Empty Nest Diaries Part 1: Denial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Finalist Accolade for 53 Is The New 38

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

A Farewell To the Pirate King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…”

Go East Young Man

Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Ma...
Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Manhattan at Night, NYC (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

 New York Taxi Rules:
1. Driver speaks no English.
2. Driver just got here two days ago from someplace like Senegal.
3. Driver hates you.

– Dave Barry

My first trip to New York City was in 1987.  I was 26 years old and had only known the Big Apple from gritty 1970s R rated movies like Shaft, Serpico, Death Wish and The French Connection.  (The fact I was able to see these movies with my father when I was still in elementary school is the subject of another story.) The urban citadel of New York was depicted in the flickering darkness of antiseptic California cinemas as a playground for misanthropes, heroin addicts, the criminally insane and corrupt financiers that sat firmly latched like ticks to the neck of the American economy.

Woody Allen and a few urbanized aesthetes attempted to reintroduce the perfumed notion of New York urban romance in films like Annie Hall but as far as I was concerned, the five boroughs comprised one giant petri dish overflowing with the germs spawned from an unscrupulous and unwashed humanity.  I had met kids from New York that had travelled West to attend my college.  They were infinitely more sophisticated having emerged from an entirely different elementary education.  I recall my first New York City roommate showing up with his strange music, turned up Izod collar, pink pants and penny loafers.  One spring afternoon I noticed him wearing a suit and tie one and asked him if someone important had died.  In California, neckties were only worn to church and funerals for heads of state.  He informed me that he was interviewing with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship.  I asked him why he would want to work at a department store.  I only now recognize the withering look of distain that I received.  It is a vintage eastern look that is both an intellectual rebuke and a simultaneous entreaty to God that he cull his human herd of another cripple.

My flight to New York was a seminal event to attend my older brother’s wedding.  He was, ironically, working at Goldman Sachs – presumably selling men’s clothing.  This made sense to me as he did seem to dress well.  I was alone as I lugged my massive garment bag out of Baggage to be assaulted by a gauntlet of gyspy cab and ronin limo drivers. I felt only slightly more confident than a third grader at his first sleep away camp.  I stood in a queue long enough in Los Angeles to qualify for a movie premiere. A half hour later, I was in a suspicious looking cab with a North African driver with blood-red qat eyes. Having mastered the annoying California habit of excessive friendliness, I peppered the poor cabbie with personal details and a stream of nervous questions.

“This is my first trip to NY.”

“How far is it to West 79th Street?”

“My brother’s getting married.”

I glanced at his license, a jumble of vowels interspersed between the letters “k” and “w”.  He appeared to have just walked off the set of The Naked Prey as a co-star with Cornell Wilde. I assumed his “home” must be some obscure nation in Africa.  I had been brought up in the provincial Eden of Los Angeles where Mexico was Tijuana, Canada was viewed like an unused garage apartment and the rest of the world was organized like the board game of Risk.

“So what country are you from?”

“Queens”

The cab swerved across three lanes of Van Wyck expressway brake lights moving on to Rockaway Blvd and a peristalsis of lurching commuters.  I surveyed the gated yards, orange glow of cigarettes and shadowy people tucked in among dilapidated homes and barred windows.  We were moving slowly.  I could easily be pulled from the cab and savaged by an angry mob. I felt my head retracting into my neck as I slumped down below the window.

The driver skirted a traffic jam, honked his horn and swore in a foreign language as he ran a red light.  He turned right away from Rockaway Blvd. and moved slowly down a chain linked side road.  I muttered a silent Rosary.  So this was it.  While my brother’s friends would be inquiring, “Tom, where’s your little brother?”  I would be in a garage in Queens being cut into small pieces and fed to pit bulls.  I briefly contemplated diving out of the taxi to hide in one of the canyon-sized potholes that the vehicle kept pounding across.

“Are we? I mean, is this the best way to the City?”

“Traffic’s bad.”

The lights of New York suddenly appeared to the West shimmering in the haze of the August summer night.  An hour later, I was sitting in my brother’s air condition-less Upper West Side co-op that was only slightly larger than a microwave oven.  He was exhilarated by his Lilliputian lifestyle.  I sat terrified as he described our need to take the subway to meet friends in the Village. The last movie I had seen that involved riding on the NY subway resulted in Charles Bronson shooting a car full of street thugs.

We walked down a stuffy hallway to wait for a coffin disguised as an elevator.  The lift could comfortably accommodate one person.  I hesitated as the door opened to two people.  My brother vacantly smiled and wedged in between the man and woman.  I followed, apologizing as I pressed against the young mother. She seemed nonplussed by the fact that we were practically conjoined.  I was certain when we exited the lift I would be wearing her blouse.

The doors opened and we spilled out into the hot breath of a foyer.  The doorman had his back to us watching a homeless man berate a four foot mountain of trash that was accumulating from a recent garbage strike.  August heaved up from the subway grills.  It seemed even the air had left the City for the Hamptons.

The night was an endless bachelor’s party blur of crowded nightclubs, silk dresses, shot glasses, kaleidoscope lights, superficiality and a wad of AMEX receipts.  I do remember being asked by every woman what I did for a living.  As I soon as I shared “insurance”, it was if someone had pulled a fire alarm. With each cocktail, my apprehension of New York City melted.  The mean streets slowly morphed into a neon adult playground of temptations.  I was Pinocchio running with a gang of financial Lampwicks on Pleasure Island.

The following morning, I awoke in the fetal position on floor of my brother’s dressing room apartment clothed only in underwear and dress shoes.  Aside from the roto-tiller grinding through my medulla, I noted the constant thrum of motor vehicles.  On my run through Central Park, I seemed to fixate on the mentally ill and a breed of elite, skeletal mannequins who jogged as if they were starring in an exercise video.  At that moment, I made a life pact that if I survived this dystopian weekend, I would never again cast my shadow east of the Mississippi.

God and life love making lemonade out of sour pledges.  One’s best thinking always becomes fodder for irony.  27 years later, I would find myself living in CT and commuting into New York City.  I was now jostling in the belly of an iron beast ready to be disgorged into the stale underground of Grand Central Station.  It seemed a lifetime ago that I could drive fifteen minutes from work to Newport Beach, run along the strand and then body surf for an hour before returning home to my young family.  It had been months since I had actually seen the ocean, the sky and or a star in a night now awash with light pollution.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself walking happily up Madison Avenue passing a mélange of restaurants, shops and businesses.  The streets teem with diversity, a giant Masai Mara of heterogeneous souls coursing across a concrete veldt.  It is early fall and a perfect ambient temperature. Everything is bathed in a soft, sequined light.  The City prefers to walk on a day like today.  A car is a burdensome utility in a place like this.  It is a racehorse or vacation property – an impulsive and underutilized possession that must be housed and boarded.  Unlike the love affair we enjoyed with our four-wheeled deities in my native California, there is no value in driving.  To park anywhere is to squeeze into a postage stamp stall deep in the bowels of a urine fragranced car park, or hand $55.00 and one’s keys to a Tunisian parking attendant who has not smiled since he immigrated to the US in 1997.

There is no place to hide from life in the City.  It finds you. Everything is shared.  I often return to the City after dark to attend a dinner, a concert or social event.  Coming down the Hudson or FDR, the city lights are strung like pearls and as with most great works of impressionism, it reveals aspects of itself only when you step back to appreciate it in its entirety.

I visit an organic juice bar for a drink that has more vitamins than five heads of raw broccoli but tastes like battery acid.  A giant rat is inflated in front of an adjacent building that is clearly engaged in behavior that a local union does not find acceptable. A poor demented soul stops to rebuke an invisible demon then attempts to make eye contact with a jet stream of bowed heads and averted glances.  In one block, I pass a lifetime of humanity – all moving with urban determination to a destination that rests like a Hobbit’s hovel somewhere tucked inside a concrete mountain.

The City will change with the seasons.  No day is guaranteed.  The weather and unforeseen disruptions will alter our routines and push us into cabs and underground.  NY is no longer a Broadway beauty or a faded actress, it is a million faces and places hiding in plain sight.  It is a midnight piano bar, a Soho nightclub or the sad saxophone of the Blue Note.  It’s a Central Park autumn jog around the reservoir and a post theatre cappuccino at the Monkey Bar.   It moves and swirls like a holiday dreidel that will not stop.

As I approach my office, I overhear a familiar conversation as a New Yorker offers directions to JFK to a man and woman.

“Now forget everything I just said. You can avoid all dat garbage by taking the downtown and Far Rockaway-bound A train. Don ‘t get on duh god damn Lefferts-bound train.  Go to the Ozone Park-Airtrain station that connects you to JFK.  It leaves da same station as da E train, but youse gotta use a different subway platform. The E and A trains have da dark blue soy-culls. Same price, the freaking A train never runs to Rockaway as much as the E to Jamaica, but it’s always good to have dat as an option.” I smile, grateful for my simple suburban commute, the NY Times crossword and the Whitestone Bridge.

I miss California the way I long to be eighteen again.  I recall the West the way a person gets nostalgic for all the firsts that come with adolescence.

Soon, it will be cold.  I am content to see each season come and am always grateful to see it go.  I endure winter to get to summer.  Spring is a myth and autumn is a joy. It is the East and it is home.

 

Bi-Centennial Rex is Coming: Be Ready By Reading T-Rex By The Tail –

T-Rex By The Tail; Volume I

 Image

Authored by Michael Anthony Turpin 

When 81 year old neo-conservative Karl Patton dies, his four sons must gather up his bones and dredge the river of their own lives lived in the shadow of their father — the T-Rex.

“The T-Rex father possessed an abnormally large mouth from which he would chew out loud, belch, curse, and devour any weaker form of life. He possessed a great sweeping tail that could strike with unusual dexterity, hitting anything, including his own children, for the slightest infraction. His arms were unusually short, which precluded him from washing dishes or changing diapers. He was the perfect machine-an eating, sleeping, and working automaton preprogrammed to control every aspect of his white-picket world. The T-Rex father was fashioned out of reptilian conservatism, while his partner, the She-Rex, served as his alter ego. In an epoch of profound social climate change, the T-Rex father would have devoured his young rather than yield to sacrifice them to a softer ecosystem of collectivism. She-Rex served as his interpreter and voice of reason, helping her companion defend their family against a frontal assault from change, battling the corrupting elements of the antiwar demonstrations, oil embargos, drugs, terrorism, racial strife, assassinations, pandemics, and urban decline.”

As the boys gather to break the news to their mother who is suffering from early stage Alzheimers, life takes a turn for the bizarre and forces each son to come to grips with their birth order, personal biases and comical shortcomings.

For anyone who has wondered whether today’s parents are indeed a more evolved or devolved version of those who preceded us, grown up in a household fashioned out of conservative timber, felt the sting of a belt or heard the roar of creative profanity, this eulogy to the last great age of Jurassic parenting will have you feeling right at home.

To Order:  T-Rex By The Tail
Publication Date:
Jun 20 2012
ISBN/EAN13:
147515156X / 9781475151565
Page Count:
244
Color:
Black and White
Related Categories:
Fiction / Family Life
 

To the Class of 2012 – “You’re Not Special, Yet”

facebook
facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)

It’s that time of year where we throw another 3.2 million high school minnows into the deep end of life’s ocean. It may feel a little crowded for you scholastic sardines, but there’s actually plenty of room to kick, so splash away.  It’s impossible to offer any advice this week without acknowledging another graduation speech that got a lot of press this week past as English Teacher David McCullough Jr. had the audacity to tell a group of seniors from Wellesley High School that they were not special at all – even though he had given some of them passing grades in his class.

          “Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”

Mr. McCullough went on to frame your demographic reality in stark terms. “So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.“ ( Actually, that’s 6800 people which slightly improves your odds. He also did not mention that at least half of them sleep with a goat at night.  But hey, McCullough does not teach math and gave many of these same student an A in his class)

Now some of you seniors are thinking, “I never professed to be anything special and it’s been hours since I have tweeted anything profound. GTFO, dude!” On the other hand, some of you might be elated to think that somewhere you have 7000 twins running around and will try to pull together a Twitter group where you might agree to “meet half-way” for a rave on some South Pacific atoll.

What Mr. McCullough was saying has been on the mind of an entire generation of parents who are now a tad worried about how they have raised their beloved Millennials.  Our greatest fear is that we have loved you so much that we have not prepared you for your first fist-fight with someone who has less to lose than you do.  While you exude self-confidence, we wonder if we are preparing Pickett at Gettysburg or the French at the Somme. Are we pumping you up with illusory élan or are we infusing you with an energy that will sustain you during the inevitable tough days that lie ahead?

Of course you are cocky. It is human nature that every generation feels superior to those that preceded it. CS Lewis called it the “Snobbery of Chronology”. With the benefit of hindsight, you can judge us more accurately than we can judge you. You have the facts to prove it. You can see every one of our generation’s gaffes, miscues, political blunders, hypocrisies and prescription medications.

The only thing we can do is growl back and warn you that life is not all green lawns and Chinese take-out. Personally, we grew up with parents that hit first and asked questions later. Everything was our fault.  If the stock market dropped, we got the belt. We had chores that paid less than minimum wage and had to do them before we could breathe. We did not walk through eight miles of snow to school. We rode our bikes uphill – each way – through the damned stuff, which was pretty tough because a ten-speed does not get much traction on ice.

Our fathers did not attend many of our scholastic events because they off practicing their swearing and forehand spanking stroke. Moms carried the load and still do. Dad’s now help more, hit less and only swear at the MSNBC and after 11pm at night when everyone has gone to bed. We now use “I messages” which seems so counterintuitive since we were told during our youth that it was not about us.

Secretly, we know that you are just like we were — excited, clueless, capable of achieving great things and ready to commit momentous acts of stupidity.   We like your style but wish you’d put down the phone and look at us when we ask you a question.  We like firm handshakes and a periodic offer to help do the dishes. And here’s the good news: you may not be as special as you think but you have the capacity to be as special as you want to be.  Your challenge is to discover what  “special” means and whether it allows you to still use your iPhone.

It is natural to be self obsessed when you are young – especially when you can consistently fit into your pants after drinking a milk shake. If we had Facebook when we were your age, we would have posted thousands of photos of ourselves. For most of us, there are only a handful of grainy photos from high school and college that look like something you would see in a “In Search of Sasquatch” special on Nat Geo.  Facebook is fine and although we won’t buy the stock — we are too scared to own equities. We do like the portal as it helps us see what you did last night.  Unfortunately, everyone else can too including college admissions counselors and your future employers who will note that by day you were a model kid and by night, you were a truck without breaks.

A lot has changed since you arrived in 1994.  That year, NAFTA was passed and did more to help you avoid yard work than any piece of legislation since the 1916 Child Labor Act. When you finally started to sleep in your crib, we snuck out to see a movie called “Forrest Gump”.  It was about our own loss of innocence as a nation. While the Moms were crying for Tom Hanks, we snuck in to see Pulp Fiction. When you hear us say ” Zed is dead” and then laugh manically out loud,  you need to understand that we are still punch drunk eighteen years later from no sleep and that Pulp Fiction just seems to make us feel like life is going to be ok.   Your Mom still does not get Quentin Tarantino.

Former President Richard Nixon died in 1994. “Tricky Dick” was a complicated guy – sort of like that friend of yours who you want to like but they keep doing self-destructive things. We lost Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the crown jewel of American royalty whose style and grace taught a generation of women how to be elegant without speaking. She had more Grace Kelly in her pinky than Kim Kardashian has in her entire trunk.

Yup, 1994 was a good year. Mostly because, you showed up. We smiled at every gurgle and wondered whether it was a real smile or just gas. We gladly took you everywhere because we did not want to miss a thing. Along the way, a lot changed.  Everything started moving – fast.  Economic bubbles burst and the world got hot, flat and crowded. Terrorists showed up. Technology made everything real time and changed the social contract we had with life where we had always just assumed everything would be there when we wanted it and that we could step off of the merry-go-round whenever we felt queasy.

But you made it all worth our while. Yes, that “whump, whump, whump” over you was not a South Central LAPD helicopter, it was us. You were raised under our constant surveillance and as such, had a harder time doing great things or blowing it.  You had to mislead you into thinking you had done great things so you would not try to sneak out at night.  You did anyway.  You learned the consequences of adolescent screw ups were now a lot more severe and that rumors that once moved like molasses could become viral scandals that could ruin your reputation faster than a fat man chasing an ice cream truck.

A few tips;

Make a gratitude list every day; learn how to delay your own gratification; don’t apologize for being American; find a hero; read Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Watch a western and allow yourself to disappear into the mythology of what made America great. Remember there are still endless possibilities in the world – you just may need to ride your horse a little further south to find them. Our gift to you was life, what you make of it will be your gift to us. Be happy. Be kind. Always go for the guy’s nose in an alley fight. Learn how to do a good job even when you do not like what it is you are doing. Clean out your closets. We don’t want to see you on Hoarders.  That would really embarrass your mother.

Remember, you are today’s special but every day the menu changes. Stay strong, have fun and don’t ruin your chances for public office at your first college party. We need someone in Congress who will be looking out for us when we are wandering around town looking for our missing bag of string.

Guns, Germs and Hypochondriacs

Opposites attract.

Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's...
Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's senior drill instructor, bellows cadence while practicing for Company G's final drill competition. Deutsch: Ausbilder (Drill Instructor) beim United States Marine Corps. Español: Un instructor abordando a los marines estadounidenses. A drill instructor addressing United States Marines / Not Drill Sergeant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They also  marry and discover along the primrose path of marital bliss what the French call, “le difference”.  Love is indeed blind and when a couple is first intoxicated by mutual attraction,  a thick cataract forms over their eyes  – precluding any ability to see things for what they are.  Eventually the X and Y chromosomes recover from their initial pheromone-fueled joy rides and discover the differences in how they approach life.  

Men are loud, visceral creatures who aggressively seek to conquer and accumulate.  Secretly, they are neonates seeking to return to the womb.  Women are more subtle and versatile forms of fauna using their twin skills of nature and nurture to navigate a thankless peanut gallery of expectations. Privately, they just want to be in charge of an all-Italian male model pool cleaning service.

Men are a mass of contradictions. After years of being indulged by their mothers, watching sitcom matriarchs and digesting blatant misinformation from other men, they enter marriages and relationships with a distorted expectation of what their partner must bring to the party.  Apparently, a nice cheese dip is not enough. Men also want their mommy.

Women fall in love with the notion of being in love.  Men appear to them like puppies – cute, friendly and somewhat fragrant.  By the time, they have been taken home, it is too late to give them back and your house smells.    When a woman realizes that her knight in shining armor is really sporting tin foil, wearing dirty underwear and perpetually prone to watch re-runs of the Godfather, a woman can become disillusioned.  This is why you often see mothers and daughters crying at a wedding.  They are not overcome with emotion.  The mother, having drank too much champagne, has just taken their daughter aside and shared with her what life might be like after the honeymoon.  Men misinterpret this matromonial female cry-a-thon as a byproduct of nostalgia when in fact, it is Mom breaking to daughter the news that behind the hunter-gatherer lurks a child who just wants to stay home from work and play with his plastic soldiers.

When it comes to the cold and flu season, roles change with women often morphing into the “drill sergeant “ and men into the “baby”.  A drill sergeant views illness as a temporary setback that must be denied at all costs.  Sickness is a self-fulfilling prophesy and the drill sergeant refuses to acknowlege anything less than blood from three orifices.  Drill sergeants hail from large families and the “suck it up“ school of parenting.  They believe in mud poultices and Mary Baker Eddy.  Babies, however,  are still nostalgic for small country inns, soft blankets and the pulsing heart beat that comes at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” — anything that reminds them of the nine months inside Mom’s pouch. 

Men become huge infants when they are ill.   The slightest cold or fever is usually the beginning of a pandemic. Women are taught to endure.  This plays itself out each season as men complain to other men that their wives show them little sympathy when they are ill.  Wives must keep the house going even when they are sick and as a result, have contempt for “babies” who cannot get up to get a cup of water, let alone, help with the kids.

Men never really notice when their wives are ill.  “My wife never gets sick” a friend shared with me as his wife was coughing up a lung while we were out to dinner.  Yet, when a man is sick, he reverts to fetal rocking, moaning and deep adolescent dependence.  To a drill sergeant, this contemptible behavior is worthy of court-marshal.

I should have registered the subtle harbingers of  intolerance when my wife and I were dating.  I knew she was a first generation Brit.  However, I assumed the “stiff upper lip” and “it’s just a flesh wound” thing was Monty Python hyperbole.  I assumed when the chips were down or coming up, she would transform into a Florence Nightingale that would nurture me by candle light – holding a vigil by my side of the bed until I was well.

 I had grown up in a household where sickness afforded you a temporary celebrity status. In the home of my mother, there was an unwritten  rule that if you were even thinking of getting ill, you went right to bed, eschewed all social obligations and incubated until the illness either hatched or the false alarm had passed.  My mother would organize around the illness.  She would sit like Mother Teresa, a kind silhouette in the flickering shadows of a night-light – cooling our feverish heads, rubbing our backs and humming soft songs.  In a four-boy family where you had to compete for everything – – food, air, space and attention, illness gave you temporary immunity from obscurity.  I often found myself envying my brothers when they became sick.  The mother shepherd focused exclusively on her one wounded lamb, assigning us to our father who resented the fact that he had to talke care of us. It was clearly better to be sick than under the care of a man who still insisted that the Germans had been invited into Poland in 1939.

The arrival of a major epidemic like chicken pox or measles was greeted with 19th century pragmatism – – the infected child and his brothers were quarantined together in a room until everyone came down with the illness.  “Best to get it all over at once “, She would shrug.  In later years, we would feign illness by placing the thermometer on a hot lamp or enduring scalding hot showers to raise our body temperatures.  We would then moan like ghosts wandering into her room to complain of a headache.

When I became a parent, I would disintegrate into worry when my first child became sick.  Yet, I had been trained by the best in triage and bedside manner.  In a strange way, their maladies made me feel more relevant.  Enter the British wife.  To the British female, illnesses are like road works, a temporary impediment that must be driven around.    Years later, as we brought children into the world, the “Stiff Upper Lip“ school and the “It Could Be Plague“ schools would routinely clash over diagnoses and prognoses.

At the first sneeze, she would say, “it’s just a cold.” I would be certain it was Ebola.  At the sound of a muffled midnight cough or sniffles, I was on the phone demanding access to a pediatrician.  A headache ? Meningitis.  That sore throat could be bird flu.  “The last I checked none of us have been to China” my spouse would respond.  ” We ate Chinese food the other night. Those dumplings could have been cooked by a carrier. “

As more children were born, I mellowed, graduating from burning the pacifier when it fell from their mouths, to wiping it on my pants to just popping it back in their mouths. My spouse, born to a midwife in a small English village, seemed pleased with my progress.  We made quantum leaps such as actually agreeing to carry on with a vacation if one of the children came down with the sniffles or developed a cough.  We braved a dinner party if I felt a little under the weather.  And yes, we did send a child to school before they had been symptom free for 48 hours (that one had me sweating)

I suppose this pragmatic return to 19th century medicine is healthy. But, there are times when my entire family is fighting illness — coughing and sneezing, spreading their germs throughout the house – that I hide, paranoid and alone in my den.  I sit wide-eyed reading – a modern day Howard Hughes devouring a book like, Guns, Germs and Steel.  I may have lost the germ wars at home, but I am staying informed on epidemics and holding out for the day when they reconsider my years of hypochondriacal behavior and shake their heads saying, “My God, he was right“.

That’s usually about the only time my wife declares she needs an aspirin.

A Touch of Grey

Grey Wolf
Image by Todd Ryburn via Flickr

A Touch of Grey

…..I know the rent is in arrears
The dog has not been fed in years
It’s even worse than it appears
but it’s all right.

Cow is giving kerosene
Kid can’t read at seventeen
The words he knows are all obscene
but it’s all right….

Oh well a Touch Of Grey
Kind of suits you anyway.
That was all I had to say
It’s all right.

Touch of Grey, Robert Hunter

The first grey hair showed up when I was seventeen.  This sudden loss of melanin in this particular follicle coincidentally followed my first Grateful Dead concert.  It seemed a novelty at the time – – a rare phenomena like corn snow that would occasionally fall for two minutes every few years in Los Angeles and then melt quickly against the wet, warm asphalt.  That single hair was a harbinger of a silver flood that would transform me from ingénue to elder statesman by thirty.

Dickens once said that “Regrets are the natural property of grey hairs.”  While scientists insist the process of graying is genetic, I am convinced that I earned most of my silver the hard way.   I am a firm believer that each grey hair is a “reward” for life’s travails: telling your boss what you really think, hitting a seventeen at the blackjack table with your semester’s spending money on the line, losing your toddler in a department store for an hour only to have her emerge laughing from a circular clothes rack where she had watched you frantically search muttering “she’s going to kill me.  She’s going to kill me!”  It’s having your computer literate child hack through every parental control application you have installed.  It is a call at 3am.

Some people run from the grey.  They use cosmetic products to mask the salt that starts to sprinkle in their hair.  Guys, I hate to tell you but those products don’t seem to really work for men.  I see a guy who I know is pushing fifty but he has hair blacker than a bowling ball at Rip Van Winkle lanes.  It’s not good genetics.  It’s bad shoe polish.  And there are those who nurture their single strand of hair that could actually stretch across the state of Utah.  Lovingly, each morning they wind that massive black mamba around their head, carefully avoiding swim parties, wind tunnels and head massages.

Grey is a state of mind.  Youthful Satchel Paige, the oldest major leaguer of his day debuted for the Cleveland Indians at age 42 after years as a star in the Negro Leagues.  He was the first African-American player in the American League.  Ever the ingenue, Paige was constantly asked about his age.  He would rhetorically ask, ”if you did not know how old you are, how old would you be?”

For me, it’s only as a result of mirrors and cameras that I am reminded that I have physically yielded to middle age.  I still feel twenty and as my spouse will attest, I maintain a highly childish and warped sense of humor and see comedy everywhere….in growing up in a house full of boys, Will Ferrell, neo-conservatives, movies like This is Spinal Tap and The Big Lebowski and well, everything. Certainly my inability to be serious for sustained periods of time has sometimes proved a social impediment.  However, immaturity occasionally serves as a tender bridge to a surly teenager or a disgruntled friend.  It is also healthy.  It’s a known fact that one’s immune system is reinforced through the simple act of laughter.  Laughing suppresses the release of cortisol and epinephrine, two chemicals known to attack the immune system.  According to studies “laughter activates the T cells, B cells, immunoglobulins, and NK cells; it helps to fight viruses, and regulates cell growth.”  It starts with learning to laugh at oneself.  Grey hair gives you permission.  It’s a rite of passage and a merit badge that suggests you have been around long enough to know that Mel Torme was not a forward for the New York Knicks, Hunter S Thompson was not the 39th President and Jerry Garcia is not an ice cream.

A silver streak means you may have felt the deep ache of losing a close friend to illness.  It means you have known disappointment. Grey means you are on your way to realizing the only person that can make you happy – – is you.  It means you understand that comedy is tragedy plus time, and that you never burn a bridge because you invariably need to  cross it again.  Grey hair teaches you to be careful how you treat people on the way up because you will meet them again on the way down.   A little frost around the temples means you understand that expectations can become resentments.

A little grey means you probably have lost something that you could not afford to lose.  You most likely have discovered that you can’t control life but you can control how you react to it.  A little salt and pepper has you finally figuring out the more you focus on other people, the less likely you are to feel sorry for yourself.  You understand that fame and fortune can be a trap and that your legacy will be how many lives you have touched, not what you have accumulated.  You understand that class is style, not stature.

Let’s face it, society celebrates youth and has a tendency to view “grey” the way some Americans view Europe – – old, past its prime and seemingly jealous of the adolescent that has arrived to assume the role of the Alpha.  Youth may have size, strength and a sense of immortality but often lack the perspective that comes with age.  Insight is gained through pain and the bitter experience of getting what you think you want only to find it is not what you needed. Grey is humility.  It is being able to say “I’m sorry” but not spend the rest of your life self-flagellating.   It is being able to laugh at your own expense, not at someone else’s.  Grey may lack the visceral allure of youth but it radiates the intrinsic beauty of a centered soul.  In the end, age teaches us that nothing in the world is black and white.

Everything, as the Grateful Dead suggest, has a “touch of grey “.

Birth Daze

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...
Image via Wikipedia

Birthdaze

On my thirteenth birthday, parties and multiple presents suddenly ceased.  There was no special stature afforded me on the anniversary of my birth.  My father slipped out the backdoor as he did each morning and left for work.  The kitchen was choked with the usual frenetic preparations for school obscured in a haze of fried bacon and burned toast.  My mother mentioned that my birthday dinner of hamburgers would be warming in the oven when I got home from football practice, as she and my father were out entertaining clients that evening.  It seemed as though I was no longer a “cute” puppy worthy of special attention.   I stared at the ground not wanting to cry and secretly wished stigmata would appear on my palms to reveal my deep spiritual martyrdom.  My only birthday present, a baseball glove, had been purchased weeks before and immediately put to use.  My only other gift was a bizarre offering from my grandfather, whom I was now certain, was slipping into senility.  Instead of my annual birthday card replete with a crisp $10 bill, he sent me a coffee can full of pennies and peppermints.

That night, I surveyed the wreckage of my birthday and considered the cruel net present value of my waning childhood — pennies, mints and a shriveled burger on a stale bun.  My older brother sensed my dejection and confirmed my worst fears: “Dude, your birthdays are over…”  My dog Max trotted over and flopped next to me with a heavy sigh.  I looked at him and he seemed to be saying, “Don’t look at me.  I don’t even know how old I am.”

Denial became anger.  My friend, Gary, was having his Bar Mitzvah.  I was not even sure what this ancient rite of passage entailed but I heard it meant money, presents, cake and the ability to invite girls to a party.  Now I wanted to be Jewish. Gary would be carried in a chair as everyone celebrated the fact he had become a man.  People would stuff money in his trousers like a Chippendale’s dancer.  He might even grow a beard right then and there from the sheer testosterone of so many acknowledging his manhood.  And here I sat, the Protestant nobody, eating a stale burger and counting out $3.23 in pennies that smelled like Maxwell House.  I suddenly realized that birthdays, like hormones, changed.

In the post pubescent teenage years, each birthday is an event in two phases: the perfunctory family celebration, endured by the teen like a morning in church, followed by a “bash.”  In the lexicon of the ‘70s, a successful bash was defined as an event with no adult supervision, limited police intervention and no one getting sick in your car.  In your twenties, the festivities involved an evening out with everyone, I mean everyone — friends, coworkers, and that Romanian immigrant you met who was bussing your table at the wine bar in Century City.  Then birthdays become justification for self-indulgence and life lessons.  The “I made it” mentality kicks in and you seek to reward yourself.  This leads to an extension course at the school of hard knocks as your celebrations take a bizarre turn — resulting in waking up the next day with a fat lip, no idea where you parked and a $1000 wad of your VISA receipts signed by someone named Little Ray.

In your thirties and forties, you celebrate your birth anniversary with the parents of your children’s friends who have become your friends.  You realize your social circle is now completely composed of those who live in your dimension.  Their unwavering companionship is your gift.  They offer you understanding and never question why your foxhole smells the way it does.  Their foxhole is in the same shape.  You dream of the perfect adult birthday present: zero accountability for 24 hours — everyone just leaves you alone.  All you want is to sleep in, work out, play a little golf, maybe get a massage or haircut.  You want to eat something unhealthy, watch your favorites on TV and not be told to turn the channel, clean a dish, pick up a kid or move a trash can.

In your fifties, you begin to dread birthdays like the snap of a latex glove preceding a prostate exam: “This may feel a little uncomfortable.”  You mourn the passing of each year and consider celebrating the day of your birth tantamount to dancing on your own grave.  Some regress, anxiously looking in their life’s rear view mirror to inventory all regrets.  The day becomes an unnecessary black Sabbath of angst and meaningless self-pity.  This may culminate in the rash purchase of a sports car or, worse yet, running off with your personal trainer (Porsche and Viagra ads actively target these unfortunates.)  Yet most of us avoid these irrational impulses and pay homage only to birthdates divisible by five.  We use the “in between” birthdays as justification for binging on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

As you get on in years, you appreciate every birthday you’re granted but prefer celebrating in privacy, perhaps just a quiet dinner with another couple or someone older than you.  You buy all your own birthday presents because you are no longer willing to be gracious.  Hell, it hasn’t really been about you for the last 20 years.  You eventually get to a point where you don’t want to see anyone, including yourself in the mirror.  A great birthday is simply a day when all your body parts obey.

Birthdays follow a cunning symmetry in life.  As an infant, your first few find you wetting your pants and rubbing cake all over your face while unfamiliar people crowd around you and take flash photos.  You really haven’t a clue as to what’s happening or why that fat woman with blue hair keeps pinching your cheek.  You get angry when someone you don’t know sits next to you — that seat was reserved for your imaginary friend.  Then 80 years later life comes full circle and you’re once again wetting your pants, wondering what’s going on and missing your mouth with cake by a country mile.  You still get angry when someone sits next to you as you tell everyone repeatedly that this seat is reserved for Lana Turner.  They don’t listen, so you hurl your cake and it just happens to hit your stuck-up daughter-in-law in the face, who runs from the room crying, claiming after all these years you still hate her.

Now that is a great birthday.

Camp Whencanicomhomma

Summer Camp Personalities
Image by Transguyjay via Flickr

 

Camp Whencanicomhomma

“Hello muddah, hello faddah

Here I am at Camp Granada

Camp is very entertaining

And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”

It was early winter when the phone call came from California.  It was below zero, and the woods seemed to be cracking under the arctic blast that had buffeted us for days. Our then 11-year-old daughter was catching up with a friend and hearing all about a two-week sleep-away camp, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  “Waterskiing, boys, horseback riding, boys, dances at night and…boys.”

Our first child pleaded with us to allow her to attend this amazing adolescent Pleasure Island.  After carefully evaluating Camp Skyline, we realized it was time to push the first chick a little farther from the nest.  In the ensuing weeks, as snow thawed and the first breath of spring hinted at warmer days, she marched around the house with a reckless bravado, crowing condescendingly at her brothers, “I am going away for two weeks this summer and you babies have to stay home.  You had better stay out of my room.  It’s going to be soooo fun without all of you.”  As younger brothers so often do, they looked up, merely shrugged and went back to their video games.

“I went hiking with Joe Spivy

He developed poison ivy

You remember Leonard Skinner

He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.”

The departure date finally arrived.  I served as escort on a transcontinental trip that included a brief stop in Denver where I had to give a speech. My daughter loved the taste of being an only child again and sat maturely in the audience as I delivered my presentation.  That night, we shopped along Denver’s esplanade – walking arm in arm and I was, for a brief moment again, “Daddy.”  The following day we landed in San Francisco, and drove to the East Bay where we stayed with friends.  In a mere twelve hours, canary yellow buses would portage a new generation of girls and boys  to Bass Lake and their summer world of adventure.

Late that evening, there was a tap on my bedroom door as my little girl walked into my room and asked if she could sleep in my bed.  This hadn’t happened for years — I could tell something was weighing on her mind.  The next morning dawned and she looked as if she was deploying for a year’s tour of duty in Afghanistan.  When we first spied the parking lot of idling school buses, her hand squeezed mine.  She sighed and hugged me tighter than she had in years.  As the buses drove off, scores of arms and hands waved from the windows. I spied her circumspect face under a tangle of enthusiastic teens and realized my sparrow was flying right into her first major bout of homesickness.

“All the counselors hate the waiters

And the lake has alligators

And the head coach wants no sissies

So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

 

Now I don’t want that this should scare ya

But my bunkmate has malaria

You remember Jeffrey Hardy

They’re about to organize a searching party.”
 

I recognized all the symptoms that morning – her need to use the bathroom, yawning, and an endless stream of redundant rhetorical questions.  You see, back in the summer of 1972, another young man (who remain nameless) attended High Sierra Summer Base Camp and went three days without eating any food – – claiming he had contracted a rare stomach parasite and needed to go home immediately.  His incredible persistence and exaggerated symptoms fooled all but the most veteran of camp counselors. At the boy’s insistence, the camp reluctantly arranged for the boy to call home where his parents refused to allow him to return before the week had concluded. Once reality set in, the boy was seized by the sudden craving for a hamburger.  Four days later, he returned home with pictures of trout caught in high mountain lakes, strange wonderful stories about new friends and a veteran’s resolve to return to the “greatest camp ever.”

“Take me home, oh muddah, faddah

Take me home, I hate Granada

Don’t leave me out in the forest where

I might get eaten by a bear.

Take me home, I promise I will not make noise

Or mess the house with other boys.

Oh please don’t make me stay

I’ve been here one whole day.”

 

 

Her first letter arrived within two days.  It was hastily written, as if the prison guards might arrive at any time and once again beat the soles of her feet.  “Please come get me, NOW,” she pleaded.  “It is horrible here and everyone is miserable.  It’s hot and there are mosquitoes and the food is terrible and I can’t sleep at night…”  The second postage stamped SOS suggested some form of child slavery might be operating at the camp as she was being forced against her will to bus tables as part of kitchen patrol.  Letter three alleged emotional abuse.  The Camp Skyline website which faithfully posted daily pictures of laughing campers and rowdy campfires – including a girl we recognized – seemed to conflict with her  information.

“Dearest faddah, darling muddah,

How’s my precious little bruddah

Let me come home, if you miss me

I would even let Aunt Bertha hug and kiss me.”

 

As was the case in 1972, the parents held firm and the letters stopped coming.  She was either dead or waterskiing.  We suspected the latter.  The day we arrived to pick her up at camp was emotional — she did not want to leave her new friends or the counselors she’d become so attached to.  “It was sooo incredible.” She leered at her brothers. ” And you won’t be able to come for at least two more years,” They looked up at her, shrugged and went back to their video games.

“Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.

Guys are swimming, guys are sailing

Playing baseball, gee that’s better

Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter.

~ Camp Granada by Alan Sherman

“Oh, The Places You Will Go!” – To The Class of 2016

Cap Toss

You arrived eighteen years ago on a cool April breeze. You were late, as usual. The doctor swore that the ultrasound picture showed you with the umbilical cord connected into your ears.  It was only when he screamed, “bus, bus!”, that you decided to grace us with your presence.

Some of you were our first kids, while others merely slipped into a birth order and immediately began throwing elbows – fighting for food, attention and a sense of identity.  We often watched you when you slept to make sure you were still breathing.  It sounds creepy but that’s what you do when you get handed a complex piece of machinery with no instruction manual.

As infants, you won us over instantly with your first drunken sailor steps, gassy smiles, funny laugh, relentless requests for Goodnight Moon and your ability to look us right in the eye and disobey.  For a brief time we were the center of your universe but somewhere along the way, we were relegated to the status of a distant planet.

In time, we annoyed you.  We hovered – a relentless helicopter thump of windy opinions, emphatic ideas, dogmatic directions, do’s, don’ts – forever laying out an endless highway of guardrails.  You constantly probed the invisible fence line of our values probing for gaps and weak linkages – all the while  hoping for that one weekend when we parents would be dumb enough to go away and leave you at home swearing on a stack of Bibles that you were not going to have a party.  Speaking of parties, we never understood how your generation could be so environmentally correct as to pack up all your beer cans in a hefty bag only to throw them by the side of some random road.  Yes, we bugged you. We were always running out ahead of you trying to remove obstacles or prevent you from making the same mistakes that we made in another time when society seemed more tolerant of the self inflicted wounds of youth.

Our job has always been to love you until you learn to love yourself.  If you don’t believe us, it’s in our job descriptions which are filed down at City Hall.

You grew up during a time of silver technology bubbles, crimson red real estate busts, and a great purple dinosaur named Barney.  We taught you tolerance and tried to explain terrorism.  Life swirled around you at fiber optic speed and as the language of society changed, you adapted faster than we did.  You became our bridge to a new millennium – fluent in a new castrated language called texting. You shared that The Shins were not just bones in our leg. You gave us endless, magical hours by your bedside reading of Muggles, Wizards and Deatheaters.  You were our eyes and ears helping us understand that we were literally the last family in Connecticut that did not possess an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad.  Come to think of it, there seems to be a lot of  “I’s” in that list of essentials.  No wonder the Wii did not get much traction.

We never shared that we have worried for years that you were schizophrenic as you often revealed multiple personalities in the course of a five minute dinner conversation.  You multi-tasked like an Isaac Assimov science fiction robot,  studying, watching Hulu Plus, listening to iTunes, texting and looking at yourself in the mirror – – while still seeming in touch with reality.  Most people of our generation are precribed heavy doses of lithium to prevent this kind of manic behavior and claim to receive their instructions from an alien space craft hovering just over the tree line.

As your parents, we celebrated every one of your prosaic little accomplishments – I mean every one.  We attended more recitals, art shows, scrimmages, games, and microscopic milestones – not wanting to miss or regret a moment of your lives.  We were and are your biggest fans.  You taught us that material satisfaction has a brief shelf life while true joy that arises out of seeing someone you love get what they need, endures.

You are our chance to do things better – to be kinder, more resolute, less selfish and more open and understanding of a hot crowded world.  Speaking of  “hot”, we are so much cooler than you think but we are not allowed to tell you these stories as it violates the terms of our parole.

We live in a time of viral information.   Some of you learned the hard way that a reputation is easier to lose in a small town than your favorite hoody.  But don’t worry. One of the advantages of growing up in a small town is there are fewer witnesses. You may feel that you have not accomplished much but you are already ahead of 90% of the world just because you showed up. “And oh, the places you will go!”

To obtain your degree in Life, you are going to have to attend some night classes in the School of Hard Knocks. Bonehead 101 will teach you that your own best thinking can get you in trouble. Advanced Diversity prepares you for the fact that not everyone shares your values, politics or your belief that “The Hangover” was the greatest film of your generation. Tolerance 201 reveals that some may dislike you the moment they meet you because of what you represent or because you forgot to shower that morning.  Don’t sweat it.  There are 6B people in the world – most of whom do not bathe and who want the same things that you want – happiness, security and 24/7 access to a secure wireless router.

You will need to learn delayed gratification.  Whether you like it or not, everything gets a little harder from here and you will wait longer for things that you would like to have right away.  There’s more competition for everything – education, jobs, and natural resources – – many of the things that you always assumed would be there when you wanted them.

You will have to author your own definition of success so society does not typecast you into a role that leaves you unfulfilled. Your goal is to discover your passion – this is your “avocation”. Your mission is to find a way of getting paid for performing the aforementioned avocation so that we do not have to keep slipping you $20. This “mission” will be hereafter known in paragraph 3, subsection 4 of our social contract as your “vocation”.  The ability to combine one’s avocation and vocation is the holy grail of life. Otherwise, you end up in the insurance industry.  In parental vernacular, we refer to any form of compensation you receive from a third party for services rendered as “getting off the payroll.” That should be our mutual goal.

We are proud of you. We have a lot of faith in you.  You are smarter, more informed, more talented and more resourceful than many who have preceded you. You figured out how to avoid doing all your chores and still get an allowance.  You see the world – not in shades of black and white but as a broad palette of colors and possibilities.  As your revered principal has always told you, every door is open to you from this point.  It’s only through making wrong choices that you choose to close an open door.

We will miss seeing you at Zumbachs and Tony’s Deli. If you want to come back and visit, that would be nice.  We will be hanging out down by the Mobil station.  It is the greatest time of your lives – a convergence of youth, strength, possibility, lack of inhibition and personal freedom.

And “oh, the places you will go!”

The Goblins Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out

hooked
Image by lanier67 via Flickr

Little Orphan Annie’s come to my house to stay. To wash the cups and saucers up and brush the crumbs away.To shoo the chickens from the porch and dust the hearth and sweep, and make the fire and bake the bread to earn her board and keep. While all us other children, when the supper things is done,we sit around the kitchen fire and has the mostest fun, a listening to the witch tales that Annie tells about and the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!

When the night is dark and scary and the moon is full, and creatures are a flying and the wind goes Whoooooooooo, you better mind your parents and your teachers fond and dear, and cherish them that loves ya, and dry the orphans tearsand help the poor and needy ones that cluster all about, or the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!!!

– James Whitcomb Riley, 1875

Summer is just around the corner – it is a time of endless oceans of daylight falling into purple  shrouded twilights  filled with tales of the unexpected.  It was on these warm summer nights, that my brothers and I would camp in backyard “tents” of blankets anchored by ropes and lawn furniture.  We would lay motionless – adolescent grunions on the edge of a shoreline of weak light that ebbed from the windows of our back porch – telling ghost stories.

I loathed and loved my older brother’s perpetually embellished tale of the young couple stranded in their car, while their radio warned of a psychotic killer with a hook for a hand who had managed to escape from a local insane asylum.  It appears that in the 1960’s security was extremely lax at hospitals for the criminally insane.  As well, it seemed that every town had an asylum – along with supermarket, laundry mat and diner.  And what about the hospital’s choice of prosthetics? Could you at least replace a psychopath’s razor sharp hook with a rubber thumb or feather duster?  Not! Alas, the macabre tale  always concluded in some shockingly improbable ironic twist and was punctuated with the shrieking of a girl who turned one last time to catch the sight of her disemboweled boyfriend.

My all-time favorite was a highly politically incorrect story aptly named, “Clubfoot Tom “. Tom was a downed WWII German pilot who had become horribly disfigured when his plane crashed while on a secret bombing run over Los Angeles ( yes, Los Angeles.  My brother failed history ).  He was 6′ 8″ tall with burns over 99% of his body.  After pulling himself from the flaming wreck, Tom lived off small animals and eventually children who would stray too far from their campgrounds.  Tom’s victims would first detect a sort of dragging noise ( footstep – dragging sound.  Footstep – drag ) in the near darkness.  Perhaps one might even hear a deep feral grunt just moments before a massive scarred monster struck with surprising quickness out of the corner of your eye.

Years later I would question several elements of the timeless Aryan cannibal. Just how does a 6’8″ man qualify as a Stuka pilot? What were the Germans bombing in Los Angeles? How come the police never caught the creature – a 6’8″ mass of scar tissue and fingernails is hard to miss. My brother would shake his head and smile sardonically.  He would have made a great politician.  He had a frustratingly impossible to verify answer for everything.  “You’re such an idiot.  The Germans were creating the master race.  Their engineers could make everything. They measured the cockpit of the wreckage and determined the man who occupied it must be at LEAST 6′ 8″.  The Germans were bombing Disneyland as the US was secretly building nuclear bombs underneath the amusement park ( Disney did not open until 1960 ).  As to your most preposterous question, they still have not caught Bigfoot and he probably has an entire family in the forest.” He would stare at me with derision.

One fact was irrefutable  Clubfoot Tom was a cannibal and German and everyone brought up on WWII movies knew Germans ate babies and committed acts of atrocity for sport. Each summer, there were endless permutations of Tom’s havoc, horror and misery.  However,  each curious case would always conclude in the same manner, “…and the last they saw Tom was somewhere right-around- HERE!” This would always be followed by excruciating silence and an almost inaudibly whispered question from the most frightened among us, “is-that-story-true? “  My brother would nod slowly, sadistically turning off his flashlight leaving us only with the seeds of the supernatural and our pregnant imaginations.

The night became eight hours of endless terror.  A squirrel became a sociopathic clown intent on killing 8 year old boys. A cat jumping into the adjacent ivy was the advance guard of a legion of shapeless pitch black goblins. On these evenings, I made it a habit to never drink water ‘lest biology force me to sprint past Club Foot Tom who was most likely lurking in the hydrangeas.  Dawn was a governor’s death row reprieve.  With the sun, an unknown neuorchemical was released in our brains melting the midnight phantoms into morning dew. The next camp out, we would beg for another story.

Years later, I would pay forward my brother’s gifts to my campers as a counselor at YMCA camp in Mammoth Lakes, California. Ok, so there were a few complaints  from parents whose kids came home wanting to sleep with them until they were 18 years old. And yes, to this day, I am still getting in trouble with my wife and other parents when this latest generation of fear junkies beg me for a scary story.  I am certain a psychologist would have a Freudian field day with my adolescent phantasms, but come on, we live in a region rich in legends of spooks, goblins, witches, ghostly apparitions and haunted woods.  A kid growing up in New England needs a regular meal of Washington Irving and Salem Witch Trials spiced with tales of an insane local “Leatherman” ( those hides were not made from deer ) and haunted Indian spirits like the Wendigo an evil spirit the native Americans believed was created whenever a human being resorted to cannibalism.

There are many who have consciously avoided horror movies their entire lives. There are those pacifists who feels Bambi was given too liberal a rating, ( the forest fire scene was terrifying ) and regularly convey deep disapproval of scary stories in a manner that only those who are married and live in the state of disapproval can understand.  (By the way, the state of disapproval is the 51st state in the US.  It has no area code or zip code but it is the largest contiguous land mass in the continental US.  All husbands pass through this place while some have taken up permanent residence.)  It is here that we tell stories to children that scare them into Sunday and where we get chastised for our prehistoric preoccupation with disappearances, murders and grisly discoveries – – all wrapped in a blood stained thick brown wrapper.

Scary stories served useful purposes since the dawn of time.  Most phantasms were invented by authority figures wanting to keep their children from doing something  dangerous.   In England, the green decomposing water faerie, Peg Prowler swam the edges of rivers and lakes, looking to snatch the ankle of a reckless child standing too close to the water’s edge.  Redcaps, who dipped their caps in human blood were found near dark forests, abandoned huts and caves.  The native Americans had good and evil spirits competing for the hearts and minds of children nestled shoulder to shoulder in long houses and lodges.  The greatest story tellers focused less on mayhem and more on metaphor to surgically embed a social guardrail into the brains of their wide-eyed audience.  Perhaps some of us enjoy seeing them squirm a little too much. However, the ghost story is an important stimulant to a child’s imagination.  It helps us to keep our strange mythology alive and to counteract a modern day adolescent digital mind stunted by graphic gratification, electronic realism and politically correct resolution that ensures nothing remains unexplained.

Lets face it.  The real world is scary enough. Clubfoot Tom has become the monster of public debt and the specter of hyperinflation.  The insane asylum escapee is now an ideological terrorist or a faceless pandemic.  I want to hide under my bed just thinking about all these crazy, non negotiable threats that loom out there beyond my control. Personally, I prefer the old stories where there was a sort of implied social contract with the cosmos.  If you followed the rules and you did what you were told, you just might make it out alive.   Don’t talk back to your elders, do your chores and go to church.  Kids who kept their wits about them always seemed to find a way through the scary places.

And remember –  bad things can happen to people and the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out.

Diary of a “Husky” Kid

Pumpkin Head
Image by nickhall via Flickr

My dad used to describe kids like me as “big boned”, “solid” or “husky”.  Even at an early age, the word ” husky” bugged me as it seemed to be a verbal primer meant to gently veil an uglier undercoat adjective –“chubby”.  Just hearing the term “husky” still makes me want to suck in my gut.  Having two older brothers who could consume 12,000 calories in a single sitting and still look like extras in the remake of Angela’s Ashes made me even more self-conscious and in search of a cure for the metabolic deuces that I had been dealt in this unfair game called adolescence.

I took after my German grandfather with a square frame and large head.  It was not actually until the second grade that anyone outside of my family called attention to my unique physiology.  We had moved in our town forcing me to switch elementary schools.  I hated everything about my new school “Valentine”– its’ unisex name, it’s strange children, the long, sterile hallway that descended down to the adjacent middle school and our massive playground that would make an agoraphobic run for cover. I was a big kid for my class – often mistaken for a third or fourth grader. I was desperately lonely for my old friends the first day I was shoved out of the car and into Mrs Stone’s second grade class.

It was less than an hour before I got tagged with my first epithet. “Hey, pumpkin head!” I turned around amused, looking for the person who would be the butt of this funny word.  I whirled to confront two elfin, toe-headed boys – identical twins dressed in white tee shirts, blue jeans and red cloth Keds.  I had the sudden sensation of sea sickness as my twin tormentors merged into a symphony of abuse.  “How come your head is so big?” The slightly older brother by two minutes, David, looked at his brother, Ed. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Another kid wandered over as my blood pressure rose. Soon there were five kids forming a crescent-shaped peanut gallery behind my two hecklers.

I was unprepared and could only retaliate with a pathetic reference to their microscopic size.  Years later, I would regret not coming up with something infinitely more cutting such as “my dog leaves larger %$##@’s than you on our front lawn.” However, it is always in retrospect that we come up with our best retorts – – normally thirty minutes following verbal fisticuffs.

“For a guy with such a big head, you’re pretty dumb.” (laughter)

I can’t recall exactly which insult made me snap but I distinctly remember taking off after the Dillhofer twins. In a scene out of Animal Planet, I was thoroughly confounded by the twin meerkats darting in opposite directions, mocking me and shouting “pumpkin head” A teacher intervened and to my shock, five kids fingered me as the instigator.  On my first day attending Valentine school, I was marched to Miss Pratt’s office fuming and despondent.

After school, I raced home and went into self-exile behind the garage – plotting my revenge on the Dillhoefers, my teacher, the principal and anyone associated with moving their children to a new school.  I sat crying with my dog Max, a mongrel kindred spirit with Rastafarian-matted hair. He was my unconditional shadow indulging me as I sat cursing my fate and physique.

My older brother had been kicking a soccer ball against the other side of the garage when the ball lifted over the tile roof and landed in the ivy near my hiding place.  I did not move to pick it up but waited until my brother turned the corner.  In an act of sheer compassion that only an older sibling could muster, he saw me crying and asked, “What are you blubbering for, fat boy?” Thus began my journey as a husky kid.

When I look back at those pictures now, I see a happy boy who loathed running, could hit a baseball a country mile and who never met a donut he did not like. I grew into a well-mannered, husky adolescent that could navigate his way through most challenges.  I became the anchor man in tug of wars, the clean up hitter, the guy who lifts everyone else to safety but then gets caught because he can’t lift himself over the wall. I never completed a single pull up in the President’s fitness challenge and could not run a mile in less than ten minutes.

Yet, when you are 12, today is tomorrow and also the rest of your life.  Stories and parables about people “growing out of this” and “ overcoming that” are propaganda created by parents too loving to break the inevitable truth to you – that you will one day grow up to do belly flops in a local circus or perhaps haunt some stretch of woods in rural America.  “There he is ‘Big Head’, run!” As the children scream and retreat down the mountain path, the pathetic middle-aged ogre with the hydrocephalus head whimpers and retreats to his cold, midnight granite cave.

As a husky kid, my biggest challenge was clothing.  There was no such thing as elastic. In a modest family, one must wear hand me downs from older siblings.  I do not recall ever having a waist size less than 32” and was perpetually popping buttons, ripping crotches and tearing the seat of my older brothers’ worn corduroy trousers.  The advent of denim prolonged my wardrobe but could not completely compensate for my thunder thighs and U-Haul rear end.  While these attributes made me every coach’s dream on the baseball diamond, I was a tailor’s nightmare and an expensive line item in my parent’s back to school budget.

My greatest fear was removing my shirt in public.  My brothers looked like POWs with washboard stomachs and adolescent hair in all the right places.  I resembled alabaster play dough in process.  I had annoying baby fat under my arms which seem to accentuate my chest.  My brother’s referred to them as “man-boobs” – a term which I did not care for.

Summer meant the beach, public swimming pools, swim parties and sun bathing.  I loathed the fast metabolism jocks with their abs and muscle definition.  They were like relief maps with distinct features – mountains of sinew and flat deserts devoid of flab. I was like Antarctica – a large white land mass with no distinguishable features. I could not exactly pinpoint my biceps, abdominal muscles or quadriceps as they were all well insulated under a protective layer of permafrost baby fat.

Further trauma would await me in the Fall at school when we would invariably square off in basketball requiring one to either be shirts or skins.  To be go skin in middle school PE was to advertise your darkest fears to an audience of unforgiving, insensitive pinheaded boys. To further exacerbate the problem, a game might be held outside in full view of the girls who would be doing jumping jacks or running the way girls who did not exercise often ran – in a sort of headlong tumble as if they were falling down hill.

My gym teacher, Mr Stebbins, loathed me for my myriad efforts to avoid Physical Education.  My conscientious objection to sweating made him angry. He resembled an adult film star with his dolphin gym shorts, tight muscle shirt, blond sideburns and moustache.  He looked at me with sardonic disdain as he picked sides for basketball. “Turpin – skins”.  He might as well have said, “Turpin, naked!” I took my shirt off and quickly crossed my arms convinced from my brother’s chiding that I had bigger breasts than Raquel Welch and most of the girls now circling the playground with their spastic, angular lunges. For the next 30 minutes, I felt like a bowl of jello moving from one side of court to another.  I became lost in my self loathing.

My mother sensed my despondency that evening when I refused to eat dinner.  This was indeed an event as rare as a lunar eclipse.  Oblivious to my plight, I heard my father groan from the other room pleading with God to exterminate every liberal in Congress. My mother noticed I had not touched my Swanson’s fried chicken TV dinner. Her nickname was “Sodium Pentathol” because she could induce a confession faster than a priest threatening you with a hair shirt. My loss of appetite was concerning and she was determined to root out its cause.

She tried not to smile as I dredged up the last few years of frustration with my physique..  She suggested I write the pros and cons of my temporary condition on paper and when done, we would weigh the right and left sides of the ledger for balance.  I winced at the word “weigh” but agreed to consider trying to find the positive side of my weight.  Was there a constructive side?  Where was it?  Could you see it in the mirror?  At last, I agreed to indulge her.  As I pondered the positives of portly, I came up with a few “advantages”.

1)      I would be last to die in a famine or of radiation poisoning after a nuke given my slow metabolism

2)      When my voice changed, I could become rich and famous like R&B singer Barry White aka The Walrus of Love

3)      My size made me a success in any activity that involved as little running as possible. This left me golf pro, baseball player or bakery chef as potential career paths

4)      I was less likely to be injured if ever shot in the stomach by a cannonball at close range

I quickly ran out of pros and shifted to the cons which invariably revolved around girls – the inability to attract or retain one.  I had girls as friends but they treated me more like a brother or a cuddly Cyrano whose physical liabilities disabled him as a threat and relegated me to a role of trusted confidante and romantic go between.

After perusing my list of assets and liabilities, my mother resorted to what all parents do, she told me a series of lies about family members.  To believe her was to accept that my razor thin uncle who could shower in a shotgun barrel had spent his adolescence trapped inside an ugly duckling façade of baby fat.  Others in my family had also been dealt these identical character building cards and had emerged post puberty with the physiques of swans. I took the bait and began patiently to wait – scanning my own horizon lines for any signs of maturation.

True to her word, I did grow over the summer before high school and like a stunted winter plant finally stretched to new heights under the arc of omnipresent sunshine.  My body changed and with it, I moved on to the more myopic and selfish preoccupations of teenagers.  The story had a happy ending as Cyrano eventually got his Roxanne and later became a social advocate – carrying a message to a next generation of huskies whose self esteem seems more under attack from media images that perpetuate an airbrushed myth of acceptance through visceral beauty.

I still see that husky kid.  He comes around from time to time.  He rents a guest house in the back of my mind and occasionally orders a pizza or eats too many cookies.  He does not come with me to the gym and stays home while I go out for a jog.  He loves old movies, hanging out with the family and gets excited when he sees fresh bananas in the fruit bowl because it means Mom has gone to the supermarket.  He’s a kind kid.  Most of all, he understands that words can hurt more that just about anything – – except perhaps, any sport that involves running or a cannonball shot directly into your stomach at close range.

The Illustrated Man

Poster Boy
Image by slagheap via Flickr

Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave. – Samoan tattoo artist’s song

It was a 75 degree January day.  To the east, across rigid mountains and the endless steppe of middle America, a third consecutive nor’easter was decorating New England roof tops with ice dams and eight foot icicles, while schools declared snow days and road crews could no longer find places to relocate frozen winter.

I was tempted to call home but it would only invite derision and accusations of abandonment.  It would be suicide to mention the 80-degree temperature difference or the grey whales in the distance spouting as they migrated down the Pacific Coast toward Baja California. I had paid the extra $8 per day to upgrade my business transportation from a dull Mid-sized sedan to a Mustang convertible.  The V8 engine rumbled underneath while the sun pumped precious Vitamin D into my skin.

It was Babylon revisited as I drove down an upscale Newport Beach boulevard reconnecting with my past life as a newlywed living in an 1100 square foot cottage less than two miles from the Pacific Ocean. As I soaked up my old neighborhood, I passed a new and unlikely establishment – – a tattoo parlor. Normally, one would be more likely to spy LA Ink between Chico’s Bail Bonds and a “We Cash Unemployment Checks” liquor store and gun shop.  This LA Ink was wedged between a Whole Foods and a Kinko’s in an upscale strip mall less than a six iron from Fashion Island.  I felt a sudden surge of abandon that was either brought on by the sun and nostalgia or a spike in blood pressure from the MSG laden Chinese lunch I had just devoured.  Gratefully, unlike the elephant crush of cardiac arrest, this feeling was clearly the soft anxious flutter of forbidden temptation.

As I idled at the red light, an attractive forty-something woman with a rose tattoo on her shoulder exited her Mercedes and entered the establishment. At that moment, I felt a sudden gust of wild hair desire to create a permanent symbol of my life – – a tattoo.

I had watched enough national geographic channel to understand the ancient and sacred Polynesian traditions of the tattoo. To Samoans and Maori people, the body “tatau” is an expression of profound significance and an indication of one’s tribal status, skill and ability.  It is a social birthmark that tells much about the person. On the other hand, I have also watched the TV show, “ Locked Up- San Quentin” where a tattoo might indicate how many people one has killed or a membership within a murderous secret society. It is a tricky thing to get a tattoo and a permanent decision not to be taken lightly.

Each ink emblem is a banner of self-expression and seeks to project to the outside world a physical expression of your intrinsic identity. In ancient times and tribal societies, the tattoo was a symbol of strength and order. It’s slow assimilation into western society came at the hands of adventurers and those seeking to distinguish themselves among a homogeneous society. The sacred nature of the tattoo became corrupted over time by Western culture. In the 1940’s, ink was found primarily on sailors or soldiers and was often etched in the image of a swim-suit model or a cartoon character.  In the 1950’s, delinquents and bikers adopted images of skulls and daggers and in denigrated society’s opinion of the tattoo as an art form.  The early 60’s witnessed an outbreak of hepatitis and blood poisoning that relegated the tattoo and its quirky artists to back alleys and disrepute.

My first memory of a tattoo was Popeye the Sailor Man.  The cranky but irrepressible cartoon mariner had two distinct blue anchors adorning each arm.  When fueled with cans of spinach, these inked images would literally spin and convulse on his arm – – leading up to extraordinary feats of strength.

Popeye was one of the few “good guys” that displayed tattoos.  In the 60’s, a kid was taught to be on alert if he spied an ink blot leaking out from underneath a white tee-shirt or tank top.  One was wary of a bicep that was protected by a dagger encircled by a serpent.  These marks meant membership in secret and illicit societies.  To be indelibly marked with a tattoo was a public admission to being a misanthrope, gang member, wayward merchant marine, non-commissioned officer or the survivor of a lost weekend while on leave in Subic Bay, Philippines. Many first time tattoos involved waking up in a flea-bag motel with a dry mouth, splitting headache and an empty wallet. Upon peeling back the dirty gauze from your shoulder, you discover the receipt for your bender in the form of a screaming eagle tattoo.

In the 60’s, women with body ink were associated with circus sideshows, Polynesian communities or the back seat of a Hell’s Angel Harley.  While rock icons and celebrity tattooist Lyle Tuttle opened the door for free spirits to express themselves with permanent badges of independence, conservative America was not ready to accept the ancient art. I can recall my rush to adult judgment when swimming at my friend’s house and witnessing his young uncle remove his shirt to show a Mako shark rising out of his lower back and twisting toward his right deltoid.  Having recently returned from Vietnam, he had changed and become more dangerous.  Clearly, the tattoo was a warning that I needed to avoid him – – lest he tried to get me addicted to drugs, and tattoo me just before we knocked off the local community bank. I will never forget that shark – it’s diabolical ebony eye focused on me, following my every move – wanting to drag me into the underworld of corrupt, soulless carnivores.

Later in high school, I became friendly with Bruce S, one of the many younger umpires who would call our high school baseball games.  Bruce had been a long-range reconnaissance patrol (LURP) soldier in Vietnam. He had seen a lifetime of carnage in just 14 months of combat.  He was a friendly but damaged soul that had died inside before the age of 25. His arms were adorned with dragons and American Flags.  He proudly displayed his “Semper Fidelis” Marine tattoo which promised: “Always Faithful”. He was haunted by nightmares and sometimes talked to himself, conversing with dead friends and imaginary foes.  His tattoos were badges of honor.  Bruce the LURP was Bradbury’s Illustrated Man trying to give a voice to stories too twisted and disturbing to articulate.  To understand his muscular mural was to understand a boy’s chronological descent into hell.

With Y2K, 60’s stigmas were shattered. Tattoos became in vogue and TV shows like Miami Ink celebrated the human body as a canvas for liberted expression. Generation Y was ready to declare rebellion against the established social order and wear it on their sleeves – literally.

As of 2011,tattoos are officially considered body art and fashion.  A best-selling fictional protagonist is now an anti-social, brilliant force of nature with a dragon tattoo. For girls, it seems the risk of stigma from a tattoo remains but it is more than offset by its perceived statement of personal power.   Yet, prejudices still exist in our society as new and old generations clash over the implications of body art.  Some still quietly judge tattoos as a sign of loose mores and vacuous minds. Yet, for the most,  tattoos are now viewed as less troubled and more tribal. In the end, it’s really all about self-expression.

I turned into the strip mall and sat in my car screwing up the courage to go inside.  I had always wanted a skeleton with a crown of roses chronicling my long, strange trip across forty years of following The Grateful Dead.  I might consider a celestial-looking compass underscoring my belief in God, my managing partner and captain. Yet I remained outside, debating between the imaginary risk of Hepatitis and a hip new tat.  It was exciting and scandalous – – a 49-year-old executive sneaking into a parlor to be branded like a Hereford cow.  Was it my declaration of independence or perhaps, simply a mid-life cry for help?

Perhaps the tattoo would force a unification of my myriad personalities.  After all, most of us lead fractured lives where we are three people: the person we project to the outside world, the person we secretly believe ourselves to be and the person our partner knows.  For many, the Holy Grail in life is simply to be the same person – – all the time.  To become one is to be centered. Perhaps a tattoo would force a shotgun marriage between my schizophrenic persona – blending the citizen, artist and the iconoclast. But what image could reconcile and combine these forces?

I sat in the parking lot watching the front door of LA Ink. A young, goateed man with a knit cap and dark glasses emerged with a long white bandage covering his forearm.  His tank top revealed a complex undergrowth of ink and imagery.

“Does it hurt”, I asked like a five-year old.  My face must have told my total story.

“Nah man, you should do it. Sort of feels like a burn or road rash for about a day.  It goes away.  Depends on where you get it.” He flashed a smile,  “Where the skin is thinnest, expect to grimace.” He disappeared between two parked cars.

I started to get cold feet.  Where in the hell would I put a Grateful Dead tattoo anyway? I’d have to hide it from my wife.  That would be tricky.  Perhaps I was not ready to make my life statement. I kept thinking about his warning, “where the skin is thinnest, expect to grimace.” I unconsciously rubbed the inside of my arm, turned the key in the ignition and drove to my next meeting.

I’m still thinking about it and probably will for a very long time. Perhaps if I finally ever do screw up the courage to get my ink, it will end up a traditional tattoo of a heart. It’s inscription will simply read, “Mama’s Boy”.