Sitting at the dinner table with my wife and children I notice that my life has become the shining example of what my children should avoid. As I relate one riveting childhood anecdote after another I notice my wife carefully spinning each adventure into a somber cautionary tale. She always ends with the words, “And your daddy was lucky to survive. Don’t ever try that yourself.” Then she turns and gives me the look and all I can do is nod sagely and say, “Your mother is right.”
How did this happen? I used to imagine myself as Jack London, imparting lessons learned from voyages of survival in a world of unprecedented danger. These are rite-of-passage stories, rife with moral lessons gained from personal experience. My boys should know the things their father has faced in his life, if only because they might find themselves in similar situations down the road.
However, more and more I notice that my role in these adventures has been relegated to that of “foolish lad” or “incompetent prince,” a character whose actions serve as a warning to the more sensible villagers whose only desire is to survive another day.
It’s usually around the time I twirl the last string of pasta on my fork that a tale like this begins…
“Did I ever tell you guys about the time I wrestled a steer?”
“Is this when you fell off the mechanical bull and stayed in bed for a week?”
I stare at my youngest, cringing from the memory he evokes. “No, not that time. I’m talking about when I was in high school. Remember how strong I was in high school?”
Their eyes stare blankly back at me.
“Well, I was really strong back in high school. I weight-lifted, like, almost every day. And Wednesday nights I would stay at my friends house on the barn and we’d get up at four o’clock in the morning to feed the pigs and sheep and this big-ass, gigantic bull with long, thick horns sticking out of his head. One day I said to my friend, ‘I’m going to grab that bull’s horns, Scottie.’ ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea,’ he said.”
“It doesn’t sound too smart to me,” my twelve year old says.
“Quiet, now, let daddy tell his story,” my wife says, smiling in a way that makes me feel a little less than comfortable. She pours some wine in my glass and nods for me to continue.
“Okay,” I say, timidly. “All right,” I continue, taking a sip of the cool, white wine. “I climb over the fence and the bull is looking right at me, like he can’t believe I’m coming in. I walk right up to him and clasp my hands on his horns. His eyes widen like you see in old cartoons. He tries to step back, but I hold him still. He starts to turn his head slowly, testing my strength. It feels good, this burn in my forearms, a lot like the forearm curls I used to do in the gym. But then he begins to snort a bit and his pulling gets rough. That burn in my forearms begins to sting and I realize I can’t break away from this, it’s not like an exercise where I can stop and take a rest.”
“So, what did you do?” my wife asks, smiling into her own glass of wine. The kids look from me to her. Suddenly it seems like she’s telling the story, like it was always her story to tell.
“Well,” I say, “I look back at my friend and he has this pale look on his face, his lower lip beginning to tremble. By now the steer is pulling pretty hard and there’s this low, guttural sound coming from his snout. Now I see that those horns which looked so blunt from a distance look pretty damn sharp up close. I’m starting to wonder what the next move will be. I decide I’ll just count down from five and by the time I get to one I’ll know what to do.”
My kids have stopped eating and they stare at me with all the anticipation a kid can muster. I swell with pride at the sight.
“And when you counted down to one?” My wife prods.
“I let go of those horns and bolt,” I yell, slapping my knee with excitement. “I run for that fence with all my might. I can hear him coming behind me, those hooves kicking up dirt, his snorting and farting getting closer, his hot breath on the back of my neck. I swear I can feel his horns cutting the air just below my shoulders, nicking my shirt as he swings his head left and right. I hit that fence and leap, pulling myself up like a trapeze artist. I land flat on my back on the other side and when I look around I see that bull pounding his head into the metal fence, making big, loud clanging sounds that cause porch lights to flicker on across the neighborhood. I look back at Scottie and raise my fist in the air. He stares at the ground, shaking his head like he’s lost some terrible bet. Damn, boys, now that’s a story!”
My wife pours herself some wine, ignoring the empty glass I hold towards her. She turns to face the kids. “So, who can tell me the first three things that daddy did wrong?”
My fourteen year old raises his hand. “Ben?” my wife asks.
“He didn’t listen to his friend.”
“That’s right,” my wife agrees. “His friend, the farmer, knew the bull wasn’t just a big dog, or a pony, or a goose. He knew the bull was a dangerous animal that shouldn’t be messed with.”
Another hand goes up. “Yes, Noah?”
“He thought he was stronger than he was.”
“Yes,” she says. “Daddy did that a lot. It’s called magical thinking, and it happens when people believe their own fantasies. A lot of people die doing things they think they can do, like skiing off mountain-tops or drag-racing cars in the street.” I nod at her reference to the stories I’d told them on previous nights.
Ben raises his hand again. “He thought he was smarter than the bull.”
“Yes, daddy often thinks he’s smarter than he is, which also gets him into trouble. Let this be a lesson to you both, be smarter than daddy was when he was your age.”
The whole thing kind-of dampens my enthusiasm and after dinner I usually find myself skulking over to the TV to Netflix episodes of Breaking Bad.
Most of these cautionary tales fall into the following categories:
Man v.s. Beast: The above story is a case in point. Other stories of this ilk include the time I jumped into the badger cage at the zoo in Window Rock, Arizona, or the time I rode that runaway rodeo horse in the mountain snow, or the time (this one was witnessed by my wife and kids) when I ran onto the highway in Central California to save the life of a tarantula, only to chase it directly into the path of an oncoming S.U.V. The entire family heard the explosive “pop” when the wheels flattened that sucker. Try facing your kids after that.
Pyrotechnics, or What Not to Do with Fire: I made Super 8 movies when I was a kid and they all had to have explosions and titillating special effects.
Fire seems to have played a significant role in my creative development. Recently an old friend contacted me on Facebook, telling me how he’ll always remember how we poured flammable film splicing cement over tennis balls, lit them on fire, and filmed them bouncing around my mother’s garage, in slow motion. I, myself, had forgotten this moment until my friend brought it to light.
All my early films had to include at least five explosions. Most of these films featured me and my high school buddies carrying plastic machine guns and chasing each other through ski runs, hiking trails and dusty New Mexican neighborhoods. When a character was shot, we found it imperative that he also explode. We accomplished our pyrotechnics by using gunpowder extracted from the rocket engines sold at hobby stores. We turned them into blasting caps we ignited using electrical leads that went from the “explosive device” to the battery on my mother’s car (“Mom, can I borrow the car keys for a sec?” “Sure, honey”).
Then there are the stories of high school camaraderie, where teams of listless youth banded together to create warring factions that battled it out in the desert in order to protect their tribal lands. I remember bottle-rocket fire-fights that ended in stalemate until someone lit a Roman candle and pointed it in my direction. Balls of colored fire skimmed the top of my head, igniting the tumbleweeds and sagebrush behind me. I remember the warring factions working as a team (there’s the moral, kids! We’re all in this together!) stamping out flames with our melting sneakers.
I often regal my kids with tales of neighborhood kids left to their own devices, how we turned the time-honored dirt-clod war into something truly exceptional by incorporating our community archery set, using safety-conscious, rubber-tipped arrows. All is well and good until you douse those puppies in FLAMMABLE FILM SPLICING CEMENT and strike a match! This was long before anyone had even heard of the Hunger Games.
I remember once sitting in the shadows watching the fire department extinguish the pine tree in our neighbor’s front yard.
There are other stories, of course, stories from a genre I call Altered States, which have their grounding in a period of my life where I experimented with drugs. These tales are usually adjusted at the dinner table and transformed into what I call “things I did after a couple of beers.”
There’s another favorite genre I call Adventures with Girls, which is my attempt to relate valuable courting instruction to my teenage boys. These stories usually get me the “stink eye” from my wife and are followed by the comment, “Never treat a girl the way daddy did. You boys should be gentlemen, the kind that opens doors for girls and showers them with kindness and affection.”
At this I smile and wonder if my boys get the subtext of all these tales. It wasn’t the kid who opened the door that got their mommy’s attention. It was the kid who lit the fire.