Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Short Back and Sides and Rusty

In 1967 I was an orphaned American boy who was sent to live with his maternal aunt Rose and her husband Jack in rural New Zealand.
Having arrived in New Zealand, I had to register for school, which required that I take an intelligence test. The results of this test confirmed what many people had long suspected… 
That sometimes I could be too smart for my own good.  
The results surprised everybody, even me, but they especially surprised Mr Hamilton, the assistant Headmaster of Avonmore College, the school I was to attend. 
“Hmmm,” Mr Hamilton said, unable to hide the difficulty he had believing it. “You’ve done very well, considering.” 
Mr Hamilton sat behind his desk, my intelligence test in his hands. I sat across the desk on a hard little chair, having waited while he graded my paper. 
“Hmmm,” he repeated, checking the results again.
Mr Hamilton’s appearance was notable for two things, it seemed to me, he was very clean and he was very bald. His skin was almost translucent, it was so clean, and truthfully, he didn’t have a single hair upon his head, other than a tiny close-cut patch above each ear.
“Poor penmanship though,”  he added.
“I’ve never used a fountain pen before, sir,” I said.
“Yes,” he repeated, as if thinking to himself. “You’ve done very well.”
He looked up from the test in his hands, into my face.
“You’ve never taken this examination before?” he asked. He seemed incredulous.
“What?” I said. “Teen masturbation on the floor?” Now I was incredulous. 
“I beg your pardon?” commanded Mr Hamilton, more incredulous still.
“Huh? Oh! Nothing, sir,” I answered, realizing my mistake. Please remember I’d only been in New Zealand a few days and sometimes I had trouble understanding what was being said to me.
And by sometimes, I mean all the time.
Mr Hamilton ignored my misunderstanding. He wanted to solve the mystery. It was obvious to him that I was a moron, why had I done so well on the intelligence test?
“Have you taken this test before?” Mr Hamilton repeated. 
“No, sir. How could I? I just got here!”
“Steady, boy,” he warned, speaking firmly.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“You’re sure?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Very well,” he said, and trailed off.
He scrutinized my face, looking for a clue. 
I had him there, though, because as usual I was completely clueless. I stared back at him, fighting a feeling of guilt, although why I should feel guilty I didn’t know. I hadn’t done anything wrong. All I’d done was confound his expectations and succeed at something. 
He continued to peer straight at me. I could imagine him wondering; was I intelligent, or a cheat? It must have been impossible to tell, for after a minute Mr Hamilton stopped his scrutiny and simply said, “You may go.”
“Thank you, sir.” I said, preparing to leave. 
“Yes. Well. And don’t forget to have your hair cut.”
“Short back and sides.”
“Excuse me?” 
“Regulation length,” he said curtly. “Short back and sides.”  
Now, my hair wasn’t long or untidy, but it was a little eccentric. It was styled in a pompadour something like Elvis Presley used to wear, back in the 1950s. It was a sort of baby Viva Las Vegas, if I could explain it that way, except very blond and, me being only thirteen-years-old, without the sideburns.
My mom had liked it that way. She’d loved Elvis.
She’d taken me to get my last haircut…
My mom… her and my dad had only been dead three weeks… they’d gone to the movies and never come back… and now here I was in far off New Zealand, being told by some headmaster guy to get my hair cut.
It sure is a crazy world.
“Huh?” I repeated. “Short what and what?” 
I didn’t like the sound of that.
“All students,” Mr Hamilton intoned, “without exception, will comply with the regulations regarding hair length. The regulation, young man, is short back and sides."
He looked down at his work and waved me away, saying, “This discussion is ended. Report to me before assembly Monday morning. Be gone, boy.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reading To Grandpa

Grandpa Tom was my maternal grandfather. He was a steely eyed, quarter-blood-Cherokee who’d worked for the Wichita Falls daily newspaper all his life. 
I don’t remember grandpa Tom much before I was six-years-old, when we visited Texas for the summer. He had a favorite chair by the window where he would sit for hours. He had been ill, we children were told, so please be quiet around your grandpa. 
Every morning, mom used to hand me the newspaper and tell me to go over and read to my grandpa. “Show your grandpa how good you can read,” she’d urge. 
“The whole thing?” I’d complain. At first I was a little afraid of grandpa Tom, him being ill and so quiet and stern looking. He used to stare off into space and work his jaws as if he were eating. His fingernails were stained from the printer’s ink, too, which somehow I found upsetting. 
“No, honey,” my mom would reply sweetly, “just read to him until he falls asleep.” 
He fell asleep in his chair all the time. Later I learned that grandpa Tom had been recovering from the first of his many strokes at the time. While we stayed there that summer, I read to him every day, sitting on the leather ottoman at his feet, as he listened quietly and stroked an orange cat who slept in his lap. 
Eventually I forgot my fear and we became friends, grandpa and I. He’d smile crookedly with anticipation in the morning when I came to him with the newspaper.
Later, with great solemnity, he gave me an old, ivory-handled pen knife. “For you,” he sputtered, placing it in my hand. His words were terribly slurred from the stroke. “Don-don-don’t forget… to clean it.”
One day, I put the newspaper down when I thought he was asleep and I started reading to him from one of the books I’d brought with me from California. (Not sure if I could get books in Texas, I’d stuffed my suitcase full of them. “Whataya got in here?” my dad asked as he packed the car for the trip. “Rocks?”) 
What I read to grandpa that day wasn’t a rock. It was James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. 
“Good!” grandpa said, startling me. I didn’t know he was awake. “More, please,” he added.
All that summer we laughed together at the adventures and misadventures of young James, while we hated and feared the cruel aunts Spiker and Sponge. When Spiker and Sponge deliciously got what they deserved and were crushed by the giant peach, grandpa laughed so hard he upset the cat, tumbling it to the floor with a squealing meow. Grandpa found the story very funny, laughed all the time, which surprised me somehow, and my mother thought was suspicious.
“What are you guys doing in there? Rusty? Dad?” she called. 
“Just reading,” we’d call back, laughing, but it was more than that. 
We were in another world together.  

   “And James Henry Trotter, who once, if you remember, had been the saddest and loneliest boy that you could find, now had all the friends and playmates in the world.”

Ah, Dahl, you magnificent bastard!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

“For A Minute There I Was Worried”

I found some zen in my garden today.
But that’s no trick.
I find some every time
I enter my garden.

It’s a beautiful place filled with love.

Summer or winter.
Dawn or dusk.
Empty and quiet,
Or loud and full of life!
My garden is loaded with good zen!

After all, 
Zen and love
Are the same thing.
Or perhaps two sides of the same thing.

So I use it extravagantly while I’m there,
Blowing it all on the good life!
Wasting it like it was money
Or something equally valueless.

And I take all I want
In a huge doggy bag 
When I leave, too.

Ha! Ha!
It’s like I was
A zen-dog millionaire!

Now I’m worried.
Is this a sustainable practice? 
Should I be conserving my zen?
Am I possibly using too much?
How much is there?
Will it last?
Will there be enough zen to keep me
And comfort me in my old age?

At the rate I’m going, 
(Extravagant fool  
That I am!)
There won’t be enough 
To last me more than,
Let’s see… multiply by eight, carry the two,
About four trillion years!

Give or take a few hundred millions.

For a minute there
(A very un-zen-like moment!)
I was worried.

But I’m okay now.

Four trillion years.
A four followed by twelve zeros.
Four thousand thousand thousand thousand.
4X10 to the power of 12.

Anyway one looks at it,
That’s a lot of time.
More time (by far) 
Than the universe has existed,
So they believe.

But just to make sure,
The way time flies around here
And the way I go through the stuff,
I’d better get to my zen garden again pretty soon.

And stock up now for later.

Now, where did I
Put that
Doggy bag?