I Refuse To Squander My Life

Photo by Nathan Salley

I don’t like brightly colored flags, or sunshine, or young girls with big ears, braided ponytails and sundresses. I don’t intend to squander one minute of my precious time standing on hot asphalt looking up through long strings of fluttering banners at the big, blue sky with a shit-eating grin on my face and a sense of wonder in my heart. That sort of behavior is for children who don’t know any better and small-minded adults who believe they have time to kill, not for people who live purposefully. Not for those of us who have real work to do.

My father, a buffoon and jokester to the core from the first day I remember meeting him to the day he died, loved parades. Thought they were great fun. Made me get up early on Saturday mornings and go downtown with him before the crowds arrived so that we could get the best spot on the sidewalk to wave at the passing floats. The noise and activity, the colors and smells, the masses of people—ordinary people just like him—energized him. Made him smile and laugh, excitedly hop from foot-to-foot as the tubas and trumpets triumphantly marched by, the sunlight bouncing off their polished brass, their owners blowing horribly off-tune notes into our faces like so much spittle and venom.

Sometimes the beaming parade marshals or the painted clowns in their rainbow-colored wigs threw candy at the masses. My father, ever the child, made a great game of catching it, or picking it up off the streets and stuffing it into the pockets of his sport coat. Every so often, he unwrapped a piece, popped it into my mouth and patted me on the head like he was doing me the biggest favor in the world. I grinned at him to make him happy. But as soon as he turned away, as soon as his attention was caught by the Shriners in their ridiculous maroon fezzes or by the happy-go-lucky Chinese dragon-walkers, I spit that shit into the gutter. Candy is too sweet. It’s sticky and unhealthy, a waste of money that rots your teeth and makes you fat and stupid. I’m neither, and I never will be.

Yes, my father loved parades. St. Patrick’s Day. Christmas. Easter. Thanksgiving Day. The Fourth of July. Columbus Day. Anytime anybody got together in our town to stomp up and down the boulevards in costume with a high-stepping, baton-twirling majorette in the lead, my father was there, with me at his side.

But I ask you, What good did these celebrations do him?

None.

My father worked on the assembly line at Ford. Bolted heavy steel hinges to the frames of Ford station wagons and pickup trucks five days a week, fifty weeks a year until he retired. But he didn’t have anything to show for his career at the end of it except a meager pension, a 35-year-service lapel pin, and of pocketful of crumpled-up candy wrappers. His silver and gold wasn’t precious metal, it was tin foil, and worthless. My mother couldn’t even afford a decent headstone for him when he died. Just a flat plaque set flush with the ground. A thin slice of granite engraved with his name and the years of his unremarkable birth and even more unremarkable death. No room on it for an inscription, and what would it read anyway? “Here lies a man who worked at a factory, married a woman, raised a son and loved parades?” It’s a pathetic non-monument to a failed life. You can hardly even see it when the grass gets high at the cemetery. My mother shouldn’t have bothered with that stone. Should’ve saved the money for groceries, or something practical.

So what good did parades do my father? What good do they do anybody?

Not a goddamned thing.

My father’s life was a waste. But I learned something valuable from him: I learned that I’m not going to let my life add up to nothing.

They say a man named John Philip Sousa is the world’s greatest composer of music for marching bands. That his horrendous cacophony Stars and Stripes Forever is the National March of the United States of America. Good for him. Good for you. Bang your drums and cymbals and blow your horns all you want; I’m a man now, my father is dead, and I don’t stand on the curb watching parades anymore.

John Philip Sousa can fuck himself.

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85 thoughts on “I Refuse To Squander My Life

  1. This is a very interesting piece of writing, Mike. Provocative, a little angry, resentful, hostile, even. This might sound strange, but I think it’s one of the best things you’ve written. I love it, because as the reader, you can’t help being affected by it, whether you like it or not.

    You are a very gifted writer, Michael.

    • I completely agree with Ziva. The writing is flawless. Now the heart of the piece, that’s another matter. Since it is clearly meant to be provocative (as all good writing should be), I feel provoked to say you are one joyless sonofabitch.

      • Thank you both. This is a bit of serious writing, perhaps a bit beyond acerbic, and bit beyond black.

        I probably should point out that my father, a retired electrician, stockbroker and small-business owner, is still alive and has no particular interest in parades. He does like candy, however.

        I don’t know where this post came from. What part of my mind it emanates from. Some dark part. It does resonate with me on several levels, I admit. But I don’t hate parades, and I share my father’s love of candy, as my waistline proves.

        This isn’t a likeable post, but I like it very much, if you don’t mind me saying so. It feels true, I guess. If any of you can explain why I’d write something this mean-sprited and bitter, I’d appreciate it.

        • I wish I did know why, Mike. It truly saddens me and I’m more than a little concerned about you. I hope you’ll find someone to help you figure it out. You’re truly loved and valued by all of us or we wouldn’t be here.

          • I’m not unusually sad, but this piece interests — and disturbs — me psychologically. As it apparently did many of you.

            • I worry about you. But that’s my job. I am your sister. If you ever need me, I will be there. I am only a plane ride away. Well, this might actually be a blessing for you. (that I am that far away)

                • Grandma Bryant tried to get me to drink gin during my long stay in London (1983).I always accepted her gin, ran upstairs and put it down the drain. Which reminds me of this: In Australia, gin goes down the drain in a different direction.

            • I really enjoyed this post. It takes your readers to a darker place than where we weren’t expecting to venture. I am also very relieved to hear that the subject matter is fictional.

              There’s something liberating and cathartic about going off on a fictional tangent every now and then. I really like the results of this particular tangent of yours.

              By the way, I just have to let you know that the final line of your post gave me a good, guilty laugh.

  2. It is very well written. I gobbled up every word until the end.

    I loved it. Even while I disagree with you wholeheartedly.

    I hope nothing totally shitty has happened to jade your world view of raising a family and enjoying the simple things in life. I could wax poetic on the “richest” couple I’ve ever known who lived off very little. Let me know. I can.

    And those really big parades? They are fun to march in. And I don’t care what you say, if you get an instrument named after you, you’re cool. Oh, and if you don’t like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” then I think you may be squandering your life a bit.

    • Liz, something has happened to give me a jaded view of raising a family, and that’s an interesting observation. But I do enjoy the simple things in life, as well as some of the less simple things.

      I told Ziva that the character in this post — and he is a character — does feel like me in a way. In fact, at first, when I was writing the post, which tumbled out of me all at once, I found myself thinking about how much I hate parades. The happiness, the colors, the noise, the music. All of it seemed miserable and false. Which sort of feels true. But then I remembered that I attend Denver’s Christmas light parade every year, and love it. I like the drums, and the fire twirlers and the Chinese dragon-walkers. I like the majorettes, with their happy smiles and pretty legs. And I’d like to see the Macy’s parade one day in NYC.

      So I don’t know.

    • It’s not me, Jayne. It’s a character, a bit of fiction. My father is still alive and he’s a wonderful man who’s life is filled with meaning. Nevertheless, there is something about this character that resonates with me, and feels true.

      As for being gifted and talented, I think my fourth-grade teacher would disagree with you. If she’s still alive, that is. :)

  3. I hate parades too. It stems back to getting called out by a clown at a Winter Carnival parade when I was 6 or 7 years old. He said my hair was as red as his nose and tried to drag me into the parade.

    I’m not at all confused about my hatred for clowns either.

    I’m right there with you. Parades are stupid as are picnics in the park with food made with mayonnaise that ultimately will go bad and make everyone sick. Why bother?

      • I don’t like picnics. Heat, bugs, rotten food and relatives. Yuck.

        As for parades, I guess part of me hates them — they feel sort of false, in a way — and part of me loves them because they’re fun celebrations that bring people together.

        Clowns, on the other hand, kill people with knives.

  4. I might add that my father sat back and laughed while the clown was accosting me. Fucker.

    Thanks for reminding me what an ass my father could be.

  5. I’m with Ziva on this one. It is disturbing and amazingly well-written. I’ve been re-reading Colin Wilson’s autobiography and this closely matches his feelings about the importance of living the non-ordinary life. It also resonates with my own feelings at the moment.

    • I don’t like living ordinarily, Frank. I hate it, in fact. And yet I am pretty ordinary.

      I don’t know.

      Thanks for the kind words. I do like this post, I admit. It has an honest, if disturbing, quality about it that appeals to me. And in some ways, I feel exactly like the narrator. Maybe we all do from time-to-time. Maybe some of us do all the time. I think I find the bit about the kid spitting out the candy when his father turns away to watch the parade to be the most powerful image in the piece.

          • Change your religion and have a PB&J today.

            When I’m feeling blah, I get dressed up and take myself out for some beef carpaccio at Fleming’s happy hour. Or I get dressed up and go to the symphony. Or I get dressed up…

            Tutoring in jail keeps me feeling ordinary these days. It’s a good thing.

  6. Oh. I thought this post was about squatting. Color me surprised!

    Kidding. Kidding.

    It sounds like your dad was able to find happiness in the small things in life. Money doesn’t make us happy. If you’re alive and experiencing the moment, no matter what you do, you aren’t squandering.

    Although my dad had some happy moments, he spent most of his life battling a manic-depressive disorder. Even with that, I couldn’t say he squandered his life.

    Wait. Can I try being super rich, though? I think I could pull it off.

    • Although this was a character and not a real person, my father does find happiness in the small things in life. He’s content with simple pleasures.

      Me, not so much. I’d like to try being rich. There are places I want to go, people I want to see. At the moment, I’d particularly like to go to a place where I can stand by the water’s edge and watch the aurora borealis play itself out in the moonlit sky. It’s been especially strong this year, and beautiful.

      • Yes, our father has incredibly good skills in finding the joy in everything. This leads me to wonder why this gene skipped all of his children really.

  7. Prozac might help.

    This is so wonderfully bitter and angry. It sounds like the start of a play or a film. I can actually see the sights, hear the laughter, smell the candy and sunscreen. Amazing piece.

  8. Shouldn’t it be “John Philip Sousa can GO fuck himself”?

    “John Philip Sousa can fuck himself” reads like too much information.

    Sorry. That last line just threw me off.

  9. I think someone needs a hug. ((((( <3 ))))))

    I'm not going to tell you how wonderful and talented you are, even though it's true, since everyone else already did. I will tell you that I was very disturbed by the image of the boy grinning at his father and, as his father turns away, that grin quickly fading to be replaced by a look of contempt too old for a young boy.

    Now *I* need a hug.

  10. Perhaps letting your readers know upfront that this was a piece of fiction would have garnered you different responses. How were we possibly supposed to know that?

    As fiction, it’s still depressing as shit, but I’d at least view it in the context of an excerpt from a larger piece of work and hope to read that to have a better understanding of the character’s motives.

    • With hindsight, I realize I should have said this is fiction. It seemed so obvious to me at the time that I never considered it. But how would anybody who doesn’t know my family ever know? They wouldn’t, duh.

      • So now that I know it’s fiction… The imagery evoked responses from all my senses. I could hear the candy scatter across the pavement, feel the tuba steady beat, and see the father’s excitement as the band marched by. I’m sure smell is there somewhere, too, and as for “touch,” does kicking the crap out of that rotten kid count?

  11. While reading this I was wishing you’d mention picnics. I was never keen on either parades or picnics, although there were some parades that I’ve kind of enjoyed. Not sure if “enjoyed” is really the right word — but I feel like I would have missed something if I’d not been there.

    As for picnics, when I came to read Jane Austen’s Emma, I was in complete sympathy with Emma (or perhaps Emma’s father) who considered eating out of doors to be bad practice.

    • I think it’s highly distasteful to eat outdoors unless one is sitting outside a cafe in Paris or on a patio of some kind. Why people insist on getting back to nature puzzles me. We built houses and cities specifically to get away from the wild, which is called the wild for good reason.

      • I agree. I just read the Russians and Koreans are trying to clone the wolly mammoth. I am headed to Paris to sit with all the writers who fled to Paris to get out of various other countries they despised. I am looking forward to sipping expensive coffee with them and extorting things from T.S. Eliot who was rather generous to Joyce.

  12. This post made me sad, MWJ. Very sad.

    I think your father sounded like a hard-working, fun-loving man.

    “But I ask you, What good did these celebrations do him? None.”

    Do you really believe that? Don’t you think the memories he had of those moments at the parades and celebrations gave him TRUE joy? Don’t you think there is value in happiness?

    Personally, I will take JOY over MONEY any day of the week.

  13. I, too, am relieved that this a piece of fiction.

    And I agree with 100% with Ziva as well. Very provocative and well-written. The sentiment makes me sad. It reminds of Death of A Salesman.

    But since I relate all to to well to the “wasted” life, I like to fool myself that not all of us can be trumpeteers blowing spittle and venom (loved that line)… and that it can be satisfying being on the sidelines.

    You’re a good man Mr. Mike.

    • It can be satisfying on the sidelines, Quirky. Take pleasure in the small things. We don’t all have to be grand.

      You know, not matter how much I say that, it still sounds like crap.

      We just need to get comfortable being insignificant nobodys.

      Now I really am bummed out.

      :)

      • If you are really bummed out, drive up to Boulder and get some cocaine. It’s still the haven of cocaine right? Nah. Just get a Coke. Wait, don’t go there. Very rich people in Boulder are quite annoying.

  14. Spotted you on Ziva’s site, thought I’d stop by. Blown away by how much emotion there is packed into this, and how sad if felt, then it turns out to be fiction. Sheer class mate. No idea how you made the piece so real.

    As an additional plus, at least I’ve now found someone who (deep down) hates parades as much as I do.

  15. Did you know that if you ever get a tune stuck in your head…one of those ear worms…you can hum a little John Sousa march you’ll get rid of it. I have no idea what to do in order to get rid of the John Sousa march, though.

    • I can’t decide whether I prefer “Disco Inferno” to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” or would just prefer to die.

      Die, I think.

  16. Hey now, this is offensive because I live each day re-reading “The Purpose Driven Life” or watching or reading Oprah who drones on and on about “find one’s purpose in life.” I particulary like the New Agers, who really espouse old age beliefs about manifesting a purpose along with money. I also appreciate all the folks who are extremist Christians informing me I can also manifest money (while they collect my money). Now you get out there, Mike, and start taking advantage of people and stop writing this blather.

  17. I don’t get parades. I don’t like them, either, but it’s the not getting them that dominates. I believe that makes me either smart or dumb.

    Very well written. Quite a powerful read. I’m glad it’s fiction.

    I don’t believe in wasted lives.

    • Well said. One does not know what footprints are left on this earth when we depart. If this blogs remains in cyberspace, it will be remembered forever. In fact, it will become akin to a time capsule of information about current times which will be accurate and hilarious and disturbing.

      • I would like to remind the oldest child in this family that I am the youngest child. Hence, I appear in family films near the end. In fact, the only proof I have that I was not adopted are those films. Lastly, here I am at the end again. I am at the end of the comments thread. Woe to me! Boo Hoo!

      • This blog will not remain in cyberspace indefinitely. Not unless I create an endowment to fund my Internet service provider perpetually.

    • June, you don’t believe in wasted lives? You never met my friend, George Hammerpetal, did you? I don’t even get that. Are you a follower of one of those Eastern religions that believes we’re repeatedly re-born until we learn what we need to reach Nirvana?

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