Sticking Around and Being There: The First Steps of Fatherhood

Surfing Dad

My dad surfing the day of my wedding.

My father is back in the hospital. He had bifemoral aortic bypass surgery three weeks ago. He spent one week inside recovering. The second he got to go home and I went to help out. I had two main responsibilities: keep his car keys away from him and make sure he ate. I did a bang up job on the first but I failed at getting him to eat. He refused to eat what I prepared or to drink Ensure or any of the “old people” drinks, as he seemed to think of them. He was rarely hungry. It’s a week later and he’s lost twenty pounds and isn’t healing like he should. His gut wrenches and the doctors don’t know what it is.

If asked whether or not he was a good dad, my father would likely respond based on his mood. If he were in a particularly down mood, which he’s prone to be in, he might say he failed. If he felt the question was loaded or a personal affront to his manhood, he would likely say he was a great father and fight you to the bitter end to prove it.

If I were asked the same question about my father, my responses would follow a similar pattern. Our relationship is like that. Mercurial. Heavy and light. Hard and harder. It’s always been that way. If I’m in a more reflective mood, like I am now, then I start to the see more shades of grey.

My father is nearly sixty. He was born in Illinois and split almost all of his life between Arkansas and Texas. When he was about ten his parents divorced and his father left. He didn’t see him again until my dad was in his forties. My grandfather had married another woman and had another kid. My uncle found him on the Internet. He came to visit us in Texas. I was about eighteen or nineteen. I knew almost nothing about him and neither did my father or his little brother or their little sister. It was a bizarre reunion.

What made it even more difficult was that my father’s mother, I guess you’d call her my grandmother, had also left my dad and his siblings when they were kids. About three years after their father left, their mother disappeared. Vanished really. That’s the way I remember it, and this may not be how it happened, but memories are funny things if the flames aren’t stoked with the truth every now and then, they change into a new version of the truth, your version of the truth. We never really talked about her. We never really talked about my dad’s childhood. It was too depressing for children and for my dad. But the way I remember it, is that when my father was about thirteen, he and his brother and sister went to school. When they returned their mother was gone and she never came home.

No one ever saw her again or if they did, they never told my father. My dad and uncle were sent to a boys’ home in the Texas panhandle. My aunt grew up with an uncle, her mother’s brother. The home where my dad lived was a working ranch. Every boy that lived there was either abandoned or given up on. I think the people that ran the place hoped for good things for these boys. They meant well. It’s still around today. They even allow girls. But from the stories my dad used to tell, it was far from easy. If a boy left that place and didn’t amount to anything in life, then it wouldn’t be a surprise.

When my grandfather visited with his wife, they seemed like pretty good people. Everyone got along. It was weird to have a grandfather. I was old enough to see that something wasn’t sitting right with my dad. They left a few days later and we never saw them again. Years later, when my grandfather died, my aunt and uncle went to the services in Washington. My dad stayed home. I asked him why and he told me he didn’t see why he should. He told me that when they had visited he asked his father why he never came to see them. My grandfather said that my grandmother and her family had told him to stay away and so he did. My dad pushed it a little further and asked why he didn’t come back after their mother disappeared. My grandfather gave another unsatisfactory answer before his wife got defensive. We never saw them again because they were offended by my dad’s question. He simply wanted to know why his father had abandoned him.

I loved my dad at that moment. I knew that no matter how bad things got with us, I could ask him anything and he’d answer. He might yell or he might not like the question, but I could ask him. I still do and we still fight but I never fear asking him anything.

When I measure my dad’s fatherhood skills, I use his parents as a baseline. Compared to them, he’s off the charts. He did one thing they never did, he stuck around. That’s an accomplishment.

Obviously, having a childhood like that has an impact on a person. My father has his demons. After he left the ranch, he fucked around, odd jobs and such. He joined the army for a stretch around the end of the Vietnam war. He was discharged, not dishonorably or honorably, somewhere in-between. He was married at the time to his first wife. I know very little about her or that time. I vaguely remember the first time I found out he was married before my mother. I about shit myself. I never imagined my father with anyone else.

The story I remember him telling is that his wife cheated on him with his sergeant on the base. Some way or another he got a discharge out of that. As a kid, I’m sure the logic of it made sense. I can’t wrap my head around it as an adult and I’m sure there is more to the story that he’ll never tell. In my child’s memory, I see it unfold much like any Hollywood film. I imagine him coming home to discover them in bed together. She is defiant as she laughs and taunts him with the infidelity. She blames him for it. If he’d been better at this or that, she wouldn’t have done it.

I imagine my father losing his mind and beating his sergeant half to death and in the military honor code, he somehow gets off because every soldier knows you don’t fuck your brother’s wife. I don’t know that any of that ever happened but as a kid, that’s how I saw it.

When my dad told me stories about the rough patches in his life, I always saw my dad as some kind of superhero. I could never imagine anyone seeing the things he saw and living to tell about it. There is one story about a motorcyclist getting his head chopped off by a sheet of metal in the back of a truck he was riding in. He said it hung over the edge and it was so thin, the driver never saw it. It took his head clean off at the neck. He told me another about a “coup” in one of the dorms at the ranch. In the middle of the night some of the boys attacked the den parent that was assigned to their dorm. He remembers waking up and a hatchet was sticking out of the man’s head.

Insane, right? I don’t know if anything he told me was true. He might have just been a great storyteller. Since I’ve become an adult, I’ve never asked him to retell any of his stories to see if my adult mind is more prepared for their reality. A part of me doesn’t want to ask him to tell them again. The truth might destroy  them.

When my dad became a father for the first time with my sister he was twenty three. He still held only odd jobs. He was twenty five when I was born. I break my childhood down into two different periods: pre-rehab and post-rehab. Any memories I have before the age of eleven, my dad was a drunk. After eleven he was the same guy but he could no longer blame the alcohol for being an asshole.

My father wasn’t abusive. There were times when he said things that went too far and there were times where he got more physical than he should have. In my mind, abusive would be a consistent, continuous pattern. I’m not an expert, so if my definition is off, that’s fine. I don’t need a clarification. This is how it’s defined for me. My father wasn’t continuously crossing that line. It happened but in between those times we  had some amazing times.

I have a weird memory of an open house my dad took my sister and I to when I was in fourth grade. I only have flashes of it. I fill in the blanks to make it a whole night because it was so much fun. It’s a weird memory because I know my dad was drunk and yet he took us to our school’s open house. That’s the thing about alcoholics, they can either be the life of the party or the death of it. That night he was the life of the party. The image that sticks out the most, and I don’t know if it ever happened, is of us leaving. I remember him pushing my sister and I on the grass and all of us rolling around on the way to the car. We were laughing the entire time.

The next day, my teacher asked me if my father had been drinking. I told her he had. That’s the moment that I knew what he did wasn’t normal. I talked a lot with my teacher about my dad’s drinking. She listened. She was a great teacher.

That same year, my dad wrecked our only car. He was drunk and hit a parked car on his way home.  I remember it as a hit and run. No one was hurt, just the cars. My mom told him that was the end. That was the last straw. She packed us up and threatened to leave. He went to rehab the next day.

After rehab, we moved to another city and started again. My dad went to college. He got a scholarship from the ranch he grew up on. They paid for him to get his teaching certificate. He was in his late thirties and for a while there things were looking up. When my father became a teacher, it was the first job I remember him having for more than two years. It lasted about four years, maybe five. Then he lost that job. I don’t really know what happened but he never taught again. He went back to odd jobs. He held them down for maybe one or two years tops.

I was a teenager by then and I carried a lot of anger with me as most teenagers do. But most of that anger was targeted at my father. By the time I was sixteen, I started to see things more clearly or so I thought. My father stopped being the superhero with the great stories. He stopped being the man I empathized with. He became the man that never treated my mom the way I thought she should be treated. He loves my mother and she loves him. They’re not perfect. Their marriage isn’t perfect. Hell, my marriage isn’t perfect. But although my father stuck around, my mother was there. There’s a significant distinction between those. And the one who was there, to me, was being hurt by the one that stuck around. I began to wonder whether he should stick around anymore. Would it be better for all of us if he just left?

I’ve had that same thought rolling around my head for nearly twenty years and every year, he’s still around.

This is what I think about when I think about becoming a father. As I measured my father against his father, I measure myself against my father.

Will I stick around or will I be there? Will I lose my temper? Will I give them something to aspire to? Will I treat their mother the way they expect their mother to be treated? Will their mother and I still love each other after forty years? Will I be able to keep a job? Will I teach them the right way to do things? Will I be able to tell them stories they’ll remember?

My father is a complex man. Who I am today is because of him. The joke that he and I both tell is that I learned from him what not to do. I’ve never had a drink in my life other than a few small sips of beer or wine coolers as a child when I thought it was cool to be like my old man. But at some point it all clicked for me. At some point I connected drinking to something I didn’t want to be. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know what would have happened had I drank, but I knew that for me if I ever drank, I may become a monster like my father was when he drank.

Over the course of my life, my father has been sober more years than he was drunk. I know that he’s too harshly judged for the years when he was drunk and not given enough credit for the years he was sober, but some sins are hard to wash away. I suppose my child will hold me to a high standard as well. That’s part of being a dad.

I’m sitting here in California while my dad is in a hospital bed in Texas. I’m worried about him. I’m worried about a life without a father. What will it be like if he doesn’t stick around?

Light Fire. Cook Meat.

I live in LA but I’m from Texas. I usually drop that little nugget right after I tell someone my name. Just  to get it out there. I like to see the reactions of people from around here when I say it. Most people give me this sort of “oh, poor you” look. They joke about cowboy hats and boots. They ask about guns or if I’m really lucky, it’ll be someone who expounds on race, politics or religion in Texas. Basically everyone in California has an opinion on Texas and Texans and to tell you the truth, they’re all bullshit. Even the people that lived there before have no clue what they’re talking about.

I know full well my state has a fucked up record on the big three: race, politics and religion. I also know that every other state has the same problems. One of the biggest music festivals in the nation is Coachella, not too far from LA. Every year young music lovers, who I argue would unequivocally define themselves as liberals, make the trek out to the middle of the desert for this festival.

Do you know what the high school mascot is for Coachella Valley where this festival is held?

An Arab. And here is what he looks like.

coachella valley arab

I don’t know about you but this Texans thinks that’s pretty racist.

Just three weeks ago the school district finally succumbed to pressure from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab Community at-large to update the mark. Not the name, just the graphic that depicts the Arab. So excuse me if I don’t give two shits what someone from California has to say about my state. If the California liberals really cared, they’d boycott the music festival until the school changed their name. But no one’s doing that because the festival is too much fun and they don’t really care.

Anyway, my point wasn’t to bitch about California hypocrisy but instead to talk about fire and Texas brisket.

Every man likes to burn things. Most of us have a little pyromaniac tucked down deep inside. When I was a kid, my friend and I set a dead bird on fire. We weren’t twisted enough to burn a live one. We also used to do this thing where we’d dip our hands in water, then squirt lighter fluid on them, and finally set them ablaze. We theorized that the water layer would allow our hands to burn longer without getting hurt. I don’t have any scars to prove that I set my hands on fire. So I guess the water layer worked. (Don’t do this kids. Also stop reading this blog, it’s not for kids.)

In Texas, brisket is the BBQ king. Most men start their grilling experience very young. Perhaps they watch their father man the grill. I have to say, I never really learned to grill. I don’t remember my dad doing anything more than hot dogs and hamburgers. When my sister married, her husband was more adept at grilling. By then I was too old and stubborn to admit I didn’t know anything about anything so I never gave him the opportunity to teach me.

It’s fine though. It’s never too late to learn to BBQ. I bought a charcoal grill last year and I’ve been experimenting ever since. Some days I do well and some days it takes me an hour to light the charcoal. The first thing you really have to get down is lighting the fire. All I remember my dad doing was dousing the coals in lighter fluid and dropping a match. It seemed easy and I thought that all burgers were supposed to taste like gas.

In my quest to learn how to grill, I discovered the chimney starter. Keep in mind I’m using the word discovered pretty liberally. I’m sure everyone in the world knew of its existence long before I “discovered” it. The beauty of the chimney starter is that you don’t have to use lighter fluid and you can get a strong fire burning faster and more efficiently.

The starter is broken into two parts:

1. The top where you pour in the coals.

2. The bottom where you light the coals above.

First thing you do is take sheets of newspaper and roll them into tubes. Be sure you don’t use any coated paper, like the slick Sunday sales papers. Avoid those. Use only the rough, dryer paper. A good rule is if the ink rubs off on your fingers, that’s the paper for you. Take the tubes of paper and coil them under the bottom of the starter.

Lighting a chimney starter

Then you pour in your coals. The more coals you pour in, the longer it takes the fire to be ready and the hotter your grill will eventually be. More coals = more heat.

adding charcoal to a chimney starter

Once you have the paper in place and the coals inside, you light the paper through the holes in the side.

lighting a chimney starter with a match

If all goes well, you’ll then see why they call it a chimney starter.

Once your chimney starts smoking, you’re in good shape. So take a break, checking on it every now and then of course because you don’t want to set anything on fire that shouldn’t be on fire. Give it about twenty minutes and then you’ll see fire coming out of the top.

fire from a chimney starter

Once the corners of your top briquettes start to ash, then it’s time to go. The starter has a handle for you to lift and pour the coals into your grill. Do that and arrange them for what you’re grilling.

charcoal on fire in a chimney starter

If you have somehow stuck with this post for this long, then you’re in for the best part: the meat.

This was my first time to make brisket. All great Texas BBQ brisket recipes call for a smoker. I don’t have one of those. I have a charcoal grill. So I had to make it work. It wasn’t as tough as you might imagine. Of course, I’m not going to win any competitions for my BBQ brisket, but we have to start somewhere.

I found a great recipe for the rub at Epicurious. Although my brisket was a few pounds less than the recipe, I went ahead and made the rub just how they describe it.

* I tablespoon Kosher salt

* 1 tablespoon chili powder

* 2 teaspoons sugar

* 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

* 1 teaspoon ground cumin.

Mix all of that in a bowl.

Then rinse your brisket and pat it dry with a paper towel. After that go crazy with the rub. Spread it all over the meat. Don’t leave any bit uncovered. After you’ve rubbed it in, cover the brisket with plastic wrap. Then let it sit in your fridge for 6 hours.This is just the beginning of a long day of cooking. So keep your schedule open.

After six hours, pull it out and drop it in a metal pan. I used the throw away aluminum pans.

texas seasoned brisket for BBQ

Then set your grill up for indirect heat. That means that what you’re cooking isn’t directly over the fire. What’s easiest is simply to pour all of the burning coal from your chimney starter onto one side of the grill. Then you’re meat on the opposite side, away from the fire.

For this recipe you want to keep the temperature, low meaning between 250 degrees and 350 degrees. I fucked this up and overfilled my starter. So my fire was 450 degrees out of the gate. I had to spend some time taming the fire to bring it down to about 300 degree before I put my meat on. The easiest way I’ve found to tell the temperature is to put the lid on and then slide my instant read thermometer through the top vent. A lot of people say you can judge by how long you can stand to hold your hand over the fire, but that tells me nothing.

As I said before, this is usually something you want to smoke. The smoke gives it a nice, well, smokey flavor. To achieve this on a charcoal grill you simply add wood chips to the charcoal. You can find these at Home Depot or some grocery stores. You can’t just throw them on the fire or they’ll burn away, providing only a small amount of smoke. To get a nice full smoke from the wood chips you soak them in water for an hour before you’re ready to cook. Then after you’ve set your coal up for indirect heat, you pull a couple handfuls of wood chips from your water. Make sure you shake off the excess water or else you’re just going to throw water on your fire. Drop the two handfuls of chips on top of the coals and you’ll start to see smoke. I used hickory wood chips.

Then put your lid on. Be sure your bottom and top vents are open. Put your thermometer in the vent and make sure you stay between 250 degrees and 350 degrees.

Every hour check on it. You’ll want to add more coal and wood chips each time if the temp is falling. For the first two hours, I also basted the brisket with the fat that gathered in the pan. At the end of the third hour, it was looking pretty good, so I measured the internal temp and it was right at 195 degrees. The best temp range seems to be between 190 degrees and 205 degrees from what I’ve read. Most of the things I read also said don’t ever let it go past 205 degrees.

smoked and BBQ Texas brisket

After you pull it, cover it with foil and let it rest. Some say as long as four hours. We were starving and so we waited about 15 minutes. Then we cut into it. You should cut against the grain in slices. Then serve. Ours was great. It wasn’t as tender as I remember Texas brisket.

sliced texas bbq brisket

Next time, I’ll try to stick much closer to 225 degrees or 250 for longer and try letting it rest longer.

What the hell is a man?

I’m going through a bit of a masculinity crisis. It’s very similar to an identity crisis and a mid-life crisis. Actually, it’s equal parts of both. I’ve reached a certain age now where I’ve become restless. I’ve started to examine my life in terms of accomplishments and defining moments. I’ve started to look at the future and I wander where it will take me.

For my wife, who is of course my biggest fan, please don’t read that sentence and assume that implies anything other than true happiness with our relationship. In fact, it’s probably the only thing that feels right.

For as long as I want to remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I don’t really know why. I like to tell myself and anyone that asks that it’s because I love to tell stories about people that no one else is writing about. But that’s not really true. Perhaps it’s my arrogance that compels me to write. Perhaps I think the particular way I place words on a page is more important than the way another person places words on page.

It’s not.

The truth is, I am compelled. I get ideas. I see people in my head doing things and then I sit at my desk and I try to describe what I see. Sometimes I’m successful at it but most of the time I’m not. I don’t know why I write. I just do.

Why am I telling you this? (You being the Internet.) The reason is I’m wondering if this is part of becoming a man. Is this the point in a man’s life when he starts to question his path? Is this the mid-life crisis that has been exploited by silly sitcoms, novels, plays and just about anything else where some sad sack of shit is depressed because he really wants to bang a younger woman?

Again, my dear wife, I’m not going to bang a younger woman.

So this restlessness, the incessant internal badgering of “What have you accomplished?”, is this a symptom of being a man? Am I a cliché? I fear that I am. And popular media has taught me this is in fact what happens to men. If it is true, then I’m entirely unprepared for manhood. Going beyond my meager life accomplishments, what else can I do that all men must know how to do?

Can I start a fire? Sure, with charcoal and lighter fluid.

Can I build something with my two hands? Anything? Not really.

Am I a great shot? Probably not. Guns terrify me.

Could I be trusted to raise a child? Fuck me, I have no idea.

Is_This_a_Man

Is this a man?

I’m hoping that this space will become a personal journey into my manhood. Wait, that didn’t come out right but I’m going to leave it.

I hope to use this space to define what being a man means to me. Don’t expect a hard-drinking, gun-toting meat head, because that’s not me. But don’t expect a whiny pussy who’s afraid to punch someone in the face, because that’s not me either. I’m somewhere in between. Just where, I’m not entirely sure.