Thursday, June 18, 2015

Kent Week #5: Dumb dad discovers terrible truth

No mention of Yellowstone's scenic sulfur pits.
      My younger son turned 18 Tuesday, and I've been celebrating here all week.
       Yet a more somber note is in order.
       Sometimes there are indications that my younger son inherited my genetic curse, a facility for writing. I noticed the writer's eye early, when he was 7. We were walking home from baseball practice, and a police car cruised by.
     "Dad, what do the police in Northbrook DO?" he asked, itself a trenchant question. 
      There were a number of ways I could have reacted, but I decided to play it straight.
     "Well," I began, "they protect us..."
      "Protect us from what," he said,  cutting me off, "spiders?"
       I can't tell you how much I admired that. Of course, being a writer means picking your subject, dealing with it honestly, and accepting the consequences, and Kent was doing that when he was 12. I think I'm going to wind up Kent Week early—it feels as if it has run its course—with this column, capping our epic trip to California in 2009:
     This autumn has been extra colorful. The big maple in my front yard is a glorious universe of warm yellow. The burning bush, a heart-swelling rich maroon.Normally this is the time of year when I pause to realize that the summer is gone and, again, I blew it, chained to the oar of daily newspapering while the soft June mornings melted into spicy July afternoons and hot August nights.
     Only this year, I reminded myself giddily, I didn't blow it, I nailed it -- that fabulous five-week, 7,000-mile journey with the boys through 13 states and nine national parks. An unbroken chain of golden moments, an unmitigated triumph that no one can take away . .
     Umm, not quite. There is some late dissent I feel obligated to share. I hold in my hand my 12-year-old son's language arts assignment. A personal essay.
     To his credit, he did ask beforehand if it was OK to write about. Confident, I gave my consent with a kingly wave of the hand.
     I was smug, until the moment I read the resulting paper's title, "Bad memories of a great vacation."
     Bad memories? How can that be?
     "As all great vacations have to start somewhere," the 10-page paper begins, "ours started with Spam."
     To him, Minnesota's Spam Museum was not the font of wonder that I described here.      

     "The start of our vacation couldn't be duller," my son wrote.     
     Boring is preferred to "horrible," which came when we tried to camp overnight in Yellowstone.
     "We had to pitch our backpacks over a tree," he wrote. "But before we did I noticed the tree was rotting at the bottom and I knew it wouldn't hold our backpacks. So I told my dad, but he didn't believe me. He tied the backpacks to the tree and it was fine for one split second. Then the tree snapped under the pressure and we had to hold it up."
     It gets worse. The low point of the vacation, if not my entire life -- I was too ashamed to mention it at the time -- took place in Nevada.
     Our motel happened to be next door to one of those giant fireworks stores. I was reluctant, but the boys pleaded. I knew better than to let them get big rockets or mortars. Just a few small devices, including a "Barrel of Fun," a firework the size of a Ping-Pong ball that throws out sparks. Harmless.
     The next day, I pulled off the interstate at a lonely road, and drove until it turned into gravel. The middle of nowhere, a desolate patch of desert, barren but for a bit of scrub. We set the firework in the middle of the road.
     "Then the trouble began," my son wrote.
     The Barrel of Fun, designed to shoot in the air, did just that. But it toppled over, sending sparks skittling to the side of the road.
     "A fire began," my kid wrote.
     In the time it took me to run over and try to stamp the burning scrub, the fire was 5 feet high, so hot I couldn't get close. It spread while we piled panicking into the car and retreated to a safe distance.
     The fire burned long enough for me to imagine it engulfing the state, to contemplate the brave young smoke jumpers who would die battling the result of my stupidity, the enormous bill and, later, prison.
     The fire went out on its own.
     "After this experience we knew fireworks were bad," my son wrote.
     Reading his essay, like anyone whose ox has been gored, I first felt outrage. "Fine!" I fumed. "If he feels that way, we'll just park him at Camp Piney Lake next summer while his brother and I set off on fresh adventures!"
     That passed, with the help of some soothing from my wife. It was, she observed, a finely written piece. He was, she pointed out, exactly like me. (And whose fault is that? I blustered. Her fault! She should have warned me that being myself and manifesting my own personality all these years would lead to children who are similar to me, visiting my own sour negativity back upon myself, a contrapasso punishment straight out of Dante's hell.)
     "Why couldn't you focus on all the good stuff?" I whined to him. "The Snake River? Santa Barbara?"
     "Right Dad," he said, with bored languor. "Which would you rather read: 'We stayed in a room. We played tennis. They gave us fruit.'
     "Or would you rather read about the time we nearly burned down Nevada?"     

     Well, there you have it. For those who, over the years, have felt my lash, have written outraged letters to the editor, demanding that action be taken, you'll be pleased to learn that a fate worse than being fired has engulfed me. I 
have been delivered over to the scant mercies of a live-in 12-year-old Torquemada.
     And it is all of my own doing! I knowingly sired my judge, raised, nurtured and fed strained peaches to my jury, clucked over my critic while he gained strength and powers of observation, biding his time until he could, in the most skillful manner possible, explain to the world exactly what kind of doofus I am.
     Why is this a surprise? How could it possibly be a surprise? What kind of idiot am I?
     No need to answer that. It will be further explained, I assume, in the next language arts assignment.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times Oct. 21, 2009


  1. Weren't you going to write a book about that vacation? As someone who endured a road trip to Vancouver & home via the Grand Canyon, in the back of Dad's Pontiac in the '60's, I know I'd love it.

    1. 1959 was a very good yearJune 18, 2015 at 8:52 AM

      I loved my dad's '67, big V8 Pontiac, Catalina - bought when I was 8.

      Talk about wide tracking.

    2. I did write a book about the vacation. But nobody would publish it. Not a nibble. I thought about posting it here, in 30 installments, in August. I'm not sure if it's a good or bad idea.

    3. Great idea. Sometimes when you say that something has run its course, I want to scream out "No! Give us more," but I defer to the professional writer and his decision. Your accounts of being a family man - as well as the honest and self questioning "what have I done" - is somehow life affirming. Especially to someone like myself who raised children (and now, in my case, grandchildren) with little or no positive parental guidance or memory to rely upon, to know that we all face the same challenges and have the same feelings and questions about the job entrusted to us by society, due to the biological pressures and demands of being Human.
      To be clear: I enjoy it. So, at least you have an audience of one.
      I look back on my posts and realize that a lack of intelligence and education tends to make me long winded and obscure.

    4. Yet they publish another installment of 50 Shades of Crap. Couldn't you just self publish w ebooks?

    5. The 30 installments in August sounds perfect!

    6. Don't get your hopes up; my gut tells me not to.

    7. Nikki, I agree. I can't believe women who claim they want respect or equal rights would go in for that in book or movie form.

      If someone tried to tie me down or hurt me in some way as an adult, I'd have my shovel ready or bat to bop them upside the head. Forget about just calling the police. Talk about lacking self esteem for any one who allows that in real life.

    8. Paul, you sound fine.

      And Mr. S, I think quite a few of us would like to read your vacation stories.

    9. Just be sure that critical, arrogant, know it all beast, A/N/A doesn't see the vacation tome, lol.

      Anyhow, at least put up one installment.

    10. NS-too bad you didn't have time yesterday to protect some victims here from the attack of the Anon not Anon monster

    11. Sorry, you guys have to stick up for yourselves in that regard, in general. I try to ignore him; you can too.

  2. I hope Kent will be back soon. I can hardly wait to hear what he has to say about the various college scouting trips you guys took.


  3. At least the old one is in better climate in the winter. Spare the rod spoil the child. It's like Rodney Dangerfield, you get no respect at all from them.

    How about some stories about when the boys quibble? Their grandpas would have been tougher on them if they were their dad.

    But it's a good story. Thanks for sharing. I wonder what they think about your blog.

    Perhaps ANA is one of them in disguise.

    Hope their mom demands more respect of them.

    1. Not everything is for the paper. And both their mom and I are raising them not to be the sort of people who think they know how to raise other people's kids better than they do , based on a handful of filtered facts and stories and their own self-regard and set attitudes.

    2. Kudos. There is already a surfeit of such people.

    3. Or it's someone who is, thinks and speaks like a granny.

    4. Sorry about jumping to conclusions, NS. I'll be more careful.

  4. Little did Kent know that in a few short years Chief Keef would be coming to town, entourage in tow!

    1. I would once have said they protect us from speeders and gatherings of teenagers, ("Good night, gentlemen, and close the gate the way you found it," my dad would tell them when he caught them trespassing while my sisters had friends over.)

      But yes, now they protect us from Chief Keef and his minions.

    2. Keef is long gone. I think he's in California.

  5. And from groups of marauders that text or tweet each other to meet in groups to shoplift on Michigan Ave stores, protecting from that too.

    Is anyone else noticing tech. problems in opening the page here?

  6. Consider yourself blessed.

    "O wad some Pow'r the gifrie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us."

    Tom Evans

  7. ah, the Scots are here, I believe

  8. Funny stuff. I could really relate, as my younger stepdaughter went into journalism, to my astonishment: "Wasn't my example enough to warn her?"

    We also had a horrible vacation in our family, although 1) we didn't nearly burn a state and 2) none of the kids wrote about it (but I did, in a newspaper column).

  9. Mr. Scribe, I'd wager that you are a fine and helpful stepdad, indeed.

    That's good that you are a writer for a paper as well or used to be perhaps. I'd love to read some of those columns. Perhaps you can link one on the off topic board.

    Mrs. G.

    1. Mrs. G: I was a fine and helpful stepdad, or tried to be, with varying degrees of success. But their mother and I divorced long ago.

      By the same token, I wrote those columns many years before the Intertoobz. But I appreciate your interest.

  10. Count me as another one waiting for the book about that vacation. Good column Mr. S.

  11. Would love to see Mr. S. express some recent thoughts on what Rauner is up to.

  12. If Mrs Rauner was the real democrat that she claimed to be she wouldn't sell her soul to marry that conservative. But I guess $ talks. I didn't care for Rahm joining her on some educ.meeting they had recently.

    Now Ana, don't you think Rauner's dirty pool commercials are emotional to a point? Why is it okay for Rauner's business to make a profit but not for Madigan to do so???

    Not to switch gears but want to add in a diff. vein, Rahm needs to be more democratic on how the school board and Supt is chosen. His record isn't great with that so far.

  13. this belongs on the off topic board., put here in error

  14. Amazing photo of the buffalo.

  15. The column is a good example of why many of us read Mr. Steinberg, even every Goddamn day. The Sun-Times has many facile scribes, but he alone writes in the tradition of the personal essay, serving himself up to readers as a plausible person; plausible because flawed and constrained in recognizably human ways. He used to be fat and drank too much. He indulges his kids. He suffers being reigned in by the wife when necessary. Although it is too early to dub him "the incomparable Neil," what Virginia Woolf wrote about Max Beerbohm, quoted in a recent New York Review of Books article, seems pertinent.

    "What Mr. Beerbohm gave was, of course, himself. This presence, which has haunted the essay fitfully from the time of Montaigne. had been in exile since the death of Charles Lamb. Matthew Arnold was never to his readers Matt, nor Walter Pater affectionately abbreviated in a thousand homes to Wat. They gave us much, but that they did not give. Some time in the nineties it must have surprised readers accustomed to exhortation, information and denunciation to find themselves familiarly addressed by a voice which seemed to belong to a man no larger than themselves....Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist's most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool....we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word he writes."

    Kent seems like a nice young man, even if a chip off the old block, but Neil is probably wise to now grant him anonymity until he is in a position to toot his own horn.

    Tom Evans

  16. Well where is our blog host today?

    1. I read Mr. Evans generous assessment earlier, and couldn't think of a reply beyond, "Works for me." Which hardly seemed worth saying. I'm trying not to enter into the comments unless necessary. I've had my say, above. This space is for you to have your say.

    2. Glad it worked. I thought, for a professional writer, being put in a bag with Charles Lamb and Max Beerbohm couldn't be all bad.


  17. Well it's still more interesting when you join in, when you have time for more discussion.

    And no, you are not a dum dad.

  18. Such vivid descriptions-

    This autumn has been extra colorful. The big maple in my front yard is a glorious universe of warm yellow. The burning bush, a heart-swelling rich maroon.Normally this is the time of year when I pause to realize that the summer is gone and, again, I blew it, chained to the oar of daily newspapering while the soft June mornings melted into spicy July afternoons and hot August nights.


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