Sunday, September 25, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 273: Tucker Mythology - Worst Best Man, Pt. 2

Tucker Mythology
Worst Best Man

Part Two, Replanted

Earlier in the day, I'd called and let the phone ring twenty times with no answer. That wasn't unusual with my parents. It wasn't odd even when they were home and my father could hear the phone. I kept trying. By the fifth call, late in the afternoon, I managed to connect with my mother. 

"Hold on a second," she said as soon as she heard my voice. She set the handset down on the foyer desk. The screen door slammed behind her. She must have been holding it open. Something else rattled on the desk, probably her gardening trowel. She pulled off one glove, picked up the phone, and removed the second glove. "Okay, I'm ready."

She wanted to talk about her gardening first. After a few minutes, I managed to mention my idea of moving back to Maryland. Instantly, my mother volunteered to host me and Andrea.

"You could stay with us until you find an apartment," she said. "What do you think?"

"That would be nice." I'd been planning to ask for a grace period of two weeks. Since she had made the offer, I mentally gave myself a couple months. "We're coming to stay in Maryland for the long term, I think, but the reason I want to make the change now is because Tucker is getting married at the end of the summer. Staying across the street from his family would probably be smart. You don't mind?"

"No, it's fine."

"What about dad?"

"Oh," I heard her arm move as she waved off his opinion. "He'll be fine. But you should know, he's complaining about us having a mouse problem in here. One of them ate the bottom out of his box of crackers. There were cardboard pieces and cracker crumbs everywhere."

"Don't you still have the cats?" In my teen years, sometimes she'd had over thirty of them after the females had given birth to three litters at once. My mother had given most of them away, of course. She always kept a few because she had grown up with barn cats. In her view, the cats had a job. They were in charge of pest control. "How can you have mice in the house?"

"Well, we have only three now and I guess they're all too old to go chasing mice. They're not catching them. Didn't you say that one of your neighbors had a batch of kittens?"

"Yeah, they're cute."

"Are they weaned yet? See if you can bring two of them down with you."

In my mind, she still had a houseful of animals. It was weird to hear that she didn't have enough. "You want more?"

"Kittens. Two of them." She loved keeping pets for themselves but this was business, too. "I want to make sure we get a mouser."

"You know the trick for that," I said. And she did. Let a cat have a litter of kittens and she'll turn into a hunter every time.

"Right." She paused, probably nodding to herself. "Make sure one is a girl."

There was only one female in the litter. I knew I'd better get my dibs in on it right away. After the phone call was over and my mother returned to her gardening, I put on a jacket and headed out to reserve our kittens.

So one of our first decisions when moving to Maryland was to acquire cats for my parents. When we got out of the car at the end of the long drive in early June, we were ready to call Tucker, but first we had to stretch and unpack. And introduce the kittens.
Eight hours is too long to keep any animal in a box, even a pair of reasonably sleepy kittens, so we had given up on containing them early. We let them out to roam the car as soon as we crossed the state line south into Connecticut. The young male, Jasper, took a liking to my lap as I drove. Aside from climbing to my shoulder once or twice for a look around, he seemed content. His sister, Scrapple, roamed a little too freely. Once, she scrambled around my feet as I worked the brakes and clutch. Andrea snatched her up. We decided Scrapple was too dangerous. Andrea took charge of both kittens and kept them entertained, except during their naps, for the rest of the trip.

We reached my parents' house at six in the morning. After I parked in the gravel driveway, we unkinked our bodies and paused to take inventory. The kittens made it easy. They ran to the cracks at the top of the windows to smell the Maryland air.

"It does smell nice," Andrea allowed. She had been eager but a little uncertain about moving south. "That's a whole lot of tree pollen, though."

We scooped the kittens into their box. We gathered up our first round of bags. But as we headed out across the yard, I could see the kittens trembling in awe. The Massachusetts woods had been nearly silent. In contrast, the Maryland forest was a cacophony of rude sounds from crickets, cicadas, and songbirds.

"Wow." Andrea stopped to listen to the difference. It impressed her, too.

I bent down and let out the orange, long-haired male, Jasper.

"Are you sure?" Andrea said.


I could tell Jasper trusted us. And he was eager to get down into the grass. When he reached the ground, he stiffened. It was too much for him all at once.

"Let out Scrapple, too," I said, "It'll be fine."

As soon as Andrea put down the kitten, Scrapple headed toward her brother in three big pounces. She bumped him and bumbled on past. Jasper turned to follow. They veered their own directions. The two of them inched through the grass, which was freshly cut but still half as high as them. Every few steps, they paused to listen. They twitched their tails. They froze when they saw a beetle. After a moment of study, Jasper advanced to nudge it on the head. The beetle turned and tried to march away over the green blades. The kittens hunkered down to watch. 

A grasshopper chirped nearby. Scrapple and Jasper jumped. Their hackles rose. They landed with their claws extended and searched for source of the noise.

For a few minutes, we let them explore. Every time Jasper felt he'd gotten too far away, he dashed back to my feet. His sister roamed farther but she bounced back to us. Every bug in the grass, every bat fluttering overhead in the twilight, every call from a songbird was new to them. The yard was a source of fascination, caution, and curiosity. 

Thirty feet north of us, we heard the front door open. My mother strode out of her house. 

I turned to see she was dressed for the day in jeans and her gardening jacket. She must have heard us drive up. She strolled across the porch, down the steps, and approached the nearest kitten, Scrapple, with a smile. Scrapple dashed toward her for a few steps but stopped, feeling a momentary sense of panic. Andrea scooped her hand underneath the cat's furry belly and raised it beside her shoulder.

Next to me, my orange ball of fluff bumped into my foot. I grabbed it. 

"Mom, this is Jasper." I held the cat up in my arms as my mother came closer. 

"And this is Scrapple," Andrea said, "your future mighty huntress."

My mom paused to give Andrea an approving smile. She put an arm out, let the kitten sniff her fingers and, after a moment, she petted Scrapple's head. She withdrew her hand. We all waited a few seconds and watched the animals as they, in turn, watched her. She stroked the kitten again. This time, it started to purr. I could hear it from a few feet away. Andrea and my mother smiled.

My mother strode over to me to give Jasper as similar treatment. 
"You said Tucker would call." She gave me a stern look as she let the cat sniff her hand. "He hasn't."

"Well, he told me that he would. No big deal." Jasper accepted a few pets. He didn't purr but he seemed happy anyway. "It's too early to ring him up. Later today, I'll see if we can talk. We need to meet, really. I've got to get info from him and Laura both."

"I'm not sure how to help Laura," said Andrea.

"Yeah, and I don't know what Tuckers wants me to do as best man." I nodded. "He's been too busy to talk on the phone. But now I'll get to see him."

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 272: Tucker Mythology - Worst Best Man, Pt. 1

Tucker Mythology
Worst Best Man

Part One, Invited

Usually, high school friends leave town and drift apart.

It didn't happen with Tucker. We drove away to our distant colleges. We dropped out at different times. We returned to other schools at mismatched semester breaks. For years, hundreds of miles separated us. So did our divergent American sub-cultures (ROTC, punks and hippies). Yet we managed to remain friends. At Hampshire College, I took courses in creative writing. It wasn't hard to discipline myself to write letters to friends as well. The surprise was that Tucker wrote back. Sometimes he splurged to speak to me on the phone. He said that he charged the calls to his parents or lumped them into his college payments.

In all the time I was at college, we were best friends despite the ever-present distance between us. He visited me at Hampshire. Once I took off for a semester and worked in Maryland. Tucker had returned to Darnestown, so he and I went running together every day. We talked about women, school, and life philosophy while getting physically fit or sometimes while shooting a basketball around the hoop in my back yard.
Eventually, Tucker went back to college in Rochester. I finished undergraduate school and settled down in Massachusetts. We still saw each other from time to time. But it became a rarer thing. We talked only when I made the effort to visit. He had a fiancé, Laura. I was living with a woman in Amherst. Neither of us seemed to have free time.

One morning, two years after my graduation, I got a call from Tucker. He had moved back to Maryland. Since his return there, I hadn't heard from him. I'd sent letters but had gotten no replies, no calls, nothing for sixteen months. Then the phone rang and my girlfriend handed it over to me with a worried look.  

"Hey, man," Tucker said. He sounded tired. "I've got news. I'm getting married."

"To Laura? Congratulations." I had expected a dire report, not a good one. Laura had once or twice mentioned the idea of marrying Tucker. In contrast, he'd mentioned problems with her. But apparently that sort of drama was in the past.

"Yeah." He paused. "Well, thing is, Eric, I want you to be my best man."

"You do?"

We were so distant at this point, I was surprised to get an invitation to the wedding. Still, an invitation for old time's sake seemed normal. Getting asked to join the wedding party seemed a bit much. I didn't trust that. Getting asked to lead the wedding party seemed outright wrong. But here it was, a request for me to step in as best man.

"I thought you said you had a bunch of new friends." That was one of the first things he had told me about moving back to the Gaithersburg area, just before I heard nothing else.

"I do. But none of them would be really on target."

"None?" That seemed reassuring, in a way, although possibly a source of needless drama as well. I understood the idea of reaching back to a high school friend as sort of a traditional thing. If that's what it was, I could certainly make my peace with it. I'd have to, since I liked Tucker and it was an honor to be asked.

"Seriously. It has to be you, man. It's right."

"Then I'll be there." 

My girlfriend marched over to stand beside me. She had a sense of when a call turned important. She knew Tucker and Laura, too. 

"Hey, gotta go, man. Things to do." Tucker ended the call abruptly. The whole conversation had taken two minutes. My girlfriend raised an eyebrow but refrained from comment. I placed the plastic handset back on its stand. It was one of the slightly-cheap knockoff brands that were available now that AT&T wasn't allowed to own all of the phones. I took a deep breath, hands on hips.

After half a minute, I started to feel inspired by the call. Tucker still thought I was his best man.  I gave Andrea a sideways glance as I considered my options. 

"I've been thinking about moving back near my old home," I ventured, "maybe to Frederick."

"Oh really." She folded her arms across her chest.

"Frederick has a real downtown, like Northampton. You said you wanted to live in a place with a downtown so you didn't need to drive. Well, you can walk anywhere you need to go in Frederick. And you graduate soon."

"I'd better." She had finished her academic hurdles, she thought, but not every professor had completed his or her side of the required paperwork. 

"How would you feel about moving to Maryland with me?" 

We would soon have the freedom to go anywhere we pleased. Why not get an apartment in a town close to where Tucker was getting married? It made logistical sense. Maybe it would seem like a good decision for other reasons later. For a second, Andrea scowled. Not much later, she cracked a smile.
"Anywhere away from here." She put a finger to her lips for a moment, then added, "That isn't upper New York State." 

And so it was decided. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 271: Tucker Mythology - Night Riders

Tucker Mythology
Night Riders

In the summer when I was sixteen, I got my driving license. The world changed.

Now I had bursts of freedom from my parents. Tucker found that he could escape his for a while, too. Every Saturday, he hopped into the front side seat of my parents' station wagon, leaned over to me, and said, "Where are we going?"
Accompanied by the smell of my father's stale cigars in the ashtray, we drove to every place we could reach that wasn't another cluster of farms. We visited book shops, the malls, the Ben Franklin convenience store, the movies, miniature golf, our friends in their houses, and others who snuck out of their houses and met us to go into arcades. We jangled our pockets full of quarters. We uncrumpled dollar bills to make change for more games. We accepted donations from our friends. Tucker spent everything he had and he volunteered for chores around his home, hoping for more.

"Do you mind if I steer?" Tucker asked after a few weeks of our new summer routine.

"How would that work?" I glanced to my right, where he sat upright at the end of the green, vinyl bench seat. He wasn't slouching. He was smiling. He tapped his gold-rimmed glasses.

"One of my other friends, Mike, let me steer his car. It was easy." His left arm stretched toward the wheel. I gripped it harder with both hands. "It's better when the road is mostly straight. All you have to do is take your hands off the wheel and let me keep us on the road."

We had been headed down the hill away from our homes on Black Rock Road. As we passed over the bridge above Seneca Creek, the gravel path straightened for an eighth of a mile. He put his left hand on the wheel. When we rolled off the bridge, I let go. He kept steering.

The front end of the car wobbled.

"Hold on, I'm getting it," he said. He pushed one way and then the other. Gravel pinged against the undercarriage. The station wagon drifted over the lip of the road and growled in the dirt. An instant later, it jerked back to the middle. While he was in control, I rolled down my window. The smell of summer brambles, dried mud, and mossy rocks drifted in. Black Rock road passed through the middle of a state park, an area that grew thick with oaks. A few, stray birch or poplar trees stood at the edges, near the clearings.

We passed a strand of oaks and poplars. At the next hairpin turn, I took over. We kept on, headed to our friend Debi, who wanted us to take her to the mall. On the straightaways, Tucker begged for every chance to practice his steering. That's how we pulled into the parking lot of Debi's apartment complex, where Debi saw Tucker steering. She decided she wanted her turn.

"Why don't I sit between you guys?" she suggested. She cozied up next to me as if she intended to flirt. However, she had her eye on the steering wheel.

Soon enough, wherever we went, I only worked the pedals on the straightaways. The weeks rolled by in our drive-by-committee fashion. Tucker grumped when Debi did most of the steering, especially after she decided to tease us by aiming us at other cars, or trees, or the curb. When she did, I would snatch the wheel back and guide us out of trouble.

"Aw," she would pout as if to say she only wanted to crash us a little bit.

"God dammit!" Tucker shouted once. "That was really close."

"It was pretty close," I allowed.

"This thing can take on most cars." He straightened from the crouched position he'd taken. His mouth still open, he stared behind us at the narrow bridge. Then he glared at Debi. "But not a school bus."

After a couple near misses, Tucker volunteered for the back seat. He returned himself to the front within the week, though.

During the fall, Debi did a lot of steering. She was short, so sometimes she mashed her body against mine in order to pull us off course. A few times, she pumped the brakes when I was on the highway. She hit the gas pedal when I was parking, or aiming for a spot. That was more dangerous than the brakes. She pushed the steering wheel right or left at random. I learned to keep sort of alert, even when I had the wheel in my control and she was giving me an innocent look with her hands in her lap. Everything could change in a second.

Debi was cute and smart. Her willingness to steer us off the road started to feel like a challenge to Tucker, somehow. When he rode with us, or even with me and no one else, he felt he had to step it up. But Debi had a deft touch. Tucker didn't. On his second or third prank try, he steered me over a curb. As I grabbed the wheel back, I slugged him in the shoulder. But I didn't really need to. He had already been backing off.

"I'm not brave enough for this," Tucker said. "This is crazy. Debi is just outright insane. How does she know when you have time to recover?"

I had no answer for that. Sometimes, Debi misjudged me. Twice, she pulled me into oncoming traffic but when I snapped back, we found a dodging car coming at us and needed to make another escape.

By November, Tucker had gotten a better idea. It started when we were headed back home in my parents' station wagon. We were near our curfew. I was so tired that, on Black Rock, I closed my eyes for a moment.

"You can drive home on reflex now, I guess," Tucker observed.

"Yeah." I yawned. I blinked and tried to watch the edges of our lane more carefully.

"Could you keep us on the road if I turned off the lights?"

"As long as we kept to the same speed, yeah." I meant my reflexes were based on timing. They were connected to the feel of the road. The gravel path of Black Rock angled a lot, not just up and down along the hills but off to the sides. My muscle memory found it natural to locate our car's position by the tilt and momentum. If we kept to the same speed every time, I could make every turn based on feel.

"When we get to a straightaway, turn the lights off for a second."

We swung left, then right, then came to a hundred feet of straightness. The boughs above us had lost their leaves already. Now they parted over our heads, too, and we could feel the sky. I pressed down on the knob to my left. The interior of the car turned black. Outside, the headlights blinked off.

To my surprise, I could see. The surface gravel and the trees on either side had instantly filled with a silvery glow.

"Thought so," said Tucker. "The full moon is perfect."

"It's more light than I need," I pondered.

Tucker thought about that point for a moment as we glided through a turn. Leafless branches closed off most of the cloudless sky above. Although I couldn't see much, I still wasn't worried. There were lighter shadows and darker ones. And the feel of the road, a tilt low and to the right. We straightened for a few feet and slid around another gravelly turn. I could hear the tires on the road more clearly than ever before. Or maybe I was simply paying attention.

"You know what?" Tucker concluded. "Me too.  I think I could drive this during less than a full moon. I'd want a little bit of light from something above, though, maybe a really clear night with lots of stars."

He didn't have his license yet but I knew what he meant.

When I passed my test, the ability to drive had given me freedom. But soon enough, it turned into something more. Driving became my way to be with friends. It was almost the only way there was, living out where we were. The car gave me a way to impress them, even. Clearly, Tucker was impressed by driving at night, headlights out. 
The next week, we drove back the same way. I cruised along Black Rock. Tucker turned out the lights. In silence and moonlight, we cruised on.

My impressions of cool driving tricks came from Debi and Tucker. But they could be back-seat daredevils. Debi had her license but no car. Tucker wanted so badly to learn and to be more free. 

My parents bought a Volkswagen Rabbit. With it, Tucker and I learned how to manage a manual gearbox. He had to learn to shift left-handed, of course. We drove around Gaithersburg and Rockville on double-dates, spilled beer on the seats, and told our parents the car had broken down when we came home late. Sometimes to impress girls, I'd take my hands off the steering wheel and, without a word, Tucker would take over.  He always loved to turn off the headlights as we cruised Black Rock and show everyone we didn't need them.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 270: Tucker Mythology - Here There Be Dragons

Tucker Mythology
Here There Be Dragons

When I first met him, he wore a green windbreaker.

In tenth grade, when I was fourteen years old, Tucker moved into the house across the street. He brought with him the windbreaker, a few one-color shirts, some blue jeans, a set of parents, and a pair of younger brothers. He also brought a strange shyness. He smiled as if he were ashamed to be happy, as if he expected to be punished for it. His hands started out nervous and stayed that way, really, for years. Tucker had a habit of playing with things half-consciously and of dropping them when anyone's eyes turned to him. 

I recognized that self-consciousness. I had some of my own.

He barely introduced himself before my younger brother grabbed him and headed off to visit his house. For a couple of weeks, I held back from joining in. I sulked over the departure of my former neighbor and crush, Jean Fisher. But she was gone. We had another family in the neighborhood now. I had to accept it. One day, I hiked over to visit the new guy. Then I realized how fun he might be as a friend.

Anyone talking with him for a few minutes would realize Tucker was quick witted. And we did more than talk. We figured things out together, mostly in games at first. We played bumper pool in his basement. We played poker at my house. We threw footballs in his yard or mine. My brother and I lent Tucker baseball gloves so we could play hotbox and catch. While it was warm enough, we introduced Tucker to the creek and to hikes through the woods.

We took him around the neighborhood to see the other kids, although there were only two of them and Tucker didn't seem to find them interesting.

When the cold weather arrived, we doubled down on the card games and board games. Tucker continued to learn poker from us but we tried Hearts, Spades, Crazy Eights, Rummy, and Cribbage, too. We pulled out our boxes of Chinese Checkers, Dominos, Monopoly, Life, Scrabble, Parcheesi, and Mastermind. 

Then, in December, I got a Dungeons and Dragons manual from my brother for Christmas. 

I'd already played a few games of it, none finished. I'd learned about the first version months earlier at Sidwell Friends, where we used four primitive pamphlets and a lot of graph paper to create dice-rolling adventures. It was not quite a board game but it was similar. You drew your own maps. And unlike most other games, you got to make your own storyline. 

Since I'd played before and enjoyed drawing maps, I decided to make an adventure for Tucker and Dylan. None of us realized how addictive our sessions would become. When I played at Sidwell Friends, I'd seen the potential but it still surprised me. During those winter months, we spent all our energy on D&D - Tucker, my younger brother, and I - until the three of us could sleep only in school. On the occasions we were awake in class, we drew maps, created monsters, figured out numbering systems, and lived to fulfill our fantasies of power. 

That was the allure, of course. Our young, teen lives were captives of the demands of our parents and school systems. But in our D&D fantasy worlds, we could have valued skills. We could have imaginary respect. We could team up. We could split up, too, and decide what direction to take in our lives. We could show how clever we were. Tucker loved to create characters who won by using guile as much as strength. 

When the weather warmed, we cut down saplings and beat each other with them like errant knights. We researched ancient combat techniques. We discovered stories about samurai and lamellar armor. We made shields and chestplates out of cardboard and padding. We destroyed them in seconds and returned to research more medieval battles. 

Sometimes we fought like savages, like deranged and destitute samurai. At other times, we let ourselves be ordinary kids in the woods. We threw eggs and rotting peaches at passing cars. We built illegal bonfires in the park and shouted to the lonely forest.

By the following winter, though, we returned to our D&D adventures. We huddled in the basement. Tucker put on his green windbreaker when my parents made me turn down my baseboard heat. He cradled his hot tea or a cup of cocoa, careful not to spill it on his character sheets or maps. For hours at a time, Tucker could show that he was clever and brave. He could defy the authorities and no one would humiliate him or hit him for it. 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 269: Tucker Mythology - Western Spaghetti

Tucker Mythology
Western Spaghetti

We hadn't known each other for even a year. Tucker had turned fourteen. I'd turned fifteen. At that point, I was trying to get a handle on what was adult and what was cool. They were different things.  I'd seen a few Clint Eastwood movies on late night television but, although Clint seemed sort of cool, I had no desire to emulate him. Tucker was four years away from falling in love with those films and learning the term 'Spaghetti Western.' After that, it was a term he used for the rest of his life. Usually, he said it with a delighted smile.

But that day, we were still getting to know each other. And he thought I was weird.

"What are you doing?" Tucker asked from the top of the stairs. He thumped down to my spot on the landing. "Have you lost your senses?"

"I was just curious." I'd already finished half of the sandwich. So far, it had been good.

During the Korean War and Vietnam War years, American tastes in food had gotten pretty simple. Lunch was baloney and cheese if you had the money. Dinner was meat, a potato, and a vegetable. Our country's tastes were dominated by the question, 'Is there enough?' Once World War II ended and there was, in fact, enough, tastes changed. Our parents found time to worry about the extent of their enjoyment. So did we.

I was the first person I knew to try this sandwich, banana and peanut butter together. It was something I'd read about, a bit of weirdness I'd encountered in a paragraph about Elvis. The combination had been cited as an example of how unhinged he had become. And yes, the idea of it was weird. Elvis was a strange, fat and sloppy man who smelled bad even through the television. But I guessed he had been right about peanut butter and bananas.

"How is it?" Tucker leaned against my basement wall, his head to one side.

"Needs milk," I answered. "Or honey."

"You're going to do it again?"

"Maybe." Definitely, I thought.

When I considered food, it was normally for the purpose of withholding it from myself, fasting. Or for choosing the healthiest of a few options. This time, I'd read something about food and it had turned out to be a treat. That by itself was a departure from accepting the usual boiled meat and vegetables at my table.

Boiled foods were healthy. There were no diseases on them. And they were virtuous. When I was even younger, one of our family friends had ranted in front of me - to her husband but where we could all hear - about sugary foods. She had been scandalized by my birthday. It was the concept of cake and ice cream that launched the tirade. Bad enough, she felt, that you got a treat. Either type of sweet dessert was allowable for a special occasion. Having them both together, though, was not only bad for your body but bad for your soul. You couldn't have two tasty things together. That was degeneracy. Her parents had not approved when she was young. And she didn't approve, either.

Tucker's parents would have expressed similar opinions, I think. His father, at least, had expressed the idea of food simplicity unprompted.

This started on a Saturday. Tucker came to see if I was free and I was, or near enough. We played during the middle of the day at the creek. Then, back at my house, we spent the afternoon cracking croquet balls across the lawn with my brother, took a break to eat apples and cheese sandwiches, switched to throwing baseballs, then tennis balls, and we started a game of freeze tag with frisbees (you had to stand and get hit with a frisbee) when Tucker's father called him in.

"See you tomorrow," he said.

And the next day, Sunday, was more of the same. We set up and knocked down a volleyball net, We played a game of croquet. After that, strolled around with mallets and whacked weeds that I had missed when I'd cut the grass. We reached the east side of my house, the downhill part of the yard. Tucker lifted his head.
"That smells really good." He turned toward a side window. "What is it?"

"My dad's making spaghetti." It wasn't my favorite but my dad did a good job of it. Also, he enlisted my help as a second set of hands on the dinner. The prospect of the meal usually meant I didn't complain about doing the work. At least once a month, our family got a break from boiled meat and boiled vegetables. This was one of those times, his April batch.

"That doesn't smell like spaghetti." Tucker's mouth hung open. "It smells good."

"He's making the sauce." I paused to think for a moment. It was still early, plenty of time to negotiate with our parents. "Do you want to stay for dinner?"

"I don't know," he said. "I don't like spaghetti. But the sauce smells really good."

"I guess."

'I didn't know you could make your own sauce."

As we played and talked more, I learned that spaghetti and chow mein were the only ethnic foods that Tucker knew. They both came from a can. He didn't like either of them. But his dad tolerated spaghetti, so his mother made it regularly. Well, she poured it from a Chef Boyardee can and heated it as a side dish. Spaghetti was a bland accompaniment to the real food as far as Tucker was concerned.

"You know what?" he said as we hiked back to the shed to return our mallets. "I'm going to go ask."

"Ask what?"

"If I can stay for dinner. I'll have to speak up before my mom starts cooking. Otherwise, it's no."

"Dad?" I yelled into the house. "Can Tucker stay for dinner?"

"It's spaghetti," my father shouted back. He glared at me across the kitchen. He was proud of his spaghetti. He also coveted it. Nothing irritated him more than not having enough for leftovers. With three boys in year-round athletic training, he found it hard to make batches big enough to last a few days.

"That's why," I said.

"Oh really?" He put his hand on his hip and gave a cynical smile. "Right, then. I'll add some more stewed tomatoes."

Tucker got the timing right with his parents. He obtained his required permission.

"I have to do a bunch of chores first," he added. I shrugged off the news because I'd expected it. He hadn't stayed for dinner before but Tucker had asked his parents for favors in my hearing. I knew whenever he asked for something, he would work extra chores as part of the deal. He marched back to take care of his list. I figured I might as well start the homework I'd been ignoring.

In the late afternoon, Tucker returned for more games. We hiked and played catch until the sun dipped below the tree line. Not long after, an incoming cloud front turned the sky dark.

By my family's standards, we were still early when we walked in. But Tucker turned down the offer of a peach and resisted all other snacks. Instead, he stared, fascinated, as I stirred sauce for a while. He studied my father as he added spices to the saucepan. Tucker backed off, alarmed, as we boiled and drained the pasta. He hadn't seen that before. Then, patiently, he waited.

On the plates in his home, meat and potatoes were the main features. In our setting, spaghetti was the main thing. Vegetables sat in separate bowls off to the side. You served yourself. But Tucker seemed afraid. My mother spooned him a hefty serving. He leaned in to sniff it. He grabbed his fork.

"Oh my god," Tucker said. He put his fork down after his first bite.


He leaned back. His chewing slowed. "My god."

"Is there a problem?" my father asked.

"No. I mean, no sir." His hand returned to his fork. He twirled up another helping. "I really like it, Mr. Gallagher."

"Good." The rest of my family exchanged puzzled looks.

Our side dishes were peas with butter and spinach with butter. With us, you could eat as much as you liked, as fast as you liked, until you were full or the food ran out. Often enough, we ran out and got full at the about same time. I ate half as much spinach as spaghetti. Tucker didn't touch the spinach. He watched, slack-jawed, as the rest went about our business. By his expression, he was stunned to see my brothers and I serve ourselves. The sight affected him nearly as much as the food.
Tucker had to stop himself after three helpings. It seemed like he wanted more, really, but he was trying to be polite.

In our generation, Tucker's food situation wasn't unusual. If a dish was traditional for non-Anglo-Americans, it was by definition an ethnic food. Bratwurst was German. Unleavened bread had to be Jewish. Chow mein was Chinese. Rich foods were French. All of them were regarded with suspicion by the descendants of English, Swedish, and Dutch immigrants.
Maybe Tucker didn't know he'd been longing for food that tasted better or at least different. But he had. And he wasn't alone. His conversion to homemade spaghetti was the beginning I witnessed to a generational change in American foods. 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 268: Tucker Mythology - The Tree Fort

Tucker Mythology
The Tree Fort

This is how Tucker told it:

In the spring of 1981, while I was slogging through classes and fast food jobs at the University of Maryland, Tucker was having fun as a senior in high school. On the weekends, and sometimes the weekdays, he and my brother Dylan were building themselves a tree fort.

I’m not sure if they had a clear endgame for the tree fort. Maybe Tucker thought he would be able to invite babes over to smooch. Or he could maybe drink a beer in seclusion. But I think mostly the fort was just a cool thing in and of itself.

In order to build the fort, they chopped down a lot of trees that were about nine or ten inches thick.

To hoist the logs into place at the right height between four trees, they built a pulley system. When they worked out the method, they would chop down a tree, hack off the branches, haul it over to the right spot, tie each end with a rope, toss the ropes up and loop them through their pulley system, climb up to their starter log, hoist the new logs, and lash them into place. It was a long process and they took a long time coming to it. Their first starts were not efficient.

After a while though, they started getting the hang of the process. They cut down tree after tree, dragged them next to the fort, and stacked them.

One time, when my brother cut down a tree that was over a foot in diameter, it was more trouble than usual for Tucker to drag. As they were coming to their site, his hands slipped. His end of the log pulled the other end out of Dylan’s hands after it pulled Dylan off balance. To make it worse, the middle of their big log fell onto the stack of logs. The top of the stack acted like a fulcrum. As Tucker’s end fell down, the other end rose up and crushed my brother in the chest.

Dylan went down, gasping.

“I couldn’t help it,” Tucker told me later, “ it just looked so damn funny.“

Dylan stayed down for a while. Eventually, Tucker stopped laughing and realized it was kind of serious. And Dylan recovered enough to get up. Then he got so indignant about Tucker laughing before that Tucker started laughing again at how indignant he was.

The two of them continued to work on the fort for another couple weeks. Each workday, they spent time stacking more logs beside their work site and lashing more and more of them into place. When Tucker had half of a platform built, he started to feel proud about it. The project had taken a lot of work. And brains, too. They had to figure out a lot of details.

Weeks later when the two were lashing more logs to the platform, Tucker slipped. The log that he was hoisting spun out of the pulley system. His right leg got flung up and out by the rope. A moment later, the rest of his body followed the falling log to the ground.

He could have hit the log that he had been working on and had his skull broken in a couple of places. Or he could have landed on the stack of logs and broken his spine. But instead, Tucker says, he landed on his back between the two sets of logs. His vision exploded in a burst of color, then blackness. For a moment, he passed out.. He blinked at the boughs overhead.

Dylan hopped to the edge of the platform. He pointed down at Tucker.

“Ha!” he yelled. “Now you know how it feels!”

Tucker was in no shape to reply for a long while.

“Eric,” he told me later. “He was completely right. And I realized that I was really lucky. That fall could’ve been a lot worse. People break their necks doing stuff like that. And I have no skull  in the back of my head. It could’ve been bad. I had a headache for a while. But I really wasn’t hurt.”

He paused, lost in thought for a moment.

"And he was right. I shouldn't have laughed. But man, when that hit him, it did look like the coyote getting smacked around in a road runner cartoon."

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 267: Tucker Mythology - Drunking and Driving

Tucker Mythology
Drunking and Driving

In 1979, I started drinking before driving home from parties. Tucker usually sat by my side. We went to a party every week or so. In fact, when someone else from school wasn't throwing a party, we'd hold one outdoors in the fields by our houses or we'd set up a place in the woods.

We drank mostly because the cool kids did and we wanted to seem mature. I had another motive, too, which was my makeout sessions with cute girls. If I drank enough, I would do funny things, people would laugh, I'd sit on a couch or a chair and, after a while, a girl would sit in my lap. Or she'd come by to chat me up and I'd pull her onto my lap while we talked. The arrangement usually ended in kissing and a little more. Those encounters are what kept me drinking.  
But as I drank more and longer into the night at parties, Tucker got worried that I was getting too tanked up to safely drive. He had witnessed my overly-cautious, impaired driving. He usually had a bit less than I did. Not always, but usually, and he didn't like what he was seeing when I'd drunk a lot.

One night at a house in Montgomery Village, Tucker told me I'd had too much to drive.

"I'm not going home with you right now, man," he said. "And you shouldn't go either."

He pointed to a girl who was a mutual friend of ours. On cue, she said, "Don't leave yet. Stay and sober up for a while."

But I had gotten grounded every week for a couple months running and I wanted to get home at the time I promised, so I decided to go. After I found my jacket and stuff, I discovered that Tucker had stolen my car keys. It took a moment to figure out what he'd done and barely another minute to steal them back.

"Eric, you're going to make me call your parents," he warned me.

I got furious and stomped out to my car.

That is, I tried. First, I had trouble finding my car. When I found it, I had trouble getting in. It was pointed in a different direction than I remembered. I opened the passenger door, slid in, and had trouble getting to the steering wheel because I'd left stuff in my own way. I put the key in the ignition, turned it, and nothing happened.

"Well, shit." For a second, I assumed I'd gotten into the wrong station wagon. I'd done that before. But I checked the ashes in the ashtray, the hat on the seat, and the papers on the floor. It sure looked like my family car.

I got out of the passenger door and walked around to the other side. After fumbling around on the street, trying to look sober when a car passed me, I managed to slide in. But I blanked out for a while. When I woke up, I remembered I was supposed to be driving home and tried to find the steering wheel in the dark. I fumbled for the wheel, couldn't find it, gave up, and rested. After I revived and slapped myself across the face a few times to wake up better, I got systematic. I carefully ran my hands across the dashboard in front of me from the left side of the car to the right. Dumfoundingly, I missed the steering wheel again. And I remembered that the car hadn't started anyway, before. This was getting to be a puzzle. As I thought, arms folded, I gave up on some level. For a serious block of time, I slept. I even woke up for a moment to move from sitting to lying down.

When I roused myself, I found that my eyes had adjusted better to shadows from the distant street lamp. Or maybe I was more sober. Anyway, I saw that I was in the back seat of my car.

"I'm going to be late," I told myself and hopped out. I dashed around to the driver's seat. For sure, I felt less drunk than I had earlier.

Once again, I turned the key in the ignition and got nothing.

Well, I was grounded again, for sure, and I had a date coming up. That seemed bad. I stalked back to the house, trying to figure out how to manage more time with my girlfriend. Her parents hated me. Mine hated me, too. It was a challenge. In the party home, a fair number of teens were still wandering the halls and having fun. But the place seemed quieter. Maybe half the guests had left. I successfully found and used the first floor bathroom. Soon, I felt better. I'd gotten more beer out of my system.

With my face cool and drying from a washup, I went looking for people I knew.

"You've been gone a long time," said the girl who was our mutual friend. I found her, Tucker, and another teen at a kitchen table.

"Yeah." I rested my hands on the back of an empty chair. "My car won't start."

"You found your car?" she said, startled.

"Well, yeah."  Duh. My legs started to feel shaky. I leaned more on the chair.

"I guess we didn't hide it enough."

"What?" I pulled out the chair and took a seat.

"We were all worried." She said it as if it were a natural thing but, for teenagers in 1979, it wasn't. Our state had laws against drunk driving but no one enforced them.

"Yeah." Tucker tapped the table top. His hand made a hollow, metallic sound. "Everyone thought moving your car would do it. I was sure it wouldn't, though."

"What have you got in your hand?" I could see it was something black and round.

"Your distributor cap."

Tucker had taken the distributor cap off my family car and hidden it behind a houseplant. He'd gone a step beyond taking my keys from my jacket and putting them in his. Those, I'd had no problem finding. But the distributor cap was something I'd barely known existed. Finally, I understood.

After getting mad and snatching back the distributor cap, I staggered back out, opened up the hood, and fumbled around for about ten minutes. I was working by the light of a streetlamp. I'd never put on a distributor cap before. At some point, Tucker appeared.

"Almost," he said.

He found the missing wire and put it back in place.

"You really still shouldn't drive, you know."  

I was still angry and hoping to tone down my grounding enough to keep my usual pattern, which was four days grounded each week, Monday through Thursday, and then finding an excuse to take the car on Friday anyway. It usually worked.

I managed to drive home, still fairly wasted but more careful than usual. It didn't help. Tucker's phone call to my parents had done it. Grounded with extra force. No car for two weeks. Well, I broke that rule by offering to do errands a few days later when my parents didn't want to go but as far as taking the car on dates or to school, it seemed I really was stuck. Normally, I had college classes and had to drive to them. But the college semester ended earlier than the high school semester. So I didn't have my standard excuse. My parents could keep me grounded.

Every day for a week, I stood next to Tucker at the bus stop and didn't talk. I glared and didn't say a word. And kept glaring. Finally, near the end of the two weeks I got permission to run errands on a Friday, which I knew I could turn into taking the car on a date. Plus, Tucker kept telling me jokes. While I glared. I didn't say anything but a couple of times, he'd gotten me to laugh.

"She looks great today," he confided in me despite my silence. As the bus pulled up, he gazed longingly at one of the girls he was infatuated with.  

"Yeah," I agreed. He gave me a startled look.

I'd forgiven him already for being a traitor. In a way, I'd made up my mind about it. He could betray me again and I'd forgive him again. Likewise, he forgave me for being an idiot. Neither of us ever quite forgot. But somehow the foolishness of the other fools in school drew us together again. It was hard not to make jokes about the awfulness of our prison-mentality high school. And we were still best friends.

Even on the initial bus ride after I started talking, we laughed about the some of the same, stupid stuff we always did. A few hours later, at lunch, we started plotting about how to get away from our parents. But Tucker had me promise to at least try, just try, not to drive so drunk again.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 266: Tucker Mythology - Nice, Another Near Death

Tucker Mythology

He held the door for others. Even in high school, when some were telling him it was sexist, he insisted it was the right thing. Because he would do it for anybody. If he saw anyone struggling to carry something, wrangle an awkward package through a door, or finish a task he understood, his instinct was to help.

He did help. A lot.

For years, he mowed the lawn and did chores outside not only for his own house but his neighbors. How many people do you know who actually do that? Maybe a handful. And he was one of them.

He would actually listen. Yes, he would talk, too. He might interrupt with his own ideas but in an age of people not quite hearing what others were saying, Tucker listened carefully. He loved to trade ideas. He could laugh and talk for an hour, two hours, sometimes more. Not everyone says thank you. He always said thanks.

He shoveled snow from the sidewalks for others. He committed to the community chores no one else wanted to do; he knew they needed done. He lent his heart in a real way, with his efforts. He lent his couch to friends.

He volunteered at the Isaac Walton League, of course, and worked there for a couple of decades to make a friendly, fun place to be. He saw neighbors raking leaves and pitched in. He brought treats to the office. And most of this, he didn't do for any other reason than the joy of seeing people smile and laugh.

Tucker Mythology
Just Another Near Death

In the fall of 1980, my brother Dylan and Tucker decided to visit me at University of Maryland. I was living on Patricia Court, off of Metzerott Road. Since I walked everywhere, when they visited, they had to walk with me.    

That afternoon, we decided to go bowling. It was a short walk up Metzerott Road and over the one lane bridge to reach route one. From there it was not much more than a block to the bowling alley. I had walked this path when I was a kid.  

As we hit route one and turned left, we continued talking, throwing stones, and cracking jokes. Tucker and Dylan got out in front.  I pointed out the bowling alley across the street. Tucker turned to finish making his joke and, with his back to traffic, he stepped out into the road.

At the same time, A car going about 55 miles an hour, the only car on the road, changed lanes into his lane. To hit Tucker. Dylan and I could see it clearly. But only Dylan could reach Tucker. He grabbed Tucker hard by the forearm and threw him back onto the sidewalk. An instant later the car barreled by. It never slowed down.

Some people do survive getting hit by a car. But I don’t think that speed was survivable. And Tucker didn’t know it had happened for a couple seconds. He was irritated at Dylan even when he heard and felt the winds of the car passing him by just a foot away.

“What the hell, man?“  His eyes widened in realization. “Oh, that was close!"

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 17: Washington and Vancouver 9, Our Neighborhood

Our Seattle Neighborhood

The northeast area of the city was modest, a swath of former suburbs that supported middle-class standalone homes edged by small yards. I don’t know where the wealthy neighborhoods of Seattle are; they're probably closer to downtown. This one was nice, though. The neighbors were pressed close together but in a comfortable way. It had a bit of a San Francisco feel in that the architecture styles looked random. Someone with an original World War II era cottage could sit next to a post-modern house, next to a craftsman style house, next to a Cape Cod, next to a shipping container house, next to a Tudor, next to a Victorian. In my home town, there's no place I can see variations in construction style thrown close together quite like that.

That evening in the northeast corner of the city, we checked out more of the local life. Oddly, there didn't seem to be squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, or dogs except on a leash. 

We saw only two cats roaming, both shy and hiding from us after they grew aware they'd been noticed. Of course, we were in a city but with so much greenery around, I expected more wild animals.

Plant life abounded. The residents of our Seattle neighborhood used their herb gardens as a form of landscaping, as Diane had mentioned, and their plants were bigger than on the East Coast. I'm not sure why. Rosemary grew in bushes, four feet tall and about that wide. Daisies were often six feet high. Dandelions grew two to three feet. As far as the dandelions are concerned, I wouldn't be surprised if east coast lawncare practices have encouraged the survival of varieties short enough to not get killed by lawnmowers; we've eliminated the bigger ones and permitted the small ones to flourish. 

That doesn't explain the other types of plants growing so large around Seattle, though. The cause might simply be that it's a great environment for growing plants.

Here were the fruit plants in our three block walk to Cloud Coffee:

Strawberries mixed with wild strawberries
Squash or pumpkin (too early to tell)

Diane noticed these herbs:

Variegated Sage
Russian Sage

The flowers:

Lambs ear

All of this was on top of other landscaping oddities, such as flowering vines we didn’t recognize, bamboo groves, butterfly bushes, ivy, and plenty of ferns. Again, we saw all of this in three blocks. We don't have as much variety of cultivated types in Frederick. We do have a few gardens, though, and if you look around our neighborhood, you'll probably trip on a rabbit. Or a fox. It's nice to have foxes around.

As far as the people of the northwest, I found them business-like but friendly. It is easy to understand the economy of a large, port city. Seattle has industries like aircraft manufacturing nearby because it's easy to transport components in and out. It's got technical companies like Microsoft and Amazon AWS. The northwest is a reasonable place for businesses based on importing. Even better, the surrounding lands aren't vulnerable to wildfires. So far. There are hills, water, a ton of plants, and rich soils full of volcanic ash.

Oh, the volcanoes. Mount Rainer looms, beautiful but deadly. Mount Saint Helens killed people forty years ago. Mount Baker, Goat Rocks, Glacier Peak, and Indian Heaven are all active. All of them sit reasonably close to the Seattle Fault or the Tacoma Fault.

Nothing will happen in our lifetimes, I'm sure. But I've thought that before.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 16: Washington and Vancouver 8, Dead Branch Theory

The Dead Branch Theory

As we hiked in Olympic Park and through Deception Pass, we kept seeing branches fallen to the ground. A surprising percentage of the time, the branches had fruticose lichen on them. In fact, the fallen ones seemed always to be the most lichen-covered of branches.

Were the branches dying from the lichen? Or were the trees killing off infected branches deliberately?   
The fruticose lichen had to interfere with the leaves photosynthesizing on branches below, at least. On some trees, they visibly grabbed a significant share of sunlight. But they might have done worse. They might have been sapping energy directly from the trees, probably in the form of sucking out glucose from the lining under the bark. That would go against the generally accepted rule for lichens now but I think it's good to be suspicious of what seems like overly-quick, overly-general conclusions. We seem to be in the infancy of understanding biochemical relationships between different plants. It wouldn't seem like any surprise to learn that some lichen behave chemically different from others. Their fungal components might be partially parasitic or at least opportunistic if they happen upon cracks in bark. 

The deadfalls seemed to lead into the central question: were these branches breaking accidentally?  Were they killed by lichen robbing them of their leaves? Or were the trees cutting off resources to those branches deliberately so as to let them snap off in the next strong wind? At this point, we know trees have intentionality. But do they have it in response to these lichen? 

For a while, I contemplated experiments that might reveal the intentions of the trees, if any. None of them would be easy. It is not enough that the branches hit the ground, not enough that the falls correlate to the heaviest growths of lichen (if they do), not even enough to show the branch losses are far greater than chance. After all, the lichen could be killing those branches even in a non-parasitic way. 

No, to really demonstrate that the deadfalls were intentional, you would have to know the basic chemistry of trees, perhaps of each individual tree, and you would need a way to track individual changes in their living chemistry. That's how it was done when spotting how acacia trees turn their leaves bitter when they need to discourage herbivores. In that case, biologists took leaf samples. That's probably not applicable here. You might not pick up distinctive signals in leaf chemistry. And you wouldn't want to conduct an experiment by cutting trees or branches down. (That has too often seemed to be the current state of forestry practice.)

My suspicion as a casual observer is that the trees do respond to lichen invasions. But it's only a suspicion.