Friday, August 26, 2011

We don't need no education: The Americanization of Emily & one cool-rockin' daddy who laments that college has begun

He knows when to hold ‘em and he knows when to fold ‘em, but there’s no way he could help me cope with the violent and vicious melancholy tearing at my heart and soul.
Don Schlitz has a daughter, too. And he knows what it’s like to pack up a couple of cars and haul your baby girl off to university, away from my protection but not my love, of course.
Damn. It hurts.
As Kenny Rogers sang in perhaps Don’s most-famous song, this is one songwriter who knows when to walk away and knows when to run. But there’s no way to get away from that ache of the empty bedroom with the lonely teddy bears on the shelf.
That last sentence is mine, not his. Maybe he’ll borrow it for a song. Judging by what the government says, I could use the income. Especially now that my beautiful Emily Mariana has started college.
Don, a genial and gentle soul who makes his living by making words rhyme and lifting people’s hearts with songs -- from The Gambler to Forever and Ever, Amen -- is without words, hell downright speechless when we talk about how I dreaded moving Emily from my house.
“Man, I know what you’re going through,” he says, his easy drawl offering a bit of brotherly reassurance.
“I feel for you, but nothing I can say will make it better,” he offered. “I’m not going to tell you any different.”
Don and I were having a conversation for business – my business and his – when our conversation strayed into the personal.
An editor – who was among my closest friends and personal advisers – once told me my greatest talent and attraction as a journalist was that “you wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s gonna kill you one day.”
The fact he was found on the floor of a Coast Guard barracks with an empty prescription bottle nearby may prove he held his heart on his sleeve as well. But that’s another story. One of many dead friends.
He was right, though. I don’t hide behind a just-the-facts demeanor, unless I’m dealing with a serial killer or a father-raper or a litterer caught because of 8-by-10 color glossies of his act.
So if I like someone I’m interviewing, which is generally the case, I don’t hide behind my notebook. The fun is in being human.
Getting a little ahead here, but who’s counting words?
Don was wondering if I could come out to his house this week to hang out. I like hanging out with good guys. Hell, he may even have wanted me to offer up a hint or two toward his quandary. “I’m staring at all these words that rhyme but I can’t figure out how to put them together in a song,” he says.
Songwriters are among my favorite people and saying I couldn’t go out there hurt. But it was saying the reason that made the hurt worse.
“I’m getting my daughter ready to go off to college. I’m taking her this week,” I said.
My stomach, usually a swollen and constipated knot of tension, twisted and turned, rumbling. Don heard the slight sob coloring my words.
“I feel for you man. Been there. It sucks. It hurts.
“Just be happy she’s going to be near you,” said this nice fellow, a year my junior – “you’re one of them 1951ers,” he joked, pointing genial fun at those of us from the heart of the Baby Boom.
Yes, I did help stop a war. Don may have too, although he’s a spry, young man, a whippersnapper, one of the 1952ers.
And yes, I pictured myself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Ah, those old first-night of college memories…. Or are they real? Just ask the Axis... Oops, I stray again. Scuse me.
I have lived the tough and cynical life of the hard-driving hippie disappearing into the moonlight over Route 66 in my 1965 Falcon. Thirty-cents a gallon and shut off the engine when going down the slopes of the Rockies or Sierras. Rolled 400 miles one day without burning a bit of fuel, from Flagstaff to Barstow and down into Burbank. Stopped along the way for 10-cent coffee and chatter at a truck stop in a ghost town.
I have splashed in the hot sulfur baths in the middle of the desert and talked of revolution and politics and peace.
When I did “settle down,” so to speak, I became a harder-edged-still newsman, nicotine-stained fingers, beery breath, threatening to send pica poles where they shouldn’t wander on their own while dealing with all kinds and flavors of celebrity, ballgames, death and destruction.
I’ve buried many of my contemporaries, some who lost the fight against the demons we all confronted. Others who just decided to pack it in on their own.
I’ve suffered immense personal and professional loss, but countered with gain and growth.
I have learned not to count on "friends" for help in most cases, that a true friend indeed is rare and that most good-time "friends" turn their backs on you when you are in need of a good word or a leg up. You may know what it's like.
A simple, most-perfect expletive can be aimed at those who disappoint or betray.
I have stared down the most vile Korporate Amerika had to offer, people who were more interested in dispiriting me than in letting me do my job with dignity.
I’ve learned lessons on twisting-turning nights and almost-bouncing checks.
And I don’t want to think of my daughter having to eventually encounter a world that’s not fit for her. This was the first big step toward her entrance into that mean world.
In other words, while I wrestled off some thugs after a pickled-egg and beer dinner in Winslow, Ariz. (It was such a sad sight to see), I don’t know how to handle this latest catastrophe other than to wish I’d held Emily back a school year so I could have her in my house one more year. Shoulda flunked kindergarten, kid.
Truth is, the chubby baby I plucked from the cobbled ground of the orphanage courtyard in Arad, Romania, 16 years ago, is in college. Dropped her off Thursday.
I’ve known this day was coming for awhile, ever since I decided to let her into my life, so to speak, to go ahead and put the time and effort and personal resources into the adoption of the kid with one name, Mariana, scribbled on the back of the 3-by-5 snapshot sent us from Romania in the summer of 1995. That was before Al Gore discovered the internet. All we knew is the baby had curly hair like me – that’s why our adoption lawyer chose her – and she was beautiful and mostly healthy.
Of course, I wasn’t alone in the adoption decision. Suzanne also wanted to go get this little girl, to bring her to America, to give her a home. Relish and savor love grown not in the belly but in the heart. (Hey, Don, there’s another line).
Enough so that we gladly (??) spent too many thousands dealing with the creepy pocket-protector personnel of the State Department and answering perhaps the most intrusive questions ever directed at me.
And that particular adventure led us to a second adoption, three years later, of our son, Joe, formerly Lazar, a 3-year-old playground reprobate who enjoyed watching oxen drop their loads on the dirt road outside his orphanage in Giurgiu, Romania.
All the boys got charges out of that. Heck, it was kinda different to me, as well. Despite my many nasty habits – I take tea at 3, etc. – one thing I can never get enough of is the sight of an animal crapping while pulling a load of Gypsies down rutted roads.
But that is another story for another day.
This one is about Emily.
I am happy she is going to be successful. “This is what we train them for, to be out on their own,” said one friend, trying to salve the rawness that is in my head, gut and soul as we took the many steps to get her ready for college.
During this week, while I helped her get ready, while I spent money on everything from gasoline to eyeglasses to GooGoo Clusters (a kid’s gotta eat), I kept on thinking I was looking at the little girl.
Oh she is small now, only 5-foot or so. And very pretty. But I kept seeing her as the little girl I picked up at the day-care back in 1995 and 1996. I was working at the Nashville Banner then – a far superior newspaper to the one you folks are “offered” each day now – and I tried to get off work by 2, so I could pick her up at the day-care.
Since I went to work at 4 a.m. or so, that still was a reasonably long day. Anyway, I’d drive up to the day-care and usually see her sitting by herself in the playground. She didn’t look sad. Just remote. Like a baby who had spent most of the first two years of her life isolated in a crib in a massive dorm of similarly isolated children.
She didn’t know much English. But “Tata” quickly turned to “Daddy” and soon we were driving around the Music City, singing songs about Rocky Raccoon, Bungalow Bill, the holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall and the like. Of course there were those other songs about Silver-Tongued devils, cool rockin’ daddies and my famous renditions of “Happy,” “Dead Flowers” and “Shotgun Willie.”
And those drives almost always led to a house out in Forest Hills, where my mother, then in her final couple of years, would react with delight when I’d carry the little girl into her house. Mom died 12 years ago now.
She always loved “Little Emily.” In fact one of the last times she was able to get out of the house was to go to the airport when we brought Emily home.
Our almost daily visits with my mom usually meant that on the way back to my house, there’d be a spin through the drive-thru at McDonald’s for some fries. They were among the first “American” treats Emily ever sampled. In order to keep her quiet in our room in Zurich during a daylong layover on our way home, I found a McDonald’s in the old city, bought quarter-pounders with cheese and fries and milkshakes. A fella in full Arab-prince regalia led me to the McDonald’s. I called him Ahab.
Emily spent that evening in Switzerland running from me to Suzanne for a fry.
Finally she ran into a table and collapsed in tears. Briefly, before she was chasing fries again.
Oh, I could go on with 16 years of memories – not all of them great, because she is far from perfect. I’m happy she’s closer, at least in my regard, to that than is her old man.
But the stories I’d tell all carry the same basic theme. I love my daughter. I’d do anything for her. I want her to be happy. (Yes, I need love to keep me happy….)
Yes, I’m proud Emily is in college and I hope she makes it. School’s not always been easy for her. But she's smart. She can accomplish this task, I'm sure. But more than smart, she's good. A good person. For that I'm most proud.
But it hurt like hell to unload her in a dormitory, even a nice brick one.
Don Schlitz – remember Don Schlitz, this is a story that at the beginning kinda featured him -- remembers that loss himself. And just by talking to him, I could tell he generally and genuinely hurt for me as I prepared for that big journey. "I'm sorry for you, man."
On Skype last night, her first as a college student, I talked with Emily in her dorm room. It was after 10 and she had just opened up a microwavable spaghetti meal. Would have been too late for her to eat like that here.
The first sign of liberty I suppose. I’m sure she’ll remember her first night at college like I remember mine, even though mine involved color and kaleidoscopes and tear-rolling laughter and bonding around a bonfire. No spaghetti, though.
Guess a good way to end this little tale is by quoting another line from Don Schlitz (and his pal Paul Overstreet): “I’m gonna love you forever, forever and ever, amen….” I can’t sing that very well. I do have more the vocal skills of Keith Richards than Randy Travis.
You know this thing about kids growing up?
I don’t like it. Not one damn bit.
I may make some spaghetti and Skype her at 10 tonight. Hope she’s not out.

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