My wife surprised me this Christmas with an extraordinary gift — two decades of mothballed VHS home movies converted to DVDs. In minutes, I was pulled through a looking glass of my life as a parent and across the sweeping steppe of time – two continents, three children, four homes and one half-dozen pets. The last occasion I had stumbled across such riches of nostalgia, I had been weaving in between boxes and neglected items of my retired parents when I unearthed worn, misplaced photo albums and a vanished 8mm family film from the 1960s – cinema and snap shots that graphically depicted a middle class family of four boys as we traveled the blue and black highways of the Western United States in a modern day Conestoga called the station wagon.
The first thing you notice about most 60’s family films is an adult is always waving hello and a child is usually crying. Today, Child Protective Services would use any of these clips as Exhibit A in the trial of an unfit parent. We wander dangerously close to the Interstate as we stop at roadside rest stops for jelly stained Wonder Bread PJs chased by warm Shasta Lemon-Lime soda. There were pocketknives, BB guns, bows and arrows, and an absence of helmets, seatbelts or the restrictions of an adult. There is no sound, gratefully, as the film would quickly become X-rated when punctuated with the anxious calls for “stopping the grab-ass” by my father who had a black belt in cursing and for giving you a red hot behind.
As I threaded the fragile film through a viewing monitor borrowed from a college professor friend, the archipelago that was so many phases of my life mended into a single land mass when reunited with the young boy I saw in these photographs and movies.
He was the third of four boys with an XL head and tennis-ball buzz cut. He was nine – an advanced pyromaniac, collector and kleptomaniac. The boy loved his matted, filthy mongrel dog that the father referred to as “The Democrat”. He spent endless Southern California hours painting Airfix 56mm plastic military figures and then would burn them in epic battles behind an old two-car adobe-style, stucco garage. He lived for sports, Christmas morning, the Fun Zone of Newport Beach and girls. I watched him dart through iconic places – the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake and SeaWorld in San Diego. Memories perfume the world around me. Each moment a feeling, each file an indelible memory of the sweet bird of youth.
A conveyor belt of boys with buzz cuts move in and out of photos wrestling like pups in a whelping box, only to appear on the next page with noses covered in zinc oxide and faces freckled by the sun of a Newport Beach August. A husky fourth grader, the middle child had a romantic sense for everything and a leg that twitched faster than a floundering sea captain typing a Morse code SOS. Life was we imagined of the military, endless ceremony, uniforms, chores, boredom, moments of terror and the nine weeks of leave we called summer vacation where we would travel to exotic ports of call with names like like Newport Beach, San Francisco and Sedona, Arizona.
I recall being so bored one summer that we spent an afternoon pushing a dead cat with a stick. Vietnam was thinning our ranks of young men on television each night while we rode bikes through back alleys to tree houses defiladed from any parental supervision, decorated by hobos and stacked with Playboy magazines. The purple and sienna horizon line of the San Gabriel Mountains marked the eastern edges of our future. At night, you would look up and see the flickering lights of the radio towers – a West Egg star to steer by as you contemplated turning ten. If you were masochistic you could ease drop through the heating ducts to hear adult conversations — bungling politicians, war, stagflation, incomprehensible ethnic conflict and another orthodontia bill. These were adult hemorrhoids that the boy would not have to worry about for many years – unless he sat too long on a toilet reading comic books.
The boy loved his wolf pack. Beyond the holidays and Christmas mornings, there was uncontaminated humor, eternal optimism and the larger than life David Lean longing for epic adventure.
My mother reminded me a few years back when I complained about one of my children’s short attention span that she had to endure a phase where I had self-diagnosed dyslexia. I used the “Mislexic” defense when I got pinched for stealing candy at the local Huntington Pharmacy. My mother was furious – asking rhetorical questions like “what were you thinking?” and “do you know what they do to boys who steal?” I recall looking her in the eye and saying, “I think I’m mislexic. I wasn’t sure if I should pay inside or after I got outside the store.”
I progressed to feigning deafness to avoid the pressure of being called on in class. In retrospect, I should have become an attorney. At the time, I had a middle school teacher who used the Socratic method of calling on random students. To buy time, I would ask her to repeat the question two or three times. She recommended to my mother that I get my hearing checked.
Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!
“Michael, let me know if you can hear the beep.”
The ENT made a perplexed face at my inconsistent answers. He expanded the headphones to reach across my massive dome to cover my ears. I suddenly realized that I did not want to fail this test or I might end up with those strange plastic tubes curling around my cochlea like the deaf kid who spoke such slow exaggerated words at summer camp. So I mixed up my answers. “Yes, no, no, yes. yes… “
“I don’t know what to make of these tests. His hearing – it’s all over the map. “
She seemed to know I had been faking but could not understand why. I confessed an hour later to my mother after being plied with a number Two burger and milk shake from Twoheys restaurant — and the ironclad promise of amnesty from my father who must never know I had pretended to be deaf. My mother had looked relieved. She really only had three looks – loving amusement, anger and relief.
I’m still searching the Turpin archives for the lost episode called “To Catch A Thief” where we were lined up like POWs because four recently baked cookies were reported missing.
“Okay, I’m going to close my eyes and leave the room. When I come back I want those four missing cookies on the plate.” All four boys shifted and shuffled at nervous attention. When my mother returned to the room, four more cookies were missing. It was in fact, a pure genius suggestion. It should be noted that a future investment banker orchestrated the caper – perhaps there was some merit to the efforts of Dodd-Frank.
As I sit in our Connecticut family room and return to a warm fire and these lost films of the 1990’s, I am swimming in another slow moving river of nostalgia. I recollect how important these moments were – the dawns and dusks of living at the center of a diminutive universe. Unconditional love. I’m smiling unconsciously at the invidious daughter who wants to return her newest baby brother to the hospital via the toilet. Her only-child days have ended and she will not go gently into that good night. The home movies chronicle a young family struggling up a mountain of life — moving to England with three small children, celebrating major holidays in strange and exotic places while recording each milestone through the mongrel accents of California children as they collide with strict English grammar and syntax.
Christmas, 2002 – A 3-year-old boy appears on camera, perturbed as he opens Father Christmas gifts.
“Dad?” He asks with a silky Etonian accent. “My friend Henry hates Jesus. I don’t hate baby Jesus but Henry says he hates him.” Muffled laughter on the other end of the camera.
(Camera pans to a lattice of gloomy windowpane)
In the northern hemisphere, the English winter malingers with ephemeral mist and dreariness. The sun is a pastel color form clinging to a low horizon. The camera zooms in on a cherub-cheeked boy who looks exasperated. He is excited for Christmas but can’t seem to shake the revelation that someone dislikes the child lying in the manger. (The scene cuts to bath time.) An older sister threatens her younger brother again with the toilet. Another DVD is a hard hitting interview with a five year old boy who agrees to a rare discussion about everything that scares him.
“Let’s see. Monsters. The Grinch and oh yeah, I really, really, REALLY hate Captain Hook.”
“Hide and Hook” was a favorite game among my fear-addicted children. Like J.M. Barrie’s orphans, they dreamed of an island where kids were in charge and unexplained forces of nature were clumsy and easily vanquished. This version of Captain Hook had a softer and more incompetent side. He remained permanently one step behind, incapable of following through on any threat. He was a punching bag and a deep pocket willing to bribe children with sweeties – daily dishonest attempts to corrupt a child into the life of a buccaneer’s. My middle son was our emotional canary in the coal mine – losing his feathers during any time of stress or change. He had night terrors. My brave soldier once attempted to thwart his nighttime demons by he wedging a pillow against his bedroom door. The only person he could have possibly kept out would have been a starving vegan and there were certainly none in the year of our Lord, 2001. Our youngest supporting actor appears in each scene with a Sippy-cup – clad in the robin’s egg blue soccer jersey of the Italian star “Francesco Totti”.
As I devour the home movies, the phone rings and shatters my reminiscence. It is my Dad.
He wants to talk politics. I try to explain that I’m watching old movies and we divert from toxic polemics to the past. Normally, the conversation concludes with him wishing Hillary be indicted, Bill castrated and sent to Oman to guard a Harem and Obama given a one minute head start from Seal Team Six. Tonight, we float back like Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past. We talk about growing up, aging, the wonderful holidays and all the traditions that have survived the decades. Time sandpapers any hard edges. For a moment he is no longer the critic – lamenting our cultural decline and complaining about the soft accommodations we now make in the name of inclusivity. He is Peter Pan who has grown up and forgotten he was once Captain Hook. I love him. For a moment, he laughs and remembers Never Land. That flicker comes into his voice falling like the ancient pixie dust of Tinker Bell. The space between us across three thousand miles of America is filled with the simple green grass promise of childhood.
It’s hard to avoid his fate and I yield a little more each day to the emotional calcification of one who has bitten the apple and been banished from Eden. I’ve played many lead and supporting roles in these movies of my life: ingénue, feckless husband, sybarite, world traveler, director, evangelist, coach, paternal sage and aging oracle. Yet across time, my favorite character was always the supporting role of Captain Hook – adversary to the Lost Boys and incompetent foil to those who seek to live for today and never grow old.
This overview is a very early attempt to get you up to speed on the areas of health reform that are likely to emerge from the confirmation process of Rep Tom Price. There’s a temptation to dismiss everything being discussed as rhetoric or too early in the regulatory process. However, there are key themes and elements that will impact employer-sponsored healthcare that are likely to survive. In addition, other market trends are unlikely to change and as a result, require our continued vigilance and strategic discussion. In other words, the cavalry has not arrived in our battle with rising costs.
Tom Price’s Empowering Patients First Act (H.R. 2300) is of particular interest. It is unlikely to be accepted as a “replacement” bill but it offers keen insights into the GOP mindset guiding the notion of “repeal and replace”. It is likely if any legislation is approved, it would take years to completely implement and not unlike the ACA, reform could be whipsawed by another sudden political shift. Given the profile of the 2018 mid-term elections, its unlikely the GOP grip on the WH and Congress will change – at least until 2020 – more than enough time to drive a new legislative solution.
H.R. 2300 is important because its the only GOP-authored proposal that incorporates many elements of a “repeal” plan; and, despite the partisan acrimony of today’s confirmation interviews, Price is likely to gain confirmation and guide Health & Human Services and those charged with setting policy for commercial insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.
It’s impossible to summarize H.R. 2300 in one page but we wanted to underline and key talking points for you should you get cornered by anyone requesting a point of view on what employers should expect over the next four years. With the help of a recent Kaiser Foundation white paper, we want to offer an opinion. Clearly, it’s going to be a challenge to confidently predict whether the new administration will/can meet its promises. Yet, we are taking the liberty of staring deeper into the crystal ball and offering some insights. In no particular order:
H.R. 2300 Key Elements: Repeal ACA entirely, including individual and employer mandates, private insurance rules, standards for minimum benefits and maximum cost sharing, and premium and cost sharing subsidies. Provide refundable tax credits of $900 to $3,000 based on age to individuals to purchase insurance in the individual market. Require insurers to offer portability protections for people who maintain continuous coverage. Pre-existing condition exclusions and rate surcharges based on health status can otherwise apply. Implement state high-risk pools with federal grant support for three years. Establish Association Health Plans and Individual Membership Associations through which employers and individuals can purchase coverage. Permit sale of insurance across state lines.
Encourage use of Health Savings Accounts. Cap the tax exclusion for employer-provided health benefits and permit employers to contribute toward workers’ premiums for non-group health policies. Permit enrollees of public programs, and employer-sponsored group health plans to opt out of coverage in favor of private non-group insurance with tax credit subsidy. Repeal Medicaid expansion. Repeal Medicare benefit enhancements, savings provisions, and premium for higher-income beneficiaries, taxes on high earnings, and quality, payment and delivery system provisions. Eliminate certain constraints on private contracts between physicians and Medicare beneficiaries and the amount that can be charged for services. Individual mandate no requirement for individuals to have coverage
Commentary: This legislation is about establishing universal “access” to the individual market and to create a robust range of products whose coverage and cost will vary dramatically – well beyond the percentage of AGI and actuarial values mandated by the ACA. The creation of tax credits and vouchers to purchase in the individual market and guarantee issue based on coverage continuity could create opportunities for employers to offer financial incentives for employees to opt into coverage pools other than those of the employer. H.R. 2300 relies on financing much of the legislation through a cap on the taxation of benefits
Premium subsidies to individuals – Provide a refundable, flat, tax credit for the purchase of health insurance in the individual market ($900 per child, $1,200 age 18-34, $2,100 age 35-49, $3,000 age 50 and over; indexed by CPI.) Tax credit can be applied to any individual health insurance policy sold by a licensed insurer, including short-term policies, but not excepted benefits (e.g., insurance only for specific disease); excess credit can be contributed to HSA. Permit individuals eligible for other health benefit programs to receive a tax credit instead of coverage through the program. Repeal ACA cost sharing subsidies.
Commentary: It’s likely the number of those insured under reform will reduce if the government moves toward less generous tax credits as well as grants Medicaid block grants to states to manage those expenditures as they see fit. The increasing of uninsured and a greater emphasis on high deductible plans could lead to higher incidents of bad debt and increases in unreimbursed care.
Benefits Design/Reporting – Repeal ACA essential health benefit standards, preventive health benefit standards, mental health parity requirements for individual market and small group market policies. Repeal ACA prohibition on lifetime and annual limits. Repeal ACA limits on annual out-of-pocket cost sharing. State flexibility to mandate benefits; state benefit laws preempted for policies sold through associations, or by insurers selling across state lines. Proposed Price bill/legislation is silent on self-insurance exemption for larger self-insured employers.
Small employers can buy coverage through association health plans (AHPs). For fully insured small group AHPs, state rating laws and mandated benefits are preempted. Self-insured AHPs permitted; for federally certified self-funded associations with membership of at least 1,000, State regulation is preempted. Maintain dependent coverage to age 26. Repeal ACA minimum loss ratio standards, rebate requirements for insurers with claims expenses less than 80% of premium revenue (85% for large group policies). Repeal ACA right to independent external appeal of denied claims. Repeal ACA transparency standards, including requirement to offer standardized, simple summary of benefits and coverage, and requirement to report periodic data on denied claims and other insurance practices.
Commentary: Insurers are likely to benefit from specific changes although Price has historically been at odds with insurers – particularly in areas where insurers attempt to intervene between a treating physician and a patient. Employer reporting requirements should be simplified and the most cumbersome elements of the ACA are likely to be eliminated.
Employer requirements and provision – No requirement for large employers to provide health benefits that meet minimum value and affordability standards; repeal prohibition of excessive waiting periods. Cap annual tax exclusion for employer-sponsored benefits at $8,000 for self-only/$20,000 for family coverage, indexed annually to CPI. Require employers that sponsor group health plans to offer employees an equivalent defined contribution for the purchase of health insurance in the individual market. Permit employers to automatically enroll individuals in the lowest cost group health plan as long as they can opt out of coverage. Wellness incentives up to 50% of cost of group health plan permitted. Encourage use of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) with one-time refundable tax credit of $1,000. Also raise annual tax-free contribution limit to $5,500; Allow tax-free transfer of HSA balances at death to any beneficiary. Repeal ACA prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusions. For people with at least 18 months of continuous prior coverage, no pre-existing condition exclusion period can be applied. For people with less than 18 months of continuous prior coverage, exclusion periods up to 18 months are permitted, but must be reduced by prior continuous coverage.
Commentary: Capping the annual exclusion for health benefits at $8k/$20k is credible foreshadowing that the taxation of benefits is on the horizon. Those that breathed a sigh of relief that delay and subsequent change of POTUS meant the defeat of the Cadillac tax, must be prepared to review the value of their plans. Taxation could set in motion a mass migration toward high deductible plans. Offering an equivalent defined contribution to employees to purchase on the individual market could give rise to associations and individual purchasing groups competing with or attracting employees into alternative purchasing groups. The emphasis on defined contribution could further accelerate the move toward private exchanges.
Health system performance- Health care professionals engaged in negotiations with private insurers and health plans over contract terms are exempt from federal antitrust laws. Create a health plan and provider portal website to provide standardized information on health insurance plans and provider price and quality data. Provide states with funding to implement the standardized health plan and provider portal website.
Commentary: Doctors can now organize purchasing cooperatives and in doing so likely to drive up unit cost through more collective bargaining with insurers.
Tax revenues – Repeal ACA tax changes, including the individual and large employer mandate tax penalties, Medicare Health Insurance (HI) tax increases on high earnings, Cadillac tax on high-cost employer-sponsored group health plans, and taxes on health insurers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and medical devices
Commentary: Revenue increases from new cap on tax exclusion for employer-sponsored group health benefits
Source of policy insights on H.R.2300: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation http://kff.org/health-reform/issue-brief/proposals-to-replace-the-affordable-care-act/
The Canadian intelligence officer moved cautiously not wanting to spook the officer who leveled the Mauser pistol at his chest. The German motioned with the muzzle for the Canadian to move toward the German truck. The clandestine meeting, arranged quickly on the back of reconnaissance from the Dutch resistance required two Allied officers meet with the German command currently controlling Western Holland. There was a distinct risk that the obtuse message from German General Johannes Blaskowitz was a trap. The men understood they could be killed or taken prisoner – only to join the ranks of those rumored to be incarcerated and starving behind German lines. If there was any doubt of the callous disregard of the occupying Germans for citizens stuck in the cross-fire of war, one need only look north and to the east, where over 1M Russians had died of starvation in Leningrad during the 2 ½ year German siege. The occupants had been rumored to be reduced to cannibalism and inhuman subsistence.
Captain Farley Mowat and his fellow Canadian officers were known for their colorful and creative acts of insubordination against the rigid daily life of the military. In another place and time they might have been considered in contempt of command and drummed out of the Corps. Yet, this was not a time to adhere to protocol. Mowat did not possess the authority to negotiate a truce with a Wermacht General but recognized this odd ensemble of junior intelligence officers held the lives of 1M Dutch in their hands. Amsterdam was the new Leningrad and its inhabitants were starving under the iron-grip of a German Army indifferent to suffering. An entire city was being used as a bargaining chip to negotiate terms that might result in a conditional armistice. With each day, Dutch Resistance reported hundreds dying of starvation. At great personal risk, Capt. Farley Mowat and along with Capt. Ken Cottam, who spoke fluent German, volunteered to lead the mission. Twelve hours later, they were being led into the lair of the wolf.
Mowat had been in the Canadian army at the onset of the war and was attached to the Hasty P’s – formally known as the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. Having landed in Italy, Mowat spent much of 1943 and 1944 as a rifle platoon commander. He was subjected to daily combat which temporarily broke him with battle fatigue briefly during the Siege of Moro River where he was found weeping at the feet of a wounded comrade who had been shot through the head. Early in 1945 he was moved to an intelligence unit in the Netherlands where he would be agree to cross enemy lines to begin negotiations about a food drop that might save an entire city from certain starvation.
Farley’s father, Angus Mowat, was a librarian who fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in WWI where four divisions of Canadians collided with four divisions of a deeply entrenched German Sixth Army. 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the capture of an escarpment that would serve no real strategic value in the broader Battle of Arras Casualties at Vimy eclipsed 90% for certain regiments. His father had returned from the killing fields of Flanders traumatized and pessimistic to mankind’s ability to co-exist on a planet seemingly addicted to the methamphetamine of war. His love of books and literature effected young Farley and would define his lens to the world. As a young officer, Mowat kept a daily journal through the entire war – a journal that offered a humorous and tragic front line view of men in battle.
…“Still, with a crazy sense of adventure and a large white sheet flying from the wire cutter on the front of the jeep, the two officers and a third man, roared off toward German lines. I was convinced we would be riddled with machine gun bullets at any time.
Cottam spoke fluent German and armed with bravado, an authoritarian attitude of importance, and the vague message, we actually succeeded in making it past several checkpoints of nervous soldiers and were admitted to see General Blaskowitz in his heavily guarded compound.
Late that night, we managed to negotiate a truce with the German forces in order to supply food to the citizens. On April 27, 1945, we radioed the message that we had negotiated a truce with the Germans to allow food deliveries.” In a later interview with the Canadian Press, ‘Mowat later said he thought they would either been promoted for their daring, or court-martialed for entering into basically unofficial negotiations with the German command.”
Great minds indeed think alike but smaller groups move with greater resolve. Unbeknownst to the Canadians, Allied Command had also been negotiating at the highest levels of the German Army but had bogged down in red tape. On April 29th, a British Lancaster loaded with supplies initiated food supply operations codenamed, “Manna” and “Chowhound”. Further drops were delivered and estimated at saving thousands of lives.
After the war, General Blaskowitz was arrested and put on trial at Nuremberg. Given his own track record of questioning his superior’s orders, demotions due to insubordination and his allowance of food supplies to be delivered to Holland, his attorneys had advised him that he would not be found guilty of the most serious charges against him. Riddled with guilt over his own inaction in the face of SS evils, Blaskowitz chose to leap to his death from a balcony after breaking away from his guards. The next day, he was exonerated by a jury of all charges.
Farley Mowat returned home decorated with the 1939–1945 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defense Medal, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the War Medal 1939–1945. Yet, like his father, he was sickened by man’s inhumanity to man and desperate to return to the Arctic, the last remaining Eden unspoiled by man.
Mowat would return to the arctic tundra and become moved by the plight of two of the most endangered species – the arctic wolf and the native people, the Inuit. He would write his most famous book, Never Cry Wolf chronicling his hapless transformation from neophyte environmentalist to skilled survivalist. He would become Canada’s most well-known author and outspoken advocate for the wilderness and its preservation. In his time in the field, He lived among the Inuit and felt connected to their mythology that was passed each night across flickering campfires. The People, seemed to understand the symbiotic interdependence of Mother Earth and its native tribes.
Canada’s most widely read author hated war and was cynical to the motives of mankind. “War is absolute lunacy. It is the most distinguishing feature of the human species. My ultimate conclusion is that these murderous symptoms serve as a diagnosed indication of the way we are going to end. “
His epitaph in a local paper summed up his life with the same twinkle that marked his 92 years. “Farley Mowat was a trickster, a ferocious imp with a silver pen, and an ardent environmentalist who opened up the idea of the North to curious southerners. A public clown who hid his shyness behind flamboyant rum swigging and kilt-flipping, and a passionate polemicist who blurred the lines between fiction and facts to dramatize his cause. Above all, he was a bestselling and prolific writer, who kept generations of children (and their parents) spellbound by tales of adventures with wolves that were friendlier than people, whales in need of rescue, dogs who refused to quit.
In a 60-plus-year career as a writer, he wrote more than 40 books, including several memoirs, and won many prizes and honours, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award, the Order of Canada and several honorary degrees. But it wasn’t all popcorn, tots of rum and fireside tales. A lonely, only child, he turned to animals for friendship as a boy.
Like many young men, he eagerly marched off to fight for King and Country in the Second World War, but the atrocities he witnessed and the killings he himself committed in the brutal Italian campaign so traumatized him that he turned again to his animal friends, if only in his imagination. “
It was my salvation,” he once said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in November, 2009, about writing drafts of the books that would later make his legacy. For the rest of his life he preferred the company of “the others” to members of his own species.
Back in Canada, he was a battle-scarred veteran in psychic despair when he went on a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the late 1940s. “I didn’t like the human goddamn race,” he told The Globe in 2005. “I had seen enough of its real naked horror during the war to convince me that we weren’t worth the powder to blow us to hell.”
Humanity was, for Farley Mowat, a misnomer.
A guy can wear the dark glasses of denial for only so long. Eventually, it gets so dark you have to remove them to be sure you are hitting the toilet. Yet, denial is fundamental to psychological survival. It’s a form of emotional procrastination allaying our anxieties until we man up enough to show up to life’s inevitable root canals.
Denial is a comforting enabler and companion– he is the ultimate sycophant that tells me that my excess weight is no big deal – in fact, my jelly belly may come in handy following the famine, economic and social meltdown that may occur if Trump or Clinton is elected. My good buddy denial indulges my lethargy whispering that I “deserve to conserve” my energy while my 100lb wife unloads 200lbs of groceries from the car.
Yet, that perfect storm day inevitably arrives when you hit a birthday divisible by five coinciding with a sobering milestone that confirms your mortality. At that moment, life exposes your feckless friend denial as a seductive liar. In that dark passage, you must reassess who your real friends are and finally swap out that Blanche Dubois 25W energy saver light bulb for a 100 watt spot light.
In a few weeks I am hitting 55. It’s okay. I understand there is no permanence in this life. We are all Joad families one step removed from the dust bowl where we maybe forced to pack up the chickens and rocking chair and head off into parts unknown.
And so it came to pass that the next season of life arrived and dropped autumn leaves at our door. We released our last kid ( and a hell of a big tuition check ) to college and came home to an empty museum.
I admit to being a tad blue. I like hanging with my kids and love being a Dad. Releasing your pups into the wild is a Born Free moment. If you didn’t cry when Ilsa was turned loose by her humans, you can stop reading this and go back to reading the personal ads in your Soldier of Fortune magazine.
I am a wimp. I cry at old movies and reruns of Family Affair ( I’m looking like Mr French every day ). Passage of time moments are always bittersweet. They are the last day of a great vacation, the final holiday present to be opened or the delicious penultimate paragraph of an epic novel. Joy can be found in the simple serendipity of coincidence.
I’m temporarily indulging my self pity through an obnoxious display of exhibitionism. This includes sharing the accomplishments of all my kids with anyone who has the misfortune of making eye contact with me. I’m really bad in working into any conversation the fact that my youngest son is now at Duke, my middle boy is loving lacrosse at Wesleyan and that my daughter is happy in her life and career.
I can segue from any topic to kids faster than you can say Coach K. You want to discuss Syria? Did you know one of Assad’s nephews may have gone to Duke where my son is?
I have Blue Devil swag to go with my Cardinal and golf USC football and dirty bird Wesleyan lacrosse outfits. See how I worked each kid into this again? Sneaky!
Today I’m sporting the Blue Devil baseball cap and navy pullover with its D insignia – even though it’s 90 degrees out. I am becoming what I used to loathe – a pathetic suburban boor who mistakes his children’s accomplishments for his own. As of yesterday, my wife has given me exactly thirty days to snap out of it.
To a naturalized Brit, my ostentation is all terribly bad form and must be beaten down like a banana republic rebellion.
She is annoyed with my new found conceit ( as if my old egotism was not enough). She is proud of all of our children but is egalitarian in her distribution of praise and attention. I, on the other hand, feel like the insane guy at Penn Station just trying to make eye contact with someone. I have something I want to share. Instead of someone saying “get a job”, they’re probably muttering “get a life.” I’m trying, really.
My spouse is not emotionally invincible and is coping with her own version of the empty nest bends — that rapid ascent toward the quiet surface of abandoned bedrooms. She is genetically predisposed to suffer in silence and not draw attention. As if the last kid leaving was not bad enough, our one year old cat ran off and has not returned. This cat was a sweet surrogate of sorts and was doing such a marvelous job of distracting us from our confusion.
She would crawl into bed with us at night and patter behind us in search of affection. She also gave us huge cases of poison oak. Each night passing cats are likely to spy two shadows scratching their arms yelling “here kitty kitty !”
Out nighttime searches have yielded nothing. Posters and offers of reward have remained unclaimed and I’m struggling with the fact that she is gone. I keep turning on Disney’s Homeward Bound and reading about animals lost for months who have returned home. I don’t think those families lived adjacent to Wiley Coyote -the half wolf/half chupacabra that trots through our dreams each night.
I’m bummed. I look for a sty of self pity where I can wallow and question the meaning of my new life and ponder the hopelessly complicated mysteries of life like why a dog sitter when explicitly told to keep doors shut, opened the damn door and the cat escaped. I’m having a hard time with forgiveness.
I really don’t understand martyrdom. I need to share and get fake empathy back from my friends. I know when people ask “how’s it going” that 99.9% hope that I say “great”. The burden of bad news is a downer.
Yet, I like to share. I am the anti-Percival, forever on a selfish quest for a grail of sympathy or an extra piece of chocolate cake.
I like attention and constant action. I like waking up to life’s problems and reacting when God hits perpetual hard fungo ground balls my way. I loved the purpose that three dependent children gave me as I navigated the tightrope of work and life.
Kids are the ultimate air cover. You eat your meal and then finish their food. You use them as an excuse to revert to your favorite period of adolescence. BB gun? Done! You can blame them for everything. Who took the last cookie? Probably Cole. Who left the window down during the rainstorm? Most likely Brooke. Honey come to bed? I’m teaching the boys how to use an RPG on Call of Duty! Geez!
I’ve known this empty nest day was coming. You may see me wandering Greenley Road at night calling out for a cat and scratching my arms like an addict. If you stop, I’ll tell you my problems and likely find a way of telling you about each kid and my son at Duke.
Better yet, for your own sake, just honk hello and keep driving — at least until I snap out of it.
We believe that big is beautiful and that actions speak louder than words. Where we can convince individuals and corporations to actively seek to help solve some of societies issues, we can and should shrink government.
We believe the Kardashian family should be deported to Alaska where they must live with The Palin family.
We advocate value added and consumption taxes. Our focus is on reducing corporate tax rates if domestic jobs are created and the return of manufacturing as a percentage of the GDP to 30%. We want the ratio of public to private workers to be reduced by 25% in the next decade.
Bob and I have also decided to run for POTUS and VIP. If elected to office, we will ensure:
Vin Scully’s photo will be printed on every US five dollar bill
We will pick three national social priorities and give an unlimited tax credit for contributions to any prequalified federal or community based agency that serves our troika of public need. Tax deductions will continue for other non- profits serving essential needs. Our first three priorities will be unemployment, drug/alcohol abuse including non-violent offender incarceration alternatives and our aging infrastructure.
The definition of Body Mass Index will be changed to 40 to define obesity. You have to be an ex-POW to qualify as having a normal BMI with your company wellness plan.
Affordable housing will be a required part of every community receiving any matching federal or state funds with priority will provided to all emergency and law enforcement employees who serve the town.
Reality shows can only be aired between 1 and 5 am.
Every kid will be taught the safe word, “Trump” to be used as a social 9-1-1 when they feel threatened.
Any medical student that choose to study and practice primary care medicine can receive free tuition from their home state medical school — provided they practice and serve an acceptable ratio of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial patients within their state for four years following after graduation.
Any film starring Pauly Shore or Carrot Top must be destroyed.
News channels must be reclassified as “Views” channels unless they can meet non partisan reporting criteria
Our Congressional and national election primaries will last two months followed by a four month general election. Overturn Citizens United decision and reduce corporate influence on election cycle.
Claw back provisions will be built into the compensation agreements of all municipal, state and federal public officials where up to 20% of pay will be forfeited in a subsequent year for their inability to achieve a balanced budget.
Cargo pants will be outlawed.
Anonymous comment threads will be considered malicious libel and subject to prosecution. No police blotter reporting for anyone under the age of 21.
All fines associated with white collar crime will help finance investment in non violent crime alternative incarceration, education and offender rehabilitation.
The nation’s focus will be on equal opportunities not equal outcomes.
All states and municipalities must tender a four year plan to balance their budgets and to fund to 80% of remaining pension obligations. This includes a 10% pay cut and hiring freeze until target is achieved.
All air conditioners will be calibrated to weight instead of temperature with default of 220lbs.
Division 1 athletes will be eligible to participate in dividends equally to 20% of university income arising from athletics. No more clock stoppage after a first down in college football – except in the last two minutes of a half.
Prayer will be allowed in all public schools.
Every national bank will be required to establish a domestic microfinance arm that offers lower denomination loans to underserved communities. Families can also sign up to sponsor tax deductible domestic and immigrant families to support their efforts to assimilate in our communities.
The corporate tax rate will be decreased for targeted industries such as domestic manufacturers and service based firms employing US workers.
Medicare will be offered to everyone as a public option in insurance exchanges. Medicare must operate at a loss ratio of 90% to avoid having tax payer dollars underwrite sustained low ball pricing to gain market share and jeopardize the private market.
Employers can offer incentives to employees over 50 years old to opt out of the employer plan to purchase insurance in public exchanges.
Every high school senior must read and demonstrate understanding of the following books:
1) To Kill A Mockingbird
2) The Road To Serfdom
3) Chaos Monkeys
4) The Diary of Malcolm X
5) The Killer Angels
6) The Grapes of Wrath
7) Leaves of Grass
8) A Tale of Two Cities
9) A Confederacy of Dunces
10) Bonfire of the Vanities
Finally, every student will serve one year between high school and college in public service or a non profit activity. This can be deferred until after college or if the individual has a full-time job.
Anyone recieving social assistance in the form of healthcare or economic aid must have at least one annual physical at a primary care providers office and consent to an electronic medical record.
The Grateful Dead will be inducted into the Hall of Fame and Pete Rose will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That’s about it. Be sure to write in the Overweight Humanists. Future fundraisers will be held at Krispy Creme and Dunkin Donuts. Our mantra is “overweight humanism and underweight self interest”…
See you on CNN.
I guess it was about 4pm on a humid east coast afternoon when the cop stopped me on Elm Street. It was the day after the GOP convention and I was was talking to myself – waving my arms in what the police later described as someone “engaged in a threatening debate with the an imaginary combatant.” The cop rolled down his window.
“Sir, have you been drinking?”
“Drinking? Hah!” I scoffed. “There’s not enough alcohol to medicate my reality — or yours, Officer…” I walked over and searched his chest for a name tag.”…Officer Blue.”
“Sir, you’re spooking the locals and exhibiting erratic behavior. It’s bad for business and you’re being a public nuisance. Are you on any medications ?”
“I’m just tired. Hell for all I know, I may have the Zika virus. Feels like my brain is shrinking. Speaking of Zika, the way our athletes are dropping out of Rio, I may be named the third alternate on the US archery team.Actually, officer if you must know I’ve been watching the Republican convention. It’s an orgy of D list celebrities and people who get their instructions from space ships. The only guy they did not trot out to endorse The Donald was Carrot Top.”
He could see I was legitimately troubled. I had been hiding at home for almost a week tweeting inane comments on Morning Joe and The Hill under the name “Carlos Not So Dangerous”. I had been waiting for some post convention sanity to return like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. The Democratic gathering had not been much better but I had to admit they stayed more on message. The days of civilized debates hosted by a spinsterish librarian from the League of Women voters had been replaced by a Jerry Springer paternity fight The dignified party conventions of my father had declined into a mud-slinging WWF show-down.
The cop tried to commiserate. “Sir, everyone is upset with the potential that Hillary Clinton could get elected but we can’t act out in public.”
“Hillary?” My head whipped around to confront the young officer. “What about freaking Trump?”
“Well I just assumed if you lived in this town you were a Republican.”
“Frankly, I don’t know what the hell I am anymore. I’m not L,B,G,T,Q…E-I-E-I-O! I’m feeling kind of left out of the funny farm.”
He looked through his windshield and sighed. “Yeah, I hear ya. Law enforcement can’t trust anybody — our Union or the public officials. They reneg on retirement and benefits commitments. They kick the can down the street and refuse to fund retiree plans. It’s a tough gig being dressed in blue right now. We don’t know who to trust.”
I nodded in sympathy. “Hell, I hear you. There is no worthy Presidential candidate. One is a corrupt, public trough piglet who has fed on the public dole teat for years while the other is a dangerous self promoter who make outrageous statements like he invented the question mark. He gets a permanent get out of jail free card granted by his constituents. I’m in a permanent state of disbelief at what Trump is doing to the electoral process. He has immunity from accountability and says whatever comes into his head. By the way, there’s a lot of room in there for garbage. No one seems to give a shit if he doesn’t make sense.”
The cop tilted his head toward a woman pushing a stroller.
“Sir, your language.”
The officer glanced at his watch and smiled. “You remind me a lot of my old man. He’s retired in Florida. He’s home every day with the TV blasting the Fox Channel while he writes large-font emails to my sister and I and everyone he knows about how the world is going to end. I guess I get it. Listen, why not follow me over to Zumbachs and we can grab a cup of coffee.
A half hour later I was spilling my guts to this thirty something. He could feel my frustration.
I looked out the window as the Metro North blared its ubiquitous horn.
“It’s official. We’re screwed. We’re living in a bizarro world of opposites and doppelgängers. Nothing surprises me. Anything is now possible. In the old days, once you betrayed the limits of authenticity, you lost the People. Presently, I can no longer separate the sacred from the profane, truth from rhetoric or Sunnis from Shias. Truth is optional.”
The officer shook his head. “It’s even worse for us. People are actually shooting us. We are expected to serve and protect. I used to work some tough areas and did two tours in Iraq. I know a lot of about what hyper-vigilance and anger can do to anyone in enforcement. The anxiety and resentment builds and can flare up during a routine traffic stop. Being a cop in certain areas is like assuming the role of a UN peacekeeper. You can’t afford to live where you are policing or you don’t want to. Now, its like we’re soldiers returning from Vietnam. They give us that baby killer look. Hell, I was rescuing a cat from a tree the other day and the kid who called filmed it on his phone and ager said I was rough with the cat. It’s total BS.”
“Tell me about it. My son told me he hated capitalists and then asked me for $100.”
I held up two fingers to Will, the friendly barista wearing the Choose To Be Happy tee short. “I guess the good news is I believe anything now. Halloween and Christmas will be fun this year. It also means 70 % of all TV is now available for my viewing pleasure. Last night I watched Sharknado.”
The cop perked up. “You too? Hell, I found myself crying when Fin jumped into the maw of that cyclone-spun great white to rescue Tara Reid. Man I thought she was a goner. You know she still looks pretty good. If I wasn’t married…”
I elbowed him as two high school girls walked in. “Sir, your language.”
I laughed. “Remember the scene where Fin used that chain saw to cut his way out of the 20 foot megaladon, it was awesome. You know, I want a chain saw for Christmas.”
The officer sipped his coffee.
I perked up. “Megaladon” is actually a perfect portmanteau word to describe Trump.”
The officer rolled his eyes. “I actually don’t know who I’m going to vote for. I think Trump would be better for cops but as a father and citizen, he scares the crap out of me. Hillary’s a dirt bag but she’s just better at corruption than the average official who has long forgotten politics as public service and the art of compromise.”
I smiled.”Look at it this way. The world is a more dangerous and magical place now. We have stepped off platform 9 3/4 and are on a train to Hogwarts. We can now believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, Valdemort, and the lost city of El Dorado. Maybe the next time I go to the market to buy some groceries I’ll meet someone with some magic beans. I’m ready to take on a giant and a beanstalk.
We sat across three more coffees and compared notes on the polluted political process we call two-party democracy. His dispatch called and he sped off to interrogate a man who was arguing with the traffic attendant over using a handicap spot to get a quick latte at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Yes, life had become Sharknado and it was getting more bizarre with each week.
My world is leaching with the pollution drift of dislocated people, terrorists, disease, social fault lines, greed, corruption and demagoguery — and that’s just in youth sports. “Remember”, my friend Carll reassured me. “It is all just the buzzing of flies.” Maybe so but where there are lots of flies, there’s usually a pile of something else.
I am now in mid-life shuffling toward my next doctors appointment and the snap of latex glove. “This may feel a little uncomfortable.” I am searching for a new tribe — Perhaps there is a Facebook page for October Ovines — middle aged smart-aleck, slackers who can’t lose weight and wont watch Game Of Thrones. I secretly want to attend a Day of Rage March so I can rail against the man — even though it is clear that I am now the man. Friends are fleeing our overmatched Governor to new homes in the Carolinas, Florida, Texas and other far off red state economies where the ratio of public to private workers remains tolerable and the fiscal spending is not so disjointed as to portend calamity.
A staggering 40% of Americans over age 50 have zero saved for retirement and another 20% have less than $100k. I suppose one will work until they die. And in a world where artificial intelligence has jumped from the pages of Assimov to the world of knowledge workers, I’m not sure what dislocated generations of Americans will do for a living wage.
Why is it that the most affluent among us suffer from fear — self centered angst about losing what they have or not getting what thy want. Fear permeates everything these days and makes any optimist look like a buffoon drunk on the nostalgia of some old movie where the bad guys lose and social fractures are healed. Boy gets girl. Kid learns valuable lesson. Clarence gets his wings.
Depend upon it, Sir,” said Dr. Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
I’m focused again but I still can’t believe what I’m seeing. Tomorrow night they are debuting Sharknado 4. Perhaps I’ll be able to find some answers.
Chanticleer Reviews had named “53 Is The New 38” a finalist in its Journey Awards for non fiction. Winner TBD as of Aptil 2017. Cash and prizes! The book, was also recognized as a finalist for Humor/Comedy earlier this year at the Indie Book Awards, this second recognition for the book is really fun and reiforces the notion that even a broken watch is correct twice a day! Here’s a link to the book.https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1517093694?fp=1&pc_redir=T1
One of the fun aspects of my hobby as a writer is to surround myself with an erudite and thoughtful array of friends from all sides of the aisle and across many continents. My friend Carll, is CEO and editor of a rapidly growing newspaper, Daily Voice, focused on real time, local news. His reaction to Brexit is thoughtful and above all, humanist. His daily OpEd to friends is salient and food for thought:
I’ve got no “cred”, in today’s parlance, to talk Brexit, another vocabulary newcomer. Virtually everybody I respect bemoans Britain’s choice and the Donald supports it, which helps me fix my coordinate points on the map of public opinion. If you find me siding with Trump on any controversy, it’s a statistical anomaly, promise.
What I – and all of us – can and must wonder at is the apparently inexorable accelerating unraveling of mankind. We don’t want to be one, it seems. We don’t want community or peace. We want to wave our little flags and stamp our furious little boots and hiss insults at our neighbors like petulant kindergartners. Collaboration, coordination, conciliation, internationalism, the brotherhood of man, Red Cross, UN, open borders, the long proud precious four-century legacy of liberalism is mocked by the new barbarians. To hell with you if you’re not like me and screw you and take a hike have become our new stirring slogans, no less in Britain than in the jungle of Trump. Let’s all carry uzis at least. We’ll need them.
Is this slide inexorable or a momentary aberration? Will we come to our senses? If your hunch is glum, how did this happen? How did liberalism – of which our Lady in the Harbor and the values she proclaims are shining symbols – fail?
Pendulums oscillate. That is their nature, they can’t help it. Sooner or later, results disappoint, hope sours, and we try something new. Sequent generations contradict their predecessors – they can’t help it, they need newness to define themselves. Even if an innovation is worse, it is our own.
Liberalism seemed like such a good idea at the time – preferable to warring states and savage factions and tyrannies and thugs. Weren’t peace and health and cooperation and the wellbeing of the less fortunate a good sought by all? Didn’t progress mean advancement toward a better world for everyone?
Each thinker must shape his own thesis. (By thinker I mean members of the shrinking sodality of the reflective. Illiberalism rejects reflection in favor of passionate stupidity and blind obedience. Questioners are enemies of the rampant mob.)
My candidate for culprit is greed. The haves couldn’t resist grabbing more and more. A global economy facilitated their grabbing. Globalization dwindles the individual to an impotent and invisible speck, a data point. Democracy silently surrendered to global oligarchy.
Masters of the machine became masters of earth. Gradually mere folks woke to their impotence. Wow, they’d turned serfs without their say-so. Tea-partiers, Occupiers, rabid nationalists of all nations gave voice to this growing discontent. The masters of the universe chuckled at these noisy nuisances. Bernie Sanders and others roared, no, no, you’re not listening! Wall Street – that is, the world headquarters for global capitalism – wasn’t listening. Those discards of humanity were gathering heat like rags in the attic, moving toward the instant of spontaneous combustion when bursting into flame they would burn the place down.
The failure of liberalism, if this theory holds, is a moral failing. The winners stopped caring for the losers in the global game, stopped seeing them, celebrated their triumph with obnoxious conspicuous consumption, wrote off the poor as pests. Trump, curiously, symbolizes both the disgusting excesses of capitalism and the fury of the discards. His outlandish success and flaunting offensiveness gives the disenfranchised hope.
How should we fans of liberalism – of the U.N., our Constitution, Shakespeare and the Sermon on the Mount – respond to the present crisis? Let’s look first into our own hearts. Are we as just, tolerant, embracive, generous as we might be? Let us define the good – then pursue it fiercely. We must not shrug.
It’s was 9am and a chill still hung in the summer air. The coastal wind whipped by a shifting high pressure system had lifted a fog bank off the Farallons and gently deposited it on to the Western Edition. You could see it cresting up from the Golden Gate and settling like soft cotton on the crowd that slowly moved from cars and cabs toward the cathedral that rested at the top of San Francisco’s Parnassus Heights.
These early days of summer are whispers from a distant youth – soft breezes and a warm sun promising a day bursting with possibilities. We arrived in tight, somber bands shuffling toward the Mass where we would mourn and celebrate the sudden passing and life of our friend and confederate, our “blue sky” giant who could see a little farther than the rest of us — always promising treasure and believing that tomorrow would hold a bigger and better island to explore than today.
Larry Del Santo Jr. Aka Laurie, Little Lar, The Giant, Mr Blue Sky etc had more monikers than Methuselah. He had been pried loose too soon from his grasp on life’s mortal coil and gone to surprise his mother who had been mourned in this same church on this same day some seventeen years earlier.
Growing up, I can only see Becky Del Santo in some form of pregnancy. She was in this compromised state for twenty five consecutive years. Larry Jr. could never remember a time when his mother was without a child stuck to her breast or wearing a floral sun dress that portended the arrival of another brother or sister. Like all suburban 60’s mothers, Becky was two parts Saint and one part clairvoyant, air traffic controller. She and my mother were best friends and compared notes on how they could keep their kids on the right path and out of harms way.
Becky’s eldest boy, Larry Jr was her agent and proxy tasked against his will with leading the procession of Del Santos through life and toward a chance at Heaven. We grew up in the great Jurassic age of American families. It was the final epoch of politically incorrect patriarchal rule where children were viewed as useless lumps of coal requiring swear words and enormous pressure so they might one day become a diamond in the eyes of society.
To be the eldest kid in this patriarchal community carried its own unique burden. You were expected to serve as defacto adult when no parent was present and would invite admonishment and reprisal if something illicit actually occurred on your watch. In our Southern California suburban neighborhood, alpha older brothers directed traffic and meted out pioneer justice on an ecosystem of middle class kids who were blessed with time and a less suffocating form of Darwinian parenting that afforded them a free-range childhood with community supervision.
The average family had four kids — hedging in the event someone got a faulty fuse while playing with an M80. Silent Generation fathers disappeared at 7am and staggered home at 7pm asking their wives two questions,”how was your day and who do I hit?” Mothers were soft breezes that blew in to sort out the chaos, prevent the T-Rex fathers from devouring their young and to ensure the laundry got folded. Matriarchs were the de facto rulers of the roost and over time, slowly learned to exercise the power that Gloria Steinhem so desperately tried to convince them they possessed.
In the long hot summers of the late 60s, packs of free range children migrated on foot, skateboards and bikes across a lime green veldt of manicured front lawns, latticed by magnolia tree lined sidewalks and perfect two car driveways. Larry Del was a giant towering over any kid south of Huntington Drive. He would not stop growing until he cast a 6′ 7″ shadow against the broken red oak fence that separated our two abutting properties. He was the eldest — a mischievous man mountain that appeared to have stumbled out of some Northern Italian fairy tale. He was blond with a massive grin and eyes that narrowed as he surveyed how he might torment you. His mere size compelled a kid to offer up your lunch money. Yet, his Catholic compass kept him on the right side of decisions. As with all industrious Italians, he would periodically remind you that he would indeed call on you some day for a favor — a social contract in which you would be well served to comply.
He accepted us before we ever met. Our addition to the neighborhood would turn out to remove pressure and suspicion that often rested firmly at the door of the Del Santos of Warwick Rd. The day my parents were signing papers to purchase our new home on adjacent Windsor Rd, my brothers and I were in the back garden, unsupervised ( big mistake ) and launching the largest dirt clods known to man over the backyard fence into what sounded like a rural pond. We laughed hysterically as the nuclear bombs repeatedly hit their target launching water spouts eight feet high. We could not see our new neighbor’s pool nor knew that the five kid Del Santo family living next door to these ill-fated people, would be initially blamed for the first of many decades of transgressions.
Later that night, eleven year old Larry Del Santo Jr would grin upon hearing that four boys were moving into the house behind them. With two brothers and two sisters and another sibling on the way, Larry Jr understood this new tribe of Presbyterian boys could prove a useful distraction to his house of diapers, Von’s breakfast pastries and Catholic expectation.
His dad, Big Larry, and our father were the most feared Dads in the neighborhood. They shared a belief that no one was innocent and while it was God’s job to punish in heaven, a parent was God’s quartermaster here on earth. Big Larry was a tough food industry executive and practicing Catholic who felt the Spanish Inquisition was justified and that a few public burnings could do wonders for kids and politicians. He did not publically take the Lord’s name in vain but secretly admired my father’s profanity which could have won a gold medal at the Cursing Olympics.
Larry Del Santo Sr, aka Big Larry, liked to remind you that a father was the ultimate alpha male. You were a child – a single cell paramecium that moved mindlessly toward food and light. To emphasize your utter uselessness, he would compel you whenever he saw you to shake his hand. “Get over here and shake my hand you little creep.” He would then squeeze your digits so hard your knuckles would be touching. He’d release you and as you fell to the ground massaging the broken bones metatarsals he’d bellow to your father. “Jesus, Miles. You’re going to have to toughen up these pansy boys.” If we had been meat, we would have been placed under his Hun saddle to be tenderized.
From 1957 to 1982, Becky Del Santo would give birth to twelve children with Larry Jr the steward and standard bearer as the eldest child. In life, he found his purpose in being a first child. He had the “blue sky” humility of a man who somehow knew his role was not just to be a standard bearer but to forever lead the denizens of adolescents who would follow. He would serve as the tallest tree on our horizon line and and a non judgmental lighthouse for his siblings and any friend that sometimes got lost in the marine layer of life — reminding us all where the shoals had scratched the keel of his boat. He was always just ahead, yelling back to that everything was fine and to keep following his voice.
He thunderous laughter could perfume any room and his capacity to find trouble was legendary. He was a self anointed Mr Fix It — the kid in the neighborhood who “kind of knew” how to use his all dad’s tools and could build everything from tree houses to trebuchets. Like PT Barnum, he could smell a sucker and often organized his growing army of younger siblings and neighborhood kids to carry out a personal vendetta that might increase the chance of our arrest and his damnation. Yet, the benefit of Catholicism was weekly absolution in confessional followed by a dozen “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers”.
When the local Helms bakery began delivering baked goods, Larry Jr recognized that the Helms driver was not the freshest bun in the oven and proceeded to develop a strategy where we might distract him while others emptied his change belt and then proceeded to buy all his donuts and candy back from him. Years later, we would conclude the Helms man had been intellectually impaired. ( Yep, we’re doing’ time in Purgatory for that one.)
In the days before helicopter supervision or political correctness, kids played a major role in the neighborhood ecosystem as a part-time labor force, extended family for kids from broken homes and change agents interpreting for one another the strange mysteries of life. This required collateral material usually stashed in Larry’s tree house — a cornucopia of Oui and Playboy magazines . In an age of Moon shots and mainframe computers, we were pirates and he was the Pirate King. To possess Larry’s physical prowess meant that you could move freely across streets and no one would dare fire a BB gun or launch a bottle rocket.
As kids, we were forever in search of money –to buy food, fireworks or attend a double feature at the local Alhambra theatre. Larry’s larceny included a black market in fireworks and quarter sticks of dynamite that would be administered to the mailbox of any octogenarian bold enough to chase us off his dichondra lawn. If that subtle warning did not intimidate the offending neighbor, we might resort to eggs launched with a funnel and surgical tubing or perhaps Epsom salts were poured on the lawn to spell a forbidden word. The doorbell might ring to a flaming bag of dog poop or an empty space. When the usual suspects were hauled in for questioning, we became one another’s permanent alibis.
When the Pirate King punched your shoulder, your arm would hurt for a week. He once had me lean on his feet while he laid on his back. “It’s a rocket launcher ride” I sat on his feet as he yelled “next stop the moon.” He proceeded to “launch me” fifteen feet into the side of my Dad’s Ford Granada almost breaking my arm. When we saw the dent I had caused, we all fled the scene. “Boy, kid, are you in trouble” Larry Jr yelled as he climbed over our fence where Tipper his faithful Irish Setter waited on the other side.
Like wartime prisoner exchanges, my brother Miles would invite Larry Jr with us on vacation while the Dels might get a “Turpin to be named later” for their week down at the beach. Years later, the families finally saw the logic in renting homes in Newport Beach at the same time. Big Larry loved his time on the Balboa Peninsula and was always surrounded by a swirling, one degree of separation scallion of food, beverage, insurance and consumer goods Catholics – small armies of six, eight and ten kid families all renting beach houses near one another each August. In time, Larry Jr, his brothers Michael and John, sisters Mary and Therese would end up helping their own and other people’s siblings.
The Pirate King longed for his own ship and state room but instead had to settle for a few precious belongings. His most treasured possession was his stereo. In the last golden age of high fidelity, Larry Jr became an audiophile. He matched a Pioneer turntable with a stylus as sensitive as your shy cousin with a 200 amp Kenwood receiver, Bose amplifier, Infinity speakers and an eight track deck to create a system so powerful it could knock down an old lady fifty yards away.
He had plastic sleeves for each Beatles album and would spend hours listening to the dulcet music of Paul McCartney on his headphones. Just for a minute, he was alone — in his own room with no filthy crew and cramped quarters. Moments later, the magic would always be broken by the scent of a dirty diaper announcing the arrival of an infant sibling who would drunkenly stagger into his room looking for his or her mother.
Perhaps being surrounded with so much life compelled the older Del Santo boys to flirt with Death — activities that by today’s standards would land parents in jail for child endangerment. Yet, we were the pioneers of mischief – ancestors whose BB gun wars became tomorrow’s paintball and whose motocross and mini-bike jumps laid the foundations for X Games.
Our friend Judd recalls that common sense was permanently on vacation in those days. A favorite high risk game required one kid to ride a mini bike up and down the street and through the back yard while others would fire BB guns at him from concealed sniper nests. When a bullet lodged under the driver’s eye, they quickly picked it out with tweezers but explained the injury as a baseball accident. Injury was not a badge of honor but a potential invitation for punishment. A contusion was something to be disguised. Blood or a tear in one’s clothing was a sign that a kid had been engaged in grab-ass. You tear your shirt? You pay for it. You get a cut requiring stitches and scare the hell out of me? Ill make you wish you died out there. Injury was a kid’s fault. “What in the God’s green earth were you doing over at the Del Santos?”
Life in the late 60s and early 70s was a death defying time of discovering boundaries, learning through failure and encounters with authority figures. The police did not work at cross purposes with your parents. The cops often brought a kid home to a punishment that they knew was likely to be more painful and decisive than any visited by local law enforcement.
Larry Del Jr was exposed to the full radiation of first child accountability. It pulsed from a busy father and an overwhelmed mother who looked to him to ride shotgun for an army of children still finding their way in the world. He never relinquished the job of Pirate King. It became his raison d’être.
Larry had his share of life’s successes and disappointments but he was always grounded in the singular fact that he was his family’s sibling leader — large and in charge, ready to give advice to anyone. He deeply loved his own kids who had become his pride and joy. He was genetically predisposed to be a Dad. Later in life, he would make it his priority to know each of his thirty nieces and nephews.
For four decades, our lives would intertwine – vacationing together, swapping kids, offering summer work, helping potential felons find the right college. It was always the same — the cabal of Italian Catholics and the feisty and felonious quartet of Presbyterian boys who were uncertain whether they wanted to be superior court judges or wards of the criminal justice system.
It’s 4am now. I’m feeling old driving south on Highway 101 to SFO to fly back to JFK. A tangerine sunrise to the east feels like a home fire burning. The San Francisco Bay is an ebony inkblot sequined by the lights of a hundred high tech office parks and residential homes along the waters edge.
I’ll miss him. He was a thousand summer nights running across the innocence of my youth and my fascination with risk. He was a surrogate big brother and a talisman for the truth. He was a Pirate King, the Leader of the Lost Boys — always itching for a golf game or a dinner with as many people jammed into one house as the fire marshal would allow. He was big in every way and his heart showed how endless our capacity for love can be.
All hail to the Pirate King, our Blue Sky Giant, the vanquisher of bullies, master of mischief and champion of all sound systems. He blazed a trail that we will follow for the rest of our lives. His inate sense of kindness taught all of us that God does not work through burning bushes but through people and he was perhaps, the tallest and most amazing juniper in our garden.
Don’t worry Larry. We will pick up the torch and the funnelator to be sure we keep things loose and when it’s necessary, we will enforce the community standard – perhaps launching a few eggs at a grumpy neighbor’s house.
“Watch out for emergencies. They are your big chance.” – Fritz Reiner
With such culturally rich programming like Hoarders, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and now the 2016 GOP debates, it’s clear that America is addicted to the sugar high of shock jock invectives and personal attacks.
I’m wondering whether ancient Rome had its own version of “Here Comes the Etruscans” or “The Prelate” — primetime programming just before the Visigoths invaded through rotten walls.
The GOP Debates of 2016 have been manufactured for the medicated masses — a pathetic Roman gladiator spectacle of blood lust and nothingness that does more to damage the GOP than any of its amorphous stances on immigration, healthcare and foreign policy. The great Republican nation state is in danger of reverting to Whig-like irrelevance with its moderate and orthodox factions splintering into a lawless no man’s land of angry contrarianism.
I admit to not liking or trusting Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders is too extreme for this nation to support and too naive to understand that a socialist cannot drive 6% GDP growth — which is what he claims his financial plan will produce so that all the free stuff he’s planning on giving everyone won’t bankrupt the nation. I’m lost searching for a moderate leader that is electable. Trump’s plan when studied requires unrealistic spending cuts or economic growth at almost 10% GDP growth. I know, it’s inconvenient. Most Americans have been reassured by their candidates that there would not be any math — or Syrian refugees — in this debate.
Kasich is my guy but it does not look good. He is DiCaprio in the Revenant, mauled and left for dead. However, this movie will likely end with JK slowly freezing in the nuclear winter of a radioactive Donald. We are indeed in the winter solstice of American politics and at the nadir of American intellectual and political engagement. Like Ben Carson, I feel very excluded from this free-for-all as my GOP candidate lags the three horsemen of absurdity. I actually don’t know anyone that admits to endorsing or liking Trump and do not see the attraction. I admit to not watching The Apprentice. According to those that do watch The Donald, he’s a winner and will tell old Vlad Putin that he has man-boobs, is a loser and should give the Crimea back to the Estonians or is that the Ukranians. The Baltic countries love Trump. Just ask him.
We are now seeing panderers, liars, ideologues and megalomaniacs take center stage. On the GOP side, we are being asked to choose between an orange bigot, a guy who looks like he rode his bike to the debates and Eddie Munster. The Dems get to choose between Claire Underwood and Eugene Debs.
And a crisis is coming. I can’t wait.
The meltdown may be economic, geo-political, environmental or some twisted combination of all three. I ask myself which candidate has the integrity, skills and temperament to navigate geo-political unrest, economic crisis born out of sovereign debt/deficit spending or a crisis borne from the dust and detritus of a scorched, war torn planet where refugees roam Europe like ghosts of the damned during WWII.
Americans are stuck in a malaise and don’t know it. We are at war but you don’t feel it. We are a pampered lot. We think times are hard but really have not yet had to deal with the brutal sacrifices brought on by a true catastrophic crisis. When a society-threatening event occurs, a civilization often finds its capacity for greatness. In history as in nature, we periodically need a conflagration to clear out the overgrowth of excess, self-interest and the internecine fighting that clogs our arteries and causes us to act out of fear and tribalism. At its furthest point from crisis, a society becomes apathetic and indifferent to the values that made it great. In crisis, we rediscover the “better angels of our natures” and often overcome extraordinary circumstances.
In the late 90’s, sociologists Strauss and Howe identified a predictable figure-eight societal cycle that was characterized by four “turns” occurring in twenty-year phases: Crisis, Rebuilding, Deconstruction and finally Disintegration leading to another crisis.
Each generation plays a critical demographic role in each “turning”. A crisis spawns a “hero generation” that tackles the calamity and gives birth to rebuilders who usher in a generation that extends the precious prosperity arising out of the emergency. Some societies don’t survive their predicament and simply disappear. However, those that succeed seem to forget history and repeat the self-inflicted figure eight every one hundred years.
During periods of prolonged sunshine and success, societies get lazy and individualistic. The builder generation will give birth to a demographic known as Prophets – a selfish subdivision that claws at the edifice of archaic post crisis values – an ethos that, while once essential, seems draconian and out of touch. The Prophets begin to deconstruct the institutions that were so essential to crisis resolution and as they do, the generations that preceded them lament that “civilization is going to hell.” It seems we do go to hell – about every one hundred years and need a crisis to get us out of it.
As society moves further from crisis and Indian summer days of apathy and self-interest, a final generation known as the Cynics beholds the vestiges of a society driven by distinctive needs and proceeds to lead us further down the dark alley of nihilism. When we stop believing in the values that made us great, our final wall disintegrates before the Visigoths. In crisis, we encounter fear but we also discover our our hunger for a purpose greater than ourselves. The traditional caste systems of society melt away under a common need to pull together to ensure our mutual survival. Those we held up as icons during the times of selfish self-service and fear-based, reptilian thinking are exiled to the edges of our communities in favor of those who can bring humanity together and rally us around a common set of ideals that are recognized as essential ingredients to become better versions of ourselves.
In times of tumolt, we look up to politicians, religious leaders, generals and larger than life galvanizing people that force us to subordinate our personal desires for the sake of our united character. Soldiers say there are no atheists in foxholes. The magnesium burn of crisis scorches specious things that preoccupy us — leaving nothing but sinew and resolve. The burn cauterizes the wound of division as the need for basic survival transcends race, socioeconomic barriers and religion. We work together and take an interest in one another for the sacred purpose of building a better tomorrow.
Politicians and pundits agree that gridlock in Washington now means we don’t possess the resolve to change our destructive course until perhaps five minutes before catastrophe. It seems that only when we are on the precipice of disaster will we have enough faith in one another and support for leaders to make tough choices and build critical bipartisan support for our future.
Character matters. Today, I am unable see beyond the ethical limitations of leading POTUS candidates in either parties. The election has become a referendum not just on statesmanship but on our ability to listen to history.
The Civil War gave us Lincoln, and the Depression/WWII gave us Roosevelt and Churchill.
A crisis is coming and it can’t get here soon enough!
This link shares a one hour reading I participated in for my second book. It’s fun and a great primer on the T-Rex series.