A few weeks ago one of my daughter's friends was swept out to sea off the California coast. This happened a couple months after one of the upper classmen on the high school football team dropped dead from a blood clot to the lung while walking between math and science class, and before the freshman girl committed suicide.
I had just found out the guy had gone missing because it was in the newspaper. The blonde haired girl came to me with the San Jose Mercury.
"Have you seen this?" she asked. I hadn't.
"This is the guy your daughter had a crush on for the past 3 years. She used to sit on the sofa in front of the TV staring at her cell, hoping he'd invite her to the movies or a school dance."
"I didn't know that."
"No, you didn't."
I went to work in the attic to install some lighting and discovered two switches had been wired badly by the prior owner. Somewhere the black and white wires had been crossed and it was causing me problems with the new in-ceiling lighting I was trying to install. I had to crawl back out of the attic and go over to the garage to hit a circuit breaker.
Stepping off the ladder I almost ran into my daughter who was waiting for me, quietly. She asked, "Dad, do you have any wire?"
I have a lot of wire. Call me Mr. Wire.
"What kind of wire do you need, honey?"
"We want to put a memorial poster on the beach and we don't want it to blow away so we want to tie it to some rocks with wire."
I looked at the sign they had made. It was a piece of white cardboard with the words painted, "We love you Dennis." There were hearts on it. They had glued pictures of the boy to it, and pictures of themselves. A bunch of kids had signed it. My daughter's eyes were misty but her voice was steady.
I told her I had wire but my mind spiraled around the thought that when I was a kid, kids didn't die. Ozzie and Harriet didn't divorce. What had I done to my children? Why did my kid have to go through this trial when I had it so easy? How to take this burden from her shoulders?
I found a spool of bailing wire in the garage. I showed my daughter how to use a lineman's pliers to cut the wire and twist it firm. She watched me quietly. Asked no questions.
She took the wire and the pilers and the sign and got into a car full of kids headed to the beach where Dennis was last seen alive. They were not smiling and hooting. It was less a car full of teenagers than a carload of senior citizens heading to the clinic for injections.
I went back to work on the house wiring as fast as I could. Deep in the attic amid the insulation and wiring a man can shut off his headlamp and not be seen.
Sometime later, while crawling on my hands and knees through a particularly narrow part of the attic I decided it was a good time to cry.
I didn't go through with it, at first.
This is what I told myself I was thinking: I was calculating how to get my hands and knees on the ceiling joists so I didn't fall through the ceiling into the living room. Then the image of my daughter's face came into my mind.
Then I was too weak to stop it.
Sometimes I am not a very strong man.
"She told me she'd had a crush on him since grammar school," said the blonde haired girl about my daughter. She was making dinner in the kitchen. I was unloading the dishwasher. My daughter was still at the beach putting up signs for the boy who was swept out to sea.
"Did they go out?"
"He never knew."
"So he wasn't her boyfriend. Just a friend."
"Sometimes I think there's a glimmer of hope that you actually understand women. But then you say something like that."
"I'm glad she was at her mother's birthday party and not at the beach party with the rest of them. I doubt she would have tried swimming in that surf, but to have been there when the guy disappeared. That's the kind of thing that really damages someone."
"I'm not sure it makes much difference right now."
"I think I need to be cut a break."
"If you keep talking nonsense..."
"When I was a kid we were all immortal. We did all sorts of stupid things: we drove like idiots, we climbed rotten trees, we went into abandoned buildings, we swam during hurricanes, I actually went scuba diving during a lightning storm - that should have killed us, but it didn't happen. All those bad things happen other places to other people. How come my kid can't have that kind of childhood?"
"I don't know."
"Nobody knows," I said, "and I'm getting sick and tired of nobody knowing anything."
I broke a glass, then. I wasn't intending to, but my body made the point my mind was screaming.
My father was a glass man. He ran factories that made bottles in the back yonder when things came wrapped in brittle glass, and not flexible hydrocarbonized envelopes.
The first plastic bottles promised "UNBREAKABLE", and when my mother brought home a soft drink so packaged, I tossed it to the kitchen floor, upon which it exploded under pressure spewing froth from wall to wall.
"But it said..." I said, because we were glass people in a glass house. She handed me a towel. It took me hours to clean it.
My father told me, "Glass is a liquid," because even when it hardened, it flowed on a geological time scale. Stained glass windows in ancient churches were thicker at the bottom than the top. These things happened, even though we didn't see them. Puddles of glass that were our bottles and watch crystals will greet our future distant progeny.
My father made mayonnaise jars and soda bottles. He would pick up any glass container he saw and make a recitation about it. He would flip over the mayo jar, look at the markings on the bottom, and tell you the name of the company that made it, and on which date.
I believe that from years of listening to him opine on things glassine, I still can, too.
And when the blonde-haired girl comes home I tell her these things about my father and me. I point to our flowing glass house windows, and the gentle flow of the virgin olive oil container, structured from glass (not plastic) blown somewhere in Sicily, birth home of my grandfather.
I hope these information morsels can make my memories real to her. So she can think of them as I do, and perhaps she could think of me as my mother still thinks of my father in the lost decade of the mind.
"Midland glass company," I tell her, upside down mayo jar in hand. "They're still around. See this? Glass. Not plastic."
She grabs my wrist and twists the jar upright, too late - the top falls from the jar and it emits a blob of mayo to splatter upon our kitchen floor.
"Don't dump the condiments," she says. "You clean that, now."
"I was just reading the bottom of that jar."
"Great. Can you make sure the lid is screwed on tight before you do it again?"
"Not many people can tell you what the marks mean on jar bottoms."
She hands me a wet rag. As I commence to clean I explain, "It's a lost art."
"Not very useful," she says.
"Art doesn't need to be useful."
"Do you want pasta or soup for dinner?"
"This is something I can do. You never know when it will come in handy."
"Chicken or lentil?"
"So we've already decided - soup?"
"Can you go get the bag of lentils out of the pantry?"
"There are many reasons to love me, you know. I'm a plethora of lovability."
"All the soup bowls are in the dishwasher."
When I'm sad I think this way. I do normal things and my mind erupts into bad poetry. These words in my head while I walk in the dark, trying to escape myself. I think:
My love, I wear your Petzl at night. We walk in the grass on the mountainside, me and the dog. This is the dirt trail that leads to the summit. The dog can see quite well, but I am night blind and helpless without your Petzl.
The eyes of forest animals reflect the headlight. Mostly green, sometimes red - but mostly green. The eyes of the deer. Feral cats. Raccoons. Ocular doublets, animated plant light, frozen to camouflage as part of the inanimate universe.
Fear not for it is I, man vulnerable. Unable to suss the rocks and pits in the ground I am prey without my technical head-mounted contrivance. Though, assuming my position at the top of the food chain, I take my right to violate this space with my prosthetic sun, thus I freeze the forest inhabitants as if they were the abductees of UFO aliens.
Then on the dirt trail before me, glints of crystalline blue. Brilliant blue like fractured cobalt glass. Deep blue - a careless hiker's gems knocked loose from the setting. Droplets of liquid electricity.
Then close, these are eyes staring upward into my beam. A tiny brain cogitates. A couple of neural bits at most have taken hold in a non-mammalian carbonized automation. Even the dirt is intelligent, it seems.
Until closer I see the wolf spider.
When I hear a good song I think of my children and whether I could convince them to like it. I would share with them the times I spent tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, traffic bound, driving to work or school or home. Flipping toll
quarters from down rolled windows (when windows were rolled, and not button-pushed) daydreaming of the future when everything would track through the greased grooves I'd laid as a young man and they would benefit from the fruit of my labor. Inching through summer traffic on the Garden State Parkway
, in my faded blue Mercury Marquis
, back when paint faded and cars rusted, when computers were only ownable by corporations and states, and man had walked on the moon
, I was a the guy who wondered who they would be.
When I hear a good song I become part of the historical record. And I explain to my children how things were different then than they are now - and I would leave out all the parts about how I wished for time to pass quickly to get to the parts of life where stress and strife were minimized by the benefit of experience. How I would get to the "when," when things would be better, then.
And they would enjoy and become part of that history and like the songs I like for the same reasons, and sing along in tone-driven ecstasy, marking life with the same music, and the same movies and books.
This is what I have left. These memories of these songs on endless drives between obligations.
They would see me with eyes shining
and love the things I love.
So there would be no choice.
They'd have to love me, then.
"Let me hug you again," I say to my daughter.
"Dad..." she says in that condescending, correcting voice you get from teenagers who want to explain to you that it is highly improbable that you understand them.
But she doesn't pull away from me.
"I have to get all my hugs in before my arms fall off. You just have to put up with it."
"People's arms don't fall off just because they get old."
"Mine might. Did you put up your sign?"
"Yes. Thanks for the wire."
"Did you put the lineman's pliers back in the tool box?"
"Ok, let me hug you some more. I feel my arms coming off."
I chose electronics for my career because I wasn't a good enough writer or musician to starve for my art.
The basis of electronics, these days, is silicon. It used to be germanium and selenium and various other inorganic compounds. Now it's silicon.
We in the silicon business like to say we're in the sand business, because sand is silicon dioxide and most electronics parts start off as sand that gets melted down and turned into crystal boules that get cut into wafers, have circuits printed onto them, then diced and packaged for insertion into iPods. And it's cool to suggest we are magicians who take the beach sand you wash from the lining of your bathing suit and turn it into satellite receivers.
But it's actually sort of true.
I remember walking through the glass factory with my father, watching orange globs of molten glass drop from pipes in the ceiling into molds that turned them into mayo jars and coke bottles.
The molten glass came from furnaces heated to thousands of degrees by massive electric coils.
"What are you melting in there?" I asked my dad. He could barely hear me over the din of the factory - churning greased gears, conveyor belts, and high-pressure air.
"Mostly sand. Glass is made from sand."
For my 50th birthday the blonde haired girl and my children surprised me with a dinner at a fancy California restaurant.
We ate strange foods like bacon ice cream and basil foam.
I poured wine for my under-aged daughters, because at 50, even in America a man is able to do that without fear.
"How do you hold the wine glass?" my middle daughter asked me.
So I explained how white wine was different from red, and that the serving temperatures were different, and white wine glasses should be held by the base or stem so the heat from the hand doesn't warm it up, while red wine glasses are larger and bowl-like and you could cup them in the palm so the aromas hit the nose.
And she accepted what I said without comment, trying out the wine holding procedures I outlined.
"I never know these things," she said.
"Well, you're young and you have to learn. That's what you do when you're a kid. You ask questions and people tell you things. I have a lot of things to tell you if you're interested."
"Yes, we know," said my youngest, sarcastically.
"Did I tell you that when he was young my father used to make glass bottles?" I said, keeping up with the whole glass motif.
"Yes, Dad. A hundred times."
"Did I tell you that glass is made from sand and sand is also what we make electronics out of?"
My oldest said, "I don't think any of us are going into a glass business, though."
I said, "That's ok. You will all do your own thing."
"Dad," said my middle daughter, "the side view mirror is coming off my car and the car place said it would cost $300 to fix it, but my friend told me you could buy one of those for $60 and put it on yourself."
"That's probably true. It's always cheaper if you do it yourself."
"Well, I wish I knew how to do that."
"I can show you if you want."
"If I get a new mirror can I come over and you can show me how to put it on?"
"Yes of course. Please come over soon. We can work on it together."
"This bacon ice cream tastes weird."
"Did you know glass was a liquid like water? Only it's really thick, like ultra-thick pancake syrup."
"No. How can that be?"
"It's true. And did you know that some spiders have blue eyes? Check it out."
"I don't think..."
"And did you know that song you were humming to in the car on the way over is by David Byrne?"
"And did you know before that song he had a band called the Talking Heads?"
"Dad, you don't have to tell us everything tonight."
"But I have to tell you everything. Before my arms fall off."
"Dad, nobody's arms fall off."
"My father's did. And now he can't hug me anymore."