June 24, 1998

Running on Empty

I hate to stop for gas. It makes me late to wherever I am going. On a trip it skews my trip time and I may be after a record. Also, I get that gasoline smell on my hands for the rest of the day. And I always feel guilty for not washing the windshield. But the real problem is that by stopping for gas I am admitting defeat.

The game I am playing is called see how close you can get to empty without running out. I am fortunate that my gasoline gauge has a large red band for empty, so I can run on empty for a long time. This is living on the edge at its best. Not knowing exactly how long I can go creates the suspense. I think (but am not sure) that my tank holds 14 gallons. I recently reached a personal best by pumping 13.5 gallons. I do not say that proudly. This is not a record that would stand up well among more proficient practitioners of the art of running on empty.

My wife says that this is all a man’s game but I know that she is wrong. My mother was terrific at this game. That was back in the days when families had only one car providing added incentive to the game. If you could run on empty, you could force the other driver to fill the tank and you could then ride all week for free. Teenagers have always excelled at this part of the game.

My father gave my mother a weekly allowance to run the household. Anything left over was hers to keep. So why buy gas when Dad would be home on Saturday morning to use the car? I remember so well the day that Dad left the house and ran out of gas at the bottom of the hill. He could not even make it the half mile to the gas station. He returned home in a rage. He was probably mad because Mom had won the game, at his expense. As I recall, there were a lot of losers that day.

I was reminded of all of this on a recent flight to Florida. At mid-flight the pilot announced that we were stopping for gas. That’s right, stopping for gas. He made up some story about how we had been flying around to avoid storms and he threw some statistics at us, but I was unconvinced. I think that they forgot to get gas in Boston. Or maybe the attendant had a kink in the hose.

So on the way from Boston to Tampa, we stopped in Greensboro, North Carolina. We pulled up to a gate and the pilot got out and took out his wallet. I swear that I am not making this up. I did not see what he did next, but I bet he handed over his gas credit card.

The logical possibility here is that the pilot was trying to run on empty. He probably did not want to take the time to fill up because he was late for his weekly poker game. But somewhere down the coast he realized that the stakes were a little higher in the air. He was not driving alone.

I do not admire this pilot. He gave a bad name to empty riders and he can no longer be included in our club. He wimped out. We probably could have made it to Tampa if he tried. He did not even try. I bet that my mother would have made it. I know that she would have tried.

June 11, 1998


I confess. I am addicted - to crossword puzzles. The obsession is only in its formative stages, so there still is hope. But I can feel those strong pulls of compulsion - waking up and needing a clue, rushing out to get the newspaper before anyone else is awake, pretending to eat lunch as an excuse for working on the puzzle, sneaking extra newspapers into the house, and thinking about it all the time. And writing about it.

It is all my daughter’s fault. A lot of big problems exit on college campuses these days and she brought this one home with her. It started innocently enough as a way to get through boring classes. The school newspaper was free so what the heck. But that was not enough for her. Soon she was hanging out on street corners buying newspapers.

When she returned home for summer vacation she caught me in her web. At first it was a question for me now and then, but then it became a full time co-conspiracy - an alliance to solve the puzzle of the day.

This alliance stuff is for the birds. It is like being on a team at work. Who wants it? Who wants to collaborate, to share the very best stuff there is when you could have it all to yourself? A half of a puzzle is like no puzzle at all.

Since I am a loving father, I have decreed that the crossword puzzle belongs to my daughter unless she voluntarily waives her right to it. Fortunately, she is often busy from early in the morning to late at night, so there are not too many days when I have to buy an extra paper. Father’s Day is approaching so I think that the royal decree may need to be set aside for a few weeks or months in order to give the pater his due allegiance.

I am thinking about going to a crossword camp in to approve my performance. Do they have crossword camps? I have to do something. The experience now is a frustrating, tense and empty period of time. I now know why they call it crosswords. That is all that I have for myself - cross words. And that is the good part. It feels a lot like golf. If only I could calm down I would enjoy it, but of course I cannot possibly calm down. Being uncalm is hard-wired into my competitive self.

The crossword camp would start with breathing exercises. I bet that it would be good to breathe during the process of doing the puzzle. Then we would move onto short words - sort of like working on short irons. We would learn to complete short words while relaxed to get a sense of how the game could be played. Eventually we would work up to the driver, the big daddy of them all, the New York Sunday Times puzzle. I can already hear the gallery clapping.

Just writing this piece has been cathartic. I can feel the worry lines dissolving. My back muscles are releasing. I know that I can make it through today without a crossword. I am pretty sure I can. And anyway, the anagrams are mine!

June 1, 1998

Man in the Mirror

A half light from a half covered half window illuminated enough. A lesson suggested by another’s poem brought me here. I stand fully pulled up with arms crossed and locked before the silvered bathroom mirror. A harsh stance really. A judging stance.

I always notice the hair first: gray, grayer, grayest. I remember learning to compare adjectives in fourth grade and gray was never in our lexicon. But I now sometimes think that it is the dominant color in my life. Surprisingly, the gray does not bother me today. A level of acceptance has arrived.

I began to accept it the day a woman asked me what color my hair was before it turned gray. At that point I did not know that it was gray. I thought that it was still brown. That question three years ago hurt.

A year later I faced a moment of truth when I applied for an Arizona driver’s license. The application wanted to know my hair color. I lied and answered brown.

A chance to redeem myself appeared twelve months later as I was driving to get my Massachusetts license and I decided that it was time to tell the truth: the predominant color of my hair is gray. I resolved. But the application no longer asked the question. Too many liars for the information to be helpful I suppose.

Below the hair are blue eyes, soft and deadened in this light. They are scary sitting unreflected behind my glasses. They are scary for all that they do not say. I flick the light switch looking for improvement. The eyes jump alive and dance in the reflected light. A smile creases across my face, softening my entire body. Even my stiff crossed arms ease.

The eyebrows that were hiding in the dusk now appear - the curly ones. I recall the discussion with my barber about ten years ago concerning curling eyebrows. She said, “It happens at a certain age.” I asked, “What age?” She replied, “Around your age.” I had reached THE age. I am now THE age plus ten.

I have the extra flap on the eyelids now. I remember noticing that my first boss got those when he started to age. He is fifteen years older than me - and that was twenty years ago. I do not like the math.

Wow! I can wiggle my left ear! I did not know that I could do that. I try the other ear but it will not budge. Well, one is pretty good. My father could wiggle both ears so that is still my goal. Can I curl my tongue yet? No, oh well.

You see, the boy is still in the mirror. I still see more of the boy than anything else. A freckled face child opens with hope. My grandmother always told me that freckles were beauty marks and I still believe her. She knew all about gray hair, wrinkles and baggy skin. And yet it was the beauty which sparked her.

I am trying to hold the two truths together: the hope of the boy and aging body of the man. I want to deny neither and hold them in a point of tension because neither alone is the truth. Let them fight, cry and tear at one another. They both hold wisdom, one innocent, one earned. They are the reflection of who I was, who I am, and who I can become.