Saturday, November 12, 2011

Attitude Adjustment Hour

I just bought the cheapest six-pack I could find -- and don't ask, don't guess, I'm not going to tell you what it was. All you need to know is that the price was right, and now I'm on beer number two. Because for three days now I've been in an impressive funk, and none of the usual remedies were making a dent. I wrote, I read, I hung out with friends, I went for walks, I watched an episode of Louie I hadn't yet seen, I watched some adult entertainment, I corresponded with smart, thoughtful people -- I did all the things I know how to do to kick the crap out of a funk, or at least ease myself out of one, and nothing helped. So now I'm downshifting into cheap beer, I've got a fresh pack of smokes, and I'm listening to Alkaline Trio. If you text me tonight and don't hear back, it's probably because the cure is working. Or it isn't.

The year after I graduated from college (a minor miracle for a number of reasons: I was a terrible student, I got by on charm and brains and a silver tongue and should have had my ass booted out of Colby half a dozen times), I moved to Seattle with my lady love, Charlotte. This was an enticing but not unexpected adventure for me: but for brief forays bopping here and there during college, I'd lived my entire life within a dozen miles of where I grew up, and so moving all the way across the country with my girlfriend seemed like the next logical step to me. What I never suspected then (but have more than an inkling about now that I have a daughter of my own) was that maybe her parents wouldn't be so keen on the idea of their youngest daughter relocating three thousand miles away to live with a guy they certainly liked but didn't exactly consider a strong match for young Charlotte. In my mind, of course, we were both adults -- she was twenty-one, I was twenty-two -- and for all intents and purposes we'd spent our last year of college living together (and all that that implies -- sorry, Barry and Mary, your daughter and I had relations -- a lot). So no big deal. Sure, I get it now, but at the time I couldn't fathom why Charlotte's mother didn't speak to her for three days after she finally told her (sometime in July) that we were moving to Seattle and would be living together. I mean, yeah, I get the sentiment, but come on -- passive-aggressive much? Nice parenting. When Mary finally came up for air, her first spoken words to Charlotte were the announcement that she had purchased plane tickets for her and Barry to visit us at Christmas. Bully for you. (And all that that implies.)

Our transition into the real world of adulthood was by no means seamless. We had a sweet housesitting gig when we first arrived, leaving us free to explore and have some fun, which we did. But two weeks after we got there, Charlotte finally announced that she didn't think we should live together. I confess, I was nonplussed. She didn't know that word, so I had to be incredulous instead. Still no good, so I settled for disappointed. I crashed for a month and a half in the boyhood home of one of my pals from Colby (hey, Q!), found a job managing a cookie store, and with gainful employment in my favor, began courting Charlotte anew.

I can be good when I want to be, and in that instant, I definitely wanted to be: I found my way back into the warm glow of that smile. Charlotte and I weren't a good match for the long haul, it's true, but for a brief, memorable moment in time we were good for each other. I liked being the guy who made her laugh, and she made me feel like I was larger than life -- I mean, seriously, she believed in me. I think she was the first girl I ever knew who made me feel that way. Regardless of the expected shelf-life of that relationship, it was more than worth sticking around even if only for that. Props, Charlotte: you were one of the good ones.

I was an artist back then, man: I wrote sad, angry little stories about heartache and class warfare and being a young but promising drunk, always wrapped up with the sort of vaguely discernible lesson twenty-two year-old me thought you ought to have waved in front of your nose. I was so awesomely earnest -- it's one of the memories that informs my less judgmental older self. Goddamn, are we full of shit at that age. We're always a little full of shit, but once you top forty, you have a much better chance of recognizing it. I cut no slack whatsoever back then, man. I was a swinging dick extraordinaire.

Charlotte and I reconciled, after a wild night of intense wine-drunk fucking on the floor under the piano in Q's mom's sitting room (sorry, man, and, um, thanks), and soon we started apartment shopping. We finally settled on a place in Northwest Seattle, in Ballard, which is up by the salmon locks and quite near a ridiculous marina that, if not for the view of the Olympic Peninsula from its docks, I would have utterly cursed: gross money, kids, gross. But Seattle wasn't curse-worthy then, not yet at least. I loved Ballard. There were seven or eight bars within walking distance of our place, all of which had local brews on tap. And everyone was so nice. And smart, and interesting. Those first couple months in Ballard were straight-up excellent. Charlotte and I were, on a daily basis, donning the costumes of grown-up her and me, and every evening we rode the bus home together, made dinner, split a bottle of wine, and crawled between the sheets together. It was an awful lot like what I thought it might be. And then Christmas happened.

I should back up and tell you that Charlotte and I furnished our apartment at the Salvation Army. Neither of us had much money, and I for one didn't really care one way or the other: give me a bed, a couch, some chairs, a table, and I'm good. Charlotte, very much to her credit, was on board with this plan, so our first Saturday in the new place we took the bus all the way downtown, down by the old Kingdome, and we wandered the aisles until we'd found what we wanted: a chunky dining room table with four chairs, a beat-up recliner, a couple end-tables, and what turned out to be the most massive couch I've ever seen (in that sprawling warehouse, nothing seemed as big as it actually was). We, of course, had no car, but no problem: the helpful clerk at the checkout called a man who, for a nominal fee, would transport our new belongings wherever we were going.

Luster Mitchell was his name. It was a quintessential Flannery O'Connor name if ever there was one. I will not forget that name as long as I live. I will be on my deathbed and the name "Luster Mitchell" will escape my lips, and with any luck those two words will inspire a Citizen Kane-esque mystery. Luster Mitchell is my Rosebud. We met him upon departure, gave him some money and our address in Ballard, then sauntered up to the bus stop and headed home to greet our new used furnishings.

Luster Mitchell was there when we arrived. Our belongings were piled high in the back of a two-tone early eighties Chevy pickup that clearly needed some suspension work: the body was sitting right on the rear axle, and having been through some momentously stupid overladen adventures in my day, all I could think was that I was glad I hadn't been in the cab for that trip. Luster was unloading the pieces one dining room chair at a time. I stepped around the truck, reached up and shook his hand, thanked him for getting everything there in one piece, and asked him what it would run me to have him help me cart everything upstairs -- to our third-floor apartment.

Luster shook his head apologetically. "Oh, no," he said, "I don't do no stairs."

We'd paid him fifty to drive everything that far, so I asked, "How about twenty bucks?"

Again he shook his head. "No stairs," he said, more firmly this time.

"Seriously?" I asked. "Not at any price?"

"You on your own," Luster Mitchell informed me in no uncertain terms.

We unloaded the rest of the truck in relative silence, with no fanfare, and then Luster Mitchell climbed into his piece of shit Chevy and Charlotte and I stood there, surrounded by our current folly, and watched him drive away. I glanced at her soccer-playing pixie body that, in every other way, I absolutely adored, realized she had the arm strength of a nine-year-old, and heaved a world-weary sigh. "Well," I said, "let's get this stuff inside."

We got everything, including the awkward table and the more awkward recliner, which as we wrestled it around the tight corners of our stupidly designed modern apartment building kept extending itself enthusiastically as though it was trying to endear itself to us (See how comfortable I am! Please! Sit in me and banish all your worldly cares!) -- everything except that behemoth of a couch.

You see, Charlotte had insisted we needed not just a couch, but this couch. Did I mention it was a sleeper-sofa? Well, it was. To her mind, it was a good idea to have such a thing because, well, you never know when you're going to have to make accommodations. Did I also mention that this sleeper-sofa was nine feet long? You think I joke -- but no. I only wish. I've moved a lot of furniture in my day, and all I had to do was look at that hallway to realize a nine-foot sofa wasn't going anywhere near the top floor of that building, at least not via the stairway, and certainly not with Charlotte's spindly (but lovely) arms at one end of it. Standing there in the driveway with all but one of our new possessions securely stowed in our apartment, I allowed myself to contemplate the fate of Moby Couch if we chose to, say, abandon it on the sidewalk. And just as the vision was about to crystalize to my satisfaction, our downstairs neighbors pulled in.

There was a fair amount of high-level development going on in Seattle back then. It has always been a vibrant city, and in those early nineties days, money was flowing into the city proper from all over the world, which meant that high-rise office buildings were springing up at a ridiculous rate. The three guys living downstairs from us were commercial electricians in town from their native Texas, working on one of the new buildings down on First Ave., overlooking the Sound. Before that moment, we had seen each other maybe twice and exchanged no more than a quick "How's it going?" These guys were older, probably all in their late thirties or early forties. They'd been around, and I'm sure they'd sized us up immediately as a couple of hapless kids who were, for the first time, embarking on what we thought was the big thing. They also accurately estimated our present situation in less than a handful of heartbeats, and they offered to help.

I could easily leave it there: these three men who didn't know us at all and had just come home from a long day, their sixth in a row of working eight solid, far from home and their families, unflinchingly and sincerely offered to help two people they didn't know at all but instantly recognized were out of options. I could just say they helped us and leave it at that, but in truth, these three men spent the next hour and a half conjuring what amounted to a magical solution to our dilemma: they dug out some climbing ropes, lashed the couch to it, and the four of us proceeded to essentially clean-jerk this five-hundred-pound sleeper-sofa up three floors to the lanai that (blessedly) projected from each of the apartments in that building. There was no other way. It wasn't easy, but we did it, and, all four of us sore and sweating, goddammit, that couch ended up in our living room -- in Charlotte's and my living room.

Three days before Christmas, a day before Charlotte's parents arrived in Seattle, one of those guys -- they were Terry, Darren and Frank, by the way -- Terry knocked on our door and, a bit sheepishly, asked if we would do them a favor. I said, "Are you kidding me?" and I gestured toward the couch, which sat along the wall to my right -- the only space that would hold that beast. He smiled and said, "You woulda done the same for me, son." I nodded and asked, "What do you need?" Of course, they were all going back to Texas, back home, for Christmas, and they were worried about leaving certain things in their apartment unsupervised. "I wouldn't ask," he said, "but I'd hate for something to happen."

What he wanted was for us to hold on to their guns for them. Each of them had a handgun. They were all in wooden cases, none of them were loaded (Terry pulled out each one and showed me), they just didn't want someone to break in and steal them and then use them to rob a convenience store. He didn't have to give me a reason: he had me at "Let's get this couch into your apartment." Of course I said yes. He could've said, "Can you stash our heroin until after New Years," and I probably would've said yes.

Of course, the funny thing is, I'd forgotten all about it by the time Charlotte came home from work: I guess that's the thing about repaying a debt, you don't necessarily think to flaunt it, unless you're a dink. If I'd been thinking, I would've realized Charlotte, the child of good Massachusetts liberals, only ever saw guns as one thing: bad. And I'm no fan of guns myself, but I'm also smart enough to understand that this wasn't about guns, it was about people -- good people, who also happened to own guns. I'd stashed the guns in the hall closet, on the shelf behind something that, as it turned out, Charlotte needed that night for her holiday prep work. I heard her open the closet door, rummage around, and then she asked, "What are these wooden boxes?"

That turned out to be a strange and unexpected shitstorm. How could I allow guns in our home without consulting her? I'm pretty sure I referenced the couch no fewer than nine times: the couch that wouldn't be there but for the intercession of those dreaded gun owners, the couch on which we had stretched out to watch TV, to nap, to quite gloriously fuck many times. I failed to convince her, and but for a lovely Christmas morning, the next few days she greeted me with a disappointed stoniness. Her parents arrived, and we spent a fair amount of time entertaining them. One evening her father (who I still adore to this day) and I found ourselves in a bar that was new to me, waiting for his daughter to get out of work and his wife to wrap up a conference call, and on the wall behind the bar stood a sign that, instead of "Happy Hour," announced the "Attitude Adjustment Hour" specials. I pointed it out to Barry, who appreciated it in the same way I did. Then something else caught his eye, a sight not at all unusual in Seattle in those days (and almost certainly common now): a well-dressed young Asian man, his tie slightly undone, a vodka tonic in hand. Barry, in his unassuming and endearing Mississippi drawl, said (in the old-world way even Massachusetts liberals from away could get away with if they were of his generation), "I have a lot of respect for the Asians. They work hard, and family means everything to them. I wouldn't be at all surprised or disappointed if one of my daughters ended up with one of them boys." Barry had three daughters, one of whom was married, one was undeniably going to end up with no one because she was a basket case, and the other, of course, was Charlotte. I nodded, finished my Ballard Bitter in one long pull and, since Barry was buying, waved to the bartender for another.

I never forgot that moment, not because it was my girlfriend's father telling me he didn't think I was in it for the long haul, but because he was, in his gentle way, telling me it was okay. He knew who I was, and he knew I was good for his little girl, if only for a while, but that we were different people. In a sense, he was telling me he wished he had another bite at the apple and could be me. Because believe me when I tell you, as much as Barry loved his daughters and loved his wife, there was a deep swath of Barry he'd had to put down in order to have that life. What he was saying to me was: don't put down that part of you, unless you really mean it and it's what you want for now until the end of time.

We survived Christmas unscathed, and on the evening of January 2nd Terry and Darren and Frank returned from Texas and showed up at our door to wish us a happy New Year and retrieve their guns. But they weren't just there for that: in his arms Terry held a whole smoked salmon they had just picked up down on the docks that afternoon, as a token of their thanks. He made a bit of a ceremony of presenting it not to me but to Charlotte. "That fish was caught two days ago," he told her, "and smoked just for you." She blushed, and I left her alone with them while I collected the guns from the closet.

"Did you guys have a good holiday?" I asked.

They nodded and chuckled and one of them, I forget which, suggested one of them had had a bit of a run-in with the law and that had made for quite a night. They all laughed, and I laughed with them, but I could see on their faces that they were all still back there, with their wives and girlfriends and kids, with their friends, and that they were in a sense grateful to be laughing at the dark, faintly insidious stuff because now they were back to facing long months away from home and to remember the good stuff would make them feel that much farther away from what mattered. We shuffled our feet the way men do, though I was anything but a man then, and we said our bashful goodbyes and they went back to their apartment, and Charlotte and I settled into our massive couch and talked about how we would feast on that bountiful salmon. Sometime later we climbed into bed and made -- I'll just say it, fuck it -- tender early twenties grown-up, crazy-for-each-other love. In two days I turned twenty-three, and less than three weeks later I was walking away from her standing in a pair of pajamas I'd bought for her at Victoria's Secret (cute, flannel, not at all sexy except on her), she was sobbing and I was on my way to Tacoma to get on a plane to fly back to Maine, away from her. Because, of course, Barry was right: I wasn't the guy for his daughter. Not even an unbroken string of Attitude Adjustment Hours could have fixed that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Heroes

When I was a kid, we had a crappy black and white television with a pair of rabbit ears (tipped with aluminum foil, the advantages of which I still fail to understand or accept -- it always seemed like an ineffective panacea to me) perched on top. Under optimum conditions, we got three channels to varying degrees: PBS, CBS, and sometimes NBC, sometimes ABC, but never both. Watching TV was almost always an ultra low-def experience, but we didn't care. We didn't watch a ton of television anyway, certainly not by today's standards, and we barely knew any better (I think I was eleven or twelve the first time I saw cable television, at somebody else's house, of course). What we did watch pretty regularly, however, my older brother and I, was college football on Saturday afternoons. I preferred it to the professional game: the ball seemed to be just a little bigger than most of the players could comfortably handle, and for the most part the players on the field seemed, to me at least, mostly evenly matched. There was also an element to the game that I appreciated even then: there is no playoff system in Division I college football, which means that every game matters, and you can see that in the way the kids go after every play. You can't simply limp through a nine and seven season and then maybe make unexpected waves in the playoffs like teams can in the NFL. In college football, you win, you make it to a Bowl game, and maybe if the pollsters feel kindly toward you, you're crowned national champion. As a kid, for all those reasons, I appreciated and enjoyed the game.

Living in the hinterlands with limited viewing options, we saw the marquee games. There was a lot of Notre Dame, lots of Ohio State and Michigan and USC and UCLA, plenty of Alabama and Tennessee and the dreaded Florida universities (hate them all, without exception, in every sport, in every way), Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska. And there was a whole lot of Penn State.

I loved Penn State football immediately. The uniforms were stark: bright white helmets with no adornment other than a dark blue stripe running down the center, dark blue jerseys sporting nothing -- nothing, not the player's name on the back, not the school's name on the front -- and plain white pants. Those uniforms represented not only a fierce solemnity but also an unequivocal sense of unqualified unity: no one player was above any other, and if you had to ask what team it was, you should probably just go watch golf. Seeing that sea of dark blue and white amassed in the mouth of the tunnel preparing to storm the field at the beginning of the game -- that was a sight to behold. And always, at the front of that mob, stood a tiny, bespectacled man in shirt and tie. At first glance he looked as out of place among those padded and helmeted giants as would a lawn gnome, or my mom, but when he took that little hop step and ran across the field, the mad corn-fed horde of his players swarming around him, there was no mistaking who he was or what he meant to those young men. He was Coach.

There are a lot of things I can tell you about Joe Paterno. His entire coaching career was spent at Penn State (although for about three weeks in 1972 he was technically the coach of the New England Patriots, before he changed his mind and decided to remain at PSU), where he won 409 games, the most ever by a Division I coach. His teams won 24 of the 37 Bowl games in which they played. They won two national championships, most recently in 1986 when they went undefeated and then beat top-ranked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Sports Illustrated named Paterno its Sportsman of the Year as a result, the first time a college football coach had been so recognized.

I can also tell you that, in a sport that is notoriously rife with unbridled corruption, his program has remained remarkably free of NCAA scoldings. An impressive percentage of his players actually graduate, in part, no doubt, because Paterno preached "success with honor," challenging his players to succeed in the classroom as well as on the field. For more than four decades, with rare exceptions, the name Joe Paterno was synonymous with dignity and honor and doing things the right way. I admired the man a great deal, so much so, in fact, that when his program fell on hard times in the last decade and many clamored for him to step down, suggesting that at his age (he is now 84) the game had passed him by, I maintained that he had more than earned the right to walk away from the game when he was goddamned good and ready. Because some things are more important than winning and losing football games.

Last weekend my buddy Travis, a talented and thoughtful sports writer, mentioned to me that two administrators at Penn State -- the athletic director and one of the university's vice-presidents -- had been charged with perjury in connection with the investigation into sexual abuse charges against Penn State's former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. I won't lay the Sandusky story out for you, it is by now front and center and you can find out everything you ever thought you wanted to know with a quick and easy Google search. I will tell you that when I heard charges had been brought against two high-level PSU administrators, my first thought was, "This is going to get very, very bad." Still, for another two days, I didn't believe it would get bad for Joe Paterno. I didn't believe that because he was Joe Paterno, the guy who did things the right way. He was an honorable man, and honorable men fail less frequently than other men. They certainly don't fail when the margin between right and wrong is nonexistent.

The details of what went on at Penn State are now coming fast and furious. The facts that appear to be beyond debate are that a grown man was sexually abusing young boys, and doing so for many years. That man continues to assert his innocence, but too much has already come to light for that to be even remotely believable. It is also irrefutable that a number of men -- at least one of whom caught Sandusky in the act of sodomizing a pre-teen boy -- knew what was going on and chose not to report what they knew to the police. Instead, they banished the perpetrator from the sacred halls of the Penn State football complex. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this man was sexually abusing children, and the best they could do was to get him out of their sight. Get him away from their beloved football program before his behavior tarnished what they held dear. One of those men, it turns out, was none other than the Coach, Mr. Joe Paterno.

I have posed this question to a number of friends this week: if I have never faced a given moral question, do I necessarily have the right to judge another for making what I deem to be the wrong choice? I've never been in Joe Paterno's shoes, confronted with the news that a co-worker and long-time friend has done something abhorrent (or even just pretty bad). I've never been in the position of then graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who in 2002 walked in on Jerry Sandusky raping a young boy in the shower. What I believe about myself is what I think all of us believe about ourselves: that had I been McQueary, I would, at the very least, have gotten that kid the fuck out of that situation. And had I been Joe Paterno, I would not have been even remotely content telling my so-called superiors what I knew and leaving it at that. I believe this of myself because I know that at a certain point it ceases to be about who you are in relation to the victim or the perpetrator, it becomes about what you know. And if you know but you don't tell, you become part of the act itself. For my own sake I answer the above question on that basis. But that only leads to another question: if I understand it this way, and presumably so do most if not all of you, how is it that a handful of men who were in the position to actually do something about it didn't see it at all?

As this story has swirled out of control over the last few days, calls for Paterno's swift dismissal grew from firm suggestions at the periphery to shrill cries from nearly every corner. Late yesterday morning Joe Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the season, offering to spare his university's board the uncomfortable chore of deciding his fate. To their extremely limited credit, a few hours later that board announced that Paterno was fired, immediately. I say "limited credit" because those trustees still have a tremendous amount of work to do. Because somebody at long last has to step up and own this. Because somebody has to insist there are things that are way more important than winning or losing football games.

Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I agree with Burke in principle, but I would rephrase it this way: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for otherwise good men to prove they are nothing of the sort.

So much for success with honor. Go to hell, Joe, you fucking bum.