Scent of An Imposter

A bottle of Old Spice cologne.
Image via Wikipedia


Scent of An Imposter

Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. – John Steinbeck

When I was 16, I would douse myself with my father’s English Leather cologne in hopes of attracting the opposite sex.  The English Leather television commercial suggested that once I donned the fragrance of the British elite that I would be surrounded by magnificent Scandinavian women and would speak with the cultured accent of an Oxford graduate.  Hai Karate competed for my attention promising that a few modest drops would have me using martial arts skills to drive off the women who would be insane with lust as a result of a mere whiff of the olfactory aphrodisiac.

Brut promised to transform you into a race car driver, fighter pilot or an investment banker capable of doing the most sophisticated deal in the world.  If you used Brut, Fabergé suggested a life of daring exploits, athletic feats and of course, someone always on your elbow.  Musk For Men seemed the closest thing to a human pheromone that one could use.  Just the name sounded like you were burying your face into a twenty five year old Buffalo robe.  I am not exactly sure what kind of woman you would attract with musk but odds are you would not have to spend a lot on dinner.  Old Spice would transform you into a rugged merchant marine that could hoist a tankard of ale with one arm, spear a whale at 100 yards with the other and then hug Miss Ireland, who was working part-time as the local dock barmaid, with the…wait, that’s three arms.  Well, when you use Old Spice, you can do the work of one and a half men.  Each fragrance promised to change me from an awkward, testosterone time bomb to a suave James Bond capable of seducing every woman under the age of 40 in western Europe and then save the world – – all before dinner.  The reality was a bit different.  Other than being followed by a German Shepherd for several blocks, the scent failed to attract anyone or radically alter my romantic future.

The film, “Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, plunged us back into the world of men’s colognes from the 1970’s. In this highly intelligent exchange between anchorman Ron Burgundy and his beat reporter, Brian Fantana, they discuss the selection of colognes that Brian will choose (from his wall of colognes) to attempt to seduce the new female anchor, Veronica.

Brian Fantana: [about Veronica] I’ll give this little cookie an hour … Time to musk up.
[opens cologne cabinet]
Ron Burgundy: Wow. Never ceases to amaze me. What cologne you gonna go with? London Gentleman, or wait. No, no, no. Hold on. Blackbeard’s Delight.
Brian Fantana: No, she gets a special cologne… It’s called Sex Panther by Odeon. It’s illegal in nine countries… Yep, it’s made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.
Ron Burgundy: It’s quite pungent.( makes a face)
Brian Fantana: Oh yeah.
Ron Burgundy: It’s a formidable scent… It stings the nostrils…in a good way.
Brian Fantana: Yep.
Ron Burgundy: Brian, I’m gonna be honest with you, that smells like pure gasoline.
Brian Fantana: They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time it works, 100% of the time[cheesy grin]
Ron Burgundy: That doesn’t make sense.
Brian Fantana: Well… Let’s go see if we can make this little kitty purr.

This year, I decided to ask my wife for some cologne for Christmas.  “There’s so much to choose from, you’d better do some research and pick one “she informed me.  I knew the marketing firms were still promising teenaged boys reckless pleasure from the likes of Axe and Fierce.  Yet, I assumed they knew better than to barrage a forty something with promises of anything other than not being followed by a dog.  I decided to research the latest colognes while shopping.  You would have thought by now that America had learned of the hollow promises of those purveyors of eau d’toilette. Can’t fool me, Yves St. Laurent.  I know that means “toilet water” in French. Yet, the desire to develop a unique scent and perhaps become another man is as powerful today as it has ever been.  The brands of cologne are mind numbing with each promising to transform me into a more swarthy version of myself.

Unforgiveable is presumably a scent so powerful that it compels even the most circumspect person to commit acts that would never be condoned in the light of day.  Put on Unforgiveable and you may just tell off your boss or buy that Alfa Romeo.  L’Anarchiste suggests your scent alone can win the girl and bring down your government at the same time – – if you are man enough.  Lucky You cologne does not try to even disguise the fact that you should be thanking them for selling you the cologne.  If you did not get a date with Musk, perhaps you should try Diesel, especially if you are in the market for a partner who can change the oil in your car.   Mille grazie Roma !  I can feel the olive melanin creeping into my skin and my abdomen muscles popping out just getting a whiff of the Italian cologne.  Put a dab on each cheek and look incredibly dazzling in your uniform and do not notice as thieves knock off the local bank.  After all, the sun is hitting your profile just right and you are Roma!

There are some even more interesting and provocative brands. For example, there is Paradox for the man nobody understands.  I can just see the commercial, a man walks into the party and everyone he talks to gives him an odd look.  “He is obtuse.  He is obscure.  He is – – Paradox.” How about Quorum? This is for the man who you hear and smell before you actually see him.  “You are so pungent it is as if you always have a majority in the room – -you have Quorum.” Then, there is Swiss Army – – I am not certain exactly who would want to smell like the Swiss Army – perhaps someone in the Albanian army?  My favorite is Joop.  “It’s whimsical.  It’s zany.  And it completely violates every law of nature – Yes, it is Joop.”

Suffice to say, whether you desire to be a sultan of the night with Drakkar Noir or a rogue fifteen century Asian despot called Shogun, there is a scent for every other man you want to be. I came up with a brand for Wall Street mortgage securitization specialists : “Dignity – when you have lost it all, at least you still have your Dignity.” For politicians, there’s Gossamer. “For the man everyone can see through, there’s Gossamer”.  In the end, the best name is simply Demara, named for Ferdinand Demara, “the Great Impostor”, who masqueraded as a Trappist monk, surgeon, cancer researcher and prison warden.  He was finally caught, but not before he proved that if a man wants to be someone else, all he needs is guts and perhaps, a little cologne.

If I Should Die Before I Wake

Hibernaculum (Mike Oldfield)
Image via Wikipedia

The email pinged around 7:30am.  It was addressed to a long distribution list of former colleagues and some unfamiliar names who had been conscripted to the front lines of my former employer since my departure.  The subject line read “FWD: re: Very Sad News”.

Initially, I assumed I was in receipt of yet another viral industry opinion piece that would require me to scroll for twelve minutes before reaching the angry manifesto.  Instead, the note quickly fell into a tragic telegram sharing that during the previous evening, one of my former friends and colleagues, Mike F, had died of a massive coronary while in his sleep.  He was 52 years old.

When a true friend dies, it feels as though there is one less person in the world who can unconditionally vouch for us. With each person’s passing, a tiny piece of land breaks off into the ebony ocean of eternity. Poet John Donne  shared that no man is an island and the death of another man diminishes us. The wind can seem a bit more in your face and the sun buries its head behind a slate gray mast of clouds.

Mike was 48 when we first crossed paths.  He was a journeyman account executive recently laid off from a major insurance company.  I could tell he was still in those early stages of change – – the disbelief that always accompanied an unforeseen layoff from a long-term employer. The implied social contract that always seemed to go hand in hand with tenure was suddenly rendered null and void. Mike never maligned his former employer choosing instead to express his regret over not being a part of their next phase of change.  He sounded disappointed that the drumbeat for improved profit margins and fresh ideas had resulted in his ending up on the outside of the conference room window looking in.

He did not make the most dynamic first impression. He was ruddy, overweight and looking his age – a hangover, I presumed, from decades of dinners and entertainment that was typical in an industry that was now hard shifting from “how long have you been here” to” what have you done for me lately?”. Yet, he had an infectious smile and an irrespressible confidence that implied he understood exactly what I needed.

I was in desperate need of an executive and an ambassador who could deal with the phalanx of regulators, consultants and large institutional brokers that our firm had managed to offend over a several year run of rapid growth and profit.  As we had succeeded in winning market share, we had also lost our way, forgetting the golden rule. In my brief tenure, I had already been taken to task for our “lack of humility”, “unilateral arrogance” and  “severe deficit of EQ”( low EQ was my favorite as lack of emotional awareness seemed to succinctly sum up the range of self-inflicted wounds that we had visited upon ourselves ). I was looking for a VP of broker relations and I had a very specific candidate in mind.

Our recruiters arranged for succession of interviews – delivering to me a complex and heterogenous queue of professionals whose diverse backgrounds and endless Rolodexes of goodwill could help me neutralize years of heartburn. The majority of these candidates were in their thirties with polished resumes, clear eyes and a burning ambition to make their mark.  And then there was Mike.

His shirt tail was peeking out from underneath his pinstripe suit when he was escorted in by my assistant. He wore coke bottle glasses and flashed a familiar smile as we shook hands for the first time.  I was disappointed and seemed to have already tipped my hand that he was not a “good fit”.  I needed the charisma and social dexterity of Tony Robbins coupled with the business acumen of a Harvard MBA.  If this person did exist, I had yet to meet them and Mike seemed to be their diametric opposite – a veteran account and service professional who had seemingly risen to the level of his incompetence. This would be as short an interview as I could manage.

Mike immediately endeared himself with a self-effacing remark and went right to work, looking for common ground inventorying those that we knew by one degree of separation.  His lengthy career and experience was solid but he seemed on the downward slope of the mountain I was looking to climb.  I was looking for “hungry” and this guy seemed to have already devoured the contents of the cupboard.

Without revealing our exact circumstances, I detailed my expectations of this position and tried to scare him off by exaggerating the problems that we were encountering. He took copious notes and asked insightful questions.  Occasionally, he laughed sympathetically and commiserated with me citing horror stories of a failed systems conversion at his old firm and the subsequent back-breaking efforts to conserve relationships with angry customers. He stopped and looked beyond me into the tangled woods, “trust is very hard to get and very easy to lose.”

His blue eyes danced as he spoke fondly of a few national firms that I considered to be “pain in the ass” incorrigibles.  He actually liked these guys and apparently they liked him. After two hours, my assistant darted her head in my door and pointed to her watch.  I rose and shook his firm hand and showed him outside.  Within five minutes, he had sent an email thanking me for my time and within a day, I had received a rare handwritten letter reinforcing how he felt he could support my efforts.

I was conflicted.  I was looking for a carnivore and this journeyman account executive was at best a herbivore.  My left brain told me to hire the Wharton MBA who spoke as if he would rip out the trachea of anyone who stood in between our firm and our goals.  My right brain kept returning to Mike and his intangibles. For an organization that valued pedigree, appearance and IQ, his hire would raise eyebrows – a late forties relic from a golden age of handshakes and cocktail napkin relationships.  Yet, his integrity did not show on paper. It beamed from him and suggested a man of patience and selflessness. He had been the only candidate that actually mentioned the word, “trust”.

When I called Mike to tell him he had won the job, he was ecstatic.  Yet, I worried he was not tough enough to navigate our impossibly large and complex corporate body. I feared he would immediately be attacked by those I had come to label “the white blood cells” – those bureaucrats and home office types who seemed to go out of their way to destroy new people and new ideas as if they were infections.  Would Mike even survive his first month?

Over the next several weeks, Mike travelled the country and would report back me.  He often showed up with the corporate equivalent of a black eye, missing tooth or ripped shirt.  He was clearly getting roughed up but he had a knack for finding a way through a problem.  He was not as mercurial or prone to pick a fight as I was but instead “killed them with kindness”. Mike set about building fragile footbridges and reestablishing precious goodwill for us – always putting his reputation at stake as a personal promissory note.

“Chief” he barked one day across a broken cell phone, “ I think I found a workaround to that issue we had with ABC Consultants.”.  “Where are you,” I asked.  “You sound like you are halfway around the globe.” Well, I am in St Paul and I found a team that can help me process that project we need resolved.” It was January and it had to be -20 F in Minnesota.

True to his word, he fixed this problem and spent the next several years untangling a cat’s cradle of other difficult issues that were presented to us by our partners. When I resigned my position as regional CEO, Mike was visibly disappointed.  “It won’t be the same without you, chief,” he confided with sincerity.  “Thanks for giving me a chance.”

“The pleasure’s been all mine, Michael”, I told him.” You are a very safe, trustworthy pair of hands.”

In time, my former employer shuffled management and rediscovered its social compass. With new leadership and a greater appreciation for those who displayed humility and humanity, Mike’s stock rose within the organization.  Yet, people like Mike never seem to find the spotlight. It is very hard for large corporations to quantify the value of people who prevent or mitigate problems.  Their quiet contributions are often noted when there is no other noise. They are quiet strings and soft clarinets whose music is normally drowned out by the clanging gongs and self promoting percussion of other more self-interested executives.

We were first to arrive at the funeral home. I walked into a foyer filled with men, women and children with crystal blue eyes bracketed by the laugh lines of a hundred family gatherings.  Mike’s twin daughter and son bravely received guests – two 14 year olds that had just suffered one of life’s gravest injustices.

Mike’s wife and I spoke briefly and she reiterated his appreciation for our few years of work together. She smiled and looked at me searching my eyes. “I did not want a coffin or an urn full of ashes.” She shared bravely. “I just want pictures.” She swept her hand to a series of poster boards filled with photos of Mike’s life.

I surveyed a half century of life events – – childhood, marriage and the sacred journey through the enchanted woods of raising children.  Mike loved every minute of it.  In each photo, he was surrounded by friends and family.  This was not a man who would be caught in deep private introspection.  He was living life and sailing over life’s bumps and landmines on the updrafts of trust and persistence.

By 3pm, the funeral home could no longer accommodate the masses of admirers spilling individuals into the parking lot.  I was amazed and proud to see the impressive roster of family and industry dignitaries who had flown in on a moments notice to attend his service.  We stood in small groups, swapping stories and moving to take one last glance at the photo journal of his life.

I moved off on my own to pay one last respect to Mike. As I leaned in to consider a series of photos, I was drawn to one picture of Mike.  He appeared to be fixing an appliance or attending to some prosaic household task.  He was signaling “thumbs up” to indicate that the problem had been resolved.  It was the quintessential photo of the quiet trouble-shooter who understood that trust and servant leadership were the only currencies that counted.

At that moment, the adhesive on the picture loosened and the photo slipped ever so slightly to one side.  I felt a strange sense of inner peace begin to massage my grieving. The handyman was giving me the “a-ok”.

“Hey, Chief, don’t worry about me. Mission accomplished.”

These Irish Eyes

Irish immigrants in San Francisco 1905
Image via Wikipedia

A ventriloquist is telling Irish jokes in a pub, when a tipsy Irishman stands up: “You’re making’ out we’re all dumb and stupid. I ought a punch you in the nose.”
“I’m sorry sir, I…” the ventriloquist stuttered. “Not you,” says the Irishman, “I’m talking to that little fella on yer knee.” – Anonymous

My mother was born a Black-Irish beauty with raven hair and sapphire blue eyes. The great oak of her family tree splintered out of diasporas of English, German and Irish immigrants. She possessed her father’s athleticism and tenacity but everything else about her – from her sense of adventure, compulsive candor and those deep opalescent eyes- was Irish.

Whenever she would return to the home of her Irish grandparents she was overwhelmed by the whitewater of Irish family chaos.  The family’s summer home in Marin County would transform into an enchanted encampment of last supper nights and days of swimming in redwood shaded ebony creeks. Hers were soft, green grass afternoons where the fog would roll over the oak shrouded hills and spill like soft cold cotton down the ravines and canyons of Mt Tamalpais.

Her grandmother, Katie, was an iron-fisted Irish matron who ran boarding houses in a rough part of San Francisco’s Western Edition in the 1920s. When immigrant Kathryn Carolan married Thomas Belton in 1904, the couple grafted ancient families from the west country counties of Ireland. The Carolan name most likely grew out of clan lines of the Ciar, or “dark people”, tracing their roots to the Clare and Kerry –  the most rugged and wild of Irish counties.  His people hailed from further north, a fertile place marked by ancient tombs of inhabitants dating back to Ireland’s earliest man.  The land seemed to be forever looking into a sunset. It fell moved and tumbled to the Southwest ultimately dropping precipitously into the Atlantic at the spectacular Cliffs of Moher.

Thomas Belton loved America. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he enlisted at 19 and served in Company M, the First Regiment of California United States Volunteer Infantry in 1898.  In the summer of 1898, Company M embarked for Peking and carried on to Manila where they participated in a series of skirmishes and battles.  He served for 18 months and was mustered out in 1900.  Most veterans did not speak much about the war unless they had been drinking. Alcohol seemed to unlock some great emotional arsenal that lay dormant under the foundations of most Irish families.  Whiskey was the key to a cache of memories and moods that would often lead to red-eyed revelation or a Pandora’s Box of conflict.

My mother grew up wrapped in Irish heritage. While my grandfather quietly considered his wife’s Gaelic roots a languid liability, he had been seduced by a “house that hugs” – a multi-generational hurricane of working class Irish immigrants that clung together and carved out a middle class life in a country they had come to love for all of its possibilities.  Having run away from a rigid immigrant upbringing, he could not help but feel safe with this reckless bawdy clan that adopted him as a prodigal son-in-law.

Donncha Cleary walked into a bar in Dublin and asked the barman if he had heard the latest Kerryman joke. ‘I’m warning you,’ said the barman, ‘That I come from Tralee in Kerry meself.’ ‘Dat’s alright,’ said Donncha, ‘I’ll tell it slowly.’

There were uncles and cousins that worked as roustabouts along the docks and warehouses of San Francisco’s bustling wharf – each week falling in and out of trouble. They were hard working, self-proclaimed socialists who loathed the class system that they had left behind in the United Kingdom. They particularly despised the wealthy Nob Hill patricians that presided over the great steel, transportation and manufacturing monopolies of early 19th century industry.  Standing at the base of California Street, they would ape at the backs of bankers and attorneys – – catcalling as they climbed on to cable cars and coaches to return home to “Snob Hill.”

My mother considered her Irish genetics a two edged sword.  It seemed that to be Irish was a blessed curse that combined the best and worst characteristics of mankind. The tenacity and will to survive that characterized her relatives were strengths, that when taken to excess, would lead to stubborn collisions with the bottle and the law. At an early age, she warned us that we “were Irish, and that means you have two strikes against you.” As a baseball player, I pondered this metaphor. It seemed that if the Irish could endure famines, wars, occupation and economic hardship, an Irishman must be a hell of a tough out to get out.  While one might be coming to the plate with two strikes, the average Gael could foul off the hardest pitches that Life could hurl. The Irish gene was preprogrammed to survive.

My mother used expressions like “Irish Twins” to describe siblings born within ten months of one another. Later in life, she would explain a malady known as the “Irish Flu”- a morning condition characterized by head aches, nausea and disorientation usually following a night out drinking. She believed in the “Luck of The Irish” and attributed the endurance of the Irish to their belief in St Patrick, Catholicism and the family unit.  She loved and at the same time, pitied the Irish. Of all God’s children, the Irish were the runts of the litter – born to an emerald green island of rock, hard-scrabble and eternal subjugation.

She had been raised a Catholic until her German father expressed a preference for the less oppressive theology of Martin Luther. In doing so, he further perpetuated the internecine troubles of the Protestants and Catholics. To her father, Catholicism was mysticism and Vatican hocus-pocus.  Protestantism was direct and did not attempt to assert temporal leadership ahead of the Holy Trinity. She spent Southern California winters as a Presbyterian and summers as a closet Catholic. By the time she was twenty, she could have qualified as an Episcopalian.  To be Irish and not be capable of uttering the Rosary was to be lost in perpetual purgatory.  Her grandmother would simply have none of it. Every Carolan and Belton relative would be safely in heaven five minutes before the Devil knew they were dead.  She would make certain of it. Being Protestant was the equivalent of swimming with water wings or artificial props.  Luther had not had the constitution to stay faithful to a doctrine that required adherence to secular and sacred rules. To be Celtic and Catholic was to suffer and still endure.

O’Gara was arrested and sent for trial for armed bank robbery. After due deliberation, the jury foreman stood up and announced, ‘Not guilty.’

‘That’s grand,’ shouted O’Gara, ‘Does that mean I get to keep the money?’

While St Patrick’s Day was a secular holiday in our household, it was a day where legends, leprechauns and laughter echoed across our dinner table.  Invariably, “the little people” would find their way into our icebox turning our milk green, recklessly dropping chocolate coins from pots of gold or mischievously hiding our shoes in odd places. If you did not remember to don a garment of green, you were likely to endure eight hours of pinches and chest twisters as a punishment for not paying respects to the fifth century patron Saint of Ireland.  It was a day of nostalgia and emerald green emotion. I looked down on the Italians and the human stew of other immigrants.  Although I was a mongrel blend of English, French, German and Irish heritage, I was forever wearing Ireland on my sleeve.  I longed for a surname that ended in O’ anything.  I worked to hide my ties to the German farmer, the indentured Englishman and the 12th century Huguenot who ran from everything. These other cultures had made their own contributions to America but there was something special about being Irish. We were the hard knuckles that had helped form the fist of early nineteenth century America.

I grew to envy my Irish-Catholic friends.  They had saints for virtually every human condition, weekly absolution in the form of confession and their own football team – Notre Dame.  There was certain misogyny in Protestant faith as the Virgin Mary was relegated to a secondary role.  In Catholicism, the Virgin Mary was “ our mother” – a reassuring image for a kid living in a landscape filled with Old testament ( angry with lots of rules ) fathers and corporal punishment.  The iconic image of the Virgin Mary would periodically manifest herself on the sides of buildings, in tree stumps and even on toast.  She was trying to contact her children daily to reassure them with miracles and maybe even slip them a dollar bill to get an ice cream.

Meanwhile, we sat in the Presbyterian Church, waiting for the smallest sign of a divine spark.  Down the street at Saturday evening Mass, there was a forest fire of signs – beatifications, stigmata, miracles and even (gulp) the occasional exorcism.  If you got into paranormal trouble, you would not call a minister, you would want a whiskey drinking Irish-Catholic priest to be your wingman.  These soldiers of God had wrestled with John Barleycorn for thousands of years and could recognize his cloven hooves from a half-kilometer.

“May Those who love us, keep loving us. May those who do not love us, may God turn their heart.  If He cannot turn their heart, may he turn their ankles so we might know them by their limp.” Irish Blessing

In 2000, I would travel to Dublin several times as the Celtic Tiger was awakened by its inclusion in the EU. Eire was experiencing positive immigration for the first time in a century.  The tragic legacy of generations that faced the bitter choice of starving to remain in the land they loved or exile – emigrating abroad to lives that might never witness their return – was finally exorcized. The Irish it seemed had come home.

Yet, not unlike the tragic epiphanies of James Joyce or the suffocating poverty and redemption of Frank McCourt, the Irish do not seem to be able to endure their own affluence. The familiar demons of unemployment, economic collapse and uncertainty have since returned from their temporary exile. Life has returned to normal.  An entire culture bred to endure seems to once again, be receiving deuces in the card game of life.

Ireland’s loss is America’s gain as a new generation of Irish immigrants is once again arriving in America. The Bronx and Yonkers have most recently witnessed a resurgence of young Irish seeking a better tomorrow.  They come as they have for over 300 years, wanting to meet or exceed the standard of living of their parents.  At the same time, they begin their exile from the land they love.  You don’t always hear it in their self effacing humor or their contagious laughter.  You cannot distinguish it in their determined work ethic or aggressive patriotism.  But you can see it in their eyes. They are brown, green and blue stained glass windows into a millenium of souls – these Irish eyes.

A Prayer for Chuckie

Charlie Sheen does the Sunday Comics
Image by susie.c via Flickr

“With the disappearance of God the Ego moves forward to become the sole divinity.” -Dorothee Sölle

Over the past weeks, I have watched with Jersey Shore fascination the spectacular melt down of actor Charlie “Chuckie” Sheen.  Sheen’s death spiral is a B movie script for Schadenfreude genre junkies and self-mutilation fans.

Chuckie Sheen is hardly the first to stagger down the timeless and well-worn path of narcissistic sabotage.  He is neither unique nor worthy of our attention. He is simply –- sad and pathetic. Yet, for some reason his self-immolation has struck a chord with America.  In his recent week-long campaign blitz which presumably arose out of his desire to tell “ his side of the story”, Sheen conducted a series of bizarre and angry interviews.  Not unlike the slasher movies starring “Chuckie”, the knife-wielding doll, we are getting treated to a horror show of hubris. Within 24 hours of his CNN interview and his joining of Twitter, his real children were taken from him but he gained over 1mm surrogate dependents –which according to Guiness is a social network world record.  It seems the world cannot wait for his next 140 incoherent characters.

Growing up in LA in the 80’s and 90’s, it was impossible not to follow the exploits of the infamous “Brat Pack” of Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Nicholas Cage, Rob Lowe, half brother Emilio Estevez, and Sean Penn. Aside from their routine violent encounters with paparazzi, sex tapes, break-ups, accidental gun shot wounds (Sheen accidentally shot his girlfriend, Kelly Preston) and misdemeanor arrests, Chuckie and his poison pals demonstrated a penchant for sybaritic sideshows that made Caligula look like Cotton Mather.

No one is quite sure why the quiet kid and star pitcher from Santa Monica High permanently went off the rails.  Perhaps his father, Martin, was chained to the rails trying to stop a nuclear waste shipment and there was simply not room enough for the both of them.  In LA, celebrity children grow up quickly and Chuckie was a model student. He quickly discovered the seamier side of LA and started attending Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss’ tupperware parties. His “little black book” was eventually confiscated by the Center for Sexually Transmitted Diseases and the FBI.  Charlie did not know what all the fuss was about.  He was an artist and in his own words, a “ rock star” of partying who could go days without sleep and still rally to portray a twenty-something innocent trapped in circumstances beyond his control.  As is so often the case with Hollywood, art imitates life. Yet, unlike movies where redemption and self-awareness rescue the fallen man from the abyss, the fallen angel on Sunset Boulevard is often in hell and never knows it.

Sheen’s lust for life has turned him into an angry force of nature. His jet stream lifestyle and his low-pressure passions have joined to create a perfect storm of self-interest run riot. It seems wherever Hurricane Chuckie goes, wreckage and misery is not far behind. Over the years, Chuckie’s venal appetites led him into the  company of LA’s lost souls and golden calves – – adult movie stars, call girls and high-priced prostitutes.  Apparently, he had inherited his father’s intensity but seemed to have been on a ciggie break when they doled out the moral compass.

Chuckie refers to his female companions as “the goddesses”. I am not sure the ancient Greeks would appreciate his misappropriation of a term that describes iconic female deities.  However, Chuckie may be on to something.  In today’s tinsel town age of mores looser than Mama Cass’ sundress, hanging out with adult film stars, and showing up to your pal’s dinner party with Snookie are lauded as forms of self confident expression. Everything and everyone is out of the closet.  One cannot really think of any social stigma that is left except perhaps those sad unfortunates still terrified to admit that they voted for President Obama. We have become so tolerant of the highly flawed human condition that we no longer recognize it. And we always love a comeback, especially after spending four very public weeks with Dr Drew in Celebrity Rehab.

Yet, it seems that all this “coming clean” is taking its toll on popular culture.  With the closet now clean and all of our ugliest blemishes in full view on MSNBC, A&E, MTV and TMZ, some are contemplating diving back into that dark space and locking the door.  One feels so dull if they cannot confess to some kind of psychological addiction.  Others scream “just make it all go away” and dive into the now empty closet rocking gently, humming their favorite nursery rhymes. In fact, Charlie Sheen has come out and shared that he really likes his current trajectory and you should too.  He is a “winner” with “tiger’s blood”.  He does not have time to be admired or put on a pedestal. He is quick to remind us that if we are misguided enough to look up to him as a role model, we should  shift our telescopes toward the Milky Way.  It is a more reliable celestial body, predictably in the same place each night and will not disappoint you.

For those of us who have studied the astronomy of self-destruction , Chuckie is simply another fallen star in a galaxy filled with dark matter.  He will probably never make the Hall of Shame – populated with the likes of heavy weights John Edwards, ex-South Carolina governor Mark Stafford, Richard Nixon, and histories liars, cheats, and deceivers. Yet, Chuckie’s stats are impressive – – multiple marriages, five kids from three different women, myriad addictions, lawsuits, an accidental shooting, arrests, hernia and a deviated septum.  If he ends up getting picked up in his underwear fighting imaginary dragons with a trashcan lid, he will officially hit for the cycle.

Chuckie is now wandering across a wasteland of spiritual emptiness.  Despite a net worth of an estimated $ 85mm, Chuckie will be denied the things that matter most – his family, respect, peace of mind and soon, perhaps his sanity.  While his “goddesses” and enablers cling to him like ticks, he will descend into the inferno of self-obsession. His insanity will be fed by an endless negative loop of ego that feeds on its own dark thoughts.  The worse one feels about their circumstances, the more they seek lower companions and other sycophants incapable of helping him divine just how far off course his life has gotten. The self-destructive person perpetually offends their own sense of right and wrong and produces the toxins of guilt, remorse and self loathing – – poisons that can only be medicated by more obsessive behavior or by a spiritual intervention.

Unfortunately, we have seen this “Chuckie” movie before. It is a predictable script starring a dubious roster of castaways who mess up their lines and their lives.  They read and believe their own press releases and succumb to the notion that they are the star of their own movie.  Their needs must be prioritized above all others.  Their dressing room must always be filled with green M&Ms, Badoit water chilled to 10C and pan flute music by Zamfir. Their movies always end the same with the anti-hero getting smashed, burned, broken, beaten, crushed or incarcerated.

Perhaps our fascination with Chuckie Sheen goes deeper for some.  Perhaps there is a little “Chuckie” in all of us.  We sometimes mistake the notion of living in the moment for living as if there is no tomorrow.  We deceive ourselves into thinking we deserve “this” or should be able to have “that”. Our conceit and ego assures us that we know what is best for us.  We grab the steering wheel, seize the rudder, dismiss our co-pilots and forge ahead into a storm in a boat that has been ripped from its moorings.

If we are lucky, we later find out that our own best thinking is flawed and that decisions made in fear, anger or in self-pity are often disastrous.  We understand that fear and faith cannot occupy the same place.  We realize that self-loathing is a self-inflicted condition that can be cured and the most polluted garret can be transformed into the most sacred of temples.

So I say we all say a little prayer for Chuckie.  He told me (and about 290m other Americans ) that he does not need our help. He and his goddesses are doing just fine.  His movie will end just like he has planned it.  He is, after all, its director and star.

In my movie, there are no goddesses and there is one God and I have been told that I can never play that role.  I have tried out for it several times but have been permanently relegated to the role of a servant.  I sometimes critique his work and suggest that I could do things better. Fortunately, no one listens.  It’s steady work and I always seem to get what I need.  Occasionally he laughs when I tell him what I want.

For a guy that understands all about wanting to direct and star in his own film, Sheen’s latest celluloid: “Chuckie X – Winner Not Whiner” is hard for me to watch.  I keep covering my eyes, wanting to the scream, “Chuckie, watch out.  Don’t run with that knife.  Just check in somewhere and talk to a few people who can help you learn how to once again be a supporting actor. ”

With a little help,  Sheen may find that his next sequel is a love story, and not the final act of a horror film.  It may star a humble guy named Charlie, not a self obsessed psychotic slasher named Chuckie.

Now that’s a movie I’d pay to see.

What Will They Think of Next?

Booking photo of Theodore Kaczynksi
Image via Wikipedia

If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.  ~Frank Lloyd Wright

Having grown up in the era of astronauts, Star Trek, the Space Race and Isaac Asimov, I was bewitched by the constant advance of technology. It seemed that each week, a new age engineering miracle would find its way into mainstream society.  The commercial textile, aerospace, defense, food processing, automotive and manufacturing industries were huge beneficiaries of the NASA based research that focused on tackling issues related to space travel – insulation from extreme temperature swings, food preservation, satellites, survival in zero gravity and a host of other natural conundrums that conspired to keep mankind forever confined to Earth.  With the help of a few German scientists who despised the notion of Russian winters, the US procured Nazi rocket technology courtesy of Warnher von Braun and proceeded to landed on the moon – vaulting us into a technological revolution that would ultimately help win the Cold War and enhance our reputation as a world leader in innovation.

Technology has now become a centerpiece to the American way. With the advent of microprocessors and personal computers, artificial intelligence has hastened the arrival of a new cultural and social revolution.  The automotive industry has done its part to merge our love affair with motor vehicles and our fascination with the latest gadgetry.  Each year, new cars roll off assembly lines loaded with a range of seemingly indispensable features that may never actually be used.  Yet, it seems technology is proving to be a two-edged sword as our cars have become increasingly independent while our skills as drivers atrophy.

I was recently stuffing myself at industry luncheon when the table conversation shifted to cars and technology.  I rolled my eyes.  My own “ Space Odyssey” encounter with a 1994 Jaguar XJS left me with Ted Kaczynski contempt for technology and a nagging desire to get a personalized license plate that said “ Hal 9000”. I shivered recalling my misadventure – – being stuck in a Jag frozen in a 30 mph gear called “limp-home” mode, a mystery gear that had been erroneously triggered by a glitch in the electrical system that was sending a false positive engine failure message to the dashboard computer.

What was supposed to be a five-hour race up a barren Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, turned into a ten-hour consultation with six different grumpy, simian-like mechanics attempting to fix my wheezing, English Patient of a car.   On that fateful day, I was told ad nauseum that Jaguars were notorious for electrical problems and were impossibly expensive to diagnose and treat.  “ Damn, things are freaks.  Just like everything else out of Europe. Buy American!” The mechanic slammed the hood and wiped his greasy hands. He shrugged, “Hope you didn’t pay much for it.” I thought about its previous owner and how he must be smiling right now.  I would get even with him.  I knew where he lived.  He was my after all, my father.

Since my enervating summer trip to SF where I was overtaken by a man riding a horse and a 300 lb. jogger, I have chosen vehicles more wisely and have avoided the siren’s call of cars whose front panels look like jet engine cockpits.  Yet, the rest of the world is hungry for the next best thing. In Germany, the Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, with sites in Saarbrücken, Bremen and Berlin has been hard at work leading German automotive efforts in the field of innovative automotive software technology. AI and others, including BMW and Microsoft, are teaming to develop an artificially intelligent car that can one day drive itself. As my table mates were extolling the virtues of the 2011/2012 line of AI autos that can park, steer and alert drivers to a range of hostile road conditions, I kept wondering if all of this Terminator technology was such a good thing.  What would Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov say?

I kept thinking about my psychotic Jag with its schitzo electrical system. I suddenly had another Jaguar flashback to a harrowing six week period where the car’s battery would routinely die.  After replacing it three times,  I turned to a mercurial, foreign artisan mechanic who had the intellect and bedside manner of House MD.  I distinctly remember his sardonic tone as he explained that my battery was being drained by a faulty seat belt. He rolled his eyes and screamed at me like a Russian prison guard. “The automatic shoulder strap iz not fully retracting into itz sheath and as a result, it keeps engaging. Do you NOT hear zee clicking sound as it is trying to retract?” I did vaguely remember hearing a slight noise that would always stop when I turned on the ignition. He looked ready to euthanize me. “ Um, do you not figure out that when zee car is engaged, zee seatbelt would move back out and across your lap ? Are you stupid man?  OF COURSE, it is going to stop clicking!” I eventually sold the “Grey Poupon-mobile from hell” a year later but not before I had burned thousands of dollars with Dr. House who abused me every time I approached him with another problem. ” Do we haf’ anozer problem, Mizter Tuwpin?” He would shake his head. With all the money I paid and the abuse I was taking, I should have asked him to at least wear stiletto shoes.

Over the years, I have purposely avoided being seduced by the latest automotive technology.  Not unlike a golfer that refuses to trade in his favorite 2003 driver for the latest hydrocephalic 2011 titanium Black Mamba, I am resolute in not chasing technology down its dark, expensive alleys.  However, I must admit to being amazed at the gadgetry that is now finding its way into modern vehicles.  Today’s upgraded package of whistles and bells can include a range of functions that fall just short of a virtual chauffeur. After purchasing a 2010 vehicle in 2009, I still cannot comprehend 50% of its functionality.  Like my computer and its myriad applications, I just don’t seem to take advantage of technology.

While the Audi’s functionality is much more utilitarian than its Asian and Italian counterparts, there are elements baked into its package that include certain “black swan” applications – fog lights so you don’t hit a family member who might be lying down in the driveway or rear heated seats (anyone that sits in my back seat is under the age of 18 and deserves a cold rear end).  My clever automobile can alert me to low tire pressure, seat belt use, insufficient vehicle liquid levels, and miles to go before I sleep. The vehicle can break down any journey into a mind numbing range of statistics including mpg, average speed, and comparative performance to earlier trips.

My children have figured out almost every accessory in my Audi and have taken control. It took me six months to realize that I was not having hot flashes but that a 15-year-old had programmed the front seats to the highest temperature of 10.  It was 30 degrees outside and I felt like I was sitting on a metal bench in Kuwait in August.  Meanwhile, the satellite radio kept defaulting to an explicit hip-hop station. The GPS constantly mocks me choosing to direct me through the shortest route which bears no relationship to the fastest route.  I am convinced there is another setting – the most dangerous route which directs me to get off at 233nd Street in the Bronx when I am going into Midtown for dinner.  In the span of five blocks I witness two drug busts and am propositioned by three prostitutes. I feel like a tim of tuna sitting in my soft top convertible.  The GPS just laughs at my attempts to find the open parkway by repeatedly saying, ” Turn right, recalculating. Turn right, recalculating.”

My spell was broken as a middle aged motor head extolled the virtues of his AI car.  “They have incorporated a range of additional sensors into the vehicle to avert accidents due to fatigue and reckless tail-gating.  The steering column vibrates when your car nears lane lines unless the turn indicator is illuminated.  The car engages the braking system when it gets too close to another car or obstacle when parallel parking or easing into a blind spot.” Another Motor Trend junkie jumped in. “ AI even promotes effective risk management. Limits are being incorporated by moving van, rental and fleet management companies who have worked with engineers to cap the risk of reckless driving by programming their trucks to not exceed 60mph.” By this time everyone was “ooh-ing” and “aww-ing”. It seemed technology is inching into all of our driver’s seats and in the not too distant future, Miss Daisy won’t need her driver.

Yet, perhaps technology could yanks a few weeds from our logistical gardens so choked with weeds.  Given that I am a parent of three teens and will soon have another destruction derby driver weaving his way along narrow stone-walled roads, I started daydreaming of lowering my 5 digit insurance premiums. Perhaps my costs could reduce with the introduction of artificial intelligence.

I shared with a friend with Ford my idea of a new upgrade package called “Platinum Protect“ for prospective families purchasing a new car with teenaged drivers. The Platinum Protect plan could include:

1) Slow Down Feature – A GPS governed cruise control feature that correlates road, weather and speed limits to incorporate and enforce maximum vehicle speed.  A driver travelling on a rural winter road with a speed limit of  50mph would be unable to operate the car at over 40mph. This satellite fed speed minder could save thousands in speeding tickets and put a huge dent in the joy-riding industry.

2) Gotcha Feature – Made popular in the television show, “Bait Car”, digital cameras can now be installed within a car’s cab as well as on front and rear bumpers to digitally record any activities that might give rise to an accident or incident.  The digital images are housed in the Automotive Administrator Data Warehouse which can be accessed remotely via the web.  Parents and law enforcement officials can use visual data which can confirm or refute testimony related to any event. Additional applications include email notification when vehicles leave approved areas of operation, air bag deployment and sudden losses in tire pressure.

As is always the case when my medication starts to wear off, I allow my mind to wander into weird places.  I can see a science fiction future where machines run our lives, I am bald with a USB link in my head and my name is Neo. Perhaps I may be so cocooned in my virtual reality that I only require a slot in my front door for the pizza guy to slip in my nightly deep dish pizza.  I will never have to leave the house – – that is until the guy with the crane comes to lift my morbidly obese body out so I can try-out for “The Biggest Loser”.

As I pen this futuristic manifesto, my car has arrived to take me to the airport.  How did I segue so fast from automotive technology to becoming a massively overweight shut-in. What is wrong with me?

The car honks its horn.  From this angle, I could swear there is no one in the driver’s seat