Saturday, February 25, 2012

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At Nine-Years-Old I Replaced My Father With Tim Taylor.

Home Improvement first aired on September 17, 1991, the year Dad left. The last episode aired on May 25, 1999, two years before Dad’s stroke. I watched Home Improvement after Kim Deabler broke my heart and after Jon Peterson bloodied my nose. I watched it when my bike tires were flat and on Friday evenings when the phone sat silently waiting for Dad’s call. Home Improvement eased the pain of Dad showing up to graduation high on Jack Daniels and Vicodin. And it gave me comfort each time Dad forgot Christmas, Easter, or my birthday. During the months, and sometimes years, I went without Dad, I looked to Tim Taylor and imagined my father as him.

Why Tim Taylor?
There was a roomer in West Provo that Tim Allen, the actor who played Tim Taylor, was raised Mormon. I heard similar rumors about Alice Cooper, Elvis Presley, and Roseanne, which I later discovered were loosely true. Alice Cooper’s father belonged to an offshoot of the Mormon faith, Elvis Presley met with Mormon missionaries during the filming of Blue Hawaii, and Roseanne once attended a Mormon church. The rumor of Tim Allen, I later discovered, was unfounded.

As a youth, though, I wondered if Tim Allen was Mormon. Perhaps Mormonism was part of his method acting. Perhaps he was a closet Mormon, if such a thing existed. I didn’t know. Perhaps he left Mormonism later in life, like Dad did. It caused me to look at Home Improvement differently. I blended Tim Taylor (the character) with Tim Allen (the actor). Tim Taylor seemed closer because we shared the same beliefs. I wondered where the line was drawn between the real and the contrived, until eventually, I viewed Tim Taylor as a Mormon father, same as others in my congregation.

This was easy. Tim Taylor dressed like a Mormon, mostly wearing slacks and a tie. He didn’t use foul language. He was clean-cut and clean-shaven. Inline with Mormon doctrine, he cared for Jill and the boys financially and emotionally. He was home on evenings and weekends building projects with his three sons. Tim’s ultimate end was to make his house and family stronger with “more power” grunt, grunt, grunt. He was such an active father that Mark, Randy, and Brad found Tim’s attention irritating. Sometimes I imagined how wonderful it would feel to be smothered by Dad’s love, and I got frustrated while trying to understand why the Taylor boys were not grateful for it.

The Nuclear Father and Mormonism
One of the biggest misconceptions about Mormonism is that we practice polygamy. We don't. We abandoned it over 100 years ago. It's through and in, by and with the nuclear household that Mormons are saved. It is how we think primarily of our relationships, both in the afterlife and the church as a whole. As a young boy, I knew this. The nuclear father, with his strong jaw and calloused bread winning hands, was bolstered in paintings along chapel walls and on the cover of church publications. He looked a lot like Tim Taylor.

The nuclear father was broadcast by the prophet and discussed in Sunday school. We define a father as “ever willing to sacrifice his own comfort for that of his children. Daily he toils to provide the necessities of life, never complaining, ever concerned for the well-being of his family.” I felt entitled to a working father and a stay at home mother. And yet my family didn’t fit the nuclear mold. Dad abandoned his obligations on a cold February night. Mom worked long hours at several different jobs to make ends meet.

Being near the nuclear father made me feel like an insider. I sought him out at friends’ dinner tables, squatting at homes and admiring the pervasive fatherly presence.

Like Mormonism, Home improvement celebrated the nuclear household. It didn’t harbor to the ‘counter programming’ trends of the early 90s. No spouse died resulting in a cast of loosely associated men living under one roof equally caring for three girls, like in Full House. And there was no streetwise nephew from Philly living with an aunt and uncle, like in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. A common phrase between Mormon’s is, “a mother's place is in the home.” In Home Improvement’s first season, Jill Taylor was a full-time wife and mother, who was most often seen working in the kitchen or looking after her three sons. Pamela Richardson, who played Jill Taylor, was applauded in women's magazines for being "the most true-to-life mom on TV." Like 1950s mothers Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and Harriet Nelson, Jill was contained in the kitchen and living room. Home Improvement reinforced my faith and brought me comfort while illuminating what my family was not.

Tim Taylor: the nuclear father
Tim Taylor was the only man qualified to raise his three boys into classic car loving, football playing, power tool wielding… men. Tim Allen (the actor) mastered the nuclear head of household right up to the precipice of parody. Tim Taylor was a stereotypical American father fantasy: slender but tough; wise but not “word smart”; more manly than the other male characters; willing to look foolish in his search for “More Power!”; and occasionally prone to reflection and sensitivity. Tim Taylor exhibited a coarse breed of valor. His weaknesses for power tools, football, and old cars were downright charming, especially when he pained over them. He also sympathized with the plight of his sons and honored their adolescent discovery. Tim was an American father, from the same stalk as Ward Cleaver or Charles Ingalls, the fathers my Dad must have idealized.

Tim Taylor hosted a Detroit-based cable TV show called Tool Time, a take-off of the public television series This Old House. The macho statement "More Power!" was his solution to every problem (mechanical or otherwise), but instead of demonstrating competency and control, his actions typically lead to comic mishaps and catastrophes. Tool Time was a forum that bridged Tim’s work and home. There Tim Taylor dispensed handyman advice, insulted his assistant Al Borland, made wisecracks about his mother-in-law, and pondered paternal issues to a mostly male studio audience. Tool Time premise was that Tim’s accidents were staged. They were to teach the consequences of job safety, a way of learning though practice rather than theory. As a viewer I knew what the studio audience didn’t, that Tim was, in fact, bumbling and accident-prone. It was a postmodern take on the home improvement series.

Similar to Tool Time’s safety lessons, Tim always stumbled into the right comment to smooth things over with Jill, or the best advice to help Mark, Randy, or Brad see the errors of their adolescent ways. Great fathering tugged at him like an industrial magnet.

Complications and entanglements of love, marriage, and raising children proliferated Home Improvement. In most episodes, Tim engaged in some kind of relational "home repair" to restore marital and family equilibrium. Tim was loyal, a “Chevy guy” who would never park in “someone else's garage.” He was thoughtful enough to make Jill a video highlighted the unforgettable moments of her life, and willing to ask paternal questions of his neighbor Wilson. Everything my faith told me a father should be was represented by Tim Taylor. He once said to his studio audience, “Tool Time is more than home improvement. It's male improvement. An improved male is more sensitive to his wife. How do we get sensitive? By digging down in our emotions and sharing your feelings with others. You guys up to it?” Although his passion for cars and tools was overt, this statement read like a faithful testimony exposing that his heart truly rested with his wife and children.

Tim Taylor = Dad
I often compared Tim with Dad, hopeful to find similarities. There were many. Both were born in ’53. Both had a fondness for tools and old cars; Tim with his ‘33 blue Ford roadster convertible and Dad with his ’35 Ford pickup. They enjoyed working with their hands, blue-collar men at heart, only Tim had a TV show and Dad never left the working class. Both found themselves to funnier than they really were, laughing at their own jokes. Both had rich dark hair and were clean-shaven. Tim stood 5’ 10”. Dad stood 5’ 9”. Tim had a sharp jaw with a heavy brow. So did Dad. I always assumed Tim smelled like grease, metal shavings, and Stetson for men because Dad did. Dad rarely wore slacks and a tie, but like Tim he was kind enough to hike up his tool belt to keep his crack from showing, and he had a fondness for leather and rawhide and the weight of tools around his waist. But unlike Tim, Dad didn’t romanticize blue-collar work. And I don’t think he longed to find his way out from it. It was in his calloused hands, thick jeans, and scars along his elbows. It was in the weary leather boots he wore every day and the diamond plated toolbox that rattled in his truck bed.

Both Dad and Tim fell from ladders, through roofs, and into wet cement. I thought about Tim when Dad ran a fine threaded sheet metal screw through his index finger. This was the only time I can recall him helping with a school project. His breath was whisky sweet. His eyes were moist. His stride was sloppy. We were connecting a light bulb to a thermostat when it happened. Once the room’s temperature dipped, the light would turn on. Dad inhaled and clinched his jaw. He didn’t cut to “A word from Binford Tools”. And I didn’t laugh. I held his wrist against the workbench and Dad reversed the drill. Dad’s wrapped his right hand in a greasy shop rag, head cocked back, eyes searching for relief.

Tim’s overconfidence contrasted his buffoonery granting him depth. It added to the myth of the impenetrable nuclear father he represented. In contrast, Dad’s damaged body, sloppy drug addicted stride, and lazy grin, always provided me with notions of reality. His presence said I am real. I am your father. This is what I have become.

Tim Taylor read like my father’s foil. They shared important passions, age, and upbringing. They looked similarly, and had similar frailties. In my mind, they shared the same faith. But Dad’s addictions and abandonment were emphasized by Tim’s supreme fathering. It brought Dad’s flaws into sharper contrast.

I longed to be a Taylor
At nine-years-old, I thought Pamela Anderson (the Tool Time girl) was the hottest woman I’d ever seen, and later at age 11, I felt similarly about Debbe Dunning, Pamela’s replacement. I thought Brad Taylor was a cocky prick and Randy Taylor was the cool friend I never had. I was particularly drawn to Mark Taylor. At a year younger than me, Mark’s quick smile reminded me of myself. We were both the youngest. Like me, Mark was not good at sports or with tools, and he was no one’s single favorite. One of the first things Mark ever said to Tim was, “I want to be with you.” Mark and I had the same desires. We wanted to live and learn next to our fathers.

I watched the first episode of Home Improvement in my living room, sitting on a pillow, while eating from a bag of candy corn. It was just before my tenth birthday. Dad had been gone a year, and although I didn’t realize it, I was searching for a father figure. Someone to help me gain confidence, masculinity, and represented my Mormon values.

In the first episode Tim and Mark attempted to give the dishwasher “More Power!” Tim was dissatisfied with rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, so he decided to install a commercial pressure washer into a Kenmore.

Mark and Tim performed “Bear Chested Men’s Work” and grunted like apes while flexing their biceps. Later Tim opened the access panel below the dishwasher and was perplexed by the many wires. Mark watched from the side, a child sized tool belt around his waist weighted with a plastic hammer and pliers.

Tim didn’t know which breaker to flip when cutting the power, nor did he know what wire to cut below the dishwasher, yet Mark never caught on. And when Tim was shocked after cutting a live wire, he rushed to the garage while asking, “Is that car running?” He was clearly covering up that he’d hurt himself, showing that he valued Marks patriarchal perception.

I envied this relationship. I didn’t want Tim Taylor to be my dad. I wanted my dad to act like Tim Taylor. I wanted Dad to grunt, smile, and spend time with me. But he didn’t. He was gone, living in a new house with his new wife.

I imagined Dad grunting with approval, frustration, or confusion. I imagined that my brother was cast as Peter Pan, and Dad and I crafted a pulley system so Ryan could zip and zoom across the stage, frightening women and children. Once I removed the access panel below our dishwasher and gazed at the red, green, yellow, and black wires. I wondered where they went and imagined Dad and I installing a pressure washer.

At a neighboring farm was an abandoned car frame, rusted and red. I often sat between the steel and rotted tires and grunted like Tim did with Mark. With my foot to the dirt, I revved the motor that had long ago been stripped from the frame like the father I hardly knew.

As these narratives played out in my mind, it felt like anticipation— like the moment before opening a surprise package or a letter from an old friend—because I assumed Dad and I would eventually have a relationship like Tim had with his boys. It made me feel entitled to love from my father.

Home Improvement was not a Documentary.
In elementary school, I was asked to make a list of the good and bad things about my summer vacation. My first list had equally long pros and cons. At the end of the school year we were asked to make the same list again. I cannot recall why we did this, but I do recall that the good list grew longer and the bad shorter. In the end, I was not describing my actual summer vacation but an idealized image of “Vacation.” I assumed something similar would happen with my childhood. That eventually I would forget about my longing for Dad and cling to the rewarding moments I shared with him. But I have not.

Recently I watched a documentary where children of soldiers were interviewed about the deaths of their fathers. I recall wishing my dad died in a great war where great men were snatched up by God’s mighty hand. But the hand that took my father was his own, slowly with Vicodin and Jack Daniels. I find that tragic and calculated. Are these feelings a product of me idolizing Tim Taylor? Does he sit like a canyon, contrasting the landscape of my life? I feel discordance between myth and reality. I feel guilty because Dad was not a traditional Mormon father. I feel anger and betrayal because Dad didn’t live up to the myth. Home Improvement’s weekly narrative was a promise of the nuclear father, something as hard to accomplish as the American Dream and yet every bit as desirable. It was a fantasy. And yet I still hold Dad to its standard. Would removing it make him any better of a father? I don’t think so. But perhaps it would help me to accept and overcome the hurt I feel.

Now, at 28-years-old, I champion equality and understand that the nuclear father is not, and never has been, the norm. And yet I still hold myself to the standards established by Tim Taylor and Mormonism. My grandfather once said, “God needs good fathers. It’s what we believe in. I hope you know that.” Above my dresser is “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” This document defines the official position of the Mormon Church on family. It reads, "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” I feel inadequate each time I read this. And when I cannot make it home for dinner, when I cannot help my children with a school project, and when my wife must return to work. I am a confused mess, a double standard, lost between a poor father and an idealized one. And perhaps that is what I have done in this essay. I have grown to accept my place as a father. To give up on perfection. And perhaps this is something Dad never did. Perhaps he found the dream of fatherhood unattainable, so he gave up.

What I want to understand is why Dad packed his bag and slogged into a cold February night? Why he always choose Vicodin and Jack Daniels over me? Is understanding my own perceptions of fatherhood the answer to these questions? I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if Dad held himself to a similar standard established through shows like Leave it to Beaver and My Three Sons? Did he slouch beneath the weight of Mormonism, a religion that views family as a microcosm of God’s relationship with Mankind? What bigger shoes are there to fill? Did Dad attempt to meet expectations he could never manage, so he turned to Vicodin and Jack Daniels? A situation that must have been compounded due to the drug free demands of Mormonism and the Mormon community he was raised in. Was I one of a long line of family, friends, TV shows, and neighbors that held him to unrealistic standards? Is this why he left?

What I do know is that on October 2, 1978; Tim Allen was arrested in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport for possession of over 650 grams (1.4 lb.) of cocaine. He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, and provided names of dealers in exchange for three to seven years rather than life imprisonment. He was paroled on June 12, 1981 after serving two years and four months in a federal correctional institution. Although Tim Allen overcome his cocaine addiction before filming Home Improvement, I didn’t find out about it until 1998, the year my Dad was held in the Utah County Jail for drug and alcohol related charges. Once again, I had difficulty separating Tim Allen (the actor) from Tim Taylor (the character). And once again, I drew a comparison between Tim and my Dad.

The information sat hard in my gut. It felt like I was giving something up. Losing my idealized father. But unlike Dad, I have forgiven Tim Allen for his mistakes. It was easy to forgive Tim Taylor and enjoy another episode of Home Improvement. Perhaps its because he over came it. Maybe its because we shared so many rewarding TV moments. Or maybe it’s because I am not ready to give up the fantasy.


Hattie Revis said...

You have a wonderful talent, sometimes I forget that I'm reading a blog, and not a novel. After being linked here, I read a few posts. I've now started at the beginning, and will work my way through it all.There is emotion & transparency here that you seem to express so easily,and I admit, you've made me cry a bit. If you're not a best seller yet, you most certainly will be.
BTW- your babies are precious! And if this rambling comment makes no sense, it's because I have a few babies myself, who at this late hour, don't seem too precious! :-)