When I was nine years old my father
decided to rewrite history. Not history in the sense of this country
or that, but his own personal history. He entered a kind of Life
Style Crisis (as opposed to a Midlife Crisis or an Identity Crisis,
both of which were very popular at the time). Moreover, his move
was predicated on theory rather than on personal need: he wanted
to test the extent to which any given individual was capable of
demonstrating free will. It all started when he read Walden Two
by B.F. Skinner, that cold-skinned proponent of conditioned responses
in human beings. My father was a history professor at the small
private fine arts college in our northern Ohio town and had assigned
the book for his "Twentieth Century Intellectual Traditions"
course. The course title was sufficiently vague to include just
about anything my father chose to put in the syllabus, and he
used to broaden his own reading by assigning books he "had
never read but always meant to"; Walden Two was one of those
books. My father found the book and its author appallingly evil,
and made a vow that spring to devote his summer to disproving
the book's "arrogant, spiritually void premise." And
so he set out to methodically and radically alter his own "thoughtlessly
He began with politics. A lifelong
Republican, he began reading Marx and Lenin and became one of
the few Ohioans in history to subscribe to The Village Voice,
which he read every Sunday, locked up in his study with a pot
of tea and his pipe, which he chewed rather than smoked. He questioned
the nature of capitalism at cocktail parties full of practicing
Republicans. Eventually my parents were invited to less and less
of these parties. In one of the last my father attended, at the
Worthingtons', he argued so vehemently in favor of socialism with
a local industrialist, Harry Miller that Miller threatened to
cancel his grant to my father's college. This failed to stop my
father, so Miller pushed him into the deep end of the Worthingtons'
kidney-shaped pool. However, Miller was such a large and badly
coordinated man that he lost his balance and went in after my
father. Mrs. Worthington, being the ultimate hostess, immediately
jumped in too in an effort to put her guests at ease, whereupon
the rest of the guests leaped in one by one, caught up in the
spirit of the moment -- or perhaps they did it out of fealty to
their plucky hostess.
In any event, the scene as described
to me by mother was like something out of a movie starring Hayley
Mills or Jerry Lewis: fifty or sixty inebriated Republicans heaving
their soft, mayonnaise-fattened flesh out of the Worthingtons'
pool, breathing heavily at poolside, water dripping from their
thinning, matted hair. I envisioned these same Republicans pulling
up at gas stations and stop lights all over town, their expensive
clothing already beginning to shrink or run in rivulets onto their
plush velour car seats.
Mrs. Worthington called my father
the next day to thank him for helping to create such a memorable
evening. Mr. Miller was not so forgiving, however; that year he
really did cancel his contributions to my father's college. This
saddened my father but he remained unchastened. Fortunately, the
president of the college refused to believe Miller's contention
that my father had pushed him in the Worthingtons' pool. In spite
of his philanthropy, Mr. Miller was regarded as somewhat of a
crank at the college: once, stricken with hepatitis and believing
he was on his deathbed, he confessed to an affair with one of
the faculty members -- a small, timid English professor named
Wallace Stripple -- but Miller recovered from his illness and
was condemned to live down his own confession. The faculty and
administration had a wonderful time with that one for weeks; there
was even a Harry Miller memorial garter belt passed around at
opening night of the senior class musical. Nobody thought to make
fun of Wallace Stripple; he was such a harmless, inoffensive little
man that people only felt sorry for him.
Another front on which my father
decided to make a break was the domestic one. His father had never
so much as washed a fork, and my father seldom set foot in the
kitchen. Part of this had to do with my mother's gift of incredible
efficiency, as opposed his own infuriatingly slow approach to
housework. My mother had little patience with his method of dish
washing, which involved meticulously scrubbing every piece of
silverware and rinsing each piece separately, whereas my mother
preferred to scoop huge handfuls of spoons, forks and knives from
the hot soapy water, rinse them in bunches, plopping them onto
the dish drainer as she breezed by to wipe off the counters.
After weeks of badgering, my father
finally talked my mother into allowing him a "kitchen night"
-- so it was agreed that every Monday night he would clear the
table and do the dishes. This job would take my mother about twenty
minutes with my "help." (I was a pretty ineffective
dish washer myself, but I had a list of chores that were expected
of me, mainly for the purpose of "building my character").
On my father's kitchen night, however, my mother and I were not
allowed to set foot in the kitchen. This twenty minute task routinely
took my father well over an hour. First he would clear and "organize"
the dishes into "categories" -- silverware, china, etc.,
and then he would carefully wash each one, changing the soapy
pan of water each time he changed categories. My mother cooled
her heels in the living room doing crossword puzzles or reading
Agatha Christie. She refused to read Walden Two, calling Skinner
"a lunatic fringe writer who will sink into merciful oblivion
where he belongs." I usually went to my room when my father
was doing dishes because he would always turn on the radio and
listen to rabidly loud classical music. To this day I cannot hear
the Eroica symphony without the accompaniment of rattling dishes
in my mind.
My mother put up with my father's
desire to prove himself on the domestic front, but she put her
foot down when he came home with marijuana one day and suggested
they try some together. I have always suspected my mother's morality
to be more closely aligned with her innate Calvinism than anything
else -- I don't believe, for example, that she thought marijuana
was evil -- I think she rather found it threatening because it
represented a new form of sensuality, a possible loss of control.
After all, gin, with its astringent, medicinal taste, was the
drug of choice in my parents' circle; only in those days no one
saw it as a drug (in spite of what I now know was rampant alcoholism
among those god-fearing folk). But marijuana, now that was a drug.
My father was disappointed to have
his idea rejected, but he was determined to sample this strange
intoxicator of Democrats, and so he did it in secret, behind my
mother's back. On Saturdays he would take me to the park to fly
kites, and it was on those forays that he partook of this sinful
weed, destroyer of good Protestants. He would stop at the Convenience
Food Mart on the way to the park, send me inside with a quarter,
enough to buy any kite I liked, or even two (the paper kites were
ten cents, the fancy plastic ones twenty-five cents). As soon
as the glass door closed behind me, my father would light up what
he always insisted on calling his "marijuana cigarette."
I would come out of the store after a long and hard decision on
kite buying. I almost always bought a kite with a black and white
design of a skull and crossbones, not because I particularly liked
the design, but because these were frequently the only kites left
in the store on Sundays. (Eventually I developed a fondness for
this logo, silly as it was; simply because so many of my kites
were skull and crossbones, I became attached to the design). I
was hard on kites, and the average one would last about a week
before crashing to the ground and splintering into pieces or impaling
itself in the branches of a tree.
I would come out with the Ohio
sunlight glaring at me, reflecting up from the blacktop driveway,
and there my father would be, sitting in his red Volkswagen beetle,
his window rolled down, smiling at me with bloodshot eyes.
"How d'ya do, cowboy?" he would say, imitating John
Wayne (I knew it was John Wayne even though I'd never seen a Western;
my mother believed they were "too violent" and would
warp my young mind). I would smile back at my father, squinting
and blinking from the intensity of the sun.
I loved Sundays. My father's undivided
attention would send me into paroxysms of ecstasy and excitement;
I was like a dog whose owner has returned home, feeling everything
with my whole body: the park, the tress, the grass -- even the
smell of gas at the station where my father always filled up the
tank for the week -- for me, the smell of gasoline at a pump is
forever associated with Sundays with my father.
As I climbed into the front seat
next to my him, trying not to catch my jacket on the sharp bits
of straw stuffing poking out from the torn seat cushion, I could
smell the heavy sweet aroma of his "marijuana cigarette."
My father knew I knew what he was doing in the car while I was
in the store, but he never smoked in front of me. He would not
have lied if I had confronted him on the subject, but we never
spoke of it. (Even then, I was learning to become a good Wasp.)
We would drive to the park in silence, my father driving very
slowly and carefully the remaining half mile there. I was busy
opening my kite and assembling it, attaching the tail of rags
and string I had made earlier in the day. When my kites self-destructed
by crashing to the ground, I was able to recycle their tails,
but when they landed in trees the tails were frequently unsalvageable;
the kite would hang there for weeks, a grim warning to other impetuous
The method for getting kites airborne
was always the same: I would stand with the roll of string in
the center of the park's largest field, and my father would stand
about twenty yards away, holding the kite over his head. When
I felt the wind gust up a little, I would yell "Now!"
and begin to run; just at that moment my father would release
the kite. I would take the first few steps holding the string
taut between my hand the kite, but after that I would gradually
let out the string as I ran, looking back over my shoulder to
see my kite soaring upwards, skull and crossbones leering down
over all of Northeastern Ohio. The take-off was of course the
most difficult part, and I considered my father and myself to
be among the finest team I ever saw in that park or any other.
Wind, like all forces of nature,
is a fickle and tricky thing, and my father and I had launched
kites in conditions that would intimidate lesser flight crews.
Even strong down gusts or near-gale conditions did not daunt us:
our timing was impeccable, instinctive. My father seemed to anticipate
my "Now!" by the tiniest split-second, and his hands
would release the kite the instant my right foot took its first
running step, creating that essential tension between pilot and
kite. He would always let out a kind of "Whoop!" sound
at that moment of release, a sort of invocation to the kite, and
when it was airborne he would laugh with delight like a child.
I was the stern, serious member of our team; as chief controller
of the kite I felt my responsibility keenly, and clenched my teeth
as I played the kite to its highest altitude, carefully letting
out just enough string to balance the pull of the wind, but not
so much that a gust of wind could cause the kite to plummet.
Flying a kite is like sailing;
you can feel the wind in your hands, and, like sailing, it depends
upon balance, finesse -- the tension of the string connecting
you to the kite must be just right: too much and the kite will
plummet suddenly earthward; too little and the kite will languish
and float down to the ground. I learned to concentrate all of
my nine-year-old energy on maintaining that vital link between
the kite and my hands, and even then it seemed to me to be a sort
of dialogue between the three of us: the kite, the wind and myself.
The wind was neither foe nor friend, but simply there, to be made
use of if I could manage it, and it was as capricious as an unruly
child, full of tricks.
I liked the tricky winds best because
they challenged my skill the most, even though I lost more kites
to them. Sometimes a strong gust would push the kite into such
an inexorable down spin that I would not be able to pull it out
until it was too late and the kite had cracked into torn fragments,
jagged splints of pale balsa strips sticking through the ripped
paper like broken bones through skin. Sometimes a sudden strong
wind would just tear the roll of string from my hands, and I would
run across the field after it, yelling to my father to join the
chase. Sometimes we would catch the kite again -- if the roll
of string happened to catch on a bush or other obstacle -- we
would dive at it, grabbing it before the wind could take off with
it again. Frequently, though, if the wind was really strong it
would simply lift the cardboard roll of string high into the air
beyond our reach, until the kite was caught in the branches of
the tall trees that bordered the park, or until it sailed away,
above the trees and beyond our view. I always liked to think that
my lost kites landed eventually in another child's back lawn somewhere
in neighboring towns, a gift from the sky.
I mourned my lost kites, though
-- mourned each one of them, and the longer I had owned a particular
kite, the longer I mourned it. I wanted them to last forever,
although I knew that sooner or later the thin paper and flimsy
balsa wood would fall prey to the forces of nature. I felt as
though each outing was me and the kite against the wind. Each
lost kite was a defeat, and I can still remember running breathlessly
across that autumn-stubbled field, calling, not to my father it
seemed, but to my kite, its skull and crossbones grinning down
at me even as the wind stole it right from my grasp.
One Sunday of that spring, the
spring of my ninth year, as I stood on the cusp of childhood,
of double-digithood, and my father stood on the cusp of whatever
it was, we left for the park a little earlier than usual. We didn't
need to stop at the Convenience store because I had not yet lost
my present kite, but my father had some books to pick up at his
office and wanted to swing by there on the way. The college was
situated on a hundred pleasant tree-lined acres and had some buildings
that were of great interest to me, especially the student union
building, which also housed the main cafeteria. I loved this building
because it reminded me of a ship or a spacecraft: a creation of
the early sixties, it was oblong and the walls were entirely glass,
so that from a distance you could see people moving around in
it; from a distance, they always seemed to be moving in slow motion,
dream-like. In the cafeteria you could get hot dogs, deliciously
grilled (my mother always boiled hot dogs, which in my opinion
ruined them), served with bright green relish and wrapped in toasted
slices of soft white bread.
So as my father pulled up his Volkswagen
to the entrance to College Hall, the main administration building
which housed his office, I had my plea ready: could I run over
and get a hot dog at the cafeteria -- I would be very quick --
it would be a good idea to stock up on nourishment (my voraciously
devoured breakfast of French toast notwithstanding), since I'd
be running around flying kites all afternoon -- and I could bring
him a hot dog too? To my surprise, my father pre-empted my spiel;
before he had even turned off the engine, he fished a dollar from
the glove compartment. My father's glove compartment, held closed
with the help of black electrician's tape, was like Ali Baba's
cave. You never knew what treasures you would find in it: loose
change, wrapped hard candies, various hats and scarves, single
gloves, buttons, bits of string, students' papers, a pipe or two,
shoelaces, packages of raisins, an occasional orange or apple,
paper coffee cups, pens (some of which occasionally worked), manila
folders, a comb with a few teeth missing, a man's tie or two,
used emery boards, notes he had scribbled to himself, a wristwatch
with a broken strap, and a schedule of his classes. These were
all things I had found in there at one time or another, and now
that my father had taken up marijuana I half-expected a joint
or two to come rolling out when he opened it. None did, though,
and I stared at my father a little wildly when he gave me an entire
dollar -- enough for three hot dogs.
you'd like to go get a hot dog, cowboy, wouldn't you?" he
"Sure," I replied, my mouth slack from amazement, "You
"Sure," he said, struggling with the door latch on his
side, which liked to stick now and then just to remind us of the
power of inanimate objects. I stuffed the money into my jeans
pocket and hopped out of the car; my father gave up on his side
and followed me out my door, folding his long thin legs to climb
over the stick shift.
As I ran across the lawn towards the cafeteria building, I felt
the ground squishy under my feet, full of spring rain and worms.
All around me fat robins were laboring industriously at their
worm farming, yanking long rubbery earthworms out of the ground,
flipping them into the air before swallowing them or carting them
off to a nearby nest. Squirrels were even more numerous than robins,
and sat up on their puffy haunches to observe my passing -- some
even hopped over to me expectantly, tame and spoiled by decades
of college students feeding them.
It was the first warm day of March, and though not officially
spring yet, it was emotionally the first day of spring, a day
in which the air itself seemed a cause for celebration. Through
four long months of Ohio winter the air had been our enemy, and
now it was beckoning me out into its pure delight. I sprinted
to the cafeteria building, digging the toes of my sneakers deeper
into the soft, yielding ground. The cafeteria building hovered
before me, that mysterious, transparent vessel -- I wouldn't have
been at all surprised if it really did take off one day, spinning
into space with its cargo of college students and hot dogs.
Now that my own college days are many years behind me, when I
see college students they seem to me impossibly young, smooth-faced,
raw -- with the curious mixture of the moss of childhood clinging
to an emerging adult, like a butterfly still covered with caterpillar
fuzz -- but when I was nine years old they were to me the essence
of sophistication. They were gods, graceful beings in black Danskin
stirrup tights (my father's school had a large modern dance program),
long skirts, spotless white Levis, and plaid flannel shirts, moving
serenely through ivy-covered buildings and hallowed halls. In
contrast, I was sloppy and disjointed, an untidy child always
in motion, always in a hurry to be somewhere or do something.
In fact, the only time I felt a sense of power and grace was when
I was running across an open field with the string of my kite
firmly in my right hand, the wind searing my face and rushing
through my ears. When I was their age, I thought, I would be like
them -- contemplative, elegant, serene -- but I was wrong. I am
to this day untidy and kinetic, like my father; serenity is not
in my blood.
Upon entering the building through the swinging glass doors, I
immediately smelled the hot dogs, being grilled to a golden brown,
awaiting me in the snack bar. I rushed up the wide staircase to
the second floor -- usually I would take the elevator for the
novelty of it -- but today that siren smell drove me to impatience.
The Snack Bar was not very crowded; only a few students sat at
the small round fake marble tables sipping sodas and smoking cigarettes.
I stood for a few moments watching a girl with long, blond hair
as thin and fine as a child's -- she held a Parliament filter-tip
between her index and forefinger with the grace of a sylph --
and then I approached the stand to claim my treat.
"Onions-relish-mustard," I chanted under my breath as
I waited for the counter girl to notice me. I tapped the counter
in rhythm, gently: "Onions, relish, mustard."
"Yes? Can I help you?" She was suddenly facing me, wiping
the Formica counter with a damp, stained dish rag as she spoke.
"Onions-relish-mustard," I said, startled, and she smiled.
She was short and unglamorous, obviously not a student here; the
coeds here were all willowy and long-limbed and owned their own
"I mean, two hot dogs please, with onions-relish-mustard,"
I said, fingering a tiny spot of dried ketchup on the edge of
the counter. She turned a speared two perfectly browned, sweating
hot dogs from the rotating, rolling grill and put them into steaming
buns. I watched her spoon on the sweet green relish, then the
delicious, vinegary onions, and finally the dark yellow-flecked
mustard. My mouth was a symphony of saliva.
"Thanks," I said hurriedly, thrusting the dollar at
her. I stuffed the change she handed me into the brown paper bag
with the hot dogs and took off for the stairs, suppressing an
impulse to slide down the shiny chrome banister. Out into the
air and across the lawn to where my father waited in his office.
We would eat together at his desk, unwrapping the white waxed
paper over his green blotting pad, and he would put his feet up
and let me play with the reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorder
he kept in his office.
College Hall did not face the cafeteria building; if you went
directly across the lawn you would be facing the back of College
Hall, so I decided to see if the back entrance was open. I pushed
on the horizontal copper-colored bar on the black exit door, and
to my surprise it had been locked in an open position; usually
on a Sunday the building was closed except for the main entrance.
Pushing my elbow against the door, clutching the brown paper bag
containing the precious hot dogs, I stumbled into the stifling,
overheated stairwell. The radiators on each floor hissed at me
as I climbed the three flights to my father's office; the warm
weather of the last few days was sudden and thermostats were still
set for winter temperatures.
As I rounded the corner to begin the final flight, something made
me hesitate -- a sudden feeling of fear, almost foreboding. This
was not unusual; I loved empty buildings, but at the same time
they frightened me. This building was not empty, though, I told
myself: my father was there waiting for me. I began to climb the
third story. Halfway up, I was sure I heard voices. This was not
unusual, either; other professor besides my father were known
to drop in on a Sunday to work or just to pick something up. These
voices, however, stopped me on mid-stair: there was something
furtive about them; something secretive, conspiratorial. I couldn't
quite tell, but it sounded as if one voice was a man's and one
Behind me, the radiator let out a sudden loud hiss of steam and
I jumped, dropping the hot dogs. The bag landed on its side, and
the change I had carelessly thrown in it began to roll out and
down the stairs. I grabbed for the coins, but as I did I heard
a woman laugh, softly and secretly. The meaning of that laugh
was clear even to a nine-year-old, and I froze, a quarter in my
right hand and the bag of hot dogs in my left. I knew better than
to do what I did then -- but then, people often know better than
to do something, and they go ahead and do it anyway. I knew that
whatever was going on in that hall was none of my business, but
that is precisely why it interested me. I moved, trance-like,
towards the fire door leading from the stairwell to the hallway.
The door was wooden, with a glass window in its upper half. I
knelt so that I was underneath the window and held my breath,
The two voices -- I was certain now it was a man and a woman --
intertwined, weaving in and out of one another like vines. They
were so soft and low that I had trouble making out any words,
but I thought I heard the woman say, "Of course, darling,"
and I thought the man said "I know, I know" several
times. After several minutes, the suspense was too much for me.
I inched my head slowly upwards until my eyes were just over the
edge of the glass partition. My eyes cleared the glass partition
and I saw them. They were standing face to face, eye to eye, nose
to nose, lips to lips, their bodies reaching towards each other
even as their lips met in passion. The woman was small, lithe,
and dark, with smooth black hair. I recognized her as Lydia Haddad,
a literature professor, fiercely feminist and much lusted after
by all the undergraduate boys. Her eyes were as black as her hair
and it was rumored that she was part American Indian. The man
was my father.
I tried to turn and run, afraid they would see me, but I could
not. My feet were as firmly planted to the spot as if I had suddenly
sprouted roots. The couple was so absorbed in each other, however,
that they did not even glance in my direction. I watched, fascinated,
horrified, a small animal transfixed by a swaying snake. My father
stood leaning against the wall and she stood with her body leaning
towards his, her hands on either side of him. There was something
both comical and touching about this pose, with her in a dominating
position; she was a tiny, elegant woman and my father was a rambling,
shaggy man well over six feet tall. He resembled a large sheepdog
cornered by a whippet. They seemed unaware of the awkwardness
of the picture they presented, so totally concentrated were they
on each other. The universe for them began and ended with their
two bodies; I might as well have been watching from a distant
galaxy. Their conversation was low and proceeded in fits and starts,
interrupted by kisses and the touching of hands. Once, he took
her head in his palms and looked down at it for such a long time
that I was certain he was going to kiss her, but instead he merely
leaned forward until their foreheads touched.
They stayed like that for so long that I thought perhaps they
had fallen asleep, but then they stepped back from each other,
and, still holding hands, walked back down the hall toward my
father's office. I stood looking at the empty hallway for a long
time, until another loud hiss from the radiator made me jump.
I turned, picked up the crumpled bag of hot dogs, and went to
meet my father.
He was seated at his desk reading when I arrived, and looked up
at me with a friendly smile when I entered.
"Hey there, cowboy," he said, "Everything go okay
at the corral?"
I nodded, still standing in the doorway, clutching the wilted
"Okay, let's have 'em," he said, busily clearing the
clutter from his desk. I handed him the bag and he filled two
coffee mugs with Hires root beer from a bottle he had purchased
from the vending machine down the hall. He handed me the mug that
read "Life Sucks And Then You Die" (a present from a
philosophy major). His mug said simply, "Professor."
This was our routine, our Sunday ritual, this was what I lived
for, but I sat there like a stone as my father gobbled up his
hot dog, chatting about our vacation plans for spring break. I
did not hear him, and when he asked me why I wasn't eating my
hot dog, I shrugged. He looked at me for a moment searchingly,
and I thought he was going to say something, but just then the
phone rang. It was my mother asking him to pick up some milk on
the way home. He spoke to her cheerfully, twisting the gold ring
on his left hand as he talked.
"Well, pardner, let's go," he said as he hung up, "We'd
better get over to the ranch before the cattle have all wandered
off." I followed him obediently out to the car. If my father
noticed my remoteness he did not acknowledge it; in fact, he was
particularly jocular and cheerful, singing along with the radio,
tapping his hand on the dash board and joking about various college
By the time we reached the park the wind had picked up, and it
shook the trees like a dog worrying a rag. The kite I had brought
that day was, for me, a veteran. It had lasted through two Sundays
and several smaller excursions in the schoolyard -- it was, I
was certain, a charmed kite. My father stood at his usual spot,
holding up the kite with stiff arms. The wind was blowing hard
in my face as I began my run down the field; it whipped against
my cheeks, making my eyes water. I ran over the winter-scarred,
crew-cut short grass, doggedly, lips set in a determined frown.
Behind me my father called something out to me but the rushing
wind was loud in my ears and I could not hear him.
"Now!" I yelled over my shoulder, "Let go now!"
He did, and the kite rose hesitantly, raggedly, dipping and swooping
dangerously. I ran harder, pounding the ground, punishing the
stubborn earth with my feet. The wind bit my face and took my
breath away, the ground rose up before me to trip me, the string
cut into my stiffening fingers. Still I ran, furiously, pumping
my legs until they ached. The kite stopped wobbling and began
to rise swiftly, cutting through the wind with a force of its
own -- up, up towards the pale March sun.
I looked back at my father. He stood, hands in his pocket, looking
at the kite with the eager, expectant face of a child. Suddenly
I stopped running. The kite sailed higher, its leering face blocking
out the sun's orb. I stood for a moment, breathing heavily, and
then I let go of the string. The kite paused as if unsure of its
freedom. Then, as I stood watching, hands at my sides, the kite
sailed quickly away over the treetops, towards the waiting sun.