Friday, August 06, 2010

Teen Night (a tongue-in-cheek original poem by Duke Altum)

A poem of this caliber doesn't merit much introductory commentary, but all I can say in my own defense is... I had fun with it. It came to me in a rush, out of nowhere, and since it's based on totally arbitrary moments from my distant past that have no real significance whatsoever, I thought I'd just go with the flow... see what ridiculous images might emerge from the dusty vault of memory.

Don't your middle school/early teen years seem, looking back on them from the safe distance of adulthood, like a trip once taken to some remote and bizarre planet? I can't be the only one who looks back at some of the things I remember from that time and thinks, "What were we even doing then? What was that all about? What were parents and teachers thinking, organizing such events?"

Those kinds of questions, and a sudden and random memory one afternoon of something we used to attend called (with a hilarious lack of imagination, as if tacitly acknowledging the boredom the event would only compound) "Teen Night," have brought this particular indulgence upon us.

Ah, to be young and stupid again in suburban New Jersey!!


Teen Night

Not knowing what else to do,
we would hang around delinquently
along the back wall of the gym,
trying to out-cuss each other
over the squawk of Billy Squier or Def Leppard
from the pathetic little boom-box
on the stage across the room.

I might have been the one
getting stupid on No Frills grape soda,
working the sleeveless OP shirt
and the cut-off jean shorts,
thinking if I slouched at just the right angle
I might just pass for a blonde Ralph Macchio.

Meanwhile, the irony of the red-faced,
vein-popping gym teacher (Mr. Silence)
bellowing at us for no apparent reason -
“Either get your drinks, or GET OUT!! -
wasn’t lost even on our blunt, hormone-addled brains.

And the girls? Needless to say
I can’t recall where they mingled
at these aimless gatherings,
but my memory’s brutally clear on this:
they weren’t anywhere near us.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

RAL 8.0

My father at eighty years old.

While I am in this world, there will only be one time – a handful of months – when I will be forty years old; my twin brother will also be forty; and our father, Richard Arlington Lovell, eighty. It’s coming up soon. If I contemplate this at any length, I may conclude that the same figure who loomed in my own and in my brother’s early life, the one who gave us our very maleness, really is no more than the sum of our two parts. If only I had understood this as a boy! For he seemed much larger at the time.

A few weeks ago, while at a lake house with a couple of old friends of mine, both men told me that when we were youngsters, they “feared” my father. Before even thinking about it, I blurted, “So did I.” Probably all boys are scared of their father at one time or another. But, growing up, we knew ours was different. For one thing, he was older – forty when I was born. Also, he was highly educated, a scientist; by the time I came into being, he had a Ph.D. in Neurochemistry, and post-graduate degrees and fellowships on his curriculum vitae.

And thanks to my brother and I, he went from having two children to feed to four, literally overnight. Later he would sire two more. No wonder he was feared in his time: he was a serious thinker, a mental giant; but he was also virile, something we could sense instinctively if not fully comprehend. He could giveth life – today there are six adults who can stand witness – but he could also explain it, at least scientifically, which to us was, well, inconceivable.

Today this man turns eighty. But getting here hasn’t been easy. He was born almost exactly nine months after the stock market crashed in 1929 to usher in the Great Depression, a fact that I’ve always found both funny and a little weird at the same time. He grew up in a tiny town in western Indiana, barricaded in by corn and soy plants, under circumstances that brushed up against poverty. His father was charismatic, earnest, ultimately troubled; his mother was gracious, resilient, and loving. It was the latter’s long example of self-sacrifice and spiritual fortitude that for him would resonate like the sustained closing chord of a Mozart concerto.

As a young man coming of age in the 1950s, my father cared a lot about facts. He cared about science, chemicals, statistics, molecules. He cared about books. But he also cared about mankind and his predicament; he cared deeply about God. So much so that he made a long, vigorous attempt to devote his adult life to His service as a Jesuit priest. For a dozen years he lived the minimalist lifestyle of a novice while enduring what for me is still the most punishing educational regimen I have ever heard of – everything from biochemistry to history to philosophy to Scripture. At Saint Louis University in the late 1950s, while studying moral theology, he took copious notes during lectures in miniscule, precise penmanship – all in Latin. Just looking at them gives one vertigo.

In the early 60s, he arrived at the great crossroads of his lifetime. After so much time, effort, and sacrifice, he found himself torn between what could seem like two poles: the pursuit of scientific knowledge in the service of reason, or the pursuit of holiness in the service of God. He had hoped as a Jesuit he would be able to blaze a trail down which his journeyman’s intellect could travel, all the way to Heaven perhaps, while satisfying his hunger to understand both sides. But as Christ himself once said about money, “No man can serve two masters.” The phrase seems applicable here as well. He left the Jesuit order in 1964, a man of 33, feeling shackled by his own indecision, and possibly by what he may have perceived as failure.

Yet his existential angst is responsible for my existence, so to me it was nothing of the kind. God had another summons for Richard Lovell. He wanted the man who never got to be called Father Lovell to instead be called a father.

By 1965, everything had changed again. He was married to my mother, and in the early winter of 1968 she brought into the world the first of his six children. For the next quarter century he labored in the world of science, first as a research chemist, then in pharmaceutical drug development, in order to earn enough money to raise a large family in Reagan’s America. He was older, slightly more jaded, and far more intellectual than most of the other fathers I knew as a kid in suburban New Jersey. His professional career was continually hobbled by business politics and bureaucracy; it never fulfilled him. But he kept at it, and between his and my mother’s unflagging stamina in various jobs and in the household, they kept all six of us fed, clothed, educated, and happy. We attended Mass every Sunday; we prayed and ate together as a family. There was no violence, abuse, or other traumatic occasion to my childhood, and I bless my parents for that.

Although I believe his virtues as a father are many, and can’t all be examined here, there are two memories I have of my father’s paternal method that I have frequently returned to, especially as a father myself since 2003. For me they have been enough to overshadow his aloofness, his occasional bouts of explosive anger or impatience, his strenuous applications of discipline born out of a hardscrabble childhood (at one point he kept a yardstick over a doorway called “The Stick” that he would rap our behinds with if we really stepped out of line). They don’t necessarily stand up as examples of innovative parenting or extraordinary acts of personal sacrifice. But they have stayed with me throughout my entire life. I recall them again and again when I contemplate the essence of my childhood and my relationship with this unique figure of manhood, forty years my senior.

The first of these was his habit, when my siblings and I were small, of rising early on a Saturday or Sunday morning, slowly ascending the stairs to where we all lay, and choosing one of four bedrooms to quietly slip inside. I remember so many days lying there, faking my slumber, wondering if he would choose me. If it was your day, he would gingerly approach your bed, usually side-stepping someone else, and shake your shoulder gently. When you opened your eyes he would say, “Do you want to go to the store with me?” It was usually some sort of simple Saturday errand – a hardware store, a library, an oil change – but it meant that you would spend a few hours together, and it almost always meant lunch. He did this, week in and week out, for many years. In such a way he spent individual hours with each of his children, something I try to emulate today.

The second is the way he helped all six of us deliver The Newark Star-Ledger newspaper. He used to boast a lot about how he had three paper routes as a kid – particularly when we bitched about the one we had. Having a paper route became the only job ever held, at one time or another, by all six of us siblings. The job meant you had to get up much earlier than most kids, seven days a week, go out to your driveway in any weather, retrieve the bundles of paper your “manager” would deposit there at an even earlier hour, take them out of their bindings, and carry them around to the customers. My dad helped with this job every single day of the week for years and years.

He would rise, always earlier than everyone else, and go bring the newspapers in from the driveway himself. He’d prepare them for us to deliver while we were still trying to wake up and get dressed. On Sundays, because the newspapers were so thick, there was an entirely different process in which he would help us load them into the back of our family station wagon and drive them around while we grabbed them, one by one, from the back of the car to distribute. This little ritual resonated so memorably for me that I once wrote a short story about it called “The Races”, which remains a personal favorite. The point is, he was there, every day, rain or shine or snow.

It was early one morning in 1988 that Dad, while hauling papers on the driveway, suffered the first of two minor heart attacks he has survived. Since then he has had numerous physical struggles, most acutely in the last decade, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In 2009 he had a difficult year, with numerous issues related to the disease and to medication; there was more than one time when our whole family worried for his long-term well-being. Yet in 2010 he has rallied. Today he is still sharp and engaged with the world and his family. There are times of struggle, as one can only expect from a man in his season of life; yet recently, one doctor commented on his remarkable resiliency, for a man entering his ninth decade, and suffering from a chronic condition like Parkinson’s.

I came across a line once in a novel by Denis Johnson, a writer I greatly admire, that for me rang out like a bell with mystery and truth. That doesn’t mean I understood it. I can relate to it on a level I cannot quite articulate, and maybe no man could. But I also like to imagine that my father, in his twilight – who has outlived his own father by almost half a century now – can find purchase in these words, and perhaps will dig into them up to his elbows in his own heart’s solitude:

A child stands like a priest under his father’s sky.

I thank God for my own father’s stamina and strength. He deserves credit for caring for himself in such a way as to live eighty years and still have more to contribute, both to this world and to the lives of those who love him. I congratulate him on his eighty years. I want him to live forever.

(c) 2010 by Jude Joseph Lovell.