Friday, June 22, 2007
Better Behind You
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
My father had this saying I try to remember whenever the going gets tough.
When faced with a tough or unpleasant task, he would say “better behind you than in front of you.”
In other words, get through the difficult business as quickly as possible, instead of putting it off and worrying about it.
This is a great bit of advice that I don’t follow nearly as much as I should.
I didn’t go to visit my father’s grave on Sunday, the first Father’s Day since his death. I didn't pay my respects. It's bothering me, but not all that much. And that really bothers me.
I had received a free ticket to a winery tour in the North Fork of Long Island during the Prospect Park horseback riding fiasco, which is the least they could have done for me, given the misery I went through that day.
The tour normally goes for 80 bucks, and since it was a single’s event, I persisted holding onto the delusion that I might actually meet the love of my life.
I told myself a whole list of excuses for not visiting my father's grave: I find the cemetery depressing, which I do; it’s a pointless ceremony, which I think it is; life is meant for the living, well, duh.
But none of it rang true. I had gone to my mother’s grave on the first Mother’s Day after she died—a terrible time, where I wept and wailed at the sight of her headstone. Even the car service guy who drove us out there got upset and tried to console me.
It was a much different relationship with my father. There was a lot of hostility and a bit of violence, both emotional and physical.
To this day I still getting angry at my father about things he did. The ugly memories come to me so easily, while the good times are buried in bitterness and rage.
There are times I get so angry that I wish I could throttle him, or that I'm glad he's dead. I'm not proud of these feelings, but I can't deny them.
But this week I had a memory of my father the day that was actually pleasant. It goes back to the time when I was a Cub Scout.
This was in the 60s, when my neighborhood felt like a Norman Rockwell painting of small town America. All the kids and their parents were involved in scouting. We went on picnics and day trips to places like Valley Forge and Sagamore Hill.
Everyone would pile into a bus and take off. We spent the whole day out and we usually had a lot of fun.
The monthly meetings were held in the cafeteria of Our Lady of Angels Church and ceremonies were built around Native American traditions. There was this figure known as Akelah, which, according to the Boy Scout Web sit, means "a good leader."
Your mother or father is Akela. In the Pack, your Cubmaster is Akela. Your Den Leader is Akela. At school, your teacher is Akela.
My father was not the pack leader, but I remember one night when he had to fill in for the Great Akela. He had to run an induction ceremony, so he wrapped himself in a blanket, put on a feathered headress, painted red stripes on his face, and welcomed the new members to the pack.
God, this sounds so weird to write about it now, but that’s what we did and nobody questioned it. I stood there watching my father, seeing him as my dad and Akela, the wise leader.
My family was about to go through some difficult times as my parents separated and came very close to divorce. My father wasn't the wise leader during that ugly period. He was the villian, someone we all hated. But it was a long time ago I should put it behind me.
The Leader of the Pack
Sunday's wine tour had the feeling of a cub scout trip. We met on the Upper West Side, got on a bus, where the organizers took roll call.
We took off and spent a long time driving. I was in a dead zone where people around me were talking with each other, while I sat there by myself. No a good place to be if you want to meet someone.
The trip out there took forever. Traffic crawled along the Sunrise Highway and we saw the aftermath of two horrible accidents. It's hard to believe people emerged unhurt or even alive from these twisted and burned out wrecks and I was glad I don't cover car crashes for a living anymore.
During the trip, one of the group leaders suggested we play a game called "Under and Over."
I had never heard of this game, but apparently people who went to summer camp knew all about it. For the unenlightened, the game goes like this: the bus is split right down the middle into two teams.
Each side passes a roll of toilet paper over one seat of the bus and under the next. You have to go to the end of the bus and back without tearing the paper.
I'm 50 years old, I'm looking for a girlfriend, and here I am playing stupid camping games. Where is the great Akelah when I need him?
I worked out a plan with the guy in front of me to hand me the roll under his seat like a center snapping the ball to the quarterback. I got it, handed it over my seat and saw that we were catching up to the other team. We opened a lead on the way back and won the game.
The prize was a free ticket on the company's next event, rubber raft floating in the Delaware. I don't swim and I had already won this trip. I shouldn't be greedy, now should I?
One of them women on the other team sounded really bummed that she was missing out on the trip. So--I still don't believe I did this--I offered her my ticket.
"Really?" she asked in disbelief.
"Of course," I said in even greater disbelief. "I don't want to go."
So I handed over my ticket. And instantly regretted my decision. What the hell was I doing? Maybe I would have fun on this trip.
If I was trying impress this woman, I had just insured that I wouldn't see her on that weekend and I had given her a chance to meet somebody else.
What the hell is wrong with me? I think I'm so desperate to please, to be liked, to be seen as the nice guy, that I often do myself harm.
So I sat there in my seat just stewing about what I done. There is no way in hell I could ask her for the thing back. I toyed with the idea of approaching one of the leaders and telling my rather stupid story in hopes of getting another free pass. But I knew they had given them all away.
Of course, throughout the day, people in my team were saying how psyched they were about winning another trip. One woman I was talking with told she had done it, that it was safe because you stayed in shallow water and wore a life jacket.
I told her I had given by ticket away and she looked at me in shock.
"Yeah," I said, trying to sound nonchalant. "What the hell?"
What the hell, indeed, you nutcase.
The tour was pretty cool and I got to taste some nice wines, something we never did in the Cub Scouts. I was getting tired, though, tired of riding in that bus, tired of trying to make conversation with strangers, with trying to "meet" somebody. It was time to go home.
We finally piled into the bus and got back on the highway. I could hear the woman to whom I had given my trip ticket talking with two other women.
"This trip is on a Saturday," she was saying, "I have to work that day."
My ears pricked up. If she was going to work on the day of the tubing trip, there was no reason for her to keep the free ticket...right?
Then she was leaning over to me and handing me the ticket.
"Here," she said, "I can't use this."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
Shut up, you moron! Shut up! Shut up!
"Yes," she said. "You take it."
So I caught a break, one I really didn't deserve. God looked down from above and said, "Oy, I have to bail out this loser again!"
We rode home pretty much in silence. I recalled a song we used to sing a song called "Three Cheers for the Bus Driver," saluting the man who had made it all possible.
There was line in the song that went, "he's fat and he's jolly, and built like a trolley. This was actually meant as a compliment back then before we had phrases like "morbidly obese."
So I didn't visit my dad's grave on Father's Day. My sister went, taking a long trip out to Staten Island by bus and train.
It's ironic because she probably the most difficult relationship with my dad, but there she was, standing by his grave. I believe my brother and niece went during the day, as well.
I think I'll take my father's advice and put this guilt I'm feeling behind me. It's better having there than in front of me, blocking my vision of the road ahead.
I think the Great Akelah would approve.