7 – Default Setting

I leaned an extension ladder against the great maple tree in the front yard, shinnied along a bough twenty feet off the ground, and rigged a rope swing to it. Pushing Claire through the dappled air enabled both of us to escape the gravitational pull of everything. A child’s contentment sprinkles pixie dust on the commonplace.

She had a bath routine that rarely varied. After a scrub-a-dub round of cleanliness, I would read to her, always from the same little book consisting of eight or ten puffy, waterproof pages. Entitled Ernie’s Bath Book, it described Ernie’s bath time, accompanied by a series of bubbly drawings. The book’s very, very minimal text took about ninety seconds to read aloud. The best we saved for last. I cleared my throat and started all over again, but from the final word, running it backwards, and closing solemnly – Book Bath Ernie’s. This exercise never failed to elicit squeals of pleasure from both of us.

And yet…

We got out the yellow wading pool one sweltering day and filled it with icy cold water from the garden hose. Claire stepped in with her pink and yellow plastic roller skates on. Instead of shooing her out or ignoring the wet, impervious skates, I laid into her. “Oh, sweetheart, look. You’re in water up to your big ol’, wobbly ankles.” Her expression crashed with the impact of a watermelon thrown off a roof. “Oh, honey. Oh, honey. It’s fine, fine, just fine, you there in the water.” I scrambled to backtrack and distract, but the imprint had been made.

She probably has no recollection, but I do. I do because I was fooling around with my brand-new, state-of-the-art, two-part videotape contraption; a camera the size of a small bazooka wired to an accompanying videocassette recorder with the heft of a phone book, which you toted along via an over-the-shoulder strap. My commentary, disembodied nastiness, its tone one of exaggerated cruelty, only heightened the impact of Claire’s dismay. The tape would get played every couple years, every time we searched for the one marked, Puppies.

The wallop of remorse all out of proportion to the transgression knocked the stuffing out of me. I was a fucking asshole. So what about the generous, compassionate, humorous guy, the guy who was trying. What happened to kicking self-loathing to the curb? In the final analysis – Fucking Asshole.

Living with contradiction was what sobriety was all about. But the flip side of Fucking Asshole – Okay Guy – was so easily obliterated. I had to learn to live with the balance inherent in contradiction, with uncertainty, and do the best I could with the materials at hand.


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