Birth Daze

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...
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Birthdaze

On my thirteenth birthday, parties and multiple presents suddenly ceased.  There was no special stature afforded me on the anniversary of my birth.  My father slipped out the backdoor as he did each morning and left for work.  The kitchen was choked with the usual frenetic preparations for school obscured in a haze of fried bacon and burned toast.  My mother mentioned that my birthday dinner of hamburgers would be warming in the oven when I got home from football practice, as she and my father were out entertaining clients that evening.  It seemed as though I was no longer a “cute” puppy worthy of special attention.   I stared at the ground not wanting to cry and secretly wished stigmata would appear on my palms to reveal my deep spiritual martyrdom.  My only birthday present, a baseball glove, had been purchased weeks before and immediately put to use.  My only other gift was a bizarre offering from my grandfather, whom I was now certain, was slipping into senility.  Instead of my annual birthday card replete with a crisp $10 bill, he sent me a coffee can full of pennies and peppermints.

That night, I surveyed the wreckage of my birthday and considered the cruel net present value of my waning childhood — pennies, mints and a shriveled burger on a stale bun.  My older brother sensed my dejection and confirmed my worst fears: “Dude, your birthdays are over…”  My dog Max trotted over and flopped next to me with a heavy sigh.  I looked at him and he seemed to be saying, “Don’t look at me.  I don’t even know how old I am.”

Denial became anger.  My friend, Gary, was having his Bar Mitzvah.  I was not even sure what this ancient rite of passage entailed but I heard it meant money, presents, cake and the ability to invite girls to a party.  Now I wanted to be Jewish. Gary would be carried in a chair as everyone celebrated the fact he had become a man.  People would stuff money in his trousers like a Chippendale’s dancer.  He might even grow a beard right then and there from the sheer testosterone of so many acknowledging his manhood.  And here I sat, the Protestant nobody, eating a stale burger and counting out $3.23 in pennies that smelled like Maxwell House.  I suddenly realized that birthdays, like hormones, changed.

In the post pubescent teenage years, each birthday is an event in two phases: the perfunctory family celebration, endured by the teen like a morning in church, followed by a “bash.”  In the lexicon of the ‘70s, a successful bash was defined as an event with no adult supervision, limited police intervention and no one getting sick in your car.  In your twenties, the festivities involved an evening out with everyone, I mean everyone — friends, coworkers, and that Romanian immigrant you met who was bussing your table at the wine bar in Century City.  Then birthdays become justification for self-indulgence and life lessons.  The “I made it” mentality kicks in and you seek to reward yourself.  This leads to an extension course at the school of hard knocks as your celebrations take a bizarre turn — resulting in waking up the next day with a fat lip, no idea where you parked and a $1000 wad of your VISA receipts signed by someone named Little Ray.

In your thirties and forties, you celebrate your birth anniversary with the parents of your children’s friends who have become your friends.  You realize your social circle is now completely composed of those who live in your dimension.  Their unwavering companionship is your gift.  They offer you understanding and never question why your foxhole smells the way it does.  Their foxhole is in the same shape.  You dream of the perfect adult birthday present: zero accountability for 24 hours — everyone just leaves you alone.  All you want is to sleep in, work out, play a little golf, maybe get a massage or haircut.  You want to eat something unhealthy, watch your favorites on TV and not be told to turn the channel, clean a dish, pick up a kid or move a trash can.

In your fifties, you begin to dread birthdays like the snap of a latex glove preceding a prostate exam: “This may feel a little uncomfortable.”  You mourn the passing of each year and consider celebrating the day of your birth tantamount to dancing on your own grave.  Some regress, anxiously looking in their life’s rear view mirror to inventory all regrets.  The day becomes an unnecessary black Sabbath of angst and meaningless self-pity.  This may culminate in the rash purchase of a sports car or, worse yet, running off with your personal trainer (Porsche and Viagra ads actively target these unfortunates.)  Yet most of us avoid these irrational impulses and pay homage only to birthdates divisible by five.  We use the “in between” birthdays as justification for binging on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

As you get on in years, you appreciate every birthday you’re granted but prefer celebrating in privacy, perhaps just a quiet dinner with another couple or someone older than you.  You buy all your own birthday presents because you are no longer willing to be gracious.  Hell, it hasn’t really been about you for the last 20 years.  You eventually get to a point where you don’t want to see anyone, including yourself in the mirror.  A great birthday is simply a day when all your body parts obey.

Birthdays follow a cunning symmetry in life.  As an infant, your first few find you wetting your pants and rubbing cake all over your face while unfamiliar people crowd around you and take flash photos.  You really haven’t a clue as to what’s happening or why that fat woman with blue hair keeps pinching your cheek.  You get angry when someone you don’t know sits next to you — that seat was reserved for your imaginary friend.  Then 80 years later life comes full circle and you’re once again wetting your pants, wondering what’s going on and missing your mouth with cake by a country mile.  You still get angry when someone sits next to you as you tell everyone repeatedly that this seat is reserved for Lana Turner.  They don’t listen, so you hurl your cake and it just happens to hit your stuck-up daughter-in-law in the face, who runs from the room crying, claiming after all these years you still hate her.

Now that is a great birthday.

Francophile

The Motto of the French Republic Liberty, Equa...
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Francophile

“The French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference” (Alexis de Tocqueville)

I love France and the French.  No, really. I trust their sartorial intuition and am intoxicated by their fields of lavender and sunflowers, their ancient hill towns, alpine mountains, rugged coast and wind swept countryside.  The French people, particularly Parisians, are like an aging actress – seductive, entitled, proud, elegant, stubborn, self absorbed, mercurial and somewhat unpredictable.  I have come to accept their political contrarianism as a sort of symbiotic fact of life.  I also love to lampoon the French at every possible turn.  The French insist on positioning themselves as a rational and more egalitarian alternative to American hegemony and its “McDonaldization de le Monde”.  Every protagonist needs an arch enemy. Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Moriarty.  Superman had Lex Luther and Republicans have Obama  The French need America.

America is a country where everyone has time to mow their three-acre lawn each week,but no one has time to cook their own food; a country where “evil-doer” and “do-gooder” are both negative characterizations; a country whose academic institutions are better known for their athletes than for their scholars; a country whose car parks are bigger than the buildings they serve; a country where it is possible to purchase (and theoretically consume) sugar-frosted honey-coated deep-fat-fried cheese sticks; a country where they play a brand of football which involves minimal use of the foot and maximal use of the hands; a country which calls itself the Land of the Free yet has the world’s second highest incarceration rate, behind Russia; a country where only the well-to-do ride bicycles; and a country where ( up until very recently ) petrol costs less than bottled water.  – A French View of America, PurePolitics

Their cocksure arrogance and serial devil’s advocacy to anything American just begs for me to assault their penchant for wine, cheese, infidelity and the bloodless surrender.  The French have infiltrated American culture and our lexicon.  The French gave us the term, coup d’état, which involves taking over a government by force or deception while the leader is vacationing in Cannes. They gave us,  “Je ne sais quoi” which means “ I have no freaking idea what that reminds me of so I am going to draw on my fourteen years in le Grand Ecole to say something sophisticated that means nothing.“  What about “Laissez-faire”?  a form of government which is tantamount to a parent running a meth lab.

“Marie, where are les enfants?” “I believe the children are with your mistress, no?“  And, le piece de la resistance?  “Raison d’être” translating to “reason to exist” which for the French, is to be par excellence – – preeminently supreme above all others.

“I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me.” —General George S. Patton

I developed my tendency to take the starch out of the French while living in Europe. Working with our French operations was a sociological adventure. We had a worker’s council threaten to strike over whether we would install a sales management system.  The labor union leadership did not like the idea of someone monitoring employee performance and potentially paying for those results.  Imagine that!  We had 35 hour work weeks with employees swapping building access cards in order to work longer than 35 hours – – trying not to get caught by those who were trying to enforce the 35 hour rule designed to drive full employment.  We had executives that were cheaper to move aside than to pay a mandatory three year severance. They became frozen fixtures, too proud to leave and too angry to do anything other than criticize management.  My French colleagues referred to the seventh floor which housed these malcontents as “le mausoleum”.  The Parisian staff were by far, the most educated, unprofitable, dynamic, dysfunctional, sarcastic and elegant team we employed.  Teams were merely a shell for individual contributors who competed with one another for success.  This competition of individuals, many of whom were educated in the best schools, was unproductive and highly entertaining.  Personally, I loved it.  Professionally, it drove me crazy.

“France is a mouse with the skin of an elephant ; America is an elephant with the skin of a mouse” ! C. Nadeau

Whether it was the French’s decision not to commit troops to Iraq or a persistent condemnation of our foreign policy, the French remain committed to being distinguished as a mature alternative to adolescent America.  It is lost on many of the new intelligentsia that our countries’ histories are inexorably bound by periods of mutual necessity and alliance: the French helping America gain its freedom during the Revolutionary War or US soldiers fighting and dying in places like the Ardennes and Normandy to liberate France.  Somewhere along the way, our co-dependence yielded to cultural and philosophical differences with each side assailing the other for their self serving values and blind excesses.  And just when we finally screwed up the courage to sacrifice our Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Brie cheese, French wines and god forbid, “French” Fries, along came French President Nicholas Sarkozy pledging to build a stronger bridge with the USA and position France to compete in the new global economy by loosening the noose of suffocating social programs. “Mon Dieu, Jacqueline! President Sarkozy is a capitalist loving, Walmart shopping, American loving traitor! Have you seen his new girlfriend ? The République française is in pieces, n’est pas?”

“In response to the recent terror attacks in Spain, the French government have raised their terror alert status from Run to Hide.”  – Somewhere on a Wall Street trading floor

Thankfully, the French are so predictable. While Sarkozy initially robbed us of our ability to dislike or tease the French, he quickly yielded to popular demands and a deeply distrustful society.  His proposals to reform pensions to mirror private sector schemes led to public workers strikes and eventually it was easier to kick the crepe down Rue St Germain than to start espousing Western notions of personal responsibility.  The French are generally suspicious of success and feel that capitalism promotes a level of corruption and institutionalized discrimination in business and government.  This distrust of government and business manifests itself in a refined intellectual cynicism where corporations and wealth are seen as having corrupted the ideal of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”

Like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, we simply cannot live with or without the French.  Our contempt for one another should be overshadowed by the fact that we are both great societies and that we need one another. It is true that democratic socialism is not compatible with neo conservative capitalism.  Yet, the USA is learning that we desperately need global partners and that we can do more to support the least among us in our society.  The French, on the other hand, are learning hard lessons about the impact of economic immigration, the burden of massive social programs and inefficient labor law.  We are in essence, stumbling toward one another in a blinding storm – – the aging actress and the powerful adolescent.  We may end up together but we will always be odd bedfellows.

Vive le difference.

Camp Whencanicomhomma

Summer Camp Personalities
Image by Transguyjay via Flickr

 

Camp Whencanicomhomma

“Hello muddah, hello faddah

Here I am at Camp Granada

Camp is very entertaining

And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”

It was early winter when the phone call came from California.  It was below zero, and the woods seemed to be cracking under the arctic blast that had buffeted us for days. Our then 11-year-old daughter was catching up with a friend and hearing all about a two-week sleep-away camp, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  “Waterskiing, boys, horseback riding, boys, dances at night and…boys.”

Our first child pleaded with us to allow her to attend this amazing adolescent Pleasure Island.  After carefully evaluating Camp Skyline, we realized it was time to push the first chick a little farther from the nest.  In the ensuing weeks, as snow thawed and the first breath of spring hinted at warmer days, she marched around the house with a reckless bravado, crowing condescendingly at her brothers, “I am going away for two weeks this summer and you babies have to stay home.  You had better stay out of my room.  It’s going to be soooo fun without all of you.”  As younger brothers so often do, they looked up, merely shrugged and went back to their video games.

“I went hiking with Joe Spivy

He developed poison ivy

You remember Leonard Skinner

He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.”

The departure date finally arrived.  I served as escort on a transcontinental trip that included a brief stop in Denver where I had to give a speech. My daughter loved the taste of being an only child again and sat maturely in the audience as I delivered my presentation.  That night, we shopped along Denver’s esplanade – walking arm in arm and I was, for a brief moment again, “Daddy.”  The following day we landed in San Francisco, and drove to the East Bay where we stayed with friends.  In a mere twelve hours, canary yellow buses would portage a new generation of girls and boys  to Bass Lake and their summer world of adventure.

Late that evening, there was a tap on my bedroom door as my little girl walked into my room and asked if she could sleep in my bed.  This hadn’t happened for years — I could tell something was weighing on her mind.  The next morning dawned and she looked as if she was deploying for a year’s tour of duty in Afghanistan.  When we first spied the parking lot of idling school buses, her hand squeezed mine.  She sighed and hugged me tighter than she had in years.  As the buses drove off, scores of arms and hands waved from the windows. I spied her circumspect face under a tangle of enthusiastic teens and realized my sparrow was flying right into her first major bout of homesickness.

“All the counselors hate the waiters

And the lake has alligators

And the head coach wants no sissies

So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

 

Now I don’t want that this should scare ya

But my bunkmate has malaria

You remember Jeffrey Hardy

They’re about to organize a searching party.”
 

I recognized all the symptoms that morning – her need to use the bathroom, yawning, and an endless stream of redundant rhetorical questions.  You see, back in the summer of 1972, another young man (who remain nameless) attended High Sierra Summer Base Camp and went three days without eating any food – – claiming he had contracted a rare stomach parasite and needed to go home immediately.  His incredible persistence and exaggerated symptoms fooled all but the most veteran of camp counselors. At the boy’s insistence, the camp reluctantly arranged for the boy to call home where his parents refused to allow him to return before the week had concluded. Once reality set in, the boy was seized by the sudden craving for a hamburger.  Four days later, he returned home with pictures of trout caught in high mountain lakes, strange wonderful stories about new friends and a veteran’s resolve to return to the “greatest camp ever.”

“Take me home, oh muddah, faddah

Take me home, I hate Granada

Don’t leave me out in the forest where

I might get eaten by a bear.

Take me home, I promise I will not make noise

Or mess the house with other boys.

Oh please don’t make me stay

I’ve been here one whole day.”

 

 

Her first letter arrived within two days.  It was hastily written, as if the prison guards might arrive at any time and once again beat the soles of her feet.  “Please come get me, NOW,” she pleaded.  “It is horrible here and everyone is miserable.  It’s hot and there are mosquitoes and the food is terrible and I can’t sleep at night…”  The second postage stamped SOS suggested some form of child slavery might be operating at the camp as she was being forced against her will to bus tables as part of kitchen patrol.  Letter three alleged emotional abuse.  The Camp Skyline website which faithfully posted daily pictures of laughing campers and rowdy campfires – including a girl we recognized – seemed to conflict with her  information.

“Dearest faddah, darling muddah,

How’s my precious little bruddah

Let me come home, if you miss me

I would even let Aunt Bertha hug and kiss me.”

 

As was the case in 1972, the parents held firm and the letters stopped coming.  She was either dead or waterskiing.  We suspected the latter.  The day we arrived to pick her up at camp was emotional — she did not want to leave her new friends or the counselors she’d become so attached to.  “It was sooo incredible.” She leered at her brothers. ” And you won’t be able to come for at least two more years,” They looked up at her, shrugged and went back to their video games.

“Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.

Guys are swimming, guys are sailing

Playing baseball, gee that’s better

Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter.

~ Camp Granada by Alan Sherman

Under a Neon Moon

As Long As There's Light. . .
Image by Cayusa via Flickr

Under a Neon Moon

When the sun goes down on my side of town, that lonesome feeling comes to my door. The whole world turns blue. There’s a rundown bar cross the railroad tracks. I’ve got a table for two way in the back where I sit alone and think of losing you. I spend most every night beneath the light of this neon moon… If you lose your one and only, there’s always room here for the lonely to watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams of a neon moon .  Brooks & Dunn, “Under A Neon Moon”

A guy can’t really ever become a dude until he’s suffered from his first broken heart. There’s nothing quite as humbling as getting your guts surgically removed by an indifferent female and left like road kill by the side of some country road. Yet, when life decides to perform open heart surgery, there is no better anesthetic than an “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” Hank Williams song. We seem to find solace in country music – the ballads and their lyrical, maudlin bellyaching . It’s just nice knowing that some poor idiot has passed through this place before us.  The music helps us get outside ourselves and discover our capacity to cope and eventually  rejoin the long gray line of “dudes”.

I still recall the dull ache of a certain July 4th weekend when my budding college romance was gutted by 2000 miles of summer. My dream job had landed me in Missoula, MT as a day hand working at a dude ranch while my love interest had parachuted into a Wall Street investment bank internship.  As I lived out the first few weeks of my Norman McLean fly fishing fantasy, she was slowly being seduced by the Big Apple and her 35-year-old boss.  It was clear after a succession of emotionless and increasingly distant phone calls that she had lost interest – – finding someone older, wiser and with an expense account.

I remained sullen for days, wallowing in self-pity. I was even more annoyed that my martyred behavior was going completely unnoticed by my bunkhouse mates –  a silent sinew of cowboys who rarely spoke or paid much mind to me unless I asked them a direct question.  Always keeping their own counsel and not wanting to meddle in anyone’s affairs, these emotional tree stumps saw nothing abnormal in the fact that I had been dumped – or as they like to call it, “bucked off a filly”.

The cowboys finally tired of my melancholy and set about “fixing me” – – admitting me to their midnight fraternity which convened each evening over beer and music to share emotional war stories and malign the opposite sex.  We were an odd remuda of misfits that had at one time or another been a passenger on love’s ship of fools.  I had been stung hard and my friends were concerned about the possibility of a rebound relationship.  While I had managed to offend most of the cabin girls at the ranch with my college boy arrogance, the town of Missoula still abounded with willing small town girls and the occasional divorcee with two young kids that worked as the check out girl at the local Super Save.

I was told to abstain from “wimun” for thirty days and report each night for therapy. The diagnosis, prognosis and treatment always concluded with the prescription: “Take a few beers and call me in the morning.”  Physical therapy required me to join five rail thin dudes in filthy jeans and cowboy boots as we crammed into the cab of a rusted Ford pickup.  We would drive along the ancient Blackfoot river at dusk – –  seven dusty miles to a dimly lit roadside bar where we would listen to music, drink and shoot pool.

The juke box played only country and western music.  In Montana, The Doors were things you walked through.  The Boss was someone you worked for and the Grateful Dead were war heroes.  Music and life lessons were taught each night by professors Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Anderson, Ronnie Millsap and Tanya Tucker.  The lyrics seemed written just for me and each night, a different surgeon would seek to suture my eviscerated self-esteem. Each ballad sought to assure its listener that life was not over but in fact, on the cusp of being lived more deeply. I was neither the first nor the last person to ever allow a female get the best of him.

The wranglers with whom I shared the bunkhouse fell in and out of love at the drop of a ten gallon hat.  A guest/ranch hand affair had a shorter life expectancy than a lightening bug in a room full of flypaper. Each week was a soap opera with an all too predictable script. Introduce one new single female guest. Stir in the ingredients of ten wranglers. Watch as a doomed relationship heats up between successful Wrangler A and a clearly out-of-his-league female guest B. Their romance percolates like cowboy coffee over a morning campfire and heats up at BBQs by the river and under the spell of crimson sunsets.

There was something in that fresh Montana air. Perhaps it was the glimpse of a less complicated life or the sudden absence of confusing urban materialism that stirred some latent homesteading gene in these city girls – driving them into the arms of these weathered, sinewy, reliable, monosyllabic cowboys who worked like ants – lifting ten times their weight, stringing a mile of barbed wire, and still having the stamina to dance all night to the Cotton-Eyed Joe.  Tragically, the perfume of moonlit nights and high alpine sage faded into the musky reality of earthy communication, limited professional prospects and a parochial inability to know the exact location of Atlanta, Georgia.  The red hot romantic fire would quickly smolder. All the while, a distant transistor radio would sit illuminated in the bunk house window playing classic country music that hung like smoke of a distant forest fire.

In the summer of 1981,  country music became forever burned into my musical liturgy.  I instantly identified with the tortured baritone of Keith Whitley, a gifted rising country star who chose fame over family and drank himself to death. His penchant for self destruction battles with his self awareness and self effacing humor in each song.   In ” It Ain’t Nothin”, Whitley is “lower than well digger’s shoes, knee-deep in a mess of blues.” In his haunting signature song, “ I’m No Stranger To The Rain “, Keith seemed to understand that he could never escape his own demons. “I’m no stranger to the rain. I’m a friend of thunder.  Lord, is it any wonder lightning strikes me ?  I’ve fought with the devil, got down on his level, but I never gave in so he gave up on me…”

I never forgot those feelings or the promise that I would recover to love again. There was integrity in the music and century-old, oak understanding in the lyrics.  Above all, this music was all American.  The songs were anthems to our way of life and dedicated to everyday men and women enduring hard knocks and taking risks.  Whether the singer got his or her black eye from a lost job, broken marriage or lost opportunity, every song seemed to revolve around having the courage to carry on. The songs also remind you to celebrate the little treasures of life –butterfly kisses at night with a young daughter or remembering to live your life like you were dying.  Country is not about serving yourself first, it’s about putting service ahead of yourself – – to your country, family and those less fortunate.  They are ballads of the broken and the brave. They preach personal responsibility and perseverance.

Country captures what it is like for those who live within the noble lines of life. It’s music fills a void in many of us. It teaches the value of family, and the simple pleasures that arise out of hard work and sacrificing for something that is worth the wait.  It serenades those who live, love and labor — and celebrates our authenticity and nationalism while lamenting our broken dreams, imperfection and disappointment. It’s all part of our personal life lessons as a people and as a country.

In the end, Americans are as durable as denim. When we get bogged down by our own divisiveness and self pity, we occasionally need to be kicked in the ass – perhaps in a song. The lyrics are sharp and to the point — tomorrow’s another day and nothing happens until someone starts doing something.  And don’t forget to give it everything you got. After all, that’s what it means to be “country strong”.

A Guy Named Joe

Original Sin and the Good Samaritan
Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr


Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. – Goethe

On March 1, 2007, Joe had his last day as a front desk security guard.  For over 15 years, he was the first person that you’d see when you entered his company’s corporate headquarters.  Joe possessed a special talent: You could meet Joe once and forever after, he would never, ever forget your name.

I interviewed with Joe’s company in February 2005 at their corporate offices in Trumbull.  Nervous at my first interview in over twenty years, I met Joe – who stood up and warmly grasped my arm with his large catcher’s mitt hands.  “Michael, welcome, welcome.  Isn’t it a great day today?”  I looked outside.  It was cold and gray, threatening sleet and other meteorological mischief.  “Nice to meet you, too; um…I’m sorry, I did not catch your name?”  “Joe, Michael. My name is Joe.  Come and see us again.”

I returned eight weeks later as a new employee.  My first day was filled with trepidation.  I had left behind a 23-year career with my former firm, and it felt strange and unnatural to be arriving at a new employer.  I had regrets and doubts.  I didn’t know where to park.  Everything was wrong.  I carried with me a box filled with pictures and mementos, depressed in the knowledge that a long career could fit so easily in a single cardboard container.  As is often the case with large companies, no one actually remembered I was starting that day.  There were no instructions for me on where to go.  As I walked in the front doors with my box, Joe looked at me and immediately smiled, “Michael, it’s great to see you back.  Michael?  Are you moving in with us?  Bless me, Michael; I believe you are joining our company.”  He stood up and came around the desk and grabbed my box, putting an arm around my shoulder, shepherding me to the rear of the building to my office and my new professional life.

Each day as I walked across the front foyer to lunch, Joe would be saying hello on a first-name basis to every employee as they walked by – on their way to meetings, lunch, or appointments. “Carol…how is that gorgeous daughter of yours?”  “Jeff, it’s great to see you.  You have a good lunch.”  “Tom, Tom, Tom…mmm, mmm, mmm, my friend, I believe you have lost some weight.”  My predecessor, the former CEO, would purposely have visitors, regulators and key customers wait in the foyer because Joe would be there to meet them; as he said, “Joe always warmed them up.”

Joe never missed a day of work in 16 years.  Joe lived with his two daughters in Bridgeport and, like so many who seek to serve others, he softened the sharp edges of his own neighborhood wherever he went.  A colleague driving through Bridgeport one afternoon happened to spy Joe riding his bicycle along a city street.  “I tried to get his attention but he was riding on the other side of the road.  I stopped at a red light and watched Joe in my rear view mirror.  There was a homeless man draped across the sidewalk; pedestrians were stepping over him, careful not to make eye contact.  Joe stopped his bike and instead of walking around the man, disappeared into a bank.  Joe walked outside, handed the man a $20 bill and rode away.  That was Joe.”

Joe scraped together money to study at night to be a minister.  He had passed his courses and begun a process of becoming an ordained minister.  When Joe’s company was bought by a much larger corporate giant, he remained the front foyer fixture.  Joe saw it as his mission to be an important source of reassuring continuity to employees new and old – reinforcing the point that no matter how large the firm became, one person would know their names and make sure they were all okay.

There’s a story…someone in the new parent company’s home office observed that the security guard in the Trumbull facility was possibly overpaid.  That was until a home office management team visited, some six months after their first visit.  Joe shined. “Dave, it’s good to see you again, welcome back.  Mike, you look like you have grown two inches.  Steve, how are those two boys you told me about?”  Their jaws dropped and one of the executives whispered to another, “We’ve got to give this guy a raise.”

Joe was the heart and soul of his firm.  He reminded us all that the most precious asset in any company is its people.  He embodied all the values that any well run firm seeks to cultivate in its employees – personal responsibility, compassion, commitment and focus on the customer.  Joe had figured out that the richest person is not the executive with the big salary or the private jet; it is the man or woman who has friends and who is guided by a purpose greater than themselves.  His humility was a sweet perfume that permeated everything and everyone around him.

On Friday, March 1, we let the word out in headquarters that Joe would be celebrating his last day.  The pace of the day and the time of year had us assuming perhaps 50-75 people joining us for an intimate farewell.  I was an accomplice in getting Joe to come with me to check something in the main cafeteria.  The doors opened up and I was shocked to see over 900 people – smiling, clapping and crying.  “Joe, Joe, Joe” was a rhythmic chant that rolled throughout the building.  Joe began to cry.  “I am just so grateful to be called your friend.”  We exchanged our favorite stories about how Joe calmed angry customers, consoled fellow employees and celebrated marriages, births and promotions.  He was leaving to become the pastor at a rural Baptist church in South Carolina.  In his first impromptu sermon to an adoring congregation, he paced the room trying to find the words.  In the end, he handed me back the microphone to hold back the tears.  “Thank you, thank you…” was all he could keep repeating.

Joe later walked out the front door, a slight figure wearing a faded blue vest and brown pants, carrying bags brimming with presents from his admirers – a new bible, gift certificates and a massive picture album signed by over 800 people including two retired CEOs.  He left as he came every day, urging people not to worry about him. “Michael!” he yelled back to me.  “Don’t let them change this place and don’t let the ‘community’ die.  It’s all we got, man.”  He got in his car, gave the right of way to another car and disappeared.

As he headed to a new community as an ordained pastor, most of us realized he was our lay minister, teaching us every day that the thing that matters most in life is each other.  All that from a guy most of us only knew simply as “Joe.”

“Oh, The Places You Will Go!” – To The Class of 2016

Cap Toss

You arrived eighteen years ago on a cool April breeze. You were late, as usual. The doctor swore that the ultrasound picture showed you with the umbilical cord connected into your ears.  It was only when he screamed, “bus, bus!”, that you decided to grace us with your presence.

Some of you were our first kids, while others merely slipped into a birth order and immediately began throwing elbows – fighting for food, attention and a sense of identity.  We often watched you when you slept to make sure you were still breathing.  It sounds creepy but that’s what you do when you get handed a complex piece of machinery with no instruction manual.

As infants, you won us over instantly with your first drunken sailor steps, gassy smiles, funny laugh, relentless requests for Goodnight Moon and your ability to look us right in the eye and disobey.  For a brief time we were the center of your universe but somewhere along the way, we were relegated to the status of a distant planet.

In time, we annoyed you.  We hovered – a relentless helicopter thump of windy opinions, emphatic ideas, dogmatic directions, do’s, don’ts – forever laying out an endless highway of guardrails.  You constantly probed the invisible fence line of our values probing for gaps and weak linkages – all the while  hoping for that one weekend when we parents would be dumb enough to go away and leave you at home swearing on a stack of Bibles that you were not going to have a party.  Speaking of parties, we never understood how your generation could be so environmentally correct as to pack up all your beer cans in a hefty bag only to throw them by the side of some random road.  Yes, we bugged you. We were always running out ahead of you trying to remove obstacles or prevent you from making the same mistakes that we made in another time when society seemed more tolerant of the self inflicted wounds of youth.

Our job has always been to love you until you learn to love yourself.  If you don’t believe us, it’s in our job descriptions which are filed down at City Hall.

You grew up during a time of silver technology bubbles, crimson red real estate busts, and a great purple dinosaur named Barney.  We taught you tolerance and tried to explain terrorism.  Life swirled around you at fiber optic speed and as the language of society changed, you adapted faster than we did.  You became our bridge to a new millennium – fluent in a new castrated language called texting. You shared that The Shins were not just bones in our leg. You gave us endless, magical hours by your bedside reading of Muggles, Wizards and Deatheaters.  You were our eyes and ears helping us understand that we were literally the last family in Connecticut that did not possess an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad.  Come to think of it, there seems to be a lot of  “I’s” in that list of essentials.  No wonder the Wii did not get much traction.

We never shared that we have worried for years that you were schizophrenic as you often revealed multiple personalities in the course of a five minute dinner conversation.  You multi-tasked like an Isaac Assimov science fiction robot,  studying, watching Hulu Plus, listening to iTunes, texting and looking at yourself in the mirror – – while still seeming in touch with reality.  Most people of our generation are precribed heavy doses of lithium to prevent this kind of manic behavior and claim to receive their instructions from an alien space craft hovering just over the tree line.

As your parents, we celebrated every one of your prosaic little accomplishments – I mean every one.  We attended more recitals, art shows, scrimmages, games, and microscopic milestones – not wanting to miss or regret a moment of your lives.  We were and are your biggest fans.  You taught us that material satisfaction has a brief shelf life while true joy that arises out of seeing someone you love get what they need, endures.

You are our chance to do things better – to be kinder, more resolute, less selfish and more open and understanding of a hot crowded world.  Speaking of  “hot”, we are so much cooler than you think but we are not allowed to tell you these stories as it violates the terms of our parole.

We live in a time of viral information.   Some of you learned the hard way that a reputation is easier to lose in a small town than your favorite hoody.  But don’t worry. One of the advantages of growing up in a small town is there are fewer witnesses. You may feel that you have not accomplished much but you are already ahead of 90% of the world just because you showed up. “And oh, the places you will go!”

To obtain your degree in Life, you are going to have to attend some night classes in the School of Hard Knocks. Bonehead 101 will teach you that your own best thinking can get you in trouble. Advanced Diversity prepares you for the fact that not everyone shares your values, politics or your belief that “The Hangover” was the greatest film of your generation. Tolerance 201 reveals that some may dislike you the moment they meet you because of what you represent or because you forgot to shower that morning.  Don’t sweat it.  There are 6B people in the world – most of whom do not bathe and who want the same things that you want – happiness, security and 24/7 access to a secure wireless router.

You will need to learn delayed gratification.  Whether you like it or not, everything gets a little harder from here and you will wait longer for things that you would like to have right away.  There’s more competition for everything – education, jobs, and natural resources – – many of the things that you always assumed would be there when you wanted them.

You will have to author your own definition of success so society does not typecast you into a role that leaves you unfulfilled. Your goal is to discover your passion – this is your “avocation”. Your mission is to find a way of getting paid for performing the aforementioned avocation so that we do not have to keep slipping you $20. This “mission” will be hereafter known in paragraph 3, subsection 4 of our social contract as your “vocation”.  The ability to combine one’s avocation and vocation is the holy grail of life. Otherwise, you end up in the insurance industry.  In parental vernacular, we refer to any form of compensation you receive from a third party for services rendered as “getting off the payroll.” That should be our mutual goal.

We are proud of you. We have a lot of faith in you.  You are smarter, more informed, more talented and more resourceful than many who have preceded you. You figured out how to avoid doing all your chores and still get an allowance.  You see the world – not in shades of black and white but as a broad palette of colors and possibilities.  As your revered principal has always told you, every door is open to you from this point.  It’s only through making wrong choices that you choose to close an open door.

We will miss seeing you at Zumbachs and Tony’s Deli. If you want to come back and visit, that would be nice.  We will be hanging out down by the Mobil station.  It is the greatest time of your lives – a convergence of youth, strength, possibility, lack of inhibition and personal freedom.

And “oh, the places you will go!”