Mr. C’s America

imagesI never thought of him as a bigot. For as long as I can remember he’s been an opinionated old man. Half the time, I didn’t really get the specific issue he was ranting about. He was just my neighbor, “Mr. C”. It was not until years later that I was old enough to recognize the fear and uncompromising distain that tinged his political diatribes.

He never seemed concerned that I heard him swear or cast aspersions on a particular ethnic group or politician. If it was happening on his property, he behaved like he had a sovereign’s immunity from consequence. We’re both older now — he well into eighties and me in college. I still go over and talk with him. I tend to cut older people slack and excuse any outburst as a symptom of mental deterioration — a circle of life where an adult once again passes through adolescence on his way to an increasing dependence on others. It’s got to suck, you know — getting older.

I fundamentally don’t agree with his views or the way he plants them like posts that support a barbed wire fence. We all make choices and should not be given a free pass to say whatever comes into our head without regard for others feelings or facts. People sometimes hide behind physical or emotional limitations and use them as an excuse to be exempted from social consequences. We too often give old people a get out of jail free card if they express hyper-orthodox views on sex, religion and politics.

Octogenarians don’t seem to care what they say. Hell, some older people don’t even zip up their pants or wipe their butts. I suppose I’d be cranky too if my body was failing me and the society I grew up in was moving away from the values that had served me as such a reassuring set of guideposts. I guess I’d feel everything was going to hell and I’d look to blame someone for the decline of the world, as I once knew it.

Mr. C was brought up by depression era immigrant parents – a silent generation where everyone feared everything and for good reason. There was high unemployment, poverty, diseases and other immigrants taking jobs. Every town had some kind of social hierarchy based on economics. Your goal was simple: stand on other people’s shoulders and use your God given talents to meet or exceed your parents’ standard of living. If that situation persisted today, it would weigh heavily on me. I’m used to the instantaneous resolution of a pill or a computer app. Today’s average person does not abide by lack of resolution and persistent uncertainty.

It seems his generation had to muscle through difficult times and accept uncertainty as a constant companion. In those days, a guy had to run over fear or be paralyzed by it. Mr C. clearly spent his life running shit over. He went into the Army to finance his college. He hated the Army but honored his commitment. No one ever gave him anything. He had to work for everything. As a result, he has little empathy for people who blame society for letting them down.

“A ‘victim’ is someone who is dead. Any one else is a survivor and must dust themselves off and get on with life. The world is not fair. There’s no such thing as society letting you down. Only you can let down society. The more we make it about ‘me’ and less about ‘we’, the closer we are to the moral decay of ancient Rome.”

I liked listening to him talk to nobody particular. Mom hated that I hung out at Mr. C’s but he paid me $4.00 an hour to weed his yard.

“Listen, charity is important part of any society but helping one’s fellow man is a personal decision and should be driven by those who feel the need to serve. Legislated charity is a slippery slope. It starts with the best intentions as a critical safety net for the less fortunate but when we introduce government into the mix, it quickly becomes a hammock. Beware of those with good intentions. It’s human nature to stop working hard if you can get things for free.”

The condition of dependence and rationalized victimization seem to my Mr. C to be most prevalent among American blacks. He points to Asians and Latinos as more cohesive communities that are anchored by a strong work, family and religious ethic. Bolstered by stronger values, they do not suffer disproportionate incarceration, poverty and mortality rates.

“I don’t know what happened to the black community. They can’t seem to elevate themselves above their circumstances and don’t realize that liberal politicians have kept them in perpetual bondage by validating their misguided sense of being victims. Give them welfare and buy a vote. Jesus, slavery ended 200 years ago. When are we going to stop allowing them to use Jim Crow as an excuse and take responsibility for their inability to win their own futures? ”

Nowadays, Mr. C’s political diatribes are prompted by an email forwarded to him by one of his retired friends or the Fox Channel that blares in his house every day like a loud speaker in some Pol Pot political reeducation camp.

He seems to fit all the traditional definitions of being prejudiced. He clearly has a problem with blacks as he feels they represent the most broken part of our society. He is quick to point out that blacks have much higher rates of incarceration, single parent homes and kids being born out of wedlock. The high school drop out rates are staggering and college graduation rates are sickeningly low. The mortality rate for urban African American men under the age of 25 is as high as Marines in Iraq.

I wonder why. Did we do this to them or did they do this to themselves? Who is responsible? Is it someone’s legacy? When does the current generation own their circumstances? Is that fair? How do you break the cycle of poverty and prejudice?

For someone who shows me so much unconditional love, my neighbor has no empathy for people he feels won’t help themselves. It’s a strange paradox to be loved by someone who is not family and at the same time, has so much disregard for and sectarian fear of others. I see so many things in him that I admire and I also see this great stain on his heart.

I guess it’s natural to see contradiction in people, as you become an adult. It’s that way with your own nation too. As a child, you idolize your parents. They are the center of your universe and they can do no wrong. Their views are your views.

Eventually, you develop your own opinions and values formed out of experiences. These nascent interpretations come in conflict with the dogma you so easily accepted as a child. You question and occasionally challenge adult’s simplistic views to complex issues. Some of these views are insensitive to the realities of now. One day, you come to the realization that you still love your parents but now see them for what they are — human beings with contradictions and biases influenced by their own lives.

It can be the same way with America. You love your country but as you mature and become more well read about alternative forms of government and the diversity of the world, you don’t fully buy into American actions with unequivocal support. You begin to question things and at times, disagree with Monroe Doctrine manifest destiny and the claim that we permanently occupy moral high ground because we are a free market democracy.

Yet, that’s the beauty of freedom. You aren’t required to be black or white, right or wrong. Much of life is indeed a color bar of shades of gray. The only sure way to raise your intelligence around racial, social, moral or political issues is through experience and informed debate. You must seek to understand people before being understood. I suppose bigotry is at its core, the refusal to engage in any other point of view.

I don’t know what’s happened in the seventy years that separates my Mr. C and I. I know that the 1960’s were a time of great social upheaval. A new generation tore away the fabric of nuclear family, white picket fence suburbia that had defined their generation’s goals and held them together during WWII and the Korean War. Mr. C deeply resented this disregard for American ideals and felt threatened by those that actively questioned the institutions that he felt made this country great. They had yet to pay the dues necessary to earn the right to bite the hand that fed them.

The further from crisis a society grows, the wider the generation gap between those that lived it and those who are raised on its distant mythology. Mr. C and I clearly use a different yardstick to measure success and progress in life. My generation wants to be happy and is not hung up on social conformity or political solidarity as a basis for belonging. We have been brought up to celebrate diversity and to cut other people slack for being different instead of challenging them to conform to a moral and social two-party system that does not adequately represent today’s diverse society composed of so many different voices and views. I don’t care if you’re gay, straight or transgender. You have a right to choose and to not die broke paying off a healthcare bill. It’s your life. Be happy.

I can see his eyes narrow and react to my occasional Rachel Maddow bleeding heart commentary. He calls me a “commie” even though Communism has passed the scimitar to Islamic fundamentalism as the greatest threat to the West. It’s clear to him that I’m not buying in to his generation’s notion that the best societies are Darwinist meritocracies where people must have the discipline to succeed or reinvent themselves to better compete. Yet, many who fail don’t reinvent themselves. They become wards of the criminal justice or welfare systems.

Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate men as they pay back society for their crimes. Welfare is intended to be a stopgap hand up until one becomes self-sufficient. The linchpin to his system working is personal transformation — private change with as little help from government as possible to ensure public debt does not grow and personal and corporate taxes stay low to enable to strong economy. “Jobs do more for self-esteem than a welfare check.”

It all sounds great but this change does not seem to be happening as more wealth gets concentrated in fewer hands and jobs get shipped overseas. The trickle down economics of Ronald Reagan seems to be drying up for the majority of the U.S. middle class.

I encourage my surrogate grandfather to read Jill Leovy’s book, Ghettoside, a non fiction detective story which helps deconstruct and frame the tragedy of unsolved murder rates of young black men in South Central LA. It provides an explanation for the rage in the black community as it deals with institutional urban neglect and the effects of uneven policing. Sometimes the problem is not aggressive policing but the lack of resolution investigating and prosecuting the murderers of young black men. When the community feels nothing will be done and that crimes will go unpunished, the community takes the law into its own hands and lawlessness reigns.

He listens to my statistics and my facts regarding the cycle of poverty and the stacked deck of social and economic barriers that make it hard for young black men to rise above their own circumstances. He can’t hide his racism. It’s subtle, the way a white man unconsciously pats his back pocket for his wallet when he sees a young black man walking towards him and then argues that there is no such thing as racism. “We have a black President, don’t we?” Dude, your bigotry is deep and its still in there. When you deny it, you just make it that much more real.

Ironically, blacks don’t help one another as much as they could. I read in sociology class that when many blacks beat the odds and succeed, many leave their communities and never look back. They believe they are worthy role models by the simple virtue of the fact that they overcame overwhelming odds. When they leave, they don’t rush back to their community. They depart for good — leaving others behind without a rope to climb out or an experienced hand to help. The class shared the story of an affluent black couple that tried to patronize black only business for one year. In the year of this noble experiment, the couple found there was one black owned grocery chain in the entire state of Illinois. Prior to the passage of Civil Rights Act, there were thousands of black owned businesses patronized exclusively by blacks. Ironically, when given the opportunity to eat and shop at white establishments, many blacks abandoned their own businesses to patronize white establishments. The forbidden fruit was now in their reach and in buying white, a generation inadvertently condemned another to decline and economic struggle. Ironically, the law that was passed to level the playing field, tilted it further in the wrong direction.

Harper Lee once wrote that bigotry and faith are disturbingly similar in that they both begin at the same place — where reason ends. I’ll always care for Mr. C like a grandfather but I realize that we have chosen different paths to interpret a world that often ceases to make sense.

I choose faith – faith in the better nature of people and optimism that I can find a new tribe that works toward an inclusive solution governed by a colorblind justice and economic system.  My old friend’s fear blinds him to any solution other than tougher laws, longer sentences and punitive consequences for the bad choices that young men make each day in these communities. Self-centered fear seems to be the trigger for many of the unattractive aspects of the human condition. It’s clear that while fear and faith start at the same place, they can’t occupy it at the same time.

It’s time to leave Mr. C. I throw a few weeds in his green garbage bag. We hug and I can see he is proud of my independence – the son he never had. Unconsciously, he betrays his belief that eventually I’ll convert to his cynical ideology. If he’s right, I will find myself one day at war with a government that wants to tax me and redistribute my money to those who won’t work. “Welfare is a trap to ensure the poor’s continued dependence on politicians and social re-engineers.” It’s a cynical way to see the world but he’s been walking the earth seventy years longer than I have. I can’t dismiss him as a heretic without first accumulating my own experiences as data points to refute him.

Somewhere between his rigid conservative ethos and my altruistic belief that change is possible, the truth stirs and struggles to the light. Victor Hugo said that the truth will always find the light and the deeper you tried to hide it the more explosive it is when it’s finally revealed. Truth rests in the shadows and along the black and white edges of reality. It’s ironic that when it comes to black and white, the issues and solutions always seem to be gray. It takes courage to define them and to not allow ideologues to hijack the truth to pander to those who are afraid.

I do not doubt for a moment the pride he feels as he as he lives my life vicariously. He is now watching me leave and enter the world of men. We are so different. Sometimes, I wonder if I am as strong as him. Am I a more evolved version of my neighbor or a naive changeling that will eventually come to see the world on his rigid terms

To have the capacity to love someone who has such a different point of view strangely reassures me. It validates my belief that love is a stronger force than hate. We are all humans on a spiritual journey and in my case, I’m taking my first steps in search of meaning and purpose. It begins with my trying to navigate and understand the black and white landscape of Mr. C’s America.

A Passage to Italy Part Two: Glass and Marble

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Tolkien once wrote that “not all those who wander are lost”. Some of us are fortunate in life to come to the conclusion that our noblest aspects are not discovered at a desk but in foreign places and in moments when you are torn away from the moorings of all things familiar. Our souls were not fashioned to fit neatly into a narrow trench of material pursuit.

Perhaps this particular midsummer’s voyage would have made the perfect ad for Visa. “Flying to Europe to visit your son studying abroad? $800. Sleeping in the spare room of a five hundred year old haunted landmark in London? $100.  Searching for the perfect cappuccino while contributing to your son’s delinquency on his first trip to Italy? Priceless…”

The recollection of three years living abroad and working across Europe and North Africa has remained with me – a thousand days spent off-balance and uneducated to the ways of so many new countries and cultures. The adrenaline rush of perpetual firsts became its own form of addiction and led to a dozen years of nagging withdrawal upon my repatriation back to America.

On the day that we disembarked with one way tickets back to the US, I made a private pact to ensure that my children would not lose touch with the places that shaped their formative years. Travel stimulates a different part of the brain and can invigorate talents that lie dormant when not germinated by challenge. The daily travails of an ex-pat are characterized by perpetual change and the lingering mélange of strange customs, languages and food.  It is a lifestyle that leaves you at once exhausted and more alive for the experience of having to swim in waters so deep and so far off your own shore.

Earlier in the year, my eldest son had decided to study in London. In the past decade, his other siblings had joined me on special trips to the UK and continent of Europe but as an over-subscribed student athlete, he’d never really had the bandwidth to take an extended holiday back to retrace his London childhood spent in a green jumper and blue trousers. Whatever semblance of English civility he had gained those three years at the Hall School Wimbledon was undone in a matter of months after he returned to his Bohemian homeland of America. The boy who seemed bound for debate, cricket and English football ended up an all-state football and lacrosse player with American appetites and no real sense of his past self, the international child riding camels in North Africa and swimming in the Indian Ocean off the island of Mauritius.

He was no longer the cautious and polite patrician with the lilting British accent but a full-blooded, ten-point antler, male stag intent on rutting and rooting for adventure and cellphone numbers of the opposite sex. He is a young American man. Nineteen is a golden age.  It is the light beer of adulthood — all the fun and less than one-quarter of the consequences. And oh, the places you can go when you are loose in London with a credit card!

I succeeded in convincing him and another college lacrosse friend that upon conclusion of their one month of study abroad that they must consent to a bed check from their fathers which would involve extending their tour for a week so they might experience Venice and the Italian Alps. Ostensibly, it was sold to everyone as a guys’ vacation. However, it also gave us a week to detox the boys — erasing whatever physical and moral decline that their newfound freedom was likely to usher in. God would not want their mothers to see them before we did. 

In addition to An Introduction to Macroeconomics and Management Strategy 101, our neophytes would master life skills such as how to properly drink Guinness, how to snog with a British girl, the art of smuggling seven people into one cheap hotel room in Amsterdam and the talent of stretching a £10 note across four night clubs, velvet ropes and cover charges.  Any trip abroad is essential LOTB training. LOTB simply stands for “Life Outside The Bubble.” My father’s version of LOTB for his four sons involved working the warehouse graveyard shift in a rough part of town loading trucks. Child labor laws have changed in four decades with the adolescent’s union assuming a much stronger position on the notion of chores and forced labor.  The fear of one’s parents has been replaced by a greater fear of missing out – on anything.

Our pale young partisans had reached the end of their unchaperoned month and had gone native. Like all EU members in good standing, they were in violation of our pre-agreed financial covenants – running budget deficits and feeling that someone else should bail them out. When confronted with austerity, they bristled looking for a less painful way out. It was clear that in the span of a month, my initials had changed from MAT to ATM and my son had become Greece. Truth be told, I was delighted with what little I could divine from his vague texts and our brief FaceTime calls. There was an optimistic lilt in his voice.  The boy was becoming a man.  I would fetch him in London and have him join me for a week long return to Southern Europe — a second home whose current rubric is “live for today because tomorrow we will all be owned by Germans”.

I arrived in Heathrow to a tea-rose twilight that promised to stretch into the night for several more hours. I navigated Customs like an old hand having mindlessly repeated this rite of immigration a hundred times as an expat. As if to test my resolve, a British immigration agent gave me her best RBF (resting bitch face) scowl which I dismissed without so much as a hint of annoyance. I was happy to be back.

I had worked to keep up old relationships in every major city in Europe – many of these friends are truly European and offended if they learn that I was within fifty kilometers and did not call. We still maintain close acquaintances in London and I elected to call a good friend and cheekily request a couch with a view of the Thames. My lodgings were located at none other than the Royal Pensioners Hospital in Chelsea. The magnificent infirmary and pensioner apartments carry a prime SW4 post code opposite Battersea Park. The hospital grounds host the annual Chelsea flower show each spring and are an iconic symbol of Britain’s love affair with its military history and its ambassadors — charming pensioners in their red tunics and distinguished uniforms.

I spent my first day wandering through Chelsea, proper Pimlico, bustling Convent Garden, adventurous Leicester Square, sedate Mayfair and down through St James’ Park to The Horse Guards Barracks Toy Soldier Shoppe where I would add several new soldiers to my massive collection of  lead figurines.  The following morning’s weather returned to predictable summer rain – a fickle meteorological pattern that drove me crazy when we first moved to the UK. Like old times, I found myself driven indoors avoiding the precipitation and lazily channel surfing across English popular culture.

UK television programming has disturbingly succumbed to the US pollution drift of reality television. I found myself staring at a car wreck called the Jeremy Kyle show. Kyle, a Jerry Springer knock-off from Reading, had gathered an impressive roster of barely understood trailer trash that were debating their baby’s paternity and the cost/benefits of a consensual shag. The morning’s theme, “She’s a bad mum and if I’m the dad, I want full custody” was a ripper. In less then twenty minutes, I saw more tats than a Miami Ink parlor and a fist fight where the mum floored her man with a mean right cross. I flipped to BBC1 where I found Restoration Man, a keen medieval construction genius who was helping a naive history junkie buy and refurbish an eleventh century fixer upper in Kent. On the next channel was Council Flat Investigator – a program which featured responsible public employees trying to pinch welfare-subsidized Brits who were gaming the much maligned nanny state system. This week the investigators were in hot pursuit of Troy and Reggie, two lower-class geezers exploiting immigrants by subletting their £70 a month three bedroom flat for over £1200.

I was torn between housing fraud and the uplifting – no pun intended -“I’m 87 Stone and have a fat chance of (finding) work”. This program features morbidly obese Anglo-Saxons trying to navigate life while consuming twenty kilos of fish and chips every morning for breakfast. Eventually this meal of morning Schadenfreude made me feel physically ill. It was time for me to go for a proper walk in the rain.

As a guest of the Governor and Lady at the Royal Hospital, I had to be on my best behavior. The hospital is a fashionable four hundred years of history. Built by Charles II shortly after the military beheaded Charles I in the mid-seventeenth century, the new monarch retained renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren to design this military retirement home as a grand advertisement of the new regime’s appreciation for their army and soldiers. The Royal Hospital helped create an aura of invincibility around the newly minted king and made it easier to prosecute continued war against the French.

The hospital also is home to ghosts. I am convinced that many of these old buildings retain much of the energy that has been released over a half millennia.  The Governor confirmed that the phantasms are indeed real but fairly well-behaved with activities confined to modest moaning and a penchant for redecoration — opening drapes and moving furniture around at odd hours.

While history and tradition sometime conspire to keep England lagging the modern world, she is embracing the digital age. The Imperial war museum has gone digital while Uber is decimating the once sacred black cab business.   These symbolic cornerstones of service, working pride and competence have lost 40% market share to drivers that no longer need to memorize the location of every mews, close and road. Fresh off the boat foreign workers armed with GPS and a generation of smart phone based customers are stealing every client under the age of 35. The majority Conservative party is unwilling at present to protect the transportation industry from what they feel is a free market manifestation of the new global economy. Across the channel, French cab drivers are up in arms and on strike.  In the UK, they grin and bear it.

I spent my afternoon hosting the boys at the remodeled Imperial War museum and filled their brains with stories of World Wars, Victoria Crosses and a golden age when the sun never set in the British Empire. After a late, last supper of fresh lamb from the farm of our very accommodating hosts, it was back to pack and a 4:45am wake up call.

After a chaotic morning of faulty BA check-in systems and impossible airport queues, we finally descended through a humid mid-day Italian sunshine into Marco Polo airport where a water taxi waited to transport us to the Grand Canal, St Marks and our grand Hotel Bauer in Venice.

St Marks Square was choked with tourists as we dragged our roller bags across the cobble stone piazza.  The open ground was interrupted by the occasional ink blot of pooled sea water that had been deposited the previous night with the full moon’s rising tide.  The northern Italian air was sticky and convection oven hot as massive thunderheads approached from the west. On the heels of the afternoon storm would be cool breezes and the reward of a mild evening spent in one of a hundred dimly lit piazzas alive with locals and foreign visitors.

As expected, the boys were happy in this tangle of history and humanity. They appeared mildly malnourished; sleep deprived and slightly jaundiced but they were bursting with stories – some that could never be repeated in the presence of clergy or their mother.

Traveling with two handsome young men with hummingbird metabolisms and a cat’s sense of adventure is a challenge and a joy. You are escorting a younger version of yourself — a changeling that is eager to suck the marrow from each day and possessing the instinct to live by the most simple of adolescent routines — sleep, eat, drink, cavort, repeat…

On this day, I had become a self-anointed yenta — repeatedly chatting up young attractive women between the ages of 17 and 25 to introduce to our embarrassed but amused sons. Their inept follow through confirmed that youth remains wasted on the young. Bill and I remain middle-aged troglodytes — harmless and invisible men who use humor and a dozen broken Italian words to broker introductions. The boys did not bridge any cultural divides that day but they demonstrated a duck’s aptitude to take to water and were now swimming comfortably in an Italian sea.

I always return to Italy. The ethos of Italia is a charming visceral celebration of all things aesthetic — the beauty of Caravaggio, a baroque depiction of the Virgin mother in the Ufizzi, the curve of a young woman’s calf, or the palatial architecture and perfumed history of a City that was at one time the center of world commerce and Renaissance.

On this trip, the Italian media were preoccupied by the rising tide of middle eastern and North African refugees that had fled chaos in Syria and the Sudan. Further from home, the Italians were riveted by the potential of Greece’s  banishment from the EU brought on by debt and an unwillingness to accept draconian austerity measures.  Southern Europe may once again lose their sovereignty to the Germans; this time in a bloodless, financial coup d’ main Street brought on by the terms of their bailout.

The Italians sense they may be the next EU recidivist to endure withering criticism of their inability to honor the fiscal guardrails required to belong to the powerful but deeply confederate European Union. National papers Corriere della Sera and La Republicca lament the corrupting nature of debt and the heavy price one generation may have to pay for the foibles of governments with life spans no greater than un mosca domestica, the housefly. The great empires of Western Europe are slowly being reduced by debt to mere tourist attractions.

I try to educate our testosterone-fueled wards on the economic woes raging across Europe but am met with limited interest and mild derision. You are never a prophet in your home piazza and it seems that the vagaries of failed monetary and social policies can’t compete with tan legs and short skirts. I get that. The boys are clearly going native each day as Italy’s sybaritic ethos permeates their thinking.

Perhaps the tales of the Doges could teach them how oligarchies tend to rot from within and how the general population eventually rises up when inequity and injustice becomes too palpable. History teaches that any new society is normally conceived out of chaos. And any rebirth, by definition, is both bloody and beautiful. My eyes dart up and down the international queue of souls waiting to enter The Doge’s Palace. It is a jewel – a preserved monument to medieval power housing a history of paintings and frescoes that highlight the relentless repetition of power’s rise and fall. The art is both a lesson and a warning — a distant mirror reflecting a society struggling with power, affluence, greed, decline and renaissance across millennia.

To many in Italy, the new ruling class is located somewhere to the north in a central bank. Euro zone membership now requires less than 2% inflation, a deficit less than 3% of GDP and public debt of no more than 60% of GDP. The U.S. could not meet this criteria. Many nations joined the Euro initially misrepresenting their fiscal circumstances and resolve to abandon socialistic public policies. Italians worry that a Greek exit from the euro would drive weaker members into a forced austerity leading to protracted depression and unemployment.

Others pro-austerity advocates cite that tough resolve is now required in Europe. The old guard of liberals must yield to a new global reality where deficit spending to prop up flagging economies and large government must yield to a more unregulated labor and capital market. A banishment from the euro would mean reintroducing the drachma and instantly devaluing everything. It would sure make feta cheese and baklava cheap.  The challenge is when any debtor owes so much they simply cannot pay it back. Is it possible to find a middle ground of what some have coined “inclusive capitalism”? The Greeks have capitulated for now. The Italians are bracing for a tougher conversation — although for hard-line EU opponents, it is all sound and fury signifying nothing.

Today is too nice a day to worry about Italy’s tomorrow. Venice is a jewel and remains an adult paradise of rich visual treasures and impossibly wonderful food. We spend our days getting lost among tourists and in search of the fringes of the city where food and hospitality are more reasoned and authentic. The boys nibble on my history lessons as if they are being served steamed cauliflower. They sense these insights are intellectually nutritious but they can’t disguise their disgust. My fellow companion, Bill, listens without adding much — content to yield his time to the boorish Senator from Connecticut. He enjoys our daily discourse but knows the boys are more deeply committed to the venal pleasures of life on the Grand Canal. Italy, like these boys, is stuck in a permanent adolescence — believing that charm can get you past anything, that bad things happen to others and that problems do not require preparation or perspiration. If one covers ones ears long enough, perhaps the wolf at the door will believe no one is home and go away.

Our trip required that we must eventually depart Venice and drive north into the Dolomites searching for a hidden chalet, the Rosa Alpina, nestled among verdant alpine pastures and soaring granite minarets.  Driving in Italy is not for the faint of heart. The A27 Autostrada was empty of cars with the exception of the occasional Fiat that would flash his lights as he tore past us at 160 kilometers per hour. People park their vehicles at bizarre angles as if they have spilled battery acid in their laps and cars move across traffic as if signals and passing lanes are optional. Driving is a Darwinian adventure requiring guts and caffeine.

Gratefully, most of the nation’s worst drivers were either on holiday or further south with their mistresses in Capri as we snaked our way through wine country and up to the great glacial valleys of the Sud-Tirol. The 1200 square kilometer area is renown for its winter skiing around Cortina.  In the summer, the valleys appear like a pine-green codpiece that adorns the neck and shoulders of the serrated minaret range known as the Dolomites. The Dolmitti are a UNESCO world heritage site and a geologist’s Mecca. The alpine villages sit in succession like ports along a great gray ribbon of high mountain road with each wooden chalet and building festooned with corsages of petunias, geraniums and elysium that spill from the dormered window-sills.

Forests of pine and conifer grow thicker with the elevation and are highlighted by the soft light of a fresh mountain morning. The road snakes up and up — a single artery feeding the region from the south. The bases of peaks that explode from each side of the highway are crisscrossed with trails and the occasional day hikers armed with walking poles and rucksacks. The mountains dominate here and possess a sacred presence reassuring its inhabitants that they are protected in this place from the creep of civilization and the polluted march of carnivorous capitalism.

Our first morning is a perfect day without rain.  We climb 1500 feet from the Capura Alpina trailhead through a pass and up on to a high meadow at the tree line. The ascent was difficult but tolerable, as the elevation here maxes out at no higher than 8,000 feet. We cross fifteen kilometers of rock and high mountain streams tumbling down from unseen glacial melt and culoirs of snow. We realize that we have taken the wrong path at one point but serendipitously find that our hike now offers stops at local refugios and a choice of canyons to conclude our trip. The surrounding peaks top out at over 10,000 feet but are only accessible via gondola lifts, goat trails or by rope and pitons secured by a professional guide.

In these high mountains, holidaymakers can choose across a range of high-end chalets, small tasteful pension hostels or refugios, a series of alpine cafes and huts linking an entire network of trails. We spend our days climbing and moving from one refugio to the next — always stopping for a cappuccino or bowl of soup. These sturdy huts feed and house weary walkers and climbers. When the clouds threaten, one merely looks to the map and hustles the next few miles to a refugio for shelter.

We are hardly roughing it as we retreat each night to our magnificent chalet replete with its two star Michelin restaurant and hopelessly attractive Italian girls who staff the restaurants and spa. The boys did their best to advance international diplomacy bridging the language divide with the doe-eyed staff. Neither group was multi-lingual and the occasional encounters were pure adolescent longing — a humorous combination of pidgin English, high school flirtation and rudimentary sign language. “Amore” is a universal libretto. A quick smile and eager flashing eyes, the allure of a promise, its all part of the music of youth.  At some point, the ear grows to old to hear the notes although in Italy, the frequency of romance never goes undetected.

I love these trips if for no other reason that it allows me to plunge into the world of my son.  I work hard to find these times when I can walk side by side in his march toward manhood. He is a wonderful and funny force of nature and a great partner in adventure. He is part of my legacy to a world that desperately needs people who will seek to understand before insisting on being understood.

The week goes by too quickly and in its place, we fashion an indelible moment that will stay with him for his life. Perhaps he’ll return here some day with his son and once again ask Italy to show him the genius of its marble cities and granite mountain ranges. The Italians have mastered many aspects of living a rich life. It is a society steeped in love, fear and faith. Amore is everywhere. As is the irony with so many cultures anchored by opposites, fear and faith are cousins who share a similar starting point, a point where reason ceases to offer the answers and one must advance on feelings rather than facts.

It had been a perfect afternoon and evening. We lingered in that moment before falling asleep, lying in the dark and talking. The lack of light and the reassuring comfort of a warm bed worked its magic as it had over so many years when he was a small boy seeking answers. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia.

“Buddy, remember when we spent that Halloween in Florence at the Villa la Massa? You were dressed as Spider Man and the hotel staff occupied all the rooms on the first floor to give you guys homemade candies?”

“Dad, I was like five.”

“You were such a cute kid — always hopping up and down everywhere. You were like a rabbit. You’d come into every room like pogo stick yelling, ‘hop!, hop! hop!’”

(Silence)

“You know, this has been a perfect…”

“Dad, don’t ruin it.”

“Yep, got it. G’night…”