On becoming a man


Are you a man?

If you had the (mis)fortune of being born a male, you know that you must endure certain rites of passage to manhood. However, no one ever asked me if I want to participate in these rites. They were not optional. But they were thrust upon me. Unfortunately, no manual exists for these rites of passage. Sometimes, I didn’t even know I was undergoing one of these rites until after I had passed it.

The real question about all these rites of manhood is, “Is there a defining moment when you pass from boyhood to manhood?” You know, one moment you’re a boy, then something, je ne sais quoi, happens, and suddenly you’re a man.

I bring this up because my friend Jim, according to his father, had such an experience. Let me explain. Jim and I met at Gage Park High School in physics class and he encouraged me to join the chess team. We soon became good friends. In fact, we’re still friends to this day.

Anyway, we would visit each other at home and occasionally play chess. I got to meet his entire family because I visited them so often. Once when they went to a family reunion in Kentucky, I got to tag along. Actually, I think they needed another car and I was willing to make a road trip with them. I really liked Jim’s mother because she always laughed at all of my jokes. And I do mean ALL of my jokes. So, naturally, I always enjoyed talking to her. Jim’s father, on the other hand, sometimes made me feel a little uneasy. He always exuded this high-testosterone manhood, even when he fell asleep on the sofa with a beer in his hand while watching TV.  He was a hard-working man who enjoyed a beverage or two (especially ones containing any amount of alcohol) after work. Sometimes, he would talk to Jim and I. He enjoyed telling us about his work history. He was truly a working man. He was never unemployed the whole time I knew him. He always worked and he took great pride in that. Once, he didn’t like how he was being treated at work, so he quit his job and found a new one the very next week.

When I started working at Derby Foods as a manual laborer, Jim’s father was so proud of me. He held me up as the ideal role model of a working man. Suddenly, in his eyes, I had achieved manhood by virtue of being a working man. I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t like to see Jim be put down by his father. “Jim,” his father would say, “Dave and I are working men. I hope I live to see the day that you work.” Despite what he said, I felt very much the same as before, like an overgrown boy, but I wasn’t about to tell Jim’s father. I was a working man and old enough, at age nineteen, to buy my own beer and wine in the state of Illinois. Jim’s father was proud of my manhood. He soon started telling Jim, “If you ever worked a full day’s work and then drank a six-pack after work, you’d probably drop dead!’ He really wasn’t happy until one day Jim was working at the same factory as his father. But he would not concede to the fact that Jim was now a man.

One day, I went to visit Jim and his father answered the door. I could tell that he was either hung over or drunk, or both. He was smiling like  never before. I had never seen him in such a mood. I asked him if Jim was home and he smiled proudly. Jim came down from his bedroom just in time to hear his father say, “Dave, you should be very proud of your friend Jim. Today, Jim is a man!” He then put Jim in a headlock that looked potentially fatal. Jim immediately freed himself from his father. “See!” his father said. “Jim is now a man!’ He tried to explain further, but neither Jim nor I could fully understand him. But I had never seen him so proud of his son before. He soon decided that it was time to go to bed. Jim thought it would be better if we left the house.

Later, he explained that the night before his father had gotten really drunk and he was looking for a fight. He started up with his wife and he was holding her so she couldn’t get away. So, Jim grabbed his father, which totally surprised him because Jim had never had a physical encounter of this sort with his father before. So his father turns to assault Jim, but Jim managed to throw him to the floor. Jim really thought his father was really going to tan his hide. At first, his father was angry as he got up, but then he realized that his son was no longer a boy. Jim then yelled at his father to go to bed and go to sleep. Surprisingly, Jim’s father obeyed.

For a few months after that, Jim’s father would beam with pride and tell me that his son was now a man. Jim had stood up to his father–who if you believed his father’s stories. he had never lost a fight–who was a real man. Jim had knocked him, a real man, down. For a while there, I really envied Jim. He was a man now!

Petunia


Petunia

Long ago, my brother Jerry had a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Petunia for a pet. “Why did you name her Petunia?” I asked him. Well, what is Porky the Pig’s girlfriends name? Petunia! And so in a moment of sheer brilliance my brother had a pet Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Petunia. He was always proud of his naming abilities thereafter.

Petunia had quite a personality.  She attracted people from all over the neighborhood since no one else had a pig for a pet. They would drive by just to see Petunia in the yard. One day, Petunia escaped from my brother’s yard and within hours someone had returned her home. Everyone knew where she lived.  Petunia was very friendly, especially if you were eating. She would butt her head against your leg until you gave her something eat.

I used to visit my brother quite often, so I used to see a lot of Petunia. I liked her, but not in the same way I would have liked a dog. When I moved next door to my brother I got to see way too much of Petunia, but  I was sorry to see my brother move away. But not just because I would miss Petunia!

Once, when he moved to his new house, Jerry left a case of beer on the rear deck and Petunia managed to puncture through the cans with her teeth. She drank the whole case of beer! She staggered around the backyard until she fell over and passed out. There were empty beer cans all over the deck.

I think my brother loved that pig more than any pet he ever had, including our dog Duke. Some days, he paid more attention to Petunia than any one else in his family. Once when I was at Jerry’s house, I noticed that Petunia’s toenails were painted red. Jerry had painted her toenails and his wife Rita wasn’t too happy about it. She said, “He never painted my toenails!”

P.S. Yo-Yo Ma named his cello Petunia.

Age


Tempus fugit.

I’ve been thinking about my age–again. So what got me thinking about my age? I think the presidential campaign had a lot to do with it. Come January 20, 2009, I will be–for the first time in my life!–older than the President of the United States of America.

This must be a significant moment in my life. Now that I think of it, I’m also older than Osama bin Laden–if he’s still alive. I was the oldest of six children. After I failed the fourth grade–the toughest two years of my life–I was among the oldest in the class. When I joined the Marines, I was 22, so I was the oldest recruit in my platoon in boot camp. I’m now older than my mother was when she died in 1986 at age 51.

I remember in grade school how we had to date every writing assignment we turned in. Every time I would write the year 1963, 1964, etc., I would fantasize about the day that I would someday write the year 2000. But I planned to be out of grade school by then. The year 2000 seemed so far off into the future.

Time traveled much more slowly back then. I remember watching the second hand of the clock in our classroom. The second hand moved ever so slowly right around dismissal time. Those last ten minutes of school seemed a lot longer than the previous six hours of school.

I remember birthdays taking much longer to come around. Birthdays meant so much more back then. I remember anxiously awaiting my tenth birthday because writing my age would require two digits. That tenth birthday also took forever to come around. The next milestone was 13 because then I would be a teenager. At 16, I took driver’s ed. At 18, I registered for the draft even though no one was being drafted for Vietnam anymore. At 19, I was able to buy wine and beer in the state of Illinois. When they changed the drinkin age back to 21, ta da, I turned 21.

25 was my favorite age because my auto insurance really dropped then. That meant I was no longer in the high-risk age group of drivers 16-24. The last significant milestone was 30. I sort of enjoyed the nice round number. After that, birthdays didn’t really seem all that important to me anymore. When I turned 40, I celebrated by taking a nap. My friends insisted on throwing me a surprise big 5-OH party even though I told them I didn’t want one after they told me about my surprise party. I mean, it really wasn’t a surprise anymore after they told me about it so I wouldn’t go on vacation before my party even though it was in July even though my birthday was in May. So, I’m older than President elect Barack Obama. How do I absorb all this? I think I’m going to bed. Good night!

XX


 

Stay thirsty, my friends!

Sometimes we read Spanish texts in Spanish class. Often, the historical time period is referred to as siglo XX, pronounced siglo veinte in Spanish, which means twentieth century. Usually, they read, “siglo dos equis.” Some students actually think the text is referring to Dos Equis the Mexican beer! Thus, I learn about their weekend extra-curricular activities. Rarely do the students read the phrase correctly. Maybe I’m too literal when I read a text, but I never even thought of Dos Equis beer whenever I saw siglo XX. I really read it as the Roman numeral 20. And I love beer!

Anyway, this got me to thinking about Dos Equis beer a lot. But I managed to refrain myself from drinking any. And now they have a Dos Equis commercial that they play during the Ten O’Clock News that always makes me laugh. They show an obviously macho machísimo man who I like to think is obviously Mexican. They show him walking into a pool hall, surfing under a huge wave, and surrounded, of course, by several señoritas, implying that he’s a lady’s man. Then the narrator says: “He’s been known to cure narcolepsy just by walking into a room. His donor donation card also lists his beard. He’s a lover not a fighter. But he’s also a fighter so don’t get any ideas. He is … the World’s Most Interesting Man.

Then this macho machísimo man says with a thick, yet virulent, Mexican accent, “I rarely drink beer. But when I do, I drink Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friends.” I mean this guy makes being Mexican look cool! Some of my Spanish students mentioned this commercial to me because they also thought this guy was really cool. I can only hope to someday be half as cool as his beard!

Stay thirsty my friends!

Cinco de Mayo


Catering to Gringolandia.

Cinco de Mayo is another Mexican holiday that our Mexican family never celebrated. I never even heard of it until I was old enough to drink alcoholic beverages. I think that it has become a beer company holiday in America, just as Hallmark appropriated Valentine’s Day into a holiday in order to sell Valentine’s Day cards. Beer companies would love to see Cinco de Mayo become a Mexican St. Patrick’s Day! Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of publicity about the celebration for it. Chicago had a Cinco de Mayo parade downtown on the same day as the Polish Constitution Day parade. Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would celebrate Cinco de Mayo. On May 5, 1862, Mexicans defeated the French at Puebla, just west of Mexico City. However, the Mexicans then went on to lose the war and were ruled by the French until 1862. Is this cause for celebration?

If you were funny


Little Italy, Chicago, Illinois

The Operation Family Secrets trial is underway, The Sopranos season ended with a lot of publicity, and Hillary Clinton successfully parodied that final Sopranos episode. Well, because of all this attention drawn to Italians lately, I recall one particular Italian man I met a long time ago in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy. I have met Italians who are American, Italian immigrants, and Italians who try to project the mob lifestyle, even though I know that some are just wannabes. We have them all in Chicago. This man I met, looked like the stereotypical Italian mobster gathered with some “associates,” but they just could have been his family. He was a middle-aged man dressed in a dark blue suit, bright red tie, and he had a gold pinky finger with an enormous diamond. Balding head with salt and pepper hair. He looked like a real mobster and was obviously the power holder at the table. One of the stories he told began, “This gumba called me the other day …” When he finished it, everyone at the table laughed. I didn’t exactly hear the whole story, so I couldn’t tell you if his story was actually funny or they merely laughed at the boss’s joke.

I was sitting at the next table with my running friends after our track workout. Every Wednesday evening, we went to the track, ran some speed work, and then went out afterwards to eat pasta, and drink a few beers. About ten of us sat there drinking and being loud. We always felt especially proud when someone would ask the management to tell us to be quiet. But not on this night!

At first, we didn’t really notice the people at the neighboring table. We told jokes and funny stories as we usually did. Actually, our two tables got into a game of one-upmanship. I don’t like to brag, but I was usually the loudest and funniest one at the table. Finally, the Don at the next table points to me and says, “Hey, kid! You think you’re funny, don’t you?” “Well, you heard how I made everyone laugh, didn’t you?” mimicking him fearlessly, but it was just false bravado. Well, suddenly our two tables got very quiet. “How funny are you?” “Really funny!” “Come here. I want you to make me laugh!” And he smiled a really big smile, so big I could see that no food stuck was between his teeth.

As I walked over to him, I recalled a story that Bob Hope once told: “I worked in some mob-owned nightclubs. They didn’t pay you. But if you were good, they let you live!”

Well, I seemed to have gotten myself in a very similar predicament. He tells me, “Tell me your best joke. And you better make me laugh.” Of course, I didn’t tell him my best joke, but I did tell him one that always got a laugh and he laughed, along with everyone else at the table. “Tell me another one.” This time he laughed a little more. I can’t even remember what jokes I told him. I told him a few more jokes and only then I hit him with my best joke. You have to build up to it, right?

Well, he really laughed and laughed. And he slapped me on the back. It really stung! So he says, “You’re really funny, kid. You should be a comedian!” “I am,” I said. “Didn’t I just prove it?” He smiled at me and then said, “Okay, go sit down.” When I sat down, both our tables continued telling jokes and laughing and drinking beers. His table left way before ours. I figured he probably had to get up early to go to the office in the morning.

When we asked the waitress for our check, she told us that the gentleman who sat next to us had already paid it. “You are so funny!” I told her. But we actually ate and drank for free that night. How funny!