The Summertime Blues

mowing

Well my mom and pop told me, “Son you gotta make some money,

If you want to use the car to go ridin’ next Sunday”

Well I didn’t go to work, told the boss I was sick

“Well you can’t use the car ’cause you didn’t work a lick”

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do

But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran,

My teenaged children explained to me the other day that summer was supposed to be a time for sleeping in, staying up late, sleep-overs and high end camps which indulged the mind, body and soul.  I shared with them that summer break was an anachronism, the last buggy whip of an age of tanned, outdoor laborers who planted, tended and harvested their own food.  The three-month holiday was invented in agrarian America to accommodate the need for child labor in the fields during planting season.  Summer was a time when “industrious” and “ dedicated” young men and women were shipped out to the countryside to earn the redeeming calluses only found on the end of a shovel, plow or milking stool. Sunday was the only day of rest and a time where community was not forged by incessant texting between a gaggle of unimaginative, acne-ridden teens but with your family and neighbors at church.  Fun was a relative term.  “Kids, isn’t it fun to pick this cotton? First one to get to two bushels, get’s a slice of Mom’ s blueberry pie that is cooling on the windowsill”  “Honey, let’s get up at 3:30am tomorrow instead of 4am to milk the cows.  What a time we had this morning with Old Bessie! “

My father understood clearly that idle hands were the devil’s workshop.  Summer was an outmoded and socialistic invention of a liberal government more riddled with commies than a deer has ticks.  Three months off from hard labor would render the US apathetic and defenseless.  When we had all become teenagers, he gathered us one May afternoon and announced that we must get jobs for the summer to finance our profligate spending habits.  Allowance, which he felt was tantamount to welfare, was a relic of our past. The problem with welfare, he moralized, was that people began to view it as an entitlement and became dependent.  Instead of serving its intended purpose as stop gap assistance until one could become self sufficient, welfare became a money tree under which one could indefinitely rest and still feel sorry for themselves.

Instead of reacting violently to being suddenly cut-off from the pater familius gravy train, we took the news reasonably well.  Summer could be boring and the chance to earn money starting any number of businesses seemed terribly exciting.  We were relishing the prospect of having our own money and as a result, not being subjected to statements like, “ whose money is this anyway?”, “ oh, that’s right, I went to work today and you sat here like a lazy sack of …”, “when you are eighteen and can pay your own way, then maybe I will listen to what you have to say.”

Each kid devised his own strategy on how to make money.  There were the low value ideas like lemonade stands and redeeming bottles and cans for change.  The primary source of income was of course, the hard labor of neighborhood yard work.  Somehow, cleaning someone else’s yard for money seemed less of an imposition than cutting one’s own lawn.  It’s my belief that years from now, sociologists will recognize The Boomer generation as the last of the “mow and rake” demographic – before swelling ranks of harder working “mow and blow” immigrants crowded us out with superior technology and indefatigable work ethics.  It would now seem like corporal punishment if I deigned to make one of my kids mow our lawn or rake leaves.

However, in the days of cold war, children were considered free labor and a landscaping professional was any kid who had used an electric mower or had facial hair. The main tool of the trade was the ancient lawn mower -a rusted manual cutting cylinder with a rotating blade.  The simple mechanical design was unimproved since it was invented in 350 BC by a Greek teen that could not swing a scythe but was told to cut the wheat or he could not attend the Poison Oracles concert that evening at the local amphitheatre. The mowing implement was harder to push than a field plow or shopping cart filled fifty-pound sacks of dog kibble and a broken wheel.

To operate the cast iron monstrosity, one would have to back up several paces to build enough momentum to cut through any lawn higher than one half inch. As the blade ripped through the various varieties of suburban grass – Bermuda, St Augustine, Fescue, and Kentucky Blue – the whirling blades filled the air with green shrapnel and debris.  By the end of a lawn cutting session, you resembled a bizarre grasslands creature –covered in flecks of emerald, sweat and whatever insects du jour were visiting for that season.  It seemed the grass fell everywhere except into the ancient canvas grass catch that hung precariously behind the machine on two hooks adjacent to the back wheels.

After cutting and raking up the grass, you were expected to edge the lawn with a device that looked like the unholy union of a jousting stick and a pizza cutter.  The metal blade knifed along the sidewalk and garden beds as you carefully trimmed the rectangle of property to geometric perfection. After all, an uneven yard suggested to your neighbors that if you could not control your lawn, how could you possibly hold the rest of your life together?

Leaves were accumulated with a bizarre device called a rake. It was a cumbersome implement made from fragile metal strips that made a distinct scratching sound as they were dragged across garden beds and backyards.  If raking was not tedious enough, the final indignity involved depositing your detritus into the trash.  Instead of launching leaves into your neighbor’s front drive or into woods where property lines blurred and ticks reigned, you were forced to stand in the trash cans stomping down on the debris to make room for more clippings.  Invariably, the trash can would tip vaulting you and your days work onto the cement where you would lie for moments, bleeding and angry that you must repeat this Promethean task all over again. .  Eventually, you succeeded and became expert in jamming eighty cubic feet of leaves into a 20-gallon trashcan.  It made my father quiver with pride to see his four sons bouncing up and down in his trash cans tamping down debris like serfs in the fields.  There would be times, when out of sheer elation he would come out and jump in the trash bin with us.

My eldest brother loathed this manual labor as it gave him blisters and uneven tan lines.  He quickly figured out that everyone needed his or her windows washed especially in the unfiltered light of a Southern California summer.  He formed a window washing business and proceeded to make a fortune.  It was genius – low overhead – a squeegee, ammonia, rags and an FM radio – and there was little competition.  He could complete a 3000 square foot home – inside and out in about three days bringing in $ 150. He quickly figured out that condos and apartment complexes had identical layouts, a fixed number of same sized windows and air conditioning.  He went door to door in upscale condos complexes offering to do windows for $40 a unit – usually completing his work in less than two hours.

The local YMCA helped out by creating a kid’s job bank where local citizens could call and offer a job including details of where, how much, when and who.  These were before the days of trucks driving down to Stamford to pick up highly industrious undocumented workers desperate for any paying job.  We were the labor force desperate for money and in those 70’s summers and we lived off an economy of yard work, spring cleaning and vacation support services – watering, feeding pets, gathering mail.  A community understood that it needed to create a consumer class among its kids to support our summer economy. Neighbors felt an obligation to keep the teens employed and out in the open where they might find less trouble, more supervision and self esteem.  Parents understood that their kids needed to work.

Years later, two of my three kids have summer jobs.  I am hitting .666, which is not a bad batting average for this Ivory Tower Division team. My third child is threatening to call protective services as he has determined that most ten year olds are not supposed to be working.  I point out that they are not supposed to be playing some game called “ Spore “ for 92 hours straight, either. He can earn cash around the house doing yard work, washing a car or a cleaning a window.  Minimum wage seems beneath him.  I am this close to pulling that lawn mower out and tasking him with taking on the front yard.  He may even grow a beard right in front of me just from the sheer maturation of the hard work and industry that would be foisted upon his narrow shoulders.

And then again, I may be forced to go out and help him – showing him how to cut, rake, edge and stomp on the cans.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Never mind.

Is It A Shoe Decision

Deutsch: Ausstellung Materielle Beweise der Gr...
Deutsch: Ausstellung Materielle Beweise der Gräueltaten in Auschwitz I English: Exhibition Material Proofs of Crimes at Auschwitz I Polski: Wystawa Materialne Dowody Zbrodni w Auschwitz I Español: Exibicion de Pruebas Materiales de los Crimenes en Auschwitz I (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often find myself listening to my children as they lament their challenges of the day and remind them of the differences between problems arising out of affluence and melodrama of the real world.

Prior to living in New Canaan, we spent several years in London where we received a baptism of fire in international living and in life. Our close family friends, Kathy and Ross, were Australian ex-pats whose children lined up perfectly with our own and whose ability to live in the moment made each day an adventure and every dinner a life lesson.  One evening I was complaining over dinner about a particularly difficult decision at work and Ross smiled and asked “ Well, mate, is it a shoe decision ? “  I was stumped and assumed this yet another of his Aussie colloquialisms.

Ross shared that his boss and mentor, Frank, was an Auschwitz survivor.  Frank was 48 when he emigrated penniless from the former Czechoslovakia.  His philosophy of living catapulted him to become CEO of one of the world’s multinational corporations.  Frank would often ask Ross “ is it a shoe decision ? “ when chiding Ross on taking life too seriously.

Frank shared that when he was a teenager, they were rounding up Jews and taking them to the camps.  The stress was unbelievable as each night Frank and an increasingly shrinking ghetto of survivors would wait for the pounding at the door.  ‘They always came at night and gave you no time to gather your things.  Off people went ‘( Most never returned ).

‘The night they came for me, for some reason, I did not expect it.  I was tired and was counting on a good nights sleep.  It was bitterly cold that winter and I had fortunately dressed in heavier winter pajamas.  They Nazis burst in, and I could only grab one thing.  I chose for some reason to grab two pairs of shoes.  I put on one pair and sliped the others inside my bedclothes.  The train was horrific – hours standing with no place to sit or use the toilet, people dying all the way over the several hour train ride to Birkenau -( Auschwitz )

‘It became clear to me that my extra pair of shoes would mean life for someone.  We were forced to stand for hours in freezing rain and snow. People’s feet would get frost bite and gangrenous.  Once the gangrene set in, they were whisked off to the gas chambers. I had two friends with me from home – both without shoes.  I knew that the person I gave the shoes to would live and the one without the shoes would most likely die. The night of my decision, I agonized until morning, a more tortured soul you could not find.  The next day, I gave the shoes to one friend, while the other watched.  He bore me no ill will.  The friend without shoes died in the gas chambers weeks later with infected feet.  My other friend ? He is an Auschwitz survivor today. ‘

‘ So you see, Ross’ he shared, ‘ here’s the way I look at it: Is it a shoe decision ?  Is it life or death ? Because if it is, you must take the time to be sure you search every corner of your soul for the truth.  Pray for guidance.  If it is not life or death.  Think.  Decide.  Act and never look back.  If it is wrong you can change your mind.  Be a good man.  Do the right thing.  But, agonizing over little problems that do not decide life or death is a waste of your life.  Leave worry for the other man.’

I think back many times on that dinner in London.  I think of the safety, security and affluence we enjoy and remind my children that none of our problems are “ shoe decisions”.  Words to live by, particularly these days when the world outside our cocoon seems so beset with conflict and hatred.

A Free Range Kid

A Free Range Kid

In 60’s and 70’s suburban Los Angeles, each planned community was a perfect grid of magnolia and palm tree lined streets with green carpets of manicured lawns stretching for entire blocks, interrupted only by cement driveways which served as primitive lines of demarcation for the packs of children that would roam their environs looking for field to play.  In our town at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, everyone knew the neighbors and the neighbors knew you.  It was difficult to engage in any form of civil disobedience – – blowing up anything with an M80s (1/8 stick of dynamite) purchased in Tijuana, BB gun wars, or heaving water balloons at passing motorists – – without someone id’ing you and reporting you swiftly to your parents, sometimes before you even made it home from the caper.  In my case, the fear of parental retribution would cause me to entertain wild thoughts of running away – – “I will sneak in, grab my clothes (and a few Hostess Fruit Pies) and shack up in Charlie’s tree house until I can get a job and then I will hitchhike to Montana.”  It did not matter that I was nine, uncertain of where Montana actually was or that Charlie’s tree house was a four by six spider colony.  This was secondary to avoiding the belt that was certain to find my adolescent behind for crimes against humanity.

When we moved into our new home in the summer of 1968, we quickly got to know our neighbors who lived behind our red tiled, stucco Mediterranean.  The backyard was still under construction and while my parents conducted their final walk through, we discovered a cachet of dirt clods that were unlike any organic material we had ever seen.  These massive dirt blocks, forged together from drought and construction digging, became weapons of mass destruction as my brothers and I squared off in primitive slit trenches and behind ivy fences.  As the battle raged, an errant clod flew over the redwood fence and resulted in a “splash”.  Like the old EF Hutton commercial, we froze, intrigued by the sudden sound of water.  My brother tossed another dirt clod over the fence testing the radius of the hidden water – – splash!  We took a third clod the size of Delaware and pushed it over the barrier- – “ker-plunk” followed by a geyser spiking higher than Old Faithful.  The barrage lasted for the next hour. As my father and mother toasted their new home and expanding social circle, the phone rang.  It was their new neighbors…their angry, new neighbors.  A reign of terror began that would last fifteen years. 

Despite these and many other transgressions, we were absorbed into this melting pot of young and old . Our neighborhood was a microcosm of every suburban community in America.  We had Howard, next door, who had possessed every conceivable power tool known to man and would voluntarily assist my father in fixing anything that broke, chipped or even looked like it might break. Years later, my youngest brother, home from college, got a hysterical call from Mildred, Howard’s wife, that he was gravely ill and needed to be lifted into the car so she could take him to the hospital.  The strapping do-it-yourselfer had been reduced to less than 100lbs from cancer but his sense of humor stayed in tact.  “Tell your Dad, he can have the band-saw if I don’t make it back home.”

 

We were all odd passengers lashed to the mast of a massive ship of streets and yards.  We had one neighbor who liked to make himself martinis, sit in a lawn chair and light off fireworks.  The problem was – – it usually around 12 at night and year round.   We sort of got used to the roman candles surging like a distant firefight and became indifferent to the Piccolo Petes that would shrill like incoming artillery fire.  We had your token grouchy old man who would threaten us with bodily harm ‘lest we venture on to his carefully manicured lawn to retrieve a baseball.  We named him “Groucho” and as we got older, we found increasingly ingenious ways to torment him including one night, lighting smoke bombs, donning dark bed sheets and circling the smoke, repeatedly chanting“ pagan sacrifice “.  I wasn’t sure what “peg and sacrifice “ meant but my older brother told me to say it.  Groucho called the police.  He reported hooded dwarves were committing ritual sacrifices on his dichondra and he had just reseeded. There was Mr. Brown who loved to sunbathe naked in his back yard which horrified Mrs. Cunningham next door, but the police would do nothing about it.  “Don’t look” they told her.  I recall lighting a fire in the bushes in front of another neighbor’s home but was so intent on my pyromania, I did not realize the fire was also in full view of their living room window where they sat and watched me.  Imagine my surprise as I exited the bushes with my friend, and noticed the police and fire truck car in front of our house.  I balled my eyes out when the fire chief said that they sent arsonists to reform school.  I was not sure what reform school was but I was sure they did not serve dessert there.

Diagonally to the north, we had the large Italian family with 12 kids.  They had their groceries delivered by The Helms Man Grocery Service – a luxury unheard of in the 70’s.   The Helms Man truck driver was not the sharpest tool in the shed and while other kids would distract him, we would empty his change dispenser and then buy candy from him with his money.  It worked for months until to our chagrin, a new driver showed up. Like all communities, we lived with illnesses, divorces, aging neighbors and people troubled by demons and dysfunction – – a bonanza of mania and mayhem.  There was the neighbor that snapped one day at work and came home to hold off the police for four hours with his son’s BB gun.  There was a suicide.  There was a murder.  There were robberies.  Life did not bypass this bucolic oasis.  It drove in like an ill wind every couple of years to remind us that we needed to look out for one another.   Through it all, every neighbor always was there for every other neighbor.  Every adult felt they had proxy authority to discipline other people’s kids and enforce a community standard.  We were free range kids – – roaming miles away on foot or by bicycle, making mistakes and learning coping skills that would serve us throughout life.

 

Times have changed.  Geography and social boundaries have made it harder to be a free range kid.  The requirements have not changed nor the have the dividends.  Free range kids need a little extra rope, independence, trust, support from their community and the ability to make mistakes.  Captive kids have “high bottoms” because parents love them to the point of not wanting them to fail, at anything.  Captive kids are tightly managed and live life within a set of guardrails built of myriad commitments and shielded with a two parent safety net.  When a free range kid gets into trouble sometimes he/she has to figure out how to get out of it.  Free range kids make bad choices but they learn, grow and some even believe these kids cope better when eventually introduced into “the wild”.    

 

Under The Wire

Under The Wire

A computer is like an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy

John Dunlop

Firebase Dell, Connecticut. 2100 Hours. External conditions:  Dark.  Reported movement outside the wire.  Central command is expecting enemy activity tonight.  Assignment : check and stabilize cyber-firebase Dell. Prevent intrusions and viral infection.

It’s late and I sit down to walk the computer perimeter.  As I scroll the endless sea of daily activity and peruse the America On Line notices, I notice a small gap.  It appears someone has wandered into a protected area and erased their footprints.  The enemy agent has been working on a less patrolled corner of the firebase trying to penetrate my protective defenses.  I can almost see him, in his little black pajamas, a coy intruder using stealth and exploiting our generation gap.  When I interrogate the suspect, he confesses that he was trying to get on Webkinz to feed his virtual animals.  I am suspicious.  Webkinz sounds like a foreign acronym for a deadly virus or worm. The next thing I know, I will be getting pop up emails from someone named Ivana suggesting that we meet at least once before moving ahead with the marriage.  How we went from Webkinz to Russian mail order brides I will never know.  The one thing I know for certain is once again, my computer will be compromised.

I have a constant battle with viruses on my PC.  It got so bad two years ago that  I had to swap out my hard drive.  I  would boot the computer and it would immediately tell me I have won the Ghana National Lottery and then whip me off to another website where I could buy copious amounts of Oxycontin, Viagra and Xanex.  If a person actually consumed all of these potential purchases, they would probably try to seduce a silverback gorilla at the Bronx Zoo and then spontaneously combust, or perhaps just become a conservative radio talk show host.  Point is, the gremlins had gotten under my meager defenses, penetrated my perimeter with virus after virus and completely ruined my hardware.

I decided to buy Norton Anti-virus to confound the virus gremlins.  For good measure, I overlayed MacAfee Firewall on top of it.  The result was the equivalent of fitting my computer with a protective chastity belt and then throwing the key into Long Island Sound.  I could not even figure out how to get on to the Internet without going through more doors than Maxwell Smart.  It felt like a maze of cyber metal detectors, frisking me before I even entered my own computer.  The application window kept saying that the delay was due to the computer loading an approved list of sites.  Yet, the approved sites slowly reduced to a Dell accessories store and Norton Update.  I began to refer to this unholy offspring of MacAfee and Norton as MacNorton.  MacNorton was so effective in controlling access that no one could use the computer.  My days of being plagued by messages suggesting I buy Rolex watches or help wealthy

Africans who wanted to deposit $ 10,000,000 into my bank account because I was named in someone’s last will and testament –  were all done.  I could not get on to AOL.  I finally found a way of accessing Internet Explorer by setting my computer back to an earlier date through System Restore, accessing AOL via the web and then retrieving my mail as a guest.  I might as well have been in doing all of this from an internet café in Madagascar.

No good deed goes unpunished.  Webkinz, YouTube, My Space, Itunes and a parade of other seemingly benign Trojan Horses all require some degree of permission.  Hiding in these cyber facades are little Greek cookies and enemy tracking devices that will case my perimeter looking for a weak spot.  “ Dad, if I don’t feed my Webkinz , he will die”. One of my kids complained. Hmmm.  Perhaps this was a great opportunity to teach my kids about one of life’s great mysteries and inevitable passages and do it in a virtual manner.  I wondered what would happen if we did not feed that virtual cat.  Would the Webkin become ravenous.  Would Webkinz animal control officers break into the cyber house to thwart the abuse ? Would the cat scratch the hell out of the furniture and foul the room before going to the great kitty litter box in the sky – – now that would be virtual reality !

I once again laid down the law that my office computer was off limits.  They saw me for the paper tiger that I am and waited for me to go to work.  They promised me to use the other computer that I had explicitly purchased for them to use to access the internet and play games.  The problem with this fully loaded Dell wireless laptop – – with the chrome bumpers and the V10 engine, is it was now so riddled with viruses that it just laid on its side and as you walked by it would whisper , “ kill me, please, just kill me“.  As we do not believe in computer euthanasia in my house, we just waited patiently for it to die.

I devised a plan.  I must first purchase an iMac for the “power user” 14 year old who has been capable of hacking into the Kremlin for years and has probably been on the payroll of the CIA since middle school.  The plain envelopes addressed to her from Langley, Virginia were a dead give away.  If I could neutralize the power user, I could cut enemy activity by 33% – 45%.  The black pajama crowd was more difficult to disable.  Being young boys, they are predisposed to only hear 25% of what they are told and obey 50% of that.  That is a 12.5 % compliance rate.  As a male, I understand their compliance will never be more than 50% but such a low likelihood of success required drastic measures.  I eliminated instant messaging.  I deleted games and applications.  I reinstalled Norton.  I calibrated firewalls to their age group and entered a new password.  It worked.

Nowadays, I come home and the computer boots up quickly.  The website history is gloriously weak and showing signs of diminished interest in the internet.  I am pleased.  While I write my latest diatribe, I receive an email announced with a “ping”. I toggle to received messages.  It’s a note from someone named Svetlana69 and she wants to know when I want to meet.

The United States of Europe

The United States of Europe

 

In heaven, the police are British. The cooks are French. The engineers are German. The administrators are Swiss and the lovers Italian.

In hell, the police are German. The cooks are British. The engineers are Italian. The administrators are French and the lovers Swiss. – Anonymous

 

As the Obama administration embarks on a domestic and geopolitical change agenda that is redefining America and our role in the free world, critics are warning that America is moving dangerously toward becoming Europe.  However, given that less than 10% of Americans possess passports and have never actually visited Europe, let alone Chicago, it’s interesting that there is such high anxiety about moving closer to a social and economic model that many have never experienced.

 

Conservatives argue that the US like Europe is setting itself up for dire consequences of more liberal social policies – inflation, economic stagnation, income redistribution and social safety nets that become hammocks for people who chronically refuse to take personal responsibility for anything. The Lefties argue that the last eight years was a drunken orgy benefiting the elite, enabled by the elite and now being cleaned up by people that were not even invited to the party.   Perhaps, they argue, a little bit more egalite might get us on to a better track.

 

While America is clearly my home and has better cable TV, I have lived abroad and believe the US could learn a thing or two from Europe. The traditional arguments of Europe as a failed welfare state just don’t hold up well as Americans wake up to the aftermath of our own excesses. The nascent European Economic Community was forged out of historically liberal, autonomous countries to better compete with Asian tigers and American bulls.  The result has been nothing short of miraculous and while the seams of the Euro-zone quilt are visible to the naked eye, it is a work of art to be admired.

 

Just consider the unique benefits of being more European:

 

In Europe, governments are often formed through the alliance of many political parties.  These coalition governments allow for the existence of multiple interest groups.  In coalition countries, a person can align with Greens, Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, Agnostics, Fiscal Conservatives, or even start a party for people who have fetishes for string. The down side of coalition governance is perpetual turmoil and in cases such as Italy, some governments have the life span of a housefly.  But hey, at least you can find a party that really represents your views.

 

Life is healthier across the pond. Refrigerators are smaller forcing you to buy your food fresh and eat smaller portions resulting in fewer overweight people.  Because continental Europeans eat less, they need smaller bathrooms. This is particularly true of the UK where the absence of roughage in the English diet requires the average Brit to use the loo about once a week. The French believe in portion control, which explains why your duck l’orange entree is the size of a postage stamp. Meals are consumed over several hours and spiced with great conversation where sex, religion and politics are as politically correct as driving a hybrid. In Europe, you never eat in your car, standing up or alone at your desk. You sit down with others and stop grazing when you are full. There is not much of a market for bariatric surgery.  XXL is a Roman numeral.

 

Protecting the environment is a priority and there is recognition that an abused earth will eventually beginning to poison us.  Europeans do not trust genetically altered food or reality TV.  A trans-fat is not a food additive but a Rubenesque cross dresser that hangs out at train stations.

 

Humility is a sign of social maturity and it is considered dignified to disguise one’s social standing, especially around tax collectors.  In Europe, you tend to move back to the community where you grew up. Multiple generations of families spend Sundays together.  Outdoor cafes spill into piazzas and squares that serve as the heart of every village and town. People eat family style. You can bring your dog into a restaurant and leave your crying baby outside the cafe in a pram. There are no curfews for teens and dinner reservations can be made at midnight. Childcare is provided by live-in in-laws, your employer or by relatives who reside within a ten-mile radius.  Public transportation is outstanding and if you do own a car, it is the size of a phone booth and gets 55mpg.

 

There are more per capita museums, bicycles, and best of all, nude beaches – although the majority of topless women are 55 year old Germans whose bodies have long since stopped cooperating and who have more facial hair than Fidel Castro. There is one sport – soccer.  It is called ” the beautiful game”. It requires physical stamina, intelligence and the ability to flop to the ground feigning injury.  Most great floppers grew up as younger siblings in large Catholic families and are highly skilled at implicating others for false contact.

 

You are much freer to be stupid in Europe than the US and society doesn’t have to pay for it.  If you ski off a mountain, get hit while crossing a street, spill hot coffee on yourself or decide to put your motor home on cruise control and then go back to make yourself breakfast because you mistakenly think cruise control is auto-pilot, you are considered a moron and you deserve what you get.  In the US, the same outcomes result in lawsuits galore and liability that inflates the price of everything from lift tickets to lattes. In Europe, there are no victims, only those that have bad luck or make bad choices. In the US, everyone is a victim as long as there are deep pockets and slick plaintiffs attorneys.

 

The violent crime rate is low because the only guys that have guns in Europe are Russian mobsters and you can smell them coming from a mile away, literally. Property crime is the main problem and there is an old saying in Germany, ” if your car is stolen, it’s probably in Poland”.  Healthcare is free but extremely Spartan. Take a number, lie on this gurney and if you are dying you get to go to the head of the line. If you have good insurance today, you will hate national health.  If you are uninsured, underinsured or a hypochondriac, you’ll love it. Despite the obvious shortcomings of nationalized healthcare, many European countries enjoy higher public health scores than the US – greater longevity and lower infant mortality rates. This is generally due to lifestyle compression where the wealthy do not live ten years longer than the indigent and since everyone has access to care, the median life span increases.  The lower cost of care is due to lifestyles, an emphasis on preventive care, red wine and six weeks of paid vacation.

 

Everything is collectively bargained.  Even the unions have unions.  The best job in Europe is not CEO but being the head of the employee work’s council.  This tenured power position means you get to review all raises and vote down unfair management systems where your performance might actually be monitored.  If you actually get fired, you are eligible for three years severance and something called ” garden leave ” where you get to plant flowers and listen to opera in your back yard courtesy of your former employer.  Unions are also great for your social life as frequent strikes mean surprise holidays and business savings as airport and transportation actions often mean staying home.

 

The best part of being European is your name. I would much prefer to be called Michel than Michael.  Michel is a guy who can wear a beret and not look dumb. If I were John, I would prefer Juan. Juan can win a sword fight and can wear tight pants without ripping them in the crotch.  Many European names indicate what kind of person you are.  If you go by the name Vlad, odds are you enjoy impaling things.  Fabio?  Say no more.  The Dutch are very predictable.  A man is either Aad or Ruud.  It is possible to be “odd and rude” at the same time but only if you are from Rotterdam and drunk on corn wine.  As you head north and east, you meet Henriks, Dominiks, Theos, Jorgens, Hans Eriks or Dags – all strong names suggesting a person who could easily hold off a hundred Russians with only a hunting knife.

 

In the end, America remains a land of unprecedented possibility.  The main lesson here is to not fall prey to the myopic belief that we are the most evolved of all societies.   It is human nature that when contrasting America to others, we notice differences first and often reject alternative ideas for the mere fact that they are different.  Older societies have obvious blemishes but have had more time to evolve and learn. Ultimately history will judge what defines a great society.  It stands to reason that a great society is not just built on a polarized distribution of wealth between very few haves and many have-nots.  However, it is not defined by colorless socialism or suffocating regulation.  Perhaps, the new US and the new Europe might actually find themselves meeting in the middle and in doing so, forging a brave new world model that offers a balanced combination of the best that we can be – – socially, economically, legally, religiously and collectively. 

 

And, if that happens, I’m getting that beret

Centerfield

Centerfield

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Oh, put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be Centerfield.

~ John Fogerty, Centerfield

During a game, the coach called one of his 9-year-old baseball players aside and asked, “Do you understand what cooperation is?  What a team is?”  The little boy nodded.  “Do you understand that what matters is whether we win or lose together as a team?”  The little boy nodded.  “So,” the coach continued, “I’m sure you know, when an out is called, you shouldn’t argue, curse, attack the umpire or call him a butt-head.  Do you understand all that?”  Again the little boy nodded.  The coach continued, “And when I take you out of the game so another boy gets a chance to play, it’s not good sportsmanship to call your coach a dumb ass, is it?”  Again the little boy nodded.  “Good,” said the coach.  “Now go over there and explain all that to your dad in the stands.”

It’s baseball season.  Once again, I have decided to join the ranks of the volunteer coaches of New Canaan Cal Ripken Baseball.  I am already starting to behave oddly at home.  I yelled “slide” to my eight-year-old as he ran to greet me at the door the other day.  I asked my wife if it would be okay to buy a radar gun.  “We could clock all kinds of things – how fast the kids get out to the bus in the morning, how quickly they come to dinner when we call.  We could increase their allowance when they beat certain time thresholds…”  She gave me that “you are a very troubled person” look.  The sad truth is that I cannot resist the draw of those bats, balls and battle.  It just doesn’t feel like April unless once again wrestle 11 other committed Dads for bragging rights.

Coaching is a catharsis.  It’s the ultimate opportunity to be of service and help shape kids.  It is also a mirror for self-reflection and, if done properly, lays a foundation for kids to grow into young adults.  If done poorly, coaching can be a demoralizing experience for a child, a source of constant tension for parents and a Greek tragedy for the fatally flawed but well intentioned coach.  When Reverend Joe Ehrmann came to New Canaan last fall, many coaches were introduced to the book about Joe, Seasons of Life.  For some, it was given as a gift or a stocking stuffer.  For others, it was left surreptitiously on a front door step or, in a few cases, tied to a rock and hurled through a living room window.

Joe’s message is priceless: each kid is a treasure trove of possibility and sports is a stage where we can discover each child’s potential.  Coaches can cultivate each player to become a more confident and engaged citizen of our community and to build self-esteem, which is the oxygen that fuels adolescence.  I realize this is innate stuff to a lot of people who work with kids.  Yet for others, including myself, Ehrmann’s talk was a great reminder.

There are coaches (and yes, I am one of them) who occasionally forget it’s just a game and become a little obsessed with winning.  It’s sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where two alpha males make eye contact across the watering hole (in this case the baseball diamond).  I can almost see his antlers growing.  I scratch the ground with my cleat.  He picks up a bat and takes a few half swings.  The rut is on.  It’s a curse, really, thinking when the other coach goes home at night they’re calculating batting averages and comparing first to second base sprint times, instead of catching up on bills or reading.  Each season there’s always one coach who “challenges my objectivity.”  Whether it’s having their runner steal second while enjoying an eight-run lead or invoking some double secret rule like the “Speed of Play” clause from the Cal Ripken Official rules book that I get handed every year but never read.  (I actually think the “Speed of Play” rule was first created by the French in the UN to prevent the US from taking over committee meetings.)

I know I should not be so competitive.  There’s just something about that mixture of red dirt, chalk, and eye black that makes a guy a little, how should we say, less spiritual?  I’ve had to learn the key to being a good coach is to realize that it’s not about me.  It’s not about the parents.  It’s about every kid I’ve been entrusted with – every single one.  It means taking pride in each kid’s progress and teaching something new.  It means telling them the story about when I was a kid and how I pretended to go to football practice but would instead hide in the bushes, in full pads, smear dirt on my pants and wait for two hours before going home, hoping a passing dog wouldn’t lift his leg on my hiding place.  It’s me remembering when my son makes an error or strikes out and looks at me that I do not cringe, shake my head or make a face but smile and clap and say “go get ’em.”  It’s finding humor in everything.  Whether it’s a food shack listed in Zagats and rumored to be selling foie gras or the way people park their cars at Mead Park as if they have spilled an extra hot latte in their lap.

We all want our children to respect one another, try their best, work hard, and come back to play another year.  We need to remember that great television commercial that appears during most NCAA games: “There are 30,000 athletes in American universities and most of them will go pro in something other than sports.”  It’s a great time of year…the smell of freshly cut grass, chalk lines faithfully edged around a red dust diamond, and the sharp ping of a well hit line drive mixing with the roar of a hometown crowd.  Somewhere a kid rounds third base and tries to beat the throw to home, while another player tugs on his/her coach’s arm and yells, “hey coach, put me in .  I want to play centerfield.”

Speed Sticks And Pushers

Speed Sticks and Pushers

 

Health class (n), 1. A compulsory educational tollbooth through which every middle school child must travel.  2. A valuable roadmap for pre and post pubescents to assist navigation along the highways of life.  3. A learning curriculum designed to reverse all disinformation learned from one’s older siblings

 

In the days of Nixon, Watergate and presidential pardons, health class was segregated between girls and boys. There was the domesticus curriculae, better known as Home Economics, for girls; and “Health” class for boys hosted by our mustached, dolphin shorted PE teacher Mr. Stebbins who my father sarcastically remarked looked like an adult film star.

 

While the girls were railroaded into baking, maintaining proper Redbook posture and ultimately hypnotized into believing that Prince Charming did actually exist and was out there waiting wearing clean underwear, boys were taught the proper techniques for donning a jock strap, avoiding women with venereal diseases and abstaining from drugs with names like ” bennies”, ” uppers”, ” downers”, “Horse” and “Mary Jane”.

 

We were subjected to anti-drug propaganda to scare us straight.  In the annals of anti-drug films, the 1967 classic, “Pit of Despair” stood as a classic – converting the most impressionable among us into paranoid purists who would rather die of influenza than take medication. After viewing  “Pit Of Despair”, I was afraid to take so much as a Bayer aspirin for fear of waking up running naked down the Santa Monica freeway shrieking, ” the moon is following me…and he has a gun!”

 

Every anti-drug flick offered a similar plot featuring a normal suburban kid relenting to peer pressure, and agreeing to attend a wild “tea” party with lava lamps, 30 watt bulbs, throw pillows, sitar music, bell bottomed girls and drug dealers known as “pushers”. In a lost weekend of drug and alcohol abuse, the protagonist ends up with more holes in his arm than a cribbage board, screaming as he looks at his party mates who are no longer people but grotesque demons with narrow pink beaks.  Instead of fleeing the den of iniquity, he takes a more direct route to the street, leaping out an open window shouting, “Look at me! I can fly!”.  Meanwhile, his emotionally dead friends look on in sociopathic indifference as a rag doll dummy floats horrifyingly with flailing arms down to the cement sidewalk below.

 

Some were quick to dismiss the exaggerated melodrama of “Pit of Despair”, but we were all on the look out for pushers. I was convinced anyone with long hair or a beard was a drug dealer.  Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a heroin dealer, Sportin’ Life, in the move, “Porgy and Bess”. He later sang a song in 1972 whose lyrics, I was convinced, were clearly code for encouraging drug use.  The innocent ditty, “The Candy Man Can”, was played on countless conservative AM radio stations and hummed by clueless suburban housewives as they picked out their Webber Bread in the grocery store.

 

Drug use obviously was rampant and if you sniffed, puffed or popped, you were likely to immediately grow long hair, quit taking baths and barely manage a two-syllable response to any question.  You pretty much just walked around all day saying, “solid, man.” These wild haired, drug crazed gutter trash were called “hippies” and they existed like body snatchers to co-opt you into a life of drugs, promiscuous sex and crime – the trifecta of worthlessness according to my father. John Lennon memorialized the quintessential hippie in the song, “Come Together.”  The Beatles were notorious for putting symbols and subliminal drug messages in songs like “Hey Jude”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and even the “Yellow Submarine” extolling the virtues of expanding one’s mind with opiates and hard narcotics. 

 

The insidious creep of drugs had to be stopped.  According to my Dad, the “French Connection” from Marseilles to New York would need to be choked off in its tracks or America would become a giant opium den – succumbing to Communism because we could not see or hear the Reds coming through the haze of our smoke and loud music.

 

While girls blindly emerged from Home Economics as SWITs (Stepford Wives in Training) with new appreciation for the wonders of baking soda as a panacea for odors, heartburn and insect bites, boys suddenly saw powdered sugar and flour as sinister accessories for pushers to further corrupt the poison as they unleashed it on Main Street.

 

The officer who briefed us on drugs and the warning signs of addiction was a

Detective with a thick Brooklyn accent, which only seemed to underscore the gravity of our drug problem. After all, what’s a NY cop doing in Southern California unless the “connection” was somewhere lurking in the shadow of our ivory tower.  He told us about cartels and drug lords.  He told us to watch for pushers hanging around the playground and baseball fields.

 

As we jogged in gym class, we pondered the identity of the alpha pusher running our town’s local drug ring.  Who was “Mr. Big?”  The big kahuna was often depicted in movies as a benign law abiding citizen by day and a ruthless distributor of narcotics, prostitution and murder by night.  Perhaps he could be our middle school principal, Mr. White. If he was the man, he could not be working alone. His VP of students, Mr. Gilligan, must be the strong arm of the operation – dealing not only drugs but also detentions.  These clever punishments delayed kids after school and forced them to walk home alone where his network of pushers might more easily trap them. 

 

I confided my entire theory to my brother and was immediately ratted out to my father.  My Dad was furious, “You will get our butts sued.  Michael. What were you thinking?”  Weighing the cost/benefit of investigating a major drug ring but having to weed the backyard until the year 2015, I gave up on Mr. White.  However, I never stopped scanning the playground for dealers.  Sportin’ Life could be anywhere waiting to snare us into a life of addiction.

 

I am now told that today’s health classes are more politically correct but remain true to the major building blocks of adolescent development – drug and alcohol prevention, body change, sexual responsibility and hygiene.  We can always tell when Health class is in session as one of our boys comes home smelling like a Mennen Speed Stick.  For the next week, the boy is a walking Glade Room freshener as he lathers his entire body with deodorant hoping to attract someone or something.  Usually, he attracts a few flies and the cat. At dinner, he informs us about hygiene as if we were immigrants just off the boat on Ellis Island.  My wife nods with a sardonic smile indicating that perhaps her husband could use a refresher course. 

 

Health class seems not to have lost its punch.  It may carry a different scent and rely less on fear than information but it has come of age. It has kept pace with the 21st century and has finally understood that health is in the end, a coed experience.  Kids do not seem too concerned about pushers and are clearly more informed about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles.  Yet the Achilles heel of each generation is the fact that they believe they know more than their elders.  Alas, they are still kids. The rote facts they learn are only words and not always understood.  We only hope these seeds of health and wellness germinate at the right times.

 

And judging from the fact that my son has not bathed in three days, not everyone is practicing what is being preached.  I have to go find that Speed Stick and leave it under his pillow.

 

 

 

An Ambleside Spring

imagesI wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils,

Beside the lake, beneath the trees

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 —  I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, William Wordsworth, April, 1804

Springtime in Northern England is a time of inspired renewal.  Lavender crocus and sun kissed daffodils peek from under moss-covered rocks and along the tufts of broken heather that interrupt the fells, crags, scars, hows and pastures of the Lake District.  The weather is a fickle, undependable companion with four seasons visiting every day.  The wind sweeps down from the northwest unfurling great banners of rain and swirling mist.  Suddenly, a swath of cornflower blue appears and expands into a great chasm of sky bursting with unfiltered spring sun.  The verdant landscape comes alive in a kaleidoscope of painter’s palette color accentuated by the natural light.

The shadows move slowly whispering and creeping toward you as the light stretches out of abbreviated winter hibernation.   Each spring day is a reward for the incarceration of a bleak midwinter.  It is a time for poets, writers and artists.

Dove Cottage is situated on the edge of Grasmere in the Lake District.  William Wordsworth, his wife and his sister Dorothy, occupied the cottage in 1799.  It was on a day of broken clouds and rambling near Lake Ullswater, that Wordsworth’s sister recorded in her diary the simple perfection of daffodils peeking through the muddy ground to welcome the sun. As he reflected on her entries later that evening by blazing firelight, the poet was inspired to record his famous serenade to the citrine harbingers of spring.   The Lake District was Wordsworth’s joy. Until his family had literally outgrown their beloved cottage, increasing by three Wordsworth children in four years, they would not entertain leaving this mystical Eden.   Ultimately, the family moved a few kilometers away to Rydal Mount where they remained for 37 years

Behind the cascading slate roofed cottage, John’s Wood stands silent – named for Wordsworth’s brother John, a sea captain who had perished at sea. The hill climbs sharply up the rock strewn Loughrigg Fell, a thousand foot outcrop of bracken-clad knoll.  From the fell, poets looked north on the magnificent River Rothay that cascaded down through villages of Grasmere and Rydal Water.  To the south, more midnight ribbons of blue water converge before feeding Lake Windermere.

The Lakes are terraced here with footpaths and low slate walls, hemming in great flocks of Swaledale sheep.  It is lambing season.  A restless knot of cotton white ewes swirls in a pasture disguising scores of small unsteady legs that stumble and stretch to catch their mothers for a morning meal. Hill fog spills into the steep draws and ridges that form like tendons bracing the massifs and peaks.  With names like Scafell Pike, Great End, Skiddaw Little Man and Great Gable, the mountains draw thousands of hikers and ramblers each year. The Lakes derive their ubiquitous greenery from annual rainfall of over 80 inches but only an average of 2.5 hours of sun per day.   When the sun appears, it is cause for celebration.  Villagers and locals are suddenly still.  They smile, squinting up to the heavens, basking in the precious warmth.  Suddenly, everything is still again as shadows move like islands in the stream of a great malachite ocean.

Across the valley, lies Near Sawrey and Hill Top House – the summer farm of Beatrix Potter for 37 years.  Aside the simple gardens, massive hedgerows climb, obscuring adjacent fields and tarns.  Rabbits dart in and out of the thickets reminding us of a young girl who watched out a bedroom window sketching mice, geese, ducks and rabbits, meticulously weaving their shapes and movements into stories that would captivate an eternity of children.

There is something in the flat light that falls in this northeastern corner of the Western hemisphere –the emerald broken land above the 54th parallel.   Pastoral artists like Constable, Watson and Cozzens labored across rock-strewn fields to paint in open air a soft palette of spring and summer colors.  As the daylight advances, twilight suspends the day in a chrome blue light lasting for hours. Dusk finally yields to a black galaxy of night interrupted by the twinkling solitary lights of remote inns, pubs and small farms.  For any artist, The Lakes are a compulsory corner of the Great maker’s garden, a watercolor combination of elements constantly combining to create new shades of rain, mist, mountains and sun.

If you travel to the Lakes to wrap yourself in an English Spring, consider stopping at the edges of Lake Windermere.  On its southern edge, sits the Rothay Manor Hotel – an elegant country house run by the Nixon family for over 40 years.  In a reassuring mahogany pub, springtime hikers and travelers recovering from their journeys among the scores of lakes and tumbling rivers can drink a pint of lager and contemplate a framed poem, The Ambleside Weather Glass, that hangs next to a gabled picture window:

When Wansfell weaves a cap of cloud,

The roar of Brathay will be loud.

When mists come down from Loughrigg fell,

A drenching day gray heads foretell.

 

When breezes blow from Coniston,

Twere best a mackintosh put on.

If down from Kirkstone pass they come,

You better go not far from home.

 

When Redscree frowns on Ambleside,

The rain will pour both far and wide.

When Wansfell smiles and Loughrigg’s bright,

Twill surely rain before the night.

 

Yet should in nets on Windermere,

Twelve pickled salmon do appear.

No rain will fall upon that day,

And men may safely make their way.

Wordsworth considered the Lake District a spiritual Mecca and a paradox of the highest order – a living, breathing place that never ceased to change and through its constant motion, like the sea and the seasons, it’s ceaseless energy was in itself a reassuring symbol of a divine hand that moved across the land.  Spring it seemed was and remains a time when for a brief moment, the sun appears, breaking through the chill of winter and isolation.  In its cascading beams of light, one might spy the face of God smiling in the swaying grace of a canary yellow daffodil or in the solitary journey of a single cloud.