Unforgettable Intercourse

My brother recently moved to North Carolina for grad school.  It’s exciting because, distance-wise, he is closer to me than he was when he was living in Massachusetts.  Now, when I decide to visit, I just need to survive driving through hills of inbred, mountain people.  That joke may only be funny to the geographically inclined.  It definitely won’t be funny to people from West Virginia.

He drove down with my dad on a twelve-hour journey, stopping in Fredericksburg for a night.  I forgot they were making this trip until my email inbox began to fill with pictures of my dad, sporting his 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment t-shirt, pretending to take cover behind a stone wall.  If this sounds strange to you, you’ve never been on a road trip with my father.

When you travel with my dad, a couple things are guaranteed to happen.  Regardless of where you go in the entire world, you will, at some point on your journey, find yourself at the former site of an American Civil War battle.  Some of these historical preservations will have museums and memorials dedicated to the fallen.  Most of these sites will be large, empty fields that last saw action one hundred and fifty years ago.  There will usually be at least one statue of a general or war hero, and you better be prepared to pose next to it, imitating the sculpture with tremendous accuracy regardless of how many other tourists are there snapping pictures and laughing at you.

In the end, you will see and experience new and exciting places.  You will also bond as a family.  But you WILL have your  fair share of embarrassment.  And sometimes all of these happen in a single moment that you will remember forever.  I’ll get to that in a second.

My brother’s recent adventure to grad school can be topped only be the multi-day road trip the men in my family took in the summer of 2003.  We called it the Fantastic American Road Trip for multiple reasons…

A. We covered several all-American stops like ground zero, Gettysburg, and the back yard pool of my dad’s old college buddy’s New Jersey home.

B. We did the entire trip by car.

C. The acronym is FART.

The longest portion of the trip was in Gettysburg, where we stayed in a motel for three days on the exact anniversary of the Civil War battle that made the town famous.  Each day we spent was filled with reenactments, looking at empty fields, and taking plenty of pictures.  Gettysburg is probably the most famous battle of the war, so there were plenty of statues for my dad to pose us next to.  He made sure we didn’t miss a single one.  If there was a stone soldier on horseback with his sword drawn, my brother and I were right there beside him, straddling air and waving our umbrellas high above our heads while my dad snapped away.

The most notable picture was one of the three of us standing with a group of Confederate reenactors.  These were bearded, toothless men who could have been extras in Deliverance if it was a period piece.  The picture is still on display at my parents’ house and it serves as a reminder of the time an awkward Jewish family joined forces with alcoholic, gun-toting, hobbyists on the field of pretend battle.

At this point in our lives, my brother and I were entering middle school and high school respectively.  Neither of us ever really had a rebellious phase, but it was still that age where we felt embarrassed every time we went to a movie with a parent and ran into our friends.  We were too cool to hang out with dad outside of our house, let alone stand in front of a canon that’s been inactive for over a century and pretend to fire it while he takes a photo.  To my dad, this was simply a part of being a parent.  To give your kids something they will take with them for the rest of their lives.  And he did.  He really, really did.  It just happened in an unexpected way.

On our way back to Massachusetts, we made a pit stop in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; a place widely known for its rich Amish culture, and for a little town called Intercourse.  When my dad doesn’t know the exact history behind something, he makes up facts.  So I learned that this town was named for the historic Amish orgy of 1754.

Most of Intercourse’s tourism probably comes from frat guys who stop in just long enough to buy a t-shirt.  It’s a wonder more towns haven’t taken this approach to attracting tourists.  Sexville, New Hampshire, Analbeads, Wisconsin, Fuck, Michigan.  It’s almost too easy.

As we walked through town, the Amish smiled and waved.  But my dad and I were too busy snickering.

“I wish I could experience Intercourse every day!”  My dad joked.

“I loves me some nice, long, intense Intercourse.”  I responded.  Missing the point entirely.

“What’s so funny?”  Demanded a prepubescent voice in the back.

My brother, in his eleven-year-old wisdom, didn’t get the joke.  To him, intercourse was a meaningless word that had no relation to sex and sex was a thing you did when you lied on top of your partner, kissed, and rubbed belly buttons.  I told him that.

My brother was also notoriously stubborn as a child and didn’t like being left out of the conversation.  Every time my father and I made a joke, he would demand to know why we were giggling like school boys who just found their older brother’s porn collection.

All my dad had to do was say, “Intercourse is another word for sex.”

It’s a simple explanation.  My brother would have nodded and laughed along with us for the rest of the trip.

But there was something in the air on that warm, summer day.  Like a pollen, it floated through my dad’s nostrils and into his lungs, making his chest puff and fresh hair sprout on his ass.  Maybe it was because we were on the last couple days of a week-long male bonding excursion and he felt as though we needed to return home with more than just a few pictures.

He decided, right then and there in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, to give my brother the sex talk.

“Stay here, Eric.”  He said to me outside the Amish waffle house.  “Your brother and I need to have a few words.”

As they walked in slow motion towards a park bench on the side of the dirt road, I saw my brother look back in terror shortly before a horse and buggy momentarily blocked my view.  For the next twenty-three minutes, I watched from afar as my dad explained the inner workings of a vagina like he was putting on a shadow puppet show.  My brother fixed his eyes on a nearby pile of horse manure and that’s where they remained for the rest of this one-sided conversation.

For the first time on the trip, I was able to watch a purely awkward moment from afar.  I savored it, knowing that my brother will never be the same again.  Knowing that he will one day tell his children stories about this very encounter.  And I will do the same, when I’m not taking embarrassing pictures of my own kids.  In front of every statue.  On every road trip.  In every place we visit.  I’ll laugh as they cringe and plead, “Dad!  Can we stop now?  People are watching!”  Because I know it may be painful at the time, but when they grow up they will wish I had taken more.

My dad was in the middle of miming an erection with his thumb, when I realized I instinctively had his camera out and was snapping away.  Click.  Click.  Click.  The tears in my eyes from laughter making it hard to see exactly what was happening, but I knew I had to capture every moment as this was the kind of uncomfortable part of growing up I never, ever wanted to forget.

Dad and Cannon

Still Life

Photograph by Susan Licht

Photograph by Susan Licht

Last Christmas, my family awoke to presents under the decorated tree, full stockings hung by the chimney, and the smell of cinnamon coming from the kitchen.  A light snow coated our yard in white while James Taylor’s holiday album played softly through the stereo.  I can say with confidence that it was the most festive birthday party for Christ that any Jewish family has ever thrown.

When my mom called us over for breakfast, we gathered around the table just in time to see the still steaming, syrup coated, french toast placed directly in front of my brother, father, and I.  Before we could thank Jesus for the delicious feast, we lunged for the food with our forks out, ready to stab.

“Wait!”  My mom yelled.  We froze.  She surveyed the scene of three starving men in their pajamas about to tear into a holiday treat like cavemen ripping open the belly of a boar.  “I have to get a picture first.”

She went into the other room to grab her good camera.  Our eyes never left the food.  It was like somebody hit the pause button on our kitchen.  But what else could we do?  Inspiration had struck my mother and that inner desire to create needed to be fulfilled.  Over the past few years this has been a common occurrence in the Licht household.

Like that one time my dad, brother, and I were swimming at a beach on the Cape.  We were up to our waists in the ocean, horsing around in the waves.

“Do another underwater handstand!”  My mom shouted from the shore.  “I missed the last one.”

I still had water in my ears from our last trick, but we dunked ourselves over and over until my mom got the perfect shot.  This meant holding my breath for longer and longer durations.  It was worth it when we saw the picture in its finished form; but at the time it was like Ansel Adams meets water boarding.

My mom’s photography skills began to develop several Christmases before we almost murdered her over French toast.  It was a Nikon or a Canon, I believe.  My dad had it perfectly wrapped under the Chanukah Bush for when she got up.  I didn’t think twice about it.  My mom is difficult to shop for and I imagined it would be a few months before the camera started collecting dust in the closet next to the bread maker we got her a few years before.  My mom got a few months out of the bread maker at least, filling our family with delicious carbs every chance she could before she got bored.  In the end, we were lucky she didn’t develop a passion for baking sourdough rolls, otherwise her next Christmas gift would have had to be an aerial spy camera for family portraits.

In the end it was photography that won the heart of my mother and she took to it much faster than any of us could have expected.  She started seeing inspiration in every flower, bug, bird, cup of coffee, sunset, and passerby on the street.  She started taking nature walks, morning drives, and afternoon trips into the city to see what should could capture.  And there was always something to capture.  There were times we caught her in the yard snapping shots of a single dandelion for hours.  I like to think I inherited my mom’s appreciation for the beauty of daily life, and that this is reflected in my writing.  She shows this love through photographs of the moment a bee gracefully lands on a flower and I write about pooping my pants.

In order to share her pictures, my mom took to social media, amassing over 800 followers on her blog faster than I could say, “How the hell are you doing that?”  Then she started getting recognition from other well known bloggers and selling her pictures faster than I could say, “No, but seriously, how are you doing that?”.  Yet, in spite of my jealousy over my popular mom, she has still managed to be an incredible source of inspiration.

To see someone twice as old as me with a sense of wonder so fresh.  To still see that fire in someone with an amount of life experience that usually keeps people grounded in a comfortable routine.  It gives me hope that learning, discovering and creating don’t end once your children have grown.

“Now don’t move.”  My mom demanded when she returned to the kitchen with her camera around her neck.

The steam from the toast was beginning to fade and my fork was starting to tremble as a response to my inner diabetic panic attack

“Please hurry.”  I begged.

At the time, my appreciation was clouded by my love for food.  It wasn’t until seeing the photograph on her blog later that I began to reflect on the moment and truly see the beauty in it.  And it wasn’t until now that I was able to try to describe this beauty on paper, hoping that my humorous twist on the festive occasion is half as amazing as what my mom saw through the lens that Christmas morning.

Photograph by Susan Licht

Photograph by Susan Licht

You can read my mom’s blog at lichtyears.com

Comfort Leaves

Photo by Susan Licht

Suffocating used to scare me when I was a child.  My first and only actual panic attack occurred when I was five and my little brother choked on a cucumber.  He coughed for a few seconds and then spit it out.  Ironically, I was the one that couldn’t breathe or swallow because I thought baby Andy was going to be killed by a ruthless vegetable.

I also thought suffocating was something anyone could do on a whim.  Not with rope or water, but by choosing not to breathe for awhile.  I just figured if somebody wanted to commit suicide, they could hold their breath and they would suddenly die once the air had completely left their lungs.  I was so convinced that this was true, I monitored my breathing every day for what seemed like a year.  I was somehow able to turn an autonomic bodily function into something I had full control over, which I know now is almost the equivalent of me stopping my digestive system or preventing my pupils from dilating.  At the time, however, this was a totally rational fear which lead to many nights lying in bed, breathing like I just climbed a stairway to heaven and hoping this journey wouldn’t become a reality if I stopped manually taking in each gulp of air.

I stopped paying attention to my breathing once I realized it was pointless.  Like when I accidentally wore sweatpants to gym in middle school, I came to the conclusion that my body was going to do whatever the hell it wanted to, whether I liked it or not.

If only everything became less scary when we aged.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

I was in elementary school when my friends and I used to chase leaf twisters on the soccer field at recess.  This was brought on by seeing the movie Twister in 1996 and deciding that I wanted to devote my life to being a storm chaser like Helen Hunt.  Leaf twisters were a safe place to start because they were slow-moving, small in scale, and made up entirely of crumpled, dead plant pieces that toddlers jump in for fun.

Most kids used recess as a chance to play soccer and climb on the monkey bars.  The children who made the mistake of being my friends were forced, by me, to stand against the building and wait for strong gusts of wind.

“Can’t we wait on the swings?”  They would ask.  “This is so boring!”

“Are you insane?”  I would yell.  “You’re really going to let you’re guard down on a day like today?  What would you do if the playground got hit by an L5 and you didn’t even see it coming?”

We used the “L System” to measure the strength of a leaf twister.  L5 creatively and nonsensically stood for Leaf 5 which was the strongest on the scale and carried anywhere from five hundred to five hundred and fifty leaves in its funnel.  There was never enough time to count, but as nine-year-olds we had very good instincts.

When a leaf twister would finally appear (and this usually occurred once every seventeen school days) my friends and I would physically chase it.  We had no equipment to monitor the wind gusts.  We had no trucks or vans.  We just ran after the twister until it disappeared, which was usually within ten seconds after it formed.

I was only lucky enough to catch a leaf twister one time.  It was such a pivotal moment in my childhood that I still remember it vividly today.  The twister formed within several yards of where I was standing.  It was an L3 at least.  I was alone.  By this point in my storm chasing career, my friends had all ditched me to throw rocks at the classroom fat kid.  Not knowing what to do when I actually caught a leaf twister, I ran towards it at full speed and jumped inside.  It was like nothing I had ever seen before in my short life.  Leaves floating around me like planets around the sun.  A spiral of red, orange, yellow, and brown on a crisp afternoon.  The sensation of being a part of a natural phenomenon so incredible that you think it’s magic.

The magic didn’t last long.  That specific moment was short-lived (the twister imploded after a weak four seconds), but so was childhood wonder in general.  Especially after I grew up and learned more and more about real tornadoes.  The ones that flatten houses and leave entire towns demolished in their wake.  I may have discovered the beauty of being able to breathe without thinking about it, but much of the world became darker with age.  Cap guns became real guns, fireworks became missiles, waves became tsunamis, and Lindsay Lohan became Lindsay Lohan.  It’s only natural that the harsh realities of life take over as time passes.

A few nights ago, we had severe weather in the area that kept me confined to my living room, glued to the computer screen.  Between the computer, my television, my phone, and my tablet; my weather tracker was enough to make most meteorologists sad or fearful for my well-being.    But the storms had to be tracked.  They had to be monitored.  I had to watch for them.   If one ever formed near my town, I would need to know and seek shelter immediately.  And it’s in that shelter that I will wait in fear for everything to blow over, counting my breaths, and longing for the days when a tornado was something to run towards at full speed.

I’ll Have the Future Usual

Leah was in the middle of cleaning when I arrived to pick her up for lunch.  She was sweating, but that’s to be expected when it’s almost 90 degrees outside and the house you signed for only two days ago doesn’t have any form of air conditioning yet.  Still, grinning from ear to ear as she came to the door, you would have never guessed she had been scrubbing down an empty kitchen all morning.  Since we became friends in high school, Leah has always seemed to dread cleaning as much as I dread weekends, hamburgers, and finding fifty dollars on the street.

“Welcome to my home!”  She exclaimed as she let me in.  “Sorry about the boxes.  We don’t officially move in until the end of the month.”

“It’s already cleaner than my apartment.”  I pretended to joke.

It was also much larger and better fit for people to live in.  The main floor had a kitchen, a spacious living area, a beautiful, half-covered patio and a room that was created for the sole purpose of sitting down.

“Where does the television go?”  I asked.

“There’s no TV in this room.”  Leah explained.  “Just chairs, a couch, and we’re thinking about putting some bookshelves over there.”

“That will look beautiful.  So the television will be tucked away in a cabinet?”

“Nope.  No TV at all actually.”

“Wow.  I can already picture the layout in my head so vividly.  So the TV will go up on the wall?”

The basement was also impressive, with a home office and an area that Leah set aside as a man cave for her husband, Matt, who she married last fall.   Seeing the space made me jealous until I remembered that the only part of my apartment that isn’t a man cave is the shared laundry room.

Our last stop was the upstairs, where I caught of glimpse of the three bedrooms.  One for Leah and Matt and the others for guests.

“That is until we have children.”  Leah chimed in.

I was careful not to mention babies before she did.  Back in high school, Leah had her perfect life all planned out.  She would be married and have at least four kids by the time she turned twenty-three.  She is now twenty-five with no children yet.  Standing next to the financially stable, happily married woman in her three-bedroom home on a quiet suburban street, I didn’t have the heart to remind her that her dreams were dead.

“That was the grand tour.”  Leah announced as we returned to the kitchen where we started.  “What do you think?”

“It’s big.”  I said.

And I meant it in more ways than one.  Leah and Matt were the first friends I grew up with to actually invest in a real house.  Walking from room to room, I knew I was witnessing the beginning of something.  Back in high school this was lifetimes away.  Now it was easy to picture the bedrooms filled with kids.  It was easy to see me visiting the same home ten years from now with my future wife.  I could see the kids playing in the yard while we sipped wine on the patio before retiring to the sitting room to talk about life and stare at bookshelves.

“So what were you thinking for food?”  Leah asked, interrupting my all too realistic vision of the future.

I figured we could either grill steaks on the kitchen floor or go out somewhere.  I opted for the latter option because it meant I could be of use finding a local establishment where Leah and Matt could become regulars.

In high school, this was the T.G.I Fridays at the mall.  This was mostly because, for our first couple years, we needed a hangout spot where we could kill more than a couple hours before our parents came and picked us up.  When we finished eating, we spent most of our time playing at the arcade, reading in the book store, and watching fights between white, over-privileged middle school gangs.

We continued eating there upon returning home from college for summer and winter breaks.  Almost six years went by before my arteries grew too clogged for that kind of lifestyle.   But if you had told us Freshman year that this mall restaurant would play a significant part in our most developmental years as people, we would have probably laughed.  And I would have ordered a salad every now and then.

This time I was ready.  We found a local place a couple miles down the road.  Having learned nothing growing up, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with peanut butter.  Having learned more than I did, Leah ordered a salad.  And for the first time since graduating high school, we talked more about the future than we did the past.  We imagined Leah and Matt eating here after watching their kids play soccer.  We imagined that they would each have a special item on the menu that they would order every time.  Maybe someday they will even be that little old couple, sitting in the booth they’ve sat at for years, feeding each other during the early bird special at four in the afternoon.

It may be many years down the road, but it’s something to consider.  After all, when we were teenagers sitting at our usual table and eating our usual food, touring each others first homes seemed like nothing short of an eternity away.

Career Fair

I should be waking up in a cold sweat every night with reoccurring dreams of being a childhood failure.

When I was a kid, I played on my home town’s little league baseball team.  I chose the outfield because it meant I could make little dirt volcanos with my cleats and pray that the other team didn’t have the motor skills to hit a ball further than second base.  The other team always picked up on this and made sure to hit every ball my way.  It meant I had to quickly throw it back to the infield with a technique that resembled a man with spaghetti arms trying to swat a fly.

My dad signed me up for this every spring for about four years after my nine seasons of soccer proved to be a waste of time (the only thing I learned was how to use an orange peel as a mouth guard).  During one particular game, we were up by one run during the bottom of the ninth and the opposing team was at bat.  They had two outs and the bases were loaded.  The batter hit a fly ball that came directly towards me, but I didn’t notice because my dirt volcano was melting a nearby village of ants.  By the time I realized I could catch the fly ball and win the game for our team, I had missed the fly ball and lost the game for our team.

My father was horrified, as this is apparently the stuff that ruins kids’ lives.  He still brings up the time he lost a high school wrestling match because he made the  simple mistake of throwing up all over everything.  He feared that I would lose all my friends and never be able to let down this terrible mistake.  My team slumped back to the dugout with their dreams shattered.  My coaches hung their heads in shame.  I took my glove off and skipped off the field to my father, stopping at one point to try and catch a butterfly.

“Can we get ice cream now?”  I asked with a pleading grin.

It was then that my father realized I had no intention of playing for the Red Sox when I grew up.  Once I entered high school, I began to gravitate towards the things I loved, like making short films, acting on stage, playing music, and writing; all of which you can do with spaghetti arms.  Not that I don’t appreciate my father’s efforts to get me involved in team sports (I’ve never had as much muscle as I did when I was in elementary school).

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to help work a table at a local career fair for young engineers.  The attendees ranged from sixth to twelfth grade.  Most of the younger ones were with their parents who realized that, if their children majored in Minecraft, they probably wouldn’t be able to support them upon retirement.

“What kind of engineer do you want to be?”  I asked a sixth grade boy.

“He wants to study biological engineering with a focus in thermodynamics and polymer science.”  Explained his father.

“Oh wow!  Is that so?”  I asked the boy.

“I can make my fart sound like an angry bird.”  He stated.

After a little while we began to get visits from the older crowd.  These kids were about to graduate and enter college.  They had time to discover who they were in high school and who they were going to be for the rest of their lives.  One of them looked like an engineer to the point where I would have hired him without an interview.

“What types of products do you make in the biomedical industry?”  He asked.

My colleague and I gave him a decent description.

“Where are you plants located?”  He inquired.

We told him.

“Can you describe the extrusion process of your medical tubing?”

At his point we sent him to a more capable person without a communications degree, but he stuck around the booth for at least twenty minutes asking all about the work that we do as a business.  And this wasn’t a list of questions that one of his parents shoved in his pocket for the day.  This was his curiosity.

“What a nerd.”  I said to my colleague.

But I meant it in the best way possible.  When I’m older and three hundred pounds for lack of participating in team sports, I hope this kid has a hand in making the hospital equipment used to keep me alive.  I hope he designs it with the same enthusiasm he had at our career fair booth.

And if his engineered equipment fails and I die of extreme obesity, I hope he takes it to heart and spends sleepless nights designing a better product instead of skipping over to his boss without a care in the world and asking, “Can we get ice cream now?”