It’s All Greek To Me

Deutsch: Deutsches Logo der EZB. English: Germ...
Deutsch: Deutsches Logo der EZB. English: German Logo of the ECB. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”  – Alexis de Tocqueville

I was recently in between books and in the mood for some entertaining non-fiction which led me to Michael Lewis’ latest book, Boomerang: Travels In The New Third World.  I was eager to escape and vicariously live someone else’s life. Yet, instead of learning how to protect a quarterback from a blind side blitz or sitting as a fly on the wall as a handful of contrarian investors bet heavily against the housing and credit market bubble in the late 2000’s, I was ricocheted around the globe to observe the financial meltdown occurring in Europe and the US as sovereign debt crises threaten to turn their currencies into monopoly money.

Not since reading The Exorcist had I been unable to sleep, wide-eyed into the darkest hours of night drinking in this black comedy of hubris and denial.  I kept talking to myself out loud and waking up my wife, “No! Spain! Don’t take that loan from the ECB, you’ll kill yourself!” The tension of Lewis’ book reads like the script of a slasher film as you try trying to figure out how many of the hapless characters are going to end up as worm bait buried in the back garden.

 When I transferred to London in April, 2000, the world was heralding the creation of the European Economic Community. We were astonished at EEC member’s abilities to put aside differences for the sake of a common currency – the Euro.  Like adolescent girls, Europeans had fallen in love with the notion of a common currency but did not really believe it required anything beyond kissing.   The idea of diluting their national identities for the sake of a binding and stricter monetary matrimony – especially one that has Germans involved was not really considered.  Now, after a decade of honeymoon profligacy, the hotel bill has finally arrived. Europe’s reaction to its mounting debt crisis can best be summed up by the acronym “FEAR” which can stand for “Face Everything and Recover” or “ F@*$ Everything and Run.”

The member nations of the EEC themselves are odd bedfellows.  They are also, for the most part, broke.  To the south, there are the “Wimpies” – countries who assured their new partners that they had plenty of cash in the bank but always seemed low on lunch money – telling everyone that they would gladly pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today.   To the North, there are the “Stoics” – nations who spend and laugh less but supported the concept of a common currency so they would have a sunny place to hold meetings during the winter.  The fact that each nation had dated, divorced or lobbed grenades at one another in the last one hundred years, seemed to have eluded its architects. 

 The contagion of borrowing, spending and speculating while all the while coming up with new generous public programs to guarantee incompetent governments reelection spread to Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.  In late 2009, a French polemic, I Never Met An Entitlement I Did Not Like became a best seller – partly because of its criticism of the profligate spending by the smaller EEC nations.  One French Finance Minister was quoted as saying, “Mon Dieu, only we should be allowed to spend money like this.”  Portugal was quick to retort, ” Why should the French have all the fun.  We plan on using the money to build a huge Catholic theme park at Fatima.  It will be a miracle!” 

   
Furious and confused by his own nation’s lack of fiscal restraint, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a strident speech on national TV but made the mistake of saying “we must think of austerity” when he meant to say “think of posterity”. He was promptly voted out of office the next day.     

Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the judicious Germans have been watching this drachma drama from a distance.  While Southern Europeans prefer to avoid discussing the logistics of fording this dark river of debt until they are literally on its banks, the Germans are quietly mapping the next 500 kilometers and do not like what they see.  After all, the European Central Bank is responsible for the Euro Zone’s financial stability of the European currency – and Germany holds much of this debt.  Yet, austerity is not happening in many nations who share the euro currency with the Germans.  Still sensitive over their bad reputation for plotting the extinction of most of their neighbors, the Teutonic Knights have laid low, sitting in their back yards listening to polka music on their head phones, doing the debt calculus and getting worried. 

Things got worse last week when the Greeks threw out their current government- a legislature that had encouraged them to pay taxes, accept cuts in entitlements, tolerate reductions in the minimum wage and understand that not everyone can retire with a full pension at the ripe old age of 25.  The new Prime Minister got elected on a platform that one must first be shaving before they are eligible for a pension which seemed acceptable since most Greek men and women have facial hair and are shaving by age 10.  Many Greeks were outraged at their former PM’s suggestion of tightening their belts since he had gotten so fat that he had stopped wearing belts in 2005.  The new Prime Minister is now attempting to form a collation government – the equivalent of trying to build a space ship out of newspaper and jello.

To add ouzo to the fire, Interpol foiled a plot last week by the new French government of Francois Hollande to sell the Greek islands of Mykonos and Cos to the Saudis for $1T euro and a promise that no German woman over the age of 40 would ever remove her top on a Greek beach again.  French operatives posing as Greek officials had agreed on a price and had already transferred Saudi funds to the French National bank crediting Hollande with finding $1T euro.  It could have gone down as the greatest swindle since gthe purchase of the Isle of Manhatten when one of the “Greeks” heard a car backfire and immediately raised his hands.  As one Saudi security officer put it, “Greeks run away but French tend to surrender. We knew something was not right.”

Lewis goes on to warn us that the sovereign debt crisis is hardly a “euro” thing. Consider the sad saga of Iceland, whose prosaic national occupation with fishing lost its luster when Icelandic men realized that blond supermodels preferred dating financial professionals who spent money like drunken sailors and did not smell like cod.  The problem was that no one in Iceland really understood the world’s complex financial markets and after three years of borrowing, buying high and selling low, the proud, independent nation of mariners went broke.

The creepiest thing about Michael Lewis’ book is it sounds a lot like America.  In his last chapter, Lewis drops us helplessly into the middle of California – the world’s largest economy and now America’s number one candidate to enter The Biggest Financial Loser contest as it struggles to shed $ 16B of budget deficit.  If the state of California were a man, he could have three wives and they would never meet.  Alas, America, the all-powerful, young invincible that fears no one, and believes like our teens that bad stuff only happens to other people, has wet its own bed.  

As I rant about fiscal conservatism to my Australian Shepherd, he licks my hand indicating support as long as I do not cut his kibble. It seems everyone agrees with the notions of sacrifice, as long as it is someone else doing it. And to make matters worse, we keep sending the same jellyfish back to Washington to assume their place in a two-party skirmish line that is at odds over how to achieve the magic of stimulus without tripling tax revenues, reducing public spending, ensuring everyone owns a home, has health care and a loaf of multi-grain bread on the table. 

Yes, I admit to not being a math major but the corrupted calculus of our Congressional expenditures in the face of $15T of debt and $38T of underfunded Medicare benefits doesn’t work for me.

But hey, it’s all Greek to me….

An interview with AM Best

 

Woody Allen
Woody Allen (Photo credit: Alan Light)

 

An interview with AM Best

A recent interview on reform between yours truly on AM Best.  Will brokers survive the shifting landscape of healthcare reform?  Will the Supreme Court throw out the individual mandate?  Will insurance companies pay rebates in loose change?  Inquiring minds want to know!

By the way, who said TV does not add twenty pounds to you!  Where is that skinny kid I grew up with ?

Everything We Need To Know, We Learned on Wild Kingdom

العربية: لبؤة تصطاد خنازير ثؤلوليّة في الممر ا...
العربية: لبؤة تصطاد خنازير ثؤلوليّة في الممر الغربي للسرينغتي English: a lioness hunting worthogs in the western corridor of the Serengeti Deutsch: Löwin jagt Warzenschweine in der Serengeti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

      “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  Not a week would go by that I would not hear Marlin Perkins, the silver-haired, khaki-clad naturalist-host whispering from a safe distance, “While my assistant Jim is being attacked by this carnivorous face eating leopard spider, I’ll hide behind this rock.” As with all television entertainers of his day, Perkins would find a way of using his place of safety as a segue to plug his sponsors. “And just like this rock is protecting me from the New Guinea head hunters who have just captured Jim, so Mutual of Omaha can protect you from the unexpected.”

Across a hundred Friday nights we would learn how natural systems in the wild kingdom presented us with cunning examples of social and biological collaboration. We were educated on examples of biomimicry – lessons learned through studying our physical universe and how species adapt and cope in a changing and interdependent ecosystem.  There were myriad examples where the animal kingdom collaborates to endure – snakes writhing in nests by the thousands to conserve heat, fish that draft behind one another as they push against currents to spawn and the iconic Emperor penguins that congregate in huddled masses –taking turns insulating one another from inhospitable conditions and sub-zero winds.

Biologists now refer to the V-formation of flight that geese employ during protracted migratory flights as community based optimization. Geese demonstrate how a group relying on a perpetual rotation of roles can drive to a greater result than relying disproportionately on the strongest of its members. As each goose takes its turn to lead, other drop back to draft and regain strength.  The formation and its shared leadership model have become a popular metaphor in corporate America for team building and shared responsibility. Yet where culture is driven by self-interest and ego, only the most enlightened cultures are able to truly grasp and inculcate nature’s messages into their own businesses. In some parts of corporate America, the senior geese – having spent years paying their dues flying at the head of the V — now feel it is their privilege to travel on the G5 jet and meet the rest of the flock in North Carolina.   

While some of our most innovative technology and services providers are embracing biomimicry, it has been harder for analog US-based service businesses to fully embrace horizontal collaboration. Biomimicry and the theories of shared leadership reek of collectivism.  Anyone who lives in the woods and wears short pants to work must be selling snake oil and may secretly be a card-carrying socialist.  The natural allegories compelling us to study the “lessons learned from the snail dart” are quaint but useless touchstones. Life is indeed a jungle but as Hunter S Thompson once said, “business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

When I entered the workforce, I witnessed Wild Kingdom behavior as alpha personalities marked their territories, devious cuckoo birds laid eggs in other’s nests and weaker species became extinct due to their inability to change to Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes. I learned it was important to stay in the middle of the herd and not allow oneself to become separated from the group.  It was on the fringes of life where the lions waited, feasting on those who broke ranks by listening to their own egos or by taking unnecessary risks. As leaders in waiting, we were taught that our highest priority was getting to the top of the food chain where one would reap the dividends of stature, authority and get the good seats at Dodger games. 

We deified our senior management, often failing to notice that much of the real work was being performed by selfless teams below and around us, groups that learned to trust one another, collaborate and innovate to overcome barriers to success. As we matured and took our lumps as second lieutenant neophytes, we began to understand that the best run organizations were not led by all knowing oracles but by servant leader motivators and facilitators who fostered trust, culture and mutual respect – the true DNA of world class organizations.  We learned the hard way that cooperation and collaboration were very different things.

As business stares into the new millennium’s hot and crowded competition, margins will come under intense pressure and shareholders will become impatient for transformative managers who can inspire their organizations to break from the status quo. In a time where might makes right, acquisitions now seem an easier evolutionary path for firms rather than tackling the steeper grade and complicated pitch of behavior and culture change.  As the large get larger, conformity and marshal law are relied on as tools to ensure cooperation.  Short-sighted managers eager to monetize their monolithic creations are worrying less about the unintended consequences of stop-gap thinking – leaving those concerns to succeeding leadership. 

The seams and stitches in many hastily assembled organizations are beginning to show.  From a distance these firms appear natural but upon closer scrutiny, they are mutations rather than functioning businesses. When one looks closely, it is impossible not to notice the scars, lack of coordination and tissue rejection from hasty grafts that have been poorly executed. Many firms that have grown through acquisition have failed to understand the power of bio-diversity and interdependent collaboration. They are now finding their own size is an impediment to realizing their total potential.  As these executives search for the missing link in their own evolution, they need only turn to the natural world for lessons on collaborative excellence.

Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom has now been supplanted by the Animal Planet, Discovery and Nat Geo channels — entire networks dedicated to the natural world. Each week, viewers follow naturalists – many with a death wish – as they plunge into our physical world to decrypt its mysteries and its symbiotic secrets for survival.  It seems that many are realizing after all that the answers to our self-inflicted problems can be found in prosaic places like a mist covered spider web or a meadow composed of interdependent ecosystems.

The concept of biomimicry is not a new notion to engineers and product design professionals.  The study of how nature copes with drought, erosion, infection and efficient cooling and heating have yielded insights that have been plagiarized by commercial, residential and industrial design innovators.  Aside from physical design, ecosystem collaboration is finding its way into boardrooms as scientists and biologists educate overwhelmed executives on how to translate the examples of bio-diversity and collaboration to produce a superior result. True Darwinism simply reinforces the notion that the species that adapts, survives.   

Organizational academics and biologists are challenging firms to think of themselves as diverse ecosystems that must optimize and collaborate across disparate communities of people, resources and infrastructure. They cite myriad examples of how nature offers us valuable lessons as a design collaborator. The age-old business maxim of strategy, structure, people, process and performance is being supplanted by thinking of business as a natural web of interdependent communities that can be optimized by processes and enabled by rewards that foster collaboration across an entire organization.

Collaboration may mean becoming less tolerant of high performance employees who are disruptive or consume too many resources that could be better allocated across a broader base of the firm. It means realigning incentives to drive behavioral change. Nature has an advantage over business in that it has no ego and is agnostic to profits. It merely seeks to perfect its ability to achieve symbiotic harmony so it might ensure and perpetuate its own existence.

AskNature.org offers individuals a hub where naturalists and scientists have incorporated hundreds of natural examples of how the physical world has optimized its bio-diversity and in doing so, shows us how teams collaborate to avoid waste, optimize resources and achieve results well beyond the capability of any one high performance individual. 

The research, Understanding the Biomimicry Taxonomy, provides a novel way for designers and biologists to collaborate and approach the next design challenge in a life-conducive way. The key to using the taxonomy is forming the question. Instead of asking how to make less toxic pigments, the designer can “ask” a Morpho butterfly how it modifies its color. Instead of using high pressure and temperatures to manufacture tough, lightweight building materials, an engineer can “ask” a toucan how it manages impact with its strong and light beak.”

Nature offers us thousands of examples of collaboration between parasites and hosts and symbiosis among the largest and the smallest of organisms. The clown fish lives within the poisonous tentacles of the anemone achieving security against predators by secreting a hormone that helps the anemone stay clean of parasites.  Respect, humility, and the recognition of mutual dependence are attributes that are innate in nature but rare in Corporate America.  Leadership must understand how these cultural catalysts must be promoted and rewarded to allow cooperation to evolve into full-scale collaboration.

Productivity gains will become the life blood of service industries in the next millennium. Gold medalist companies will distance themselves from silver and bronze medalist contenders by creating business environments that foster diversity and accelerated collaboration.  Business leaders hungry to find ways to spark their human capital to achieve results that extend beyond their individual abilities need only turn to the Animal Planet. 

True collaboration for the sake of adaptation allows any firm to navigate perilous markets, create knowledge networks that optimize resource sharing, and multiply its senses to understand what is required to fuel growth and survive in a digital age. 

The best leadership will spend less time reading books on management theory and dedicate more time to examining how the distribution of water and resources is allocated among a forest in a drought. Symbiotic collaboration and biodiversity teach us that successful adaptation is not just about survival of the fittest but also about selflessness and the subordination of the individual ego for the collective benefit of the species.

In the end, Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom were the best teachers.  We learned time and again that those communities that support an ethos of common interest and the need to perpetually adapt do not just survive, they thrive.

Stranger Than Fiction – The Anatomy of a Novel

Jurassic Forest
Jurassic Forest (Photo credit: pixelens photography)

“Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby”. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) 

After years of penning what I considered to be Pulitzer Prize winning memos at work, crafting short stories that nobody read and submitting exaggerated youth sport write ups that lost my reader’s faster than a blind crossing guard, I decided to try my hand at writing a book.

I have to admit that being an aspiring writer in today’s digital age is the like being a portrait artist at a hyperactivity convention.  I have so many pearls to string on an endless necklace of insights but my end customer has the attention span of a flea and reads a maximum of 800 words a day – all of them tweets from Kim Kardashian. Yet, the dream to write burns inside of me like an underground coal fire or perhaps, severe indigestion. For an ex-college jock that took literature and played baseball because both involved the least amount of effort, the dream of publishing a tome is the equivalent of hitting a home run in Dodger Stadium. Most of us lead lives of quiet suburban desperation and do not want our ultimate legacy to be that we were really good at picking up dog poop.  The French, by the way, never pick it up. This gives them more time to drink espresso and write books.

I knew I was facing some headwinds as an aspiring author but was self-aware enough to recognize that I lacked several critical prerequisites – brevity, humility and a good editor. Yet, the voices inside my head continued to offer unsolicited ideas, strange characters and challenges to put pen to paper. My doctor explained to me that I could take medication to make all these feelings go away but it seemed cheaper to write a book since his drugs were not available in generic form and my company had just implemented a high deductible plan.

I began to record in earnest humorous stories about life as a middle child in a four-boy family ruled by a neoconservative alpha male and a new age, psychic mother.  My primary purpose was to use humor to reassure any reader that our lives are trains that run along parallel tracks.  The only normal people we know, they say, are those we do not know very well.  I also wanted to use the book as a warning to anyone under eighteen to not try to outrun the police in your Mom’s Ford Granada.

My photographic memory carefully sorted through the thousand sepia photos which were lovingly cut and pasted into a picture album documenting suburban life in the 1970s – the final days of Jurassic parenting – where T-Rex fathers roamed the hardware store aisles and She-Rex mothers moved in the shadows tenderizing everything before it was fed to their clueless progeny.

In considering the daunting challenge of penning a book, it seemed logical to string together a series of vignettes already written about my family.  I had written some articles for local papers and had penned a few “tattle tales” for family events. Yet, this would not be a “kiss and tell” autobiographical account.  I would be creating a new genre that recalled the days before child protective services felt the need to stick their noses into suburban life. I christened it “swear and yell” fiction.

Just as Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and others insisted on chronicling the Greatest Generation, I felt compelled to raise a glass to The Silent Generation.  They are slowly disappearing and with them we are losing a piece of our own mythology. Today’s “think, but don’t say” society has slowly forced them into hiding and with each sunset,  a generation that found its thrills on Blueberry Hill, is slowly relinquishing their colorful profanity and creative punishments — watching them beaten into plowshares fashioned out of “I messages” and “timeouts”.  The T-Rex father is disappearing into a tar pit of political correctness – and with his passing, we are losing a valuable link to our past and to certain values that used to serve us as important social and moral guardrails.

Yet, to pen a tribute that both serenades and teases the age of Jurassic parenting presents challenges for a writer who often sacrifices tact for the sake of a cheap joke.  The best stories in every family are best served like rich, blue cheese. They require time spent curing and fermenting out of the eye of the public – at least until the statute of limitations is expired. Comedy is tragedy plus time and those who do choose to tattle on their parents and/or siblings do so at their own risk. They may also find a sprig of arsenic in their iced tea at the next Fourth of July picnic.

If one wants to freely write about life and borrow from the past, they must turn to fiction where one can play Mr. Potato Head with each character – mixing vices, virtues and vicissitudes into people that resemble everyone and no one.  Any first work of fiction borrows liberally from an author’s experiences that are disguised behind a primer of odd events, improbable situations and plausibly deniable moments. The problem is that the truth is always trying to wiggle out into the light of day.

The challenge is everyone wants to know which part is true and which  is fiction.  Upon receiving my draft novel, friends and family scrutinized the freshly created fiction like Egyptian hieroglyphics attempting to decipher the story and its characters for hidden messages and personal judgment.  It was particularly justifiable in my case as I had crafted a novel about a family of four boys from Southern California with a conservative father and a liberal, intuitive mother.  Given that art so often imitates life, it is a love story that takes place at a train wreck.

My next problem was getting every family member to read the entire book.  Eventually, everyone came around – asking for a copy of the manuscript and then disappearing into weeks of radio silence as they digested the story and their perceived Doppelgängers.

“Why did you have me saying this?” asked one brother.

“It’s not you.” I emailed back.

“Oh yeah. Why can’t my character have said that?”

“It’s not you.”

“Oh yeah.”

Gratefully, each brother loved and approved of the manuscript but concluded with the same question, “ Have you shown it to Dad yet?” The answer was always the same – “not yet”. I was rationalizing that I wanted all of their feedback before proceeding to the Supreme Court for a final review. The future of my nascent manuscript which now had the working title, “T-Rex by the Tail”, hung in the balance.

“Dad, it’s an anthem to your generation and your unfiltered lens to the world.  You are the last great land mammals in a time of profound social change.”

He listened and said nothing – a long, pregnant pause across three thousand miles of fiber optic phone line.

“Look, just as long as the book does not end with Obama in the White House or taxes being raised on the middle class, I can handle a few lampoons.  We managed to raise you knuckleheads.  My generation can take it.“

He paused and then added. “I’m not sure your generation will be able to take it when its your turn.  But, hey, that book is for your kids to write. And one more thing, just be sure to make the father in the story a Republican – a Reagan Republican.”

Dad, no problem.

T-Rex By The Tail

ImageI am publishing the first chapter of my new novel.  It will be published on Amazon – both Kindle and soft cover – by mid June.  Hopefully, just in time for Father’s Day.  It’s been six years in the making but really fifty years in its creation.  Some readers will completely relate to the characters and others will choose to scratch their heads and wonder how drivel can find its way into print.  Like all art, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.  And yes, the line seperating truth and fiction is sometimes measured in inches..  Feel free to subscribe to the blog if you enjoy it. And, keep your eyes peeled for an announcement when the book is made available on-line and in a few bookstores. Cheers !

Book One – The Cretaceous Period

Chapter 1

 

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He is more particular. . . . The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.

—Robert Frost

October 1974

In the past six months, the Patton boys—Matthew, John, George, and Freddie—had hit the rock bottom of adolescence. The neighbors had begun quietly referring to Susie as “that poor woman.”

On that particular evening, Karl was returning from a seven-day business trip to London. As he pulled down the brown garage door for the night, he recalled his last phone conversation with Susie just after he’d arrived in England. They’d been commiserating about the challenges of raising four boys, and, for the first time, Susie sounded tired and uncertain of her ability to hold down the fort in Karl’s absence.

A week later, Karl staggered through the back door, his military bearing and meticulous dress having disintegrated into a wrinkled suit, a tie at half-mast, and dark circles under his sharp brown eyes. He dropped his chrome gray Samsonite suitcase on the back porch and stared in befuddlement. Susie had her back turned to him and was gazing vacantly into an illuminated oven. Her floral apron was tied tightly at her waist, accentuating a figure that had maintained elegant curves despite infrequent exercise and four pregnancies.

Turning, she used her forearm to sweep back a tangle of hair from her eyes, blowing away a few remaining strands with pursed lips. The raven-haired girl with the cornflower blue eyes who had once won an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest at the Marin County Fair looked as though she had been dragged behind a bread truck—for a week.

The usually immaculate house was as disheveled as Susie was, with laundry piled in the hallway and dirty dishes stacked haphazardly in the sink.

Susie didn’t greet him as she normally did after a business trip—hurrying to give him a kiss and run her fingers through his flattop hair. Typically, she led him into the dining room, poured two glasses of cabernet, served him dinner, and listened sympathetically to the vagaries of the insurance industry, and its endless conveyor belt of incompetent people who populated Karl’s universe.

On this evening, however, Susie launched immediately into an unfiltered inventory of the week’s misdemeanors. Her voice was an interesting admixture of consternation, resignation, sarcasm and thinly veiled amusement.

“Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?” she said as she raised her right finger into the air. “George and Bruce Hegarty lobbed lemons at what they thought was a slow-moving group of cars near Magnolia Road. It turned out to be a funeral procession. It seems as though the boys have never seen a hearse before.”

She opened the broken back-porch door and jerked her head toward the garage where Karl had parked only moments before. “It’s possible you didn’t notice that our garage is lined with stolen goods. John and the Hughes twins used the glass cutting kit we gave to him for Christmas to break into school. The boys are uncertain what to do with five overhead projectors. Apparently they need to find someone who specializes in fencing audiovisual equipment.”

Turning back toward Karl, she allowed the broken door to swing shut before she unconsciously arched her rear end to stop it a millisecond before it slammed.

Reentering the lighted part of the kitchen, she sighed. Matthew had a particularly good week. It seems your oldest son and five of his friends were suspended for streaking through what he swears was an all-girls’ high school. It turned out to be the all-girls’ elementary school. The girls are traumatized, to say the least.

And for the grand finale, Freddie’s school counselor thinks he may be suffering from something called traumainduced pyromania. The counselor wants to meet with both of us. She seemed to think this form of personality disorder is the only acceptable excuse for his fascination with setting fires. We have yet to diagnose his ‘trauma’ but we have been invited to meet with the school psychologist.  Otherwise, everything was okay.”

She shook her head and gave Karl a rueful, cynical smile. In the pale light of a Fridayevening kitchen, she was stunning. In spite of her faded lipstick and disordered hair, she radiated femininity, grace, charm, elegance, and steel, just as she had every day of her life.

“And how was your week…dearest?”

After twenty years of marriage, Karl could detect one of Susie’s rigged, rhetorical questions when he heard it. He was dog tired and jet-lagged after an eleven-hour flight from Heathrow. The last thing he wanted was a fight. He had spent a week entertaining Lloyd’s of London underwriters and debauched clients who wanted to drink, chase hookers, and only occasionally conduct business. Immediately upon his return, he became irritable after glancing at an LA Times and was annoyed to learn that in his absence a junior Democrat had taken a local election for the California State Assembly in a formerly Republican district.

“Who do I hit?” He asked.

Karl wasted no time in faithfully meting out corporal punishment. Like a man-o-war’s sergeant-at-arms, he conferred with his captain and discussed methods of reprisal—the leather belt, a firm hand, or a hairbrush. His boys were lumps of coal that required enormous pressure if they were going to become acceptable diamonds of society.

š

December 14, 2011

Karl Patton pulled his Cadillac into the driveway of the home he’d lived in for forty-five years. He was exhausted. Since his stroke, he had moved more slowly, but was still able to drive the onemile each day to Morningside Village to spend his entire day with Susie. She had good days and bad days. On days when her dementia conspired to rob them of memories of their fifty-five years together, he was profoundly sad.

When he imagined a life without Susie, it broke his heart. He wanted to live just five minutes past the love of his life to be certain no one mistreated her or forgot that she was the glue that had held the family together for so many years. When he allowed himself to detour down these shadowed alleys, pondering a life that seemed to be slipping away, he wanted to lie down and never get up. For an eighty-one-year-old man, Karl remained ruggedly handsome, with short grey hair that spiked like the first cut of rough on a golf course. He was the same weight he had been in college and could probably still fit into the wedding tuxedo that he kept—along with nearly every other suit he had ever owned—in his upstairs closet. His French-blue Brooks Brothers pinpoint was tightly folded on each side and tucked into chinos whose creases were ironed to a razor-thin edge. Karl looked the way he had lived, with bearing, restraint, and focus. Yet, for all his discipline, the river of his life had now chosen its own course, breaching its banks and flooding his best-laid plans. He was swimming against a current that was now too powerful to deny.

It had been only one year since he made the excruciating decision to move Susie to Morningside. However, after the “incident”—a frightening episode of disorientation that led to a frantic search for his wife—he had to accept that the revolving door of home-health nurses attempting to manage her care was not the optimal solution. It was selfish for him to keep her in an environment she rarely recognized anymore. When she was confused, Susie became despondent—something Karl Patton never imagined could happen to the person he referred to as “Susie Sunshine.” The choice became inescapable.

He missed her. He longed for her smell and constant humming as she floated like a spring breeze through their home. Susie O’Reilly Patton was a mother robin perpetually in motion, preparing a nest that was never complete.

Karl walked into an empty kitchen, the back door gently closing behind him as the well-oiled pneumatic mechanism slowed it to a barely detectable tap. He walked into the foyer and emptied his pockets, placing his keys, wallet, and loose change in the Italian leather desk caddy Susie had given him for his sixtieth birthday.

Junk mail and unopened Christmas and holiday cards littered the entry room table. He smiled and held up a card postmarked from Rye, New York, trying to remember who the hell lived in Rye. It was probably an ex-client of Susie’s or one of the hundreds of people she still insisted on sending greetings to each December. In the past, Susie would have faithfully opened each one, admiring the progress of acquaintances, friends and family and smiling at the notes and personal messages. She would, in turn, write her own message on every Christmas card she sent. She felt the effort to communicate with friends individually said something about a person. It was the one chance each year to tell them how you felt.

“Who the hell are these people?” Karl would grumble looking at faces of adult children he did not recognize.  Karl was always on Susie’s case about holiday cards and how she ran herself into the ground each Christmas, writing endless notes to ingrates who often never reciprocated.  When he was CEO of his insurance agency, he had his secretary buy, sign, seal and send his cards to clients. The day he retired was the day he stopped sending cards.  

Karl glanced into the mirror illuminated by the flat light of a desk lamp and its sixty-watt energysaver light bulb. The ridges of his eyebrows and strong chin cast odd shadows, reminding him of the actor Boris Karloff. His brown eyes were faded and opaque like the marbles he used to shoot as a child.

“Jesus Christ, you are an old son of a bitch,” he muttered as he turned off the light.

He mindlessly wandered the perimeter of the first floor, moving from a living room full of photographs into a dining room that had not hosted a family dinner in a decade, across the cool red floor of smooth Spanish tiles in the breakfast room, and finally, back into the kitchen. The house smelled of bleach and sterile emptiness. It was not decorated for Christmas. In the past, the living room, foyer, and staircase would be festooned with garlands, ornaments, tasteful talismans of the yuletide season, and a nativity scene. The “House That Hugs” would have smelled of cinnamon and peppermint. Susie would have been mobilized for the holidays.

Like a night watchman on his final key run, Karl made certain that his area of responsibility was locked down. He turned handles, pulled on doors, and jiggled windows to ensure a tight seal. He felt like a forgotten curator, caring for and attending to memories, artifacts, and relics of a past age. Somewhere along the way, he went from a man who had been central to his family’s past to one who merely worked to safeguard it.

The four-bedroom Mediterranean house, built in 1928 and home to only two families, was his castle, lacking only a moat, drawbridge, and portcullis. Across sixteen thousand twilights, his car had crunched down the uneven gravel driveway. He would turn off his engine and headlights and listen. He could see an illuminated upstairs window and already hear the reverberating bass of a teenager’s stereo system. The music mixed with the pitched voices of two boys in mortal combat, a dog chasing a cat, and a mother probably refereeing the fight while managing to talk on the phone at the same time. He would take a deep breath and brace himself for the chaos and medieval world of his boys.

That night, he could almost hear the thumping of the boys wrestling in the upstairs bedrooms and the loud slap of the broken back door as their mongrel dog, Max, slipped outside to patrol the neighborhood. He hated that dog. Dogs were like welfare recipients—lazy and promiscuous. He could smell Susie’s perfume and feel her fingers in his hair. He closed his eyes and wished just for a moment that he might once again feel the exhilarating surge of his family, moving and swirling in their self-absorbed routines, so alive with flawed perfection. He felt very tired, as if the caffeine rush of his life was wearing off and he needed a nap.

He started to shout upstairs to Susie, but stopped himself, instead looking out the French doors to the patio and the pool. The “mow and blow” guys had been there. The yard and garden looked immaculate, almost too perfect. In his prime, Karl supervised his sons as they completed yard work each weekend.  Dressed in an intimidating ensemble of military boots, cut-off fatigues and a white undershirt, Karl would prowl the property to ensure weeds were properly extracted by their roots, the lawn was uniformly mowed and the carpet of pine needles that blanketed their patio were swept up and deposited in an oversized trash bin. He considered shoddy home maintenance a sign of weak character. Lack of character led to apathy.  Apathy was the mother of the sickening twins, decline and dependence.  Nothing bothered Karl more than people who expected handouts As he looked at his finely edged lawn and rows of manicured boxwoods, it bothered him that he must now depend on outsiders to maintain his property. Yard work was why you had boys.

Karl climbed the stairs and slipped into his pajamas, briefly turning on the television and making the mistake of lingering for a moment too long on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. “That little liberal smart-ass,” he muttered. The guest panel was an intellectual cesspool composed of a mindless Berkeley communist, the “Reverend” Al Sharpton, New York Times writer and PBS commentator David Brooks, and a twenty-something starlet who had recently lasted eighty-two minutes before dying in a vampire movie. Brooks seemed lost, possibly wondering why he let his agent talk him into pushing his new book on this pinko talk show.

Karl cringed as the vacuous micro-celebrity spouted her MSNBC sound bites and cotton-candy views on the need for larger government, more regulation, and nationalized healthcare.

“Those guys on Wall Street are bad people,” she said emphatically, nodding her head as the audience applauded and the other panelists joined the lynch mob. Brooks smiled and said nothing. He was like a conservative trying to get laid at a Democratic fundraiser.

Karl turned the channel to COPS. He liked that program. It reassured him to know that justice was happening somewhere, even though the show gave him the impression that the entire nation was on crystal meth and that urban and rural American decline was even more pronounced than he had once thought.

A century ago, that toothless piece of tornado bait trying to cook up a homemade batch of crank on his trailer-park gas stove would have been a tanned, proud laborer in a field or factory. The ascent of America from agrarian culture to industrial and technological world leader was now in reverse. Congress and multi-national corporations had abandoned the middle class, outsourcing their jobs and creating a new generation of Joad families who wander like tumbleweeds in search of an America that no longer offered opportunity. Failure and poverty were forms of social leprosy in a material world that no longer held an allegiance to anything other than shareholders and one’s own bank account. He hated Wall Street for how they had exploited the deregulation he had supported. He had lost all respect for the Grand Old Party, which had sold out their values and seemed to be firmly in the pockets of special-interest groups. Yet, he hated Democrats even more. The thought of Barack Obama in the White House nauseated him. It meant the inevitable liberalization of the Supreme Court, the treasury used as a personal war chest to buy votes, and a generation of citizens completely dependent on Big Government. America was in deep shit. Americans all seemed to disapprove of Congress.  Yet, those same Americans were so lazy and so stupid that they did not have the energy to change.  Did people not understand that these vacuous, corrupt politicians were merely a mirror reflection of the mediocrity of the society that elected them? Were they not embarrassed? He seriously wondered if his grandchildren might become the first American generation that would have to emigrate to another country to find a decent job.

He was proud of his own sons. Each had navigated successes and misfortunes—marriages, children, divorces, job changes, sickness, and stupid decisions of one kind or another—relatively successfully. But they all made it through that horrific period of the 1970s, and Susie had a lot to do with it. She stayed close to her boys and understood the subtle warning signs often missed by less intuitive parents.

His boys would all be okay. The fact that, even as adults, they made constant fun of how they’d been brought up annoyed him. If he had not kicked them in the ass a few times and come down hard at the right times, they might have ended up on COPS—tattooed, on crack, living in some flop house with a bloated bacon-eating wife, and no prospects.

He left the TV on low. As he reached to turn out the light, he felt a little indigestion. He had taken a Prilosec earlier in the day to reduce his heartburn. Without Susie at home, he was eating later at night and waking up coughing from acid reflux. His left arm felt weak. It had never really come back to full strength since the stroke. But what do you expect from anything on the left? You might get motion but never purposeful movement. He chuckled at his own joke and fell quickly into a deep sleep.

He never woke up. About three-thirty Thursday morning, Karl Patton suffered an acute myocardial infarction and died peacefully in his sleep. On the flickering television, a cop had just unleashed a K-9 unit to chase down a fleeing pimp.