Thursday, January 21, 2010

"A Baby Is Better Than Smart": Champaign 1993

When I lived in the dorms--Burge Hall--in Iowa City at the start of my college career, I used to play this song called Be Careful There's A Baby In The House by Louden Wainwright III on my stereo. It was just a song with other songs that I liked better on an album (I can't recall which one) and I never paid much attention to it other than to be mildly amused. But the three guys who lived next door to me (me and Chuck and Bassoonhead [I can't seem to recall his name, but people called him Bassoonhead because he was a bassoon major--among other reasons]), that being Steve, Jeff and Dale next door to us, they thought the song was hilarious. They especially liked the line, "Because a baby is better than smart".
It wasn't until a decade or so later that I understood what Louden meant by that.
By 1993, Fru and I had our second baby. Two daughters. And we lived in a little house on Miller Street across from a park. After Second Daughter was born, I stayed home full time and took care of them. I fed them, changed diapers, played games, watched annoying shows with them, bathed them, took them places once in a while, cleaned up their drool and vomit and other emissions. I loved it but did not love it. I loved them but also went a tad insane (possibly more than a tad). If you've been there, you know what I mean. You wake sleep live breath think worry babies. You watch them all day, you watch them sleep, listen for them when you sleep, you go without a shower, without food, without adult conversation for them. But of course, you do it all willingly, you do it because they are most important, more important then even your own life.
You love them.
And that is how they are better than smart. Their instinct outweighs their lack of cognizant abilities; your own instinct and sense of responsibility in response to them far outweighs your own intellectual capabilities as well. They're better than smart in that way, too"Take care of me! I'm helpless! Feed me! Change my diaper! Wrap me up and cuddle me! Walk me! I need sleep! All of this is communicated without any words spoken.
And they love you, too.
There are endless little things that I have forgotten about those early days--years--with babies. Most I have forgotten on purpose or, perhaps, as a blessing. (I do recall, specifically, one day as I was walking with one of them in my arms, looking out the front window and seeing a pickup truck drive by--some construction workers on their way to a job site--and I had this great yearning to be out there with them, to be out of the damn house and be on a job and I felt as helpless as the little baby in my own arms). That's not to say I didn't have fun. I did. That's not to say that the experience was not a profound one, because it was. It certainly woke me up to the needs of others, to the concept of deep, unconditional love. Having to take care of babies, children, teens is a pathway for greater understanding about countless things, many of them ineffable, almost impossible to describe in a short on-the-fly essay/blog post.
In many ways, because a baby is better than smart, it makes you better than smart in return.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Leaving Missoula: 1990

I think it was by late spring in 1990 that Fru and I decided we'd leave Montana. We were poor in Missoula, I'd already quit the writing program there and was working full time as a janitor (at the university, no less), it had been a long winter and we were thinking of Portland, Oregon or Seattle as places to go. We ended up going back to Champaign.
We were living in our little "doll house" home on Rollins Street, a cottage to be exact. Fru got a job offer as controller back in Champaign, at her old bank, and her pay seemed like a lot of money to us (it wasn't, but it seemed like it at the time: as said, we were poor) and since I had a good time in Champaign back in '88, I said, "Okay." So we did the move back in two installments.
First we packed some stuff and drove back in her little brown Honda Civic. We took M.R. the cat with us then. We went to her father's house and she started her job and then I went back to the empty cottage on Rollins to do the final move.
Now, getting back wasn't too simple. I wanted to save money and have a bit of an adventure, so I got a ride from Margaret (I think, maybe I took the bus) to Sioux City. In Sioux City I hung with Matt and I contacted Bill Brown--a pal of mine from Missoula who had moved back to Minnesota--Mankato/Medelia--and he agreed to drive me back out to Missoula and help me out. Ah. But that wasn't so simple either.
If I remember right, Matt took me up into Minnesota where I met Bill. I do remember Bill Brown and I traipsing around that part of the state, southwestern MN. We spent some time in small towns like Pipestone and Blue Earth, we went to Madelia. We went into Mankato. I was there for a few days and in those days Bill lived with Barb (about twenty years his junior) and we all got along well. Oh, we went to New Ulm as well. But then Bill and I set out for Montana, driving through North Dakota and when we got to eastern Montana we stopped in the little town of Forsyth, just west of Miles City. Bill had spent a week or two or a month in Forsyth a year or two ago when his car broke down on his escape from Missoula. So, we settled in to a bar and we talked to people in the bar--the bar that had been Bill's hangout when he was stuck in Forsyth with major car trouble--and we got drunk.
It si happened that there was a duck race going on in that little western town. Now this duck race was simply a load of yellow plastic rubber duckies that they released in the river. The Yellowstone River. People bought ducks in the stores and schools and bars for the race. So, Bill and I each plunked down some money and each bought a duck and we stuck around for the race. We--drunk--went down to the riverbank where the race ended, watched the ducks float in, thought about what we'd do if we won--which was maybe a five grand pot--and watched as they selected a winner. It was not us. But the problem was, those ducks kept coming down the Yellowstone and someone had to scoop them up so that they didn't simply become yellow duckie pollution. It was a haphazard effort, this clean up, consisting of locals with small boats buzzing around in the river with scoop nets and netting the little plastic buggers. Bill and I found a guy who was buy himself with his boat. We offered to help and he said, "Okay". So, Bill and I--when I was supposed to getting back to Missoula and packing a UHaul and getting my butt back to Champaign, IL--were out on the yellowstone scooping up plastic ducks. We actually found the ducks we had bought at the bar (they had our numbers written on their bottoms in permanent marker--I think I still have that duck somewhere), so we kept them and went back to the bar in town.
The sensible thing would have been to get a room and some sleep, but no, we were cheap. So, off we drove into the twilight and got tired and stopped along the lonely Montana road and slept in the car--except Bill snores like a jet plane. I didn't get any sleep and began to drive again because I had nothing better to do. I almost fell asleep at the wheel, but did make it into Missoula by daybreak or so.
I still had our place in Missoula, so we stayed there. We met up with the usual suspects--Ken, Steve, others(John had graduated and moved to Portland OR by then)--and maybe needless to say we went around to the bars, to Charlie B's, and got drunk again. Ho. But the next day or two I got around to packing and renting a UHaul with a car tote to tote my red Custom Deluxe pickup truck behind the UHaul truck. I got'er done. I even trough in Jack, the neighborhood cat (who looked a lot like M.R.) who had been living with Fru and I for the last year or so (more on Jack some other time, perhaps). So the deal was, I'd drive the UHaul full of belongings while towing my pickup and Bill would follow in his little car. And so off we went.
It was south of Billings where Bill and I lost each other. It was at the Little Bighorn Monument park, or whathaveyou, and Bill wanted to go in but I turned around because it was crowded and I had my big truck with smaller truck in tow. This was before cell phones and we had no walkie talkies, but he said he'd catch up with me.
To tell the truth, I was a wee tired of Bill by that time. He's a great, smart guy, but can also be a monologuist. I really doubted that he'd catch up with me. I drove deep into South Dakota before calling it a night.
I was in my cheap roadside motel room, talking to Fru on the phone, joking and both of us laughing about Bill and how I'd lost him, when there was a knock on my door.
It was Bill.
I laughed some more and, as I thought about, was glad to see him. It turned out that he'd been stopping at every exit in South Dakota, tooling around the parking lots of the numerous motels, looking for my truck. Okay. Well the, It was the me and Bill show, back on again.
The next day we drove and parted ways by Sioux Falls--Bill back to Madelia, MN, me onward to my parents house in Des Moines--and it was a semi-emotional good bye (as far as guy good byes go) because Bill and I had been through a lot and had had a good time.
I did stop in Des Moines. Spent a day with my parents, Then it was the six hours to Champaign and the life that awaited me--us, Fru and I--there.
I didn't get real emotional about leaving Missoula, but in many ways Fru and wished that we hadn't. I often had dreams about that city, often about being in that house and that little house was empty and I was alone, often about the city and in the dreams Missoula is this wild and fantastical town and I want to be there again. I often think we shouldn't have left. Often wished we had gone on to Portland or Seattle. But in the long run, Champaign served Fru and I well.
But we both talk of Missoula, of Montana. We both miss it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Drinking Beer In A Cold Rain: Grayton Beach 1987

It's raining here today--cold and damp and overcast--like a late fall day in Seattle or a March afternoon in Iowa City or mid-winter in the Florida panhandle. And thinking of a cold rain in the panhandle reminds me of one time when I lived in Seagrove Beach, not long before I moved away from Walton County for good.
I was living with dave then--who was co-owner of Bud and Alley's in Seaside--in that house among the oaks along Highway 30-A. I was working painting houses, specifically Mr. Hyatt's house, in Seaside, working for Mike (Bellville IL/St. Louis Mike) who was working for Hubert who was working for Peter, the contractor for Mr. Hyatt's house. Anyway, it was a cold day, a rainy day, that day, and so there was no going to work.
I had the downstairs bedroom which opened out to a screened porch among the trees. (It also had another door that went to the hallway that led to the stairs--upstairs--where the kitchen, living room etc were.) I liked to go out to te porch and watch the rain, smoke cigarettes, maybe write out there (though it was wet and cold). So, I was standing out there, dumbly getting the feel of bad weather, when I heard a car pull in at the house. The house had a sand/red-dirt/fallen-oak-leaf drive with a sand/red-dirt/fallen-oak-leaf little road alongside it, so I heard the car engine more than any tires or anything else. I went out to look and it was Robert.
Robert was older than me. He was a local guy--raised in south Walton since a boy (maybe born there)--and he was a carpenter. A good one. he was working for Peter but was the one who had taught Peter the trade of house-building. He was also, by my own observations and others, an alcoholic. But he was a good-natured, short, smiling, southern-boy, friendly to all. He drove this old Toyota Land Cruiser--4 wheel drive--that had no windows and usually no top to it. He had the top up that day--as it was raining and it was cold (in the high 30's probably)--and he also had a six of Red Stripe beer. He didn't get out of his truck/car but sat and drank, said it was a good day to be drinking, and we chatted. He gave me a beer. Then he was off again.
I remember first seeing Robert at the bar at Bud and Alleys. He sat at the bar with his young son, buying the boy cokes as he drank his beer. His kid was cute, funny; Robert was funny. Another time I recall saying to him that I remembered when Grayton and the other beach towns didn't have so much traffic, that there didn't used to be the new Highway 90 north of the beach and he said he remembered--as a kid--when there didn't used to be any bridges between the towns on 30-A, that you had to drive up and down around the lakes and creeks to get from say, Grayton to Seagrove or Seagrove to Panama City Beach. Yes, he was an old-timer for that area. But I also had the impression that drinking had held him back, that he'd lost work and jobs because of it, even though he was a "good" drunk.
I also recall one day at work, early in the next year, that Peter warned him not to go out and get drunk, not to be unable to work the next day (even though Robert was Peter's carpenter mentor) and that Robert just laughed and went out and spent the day drinking and did not come to work and Peter did indeed fire him.
Not good.
Not good for all of those involved.
Anyway. I drank Roberts beer and decided that he was right. That it was a good day to drink beer. And I went out and bought me my own six or more of Red Stripe (I usually bought cheap cheap beer--Goebels Beer, about $2 a six) and came back to the house, back to the screened porch. I drank. Smoked. Watched the rain. Soaked up the lonely depression of the day, that life.
It felt very good.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The House on Miller Street: Champaign 1991

When we first moved back to Champaign from Montana, Fru found us a place on Union Street. We only rented back then (though Fru had owned a duplex on Ivy Court when I first met her). It was an okay place. It had heated floors--using a water system--which was nice. But when she became pregnant, she wanted a different place, so we moved into the little house on Miller Street.
And it was little: two bedrooms, one bath, small garage, tiny kitchen, a back and front yard. But it was cozy. It had been fixed up a little. And the house opened up to a large, long park across the street, a park with grass and big oak trees and catalpa trees, a playground. That was nice.
Inside the house, it was heated by a floor furnace. There was no basement, only a crawl space, and this strange furnace hung halfway down into it from the living room floor. It was rectangular--about the size of a foot locker--with a metal grate above it. It was gas. And when it came on, there'd be this rumble then whoosh--you could feel the sucking and projection of air--and then this constant run of noise as it blasted it's heat through the vents. There are cold winters in northeastcentral Illinois (yes, they actually referred to the area as northeast central Illinois), so that furnace would run and run and we'd have to talk louder or turn up the teevee or music or whatever. Oh well, we got used to it.
There was no central AC in the house. There was one window unit, then we got another: both in the bedrooms. We talked our new landlord into putting a unit into the wall of the living room, but the way the house was built the only way to accomplish this was to use the wall that was next to the garage. So, that AC unit drew air from the garage. So, I often opened the garage so it could have fresh air and someone stole my bicycle because the door was open. Yes. Okay. But at least we didn't sweat so much--northeastcentral Illinois also had hot summers. (We never had AC in Montana--didn't need it.)
I recall we had two landlords at that place. The first guy who rented it to us was kind of wacky. He was trying to build some kind of real estate empire and was buying things up, refurbishing them, trying to sell them--both small and big properties. When First Daughter was born, that landlord decided to re-shingle the roof. So, here we had a newborn (and we were brand new parents) and he's up on the roof all day for a week banging away with a hammer. Ah. But First Daughter slept fine and it never bothered her. Oh, and on the first day we moved in with all of our furniture strewn about and things in boxes and Fru pregnant and us trying to sleep in, here comes a gaggle of realtors to our door. The landlord was trying to sell the house as we rented it and he never told us he had scheduled an open house for realtors on the very next day after our move in. Crazy. The guy eventually got in over his head and had to do quick-sales of most of his property.
But the good thing about that realtor convention in our little rental house was that a realtor from that day bought it later and he was a good guy. We were good tenants and he was a good landlord. That worked. I remember once we'd called about the smell of gas in the house and a gas man came out, gave it the green light that all was okay, and I was home with First Daughter and she took a nap and so I--any new parent knows you can't get any sleep in those first days/months/years/decades--I fell asleep on the couch. I think my baby was asleep on the floor. We had a glass window on the front door and the landlord came over to check on our potential gas leak, saw us zonked out, and assumed the worst. He was quite relieved when I got up to answer the knock on the door.
The house on Miller Street turned out to be fine. We had fun--Fru and I and First and Second Daughter. There were nice spring days on the back porch, hot summer days, I planted some trees from seed (catalpa, locust; which I think are still there--decent-sized now) and had a great garden with carrots, onions, garlic, leeks, broccoli, green peppers and hot peppers, corn and tomatoes, eggplant and huge sunflowers. That garden was fun, fantastic (good old northeastcentral Illinois soil!) and we ate fresh food--oh, spinach, lettuce, kale--and the girls enjoyed picking the veggies with me.
We lived in that house from '91 to the spring of '96. We enjoyed the park across the street. We liked the proximity to other parks and downtown and the Schnucks grocery store, proximity to the Interstate to get out of town, too. There were snowy winters with the white piling up out the back french doors. There was a woodchuck--and actual woodchuck--living in our backyard for a few months. There was a squirrel--Lulu--who came to the back doors to beg for nuts. There was Kittycat Stone, a big orange Tom we adopted who would not come inside and lived around our house. He had been the backyard neighbor's cat--the old man behind us--but when the old man had fallen ill, his family came and got him but not his cat. He was a friendly cat to us but would not come inside--even during the coldest winters--but he survived. I passed the duties of taking care of him off to other neighbors when we too went away. In the spring and summer I left a section of the backyard unmowed so that wildflowers could grow (Blackeyed Susans, mostly) and rabbits moved in there.
Yes, we moved out of there and went to Florida. When we go back to Champaign--where Fru's father still lives, her sister and niece also--we drive by the place, we sometimes go to the park where my girls, now grown, swing in the swings, slide on the slide.