It’s the middle of winter and I’m restless with a sense of disequilibrium and lack of purpose. I am a salmon with no stream to ford. A swallow that has overshot San Juan Capistrano. On this day, I am at war with the eaves of my home as they plead with me to allow them to just lay down and die, yielding to the opal blue ice shelves that form like glaciers and re-route ice melt under my roof shingles. Each intersection of roofline becomes a loose suture eagerly accommodating frigid water seeking a rivulet or stream that might deliver it to Long Island Sound. Somewhere across town, a plumber is smiling in his sleep.
I kick the snow off my boots after a pathetic episode with a roof rake and a confused dog that keeps trying to hump my leg. With my arms disabled, it’s an optimal time for him to challenge my alpha status. He waits until I am staggering under the 40-foot jousting stick and proceeds to mount my leg. One can only imagine what the local soccer mom is thinking as she passes my front yard on the way to a cross-town pick up. She makes a note to take a less profane route home and delay a hard conversation with little Johnny.
My back aches from fighting off my molester and the relentless hacking at the ice that keeps forming like a scab. I hesitate by the front door, leaning down to touch my toes and am once again attacked from behind this time with enough force that I hit my head on the front door and tumble into the foyer.
“Having a nice time?” My wife asks with amused sarcasm as she walks past under a mound of dirty clothes. The dog grabs a slipper and playfully shakes it in his mouth. My snow ensemble is designed to withstand wind chills of -5 but it makes it hard for me to move.
“Please just kill me.” I mutter.
The dog once again goes for me but this time I kick him and am immediately admonished.
“Ohhhh, he just wants to play!”
“Yeah, he wants to play San Quentin. The next episode will find me dressed like a poodle, smuggling him food from the prison cafeteria.”
“You REALLY need something to do.”
It is Saturday morning and I flirt with a distant memory of jogging along the strand of Manhattan Beach. I gallop past fit narcissistic Californians and watch as surfers and porpoises angle for position on a perfect feathered green wave. David Byrne appears on my shoulder. “How did you get here?…Is this your beautiful house?…Is that your beautiful wife?. Who’s dog is that?”
Self pity creeps in — tendrils of frigid February air winding through my poorly insulated doors and windows. The recent happy holiday infestation of my children home from college has been replaced by vacant silence of one child left at home. The slightest noise reverberates through the halls like an empty museum.
I am a grounded Black Hawk pilot no longer needed for adolescent patrols or required to participate in night-time reconnaissance missions. There are no more sudden fire fights borne out of stupidity or unanticipated crisis. The high school battlefront is becoming a distant memory and I’m now walking life’s journey with a wife and last child who are annoyingly organized and settled. I’m left with a tangle of frozen winter woods and a dog who keeps trying to jump my bones.
As my life responsibilities once again shift, I’m now confronted with the choice of pouring my newborn time into pleasure, purpose or meaning. Pleasure is easy and most fun. It is a cotton-candy sugar-buzz organized around venal gratification. It’s a giant roast beef sandwich at 1am. It’s a guy’s golf or ski trip. It is spending all day in my pajamas writing nonsense.
Purpose is the logical path – with most empty nest professionals doubling down with their personal time, investing back into their business and profession. It’s ironic but it is a time when you are most informed but often the least tolerant of those you are working with or for. You get opinionated and become less flexible.
Meaning is a tad abstract but is at the core of happiness. It comes from serving something grander than one’s self. Service is often an inconvenient no man’s land of anonymous need that lies just beyond the safe and convenient radius of those you prefer to help. However, for those that believe in Karma and spiritual balance sheets. Meaning creates goodwill and goodwill is useful currency on earth and in Heaven. It just can’t buy you anything at the local 7-11.
My savant son who watches TED talks all day informs me that I need a balance of all three buckets to achieve perfect life equilibrium. Moderation and balance are not my strong suits. And since when are my children presuming to give me advice on how to navigate the sparsely lit corridors of middle age. He is ridiculously rational and it annoys me. I want to stab him with his selfie stick.
What I really need to do is go pick up cigarette butts outside a halfway house or anonymously clean a public toilet with a toothbrush. My Dad used to call it pity-potty work. A little hard work on your hands and knees does wonder to moderate high-bottom self-pity. I think eating an apple fritter would be better.
I’m not sure where to begin. I consider the possibility of spiriting off to some third world country to build mud huts helping the impoverished out of the gutters of an overpopulated hell. Yet, I am a soft lad – lacking the constitution to stray too permanently from where I have been planted. I am worried that ISIS might kidnap me at the mall. I know I suffer from an overactive imagination and a healthy penchant for hypochondria. The third world seems awash in sinister characters, pesky paramecium and perpetual pandemics that would make find me washing my hands all day and over reacting to the slightest ache, twinge or itch assuming it is Ebola, the Bird Flu or a new strain of avian-monkey plague.
I could move back to California although according to my father, the state is now Satan’s lower colon and one must now pay very high taxes for crappy public services.
Perhaps all this middle-aged rumination is natural — driven by deprivation of sunlight, and exposure to freezing temperatures that thicken my blood triggering a condition known “mental mildew”.
I choose to move a muscle and change a thought. I enter my den electing to clean out a bloated storage closet. I find myself indiscriminately tossing out items the way a condemned man might suddenly consign his possessions to a passing stranger. It feels good to just throw things away without dwelling on their significance or intrinsic sentimental value.
I find a box that has survived every move since my childhood. It is jammed with the detritus of a glorious misspent youth. There are report cards, letters, coin collections, and odd items of sentimental value that so often find their way years later into some dusty desk caddy at a corner antique shop. A single cuff link from a senior prom, a coin with a naked lady (I am uncertain where this coin actually counts as currency but it must have been a magical place ), a lead soldier missing one arm, and a mercury head silver dime.
I find a fake ID from college. It is for Frank Manly from Missoula, Montana. Really? Manly? I note that in two weeks, it will be Frank ‘s birthday. He was a February baby and will now be 56. He was always four years older than me. He was a hellion but could not dance.
The pyromaniac in me is delighted to discover 40-year old firecrackers and one M80. I feel that old familiar thrill of arson and am suddenly itching to blow something up a model airplane or incinerate some soldiers.
There are Boy Scout merit badges earned across a thousand nights of hard ground camp outs, 50-mile hikes and knots that would confound Houdini. There were hysterically funny letters from a friend who had a summer college job on an oil rig. Far from Patrick O’Brien, my maritime mate, de-romanticized the notion of life at sea, characterizing his “two week on, two week off” gig as “a hellish descent into overpaid, undereducated men who work all day and watch pornography all night…. And then there is the bad side.”
Years before the Dangerous Catch, this kid was living the dream and almost losing his fore finger every day. This was also the same confederate who wrote to tell me that his dad had made him eat a city pigeon after he shot the bird for sport from his bedroom window. “We eat what we kill.” were the only words of grace his father muttered over my buddy’s piece of squalid squab. How’s that for a life lesson?
I root out my Middle school report cards — replete with Cs and Ds in citizenship. It was indeed a time of attention deficit and awkward hormone filled days. It was also a time of passions — Baseball cards, coins, stamps, puka shell necklace, and a bone dry miniature bottle of Testors olive green paint for a Revell British spitfire.
There were phone messages from my first job in the early 80s. My friend Lloyd would call specifically to torment the secretaries leaving perplexing missives such as, “Mike, call me back ASAP. If they cannot find me I’m hiding under my desk.”
There were passionate notes from my father remarking on the low IQ of California’s Democratic Congressional leaders including Senator Barbara Boxer who sent him a one sentence response to his three page letter lecturing her on supply side economics. He forwarded a copy of her curt response along with a short note to me: “Dear Michael, a deep thinker…”
There were thank you notes written at gunpoint to myriad relatives for a decade of birthday cards filled with five-dollar bills. More letters to me from my father and a hastily written social contract scratched in the hieroglyphics of a sixth grader trying to avoid some nuclear punishment resulting from a split second of bad judgment that involved three eggs and a massive black fin-tailed Cadillac.
There was a Polaroid of a big-boned six year old in 1967 squeezing the life out of a massive midnight black cat named Panther. Newspaper clippings from the San Marino Tribune trumpeted my Little League and High School athletic feats, followed by old national newspapers reporting Nolan Ryan no hitters, David Cone perfect games, presidential elections and gut-wrenching catastrophes. I moved my hand across the covers of Life magazines depicting the Tet Offensive, Apollo XIII, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, John Wayne, James Dean and Woody Allen holding a blow-up doll.
I stand up, stretching and carefully return the box to my closet. I am holding a full trash bag filled with less valued relics of my past, content to shed them like an old skin. However, the container and it’s treasures will remain — a permanent time capsule of my life – a journey of innocence, havoc, discovery, change and accomplishment.
I realize that this time is but another life interlude, a brief intermission before Act 3. What I have lost in physical ability, I have accumulated in knowledge, humility and a keener lens to the world. There is so much more to do and I clearly am going to need a bigger box.
As my blue mood lifts, I retreat to the floor to stretch, drawing my knee up to my back. I do not hear the door creak as I shift into a yoga position on my hands and knees. I do not see my assailant but am hit hard from an angle. It is the damn dog.
My wife looks up for her seat at the computer as a shrill “get the hell off of me!” bounces across three downstairs rooms.
Absentmindedly, she looks out the window and yells to me.
“Honey, what do you think about getting another dog?”