The Lost Archives of Captain Hook

thMy 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.

th-2A 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.”

captain-hook-disney-villains-29300024-800-600“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.

Empty Nest Diaries Part 1: Denial

 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. 

Second Finalist Accolade for 53 Is The New 38

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

A Farewell To the Pirate King

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.

img_0810To 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.

img_0811Larry 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.

I’m Building A Safe Place And You Can’t Come!

             So the kids are coming home – from college, from new jobs in far away cities and out from underneath a mountain of college applications. The age-old axioms still hold true. While life is ephemeral, this time of year is a cunning psychosocial re-run that is as perennial as Jimmy Stewart racing down the snow covered streets of the mythical town of Bedford Falls, NY.

My eldest is now a businesswoman and has developed a range of opinions. Her latest revelation is the 38% withholding being faithfully absconded from her bi-weekly paycheck. To her fraternal grandfather’s delight, she is rethinking her political convictions. Thanks to Obamacare she can almost bridge the period where our insurance and Medicare cover her so she might never have to actually purchase it for herself. Yes, George Bailey, it really is a wonderful life!

My college sophomore arrived in a cloud of dust – disgorged from a massive SUV full of teens, filthy laundry and a cacophony of coughs that was reminiscent of a TB ward. He is the middle man on the homo sapien evolutionary chart — not quite upright. He can hit a jump shot from thirty feet but cannot seem to find a trashcan or hit a toilet. As with all mid-semester collegiates, he is paler than a cue ball and unaware that most people go to bed before 3am. Within moments of his arrival, the foyer looks like an alleyway in Mumbai as discarded clothes and food wrappers litter the floor attracting an adoring entourage of cat and dog who will swim under him like pilot fish for as long as he is home.

My final child, a high school senior, is in the process of breaking up with us. We recognize all the signs – curt but polite  responses, unreturned texts, and a palpable annoyance at the littlest peccadilloes like my breathing or how I chew food. Between the avalanche of completing his college applications and a young person’s burning ambition to march toward the front-lines of manhood, he is ready for reassignment.

Holiday expectations quickly morph into resentments and I’m getting annoyed that no one is paying attention to me. Even bribery to spend time together is not working as they have their own money. Most years, I become a grump – silently wallowing in self-pity, overeating, and talking to the dog as he sympathetically receives my latest Martin Luther list of complaints about the decline of the modern pater familus.

Yet this year, it’s different. There is a movement across America that is warming the mud of my holiday self absorption. Contrary to some people’s opinion that I am wearing a garland of pity fashioned out of misguided self-interest and rice-paper sensitivity, I have learned that I am actually a victim of discrimination.

I knew it – ageism, mildly overweightism, suburbanism – you name it; these subtle forms of overt exclusion seep from the pores of a hyper-judgmental world. After carefully reading up on the demands of a legion of determined students across America’s universities who are bravely confronting the meanness and unconscious prejudice of their cocooned educational institutions, I declared my own independence.

After emerging from football hibernation in my man-cave on Thanksgiving Day while my wife had been spending her day in the kitchen, she had the audacity to ask me to peel potatoes. I was naturally upset as I did not expect a request for support – after all, food preparation is traditionally women’s work. My wife is also British. I explained that since half of my family was Irish, I could not understand her insensitivity to asking me to peel potatoes. Having immigrated to the US during the last potato famine and having endured the poverty, racism and tyranny of English colonialism and US slum lords, I was appalled that she would be so culturally unrealistic to expect me to peel a few praties on the graves of my ancestors.

As she smirked and raised an eyebrow, I stomped my foot.

“I won’t stand for this micro-aggression. Your making me relive my forefathers’ humiliation as they stepped off the boat at Ellis Island.”

She handed me a bowl and the peeler. “You’re lucky that we both love the same person.”

Church was no refuge. The stewardship sermon encouraged me to reach deeper into my pocket to support those less fortunate. This made me feel bad. I don’t like it when people make me feel bad and I made a mental note to petition the Worship committee to be more understanding that sermons should not discriminate against anyone who does not feel like helping poor people. The worship challenge now is to find a lowest common denominator subject that can appeal to every soul in our hyper-heterogeneous congregation. My suggestion included a primer on how to operate a lathe or make a bird feeder – but perhaps I was now being bigoted because some members may not know what a dowel is.

Micro-aggression was everywhere. Clients wanting me to work on their projects without regard for how I was feeling or what I had going on. “Look, Homeland is on tonight and I’m feeling kind of fragile today.”Bosses expecting me to meet deadlines and conform to their definition of performance. Like who knows better than I do about how I perform? Later, while deep in thought at a traffic light, a woman bullied me by honking her horn. Here I was worrying about Kim Kardashian’s latest pregnancy and I am attacked.

The micro-aggression storm grew in intensity as my supposed “Friends” did not press “like” on my latest posting on Facebook. The accountant called. The IRS, ever the aggressor, was expecting me to pay increased taxes to keep funding our inefficient and dysfunctional government. The biggest insult arrived from my son’s safe haven college asking me to remit this semester’s full tuition – a bloated payment that helps fund a majority of other students who are on financial aid. Gratefully, I learned that many of those receiving my support were my brothers and sisters in self pity.

 I was depressed. It seemed wherever I looked, ageism, body-ism, sectarianism ( I’m convinced Methodists and Catholics keep secrets and won’t share them ) and discrimination followed me like cheap cologne. I declared to my family that I needed a safe place (aside from my bathroom) where I could feel unthreatened.

I emailed our First Selectman to ask if He would consider converting the local teen center to a fat-guy, judgment-free zone where late boomers could watch football, play Christmas music year round, eat pie, smoke a cigar, not have to answer client calls, or help anyone with anything unless we felt like it. I would want the front desk clerk at this Shangri-La of lethargy to weigh 300lbs to make us feel thin. Best of all, I’m going to demand that someone else pay for this as compensation for years of dislocation.

My Selectman wrote me back.

“Thanks for the terrific suggestion. I’m not sure where things stand with the re-purposing of this location but we will certain circle back to you. I can completely understand how you feel and want to better understand your issues. Sincerely, Rob”

His note was riddled with undercurrents of aggression and sarcasm. How you feel? Clearly he was singling me out. Understand? What, I’m not speaking well enough for you to comprehend my concerns? I bet you think I have a couple of Krispy Cremes tucked in my cheeks? It’s because I’m over fifty? Or maybe you don’t like the fact that I’m in healthcare or drive a Ford. Note to self: Demand his resignation. I’m not going away.

I’m going to find my safe place and when I get it, he won’t be invited. In fact, I’ll make sure all those people that made me feel like a middle aged, silver-haired baby will be in the parking lot being told they can’t join my carnival of conceit. I’ll show them that it does not pay to be judgmental, exclusive and close-minded.

It’s sad that they will never understand what it means to be me. Once I’m in my safe place, I’ll never have to waste time away from Homeland trying to explain it to them. They will be out of my life – expunged by the segregation that they once subjected me to.

I may need to find a new job, new clients, maybe even a new family, and well, a lot of stuff. But I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m going to demand someone reimburse me for all those things.

By the way, has anyone seen my U-9 participation trophy?

 

 

An Interlude Before Act Three

images

It’s the middle of winter and I’m restless with a sense of disequilibrium and lack of purpose.  I am a salmon with no stream to ford.  A swallow that has overshot San Juan Capistrano. On this day, I am at war with the eaves of my home as they plead with me to allow them to just lay down and die, yielding to the opal blue ice shelves that form like glaciers and re-route ice melt under my roof shingles. Each intersection of roofline becomes a loose suture eagerly accommodating frigid water seeking a rivulet or stream that might deliver it to Long Island Sound.  Somewhere across town, a plumber is smiling in his sleep.

I kick the snow off my boots after a pathetic episode with a roof rake and a confused dog that keeps trying to hump my leg.  With my arms disabled, it’s an optimal time for him to challenge my alpha status. He waits until I am staggering under the 40-foot jousting stick and proceeds to mount my leg. One can only imagine what the local soccer mom is thinking as she passes my front yard on the way to a cross-town pick up. She makes a note to take a less profane route home and delay a hard conversation with little Johnny.

My back aches from fighting off my molester and the relentless hacking at the ice that keeps forming like a scab. I hesitate by the front door, leaning down to touch my toes and am once again attacked from behind this time with enough force that I hit my head on the front door and tumble into the foyer.

 “Having a nice time?” My wife asks with amused sarcasm as she walks past under a mound of dirty clothes. The dog grabs a slipper and playfully shakes it in his mouth.  My snow ensemble is designed to withstand wind chills of -5 but it makes it hard for me to move.

 “Please just kill me.” I mutter.

 The dog once again goes for me but this time I kick him and am immediately admonished.

“Ohhhh, he just wants to play!”

“Yeah, he wants to play San Quentin. The next episode will find me dressed like a poodle, smuggling him food from the prison cafeteria.”

“You REALLY need something to do.”

 It is Saturday morning and I flirt with a distant memory of jogging along the strand of Manhattan Beach. I gallop past fit narcissistic Californians and watch as surfers and porpoises angle for position on a perfect feathered green wave. David Byrne appears on my shoulder.  “How did you get here?…Is this your beautiful house?…Is that your beautiful wife?. Who’s dog is that?”

 Self pity creeps in — tendrils of frigid February air winding through my poorly insulated doors and windows.  The recent happy holiday infestation of my children home from college has been replaced by vacant silence of one child left at home.  The slightest noise reverberates through the halls like an empty museum.

I am a grounded Black Hawk pilot no longer needed for adolescent patrols or required to participate in night-time reconnaissance missions. There are no more sudden fire fights borne out of stupidity or unanticipated crisis.  The high school battlefront is becoming a distant memory and I’m now walking life’s journey with a wife and last child who are annoyingly organized and settled.  I’m left with a tangle of frozen winter woods and a dog who keeps trying to jump my bones.

As my life responsibilities once again shift, I’m now confronted with the choice of pouring my newborn time into pleasure, purpose or meaning. Pleasure is easy and most fun. It is a cotton-candy sugar-buzz organized around venal gratification.  It’s a giant roast beef sandwich at 1am. It’s a guy’s golf or ski trip.  It is spending all day in my pajamas writing nonsense.

Purpose is the logical path – with most empty nest professionals doubling down with their personal time, investing back into their business and profession. It’s ironic but it is a time when you are most informed but often the least tolerant of those you are working with or for.  You get opinionated and become less flexible.

Meaning is a tad abstract but is at the core of happiness. It comes from serving something grander than one’s self.  Service is often an inconvenient no man’s land of anonymous need that lies just beyond the safe and convenient radius of those you prefer to help.  However, for those that believe in Karma and spiritual balance sheets.  Meaning creates goodwill and goodwill is useful currency on earth and in Heaven. It just can’t buy you anything at the local 7-11.

My savant son who watches TED talks all day informs me that I need a balance of all three buckets to achieve perfect life equilibrium. Moderation and balance are not my strong suits. And since when are my children presuming to give me advice on how to navigate the sparsely lit corridors of middle age.  He is ridiculously rational and it annoys me. I want to stab him with his selfie stick.

What I really need to do is go pick up cigarette butts outside a halfway house or anonymously clean a public toilet with a toothbrush. My Dad used to call it pity-potty work. A little hard work on your hands and knees does wonder to moderate high-bottom self-pity. I think eating an apple fritter would be better.

I’m not sure where to begin. I consider the possibility of spiriting off to some third world country to build mud huts helping the impoverished out of the gutters of an overpopulated hell. Yet, I am a soft lad – lacking the constitution to stray too permanently from where I have been planted.  I am worried that ISIS might kidnap me at the mall. I know I suffer from an overactive imagination and a healthy penchant for hypochondria. The third world seems awash in sinister characters, pesky paramecium and perpetual pandemics that would make find me washing my hands all day and over reacting to the slightest ache, twinge or itch assuming it is Ebola, the Bird Flu or a new strain of avian-monkey plague.

I could move back to California although according to my father, the state is now Satan’s lower colon and one must now pay very high taxes for crappy public services.

Perhaps all this middle-aged rumination is natural — driven by deprivation of sunlight, and exposure to freezing temperatures that thicken my blood triggering a condition known “mental mildew”.

I choose to move a muscle and change a thought. I enter my den electing to clean out a bloated storage closet. I find myself indiscriminately tossing out items the way a condemned man might suddenly consign his possessions to a passing stranger. It feels good to just throw things away without dwelling on their significance or intrinsic sentimental value.

I find a box that has survived every move since my childhood. It is jammed with the detritus of a glorious misspent youth. There are report cards, letters, coin collections, and odd items of sentimental value that so often find their way years later into some dusty desk caddy at a corner antique shop. A single cuff link from a senior prom, a coin with a naked lady (I am uncertain where this coin actually counts as currency but it must have been a magical place ), a lead soldier missing one arm, and a mercury head silver dime.

I find a fake ID from college. It is for Frank Manly from Missoula, Montana. Really?  Manly? I note that in two weeks, it will be Frank ‘s birthday. He was a February baby and will now be 56. He was always four years older than me. He was a hellion but could not dance.

The pyromaniac in me is delighted to discover 40-year old firecrackers and one M80. I feel that old familiar thrill of arson and am suddenly itching to blow something up a model airplane or incinerate some soldiers.

There are Boy Scout merit badges earned across a thousand nights of hard ground camp outs, 50-mile hikes and knots that would confound Houdini. There were hysterically funny letters from a friend who had a summer college job on an oil rig. Far from Patrick O’Brien, my maritime mate, de-romanticized the notion of life at sea, characterizing his “two week on, two week off” gig as “a hellish descent into overpaid, undereducated men who work all day and watch pornography all night…. And then there is the bad side.”

Years before the Dangerous Catch, this kid was living the dream and almost losing his fore finger every day. This was also the same confederate who wrote to tell me that his dad had made him eat a city pigeon after he shot the bird for sport from his bedroom window. “We eat what we kill.” were the only words of grace his father muttered over my buddy’s piece of squalid squab. How’s that for a life lesson?

I root out my Middle school report cards — replete with Cs and Ds in citizenship. It was indeed a time of attention deficit and awkward hormone filled days. It was also a time of passions — Baseball cards, coins, stamps, puka shell necklace, and a bone dry miniature bottle of Testors olive green paint for a Revell British spitfire.

There were phone messages from my first job in the early 80s. My friend Lloyd would call specifically to torment the secretaries leaving perplexing missives such as, “Mike, call me back ASAP.  If they cannot find me I’m hiding under my desk.”

There were passionate notes from my father remarking on the low IQ of California’s Democratic Congressional leaders including Senator Barbara Boxer who sent him a one sentence response to his three page letter lecturing her on supply side economics. He forwarded a copy of her curt response along with a short note to me: “Dear Michael, a deep thinker…”

There were thank you notes written at gunpoint to myriad relatives for a decade of birthday cards filled with five-dollar bills. More letters to me from my father and a hastily written social contract scratched in the hieroglyphics of a sixth grader trying to avoid some nuclear punishment resulting from a split second of bad judgment that involved three eggs and a massive black fin-tailed Cadillac.

There was a Polaroid of a big-boned six year old in 1967 squeezing the life out of a massive midnight black cat named Panther. Newspaper clippings from the San Marino Tribune trumpeted my Little League and High School athletic feats, followed by old national newspapers reporting Nolan Ryan no hitters, David Cone perfect games, presidential elections and gut-wrenching catastrophes. I moved my hand across the covers of Life magazines depicting the Tet Offensive, Apollo XIII, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, John Wayne, James Dean and Woody Allen holding a blow-up doll.

I stand up, stretching and carefully return the box to my closet.  I am holding a full trash bag filled with less valued relics of my past, content to shed them like an old skin. However, the container and it’s treasures will remain — a permanent time capsule of my life – a journey of innocence, havoc, discovery, change and accomplishment.

I realize that this time is but another life interlude, a brief intermission before Act 3.  What I have lost in physical ability, I have accumulated in knowledge, humility and a keener lens to the world.  There is so much more to do and I clearly am going to need a bigger box.

As my blue mood lifts, I retreat to the floor to stretch, drawing my knee up to my back. I do not hear the door creak as I shift into a yoga position on my hands and knees.  I do not see my assailant but am hit hard from an angle.  It is the damn dog.

My wife looks up for her seat at the computer as a shrill “get the hell off of me!” bounces across three downstairs rooms.

Absentmindedly, she looks out the window and yells to me.

“Honey, what do you think about getting another dog?”

53 Is The New 38

belly photo“Middle Age is where your broad mind and your narrow waist begin to change places.” – John Crossman

I never really took a regular medication for a condition before I was in my forties. My mother did not believe in pills. She was one part Christian Scientist and two parts Inuit Darwinist subscribing to the notion that sick children, like old people, should be just set outside the igloo at night and if they were still alive in the morning, they were allowed to rejoin the family. Illness and chronic conditions were things that plagued other people, like old man Norton who lived across the street. At 85, he suffered from heart failure and diabetes and it seemed like every other week they were lopping off one of his appendages as a sort of burnt offering to his disease. It was a preview of a movie I hoped to never see.

As a kid, you averted your eyes from the vagaries of aging, not so much out of denial but out of some misguided sense that old age only happened to other people. Deep down, you knew it would be waiting for you, like that German Shepherd that sometimes chased you on your bike.  On sunny afternoons, I occasionally glimpsed Mr. Norton and he would wave to me from his wheel chair – all two arms, one foot and a half leg. It freaked me out and I made a pact that I would never succumb to old age. I would cheat it and commit to a life either so reckless or physically vigorous that chronic disease would simply shrug and pass me by. I would go out in a flash, perhaps spontaneously combusting on a rock and roll stage or slowly asphyxiating on the side of Mount Everest after rescuing a dozen Sherpas trapped inside a crevasse on the Khombu Icefall.

Despite my best efforts to remain a juvenile, middle age finally collared me. I am now bemused by my own denial – a self deception that seeps in like lugubrious fog obscuring moments of self reflection. I prefer to see myself in a certain light and favor friendships with people who conserve electricity — their “energy-saver” bulbs have a sort of muted Blanche Dubois quality that fails to expose my true age. I prefer pleats, spandex, “comfortable” levis, and larger versions of everything. I wear my shirt outside my pants and tend to avoid stripes which turn me into a large Faberge egg. My wedding day 33” inch waist has eroded like a Florida sinkhole, widening to 38”, a metric that is really only meant to define the circumference of old trees and an athlete’s vertical leap at a football combine. A protective shell has formed near the top of my solar plexus. It feels like a muscle but I am being told it is fat — presumably being stored in the event the Food Emporium ever goes on strike.

Global warming has begun. The canard that only women get hot flashes could not be less accurate. When you are large and in charge, you feel warm all the time. In a single winter day, you are both sweating and freezing as you go from windy, frigid streets to offices hotter than an Indian sweat lodge. In summer, you advocate the notion that thermometers should be calibrated by weight not by temperature as you would prefer to set the air conditioner to a cool 235 pounds each night instead of the balmy 105, favored by your wife who has not gained a pound across three children, two continents and a quarter century.

You start driving a nice sports car because it reminds you of a time when you could sit comfortably in the middle seat of an airplane and not feel like a human smore. People start to whisper when they see your new ride, “Tsk, tsk. He’s having a middle-aged crisis”. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that in 1986 when I did look good enough to actually drive my own convertible, I did not have two dimes to rub together and drove a puke green Renault Alliance that not unlike the French, would routinely sit down in the middle of a job and go on strike. We sports car drivers are not compensating for anything. We’re just enjoying the fruits of our hard labor and perhaps hoping not to be as invisible as we feel.

At 53, the body starts paying you back. The knees went first. Years of sports and running coupled with a pathetic version of stretching that involved making one effort to briefly touch my toes, gave me a bulging disc and hamstrings as tight as a cat-gut mandolin. The shoulders followed. Years in the weight room with poor technique, a mediocre baseball career as well as annual trips to the emergency room after countless injuries in Turkey Bowl football games, rewarded me with clicking joints reminiscent of a playing card hitting the spokes of a bicycle tire.

The latest manifestation of mortal decline occurred at Halloween while sucking on one of the many Tootsie Pops that I appropriated from my youngest son informing him that he must pay “a toll to the troll’.   He might as well get used to being taxed now. As I succumbed to the inevitable urge to bite the hard candy, my right molar broke off like the Antarctic Ice Shelf. It would turn out to be an $1100 piece of candy and the birth place of my first crown. Thinking back, I’m sure old man Norton had his fair share of crowns but I had always assumed my teeth would be indestructible – at least I thought so in college when we opened beer bottles with them.

Middle Age now means moderation – another profane word. The whole diet thing is a touchy subject in any marriage where there is a weight imbalance. Yet, she tolerates me and often travels great verbal distances to find just the right word for self improvement. I listen in amusement wondering how my spouse might segue from ISIS to my losing ten pounds. It’s diplomatic genius. She ought to work in the UN. She uses code words to hint at lack of restraint – patronizing placeholders like “ healthy”, “balanced” and my favorite “portion control”.

Gratefully, the dog does not seem perturbed by my slow disintegration. He moves at my speed – an adoring shadow that has fallen in love with my insides and considers my outsides, merely a coat of extra fur. The dog and I agree on the true definition of “portion control”: eat until you are going to be sick. Normally, when he overeats, he goes outside, munches on some grass, returns and throws it all up on a nice rug. I just lie down and moan, informing my wife that I think I have the stomach flu. Meanwhile my son comes in the room to incredulously ask, “who ate all the cupcakes?” I try to blame the dog but he is in the other room throwing up grass.

I am suddenly noticing now that everything in the fridge is “low fat”. I search for sweets at midnight and the cupboards are filled with healthy things like nuts, dates and dried apricots. This is no longer my house, it’s a spice market in Baghdad. I search her favorite hiding places including the most clever default– the microwave. I am mildly insulted at our passive aggressive war of weight and wits – but hey, game on. She is Holmes and I am her arch enemy Professor More For Me. The dinners are very healthy with portions smaller than a French restaurant. Like Oliver Twist, I keep waiting for seconds but she has cleverly prepared only enough for one serving. “More? You want…more?!”

It’s not like I don’t try. The problem is the majority of calories I consume occur between 7PM and midnight. Night eating is a problem. It hits every man — the day arrives where you go to bed on a full stomach and wake up coughing with the sensation of napalm in your throat. My first thought was I was turning into a dragon and that perhaps I just needed to light a match to give birth to the fire in my esophagus. The next thing I know I am exchanging proton pump inhibitors like Zantac and Nexium with another middle aged stranger in a late night diner like a couple of crack heads.

Family photos also become an issue. It’s always subtle – one of your kids or your wife will say, “Here’s a good one of you, Dad!” with profound encouragement. This is code for you look like the Hindenburg or a human manatee in most of these shots but this photo (where we can’t see your face), may meet your denial criteria. I now find myself fighting over Christmas photos more than the kids. “Jesus, if you are going to use that one, at least tell everyone my due date.” “Oh great, we don’t need to tell them where this was taken because from this angle, I look like Asia Minor.” In the end, we decide to feature only kids and I finally concede to one couples photo that will be on the inside of the card. She looks great and in this one I look young enough that at least anyone who does not know us will assume she is my second wife and not my daughter.

I can almost hear the Christmas Card comments, “Wow, she looks great!” Pause. “ And he looks…um, prosperous!” The absence of praise should be construed as criticism. Yes, 53 has become the new 38. 38’s are everywhere: 38” waists, a maximum of 38 push-ups, 38 minutes jogging before the knee feels like you have been swatted by Malaysian riot police, 38 ways to hear someone say, “I would not wear that if I were you.”

Life has turned quickly from “do’s” to “don’ts”. The new regulations: Don’t eat fatty foods. Don’t eat after 7pm. Don’t eat meat, Don’t eat fat. Don’t eat refined sugar. Don’t eat gluten. ( I’d actually like an extra helping of gluten please, waitress and can you fry it into a little fritter so I can drizzle honey on it?”

It’s a losing battle in a three front war – with those who conspire to fix me, with my own lack of restraint and with Father Time. Winter is coming and the stakes are increasing.

Did someone say, “steaks”?

Sullen, dreary, dark shadow afternoons. Cold front door mornings that slap like a locker room towel and the endless layers of clothes thick enough to hide a rocket launcher. Comfort foods abound and whisper – hearty soups, breads, pastas, cookies — a universe of simple and complex carbohydrates designed to raise your blood sugar and your mood. It is a never ending battle between good and non fat.

At 53, my superhero outfit is a little tight. I think I popped a button off my lederhosen but its my job to be a “roll” model for other middle aged manatees. You want us on that wall. You need us on that wall. We just all can’t climb up on it at the same time or it might break. We have our purpose. We make the skinny people feel good and aren’t afraid to be the “before” picture in some ad touting self improvement. But inside our 38’s, we’re 33’s busting to get out. We need a little more restraint, a little more sunshine, a vanity based event like a wedding, reunion or family vacation where posing for a photo or removing one’s shirt is a requirement to keep us on the straight and calorie free path. It’s not too late. You may be middle aged but inside your fifty-three is a thirty-eight and underneath that it is a thirty-three. You know, sort of like a burrito. Yeah, that’s it.

Man, I’m hungry.

Postcards Hung on A Distant Mirror

imagesThere is an ancient oak on the corner of my rural street that is always first to turn its back on summer. The pastel colors appear unobtrusively frosting the highest branches and whisper that change has once again found me. Life in a small New England town has its own predictable rhythm of seasons and stages. The dog days of August have been reduced to a collage of digital pictures littered across Facebook pages – a happy memorial to moments when our family once again finds each other for adventures across lakes, mountains and across two coasts of America.

My body and my priorities are shifting with middle age as I become keenly aware of the passage of time. As a helicopter Boomer, I have spent two decades along a thousand green grass sidelines and silhouetted in the deep recesses of school auditoriums. I did not want to miss a single moment of my captive constituents. It is in sharp contrast to my own childhood where we were released into the wild as soon as we could master a Schwinn bicycle. Fathers were only seen after 9PM at night and on weekends.

My Dad chuckles at the myriad photographs of our teenagers logging more frequent flyer miles than a traveling salesman.  He wonders whether my insistence on work life balance is an improvement on his T-Rex parenting or perhaps a sign of the permanent blurring of the lines between parent and child and as such, the decline of Western Civilization.

“You don’t see the Chinese attending every school concert.”  It’s always about the Chinese.

“Well, Dad, I don’t know.  I’m not living there.  And besides, most families have only one child.”

We usually end up tangled in a kite string knotted with political disagreement.

“I was not supposed to be your friend. I was preparing you,” he would retort as we argued over his logic enforcing some nuclear punishment for a molecular misdemeanor. Ah yes, grasshopper, times have changed.

I now find no greater pleasure than sitting around an August dinner table becoming the butt of my adult Millennials revisionist recounting of any day spent together – unplugged and in close quarters. As they grow old and leave our nest, the house has transformed into a listless museum of artifacts from an earlier time. I am reduced to a mere curator.

I am the ornithologist who, having spent months feeding his captive condors with a bizarre plastic hand puppet, must now release them into the wild. Our drop-offs at college have now become emotional pilgrimages as we take endless iPhone photographs and splash them affectionately across social media documenting our fledglings in their new nests. This sits in sharp contrast to 1979 when my parent’s loaded up my possessions in large hefty bags — barely slowing their car down to 15mph before shoving me out on to the curb of a blazing hot suburban, Claremont College street.

I could have sworn I heard Dad say, “Have a nice life!” as he whistled “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My mother yelled something about not mixing colored and whites ( she meant laundry)  and my father reminded me for the millionth time of the myriad sacrifices he had made to finance my expedition into a private college education. Within days, he would turn my bedroom into a third home office. There was no such thing as a living shrine to his collegiate children. It was his house and he was taking determined to take ground lost to his teenaged parasites…damn straight!

An hour away, I was optimistically navigating a phalanx of young men moving toward what I thought was a keg of beer but turned out to be the only good-looking girl on our entire campus. I was on my own.

My roommate, Donald, was a circumspect academic who instantly assessed that I was going to be a problem. He had arrived hours before me – with both parents. His side of the room was outfitted with a mini-refrigerator, coffee machine, photographs of his family and a stereo system that resembled a NASA workstation. He was an only child.

After living wild among four feral boys, an insane cat and a promiscuous dog, I was unprepared for this massive dose of personal consideration and responsibility. I was a slob and could leave a trail that Helen Keller could follow. I was Oscar and Donald was my Felix. I am not sure which of us was more distressed by the fickle fates that lashed us together. He was a soft, erudite Eloi – spending his early mornings reading the Wall Street Journal in the dining hall, and faithfully attending 8AM classes while I led the sullied life of a carnivorous Morlock, laboring at night – refusing to rise before the sun had arced above the trees to remind me that lunch was being served.

Over the year, the room became a collision of ideologies. One roommate – a German laser guided missile who would make provisions for events that might be years away; the other, a loud Irish skyrocket with no discernable trajectory. Donald was a genuine passive aggressive. He would not have survived a nanosecond in the house of my father. He looked at me as if I was an I-5, ten-car pile up and would talk to himself in first person when he was upset with me. As a single cell paramecium that moved only toward light, food, Grateful Dead music and the opposite sex, I was an alien – an extraterrestrial from a universe that seemed content with chaos and the sybaritic notion that tomorrow was at least 12 hours away.

I caught him one day dressed in his “church clothes”. It was a Tuesday and it seemed odd that this organized Lutheran would be attending a religious service.

“Did someone die? Are you, like, going to a funeral?” I asked.

“I’m interviewing for a summer internship with Goldman Sachs.” He sighed in the mirror as he looped his foulard tie under his collar.

I was perplexed. “Why would you want to work at a department store for the summer? I mean you could do much better working in a warehouse or washing windows.”

He started talking to himself again. “He thinks it’s a department store…a department store…” He left the room. I waited a few minutes and then helped myself to some Chips Ahoy cookies from his refrigerator and turned on an old episode of the Twilight Zone on his television. I laughed to myself thinking of Don working in the Men’s department in some lonesome mall.

It all flooded back to me as I dropped my son off at college this week. In many ways, he is my carbon copy – and each of his life experiences flood me with déjà vu moments of amusement. His departure has left our home with only one child remaining – me. My sixteen year old is unervingly responsible to a point where I am uncertain whether he was a changeling from the hospital.  There is now no one to blame for a mess or accuse of eating the last cookies. My collegiate was my air cover and my deflection and I was now releasing him into the wild.

We lugged his bedding, lacrosse gear, clothes and yes, coffee maker up to a pleasant two-bedroom suite on a heavy, humid afternoon. Students swirled like fireflies in blazing red shirts flashing smiles that masked apprehension and nervous sense of adventure. His roommate arrived – another lacrosse player and wide-eyed freshman excited to be free of his hand puppet feeders. Once the all-important beds were made and clothes put away, it was time to leave. The Resident Assistant stopped by to remind them of an orientation session while they stared out the window at a gaggle of girls confidently moving across the quad toward the cafeteria.

He seemed happy. I leaned in, “Be a good roommate. Don’t be a slob. Don’t waste this opportunity.” I was running out of advice – since most of it had already been heaped ad nauseum on his shoulders through four years of high school micro-management.

I turned one last time.

“Hey, if UBS or any of the local business guys interview on campus, let me know. You should get an interview.”

He gave me an odd look. “Why would I want to work at a postal company? I’m wanna make money. Besides, next summer is so far away.”

I opened my mouth and instead just took a deep breath.

Yep, that’s my boy and I already miss him.

To The New Canaan Class of 2014 – Vive Le Difference

my-brain-is-fullIt’s June – a special time of year when we dump three million fingerling seniors into the ocean of adulthood. As graduates of the “we will love you until you learn to love yourself” school of helicopter parenting, you don’t want more advice. But, you’re going to get it any way. Most of you just want to head west or south to find sun and towns with no police blotters or curfews. Good luck with that.

Many of you were born in 1996, the Chinese year of the Pig. This explains the state of your bedrooms, motor vehicles and your penchant to leave wrappers wedged between pillows on the couch.

When you were born, most of us read something by Malcolm Gladwell or an article in Parents magazine telling us that if we desired high performance outliers, we had to hold you back a grade. As a result, your graduating class is an uneven skyline of red-shirted college students and overachieving youngsters. Some of you have been driving since your sophomore year – a few legally.

When we were born before the Civil War, the mid wife gave us a swat to make sure we would cry. It was also a preemptive punishment for all the stupid things we were likely to do. When you were born, swatting was considered child abuse, so the Obstetrician merely asked you how you were feeling. You naturally did not respond and so you got a few free nights in neonatal intensive care and we got a bill for $900,000.

1996 was a wild year. A computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov later found a website on cheats and shortcuts and subsequently beat Deep Blue. In 1996, a wonderful microcosm of America passed away before you could get to know them. You know their iconic images but you never really felt their physical presence. Gene Kelly was a star who danced while George Burns reminded us that age was merely a number. Erma Bombeck told us never to give the car keys to a teenager and Timothy Leary, well, let’s just say he explored inner space while Karl Sagan came back from outer space to tell us we were not alone. Ella Fitzgerald improvised her way to become the first lady of jazz while militant and talented Tupac Shakur died as violently as the lyrics of his brilliant rap. Tiny Tim was our first trip through the tulips in light loafers.

You were pretty normal. Like all children, you loved the notion of having special powers. We played Pokemon, watched Dragon Tales and Arthur, read Harry Potter and observed you with fascination as you got your first taste of dystopia in The Hunger Games. Up to that point, your idea of dystopia was a house without a pimped out basement and any kind of “because you live here” chores.  A few years later, we all went to Washington DC for a family vacation, and got a real taste of futuristic dysfunction.

We tried to stop you from using violent video games but found them so much fun that we joined you on Black Ops missions. You always shot us in the back. When it came to inappropriate movies, it always seemed that you managed to see gory cinema du jour at someone else’s house. We still can’t figure out whose house because we all claimed that we did not allow blood and guts programming — unless of course, your Mom was out for the night and then we agreed that you would not tell about my smoking a cigar if I let you and your friends watch Jeepers Creepers 4.

For many of you, your biggest problems have arisen out of how to deal with a caste system borne out of prosperity. In life, as in nature, the seeds of true character only germinate during the wet winters of personal crisis. Some of you have already felt the sting of broken homes and tragedy. Green lawns and clean streets don’t immunize us from life. Some of you handled your challenges with incredible grace. Through these challenges, you guys cared for and loved each other. That capacity to put someone or something ahead of you is a sign of great emotional intelligence.

Like all of us you don’t like trials and tribulations. Hell, some of you don’t even like the dentist although it is ten times better now than when we were clutching the chair having cavities filled by escaped war criminals. I digress. The fact is you will need to have your fair share of failures and would prefer to avoid them. Woody Allen once shared “I’m not afraid of dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

You are part of a demographic cohort called the “Millennials”. Authors Strauss and Howe educated us that your tribe is characterized by extreme confidence, social tolerance, a strong sense of entitlement and the narcissistic tendency to take photographs of yourself and post them 100 times a day. Like the generations that preceded you, you are regularly accused of being pampered and unprepared. Yet, Strauss and Howe boldly predict that you will become civic-minded and in the face of some yet to be defined great crisis, emerge as a hero generation. It will reassure us if you occasionally start looking up from your phones – if for no other reason than to see the bad guys when they are coming.

We see you seniors like Internet start-ups — full of promise, cool ideas and with a market cap that far exceeds the fact that you still don’t make any money. However, our irrational exuberance for you keeps us investing.

Please understand we do not like regulating your every move as teenagers but we are now being told that we are bad parents if you screw up. The headline seems to now be that life is over if you get caught doing something stupid. Here’s the good news: You’ll recover. America loves a comeback — just ask Bill Clinton who is the only head of state in US history to generate successive budget surpluses, be unsuccessfully impeached, have an affair, stay married, be President and possibly become a First Lady.

You are smart. You adapt rapidly — some of you resemble human thumbs. But please don’t use your handheld devices as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Nothing will ever replace the joy that comes from helping and interacting with other people. Be fearless. The only thing that seems to really scare you is Tony’s Deli being closed on a snow day.

You are a tolerant contrarian bunch that don’t seem to buy into any rigid dogma that excludes others, labels them or requires a greater than thirty hour workweek. You are like the French. You appreciate the finer things in life and prefer to be on vacation when you are not eating, making out or sleeping. You look great in shorts and Capris while the rest of us are putting in 25 watt Blanche Dubois GE light bulbs – ostensibly to conserve energy.

You have a chance to fix the financial mess we have left you but you have to decide between austerity or trying to grow your way out of the hole. Just remember that a strong middle class anchors any society and the true measure of any civilization is how we treat the least among us. Don’t watch MSNBC or Fox, you’ll live longer. South Park is okay. Life outside our bubble is hard – and not every body wants to play by the same rules. Being a humanist is hard. If any of you start a new political party, count me in – especially if it includes eating Nutella crepes and drinking cappuccinos.

Focus on other people because as a rule of thumb, most of you are your own worst enemy. You will spend your lives on a schizophrenic quest for interpersonal unification — trying to merge the tripartite of personalities that is you — the person you project to the world, the person you secretly believe yourself to be and the person your mother knows. The day those three people become one, you will be officially self-actualized or possibly doing thirty days in the can for having the guts to throw a shoe at a public official.

Life is messy, like your bathroom.  You will fail and it will seem weird the first time you don’t immediately hear that familiar whump-whump of the parental helicopter on the horizon. You’ll have your Khe Sahn moments, isolated, no air support surrounded by circumstances that trigger all your self-centered fears. It’s in these moments you will find your capacity to dig in and fight harder. You’ll appreciate everything that you truly earn more than what is given to you.

That sore thing on your hand that you once got shoveling snow is called a callous. It’s a badge of honor suggesting that you worked hard. We can tell when we shake someone’s hands if they have ever met a rake or put in a day’s hard work. Although, be careful being fooled by golfers, they have callouses but tend to avoid late afternoon meetings.

If you choose to attend college, don’t waste your next four years. Get your butt out of bed and go to class. It costs about $2,230 per class so go and learn something. There’s more to life than knowing how to make a mean Mai Tai. To succeed in a flat, competitive world, you’ll need the equilibrium of a jet pilot and the guts of a burglar. You acquire those skills in alleyways, not in your room watching six consecutive seasons of Breaking Bad.

Don’t be a victim. I assure you that whatever higher power you worship has the same desire for you that we do — for you to be happy and to leave the world a better place than when you found it.

Just remember, people are not FTEs or headcount, we are souls on a spiritual journey. Everyone has value. Be a rock of predictability and an oasis of empathy. Never take the last of anything. Make your bed when you stay at someone’s house and strip the sheets. Don’t wear shoes without socks. If your first roommate is nicknamed “Lysol” or “Candyman”, ask for a new one. The semester won’t end well.

Remember Rome was not built in a day and that it rotted from within because of weak politicians, foreign wars and the fact that everyone was inside with their air conditioners on and could not hear the Vandals coming. For that reason alone, always keep a window open.

Be French and live well. Study history and remember the famous line of De Tocqueville, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”

Class of 2014, Vive le difference !

 

A Hoarder in Spring

Hoarders
Image via Wikipedia

Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment. –Mark Twain

I have a predisposition to bizarre, out of the ordinary true stories. It is not schadenfreude that compels me to read about or watch TV shows that deal with some deformed corner of the human condition. I find no relief from other people’s misfortune. But I am drawn to them – the way a campfire child already paralyzed with fear begs for yet another ghost story. “Please stop scaring me some more!”

I am uncertain of the genesis of my macabre fascinations.   Perhaps, it started when I read my first “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” paperback book. The stories ranged from the feral child raised by wild dogs to Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined Siamese twins who each married different women and sired twenty-one kids between them .  (I still wonder what they had to pay for a hotel room).  I recall my magnificent obsession with weird, disjointed cult movies like “Eraserhead” and the 1932 Tod Browning cult classic, “Freaks”  – a horror movie about sideshow performers with names like Half Boy, Bird Girl and the Human Skeleton.

My spouse simply cannot understand my ghoulish predispositions.  She has nothing but empathy for the objects of my fascination and resents their exploitation by the media.  My nighttime malingering around television documentaries that profile people afflicted with exotic and improbable circumstances annoys her to no end.  Despite her scowls of disapproval, I plop down each evening in my great green chair and channel surf scouring the programming horizon line for anything tattooed, incarcerated, insane, disfigured or possessing some bizarre or debilitating condition. There is one show in particular that draws me in like no other. It is simply called “Hoarders”.

Each week, A&E drags its dysfunction hungry viewers into a hard to comprehend docudrama chronicling the lives of psychologically challenged human pack rats whose lives have become so unmanageable that the department of Health, Human or Child Protective Services is in the process of evicting them from a home that is literally consuming its inhabitants with junk.

A certifiable ‘hoarder’ cannot distinguish between valuables and “stuff”.  Hoarders compulsively purchase, collect and accumulate every imaginable material possession – often filling their entire home and yard with useless junk. Some hoarders actually appear normal to the outside world. They are not always reclusive mental patients. Some hoarders just lack the synapses that seem to regulate the emotional and mental connections that help us sort through our needs and wants. In other cases, a trauma, old age or an emotional event may trigger or exacerbate a person’s predisposition to hoard.

The condition of these homes is hard to describe and even harder to imagine.  The rooms are usually uninhabitable, yet the hoarder chooses to burrow among the debris like a hamster.  In one hard to fathom episode,  a woman had over a dozen cats entering and exiting her house through openings created by goats that had chewed holes in her family room wall ….(yes, goats)

To help rehabilitate the hoarder, it is critical to help them solve their own problem by ridding their home of the trash.  They must agree to allow a special cleaning unit to dispose of a large percentage of the debris. Often, the hoarder cannot handle the intervention and becomes despondent, combative or hysterical at the prospects of having their bizarre clotted world dismantled.

Ok, I confess. I am totally fascinated and at the same time, appalled at the living conditions of these seemingly normal people.  Last week, an apparently together thirty-something guy made the mistake of inviting his new girlfriend of six months to see his townhouse. There was just one problem. He was a hoarder.   His bachelor pad looked like the Salvation Army had thrown up all over his house. His soon to be ex-girlfriend wandered his home like a post nuclear blast survivor – – staring with a frozen smile that masked her horror.  Finally she mustered a question, “ How can you live like this? “ I sort of sided with the guy as my college dorm room was not too far from his house.  Who knows?  If I had known him in 1982, I might have borrowed some of his trash until I could accumulate more of my own.

The all-time nadir hoarder story involved a woman whose toilet had broken three years earlier and had solved for this problem by wearing adult diapers and tossing them into an adjacent room – where the stack had now grown to eight feet tall and blocked the door.  At this point, I made a low squeal of disgust.  I looked up and realized my youngest son was watching over my shoulder. We were temporarily united in our revulsion and both decided that cleaning the cat’s litter box was child’s play compared to removing the mummified carcass of a cat from under a two-year crush of junk. As the cleaner lifts the dead cat with a shovel from under some shelves, the hoarder brightens momentarily, “Oh, that’s where Twinkles went off to…”

At this point my son turns away in disgust.  I hear him distinctly mutter, “I want to go clean my room.”

I begin to worry.  Could I become a hoarder? I have always attached great sentimental value to things and my office is cluttered with an odd menagerie of toy soldiers, books, baseball cards, old Sports Illustrated magazines, maps, paintings and well, just stuff, lot’s of valuable stuff.

Fortunately, I am married to an anti-hoarder. Each spring, she throws open the windows and gets a crazed look in her eyes.  This pre-purge game face is all business and it appears just before most of our possessions are given away to the Goodwill or Salvation Army.

I am usually handed a broom, list of chores and a hefty bag, and forced to confront the detritus that we have accumulated over the prior year.  Her goal is simple:  shed items like winter weight – – ridding our lives of things that have long since become empty mementos of our past.  As master and commander of our ship, it is her prerogative to rid from our lives any inanimate objects that slow our forward progress.

The spring clean initiates each year usually after some disgusting encounter in the boys’ bathroom. I can hear her debating upstairs with the children about old toys, stuffed animals, clothes and books.  In the end, she always prevails and the first snowflake of what might have become a hoarder’s avalanche innocently melts under her resolute stare.

I am next in her crosshairs.  I am rarely successful defending against her cleansing blitzkrieg.  She would rather die than become even a junior hoarder. We wrestle over a stack of Military History magazines and an old set of stereo speakers. Hey, I might need those some day. My partner moves stealthily toward my closet.   I move to intercept her.

“I’m going to toss those shorts that you wore last week to baseball.  They are a little “too” short.

As usual, I am offended but also embarrassed.  Somewhere along the way, I lost my sartorial sense of what a man with my physique can now wear without looking like the blond cop in dolphin shorts on Reno 911.

” I think they look fine.” I say defensively.  “They are running shorts.” She just smiles that ” I am doing you a big favor” smile and continues to rummage through my workout clothes, gathering up torn and undersized shirts and shorts.

“I am sure someone else could use these. What about this shirt?” It is a tie dyed Grateful Dead shirt replete with skeleton wearing a crown of roses. ” When did you last wear this ?”

“Um, probably 1985”, I say incredulously.  “That shirt is a classic!”

“Jerry Garcia is dead.”

“Bob Weir is alive and I can probably sell that on EBay for $100!”

“That’s a great idea!”

Just then my son walks in and asks me to go outside and play catch with him.  Forever being haunted by Harry Chapin’s ” Cat’s In the Cradle”, I have never refused a child’s request to play anything in seventeen years.  I am trapped.  I leave her alone in my closet.

She smiles, waiting for us to leave.  I have been too busy defending my Dead Head shirt to notice all the other things she has targeted for Goodwill while we are playing outside.

You see, she knows there is a little hoarder in all of us.  And she is determined to keep it that way.

The T-Rex Takes on Healthcare Reform

images “Americans have always been able to handle austerity and even adversity. Prosperity is what is doing us in.” James Reston

His emails arrive at night and land like scud missiles. He is an Old Testament retired CEO who is appalled at the state of America and as a thirty year healthcare system veteran and dutiful son,  I am expected to interpret the complicated tea leaves of the Affordable Care Act ( ACA) and warn him if Armageddon (any form of change) is imminent. He needs three hours notice to hide his coin collection.

Today, his instant messaging is in large case font; He has forwarded an email that was forwarded to him from a friend of a friend of a friend – all retirees convinced that our current President is an operative for a hostile foreign government.  I have to give high scores to his email chain author for his/her detail, veracity and creativity.  Many of the stories are purportedly authored by retired Generals, Navy Seals, and in one case, a dead President.

I often scroll down these emails to see if I can find its genesis and author – perhaps it is Karl Rove or someone incarcerated for white-collar crime.  The email offers me “the truth about Benghazi” or a grainy photo of the President giving out nuclear codes to Al Qaeda operatives behind a District of Columbia Stop & Shop.  I am not always inclined to believe these missives but I love my Dad and his loyal concern for America.  At 83, his draconian solutions are not always politically feasible and carry a decent chance of arrest if one actually tried to act on them. However, he has a 160 IQ and understands economics.

With my status as a registered Independent voter, I remain a point of frustration to my father – a lost sheep naively wandering in a forest of good intentions not understanding how close I am to the wolves of Socialism.  As an ex-CEO who made many freshman mistakes, I am a tad more sympathetic to anyone dumb enough to want to run America, Inc.  To assume the role of CEO for a company that is losing $1T a year, sitting on $17T in debt, massive underfunded retirement liabilities, a dysfunctional board of directors, angry, bargained employees and a confidence rating of less than 35% – is a job that only a masochist or megalomaniac might aspire.  And even someone as naively altruistic as moi would not have chosen to take on US healthcare as my signature legacy.  There is a reason why it has been viewed as the third rail of American politics – “you touch it, you die.”

My father and his friends have a huge stake in the future of healthcare as their day is spent inventorying each creaking part of their own frail physiology, wading through a confusion of doctor appointments, specialists and endless prescriptions. He is now messaging me wanting to understand how the inept roll-out of Healthcare.gov will impact the future of Medicare.  The email message appeared with a large “ping” as it thumped into my in-box.

“FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD: MICHAEL, IF THIS IS TRUE WE ARE ALL IN DEEP (You fill in your favorite noun)”

The note went on to ask if his Medicare policy and supplement might be cancelled as so many individual policies had in the last month.

“OBAMA SAID PEOPLE COULD KEEP THEIR POLICIES”

After two strokes, caring for my Mom with Parkinson’s and a bout with prostate cancer, he is a grizzled veteran of the system but he still does not understand it. He wanted to know why millions of policies were cancelled and now being rewritten at higher premiums.  In some cases, single men were seeing their lower cost ala carte policies replaced with higher cost coverage that included such essential benefits as maternity coverage.  Other than male sea horses, it would be hard to find someone who purchased a bare bones policy with eyes wide open willing to support a new plan that would cause their premiums, in some instances, to double.

I wrote back with earnest detail.

“Got your IM.  The botched roll-out won’t impact Medicare.  There are no provisions in ACA to modify Medicare benefits although at some point, the government will begin to change how they pay doctors for the services to try to slow spending and improve quality.  The public exchanges you are reading about are being created in every state in the US to cover the uninsured and subsidy eligible Americans.  Where a state has refused/declined to create their own exchange, the federal government is stepping in with their portal, Healthcare.gov. It’s been a disaster as the technology has not worked.  In addition, the government got an even bigger black eye because Obama promised people they could keep their policies but did not realize his own legislation would force insurers to cancel, rewrite and charge higher premiums for his new and improved minimum levels of coverage.  His announcement to delay the policy cancellations for a year will create huge problems for insurers and put them once again in the position of being bad guys if they decide they don’t want to reinstate policies they have eliminated.  It’s a huge mess!”

“A CLUSTER IF YOU ASK ME. WONT ONLY SICK PEOPLE JOIN THE EXCHANGES?”

“Yeah. The first few years you will see only those who had no coverage and those who were overpaying for policies due to age or health status will benefit by purchasing through community rated public exchanges.  Yet, community rating only works if young people join and don’t use the benefits. The problem is the penalty for not purchasing insurance is only $95 a year in 2014 and the cost to buy a bronze level plan (the lowest cost policy approved by ACA) could cost up to $300 a month. 50% of the uninsured are under 30 years old and think they are invincible.  My guess is they won’t join the pools initially and the public exchanges will have to be subsidized by the reinsurance taxes. The government expected some of this and will assess employers a reinsurance fee as of January 1st to create a fund to reimburse insurers who end up losing money on the expected adverse selection.  The taxes last only until 2016.  It will prop up the exchanges for two years possibly giving exchanges the ability to argue they are working. Once the reinsurance fees run out, public exchange loss ratios will deteriorate and costs will increase.”

”IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT THE EXCHANGE GETS PROPPED UNTIL HILLARY GETS ELECTED IN 2016?  I NEED TO THROW UP.”

“Seems suspiciously well-timed.”

“THEN THE DO-GOODERS RAID THE PUBLIC COFFERS TO SUPPORT THE FAILED PUBLIC POOLS? LENIN WOULD BE PROUD!”

“Careful, remember you are also benefiting from this messed up system.  You and Mom are enrolled in a nationalized healthcare plan called Medicare whose cost is being subsidized by future generations.  You love the coverage because you can go to any doctor you want.  You have more specialists than Imelda Marcos had shoes and no primary care doctor calling the shots.  Your kitchen looks like something out the TV show Breaking Bad with scales, baggies, pill sorters and enough drugs to medicate all the animals in the LA zoo.

Your Medicare contributions bear no relationship to the true cost of the benefits you will receive in your lifetime. CMS still collects premiums under actuarial assumptions that expect retirees to live to age 68.   We now are living into our 90’s.  Medicare is $50T underfunded. We only have two workers for every retiree versus 6:1 when we started in 1964. Medicare makes the cost of Obamacare look like a dime store candy.  Between our sovereign debt and Medicare, we are witnessing the greatest intergenerational wealth transfer in the history of the country.”

“ALL ENTITLEMENTS ARE PONZI SCHEMES. THE ROAD TO SERFDOM IS PAVED WITH DEBT.  IT’S TIME FOR TOUGH CHOICES.  NEXT, NANCY PELOSI WILL BE PROPOSING TO MOVE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS INTO OUR HOMES.”

“Well, Dr. Zhivago, at least the stock market is up.”

“I’M IN T-BILLS AND BONDS. I DON’T TRUST WALL STREET”. There is a pause. I can almost hear the television blasting in the background as he cranes to hear someone yelling at him from downstairs.

“YOUR MOM WANTS TO WATCH SOME MOVIE I’VE SEEN BUT CAN’T REMEMBER.  A DIVIDEND OF OLD AGE.”

“Glad you feel better.”

“GET OFF YOUR BUTT AND DO SOMETHING.”

“Love ya.”

“You too.”

I realized he had sent me his final message in lower case font. I typed my next email in upper case.

I was now fired up.

Searching For His Clubhouse

There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.  ~Alexis de Tocqueville

My son recently approached me as he worked his way through a Government assignment at school.

“Dad, I need to write a paper that outlines my political ideology and shares what party best represents that point of view.  I kinda know but there’s so much stuff and I am not sure I agree with all of it.”

“Welcome to the real world.” I said with a mouthful of food.

I am now only asked to kill spiders, give out car keys or money.  This was a rare bridge building moment for father and son. We all get nostalgic when we see our children clawing at the chrysalis of their hermetically sealed suburban life — trying to understand the bigger world picture and define themselves.  What should I say?

I hesitated, plunging back into the ancient waters of my own adolescence and a similar conversation.

“Dad, I have a project where I need to share what my political views are and why.”

“Let me see that? Who gave you this assignment anyway?  Was it that new teacher, that commie Berkeley grad with the long hair?  Tell Professor Trotsky that as long as you breathe, eat my food and live in this house, you are a $#@! Republican.  Is that clear?  If you would like to join any other party, I suggest you sleep outside near the garbage cans so you can get used to the life that you will be living if you vote people into office who promise you something for nothing.”

“Okay.  So we are all Republicans?”

“Yes. We are not simpleton, do-gooders who give away other people’s money.  We don’t want to live on the public charity.  We work for a living and believe that small government and low regulation creates a vibrant economy and jobs for everyone who is willing to work.  If you won’t work, get the hell out of here and go live in Europe where they give you free stuff in exchange for your votes.  We believe in God, a strong defense, small government, no debt, low taxes and personal responsibility.”

“What about poor people?”

“Well, if they can work, they need to work.  If they can’t, we help them.  If they won’t, we throw them out of the lifeboat. Can’t feed everyone on the lifeboat, you know…”

After submitting my paper, my Social Studies teacher gave me a passing grade.  It was a safe and politically correct gesture for a liberal teacher in a homogenous, conservative suburban middle school.  He clearly wanted to give my father the middle finger and my paper a “D+”.  Instead, he offered me a “B” and a perfunctory smile.  He had carefully written questions at the bottom of the paper.  “Good paper.  Think about the other side of every argument. Why is welfare a bad thing?  Do you believe people born in poverty like being poor?  Does a kid born in Downey have the same chance at success as a kid born in San Marino?”

I showed my father “our” paper and the B.  “Jesus H Christ, the commie gave us a B!”  He seethed as he read the commentary. “Jesus, Ruth – (we all thought at one time or another that our mother’s name was really Jesus Ruth) – the district is dredging the bottom of the LA River with some of these pinko teachers.”  Once again, there was a Communist in the woodpile. I had heard enough at dinner to know that a pinko was a Stalin-loving, freedom snatcher and not someone afflicted with conjunctivitis.

Over the years, I would cling to my father’s views and wear them like Kevlar – protecting myself from all the unseen forces that conspired to strip me of my hard-fought gains in life. It was not until I moved abroad that I began to form an almost unwelcome and more complex ideology that did not fit neatly into an orthodox two-party bucket.

I would now sit down with my son and hear his views on a variety of social, fiscal and geopolitical issues.

He glanced at his cell phone for messages. “Well, for starters, I don’t see what the big deal is about gay rights, abortion or immigration.  We need to be more tolerant. “

I interrupted. “Okay, well it sounds like you are a Democrat.”

“Yeah, but we have also been talking about the debt.  I don’t like the national debt.  I mean I have to pay for it when I get older and I didn’t even get to enjoy it.  It’s gonna be hard to find a job when I get out of college and the government is still spending more every year than it has.”

“Hmm.  You sound like a Republican.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we should be involved in foreign wars and we should cut defense spending.  We should become energy independent as long as we don’t trash the environment trying to achieve it. I don’t want to have to worry about the Middle East.  It’s just oil, oil, oil and terrorists…”

“Yes. Good points. So maybe you’re a….”

“And, when I make money I guess I’m willing to pay higher taxes to support disadvantaged people but I want people to show some responsibility and work.  I don’t think we should make it easy to not work. I think we should spend more on roads and education and less on bailing out banks and Wall Street.  Big companies seem like they are ripping us off and the government can’t do much about it. Small government is good but only if you can trust Capitalism.  I’m not sure we can. And I don’t even understand the healthcare stuff.”

Neither do I…and I work in the industry.

“Well, son, you have just summed up the American conundrum.  We are socially sympathetic but fiscally conservative.  People want jobs and they don’t want to pay for anybody else’s problems unless they are in real need.  If government is small, it falls to business and individuals to try to solve for the holes that inevitably occur in society. If you can’t close those holes, they widen causing more people to fall through until one day, the minority is the majority and then, the tables get flipped.”

He looked at me with a bored, vacuous expression. “What? So, which party is closer to all that?”

“Buddy, I have no freaking idea.  But, if you find their club house, will you let me know?”

The Diary of A Mad Third Grader

cropped-3stooges-2.jpg

“The only problem with the world is a lot of people DON’T have ADD” — Andy Pakula, CEO of Think! Interactive Marketing

“He just can’t sit still…I think he gets it from my father who everyone refers to as ‘George Blast-off’.  He can’t stop moving.  If Dad’s not working, he’s golfing or planting his monster gardens with tomatoes the size of basketballs.  Really.  Its quite amazing.” Nervous laughter.

“Ma’am, I know this difficult but have you ever considered Ritalin? I mean, it’s a big step but clinically it’s proven to help many hyperactive kids.” The voice sounded vacant and bored like the conductor guy who mindlessly asked for our ticket on the Amtrak train to San Diego.

“Ritalin?  Oh no, no, no… Really, I don’t think so.  I’d rather have him twitching like a worm on hot pavement than jumping out a third story window yelling, ‘Look at me, ‘I can fly’ Thank you very much.  Anyway, boys are wiggly creatures.  They’re always making noises, and shifting around to liberate some body part. You know, Mister Crimms, I was actually born a Christian Scientist.  Didn’t see a doctor before I was nine and only when they thought I might have polio.  We converted to Lutheranism at thirteen.  My father was German and convinced my mother that God approved of immunizations although he used to make us sleep together in one room when one of us got sick.  ‘Get it all done at once’. He would shout in German.”

I was swaying like a palm tree on the top of a wide oak worktop that doubled as the nurse’s office storage cabinet.  I was playing a game to see how far I could lean headlong without falling off the bench.  I rocked headfirst peeking around the corner to spy on my mother as she mimicked her father, my Grandpa George.  The young male counselor with the flattop haircut stared unimpressed as Mother rose half way in her seat and raised her hand in the air looking just like my father during one of his Sunday night dinner diatribes.

“Look, Mrs. Turpin, Michael has a ‘D’ in citizenship.  He’s a very friendly boy but he’s disrupting the other students.  He talks in class, can’t sit still and today, he provoked one of our special education kids into chasing him around the room during rest time.  I believe he’s suffering from hyperactivity syndrome or possibly some type of undiagnosed personality disorder.”

There was a pause as the thermometer dropped in the office. My mother’s tone went serial killer cold.  I knew that voice.  It was a declaration of war – the seven seconds before the bomb is dropped and life as we knew it would be forever changed.

“Now whom are we talking about, Mister Crimms? It’s my understanding that the boy in question is quite enormous – a lot bigger and older than Michael – and it would be unnatural not to run if someone older and larger was pursuing you.  That’s a sign of intelligence.  Exactly how long have you been employed by the district’s pediatric counseling office?”

“Now, Ma’am, if you’re questioning my experience…”

“Just answer my question, young man.”

“Well, if you must know, I finished my graduate degree in pediatric psychology from St Mary’s last year and I am getting my PhD from USC.”

He sounded officious and offended.  “Look, I have seen Methylphenidate work very well on children to help them focus.”

“Mr. Crimms, you know, I’ve done my research.  The sources of any child’s hyperactivity can stem from a number of organic sources like sugar, caffeine, food allergies and other environmental causes.  Why would you want to dope him up without ruling out all other sources first? How do you explain his high marks in all the subject matter tests?  He is intellectually in the top ten percent on all tests.”

She composed herself, “With the exception of physical education, my son is a very committed student.  He does have an aversion to organized exercise.  He hates PE but plays Little League and YMCA football. The child can play for hours with his toy soldiers and his brothers.  Why on any given day, he’ll spend hours out of doors …”

“Ma’am, some savants have been documented to possess extremely gifted intellects but lack the social filters and controls.  These syndromes stem from innate behaviors and chemical imbalances that medication can help to mute.”

“Chemical imbalances? Are you a student psychologist or Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest?  Have you read the book, Mr. Crimms?  It’s seems modern medicine cannot always cure what we have the capacity to remedy ourselves.  It’s as much about self-esteem as it is about brain chemistry.”  She stood up and walked into the foyer clutching my wrist.  As she turned to leave the office, she bullwhipped one last barb at the fledgling educator.

“What’s next, shock therapy? Are you sure you did not study under Tennessee Williams or Ken Kesey?”

My mother would always get in the last word.  In a scene that would repeat itself with each of her sons over many years, she rushed me out of the nurse’s office – speaking to herself and her mother as if Gran was walking right behind us.

“Mother, will you listen to the man? A personality disorder? How dare he?  He looks too young to even drive a car.” She stopped and looked down at me, smiling.

“Tomorrow, we’re weaning you off that god damn Mountain Dew and Pop Tarts!”

Years later, she would be proven correct on almost every front. She rarely confided in my father about our brushes with educators at school.  She knew almost every boy had difficulty concentrating and sitting still.  She also understood that he disapproved of the gentle process of diagnosing a problem by eliminating the potential causes.  He preferred  more medieval remedies to correct any kid who appeared on the wrong trajectory.

“Cut that crap out.” He would hiss as I tapped my tight-fitting loafers against the pew in church. He would slip his arm behind me and knock me on the back of my head like it was a door.

“Ouch, that hurts, Dad.”

“I’ll give you something to cry about if you cannot keep still.”

We always sat in the back row of the Presbyterian church so that he could administer mid-sermon punishments with fewer witnesses. We sat two deep on either side.  If he was highly agitated, he could simply lean back and knock multiple heads together like the Three Stooges.

 Between the toe tapping, wrestling, whispers and sudden outbursts, the people seated in front of us must have assumed we were visiting Baptists. 

“They are such animated Christians,” a woman whispered to her husband.

For a low attention span kid, an organized religious service was tantamount to being nailed to a cross.  I tried everything – drawing on pew envelopes, even listening to the minister urging me to accept Jesus as my personal savior.  I had accepted him as the Son of God but I was fairly certain that he was less my savior and more a bearded goodie-two-shoes accountant who scrupulously recorded each and every one of my misdemeanors and could not wait to tattle them to his father.  God knew that we played with matches, had impure thoughts and occasionally made crank phone calls to our next-door neighbor pretending to be her grandson.

My mother did not seem to worry about our spiritual destinies but instead focused on the more temporal problems of grades and social assimilation.  She was certain that diet, exercise and more frequent activity breaks would allow any mildly “hyperactive” male to improve in social responsibility.  She understood that boy’s exceled at the things that interested them the most and most often floundered when lacking interest in a subject.  My brothers and I could spend hours focused on a single task — drawing, assembling model air planes or painting miniature 78mm Airfix soldiers with petite Testors brushes, recreating the precise regimental colors of the British 8th Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps.

One would need the Jaws of Life to pry me away from any form of television or film, particularly a double feature movie at the Rialto Theatre – although my brother had recently misinformed me that the theatre’s proprietor had hung himself during a kiddie matinee and had swung lifelessly across the illuminated screen in front of one hundred horrified third graders.  His ghost was rumored to haunt the poorly illuminated bathrooms that rested at the base of an ominous staircase leading from the mezzanine theatre seats.  This led me to avoid the toilet and in a full-bladdered crisis, courageously attempt to pee in a Coke cup. This, of course, disrupted my friends who laughed and stood up to move, which attracted the flashlight light of a conscientious theatre usher. Shortly thereafter, my mother was having yet another discussion with the very much alive theatre manager regarding my mental stability.

My mother understood that four boys were a breeding ground for germs and adolescent neurosis.  She preferred to organically unravel each twitch, tic and nervous repetition to understand the demons that occasionally set up shop in our vulnerable minds.  Nurture would win out over nature and the subconscious would always give up the bodies that rested at the bottom of a child’s mind.  Like Freud and Jung, she believed in interpreting dreams and in psychoanalysis.  The last few minutes before a tired child fell asleep was a pre-hypnotic phase where semi-conscious kids were likely to give up secrets and be open to home remedies to counter strange fear based behavior.

In the last ten minutes of every night, she would appear like Florence Nightingale, the angel of the night-light, gently extracting the day’s mental splinters of bullies, bad teachers, first crushes, bad choices and the irrational phantasms that arose out of sibling disinformation.

I always felt that I was her favorite.  She seemed to spend more time with me than the others – interpreting my behavior and my dreams, reassuring me that one day those twitching cement pipe legs and monkey mind attention span would morph into the butterfly of a grown man and athlete.  I was, in fact, the most neurotic of our four man army.

“Michael, dreams where you are being chased or can’t get out away from something, those are your subconscious mind trying to work through problems.  It’s healthy.  The reveries where you fly or move things with your mind? Those are power dreams.  You may even be in astral flight where your soul is out exploring in the world.  I often wonder what you were in a past life?  I am sure you were a kind king or perhaps or a Shaolin warrior.”

I smiled thinking of myself as a benevolent monarch or a flying lethal weapon, perforating a knot of evildoers with a soaring kick and arm chop.

My father would be waiting for my mother — a trim and shadowed spectator in the doorway, peering into my room but not buying into her “Age of Aquarius BS”.

“Jesus Ruth, don’t fill his head with that crap.  He’s got one life and he’s gotta stop screwing around to make the most out of it.“

My mother continued to look down at me, her smile piercing the darkness. “You’re father was a Templar Knight in a past life. He likes to fight for what he believes is right.” My father shook his head and once again took the Lord’s name in vain.

“Well, you may be right.  I’d like to go over to the Middle East and kick some ass again.” He laughed as he walked back into the light of the hallway.

My mother ran slender fingers across my scalp.  “Such wonderful hair.”

“I gotta a big head.  Somebody called me pumpkin head today.”

“Honey, everyone in our family has big heads.  They’re full of brains.  Third grade is a tough time.   You need to ignore the other kids and learn to sit still and focus on what your teacher says.  When you’re bored and you want to talk to your neighbor, just take out a piece of paper and write down what you want to say.  That way the teacher won’t get mad at you for disrupting the class.  Got it?  Here, I got you this.”

She opened a white paper bag from the local stationary store handing me a leather bound book.  She turned on the bedside lamp. I opened it and saw that she had written my name on the first page: Property of Michael Turpin.  “You write everything you think and feel in here.  Draw pictures or doodle.  It’s a diary and it’s better than any silly old pill from a doctor to help you focus.”

Months later my father would discover what was to be the first of many diaries.  Inside were primitive hand drawn pictures of epic WWII battles, monsters, space ships, and racecars and in almost every picture, there was a kid with a big head who was the clear protagonist in the illustration. He would often use X-Ray powers from his mind to vanquish the bad guys.

“Jesus H Christ.  A shrink would have a field day with this crap. Why in the hell is this kid drawing Captain Pumpkin Head?”

My mother just laughed as she ran her fingers through his haircut that grew like straight grass above his unusually large cranium.

“Yes, dear.  It’s strange. I wonder where he gets that from…”

Unplugged and Out West

Sunset from the Minarets Vista viewpoint near ...
Sunset from the Minarets Vista viewpoint near Mammoth Lakes, CAa (Photo credit: Alaskan Dude)

Each year we swim like salmon against a current of temporal obligations and fight to return to the calm, sun sequined rivers of our west coast youth.  We always arrive conflicted — barraged by the need to see family and old friends but at the same time — wanting to immerse our family in this massive, self-obsessed amusement park called California.

I am always nervous returning to Los Angeles as every email I receive from my father suggests that his once Golden State has declined into cesspool dystopia where rampant illegal immigration, corrupt public officials, profligate public spending and fewer public restrooms has made it unfit for working people, the elderly and those with prostate issues.

My west coast past and east coast present are two distinct worlds and I worry when they collide.  The stories of my youthful mischief have been well hidden like state secrets that must incubate in silence for at least seventy-five years. There is always a risk of coming west that we will encounter a long-lost acquaintance who will proceed to tell one of my children, “your father, oh, he was a wild thing!” This opens a Pandora’s Box of interrogation that I increasingly find hard to navigate.

As my Digital Age children get older, the logistics of our time together are further complicated by their own predictable canyons of self-absorption and technology.  They are like single bar cellular calls that often drop unbeknowst to the speaker.  One can spend minutes talking unaware that the other party is no longer on the line.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I lost you after you said, ‘can you please’…” is followed by the always irritating”I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” expression.

The family road trip has radically morphed since the days of “shut up or I’ll give you something to complain about” automobile travel.   In the 1970’s, we were a predictable part of a summer land rush of urban and suburban families, enthusiastically driving to the same vacation destination and establishing ourselves for a week like hives of yellow jackets.  We would normally infest some sad, rental beach house or motel and find things to do.  “I’m bored” was always met with, “go outside and don’t come back until dinnertime.”

And we would find things to do – some legal and some illegal.  But, we would invariably return to our home base for food, medical attention, zinc oxide or with the feral dog we had just found and wanted to keep.

Comfortable mini-SUVs have replaced the Fleetwood wagon and its rigid Russian cattle car seating arrangements. A Grand Bazaar of roadside fast food chains has supplanted warm Shasta sodas and bleeding Wonder Bread PBJs that we greedily devoured at highway picnic areas.  If we were to ever actually frequent a rest stop today, my kids would assume that we were merely stopping to dump a dead body.

“I want a Jamba Juice, Dad.”

“We’re in the middle of the California desert, buddy.  There’s nothing here but sand and horizon line highway.”

“Well, actually, I just Yelped Jamba Juice and there is one in Victorville. It’s only five miles off the freeway on a frontage road and it’s near an In and Out Burger.”   Cheers erupt from the trio of digital back seat ninja drivers.  We are suddenly eating double-double cheese burgers under a neon high desert sign.

Everything has changed. In restaurants and fast food joints, the American meal has kept pace with our soaring national debt with portions eclipsing the size of Central American banana republics.  To combat the disease of over-sized portions, we assign a “designated scavenger” at each meal.  The scavenger does not order any food but can sample from any and all plates.

Since she is the smallest and least selfish, my spouse often assumes this role believing that food tastes better when it comes off other people’s plates.  As a child of Brits who survived the London blitz, she is genetically predisposed to be a scavenger.  We estimate ordering for four instead of five saves between 15-20% on meals, impedes inevitable holiday weight gain and modestly improves the mileage on our fossil fuel guzzling, Sherman Tank of an SUV.

The once almighty 20th century automobile pilgrimage replete with its sibling battles, rites of passage car sickness and endless boredom has been tenderized by satellite radio, personal entertainment systems, instant messaging and ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage.  My children have been reduced to digital cocoons.  No one listens or looks as my wife and I happily describe the rugged beauty and history of California’s eastern Sierra and Owens Valley.

While we might be together on vacation, it is a rare harmonic convergence when we are all emotionally present. The digital age has broken the nuclear family into pieces – we are isolated microbytes of data symbiotically sharing a common ecosystem called a house. Each day the modern family must compete with alternative communities — enemy cells of friends via Live Chat, a conveyor belt of Instagram photographs  and a mindless, sewage pipe of text messages.

We arrive at our mountain destination and a late dinner at a crowded restaurant.  The entire establishment is also suffering from digital-cocooning with three out of four patrons slumped at the altar of their glowing hand-held devices and smart phones.  I assume everyone is texting or making power point presentations to one another. There is one loud table.  It is a group of five men and women who are actually talking and joking.  People leer at them with distain.  It seems so rude that they should be making noise in this quiet car of digital dining.  Sadly, the digital pollution drift has invaded the last place where table manners, grammar, syntax and personal mythology is passed on – the family dinner table.

I conjure up the countenance of my T-Rex father and growl at the children mandating that I am capable of extinguishing them if they do not extinguish their devices. You would have thought I had asked them to French kiss a cannibal.  I suggest a trivia game where we might stimulate our minds. My son protests, “How can we play trivia if we can’t look up the answers on Google Chrome?”

“Name five famous people whose surnames are a color?”

Feeling clever, I eagerly await their answers.  I could see the encouraging signs of nascent collaboration.

“Pink.” My daughter says shrugging. “Can we use our phones now?”

“No, damn it!” I hissed. ” I want four more”. You would think I had asked them to explain the Fibonacci Sequence.

“Who was the coach of the Boston Celtics? Who played football for Syracuse and the Browns? Who starred in Nacho Libre and School of Rock?”

“Okay, here’s a hint. What about the names with “Red”, “Brown”, or “Black”

“Oh I know.” yelled one of the boys. “Red Brown.”

“Who is that?” I queried.

“I don’t know, wasn’t he like a football coach? I should get two points for that!”

I shake my head and to my wife’s chagrin regress into off-color jokes and potty humor as a lowest common denominator way of keeping our conversation afloat.

It is indeed harder each year to be an analog parent in a digital world that so empowers the individual.  The road trip holiday continues to meet stiffer headwinds as our young adults become addicted to the instant gratification and entertainment of digital media.  The notion of down time is tantamount to prison time with the definition of “fun” having morphed into the need for 24/7 distraction.

Our learned behavior of working as a team arose out of our Bataan Death March childhood vacations and our common circumstances — the tedium of long car rides, carsickness,  the inconvenience of being torn from the moorings of friends and roadside Bates motels with creepy proprietors, toxic, chlorinated pools and no televisions.

Each summer, we were forced to hang out as a family and amuse one another.  We were unplugged and managed by unfiltered, orthodox parents who reminded us that they brought us into the world and that they could take us out of it.  They told us to eat all our food because children were starving in China.  We now are concerned our kids are eating too much and that China is no longer starving.

For the twentieth century vacation, each kid saved money for the annual road trip to places like the Grand Canyon so we might buy a magical vial of Painted Desert sand or a sinister scorpion encased inside a paper weight. It now seems we are constantly looking for a store that sells iPhone power cords. Travel was about seeing new places and punching holes in the walls of our suburban cocoons. The new millennium road trip has evolved where each person is a self-contained cosset.  As we move along the blue highways of our country, it seems we are not lost in America but lost in a conceited cyberspace.

“Are we there yet” has been replaced by “where the hell are we and will they have Wi-Fi?”  We are becoming part of a new slang and don’t yet understand its meaning. We are middle-aged pragmatists who have seen too much lashed to the mast with young immortals who believe that bad things only happen to other people. We will forever disagree on whether tomorrow is guaranteed. We have evolved as a modern family unit and it will fall to sociologists and our descendents to determine whether we have regressed or progressed as responsible stewards of our tribes.

We now actively seek vacation destinations that lack cell service – remote locales and pristine back roads where our digital progeny are forced to notice the tumbling streams, alpine lakes and rock strewn paths lined with purple lupine and blood-red Indian paintbrush.  On today’s hike, my daughter adroitly spots an almost invisible mother deer and her spotted fawn navigating a steep brown hillside of talus.  At home, she can barely discern stop signs.  We watch and stand quietly at a forty-five degree angle before the fauna melts into a stand of pines at the timber line.We stop for lunch and break out books or just meditate absorbing the grandeur of this glacial basin reflected in mirror of an emerald-green alpine lake.

I am convinced that our biology requires us to be upright and outdoors.  We are not constructed to sit behind desks with compressed vertebrae and atrophied abdominal muscles. Evolution has not yet come to a firm conclusion but our activities would eventually turn us into human thumbs with massive derrieres and no peripheral vision.  While it is has already happened to the stars of the reality show, “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo”, we must resist the sedentary siren’s call.  Our hike will take all day, cover eight miles and two thousand feet of elevation gained and lost.

I help set up fishing rods and devour a half sandwich which after three hours in my pack appears to have been the seat cushion for a circus fat lady.  I chase it down with water that I have just filtered from a stream.

“Hey, I got a fish!” my son yells. I rush over to extract the treble hook lure from the oversized mouth of a spotted golden and red bellied brook trout. At this altitude and in this harsh climate, the fish cannot get enough nourishment. Yet, they adapt and thrive because they are wild — often healthier than their corpulent brethren raised on Power Bait hand-outs in the captivity of a state run hatchery.

As the sun retreats below a 14,000 peak, we estimate that we have two hours of light left to navigate the four miles of switchbacks down to the parking area at the base of Bishop Creek where we initiated our day.  We are unplugged – a simpler sweeter kind of music.  These moments are gentle notes from a six string guitar.  We joke and gently deride each other’s shortcomings – limitations magnified by proximity, the day’s physical challenges and the absence of creature comforts.

I begin to retell the stories of our mythology – tales of my family and these sacred places — times that shaped this part of America like the winds and glaciers that dominate the landscape.  I am trailing the group and yelling ahead to them, talking to no one in particular.  I am proud of my ability to wrench them out their routines and put them in touch with their more durable alter egos.

I notice someone has a single white strand of wire surreptitiously falling between his hair and his backward facing baseball cap.  My son seems to be moving, but not to the rhythm of a story of how ignominious Convict Lake got its name.  He is clearly advancing to the cadenced percussion of a band called Phoenix.  More earplugs appear and my wife and I are once again alone – travelling with our digital cocoons. She smiles.

“It was nice while it lasted.”

Like everything in nature, unplugged passages soon fade.  They are momentary — a fish rising in the early morning light leaving only green sequined circles of water.  They are a night canopy of stars, unpolluted by the distant light of cities and material obligations.  The sky is an unexplained ocean where satellites move like distant cargo ships and meteors course past the corner of your eye with sudden streaks of light.  Only the earth and sky are permanent. I recognize that my children’s cocoons are temporary. They exist for a short time in this insular chrysalis that forms and protects them until a butterfly can emerge and fly away.  For a moment, I can see them through the gossamer threads – moving, jostling, evolving  and changing.

A blue jay scolds me as I take one last look on the valley below.  My legs hurt and my body is reminding me of my mortality.  Yet, I have made it once again to this special place, the high palisades of my youth — mountains that required my full attention and commanded respect.  They underscore my insignificance but reinforce the notion that I am part of something divine.

My son stops and takes a picture of the valley and the deeply shadowed, late afternoon peaks.  He stops and peers at his photograph.  He smiles. The memory memorialized, it will soon be distributed to five hundred followers who will participate on an endless digital social comment thread.

“Dude, where are you?  That place looks wicked.”

It is.  It’s really cool.

A Passage to Italy – Part One: Just Don’t Look Down

[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC)
[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
It had been raining for several weeks in Rome – a lingering and inconvenient wet cotton hangover of a hard winter.  As our plane touched the tarmac, the valley of the Tiber shimmered under its first sustained spring sun.  The fields were filled with blood red poppies and yellow mustard.  The April air was honey scented citrus, hyacinth and jasmine. Spring had arrived on a smile from Jupiter and an entire nation now rushed outside like children escaping school at the final bell.

Our trip had become a pilgrimage of sorts – my chance to prolong the adolescence of one of my children by escaping to Europe for one week.  In a time of tangled earphones, bent heads glued to smart phones and castrated dinner conversation; I was gambling that these trips might yield some precious memories and a chance to sew a few seeds of wonder.  The children had almost forgotten what it was like to be lashed to the same mast – an ancient mariner and his apprentice sailing together across a deep strait of water far from the distractions and conveniences of home.

Italy is a brilliant orchestra with no conductor.  It is the perfect place to reconnect with those things that may be missing or not visible in life.  The heart is always dreaming of the beyond and we often neglect our imaginations and our capacity to fill our days with childlike fascination.  Any pilgrimage is about the journey and those you meet along the way.  It is a chronology of life moments in which one travels, clearing the mind of the temporal and seeking the deeper insights only found in other people and in places where our significance is subordinated to a greater purpose that pulses around us.

For a nation whose debt makes the USA’s fiscal cliff appear more like a children’s slide, the Italians seem to shrug off the mounting complexities of their excesses and roll their eyes at the austerity measures that must now reshape public and social policy if Italy wants to remain a part of the euro and the European Union. For many, taxes and debt are a way of life and with a government that has the life expectancy of a housefly, it seems useless to spend a sunny day worrying about the horizon line clouds. In a nation where history and tradition are knotted together like tangled kite string, complications are a fact of life.   In the last few months God’s emissary on earth, a standing Pope, has resigned for the first time in the history of the church. He is now creating complications, as the government has never had to allocate pension payments to a Pope.

To make matters worse, there is no government because the Italian Parliament cannot agree on a coalition that would be legitimate enough to preside over anything other than a food fight. Gas is $11.00 a gallon but the biggest complaint is over the use of a new Autostrada digital camera system designed to photograph and fine the nation’s notorious speeders. This is a huge problem for a country built on its genteel infidelities.  Divorce courts are filling with wives who now have proof that their husbands are cheating on them.  Imagine a wife’s surprise as she opens the mail to spy a ticket and photograph of her husband and an unknown younger woman near Sorrento when he was supposed to be north in Bologna on business.  Mama mia!

Lazio and AC Roma are wallowing in the middle of the pack of the Italian champions league while hated Juventus has moved into first place.  This is of much greater concern than national debt, mounting taxes or the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi who makes Caligula look like a Trappist monk, is still trying to worm his way back as prime minister.

In Rome, we visited new appointed Pope Francis at the Vatican, enduring throngs of genuflecting pilgrims.  Like attending a Notre Dame football game, it just all makes you want to become Catholic.  It’s like being part of a huge dysfunctional royal family with secrets and power. To be a Catholic is dwell at the feet of Popes, Saints, Templars and martyrs.  Rome is a pantheon to rich historical paradoxes – incredible charity and hidden vice, personal sacrifice and hypocritical indulgence, generosity and profligacy. The new pontiff has promised more open leadership. Most like me, are just hoping he might share the remaining secret of Fatima, which might provide a hint as to whether the Jets might make it back to the Super Bowl, or the GOP will take back the White House.

My youngest son and I spend much of our time with my close friend Vincenzo, a Roman native who has been a friend for over fifteen years.  He loves his city and speaks in emphatic broken English as he regales us with legends, embellished facts and scrupulous details of battles from his beloved Punic Wars with Hannibal.  We walk slowly devouring monuments to pagan Gods, organized religion, imperial empires and theocratic republics. Enzo hesitates after regaling us with stories of the great Roman commander Scipio and his Carthaginian nemesis, the genius Hannibal.  He shakes his head and waves a dismissive hand as if to indict the present as a time of profound decline – the nomadic and cynical offspring of a once great civilization.  “Incredible.” He blurts out to no one in particular.  “Our country is like a beautiful woman with dirty feet. If you want to stay married, you just must learn not to look down.”

Enzo concludes this evening’s dinner with a story that relates to his country’s debt crisis. “There was a man who was plagued by his debts to his neighbor and he could not sleep. Every night, tossing and turning.  His wife, annoyed up with her husband’s walking of the floor asks him what is the problem. He looks at her and brings his hands to his face.  ‘I have such a big problem. I owe our neighbor so much money and I cannot repay him.’ The wife listens and calmly walks across the room and opens up the window facing their neighbor’s house.

“Signor. Wake up. My husband can not pay you back your money!”

She turns to her husband and smiles. ‘Go to sleep.  It is no longer your problem.  It is  now his problem.’”