I was Saved in the Summertime: Charcoal Living in a Propane World

This post is the first in the return of my blogging season (which strangely follows the schedule of Network TV).  With the ending of summer, I decided to do a series of posts reflecting on what the summer months taught me, that my years in school never could.

I learned early on to watch my Father closely when he arrived home from work. I tapered my response to him based on recognizing the signs of happiness or stress,  sadness or contentment that shaped the lines on his face.  It wasn’t that he was moody, as much as it was that I was a child, and as such I had the innate ability to study, download, and cross check the body language of my parents.  I learned to recognize the smile on his face, put on for my behalf, that  betrayed the reality of a long, hard day.   I’ve learned to imitate that same form of facial camouflage with my own children.

In the summertime, our family stayed alive by grilling.

This was my Dad’s responsibility. He worked very hard to convince my Mom that grilling was hard and dangerous work.  This one lie has been upheld for thousands of years. Most men willingly join in this deception for fear that if their wives actually came outside, stood around the grill, and saw what little work it was to cook meat, then women all over the world would head outside to start the grill while the Fathers were left to prepare the rest of the food, set the table, break up fights between the children, all while talking on the phone to their mothers. No, it was best to carry on the illusion that sitting on the driveway watching coals ash over was some kind of sacrifice performed for the good of the family.

I followed my Dad out to the garage, watching him wheel the black, round grill out to the driveway. He grabbed a vinyl tube strap lawn chair, carried it out next to the grill, and sat down. I followed close behind, grabbing another chair, dragging it out of the garage and setting it up next to him.  My Father was an architect when it came to charcoal placement. He meticulously placed each briquette in the bottom of the grill; replacing broken pieces with better looking ones; constructing and deconstructing until a replica of the pyramids of Giza stood before us.  He poured a quart of lighter fluid on the structure, lit a match, and set it ablaze. He sat down in his chair, put his toothpick in his mouth, and opened The Daily Journal newspaper.

I sat next to him, in silence, and studied Him as though He was someone I had never met yet seemed so familiar.  I watched his eyes through the thick lenses of his glasses, roaming back and forth across the pages of the newspaper.  I noticed His fat, flat fingers grasping the thin pages. His jean shorts, once a pair of pants, had tentacles of white thread that hung down his legs.  The hair on his legs was thick but tapered off toward the bottom of his calf. Years of wearing the same length socks day after day had left the area around his ankles hairless.  He had no idea how much I studied him as we sat in the stillness of those afternoons, the cooing of the mourning doves and cries of cicadas forming the soundtrack of my examination. Little was said in those moments, it was enough to sit next to him, feeling as though I had a place in the long line of flat-fingered Dupuis men providing food for the family.

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Of course, when you cook with charcoal you are forced to sit, to wait, to anticipate and respond.  The extra time needed to prepare to grill provides  just enough space for you to lift your head, see the world around you, and take a deep breath.  In the waiting, in the quiet, you see and hear all of the things you miss in the rush of life – listening to the far off voices of children riding bikes down the street, waving to neighbors driving home (before pulling in to the garage and closing the door behind them).  You begin to notice the trees with thick trunks and gangly roots pushing the sidewalk up a little more each year.  This is lost with the rise of propane grills.  Now I walk outside, push a button, turn a knob, and 15 minutes later we are eating dinner. Convenience has once again trumped the intentional, production has conquered the experience of producing.

So last week, I went out to start the grill for dinner. After I pushed the button and adjusted the temperature, I grabbed a lawn chair, and sat down beside our propane grill. A few minutes later, my Son found my hiding spot, walked outside, grabbed his lawn chair, and set it up next to mine.  I was staring out into the woods, trying to triangulate the position of a noisy woodpecker, when I could feel I was  being watched. I looked over to find my son, staring at me….studying me….curious. I smiled at him and rubbed his head. “What?” he asked with a grin. “Nothing “ I said.

I don’t think there will ever be a wholesale return to charcoal grilling. But maybe, maybe we can return to charcoal living, even in a propane world.  In a culture that thrives and feeds on business and schedules, and productivity; a world in which one’s self worth is derived from how many plates one has spinning at the same time.

Maybe in this world, there is still space to be found, silence to be heard, and life to be observed, even as it is lived out.

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I’m Half the Man I used to be….

I left the house the other morning with my son, and dropped him off at school in plenty of time (if you don’t know how big of a deal that is read this).  I turned on the radio, lowered the window, stuck my hand out and began making wave motions to the Dave Matthews Band song that was playing on the radio.

It was turning out to be such a good morning….and that’s when I heard the commercial.   he man

“Hey guys, do you know your testosterone level?….well you should.”  Testosterone level? Of course I don’t know my testosterone level.  She sounded shocked that I didn’t have an answer for her, and she was helpful enough to explain to me that the best years of my life most likely occurred when I was just 19.

I’m sorry… what now?….19??  The only thing I remember about being 19 is that I’m glad I am no longer 19.  Now I’m being told that the pinnacle of my life happened 17 years ago?  She continued in sultry tones to tell me that falling testosterone levels are making me slow, tired, forgetful, lifeless, boring, and less appealing to my wife. “It’s not my testosterone levels” I shouted at her, “My wife and I have 3 children under the age of 8!?!” Didn’t she understand this?  She refused to listen, and continued to inform me that without her supplement, I could look forward to years of sharp decline ending in my 40’s, where I would be found lying in my pajamas on a recliner, wearing a ball cap, Isotoner slippers, with an afghan draped over me as I watched the morning business reports.

I pulled my hand back inside, closed the window, and stared in to the distance. Suddenly I felt tired. I caught my reflection in the rear view mirror and notice a hearty swath of grey hair growing up around the fence row of my forehead.

I let out a long sigh as I entered the supermarket to pick up some items for my wife.  I walked up to the self-checkout  and set down some pull-ups, Clorox wipes, a gallon of milk, and a bag with 2 donuts inside.  (might as well go out eating something I love).  Next to me this young guy sets down a 6 pack of Red Bull and a pack of Hostess donuts.  “I was once like you” I whispered to him….”Before the decline”….”You’ll see”….

I searched the code wheel for the appropriate numbers to punch in to the machine. It rang up for a dozen donuts. I tried to go back but hit the spanish button instead. As the machine was explaining what to do next in a language I didn’t understand, I tried to punch in a different code. That’s when the alarm went off, flashing lights spun overhead, and the computer said, “Attendant has been notified to assist you.”  On the screen there was actually a picture of the “attendant” who stared at me with a sympathetic smile, as if to say, “hey, it’s okay buddy, this is a big, scary, complicated machine and with your testosterone levels decreasing, it’s no wonder you had so much trouble.”

Every day we are ambushed by a marketing machine designed to make us feel inadequate so as to sell us the answer in the form of a pill, a diet plan, designer label, newest self-help book, gold portfolio, and full body detox programs.  The whole system is designed to tell us we are not happy, not who we should be, but we still have a chance if only….And we fall for it, we make the payments, we buy the products and we wear the clothes.  We chase that which another human being has labeled as “ideal” and we subtly teach our children to do the same. In the absence of finding ultimate value and worth, we gladly chase cheap imitations of significance.

After “Testosterone Girl” and her commercial came on yet again, I turned the radio off, opened the car window and stuck my hand out into the cool spring air. I pulled into our drive way and opened the door to the house, “Honey, your man is home.” I declared with a Tarzan sort of swagger. My wife looked at me confused, “You ok?” “Oh I’d say I’m doing pretty good, numerically, I’m probably above average compared to other men my age” I bragged as I pulled her in for a hug.

“Oh hey I got you something today” she says. “Oh, what is it?” I said.

“Well I found these house slippers on sale today, and I know you don’t normally wear that sort of thing, but they are SO soft….I put them by your recliner if you want to try them on”.