The Lost Archives of Captain Hook

thMy wife surprised me this Christmas with an extraordinary gift — two decades of mothballed VHS home movies converted to DVDs. In minutes, I was pulled through a looking glass of my life as a parent and across the sweeping steppe of time – two continents, three children, four homes and one half-dozen pets. The last occasion I had stumbled across such riches of nostalgia, I had been weaving in between boxes and neglected items of my retired parents when I unearthed worn, misplaced photo albums and a vanished 8mm family film from the 1960s – cinema and snap shots that graphically depicted a middle class family of four boys as we traveled the blue and black highways of the Western United States in a modern day Conestoga called the station wagon.

The first thing you notice about most 60’s family films is an adult is always waving hello and a child is usually crying. Today, Child Protective Services would use any of these clips as Exhibit A in the trial of an unfit parent. We wander dangerously close to the Interstate as we stop at roadside rest stops for jelly stained Wonder Bread PJs chased by warm Shasta Lemon-Lime soda. There were pocketknives, BB guns, bows and arrows, and an absence of helmets, seatbelts or the restrictions of an adult. There is no sound, gratefully, as the film would quickly become X-rated when punctuated with the anxious calls for “stopping the grab-ass” by my father who had a black belt in cursing and for giving you a red hot behind.

As I threaded the fragile film through a viewing monitor borrowed from a college professor friend, the archipelago that was so many phases of my life mended into a single land mass when reunited with the young boy I saw in these photographs and movies.

He was the third of four boys with an XL head and tennis-ball buzz cut. He was nine – an advanced pyromaniac, collector and kleptomaniac. The boy loved his matted, filthy mongrel dog that the father referred to as “The Democrat”. He spent endless Southern California hours painting Airfix 56mm plastic military figures and then would burn them in epic battles behind an old two-car adobe-style, stucco garage. He lived for sports, Christmas morning, the Fun Zone of Newport Beach and girls. I watched him dart through iconic places – the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake and SeaWorld in San Diego. Memories perfume the world around me. Each moment a feeling, each file an indelible memory of the sweet bird of youth.

th-2A conveyor belt of boys with buzz cuts move in and out of photos wrestling like pups in a whelping box, only to appear on the next page with noses covered in zinc oxide and faces freckled by the sun of a Newport Beach August. A husky fourth grader, the middle child had a romantic sense for everything and a leg that twitched faster than a floundering sea captain typing a Morse code SOS. Life was we imagined of the military, endless ceremony, uniforms, chores, boredom, moments of terror and the nine weeks of leave we called summer vacation where we would travel to exotic ports of call with names like like Newport Beach, San Francisco and Sedona, Arizona.

I recall being so bored one summer that we spent an afternoon pushing a dead cat with a stick. Vietnam was thinning our ranks of young men on television each night while we rode bikes through back alleys to tree houses defiladed from any parental supervision, decorated by hobos and stacked with Playboy magazines. The purple and sienna horizon line of the San Gabriel Mountains marked the eastern edges of our future. At night, you would look up and see the flickering lights of the radio towers – a West Egg star to steer by as you contemplated turning ten. If you were masochistic you could ease drop through the heating ducts to hear adult conversations — bungling politicians, war, stagflation, incomprehensible ethnic conflict and another orthodontia bill. These were adult hemorrhoids that the boy would not have to worry about for many years – unless he sat too long on a toilet reading comic books.

The boy loved his wolf pack. Beyond the holidays and Christmas mornings, there was uncontaminated humor, eternal optimism and the larger than life David Lean longing for epic adventure.

My mother reminded me a few years back when I complained about one of my children’s short attention span that she had to endure a phase where I had self-diagnosed dyslexia.   I used the “Mislexic” defense when I got pinched for stealing candy at the local Huntington Pharmacy. My mother was furious – asking rhetorical questions like “what were you thinking?” and “do you know what they do to boys who steal?” I recall looking her in the eye and saying, “I think I’m mislexic. I wasn’t sure if I should pay inside or after I got outside the store.

I progressed to feigning deafness to avoid the pressure of being called on in class. In retrospect, I should have become an attorney. At the time, I had a middle school teacher who used the Socratic method of calling on random students. To buy time, I would ask her to repeat the question two or three times. She recommended to my mother that I get my hearing checked.

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

“Michael, let me know if you can hear the beep.”

The ENT made a perplexed face at my inconsistent answers. He expanded the headphones to reach across my massive dome to cover my ears. I suddenly realized that I did not want to fail this test or I might end up with those strange plastic tubes curling around my cochlea like the deaf kid who spoke such slow exaggerated words at summer camp. So I mixed up my answers. “Yes, no, no, yes. yes… “

“I don’t know what to make of these tests. His hearing – it’s all over the map. “

She seemed to know I had been faking but could not understand why. I confessed an hour later to my mother after being plied with a number Two burger and milk shake from Twoheys restaurant — and the ironclad promise of amnesty from my father who must never know I had pretended to be deaf. My mother had looked relieved. She really only had three looks – loving amusement, anger and relief.

I’m still searching the Turpin archives for the lost episode called “To Catch A Thief” where we were lined up like POWs because four recently baked cookies were reported missing.

“Okay, I’m going to close my eyes and leave the room. When I come back I want those four missing cookies on the plate.” All four boys shifted and shuffled at nervous attention. When my mother returned to the room, four more cookies were missing. It was in fact, a pure genius suggestion. It should be noted that a future investment banker orchestrated the caper – perhaps there was some merit to the efforts of Dodd-Frank.

As I sit in our Connecticut family room and return to a warm fire and these lost films of the 1990’s, I am swimming in another slow moving river of nostalgia. I recollect how important these moments were – the dawns and dusks of living at the center of a diminutive universe. Unconditional love. I’m smiling unconsciously at the invidious daughter who wants to return her newest baby brother to the hospital via the toilet. Her only-child days have ended and she will not go gently into that good night. The home movies chronicle a young family struggling up a mountain of life — moving to England with three small children, celebrating major holidays in strange and exotic places while recording each milestone through the mongrel accents of California children as they collide with strict English grammar and syntax.

Christmas, 2002 – A 3-year-old boy appears on camera, perturbed as he opens Father Christmas gifts.

“Dad?” He asks with a silky Etonian accent. “My friend Henry hates Jesus. I don’t hate baby Jesus but Henry says he hates him.” Muffled laughter on the other end of the camera.

(Camera pans to a lattice of gloomy windowpane)

In the northern hemisphere, the English winter malingers with ephemeral mist and dreariness. The sun is a pastel color form clinging to a low horizon. The camera zooms in on a cherub-cheeked boy who looks exasperated. He is excited for Christmas but can’t seem to shake the revelation that someone dislikes the child lying in the manger. (The scene cuts to bath time.) An older sister threatens her younger brother again with the toilet. Another DVD is a hard hitting interview with a five year old boy who agrees to a rare discussion about everything that scares him.

“Let’s see. Monsters. The Grinch and oh yeah, I really, really, REALLY hate Captain Hook.”

captain-hook-disney-villains-29300024-800-600“Hide and Hook” was a favorite game among my fear-addicted children. Like J.M. Barrie’s orphans, they dreamed of an island where kids were in charge and unexplained forces of nature were clumsy and easily vanquished. This version of Captain Hook had a softer and more incompetent side. He remained permanently one step behind, incapable of following through on any threat. He was a punching bag and a deep pocket willing to bribe children with sweeties – daily dishonest attempts to corrupt a child into the life of a buccaneer’s. My middle son was our emotional canary in the coal mine – losing his feathers during any time of stress or change. He had night terrors. My brave soldier once attempted to thwart his nighttime demons by he wedging a pillow against his bedroom door. The only person he could have possibly kept out would have been a starving vegan and there were certainly none in the year of our Lord, 2001. Our youngest supporting actor appears in each scene with a Sippy-cup – clad in the robin’s egg blue soccer jersey of the Italian star “Francesco Totti”.

As I devour the home movies, the phone rings and shatters my reminiscence. It is my Dad.

He wants to talk politics. I try to explain that I’m watching old movies and we divert from toxic polemics to the past. Normally, the conversation concludes with him wishing Hillary be indicted, Bill castrated and sent to Oman to guard a Harem and Obama given a one minute head start from Seal Team Six. Tonight, we float back like Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past. We talk about growing up, aging, the wonderful holidays and all the traditions that have survived the decades. Time sandpapers any hard edges. For a moment he is no longer the critic – lamenting our cultural decline and complaining about the soft accommodations we now make in the name of inclusivity. He is Peter Pan who has grown up and forgotten he was once Captain Hook. I love him. For a moment, he laughs and remembers Never Land. That flicker comes into his voice falling like the ancient pixie dust of Tinker Bell. The space between us across three thousand miles of America is filled with the simple green grass promise of childhood.

It’s hard to avoid his fate and I yield a little more each day to the emotional calcification of one who has bitten the apple and been banished from Eden. I’ve played many lead and supporting roles in these movies of my life: ingénue, feckless husband, sybarite, world traveler, director, evangelist, coach, paternal sage and aging oracle. Yet across time, my favorite character was always the supporting role of Captain Hook – adversary to the Lost Boys and incompetent foil to those who seek to live for today and never grow old.

Empty Nest Diaries Part 1: Denial

 A guy can wear the dark glasses of denial for only so long. Eventually, it gets so dark you have to remove them to be sure you are hitting the toilet. Yet, denial is fundamental to psychological survival. It’s a form of emotional procrastination allaying our anxieties until we man up enough to show up to life’s inevitable root canals. 

Denial is a comforting enabler and companion– he is the ultimate sycophant that tells me that my excess weight is no big deal – in fact, my jelly belly may come in handy following the famine, economic and social meltdown that may occur if Trump or Clinton is elected. My good buddy denial indulges my lethargy whispering that I “deserve to conserve” my energy while my 100lb wife unloads 200lbs of groceries from the car. 

Yet, that perfect storm day inevitably arrives when you hit a birthday divisible by five coinciding with a sobering milestone that confirms your mortality. At that moment, life exposes your feckless friend denial as a seductive liar. In that dark passage, you must reassess who your real friends are and finally swap out that Blanche Dubois 25W energy saver light bulb for a 100 watt spot light. 

In a few weeks I am hitting 55. It’s okay. I understand there is no permanence in this life. We are all Joad families one step removed from the dust bowl where we maybe forced to pack up the chickens and rocking chair and head off into parts unknown. 

And so it came to pass that the next season of life arrived and dropped autumn leaves at our door. We released our last kid ( and a hell of a big tuition check ) to college and came home to an empty museum. 

I admit to being a tad blue. I like hanging with my kids and love being a Dad. Releasing your pups into the wild is a Born Free moment. If you didn’t cry when Ilsa was turned loose by her humans, you can stop reading this and go back to reading the personal ads in your Soldier of Fortune magazine. 

I am a wimp. I cry at old movies and reruns of Family Affair ( I’m looking like Mr French every day ). Passage of time moments are always bittersweet. They are the last day of a great vacation, the final holiday present to be opened or the delicious penultimate paragraph of an epic novel. Joy can be found in the simple serendipity of coincidence. 

I’m temporarily indulging my self pity through an obnoxious display of exhibitionism. This includes sharing the accomplishments of all my kids with anyone who has the misfortune of making eye contact with me. I’m really bad in working into any conversation the fact that my youngest son is now at Duke, my middle boy is loving lacrosse at Wesleyan and that my daughter is happy in her life and career. 

I can segue from any topic to kids faster than you can say Coach K. You want to discuss Syria? Did you know one of Assad’s nephews may have gone to Duke where my son is? 

I have Blue Devil swag to go with my Cardinal and golf USC football and dirty bird Wesleyan lacrosse outfits. See how I worked each kid into this again? Sneaky! 

Today I’m sporting the Blue Devil baseball cap and navy pullover with its D insignia – even though it’s 90 degrees out. I am becoming what I used to loathe – a pathetic suburban boor who mistakes his children’s accomplishments for his own. As of yesterday, my wife has given me exactly thirty days to snap out of it. 

To a naturalized Brit, my ostentation is all terribly bad form and must be beaten down like a banana republic rebellion. 

She is annoyed with my new found conceit ( as if my old egotism was not enough). She is proud of all of our children but is egalitarian in her distribution of praise and attention. I, on the other hand, feel like the insane guy at Penn Station just trying to make eye contact with someone. I have something I want to share. Instead of someone saying “get a job”, they’re probably muttering “get a life.” I’m trying, really. 

My spouse is not emotionally invincible and is coping with her own version of the empty nest bends — that rapid ascent toward the quiet surface of abandoned bedrooms. She is genetically predisposed to suffer in silence and not draw attention. As if the last kid leaving was not bad enough, our one year old cat ran off and has not returned. This cat was a sweet surrogate of sorts and was doing such a marvelous job of distracting us from our confusion. 

She would crawl into bed with us at night and patter behind us in search of affection. She also gave us huge cases of poison oak. Each night passing cats are likely to spy two shadows scratching their arms yelling “here kitty kitty !” 

Out nighttime searches have yielded nothing. Posters and offers of reward have remained unclaimed and I’m struggling with the fact that she is gone. I keep turning on Disney’s Homeward Bound and reading about animals lost for months who have returned home. I don’t think those families lived adjacent to Wiley Coyote -the half wolf/half chupacabra that trots through our dreams each night. 

I’m bummed. I look for a sty of self pity where I can wallow and question the meaning of my new life and ponder the hopelessly complicated mysteries of life like why a dog sitter when explicitly told to keep doors shut, opened the damn door and the cat escaped. I’m having a hard time with forgiveness. 

I really don’t understand martyrdom. I need to share and get fake empathy back from my friends. I know when people ask “how’s it going” that 99.9% hope that I say “great”. The burden of bad news is a downer. 

Yet, I like to share. I am the anti-Percival, forever on a selfish quest for a grail of sympathy or an extra piece of chocolate cake. 

I like attention and constant action. I like waking up to life’s problems and reacting when God hits perpetual hard fungo ground balls my way. I loved the purpose that three dependent children gave me as I navigated the tightrope of work and life. 

Kids are the ultimate air cover. You eat your meal and then finish their food. You use them as an excuse to revert to your favorite period of adolescence. BB gun? Done! You can blame them for everything. Who took the last cookie? Probably Cole. Who left the window down during the rainstorm? Most likely Brooke. Honey come to bed? I’m teaching the boys how to use an RPG on Call of Duty! Geez! 

I’ve known this empty nest day was coming. You may see me wandering Greenley Road at night calling out for a cat and scratching my arms like an addict. If you stop, I’ll tell you my problems and likely find a way of telling you about each kid and my son at Duke.

Better yet, for your own sake, just honk hello and keep driving — at least until I snap out of it. 

Breaking News: Overweight Humanism Party is Announced 

We’re forming a new party. It’s called Overweight Humanism. So far, it’s just me and my buddy Bob. But we have big plans and even larger appetites. 

We believe that big is beautiful and that actions speak louder than words. Where we can convince individuals and corporations to actively seek to help solve some of societies issues, we can and should shrink government. 

We believe the Kardashian family should be deported to Alaska where they must live with The Palin family. 

We advocate value added and consumption taxes. Our focus is on reducing corporate tax rates if domestic jobs are created and the return of manufacturing as a percentage of the GDP to 30%. We want the ratio of public to private workers to be reduced by 25% in the next decade. 

Bob and I have also decided to run for POTUS and VIP. If elected to office, we will ensure:

Vin Scully’s photo will be printed on every US five dollar bill 

We will pick three national social priorities and give an unlimited tax credit for contributions to any prequalified federal or community based agency that serves our troika of public need. Tax deductions will continue for other non- profits serving essential needs. Our first three priorities will be unemployment, drug/alcohol abuse including non-violent offender incarceration alternatives and our aging infrastructure. 

The definition of Body Mass Index will be changed to 40 to define obesity. You have to be an ex-POW to qualify as having a normal BMI with your company wellness plan. 

Affordable housing will be a required part of every community receiving any matching federal or state funds with priority will provided to all emergency and law enforcement employees who serve the town. 

Reality shows can only be aired between 1 and 5 am. 

Every kid will be taught the safe word, “Trump” to be used as a social 9-1-1 when they feel threatened. 

Any medical student that choose to study and practice primary care medicine can receive free tuition from their home state medical school — provided they practice and serve an acceptable ratio of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial patients within their state for four years following after graduation. 

Any film starring Pauly Shore or Carrot Top must be destroyed. 

News channels must be reclassified as “Views” channels unless they can meet non partisan reporting criteria

Our Congressional and national election primaries will last two months followed by a four month general election. Overturn Citizens United decision and reduce corporate influence on election cycle. 

Claw back provisions will be built into the compensation agreements of all municipal, state and federal public officials where up to 20% of pay will be forfeited in a subsequent year for their inability to achieve a balanced budget. 

Cargo pants will be outlawed. 

Anonymous comment threads will be considered malicious libel and subject to prosecution. No police blotter reporting for anyone under the age of 21. 

All fines associated with white collar crime will help finance investment in non violent crime alternative incarceration, education and offender rehabilitation. 

The nation’s focus will be on equal opportunities not equal outcomes. 

All states and municipalities must tender a four year plan to balance their budgets and to fund to 80% of remaining pension obligations. This includes a 10% pay cut and hiring freeze until target is achieved. 

All air conditioners will be calibrated to weight instead of temperature with default of 220lbs. 

Division 1 athletes will be eligible to participate in dividends equally to 20% of university income arising from athletics. No more clock stoppage after a first down in college football – except in the last two minutes of a half. 

Prayer will be allowed in all public schools. 

Every national bank will be required to establish a domestic microfinance arm that offers lower denomination loans to underserved communities. Families can also sign up to sponsor tax deductible domestic and immigrant families to support their efforts to assimilate in our communities. 

The corporate tax rate will be decreased for targeted industries such as domestic manufacturers and service based firms employing US workers. 

Medicare will be offered to everyone as a public option in insurance exchanges. Medicare must operate at a loss ratio of 90% to avoid having tax payer dollars underwrite sustained low ball pricing to gain market share and jeopardize the private market. 

Employers can offer incentives to employees over 50 years old to opt out of the employer plan to purchase insurance in public exchanges. 

Every high school senior must read and demonstrate understanding of the following books:

1) To Kill A Mockingbird

2) The Road To Serfdom

3) Chaos Monkeys 

4) The Diary of Malcolm X

5) The Killer Angels

6) The Grapes of Wrath

7) Leaves of Grass

8) A Tale of Two Cities

9) A Confederacy of Dunces

10) Bonfire of the Vanities 

Finally, every student will serve one year between high school and college in public service or a non profit activity. This can be deferred until after college or if the individual has a full-time job. 

 Anyone recieving social assistance in the form of healthcare or economic aid must have at least one annual physical at a primary care providers office and consent to an electronic medical record. 

The Grateful Dead will be inducted into the Hall of Fame and Pete Rose will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

That’s about it. Be sure to write in the Overweight Humanists. Future fundraisers will be held at Krispy Creme and Dunkin Donuts. Our mantra is “overweight humanism and underweight self interest”…

See you on CNN. 

Sharknado 2016 – The Anarchy

I guess it was about 4pm on a humid east coast afternoon when the cop stopped me on Elm Street. It was the day after the GOP convention and I was was talking to myself – waving my arms in what the police later described as someone “engaged in a threatening debate with the an imaginary combatant.” The cop rolled down his window.

“Sir, have you been drinking?”

“Drinking? Hah!” I scoffed. “There’s not enough alcohol to medicate my reality — or yours, Officer…” I walked over and searched his chest for a name tag.”…Officer Blue.”

“Sir, you’re spooking the locals and exhibiting  erratic behavior. It’s bad for business and you’re being a public nuisance. Are you on any medications ?”

“I’m just tired. Hell for all I know, I may have the Zika virus. Feels like my brain is shrinking. Speaking of Zika, the way our athletes are dropping out of Rio, I may be named the third alternate on the US archery team.Actually, officer if you must know I’ve been watching the Republican convention. It’s an orgy of D list celebrities and people who get their instructions from space ships. The only guy they did not trot out to endorse The Donald was Carrot Top.”

He could see I was legitimately troubled. I had been hiding at home for almost a week tweeting inane comments on Morning Joe and The Hill under the name “Carlos Not So Dangerous”.  I had been waiting for some post convention sanity to return like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. The Democratic gathering had not been much better but I had to admit they stayed more on message. The days of civilized debates hosted by a spinsterish librarian from the League of Women voters had been replaced by a Jerry Springer paternity fight  The dignified party conventions of my father had declined into a mud-slinging WWF show-down.

The cop tried to commiserate. “Sir, everyone is upset with the potential that Hillary Clinton could get elected but we can’t act out in public.”

“Hillary?” My head whipped around to confront the young officer. “What about freaking Trump?”

“Well I just assumed if you lived in this town you were a Republican.”

“Frankly, I don’t know what the hell I am anymore. I’m not L,B,G,T,Q…E-I-E-I-O!  I’m feeling kind of left out of the funny farm.”

He looked through his windshield and sighed. “Yeah, I hear ya. Law enforcement can’t trust anybody — our Union or the public officials. They reneg on retirement and benefits commitments. They kick the can down the street and refuse to fund retiree plans. It’s a tough gig being dressed in blue right now. We don’t know who to trust.”

I nodded in sympathy. “Hell, I hear you. There is no worthy Presidential candidate. One is a corrupt, public trough piglet who has fed on the public dole teat for years while the other is a dangerous self promoter who make outrageous statements like he invented the question mark. He gets a permanent get out of jail free card granted by his constituents. I’m in a permanent state of disbelief at what Trump is doing to the electoral process. He has immunity from accountability and says whatever comes into his head. By the way, there’s a lot of room in there for garbage. No one seems to give a shit if he doesn’t make sense.”

The cop tilted his head toward a woman pushing a stroller.

“Sir, your language.”

The officer glanced at his watch and smiled. “You remind me a lot of my old man. He’s retired in Florida. He’s home every day with the TV blasting the Fox Channel while he writes large-font emails to my sister and I and everyone he knows about how the world is going to end. I guess I get it. Listen, why not follow me over to Zumbachs and we can grab a cup of coffee.

A half hour later I was spilling my guts to this thirty something. He could feel my frustration.

I looked out the window as the Metro North blared its ubiquitous horn.

“It’s official. We’re screwed. We’re living in a bizarro world of opposites and doppelgängers. Nothing surprises me. Anything is now possible. In the old days, once you betrayed the limits of authenticity, you lost the People. Presently, I can no longer separate the sacred from the profane, truth from rhetoric or Sunnis from Shias. Truth is optional.”

The officer shook his head. “It’s even worse for us. People are actually shooting us. We are expected to serve and protect. I used to work some tough areas and did two tours in Iraq. I know a lot of about what hyper-vigilance and anger can do to anyone in enforcement. The anxiety and resentment builds and can flare up during a routine traffic stop. Being a cop in certain areas is like assuming the role of a UN peacekeeper. You can’t afford to live where you are policing or you don’t want to. Now, its like we’re soldiers returning from Vietnam. They give us that baby killer look. Hell, I was rescuing a cat from a tree the other day and the kid who called filmed it on his phone and ager said I was rough with the cat. It’s total BS.”

“Tell me about it. My son told me he hated capitalists and then asked me for $100.”

I held up two fingers to Will, the friendly barista wearing the Choose To Be Happy tee short. “I guess the good news is I believe anything now. Halloween and Christmas will be fun this year. It also means 70 % of all TV is now available for my viewing pleasure. Last night I watched Sharknado.”

The cop perked up. “You too? Hell, I found myself crying when Fin jumped into the maw of that cyclone-spun great white to rescue Tara Reid. Man I thought she was a goner. You know she still looks pretty good.  If I wasn’t married…”

I elbowed him as two high school girls walked in. “Sir, your language.”

I laughed. “Remember the scene where Fin used that chain saw to cut his way out of the 20 foot megaladon, it was awesome. You know, I want a chain saw for Christmas.”

The officer sipped his coffee.

“Same”

I perked up. “Megaladon” is actually a perfect portmanteau word to describe Trump.”

The officer rolled his eyes. “I actually don’t know who I’m going to vote for. I think Trump would be better for cops but as a father and citizen, he scares the crap out of me. Hillary’s a dirt bag but she’s just better at corruption than the average official who has long forgotten politics as public service and the art of compromise.”

I smiled.”Look at it this way. The world is a more dangerous and magical place now. We have stepped off platform 9 3/4 and are on a train to Hogwarts. We can now believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, Valdemort, and the lost city of El Dorado. Maybe the next time I go to the market to buy some groceries I’ll meet someone with some magic beans. I’m ready to take on a giant and a beanstalk.

We sat across three more coffees and compared notes on the polluted political process we call two-party democracy. His dispatch called and he sped off to interrogate a man who was arguing with the traffic attendant over using a handicap spot to get a quick latte at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yes, life had become Sharknado and it was getting more bizarre with each week.

My world is leaching with the pollution drift of dislocated people, terrorists, disease, social fault lines, greed, corruption and demagoguery — and that’s just in youth sports. “Remember”, my friend Carll reassured me. “It is all just the buzzing of flies.” Maybe so but where there are lots of flies, there’s usually a pile of something else.

I am now in mid-life shuffling toward my next doctors appointment and the snap of latex glove. “This may feel a little uncomfortable.” I am searching for a new tribe — Perhaps there is a Facebook page for October Ovines — middle aged smart-aleck, slackers who can’t lose weight and wont watch Game Of Thrones. I secretly want to attend a Day of Rage March so I can rail against the man — even though it is clear that I am now the man. Friends are fleeing our overmatched Governor to new homes in the Carolinas, Florida, Texas and other far off red state economies where the ratio of public to private workers remains tolerable and the fiscal spending is not so disjointed as to portend calamity.

A staggering 40% of Americans over age 50 have zero saved for retirement and another 20% have less than $100k. I suppose one will work until they die. And in a world where artificial intelligence has jumped from the pages of Assimov to the world of knowledge workers, I’m not sure what dislocated generations of Americans will do for a living wage.

Why is it that the most affluent among us suffer from fear — self centered angst about losing what they have or not getting what thy want. Fear permeates everything these days and makes any optimist look like a buffoon drunk on the nostalgia of some old movie where the bad guys lose and social fractures are healed. Boy gets girl. Kid learns valuable lesson. Clarence gets his wings.

Depend upon it, Sir,” said Dr. Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I’m focused again but I still can’t believe what I’m seeing. Tomorrow night they are debuting Sharknado 4. Perhaps I’ll be able to find some answers.

Second Finalist Accolade for 53 Is The New 38

Chanticleer Reviews had named “53 Is The New 38” a finalist in its Journey Awards for non fiction.  Winner TBD as of Aptil 2017. Cash and prizes! The book, was also recognized as a finalist for Humor/Comedy earlier this year at the Indie Book Awards, this second recognition for the book is really fun and reiforces the notion that even a broken watch is correct twice a day! Here’s a link to the book.https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1517093694?fp=1&pc_redir=T1

A Farewell To the Pirate King

It’s was 9am and a chill still hung in the summer air. The coastal wind whipped by a shifting high pressure system had lifted a fog bank off the Farallons and gently deposited it on to the Western Edition. You could see it cresting up from the Golden Gate and settling like soft cotton on the crowd that slowly moved from cars and cabs toward the cathedral that rested at the top of San Francisco’s Parnassus Heights.

These early days of summer are whispers from a distant youth – soft breezes and a warm sun promising a day bursting with possibilities. We arrived in tight, somber bands shuffling toward the Mass where we would mourn and celebrate the sudden passing and life of our friend and confederate, our “blue sky” giant who could see a little farther than the rest of us — always promising treasure and believing that tomorrow would hold a bigger and better island to explore than today.

Larry Del Santo Jr. Aka Laurie, Little Lar, The Giant, Mr Blue Sky etc had more monikers than Methuselah. He had been pried loose too soon from his grasp on life’s mortal coil and gone to surprise his mother who had been mourned in this same church on this same day some seventeen years earlier.

Growing up, I can only see Becky Del Santo in some form of pregnancy. She was in this compromised state for twenty five consecutive years. Larry Jr. could never remember a time when his mother was without a child stuck to her breast or wearing a floral sun dress that portended the arrival of another brother or sister.  Like all suburban 60’s mothers, Becky was two parts Saint and one part clairvoyant, air traffic controller. She and my mother were best friends and compared notes on how they could keep their kids on the right path and out of harms way.

Becky’s eldest boy, Larry Jr was her agent and proxy tasked against his will with leading the procession of Del Santos through life and toward a chance at Heaven. We grew up in the great Jurassic age of American families. It was the final epoch of politically incorrect patriarchal rule where children were viewed as useless lumps of coal requiring swear words and enormous pressure so they might one day become a diamond in the eyes of society.

img_0810To be the eldest kid in this patriarchal community carried its own unique burden. You were expected to serve as defacto adult when no parent was present and would invite admonishment and reprisal if something illicit actually occurred on your watch. In our Southern California suburban neighborhood, alpha older brothers directed traffic and meted out pioneer justice on an ecosystem of middle class kids who were blessed with time and a less suffocating form of Darwinian parenting that afforded them a free-range childhood with community supervision.

The average family had four kids — hedging in the event someone got a faulty fuse while playing with an M80. Silent Generation fathers disappeared at 7am and staggered home at 7pm asking their wives two questions,”how was your day and who do I hit?” Mothers were soft breezes that blew in to sort out the chaos, prevent the T-Rex fathers from devouring their young and to ensure the laundry got folded. Matriarchs were the de facto rulers of the roost and over time, slowly learned to exercise the power that Gloria Steinhem so desperately tried to convince them they possessed.

In the long hot summers of the late 60s, packs of free range children migrated on foot, skateboards and bikes across a lime green veldt of manicured front lawns, latticed by magnolia tree lined sidewalks and perfect two car driveways. Larry Del was a giant towering over any kid south of Huntington Drive. He would not stop growing until he cast a 6′ 7″ shadow against the broken red oak fence that separated our two abutting properties. He was the eldest — a mischievous man mountain that appeared to have stumbled out of some Northern Italian fairy tale. He was blond with a massive grin and eyes that narrowed as he surveyed how he might torment you. His mere size compelled a kid to offer up your lunch money.  Yet, his Catholic compass kept him on the right side of decisions. As with all industrious Italians, he would periodically remind you that he would indeed call on you some day for a favor — a social contract in which you would be well served to comply.

He accepted us before we ever met. Our addition to the neighborhood would turn out to remove pressure and suspicion that often rested firmly at the door of the Del Santos of Warwick Rd. The day my parents were signing papers to purchase our new home on adjacent Windsor Rd, my brothers and I were in the back garden, unsupervised ( big mistake ) and launching the largest dirt clods known to man over the backyard fence into what sounded like a rural pond. We laughed hysterically as the nuclear bombs repeatedly hit their target launching water spouts eight feet high. We could not see our new neighbor’s pool nor knew that the five kid Del Santo family living next door to these ill-fated people, would be initially blamed for the first of many decades of transgressions.

Later that night, eleven year old Larry Del Santo Jr would grin upon hearing that four boys were moving into the house behind them. With two brothers and two sisters and another sibling on the way, Larry Jr understood this new tribe of Presbyterian boys could prove a useful distraction to his house of diapers, Von’s breakfast pastries and Catholic expectation.

His dad, Big Larry, and our father were the most feared Dads in the neighborhood. They shared a belief that no one was innocent and while it was God’s job to punish in heaven, a parent was God’s quartermaster here on earth.  Big Larry was a tough food industry executive and practicing Catholic who felt the Spanish Inquisition was justified and that a few public burnings could do wonders for kids and politicians.  He did not publically take the Lord’s name in vain but secretly admired my father’s profanity which could have won a gold medal at the Cursing Olympics.

img_0811Larry Del Santo Sr, aka Big Larry, liked to remind you that a father was the ultimate alpha male. You were a child – a single cell paramecium that moved mindlessly toward food and light. To emphasize your utter uselessness, he would compel you whenever he saw you to shake his hand. “Get over here and shake my hand you little creep.” He would then squeeze your digits so hard your knuckles would be touching. He’d release you and as you fell to the ground massaging the broken bones metatarsals he’d bellow to your father. “Jesus, Miles. You’re going to have to toughen up these pansy boys.” If we had been meat, we would have been placed under his Hun saddle to be tenderized.

From 1957 to 1982, Becky Del Santo would give birth to twelve children with Larry Jr the steward and standard bearer as the eldest child. In life, he found his purpose in being a first child. He had the “blue sky” humility of a man who somehow knew his role was not just to be a standard bearer but to forever lead the denizens of adolescents who would follow. He would serve as the tallest tree on our horizon line and and a non judgmental lighthouse for his siblings and any friend that sometimes got lost in the marine layer of life — reminding us all where the shoals had scratched the keel of his boat. He was always just ahead, yelling back to that everything was fine and to keep following his voice.

He thunderous laughter could perfume any room and his capacity to find trouble was legendary. He was a self anointed Mr Fix It — the kid in the neighborhood who “kind of knew” how to use his all dad’s tools and could build everything from tree houses to trebuchets. Like PT Barnum, he could smell a sucker and often organized his growing army of younger siblings and neighborhood kids to carry out a personal vendetta that might increase the chance of our arrest and his damnation. Yet, the benefit of Catholicism was weekly absolution in confessional followed by a dozen “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers”.

When the local Helms bakery began delivering baked goods, Larry Jr recognized that the Helms driver was not the freshest bun in the oven and proceeded to develop a strategy where we might distract him while others emptied his change belt and then proceeded to buy all his donuts and candy back from him. Years later, we would conclude the Helms man had been intellectually impaired. ( Yep, we’re doing’ time in Purgatory for that one.)

In the days before helicopter supervision or political correctness, kids played a major role in the neighborhood ecosystem as a part-time labor force, extended family for kids from broken homes and change agents interpreting for one another the strange mysteries of life.  This required collateral material usually stashed in Larry’s tree house — a cornucopia of Oui and Playboy magazines . In an age of Moon shots and mainframe computers, we were pirates and he was the Pirate King. To possess Larry’s physical prowess meant that you could move freely across streets and no one would dare fire a BB gun or launch a bottle rocket.

As kids, we were forever in search of money –to buy food, fireworks or attend a double feature at the local Alhambra theatre.  Larry’s larceny included a black market in fireworks and quarter sticks of dynamite that would be administered to the mailbox of any octogenarian bold enough to chase us off his dichondra lawn. If that subtle warning did not intimidate the offending neighbor, we might resort to eggs launched with a funnel and surgical tubing or perhaps Epsom salts were poured on the lawn to spell a forbidden word. The doorbell might ring to a flaming bag of dog poop or an empty space.  When the usual suspects were hauled in for questioning, we became one another’s permanent alibis.

When the Pirate King punched your shoulder, your arm would hurt for a week. He once had me lean on his feet while he laid on his back. “It’s a rocket launcher ride” I sat on his feet as he yelled “next stop the moon.” He proceeded to “launch me” fifteen feet into the side of my Dad’s Ford Granada almost breaking my arm. When we saw the dent I had caused, we all fled the scene. “Boy, kid, are you in trouble” Larry Jr yelled as he climbed over our fence where Tipper his faithful Irish Setter waited on the other side.

Like wartime prisoner exchanges, my brother Miles would invite Larry Jr with us on vacation while the Dels might get a “Turpin to be named later” for their week down at the beach. Years later, the families finally saw the logic in renting homes in Newport Beach at the same time. Big Larry loved his time on the Balboa Peninsula and was always surrounded by a swirling, one degree of separation scallion of food, beverage, insurance and consumer goods Catholics – small armies of six, eight and ten kid families all renting beach houses near one another each August. In time, Larry Jr, his brothers Michael and John, sisters Mary and Therese would end up helping their own and other people’s siblings.

The Pirate King longed for his own ship and state room but instead had to settle for a few precious belongings.  His most treasured possession was his stereo. In the last golden age of high fidelity, Larry Jr became an audiophile. He matched a Pioneer turntable with a stylus as sensitive as your shy cousin with a 200 amp Kenwood receiver, Bose amplifier, Infinity speakers and an eight track deck to create a system so powerful it could knock down an old lady fifty yards away.

He had plastic sleeves for each Beatles album and would spend hours listening to the dulcet music of Paul McCartney on his headphones. Just for a minute, he was alone — in his own room with no filthy crew and cramped quarters. Moments later, the magic would always be broken by the scent of a dirty diaper announcing the arrival of an infant sibling who would drunkenly stagger into his room looking for his or her mother.

Perhaps being surrounded with so much life compelled the older Del Santo boys to flirt with Death — activities that by today’s standards would land parents in jail for child endangerment. Yet, we were the pioneers of mischief – ancestors whose BB gun wars became tomorrow’s paintball and whose motocross and mini-bike jumps laid the foundations for X Games.

Our friend Judd recalls that common sense was permanently on vacation in those days. A favorite high risk game required one kid to ride a mini bike up and down the street and through the back yard while others would fire BB guns at him from concealed sniper nests. When a bullet lodged under the driver’s eye, they quickly picked it out with tweezers but explained the injury as a baseball accident. Injury was not a badge of honor but a potential invitation for punishment. A contusion was something to be disguised. Blood or a tear in one’s clothing was a sign that a kid had been engaged in grab-ass. You tear your shirt? You pay for it. You get a cut requiring stitches and scare the hell out of me? Ill make you wish you died out there. Injury was a kid’s fault. “What in the God’s green earth were you doing over at the Del Santos?”

Life in the late 60s and early 70s was a death defying time of discovering boundaries, learning through failure and encounters with authority figures. The police did not work at cross purposes with your parents. The cops often brought a kid home to a punishment that they knew was likely to be more painful and decisive than any visited by local law enforcement.

Larry Del Jr was exposed to the full radiation of first child accountability. It pulsed from a busy father and an overwhelmed mother who looked to him to ride shotgun for an army of children still finding their way in the world. He never relinquished the job of Pirate King. It became his raison d’être.

Larry had his share of life’s successes and disappointments but he was always grounded in the singular fact that he was his family’s sibling leader — large and in charge, ready to give advice to anyone. He deeply loved his own kids who had become his pride and joy. He was genetically predisposed to be a Dad. Later in life, he would make it his priority to know each of his thirty nieces and nephews.

For four decades, our lives would intertwine – vacationing together, swapping kids, offering summer work, helping potential felons find the right college. It was always the same — the cabal of Italian Catholics and the feisty and felonious quartet of Presbyterian boys who were uncertain whether they wanted to be superior court judges or wards of the criminal justice system.

It’s 4am now. I’m feeling old driving south on Highway 101 to SFO to fly back to JFK. A tangerine sunrise to the east feels like a home fire burning. The San Francisco Bay is an ebony inkblot sequined by the lights of a hundred high tech office parks and residential homes along the waters edge.

I’ll miss him. He was a thousand summer nights running across the innocence of my youth and my fascination with risk. He was a surrogate big brother and a talisman for the truth. He was a Pirate King, the Leader of the Lost Boys — always itching for a golf game or a dinner with as many people jammed into one house as the fire marshal would allow. He was big in every way and his heart showed how endless our capacity for love can be.

All hail to the Pirate King, our Blue Sky Giant, the vanquisher of bullies, master of mischief and champion of all sound systems. He blazed a trail that we will follow for the rest of our lives. His inate sense of kindness taught all of us that God does not work through burning bushes but through people and he was perhaps, the tallest and most amazing juniper in our garden.

Don’t worry Larry. We will pick up the torch and the funnelator to be sure we keep things loose and when it’s necessary, we will enforce the community standard – perhaps launching a few eggs at a grumpy neighbor’s house.

Brotherhood and The Dead

         As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, music and lyrics were used as a primitive Rosetta Stone to decipher a confusing world of mixed messages about love, social responsibility and any form of authority. As a third child, I benefitted and at times, paid a price, for emulating my older brothers. My siblings were accidental role models whose every word and action would be registered and filed in my mental folder of what could be defined as “cool”. Their clothes, hobbies, habits and especially their music were all fair game to be plagiarized, borrowed or stolen to fill the white canvas of my vanilla existence.

At night I would listen to songs that would concuss through my older brothers bedroom doors. Downstairs, in my father’s den, he would grimace at the rattling light fixture, enduring a ten-minute instrumental artillery barrage from massive JBL and Bose speakers.

“Turn that shit down!”

But not unlike the proverbial problem tenant in any upstairs apartment, the music never stayed down for long. I would tap my pencil on the living room table as the electric riffs of Carlos Santana, the whimsical musings of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, bellicose Jim Morrison, the smooth midnight sax of John Klemmer, the precise Eric Clapton, sweet Joni Mitchell, dulcet a capellaof Poco, the confederate militancy of the Allman Brothers, the twisted dirty love of Frank Zappa and a dozen other long haired iconoclasts invaded our home. Each lyric was a revelation and each note pulled you through the looking glass urging you to shed the conventions of your risk averse, soft suburban life.

As a kid, we spent hours listening to music. It was the centerpiece to any gathering and the accompaniment to every significant personal milestone – your first girlfriend, the break up, the epic eight keg party that got you grounded until 1989 or the week spent on Santa Catalina Island. When combined with the raw emotion of adolescence, music left an indelible mark and would forever allow you to instantly relive any moment when the initial chords of a particular song flickered to life. If your tastes took you toward rock or easy listening, you might find yourself quoting Jackson Browne or Kenny Rankin. If you were edgy and unsettled, you would search for musicians who gave words and sound to emotion that was struggling to swim to the surface of your own inarticulate existence. At 13, you were too young to know The Man but you were sure he and all his other controlling authoritarian friends were working overtime to keep you down.

Music was an emotional thread that bound us together in a time of social change. To adopt someone’s music was tantamount to patching into a gang. With the knowledge divined from hours of listening to artists, I formed a bridge to my brothers and to an older tribe of teens who had seen the Garden, tasted it’s forbidden fruit and not spent the rest of the night throwing it up.

Older brothers were a two edged sword. On one hand, they lived to torment you. Years later they are identified in therapy as the genesis of your inability to accept your own body image. Twenty years of being called “pumpkin head” can make buying hats problematic for a guy. Yet, brothers are a blessing and important lines of sight in the shrouded topography of youth. Big brothers were always one step ahead of you in the jungle of life – walking point, vanquishing bullies, explaining life on simple terms and most importantly breaking in your parents with “firsts” — the first car wreck, the first suspension from school, or the first unsanctioned party. Brothers are family standard bearers that help modify the bar of unrealistic expectation.

My eldest brother was exposed to the greatest radiation of hyperactive parenting. He was my conservative father’s first introduction to a world he could not control. A son was a tenured employee who could not be fired for various acts of grab-ass that would normally invite a pink slip at work. My eldest brother Miles was the first to battle with a patriarch who became a parent believing that he brought children into this world and he had a right to take them out of it. By the time my older brothers, Miles and Tom, had gone to college, they had domesticated my parents and left my younger brother and I with guard rails that had lost much of their electricity. By 1976, the year of our nation’s Bicentennial, my parents had initiated the withdrawal of their ground troops, abandoned the embassy and reluctantly afforded my younger brother and I a level of self governance. The youngest, Patrick, flourished under this laissez faire regime while I took full advantage of this new freedom to find trouble.

I owe my brothers many things. They were human shields unlucky in their birth order but more adroit in navigating the more punitive reactions of a loving but determined neocon as he desperately tried to fight the socialistic riptides of the sybaritic and psychedelic 60s.  Their bedrooms were wallpapered with posters of peace signs, pot leaves, surfers and Dennis Hopper flipping off America from his hog in Easy Rider. But the posters were chump change compared to the music. The acid rock and seditious lyrics bugged my Dad. It was the clarion call of war – one generation declaring management no longer fit for duty.

One band in particular seemed to offend all conservative, Nixon loving hard hats. This particular San Francisco troupe captured the essence of the decade’s commitment to sex, psychedelic drugs and rock and roll. Their music and lyrics were Trojan Horse vessels disguising drug use and reckless behavior. Their skeleton riddled album covers identified them as The Grateful Dead. Most just called them The Dead.

While The Grateful Dead became heroes to a generation who felt the need to find a new community to follow, the band was viewed by anyone in authority as gateway to trouble. Any group with a name like The Dead must be a nihilistic bunch of freeloading potheads who lived like cockroaches in the lava lamplight of the Haight in San Francisco. The neighborhood was a notorious hotbed of acid, promiscuity and socialism. It might as well have been an annexed suburb of Moscow.

Conservatives shook their heads at this group of druggy miscreants. Their lead singer looked Jewish, had a Hispanic surname and was missing a finger on one of his hands. He had probably lost his digit helping Huey Newton and the Black Panthers make pipe bombs. The other guitarist looked like a deadbeat with deep-set serial killer eyes and a hustler’s dimpled chin. The band exuded waste and consumption. The more the establishment derided the Dead, the more drawn we were to their melodies.

The Dead sang about life – a hardscrabble and entangled existence filled with complicated relationships, drugs, free spirits, lost jobs and abandoned love. They were the mongrel offspring of blue grass, psychedelic rock and gritty Southern blues. It seemed the axiom held true even in our own house – one man’s white trash was another generation’s treasure.

Dead concerts were rumored to be a massive electric Kool-Aid acid test where individuals would alter their brain chemistry in search of a deeper meaning to the music and as an excuse to rotate uncontrollably for hours. The Dead were not just a band, they were a frame of mind and a vibe. The Dead Nation was a series of rippling concentric circles whose core was populated by roadies and travelling Dead Heads and whose outer rings were comprised of posers and people who just wanted to sing the refrain to Casey Jones. The concerts ranged from strange meandering acoustical journeys to raucous benders. The Dead did not always headline their concerts and shared the marquee with some legendary bands and performers. The combinations were often epic and spontaneous. The core of every concert always swirled around the self anointed laity of Dead Heads — a permanent diaspora of misfits and free spirits who would follow the band as they criss-crossed the country and continents.

As fans, we each had our favorite songs and albums. Like Rob Norton in Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity, there was a Dead Song for every occasion and a top ten list for each life moment. A blue circumspect mood might invite Unbroken Chain or Black Peter while an afternoon beach party would not be complete without Sugar Magnolia, Franklins Tower and Eyes of the World. The orthodox Dead Head was more resolute in their obsession. Favorite songs would include dates and venues and invite debate until dawn over where one might have heard the best rendition of Bertha or Momma Tried.

“No dude, you’re wrong. Cassady at the Orpheum July 16, 1976. That was Bobby at his best!”

“Nay. I must disagree, my good man. The Dead opening for Chuck Berry at Winterland 1967. Get real! Garcia earns his nickname, Captain Trips.”

“Excuse-e-moi. Three words. Fillmore East 1970. The Dead and the Allman Brothers.”

“Bonehead, you were like ten when they played at the Orpheum.”

(Silence)

“Listen man, my buddy played me this radical bootleg of the concert. It’s all you need to know…”

Other merry wanderers would delight in producing barely audible bootleg tapes of concerts or quoting obscure songs written by Hunter and Garcia or Weir and Barlow. A Dead enthusiast might know that the song Ripple was as rare as California rain and played a mere 38 times across a fifteen year period from the mid seventies to late eighties.

The goal of every aspiring Dead Head was to work across a dozen weekends to accumulate enough scratch to buy tickets to a concert. A Dead concert was your baptism to the sacred and the profane. It was where the future was waiting.  Every kid lied about his or her experiences at  concerts. Not unlike the forbidden book of liars known as Penthouse Forum, pilgrims returned from Dead shows with exagerated reports of behavior not witnessed since Caligula’s Rome. Most came for the music and left on two feet. A few ended up discovering some new boundary, which meant missing most of the concert because they were either throwing up under the grand stands, frantic because they forgot they ate some magic mushrooms and could not understand why the moon was now following them or simply worn down from trying to get the phone number of a spinning ballerina named Prairie Flower, a wispy free spirit whose Mendocino commune did not have electricity or an address.

Neophytes attending their first Dead show were appropriately wary and at the same time, naively desperate to seek out excess and in doing so, perhaps they might discover some latent aspect of their personality that could only be revealed in the uninhibited cocoon of a Dead show.

We felt a part of an exclusive but accepting tribe. We were not alone. According to website, Bio, merry Boomer deadheads included an odd mixture of liberal and conservative from Bill Walton, Barak Obama and Steve Jobs to Walter Cronkite, Ann Coulter and white collar executives who were desperate to temporarily escape a predictable life. The ultimate sin was to become what Jackson Brown referred to as a “Pretender” living in the shade of a freeway.

My first Dead show preceded my 17th birthday at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. I found myself wandering among a new breed of people who lived outside my suburban bubble. The natives moved like wild life across the green grass infield, spinning and dancing like human dreidels. Inhibition had left the city limits and in its wake left a visceral Summer of Love zeitgeist. The contact high was both symbolic and genuine as the police and security retreated into a soft, midnight blue perimeter. After eight hours of multiple bands and artists headlined by the Dead, we found ourselves separated from our friends and unable to find our ride home to Los Angeles. We navigated two miles to an onramp of Highway 101 and hung out our thumbs to hitchhike to an agreed gathering spot. Up to this point I had been afraid to take a public bus. A beaten Ford coughed to a stop as four Dead Heads bound for San Diego and the next Dead show welcomed us into their vehicle.  A hundred miles later, we spilled out of the  station wagon and caught a cab the rest of the way home.

Over the years, I would scour the Sunday Calendar section of the LA Times and would delight when I saw the Dead coming to any venue within 500 miles. I would abandon whatever trappings of responsibility I had accumulated to that point and disappear among the hippies and free spirits. There was never any judgment, only great music. I’d return the following Monday with stories and a sense that I had once again pushed the reset button of my life. I was still truckin’, looking for familiar faces in a sea of joyous humanity.

Over the years, my obligations overcame my sense of adventure and I found myself becoming a father in every sense of the word. I religiously listened to their music but stopped attending Dead shows. In times of intense responsibility, I found myself daydreaming of following the Dead to Egypt – perhaps to climb the Great Pyramids at dawn with Bill Walton and Bob Weir. To follow the band was to live a tumbleweed existence rolling from venue to venue sleeping on couches and park benches. I have friends who have followed artists. But bands broke apart and best friends  self destructed as a result of egos and hubris. Very few tribes could replicate the sense of total self-determination that came with the life of a Dead Head.

The band never won a Grammy for an album nor for a song in the fifty years that they had performed for millions of fans. They were finally rewarded a lifetime achievement Grammy but one wonders whether they might ever find the fickle Rock & Roll Hall. They represented something deeper to a generation that was told it must choose between a two road highway system defined by success or want. Happiness was a destination all dividend accomplishment not a state of mind. We did not drink the Kool-Aid but instead looked for door number three.

Just as Jeff Bridges Big Lebowski struck a chord with GenXers who had become cynical to the material finish line that they was unattainable, a generation of Boomers before them were disaffected with the notion that their life’s goal was to meet or exceed some predetermined standard of living. Materialism seemed in conflict with joy. Happiness was getting what you wanted but it had an expiration date that came all to soon. Joy was measured in minutes of freedom and days spent living in harmony with and for others. Your new job description was to break the shackles of angry, Old Testament patriarchs who viewed contrarianism as tantamount to social anarchy. The ethos of the music was about love and disappointment, human frailty, success, failure and the gritty reality that so many people find as they navigate the shoals of real life – a life that bore no relation to the  Brady Bunch. Our time on earth was Howl’s Floating Castle. It had no permanence except in experience found in other people and other places. The Dead’s music and lyrics could transform the darkest alley into a calm illuminated fireside with a single ballad.

37 years later across a half lifetime of change, I found the Dead again. A series of farewell concerts would take place over five nights in Palo Alto and Chicago.

On a soft Sunday night, a light San Francisco Bay breeze swept across a tangled sea of gray hair and tie-dyed shirts as a thousand illuminated phones flashed like fire flies in the twilight. I was a spiritual swallow descending on Levi Stadium. I was accompanied by two of my kids, my older brother, his wife and a close childhood friend who called Menlo Park home. Each pilgrim, fueled by nostalgia, came for a different reason. Most came just to once again smell the perfume of their own adolescence and to gather for a final time to celebrate the music of their lives.

We were suddenly all eighteen ( bad backs and all ), ready to leap tall building with a single bound. On the second night of a three night set. 75 year old Phil Lesh, the bassist, and a liver transplant survivor, thanked the audience and rhetorically laughed about their fifty year run.

“Who would have thought?”

My mind drifted to the distinct vocals and guitar work of their missing leader, Jerry Garcia. His spot had been taken that night by Trey Anastazio, lead singer from the band, Pfish. Bruce Hornsby assumed keyboards filling in for deceased Brent Mydland.

Fifty years. They had taken me to exotic places like the Mars Hotel, Franklins Tower and Terrapin Station. They introduced me to women who could wade in a drop of dew while wearing scarlett begonias. They told stories of menacing Dire Wolves and Jack Straw who murdered his best friend. They helped me relate to the mythology of life and love — always encouraging me to “keep on truckin”.

When the lights came on and the last encore note fell to earth, I hugged my brother and his wife and we high-fived. We wandered back across an expanse of green golf course and a thousand memories to our friends.  The car was heavy with circumspect middle age fatigue until someone whispered, “Man, that was awesome”. It was indeed special to have been able to say thank you to the minstrels and muses, my band of fifty years — and to experience it with my brother and family like so many tangled roots in a massive living tree of my life. I kept thinking about the lyrics to so many songs written by Robert Hunter. One particular refrain kept coursing through my head. It summed up my life’s journey and the road that still lay ahead:

“…The shoe is on the hand that fits, there’s really nothing much to it. Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s all right. Oh well a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway. And that was all I had to say and it’s all right.

I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive. We will get by, we will get by, we will get by, we will survive…”

The Most Wonderful Time of The Year – A Ghost Story

The grandfather clock chimed twelve am. The house was a silent sea of deep, rhythmic breathing, interrupted only by the sudden movements of an energized Australian Shepherd who was fixated on my every move.   I sat exhausted among holiday detritus — screw drivers, instructions, unassigned nuts and bolts and scores of AA batteries.  I was once again feeling sorry for myself and resenting the imminent holiday and its fatigue. Another Christmas.

I had predictably caved to commercialism spending well beyond my budget, stimulated by that seductive liar — nostalgia.  I had gained five pounds at social and business gatherings and in a fit of self pity, wished that I could be transported back in time when I was the child upstairs sleeping.  As if sensing my sullen mood, the dog rested his head on my knee. Suddenly, he perked his ears and darted behind the couch – – his emergency shelter any time that something is not right in the house.

 “Get back in your beds! “ I hissed into the dark hallway.

Expecting to hear giggles and scampering feet, I instead heard what sounded like chains and cleaning equipment being dragged across our wooden floors.  I raised my voice as I darted around the corner trying to catch the young spies in the act, “What are you doing down…?”

I startled, dumfounded at the odd specter hovering in front of me.  A phantasm, clothed in mid-nineteenth century finery, swirled near the staircase.  Ghostly baroque Christmas carols floated up from under his topcoat. “I am the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  I have come to confer with you so that I might save you from a future that I was not able to escape”.

“I think you have the wrong house, Bub.   Charlie was the investment banker.  He lives next door.”  The ghost hesitated, looking flustered and the music stopped.  He materialized a little more clearly and descended to the floor.  He reached a modest height of five feet but looked up at me through spectacles and a silver hedge row of furrowed brows.

  “I knew they gave me the wrong address.  No, wait, wait, wait. This is right.  You are in the health care industry.  Oh yes, this is the house.  We have launched Project Merry Gentlemen this year.  Last year, we haunted Congressional officials under Project Windsock. It did not do much good. Although several did not heed our warnings and were not reelected this year.  This year, we have big business in our crosshairs. It was either come here or go march with the We Can’t Breathe crowd. Lot’s of causes but not many marchers in this neighborhood.

“We want to make sure you remember the role you free market capitalists are supposed to play in society.  Some of you muckety mucks need to remember there is a God and you are not her!”

“Her?” I asked.

“It’s a long story”, the ghost sighed. “It says here you are a managed care consultant.  I am not sure what that means but it sounds like an oxymoron.” I started to look defensive and he quickly changed the subject.  “Look I got a lot of other business people to speak with tonight. I am initially visiting the ones that own only one house.  They are easier to locate.”

I was puzzled, “uh, where exactly are we going and where are the other ghosts – you know, the ghosts of Christmas Present and Future?”.  The ghost exhaled,

The ghost looked disgusted. “They all got laid off or demoted to other departments within Purgatory.  About a year ago, Purgatory got overrun by a bunch of private equity guys.  They started telling us we were the lowest margin department in the spiritual world and we needed to cut costs and reduce headcount.  I now have three times the amount of hauntings as I used to have and I have had my goodwill pay frozen for one hundred years.  The ghost of Christmas Past was made “redundant”.  She’s now haunting houses part-time.  Christmas Future has been redirected into Children’s Nightmares.  He just got put on probation for causing the entire state of Nebraska to wet their bed.  With the hood and skeleton hands, he’s a tad over qualified for bad dreams.”

“I thought Purgatory was the place between heaven and hell.” I asked, confused.

The ghost nodded his head. “A common misconception. We exist in a place that is sort of like – – Heaven’s mailroom.  If we do well, we get promoted upstairs or if we are really lucky, we reincarnated back to earth as dogs.”

I leaned close and asked the millennium old question, “What about Hell.  Is it, you know, real?” The ghost looked thoughtful and leaned in to whisper in my ear, “Hell is being a Jets fan.” He laughed and impend the front door with the wave of his hand.

“Let’s go visit your past and present and see if we can’t leave you with a little perspective at this important time of year.”  A rush of frigid air swirled around us as we were caught up in a sort of funnel, spiraling up and then just as suddenly, alighting on a manicured lawn.  Magnolia trees lined suburban sidewalks illuminated by street lamps.  I saw a young pre-teen riding a ten speed bicycle by himself while a physician got back into his Ford after making a house call.  I knew in an instant that we had fallen backward in the early 1970’s  We floated in the air, hidden by the shadows of weak light cast from a few the massive living room bay window of a Spanish style home.

 “What is all that noise inside?” the ghost asked as he craned his head, pressing his nose to the single pane glass.

“That”, I said, “is most likely my father, swearing as he puts up the Christmas tree.”  I peered inside to spy four young boys running in and out of a room packed with presents while an Andy Williams Christmas song played  on the hi-fi.  The ghost mused, “It’s quite comfortable outside, why is there such a large fire in the fireplace? “

I suddenly felt a hot flash. “My Dad liked fires and fireplaces.  He grew up in Chicago where they were both a necessity and a sentimental symbol of domestic bliss.  It was always like an Indian sweat lodge when Dad cranked up the old Yule log. My Mom would go into the other room complaining that it was night time yet for her to have man-o-pause.  I didn’t understand what Man-o-pause was but assumed it had something to do with the fact that we had a house full of men.”

We watched as a mongrel dog trotted up to the tree and lifted his leg to urinate while my father’s jaw dropped in stupefied horror. As he moved to kick the dog, the tree fell over.

“I loved Max,” I said absentmindedly. “He was the perfect dog for four boys.  A few years later, he finally attacked something that was tougher than he was”

“And that was,“ asked the ghost.

“A moving van” I sighed…

We moved along a continuum of time as we walked invisibly among family parties, card games, laughter, endless baking, candle light church services, caroling, friends, gifts, and a rather embarrassing rearrangement of nativity figurines that resembled a swinger’s party.   The moments melted into a montage of family life all sweetened by our time together.  With each successive Christmas, our Southern California home seemed brighter, warmer and more festive – – the spirit of the season casting a light across every face. And somewhere in the distance, Andy Williams was always singing about it being the most wonderful time of the year.

“You see,” the ghost chastened me.” You really did have a wonderful life.”

I shot him a cynical glance.  “Look Clarence, or whatever your name is… I’m not George Bailey trying to jump off a bridge.  You just caught me wishing I could be a kid again – you know, for a few hours.” The ghost looked sympathetic but then became stern.

“My time is short.  I am supposed to haunt at least ten more suits tonight. We have not even gotten to your gradual enslavement to work and your preoccupation with reality television. ” He looked me in the eye.  “I just want to remind you that Christmas is a holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah.  His life was all about serving others.  This season is about your fellow man – -those you know and those you have never met.  You know, ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ and all of that?   Since you ruined your chances for public office in college, you can still inspire people by serving others and through your actions, remind them during this season that Christmas is a state of mind.  Empathy and compassion are the chief ingredients to human kindness.  It’s that warm nostalgic feeling that makes you want to buy gifts, light fires and curl up to watch reruns of Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop’s Wife.”

His face got stern, “You business types want free markets, limited regulation, small government and flat screen TVs.  Ok, but that means you have to be responsible social stewards and help actively stitch together a social safety net to take care of those who are less fortunate.  It’s in your spiritual job description if you’d ever bother to read it. You may feel more vulnerable in today’s economy but 95% of the world is financially worse off than you.  I am not sure how you find time to get on your pity pot with so much going for you.  By the way, if you do not choose to help those in need, there are those who would love to force you to do it.  As they say at the office, I’d rather be the guy who writes the memo, than the one who has to read it.”

The ghost smiled and faded into a gossamer mist, finally disappearing. I woke up in my favorite chair with my back aching as it always does when I watch back to back episodes of Cops.  I suddenly realized that the holiday season was really about those sitting around the tree, rather than what rested underneath it.

I walked through the house, turning out lights and hesitated for a moment, watching the Christmas tree and the glowing palette of ornaments reflecting the soft kaleidoscope of color.  I heard the CD changer in the other room click and suddenly heard a familiar symphony of brass as Andy Williams started to croon, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.”

A Visit from The Yule Goat

Joulupukki
Image by esaskar via Flickr

In the northern hemisphere, winters arrive like a black dog breathing permanent midnight.  The gray threadbare days weave into a thick woolen canopy that never seems to lift. Despite the reassuring lights of Sloane Square, ice skaters in Mayfair and the annual grand Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, Christmas is a more muted and reverent affair in England. Each December 24th, St. Martins of the Field church broadcasts its medieval Christmas carol concert urging all the masters of the hall to rejoice and pray.

Along the cold and wind-swept Thames, a city hibernates waiting for the resurrection of spring.  As an ex-patriot navigating life among millions, thousands of miles from the moorings of family, Christmas Eve was a hard time to avoid melancholy self-reflection.

Having been wrested from parents, neighbors, friends, familiar institutions and cultural touchstones, our young family was dispatched on a three-year odyssey that would test us and stretch our ability to cope.  Without the traditional support structures, we were reduced to our lowest common denominator – us.

As we had sought to build a new life, we met other displaced diplomats. Out of mutual necessity, we forged deep connections to this diaspora of the disconnected.  Over long dinners and timeless cups of tea, we would share the daily anxieties of international living where life had become a succession of indignities roaring past you in the middle of a motorway with no exit ramps.  Change was everywhere – tugging at your elbow, tearing the side mirror off your car, visiting some mystery illness upon your family or delaying you in a foreign airport due to a sudden labor strike.  It was mad cow and foot and mouth disease closures of a verdant but now forbidden countryside.  It was an unexpected dog bite and the night terrors of a child unable to cope with the massive change of an international move.  It was a washing machine the size of an Easy Bake Oven and a dryer that could only dry five pieces of clothing at a time. It was an alpenglow sunset in Zermatt and a pink pastel dawn in Provence.

We joined an international brigade that had voluntarily been assigned to new lives on a distant, fatal shore.  Our new and extended “family” was a United Nations blend of ex-patriots and locals possessing passports from Peru, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, India, Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland. In another place and time, we might have had less in common with these global travelers and passed one another like ships.  Yet, alone on this great ancient island, we found each other and watched as our children moved freely across narrow language barriers and cultural tightropes. Within months we had forged a multinational support network that would sustain us through every conceivable life event.

Holidays were initially the hardest of times. On this December 24th, the darkest corridor of the year, the ancient Druid festival of winter solstice would be celebrated. Christmas in England was a time of evergreens and hard frosts. A pale, frigid mist would settle on the Great Wimbledon Common and across the ancient headstones of St Mary’s church graveyard.  The bleak mid-winter world stands still as the countryside settles into a deep sleep with  the rolling hills of Newlan’s Corner and Box Hill sitting as silent citadels over the South Downs and Kent. In the Cotswolds, wool, market and cathedral towns with names like Chipping Camden, Broadway, Stow on the Wold and Upper Slaughter become fairy tale retreats for the wealthy with roaring fires, curiosity shops and antiques.  It is a quiet, somber time filled with very personal celebrations of resurrection and renewal.

Each Christmas season, we visited with our friends and as we entered each rented home or flat, it would be adorned faithfully with native touches and talisman of their home countries.  One day we might meet a koala with a Santa hat and the next week encounter rich religious icons of Latin America – – Madonna with Child, nativity figurines, candles and white papered gifts — grand colorful offerings of love and sentiment to be offered to those less fortunate at midnight mass..

At this time of year, it was important to keep our own traditions alive. To discard or ignore a cultural touchstone was to defile it and potentially sever another tie with your own past.  It was inevitable that the longer one lived abroad, the more likely it was that one would morph into an international citizen – an odd changeling that was often less wedded to their nationality and more content to be considered part of the global melting pot of mankind.

Christmas was a time of year where I was left with the nagging feeling that I was denying my children some quintessentially American experience. I was obviously superimposing my childhood on to my international children and when those feelings would not fit them, I came away feeling as if I was somehow stunting their growth.

Our youngest was already exhibiting signs of advanced internationalism. Having moved to the UK when he was one, he was not being raised on the empty carbohydrates of Disney movies, American commercialism and a ruddy-faced department store Santa that smelled of Brut and bourbon. My son spoke with a lilting English accent, watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob The Builder. He wore a uniform to school and was frighteningly well mannered. He expressed curiosity about  Father Christmas and wanted to “know him better.”

On this particular Christmas eve, I was feeling a wave of yuletide melancholy when the phone rang. It was our Finnish friend Robert.  Bobby and his Peruvian wife, Laila, had joined our extended family after falling in with us on a wild and unforgettable family vacation to Morocco. Bobby was a towering bristled blond Nordic with a rapid-fire mind and a clear, practical lens to the world. The unusual union of a Finn and Peruvian in this international enclave was typical of our circle of friends – a merger of disparate cultures and genetics that produced perpetually clashing perspectives and two gorgeous children who spoke Finnish, Portuguese and Spanish.

According to Bobby, Christmas was first and foremost, a Finnish tradition. All Finns claim that the Lapp mountains of Korvatunturi, not the North Pole, are the true home to Father Christmas. This rugged winter landscape populated by the Sami people is a frozen wonderland of midnight lakes, deep conifer forests and sweeping mountains of ice. It is a magical destination where on certain clear December nights, the aurora borealis swirls and dances on invisible solar winds.

The Finns are stoic culture – except after a few shots of Vodka when they may break into song or break every piece of furniture in your house.  They are a remarkably resilient people and have a fierce history of independence dating back to fated Roman efforts to subdue the tribes living in the “land of the cloudberries.”

“Michael, I have a dilemma,” Bobby said in a thick, educated accent. “Every year, my Finnish friend, Opi and I rent a Father Christmas suit and visit each other’s children, give them gifts, sing with them and then put them to bed” He hesitated. “Opi has abandoned me this year and has taken his family to Lapland. I have no one to play Joulupukki for my children. Could I get you to come over to my house, dress as Father Christmas and visit with them?” It was getting dark and in my late afternoon lethargy, I was feeling more like Scrooge than what the Finns refer to as “  Joulupukki- The Yule Goat”.  Yet, there was an unspoken ex-patriot protocol that when someone in your foxhole needs help, you rise to the occasion.

Within an hour, I was barefoot in a frozen side garden, slipping on boots, a red suit, and a white beard that would have made ZZ Top jealous. I slipped on a long elfin hat and moved across the condominium parking lot in search of their flat. An elderly Englishman walking his Westie looked at me with curiosity and shrugged, “a bit lost, aren’t you?”

I could not see very well through my beard and white bangs. I tripped over a potted plant and thumped against the front door. I could hear someone whispering in Finnish and squeals of excitement inside. Laila opened the door and I greeted them in butchered Finnish.  Bobby was taking pictures as I sat down to play with the children.  They jumped into my lap and sang a traditional Finnish carol.  The beard was gratefully disguising the fact that I had no idea what they were saying. I literally just bobbed up and down speaking gibberish.

The children hugged me with the strength of ten men. I felt myself slowly filling with that elusive goodwill and peace that perfumes the lives of those who choose to serve others. As I drove home, I suddenly saw this winter world for all its charm and tradition. It had lost its depressing decay and tired history. Our village was adorned with evergreens and white faerie lights winding down lampposts and across the eaves of brightly lit pubs. I was finally home.

I returned home to find  my own children restless and unable to sleep. Filled with gratitude and a recognition that Christmas was about my own rebirth, I settled at the edge of the children’s beds to lull them with a yuletide tale of medieval England.  The phone rang downstairs. “It’s Bobby” my wife yelled.

“Michael, I am around the corner now in the costume and was wondering if you wanted me to come in or just climb up on the roof and walk around” I had not expected this Finnish quid pro quo but eagerly encouraged him to come and inspect the house from the street as if he was sizing up how to land his sleigh on our narrow slate roof.

The children were still awake waiting for their story-teller when I instructed them to get up and peer between the indigo blue drapes to the street below where they might see something extraordinary. On this Christmas Eve, a 6’5″ Finnish Father Christmas visited my children on a dark and forgotten English close. “He’s so tall” My daughter squealed. “Santa tall?” my youngest asked rhetorically.  Outside, the oversized elf strained, continued to look for ways to enter our chimney.  The children watched mesmerized as The Yule Goat finally made his notations and disappeared into the night.

“Now quick” I whispered. “Get to bed before he sees you.” They leaped into their bunk beds and after twenty minutes of discussing Father Christmas, they fell into a satisfied sleep that carried them right into morning. It seemed that Christmas would find us after all, and came on the shoulders of a tall stranger from Lapland.

As my children progress into adulthood, I remind them of the visit from St Nicholas and hope they will carry this memory through the years until one night they might find themselves far from home and feeling disconnected from the spirit of the season.  Perhaps then, they will remember that misty, frigid night when they first caught a glimpse of Joulupukki and their own father discovered that Christmas happens wherever there are people.

The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

white-cat1

 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

53 Is The New 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did someone say, “steaks”?

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

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

Man, I’m hungry.

Postcards Hung on A Distant Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned one last time.

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

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

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

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

To The New Canaan Class of 2014 – Vive Le Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2014, Vive le difference !

 

A Hoarder in Spring

Hoarders
Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jerry Garcia is dead.”

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

“That’s a great idea!”

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

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

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

The Angel of Mayres Heights

The Angel of Mayres Heights

Richard Rowland Kirkland Monument at Fredricks...
Richard Rowland Kirkland Monument at Fredricksburgh Battlefield (Photo credit: Bravehardt)

All God’s angels come to us disguised.  ~James Russell Lowell


December, 1862 – The 120,000 man Union Army of the Potomac moved sluggishly south into Northern Virginia, a large clumsy bear trying to swipe a mortal blow against the frustratingly nimble grey fox, Robert E Lee and his 72,500 man army of Northern Virginia – a wounded but dangerous foe still reeling from its near annihilation at Antietam in September.  

The Federal plan called for speed and deception – feigning a move on nearby towns along the Rappahannock, only to cross the river and rapidly claim the town of Fredericksburg, engaging pieces of Lee’s fragmented army.  Through brute force and overwhelming odds, the Federals would carry the war to Richmond and crush the Southern rebellion.  Yet, the Union army suffered from weak and serially indecisive leadership.  The inept Maj. General Ambrose Burnside, a failed Rhode Island businessman wracked with self-doubt, led the Federals.  Months earlier, his ultra conservative brinksmanship on a stone bridge at Antietam turned a certain Federal rout of the Confederates into a desperate draw.  Despite his obvious mediocrity, the corpulent Burnside was deemed by Lincoln as the best available choice to replace an even greater incompetent General George McClellan whose patrician insubordination and penchant for avoiding battle led to his dismissal. 

The Union Right, Center and Left Grand divisions led respectively by Major Generals Sumner, Hooker and Franklin were facing the cream of the Confederacy – Robert E Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, AP Hill, Anderson, Early, McLaws and J.E.B Stuart.  The Federals had wasted a month getting into position to launch their “surprise “attack, electing to wait to assemble pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock instead of crossing at shallower fords and more rapidly engaging a divided enemy before the entire army of Northern Virginia could reassemble.  As Burnside equivocated, Lee built formidable defenses, President Lincoln fumed and the fate of thousands of young men was decided.   

The union army 2nd Corps and 4th Corps finally crossed the Rappahannock on December 12th where they proceeded to loot Fredericksburg while dodging artillery and sniper fire. Among those bivouacking on the even of battle was private William O Grady and other Irish soldiers of 63rd, 69th and 88th NY infantry, three Gaelic brigades of immigrants, many conscripted straight off ships as they arrived in America fleeing famine and hardships suffered under colonial England.  Pressed into service to defend their adopted country, the boys from counties such as Sligo, Mayo and Wexford were mustered under Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher in the 2nd brigade of the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps.  Meagher was a charismatic leader and political fugitive, once indicted for sedition by the English government and sent to Tasmania, only to escape to NY and enlist to lead his native countryman. 

The chaplain of the brigade was Jesuit priest William Corby who would later become the President of Notre Dame University.  On the frigid evening of December 12, a light snow swirled as O’Grady and his comrades from the fighting 69th gathered around makeshift fires playing Celtic Christmas carols on fife, violin and guitar.  Across a quarter mile canyon of killing ground, a young Confederate from South Carolina, 19 year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland, listened to acoustic shadows as he stood picket duty, stomping his feet to warm frigid toes.  Behind him, the men of Kershaw’s 2nd South Carolinians prepared their defense behind a sunken stone wall at the elevated crest of a ridge known simply as Maryes Heights.

The fifth son of a religious, fourth generation Southern family, Kirkland enlisted to defend South Carolina interests against Northern aggression.  In the months preceding Fredericksburg, Kirkland’s idealism was shredded by the shrapnel battles of Bull Run and Antietam where he witnessed friends killed and the terrifying reality of modern warfare.  He lay awake that evening staring at an endless ocean of union fires and dancing shadows.  He knew that the next morning would be the last dawn for many of these men. 

The battle opened slowly with assaults across a field of hard morning frost and swirling ground fog.  Union soldiers moved through fields of fire that sloped up from assault positions, climbing across over 800 yards of open, frozen ground.  “ The generals cannot be foolish as to order us up that hill” reassured Chaplain Corby to his worried men.  He was dead wrong.  At 1pm and again at 3:30pm in the dying flat twilight of the day, O’Grady and 1200 men of the Irish brigade were ordered to launch a suicidal charge.  Clutching their regimental colors that were stitched with the Gaelic expression ”Faugh a ballagh” or “ Clear the way”; Union officers ordered 16 individual charges into a fusillade of Southern rifle, canister and solid shot.  Not a single Union solider reached within 30 yards of the stone bulwark six deep with butternut sharpshooters. 

As dusk descended on the inferno, 6300 men laid dead and wounded in the ebony expanse of no man’s land that stretched between the Confederate and Union lines.  As frozen rain turned to snow and temperatures plummeted, soldiers were tormented by cries of agony and pleas for help from the wounded.  Kirkland covered his ears and turned away at the haunted entreaties.  As the night yielded to an apocalyptic dawn of death, Kirkland could stand it no longer.  He leapt into action, gathering up canteens, risking certain death to administer first aid to enemies that only hours before were seeking to kill him. 

With permission from a very reticent General Kershaw, Kirkland made it to O’Grady and several wounded Irish soldiers, carefully cradling their heads in his hand as he gently offered them water.  A sniper’s bullet pitched up frozen earth near Kirkland’s foot.  Another shot hit an adjacent body with a thud.  Kirkland moved quickly to more men.  Soon, a Union officer ascertained what the young man was doing and ordered his men, “ cease fire.  Don’t shoot that man.  He is too brave to die.”  The dead were stacked like cordwood as Kirkland moved frozen bodies rigid with rigor mortis, attempting to find soldiers in need of attention.   By the end of day, he returned to his lines exhausted but forever immortal. Months later, Kirkland and two friends were leading a Confederate counter attack up Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga, Tennessee.  Finding himself and his friends too far extended beyond his lines, he turned to retreat to safety and was shot in the back.  As he lay dying, he asked his friend to “ tell my pa I died right”.  He was 20 years old. 

At Christmas, we are moved by the magic of the yuletide season.  It is a time when visions of angels inspire us and goodwill and compassion can transform any man.  It is a time where we reveal our gentler natures and humanity.  We recognize that there are no burning bushes, only people who serve a higher and nobler purpose in life.  To risk one’s life to save a stranger is to express the ultimate love that was proffered by God when he sent his only son to earth to bring the word of God to man. Perhaps the Kirkland memorial at Fredericksburg best defines what it means to be an angel:  “Dedicated to Sgt Richard Kirkland CSA – At the risk of his life, this American of sublime passion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg.  The fighting men on both sides called him the Angel of Maryes Heights.