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.
Thanks a lot for the analysis of MY life from the feminine side. Cringing and smiling at the same time… and I think that's the problem…
Next time you get the urge to tell a story, start it with, "Boys, did I ever tell you about the time your dad spent his whole life in a cubicle so his family could survive but never actually live, and then died miserable and bored and no one knew it for at least a year because there wasn't much change?"
See what kind of snarky lesson mommy has to teach for that one….
Okay, Rati, I'm stuck doing edits all day today, in between having to prep my house to sell it, and if anyone doesn't know by now, that's one of the top three most stressful life activities EVER.
So I need some distraction and this is a great blog post and a great discussion topic and I WANT STORIES. SURELY I'm not the only femme here that has a lethal soft spot for bad boys. SURELY as writers we all have our insane moments of pursuing "experience" at the cost of life and limb.
Ante up, people. This could be the greatest Friday discussion of all time.
Wow, Alex! You're like the ultimate wingman…er, wingwoman! I can't wait to hear the stories you've got up your sleeve…
Jake – that's a cautionary tale in itself.
Sure, Steve, you can have the stories I have up my sleeve… "after a couple of beers."
I could start off with WHY I have a house that I need to sell in NORTH CAROLINA. Hmm, how do we think I ended up owning a house in North Carolina?
It could be worse, actually – I will make a nice profit. I guess I didn't lose my ENTIRE mind. But the emotional toll? Not so pretty.
I once won a game of hide and seek by lying down.
Not the most thrilling tale there ever is, but an interesting one. Everyone else had those up-a-tree, in-the-bushes, under-the-porch good hiding spots. I couldn't find one, so when they called 'Ready Or Not!' I lay down in a small indent on top of a hill covered in moss and tall grass. I was wearing bright red and orange.
I was stepped on, but not found. I'm still trying to figure that one out.
Now that I've told Alex something entertaining…. that does sound like a fun story. And, while I'm all for the 'learn from the mistakes of others' approach, there's nothing quite like making your own.
Alaina, this is gold!
>>>>And, while I'm all for the 'learn from the mistakes of others' approach, there's nothing quite like making your own.>>>
Maybe the key to ALL of life is accepting and enjoying your own mistakes.
Alaina – mistakes are inevitable. Every new year I look ahead and wonder how I'll avoid making the mistakes I made the year before. I generally manage to do so, but, of course, I accumulate a dozen new mistakes I didn't see coming. It's the same thing every year. The only way to avoid it is to lie down in the grass and hide.
Of course, you could have listened to the wise ol' farmer, but where's the fun in that? Since he was no doubt over thirty, there had to be a trust issue, in which case your impulsive leap into the pen was unquestionable the correct action. Not to metion the fact that the near-death experience gave you a greater appreciation of the raw power of nature.
Pete – the kid was my age! It was his father he was worried about. He didn't want to have to explain how his dead school-mate ended up in the steer corral!
A pity that wisdom generally comes too late to be of any practical use.
I once made the mistake, after a couple of rather sizable whiskys (though I won't be so craven as to call that an excuse) of honestly answering a question about my use of drugs as a teenager, asked of me by the teenage son of a friend. Much to my friend's chagrin I had no tales of woe, terror, arrest, addiction or trauma to impart. My answer could be summed up as: "well, I did a lot of drugs, had a lot of fun, emerged unscathed and there were even some experiences that I think have helped me through life." Not what a mother, even one with her own non-traumatic history with drugs, wants to hear. Maybe this is one of the good reasons I don't have kids.
Aaaah, stories about bad boys. Soooo, I was living in Ecuador just after college. My main job in life was partying with my Ecuadorian friends. I'm in this bar (how many sorry stories start this way?) and there's this broody, pale, skinny, Euro-looking guy hanging around. Somehow we get to talking, and I find out he's Bruno from Spain. I'm completely fluent in Spanish, yet I can barely understand his lispy accent. No matter. We hike off and party in his friend's hotel room. When he pulls out the coke, I think, Wow, this guy really is edgy and cool. (I didn't partake.)
Fast forward a few weeks, we're just friends but he's charmed me (20/20 hindsight) so that I'm hooked, wanting more. He's got a friend named Isabella who is also too skinny, pale, and Euro-hip for words. Bruno borrows $$ from me. I think nothing of it. Bruno and Isabella ask if they can crash in my place because they're switching hotels…I think nothing of it. (Innocent girl!)
Come home from work, and my place is tidy, like they'd never been there. But I sense something off. Yep, they'd ransacked the place and stolen all my hidden dollars, three thousand of them!
I hunted Bruno down in that same bar. I walked right up to him and said something, I don't know what, probably something dopey like, You took my money; I want it back. He told be I'd best not be bothering him, and besides, the money was gone, part of it back to Spain, and…He rolled up his sleeves, nonchalant and unrepentant as can be, and showed me his tracks. A nearly half-an-inch thick, reddened, infected looking scar from the inside of his elbow to his wrist. On both arms. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I'd never met a hardcore junkie before.
I was fucking pissed. I got the Ecuadorian police involved, and they were all over it. Bruno and Isabella disappeared. I went out with the cops in the middle of the night, in a squad car, to hunt down the thieves. I found out that Bruno and Isabella were affiliated with ETA, the terrorist organization — the drug side of the operation — and were in Ecuador because they'd had to get out of Spain, fast.
The police let me go in with them when they raided the squat where Bruno and Isabella had holed up. I''ll never forget the way the two of them looked, curled together on a dinghy bed, having passed the night shooting up…
Epilogue: As soon as the policia realized the money was long gone, they let B and I go. They'd only helped me to get their cut of the American $$. But it was quite the furor for awhile because we were foreigners. Spanish Embassy had to get involved and all that. I heard that the policia beat Bruno, but I didn't give a shit.
How many life lessons can we count in that one?
I am sitting here in my library cubicle on my break, with tears pouring down my face from the effort of not laughing so I won't have to explain to my supervisor, who is right behind me in her soft-walled office, what it is I'm laughing at, especially as all I will be able to do for a while is point at the screen and say, "FLAMMABLE. FILM. SPLICING. CEMENT!" through my snorts.
Such a good hurt. Thank you.
I have one cautionary tale that I care to share, as my dignity is well and truly shot for this one, anyway:
If you tie the legs of seven Muscovy ducks together and tie the other end of the twine around your own wrist FOR SAFETY, and then holler, "Up and Away!" they will not fly away with you like the girl in your fairy tale book, nor will they be a sort of living kite, which would have been almost as cool.
Instead, they will immediately lose their collective $#!% and tie themselves and you (both legs and an arm) to the nearest tree, part of a chainlink fence, and one seriously enraged gander with a wicked wingspan. I might also mention here that the domesticated and highly agitated birds supplied plenty of explosions of their own during the (painfully slow) extraction process–no splicing cement needed.
And this story WILL be told at every single family reunion until the end of time and also at your engagement party, by your beloved father (who can barely make it through withou being moved to tears himself) to the wild applause of everyone but your future MIL. Guaranteed.
Okay, I have NOTHING compared to Lisa and Sarah W. Would never have had the balls to do "a couple of beers" in any foreign countries, and I don't think I even have the physical coordination, much less the depth of magical thinking required to tie myself to seven live ducks and expect to fly. Although I was a small child and quickly learned I was able to fly with an umbrella like Mary Poppins during the most intense days of So Cal's legendary Santa Ana winds.
My husband has shared many similar tales of exploding model rockets, homemade nitroglycerin and much more. I love him and all his tales but I did insist he refrain from telling them to our son until he was a grown man. Sadly I was goodie two shoes who pushed no boundaries while growing up.
That's my one out-there story. I've plenty of drunken escapades of the typical type, but nothing much from childhood either. My tales tend to exist because I was a clueless, unworldly kid, not because I was precocious (like Stephen).
Mo, you bring up an interesting question. (for me, anyway!) Writers are thought to be introspective, introverted kids, and we are, in a way, always hanging back and watching, taking notes, But on the other hand, most of the writers I know take incredible lifestyle risks in the pursuit of "experience". That very well could be the particular circle of writers I run in, I'm not saying it's not. But I am wildly curious to hear what other people think. Steve's blog really hit home with me not just because I'm attracted to men who do/have done this kind of crazy shit but because I do/have done my own version of this crazy shit myself. Is that a writerly quality? Or are some writers completely demon-free? I truly don't know.
One year after the Fourth of July me and a bunch of buddies went to the park where they'd set off fireworks the night before and collected the charred bits of whatever, wondering if we could do something cool with them.
Someone got the idea to put them all in a pile, and see if there was still enough ignitable whatzit in them to spark a flame. Of course, someone had to get close enough with a match to test this hypothesis. It wasn't me. And seeing what happened, I'm glad it wasn't.
There was no smoldering wisp of smoke to warn us. Just a sudden WHOOSH and a jet-like flame that shot twenty feet high. The kid with the match in his hand moved faster than any living thing I'd ever seen — or have seen since.
To which we all responded: Cool.
Perhaps in a slightly different vein….
My cousin Lisa was out partying early into the morning with her friends. Being the designated driver (translation: she had the use of her parents' car), she dropped off her last friend, turning out the headlights so as to not wake the parents in the front bedroom, when she pulled into the driveway. Lisa left and headed out to the main street where she sipped her wine as she approached the lights. An officer pulled up alongside her and indicated that she should role down the window. Glancing at the wine, she complied. The officer was handsome, smiled politely and informed her that her headlights weren't on!
Eric – yeah, well, that's kind-of my answer, too. Fortunately, I never got hooked on the hard stuff, which includes alcohol and tobacco. I began my "experimentation" after reading Huxley's The Doors of Perception. So, I had the noblest of intentions.
Lisa – Good God! Now THAT'S a story! I read your comment with my hand over my mouth for fear I'd scream. I mean, seriously, girl…great fucking story. With all I've done I've yet to have a ride-along with the Ecuadorian police. To bust the guys who jacked my apartment. The story is almost worth the three thousand it cost.
Sarah – Damn good duck story. I really don't know how you managed to capture them in the first place. I myself have a duck story – years ago, when my wife and I were dating, we saw some poor female duck being raped by about fifteen male ducks. I guess it was just that time of year. And I guess I should have simply let nature take its course. But I couldn't let it be. So I leapt into the shallow part of the lake and grabbed the duck and separated her from her tormentors. For this humanitarian deed I was reported to the park police, who attempted to chase me down, though I managed to elude them.
Alex – I tried so hard to fly.
It's interesting, your comment about writers who hang back – I think we all have to do that to get our stories. When I'm hanging out with the SF police I let them take center stage. It's their world and I'm just an observer. I'm at the sidelines filling up my notepad. It's a balancing act, because we also need to reach into our own experiences, our own adventures, if we intend our work to read true.
David – glad your friend made it out alive. I would have been there saying, "Cool," too. I had a similar experience with the neighborhood knuckleheads. We took about 500 of those little Black Cat firecrackers, emptied the gunpowder, filled up a plastic capsule and created our very own M80. We took all the fuses and tied them together, placed the device in the middle of the street and lit it up. Thank God no one drove their car over the spot when it went off, because it took a chunk of the street along with it.
Debbie – that's some fine police work. Sounds like Lisa grew up in a pretty small town.
Stephen: I didn't have to capture them—they were egg-raised and unaware that I wasn't their natural sibling (ducks aren't bright — though to be fair, *they* don't go around tying themselves to people with macremé twine, so . . . ). Plus I put out a LOT of corn in a hubcap and worked fast.
I'm not surprised about the duck-bang. Male ducks are generally greedy, evil-minded buggers with the morals of the Marquis de Sade.
Thanks, Stephen. It was really crazy. And the craziest part? AFTER my run-in with the drug underworld I decided to try cocaine…I mean, come on, Ecuador, where pure cocaine was a buck an ounce. How could I not try it out? 🙂 And with ANOTHER batch of Euro-hipsters to boot. You have thought I didn't learn anything re: Bruno. Hah! (All ended well here–a bunch of British public school lads)
Alex poses and interesting question…From my point of view, I'm not a risk-taker. HOWever, I think about what my friends most often note about me–traveling alone to wherever, living a financially precarious lifestyle in pursuit of a dream, preferring to hang out a skeevy neighborhood places, doing odd things like joining a gang-banger (Crips? Bloods? Can't remember which) funeral procession in the name of fiction research…
So maybe there is a tendency for writers to have exploratory natures? Certainly, curiosity has got to be one of our traits. Have anyone met a noncurious fiction writer?
(Wow, typo alert. Sorry about that.)
Lisa – I'd have to say that you are one of the MORE adventurous writers I've encountered. Traveling alone is itself an adventure – and I bet there are a lot more stories than you even realize. I think your experience with Bruno would make a great short story – I'd love to see it. Your description here brings it to life and sparks my curiosity.
God, this is hilarious. Stephen, I grew up hearing outrageous stories of my dad's exploits too. And I turned out perfectly fine. FINE I TELL YOU.
I think I might have mentioned here the time my dad shot out all the streetlights in town. And there was the time he got his hide tanned for trying to figure out how to use his uncle's bullwhip. He was ten. Probably it could have killed him. He also shot his older sister in the rear end with a BB gun. There was a story when he was probably in his early 20s that had something to do with him and a bunch of his friends all crammed into a car and going to a nearby town and something about them having a live pig and getting stopped by the police and mom would never let him tell the whole story, but I do know he and his buddies were told not to ever set foot in that town again.
Lest you think he mellowed as an adult, he once took a switchblade away from a kid who was dumb enough to bring it to school (dad was a HS teacher), and he took it down to the assistant principal who was in charge of discipline (or something), a man he thoroughly despised, and he opened the knife and threw it so it stuck into the AP's wood desk and told him he took it away from a student. Once the AP stopped shaking and found his voice, he demanded to know which kid. But dad refused to tell him and just said he'd handled it. Pretty sure I inherited a healthy contempt for authority for it's own sake from him.
Sadly, I have no stories of my own experiences to tell. I am sweet and quiet and demure and have never done anything the least bit risky or wild. Today. So far.
KD – I like your daddy. Sounds salt of the earth.
I, too, have a pig story. Doesn't everybody? But I wasn't kicked out of an entire town because of it. Sounds like the beginning of a Jim Thompson novel.
I forgot to mention the wild Fear and Loathing ride I took in a convertible Caddy at midnight at Universal Studios, a bottle of Old Grandad in my hands, a crazy Dean Moriarity type driving the car, the studio police chasing us down. We almost made it up to the Psycho House before they caught us. Didn't get in a bit of trouble for it, either.
Quite a few stories of running naked through public parks and beaches, too. And once in a bowling alley. But that was my friend – I was driving the get-away car that he jumped into after he tore through the exit.
Hi Stephen…a short story, eh? In truth, I've thought about it, but I shy away from it. Too close to home. The experience shook me up for a loooong time, especially when it came to trusting people in general, men in particular.
I need to find my way into the story so that isn't all about me. Have yet to find that hook.
I don't think of myself as adventurous…but maybe it's all relative. I've got friends who are extreme travelers, for example. Or maybe I think that because I'm getting mellower with age…(Aren't we all?)
Lisa, it's more compelling because it's all about you. I loved it, even though it scared the crap out of me to read it.
Most of my wild exploits fit into the category of Adventures in Kissing Boys and we just don't need to go there. Ahem.
Okay, here's one I can tell: I have three sisters (I'm second) and one of them is a year and a half younger but was one grade behind me in school. We were both on the danceline in HS and we had practice two nights a week. And I drove. Because I was older. She didn't seem to understand or appreciate the fact that you NEVER let a younger sibling drive. Never mind that she was then and still is now a craptastically scarybad driver. I was older. This is just not something that should even have been an issue. But she wouldn't let it go, kept pestering me to let her drive. Now, I've got a very long fuse. It takes a LOT to make me truly angry. But once I'm angry, there's no going back. She finally did it. We were on the way home and I got so fed up I stopped the car, got out and told her fine, she could fucking drive. But I was going to walk. And I started walking and didn't even look back when she began yelling at me and then crying and begging me to come back. I ignored her. So she drove home. Trouble was, it was winter. In Minnesota. I was wearing dance tights and a t-shirt and a short waist-length jacket. And ballet shoes. No hat, no mittens, not even a scarf. There was three feet of snow on the ground. It was cold and dark and windy and I was tired and still damp with sweat and it was almost a mile and a half walk from there to home. I didn't care. I was on fire with anger. Unfortunately, she had plenty of time to tell her side of the story and by the time I got home, everyone was frantic and *I* was the one in trouble. But she never pestered me about driving again.
I have no pig stories.
Oh wait. That's what's known as tempting fate, right? I take it back.
Very funny, Stephen. I think I'm with your wife on this one 🙂
Sorry I came to this so late, but good lord, this could not possibly be any funnier than it is. LOVED IT.