Jack Bauer Must Die

 

Jack Bauer Must Die

 

It’s midnight on a Tuesday.  The laundry is a massive multi-colored heap lying unattended on the mudroom floor.  The computer flashes, “you have 312 new emails”.  The dishes ferment slowly in the sink of what looks like a neglected soup kitchen.  The dog gnaws on a Ferragamo shoe while the cat temporarily passes out in a fetid litter box reeking of ammonia.

 

Upstairs there is thumping indicating the resident adolescents have yet to fall asleep.  The absence of authority permeates the house like the smell of a recent fish dinner. The television beeps like digital clock and a monotone voice announces, “The following takes place between 2am and 3am.”

 

My wife looks at me and asks rhetorically, ” You think the kids are asleep?” With my best codependent face, I reassure her. “Oh – – yeah. I’ll check them in a minute.”

We  hit the “play episode” button – pathetic addicts in a deep cocoon of denial.  We are in the middle of a debilitating video blackout watching the television show “24”. I cannot sleep until I find out whether the president will call back the bombers or he will permanently excommunicate his annoying, conniving Lady Macbeth ex-wife.  My wife is praying a new character – an urbane, handsome middle-eastern Oxford graduate will not be killed.  ” Oh, I hope Raiza lives,” she squeals anxiously clutching a pillow.  I am not jealous.   He has that “ I am a dead man “ look written all over him. I give him two episodes tops. I have become conditioned to not get attached to anyone on this show.

We are together but alone – each trapped in our own inescapable web of emotional knots tied to this soap opera serial drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a seemingly indestructible instrument of US counter terrorism in a world that demands morally ambiguous actions to defeat the forces of evil that threaten our American way of life. 

Wherever Jack Bauer goes people die – usually bad guys.  However, if you get too close to Jack Bauer – not unlike a career as a stunt man, living among New Guinea cannibals or raising a 200lb chimpanzee as your own child, your life expectancy is reduced by about fifteen years.  And for goodness sake, don’t hire Jack’s daughter Kim Bauer as your baby sitter or au pair.  This kid is a tornado of bad karma.

Kim’s misadventures make teenagers that have ended up in their hometown police blotters look like cherubim.  In just 24 hours, innocent Kim rescues a young girl from her abusive father, discovers the girl’s dead mother, gets in multiple car accidents – one that results in her boyfriend losing his leg, pulls a gun on four different people- killing one at her Dad’s urging, endures a siege as a hostage, escapes from police custody, witnesses a nuclear explosion, and is trapped inside a bomb shelter with a reclusive survivalist.  Tough day at school, hon? Throughout this entire period, Kim keeps interrupting her father on his cell phone as he is trying to save Los Angeles and/or the President of the US, David Palmer, whining “Dad, just come get me.” Kids just don’t change – they still see themselves as more important than the future of the free world.

Jack does not eat.  He does not go to the bathroom. Jack does not sleep.  He is the ultimate warrior.  He makes the tough decisions and employs brutal methods that waffling bureaucrats cannot make in the face of danger. While interrogating a smug bad guy who displays indignant bravado given the government’s weak knee decision to grant him immunity, Bauer simply shoots the creep and asks his colleagues for a hacksaw so he can cut off the snitch’s head off and use the prize to insinuate his way in with some domestic terrorists.  As we watched “the head in a bowling bag” scene, we heard a noise behind us and to our dismay, realized our ten-year-old son had been spying on the episode from the doorway.  As my wife ushered him out of the room to bed, I could hear her talking to him as they went up stairs.  “ Honey, you know that cutting people’s heads off is not very nice, right?

Each hour is a heart pounding shot of epinephrine with soap opera lack of resolution that leaves a viewer aching and feverish for more.  My wife calls the library at 1am to extend our rental.  “Hi, we rented DVDs for “24” for Season 2. Can we recheck them for another two days? I assume you are not there right now but I wanted to call anyway.” ‘I assume you are not there?’, I say mocking her.   Most librarians are not fiddling with their Dewey decimals at 1am; And yes, sweetheart, please get “24 -Season Three” tomorrow.  If I am lucky, I may get sick from no sleep.  We can stay home and put a blanket over the windows like trailer park crack addicts and do “24 in 24.”  We can parcel the kids out to neighbors and send out for pizza.  We can be Sid and Nancy.

The problem with our “24” addiction is not only the need for constant injections of Jack and his Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU); it is the fact that we are only on Season 3.  As we race to catch the “24” train, it keeps moving.  “24” is now on season 7 and in our sprint to present day, we are subordinating health, hygiene and domestic responsibilities watching consecutive episodes which leave us completely over stimulated and vulnerable to odd dreams.

After a disturbingly symbolic dream where I cut my boss’ head off and present it to our private equity owners in exchange for some restricted shares of stock, I awake in a cold sweat realizing my obsession with “24” is threatening my sanity.  When my son would not confess to using his brother’s computer, I found myself wondering how quickly he would crack if I water-boarded him.  I routinely now refer to my children as ” hostiles” and ” friendlies” and suggest to my wife that when we have teens over we establish a soft perimeter around the basement.  When my daughter claimed she was in town but was in fact, at a friend’s party, I briefly considered using Google Earth to triangulate her location, “neutralize” the entire group and then drop them off at the local police station courtesy of “A Friend of 24.”

I realized that we are now in the grip of a mania and that for the bad dreams to end, Jack Bauer must die.  The problem is the guy won’t expire. He has been injected with more drugs than a Jersey milk cow, stabbed, shot, clubbed, injured in a plane crash, suffered numerous brain damaging head blows – and like Jason from Halloween, keeps getting up.

There is a side of me that understands that art sometimes imitates life.  Does the US employ spooks and shadow agencies like CTU who fight clandestine battles right under our noses on US soil? Do I approve of Jack Bauer’s tactics? Will democracy prevail over authoritarianism? Will Kim Bauer get through a day without breaking the law or maiming her latest boyfriend? Will Jack Bauer ever shave, eat or have a bowel movement? Perhaps some fiber might loosen him up literally and figuratively.

It’s late and we have just secured the first episodes of Season Three.  As I read my column to my wife, we chuckle at our obsessive behavior and get the kids off to bed. 

We have a civilized evening – cleaning up the house, walking to retrieve the DVDs and watching just three episodes – trying to convince ourselves that we can get

the “24” monkey off our backs any time we like.  As we turn out the lights, she is still.  I can tell she is thinking.  This is our last private moment before sleep where we discuss kids, the future and any other important unattended issue.

“You know, if you tell everyone in town that they can rent those DVDs from the library for free, we will never make it to Season 7.  The secret will be out.”

That’s my girl. 

We’re Still Together

We’re Still Together

 There’s a tree out in the backyard

That never has been broken by the wind

And the reason its still standing

It was strong enough to bend

 

When you say something that you can’t take back

Big wind blows and you hear a little crack

When you say “Hey well I might be wrong”

You can sway with the wind till the storm is gone

Sway with the wind till the storm is gone

 

Like a tree out in the backyard

That never has been broken by the wind

Our love will last forever

If we’re strong enough to bend 

 

Strong Enough To Bend, Tanya Tucker

 In a career that may never be equaled as a basketball coach, John Wooden won a remarkable 664 games and lost a mere 162.  His UCLA teams won 10 national championships in 12 years including seven in a row from 1966-1973.  During this period his teams won 88 straight games.  In his career, he led four different teams to perfect 30-0 seasons.

 If you were to ask John Wooden about his greatest decision in his remarkable career, he would unquestionably point to his decision to marry Nellie Riley, his high school sweetheart in 1932.  Nellie was the center of John’s universe and the person he claimed knew him better than he knew himself.   He once remarked that marriage like sports did not build character but revealed it.  

 Nellie and John were married for 53 years before she died of cancer in 1985.  For the last 24 years since her passing, John Wooden sits down on the 21st of each month and pens a love letter to Nell, his best friend.  According to sports journalist Rick Reilly, there are over 260 letters stacked neatly on her pillow, tied with a yellow ribbon.  Her side of the bed they shared remains undisturbed. When asked by Reilly if he was afraid to die, a then 90 year-old Wooden remarked, “ of course not, Death is my only chance to be with her again.”

 With over a 50% divorce rate in America, it’s even odds at best for couples to make it to the mountaintop together.  The cynics delight in reminding us of just how perilous the path is to the peak of life partnership.  British author Len Deighton once wrote, “the tragedy of marriage is that while all women marry thinking that their man will change, all men marry believing their wife will never change.”

 In any relationship and in life, you are really three people – the person you project to the world, the person you secretly see yourself to be, and the person your partner knows. It’s that last person who is probably the most accurate version of who you really are.  Most relationships get into trouble when the chasm between our face to the world and the person our partner knows becomes too great.  It seems the more we seek to be the same person all the time, the more capacity we have to focus on others which is the essential ingredient to love and the antithesis of self worship.

 It is a paradox of the human condition that we seem to gravitate toward our opposites.  I have a theory that in every relationship, there is an agitator and a fixer. The agitator is an expressive, aggressive and more mercurial partner while the fixer is the moderating influence, the rock, and a steady hand. When two agitators marry, it can be a combustible combination.  When two fixers exchange vows, the relationship may seem the equivalent to watching a test pattern at three am. And, yet while our personal preferences and aggressive or moderate styles bring a rich trousseau to our relationships, the foundations that remain the strongest are built on shared values.  When we see one another for who we are and who we are not – forgiving our limitations and reveling in our possibilities, a relationship breaks out of its chrysalis and takes wing.

 In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king and in love the ability to reflect even momentarily, sometimes prevents us from falling prey to the false positives -the cotton candy rush of self-esteem borne out of immediate physical attraction.  We all learn the hard way that the currents of a relationship change with the trade winds of time – the arrival of children, life events that challenge our faith in one another, illness, success, disappointment and death.  Woody Allen, mused that a relationship “ is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward or it dies.”

 Those who have been married for decades do not gild the lily of love.  They talk of constant compromise, trying to avoid taking one another for granted, expressing appreciation, forgiveness, making time, playing the mood music, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, recognizing perfect moments, never forgetting that anything you put ahead of each other eventually comes between you, you and remembering that resentment is liking drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  As these couples hurtle through life and fall prey to life’s ruts and distractions, they always circle back to find one another. “A marriage”, Honore de Balzac mused, “must constantly fight the monster which devours everything: routine.”

Commitment is not 50/50 but in fact two people giving 100%.  When the rate of change outside the relationship exceeds the rate of change within it, the end is near.  Many endure dark passages where they are overwhelmed by excessive responsibility or self-pity and must fight the instinct to abandon ship.  Some idealize relationships and love, wondering why their best-laid plans are constantly sabotaged.  Many make the mistake of comparing their private “insides” to other people’s public veneers.   We cannot resist the invitation when Cosmopolitan asks us to “rate our mate.” We forget what Oscar Wilde assured us when he said “the only normal people you know are the people you do not know very well.”

 And we are still together.  A gentle sigh in the dark of midnight.  A smile across a crowded room.  An extemporaneous moment at a piano recital – rare moments that are only complete when it can be shared together.  There are flash points, disagreements, and tired, lazy shortcuts that lead to hurt feelings.  But most of us find our way back to one another like emotional strays that once fed, keep returning for sustenance.  For all their periodic insanity, we need our relationships.  Perhaps some of our stories are not as romantic as John and Nellie Wooden or New man and Woodward but we all have chapters remaining to be written and common music to left to be made.  Our experiences together are the fine threads in our common tapestry of commitment.  Each couple is its own unique work of art.  And the beauty of that art is always in the eyes of the beholder.

 Woody Allen sums it up best in Annie Hall, “this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”

 

 

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

 

It had been a rough first six months since our move to England. Each child was showing the strain of change and unfamiliar circumstances.  I arrived home one evening from a business trip to find my wife striking the washing machine in complete frustration. 

“This stupid thing is so small I can only wash one sheet at a time.”  It seemed as though it would never stop raining. The fickle sun would appear at odd and inconvenient times like an unreliable friend.  While intellectually invigorated by our European move, we underestimated the emotional trauma of being cast adrift from friends, family and the familiar rhythm of our Northern California lifestyle.

 

My parents had joined us in London for the children’s October break and like most Brits, we immediately fled the damp emerald isle for the warmer embrace of Southern Italy.   We landed in Rome and were immediately serenaded by the whimsical strings of a city wired on life and caffeine.  Rome was a marching band with no conductor.  Every Italian seemed to move without regard for traffic lanes, lights or legal parking.  The classically laissez faire Italian police were more intent on staking out single women than suspicious characters. Vespas buzzed like mosquitoes while autumn starlings banked and rose in an aerial ballet. With each hour, we regained our warm weather equilibrium and sense of adventure.  After three days of fountains, forums and fusilli, we escaped north to explore Florence and the surrounding ancient hill towns of Tuscany resting like unsteady siena crowns on the crests of hills forested with beech, oak and chestnut trees. 

 

We arrived at our hotel, Villa La Massa, on October 31st. The chrome morning mist rose slowly, taking its time to shake off low gray clouds.  A wet chill loitered in the ravines and hollows and in between the villa’s main house and the guesthouses that peered over the southern banks above the Arno. There were no black cats, pumpkins or dark effigies of witches and goblins.  The long, pebbled driveway guarded by columned cypress trees and an ancient wrought iron gate, showed no signs of imminent pagan celebrations.  Our children, ages 7, 4 and 2, were only mildly interested that it was All Hallows Eve.  Back in America, giggling adrenaline-fueled goblins would be racing in and out of the shadows and light cast by houses a thousand grinning jack-o-lanterns.  It would be a night of sugar, ghouls and mayhem.  I sighed.  At our old home, we would be wandering our neighborhood – – faceless flashlights inching along dark streets and cul de sacs greeting the silhouettes and voices of our friends. Halloween was America and an essential milestone in the life of a young family and we were missing it.   

 

On this warm, windy day, I volunteered to take the children to the Etruscan hill town of Fiesole while my parents and wife wandered the back alleys of Florence. We spent a glorious morning chasing and playing among the ancient amphitheatres, roman baths and ruins.  A local restaurant owner adopted us, treating us to lunch at his local café where we were overwhelmed with freshly baked foccacia, homemade pastas and pizza. As the sun’s arc dropped toward the West, we descended into the valley of the Arno, navigating a patchwork quilt of vineyards and farms.  As we followed the narrow road back to our hotel, I could see the Duomo and the medieval skyline of the city that was once the cradle of the Italian city-states.  For all the enthusiasm I felt for being in this special place, I was suffering from a parochial melancholy wondering whether my decision to work overseas had been a mistake.  Was I denying my children a quintessentially American childhood?  Would they one day ask me, “Dad, what’s Halloween?”

 

European interest in the celebration of Halloween was mixed.  Given the more reverent traditions surrounding festivals like The Day of The Dead, Italians resisted the secular commercialism of monsters and Milky Ways.  Yet, there were signs of Catholic unrest.  In Milan, Halloween festivities were held by American schools and often spilled over into local communities.  In Bologna, the Miss Strega” (Miss Witch) beauty contest was held to identify the most enchanting sorceress.  A few Roman novelty shops had displayed masks, monster memorabilia and treats.  Yet, the Villa La Massa showed no signs of western infestation. It was just another sleepy Tuesday.

 

Unbeknownst to me, my clever spouse had packed a Donald Duck mask, a spider man outfit and all the accessories that a Hawaiian dancer would ever require.  Prior to departing that day for Florence, she had approached the charming concierge, Sylvia, explaining that the children were far from home and missing an important holiday; would she allow them to come down to the foyer that evening to trick or treat – knocking on the office and storage room doors of the sparsely occupied hotel where we might give them candy?  She left uncertain if our polished patron understood her request.

 

Once home, my wife whipped the kids into a happy lather explaining the significance of Halloween, their apparel and trick or treating.  Dusk brought frenetic preparation and squealing enthusiasm as the children donned their costumes.  I walked down the narrow hallway where a sinister suit of armor looked disapprovingly on my waddling two year old Donald Duck who would not stop making sounds like a dying Merganser.  A serious super hero and a seven-year-old hula girl bolted past the wobbly toddler.   We fell down the elegant staircase like a spilled bucket of tennis balls, crashing across the cobblestone breezeway toward the main house.  There were signs of movement inside the lobby as shadows darted across the row of equal-sized, closely placed windows. Soft light spilled out into the courtyard from the prominent portico.

 

Sylvia gasped with sheer delight as my youngest child quacked, announcing his arrival.  To my surprise, the entire hotel staff lined the foyer like an honor guard.  Each employee – waiters, maids, porters, groundskeepers and drivers – was holding a basket filled with homemade Italian treats.  Throughout the day, the Italians had baked and wrapped homemade cookies and chocolates.  The children were instructed to close their eyes as their hosts darted off to the first floor rooms. As each child approached a guest room door, it would swing open with an Italian feigning surprise and raising their hands in disbelief.  Sylvia suddenly had an idea and motioned us to follow her toward the restaurant kitchen.  She was explaining in broken English that she wanted to have the children trick or treat the head chef.  This spontaneous suggestion elicited disapproving looks from several of her male colleagues.  As a gourmet hotel, the chef was the mercurial lord of the manor.  Yet, Sylvia seemed determined to enter Hell’s kitchen.  My older children sensed the reticence of the staff and held back while our youngest recklessly burst through the cucina’s swinging doors clucking like a hen heavy with eggs.  There was silence, followed by a sudden burst of baritone laughter. The doorway suddenly filled with a large, handle bar mustached Italian chef holding my son and pinching his cheeks. The staff applauded.  Sylvia leaned in victorious and whispered, “they are terrified of him.  They have never seen him smile.”  We lingered in the hotel for some time forging a primitive bridge out of ragged Italian and English words as the children unwrapped candies and explored the living room.

 

We later walked slowly across the empty grounds and into the guesthouse, climbing past a not so malevolent suit of armor to our rooms. My anxiety had melted away.  It was clear that I had been wrong.  We were not missing anything back in America.  Our best Halloween will forever be remembered as a magical blend of cypress trees, ancient ruins, laughing chefs and doting Italians.

 

Meraviglioso! 

 

 

From Russia With Love

Cover of "From Russia with Love (James Bo...
Cover via Amazon

From Russia With Love

 

In the summer of 1971, I saw the movie, “Dr Strangelove – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”   At 10 years old, I did not totally appreciate the bizarre characters like Brigadier General Jack D Ripper or Dr. Strangelove.  I could not entirely understand why Slim Pickens aka Major TJ  “ King” Kong rode the atomic bomb out of the B52 bomber like a bucking bronco.  However, I clearly understood that the US and Russia were fighting a Cold War.  My fiery imagination was stoked by a father who was constantly criticizing the US for letting down its guard against “commies” and “spies”.  Hollywood was full of “Reds” and while Senator Joseph McCarthy did his best in the 50’s to root out these ideological weeds, communist dogma was invasive and required relentless vigilance to detect and remove political parasites.  The entertainment industry, Congress, all of Europe and even our church had been infiltrated by the vodka swilling, plate breaking, Gulag operating, godless collectivists who were just biding their time waiting for the last capitalist to sell them the rope that they would hang us with.

I had to do my patriotic duty and keep our neighborhood safe for democracy.  This required me to develop a clandestine intelligence organization to inform on any person who might be providing secrets to the enemy.  I was not sure what secrets the Reds could gather from a neighborhood that was more boring than watching paint dry. However, one never knew where a sleeper cell might be cocooned.  Authors like Robert Ludlum described how sleeper agents could lay dormant for a generation.  A Manchurian candidate could be activated with a simple phone call. 

 

“ Is this Mrs. Ruth Turpin of 1828 Windsor Road?”

 

“ Yes, who is this?”

 

” Sasha sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

With this heavily accented, tongue twisting alliteration, my mother, the sleeper agent, would go into a brainwashed trance, drive her station wagon up the winding mountain roads of Mt. Wilson and blow up the radio tower disabling all radio and TV transmissions across the San Gabriel valley, isolating us from the outside world. Just up the street in Pasadena was Cal Tech, a bastion of high IQ engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists.  We were indeed a tempting target.  The 64,000 ruble question was which of my neighbors might be actually conspiring to sabotage our town.  Could the confederate turn out to be someone we never suspected like green thumbed Mr. Seidell who upon being “ activated” would fly across the country to Washington DC and attempt to assassinate President Nixon with his trowel?  Spies were clever and not easy to catch.  They were ruthless and not above posing as retirees, gardeners and even parents. 

I recruited my friends to assist me in patrolling our neighborhood.  Of particular interest was Mr. Harmon who lived across the street with his parents and kept odd hours.  We also had some concerns about Mr. Meister who routinely screamed at us to get off his lawn.  Vodka and socialism made people angry and loud.  Perhaps, Mr. Meister missed the snow of Moscow and was annoyed at the constant sun and temperate climate of Southern California.  On a warm summer afternoon, armed with binoculars, a Polaroid camera and walkie-talkies, we embarked on a series of information gathering patrols. 

The next morning, my mother received several angry calls from neighbors who were concerned over a disturbed child peering into windows, crawling through juniper bushes and in one case, taking a photograph.   Although I was not identified in person, the default accusation on our block was to always blame the Turpin boys.  Annoyed, and lacking actionable information, my mother could not deduce the identity of the young peeping Tom.  As all good spies do, I convincingly lied when interrogated. I even provided an alibi. While she could not prove anything, she lectured me about people’s personal privacy.  If she only knew that we had already uncovered some seamy information about some of our “upstanding “neighbors, including the disgusting fact that ultra tan Mr. Brown sunbathed in the nude and mowed his backyard in a Speedo while Mrs. Franke watched him from her adjacent upstairs window.  It seemed moral decline was everywhere.

 

My parents were naïve and did not understand the town was teeming with traitors.I even suspected my brother of selling information to foreign agents.  He was a weak individual with liberal ideas.  I searched his room and discovered a magazine stuffed between his mattresses.   It was called amazingly “ From Russia With Love” and had a beautiful woman in a provocative pose on the cover. It was obviously intended for fans of the 1963 James Bond thriller starring Sean Connery. The magazine was weathered and torn.  I opened it and to my delight and shame, I saw photographs of naked “Russian” women.  None of these women looked sinister like Spectre agent Rosa Klebb, the spy who attempted to kill James Bond with a poison tipped knife that jutted out from the end of her boot.  No, these women seemed, well – – more open to détente.  

 As any dedicated spy would, I immediately disappeared behind the garage for to “study” the magazine to be certain that if I ever saw any of these women in public, I could identify them, even with their clothes on.

 

After committing each page to memory, I carefully tucked the magazine under my pillow and went off to school ready to share what I had learned with my friends in homeroom.  I knew my brother would not report the magazine as missing.  Yet, as I was sitting through Social Studies class, my mother was fatefully making my bed. I rode home in record time, as I was eager to examine the magazine models for other distinguishing features – beauty marks etc.  As I walked in the back door, I immediately knew that something was not right.  I was escorted into the dining room, which was the center for all corrective action.  My mother looked overly concerned and for a moment I thought there had been a death in the family.  “ Honey, is there anything you want to talk to me or your dad about?”  I was stumped and then I saw the magazine on the chair next to her.  “ That’s not mine.” I protested.  “ It’s Tom’s!”  I protested to no avail. She remained convinced of my guilt.  “The neighbors have been complaining about someone peeking in their windows and now I have found this adult magazine in your room. I think you and dad need to have a talk. “

Suddenly, it hit me.  It was all so clever – I had been framed.  I was obviously getting too close to someone or something and “they” wanted me out of the way. Like my Dad always said, those Reds are pretty determined and would go to great lengths to remove any threat.  Later that evening I endured my father’s unimaginative lecture on the birds and the bees.  I had already heard a more graphic and entertaining version from Dennis Higgins in gym class.  It would do me no good to attempt an explanation to my Dad.  I would have to endure this punishment and bide my time. 

One thing was certain.  When I got older, I wanted to join the CIA – especially if it meant interrogating one of those Russian women.  After all, I was probably the only guy who could pick them out of a police line up.