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
As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, music and lyrics were used as a primitive Rosetta Stone to decipher a confusing world of mixed messages about love, social responsibility and any form of authority. As a third child, I benefitted and at times, paid a price, for emulating my older brothers. My siblings were accidental role models whose every word and action would be registered and filed in my mental folder of what could be defined as “cool”. Their clothes, hobbies, habits and especially their music were all fair game to be plagiarized, borrowed or stolen to fill the white canvas of my vanilla existence.
At night I would listen to songs that would concuss through my older brothers bedroom doors. Downstairs, in my father’s den, he would grimace at the rattling light fixture, enduring a ten-minute instrumental artillery barrage from massive JBL and Bose speakers.
“Turn that shit down!”
But not unlike the proverbial problem tenant in any upstairs apartment, the music never stayed down for long. I would tap my pencil on the living room table as the electric riffs of Carlos Santana, the whimsical musings of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, bellicose Jim Morrison, the smooth midnight sax of John Klemmer, the precise Eric Clapton, sweet Joni Mitchell, dulcet a capellaof Poco, the confederate militancy of the Allman Brothers, the twisted dirty love of Frank Zappa and a dozen other long haired iconoclasts invaded our home. Each lyric was a revelation and each note pulled you through the looking glass urging you to shed the conventions of your risk averse, soft suburban life.
As a kid, we spent hours listening to music. It was the centerpiece to any gathering and the accompaniment to every significant personal milestone – your first girlfriend, the break up, the epic eight keg party that got you grounded until 1989 or the week spent on Santa Catalina Island. When combined with the raw emotion of adolescence, music left an indelible mark and would forever allow you to instantly relive any moment when the initial chords of a particular song flickered to life. If your tastes took you toward rock or easy listening, you might find yourself quoting Jackson Browne or Kenny Rankin. If you were edgy and unsettled, you would search for musicians who gave words and sound to emotion that was struggling to swim to the surface of your own inarticulate existence. At 13, you were too young to know The Man but you were sure he and all his other controlling authoritarian friends were working overtime to keep you down.
Music was an emotional thread that bound us together in a time of social change. To adopt someone’s music was tantamount to patching into a gang. With the knowledge divined from hours of listening to artists, I formed a bridge to my brothers and to an older tribe of teens who had seen the Garden, tasted it’s forbidden fruit and not spent the rest of the night throwing it up.
Older brothers were a two edged sword. On one hand, they lived to torment you. Years later they are identified in therapy as the genesis of your inability to accept your own body image. Twenty years of being called “pumpkin head” can make buying hats problematic for a guy. Yet, brothers are a blessing and important lines of sight in the shrouded topography of youth. Big brothers were always one step ahead of you in the jungle of life – walking point, vanquishing bullies, explaining life on simple terms and most importantly breaking in your parents with “firsts” — the first car wreck, the first suspension from school, or the first unsanctioned party. Brothers are family standard bearers that help modify the bar of unrealistic expectation.
My eldest brother was exposed to the greatest radiation of hyperactive parenting. He was my conservative father’s first introduction to a world he could not control. A son was a tenured employee who could not be fired for various acts of grab-ass that would normally invite a pink slip at work. My eldest brother Miles was the first to battle with a patriarch who became a parent believing that he brought children into this world and he had a right to take them out of it. By the time my older brothers, Miles and Tom, had gone to college, they had domesticated my parents and left my younger brother and I with guard rails that had lost much of their electricity. By 1976, the year of our nation’s Bicentennial, my parents had initiated the withdrawal of their ground troops, abandoned the embassy and reluctantly afforded my younger brother and I a level of self governance. The youngest, Patrick, flourished under this laissez faire regime while I took full advantage of this new freedom to find trouble.
I owe my brothers many things. They were human shields unlucky in their birth order but more adroit in navigating the more punitive reactions of a loving but determined neocon as he desperately tried to fight the socialistic riptides of the sybaritic and psychedelic 60s. Their bedrooms were wallpapered with posters of peace signs, pot leaves, surfers and Dennis Hopper flipping off America from his hog in Easy Rider. But the posters were chump change compared to the music. The acid rock and seditious lyrics bugged my Dad. It was the clarion call of war – one generation declaring management no longer fit for duty.
One band in particular seemed to offend all conservative, Nixon loving hard hats. This particular San Francisco troupe captured the essence of the decade’s commitment to sex, psychedelic drugs and rock and roll. Their music and lyrics were Trojan Horse vessels disguising drug use and reckless behavior. Their skeleton riddled album covers identified them as The Grateful Dead. Most just called them The Dead.
While The Grateful Dead became heroes to a generation who felt the need to find a new community to follow, the band was viewed by anyone in authority as gateway to trouble. Any group with a name like The Dead must be a nihilistic bunch of freeloading potheads who lived like cockroaches in the lava lamplight of the Haight in San Francisco. The neighborhood was a notorious hotbed of acid, promiscuity and socialism. It might as well have been an annexed suburb of Moscow.
Conservatives shook their heads at this group of druggy miscreants. Their lead singer looked Jewish, had a Hispanic surname and was missing a finger on one of his hands. He had probably lost his digit helping Huey Newton and the Black Panthers make pipe bombs. The other guitarist looked like a deadbeat with deep-set serial killer eyes and a hustler’s dimpled chin. The band exuded waste and consumption. The more the establishment derided the Dead, the more drawn we were to their melodies.
The Dead sang about life – a hardscrabble and entangled existence filled with complicated relationships, drugs, free spirits, lost jobs and abandoned love. They were the mongrel offspring of blue grass, psychedelic rock and gritty Southern blues. It seemed the axiom held true even in our own house – one man’s white trash was another generation’s treasure.
Dead concerts were rumored to be a massive electric Kool-Aid acid test where individuals would alter their brain chemistry in search of a deeper meaning to the music and as an excuse to rotate uncontrollably for hours. The Dead were not just a band, they were a frame of mind and a vibe. The Dead Nation was a series of rippling concentric circles whose core was populated by roadies and travelling Dead Heads and whose outer rings were comprised of posers and people who just wanted to sing the refrain to Casey Jones. The concerts ranged from strange meandering acoustical journeys to raucous benders. The Dead did not always headline their concerts and shared the marquee with some legendary bands and performers. The combinations were often epic and spontaneous. The core of every concert always swirled around the self anointed laity of Dead Heads — a permanent diaspora of misfits and free spirits who would follow the band as they criss-crossed the country and continents.
As fans, we each had our favorite songs and albums. Like Rob Norton in Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity, there was a Dead Song for every occasion and a top ten list for each life moment. A blue circumspect mood might invite Unbroken Chain or Black Peter while an afternoon beach party would not be complete without Sugar Magnolia, Franklins Tower and Eyes of the World. The orthodox Dead Head was more resolute in their obsession. Favorite songs would include dates and venues and invite debate until dawn over where one might have heard the best rendition of Bertha or Momma Tried.
“No dude, you’re wrong. Cassady at the Orpheum July 16, 1976. That was Bobby at his best!”
“Nay. I must disagree, my good man. The Dead opening for Chuck Berry at Winterland 1967. Get real! Garcia earns his nickname, Captain Trips.”
“Excuse-e-moi. Three words. Fillmore East 1970. The Dead and the Allman Brothers.”
“Bonehead, you were like ten when they played at the Orpheum.”
“Listen man, my buddy played me this radical bootleg of the concert. It’s all you need to know…”
Other merry wanderers would delight in producing barely audible bootleg tapes of concerts or quoting obscure songs written by Hunter and Garcia or Weir and Barlow. A Dead enthusiast might know that the song Ripple was as rare as California rain and played a mere 38 times across a fifteen year period from the mid seventies to late eighties.
The goal of every aspiring Dead Head was to work across a dozen weekends to accumulate enough scratch to buy tickets to a concert. A Dead concert was your baptism to the sacred and the profane. It was where the future was waiting. Every kid lied about his or her experiences at concerts. Not unlike the forbidden book of liars known as Penthouse Forum, pilgrims returned from Dead shows with exagerated reports of behavior not witnessed since Caligula’s Rome. Most came for the music and left on two feet. A few ended up discovering some new boundary, which meant missing most of the concert because they were either throwing up under the grand stands, frantic because they forgot they ate some magic mushrooms and could not understand why the moon was now following them or simply worn down from trying to get the phone number of a spinning ballerina named Prairie Flower, a wispy free spirit whose Mendocino commune did not have electricity or an address.
Neophytes attending their first Dead show were appropriately wary and at the same time, naively desperate to seek out excess and in doing so, perhaps they might discover some latent aspect of their personality that could only be revealed in the uninhibited cocoon of a Dead show.
We felt a part of an exclusive but accepting tribe. We were not alone. According to website, Bio, merry Boomer deadheads included an odd mixture of liberal and conservative from Bill Walton, Barak Obama and Steve Jobs to Walter Cronkite, Ann Coulter and white collar executives who were desperate to temporarily escape a predictable life. The ultimate sin was to become what Jackson Brown referred to as a “Pretender” living in the shade of a freeway.
My first Dead show preceded my 17th birthday at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. I found myself wandering among a new breed of people who lived outside my suburban bubble. The natives moved like wild life across the green grass infield, spinning and dancing like human dreidels. Inhibition had left the city limits and in its wake left a visceral Summer of Love zeitgeist. The contact high was both symbolic and genuine as the police and security retreated into a soft, midnight blue perimeter. After eight hours of multiple bands and artists headlined by the Dead, we found ourselves separated from our friends and unable to find our ride home to Los Angeles. We navigated two miles to an onramp of Highway 101 and hung out our thumbs to hitchhike to an agreed gathering spot. Up to this point I had been afraid to take a public bus. A beaten Ford coughed to a stop as four Dead Heads bound for San Diego and the next Dead show welcomed us into their vehicle. A hundred miles later, we spilled out of the station wagon and caught a cab the rest of the way home.
Over the years, I would scour the Sunday Calendar section of the LA Times and would delight when I saw the Dead coming to any venue within 500 miles. I would abandon whatever trappings of responsibility I had accumulated to that point and disappear among the hippies and free spirits. There was never any judgment, only great music. I’d return the following Monday with stories and a sense that I had once again pushed the reset button of my life. I was still truckin’, looking for familiar faces in a sea of joyous humanity.
Over the years, my obligations overcame my sense of adventure and I found myself becoming a father in every sense of the word. I religiously listened to their music but stopped attending Dead shows. In times of intense responsibility, I found myself daydreaming of following the Dead to Egypt – perhaps to climb the Great Pyramids at dawn with Bill Walton and Bob Weir. To follow the band was to live a tumbleweed existence rolling from venue to venue sleeping on couches and park benches. I have friends who have followed artists. But bands broke apart and best friends self destructed as a result of egos and hubris. Very few tribes could replicate the sense of total self-determination that came with the life of a Dead Head.
The band never won a Grammy for an album nor for a song in the fifty years that they had performed for millions of fans. They were finally rewarded a lifetime achievement Grammy but one wonders whether they might ever find the fickle Rock & Roll Hall. They represented something deeper to a generation that was told it must choose between a two road highway system defined by success or want. Happiness was a destination all dividend accomplishment not a state of mind. We did not drink the Kool-Aid but instead looked for door number three.
Just as Jeff Bridges Big Lebowski struck a chord with GenXers who had become cynical to the material finish line that they was unattainable, a generation of Boomers before them were disaffected with the notion that their life’s goal was to meet or exceed some predetermined standard of living. Materialism seemed in conflict with joy. Happiness was getting what you wanted but it had an expiration date that came all to soon. Joy was measured in minutes of freedom and days spent living in harmony with and for others. Your new job description was to break the shackles of angry, Old Testament patriarchs who viewed contrarianism as tantamount to social anarchy. The ethos of the music was about love and disappointment, human frailty, success, failure and the gritty reality that so many people find as they navigate the shoals of real life – a life that bore no relation to the Brady Bunch. Our time on earth was Howl’s Floating Castle. It had no permanence except in experience found in other people and other places. The Dead’s music and lyrics could transform the darkest alley into a calm illuminated fireside with a single ballad.
37 years later across a half lifetime of change, I found the Dead again. A series of farewell concerts would take place over five nights in Palo Alto and Chicago.
On a soft Sunday night, a light San Francisco Bay breeze swept across a tangled sea of gray hair and tie-dyed shirts as a thousand illuminated phones flashed like fire flies in the twilight. I was a spiritual swallow descending on Levi Stadium. I was accompanied by two of my kids, my older brother, his wife and a close childhood friend who called Menlo Park home. Each pilgrim, fueled by nostalgia, came for a different reason. Most came just to once again smell the perfume of their own adolescence and to gather for a final time to celebrate the music of their lives.
We were suddenly all eighteen ( bad backs and all ), ready to leap tall building with a single bound. On the second night of a three night set. 75 year old Phil Lesh, the bassist, and a liver transplant survivor, thanked the audience and rhetorically laughed about their fifty year run.
“Who would have thought?”
My mind drifted to the distinct vocals and guitar work of their missing leader, Jerry Garcia. His spot had been taken that night by Trey Anastazio, lead singer from the band, Pfish. Bruce Hornsby assumed keyboards filling in for deceased Brent Mydland.
Fifty years. They had taken me to exotic places like the Mars Hotel, Franklins Tower and Terrapin Station. They introduced me to women who could wade in a drop of dew while wearing scarlett begonias. They told stories of menacing Dire Wolves and Jack Straw who murdered his best friend. They helped me relate to the mythology of life and love — always encouraging me to “keep on truckin”.
When the lights came on and the last encore note fell to earth, I hugged my brother and his wife and we high-fived. We wandered back across an expanse of green golf course and a thousand memories to our friends. The car was heavy with circumspect middle age fatigue until someone whispered, “Man, that was awesome”. It was indeed special to have been able to say thank you to the minstrels and muses, my band of fifty years — and to experience it with my brother and family like so many tangled roots in a massive living tree of my life. I kept thinking about the lyrics to so many songs written by Robert Hunter. One particular refrain kept coursing through my head. It summed up my life’s journey and the road that still lay ahead:
“…The shoe is on the hand that fits, there’s really nothing much to it. Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s all right. Oh well a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway. And that was all I had to say and it’s all right.
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive. We will get by, we will get by, we will get by, we will survive…”
It’s June – a special time of year when we dump three million fingerling seniors into the ocean of adulthood. As graduates of the “we will love you until you learn to love yourself” school of helicopter parenting, you don’t want more advice. But, you’re going to get it any way. Most of you just want to head west or south to find sun and towns with no police blotters or curfews. Good luck with that.
Many of you were born in 1996, the Chinese year of the Pig. This explains the state of your bedrooms, motor vehicles and your penchant to leave wrappers wedged between pillows on the couch.
When you were born, most of us read something by Malcolm Gladwell or an article in Parents magazine telling us that if we desired high performance outliers, we had to hold you back a grade. As a result, your graduating class is an uneven skyline of red-shirted college students and overachieving youngsters. Some of you have been driving since your sophomore year – a few legally.
When we were born before the Civil War, the mid wife gave us a swat to make sure we would cry. It was also a preemptive punishment for all the stupid things we were likely to do. When you were born, swatting was considered child abuse, so the Obstetrician merely asked you how you were feeling. You naturally did not respond and so you got a few free nights in neonatal intensive care and we got a bill for $900,000.
1996 was a wild year. A computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov later found a website on cheats and shortcuts and subsequently beat Deep Blue. In 1996, a wonderful microcosm of America passed away before you could get to know them. You know their iconic images but you never really felt their physical presence. Gene Kelly was a star who danced while George Burns reminded us that age was merely a number. Erma Bombeck told us never to give the car keys to a teenager and Timothy Leary, well, let’s just say he explored inner space while Karl Sagan came back from outer space to tell us we were not alone. Ella Fitzgerald improvised her way to become the first lady of jazz while militant and talented Tupac Shakur died as violently as the lyrics of his brilliant rap. Tiny Tim was our first trip through the tulips in light loafers.
You were pretty normal. Like all children, you loved the notion of having special powers. We played Pokemon, watched Dragon Tales and Arthur, read Harry Potter and observed you with fascination as you got your first taste of dystopia in The Hunger Games. Up to that point, your idea of dystopia was a house without a pimped out basement and any kind of “because you live here” chores. A few years later, we all went to Washington DC for a family vacation, and got a real taste of futuristic dysfunction.
We tried to stop you from using violent video games but found them so much fun that we joined you on Black Ops missions. You always shot us in the back. When it came to inappropriate movies, it always seemed that you managed to see gory cinema du jour at someone else’s house. We still can’t figure out whose house because we all claimed that we did not allow blood and guts programming — unless of course, your Mom was out for the night and then we agreed that you would not tell about my smoking a cigar if I let you and your friends watch Jeepers Creepers 4.
For many of you, your biggest problems have arisen out of how to deal with a caste system borne out of prosperity. In life, as in nature, the seeds of true character only germinate during the wet winters of personal crisis. Some of you have already felt the sting of broken homes and tragedy. Green lawns and clean streets don’t immunize us from life. Some of you handled your challenges with incredible grace. Through these challenges, you guys cared for and loved each other. That capacity to put someone or something ahead of you is a sign of great emotional intelligence.
Like all of us you don’t like trials and tribulations. Hell, some of you don’t even like the dentist although it is ten times better now than when we were clutching the chair having cavities filled by escaped war criminals. I digress. The fact is you will need to have your fair share of failures and would prefer to avoid them. Woody Allen once shared “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
You are part of a demographic cohort called the “Millennials”. Authors Strauss and Howe educated us that your tribe is characterized by extreme confidence, social tolerance, a strong sense of entitlement and the narcissistic tendency to take photographs of yourself and post them 100 times a day. Like the generations that preceded you, you are regularly accused of being pampered and unprepared. Yet, Strauss and Howe boldly predict that you will become civic-minded and in the face of some yet to be defined great crisis, emerge as a hero generation. It will reassure us if you occasionally start looking up from your phones – if for no other reason than to see the bad guys when they are coming.
We see you seniors like Internet start-ups — full of promise, cool ideas and with a market cap that far exceeds the fact that you still don’t make any money. However, our irrational exuberance for you keeps us investing.
Please understand we do not like regulating your every move as teenagers but we are now being told that we are bad parents if you screw up. The headline seems to now be that life is over if you get caught doing something stupid. Here’s the good news: You’ll recover. America loves a comeback — just ask Bill Clinton who is the only head of state in US history to generate successive budget surpluses, be unsuccessfully impeached, have an affair, stay married, be President and possibly become a First Lady.
You are smart. You adapt rapidly — some of you resemble human thumbs. But please don’t use your handheld devices as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Nothing will ever replace the joy that comes from helping and interacting with other people. Be fearless. The only thing that seems to really scare you is Tony’s Deli being closed on a snow day.
You are a tolerant contrarian bunch that don’t seem to buy into any rigid dogma that excludes others, labels them or requires a greater than thirty hour workweek. You are like the French. You appreciate the finer things in life and prefer to be on vacation when you are not eating, making out or sleeping. You look great in shorts and Capris while the rest of us are putting in 25 watt Blanche Dubois GE light bulbs – ostensibly to conserve energy.
You have a chance to fix the financial mess we have left you but you have to decide between austerity or trying to grow your way out of the hole. Just remember that a strong middle class anchors any society and the true measure of any civilization is how we treat the least among us. Don’t watch MSNBC or Fox, you’ll live longer. South Park is okay. Life outside our bubble is hard – and not every body wants to play by the same rules. Being a humanist is hard. If any of you start a new political party, count me in – especially if it includes eating Nutella crepes and drinking cappuccinos.
Focus on other people because as a rule of thumb, most of you are your own worst enemy. You will spend your lives on a schizophrenic quest for interpersonal unification — trying to merge the tripartite of personalities that is you — the person you project to the world, the person you secretly believe yourself to be and the person your mother knows. The day those three people become one, you will be officially self-actualized or possibly doing thirty days in the can for having the guts to throw a shoe at a public official.
Life is messy, like your bathroom. You will fail and it will seem weird the first time you don’t immediately hear that familiar whump-whump of the parental helicopter on the horizon. You’ll have your Khe Sahn moments, isolated, no air support surrounded by circumstances that trigger all your self-centered fears. It’s in these moments you will find your capacity to dig in and fight harder. You’ll appreciate everything that you truly earn more than what is given to you.
That sore thing on your hand that you once got shoveling snow is called a callous. It’s a badge of honor suggesting that you worked hard. We can tell when we shake someone’s hands if they have ever met a rake or put in a day’s hard work. Although, be careful being fooled by golfers, they have callouses but tend to avoid late afternoon meetings.
If you choose to attend college, don’t waste your next four years. Get your butt out of bed and go to class. It costs about $2,230 per class so go and learn something. There’s more to life than knowing how to make a mean Mai Tai. To succeed in a flat, competitive world, you’ll need the equilibrium of a jet pilot and the guts of a burglar. You acquire those skills in alleyways, not in your room watching six consecutive seasons of Breaking Bad.
Don’t be a victim. I assure you that whatever higher power you worship has the same desire for you that we do — for you to be happy and to leave the world a better place than when you found it.
Just remember, people are not FTEs or headcount, we are souls on a spiritual journey. Everyone has value. Be a rock of predictability and an oasis of empathy. Never take the last of anything. Make your bed when you stay at someone’s house and strip the sheets. Don’t wear shoes without socks. If your first roommate is nicknamed “Lysol” or “Candyman”, ask for a new one. The semester won’t end well.
Remember Rome was not built in a day and that it rotted from within because of weak politicians, foreign wars and the fact that everyone was inside with their air conditioners on and could not hear the Vandals coming. For that reason alone, always keep a window open.
Be French and live well. Study history and remember the famous line of De Tocqueville, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”
Class of 2014, Vive le difference !
We all have that certain special someone in our lives – that angry, disaffected, the world-is-going-to-hell and our President is really an enemy agent kind of friend or relative who needs to either be euthanized like a lame horse or trained to laugh…Arsenic is expensive and unless you live in Oregon, I suggest you give him or her a copy of T-Rex By The Tail or Bicentennial Rex for Christmas or Hanukkah. Hell, get them both books!
At a minimum, do your patriotic bit to stimulate the local economy and buy a copy from Elm Street Books or simply click on this web site’s masthead and help Jeff Bezos make an extra $10k to tip his pedicurist by using Amazon.com.
According to one angry T-Rex, “each dollar you spend helps prime the economy, keeping people employed and paying taxes – taxes that go to fund do-gooder give-aways, socialized medicine and stitch together a social safety net that is becoming a massive European style hammock….Grrrrrr!”
A few reviews:
I knew it was going to be a good read, have known Mike for years. All I had to do was get past the first few pages , it was tough, and the rest was easy. I do remember being raised by a “dinosaur” and even see Woody in alot of the chapters. Mike has done a great job of allowing the younger generation to see what child rearing was, and maybe still should be, like . Congrats to a great author, and THANKS !!!!!
This is a fun book. What self-loving Baby Boomer wouldn’t love to take a trip down a memory lane lined with humor and keen insight? And it’s a very fun and realistic trip at that. Turpin captures the charming idiocy of the adolescent male (I apologize for the multiple redundancies in this sentence) growing up in the 1970’s with wit, verve and understanding. The Patton family is much more realistic (and amusing) than that “other” southern California tribe, the Brady’s. Just as clearly, Central Casting could never have managed to find an appropriate Karl (“Rex”) . . . the Patton patriarch – a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a sleep deprived George Patton.
This is a great and funny read, full of smarts and happy memory ghosts. I highly recommend it.
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?”
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.
It had been raining for several weeks in Rome – a lingering and inconvenient wet cotton hangover of a hard winter. As our plane touched the tarmac, the valley of the Tiber shimmered under its first sustained spring sun. The fields were filled with blood red poppies and yellow mustard. The April air was honey scented citrus, hyacinth and jasmine. Spring had arrived on a smile from Jupiter and an entire nation now rushed outside like children escaping school at the final bell.
Our trip had become a pilgrimage of sorts – my chance to prolong the adolescence of one of my children by escaping to Europe for one week. In a time of tangled earphones, bent heads glued to smart phones and castrated dinner conversation; I was gambling that these trips might yield some precious memories and a chance to sew a few seeds of wonder. The children had almost forgotten what it was like to be lashed to the same mast – an ancient mariner and his apprentice sailing together across a deep strait of water far from the distractions and conveniences of home.
Italy is a brilliant orchestra with no conductor. It is the perfect place to reconnect with those things that may be missing or not visible in life. The heart is always dreaming of the beyond and we often neglect our imaginations and our capacity to fill our days with childlike fascination. Any pilgrimage is about the journey and those you meet along the way. It is a chronology of life moments in which one travels, clearing the mind of the temporal and seeking the deeper insights only found in other people and in places where our significance is subordinated to a greater purpose that pulses around us.
For a nation whose debt makes the USA’s fiscal cliff appear more like a children’s slide, the Italians seem to shrug off the mounting complexities of their excesses and roll their eyes at the austerity measures that must now reshape public and social policy if Italy wants to remain a part of the euro and the European Union. For many, taxes and debt are a way of life and with a government that has the life expectancy of a housefly, it seems useless to spend a sunny day worrying about the horizon line clouds. In a nation where history and tradition are knotted together like tangled kite string, complications are a fact of life. In the last few months God’s emissary on earth, a standing Pope, has resigned for the first time in the history of the church. He is now creating complications, as the government has never had to allocate pension payments to a Pope.
To make matters worse, there is no government because the Italian Parliament cannot agree on a coalition that would be legitimate enough to preside over anything other than a food fight. Gas is $11.00 a gallon but the biggest complaint is over the use of a new Autostrada digital camera system designed to photograph and fine the nation’s notorious speeders. This is a huge problem for a country built on its genteel infidelities. Divorce courts are filling with wives who now have proof that their husbands are cheating on them. Imagine a wife’s surprise as she opens the mail to spy a ticket and photograph of her husband and an unknown younger woman near Sorrento when he was supposed to be north in Bologna on business. Mama mia!
Lazio and AC Roma are wallowing in the middle of the pack of the Italian champions league while hated Juventus has moved into first place. This is of much greater concern than national debt, mounting taxes or the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi who makes Caligula look like a Trappist monk, is still trying to worm his way back as prime minister.
In Rome, we visited new appointed Pope Francis at the Vatican, enduring throngs of genuflecting pilgrims. Like attending a Notre Dame football game, it just all makes you want to become Catholic. It’s like being part of a huge dysfunctional royal family with secrets and power. To be a Catholic is dwell at the feet of Popes, Saints, Templars and martyrs. Rome is a pantheon to rich historical paradoxes – incredible charity and hidden vice, personal sacrifice and hypocritical indulgence, generosity and profligacy. The new pontiff has promised more open leadership. Most like me, are just hoping he might share the remaining secret of Fatima, which might provide a hint as to whether the Jets might make it back to the Super Bowl, or the GOP will take back the White House.
My youngest son and I spend much of our time with my close friend Vincenzo, a Roman native who has been a friend for over fifteen years. He loves his city and speaks in emphatic broken English as he regales us with legends, embellished facts and scrupulous details of battles from his beloved Punic Wars with Hannibal. We walk slowly devouring monuments to pagan Gods, organized religion, imperial empires and theocratic republics. Enzo hesitates after regaling us with stories of the great Roman commander Scipio and his Carthaginian nemesis, the genius Hannibal. He shakes his head and waves a dismissive hand as if to indict the present as a time of profound decline – the nomadic and cynical offspring of a once great civilization. “Incredible.” He blurts out to no one in particular. “Our country is like a beautiful woman with dirty feet. If you want to stay married, you just must learn not to look down.”
Enzo concludes this evening’s dinner with a story that relates to his country’s debt crisis. “There was a man who was plagued by his debts to his neighbor and he could not sleep. Every night, tossing and turning. His wife, annoyed up with her husband’s walking of the floor asks him what is the problem. He looks at her and brings his hands to his face. ‘I have such a big problem. I owe our neighbor so much money and I cannot repay him.’ The wife listens and calmly walks across the room and opens up the window facing their neighbor’s house.
“Signor. Wake up. My husband can not pay you back your money!”
She turns to her husband and smiles. ‘Go to sleep. It is no longer your problem. It is now his problem.’”
It’s that time of year where we throw another 3.2 million high school minnows into the deep end of life’s ocean. It may feel a little crowded for you scholastic sardines, but there’s actually plenty of room to kick, so splash away. It’s impossible to offer any advice this week without acknowledging another graduation speech that got a lot of press this week past as English Teacher David McCullough Jr. had the audacity to tell a group of seniors from Wellesley High School that they were not special at all – even though he had given some of them passing grades in his class.
“Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”
Mr. McCullough went on to frame your demographic reality in stark terms. “So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.“ ( Actually, that’s 6800 people which slightly improves your odds. He also did not mention that at least half of them sleep with a goat at night. But hey, McCullough does not teach math and gave many of these same student an A in his class)
Now some of you seniors are thinking, “I never professed to be anything special and it’s been hours since I have tweeted anything profound. GTFO, dude!” On the other hand, some of you might be elated to think that somewhere you have 7000 twins running around and will try to pull together a Twitter group where you might agree to “meet half-way” for a rave on some South Pacific atoll.
What Mr. McCullough was saying has been on the mind of an entire generation of parents who are now a tad worried about how they have raised their beloved Millennials. Our greatest fear is that we have loved you so much that we have not prepared you for your first fist-fight with someone who has less to lose than you do. While you exude self-confidence, we wonder if we are preparing Pickett at Gettysburg or the French at the Somme. Are we pumping you up with illusory élan or are we infusing you with an energy that will sustain you during the inevitable tough days that lie ahead?
Of course you are cocky. It is human nature that every generation feels superior to those that preceded it. CS Lewis called it the “Snobbery of Chronology”. With the benefit of hindsight, you can judge us more accurately than we can judge you. You have the facts to prove it. You can see every one of our generation’s gaffes, miscues, political blunders, hypocrisies and prescription medications.
The only thing we can do is growl back and warn you that life is not all green lawns and Chinese take-out. Personally, we grew up with parents that hit first and asked questions later. Everything was our fault. If the stock market dropped, we got the belt. We had chores that paid less than minimum wage and had to do them before we could breathe. We did not walk through eight miles of snow to school. We rode our bikes uphill – each way – through the damned stuff, which was pretty tough because a ten-speed does not get much traction on ice.
Our fathers did not attend many of our scholastic events because they off practicing their swearing and forehand spanking stroke. Moms carried the load and still do. Dad’s now help more, hit less and only swear at the MSNBC and after 11pm at night when everyone has gone to bed. We now use “I messages” which seems so counterintuitive since we were told during our youth that it was not about us.
Secretly, we know that you are just like we were — excited, clueless, capable of achieving great things and ready to commit momentous acts of stupidity. We like your style but wish you’d put down the phone and look at us when we ask you a question. We like firm handshakes and a periodic offer to help do the dishes. And here’s the good news: you may not be as special as you think but you have the capacity to be as special as you want to be. Your challenge is to discover what “special” means and whether it allows you to still use your iPhone.
It is natural to be self obsessed when you are young – especially when you can consistently fit into your pants after drinking a milk shake. If we had Facebook when we were your age, we would have posted thousands of photos of ourselves. For most of us, there are only a handful of grainy photos from high school and college that look like something you would see in a “In Search of Sasquatch” special on Nat Geo. Facebook is fine and although we won’t buy the stock — we are too scared to own equities. We do like the portal as it helps us see what you did last night. Unfortunately, everyone else can too including college admissions counselors and your future employers who will note that by day you were a model kid and by night, you were a truck without breaks.
A lot has changed since you arrived in 1994. That year, NAFTA was passed and did more to help you avoid yard work than any piece of legislation since the 1916 Child Labor Act. When you finally started to sleep in your crib, we snuck out to see a movie called “Forrest Gump”. It was about our own loss of innocence as a nation. While the Moms were crying for Tom Hanks, we snuck in to see Pulp Fiction. When you hear us say ” Zed is dead” and then laugh manically out loud, you need to understand that we are still punch drunk eighteen years later from no sleep and that Pulp Fiction just seems to make us feel like life is going to be ok. Your Mom still does not get Quentin Tarantino.
Former President Richard Nixon died in 1994. “Tricky Dick” was a complicated guy – sort of like that friend of yours who you want to like but they keep doing self-destructive things. We lost Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the crown jewel of American royalty whose style and grace taught a generation of women how to be elegant without speaking. She had more Grace Kelly in her pinky than Kim Kardashian has in her entire trunk.
Yup, 1994 was a good year. Mostly because, you showed up. We smiled at every gurgle and wondered whether it was a real smile or just gas. We gladly took you everywhere because we did not want to miss a thing. Along the way, a lot changed. Everything started moving – fast. Economic bubbles burst and the world got hot, flat and crowded. Terrorists showed up. Technology made everything real time and changed the social contract we had with life where we had always just assumed everything would be there when we wanted it and that we could step off of the merry-go-round whenever we felt queasy.
But you made it all worth our while. Yes, that “whump, whump, whump” over you was not a South Central LAPD helicopter, it was us. You were raised under our constant surveillance and as such, had a harder time doing great things or blowing it. You had to mislead you into thinking you had done great things so you would not try to sneak out at night. You did anyway. You learned the consequences of adolescent screw ups were now a lot more severe and that rumors that once moved like molasses could become viral scandals that could ruin your reputation faster than a fat man chasing an ice cream truck.
A few tips;
Make a gratitude list every day; learn how to delay your own gratification; don’t apologize for being American; find a hero; read Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Watch a western and allow yourself to disappear into the mythology of what made America great. Remember there are still endless possibilities in the world – you just may need to ride your horse a little further south to find them. Our gift to you was life, what you make of it will be your gift to us. Be happy. Be kind. Always go for the guy’s nose in an alley fight. Learn how to do a good job even when you do not like what it is you are doing. Clean out your closets. We don’t want to see you on Hoarders. That would really embarrass your mother.
Remember, you are today’s special but every day the menu changes. Stay strong, have fun and don’t ruin your chances for public office at your first college party. We need someone in Congress who will be looking out for us when we are wandering around town looking for our missing bag of string.
Obstacles are like wild animals. They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can. If they see you are afraid of them… they are liable to spring upon you; but if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out of sight. ~O.S. Marden
I grew up watching Japanese monster movies. I always felt sorry for Godzilla. The mutant aquatic invertebrate was hatched out of the ebony depths by a radioactive blast on some distant Pacific atoll and then dragged into a modern world where his might no longer made right. He would be betrayed by ignorant public officials, stung by toy tanks, blasted by model airplanes flying on silk threads and battered by automatic weapons spitting sparks.
Godzilla was misunderstood. He would try to make nice with the humans but regress devouring army men like California Rolls and trashing buildings and karaoke bars with his atomic breath. Godzilla hated change. He just wanted it to be the way it used to be where he was on top of the food chain – superior to all comers — fire-breathing turtles, gigantic moths or monsters that looked like something you might encounter in a public restroom at a bran muffin festival.
Godzilla was, first and foremost, a reptile. He was genetically predisposed to the most basic needs – eating, sleeping, fighting and cruising Tokyo looking for a female lizard. Paleontologists believed he was the dinosaur equivalent of a teenager – which makes sense. He had a big mouth, bad attitude and an inability to compromise. Life was a veritable buffet of visceral pleasures and he was preprogrammed to get his share. He wanted to do the right thing but his reptilian brain kept getting in the way.
After years of Godzilla movies and parenting, I am able to recognize a reptilian brain from a kilometer away. The neurology of how we make decisions is driven by three distinct areas of our brain– the stem or “reptilian” section is the ground floor of our intelligence. It is our most basic analog personality. Reptilians like reality TV and pizza. The limbic or “mammalian” mid-sections of our noggins are characterized by memory, emotion and reflective decision making. Mammalians tend to watch American Idol and cry during “Old Yeller”. If you are really evolved, your cerebral elevator reaches the penthouse of thinking – – the largest and most evolved area known as the Neo-Cortex. The crown of our brain is a less inhabited penthouse of higher intelligence that allows us to make our best decisions and is decorated with really cool art-deco furniture. It is underutilized and as such, feels more like a second home. Those who rely on their neo-cortex can complete the Saturday NY Times Crossword, understand why people watch “The Bachelor” and write Haiku poetry with their left hand.
These three portions combine into something that neurologists refer to as the “triune brain”. Interestingly, most people spend time on the first and second floors – moving between the stem and limbic portions of the brains. Climbing up to the neo-cortex is a hassle for most. There are brief episodes of enlightened thinking usually following a triple latte, yoga or a vegan meal. With the advent of cable television and the internet, many of our mental elevators have essentially stopped running to the penthouse. In fact, in times of geopolitical uncertainty and economic angst, reptilian thinking is making a comeback.
Signs of reptilian thinking are everywhere. When my roof started leaking last winter due to ice damming, the water dripped down the inside of my living room walls and pooled on the roof of the basement where myopic teens played X-Box in between meals and belching. As the water began to seep through the dry wall ceiling and on to the sofa where they were sitting, the boys merely shifted out of the way of the nascent waterfall and continued to play COD – Black Ops while our sofa began to swell like a wet diaper. An hour later, one calmly informed me that the sofa was wet and theorized that the water leeching from the ceiling might be the source.
Reptilian brains are very binary. Any stimulus is typically processed through a single series of highly self serving filters. The reptile asks, “Does this represent a threat to me? Can I crush the source of anxiety or should I flee from it? Should I stay here on the couch playing video games or do I get up and deal with a problem that really has nothing to do with me?”
We seem to be regressing as a society into highly self-centered thinking. Many are reaching the frightening conclusion that the world is a life boat and there are simply not enough supplies to go around. Michael Lewis acknowledges this phenomena in his recent book, Boomerang -Travels in the New Third World, where he describes society at a tipping point where we will either demonstrate greater emotional intelligence and learn to defer our own need for instant gratification or we will continue to on a path toward bankrupting our future. It will come down to character — as a person, community and as a nation.
Reptilian thinkers live for today. They are afraid if they don’t grab something while they can, it won’t be there for them when they need it. The reptile does not want to hear inconvenient facts or engage in a mammalian debate about consequences and moral obligations. Let tomorrow take care of itself. Now is not the time to be German and plan for the bridge 500 kilometers ahead. It is better to be Greek and cross that bridge when we come to it.
The reptile is rustling in the leaves of my brain. I am all that I think about. I cannot wait for people to stop talking so we can discuss my favorite subject – me. I find it harder to reflect on a solution to a problem when I am hobbled by the nagging need to know what’s in it for me. I am afraid. I don’t want to end up on “Hoarders”.
I am not rational but the media keeps telling me that something wicked is coming. I rise from my couch and stagger like a giant monster toward the kitchen – seeking solace in sugar and simple carbohydrates. I am suddenly scolded out of my self-pity. I am reminded by my partner – who relies on her evolved neo-cortex – that fear and faith cannot occupy the same place. She tells me all reptiles can evolve – if they learn to adapt. Eventually, they become mammals – embracing the inevitability of change. The first step towards becoming mammalian is to acknowledge the needs of others.
On this night, Godzilla is asked to take out the trash. As I lumber down the stairs toward the outdoor trash bins, I realize that in removing the rubbish, I am being of service to my spouse and getting out of my own head. Less trash in the house also reduces the probability that I will become a hoarder.
Now if I can just get rid of this radioactive breath….
Aristotle and the Teenager
Aristotle: Plecia, I want a word with you.
Teen: (hammering with a chisel) Just a minute, father. I am finishing up this instant tablet. (more chiseling) There…now, what is it father?
Aristotle: Your mother informs me that instead of attending philosophy class today you were seen exchanging tablets with a group of teens behind the amphitheatre. I have it on good authority that one of these boys was actually a Spartan.
Teen: (clearly lying) It wasn’t me. I was in philosophy, and I did not go near the amphitheatre during the daytime. I know the rules about going close to the rushes.
Aristotle: (raising an eyebrow) Diogenes was wandering in the rushes and watched as the girls and boys were flirting and exchanging tablets.
Teen: (looking guilty) Diogenes? The ascetic? Why do you even talk to that wandering lunatic? He lives inside a clay jar. He never takes a bath. He walks around Athens with a lamp, in the daytime. And even if I was with Spartans, which I was not, they could teach us a thing or two about sticking up for ourselves. They’re much more sophisticated than the Athenian boys, who just wrestle and discuss philosophy and logic.
Aristotle: Aha! So you admit it!
Teen: Father, you are ruining my life. I am the only Athenian girl who doesn’t have a messenger to deliver my instant tablets. Lycestra has her own scribe and her own messenger. You and mother still think it’s 500 BC instead of 300 BC. Wake up. You have no idea what it is like to be the daughter of a philosopher who lives in the past.
Aristotle: (looking perplexed) First of all, Lycestra’s father is an Oracle and makes many drachmae giving advice. I am a mere academic at Plato’s Academy. You know I’m thinking about tutoring that Macedonian prince, but I am not in it for money.
Teen: (sensing an opening) You give everyone the impression you are so progressive with your speeches and your teaching, but you will not even allow me to go to the Pan-Hellenic Concerts at Thermopylae. You preach freedom of thought, but you keep me a prisoner. If you ask me, you are a master of the great hypocrite.
Aristotle: (looking insulted) I cannot believe you would say that. When you wanted to dye your hair green for the festival of Promethia, your mother and I agreed. You wanted a magpie as a pet and as your muse. We let you have the bird even though it defecated all over my tunic.
Teen: (rolling her eyes) Whatever…
Aristotle: I told you not to use that word anymore unless you are contrasting between logical points and are uncertain of the value difference between the two. I find the term dismissive and disrespectful.
Teen: (shrugging) Okay, how about everything you say has no relevance to me and my unfulfilled needs prevent me from relating to you on any level? If I didn’t depend on you for food and shelter, I would denounce my filial relationship with you as some queer joke by Zeus and flee to Troy to become an actress in dramatic theatre. I want my freedom! (stomps her foot)
Aristotle: (clasps his hands and smiles) Fabulous. That is what I am talking about. You have been listening in humanities class. You mentioned all your necessary and possible prerequisites. You are using modal logic. While your opinions are not worthy, they are well stated.
Teen: (screaming) Father, you are not listening to me…(hesitates) I have a date tonight with a Spartan named Leonidas. He has asked me to go to the Pythian wrestling matches and to dine with him afterward at the Aqueduct Grill.
Aristotle: Have you gone to the public fountains to fill the goatskin sacks with water?
Teen: I was going to do that later. I’m still considering whether I want to do it. I heard you tell your student the other day that i
Aristotle: How you twist my words. I meant that you can open to other views without accepting them. It does not mean you should avoid fulfilling your most basic of covenants, your family chores. (The door opens; a dwarf enters and hands the teen a tablet – the dwarf waits and looks bored as the teen smiles while reading the tablet. She hands the dwarf a new message. He leaves.) What is this?
Teen: (looking lovesick) That was from Leonidas. I told him I would meet him when the shadows reach the steps of the amphitheatre.
Aristotle: If you leave this house tonight, you will be grounded for the entire Delia Festival!
Teen: (under her breath) Whatever…
Aristotle: (cringing) There is that word again. It means nothing and torments me like a scratching cat on the wooden door of my soul.
Teen: (changing tactics) Father, how will I ever be independent unless I am allowed to make my own choices? I need a chance to make mistakes, learn and depend on my own thinking. Don’t you tell me every day “Happiness depends upon ourselves?”
Aristotle: (closing eyes and reflecting)…Perhaps…you have a point. But stay away from the rushes and be aware that I am going to tell Diogenes to keep an eye on you.
Teen: (looking excited) Oh, thank you, daddy!
Aristotle: Oh, now I am daddy?
Teen: Yes, and I take back everything I said. Can I have 40 drachmae to buy squid to throw at the winning wrestlers?
Aristotle: Didn’t I advance your allowance through the Festival?
Teen: I cannot remember…please? (She smiles a frozen smile.)
Aristotle: Very well. But get that water from the fountains!
(He hands her coins. The teen runs off into another part of the house. She begins furiously chiseling another message. He picks up a tablet and tries to read it. It is written in a bizarre code of half words and acronyms. He shakes his head and puts the missive down. A magpie flies up, alights on his arm, hops up and poops on his shoulder, then flies away.)
Aristotle shakes his head, “
You arrived eighteen years ago on a cool April breeze. You were late, as usual. The doctor swore that the ultrasound picture showed you with the umbilical cord connected into your ears. It was only when he screamed, “bus, bus!”, that you decided to grace us with your presence.
Some of you were our first kids, while others merely slipped into a birth order and immediately began throwing elbows – fighting for food, attention and a sense of identity. We often watched you when you slept to make sure you were still breathing. It sounds creepy but that’s what you do when you get handed a complex piece of machinery with no instruction manual.
As infants, you won us over instantly with your first drunken sailor steps, gassy smiles, funny laugh, relentless requests for Goodnight Moon and your ability to look us right in the eye and disobey. For a brief time we were the center of your universe but somewhere along the way, we were relegated to the status of a distant planet.
In time, we annoyed you. We hovered – a relentless helicopter thump of windy opinions, emphatic ideas, dogmatic directions, do’s, don’ts – forever laying out an endless highway of guardrails. You constantly probed the invisible fence line of our values probing for gaps and weak linkages – all the while hoping for that one weekend when we parents would be dumb enough to go away and leave you at home swearing on a stack of Bibles that you were not going to have a party. Speaking of parties, we never understood how your generation could be so environmentally correct as to pack up all your beer cans in a hefty bag only to throw them by the side of some random road. Yes, we bugged you. We were always running out ahead of you trying to remove obstacles or prevent you from making the same mistakes that we made in another time when society seemed more tolerant of the self inflicted wounds of youth.
Our job has always been to love you until you learn to love yourself. If you don’t believe us, it’s in our job descriptions which are filed down at City Hall.
You grew up during a time of silver technology bubbles, crimson red real estate busts, and a great purple dinosaur named Barney. We taught you tolerance and tried to explain terrorism. Life swirled around you at fiber optic speed and as the language of society changed, you adapted faster than we did. You became our bridge to a new millennium – fluent in a new castrated language called texting. You shared that The Shins were not just bones in our leg. You gave us endless, magical hours by your bedside reading of Muggles, Wizards and Deatheaters. You were our eyes and ears helping us understand that we were literally the last family in Connecticut that did not possess an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad. Come to think of it, there seems to be a lot of “I’s” in that list of essentials. No wonder the Wii did not get much traction.
We never shared that we have worried for years that you were schizophrenic as you often revealed multiple personalities in the course of a five minute dinner conversation. You multi-tasked like an Isaac Assimov science fiction robot, studying, watching Hulu Plus, listening to iTunes, texting and looking at yourself in the mirror – – while still seeming in touch with reality. Most people of our generation are precribed heavy doses of lithium to prevent this kind of manic behavior and claim to receive their instructions from an alien space craft hovering just over the tree line.
As your parents, we celebrated every one of your prosaic little accomplishments – I mean every one. We attended more recitals, art shows, scrimmages, games, and microscopic milestones – not wanting to miss or regret a moment of your lives. We were and are your biggest fans. You taught us that material satisfaction has a brief shelf life while true joy that arises out of seeing someone you love get what they need, endures.
You are our chance to do things better – to be kinder, more resolute, less selfish and more open and understanding of a hot crowded world. Speaking of “hot”, we are so much cooler than you think but we are not allowed to tell you these stories as it violates the terms of our parole.
We live in a time of viral information. Some of you learned the hard way that a reputation is easier to lose in a small town than your favorite hoody. But don’t worry. One of the advantages of growing up in a small town is there are fewer witnesses. You may feel that you have not accomplished much but you are already ahead of 90% of the world just because you showed up. “And oh, the places you will go!”
To obtain your degree in Life, you are going to have to attend some night classes in the School of Hard Knocks. Bonehead 101 will teach you that your own best thinking can get you in trouble. Advanced Diversity prepares you for the fact that not everyone shares your values, politics or your belief that “The Hangover” was the greatest film of your generation. Tolerance 201 reveals that some may dislike you the moment they meet you because of what you represent or because you forgot to shower that morning. Don’t sweat it. There are 6B people in the world – most of whom do not bathe and who want the same things that you want – happiness, security and 24/7 access to a secure wireless router.
You will need to learn delayed gratification. Whether you like it or not, everything gets a little harder from here and you will wait longer for things that you would like to have right away. There’s more competition for everything – education, jobs, and natural resources – – many of the things that you always assumed would be there when you wanted them.
You will have to author your own definition of success so society does not typecast you into a role that leaves you unfulfilled. Your goal is to discover your passion – this is your “avocation”. Your mission is to find a way of getting paid for performing the aforementioned avocation so that we do not have to keep slipping you $20. This “mission” will be hereafter known in paragraph 3, subsection 4 of our social contract as your “vocation”. The ability to combine one’s avocation and vocation is the holy grail of life. Otherwise, you end up in the insurance industry. In parental vernacular, we refer to any form of compensation you receive from a third party for services rendered as “getting off the payroll.” That should be our mutual goal.
We are proud of you. We have a lot of faith in you. You are smarter, more informed, more talented and more resourceful than many who have preceded you. You figured out how to avoid doing all your chores and still get an allowance. You see the world – not in shades of black and white but as a broad palette of colors and possibilities. As your revered principal has always told you, every door is open to you from this point. It’s only through making wrong choices that you choose to close an open door.
We will miss seeing you at Zumbachs and Tony’s Deli. If you want to come back and visit, that would be nice. We will be hanging out down by the Mobil station. It is the greatest time of your lives – a convergence of youth, strength, possibility, lack of inhibition and personal freedom.
And “oh, the places you will go!”
The sudden pivot in the meteorologist’s forecast was highly displeasing. Having already missed an opportunity for a white Christmas, I was now fixated on our imminent four day mini-break to Orlando where we would achieve some old fashioned family time with our increasingly oversubscribed teenagers.
Boxing Day was spent sluggishly cleaning up from Christmas and nervously watching the weather channel as the predictions of a winter nor’easter were confirmed. A perfect storm of airline emasculating, zero visibility winds and tarmac snarling snow had descended over the entire region. With snowfalls predicted to entomb the tri-state with levels of up to three feet, I started to understand why native Northeasterners have come to loathe the romantic notion of a late December snowstorm. The woods may be lovely, dark and deep but snow means no flight out to find some heat.
Our flight had an ETD of 6am Monday — during the peak of the storm. The question was not whether our flight would be delayed, it was simply whether we would be able to book a later flight once the airline came clean and cancelled our morning escape to Florida.
At 11am Sunday morning, Flight 987 was officially cancelled. The 800 number provided by the airline was overwhelmed to a point where any ticket holder tenacious enough to cling to the queue was being asked to call back later – and then uncerimoniously dropped from the call. Logistical certainty was in short supply on this day. We continued to badger the airline to determine if a late Monday or early Tuesday departure might salvage our best laid plans.
After finessing our way to a customer service operator ( I do not recall how we found this trap door – perhaps we indicated that we had “ special” needs ), we were told that we could get five tickets to Orlando late Wednesday evening or early Thursday morning. The understanding agent did not seem to divine that this new itinerary would afford us less than 48 hours in the Sunshine State. Given that 30 of those hours would be either dark or with temperatures less than 50 degrees, I was skeptical of a decent return on investment.
The agent offered to reschedule our return but this would require rebooking my tickets for an additional $150 penalty per ticket. I did some quick napkin calculus and determined this vacation would cost us around $100 for each hour of potential sunshine. I could save $3500 if I bought everyone their own jar of Vitamin D and three free sessions at Savage Tropic tanning salon.
We peacefully euthanized our vacation late Boxing Day afternoon. Our teens temporarily mourned the passing of our trip the way one might lament the death of a distant relative. After five minutes of self-reflection, they shifted their attention to the living and began rapidly pinging their friends for sleepovers, parties and any other forms of nocturnal activity.
My wife would require more time to recover from our vacation’s sudden cardiac arrest. She was facing the grim reality of an entire week with a thoughtless quartet of the undead – creatures of the night who would conspire to overrun her best efforts to keep a clean house, avoid endless meal preparation and hourly carpools.
As a stay at home vacation Dad, I am at best, a weak surrogate and at my worst, a human sinkhole of mixed messages undermining my family’s carefully negotiated routines and boundaries regarding curfews, chores and accountability. I am like wildlife in the garden – a novelty that is glimpsed at dawn and at twilight but rarely during day. It seems only mad dogs, Englishman and the unemployd venture into the noonday sun.
Instead of pushing everyone to bed at an early hour for a December 27th 5am departure, we stayed up until 2am playing poker and watching old movies. Our cancelled flight allowed us to dive into a week of freshly fallen snow and a clear calendar. I quickly took the cue from my teenagers and began a slow transformation into a vampire.
My first mistake was suggesting the XBox 360 be moved upstairs from the basement into the family room so we could enjoy a big screen version of FIFA 2011 soccer, NCAA football, Tony Hawk Underground and of course, the culturally enriching Call of Duty – Black Ops.
Most of my “black ops” activities are confined to eating unhealthy food late at night and frivolous purchases on eBay. However, I was now being recruited into an adolescent band of brothers whose motto was “leave no man behind – alive.” Aside from their annoying habit of shooting me in the back for sport, my boys drew me into hours of constant violence in some of the poorest nations around the globe. Other than learning how to operate an automatic Famas gun, throw a ballistic knife and engage cross-bow explosives, I was beginning to show signs of PTSD and was not improving domestic policy at home.
Later that evening, my wife realized the open week was not trending in her favor. As she laid down the holiday rules and regulations ( she had just discovered that the dog had urinated by the door because none of us had noticed his whimpering ), I stood by her side with genuine disdain for my teens. “Look guys, mom is right. You need to pull your weight around here.” She turned and looked at me incredulously. “Really?”
Falling in with these slacker vampires had been so easy. It was reminiscent of college — late nights, sleeping in until noon, occasionally venturing out to a movie, ordering take out, and groaning with exaggerated inconvenience when asked to do anything where there was nothing in it for me. It was an amazingly rapid metamorphosis from parent to parasite.
Two days into my Twilight regression, I had my moment of clarity. I glanced up to survey a hoarder’s landscape of squalor – – Cheez-It and Goldfish boxes, empty bottles of diet coke and empty Nutri-Grain wrappers. The evening before, I had stayed up until 3am to finally defeat my eldest son in a barn burner football game that went into double overtime. The dog was asleep on the couch while two teens sat in a digital stupor on separate computers watching reruns of Modern Family on Hulu. To the shock of my fellow primates, I pushed the “save” button on my latest game of NCAA Football. I was now into my third season of the Dynasty segment of NCAA Football 2011. I was no longer a contributing member of society but I was virtual head coach of the USC Trojans. I had also developed an almost stenographer type dexterity with my fingers – using what felt like 12 digits to work every A – Z button on the controller.
My son glanced up, “Dad, where are you going? You just unlocked a new level in your game” A new level?, I thought. I was suddenly very afraid that if I descended deeper into this artificial gridiron matrix, I might never return. I had to escape from the underworld of the undead and return to the surface of the living – and I had to leave right now.
I showered and shaved, glancing at the unimpressive image of a pale, blood shot-eyed baby boomer. I emerged into the crisp air and sunshine of a gorgeous winter afternoon. I had to get away from my home and drive – – anywhere. My car seemed to guide me into town where the sidewalks were likely to be alive with adults and responsible people – presumably others who had missed their flights or did not live in a sarcophagus of teens.
Suddenly, I spied my wife’s car and spotted her moving slowly down the street – presumably window shopping for post holiday bargains or a family practice attorney. “Hey” I said breathlessly as I caught up to her. She was pleased to see that I had escaped the iron grip of the Lost Boys. We lingered over a latte fueled lunch and made plans for the new year.
The afternoon was dying and yielding to purple twilight. Suddenly, the streets were beginning to empty. The human beings were slowly returning home to prepare meals, read books, rest by a fire and contemplate the next days and all of its possibilities. A knot of new shadows appeared outside our café window. Six young vampires wearing cotton hooded sweat shirts, shorts and high top sneakers were moving across a frigid street on a restless roll. Two boys yelled into the cell phone of a third as he held his phone back and shoved the nearest vampire. They had all temporarily abandoned their computers and XBoxes to roam the town in search of a source of entertainment.
I felt a Call of The Wild stir as I surveyed the aimless, rudderless spill of hormones as they splashed on to the sidewalk. They would soon end up at a new safe house, retreating by the light of day, waiting for another restless night. My blackberry suddenly buzzed and a message appeared from the world of adults – – a misguided colleague choosing to work the graveyard slot between Christmas and New Years. I put away the blackberry and returned to my partner and to our plans.
I smiled realizing that I did not make a very good vampire. Vampires did not understand the difference between living in the moment and living as if there was no tomorrow. Vampire’s consider the past an empty bucket of ashes, the present an endless horizon line road and the future as something that happens to other people.
My wife and I were thinking about the future, about our new year and about things we needed to do to make a difference. I felt my chin, freshly cleared of a 48 hour goatee of vampire stubble. They had almost pulled me in – into their red pill world of artificial intelligence and the insatiable craving for constant distraction.
I had survived my time with the Lost Boys. As I sipped my coffee, I wondered how it was possible that I had ever survived the purgatory of my own youth. For all of its challenges and responsibilities, it was good to be above ground and among the mortals ready to take on another new year.
Retired Marine Master Sergeant Thomas Rexwood recently found himself battling an enemy he could not vanquish – the economy. “The damn melt-down caught me with my scivvies down,” growled the decorated veteran of the Korean War. If you ask me, this whole thing is the Chinese and Russians up to their old tricks. They could not beat us on the battlefield so they figured out a way to lend us a rope so we could hang ourselves.
An active 85 year-old father of six and grandfather to fourteen, Rexwood remains an avid outdoorsman –choosing to hunt with the bow and arrow. “The kill is purer with a bow. It’s silent and is the way God meant for us to kill game – and we always eat what we kill, don’t we?” He is nodding in the direction of his eldest son who shakes his head and retells the story of how his father made him eat a city pigeon that he had intentionally shot with a BB gun. “Dad always said, you kill it. You eat it. I just did not think he meant it. That was the most disgusting thing I have ever put in my mouth. But, I never shot anything again with that gun.”
Known as “T-Rex” to his friends and family, the former cop, youth football coach and bar owner needed a job. His popularity among some of his town’s most prominent senior citizens, including the editor of the local paper, landed him in the most unlikely of all positions, giving advice to a new generation of parents on how to raise kids. T-Rex’s conservative, stone-aged style has been nothing short of a sensation in a time of political correctness and kids secretly screaming out for tighter boundaries. Overnight, T-Rex has become the bane of teens and a blue print for beleaguered parents. His throw-back style handbook on parenting, We Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists has sold over 4m copies and earned him a syndicated column where he dishes out advice and insults to the emasculated and overwhelmed. His column is simply entitled “Hey T-Rex”.
“Hey T-Rex, my children are consumed by electronics – iPods, cell phones and personal computers. They literally shut themselves out from the world. They do not come when I call them for dinner, they text their friends at meals and routinely charge music to my credit cards. On family trips, we don’t talk, they just plug in and check out. Signed No Respect
Dear No Respect, go to the hardware store and purchase a rubber headed mallet, a hand towel and a plastic hefty bag. Return home and place the hand towel over the cell phone. Grasp the mallet and smash the towel. Repeat the procedure ten times – all the while smiling at your child and not breaking eye contact. Sweep the shattered electronics into the hefty bag. Next, cover the iPod with the hand towel and ask your child if they would prefer to come to dinner the first time they are called or watch you repeat the procedure. T-Rex
Hey T-Rex, I am pretty certain my 10 year old son is viewing adult images on the Web. What should I do? He seems to always erase his history file and browser cache but I know he is up to something. I recognize he is curious but this is so inappropriate. Gratefully, For Adults Only
Adults Only, go on eBay and order some back issues of the 1971 National Geographic magazine – Lost in Borneo. Give it to your son with the appropriate pages of naked natives earmarked – and tell him that this is how real naked people look. Explain that the first pornographic postcards were Moulin Rouge dance girls created by the WWI French army to be distributed to their soldiers – trying to show them there was actually something worth defending in Paris. It actually had the opposite effect. The entire French First Army deserted on the same night and tried to force their way into the burlesque show. Explain that when the Visigoths invaded Rome, the Centurions did not hear them coming because they were looking at pornography. Tell him his brain will turn to jello and that he will end up in an insane asylum. Lie to him. Scare him. Humiliate him. Rome rotted from within which is what he will do if he is not careful. First the body parts fall off and then you begin to act like a rabid dog. You know what the authorities do with mad dogs don’t you? T-Rex
Hey T-Rex, My son was caught playing with matches and started a small brushfire in the back of the school. My husband says it is no big deal but I am terrified he could have burned himself or something else. He was experimenting with gasoline, aerosol cans and paint thinner. He could have ended up in the ER with third degree burns. Still Simmering, Burning with Anger
Dear Burning with Anger, build a fire pit in the back yard away from low hanging trees and brush and let him play “Arson Welles” all he wants. Tell him to burn everything he can lay his hands on – starting with all those stupid video games that he no longer plays. Explain that fire is like a wild horse and that it can be domesticated with practice and a garden hose. Teach him to make a molotav cocktail. In the event he is ever involved in urban warfare, it will come in handy. Leave him inside the ring of fire as long as he wants. If you do not catch him playing with matches, then you should be worried. He is a boy and boys are genetically predisposed to pyromania. T-Rex
Hey T-Rex, I cannot seem to get my kids to do any chores around the house. I made the mistake of giving them an allowance but they rarely do the jobs that they are purportedly paid for. They are constantly without money and when they have it, I am worried they have stolen it from one another or from my wallet. When I grew up, I had to get my chores done (for free) before I could leave the property. Is it me or is it this generation? Yours Truly, Spineless
Spineless, sorry it took me a while to write back. I was THROWING UP. I don’t even have to meet you to know who you voted for. Allowance is a form of welfare. Cease and desist all forms of payment. That safety net you think you are constructing will become tomorrow’s hammock. Create a list of chores and attach a dollar value to each task. Set a 40% escrow account for all monies earned to help them fund their college education. This gets them used to the notion of no free rides and perhaps they will then value a higher education more. It also gets them used to being in higher income tax brackets which are here to stay. Inspect every job they perform and do not pay for poor performance. Hide your wallet and loose change as a “broke” teen is a criminal in waiting. Tell them if you hear that they are “mooching “ money off of their friends, they will be fined $ 20 to help fund a charity that helps people who really want to work. T-Rex
Hey T-Rex, My son had the audacity to call a cab the other day to pick him up at our house. Apparently, I was not home fast enough for him to meet his friends in town. Aside from the optics of a 14 year old kid calling a cab, whatever happened to walking? Am I out of touch or is he living in a bubble that needs to be burst? Signed, Got Two Legs?
Hey Two Legs! You are missing something else. It is not you who is out of touch, it is your shoe – the shoe that should be wedged up that lazy maggot’s rear end! Cab? Tell “lazy boy” that he has a carbon footprint bigger than China and that by wasting fossil fuels, he is probably putting an RPG into the hands of some sick, twisted fundamentalist who is right now aiming at a US serviceman. He might as well be pulling the trigger, the little ingrate. Have him go upstairs and draw 100 pictures of the American flag and write underneath the star spangled banner: “I am not a traitor, I am not a traitor.” In this man’s army, soldiers first learn to walk. While you’re at it, why don’t you walk to town with him just to show him that you know the way. T-Rex
Hey T-Rex, my son is bringing home straight A’s but he has no social life. He spends the day on Xbox360 with a head set talking to, for all I know, other shut-in teens. He only comes out of his room at night and to go to school. I recently read about a Japanese teen that did not leave his room for two years. When we suggest he get out and see friends or play, he shouts that he just wants to be left alone. Do you think he is depressed? Nervous Nelly
Dear Nelly – Depressed? Not leaving his room for two years? What kind of boot camp are you running? Sounds like another soft palmed, thin wristed, “mommy, I don’t get enough vitamin D”, suburban pencil neck, pansy. There is a Marine recruitment center off Old Norwalk Rd. I suggest you go down to the basement and grab ol’ Boo Radley and sign his rear end up for the Corps. If we don’t make a man out of him, we will at least show him how to operate heavy machinery with night vision goggles. Tell him that the real world begins at 18 when he is no longer able to live like a leech attached to your apron strings, home cooking and healthcare coverage to age 26. Throw him a party and then throw his clothes out on the lawn. Now I’m depressed! – T-Rex
Thomas Rexford can be reached at T-Rex@Jurrasic.com. His second book, What Did You Just Say? – Ten Ways To Discipline Your Kid is due out in time for Christmas.
Gimme head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
Hair, Broadway production of Hair
In 1968, America was in the throes of social anarchy as legions of bearded beatniks advocated making “love not war”, recreational use of drugs and “stick it to the man” rock and roll.
In this time of clashing values and political unrest, a suburban nuclear family could gratefully distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. The anarchists fit a certain profile: they wore head bands, John Lennon glasses, Birkenstocks sandals, and jacket vests with stitched patches of peace signs, marijuana leaves and phrases like “hell no, we won’t go”. Yet, the simplest of litmus of tests for identifying a potential sh*t-stirrer was – – the length of his hair.
I was taught to fear hippies – although there were very few of them in my neighborhood. Some of the older kids in our town had started to wear their hair long – really long – over their ears and down past their shoulders. They looked like girls from the back and seemed to act like them – eschewing sports and always talking about not wanting to fight. If China ever invaded the US, they would probably run away or be too “high on drugs” to even here the tanks coming. They would congregate next to the Shell station or sit on the playground wall after school, smoking cigarettes and shaking their heads as if they were debating how to best blow up City Hall.
The best defense against these social parasites was to unfurl one’s own flag to the world. As an ex-military man who now pledged his allegiance to the economic and corporate vitality of America, my father felt it was important that his young boys conveyed his values to the world and served as a living example of a home that had kept proper priorities. His gesture of solidarity to the conservative values of Richard Nixon came in the form of a buzz hair cut.
Once a month on a Saturday morning, my brothers and I would be spirited from our beds to Kenny and Poncho’s local barber shop – a nexus of conservatism and a great source of personal reaffirmation for my father who often felt besieged after a workweek spent in the chaos of a world tilting on its axis. As he paraded his four young sons into the four chair, microscopic closet reeking of cologne and talcum powder, a crowd of elderly patriots would momentarily lower their newspapers and nod in approval as my father’s young recruits were declared fit for duty and processed for the future of America.
The door opened with the tinkling of a bell that was hooked above the unstable glass door. Heavy set Kenny would glance in our direction as he shaped a perfect line the neck of a guy that could have been a stunt double for Jack Webb. He would look down at us and shake his head with feigned irritation, “You’re late Marines.” I am not sure Kenny had actually ever served in the military. From the smell of him, the only action he ever saw was on Friday nights at the local High Brow Lounge. He sported a white barber’s smock that seemed incongruous with his slicked back Elvis pompadour. You would never catch this oiled manatee without a Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his wry, Southern mouth.
To Kenny and my father, long hair was the enemy. It was a sign of unrest and confusion. Long hairs were like small Asian countries that if allowed to develop unmanaged would blossom into havens of communism, disease and corruption. Having short hair was a sign of a man’s willingness to subordinate himself to a higher purpose. The disintegration of the Army started with a private’s hair, soon bled into personal hygiene and ultimately tore down the very fabric of society – setting us back to the Stone Age, a dark, godless time of venal pursuits, hand to hand survival and no Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
The actual buzz cut took very little time to administer but garrulous Kenny would prolong the experience – asking you questions intended to embarrass you and make the old men chuckle. “So you got a girlfriend, sport?” I could see his reflection in the mirror as he looked over my shoulder and winked at a man facing me in the bullpen. “Well, – – sort of.” I stammered. I lied, not wanting to invite further ridicule. “Sort of?“ Kenny exaggerated his reaction. He poked his comb in my direction, “Either you do or you don’t!” My father laughed as Kenny’s brother, Poncho urged him to sit still ‘lest he cut his throat with the straight razor. My father sighed as Poncho covered his face in hot towels and slapped Club Man Lemon Lime cologne on his cheeks.
The finale of our shearing ritual included having your neck and face wiped with a brush covered in suffocating talcum powder. The clean up rarely liberated all the severed hairs as they invariably fell down the back of your shirt and clung to your neck causing you to itch until your next shower. I would sit and watch Kenny repeating his rite of passage on three other brothers – their hair tumbling down to the ground like Communists mowed down by a machine gun.
My father would linger at his barber shop man cave – talking politics leavened with rich, blue swear words to underscore his contempt for the state of Congress and the state of the nation. My older brother would ease drop on the heated conversation as if somehow he might pick up vital intelligence that would help him better conform as the first child in this house fashioned out of rigid political timber. We would roll out of the barber shop like four freshly minted tennis balls, unconsciously feeling our heads and neck where the peach fuzz of our adolescent hair remained as a silent reminder to our lifetime commitment to this man’s military.
Yet, this was a time of profound change and it became inevitable that shifting social mores and restless adolescence would invade the prehistoric oasis of Kenny and Pancho’s barber shop. It was a normal autumn Saturday with football in the air. My father was facing a day of sidelines, yard work, and a briefcase bulging with office work. I had once again volunteered to be the first to be sheared and had sat down to the October edition of Sports Illustrated when I distinctly heard my older brother give Kenny instructions on how to cut his hair. I was certain I had just heard him say, “Just leave the side burns”.
There was a moment of palpable tension as several older men lowered their newspapers. Perhaps Poncho might have even nicked my dad’s throat with the straight razor – – a miscue as rare as Southern California snow. Kenny looked confused. He hesitated and looked over at my father who had started to rise in his chair. He looked at my brother who simply stared ahead – aware of the consequences he was now setting into motion.
“Since when did you start telling Kenny how to cut your hair?” my father growled. “Since today. It’s my hair, you know.” It was like watching a car wreck. I could not peal my eyes away. The entire wall of men and boys was now fixated on the barber, the crew cut father and his eldest son. My father made the next move. “Just the usual, Kenny. Right son?” He leaned back slowly closing his eyes as if the issue had been nipped in the bud. My brother burst with a second countermanding command, “That’s fine, Kenny, but please leave a little more on top and keep the side burns.”
I could have given him the Congressional Medal of Honor that day. He always had it the toughest as the eldest of four boys. He would spend twenty years breaking in my father and mother to the ways of a world that was counter-cultural to their stiff upper lip, depression era childhoods. At this precise moment, as a lanky adolescent, banana republic teenager, he was declaring his independence from the tyranny of our Saturday morning buzz haircuts. It was a beautiful moment.
As with all initial brave acts of independence, his “hair” rebellion was ruthlessly suffocated. Kenny administered a number 4 razor trim and my brother walked into the autumn morning as clean as a cue ball unable to fit in with a growing subculture of friends whose parents had consented to shoulder length hair. However, the damage was now done. Within months, my brother was getting his hair cut at a “stylist” – a compromise tendered by my mother to prevent more social unrest. My father had little use for “stylists” and for any haircut that cost more than $5.
That Independence day was the first fracture in our family unit and perhaps portended the changes that would ultimately consume Pancho and Kenny. As the 70’s washed over all of us, kids let their hair grow free and the faithful knot of conservative barbershop warriors died, drifted or disappeared. Kenny and Pancho’s closed and was replaced by, of all places, a hair salon called “The Gates of Spain.”.
Today, my father’s hair is still cut like an Augusta fairway. He remains a handsome and confident character, a successful retiree who is delighted to see short hair make its comeback. He smiles as he takes his daily walk at the beach and sees the hundreds of shorn young men looking as if they just completed officer’s candidate school.
Deep down, he knows the majority of them are “slackers” who would not know a hard days work if it were to kick them in the rear end. Yet, perhaps the short haircuts are a harbinger of a return to simpler things and better times. Perhaps, we are on the edge of a new epoch when a person’s value is measured not by his poison rhetoric or critical condemnation of his country but by the content of his character and whether or not he creates something of value – – like a good old fashioned buzz cut.