Fatherly Advice

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The sun was coming down heavy over the mountain ridge that night, painting the sky a bright red. Round back, my father was chopping wood for the fire. I was sitting under the old elm tree, like I surely did most nights, just watching him work.

“Dad?” I said. “What’s it like to kiss a girl?”

My father set his axe down, staring off into that crimson sky. “Well,” he said, “there comes a time in every boy’s life where he starts to see the fairer sex a little differently. Why, I reckon that time might have come for you, too.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, staring at my feet.

“The first girl I ever kissed,” he said, “was a pretty young thing called Becky Sue. I don’t mind telling you she made a fool out of me, boy. She gave me weak knees and butterflies in my stomach. When I finally worked up the courage to kiss her on that spring morning, it was soft and sweet, like a summer’s breeze. After that, I don’t figure I felt so nervous around her anymore.”

“Wow,” I said. “I hope I get to kiss a girl someday.”

My father chuckled. “In your time,” he said, “I reckon you’ll kiss your share.” Then he picked up his axe and went straight back to work.

“Dad?” I asked. “What’s it like to cheat on your wife?”

He turned to me, setting his axe down again. “Now, that’s a very serious question,” he said. “You see, every man’s got a duty to stand by his wife and children. But sometimes, a man gets to feeling like a buffalo, like he’s got to get moving on. But that kind of thinking gets a man into trouble, you understand?”

I nodded, even though I didn’t quite understand.

“The first woman I ever cheated on your mother with,” he said, “was a pretty young thing called Wanda May. She had a face like an angel, blonde hair rolling down her shoulders like a river, and a bosom like Christmas morning.” He let out a hearty laugh. “She had a big ol’ behind too, the biggest you ever saw!”

I laughed along with him, only to watch his face grow stern. “But let me tell you something about buffalo making love,” he said. “It’s not a pretty business, and it’s nothing a man would want to get involved in. Being with Wanda May felt good for a while, I’ll tell you that. But I love your mother, and she loves me back, and that’s the way it ought to be, you hear?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Good,” he said, picking up his axe. “Because I don’t want to hear about you running around behind a woman’s back.”

“What about punching the mailman?” I asked. “What’s that like?”

“Funny thing about cheating,” my father said. “It breeds jealousy, and not even God himself can hold back a jealous man. Now, I was wrong about your mother and the mailman, I know that now. But damned if I didn’t give that fellow a run for his money.”

“And Dad?” I asked. “What’s it like to stuff a dead, bloated rat with gunpowder and mail it to the President of the United States?”

My father chuckled. “Well, you’re just a whole mess of questions today, ain’t you?” he asked.

I nodded dumbly, feeling awfully sheepish about keeping him from his work.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll tell you something about this country of ours, and that’s that I believe it to be the finest country on God’s green earth. But a country like that comes with a price, son. You know, our forefathers fought long and hard for our freedom, and I reckon it’s every man’s duty to keep on fighting to preserve that freedom. And every once in a while, that means you even have to go against your own government and express your dissent, just like our founding fathers.

“And sometimes,” he said, “the best way to express that dissent is to go up in the attic, find yourself a big ol’ dead rat, slice its belly open, fill it all full of gunpowder, sew it up, put it in a box, and send it to the President of these United States.”

I remember thinking that I had a lot to learn about life, and wondering if I’d ever know as much about it as my father.

“Why, I still remember that fine autumn morning when those men from the government came around,” he said. “Ain’t never seen nothing like it.” He stared into the distance a while, before shaking his head as if to dislodge a bad memory stuck inside his brain. Then he picked up his axe and went back to work.

“Dad?” I asked. “What’s it like to drink a jug of your own moonshine, strip yourself naked, and run through the woods trying to catch the biggest jackrabbit you can find with your bare hands, only to wind up in the parking lot of the local Sheriff’s office several hours later, still buck naked, trying to set yourself on fire?”

My father laughed a booming laugh. “Maybe I’ll tell you about that one when you’re older,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I answered.

He got down on his knee and mussed my hair, grinning that big old grin of his. “In fact,” he said, “I think that’s enough questions for one day. Why don’t you go in the house and help your mother with the dishes?”

I nodded and ran back inside. My mother was standing at the sink, minding her own business, looking just as pretty and gentle as I suppose any young boy’s mother does.

“Momma?” I said. “What’s it like to put on high heels and a little red dress, and then go down to the docks at midnight and try to get sailors and longshoremen to have sex with you for money?”

My mother just smiled her smile. “Go ask your father,” she said.

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Replacing Your Father

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Hi, kids, I’m glad you’re still up. What’re you watching? Leno? I hate Leno. Anyway, where’s the little one? Well, go get her, too; I have something to tell you all.

Kids, no one can ever replace your father. No one. Do you understand me? You only have one father, and he is gone to Florida with his new fiancée with the oily skin. No one can ever replace him. But this is my new boyfriend Bill, and I’d like him to be the one to replace your father.

I met Bill a few hours ago, at Stages. As you know, tonight was “Ladies Get in Free Night” until 10, and I got there at 10:08, and the bouncer was all, “Oh, now you have to pay.” So while I was arguing with him — I was parking, I mean, God — Bill here stepped up and offered to pay my cover. I knew right away he was a keeper.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, kids, but before I brought him back here I asked him some pretty tough questions, questions I thought might reveal his true personality and character. I found out some really great things, like — you’ll love this, kids — Bill actually played minor league baseball for some years. How many years was it, Bill? Two? Two and a half?…Two. Two whole years in Trenton on a farm team. Your father never got paid to play anything. So there’s one reason why he should replace your father.

Any other points you want to make, Bill?…Well, kids, now Bill is claiming he can take your daddy in a fistfight. I don’t know about that, Bill. Their daddy is 6′ 2″ and in pretty good shape. I’m not saying Bill couldn’t beat up your daddy, kids — I don’t want to contradict him in front of you, since we’re trying to present a united front as parents, here — I’m just saying we’ll never know until we watch them go toe to toe, punching each other.

I should also mention that Bill is quite the kisser. Although we haven’t gone all the way around the bases, we did engage in a passionate make-out marathon in his pick-up truck for about half hour before we came inside to talk with you. Based on that experience, I expect him to be a great lover. I will let you know shortly. Now, I realize this isn’t a direct benefit to you, but in deciding whether or not to accept Bill as your new father, you should take this into account: if I am in a better mood because of the erotic pleasure Bill dishes out, then I’ll be kinder to you. Maybe I’ll surprise you more often with trips to Pizza Hut, or let you turn on the hose in the backyard when it’s hot. All the things we used to do sometimes back when you had a father who was in the house and sleeping with me.

What’s up, Bill?…Ah, Bill is rethinking his wager that he could punch out your dad. Kids, I want you to pay attention, because Bill is showing humility. That is a quality to be admired. He is admitting a weakness to you. That takes courage. He is saying that he has a problem challenging six-foot-two, athletic men in fistfights. Although no one can ever replace your father, Bill is absolutely trying to do so. And I am rooting for him to succeed.

Now, I should observe here that Bill does not work. Please don’t ask Bill if he works because he does not work, and he does not like talking about not working. Bill! does! not! work! Nod if you got that. Okay, so that means he won’t be able to buy your love like most replacement daddies. Don’t expect Playstation 2 or X-Box. But that means you’ll get quality attempts to win your love, like Bill coaching your softball team or driving you to Cub Scouts. No job and no money means more time to spend with you guys, and I think we can all see the advantage of that. What’s that, Bill?…Okay, that’s fair, I should point that out. Kids, remember that sometimes Bill may parent you in less obvious ways. Maybe he won’t volunteer to coach your baseball team or drop you off at karate, but he’ll still be there, supporting you, like a dad should.

Make no mistake: Bill will never be your real father. He simply can’t take the man’s place, biologically speaking. He will try to act like a real father, though, and I will make you feel guilty if you don’t immediately accept him as a replacement father. I will expect you to call him “Daddy.”

No one’s trying to take the place of your real father. We only want you to love Bill and treat him like your real father who is replacing your real father, yet not the exact same person, but better in some ways than your real father. Do you understand?…I’m talking to the kids, Bill. I hope you understand that Bill will never be your real father, but for all intents and purposes he will replace your real father, to be loved by you as children love their father and to please me sexually as husbands please their wives, and ultimately to make us all forget about your real father who now lives in Florida with his oily-skinned fiancée.

So, kids, Bill is ready, willing and fully able to stay in our house, emitting the aura of a stranger while engaging you in awkward conversations. He will slip into the role of authority figure without ever earning your respect, but he will demand it, since he will be acting as your father. By no means is anyone trying to say your real father can ever be replaced. No way! Not at all! But as I say, I’m ready to replace your father completely. Are you?

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George Cunningham

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George Cunningham left the faintest of marks on existence during his forty-two years and twenty-eight days of life. When he died — in about eight minutes’ time — he would be neither mourned nor missed.

He walked down the lane between Friarton and Edgeway, as he had done three-hundred-and-ninety-nine times before. He celebrated his four-hundredth by playing the counting game aloud. It was the most daring thing he had done for eight months and sixteen days.

“One-blackird-four-swallows-three-rabbits-one-fox.”

He spotted a pair of rabbits.

“One-blackird-four-swallows-five-rabbits-one-fox.”

Rabbits always won: it was a flaw in the game. Sometimes, George would play “everything-against-the-rabbits”, which made for closer contests, but was too easy to count: George liked having to remember at least seven figures at a time. His best game, number two-hundred-and-fourteen, had involved thirteen species, and one-hundred-and-forty-three different sightings.

On that occasion, George’s brain had been singing by the time he got home. He had a glass of port in celebration and replayed the game in his head. Irritated to discover he couldn’t remember where he had spotted the third hare — such an easy thing to remember, such a silly thing to forget — he poured the rest of the port away in disgust.

Nineteen-percent proof. Eight too many. George would remember that.

“Two-blackirds-four-swallows-nine-rabbits-one-fox-one-hedgehog.”

“Two-blackirds-five-swallows-ten-rabbits-one-fox-one-hedgehog-fourteen-cows.”

George was never sure whether to count the cows at Broughton Farm. It seemed unfair, because they weren’t random sightings. But it gave the rabbits a target to chase, so sometimes he included them.

As he rounded the sharp bend near Friarton, George wandered into the middle of the road. He didn’t notice the Citroen Xsara coming behind him. George didn’t count cars. He hated people. He tried never to look at them: if he couldn’t see them, they didn’t exist.

He didn’t hear the car horn. He barely felt the impact as he was knocked into the ditch he would occupy for the next three months; where his remains would be gnawed by four foxes and forty-seven crows.

The last thing George Cunningham saw was an owl, staring at him. It had been fifty-three days since he last spotted one. George smiled.

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Acknowledgments

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It has been said that a book represents the efforts of not just its author, but of all who have supported that author during the mysterious process of creativity. While there is some built-in hyperbole and false humility to such claims, my legal representatives advise me that I nevertheless would be remiss in not acknowledging those persons who have made it possible for me to accomplish what I fully expect will be reckoned a significant — dare I say unprecedented? — work of creative genius.

To wit: let me begin by thanking my fourth and most recent ex-wife, Jane, who provided invaluable comments on early drafts, put up with my less than model behavior during the composition of some difficult portions of this work, and even clumsily soldered electronic components of my keyboard as quickly as I could smash them in my rages at her inability to fully appreciate my true genius.

I must also thank her for in the end allowing me the freedom to pursue other muses than herself for the sake of my art, and for enduring the verbal — and, finally, physical — attacks from one of those former muses, who, in the wake of our brief and turbulent relationship, proved far more fragile and much less generous than her target, my then-wife. Thanks, again, Jane. You’re the best.

I must also acknowledge the contributions made to this work by my third ex (also a Jane), who was somewhat tragically and quite unexpectedly carried away in a spring flash flood while fixing me a cup of tea just the way I like it, with extra lemon and prepared out of earshot so as not to disturb me. That the ancient riverbed where she had set up her campfire should so suddenly revert to its previous vigor was, I am convinced, just as surprising to her as it was to the gentlemen whom I eventually hired to fish her out while I completed the lyrical chapter which, had she survived, surely would have been her favorite. I also wish to thank her for humming my favorite childhood tunes the way Mommy — (okay, a Jane) used to.

I also here acknowledge my second ex — stout, capable Martha! — for her efforts on my behalf over the years. I wish especially to thank her for shingling our vast roof, and for — God bless her — deftly putting a bullet in the head of the neighbors’ distracting Weimeraner, allowing me to finish a chapbook of poems that today is still available in limited edition. I should also acknowledge publicly her touching willingness to settle an old score on my behalf by traveling to Chicago to moon a past president of PEN who had refused to return my phonecalls.

I also wish to thank her for shielding me from the burden of raising our three children — so successfully, in fact, that I was recently quite unable to identify my eldest youngster in a police lineup, nor to recognize his hoarse, plaintive cries for my head; and, when she could no longer afford to pay our lawyer, for working out a system of payment with the laywer she had hired to defend her in the lawsuit by the aforementioned dog-owning neighbor — pulling the lawyer’s children on a vintage sledge to their snowboarding lessons and, after proofreading my galleys, returning to his house to weed his charming, serpentine drive and to polish his whimsically impractical copper gutters and drainpipes. The prison matrons who now attend her know little of the depth of her character. Brava, plucky lady!

I should also be remiss in forgetting to mention my first wife (not a Jane), whose efforts on my behalf would beggar the description of a less talented author. There is so much to say, but let me at least here acknowledge her ultimate effort on my behalf, that of cycling to Iran to assassinate the Imam who had issued the fatwa against the writer who in the end turned out not to have been me after all. If her jailers allow her a copy of this book in the care packages her parents send her, and she chances upon this page, I should like her to know that, in the first moment that I am satisfied with the second draft of my poem-cycle-in-progress, I will trouble Holden, my current muse/caretaker, to turn her attentions to your plight. In the meantime I trust she has answered your letters. The several months’ delay has, I am told, mostly to do with Holden’s touching discomfort at handling the rough toilet paper — however unsullied — upon which you choose to compose your (also touching) requests for help.

It is a statement of pure, legal fact that without the help of these women the world would have been deprived of the work on the pages that follow. And so perhaps it is not so much I who ought to thank them, but rather you, the lucky reader of those pages, to which I humbly trust you will now turn with all alacrity.

*****

Eric Metaxas is the author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask). His humorous essays have been published in The New York Times and The Atlantic — Woody Allen has called them “quite funny” — and during college he was the editor of The Yale Record (the nation’s oldest college humor magazine). He has written for VeggieTales and is the author of over 30 children’s books, including Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving. Eric lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter and is the host and founder of Socrates in the City, a monthly speaker’s series on “life, God, and other small topics.” For more information or to contact him, go to: EricMetaxas.com

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Our Changing Language

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The question of how language came into being has always been among the great puzzles of history. Who spoke first? we ask ourselves.

However it was that language first came about, it is safe to assume that its very earliest beginnings were rather rocky. Brain sizes were not very large, and it is postulated that at first it may have required the efforts of three or four people to manage a simple sentence. The caveman’s daily life was, of course, communal and tribe-oriented. It would make sense that men probably handled subjects and objects — which were considered the “touch” or “macho” parts of speech — while women, who as a gender are more process-oriented, dealt with the predicates — which were seen as “ladylike” and “frilly.” This startling theory of language development is commonly known as the Huey, Dewey, and Louie Theory of Early Linguistics, proponents of which comprise the highly controversial Unka Donald School. Advocates of this theory believe it was probably many years before the first paragraphs were tackled, and then some time longer before early man had mastered scholarly essays and light verse.

Every culture has its myths and legends about the birth of language. The ancient Greeks tell of Prometheus’ garrulous stepbrother, who scaled the snowy heights of Olympus in search of the language of the gods, which was believed to be kept in a glass of water on Zeus’ night table. American Indians often regaled pioneers on the Great Plains with stories of a renegade tribe that had escaped into what is now Missouri with a large, hairy consonant and a buckskin pouch of magical punctuation. Archaeologists digging an Indian mound in the Colorado River Basin in 1974 unearthed what they believed to be the remains of this lost consonant, but Carbon-14 test soon revealed the findings to be nothing more than some r’s dropped by a Bostonian couple on their way to San Francisco the previous year.

The question of how language actually arrived in North and South America has likewise been surrounded by controversy, although most scholars believe it came to North America over the Bering Strait landbridge, gradually fanning out over the continent as it was needed. As people migrated further south, language eventually trickled down past Mexico to the narrow Isthmus of Panama, causing a temporary bottleneck of long vowels. Most of the punctuation, however, got through. In fact, by the year 1700, twice as many exclamation points and question marks as were needed had slipped down into South America, which is believed to account for the twin presence of those objects in Spanish prose. Paraguay endured a puzzling shortage of commas is the 1840’s, and for ten terrible years the populace was quite out of breath.

But the most historically alarming evolutions were in Europe. Words were borrowed from one country to the other at such frenetic pace that Charles the Fat spoke of installing a revolving door at Antwerp. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England began to borrow French words at a particularly alarming rate, and France marshaled all her forces to put a halt to it. In the end, however, her efforts proved futile, as people could always whisper. For years thereafter the French remained staunch in their opposition to “mixing with the harsh Germanic element,” but they were eventually persuaded to loosen up with seductive promises of a throatier, more guttural sound and a sinuous, well-developed sentence structure. In addition, they would receive two-thirds of all excess verbiage west of the Rhine, as well as an independent clause to be named later.

Many people remember from their high school English classes that around the year 1300 the English language underwent a traumatic vowel shift. Few people, however, know that this was preceded ten years earlier by a consonant leap — along with a subsequent glottal hop, skip, and jump — the deadly combination of which forced the young Chaucer to scrap everything he’d written up to that point. Likewise, massive changes in the Italian of his day obliged Dante to rewrite two cantos of his Inferno, causing temporary overcrowding in the fourth and fifth circles of hell. History also records a puzzling umlaut switch in Austria as late as 1586, with the left dot becoming the right dot and vice-versa. “Konig” was thenceforth written as “Konig,” although few people noticed.

By Shakespeare’s time the English language was finally fairly close to its present form, although Shakespeare himself was completely unaware of it. To be sure, examples of current slang were already beginning to surface at that time, as in an early draft of Shakespeare’s own “Troilus and Cressida”, where we find the startling query: “What is up, thou fresh brother and coolest fellow? What goeth down with thee?” We observe a similarly modern locution in other plays of the era, such as the urgent, “Hast gone a-much, dude?” from Ben Jonson’s Volpone. From there it is only an incremental step to such more recent modernisms as “#$%%@!”

That language continues to change all around us is today quite incontrovertible. The trend has until now been in the direction of simplification, and this is expected to continue. It is predicted that in time, language may be so simplified as to be within reach of most of the higher mammals. It is optimistically thought that even Southern Conference football players may eventually find a place at the table. But the terrific rate at which language continues to change has alarmed even the most staunchly laissez-faire linguist. In fact, many experts doubt whether non-linguists will have the ability to keep up with its endless permutations. And recent figures from the Language Institute of San Diego show that by the time you read this sentence its meaning will probably elude mercury panflake the one Bunt-phlaster.

*****

Eric Metaxas is the author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask). His humorous essays have been published in The New York Times and The Atlantic — Woody Allen has called them “quite funny” — and during college he was the editor of The Yale Record (the nation’s oldest college humor magazine). He has written for VeggieTales and is the author of over 30 children’s books, including Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving. Eric lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter and is the host and founder of Socrates in the City, a monthly speaker’s series on “life, God, and other small topics.” For more information or to contact him, go to: EricMetaxas.com

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