Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Stung Like a Bee

    I heard the last words I would ever hear from Tim Gray when he jumped out of the passenger side of my Ford Truck last Summer, a jump that was a seamless, quick, effortless motion he had maneuvered many times before, so many times that he made it seem like magic. He then said, 'Buddy, be careful....I love ya.' I have agonized over those few words since I got the call from Scott, his oldest brother, telling me Tim, my life long friend, that friend closer than a brother, forty-five-years-old, had died earlier that day.

    To say I grew up with Tim and and his brothers is to grossly understate our childhood to manhood experience. We essentially lived the same life from the time I recollect having memories to the days we went our separate ways after high school. 

    With him, I always felt like a guide, a sidekick, someone who was there only to make sure the super human magnetic charisma that drove him helplessly through this life, this world, was not knocked too far off path. I stayed out of the way. Tim had a 'bigger than life' personality. It was mesmerizing and it pulled in everyone near him and wrapped them around all his fingers. It wasn't a trick he called on, .....very much the opposite. It was a rare goodness, the kind of good that's so real people have a hard time seeing it.

    Many will read this, roll their eyes and believe this is bull****, that its just more fairy tale stuff we say about dead people to make us feel better. Not this time. Tim Gray did some bad things, a bunch of bad things. We all have. 'Bigger than life' is a cliche we generally use to describe the better parts of some one's personality. The dynamic, endearing side of his personality was big and powerful. So, necessarily, his dark side, the side we all have that no one ever sees, only seemed worse than most because of the raw power that made him who he was. 

    He also saw into the people around him and most of all deep into his own soul, and tried to express it, to get it out the best he could. The tragedy is that he had no way, no words to write on paper, no art to create, no engine to repair. He worked out in the gym and it wasn't enough.

    Tim also understood that he was different and in many ways he believed people saw him as an unsympathetic, threatening monster...and, in the final years, to almost everyone he met, he did feel like a stranger. Yea, he worked it to his advantage. It's not what he wanted; he was surviving. The isolation eventually permeated his public personality, his humor, his insights into friends and family and their motives. Everybody grew up, Tim stayed the same, and it wasn't cool, he wasn't cool anymore. The complex and fragile emotional webs that friends, family and wives weave were more of a prison to him than Parchman. 

    His release, and I believe his only joy, in the last several years came only during the brief time he spent with his son, Price. That's when I saw him happy, and even that was fleeting. He never really thought he was a good dad. But, what most people don't know, not even Tim I think, is that he made a decision, and it must have been heartbreaking, to make sure he stayed clear of Price when he knew the demons that chased him so long, were finally gaining ground on him.

   So what was my dear friend telling me when he said, 'buddy, be careful...I love ya.' Careful with the women? I was coming out of a two year divorce, certainly not making the best decisions concerning the opposite sex. Was he telling me to stay clear and free of the vise grip of alcohol and drug addiction? I don't know, ....I don't know. I do know there was something different about the way he spoke to me that day. His tone reminded me of my father. He was deliberate and oddly peaceful. I also know I expected to see him again. My gut tells me people don't see death coming. That's a notion Hollywood taught us. The hard brick fact is I don't know what he was thinking, what he knew...if anything about what lay ahead of him. There's no clever or romantic ending here. I said, 'I love you, too,' and he said goodbye.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My Daughter's Dark Gift

       I'm a middle child. I will say that up front, in case I start defending some of my nine-year-old middle child's missteps. Irene Mills Smith was born St. Patrick's Day, 2003. It was a rainy day, windy, a couple days before America invaded Iraq. I remember President Bush giving Saddam 48 hours to 'run and tell that,' to get out of downtown, to put 'em up or die. I hardly paid attention because I was holding my brand new baby girl in my arms. I had a four-year-old boy who was as close to perfect as any child I had ever been around. Parenting was easy, I had four solid years of being the perfect Dad. The first time Irene opened those baby blues and looked me square in the eyes that March morning, I knew immediately I would pay dearly for my many past transgressions. Like Saddam, I was warned.

    It has been an unnerving experience to watch this child o' mine grow, experience life, speak, lie, sneak, laugh, complain, sleep (and dream), love, manipulate and essentially try to manage the world almost exactly the way I did. There is no mirror clearer than the one she's forced on me the last nine years. I hear so many people say that children are products of their environment, that they are developed. So, it seems then, dads.....parents should take all the glory and all the blame. No, have to call bull****. Yes, we have influence, a lot of it, and I certainly have a long way to go before I'm warning grooms about what they're getting in to, but so far as I can tell, my children, good and bad, are God's mystifying genetic lesson plan. 

     I really can't tell you a lot about Irene without telling on myself. She is a beautiful, bright, athletic, talented underachiever. If I need a child to run a 5k with me, I go to Irene. If I need a child to break in to the house, I go to Irene. My father, Pops, told me she had a 'dark gift' just like her father's. I didn't know it at the time, but that was my 48 hours, my time to clear downtown. My father gave me my warning.

    Right, it has taken me nine years to figure that out....three years to understand what my late father meant. My warning was simple, but not always easy. Pops told me to be a good father. When he said she had my dark gift, he said, and now it's so clear, I should be a gentle giant for her, coach her, listen to her when she will talk, grow a thicker skin when I'm not the number one guy in her life (and I feel it coming), be her friend and her Dad, always be strong for her, be flexible, and stand by her, through all her good and bad decisions. Thanks to Pops, the dad show has been so much more effective because finally instead of dodging the mirror Irene constantly holds in front of me, I look it square in her eyes and kindly, but firmly, let her know she has 48 hours. 

         Below is a link to her second grade Valentine's Day program. You can't miss her, she 's front and center. In a month, she will finish third grade and, I'm told, head straight for high school.

Dad Show


Monday, April 2, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Daydreaming about ZZ Top

   My youngest child and I were out looking for some big black frames yesterday. We had big fun. Rose didn't know that she was caught in the web of my latest obsession and subject of nightly recurring dreams, ZZ Top.

   Right, Billy, Dusty and Frank have dominated dreamland for a couple months now. I YouTube the boys every night looking for everything ZZ, ..and, at this point I hide it from family and friends. I can't exorcise it. I hate to compare the boys to bad spirits, but lately, I've felt haunted and oddly trapped.

   The dream started out of nowhere. Goes like this, ...a friend and I are front row at a ZZ Top concert circa 1984, arena rocking. We hear two full songs that seem to rotate, they change from one night to the next. Sharp Dressed Man, La Grange, Just Got Paid, Legs, Jailhouse Rock and Tush. There must be more, these I remember. The kicker, and killer, the dream always suddenly ends after the first 10 or so seconds of Cheap Sunglasses. Never do we hear the song. It is painful, really painful. I wake in a panic, sweating, unsatisfied. Nothing helps, so here's a post. I hope you catch this, sorry... but better you than me.

   Three weeks back, I found every ZZ Top cover on YouTube,...some awesome, some pathetic attempts that I watched anyway. I was pathetic, or maybe just lost to a band that put roll back in the rock, saved millions of music fans at least a few times and had to have lip synced through every concert. Can that three piece play a perfect song with every live attempt?

   The bright spot, there's a band, actually a few bands I discovered during my search for ZZ Top covers. Deer Tick, Dawes, Delta Spirit, Middle Brother. Bands are driven by guys like John McCauley, a talent missing in 2000s Indiana rock. It may be the most brutally honest song writing I've heard in years. Just listen to Middle Brother, super hero indie band featuring McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit.

   Ken Tucker, from NPR, called Middle Bro the best band of 2011. Great bands, especially great songwriters are almost always underestimated, however. I believe,... I'm sure I am right, this trio isn't getting the credit they deserve. Like ZZ Top, these boys are saving rock music. It's what super hero groups do. Now, save us from music festivals and all will be good in the world. I dreamed of Deer Tick last night. John McCauley belted out Cheap Sunglasses, start to finish, and I woke up, walked to my computer, and listened to Elvis.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sunday, March 11, 2012

sunday collector: On the road

sunday collector: On the road: I frequently get asked what my day to day job entails, so I thought you might like to see what I got up to today (not including the very ave...

Thanks Lou Gehrig

     We have a rule in the Smith House called the 'No Bellyaching' rule, and it applies to complaints about anything, anywhere, anytime. My Dad used to say, 'Everybody has at least one big problem of their own, so they damn sure don't want to hear about yours.' He's right. But, the catch phrase teaches more of courtesy than what my children and I really need to learn; gratitude. 

     An old friend sent an email with a link to Lou Gehrig's famous 'Farewell' speech this morning. We listened to it (only four sentences were recorded) and we read it. Hopefully, the shorties got something out of it. At the very least, they know he didn't bellyache that day. Instead, his goal from the start was to make every one more comfortable by declaring how fortunate he was and bragging on everyone but himself. I've heard the clip a thousand times and it always, always blows me away. It is the most incredible display of humility I've ever witnessed. So, on a day like today, when I'm sure there is some one to blame for the little problems life has thrown my way, Mr Gehrig's speech was a gift, a gentle but firm reminder that everything I need is right beside me all the time. Gratitude, like joy, sneaks up on you when your focus, like Lou, is on others. It always catches me off guard because of it's slap on the forehead simplicity. 

     Today, even with new violations of the bellyaching rule, a self imposed stressful week and this, that and the other thing, I believe I am luckier than Lou Gehrig, a man, who was that day, 'the luckiest man on the face of the earth.'

Lou Gehrig

'Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? 

Sure I’m lucky.

Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? 

Sure I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift - that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies -- that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter -- that’s something.

When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body -- it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed -- that’s the finest I know.

So, I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for.' - Lou Gehrig July 4th, 1939

Lou Gehrig's Farewell Speech