Wednesday Witness: Another Step on the Road Home

My bride and I met while working at Wall Drug, on the edge of the Badlands in South Dakota. I was selling boots and moccasins that summer; she was selling hats and western wear. The day she started at the store, I had been working about a week. Her supervisor had gone to Mass (“On a weekday?” I thought.) and asked me to keep an eye on things and show the new girl how to run the register when she arrived.

So I did. It wasn’t long before I wanted to spend all my time with her, even accompanying her to Mass, which I hadn’t gone to in years—and when I went back to Yale in the fall, I missed her.

I had a job for the School of Music’s Concert Office that took me all over campus and several classes at the far end of Hillhouse Avenue, so multiple times a week (sometimes several times a day), I walked past St. Mary’s on Hillhouse (good photos). Sometimes I would see sandaled and habited Dominicans greeting students as we passed by, and I loved the tall stone steeples, which, unlike the numeorus other gothic structures on campus, announced the presence of the divine. When the I finally (inevitably) decided to go to church and pray for (at least daydream about) the girl I hoped to marry, those gray steeples and thick wooden doors were the ones that welcomed me home, if only as a heathen dabbler at the time.

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The Second Third, Week 39: No Sympathy for Sympathy Weight

I’ve heard these hardheaded Russian devils eat fat. In my Second Third, I hope to feed it well.
My senior year of high school, I stood about six feet, two inches. During football season that fall, I weighed around 175 pounds; I started wrestling season alternating between 171 and 189 — wherever the team needed me — and by midseason I was a lean, mean 152 pounds, wrestling 160, 171, and 189, plugging holes in the lineup to keep us from forfeiting. I could make weight with my gear on most days, was well-fed, had good energy — and wrestled my best season (which was only a little above .500, but still…).

A year later I entered an intramural wrestling tournament at Yale, weighing in at around 185. All-you-can-eat dining halls and student lethargy were taking their toll; was exhausted even wrestling short periods, and threw up in a snowbank after my first.

I was still hovering under 200 when Jodi and I met in Wall. We married, settled in a bit, started having kids…and I have always joked that I put on sympathy weight with each child, only unlike Jodi, I’ve never taken it back off. This explains why, 15 years after we married, I’ve gained 40 plus pounds. Ten per child, see?

I’m told by friends that there’s no way I weigh 240 these days; when I insist, they say I carry it well. Perhaps so (and thanks!) — but what had long been a joke seems less funny this summer. After seven years, we’re expecting again, and I feel as though I’ve been busier and more active than I’ve been in a long time — except that the scale today is pushing 250.

Two hundred and fifty pounds? An eighth of a ton?!

I’m 36. I don’t have the energy to pack that extra weight around for no reason. Plus my 13-year-old is getting bigger, faster, and stronger by the minute. Thus far I still intimidate him. I need to keep it that way — but more Chewbacca, and less Jabba the Hutt.

So. My training komrade is a 35-pound cannon ball with a handle. It’s simple, compact, and I’m told it will kill me or cure me. I say cure, since I plan to live to 105. Wish me luck.

The Second Third, Week 15 (Belated): Boot Love

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here.

Most regular readers (like, two out of the three) know that I met my bride while selling western boots one summer at Wall Drug. You might not know that I actually worked three summers at Wall Drug in an effort to be near my bride, and that each summer, I bought a new pair of boots.

Up until a few moments ago I was convinced that I had written at length on this site about my once-and-future obsession with boots. Apparently not. I know I wrote about it in a newspaper column at one time; I’ll try to round that up and post it shortly. In the meantime, suffice it to say there was a time when I knew more than was healthy for a boy my age about boots and boot makers, leathers and stitching, fit and finish. I could convey that knowledge to cowboys, bikers, and foreign tourists, using only my hands if I had to, and I lived in boots, at least in the summer months.

My three pairs of boots are pictured below. In my Second Third, I intend to wear the soles off them again and again. Why? Pfft. Just look at them!

My first pair (also pictured at the top of this post). Summer 1994. Nocona size 12 1/2D (the perfect fit from day one). Chocolate oiled bull shoulder with black tops. Soft as moccasins; tough as nails. I’m on my third set of soles and heels.

My second pair. Summer 1995. Blucher Boot Company, custom-made for someone else, but didn’t fit them; fit me like a second skin. Black French calf tops and bottoms. Soft and smooth and takes a nice polish. Great for dancin’ if they didn’t look so wicked. And if I danced. Still on the first set of soles and heels.

My third pair. Summer 1996. Nocona size 12 1/2D. I special-ordered these for rougher use: oiled cowhide foot; high green goatskin tops, and a bit higher and more underslung heel, just for kicks. I also put a black rubber half-sole on them for extra durability in the wet or on pavement. Scratched, gouged, salted, and paint-spattered. Second set of soles and heels.

The Second Third, Week 10: The Big Payback

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here.

When I left home for Yale, my folks left a cushion of money in my checking account. I’m thinking there was $150 of their money, hidden beneath the zero balance, in case I ever was in trouble and needed to come home. I never counted it as mine, so there was always $150 difference between my balance and the bank’s. My folks trusted me not to piddle it away, and I didn’t let them down.

Instead, I collected my suitemates’ empties and turned them in for the deposit, cleaned our bathroom (shared by seven of us) in exchange for pizza at Yorkside, and worked 20 hours a week to pay my bills. When one of my suitemates ran out of spending money and called his mother to yell at her, I was shocked. And when my roommate bought a new stereo, I set my little Sony dual cassette player aside and listened to his music. Even synthpop and show tunes.

I think it was my sophomore year that I “graduated” to a Visa with a strict credit limit — $500, I think, just for emergencies, my folks said. Again, I walked the line: at Thanksgiving, I got a hand-me-down Apple IIsi computer from my sister, and when I needed to crank up the Soundgarden, I could always go next door to our common room. The rest of the time, the little Sony would suffice.

Junior year, however, I roomed with two new guys, both fairly private, with no common room and no common stereo. They were out a lot, and I wasn’t…so the stereo bug bit. I’d been listening to the same little Sony since the Christmas after Ghostbusters II came out — I remember because I got the boombox (I use the term loosely) and Bobby Brown’s Dance!…Ya Know It on cassette, together, as it were. (And as everybody knows, that cassette had remixes of, among other things, the GBII soundtrack single “All On Our Own”…) I had worn out two Soundgarden Badmotorfinger cassettes, and couldn’t get enough volume to startle the squirrels outside my window.

It was an audio emergency. I needed a stereo. I deserved a stereo. And I’d totally pay it off in a matter of a couple of months. J&R Audio catalog and a Visa. Done deal.

I loved that stereo. I still have it, actually — it serves as a makeshift “theater” system in our basement family room. Did I pay it off in a couple months? Probably. Did I demote the Visa back to emergency-only duties? Nope.

The love bug bit next. I met Jodi at Wall Drug one summer, and decided to get engaged the next. Did I have money the ring? Nope. Did I have money for a down payment? A little…

I drove the length of the state to Sioux Falls to buy the ring I knew she liked — and they looked sideways at the fact that I had no permanent address (a student P.O. Box in Connecticut or Wall Drug?) and only seasonal employment. Finally they relented and said they would finance, but I’d need to put more money down.

This was my one shot. I called Citibank. They bumped my credit limit. I left with the ring.

We may still be paying for that ring. We’ve been in debt of some form or another ever since, and although we’re slowly digging out, it’s hard. Our furnace is dying, and it makes sense to replace the A/C at the same time — but that’s a few thousand dollars we don’t have in hand, plus my car’s acting up. What to do, what to do…

When I bought my first car from my dad, I got a loan. It wasn’t a big loan, but it was big enough for me at the time. I remember Dad saying, “They’ll make it easy for you. They want to loan you the money — it’s how they make money. And they want to loan as much as you can possibly pay back, even if it takes awhile.”

Especially if it takes awhile.

We’re trying to be smarter, and we keep chip-chip-chipping away at our debt. I’m looking forward to the big payback here in my Second Third: eliminating bills, saving our money, paying cash whenever possible as we move forward, and letting the kids know in no uncertain terms that there is no such thing as an audio emergency…even if your roommate is rocking to Erasure.

Pre-Election Rant-A-Day 3: The Wrong Kind of Better

Blogger’s Note: I’ve had a terribly long and curmudgeonly blog post brewing in my head for months, and no time to write it. So I’ve settled on the “Rant-A-Day” format. The first Pre-Election Rant-A-Day is here. Number two is here. To recap: “It’s All Good” (aka “Go Along to Get Along”) kills democracy, and you can’t legislate happiness. Okay. Where are we today?

“[It’s] The Economy, Stupid.”
— James Carville

These rants began to take shape in my head a few months ago or so, after I posted a status to my Facebook page that got people talking. From August 11 at 8:31 a.m.: Jim Thorp wonders: If parents today feel as though, for the first time, their children may not have a better life than they had — maybe we’ve been seeking the wrong sort of “better” all along?”

What is this better we’ve been after? In my day-job, I write a great deal about economic growth and quality of life and human capital, and to a point, I believe we need to turn the economy around, lift folks out of poverty, and generally make life better for everyone. I mean, it sounds good. It makes sense. So why does my heart rebel?

Maybe it’s because, deep down, I agree with this guy (any excuse to use this clip; I picked this version on this site because the site was obscenity-free). In case you choose not to watch a very funny video clip (or in case they pull it at some point), permit me to quote: “When I read things like, ‘The foundations of capitalism are shattering,’ I’m like, maybe we need that, maybe we need some time where we’re walking around with a donkey with clanging on the sides…because everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”

We could use some perspective. We could count a blessing or two, and be content.

I’ve talked with my parents about their childhoods, and I know I am a generation removed from poverty. I’ve talked with friends who can’t find work — I know that edge is closer than we think. I also know my solidly middle-class five-figure salary puts me in the top quarter of earners in the U.S., and way ahead of most of the rest of the world. I know people making 10 times what I make, raising half as many kids, who look at me and shake their heads: poor stiff. I also know how comfortable our existence is. We’ve got too many bills, but we’re paying them. I’m in debt to my ears, for a modest house, yes, that has lost much of its value — but also for a million little things I used to think we needed so my kids could have a so-called better life. I know that if my family finances collapse because of reckless spending, it’s my own fault, and I know with each minivan load of stuff that goes to the church garage sale, or friends with new babies, or Goodwill, our lives improve, if for no other reason than we’re letting go. Even the kids are happier. They don’t miss it.

I remember when I got accepted to Yale — what a burden it was at first, to think that thousands of other students were trying to get in, and I applied almost on a dare, and got in. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go — I’d never thought seriously about it — and now I had the golden ticket. Leave Remus, Michigan, for a school of presidents.

I was scared.

I remember my dad pulling me aside after a day or so, and saying, “I just want you to know, you don’t have to go to Yale if you don’t want to. You don’t have to go to college at all. If you decide you want to stay here and work in the shop, that’s fine with me. Whatever you do, I just want you to be happy.”

Sure he wanted a better life for me, but that wasn’t measured in dollars or degrees. He had already given me a better life by being home for dinner, pulling me out of school to take me hunting and fishing, insisting that I work hard and well and contribute to the family, not drinking or smoking, and teaching me to say I love you (and even to cry like a man, on occasion). He sacrificed for his family. He gave me more than he got as a kid, but it wasn’t more stuff. It was more of himself.

My fellow freshmen at Yale thought I was nuts when I said I wanted to be a high-school biology teacher. They rolled their eyes when I shrugged and said I came East for an education, not a job. (Hear that? That’s the sound of a squeaking halo.) They were incredulous when I came back from Wall Drug engaged.

We used to want these things: to serve others, to better ourselves, to love and be loved. Financial independence used to mean “owe nothing to any man,” as St. Paul said his letter to the Romans; now it means a strong credit score and purchasing power.

On the radio yesterday, a prospective voter wondered aloud why his legislative candidates were obsessing over which president, Bush or Obama, was to blame for the economy, while Americans are dying in two wars. Where in this economic engine (and myriad other car analogies) do we, as people, live and move and have our being?

It’s not the economy. It never was. The economic collapse is a symptom of a world so suffering-averse that it would rather sell out its children than sacrifice its lifestyle.

We vote our pocketbooks and consume ourselves.