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
It’s was 9am and a chill still hung in the summer air. The coastal wind whipped by a shifting high pressure system had lifted a fog bank off the Farallons and gently deposited it on to the Western Edition. You could see it cresting up from the Golden Gate and settling like soft cotton on the crowd that slowly moved from cars and cabs toward the cathedral that rested at the top of San Francisco’s Parnassus Heights.
These early days of summer are whispers from a distant youth – soft breezes and a warm sun promising a day bursting with possibilities. We arrived in tight, somber bands shuffling toward the Mass where we would mourn and celebrate the sudden passing and life of our friend and confederate, our “blue sky” giant who could see a little farther than the rest of us — always promising treasure and believing that tomorrow would hold a bigger and better island to explore than today.
Larry Del Santo Jr. Aka Laurie, Little Lar, The Giant, Mr Blue Sky etc had more monikers than Methuselah. He had been pried loose too soon from his grasp on life’s mortal coil and gone to surprise his mother who had been mourned in this same church on this same day some seventeen years earlier.
Growing up, I can only see Becky Del Santo in some form of pregnancy. She was in this compromised state for twenty five consecutive years. Larry Jr. could never remember a time when his mother was without a child stuck to her breast or wearing a floral sun dress that portended the arrival of another brother or sister. Like all suburban 60’s mothers, Becky was two parts Saint and one part clairvoyant, air traffic controller. She and my mother were best friends and compared notes on how they could keep their kids on the right path and out of harms way.
Becky’s eldest boy, Larry Jr was her agent and proxy tasked against his will with leading the procession of Del Santos through life and toward a chance at Heaven. We grew up in the great Jurassic age of American families. It was the final epoch of politically incorrect patriarchal rule where children were viewed as useless lumps of coal requiring swear words and enormous pressure so they might one day become a diamond in the eyes of society.
To be the eldest kid in this patriarchal community carried its own unique burden. You were expected to serve as defacto adult when no parent was present and would invite admonishment and reprisal if something illicit actually occurred on your watch. In our Southern California suburban neighborhood, alpha older brothers directed traffic and meted out pioneer justice on an ecosystem of middle class kids who were blessed with time and a less suffocating form of Darwinian parenting that afforded them a free-range childhood with community supervision.
The average family had four kids — hedging in the event someone got a faulty fuse while playing with an M80. Silent Generation fathers disappeared at 7am and staggered home at 7pm asking their wives two questions,”how was your day and who do I hit?” Mothers were soft breezes that blew in to sort out the chaos, prevent the T-Rex fathers from devouring their young and to ensure the laundry got folded. Matriarchs were the de facto rulers of the roost and over time, slowly learned to exercise the power that Gloria Steinhem so desperately tried to convince them they possessed.
In the long hot summers of the late 60s, packs of free range children migrated on foot, skateboards and bikes across a lime green veldt of manicured front lawns, latticed by magnolia tree lined sidewalks and perfect two car driveways. Larry Del was a giant towering over any kid south of Huntington Drive. He would not stop growing until he cast a 6′ 7″ shadow against the broken red oak fence that separated our two abutting properties. He was the eldest — a mischievous man mountain that appeared to have stumbled out of some Northern Italian fairy tale. He was blond with a massive grin and eyes that narrowed as he surveyed how he might torment you. His mere size compelled a kid to offer up your lunch money. Yet, his Catholic compass kept him on the right side of decisions. As with all industrious Italians, he would periodically remind you that he would indeed call on you some day for a favor — a social contract in which you would be well served to comply.
He accepted us before we ever met. Our addition to the neighborhood would turn out to remove pressure and suspicion that often rested firmly at the door of the Del Santos of Warwick Rd. The day my parents were signing papers to purchase our new home on adjacent Windsor Rd, my brothers and I were in the back garden, unsupervised ( big mistake ) and launching the largest dirt clods known to man over the backyard fence into what sounded like a rural pond. We laughed hysterically as the nuclear bombs repeatedly hit their target launching water spouts eight feet high. We could not see our new neighbor’s pool nor knew that the five kid Del Santo family living next door to these ill-fated people, would be initially blamed for the first of many decades of transgressions.
Later that night, eleven year old Larry Del Santo Jr would grin upon hearing that four boys were moving into the house behind them. With two brothers and two sisters and another sibling on the way, Larry Jr understood this new tribe of Presbyterian boys could prove a useful distraction to his house of diapers, Von’s breakfast pastries and Catholic expectation.
His dad, Big Larry, and our father were the most feared Dads in the neighborhood. They shared a belief that no one was innocent and while it was God’s job to punish in heaven, a parent was God’s quartermaster here on earth. Big Larry was a tough food industry executive and practicing Catholic who felt the Spanish Inquisition was justified and that a few public burnings could do wonders for kids and politicians. He did not publically take the Lord’s name in vain but secretly admired my father’s profanity which could have won a gold medal at the Cursing Olympics.
Larry Del Santo Sr, aka Big Larry, liked to remind you that a father was the ultimate alpha male. You were a child – a single cell paramecium that moved mindlessly toward food and light. To emphasize your utter uselessness, he would compel you whenever he saw you to shake his hand. “Get over here and shake my hand you little creep.” He would then squeeze your digits so hard your knuckles would be touching. He’d release you and as you fell to the ground massaging the broken bones metatarsals he’d bellow to your father. “Jesus, Miles. You’re going to have to toughen up these pansy boys.” If we had been meat, we would have been placed under his Hun saddle to be tenderized.
From 1957 to 1982, Becky Del Santo would give birth to twelve children with Larry Jr the steward and standard bearer as the eldest child. In life, he found his purpose in being a first child. He had the “blue sky” humility of a man who somehow knew his role was not just to be a standard bearer but to forever lead the denizens of adolescents who would follow. He would serve as the tallest tree on our horizon line and and a non judgmental lighthouse for his siblings and any friend that sometimes got lost in the marine layer of life — reminding us all where the shoals had scratched the keel of his boat. He was always just ahead, yelling back to that everything was fine and to keep following his voice.
He thunderous laughter could perfume any room and his capacity to find trouble was legendary. He was a self anointed Mr Fix It — the kid in the neighborhood who “kind of knew” how to use his all dad’s tools and could build everything from tree houses to trebuchets. Like PT Barnum, he could smell a sucker and often organized his growing army of younger siblings and neighborhood kids to carry out a personal vendetta that might increase the chance of our arrest and his damnation. Yet, the benefit of Catholicism was weekly absolution in confessional followed by a dozen “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers”.
When the local Helms bakery began delivering baked goods, Larry Jr recognized that the Helms driver was not the freshest bun in the oven and proceeded to develop a strategy where we might distract him while others emptied his change belt and then proceeded to buy all his donuts and candy back from him. Years later, we would conclude the Helms man had been intellectually impaired. ( Yep, we’re doing’ time in Purgatory for that one.)
In the days before helicopter supervision or political correctness, kids played a major role in the neighborhood ecosystem as a part-time labor force, extended family for kids from broken homes and change agents interpreting for one another the strange mysteries of life. This required collateral material usually stashed in Larry’s tree house — a cornucopia of Oui and Playboy magazines . In an age of Moon shots and mainframe computers, we were pirates and he was the Pirate King. To possess Larry’s physical prowess meant that you could move freely across streets and no one would dare fire a BB gun or launch a bottle rocket.
As kids, we were forever in search of money –to buy food, fireworks or attend a double feature at the local Alhambra theatre. Larry’s larceny included a black market in fireworks and quarter sticks of dynamite that would be administered to the mailbox of any octogenarian bold enough to chase us off his dichondra lawn. If that subtle warning did not intimidate the offending neighbor, we might resort to eggs launched with a funnel and surgical tubing or perhaps Epsom salts were poured on the lawn to spell a forbidden word. The doorbell might ring to a flaming bag of dog poop or an empty space. When the usual suspects were hauled in for questioning, we became one another’s permanent alibis.
When the Pirate King punched your shoulder, your arm would hurt for a week. He once had me lean on his feet while he laid on his back. “It’s a rocket launcher ride” I sat on his feet as he yelled “next stop the moon.” He proceeded to “launch me” fifteen feet into the side of my Dad’s Ford Granada almost breaking my arm. When we saw the dent I had caused, we all fled the scene. “Boy, kid, are you in trouble” Larry Jr yelled as he climbed over our fence where Tipper his faithful Irish Setter waited on the other side.
Like wartime prisoner exchanges, my brother Miles would invite Larry Jr with us on vacation while the Dels might get a “Turpin to be named later” for their week down at the beach. Years later, the families finally saw the logic in renting homes in Newport Beach at the same time. Big Larry loved his time on the Balboa Peninsula and was always surrounded by a swirling, one degree of separation scallion of food, beverage, insurance and consumer goods Catholics – small armies of six, eight and ten kid families all renting beach houses near one another each August. In time, Larry Jr, his brothers Michael and John, sisters Mary and Therese would end up helping their own and other people’s siblings.
The Pirate King longed for his own ship and state room but instead had to settle for a few precious belongings. His most treasured possession was his stereo. In the last golden age of high fidelity, Larry Jr became an audiophile. He matched a Pioneer turntable with a stylus as sensitive as your shy cousin with a 200 amp Kenwood receiver, Bose amplifier, Infinity speakers and an eight track deck to create a system so powerful it could knock down an old lady fifty yards away.
He had plastic sleeves for each Beatles album and would spend hours listening to the dulcet music of Paul McCartney on his headphones. Just for a minute, he was alone — in his own room with no filthy crew and cramped quarters. Moments later, the magic would always be broken by the scent of a dirty diaper announcing the arrival of an infant sibling who would drunkenly stagger into his room looking for his or her mother.
Perhaps being surrounded with so much life compelled the older Del Santo boys to flirt with Death — activities that by today’s standards would land parents in jail for child endangerment. Yet, we were the pioneers of mischief – ancestors whose BB gun wars became tomorrow’s paintball and whose motocross and mini-bike jumps laid the foundations for X Games.
Our friend Judd recalls that common sense was permanently on vacation in those days. A favorite high risk game required one kid to ride a mini bike up and down the street and through the back yard while others would fire BB guns at him from concealed sniper nests. When a bullet lodged under the driver’s eye, they quickly picked it out with tweezers but explained the injury as a baseball accident. Injury was not a badge of honor but a potential invitation for punishment. A contusion was something to be disguised. Blood or a tear in one’s clothing was a sign that a kid had been engaged in grab-ass. You tear your shirt? You pay for it. You get a cut requiring stitches and scare the hell out of me? Ill make you wish you died out there. Injury was a kid’s fault. “What in the God’s green earth were you doing over at the Del Santos?”
Life in the late 60s and early 70s was a death defying time of discovering boundaries, learning through failure and encounters with authority figures. The police did not work at cross purposes with your parents. The cops often brought a kid home to a punishment that they knew was likely to be more painful and decisive than any visited by local law enforcement.
Larry Del Jr was exposed to the full radiation of first child accountability. It pulsed from a busy father and an overwhelmed mother who looked to him to ride shotgun for an army of children still finding their way in the world. He never relinquished the job of Pirate King. It became his raison d’être.
Larry had his share of life’s successes and disappointments but he was always grounded in the singular fact that he was his family’s sibling leader — large and in charge, ready to give advice to anyone. He deeply loved his own kids who had become his pride and joy. He was genetically predisposed to be a Dad. Later in life, he would make it his priority to know each of his thirty nieces and nephews.
For four decades, our lives would intertwine – vacationing together, swapping kids, offering summer work, helping potential felons find the right college. It was always the same — the cabal of Italian Catholics and the feisty and felonious quartet of Presbyterian boys who were uncertain whether they wanted to be superior court judges or wards of the criminal justice system.
It’s 4am now. I’m feeling old driving south on Highway 101 to SFO to fly back to JFK. A tangerine sunrise to the east feels like a home fire burning. The San Francisco Bay is an ebony inkblot sequined by the lights of a hundred high tech office parks and residential homes along the waters edge.
I’ll miss him. He was a thousand summer nights running across the innocence of my youth and my fascination with risk. He was a surrogate big brother and a talisman for the truth. He was a Pirate King, the Leader of the Lost Boys — always itching for a golf game or a dinner with as many people jammed into one house as the fire marshal would allow. He was big in every way and his heart showed how endless our capacity for love can be.
All hail to the Pirate King, our Blue Sky Giant, the vanquisher of bullies, master of mischief and champion of all sound systems. He blazed a trail that we will follow for the rest of our lives. His inate sense of kindness taught all of us that God does not work through burning bushes but through people and he was perhaps, the tallest and most amazing juniper in our garden.
Don’t worry Larry. We will pick up the torch and the funnelator to be sure we keep things loose and when it’s necessary, we will enforce the community standard – perhaps launching a few eggs at a grumpy neighbor’s house.
It’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 !
“And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants
There are some, down the road between hither and yon
That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
But on you will go, though the weather be foul.
On you will go though your enemies prowl
On you will go though the Hakken Kraks howl
Onward and up many a frightening creek,
Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak…”
~ Theodore Geiser aka Dr Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go
Stephen Covey once said, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.” It is inevitable that while on this existential expedition of Life that we will miss sign posts, lose our way and occasionally end up in a ditch. It is buried in the fine print of the human condition that we will periodically hit a bottom. The proverbial nadir can come in the form of any physical, emotional, spiritual or mental stimulus that compels us to make very important changes in our lives. A personal abyss can be filled with nasty nightmares where worst case scenarios keep playing in our heads like a 24 hour horror festival. An incubus can be tinged with painful humiliation or gut-wrenching spiritual doubt. While no light seems to escape from these metaphysical black holes, it is within them that souls are often reborn through life altering personal epiphanies.
Some people get lucky. They make rapid course corrections following moderate miscues. We call these fortunates ” high bottoms” — those who have had mild brushes with consequence and in doing so, make alterations that avoid the deeper canyons of catastrophe. Others are hard-headed and need to be tossed around in life’s white water before finally gaining perspective. Sometimes the most successful among us lack the basic ingredients of humility and self-awareness to see a bottom coming. Their spiritual GPS is still “searching for the satellite” as they speed through one of life’s guardrails. These advocates of self determination tend to rely on their own best thinking and are certain that if there is a God, he or she must look and think alot like them.
Just ask the endless parade of celebrities and power brokers who have seemingly had it all — only to sabotage their own lives. Each low is determined by a simple psycho-social equation: “The Probability of Change Is Inversely Proportionate To The Pain One Is Willing To Endure Before Taking Action.” How bad does it have to get? What needs to occur to cause someone to change the way they live? Not all crises of the soul are self-inflicted. Bad things happen to good people. Yet, life changing events test the very foundation of any person’s belief system. Often people find true spirituality and religion in these midnights of mortality. If you subscribe to the doctrine that life is a “testing place and not a resting place,” bottoms are critical ledges that can catch us and redirect us in a new, more positive direction. For those in the thick of crisis, Churchill offered sage direction: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Hubris and humility anchor the opposite ends of a spiritual continuum that begins as a perilous, high velocity rapid of self worship that eventually widens into a peaceful river of unconditional love. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is merely thinking of yourself less of the time. It is in our tormented moments that we come to the conclusion that only a power greater than ourselves can lift us into the light. Often that higher power manifests in the form of real people — individuals who see beyond our imperfections and focus on our possibilities. They reward us with their simple acts of forgiveness and love. In giving us grace, they receive it. They understand that we are all strands in a rope of compassion fashioned out of servants helping others rise from the ashes of their own spontaneous combustion.
It’s these acts of humanity and unconditional support that we see ourselves as part of a community of souls. We realize the greatest gift that we can give is ourselves to others. “Sinners make the best saints.” Bill Wilson often remarked when he was asked about the miracle of Alcoholics Anonymous. It all started for Wilson by sharing his bottom with another person in the throes of their own despair and in that moment of raw humanity, they discovered grace. Grace is everywhere and lines the pockets of every living soul. It is a currency that never depreciates.
A catalyst for transformation might be getting fired, a divorce, an arrest, being caught in a lie, hurting a loved one, an illness, the death of a friend, getting into trouble or the painful recognition that one is materially rich and spiritually bankrupt. Any relationship challenge or crisis can become a critical turning point in our belief system. When we fearless inventory our part in a fiasco, we often find our own egos skulking in the shadows — trying to convince us that we are victims and not responsible. Pain leads to humility. Humility leads to surrender. Surrender is followed by the revelation that we simply do not have all the answers or control. The recognition that there is a God and we are not him/her leads to a thirst for a theology whose principal tenets are anchored in serenity, humanity and tolerance
A soldier once said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Most of us have bargained with God for intervention or relief from a problem and usually reneged on promises once the crisis passed. Yet, sometimes a bargain sticks. Every religion is filled with examples of faith found in the midst of fear. It can take a crisis to shake us out of the illusion that somehow we’re exempt from life happening to us. “Life,” John Lennon said, “is what happens while you are busy making plans.” How we react to life — and whether we take life on life’s terms — ultimately determine our progress as human beings.
Ultimately, a bottom is a good thing. If for no other reason, we are taught to appreciate the peaks of our existence. Be of good cheer and remember that we never get dealt more than we can handle. Strife, pain and low points also allow us to know who our friends are, confirm our values and see that life can be so much more than we might see in our limited view. Travail shakes us from her chrysalis and we eventually take flight as butterflies — lifted on the gentle breezes of forgiveness and redemption.
It is Springtime and a time of rebirth. It is a time to remember, however low we go, we can always find grace. Enter Dr. Seuss, “…On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are…and you will succeed? Yes, You will indeed (98 and ¾ guaranteed)…and oh the places, you’ll go!”
We all have that certain special someone in our lives – that angry, disaffected, the world-is-going-to-hell and our President is really an enemy agent kind of friend or relative who needs to either be euthanized like a lame horse or trained to laugh…Arsenic is expensive and unless you live in Oregon, I suggest you give him or her a copy of T-Rex By The Tail or Bicentennial Rex for Christmas or Hanukkah. Hell, get them both books!
At a minimum, do your patriotic bit to stimulate the local economy and buy a copy from Elm Street Books or simply click on this web site’s masthead and help Jeff Bezos make an extra $10k to tip his pedicurist by using Amazon.com.
According to one angry T-Rex, “each dollar you spend helps prime the economy, keeping people employed and paying taxes – taxes that go to fund do-gooder give-aways, socialized medicine and stitch together a social safety net that is becoming a massive European style hammock….Grrrrrr!”
A few reviews:
I knew it was going to be a good read, have known Mike for years. All I had to do was get past the first few pages , it was tough, and the rest was easy. I do remember being raised by a “dinosaur” and even see Woody in alot of the chapters. Mike has done a great job of allowing the younger generation to see what child rearing was, and maybe still should be, like . Congrats to a great author, and THANKS !!!!!
This is a fun book. What self-loving Baby Boomer wouldn’t love to take a trip down a memory lane lined with humor and keen insight? And it’s a very fun and realistic trip at that. Turpin captures the charming idiocy of the adolescent male (I apologize for the multiple redundancies in this sentence) growing up in the 1970’s with wit, verve and understanding. The Patton family is much more realistic (and amusing) than that “other” southern California tribe, the Brady’s. Just as clearly, Central Casting could never have managed to find an appropriate Karl (“Rex”) . . . the Patton patriarch – a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a sleep deprived George Patton.
This is a great and funny read, full of smarts and happy memory ghosts. I highly recommend it.
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Oscar Wilde
Mitch Horowitz recently penned a piece in the NY Times that took a coat hanger to the rear end of the digital age, blaming the rising incivility in our society – at least in part – on faceless emails, text messaging and anonymous social media that allows individuals to engage in “consequence free” on-line hostility. As I was reading Horowitz’s thoughtful lamentation, I could not help but sheepishly think about the scud missile emails that I have sent over the course of my career (hardly without consequence) and those other misspent missives that still gratefully rest in my draft box like idling ICBMs.
Email certainly makes it easy to be a jerk. I don’t have to see the reaction on the other person’s face or deal with their legitimate reaction. It’s like throwing oranges over the fence at cars when I was a kid. It also seems to be getting worse. Somewhere along the way, we have allowed ourselves to get gerrymandered into orthodox enclaves of opinion that refuse to even acknowledge the other person’s point of view. News channels have been replaced views channels and news anchors have morphed into iconoclastic shock jocks who belittle anyone who offers an alternative opinion. Worst of all, the insults and personal diminishment lack imagination and humorous punch. They are petty and sophomoric – much the way a schoolyard disagreement might end with “I know you are, but what am I?”
Acidic discourse is hardly new and uncivilized communication has been a plague on our houses since the first rock was thrown anonymously into the other guy’s cave. Anger is a manifestation of self centered fear – fear of not getting what you feel you deserve or fear of losing what you have. While it is natural to become annoyed with those who do not share your point of view, it is also inevitable in a world that is becoming global and more diverse that the odds are increasingly higher that we will encounter people with views different than our own – convictions that threaten our version of what we believe to be true. We can always choose to respond like Dan Akroyd in his iconic SNL Point/Counterpoint debates with Jane Curtain. Yet, the basis by which we choose to resolve our differences defines our emotional intelligence as a society. As we become more transparent in a digital age and become more diverse in a hot, flat crowded world, we find ourselves under siege with change and the conflicting points of view from people who do not share our enlightened sense of what is right.
It takes a lot of restraint to stay open to issues and to resist making up your mind until you have heard all sides. I remember the sense of injustice I felt growing up in the house of my iron-clad father. “That’s not fair.” I would complain.
“I’ll tell you what’s fair,” was always his response.
It made things easier being told what to believe in. It became more complicated later in life as I formed my own points of view based on my experiences. The internet certainly enables faceless, poison pen snarkiness in a society consumed with schadenfreude, but this is nothing new. Before the computer age there were Scarlet Letter gossip campaigns that were the centerpiece of small town blood sports. Social media supercharges our innate penchant for self promotion and bold disagreement. Yet, the internet is merely a new medium for mass character assassination and not unlike a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet, it is deviously impersonal.
Horowitz points out that while disagreement is a natural part of intelligent discourse, distain is destructive and dismissive. It’s as cancerous today as it was when citizens had no internet and wandered the streets looking for somebody different to lynch.
As a writer who trades in the currency of sarcasm, I have to admit that the Horowitz article got me thinking. Growing up in an unfiltered home whose patriarch routinely eviscerated anyone whose views were different than his own, I became somewhat desensitized to those that were ridiculed for their obvious lack of understanding of the issues. As I grew up, I was drawn to society’s cynics and iconoclasts who found humor in magnifying imperfection. Yet, the best of these curmudgeons taught me to first laugh at myself before everyone else.
Ambrose Bierce is among my favorites – a scathing critic, writer and all-around troll. The impossible author wrote the quintessential primer on sarcasm known simply as “The Devil’s Dictionary”. He became synonymous with mordant commentary and serial disregard for society’s conventions and institutions. He lived a difficult life having survived the Civil War and the suicide of his own son. Some of his more deliciously acerbic quotes:
“History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”
“Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”
“Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they ought to be
Bierce disagreed with people early and often. He was his generation’s literary angel of death. To William Randolph Hearst, he once retorted,” “Mr Hearst, I collect words and ideas. Like you, I also store them. But unlike you, I keep them in the reservoir of my mind. I can take them out and display them at a moment’s notice. Mine are eminently portable, Mr. Hearst. And I don’t find it necessary to share them all at the same time.”
Another one of my favorite snarks, was Richard Blackwell, aka Mr Blackwell whose annual list of worst dressed celebrities became a brutal primer on sartorial misadventure. His legendary insults on wardrobe malfunctions included:
“She looks like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket.” (Liz Taylor)
“She dresses like the centerfold for The Farmer’s Almanac.” (Martha Stewart)
“Stretch pants on angel food cake.” (Jane Fonda)
“She looks like a gypsy abandoned by a caravan.” (Meryl Streep)
Okay, Okay…It’s a tad mean but you have to admit it’s funny. I suggest if you insist on being critical, at least make it clever. Sure, there’s lots to be mad about – deficits, low growth GDP, a declining middle class, class warfare, unemployment, foreign wars and the incredibly hateful and uncivilized comments that often weave their way anonymously into the Internet. Remember our kids don’t do what we say but certainly emulate what we do. We don’t want to leave these open-minded millennials “a coarsened and crippled way of interacting” that will handicap them well into the next generation. We must try to find a starting point, preferably a funny one, to lead us out of the polarizing desert of dissent and toward a more civilized detente.
If you are going to be bitter, lampoon yourself first. Show you can take it as well as give it. Lurking like a spider across an endless web of comment threads is the realm of the petty and the reptillian. Resist the temptation to take pokes at someone who is down or who can’t defend themselves. Any bully can toss a rock through a window and drive off in the night. Anonymity might mean you never get caught by other people. But remember, someone did see you. You did. And I guess if you still believe that nobody saw you, well that would make you….
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.
I am slowly crossing off items on my “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” list. I have had a brush with a nurse shark in Hawaii, and run around like a headless chicken during Southern California earthquakes. I’ve fled falling ash from suburban fires and narrowly missed the eruption of Mt Etna. This does not even take into account my numerous acts of self sabotage during college. I still have several boxes that remain unchecked: being chased in New Guinea by cannibals, being stuck in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness or watching a Presidential election with my father. But as of last week, we could attest to surviving our first hurricane
Riding out Sandy seemed exciting. We were miles from the coast and nestled in between the shoulders of two wooded hillsides. While a storm meant certain disruption, Mother Nature was also grounding our two teenage sons – forcing our nuclear family back into a week of close-quarter, analog evenings of card games and trash talk.
As the Monday evening barometer dropped, the tri-state was silently cut from its moorings and we floated helplessly out to sea. Above Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, most were cut off and clueless to the insanity raging outside our darkened windows. The wind began to rake across a century of trees – accelerating like a freight train passing across a narrow gauge track. Our electricity suddenly cut-out followed by the reassuring thrum of our generator. The lights flickered reminding us of our fragile tether to life’s basic amenities. Our cable, phone and internet communications provider, heretofore known as (Sub)Optimum, collapsed quicker than the French along the Maginot line. True to their regular advertising, we had once again become victims of (Sub) Optimum’s “triple play” — one hit leading to three outs.
Sandy howled and scratched at our patio door daring us to gaze upon her savage face. Peering through paned windows, I could see the eerie Aurora Borealis glow of transformers exploding in the distance. I acquiesced to Sandy’s taunts and opened the door to bellowing wind, swirling debris and deep, obsidian night. Like so many of the stupid people we see on television, I did not understand that the hurricane had launched a thousand sharpened arrows in the form of branches and sticks — any of which could have skewered this suburban pumpkin faster than you can say “he had it coming”. Our resident risk manager informed me to shut the door and retreat into the house. As I closed one door, the garage door mysteriously started to open on its own, a victim of a confusing electrical surge.
Dawn brought wreckage. The lawn was riddled with angled punji sticks, silently launched from the wild archers of the prior night. A massive oak was uprooted in my neighbor Charlie’s yard – its seven foot circumference trunk proving no match for the invisible hand that randomly harvested it like a troublesome dandelion. A hemlock lay on its side leaving a massive headstone of dirt and roots that reached eight feet into the air. Electrical wires dangled like twisted entrails – a cat’s cradle of broken conveniences – reminding me that my tiny generator and its 150 gallons of propane was the only thing standing between me and the movie The Village.
Over the next few days, an entire region would be reminded of property lines, introduced to tree wardens, forced to read the fine print of their homeowner’s policies and come to grips with terms like: “acts of God”, “proximate causes” and “business interruption”. A presidential election would pass the tri-state unceremoniously like a distant clipper ship. We finally accessed newspapers and televisions and learned of tragic deaths, overwhelmed neighborhoods and homes swept out to sea. Lower Manhattan was flooded and plunged into darkness. Transportation was ground to a halt and the NYSE closed for a historic two days.
I became irritable and discontent. I decided to focus my rage on my cable provider, (Sub)Optimum – ordering them to restore my cable, phone and internet – this very minute. I punctuated my temper tantrum with a firm “or else.”
“Or else what?” inquired the calm therapist who had been hired to mollify abusive customers until their arms tired. I was stumped and hung up.
School was cancelled. The kids ditched us like a bad neighborhood and headed for families with heat, cable and full refrigerators. Every few hours, the generator wheezed like a fat man climbing a flight of stairs and our lights would fade to brown. A yellow warning light began to blink on the generator indicating a low level of oil.
It was indeed a fortnight of strange days. Lines began to form at Steve’s local Gulf station as a rumor circulated that bandits from Wilton had hijacked a gasoline truck and rerouted it to Orem’s diner. I saw six people chasing a propane truck offering money. Someone told me that a woman in New Jersey woke up and found a six foot shark swimming in a salt water filled depression on her front lawn. A teenager was rumored to have thanked his parents for a ride to a friend’s house. My man, Mitt Romney, lost his bid for the White House. To cap a week of indignities, Old Man Winter did an early autumn drive by and hit us in the face with a pie of slush and snow.
The absence of electricity and mass media created a vacuum giving people way too much time to think. Many ruminated over the election and declared the results tantamount to the opening of Revelations’ Seventh Seal. Others quietly smiled in darkened houses and apartments feeling their first flicker of power in a week. I admit I was depressed over the election results. I descended into my usual abyss of self pity with my biggest concern that I would not be able to fit into the cardboard box that I expected to be living in by 2016. My butt was getting too big.
In my darkest moment, the lights suddenly flickered on. The computer router lights grinned green and the television pinged on. If it is true God only gives us what we can handle then it seemed he had determined that I had a low threshold for pain. The good news is we’re all still together. Yes, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. We have to dig out of a mess of trees, wires, budget deficits, mounting debt, partisan politics and disturbing fractures along racial and social fault lines. Closer to home, I will still suffer the periodic indignities of Sub-Optimum and I will keep asking our local officials how much it costs to bury all our electrical wires (according to newly minted State Congressman Tom O’Dea, it’s about $1m a mile). Personally, I will miss my emergency telephone updates. I would gladly pay higher taxes just to have someone walk by my house each night reassuringly yelling “one o’clock and all is well.”
One thing is certain: our ability to gracefully navigate environmental, political, social and climate changes will define us as a generation. Frankly, I’m over my depression. I’m getting energized and am ready for a good fight. You can take away my electricity — but I’ll be damned if you’re going to take away my power.
There are three stages of a man’s life: he believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus. ~Author Unknown
It was a chilly Northern California evening, as I finally settled into the great green chair in the family room. It had been a long day – church school, hiking, playgrounds, muddy dogs and an avalanche of diapers, nuks and mushy Wheat-A-Bix crackers. It was now 9 p.m. and it was my time. The second half of the 49ers game was kicking off, and the last of my feral children was nodding off. As I fell into the deep cushions, a blood curdling scream echoed down the hall. “Pi-yo-yoke!” “Pi-yo-yoke!” It was my two-year-old and it sounded as if the furies of hell had been unleashed in his room. I rushed down the narrow corridor just behind my wife. It was worse than I had expected. His beloved companion Pinocchio, the stuffed toy purchased during our fall visit to Disneyland that was never, ever far from his side, was missing. He was an inconsolable knot of anger, thrashing like a worm on a hot sidewalk and then suddenly going stiff with a form of frustrated rigor mortis. As my wife tried to gently lay him down in his crib, I made a move to slip unnoticed out of the room and sneak back to watch the 49ers game. I’ll just leave you two to sort this out…
“I can’t find his stuffed Pinocchio,” my spouse yelled frantically. She turned and whispered reassuringly to the apoplectic child, “Here’s kitty, honey.” He shrieked louder, tossing the tabby away with agitation, and fell back into the crib in twisted agony. “Shhhhhhh, sweetie. You’re going to wake up your brother and sister.” I stood there, helpless, the UN observer – well intentioned but overmatched. “Don’t just stand there, Michael. Go find Pinocchio!”
As she tried to console him, I tore apart the car and house. I could hear the cries from inside and cringed when new voices join the chorus. I rushed back inside with one of the stupid faces I wear when I am adding no value to a situation. “Wait” my wife blurted. “I know where Pinocchio is.” She hesitated as if retracing footsteps. “We left him at the reservoir today when we went for our walk with the kids. We have to go get him.” I knew instantly what it meant when we was used in this context. It meant I (we) was about to drive through a frigid, muddy night to a rural reservoir and go hunting for a stuffed toy.
Thirty minutes later, I was trudging up a steep slope choked with weeds and soft mud. The state park had long since closed and there was no access except by foot. I slipped and drove my knee six inches into the soft dirt. My foot suddenly disappeared into a mire of fresh mud, finally yielding my sock but keeping my loafer as a memento of the journey. I pulled the destroyed shoe from the wet swamp with a heave and a few choice words. I stumbled on to the hillside plateau and was soon moving along the ribbon of walking trail that paralleled the ebony water. I spied the play structure, but my imagination started to play tricks on me. It was, as the poet Frost described, “a night of dark intent.” It was the perfect place for a serial killing. I could just see the shadow of the 6’8” sociopath with a hook for a hand, dangling Pinocchio from his sharpened prosthesis. “Looking for something, mister?” The probability of a serial killer actually swinging on the sets near my son’s toy was close to zero, but that did not deter my paranoia. I rushed to every corner of the play area with no success. As I dejectedly turned to hike back to my car, I noticed the silhouette of an alpine hat and a jutting proboscis propped up on the picnic table. Geppetto had found his wooden boy.
Eager to be home, I fell down the hill, ripping my sweats on a rock after getting tangled in the roots of an oak tree. As I tumbled on to the street, I approached my car to find a parking ticket tucked neatly under the wiper blade. I grabbed it in disgust and drove silently home. As I crept into the house, I heard the familiar splash of the kitchen faucet and the tinkling of dishes being cleaned. “Great,” she whispered, ignoring my ripped pants and single shoe. She walked down the quiet hall to place the stuffed boy in Cole’s crib. “He fell asleep just after you left.” They say “comedy is tragedy plus time” and I can now chuckle about my winter midnight hike at the Lafayette Reservoir. I was not laughing at the time; I was feeling totally put out. I now realize it was all part of dad duty.
Dad duty changes with each generation as society and social patterns shift. I love to take the starch out of my Father by dredging the comedy and mild dysfunction that has settled deep in the tributary of our lives. Yet, I’ve always known he had no higher priority than his family. I often refer to his generation as the “Dad’s With the Big D.” They were benevolent dictators, masters and commanders. Martial law, a strong hand and absolute respect were prerequisites to survival on their tightly run ship. A Big D Dad was shaped by hands scarred from a Great Depression, world wars and the sense that each generation could improve on the work of those that preceded it. Life outside his neighborhood was reported through newspapers, magazines and an illuminated radio dial. Fear was a stranger always lurking in the shadows as polio, communism, war and poverty made a person conservative, patriotic and self-reliant. My Dad intuitively knew that anything worthwhile was earned and that only hard work could overcome limitations and barriers. The price he and other Dads paid was occasionally missing milestones that marked their children’s progress in the world. Yet, they never wavered. It was their duty.
Dad duty now dictates that a “good” father make every recital, sporting event, choral concert and life moment to be certain we’re supporting our kids. The commanding general has morphed into a more benign therapist who hovers in a helicopter above each child broadcasting carefully crafted messages over a PA system. These dads are modern-day wranglers who must actively participate in guiding every head of the herd as it moves inevitably west. While the new age dad’s job description may have more fine print, the pay remains the same. Your compensation? A first dance with your daughter at an Indian Princess outing. That first hit in tee ball. Introducing a new book or place to your child and watching them revel in the experience. The realization that vicarious joy is deeper than personal satisfaction and that being dad means loving unconditionally; your heart has bandwidth that you never imagined. It crystallizes a concept of the universe where a higher power loves you, blemishes and all, and wants only the best for you. It helps you understand the precious gift of being responsible for another person and it magnifies your respect for other parents. Having my own children finally helped me clearly see the man who was my Father. He was, and still is, a parent with enormous integrity who refused to ever forget that his family was his top priority. His greatest joy was vicarious as he helped guide and support the success and happiness of his four boys.
They may call it dad duty, that’s an oxymoron. The chance to serve as a father is perhaps the greatest gift any man can experience.
“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.” So wrote the acerbic, witty and unrelenting Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892. Wilde openly led a movement of aestheticism and public decadence in a time when sins were expected to be committed with discretion out of the public eye of a highly pious Victorian society. The age-old struggle of good versus evil and the ensuing black comedy that resulted from every human’s double life was his central theme – one as apropos today as it was during the time of this “wicked” Irish iconoclast.
As a recovering collegiate sybarite and literary enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Wilde. I am drawn to his sarcasm and often rely on his wit when trying to contend with a world that judges too harshly. While I cannot condone Wilde’s lifestyle choices, I could never disparage his genius. Like so many great writers and contrarians, his tortured soul and conflicted contempt for what Victorian society viewed as “decency” compelled him to persistently test its boundaries. In doing so, he sealed his own fate but left us timeless footprints in the forms of quotes, stories and plays. Wilde might have been considered a troublesome dissident by today’s standards — constantly prodding and testing our conventions and hidden hypocrisies. Although I wonder if Wilde was born in 1964 instead of 1854, if society would have been more forgiving — celebrating his brilliance and choosing to not be so offended by his habitual testing of the status quo. A few gems:
“ A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal..” My mother called it “compulsive candor. Wilde’s strengths taken to excess became his weakness and ultimately led to his decent into a determined frontal assault on society. However, the truth was too tempting to not flaunt in the face of a pious England that held itself in such high esteem while choosing to conduct its venal pursuits in far off places and under the complicated cloak of class and corruption.
- “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them more.” There is indeed power, liberation and humor in forgiveness. Making one’s amends and stepping up to apologize for your part of a conflict defuses a situation and gives you the upper hand. One spiritual advisor once chided me to pray for my enemies. “Perhaps if he gets exactly what he wants, he may no longer offend you or better yet, he may actually get what is coming to him. Either way, it’s out of your hands and it takes away people’s power over you to forgive them – especially without their permission.”
- “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seems in a society that has come to judge material gain as a yardstick for personal advancement, we have come to understand how much everything costs but have lost our ability to understand intrinsic value. Real moral and spiritual value requires a more complex calculus of living whose numerator is one’s impact on others – the lives we change and the legacies we leave divided by the price others pay as we achieve them. Many build wealth but may not recognize the intangible deficits they accumulate over a lifetime of misguided priorities.
- “Wisdom comes with winters.” Our emotional intelligence is forged from the difficulties we endure. The unexpected stone thrown through the bay window of our lives often forms the foundation for stronger character and a more resilient future. Every winter holds the promise of an ensuing spring of insights, but only if we have the humility to seek these lessons.
- “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” We often say be careful what you wish for. “You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” In praying for something, perhaps we would be better served praying for strength to deal with whatever is to come our way. Our own best thinking and resolve to get our way usually get us into a tangled mess. Perhaps our lives are best guided by a point of reference other than ourselves.
In the end, Wilde’s determined sybaritic lifestyle – “working is the curse of the drinking classes” where “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”) – became his undoing. In the midst of his physical and intellectual self-indulgence and his war against the English establishment, he penned brilliant works of literature : The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Canterville Ghost among others.
Wilde dared to suggest that human beings are a mass of contradictions. We must periodically remind ourselves, as mistakes are made, boundaries broken and glass shattered, that it’s all part of the human condition. As we move back and forth along life’s continuum between self and selfless, we should never forget that no one is without fault.
Wilde paid the ultimate price by flaunting his own self-destructive behavior in the face of an unforgiving society, then publicly challenging its hypocrisy. He was imprisoned and died penniless three years later. His “gross indecency” led to his mortal defeat, but also opened society’s aperture to tolerance and change. He left us as an immortal — a fire that burned too bright, too hot and became too dangerous for the conventions of his day.
Even now, as I finish this essay and tiptoe into a darkened kitchen in search of Easter candy hidden by my wife, Wilde whispers to me, “I can resist anything but temptation”.
The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s. ~Mark Twain, letter to W.D. Howells, April 2, 1899
Once upon a time, there was a family of four boys. The children dreamed of owning a dog. However, their father had allergies and was convinced that dogs were really reincarnated socialists — lazy, unemployed and insensitive to the consequences of having a large family. The constant plea for a canine companion fell on deaf ears. But fate would not deny them. A chance encounter with a litter of mongrel puppies while on a beach in San Diego led to the rash and exciting adoption of Brutus, a flop eared cockapoo mix who pattered across their floors and hearts for eight glorious weeks. To this day, each boy recalls the black moment when he learned his new dog had succumbed to canine distemper.
Brutus was followed by Max, a “pound puppy” whose heritage was about as clear as the ingredients of English blood sausage. Each morning, the boys would stir in bed as they heard Max push open the back door of the house to go outside. He would conduct a cursory patrol of the neighborhood looking for anything out of the ordinary. As with any carnivore or herder, it is best not to run as it only encourages spirited pursuit. Max could close a 30 yard gap in five seconds and bring down any mammal five times his weight with a bite and twist of the ankle. The dog was the perfect playmate — bred to run among a pack of wild things — jumping fences, biting, tackling, and chasing any moving object upon the simple command of “Get ‘em!” When tears and disappointments arrived like seasonal storms, Max’s warm presence would quell the tempest with a simple lick of the afflicted kid’s ear. He smelled of damp, woolen clothes and warm, dirty blankets. Max endured one annual bath where he was sheared, coated with an explosion of fragrant flea powder and branded with a humiliating bow around his collar. As if sensing his masculinity was in question, he would aggressively scratch against an ancient pine tree to remove the ribbon and then roll across pine needles and dirt to eradicate the smell of the kennel salon.
The father could not disguise his dislike of Max. The four-legged tangle of dirty hair did not much care for the father either, and avoided him like a bad neighborhood. Given his penchant for marking sofas, Christmas trees and bathroom towels, Max had declared himself the alpha male in the home which offended the father. Perhaps in another life, the father and the dog would have been inseparable pack mates. However, in 1970’s suburbia, there could be only one alpha male per household. The father did not appreciate Max’s zeal for leadership and loathed his relentless regularity, his lack of inspiration and his tendency toward promiscuity. He would periodically assert his dominance over the dog by exiling him outside, shoo’ing him out of a room or “nudging” him in the hind quarters — not to injure him but merely to assert his role as the lead dog on the sled.
In dog years, Max was an 18-year-old boy and thus, all his behavior seemed normal to his beloved quartet of young boys. Yet like the teenage boys, the dog was not without guile and premeditation. He had a long memory. In the summer of 1974, alpha dog bested alpha father in an act of pure revenge.
In anticipation of entertaining her husband’s largest advertising client and perhaps helping him achieve a critical promotion, the mother had made the rare and exotic buy of a magnificent Kurdish weave carpet. Given that their household operated on razor-thin margins and was occupied by four destructive boys, the rug was indeed a risky purchase. The children were directed by their mother to not so much as look at the carpet, let alone walk on it. Max did not get the memo.
The day of the all important client dinner arrived. The boys were banished to friends’ houses, with Max chased outside by the anxious father. As the fastidious client and his wife arrived, they chose to walk across the freshly cut front lawn and into the foyer of the immaculate Spanish style home. The front door opened to a foyer fit for a middle eastern sheik. The carpet that in Arabic meant “1000 Flowers” spread across the red-tiled floor in reverent welcome to their most important visitors.
The mother smelled an odd odor as the couples exchanged superficial pleasantries but the smell was quickly overwhelmed by the rush of Mrs. VIP’s strong perfume. Yet this experienced mother of four boys was highly evolved and equipped with extra sensory perception. Something was terribly wrong. As the dinner group moved past her into the home, the mother closed the front door and to her horror, discovered the client and his spouse were now tracking fresh dog poop across the new carpet and throughout the house. Still a neophyte at client politics, she did not dare utter a word to the customers. She could not possibly risk embarrassing her husbands’ biggest client. Instead, she surreptitiously spent the evening shepherding them in and out of rooms and then excuse herself to rush to clean the soiled floors and carpets.
Finally, she could not stand it any more and gently took her husband aside. He looked up and suddenly understood why his wife had acted so peculiar throughout this very important evening. It was not nerves, it was dog feces. He advanced from disbelief to anger and flashed an icy stare out the window to the patio. A filthy mop of a dog sat triumphant in pale light cast from the dining room windows outside, panting and gazing in on the adult dinner party. Revenge was sweet, but contrary to the old saying, it did not smell very good.
It is now years later and like my father, I find myself dancing with wolves. Unlike my Dad, I find something extremely reassuring about living with man’s best friend. My Australian shepherd, Brody, is my confidant and confederate. He is well-known for his ability to keep secrets and to go for extended periods without uttering a word – content to listen to my musings and to reward my insights with a lick and laughing smile.
To be a boy is to have a dog. You are a breed apart — existing for the simplest of things — play, adventure, companionship, love, a warm place to lie down and the occasional secret hand-off underneath the table. As a companion and athlete, my dog gets dispensation for his periodic accidents, biological miscues and lapses in judgement. He looks up at me and seems to be saying, “You, sir, are utterly brilliant. If I had thumbs and a pencil, I would record everything you say.” He, too, smells like of old, wet blankets and the cinnamon scent of lost youth.
“The dog”, a writer once mused, “was created especially for children. He is the God of Frolic”
My eight-year-old niece, Jackie, is going through a phase. She is an irresistible sprite with tangled nutmeg hair and a smile that crescents atop a dimpled chin. She is also obsessed with moral conundrums – the more macabre, the better.
“Would you rather be burned to death or buried alive?” Her earnest angelic face shines at me like a full moon. I hesitate. “Ummmm, none of the above, honey. I want to live until I am 99, fall asleep in a chair and not wake up.”
“That’s not a choice,” she says defiantly. “Okay, okay, how about…would you rather be eaten by a great white shark or killed by a python?” My sister-in-law shakes her head, “She’s been asking these for six months.” “As long as she doesn’t want to dress up as Lizzie Borden for Halloween, you should be okay,” I say flippantly. Jackie is already locked and loaded with another Catch 22 that involves being either bled by leeches or eaten by cannibals. As if attracted by my squirming and the topic of blood in the water, my boys immediately appear, ready to frenzy on the gory questioning.
My 12-year-old asks, “Dad, what does it mean when they draw and quarter you?” He had obviously been mulling over this particular mode of torture for some time. “What’s drawing a quarter?” Jackie asks. This question immediately plunged me back to my childhood and the memory of a secret place known as the Republic of Richard Stans.
Richard Stans was the country adjacent to but unseen by the USA, sort of like Canada. Each day in class, we would stand and pledge allegiance to the American flag and to the Republic of Richard Stans – one nation, invisible, with liberty and justice for all. At Christmas time we sang Silent Night about the portly celibate “Round John Virgin – mother and child.” Perhaps John was so corpulent he symbolically represented mankind – men, women and children – or maybe he just ate the mother and child. We also sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He has trampled through the village where the crates of wrap are stored. He has loosened all the lighting on his terrible Swiss sword, his troop is marching on.” I had no idea what that meant but I knew one thing: God would not even need to use a sword. He could drown the entire Confederate States just by rerouting the Mississippi if he wanted to. The Civil War was confusing. It was an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” and “cruel to be kind.” How could it be civil if it was a war?
Yet, these were the rote lyrics of our adolescence; we recited these anthems and carols with earnest incomprehension. Through the filtered lens of a child, everything took on different meaning. Other words or expressions confounded me too, such as mysterious ailments and medical conditions. I remember distinctly hearing my Mom telling someone that Mr. Porter from across the street had “Old-Timer’s Disease” and didn’t know where he was anymore. One of my Mom’s friends had “Carpool Tunnel” syndrome, where her hands hurt from driving her kids everywhere, and I guess she got it going through the long tunnels that stretched to Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. Speaking of carpools, I did actually don a swimsuit at age six when told the car with a pool would be arriving to pick me up. My brother told me when people were choking in restaurants you used Heineken Manure on them. I assumed this emergency technique used beer and horse dung and – which, like ipecac, would force the disgorgement of an offending obstruction.
Later as a collegiate, I was introduced to Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals whose memorable character, Mrs. Malaprop, had a knack for inserting contextually inappropriate words that sounded vaguely similar to appropriate ones and in doing so, created disastrous, humorous results. As a baseball player, I knew that athletes were famous for their butchered grammar and syntax. Yogi Berra made a career out of malaprops: “You guys over there, pair up in threes.” “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And my favorite was Carmen Berra telling husband Yogi, “I took (son) Tim to Dr Zhivago today.” Yogi replied, “What the hell is wrong with Tim now!”
Poor former President W was guilty of routinely felonious phrases. Nicknamed “the most misunderestimated communicator of our time,” President W was unjustly maligned. He was one tough verbalizer. To Saddam Hussein, he challenged, “You better disarm, or we will.” To Congress, he extolled, “The law I sign today directs new funds…to the task of collecting vital intelligence…on weapons of mass production.” About life with Mrs. Bush, he was rumored to muse, “We have a good time together, even when we are not together.”
As my far-off look fades, I once again turn to eight-year-old Jackie, who’s bugging me for an answer to her query on the age-old practice of “drawing quarters.” I tell her it’s too hard to explain and to go away. She persists. I finally decide to tell her about Joan of Arc and how she was burnt at the stake for being a heretic. I figure that gives her something to cut her teeth on. I explain how she was canonized and how the English and French had a history of conflict. She seems quite pleased with the explanation and runs out of the room. In the adjacent den, I hear her explain, “Mommy, I just learned about Joan from the Ark who was shot with a cannon, burned with a steak and wore armor like the knights in King Arthur. Do you know the French have problems?”
I think she got it.
Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. – Goethe
On March 1, 2007, Joe had his last day as a front desk security guard. For over 15 years, he was the first person that you’d see when you entered his company’s corporate headquarters. Joe possessed a special talent: You could meet Joe once and forever after, he would never, ever forget your name.
I interviewed with Joe’s company in February 2005 at their corporate offices in Trumbull. Nervous at my first interview in over twenty years, I met Joe – who stood up and warmly grasped my arm with his large catcher’s mitt hands. “Michael, welcome, welcome. Isn’t it a great day today?” I looked outside. It was cold and gray, threatening sleet and other meteorological mischief. “Nice to meet you, too; um…I’m sorry, I did not catch your name?” “Joe, Michael. My name is Joe. Come and see us again.”
I returned eight weeks later as a new employee. My first day was filled with trepidation. I had left behind a 23-year career with my former firm, and it felt strange and unnatural to be arriving at a new employer. I had regrets and doubts. I didn’t know where to park. Everything was wrong. I carried with me a box filled with pictures and mementos, depressed in the knowledge that a long career could fit so easily in a single cardboard container. As is often the case with large companies, no one actually remembered I was starting that day. There were no instructions for me on where to go. As I walked in the front doors with my box, Joe looked at me and immediately smiled, “Michael, it’s great to see you back. Michael? Are you moving in with us? Bless me, Michael; I believe you are joining our company.” He stood up and came around the desk and grabbed my box, putting an arm around my shoulder, shepherding me to the rear of the building to my office and my new professional life.
Each day as I walked across the front foyer to lunch, Joe would be saying hello on a first-name basis to every employee as they walked by – on their way to meetings, lunch, or appointments. “Carol…how is that gorgeous daughter of yours?” “Jeff, it’s great to see you. You have a good lunch.” “Tom, Tom, Tom…mmm, mmm, mmm, my friend, I believe you have lost some weight.” My predecessor, the former CEO, would purposely have visitors, regulators and key customers wait in the foyer because Joe would be there to meet them; as he said, “Joe always warmed them up.”
Joe never missed a day of work in 16 years. Joe lived with his two daughters in Bridgeport and, like so many who seek to serve others, he softened the sharp edges of his own neighborhood wherever he went. A colleague driving through Bridgeport one afternoon happened to spy Joe riding his bicycle along a city street. “I tried to get his attention but he was riding on the other side of the road. I stopped at a red light and watched Joe in my rear view mirror. There was a homeless man draped across the sidewalk; pedestrians were stepping over him, careful not to make eye contact. Joe stopped his bike and instead of walking around the man, disappeared into a bank. Joe walked outside, handed the man a $20 bill and rode away. That was Joe.”
Joe scraped together money to study at night to be a minister. He had passed his courses and begun a process of becoming an ordained minister. When Joe’s company was bought by a much larger corporate giant, he remained the front foyer fixture. Joe saw it as his mission to be an important source of reassuring continuity to employees new and old – reinforcing the point that no matter how large the firm became, one person would know their names and make sure they were all okay.
There’s a story…someone in the new parent company’s home office observed that the security guard in the Trumbull facility was possibly overpaid. That was until a home office management team visited, some six months after their first visit. Joe shined. “Dave, it’s good to see you again, welcome back. Mike, you look like you have grown two inches. Steve, how are those two boys you told me about?” Their jaws dropped and one of the executives whispered to another, “We’ve got to give this guy a raise.”
Joe was the heart and soul of his firm. He reminded us all that the most precious asset in any company is its people. He embodied all the values that any well run firm seeks to cultivate in its employees – personal responsibility, compassion, commitment and focus on the customer. Joe had figured out that the richest person is not the executive with the big salary or the private jet; it is the man or woman who has friends and who is guided by a purpose greater than themselves. His humility was a sweet perfume that permeated everything and everyone around him.
On Friday, March 1, we let the word out in headquarters that Joe would be celebrating his last day. The pace of the day and the time of year had us assuming perhaps 50-75 people joining us for an intimate farewell. I was an accomplice in getting Joe to come with me to check something in the main cafeteria. The doors opened up and I was shocked to see over 900 people – smiling, clapping and crying. “Joe, Joe, Joe” was a rhythmic chant that rolled throughout the building. Joe began to cry. “I am just so grateful to be called your friend.” We exchanged our favorite stories about how Joe calmed angry customers, consoled fellow employees and celebrated marriages, births and promotions. He was leaving to become the pastor at a rural Baptist church in South Carolina. In his first impromptu sermon to an adoring congregation, he paced the room trying to find the words. In the end, he handed me back the microphone to hold back the tears. “Thank you, thank you…” was all he could keep repeating.
Joe later walked out the front door, a slight figure wearing a faded blue vest and brown pants, carrying bags brimming with presents from his admirers – a new bible, gift certificates and a massive picture album signed by over 800 people including two retired CEOs. He left as he came every day, urging people not to worry about him. “Michael!” he yelled back to me. “Don’t let them change this place and don’t let the ‘community’ die. It’s all we got, man.” He got in his car, gave the right of way to another car and disappeared.
As he headed to a new community as an ordained pastor, most of us realized he was our lay minister, teaching us every day that the thing that matters most in life is each other. All that from a guy most of us only knew simply as “Joe.”
My dad used to describe kids like me as “big boned”, “solid” or “husky”. Even at an early age, the word ” husky” bugged me as it seemed to be a verbal primer meant to gently veil an uglier undercoat adjective –“chubby”. Just hearing the term “husky” still makes me want to suck in my gut. Having two older brothers who could consume 12,000 calories in a single sitting and still look like extras in the remake of Angela’s Ashes made me even more self-conscious and in search of a cure for the metabolic deuces that I had been dealt in this unfair game called adolescence.
I took after my German grandfather with a square frame and large head. It was not actually until the second grade that anyone outside of my family called attention to my unique physiology. We had moved in our town forcing me to switch elementary schools. I hated everything about my new school “Valentine”– its’ unisex name, it’s strange children, the long, sterile hallway that descended down to the adjacent middle school and our massive playground that would make an agoraphobic run for cover. I was a big kid for my class – often mistaken for a third or fourth grader. I was desperately lonely for my old friends the first day I was shoved out of the car and into Mrs Stone’s second grade class.
It was less than an hour before I got tagged with my first epithet. “Hey, pumpkin head!” I turned around amused, looking for the person who would be the butt of this funny word. I whirled to confront two elfin, toe-headed boys – identical twins dressed in white tee shirts, blue jeans and red cloth Keds. I had the sudden sensation of sea sickness as my twin tormentors merged into a symphony of abuse. “How come your head is so big?” The slightly older brother by two minutes, David, looked at his brother, Ed. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Another kid wandered over as my blood pressure rose. Soon there were five kids forming a crescent-shaped peanut gallery behind my two hecklers.
I was unprepared and could only retaliate with a pathetic reference to their microscopic size. Years later, I would regret not coming up with something infinitely more cutting such as “my dog leaves larger %$##@’s than you on our front lawn.” However, it is always in retrospect that we come up with our best retorts – – normally thirty minutes following verbal fisticuffs.
“For a guy with such a big head, you’re pretty dumb.” (laughter)
I can’t recall exactly which insult made me snap but I distinctly remember taking off after the Dillhofer twins. In a scene out of Animal Planet, I was thoroughly confounded by the twin meerkats darting in opposite directions, mocking me and shouting “pumpkin head” A teacher intervened and to my shock, five kids fingered me as the instigator. On my first day attending Valentine school, I was marched to Miss Pratt’s office fuming and despondent.
After school, I raced home and went into self-exile behind the garage – plotting my revenge on the Dillhoefers, my teacher, the principal and anyone associated with moving their children to a new school. I sat crying with my dog Max, a mongrel kindred spirit with Rastafarian-matted hair. He was my unconditional shadow indulging me as I sat cursing my fate and physique.
My older brother had been kicking a soccer ball against the other side of the garage when the ball lifted over the tile roof and landed in the ivy near my hiding place. I did not move to pick it up but waited until my brother turned the corner. In an act of sheer compassion that only an older sibling could muster, he saw me crying and asked, “What are you blubbering for, fat boy?” Thus began my journey as a husky kid.
When I look back at those pictures now, I see a happy boy who loathed running, could hit a baseball a country mile and who never met a donut he did not like. I grew into a well-mannered, husky adolescent that could navigate his way through most challenges. I became the anchor man in tug of wars, the clean up hitter, the guy who lifts everyone else to safety but then gets caught because he can’t lift himself over the wall. I never completed a single pull up in the President’s fitness challenge and could not run a mile in less than ten minutes.
Yet, when you are 12, today is tomorrow and also the rest of your life. Stories and parables about people “growing out of this” and “ overcoming that” are propaganda created by parents too loving to break the inevitable truth to you – that you will one day grow up to do belly flops in a local circus or perhaps haunt some stretch of woods in rural America. “There he is ‘Big Head’, run!” As the children scream and retreat down the mountain path, the pathetic middle-aged ogre with the hydrocephalus head whimpers and retreats to his cold, midnight granite cave.
As a husky kid, my biggest challenge was clothing. There was no such thing as elastic. In a modest family, one must wear hand me downs from older siblings. I do not recall ever having a waist size less than 32” and was perpetually popping buttons, ripping crotches and tearing the seat of my older brothers’ worn corduroy trousers. The advent of denim prolonged my wardrobe but could not completely compensate for my thunder thighs and U-Haul rear end. While these attributes made me every coach’s dream on the baseball diamond, I was a tailor’s nightmare and an expensive line item in my parent’s back to school budget.
My greatest fear was removing my shirt in public. My brothers looked like POWs with washboard stomachs and adolescent hair in all the right places. I resembled alabaster play dough in process. I had annoying baby fat under my arms which seem to accentuate my chest. My brother’s referred to them as “man-boobs” – a term which I did not care for.
Summer meant the beach, public swimming pools, swim parties and sun bathing. I loathed the fast metabolism jocks with their abs and muscle definition. They were like relief maps with distinct features – mountains of sinew and flat deserts devoid of flab. I was like Antarctica – a large white land mass with no distinguishable features. I could not exactly pinpoint my biceps, abdominal muscles or quadriceps as they were all well insulated under a protective layer of permafrost baby fat.
Further trauma would await me in the Fall at school when we would invariably square off in basketball requiring one to either be shirts or skins. To be go skin in middle school PE was to advertise your darkest fears to an audience of unforgiving, insensitive pinheaded boys. To further exacerbate the problem, a game might be held outside in full view of the girls who would be doing jumping jacks or running the way girls who did not exercise often ran – in a sort of headlong tumble as if they were falling down hill.
My gym teacher, Mr Stebbins, loathed me for my myriad efforts to avoid Physical Education. My conscientious objection to sweating made him angry. He resembled an adult film star with his dolphin gym shorts, tight muscle shirt, blond sideburns and moustache. He looked at me with sardonic disdain as he picked sides for basketball. “Turpin – skins”. He might as well have said, “Turpin, naked!” I took my shirt off and quickly crossed my arms convinced from my brother’s chiding that I had bigger breasts than Raquel Welch and most of the girls now circling the playground with their spastic, angular lunges. For the next 30 minutes, I felt like a bowl of jello moving from one side of court to another. I became lost in my self loathing.
My mother sensed my despondency that evening when I refused to eat dinner. This was indeed an event as rare as a lunar eclipse. Oblivious to my plight, I heard my father groan from the other room pleading with God to exterminate every liberal in Congress. My mother noticed I had not touched my Swanson’s fried chicken TV dinner. Her nickname was “Sodium Pentathol” because she could induce a confession faster than a priest threatening you with a hair shirt. My loss of appetite was concerning and she was determined to root out its cause.
She tried not to smile as I dredged up the last few years of frustration with my physique.. She suggested I write the pros and cons of my temporary condition on paper and when done, we would weigh the right and left sides of the ledger for balance. I winced at the word “weigh” but agreed to consider trying to find the positive side of my weight. Was there a constructive side? Where was it? Could you see it in the mirror? At last, I agreed to indulge her. As I pondered the positives of portly, I came up with a few “advantages”.
1) I would be last to die in a famine or of radiation poisoning after a nuke given my slow metabolism
2) When my voice changed, I could become rich and famous like R&B singer Barry White aka The Walrus of Love
3) My size made me a success in any activity that involved as little running as possible. This left me golf pro, baseball player or bakery chef as potential career paths
4) I was less likely to be injured if ever shot in the stomach by a cannonball at close range
I quickly ran out of pros and shifted to the cons which invariably revolved around girls – the inability to attract or retain one. I had girls as friends but they treated me more like a brother or a cuddly Cyrano whose physical liabilities disabled him as a threat and relegated me to a role of trusted confidante and romantic go between.
After perusing my list of assets and liabilities, my mother resorted to what all parents do, she told me a series of lies about family members. To believe her was to accept that my razor thin uncle who could shower in a shotgun barrel had spent his adolescence trapped inside an ugly duckling façade of baby fat. Others in my family had also been dealt these identical character building cards and had emerged post puberty with the physiques of swans. I took the bait and began patiently to wait – scanning my own horizon lines for any signs of maturation.
True to her word, I did grow over the summer before high school and like a stunted winter plant finally stretched to new heights under the arc of omnipresent sunshine. My body changed and with it, I moved on to the more myopic and selfish preoccupations of teenagers. The story had a happy ending as Cyrano eventually got his Roxanne and later became a social advocate – carrying a message to a next generation of huskies whose self esteem seems more under attack from media images that perpetuate an airbrushed myth of acceptance through visceral beauty.
I still see that husky kid. He comes around from time to time. He rents a guest house in the back of my mind and occasionally orders a pizza or eats too many cookies. He does not come with me to the gym and stays home while I go out for a jog. He loves old movies, hanging out with the family and gets excited when he sees fresh bananas in the fruit bowl because it means Mom has gone to the supermarket. He’s a kind kid. Most of all, he understands that words can hurt more that just about anything – – except perhaps, any sport that involves running or a cannonball shot directly into your stomach at close range.
The email pinged around 7:30am. It was addressed to a long distribution list of former colleagues and some unfamiliar names who had been conscripted to the front lines of my former employer since my departure. The subject line read “FWD: re: Very Sad News”.
Initially, I assumed I was in receipt of yet another viral industry opinion piece that would require me to scroll for twelve minutes before reaching the angry manifesto. Instead, the note quickly fell into a tragic telegram sharing that during the previous evening, one of my former friends and colleagues, Mike F, had died of a massive coronary while in his sleep. He was 52 years old.
When a true friend dies, it feels as though there is one less person in the world who can unconditionally vouch for us. With each person’s passing, a tiny piece of land breaks off into the ebony ocean of eternity. Poet John Donne shared that no man is an island and the death of another man diminishes us. The wind can seem a bit more in your face and the sun buries its head behind a slate gray mast of clouds.
Mike was 48 when we first crossed paths. He was a journeyman account executive recently laid off from a major insurance company. I could tell he was still in those early stages of change – – the disbelief that always accompanied an unforeseen layoff from a long-term employer. The implied social contract that always seemed to go hand in hand with tenure was suddenly rendered null and void. Mike never maligned his former employer choosing instead to express his regret over not being a part of their next phase of change. He sounded disappointed that the drumbeat for improved profit margins and fresh ideas had resulted in his ending up on the outside of the conference room window looking in.
He did not make the most dynamic first impression. He was ruddy, overweight and looking his age – a hangover, I presumed, from decades of dinners and entertainment that was typical in an industry that was now hard shifting from “how long have you been here” to” what have you done for me lately?”. Yet, he had an infectious smile and an irrespressible confidence that implied he understood exactly what I needed.
I was in desperate need of an executive and an ambassador who could deal with the phalanx of regulators, consultants and large institutional brokers that our firm had managed to offend over a several year run of rapid growth and profit. As we had succeeded in winning market share, we had also lost our way, forgetting the golden rule. In my brief tenure, I had already been taken to task for our “lack of humility”, “unilateral arrogance” and “severe deficit of EQ”( low EQ was my favorite as lack of emotional awareness seemed to succinctly sum up the range of self-inflicted wounds that we had visited upon ourselves ). I was looking for a VP of broker relations and I had a very specific candidate in mind.
Our recruiters arranged for succession of interviews – delivering to me a complex and heterogenous queue of professionals whose diverse backgrounds and endless Rolodexes of goodwill could help me neutralize years of heartburn. The majority of these candidates were in their thirties with polished resumes, clear eyes and a burning ambition to make their mark. And then there was Mike.
His shirt tail was peeking out from underneath his pinstripe suit when he was escorted in by my assistant. He wore coke bottle glasses and flashed a familiar smile as we shook hands for the first time. I was disappointed and seemed to have already tipped my hand that he was not a “good fit”. I needed the charisma and social dexterity of Tony Robbins coupled with the business acumen of a Harvard MBA. If this person did exist, I had yet to meet them and Mike seemed to be their diametric opposite – a veteran account and service professional who had seemingly risen to the level of his incompetence. This would be as short an interview as I could manage.
Mike immediately endeared himself with a self-effacing remark and went right to work, looking for common ground inventorying those that we knew by one degree of separation. His lengthy career and experience was solid but he seemed on the downward slope of the mountain I was looking to climb. I was looking for “hungry” and this guy seemed to have already devoured the contents of the cupboard.
Without revealing our exact circumstances, I detailed my expectations of this position and tried to scare him off by exaggerating the problems that we were encountering. He took copious notes and asked insightful questions. Occasionally, he laughed sympathetically and commiserated with me citing horror stories of a failed systems conversion at his old firm and the subsequent back-breaking efforts to conserve relationships with angry customers. He stopped and looked beyond me into the tangled woods, “trust is very hard to get and very easy to lose.”
His blue eyes danced as he spoke fondly of a few national firms that I considered to be “pain in the ass” incorrigibles. He actually liked these guys and apparently they liked him. After two hours, my assistant darted her head in my door and pointed to her watch. I rose and shook his firm hand and showed him outside. Within five minutes, he had sent an email thanking me for my time and within a day, I had received a rare handwritten letter reinforcing how he felt he could support my efforts.
I was conflicted. I was looking for a carnivore and this journeyman account executive was at best a herbivore. My left brain told me to hire the Wharton MBA who spoke as if he would rip out the trachea of anyone who stood in between our firm and our goals. My right brain kept returning to Mike and his intangibles. For an organization that valued pedigree, appearance and IQ, his hire would raise eyebrows – a late forties relic from a golden age of handshakes and cocktail napkin relationships. Yet, his integrity did not show on paper. It beamed from him and suggested a man of patience and selflessness. He had been the only candidate that actually mentioned the word, “trust”.
When I called Mike to tell him he had won the job, he was ecstatic. Yet, I worried he was not tough enough to navigate our impossibly large and complex corporate body. I feared he would immediately be attacked by those I had come to label “the white blood cells” – those bureaucrats and home office types who seemed to go out of their way to destroy new people and new ideas as if they were infections. Would Mike even survive his first month?
Over the next several weeks, Mike travelled the country and would report back me. He often showed up with the corporate equivalent of a black eye, missing tooth or ripped shirt. He was clearly getting roughed up but he had a knack for finding a way through a problem. He was not as mercurial or prone to pick a fight as I was but instead “killed them with kindness”. Mike set about building fragile footbridges and reestablishing precious goodwill for us – always putting his reputation at stake as a personal promissory note.
“Chief” he barked one day across a broken cell phone, “ I think I found a workaround to that issue we had with ABC Consultants.”. “Where are you,” I asked. “You sound like you are halfway around the globe.” Well, I am in St Paul and I found a team that can help me process that project we need resolved.” It was January and it had to be -20 F in Minnesota.
True to his word, he fixed this problem and spent the next several years untangling a cat’s cradle of other difficult issues that were presented to us by our partners. When I resigned my position as regional CEO, Mike was visibly disappointed. “It won’t be the same without you, chief,” he confided with sincerity. “Thanks for giving me a chance.”
“The pleasure’s been all mine, Michael”, I told him.” You are a very safe, trustworthy pair of hands.”
In time, my former employer shuffled management and rediscovered its social compass. With new leadership and a greater appreciation for those who displayed humility and humanity, Mike’s stock rose within the organization. Yet, people like Mike never seem to find the spotlight. It is very hard for large corporations to quantify the value of people who prevent or mitigate problems. Their quiet contributions are often noted when there is no other noise. They are quiet strings and soft clarinets whose music is normally drowned out by the clanging gongs and self promoting percussion of other more self-interested executives.
We were first to arrive at the funeral home. I walked into a foyer filled with men, women and children with crystal blue eyes bracketed by the laugh lines of a hundred family gatherings. Mike’s twin daughter and son bravely received guests – two 14 year olds that had just suffered one of life’s gravest injustices.
Mike’s wife and I spoke briefly and she reiterated his appreciation for our few years of work together. She smiled and looked at me searching my eyes. “I did not want a coffin or an urn full of ashes.” She shared bravely. “I just want pictures.” She swept her hand to a series of poster boards filled with photos of Mike’s life.
I surveyed a half century of life events – – childhood, marriage and the sacred journey through the enchanted woods of raising children. Mike loved every minute of it. In each photo, he was surrounded by friends and family. This was not a man who would be caught in deep private introspection. He was living life and sailing over life’s bumps and landmines on the updrafts of trust and persistence.
By 3pm, the funeral home could no longer accommodate the masses of admirers spilling individuals into the parking lot. I was amazed and proud to see the impressive roster of family and industry dignitaries who had flown in on a moments notice to attend his service. We stood in small groups, swapping stories and moving to take one last glance at the photo journal of his life.
I moved off on my own to pay one last respect to Mike. As I leaned in to consider a series of photos, I was drawn to one picture of Mike. He appeared to be fixing an appliance or attending to some prosaic household task. He was signaling “thumbs up” to indicate that the problem had been resolved. It was the quintessential photo of the quiet trouble-shooter who understood that trust and servant leadership were the only currencies that counted.
At that moment, the adhesive on the picture loosened and the photo slipped ever so slightly to one side. I felt a strange sense of inner peace begin to massage my grieving. The handyman was giving me the “a-ok”.
“Hey, Chief, don’t worry about me. Mission accomplished.”