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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

Building Character Leaves Its Mark

Today marks the debut of The Guy Chronicles, a weekly column by Chris Erskine. It will appear on Wednesdays.

January 28, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

So here we are in the frontyard, raking leaves and admiring the winter sky.

The frontyard has a total of 11 leaves. It's an L.A. yard, so we're pretty lucky to have 11 leaves. A lot of L.A. yards have far fewer leaves. Five, maybe six. But we have 11. When they all fall at once, it is something to behold.

"Look at all those leaves," the boy says, standing in the driveway, holding a rake. "Aren't they beautiful?"

They are a nice set of leaves, all right. There are a few maple, maybe a poplar or two, the rest magnolia. One leaf may actually be an old paper cup. But no one complains. When we are finished, the paper cup will give the leaf pile extra fullness.

"Maybe we can go to someone's house and take their leaves," suggests the little red-haired girl.

"Don't be greedy," I say. "Appreciate the leaves you have."

The kids are excited at the prospect of raking leaves. I have been touting the task for weeks, feeding them propaganda about how work builds character, not to mention strong, hard hands.

"Never trust a person with soft hands," I tell them.

"Why?"

"It's the sign of an idle life," I say. "Take yours, for example."

They stop to examine their hands. What they see are soft suburban hands, with little pink fingers that have never known a callus or even a blister, hands that are better suited to double-clicking a computer mouse or turning on a microwave.

In fact, until now, most of the work the kids have done has been with a computer mouse. They spend hours a day at the computer, gazing at the bouncy images the way kids used to gaze at TVs, their brains hooked on the flickering screen.

Sometimes, they even double-click in their sleep, their right hands curved as if holding a baseball. But it's a little plastic mouse they're dreaming of, not fastballs and home runs. These days, kids dream of molded plastic.

"Dad, can we start now?" the little red-haired girl asks, holding up her rake.

"Sure," I say. "But be careful. These are the only leaves we have."

As they rake, I grab a ladder and begin to take down the Christmas lights. When I get on top of the ladder, I notice that the gutters need cleaning. So I quit taking the lights down and start scooping wet leaves out of the gutter.

"What are you doing?" my lovely wife asks from the porch, staring up at the ladder.

"Cleaning the gutters."

"I thought you were taking down the Christmas lights," she says.

"That too," I say.

She stands and watches me a minute, my arms full of gutter glop.

"You sure?" she asks.

"Sure I'm sure."

She has seen this situation before, where I start some new chore before the other one is completed. Before long, there are four or five chores all going at once, all half completed. To her, nothing is getting done. To me, everything is getting done.

"OK, whatever," she says with a sigh, disappointment sweeping across her face like an eclipse.

As she heads inside, she takes a final glance at me standing on the ladder, surrounded by gutter glop and admiring the winter sky, happy as a husband can be.

To think that it was only 15 years ago that she picked me out of a mail-order catalog, just closing her eyes and pointing at the page, which is probably as good a way as any to pick a husband.

"I'll take . . that one," she said, then yelped a little when she opened her eyes to see which husband she had actually chosen.

Now, some women have been extremely lucky with mail-order husbands. But hers didn't quite live up to expectations. Like a lot of items you order by mail, her husband seemed kind of flimsy. And hard to keep clean. Worst of all, there were no refunds or exchanges.

To this day, it remains one of modern romance's great mysteries, how this terrific woman--who once had her pick of any boy in the state of Florida--wound up with a mail-order husband who finds joy in cleaning gutters and raking leaves.

"What's wrong with Mom?" the boy asks, watching her turn and go into the house.

"Buyer's remorse," I say.

"She bought a horse?" he asks, not quite hearing.

"Yeah, she bought a horse," I say, grabbing another armful of gutter glop.

Meanwhile, the little red-haired girl is finishing up the leaves. She is down to only two leaves, and she scoots them across the yard like hockey pucks, adding them to the pile one at a time, then standing back and admiring her work. Finally, she wipes her forehead and looks down at her tiny suburban hands.

"Look Dad!" says the little red-haired girl.

"What?"

"I think I have a callus!"

"Let me see that."

I climb down the ladder and look at her hand. Sure enough, right below the second finger is a baby callus.

"Congratulations," I say. "You have your first callus."

She drops her rake and runs to show her mother.

"Hey Mom," she yells, "I have a callus!"

As I return to the Christmas lights and the gutter glop, the boy continues to rake. Every few seconds, he stops to look at his hands. Finally, he thinks he spots something.

"Hey Dad, I'm getting a callus too," the boy says, holding it inches from his face, studying it till his eyes cross.

"I hope it lasts forever," he says proudly.

I explain to him that sometimes the callus goes away, but the work ethic lasts. And now that he's earned his first callus, the others will come more easily.

"Thanks, Dad," he says.

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