The Lost Archives of Captain Hook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Camera pans to a lattice of gloomy windowpane)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty Nest Diaries Part 1: Denial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Finalist Accolade for 53 Is The New 38

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

Postcards Hung on A Distant Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned one last time.

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

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

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

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

To The New Canaan Class of 2014 – Vive Le Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2014, Vive le difference !

 

Buy a T-Rex Book for Someone You Love….

Buy a T-Rex Book for Someone You Love….

We all have that certain special someone in our lives – that angry, disaffected, the world-is-going-to-hell and our President is really an enemy agent kind of friend or relative who needs to either be euthanized like a lame horse or trained to laugh…Arsenic is expensive and unless you live in Oregon, I suggest you give him or her a copy of T-Rex By The Tail or Bicentennial Rex for Christmas or Hanukkah. Hell, get them both books!

At a minimum, do your patriotic bit to stimulate the local economy and buy a copy from Elm Street Books or simply click on this web site’s masthead and help Jeff Bezos make an extra $10k to tip his pedicurist by using Amazon.com.

According to one angry T-Rex, “each dollar you spend helps prime the economy, keeping  people employed and paying taxes – taxes that go to fund do-gooder give-aways, socialized medicine and stitch together a social safety net that is becoming a massive European style hammock….Grrrrrr!”

A few reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT, July 29, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: T-Rex By The Tail (Paperback)

I knew it was going to be a good read, have known Mike for years. All I had to do was get past the first few pages , it was tough, and the rest was easy. I do remember being raised by a “dinosaur” and even see Woody in alot of the chapters. Mike has done a great job of allowing the younger generation to see what child rearing was, and maybe still should be, like . Congrats to a great author, and THANKS !!!!!

5.0 out of 5 stars Not Your Father’s Brady Bunch, July 29, 2013
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: BiCentennial Rex (Tales of The T-Rex) (Volume 2) (Paperback)

This is a fun book. What self-loving Baby Boomer wouldn’t love to take a trip down a memory lane lined with humor and keen insight? And it’s a very fun and realistic trip at that. Turpin captures the charming idiocy of the adolescent male (I apologize for the multiple redundancies in this sentence) growing up in the 1970’s with wit, verve and understanding. The Patton family is much more realistic (and amusing) than that “other” southern California tribe, the Brady’s. Just as clearly, Central Casting could never have managed to find an appropriate Karl (“Rex”) . . . the Patton patriarch – a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a sleep deprived George Patton.

This is a great and funny read, full of smarts and happy memory ghosts. I highly recommend it.

Searching For His Clubhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.  So we are all Republicans?”

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

“What about poor people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.  You sound like a Republican.”

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

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

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

Neither do I…and I work in the industry.

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

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

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

The Diary of A Mad Third Grader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just answer my question, young man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ouch, that hurts, Dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unplugged and Out West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want a Jamba Juice, Dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is that?” I queried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was nice while it lasted.”

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

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

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

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

It is.  It’s really cool.

Bicentennial Rex is ready for your summer reading.

Bicentennial Rex is ready for your summer reading.

In 1976, it was a hell of a time to be a conservative. OPEC embargoes, women’s liberation, Carter, Watergate, the fall of Saigon, Laos and Cambodia as well as sex, drugs, rock & roll tugging at the pant legs of teenagers. It’s indeed a dark ( and humorous ) time in the Force of the Alpha Jedis…Read the book and expand your mind!  Here:s the link !  Pop it in your URL and buy some for friends and family.  Don’t let your kids read it.  It will blow your cover. http://www.amazon.com/BiCentennial-Rex-Tales-T-Rex-Volume/dp/1481200054

Major Tom Comes Back To Earth

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles, I’m feeling very still and I think my spaceship knows which way to go. Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows!) Ground Control to Major Tom, your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom? – lyrics by David Bowie

On the opposite arc of three thousand nights is an ivy covered cottage illuminated like a holiday menorah – with motion and photobrightness coursing through the veins of every room.  A person could find 16 Camelot Close after exiting the Wimbledon Park tube station and walking up a steep, tree lined hill of silent uneven pavement. After a quarter mile, you take a left down a tiny, well manicured cul de sac to the cottage whose energy heat signature was brighter than Chernobyl. “The lights are on in every room of that house every night.  Only Yanks can waste that much electricity!” a British neighbor once joked.

I close my eyes and walk through that door over and over, shouting over a din of activity: “I’m home!”  A thunderous stampeding of bare feet would be followed by the screams, ‘Daaaaaaaady!!!”  I smile as I reminisce about a young family living abroad, balancing moments like spinning plates. Each week, I orbited across countries and continents but my favorite aspect of travel was my homecoming – a hero’s welcome from toddlers who would tumble down stairs like tennis balls sometimes wet and lathered with soap. I was a shining star hanging in a firmament that sparkled with a million possibilities.  After a week of being separated from my family, I would transform into Peter Pan derailing their evening routines, leaving my pirates wide eyed where only an impromptu story of Frog and Toad from the Wind And The Willows might sail my crewman off to the Land of Nigh.  

At times, I would surprise my wife and arrive home early. She would disappear for a moment, returning in running attire, holding a filthy child at arm’s length as if he were a drum of toxic waste –- which he was.  “I’m going out for a run” she chirped.  She would tap on the front door after an hour having found her happy place somewhere along the riding paths lined with horse chestnut trees on Wimbledon Common.  The novelty of my arrival would eventually disintegrate as I was expected to resume my role as an adult and partner assuming my fair share of domestic duties. I preferred to be an accomplice and partner in mischief. Each Monday, I would pack my bags only to return to plunge back into their lives, a father and a husband.

The years moved forward with the determination of a great blue glacier.  We left behind our innocence and our cottage, returning to America.  In time, the tendrils of teenage body snatchers invaded our home turning my adoring confederates into irritable changelings that would chafe at the sound of my breathing.  I went from indispensible deity and story teller to annoying traffic cop and money dispenser.

I now open the front door and fall back into my domestic life with a roller bag pregnant with a week’s worth of travel.  “I’m home!” echoes and falls to the ground of an empty foyer.  As I lament the dying light of my paternal star, I hear a bark of unrestrained joy as the dog sprints around the corner to greet me. He cannot arrest his momentum and comically slides right past me on an area rug and crashes into the wall. 

“He’s home! He’s home!” he announces as he grabs a shoe in his mouth and performs a twisting double axel jump. The family room is occupied by two teen boys hunched over a tangle of electronics and white entrails.  The dog seems incredulous at the indifferent reaction to my homecoming. He barks frantically trying to rouse them from their social media stupors.  “It’s him. He’s back. The silver haired alpha dog — the one that walks on two legs and offers food under the table when the she master is distracted.  Don’t you guys see? He’s here!”

One of my boys reproaches the dog.  “Shut up, Brody!” He glances up and sees me, momentarily breaking away from a text message sent from some slow moving adolescent whose corrupted grammar and syntax, by comparison, could make a village idiot pass for Wallace Stegner. “Oh, hey, Dad. How’s work?” He clearly has not noticed that I have been gone for four days.

My professional life of travel has grayed my temples, herniated an L5 disc and precipitated a predictable transformation where my broad mind and narrow waist have changed places.   But absence also made my heart grow fonder and I came to value every moment I could share with my family. I became keenly aware of the passage of time. I learned to celebrate quality over quantity. I learned personal premeditation to be sure that each minute together had the potential to become a memory. A marriage also benefits from travel. It’s a little known fact that most women marry men for breakfast and dinner but not for lunch.  Familiarity breeds contempt and while our presence is always welcome, we have a way of mucking things up when we are around too much.

My life of travel is now winding down and I am delighted to be waking up in my own bed. Sadly, I have observed with a degree of Harry Chapin irony that I am now coming home to a larger home with fewer people.  Everyone’s lives seem laid out like fiber optic lines. My one-time nuclear family has splintered into a closed social network where I act as a sort of financial server. My teenaged tenants now return home primarily to recharge batteries, ask for money or seek medical attention. I find myself like Brody, the family dog, craving their attention.  I want someone to play catch, go for a jog and rough house. 

Brody senses my restless ambition and watches me, trying to anticipate my next move. My wife seems genuinely excited that I am now entering a phase of my career where I will spend less time on the road.  However, it’s clear, that in my absence, everyone has grown up. I am a mere steward and my job is now to prepare them to forge lives of their own.  It all happened so fast.

As I exit my time capsule, an ancient Major Tom, I am arriving back on earth just in time to watch everyone getting ready to leave – out for the night with friends, away for months to college and into the distant cosmos of adulthood forever.   

At this moment, I just want to be on the ground with those toddlers again wrestling and breaking bedtime curfews. I can’t help but feel like a discarded toy.  I can relate to Brody.  If someone were to hold up a tennis ball and yell “fetch!”, I swear to God, I would chase it.

Road Trip

Cover of "National Lampoon's Vacation [UM...
Cover via Amazon
 

Road Trip

This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest, a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna have so much *%$#%ing fun they’re gonna need plastic surgeons to remove the smiles from our *&^%ing faces. –  Chevy Chase, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”

In the days before emission standards, mandatory seat belts and mini vans, there was the family station wagon.  This V8, 360 horse power gas guzzler was a modern day Conestoga wagon on steroids.  Over two decades, this car and others liked it transported more adventurous families to more domestic destinations than any commercial airline.

A mixture of concern and excitement sparked with the ignition of the Chevy Impala wagon.  Like the crew aboard the Pequod, we knew that with each mile, we would be further indentured to the whims of our Captain Ahab who would not rest until he could safely guide his ship into the parking space of a distant motel.  The trip would span three states, 1000 miles, four motels, eight rest stops and one empty glass gallon Motts Apple Juice bottle.  There were no bathroom stops until we reached our destination for the day.  That’s what the Mott’s apple juice jar was for. ( I am not making this up ) The captain of this craft felt he could make better time if his sailors used a make-shift urinal.  The process of relieving one’s self was a tad humiliating as it involved crawling into the back of the wagon and trying to hit a target the size of a lacrosse ball while being heckled by three spectators.  Where’s the Flomax when you need it?

The luggage was secured to the automobile’s roof rack with a gray canvas cover and rough, hemp rope.  The cargo was tied with angry knots that would have confounded Houdini. The back of the car was a jig saw puzzle of cardboard boxes filled with groceries, clothes and odd supplies.  A sleeping bag cushioned the ground between the boxes offering a place to lay down — if you happened to be a midget or contortionist. On any given day, a child would be unnaturally curled in breech birth position between the boxes.

The anxiety was palpable. It was dawn and in the cool twilight, each child felt ill and out of sorts. Privately, each boy was confronting his “Four Horseman of Travel” – our possessed driver, the eventual need to pee, the endless purgatory of Interstate 5 and the most fearsome specter of all – carsickness. My brother was so afraid of getting sick that he once threw up before we even got out of the driveway.  Dad pumped the brakes harder than an organist during Handel’s Messiah creating a sensation not dissimilar to being on an Alaskan crab trawler on the TV show “Most Dangerous Catch”.

“Dad, can I please put down the window?”

“Go to sleep. I’ve got the air conditioning on.” He directed his comment toward my mother.  Secretly, he would have loved to open the windows to the 100 degree heat but my Mom hated July in Central California.  He did not like what air conditioning did to his mileage.  Every time he filled the car with 35 cent a gallon Shell gasoline, he copiously recorded his mileage on an index card and tucked it back into his glove compartment.  I never understood his fascination with the Impala’s miles per gallon.  One thing was certain, he hated using the air conditioning and always turned on the recycled “economy” air before yielding to our protests about the car’s heat.

My older brother was always first to barf.  He tried to roll down the window but his scrambled eggs hit the top of the windows and sprayed back toward the middle seat. We all screamed and tried to move away as if an alien had burst out of his chest.  My Dad swerved, pulling over to the shoulder of the road, a skidding plume of flying pebbles and dust.  In the rear of the car, my youngest brother had been covered with a towel trying to go to the bathroom in the Motts Apple jar.  In a flash, the bottle spilled a quart of urine onto the sleeping bag.  It was only 11am and the vehicle already smelled like a Metro North urinal during the evening commute.  Yes, we were on “vacation”.  My father looked as if he might spontaneously combust.  About this time, my Mom took control – – taking out a moist wash cloth and paper towels.  She turned around to calmly administer Dramamine and housekeeping service.

We were probably on our way to a cheese factory or perhaps to see the world’s “largest ball of string”, a sight that the AAA Road Guide insisted was a “must see”.  Just the notion of a detour adding time to our journey made me dry heave. The only antidote to nausea was a restless Dramamine induced sleep or some sort of mental distraction.  The boredom of road trips and the constant need to avoid thoughts of motion sickness required us to play games such as trying to identify license plates from different states.  Kids living on the east coast might regularly see licenses from multiple states.  However in a state the size of California, an Oregon, Idaho or even Nevada plate was a big deal.  Hawaii, Maine and Alaska plates were the rarest according to my brother and as such, not a day would go by that a boy emphatically claimed that he had seen the someone with plates whose mottoes read: The Aloha State, Vacationland or North To The Future.

Lunch was at roadside parks or rest stops.  Our rations were PBJs that bled through the white wonder bread to form soggy clotted tarts.  Grapes and cheetos followed, chased by warm Shasta Lemon Lime soda.  We lodged in motels with two queen beds for a family of six.  Kids slept on the floor or in roll away cots.  Within minutes, our room would be transformed into a refugee camp.  We would head for the green, over-chlorinated pool that was usually surrounded by a metal fence and worn chaise lounges.  We swam until we resembled shriveled Shar Peis.  As we crawled from the water, we squinted through chlorine burned eyes that produced an odd chemical halo if you would gaze directly at an illuminated light.

Despite the chaos and drama, we loved these adventures.  My parents understood that these trips were critical building anchors in our restless lives. We looked forward to each summer and begged my parents for more.  Food tasted better on the road.  We slept deeper, read more books, used our imaginations and stimulated parts of our brain that had gone dormant under the prosaic routine of the school year.  These trips were in fact, treasured times together.  The family road trip required patience, teamwork and stamina — all attributes we could not achieve on our own.

Someone once said that “a family vacation is much like love and childbirth – anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia.” Even to this day, driving is still boring. “When will we get there” remains the eternal question from the back seat.  However, road trips are no longer the equivalent of a buckboard wagon lurching across an endless prairie.  Starbucks has replaced Stuckey’s Diners. Interaction has been replaced by a tangle of white earphones and hand held electronic devices. Vacations are silent passages where each person is a self contained entertainment system. Yet, despite its metamorphosis, the family car vacation remains a rite of passage.  As kids mature earlier and earlier and seek to fly the nest, the road trip is an important touchstone reconnecting family and reinforcing the ties that bind us.

As for me, I love our road trips.  Although it was years later that I realized that not every family required their male occupants to relieve themselves in a jar.  And yes, I still have to close my eyes when drinking apple juice.

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
 

Stranger Than Fiction – The Anatomy of a Novel

Jurassic Forest
Jurassic Forest (Photo credit: pixelens photography)

“Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby”. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) 

After years of penning what I considered to be Pulitzer Prize winning memos at work, crafting short stories that nobody read and submitting exaggerated youth sport write ups that lost my reader’s faster than a blind crossing guard, I decided to try my hand at writing a book.

I have to admit that being an aspiring writer in today’s digital age is the like being a portrait artist at a hyperactivity convention.  I have so many pearls to string on an endless necklace of insights but my end customer has the attention span of a flea and reads a maximum of 800 words a day – all of them tweets from Kim Kardashian. Yet, the dream to write burns inside of me like an underground coal fire or perhaps, severe indigestion. For an ex-college jock that took literature and played baseball because both involved the least amount of effort, the dream of publishing a tome is the equivalent of hitting a home run in Dodger Stadium. Most of us lead lives of quiet suburban desperation and do not want our ultimate legacy to be that we were really good at picking up dog poop.  The French, by the way, never pick it up. This gives them more time to drink espresso and write books.

I knew I was facing some headwinds as an aspiring author but was self-aware enough to recognize that I lacked several critical prerequisites – brevity, humility and a good editor. Yet, the voices inside my head continued to offer unsolicited ideas, strange characters and challenges to put pen to paper. My doctor explained to me that I could take medication to make all these feelings go away but it seemed cheaper to write a book since his drugs were not available in generic form and my company had just implemented a high deductible plan.

I began to record in earnest humorous stories about life as a middle child in a four-boy family ruled by a neoconservative alpha male and a new age, psychic mother.  My primary purpose was to use humor to reassure any reader that our lives are trains that run along parallel tracks.  The only normal people we know, they say, are those we do not know very well.  I also wanted to use the book as a warning to anyone under eighteen to not try to outrun the police in your Mom’s Ford Granada.

My photographic memory carefully sorted through the thousand sepia photos which were lovingly cut and pasted into a picture album documenting suburban life in the 1970s – the final days of Jurassic parenting – where T-Rex fathers roamed the hardware store aisles and She-Rex mothers moved in the shadows tenderizing everything before it was fed to their clueless progeny.

In considering the daunting challenge of penning a book, it seemed logical to string together a series of vignettes already written about my family.  I had written some articles for local papers and had penned a few “tattle tales” for family events. Yet, this would not be a “kiss and tell” autobiographical account.  I would be creating a new genre that recalled the days before child protective services felt the need to stick their noses into suburban life. I christened it “swear and yell” fiction.

Just as Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and others insisted on chronicling the Greatest Generation, I felt compelled to raise a glass to The Silent Generation.  They are slowly disappearing and with them we are losing a piece of our own mythology. Today’s “think, but don’t say” society has slowly forced them into hiding and with each sunset,  a generation that found its thrills on Blueberry Hill, is slowly relinquishing their colorful profanity and creative punishments — watching them beaten into plowshares fashioned out of “I messages” and “timeouts”.  The T-Rex father is disappearing into a tar pit of political correctness – and with his passing, we are losing a valuable link to our past and to certain values that used to serve us as important social and moral guardrails.

Yet, to pen a tribute that both serenades and teases the age of Jurassic parenting presents challenges for a writer who often sacrifices tact for the sake of a cheap joke.  The best stories in every family are best served like rich, blue cheese. They require time spent curing and fermenting out of the eye of the public – at least until the statute of limitations is expired. Comedy is tragedy plus time and those who do choose to tattle on their parents and/or siblings do so at their own risk. They may also find a sprig of arsenic in their iced tea at the next Fourth of July picnic.

If one wants to freely write about life and borrow from the past, they must turn to fiction where one can play Mr. Potato Head with each character – mixing vices, virtues and vicissitudes into people that resemble everyone and no one.  Any first work of fiction borrows liberally from an author’s experiences that are disguised behind a primer of odd events, improbable situations and plausibly deniable moments. The problem is that the truth is always trying to wiggle out into the light of day.

The challenge is everyone wants to know which part is true and which  is fiction.  Upon receiving my draft novel, friends and family scrutinized the freshly created fiction like Egyptian hieroglyphics attempting to decipher the story and its characters for hidden messages and personal judgment.  It was particularly justifiable in my case as I had crafted a novel about a family of four boys from Southern California with a conservative father and a liberal, intuitive mother.  Given that art so often imitates life, it is a love story that takes place at a train wreck.

My next problem was getting every family member to read the entire book.  Eventually, everyone came around – asking for a copy of the manuscript and then disappearing into weeks of radio silence as they digested the story and their perceived Doppelgängers.

“Why did you have me saying this?” asked one brother.

“It’s not you.” I emailed back.

“Oh yeah. Why can’t my character have said that?”

“It’s not you.”

“Oh yeah.”

Gratefully, each brother loved and approved of the manuscript but concluded with the same question, “ Have you shown it to Dad yet?” The answer was always the same – “not yet”. I was rationalizing that I wanted all of their feedback before proceeding to the Supreme Court for a final review. The future of my nascent manuscript which now had the working title, “T-Rex by the Tail”, hung in the balance.

“Dad, it’s an anthem to your generation and your unfiltered lens to the world.  You are the last great land mammals in a time of profound social change.”

He listened and said nothing – a long, pregnant pause across three thousand miles of fiber optic phone line.

“Look, just as long as the book does not end with Obama in the White House or taxes being raised on the middle class, I can handle a few lampoons.  We managed to raise you knuckleheads.  My generation can take it.“

He paused and then added. “I’m not sure your generation will be able to take it when its your turn.  But, hey, that book is for your kids to write. And one more thing, just be sure to make the father in the story a Republican – a Reagan Republican.”

Dad, no problem.

Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark

 

When the AARP membership letter arrived, I put it in a pile of misdirected mail and prepared to walk it over to my

The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

next door neighbor, Charlie. Imagine my elation and surprise when I discovered that it was addressed to me. Apparently, I had joined a new demographic.

I had unceremoniously turned 50 in September and had no interest in celebrating the autumn solstice of my life with 100 of my closest detractors. I told my loving wife that a quiet, more personal commemoration would be appropriate — perhaps a new sports car or a trip to Europe. This seemed infinitely preferable to ripping the seat of my pants while trying to do the worm on the dance floor at my 50th fete.

At a half century, I was now entering October country — that shadowy meridian that separates the last sighs of September’s Indian summer of youth and the cooler, denuded November twilight of mature life. It’s in the autumn of our days that the unexpected tends to happen. There are days when I really just want to be 10 years old again with my greatest concern being what I would wear for Halloween. Yet it is 2011, not 1971. Reality is no longer a horizon line road that seems to carry on forever. I felt jinxed.

Perhaps my negativity created a sort of karmic low-pressure system or I may have offended the gods of suburban living because no sooner had I begun to wallow in self pity that the Great Nor’easter of Oct. 30 hit. I was just two days into being Mr. Mom, having been left behind by my highly organized captain who had slipped out of the country to visit our daughter who is studying abroad. The remaining crew was a pathetic ship of fools — the hapless husband, two determined teenage boys, a bulimic Australian Shepherd and a demonic house cat that was now using her urine as a warped form of foreign policy.

When the electricity died Saturday afternoon, I initially smiled as the reassuring switches and subsequent thrum of the back-up generator kicked in. I was the ant who had elected to invest in the future while across the state, male grasshoppers were being berated by their partners for being too cheap or too New England-proud to make provisions for the potential for electrical outages. I admit that the purchase of the generator was a no-brainer. My home lacks a certain charm when there was no running water, heat and ESPN. It quickly becomes a giant port-o-potty.

As parsimonious people, the cost and logistics of burying a 1,000-gallon propane tank in my garden did not sit well with me. I elected instead to go with a smaller, above ground 120 gallon propane tank. Before moving to New England from California, the biggest propane tank I had seen was on a Coleman camping stove — and that damn thing lasted for a year. Surely a 120-gallon tank of propane could run my house for a month. I would later learn that 120 gallons can power a lamp and an electric clock for about a day. Throw in teenage electrical thieves who steal heat while you are freezing, computers while you are blacked out, microwaves while you are drinking iced coffee and take 20-minute hot showers — and your propane and serenity is good for 10 minutes.

As the propane tank slowly drained of its life force, the service company informed me that they could not make it to my house for several days — ensuring that I was now going to run out of power. Apparently, they were running out of power. This led me to the draconian decision to ration our electricity. My energy conservation plan was not well received by the natives. Truth be told, it bugged me. We had bought the generator so we would not have to sit in the dark. Yet, here we were sitting in the dark trying to conserve energy. It felt like the ever-perplexing paradox of having to clean the house before the cleaning people arrive. The dishes piled up. The toilets remained unflushed. By day three, we avoided the laundry room as if there was something living inside the 5-foot pile of dirty clothes.The cat disappeared and I feared the highly fragrant laundry mass had devoured her.

For meals, I resorted to take-out and a Mad Lib bachelor recipe: grilled cheese (you add the plural noun). When we ran out of milk, I suggested to the boys that they use the leftover Diet Coke on their breakfast cereal.

“It tastes good. I ate Corn Flakes with Tab all the time in college.”

The dog kept whimpering trying to convey to me that I was obligated to take him on his daily 5-mile run. I just whimpered back at him. The cat retaliated for my neglect of the litter box by peeing on the floor. I slipped in it. I thought about peeing on her but she was too quick.

Meanwhile, the propane gauge fell like a barometer. We were down to 5 percent. School was canceled which required me to work from home. Working from home is overrated for executives. One tends to lose credibility on business calls when dogs and teens are screaming in the background. With the propane dying, I had to decide whether to eat my children or ship them off to friends who offered to host them while I presided over the death of my generator. Since they are not properly tenderized, I elected the latter and returned home. The propane was now down to 2 percent. Like a lone survivor with a single bullet in the chamber of his gun, I was not sure whether I wanted to use the final wisps of energy to watch ESPN or clean the world’s most disgusting load of dirty dishes. I went for the dishes.

I turned off all the lights, sat in the darkness and ran the dishwasher — the only light on in my property was the tiny red dial indicating the status of the wash cycle. I sat adrift in ebony self pity. When do the boils and lice arrive? There was an odd thrum as the generator gasped and finally died. Outside, I suddenly noticed a light flicker at Charlie’s house. I heard the distant clicking of a computer printer resetting in the den. I cautiously approached the light switch and click, glorious light poured down from the blackened recesses of the heavens. Power was restored. I admit to waiting until the next afternoon (I’m no dummy), to pick up the boys only to be informed by our friends that one of them may have been exposed to head lice.

Yes, Job, there is a Santa Claus. The parasites had indeed finally arrived. One radioactive shampoo, two pick-ups and a reassuring Zumbach’s coffee later, our family was reunited. I relaxed for the first time in days. The phone rang. My Optimum cable, which has been as reliable as a blind man in a bar fight, had come back to life. The TV flickered. There it was — ESPN. A toilet flushed. There was a cheer and then just as quickly, the lights went out. I moaned and turned around — only to see my teenage son smiling as he flipped back on the light switch.

“Just messing with you, Dad,” he said.