Going Off on Mother Nature: An Idiot Male’s Guide to Cathartic Expression
Yesterday, on a walk with my friend in the Pocono woods, we came upon a dead, rotted tree that was, somehow, still standing. Leaning, yes, but standing.
“Let’s put it down,” I said to him. Together, on 1, 2, 3, we shouldered it and down it came, snapping at the base. He picked it up and threw it into a rushing stream to our right. I had boots on, and I eyed the stump as if it had just called me a punk bitch. Without even thinking, my boot soared through the air, connecting with the rotten, pulpy detritus — over and over and over and over again. Like I was curb-stomping the guy in American History X.
Remember that scene?
My friend, who knows I’m going through a lot, watched me foot-pummel this dead, nature-thing with the heel of my boot, the toe of my boot, the side of my boot. I was getting out of breath — asthma. jewish. exertion. — but I still kept going until the stump area was nearly as flat as the surrounding ground.
“Look,” he said, pointing to another tree that lost its battle with… I don’t know; tree cancer? “Do you wanna take this one?”
I ran into it with the full force of my shoulder, as if I were on an episode of COPS bringing down a door in a South Florida mobile home.
“POLICE IN THE HOUSE. GET ON THE GROUND. GET ON THE GROUND.”
I’ve always wanted to say that.
Police in the house.
When I was training for the police academy, back when I was a 22-year-old insane person, I did an exercise at the high school track with my father, where I would run… I don’t remember the distance… 500 feet, 1,000 feet, a mile — who knows? Simulating a foot pursuit where the suspect manages to evade and, when you stop, you’re supposed to grab your pretend shoulder mic and read a 30 second description of the “suspect”, loudly, clearly, and without taking a breath.
“4041 to radio control. Suspect lost at intersection of City Avenue and Haverford. Running westbound on Haverford. Male white, white t-shirt, black jeans, white sneakers. Early 20s. Light beard. Approximately 6 foot, 170 pounds; possibly armed.”
Well, anyway, back to the woods. I went up to the second tree, took a few steps and ran towards it, slamming my shoulder against the weak wood. It gave way to me instantly, a nice splitting sound as it cracked low and came down. I picked up the large section, which fell apart in my hands and I threw it as hard as I could into the stream and then, of course, commenced kicking the everloving shit out of the stump. This one was harder to pulverize than the first, and a segment that was still pretty well rooted stuck out like Mother Nature’s fuck-finger at me. I kicked and kicked and kicked, then got down on my knees as sweat poured down from underneath my 130-year-old postal worker’s hat (that’s a whole other story) and I grabbed it with my hands, attempting to prise it from the ground. I wrapped my fingers around it, like a neck, like a cock, like a hoagie, like a Medium essay, like a carpe diem, like water, like bacon, like sunbeams and moonpies and I rocked it back and forth like the wind blows my old Volkswagen on the highway.
I was instantly transported back to my parent’s front lawn. 1985 or 1986, my father had snapped. Trimming the hedges that he hated more than anything on an oppressive summer’s day, he fell to his knees and, with his bare hands, just started ripping the hedges out of the ground with his gripping groping grabbing olive-toned Middle Eastern hands.
“FFFFFFAAAACK!! FAAAAAAAACK THIS SHEEET, GODDAMNEET!”
I remember standing, all bowl-cut and footie-pajamas, next to my mother, holding onto her hand, probably thanking God I had at least one mentally stable parent, watching him at the window; a psychotic zoo animal about to get tranquilized. I looked up at her. She looked down at me.
“Is Daddy okay?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“No, Gabie,” she said.
I walked to the refrigerator and took out a 2 liter bottle of Sprite. I pulled myself up onto the counter by stepping onto one of the cabinet pulls with my footie-pajama footie and I got down a glass. I carefully poured the Sprite into the glass and I opened up the front door and walked outside to him. He stopped his display of intense Arab-Israeli topiary aggression and he looked up at me. His skin shone from sweat and there were bits of dirt and leaf all over his face and neck and shirt; vegetation in his Jew-fro. He smiled weakly; glassily at me.
I looked at him.
“This is for you, Daddy,” I said.
“Thank you, mummy,” he said. He called all three of us “mummy.” He called my mother “mummy.” If we’d had a dog, or a newt, or a pet rock, he’d have called it “mummy” too.
He took the glass from mummy and drank it lustily, handing mummy back the empty glass. Then he proceeded to continue ripping every. last. mother. fucking. hedge. from out of the ground. The next day, he hired a gardener to mow the lawn, twice a month. He never performed another bit of lawncare, ever again.
My friend, Tom, used to run an Anger Management group at the psych hospital where we both worked together, and it routinely got great reviews from both patients and staff. I would sometimes wander down to the cafeteria, where the group was usually held, and I would linger for a minute or two. Tom would be there, sweating through the stomach-portion of his polo shirt and on his forehead, as he cracked Norm MacDonald-style jokes and walked the patients through his illegible, misspelled white-board scrawlings and diagrams with arrows and triangles and stick-figures. I would sometimes pop in and lean against one of the supports that held the ceiling up somehow and listen briefly to I-statements, or about passive-aggressiveness. I’d let my eyes scan the backs of the patients’ heads and I’d listen to the comforting sound of Tom’s voice melding with the equally comforting sound of the juice-drink machine’s cooling motor humming to my back right. And then I’d walk out.
I probably should have stayed longer.
Anger has always frightened me — mine and other people’s. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and think, “You are an angry, white man.” And then I think about my father; born in Iraq in 1948 — fled to Israel with his family later that year, fought in two Israeli wars — I think about my skin color. Different from yours, maybe — lighter than hers, maybe — and what does it mean? Maybe I’m an angry half-Middle Eastern, half-white man. Hm; it’s mouthier to say, but is it more accurate? Is my otherness something I hide behind, or something I parade?
As my friend and I drove up toward the Poconos, I turned to him and said, “Can I ask you a question?”
(He hates this.)
“Just ask questions, please,” he said, “if I want to answer them, I will. If I don’t want to, I won’t.”
I sighed behind the wheel of the Buick.
“When we go to… places like this. Places that are rural or woodsy or Trumpy or whatever — do you ever feel more… acutely aware of your gayness? Like, are you kind of more hypervigilant about someone saying something to you or attacking you — physically or verbally? Does that come into your mind.”
He was silent for a minute.
“Sure,” he said as he looked out his window at the passing trees, “I certainly don’t go out of my way to call attention to myself in places like this. And I think about it.”
“Hm,” I said, because that’s a thing people say, “that’s interesting. Because I am always, always, always, always ready for someone to say something, do something, because I’m Jewish.”
He turned and looked at me, nodding his head. I hooked my pinkie finger onto the steering wheel because, in a late 90’s Buick, that’s all you really need to do.
That Buick was built in 1998; the year I graduated high school. The year my geology teacher took our class on a trip to the Frackville coal mines. At the coal mine gift shop, I took down an inordinately large crucifix and presented it to my teacher, Mr. Stettner. The Jesus and the cross were carved out of Anthracite coal, the base was Bituminous. It was $68.00. I held out the crucifix to him and looked at him with pleading eyes.
“Please, Stet?” I asked, “May I?”
His gentle, loving face broke out into a huge smile and his cheeks immediately reddened.
“No, Gabe. Can you just imagine the phone call from your parents?”
“I know,” I said, “that’s exactly what I’m imagining. It’ll be great.”
Later that day, Stettner took us all on a hike in the woods. I was in a triumvirate of angst-ridden, odd boys — Andy, Ted, and I. A kid named Bill joined us briefly on the walk. Stettner pointed out a rather large rock formation — maybe it was Pennsylvania schist and said, “Why don’t you boys take your little pic-axes and take a sample of it?”
Well. That was all the permission we needed.
We took our two-foot-long axes and proceeded to hack away at this poor sonofabitch rock that had infinitely more dignity than we ever would possess. Ted screamed, “AAAAAAAAH!!!! I HATE MY MOTHER!!!!” as he slammed the edged end of his axe into the rock. Andy hauled away at it while his wispy black hair flew back and forth. He had a goatee, which I envied. Bill, in his Scottsman’s flat cap, knelt on the other side of the rock in his tweed trousers (also envied) and he proceeded to slam his axe into the side on which we all stood. I tapped Andy out and I commenced whacking away as my ill-fitting glasses slid down the bridge of my nose that I wished I had the courage to axe off instead of that rock.
“FUCK THE SYSTEM!” I yelled through my janky teeth.
Mr. Stettner stood there, along with the rest of the class, watching us. We stopped momentarily to take a break.
“Boys,” he said as we sat and lay down on the dirt and schist shavings, “I think something very important and healthy is happening here right now.”
“This feels like what my Bar Mitzvah should have felt like,” I said as Ted howled at the clouds with laughter.
“YES!” he screamed at the sky, “TODAY WE ARE MEN!”
Once we hydrated, we continued slamming our axes together until we had made a hole large enough to stick our hands through and shake hands with Bill, who had his arm through the other side, while Stettner took a photograph. I have it somewhere. I looked for it three weeks ago, the day his widow, Kathy, reached out to me on Facebook Messenger to tell me that he had died the previous month from a massive heart attack.
And all I wanted to do was kick something, shoulder something, throw something into a stream, make a hole, make a mess, make a prayer, make a promise, make amends. But I just sat in my oak office chair and leaned forward and put my face in my hands, with that nose in between two olive-toned palms, as tears slid through my fingers like time.