Monthly Archives: October 2015

Oregon Turd Punchers

I had just finished drawing the children a bath and they were single filing into the 6×6 bathroom, stripping off their clothes and hopping into the tub with various oohs and aahs as their butts dipped into the hot water. First came my eldest daughter Quinn, then my youngest daughter Bryce, followed closely by my nephew, Sawyer. It was our second night at the rented Oregon cabin and we were just starting to settle into our routines.

The three children had submerged themselves in the bubbly bath while my son, Rory, stood next to me, a child that is both four years old and also a prime example of any chiseled grecian statue with his developing biceps and astute six pack. He says, “Dad, uh, excuse me but I have to poop.” And so I step aside and begin wetting hair and splashing toys around.

“Uh, Dad?” Rory’s voice comes from behind me a few moments later. “Something is, uh, wrong, I think…”

I turn and panic twists my stomach into a fist. My heart rate jackrabbits off the charts and my hands begin to shake. The toilet is clogged. The toilet bowl is filling up. The toilet bowl is going to flow onto the floor with putrid brown sauce.

I shriek.

There is no other word for the noise that bursts from my face. I shriek like a banshee of myth and I think I said, “Stand back!” or “Step aside!” or maybe even, “RUN!” but I couldn’t recall exactly even if you placed my hand on a stack of Bibles. My head swivels back and forth, searching for the plunger. The Plunger! YES! The PLUNGER! Oh, how the plunger can be a gift from God. So often it sits there quietly, tall and slender, long of handle and wide of mouth, a beautiful woman that is always ready to get her hands dirty… until you actually need her. And then she is a flakey broad who runs away at the first sign of choppy waters. Why does the bathroom exist that does not contain a plunger?

Rory says, “It’s going to spill,” and I say, “PLUNGER!” and then, like a genie, it appears. Maybe in my panic I blotted it out, but I see it now, hiding behind the toilet. The handle is white and only about 12 inches long. The mouth is narrow and pert. It is short and insufficient and… why is it so short? It’s a plunger built to plunge a sink or a miniature toilet or a garden hose. I need a stallion and this is a bloated Shetlen pony. I need a great dane and this is a corgi, a runty, short legged joke.

Damn you, insufficient plunger.

Damn you, infant plunger.

Damn you, for being so tiny and stupid and helpless.

I thrust the sword at the watery demons and begin to plunge. Splurt! Splert! Spluertt! Brown bubbles burst boisterously. The water continues to fill. I say, “No, no, no, no-no-no, nonono!” Absolute fear. Absolute terror. This is a pure, unrefined emotional massacre.

And then, as suddenly as it started, it stops. With about two inches to spare, everything goes still.

I stand up straight and stretch my back. My knees quiver. My spine aches. My stomach relaxes. The water has mixed into a stew. Bits of turd and soggy toilet paper float around in a beige mixture.

“Wow, Dad! That was close!”

“Rory… please get in the tub.”

I crack my neck and bend over the felony. I insert the world’s most inefficient plunger into the watery grave and I watch as three quarters of the handle disappears into the swampy murk. I press the plunger. I press the plunger. I press the plunger gently so as not to disturb the surface of the aquatic nightmare. My knuckles are less than four inches from ground zero and I don’t want anything to – damn it, I splashed it on myself.

I SPLASHED DUMP WATER ON MY KNUCKLES!

And now what is done is done. The damage is complete. The bubble has popped. I’m no longer dipping my toes into the pool of danger. I am submerged in the terror so let’s make hay while the sun is shining. I pump. I pump. I pump. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes pass with me working this thing like a piston and the water level isn’t dropping a fraction of an inch. I want to cry.

Jordan, my brother-in-law, comes in and says, “Hey, what are you – oh no…” and then he follows that thought up with, “Oh, no.” I turn and look over my shoulder and assume he sees the emptiness in my eyes, sees me as a shell of my previous self, he is astute enough to understand that I’m in a bad way. He steps forward, takes the plunger gently from me and tries his hand at it. A full ten minutes later and we’re both broken men, both of us staring at our feet, trying to shake off the magnitude of the shame swimming around us. He says, “Well what the hell?” and hands the plunger back to me. Two minutes and I hand it back to him. Two minutes and he hands it back to me.

Jade says, “I gotta pee – can you two get out… hey, what are you doing?” We both turn to look at her and watch as her eyes sink down. She takes a step backwards and swallows a gag. “I’ll hold it.”

Jordan says, “Whaddaya think?” and I say, “I think… how about you go and get a plastic bread bag, wrap it around your hand and stick your mitt down there – see if you can break up the offender with your fingers.” He raises his eyes to mine and says, “Are you effing kidding me?” and I say, “No. There could be some kind of turd mass that just needs to be destroyed. You could be a hero.”

He says, “YOU put on the bread bag and punch the turd!” and I say, “NO! My plan was for you to do it! Your plan is dumb!

We plunge more. The kids get out of the tub. Time wears on. The first two knuckles on both of our hands are damp from high tide. The rental cabin we’re staying in doesn’t carry rubber gloves.

I say, “How about we get a wire hanger, untwist it and feed it down? We can punch a series of holes into the brown cork and kind of break it up.” Jordan looks at me and says, “Is that your version of a serious idea? I mean, I know you’re stupid. I’ve known you for a long time but…” then he just shakes his head.

We keep plunging.

A full thirty minutes pass.

I say, “How about we flush the toilet?” and he says, “You want to take the water that’s in the toilet tank and ADD IT to the water that’s in the toilet bowl? You do realize that will make it run onto the floor, right?” I shrug and say, “Doesn’t it, like, open a trapdoor in the hole and then… I guess I’m not a plumber. How about the hanger idea?”

He sighs and exits the bathroom. A few minutes later he returns with a wire hanger. “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m about to poke a turd with a hanger.” He lowers the metal rod into the water and it disappears the moment it enters. There is no clarity below the surface. We’re working blind but hope is still on our side.

Clink. The hanger hits something. He readjusts his angle. Clink. It hits something. Clink. He tells me to guide it. “Yeah, just like that…” Clink, clink, clink. I say, “It’s not going in… what if one of the kids grabbed a cup or a toy or something and dropped it down there and it’s sort of blocking the hole? We need to see the hole… we need…” and he says, “I hate that this is happening.”

We pull the top of the tank off and let the hanger live in the reserve. I say, “Sandwich Bag Plan? Desperate times call for desperate measures, Harry.” He and I stare at each other for several moments. Is this what our lives have amounted to? Is this what our vacation in Oregon is? Is this what we paid for? Turd surfing?

Jordan turns and leaves and comes back with a plastic bag. He says, “Here, put your hand in here,” and I do. In my head I say, “Someone has to be the hero. Someone has to do the dirty work.” This is how I sleep at night. This is how I justify shaking hands with dookie.

He hands me a plastic cup and says, “You’re going to scoop the… stuff… into this cup and you’re going to pour it into this little garbage can and then I’m going to take this little garbage can and I’m going to dump it in the backyard.”

And so this is how we emptied the toilet. This is how we manually removed an entire toilet full of mass hysteria. And when we got to the bottom… we found nothing. The toilet was still clogged and the drain was empty. We jammed the hanger down again. We shoved the plunger in. We cried. We swore. We banged our heads against the wall and kicked the base of the porcelain bowl.

I say, “I guess we should… try flushing it?” and Jordan sighs. He reaches out and flips the handle. The water from the tank immediately begins rushing into the bowl and it’s all happening too fast. The water level begins to rise. Jordan shrieks. I grab the plunger and jam it back into the tan concoction and begin to milk this thing up and down. “It’s not stopping! It’s not stopping!”

Water is splashing everywhere, all over the fronts and backs of my hands, sloshing across my palms and up to my elbows. The force of the intake coupled with the waves I’m causing are triangulating into the perfect storm.

Jordan shouts, “SHUT THE WATER OFF!” and he points to the back of the toilet, down by the base boards. I immediately drop to my knees and shove my arm under the tank and begin to twist. And twist. And twist. And twist. And twist. And it just isn’t shutting off and then the water is overflowing. NO! NO! NO! It’s overflowing! The horrible, horrible water is overflowing and it’s rushing over the lip of the toilet, down the sides, onto the floor that I’m kneeling on and it’s rushing onto my jeans, which have holes in the knees and it’s rushing down my pants and into my socks and why, Rory, why?

The knob finally locks up and I stand quickly, grab a towel off a hook and throw it into the mess like a red steak to a bulldog. Jordan says, “That towel needs to get thrown away when we’re done,” and I just stand there and stare at the bottom half of my body in a complete state of shock.

The screen door in the kitchen slams and one of the six adults who shall remain nameless says, “I just pooped in the backyard. Is the toilet almost fixed?”

Somebody else says, “Should I call the owner of the cabin?” and I say, “Please.” I hear mumbling and then a moment later the same person says, “They’ll send someone over tomorrow morning. I say, “Tomorrow morning? they want nine people to sleep in their rental overnight with no toilet? Do they know my mother-in-law is almost sixty? Do they know we have children here? Do they know I’ve been accustomed to indoor plumbing my entire life? Are they suggesting – just so I’m clear here before I totally freak out – are they suggesting that we go outside and poop in the grass all night? Is that their answer to this situation?” the person says, “Do you want to call her?” and I say, “Phone me.”

It rings twice before the owner picks up. I say, “Hi. This is Johnny. I just spoke to my wife and I feel like maybe she didn’t stress the absolute dire circumstances we’re under right now. My brother-in-law and I have just spent the better part of the last hour plunging, scraping and literally, literally scooping the darkest substance known to man out of your toilet. It has overflown. There is a mess currently residing on the floor of your bathroom and my jeans are covered in a great mistake. We need someone over here tonight. Tomorrow is unacceptable. This needs to happen tonight. This needs to happen as soon as possible.” She says, “I don’t know if I can get someone at 8pm on a Friday-“ and I cut her off. “This needs to happen right now.”

She says, “I’ll go to town.”

And she does. An hour later she’s back with a drain snake and plastic gloves. When she walks in, the first thing she says is, “Y’know… I think the septic tank might be broken. It smells a little… foul out here…” and Jordan says, “That’s where we dumped the shit water,” and I say, “And that’s where one of us took a dump,” and she says, “Uh… oh…” and I say, “Don’t worry. They covered it in pinecones…” She hands us the drain snake and gloves and I raise an eyebrow.

For fifteen minutes we snake this drain like a mongoose in a rabbit hole and nothing happens. She says she’s going to call a plumber, “But!” she says, “In the meantime I brought this.” And she opens the backdoor and reveals a contraption she has clearly built herself. It is, what amounts to, a five gallon bucket duct taped to an elderly person’s walker. It’s a DIY toilet. She says, “I use it when I camp.”

I stare at her.

I stare at it.

I stare at her.

I say, “Thank you,” and slowly allow the door to shut between us. Jordan walks into the kitchen and says, “Hey! Is that a honeypot?” and I say, “I don’t know. Sure. Honeypot.”

Another hour later and the plumber knocks on our door. He’s a tall guy who used to live in California but moved out here when the gangs in his neighborhood got too bad. He walks into the bathroom, jams a tube down the toilet and begins shaking the other end like it’s volting him with electricity. The walls are shaking. The floor is shaking. There is a great thunder and gnashing of teeth. I say, “Givin’ ‘er hell, huh?” and he says, “Oh, yeah. We’re gonna fix this, baby…” and I have to wonder if he’s calling the toilet baby or me.

He jostles and dances with the toilet. It’s beautiful. As mashed toilet paper and old turd particles begin to rush back out of the drain, I find myself in awe of it’s beauty. It’s like watching the cosmos unfold. It’s my front row seat to The Big Bang. It’s all happening in the toilet bowl of my universe.

Sweat breaks out on the plumber’s head as he turns and cranks and stands on his tiptoes. The treasures keep coming, filling the bowl. Every secret it’s ever swallowed is being spewed back into reality. The plumber says, “Yes… here it is… yes…” and he reaches into the water with gloved hands and pulls out a small pink bracelet.

“Here’s the offender.”

I say, “I’ve never seen that before.” And it’s true. I haven’t. I’d feel terrible if I had. But I hadn’t. Keep in mind that we’re a rental cabin. The plumber tosses it in the garbage can, reaches over and flips the lever. All the secrets of the universe, all the quiet conversations and hopes and dreams of the world, all the beautiful and terrible things we’ve ever thought, said or done disappear into the black hole and then pure water flows back and everything is right. The world is back on its axis. Peace is amongst us again. My jeans are still damp but order has returned.

Sitting at the table after the plumber leaves, we all make small talk, each of us hoping one of the others will get up first. Each of us thinking, “No way. No way am I going to be the first one to test drive this bomb. No way am I going to be the guy whose dump blows this place up.”

We all start playing cards.

We all pretend we don’t have to use the bathroom.

We all pucker our buttonholes tightly and pray.

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Ghost Towns, Bloody Noses & Bone Castles: An Adventure through the Nevada Wasteland

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I wake up in an unfamiliar hotel room, gray light filtering in through the slightly split curtains. It takes my brain a beat to catch up with my surroundings. Where am I? What state? Nevada. Hawthorne. It’s a ghost town. I stick my foot in something cold and damp at the foot of the bed. I sit up and find Quinn’s pajamas lying on the floor and her naked self sleeping across the room. She’s peed in my bed and then abandoned ship. Rory is naked as well but this is typical. He always strips off his PJs sometimes after we’ve put him down but before going to sleep. Getting him to wear clothes is like trying to dress a hurricane.

Where is Bryce? I look around. No sign of her. She’s probably weaseled her way into a mound of blankets somewhere. She’s like a guinea pig – sort of nuzzles into the sweet spots for short term hibernation. When I’d gone to bed eight hours ago she was jumping onto my back and laughing as my ribs popped out of place one at a time.

My elbow is swollen and burning up. I assume I’ve been bitten by some kind of horrible bug in the night. The room was $55 for two queen beds and that cost comes at a price… and sometimes that price is a certain level of sterility… or rather, lack thereof.

Slowly, everyone wakes up. Eyes are opened, limbs are stretched, yawns are ejected. Jade dresses the kids while I pull yogurts from the car. I throw my phone down on the table while Radiohead’s The Bends floats out of the tiny speaker – try to expose the kids to some culture while they enjoy their blueberry / pomegranate mash.

Rory finishes his cup well ahead of the two girls and casually says, “I’m still hungry,” in a way that suggests I should just continue to shovel food into his mouth until he is a plump melon begging me to stop. I grab the keys and go to the car for another yogurt, which he inhales likes a junkie before letting me know that, “Hey! I’m still hungry! I want cereal!” I ask if I can get a please out of him, please. And he relents. I head out the door and get a box of Safari Cocoa Crunch which I guess is either either some kind of healthy version of Cocoa Pebbles or some kind of super generic version of Cocoa Pebbles. It saddens me to think that Fred Flintstone will be nothing more to this generation of kids but a cereal box spokesman.

I pour a hundred little spheres in his yogurt cup along with some milk and tell him to go nuts while Thom Yorke moans about Fake Plastic Trees. Quinn falls out of her chair and Bryce poops her pants. I help Quinn up and change Bryce’s diaper. Rory tells me he’s still hungry and I say, “Tough. Lunch is in four hours,” and he says, “Nooooooo…..”

Jade says she’s going to take a shower so I take the kids for a walk around the block. It’s 8am in desert country and there’s a chill in the air but the sharp briskness reminds me of spring in South Dakota when I was a kid.

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The four of us walk up the sidewalk and down a dirt alley. Quinn picks up a rusty bolt and Rory bangs on a gas tank. Bryce stops and watches ants. We make our way to the main street – a completely dead four lane road – and cross to the other side. It’s clear that at one point this town was a place. A real place. A real place with real businesses and real things happening but now it’s about one good month at the mortuary from being a ghost town.

The kids and I explore an abandoned hotel that the Earth has begun to reclaim, dragging it slowly down with it’s green fingers.

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Across the street there used to be a car wash but it too has fallen into disrepair at the hands of Time and then was generously decorated by a poet doubling as an entrepreneur in the field of women.

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I grab Jade and we head towards a gas station feeling like I’m trapped in an adult version of Children of the Corn.Jade fills up our coffees and cooler while I clean out the car. I find some dirty socks, crunchy peanuts and loose change, which I pocket. Under my seat is a grape, which I toss over my shoulder onto the pavement. Jade exits and says, “Whoa. Look at the size of that bird…” I look behind me and see a crow the size of a small dog hopping towards me. It eyeballs my grape before picking it up in its massive clicking maw. “Take the grape, Crow. Take the whole bag. Just don’t peck my eyes out.”

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I reach into the backseat and pull out two clementines and think about my dead dog while I peel them. Poor Clementine – my little cocker spaniel. Hit by a stupid car and thrown away by a homeless man a little over a year ago. A citrus mist pops into the air as I pull back the bright orange skin and it smells refreshing. I throw the peelings on the ground and before I’ve started the car, three tiny brown birds are sniffing them out to make use of.

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The Nevada landscape pours slowly past us like sand in an hourglass. It has a beautiful liquid body – the rolling hills, the salted fields. One mound rolls into the next rolls into the next. We pass through several more towns that should be euthanized… or at the very least placed in resting homes.

In Fallon we stop at a restaurant called The Slanted Porch for lunch. It has a dirt parking lot and is across the street from a massage parlor called THE RUB, which looks like it’s inside of someone’s house. I imagine walking in and finding a heavy set Canadian woman lying me down on the bed she sleeps on, crawling on top of me and then using a curling brush against my back and on the top of my head. I have no idea why the woman is Canadian in my imaginings. I shiver and walk up the path to the restaurant instead.

A man that looks like Willy Nelson beats me to the door and opens it up. Jade says, “Go ahead,” and he shakes his head. “Nah, you first. You got more legs than me,” and I say, “Yeah, a little caterpillar,” and he says, “Haw-haw-haw. Boy you sure got your hands full!”

We ask to be seated outside and let the kids run around while we peruse the menu where every item, regardless of its contents, is named after a famous painter. Jade and I each order The Monet – a tomato / pesto sandwich – while the kids all order The Homer – a peanut butter and jelly.

I fail to see the connection in any of it.

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The waiter tells me that he drives just over an hour everyday for this job. He drives from Reno. He used to live in The Bay Area in California but now he leaves out here in the desert. Says he needed a change of pace – just packed his car up one day and started over from scratch. Says he likes to serve. I ask him why he doesn’t serve in Reno and he mumbles something that doesn’t make any sense to me. I assume there’s more to his story but he never lets it slip. Our drinks come just as the town’s air raid sirens begin to go off. I pray it’s just a test and we’re not about to be nuked. The missile never comes but the double Monets do.

Rory shouts, “DAD! I GOTTA POOP! NOW!” and two older women at the table next to us pretend not to hear. I say, “Shhhh…” and pretend not to hear him as well. Rory whispers. “Dad… I gotta poop and pee…right now!” I push back my chair and take him to the bathroom whereupon he crawls upon his ivory throne and begins to talk in stream-of-consciousness-I-don’t-even-know-whats. I nod my head dumbly. At one point he stops talking mid-sentence and I glance over at him. His face is beet red and his gaze is a million miles away. I say, “Are you, uh, okay? Are you pooping right now?” I hear a loud PLOP and he says, “OOOOOOOH!… How did you know?”

“Just a hint.”

Then he leans back, like he’s in a recliner, leaning against the toilet tank. Kid is really getting comfortable now and just starts swinging his feet like he’s on a park bench. I ask if he’s done and he says, “Nope. Not yet.” I pull out my phone so I don’t have to stare at a pooping human for the next few minutes. I’m going through my email when Rory releases a super sexually charged, “YESSSSSSSSSS!” and I shout / whisper, “Quiet! Quiet!” and then can’t help but laugh a little. “What are you doing?” and he says, “It’s coming out!”

“Okay. Let’s just… are you almost done?”

“Yeah. I’m done.”

“Awesome. Wipe, wash and let’s be on our way.”

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Back on the highway the view is bleeding past us and the road is stretching straight into the horizon, falling off the side of the Earth. I’m strumming my ukelele in the passenger seat while Jade drives. I tell her about “a sweet travel app idea” that I have and she says, “AWESOME!” I say, “Thanks! Really? I mean, I thought it was good but-” and she says, “LOOK AT THAT!” She points and I turn my head. Off to the right of the freeway is a giant monument that looks like a chapel constructed from bones.

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I say, “What is it?” and she says, “I have no idea. We need to turn around. We need to turn around right now.”

She pulls the mini over to the left side of the road and finds a turnout that says “No U-Turns” before pulling a U-Turn. A paved road turns to a dirt road turns to a dirt parking lot. The fence surrounding the place is made from old scraps of wood and chicken wire.

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We park and pull the kids out. Quinn pees on the tire before we head in – we are in solitude. Bryce doesn’t want to walk and instead just sits in the dirt and cries. No one is around so we let her. “See ya, Bruce!”

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We walk in and find what is, essentially, an outdoor exhibit that celebrates Native American culture by creating art from “garbage” found around Nevada; old cars, bottles, cans, car engines, animal bones. There are picnic tables made from spare bulldozer parts and outhouses decorated with license plates. Dolls are scattered throughout, feeling like molested versions of baby cherubs. Life sized Indian statues sculpted from cement populate the premises, making you feel like you’re being watched at all times.

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*Peyote, baby!

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Rory asks why there is barbed wire around some of the exhibits and I say, “Because there are stupid people who try to ruin beautiful things with their garbage.. even when those beautiful things are made out of garbage,” and he says, “Oh,” and then throws the wrapper to the snack he’s eating on the ground and it immediately blows through the fence. I go, “What was that?!” and he looks at me with these blank eyes. “What?”

“What-WHAT? Did you just throw that on the ground? What did I just say. Literally. Just now. What did I just say about this fence?”

“That, uh… people throw their garbage down?”

“Yeah. Okay. So doubly negative points because you were actually listening and should know better. Pick it up.”

“I can’t! It’s on the other side of the fence!”

“Then get on your hands and knees and reach your scrawny arm through and pull it out. Otherwise we’re going to have to do a B&E and get you over this fence to teach you a lesson.”

“What’s a beanie?”

“Another time. Grab your wrapper, knucklehead, and don’t litter. This is the only Earth we’ve got. Haven’t you ever seen the commercial with the crying Indian?”

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By the time Rory has re-acquired his trash, Jade and the girls have wandered off. Rory looks down at a plant and says, “Hey… look at this…” He squats down and touches the growth. “C’mere, Dad. Come down here. Look at this.”

I squat down. The plant looks like some kind of desert weed. It’s green with flecks or magenta. I say, “It’s pretty, huh?” and he says, “Yeah. What’s it called?” and I say, “I honestly don’t know… we could name it something,” and he says, “I wish we got here a little earlier so we could’ve asked the people who built this what it’s called.”

I nod my head and stand up.

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On the way out Jade suddenly shouts, “There’s a tornado! Go jump in it! See if it lifts you off the ground!” I look down the road and see a dirt devil heading our way. I set off at a dead sprint directly towards it, every moment one step closer to fulfilling a lifelong dream. I shut my eyes and jump into the playful whirlwind. It kisses my cheeks and blows dirt in my face. I turn around and jump back into it. “Here I come, Oz!!!” but no. Nothing. I just get really dirty.

I jump in the driver’s seat and pull onto the road. A dog runs out of nowhere and tries to bite our car and I almost run the stupid thing over, again reminded of Clementine. My elbow still burns and it’s getting worse. Whatever poison that bug shot into my body is working its way into my fingers. My entire left arm is starting to tingle and my bicep is swelling.

Before we’re twenty minutes down the road, Rory is shouting that he has to pee. I pull over, kick open the backdoor, unbuckle him and grab my uke. On the side of the road he pulls his pants down and pees into some weeds while I strum out a simple pattern and sing, “Rory, Rory, peeing on the freeway. Rory, Rory, peeing in the wind.” A trucker drives past us and sees me serenading a half naked child in the middle of nowhere.

Rory turns, mid-stream, and says, “I’m hungry.”

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We stop on an Indian Reservation and have dinner in a casino that’s perfumed with smoke and decorated with dormant slot machines. A few locals have bellied up to the bar and no one pays us any attention as we walk through the haze and back into the diner portion. Before we sit down Rory says, “I gotta go potty,” and Quinn says, “Me too!” and I say, “What is with your bladder, kid?”

I take them both to the restroom and Rory gets a burr in his shorts because sometimes that’s just how he is. Sometimes Rory is just difficult. Sometimes he’s a sweetheart and sometimes he’s a monster that can’t be reasoned with. I tell him to wash his hands and he does… sort of. He gets soap on his mitts and scrubs them into a lather and then says, “I’m not washing my hands anymore.” I tell him, “Rory, you need to rinse off your hands,” and he says, “I won’t,” and I say, “Rory. You need to wash your hands so we can go eat. You can’t eat with soap on your hands.”

He fires back, “I’m not going to. You can’t make me. YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” and he screams the last few words like he wants them to hit like rocks, his voice echoing in the small bathroom. I don’t count with our kids – get over here before I count to ten! I give them two options and I spell out the consequences of both options and then I allow them to choose. Immediately after they choose I deliver them the consequences of their decision

They’ve gotten use to the “I’m going to give you two choices” speech so when I say it, they pay attention. With this method, if they choose incorrectly, they’re not being disobedient, they’re just being stupid. And I can correct stupid behavior. It transforms the situation out of an emotional power struggle into a logical choice making one.

Sidebar: they don’t always choose the right path. It simply shifts the event into something that is more manageable for me.

I lean down close to him and say, “I’m giving you two choices right now so listen closely. I am going to walk Quinn back to the table. If you’re still standing here with soap on your hands when I get back, I am going to take you outside and give you a timeout. If you wash the soap off, we are going to go sit at the table, eat dinner and have pie. Do you understand your choices?” We have a stare off and then I say, “I will be back in thirty seconds.”

I walk Quinn halfway back to our table, never letting the bathroom fully out of my sight, hoping that Rory just needs a few moments alone to collect his thoughts. I stand outside of the bathroom for a beat before I hear him start to moan, “Daaaaad… Daaaaaad…. Daaa-haaad….” Excellent, I think to myself. He’s ready to communicate. Pie over timeout. Easy choice.

I walk back into the bathroom and he’s still standing in the same spot, soap still all over him. I say, “You still have soap on your hands,” and he says, “I’ll NEVER wash them!”

To his credit, he makes firm decisions. It will probably lead him to be a powerful CEO someday if I can funnel it properly.

I take two steps across the bathroom, grab him by the wrists and force his hands under the water. He screeches and shrieks and I’m certain the people in the casino thing I’m beating him mercilessly with my belt. Once the soap is off his hands he pulls away from me and says, “I’ll NEVER DRY MY HANDS! EVER!”

Now, it has occurred to me, in my almost five years of parenting, that at some point, the more intelligent of the party must stop arguing with the less intelligent and simply green light action. And so I grab him by the ear (yeah, I do the ear – it takes very little pressure and the entire body follows with very little effort) and I drag him out of the restroom, through the casino (where no one acknowledges us), out the front door and onto the sidewalk where I place him nose first against the front of the building. I say, “You’re standing here and you’re getting a time out. When you’re ready to talk to me in a nice voice, we can go inside.”

I walk away and stand on the curb where I slowly count to fifty. This exercise isn’t just about letting him calm down. It’s also about letting me calm down. Parenting is, by its very nature, an emotional topic BUT it is my opinion, imperative that we approach it as logically as possible, pushing our emotions aside. Emotions allow us to feel sorry for the child and not see through the punishment. Emotion allows us to strike out in anger. Both things lead to less desirable results.

I count to twenty. I count to thirty. I push my emotions away and think about the process and the consequences. I count to forty. I slow my breathing. I slow my heart. The closer I get, the smaller Rory’s pleas become. By the time I hit fifty he’s completely silent. I walk back up to him, myself in perfect calm, and say, “Are you ready to go inside and eat?” and he says, “You can NEVER make me go inside!”

Inside my head, fireworks are exploding, hammers are hitting anvils and buildings are collapsing. Lord, give me patience, I pray, and then give myself a moment before I speak. Don’t show weakness.

“Rory James… you are going to walk with me right now inside this restaurant. And you are going to sit down at that table. And you are going to eat because you have been telling me all day how hungry you are.” And he looks at me and he says, “I’M TAKING OFF MY SHIRT!” and then he starts to pull off his sweater.

What is happening right now? I just want a mozzarella stick.

The door opens and the sheriff walks out. He stops and looks at me, looks at this kid. Looks back at me and says, “Uh oh.” I say, “Getting a little time out on a road trip.” The sheriff says, “Good luck,” and disappears around the corner. A minute later his cruiser pulls into the street and he doesn’t even look our way.

“Rory. Put your shirt down. You look foolish. WHY… Why are you -”

“I’M TAKING OFF MY SHOES! I’M TAKING THEM OFF!” and he flips his foot and a shoe pops off. In other circumstances it would be comical.

Lord help me.

“You put your shirt down. You put your shoe-”

“I’M GONNA BREAK MY GLASSES!”

I point at him and I say, “Don’t touch them.”

Idiot. You’ve show a weakness.

He grabs them off his face and lifts them into the air. He says, “I’m going to throw them on the ground. I’m going to break them.”

I look him square in the eyes and I play a wild card, “Fine. They’re yours. Do whatever you want with them… but have fun seeing all fuzzy for the rest of your life.” It’s cloaked but it’s another choice – me trying to pull this out of emotion and back into choice and logic.

He stares at me for a full minute before slowly placing the glasses back on his face. I point to the ground in front of me and he walks over. I open the door and he walks in. We find our table and sit down. Rory has a pancake for dinner.

Disciplining your children in the private comfort of your home is one thing. Trying to do it in an unfamiliar public place is a challenge worthy of reality TV competitions. After I get one of the kids to bend to my will, I feel like somebody should be dropping 10k in my lap and throwing a wreath of roses over my neck. I want to high five a stranger and say, “You see that. YOU SEE THAT? I got that kid to reason.”

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*Roadside attraction. I bet it’s soft serve.

We get back in the car as the sun is setting – red, yellow, orange. It’s a true vanilla sky. The sun disappears behind the mountains and the creams turn to grays, turn to blacks. We cross into Oregon and pull over for gas. As I open up my door to step out, I bump into a man and scream. “Filler up?” He stares at me, some tall drink of water, his mechanics bibs hanging off of him two sizes too big.

Every single time I enter Oregon I forget that you’re not allowed to pump your own gas. “Yeah, yeah. Everything. All the way. Regular. Thanks. Hey, where’s the next hotel?” He says, “‘Bout sixty miles up you’ll find Nampa, Idaho… but it’s dark. You gotta watch out for deer until you hit the state line.” I thank him and pull down my seatbelt. Just as I turn over the engine, Rory screams. I turn around in my seat and his top lip is covered in blood.

“What is THIS?!”

“Quinn…. PUNCHED ME!”

I look at Quinn but she’s hiding under her blanket. Her voice comes out muted, “Wasn’t me! I don’t know who did that!

I shove a piece of toilet paper up Rory’s nose and rip the blanket off Quinn before giving her a dirty look and a speech. What is happening today?

Slam the door, snap the seatbelt, fire up the car, pop the headlights, shift into drive, get two miles up the road and Jade screams, “WATCH OUT!” I swerve hard to the right and avoid a bull crossing the street like he’s sauntering up to a broad at some bar, three beers deep. I try to imagine what a bull’s body would do to a mini-van. “Thank goodness, our car wasn’t red! He might’ve chased us!”

I slow down to forty-five MPH and slam a Red Bull because driving at night makes me crazy tired. We reach the hotel after the kids are all asleep. Jade and I crawl out of the minivan and unbuckle all three of them as they try to shake off their sleep. “Are we there? Are we at the hotel?” Quinn asks. “Ho-tey!” Bryce shouts. Rory jumps onto the asphalt barefoot and says, “This place smells like goat’s breath.” I inhale deeply and start to laugh. He’s absolutely correct. All three of them begin to wander like short zombies towards the entrance to another cheap, off-brand hotel, their blankets dragging behind them.

They’re each going to bed with cuts and scrapes they didn’t have when they woke up. But they’re also going to bed with experiences and lessons they didn’t have. Life with these three is not always easy and it’s not always fun and sometimes it tries my patience, not only as a father but also as a human. It tries it to the very edge… and then it pushes it over the edge… and then it expands it. They expand me as a person. Their misbehaviors turn me into a better person. Rob Bell says, “We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. Bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware, more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.”

These are my gifts that make me suffer. These are the gifts that make me better and more aware.

The road is not the adventure. My family is the adventure that travels the road. They turn the boring minutia of everyday life into a carnival wherever we go.

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***   ***   ***   ***   ***

We head into the hotel and everyone immediately falls asleep.

Everyone except me.

I drank a Red Bull forty minutes ago and I’m wired.

So, with a burning and infected elbow, I write.

And I stare at the kids while I do, wondering what they’ll show me tomorrow.

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Talking to Strangers: Mormons

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I’m lying on my front porch, the sun is beating down on me and I’m sweating. It feels good. Like a certain popular creation story, I’ve been working for six days straight with late nights and early mornings. I’ve finally hit a resting point and I’m taking advantage of it. My eyes are closed and my mind begins to wander. I let it go – I think it’s healthy to put the noggin on auto-pilot from time to time.

While my brain slips away, I open my eyes and stare into the blue, cloudless sky, wondering if God is staring back at me – if his Great Eyes are boring directly into my soul right now, reading my thoughts and seeing me naked. And then my brain wanders a little more and I imagine the big blue sky being completely and entirely empty and Nobody staring at me. I imagine my wife and I sitting on the porch and God nowhere in sight. Nowhere in existence. Nowhere.

I start to slowly turn over these questions, rolling them like a cigarette over the fingers of my soul. Is it possible for me to be sitting here and for God to not exist? Is it possible that God does not exist? Is it possible that I’ve spent my life chasing an empty faith? Bigger yet, if as an individual, I am full of love and compassion and kindness, is God necessary?

Is God necessary? That is a really big question for someone of The Church Culture. To put it into perspective for anyone NOT of The Church Culture, it’s tantamount to a male with children saying, “Is my dong necessary? Sure, I use it from time to time and I certainly like it’s company. It gives me a certain feeling of who I am and I have a good time with it – makes me feel good about myself. I would even say that I have a pretty nice relationship with it, albeit kind of a secret one that I don’t fully indulge the rest of the world to. But do I need it? The way I need food or oxygen? COULD I get by if it suddenly fell off and rolled down the leg of my pants?”

That’s a very crude analogy but I stand by it and give it my stamp of approval.

That is, for most of us, our relationship to God. It’s quiet. It’s tucked away. We don’t expose it to people. We only use it when it’s necessary.. like when we’re really sick or need money we unzip the church and say a prayer.

As a Christian, faith is so frustrating. It’s frustrating for two reasons. The first is that the large majority of people who claim to have faith, don’t treat faith as faith. They treat faith as fact and those are two very different things. Your faith is, by it’s very definition, an act of trust in something that you cannot prove exists. People approach God in the same way that they approach Mount Rushmore – like they can get in their SUV and drive there – get their photo taken with it.

The second thing is that I don’t understand WHY faith is important. I don’t understand why the Great and Powerful God of the Universe and of All Things Everywhere doesn’t tear open the sky, reveal himself to all of us and say, “HERE I AM! I EXIST! NOW BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER ALWAYS AND FOREVER! I’LL BE BACK IN TWENTY YEARS TO REMIND YOUR KIDS!” and then the sky stitches back up and there is zero doubt about the existence of a celestial being that oversees our alien ant farm.

I stare back into that blue sky and now I’m thinking very clearly – my mind is no longer wandering – I’m thinking very intentionally to myself, “I have seen and felt the existence of God in one thousand small ways throughout my life. Little signs that could have been coincidence, things I’ve written off as well as things I’ve held onto. I’ve been very sick in my life and have felt the closeness of a divine being that I can’t explain. I believe in God. I have faith in God. But I’m always circling around it and poking at it and turning it over and trying to figure it out because… it isn’t tangible and I can’t prove it and it is a cause to wonder. But why does God have us dancing around with this faith issue? I don’t understand why it’s necessary to live my life in absolute blind belief. Maybe there’s a purpose I don’t understand. Maybe God keeps this from us for a reason… But I’m still going to ask and I don’t think there’s harm in asking so here we go!”

And then I pick up steam and really get on a roll.

“Why? Why? Why is this necessary? God, if you’re there, why aren’t you tearing open the sky and showing yourself to me? Why aren’t you making yourself known to us? Why aren’t you giving me a sign, something? Something that is more than the wind blowing or a bird chirping? Why does our relationship have to be like an affair – where I sneak away to talk to you and then you never call my house? If you’re real, I want to know it. I want to know that you’re real. I want to know that you’re looking at me and watching me and -“

I guess you could call this a prayer.

Jade cuts me off mid-thought.

She says, “Hey. Look who’s here.”

I sit up and glance over my shoulder.

Walking up my sidewalk are two Mormons. I lift my hand in the air in greeting and say, “You have got to be kidding me.”

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The guys are both nineteen years old and one of them is definitely a virgin. I don’t say that in a derogatory way because I believe that virginity is a shiny token that is very important… however, he did have this kind of gloss about him that made me think he’d never unsnapped a bra. The other one was the team leader but I suspect only because he was forced to be. It was clear that he didn’t like to hold the reins.

I offered them each a sparkling water and we sat on my porch for an hour and spoke. Mormon missionaries are truly fascinating creatures. Can you, Reader, imagine something that you’re so passionate about that you go door to door to share with strangers even though you know people cringe when they see you approach? Even though people run and hide in their bedroom closet when you step onto the front porch? Even when the doors slam and the porch lights go out, you keep going. Can you imagine having that kind of passion? For anything? I have a difficult time telling friends about a good book I’ve recently read.

We talk about a great number of things, spanning various topics. They tell me about how “disheartening and kind of humiliating” it is when people slam doors in their faces. Actually slam doors in their facesAH! Why do you have to do that to me? Give yourself human emotion? And such a strong one! You tell me that you can feel humiliated? All those times I’ve ran away and hid my children in the dryer to shield them from you. “But why, Daddy? Why must we be quiet?” Rory asks. “The Gestapo!” And then I slide the bookcase over the laundry room.

These guys are no longer just flat characters. They’re people. They’re humans. With their own stories. Their own faith. Their own lenses to view life.

I say to them…

“I was born into a middle class, white American Christian home – I’m about as super vanilla as you can imagine – so it’s not surprising that I’m a Christian. You’re born into a Mormon home so you’re Mormon. We’re products of our environments, right? Had any of us been born into an Islam nation, I would place a solid bet that our faith would be quite different. Now, I know you two don’t bet, so I’ll put enough down for all three of us. This is a sure fire thing and I’m taking it to the bank.

“My concern, guys, is this… Have I / you / we been raised up in a culture to believe a very specific thing and have we ever actually lifted our heads up to look around at anything else? I’m sitting here and talking to you today and I’m telling you that I don’t believe in the teachings of Joseph Smith but… I can’t say why. I don’t even know anything about him. And it concerns me that I’m so quick to put on blinders to something I know literally nothing about. The same can be said of my knowledge of all faiths. A couple of my friends are Jewish, I have a cousin who is a Muslim, and my best friend from high school actually joined a Hare Krishna commune where he dawns an orange robe everyday. I’m 110% certain that they are completely wrong in their beliefs and I am also 110% certain that I don’t know why I think that. And I hate that. I hate that I have such blinders on and I can’t seem to shake them off. What if I am being blinded by my culture and The Truth is just outside of my peripheral and I can’t see it because I am unwilling to look? WHAT IF the One True God isn’t the one that I subscribe to and WHAT IF the One True God is waiting for me directly outside my field of vision just waiting for me to shake off everything that man and culture has taught me and just look up.

“And so I’m sitting here right now talking to you two, not because I’m interested in the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith. I’m interested in The Truth. The Great Truth of The Universe. So here’s my question to you two… if a deity shows up to you one day – purple skinned woman with six arms and an elephants head – and she tells you that you need to leave your Mormon faith and come and follow her because she is Ultimate Truth and the god you’ve been following is built by man and completely imaginary – if that happened – if an actual Divine Celestial Entity came down and spoke to you and called you to a new religion… could you leave your faith? Could you leave behind the faith that has you so passionate that you knock on strangers doors? Could you leave it all if you knew it was built by man and was an imposter religion and that your belief was empty?

They both stare at me. One of them starts to say something about Joseph Smith so I put up my finger. “Why are you here?” I ask.

“On Earth?”

“No. At my house. There are a lot of houses on this street. Why are you here? Did you start at one end and work your way down?”

“We prayed about it.”

“You prayed about La Crescenta, California?”

“No. We parked down the street and we prayed and we felt The Spirit guide us to your house. Specifically this house.”

I take a drink of my now warm, now flat sparkling water and I say, “Here’s what’s happening to me right now, guys… I’m on a little bit of a Quest. I’ve been out looking for God and I want Truth. I’m not saying you have it and I’m not saying I’m interested in what you’ve got but I am saying I think knowledge is imperative to a successful quest and so I want to hear everything you have. Get out your pamphlets. Get out your book. Tell me everything you can.

They both dart to their backpacks and satchels with clumsy and nervous hands. Virgins.

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To wrap this up, there are no answers here. I didn’t have any hugely enlightening moment with two strangers and I’m not going to be knocking on your door to tell you about Joseph Smith. But I am looking for God. And while I look and while I pray and while I speak with people of all faiths and manner of upbringing, I want to be the best version of myself that I can be. I want to be kind and generous with my time, attention and resources. I want my family to know that I love them. I want my friends to know that I care. I want strangers to know that I will not slam doors in their faces. I believe that whoever and whatever God is, at the center of His / Her / Its being is Love. And more than anything, I want to strive for that heart.

Amen.

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