On the night that I was born, my paternal grand-father, Josef Tock,
made ten predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very
minute that my mother gave birth to me.
Josef had never previously engaged in fortune-telling. He was a
pastry chef. He made éclairs and lemon tarts, not
Some lives, conducted with grace, are beautiful arcs bridging this
world to eternity. I am thirty years old and can't for certain see
the course of my life, but rather than a graceful arc, my passage
seems to be a herky-jerky line from one crisis to another.
I am a lummox, by which I do not mean stupid, only that I am
biggish for my size and not always aware of where my feet are
This truth is not offered in a spirit of self-deprecation or even
humility. Apparently, being a lummox is part of my charm, an almost
winsome trait, as you will see.
No doubt I have now raised in your mind the question of what I
intend to imply by "biggish for my size." Autobiography is proving
to be a trickier task than I first imagined.
I am not as tall as people seem to think I am, in fact not tall at
all by the standards of professional—or even of high
school—basketball. I am neither plump nor as buff as an
iron-pumping fitness fanatic. At most I am somewhat husky.
Yet men taller and heavier than I am often call me "big guy." My
nickname in school was Moose. From childhood, I have heard people
joke about how astronomical our grocery bills must be.
The disconnect between my true size and many people's perception of
my dimensions has always mystified me.
My wife, who is the linchpin of my life, claims that I have a
presence much bigger than my physique. She says that people measure
me by the impression I make on them.
I find this notion ludicrous. It is bullshit born of love.
If sometimes I make an outsized impression on people, it's as
likely as not because I fell on them. Or stepped on their
In Arizona, there is a place where a dropped ball appears to roll
uphill in defiance of gravity. In truth, this effect is a trick of
perspective in which elements of a highly unusual landscape
conspire to deceive the eye.
I suspect I am a similar freak of nature. Perhaps light reflects
oddly from me or bends around me in a singular fashion, so I appear
to be more of a hulk than I am.
On the night I was born in Snow County Hospital, in the community
of Snow Village, Colorado, my grandfather told a nurse that I would
be twenty inches long and weigh eight pounds ten ounces.
The nurse was startled by this prediction not because eight pounds
ten is a huge newborn—many are larger—and not because
my grandfather was a pastry chef who suddenly began acting as
though he were a crystal-ball gazer. Four days previously he had
suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side
and unable to speak; yet from his bed in the intensive care unit,
he began making prognostications in a clear voice, without slur or
He also told her that I would be born at 10:46 p.m. and that I
would suffer from syndactyly.
That is a word difficult to pronounce before a stroke, let
alone after one.
Syndactyly—as the observing nurse explained to my
father—is a congenital defect in which two or more fingers or
toes are joined. In serious cases, the bones of adjacent digits are
fused to such an extent that two fingers share a single nail.
Multiple surgeries are required to correct such a condition and to
ensure that the afflicted child will grow into an adult capable of
giving the F-you finger to anyone who sufficiently annoys
In my case, the trouble was toes. Two were fused on the left foot,
three on the right.
My mother, Madelaine—whom my father affectionately calls
Maddy or sometimes the Mad One—insists that they considered
forgoing the surgery and, instead, christening me Flipper.
Flipper was the name of a dolphin that once starred in a hit TV
show—not surprisingly titled Flipper—in the late
1960s. My mother describes the program as "delightfully,
wonderfully, hilariously stupid." It went off the air a few years
before I was born.
Flipper, a male, was played by a trained dolphin named Suzi. This
was most likely the first instance of transvestism on television.
Actually, that's not the right word because transvestism is a male
dressing as a female for sexual gratification. Besides,
Suzi—alias Flipper—didn't wear clothes.
So it was a program in which the female star always appeared nude
and was sufficiently butch to pass for a male.
Just two nights ago at dinner, over one of my mother's infamous
cheese-and-broccoli pies, she asked rhetorically if it was any
wonder that such a dire collapse in broadcast standards, begun with
Flipper, should lead to the boring freak-show shock that is
Playing her game, my father said, "It actually began with
Lassie. In every show, she was nude, too."
"Lassie was always played by male dogs," my mother replied. "There
you go," Dad said, his point made.
I escaped being named Flipper when successful surgeries restored my
toes to the normal condition. In my case, the fusion involved only
skin, not bones. The separation was a relatively simple procedure.
Nevertheless, on that uncommonly stormy night, my grandfather's
prediction of syndactyly proved true.
If I had been born on a night of unremarkable weather, family
legend would have transformed it into an eerie calm, every leaf
motionless in breathless air, night birds silent with expectation.
The Tock family has a proud history of self-dramatization.
Even allowing for exaggeration, the storm must have been violent
enough to shake the Colorado mountains to their rocky foundations.
The heavens cracked and flashed as if celestial armies were at war.
Still in the womb, I remained unaware of all the thunderclaps. And
once born, I was probably distracted by my strange feet.
This was August 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned as
President of the United States.
Nixon's fall has no more to do with me than the fact that John
Denver's "Annie's Song" was the number-one record in the country at
the time. I mention it only to provide historical perspective.
Nixon or no Nixon, what I find most important about August 9, 1974,
is my birth—and my grandfather's predictions. My sense of
perspective has an egocentric taint.
Perhaps more clearly than if I had been there, because of vivid
pictures painted by numerous family stories of that night, I can
see my father, Rudy Tock, walking back and forth from one end of
County Hospital to the other, between the maternity ward and the
ICU, between joy at the prospect of his son's pending arrival and
grief over his beloved father's quickening slide into death. z With
blue vinyl-tile floor, pale-green wainscoting, pink walls, a yellow
ceiling, and orange-and-white stork-patterned drapes, the
expectant- fathers' lounge churned with the negative energy of
color overload. It would have served well as the nervous-making set
for a nightmare about a children's-show host who led a secret life
as an ax murderer.
The chain-smoking clown didn't improve the ambience.
Rudy stood birth watch with only one other man, not a local but a
performer with the circus that was playing a one-week engagement in
a meadow at the Halloway Farm. He called himself Beezo. Curiously,
this proved not to be his clown name but one that he'd been born
with: Konrad Beezo.
Some say there is no such thing as destiny, that what happens just
happens, without purpose or meaning. Konrad's surname would argue
Beezo was married to Natalie, a trapeze artist and a member of a
renowned aerialist family that qualified as circus royalty.
Neither of Natalie's parents, none of her brothers and sisters, and
none of her high-flying cousins had accompanied Beezo to the
hospital. This was a performance night, and as always the show must
Evidently the aerialists kept their distance also because they had
not approved of one of their kind taking a clown for a husband.
Every subculture and ethnicity has its objects of bigotry.
As Beezo waited nervously for his wife to deliver, he muttered
unkind judgments of his in-laws. "Self-satisfied," he called them,
and "devious." The clown's perpetual glower, rough voice, and
bitterness made Rudy uncomfortable.
Angry words plumed from him in exhalations of sour smoke:
"duplicitous" and "scheming" and, poetically for a clown, "blithe
spirits of the air, but treacherous when the ground is under
Beezo was not in full costume. Furthermore, his stage clothes were
in the Emmett Kelly sad-faced tradition rather than the bright
polka-dot plumage of the average Ringling Brothers clown. He cut a
strange figure nonetheless.
A bright plaid patch blazed across the seat of his baggy brown
suit. The sleeves of his jacket were comically short. In one lapel
bloomed a fake flower the diameter of a bread plate.
Before racing to the hospital with his wife, he had traded clown
shoes for sneakers and had taken off his big round red rubber nose.
White greasepaint still encircled his eyes, however, and his cheeks
remained heavily rouged, and he wore a rumpled porkpie hat.
Beezo's bloodshot eyes shone as scarlet as his painted cheeks,
perhaps because of the acrid smoke wreathing his head, although
Rudy suspected that strong drink might be involved as well.
In those days, smoking was permitted everywhere, even in many
hospital waiting rooms. Expectant fathers traditionally gave out
cigars by way of celebration.
When not at his dying father's bedside, poor Rudy should have been
able to take refuge in that lounge. His grief should have been
mitigated by the joy of his pending parenthood.
Instead, both Maddy and Natalie were long in labor. Each time that
Rudy returned from the ICU, waiting for him was the glowering,
muttering, bloody-eyed clown, burning through pack after pack of
unfiltered Lucky Strikes.
As drumrolls of thunder shook the heavens, as reflections of
lightning shuddered through the windows, Beezo made a stage of the
maternity ward lounge. Restlessly circling the blue vinyl floor,
from pink wall to pink wall, he smoked and fumed.
"Do you believe that snakes can fly, Rudy Tock? Of course you
don't. But snakes can fly. I've seen them high above the
center ring. They're well paid and applauded, these cobras, these
diamondbacks, these copperheads, these hateful
Poor Rudy responded to this vituperative rant with murmured
consolation, clucks of the tongue, and sympathetic nods. He didn't
want to encourage Beezo, but he sensed that a failure to
commiserate would make him a target for the clown's anger.
Pausing at a storm-washed window, his painted face further
patinated by the lightning-cast patterns of the streaming raindrops
on the glass, Beezo said, "Which are you having, Rudy Tock—a
son or daughter?"
Beezo consistently addressed Rudy by his first and last names, as
if the two were one: Rudytock.
"They have a new ultrasound scanner here," Rudy replied, "so they
could tell us whether it's a boy or girl, but we don't want to
know. We just care is the baby healthy, and it is."
Beezo's posture straightened, and he raised his head, thrusting his
face toward the window as if to bask in the pulsing storm light. "I
don't need ultrasound to tell me what I know. Natalie is giving me
a son. Now the Beezo name won't die when I do. I'll call him
Punchinello, after one of the first and greatest of