piled on the stack as well. The side launched with the eleven minute “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, with its operatic opening and stem-winding piano-led instrumental build up to Elton’s jaunty self-assured though plaintiff rock lyric…
The roses in the window box
Have tilted to one side
Everything about this house
Was born to grow and die
Oh it doesn’t seem a year ago
To this very day
You said I’m sorry honey
If I don’t change the pace
I can’t face another day
And love lies bleeding in my hand
Oh it kills me to think of you with another man
I was playing rock and roll and you were just a fan
But my guitar couldn’t hold you
So I split the band
Love lies bleeding in my hands
For me, love never fully grasped, in those moments with young women through the past three years of my life, was my own version of “love lies bleeding”, so the song always stung me. Also the first verse about a house “born to grow and die” was consistent with the ennui of dad’s humble little abode.
I had never cared for the next song, “Candle in the Wind”, which was way to sentimental and even maudlin for my storm the walls tastes. But the song that followed it, “Bennie and the Jets”, though also sentimental in its way, was told from the persona of a starstruck young fan of the rockstar, and had a disarming innocence and irreverence to it. At one point during the song, David’s eyes looked up from his drawing and caught mine. We both sang, “B-B-B-Benny and the Jets”, along with the vocals, then returned to what we were doing.
With the stereo finally quieted, dad appeared at the bedroom doorway, his hands in the pockets of his sweatpants, not intruding further into his bedroom space that he had ceded to us for the duration of our visit.
“I finished grading all my students’ finals! I just need to give them their semester grades, but I can do that tonight.” Then more tentatively, “What say we head out to Antioch and get some lunch and then go to the gym there to shoot some baskets and maybe play some racquetball?”
David and I both nodded. We needed to get our bodies moving.
David and dad were already dressed to go, so I pulled on my jeans, sweatshirt over my t-shirt, socks and sneakers. Dressing for the weather, David and I put on our jackets. Dad had his brown trench coat and black wool flat cap that made him look very European, at least in my opinion. I judged that, though it was snowing, it wasn’t cold enough to try and pull my wool beanie over my big main of hair, but David pulled on his. It was a bit of a treacherous descent down the metal stairs covered with fresh wet snow, that dad had tried to sweep earlier, but to no avail as it still was coming down.
The snowflakes fell slowly and quietly, with no wind at the moment to swirl it around. And as was always the case, even homely, rundown little Xenia looked pretty with a light fresh white dusting of the stuff. I offered to drive again like I had yesterday for the last leg of the trip down from Ann Arbor, but dad insisted, reasserting that part of his patriarchal role. David noted that in January he could get his learner’s permit toward getting his driver’s license on his sixteenth birthday at the end of June.
Rather than stop at one of his usual lunchtime fast food haunts in Xenia, dad drove the ten miles on highway 68 from Xenia to Yellow Springs. He said there was a little sandwich shop there he had recently discovered, with roast beef sandwiches “as cheap as Arby’s but much better”, served on a hard French roll with a cup of au jus to dip it in. You could lay bets, and sure enough, it was a place with a counter where you got your food, and then took it to a table, so no one you needed to tip. I liked Yellow Springs and the Antioch College campus with it’s casual hippie vibe, much more my speed than the more redneck Xenia.
This place, called “The Zebra Cafe”, was right in that vibe, though I’m sure it was the tasty offerings, cheap prices and lack of tipping that had captured dad’s fancy. When you opened the front door with its big panel of glass set in bright green painted wood frame, wind chimes sounded. It was tiny, with a little counter across from the entrance with what looked like a classic metal all mechanical cash register and six small round tables set up around a mishmash of unmatched easy chairs. A black student type looking guy, with a plaid collared shirt and a smaller ‘fro than mine, was slouched in one of the chairs reading a book titled “The Ways of White Folks” by Langston Hughes. He looked up at us briefly, grinned, and nodded his head when the three of us walked in. There were music posters on the wall, including ones for funk bands, the Ohio Players and Wild Cherry. But there was a big framed poster for Cool and the Gang’s “Live at the Sex Machine” concert album.
A very tall skinny woman with chocolate skin thick glasses and a huge main of red hair above a red headband stood behind the counter and offered us a big toothy smile. She seemed to recognize my dad as we approached her.
“Hey doctor Z, how’s it going. We got a ‘buy two get one free’ special on French dip today!”. Then studying David and I for a moment, “These must be your boys, I see the resemblance.”
David shot a look at me, his eyes asking, “Doctor Z?”
As I approached the counter she flung her hand out towards me and said, “Zadie”, and then, “You must be Cooper… love your name!” The way she strung out the word “love”, she was like totally flirting with me. I took her hand and she smiled and nodded as she shook it kind of slowly, feeling more like “holding hands” than a formal hand shake.
When I finally released her grip she turned to my brother and said, “And you must be David!” sticking out her hand again, David a bit more reticent than I to shake. Dad said nothing during this whole exchange.
“I took your father’s creative writing class… It was awesome! Best class I’ve had here!” And then looking at dad, “Doctor Z, I started that novel, thanks to you!” The guy slouched in the chair looked up again at us and then went back to reading.
Dad smiled and had a thoughtful look and finally said, “Good!”
“How about I make each of you my special ‘deluxe’ French dip… no extra charge!”
Dad looked at David and I quizzically. “Guys?”
“Sure”, David said, with a kind of practiced animation, “That would be great!”
I nodded. Dad and David took seats at one of the round tables, but I lingered at the counter and Zadie seemed to pick up on that.
She turned her full gaze in my direction and took me in, finally saying, “Nice ‘fro white boy!”, as she ran her fingers up my forehead into my nest of teased out hair. I think I blushed because I hadn’t said anything but she reacted to something. I suddenly didn’t want to be so lame that I didn’t somehow respond appropriately to this female type pretty much hitting on me.
“You got a nice one too… and red even!” I figured I could touch her head the same way she touched mine without seeming too forward. I tousled her tight red curls, much thicker and stiffer than mine.
“Well”, the word burst from her lips as her eyes sparkled, “I better get back to the kitchen and get back to work!”
As I watched her tall skinny frame and big hair saunter back to the kitchen, it struck me that if this had happened in Ann Arbor rather than Yellow Springs, I might have successfully screwed up the courage to talk to her for a while, “chat her up” as I’d heard someone say, and then maybe even ask her out, since the attraction between us seemed abundantly clear. And of course my ever active libido insisted that I imagine her naked in bed with me, and based on my ardent reading this morning, in some sort of Henry Miller scenario. Doubts immediately set in, as they always seemed to with me. I had no idea what she was all about, except that she seemed to be a budding writer based on her interchange with “Doctor Z”. She also was black and I was, as she said, a “white boy”. I wondered if she was calling out that that was problematic, that we lived in different worlds. Still, if the Zebra Cafe had been in my Ann Arbor world, I would be very tempted to explore a next encounter of some sort with her.
Dad had already moved one of the easy chairs so we had a third one around our little table. He patted the cushion signalling me, and I sat down.
I could see David making a mental note about my little encounter with Zadie. Dad again said nothing.
David’s eyes flared, and then looked at dad and finally asked the question. “Doctor Z?”
Dad looked embarrassed. He nodded and said, very professorily, “Zadie is a character, but she writes well!”
I knew my dad was an English professor, and he’d talked about teaching remedial students at Wilberforce and Lebanon Prison, but I really did not know the spectrum of classes that he taught, including here at Antioch. So feeling all Coopstered up at this point, ready to bravely wander into new territory, I inquired.
“So dad, what do you teach at Antioch?”
“Well”, and you could see him fall into that professorial persona where he kind of raised his eyebrows and looked up like his the notes he needed to refer to were written on the ceiling. “This fall, I taught two sections of the class Zadie took, Creative Writing One, and one of Victorian Poetry. Tennyson, both Brownings, Clare, Arnold, and Hopkins. For winter term coming up, it will be two sections of Creative Writing One again, and then Elizabethan Poetry.”
“So Elizabethan Poetry”, David was kind of aping dad’s professorial tone, “Shakespeare’s sonnets come to mind…”, but dad didn’t seem to pick up on David’s little lampoon.
“Shakespeare of course”, dad said, now looking up at the ceiling again with big eyes, “But Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard who introduced the sonnet to England from Italy to ‘civilize the English tongue’. Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.” He continued with more details about rhyming schemes.
David still aping and trying to be provocative said, “Did it need civilizing?”
Dad laughed. “Well in Wyatt’s opinion at least! From what I’ve read he was a bit full of himself. English was back then and continues to be such a dynamic language. Borrowing words from other languages – French, Latin, Greek, Norse, Dutch, plus making words up. Shakespeare made up any number of new words. Those stuffy grammarians today would have lectured him for ‘butchering’ the language!” He chuckled to himself and his eyes twinkled. Dad was no elitist, and a rebel at heart.
Zadie finally reappeared from the kitchen with our sandwiches stacked expertly on her arms quoting verse. “But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure, mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure”. Though normally customers came up to the counter and take their food to the table (thus no tip) she decided since it was “Doctor Z” and his boys, she would go the extra yard. Her arms stacked with dishes, she gracefully negotiated the counter and unstacked the plates one by one from her arms onto our tiny table.
“Shakespeare’s sonnet 20”, dad nodding approvingly.
“And my favorite”, Zadie replied, and continuing, “Speaking of favorites, I made these special with coleslaw and dill pickle the way you like them Doctor Z! And thanks for bringing your boys so I could meet them!” She looked at me, grinned and winked. “Enjoy gentlemen!” I noted that in the presence of my dad, she wasn’t so brazen as to tousle my hair again or do anything else more provocative. I watched again her lanky frame saunter back into the kitchen.
We quieted and ate our delicious french dip sandwiches with added coleslaw and pickles… dipping them in the small bowls of hot salty beef stock, my mind still captivated by Zadie. More customers came in for lunch and Zadie went into overdrive, making food while chatting them up as well.
We finally parted company with the Zebra Cafe and its memorable proprietor and went back out into the gentle snowfall and drove to the college’s gymnasium complex. It had basketball courts on the upper level and locker rooms, handball/racquetball courts, and a pool underneath. After consulting with the older student type that was staffing the place, dad was pleased to announce to David and I that we could all shoot some baskets and get a court later for racquetball.
“You play handball too dad, don’t you?” David was still feeding dad lines right and left.
Dad nodded, now adopting a subtly different sportswriter persona. “I prefer handball, but you guys have never played it and it takes some practice before you get the hang of it. Racquetball is more like tennis.” The three of us were all tennis players.
So dad checked with the gym staff and they gave him the number of an open court. So he got three rackets and a ball and we headed down to the basement and found it. Dad said that with three players you generally play “Cutthroat”, which despite the name just means that the person whose turn it is to serve plays the point against the other two. We all agreed that we didn’t need to keep score and we’d just play for fun.
Where David and I, particularly as a team against dad, tended to win a majority of the games playing him in tennis, dad’s skill level in racquetball was somewhat higher than ours. His dynamic when he played either game with us was the same. He was competitive, like David and I both were, but he didn’t really try to beat us, and even enjoyed when we won a point from him with a well-played shot. But give that, he would get angry with himself when he either mishit the ball or whiffed completely. It was like he felt he was failing in his job of being an adequate opponent for us. When David or I mishit a ball, we might at times get frustrated as well, but at other times we might laugh the flub off. Dad never laughed a mishit off.
At age 57, dad appeared to be in really good shape, and was more than a match for us in stamina, which given his dynamic, gave him great pleasure. He was a sort of “Jack of all sports”, capable of playing just about any one of them pretty well, like he knew what he was doing. Again, I think handball was his forte, and most of those same skills served him well in racquetball. David and I both enjoyed it when dad played well, even beat us, because we knew he’d be happier for the rest of the day. When dad did flub a shot, David and I would offer excuses for him, but it never mitigated his anger and frustration.
My own competitive dynamic was actually similar. I always wanted to play well, be in the zone of skillful play, but there was no desire to “best” my opponent at anything. I always prefered friendly to more “show no mercy” competition, and was always happy to call out skillful play by someone on the other team, even against me. That fierce sort of competitiveness “against” another person or team just felt very uncomfortable to me, so much so that either winning or losing in such a dynamic felt bad. I always wanted the game to end with everyone on both sides feeling like it was well played, more a skilled dance than a battle. Being a theater person, I kind of treated a sporting event I was participating in as more of a performance for an audience (even if there wasn’t one) than a struggle against an opponent.
We played racquetball for a couple hours until we were all three pretty wiped. Dad suggested we shoot some baskets, not wanting to be the one to cut short our athletic afternoon, but certainly willing to leave the gym if his sons had had their fill. Similarly, not wanting the good feeling of our Yellow Springs excursion to end, David and I agreed.
For my brother and I, our basketball shooting session quickly turned into more of a sports roleplaying thing. Particularly in regards to baseball, football or basketball, the two of us had a thorough knowledge of all the teams and their current players, including the playing styles of the big stars. So David and I quickly fell into a schtick where we were NBA star players in action. Milwaukee point guard “Electric Eye” Flynn Robinson feeding the ball into Kareem Al-Jabbar in the lane for a “skyhook”. We called out the play-by-play as we executed the roles of the two players, David as Flynn shiftily dribbling with his keen eye for the open player, while me as Kareem got open in the lane. Or I would take long wild shots at the basket as “Pistol” Pete Maravich, again delivering the play-by-play call while I did it. Dad, the one time sportswriter who followed the game pretty closely himself, enjoyed it, and even tried to join in as we cast him as the Celtics’ “Sixth man” star John Havlicek.
Sports was a way for us to connect with him like no other. Somehow, we could show him how much we loved him by how well we played and how much we acknowledged his playing skill as well. A proud dad with two talented sons. All the issues around him and mom, and his difficulty sharing his own feelings, or letting us share ours, was left behind, at least in the moment.
We all acknowledged we were getting hungry and finally left the gym and headed back to Xenia, stopping at the local grocery store so dad could catch up on his shopping so we were well stocked for the rest of the weekend. Dad made one of his small repertoire of culinary creations, Spanish Rice, including hamburger, tomato sauce, red pepper and onions. And of course, pastry for dessert, fresh cinnamon rolls that he warmed up in the oven before serving.
While we ate our bowls of Spanish Rice, I noted to the two of them that I had had a very aromatic and tasty rice dish in Spain called “Paella”, like dad’s dish mostly flavored rice, but with fish and other seafood on top instead of hamburger. This led to David suggesting that I finish my travelogue of my European adventure. At his direction I picked up the story from my arrival in Amsterdam.
As we gobbled up the Spanish rice, I began by my tale of the Dutch capital by talking about the very oddly named “Christian Youth Hostel” and all the interesting characters I met there. Janis Joplin-ish Greta who worked there, and my three fellow backpackers, Canadians Burton and Gwendolyn, and New Zealander of Samoan descent, Butch. The problem I encountered was that the three of them were wonderful characters because they were all delightfully hippie-like stoners. To really capture them properly I would have to talk about all the hash that was smoked, and I was not comfortable sharing that part of my experience with my dad. I was afraid he wouldn’t understand how much marijuana was ingrained in and essential to my generational culture. But how could I describe the pugnacious intellectual Butch or stoner artist Gwendolyn without acknowledging the THC that generally always infused them.
I almost hated myself for it, but I reworked the story to build it all around getting drunk at the Heineken brewery each day, alcohol being part of my dad’s college and young adult culture, even though he was not much of a drinker now. Would I had the courage of a Henry Miller to salaciously tell all of our drug filled reverie. Butch could still be Butch, fun-loving, radical, calling out white privilege. Dad would get that given his work at a black university. But Gwendolyn? Somehow a drunken artist is not the same as a stoned one. And the whole hippie ethos was all about that wide fried eyed altered reality look at the otherwise usual, that gave the needed context to our encounter with all the artists paintings at the Van Gogh museum.
I did focus on the Anne Frank House, and what I had learned of her and her dad’s story, beyond what I had known from just reading the book made from her diary plus being in the stage version.
I continued my narrative through returning to England for the last week of my odyssey. Watching the Continental coast disappear from the back of the big ferry on the rough North Sea. Meeting L.A. rocker Max, but not his wooing of virgin Rhonda. I shared about Ceil and Iyla Kane, and their precocious young daughter Rebecca, plus my discomfort with Ilya’s selfish elitism, which totally resonated with dad. And the Clays in Oxford, my fellow young adult Kevin’s economic challenge of buying a car versus moving into his own apartment. But I skipped my encounter with the three drunk young women in the bus to Oxford, since without the sexual undercurrent there wasn’t much there. Finally my flight home and seeing mom and David at Metro airport.
A big smile spread on his face when I finally finished.
“That was quite the adventure!” He said with what seemed like all the feeling he could muster, “You seem transformed by the experience.” He was obviously very proud of me. David rolled his eyes a little while dad looked at me.
While usually I wouldn’t explore topics like that with him, I pressed him in this case. “So what do you mean by ‘transformed’ dad?”
“Well…” he said, looking a little caught by surprise by my question, and looking somehow younger and more vulnerable than the venerable old prof. “You seem more grown up and confident somehow, more of a man!” Thoughtfully looking at the ceiling he continued. “You have achieved a great accomplishment under difficult circumstances. You could have gone home when your friend decided she did not want to continue with you, yet you bravely soldiered on on your own, a stranger in a strange land as it were.”
Tears were coming to my eyes. The needy parts of me needed to hear this. I wasn’t sure whether he had truly picked up on that or just stumbled into his little speech. I loved my dad and wanted him to be hip somehow, but it was obvious to me that he was pretty square, despite flirtatious Zadie calling him “Doctor Z”. We could find common ground in sports, some music, and the adventures of travel, but the “sex, drugs and rock n roll” of my generation was just not his thing.