It’s a good thing that nobody except you will ever read this essay because I’m about to tell you an embarrassing secret. All I ask is that you take a moment to cherish your image of me as a mighty, tough, dangerous man who makes his own rules. Another moment. And now promise you will tell NO ONE of what I am about to reveal – I will deny it and you will have no proof.
I was going to do it in this paragraph, but I am nervous. I’m going to take some time to have a glass of grape juice and lie down for a bit. Be right back…
…Okay, I’m back. I think I’m going to write about something else. You know why you should never eat at Red Lobster? Because they are actually owned by-
Oh to heck with it.
I used to cry in Kindergarten.
I used to cry in Kindergarten at the start of every school day for thirty seconds to a minute, until I started playing with someone or otherwise was distracted. And it wasn’t that big of a deal to me, certainly less of an Issue than my teacher probably thought it was. I wasn’t even particularly sad or afraid while it was happening. It was a physical thing. Mom would drop me off at the door to the school, or walk me to the room, or drop me off a little farther away, or walk me into the room, or the teacher would meet me at the door. It didn’t matter. As soon as I was In School, my jaw would quiver, tears would flow, and I would bawl for a bit, and then get over it.
I was teased about it exactly once, by one other child. Jimmy started to make fun of me, and it didn’t affect me at all, because I knew that I was crying like a baby, and that this was valid grounds for ridicule, so I didn’t take it personally. I think that Jimmy and I even played together later that day. No big deal. Why was Mrs. Palmer so concerned?
As a college professor, I’m in about 30th grade now, and I can proudly say that I don’t cry even for an instant when Laurel drops me off at work (or when I walk, or when I drive, but it is funnier to say Laurel drops me off because of the parallelism I really have to stop commenting on these things as I write them sorry ignore this). In fact, I haven’t cried at the start of school for years, not even in Graduate school, where Lord knows I had reasons to. (Hi, Professor McLaughlin!) And I owe it all to my father and some maple sugar.
It started one evening, when I was in Mom and Dad’s room, and Mom left for some reason. Just me and my Dad without Mom, Mike, Al or Karen in the room. I was feeling like a Man just by being there. But it gets better. Dad beckoned me to his armoire, and whispered to me conspiratorially “Douglas, come here, quickly.” In our home, Mom was the queen, the president, the CEO. My dad? He was merely God. And God was taking me into his confidence, transforming me from Kindergartner to Moses in an instant. He opened the bottom drawer, moved the socks around, and there, hidden in the Dad Things, was a box of “Maple Men.” I could read the words, “Maple Men – product of Canada,” but I had no idea what the word “maple” meant. They were tan, wearing suits and dresses, and sparkled. The nice thing about being five years old is that the phrase “I had never seen anything like that” comes up fairly often.
“Would you like to try one?” asked Dad. His cologne was “Old Spice” and he had the five o’ clock shadow of a Shaw (which is equivalent to two days growth on YOUR dad). Would I like to try one? Ho ho ho.
Have you ever had Maple Syrup? The real stuff, not the “Log Cabin Maple Flavored” stuff? That sweet, fresh, woodsy, breakfasty taste? Picture that taste, and now gradually phase out everything but the “sweet”, but allow the rest to remain as overtones or echoes. That is the taste of a maple man. It sounds kind of gross now, but to a five-year old who grew up on Froot Loops, Apple Jacks and Quake it was wonderful. And it came from my Dad’s secret drawer. I was not a greedy child, but I uncharacteristically asked if I could have another.
“I’d love to give you one,” said Dad. Yay! I started to select which business-clad citizen of maple sugar would be saying a last good-bye to his or her friends. But Dad had not finished. “I’d love to give you one,” said Dad, “but unfortunately there is a house rule that says that maple men can only be eaten by little boys who don’t cry in Kindergarten.”
What horrible luck! Maple Men could only be eaten by little boys, and I was the only little boy in the house, meaning that I would be the only person in the house eligible to eat them, but by a twist of fate (the kind that 30 years later Alanis Morissette would incorrectly call “ironic”) the second part of the rule eliminated me as well. Here we had perfectly good maple men, and nobody could eat a single one. It was frustrating. It was Unjust. It was wasteful.
Then I had an idea. I remember seeing Dad’s expression change from theatrical seriousness to theatrical seriousness trying to suppress laughter, which means that it must have been very clear the moment I had the idea. See if you can follow the geniusness: The maple men couldn’t be eaten because the only little boy in the house was a little boy who cried in Kindergarten. But there was a loophole. If I stopped crying in Kindergarten, then the second part of the rule would no longer apply to me. It was clear what I had to do.
I don’t remember much about the next morning, and what I do isn’t really visual or auditory. I remember the smell of the maple men, the way they smelled from the inside of my mouth, the smell of Old Spice, the phrase “Room 119”, the Banana Splits (Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky), the words “Maple Men” in huge letters written on the Monolith from the commercials for 2001: A Space Odyssey. All of these images were superimposed on my walk down the hall to my room. Images in my mind, racing.
And I entered the room, and I cried, and after a half a second Mrs. Palmer said, “Just STOP IT!” and startled I stopped. A half second.
When Dad came home I followed him up the stairs into his room, and asked if I could have a Maple Man, given that I had only cried for “a second.” This was an exaggeration since it was only about a half-second, but I was scrupulously honest. And Dad said that he would give me one, if it were up to him, but unfortunately, the house rule was explicit. “Maple men are only for little boys who don’t cry in Kindergarten.” Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids. Rules were rules. And in our house, we followed the rules.
And the next day I went into Room 119, and it was time to cry and I just… didn’t. I didn’t suppress the cry. I didn’t “try not to cry.” I didn’t distract myself. I wasn’t even thinking of the candy. I just was no longer a boy who cried in Kindergarten. I was yesterday, and I wasn’t today. I looked at Mrs. Palmer, but she wasn’t making eye-contact. None of the other Kindergartners said anything. It just wasn’t a big deal to anyone. I remember thinking it was interesting… I wasn’t proud like I probably should have been. It was more like, “Hm.”
And when Dad came home from work, I followed him upstairs, and while he was taking off his tie, I opened his sock drawer and took out the maple men. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t ask his permission, because I didn’t have to. I was entitled. I ate it slowly, and then watched Dad dress down for supper. We had London Broil and potatoes. It wasn’t until after dinner that I started to feel Pride. I know that Mom was very happy for me, and demonstrative about it, but that’s not really relevant to this story, is it?
Before I stop, I want to share with you two final mysteries. The first one is, “Why did I cry in Kindergarten?” When I was in college, I told this story to a few psych majors, and of course have thought about it myself, but I don’t have a satisfactory answer. Sometimes I think it was because the act of being in Kindergarten was symbolic of a future of increasing responsibility and required activities, and I was mourning the beginning of the end of the carefree part of my life. But that sounds a lot more like the pompous-Doug-of-the-present than Doug-at-five. No, I was not abused; No, I was not afraid of being abandoned; No, I was not frightened of the unknown; No, I was not angry, depressed, scared or physically uncomfortable.
There is a second mystery. I was telling you the truth when I said that Dad didn’t say anything when I took the Maple Man. But he did say something when I was almost finished eating it. He looked down on me, and spoke in the tone of voice he used when he spoke to adults. And he said, “Good, isn’t it?” I wondered what he meant by that. Was he referring to the taste of the candy? Or was he referring to the state of being a “little boy who didn’t cry in Kindergarten”? Or was he referring to the feeling of Winning, mistakenly believing that I was experiencing a sense of Triumph Over Emotions? I wasn’t sure; and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the feeling of ambiguity. At five years old, I was just beginning to notice phrases that had multiple possible meanings. I didn’t ask Dad what he meant. When God speaks to you as if you are an adult, you don’t blow it by saying, “I don’t understand what you mean.” And I haven’t asked Dad since, because I doubted he would remember that exact moment, so any answer he gave would have been a reconstruction, an attempted channeling of himself from decades ago.
“Good, isn’t it?” It was. I’m talking to you seriously now. It really was.