Second Finalist Accolade for 53 Is The New 38

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

Road Trip

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

Road Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Blackfoot Whispers

AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River
AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River (Photo credit: Doug kueffler)

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.  ~ Norman Fitzroy MacLean, A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 1981, I worked as town boy and ranch hand for a small guest ranch tucked into a great stand of cottonwoods, aspen and pine at the confluence of Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers.  I was given this gift and, like so many that are wasted on the young, didn’t fully appreciate it until the experience had been swept from my hands like so many granules of sand. 

Montana is a rugged place.  The Blackfoot valley was carved by an ice flow fist formed in the Pleistocene period by a great glacial lake.  In this less traveled part of America, people live in respectful harmony at the foot of mountains that can be penetrated only by logging roads and on horseback.  Some places in the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness remain untamed and only tolerate those who choose to pass through.  And for the experienced angler, the Blackfoot ranks among the Madison, Frying Pan, and Fire Hole as sacred places to practice the mystical art of fly-fishing.  

I had fished for perch, blue gill, sunfish and trout in local lakes as a boy, but never held a 9 weight switch of graphite rod that whipped neon line out across the water in a great rolling sine wave.  My first day on the river, I watched spellbound – the last of a fisherman’s line hesitated, silent in the air, his monofilament leader attached to a microscopic artificial caddis fly that would alight gently on the ripples.  As he stripped his line toward the shore, a flash of brown and red shot through the green riffle of water as a brook trout rose to attack.  There was no bait, no shrill cry of victory nor creaking of a rusty reel.  There was only sweeping wind, a splash and an ancient struggle as the angler landed a three-pound, 18-inch fish on a silk thread capable of snapping once two pounds of pressure had been applied. 

Netting the fish was as much an art form as the act of hooking him.  Yet, within minutes, his creel was opened and the fish was deposited to be served within two hours for dinner.

The Blackfoot is a magnificent and reckless flow of water that cascades 137 miles down from Rogers Pass atop the Continental divide — some of the wildest land in the contiguous United States.  Fishing consumed my waking hours.  My friend and I called it “Stalking Big Daddy.”  Although chores on a working ranch never truly conclude, on brief breaks and on our one day off a week, we would ride rusted bicycles down long dirt roads through sagebrush and chaparral, bumping along with fly rods, creels and nets.  We carried an insect net fashioned from a metal coat hanger and cheese cloth, which we would sweep beneath stands of cottonwood along riverside reeds, catching insects and hoping to match our fly patterns to the color of the captive bugs. Big Daddy was the term we used to describe the biggest fish in the river – a fifteen pound brown that lingered in the shadows of the cut river banks near our ranch. 

Our heroes that summer were curmudgeonly anglers who would don neoprene waders and work the river’s edges and runs — whipping home tied, wet and dry flies with the precision of a lion tamer.  As the trout would jump, tail and sip at the confederate lures, we would stand at a respectful distance trying to emulate the effortless bullwhip strikes of line that would extend across the water, dropping flies into places no larger than a postage stamp.  Big Daddy was there, watching us from underneath a shelf of rocks and branches. 

Fly-fishing was our new religion and these ancient fisherman had become our reluctant clergy.  They would shake their heads in condescending contempt as we shook at branches and tore at tree limbs that had snagged our back casts.  A retiree named Bud patiently taught us roll casting and how to read a dead drift. It seemed an innate obligation that they pass on this knowledge to the hungry neophytes who caught more leaves and sticks than trout.  John, a local rancher, scolded us to understand that each day the river changes, so you need to know how the water will guide and place the trout you want to catch and release.

We became part of that river, spending hours wading its shallows and sand bars, often stopping to watch an osprey, eagle, moose or white-tailed deer hesitate for a moment then melt back into the deep forest.  Each trout that rose to our fly had the potential of being Big Daddy.  If you were fortunate enough to hook a phantom brown or cagey cutthroat, your fishing partner would stand in silent envy, torn between not wanting to acknowledge your superiority as a fisherman but tortured by the need to know what fly pattern you were using.  “Black ant?” he would say nonchalantly, looking down river.  “You say something?”  I would smile, and then finally confess to the Wolf Hair Caddis. 

Twilight lingers forever in the Montana summer.  The dry, warm air slowly rises, giving in to small pockets of cool air that rush like phantoms down across the river at night.  The “early evening boil” was something to behold, as the trout would once again rise to feed.  We stood, silent silhouettes, swaying rhythmically with dark cords lashing quietly against a pink and purple sky.  Suddenly it would be dark, and we would pedal by moonlight to the cabin we shared with wranglers who worked the corrals and led the guests on horseback rides. 

Late that summer, I arose at four to take guests to the airport for an early morning departure and saw what looked like great wavy spikes of white light rising into the sky.  Dawn was still an hour off, but these beautiful sheets of light moved and swayed – blown by some magic celestial wind.  It was my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, and it is burned into my memory against the jagged skyline of the great Swan range.

As I get older, many of my senses have dulled while others have seemed to sharpen.  I sometimes stop to just listen as the wind rakes pine trees that guard the adjacent woods. I can almost hear the dry Montana wind sweeping down  pushing the tops of the pines, and shaking cottonwood and aspen leaves until they quake with exhilaration.  The river moves tirelessly and is restless, always eager to lean somewhere beyond the bend of an adjacent dirt road.  The Blackfoot is like the course of my life, creating new banks, patterns and places for others to hide and watch. 

The river provides for everything that lives along it and ministers to anyone who takes the time to listen closely to its sacred theology.  It flows back to me at night in my dreams.  I am always standing in the river, the weak morning sun streaming over the trees.  Just out of the corner of my eye, a faint riffle and flash.  A trout rises.  I roll a cast across the sequined water, squinting to see if I landed the fly on the narrow run that eddies into a deep pool.  A large brown belly turns as the white mouth gapes for the fly.  It is only eight in the morning and the Blackfoot whispers to me that there is no rush.  We have all day.   

The Day Rick Saved the Stars and Stripes

Photo by Jim Roark Rick Monday grabbing the Am...
Image via Wikipedia

Ah, October. Autumn arrives and with it the final leaves of a 4860 game baseball season begin to fall as the competition is reduced to twelve teams across six divisions and two leagues.

As a young man, our four-boy family ritual of male bonding included trips to Chavez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Elysian Fields neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the center of the baseball firmament – the sacred home stadium of the Dodgers. Each season, our “boys in blue” would battle the hated San Francisco Giants and the despised Cincinnati Reds for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and the traffic of sporting events as they equated to a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and filthy public urinals. Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was usually located in a very rough neighborhood.

Despite his misgivings, he understood the need to allow his boys to experience the electric atmosphere of a stadium packed with rabid fans and to witness young men who had so honed their athletic talents that they were afforded the chance to play Major League Baseball.

It was 1976 – America’s Bicentennial year – and it seemed everyone was declaring their independence. I was a surly freshman in high school and could not create enough distance between myself and my father. His existence annoyed me. Every syllable he uttered skidded like fingers on a chalk board. I cringed at the way he ate, talked and even breathed.  It seemed that his principle job description was to control my life.

My mother had already crossed this hostile adolescent desert with my two older brothers and suggested to him that we spend some father-son time at a Dodger Game. On this sunny April Sunday, it would be a chance for my Dad to see his beloved Chicago Cubs and for me to reconnect with a more innocent time of Topps baseball cards, the chance to catch a foul ball and if we were lucky, a nostalgic glimpse of a time when my Dad was viewed as mentor instead of tormentor.

We exited the Pasadena freeway on to Academy Road, winding through a densely populated, graffiti-scarred neighborhood of chain linked front yards. Run down homes built in the 1930’s were perched on steep hillsides with laundry on clotheslines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in the spring breeze. Like clockwork, my Dad told me to keep my eyes peeled. I suddenly remembered why I did not like going to sporting events with my father. The toughest person we actually saw on the street was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.

“Careful, Dad, that grandmother might have a gun”, I said sarcastically.

At 16, I had begun to routinely challenge my father’s conservative peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity. Dad had finally come to recognize when I was baiting him and ignored the provocation, writing it off as the price of being together. He was a creature of habit – robotically driving the exact route, to the same parking area, to the same space– a location furthest from the stadium and closest to the exit.

My father’s greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when Los Angeles’ great social insurrection occurred. He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure was always building. One day, urban rebellion would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest. When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of peasant farmers with pitchforks decided it was time to take back California. It was a thankless time for my Dad. I had spent the last year challenging his views on everything. I complained about the distance we had to walk to enter the stadium. He walked slightly ahead – eager for a coke and the cool shade of the concession area.

I was impressed as we were directed by an usher to field level seats off the first base line. The Dodgers were expected to be decent this year and showed some promise with a line-up that featured Billy Buckner, Ted Sizemore, Ron Cey and Steve Garvey. The meat of the Cub lineup was Rick Monday and Bill Madlock.

As we sat down, I suddenly saw a different side of my father that afternoon as he began to rattle off statistics and insights into his favorite Cub players and the pitching match ups.

“The Cubs will probably lose. They have no damn pitching this year and there’s nobody to support Monday and Madlock. Those cheapskates the Wrigleys are too tight to pay for good players. They are no better than that idiot GM Jim Finks for the Bears who won’t get them a decent quarterback to help Butkis and the defense out. Monday hit .267 with 17 homers last year. He is hitting .365 now and is on fire. Steve Stone was 12-8 last year but his ERA was too high at 3.95. But, the numbskull likes to give up the long ball”

My Dad wasn’t even looking at me. He was like a little kid playing with soldiers, chatting away to invisible friends. He spotted Roger Owens, the famous peanut vendor.

“Michael, remember this guy? He once threw you a bag of peanuts between his legs over ten rows.”

“Hey Roger!”

He held up some money. The popular redheaded peanut vendor smiled and pointed at my father. He was four rows over and six rows up. Owens whirled and shot a bag of peanuts behind his back. Dad snapped them up as they flew above his head. There was a smattering of applause as he handed $4 to a daisy chain of fans who passed the money up to Owens.

The actual game was a nail biter that was likely to be decided by one run. However, the game proved to be a mere sideline to the drama that unfolded in front of 25,000 fans.

Heading into the bottom of the fourth inning, a fan and has 11-year old son leaped on to the grass of the outfield. Initially met by raucous applause, our cheers quickly turned to boos when people realized their intentions. My Dad turned to me and said, “Hey, give me those binoculars!” I heard him swear as he hissed, “that son-of-a-bitch Communist is trying to burn an American flag!” As he said “Flag”, I saw Cub outfielder, Rick Monday, rush past the protestors and grab the flag. The stadium went berserk and cheered even louder as security roughly escorted the agitators from the outfield. I looked up to see an entire small town of Americans standing and cheering.

“Dad, can you believe that?”

I looked over and saw that my father was almost crying. He was clapping his hands so hard that they must have hurt. “Atta Boy, Monday!” Dad was one of the last people to sit down as the game resumed. In his next at bat, Monday received another standing ovation from the grateful crowd.

The scoreboard flashed, “Rick Monday, you made a great play!” Dad stood again applauding the young Cub player who as it turned out, was also an ex-marine. I was about to tell him to calm down and sit but somewhere in the back of my adolescent brain, I knew this was the right thing to do. I stood up beside him and started clapping again. He turned to me and shouted over the din, “That’s what makes this country great. It’s patriotism. It’s goddamn patriotism. Don’t ever forget that!”

I suddenly felt a surge of pride.  It was an awkward feeling to feel pride for being part of something bigger than you when you seemingly had made no contribution.  But, I had witnessed something special. I was proud of Rick Monday, proud of my Dad and proud to be an American.  In the thirty-five years that would follow, I cannot not recall a time when I saw my father so spontaneously happy.  It happened as fast a lit match – – a hero deciding to take action.  I realized action is what heros were all about – normal people, that in an instance, stopped watching and started moving.

The following year, Rick Monday was traded to the Dodgers and helped lead them to two division pennants. He became a permanent family favorite and a role model for a new generation looking for reliable points of reference in a rapidly changing society.

Under a Neon Moon

As Long As There's Light. . .
Image by Cayusa via Flickr

Under a Neon Moon

When the sun goes down on my side of town, that lonesome feeling comes to my door. The whole world turns blue. There’s a rundown bar cross the railroad tracks. I’ve got a table for two way in the back where I sit alone and think of losing you. I spend most every night beneath the light of this neon moon… If you lose your one and only, there’s always room here for the lonely to watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams of a neon moon .  Brooks & Dunn, “Under A Neon Moon”

A guy can’t really ever become a dude until he’s suffered from his first broken heart. There’s nothing quite as humbling as getting your guts surgically removed by an indifferent female and left like road kill by the side of some country road. Yet, when life decides to perform open heart surgery, there is no better anesthetic than an “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” Hank Williams song. We seem to find solace in country music – the ballads and their lyrical, maudlin bellyaching . It’s just nice knowing that some poor idiot has passed through this place before us.  The music helps us get outside ourselves and discover our capacity to cope and eventually  rejoin the long gray line of “dudes”.

I still recall the dull ache of a certain July 4th weekend when my budding college romance was gutted by 2000 miles of summer. My dream job had landed me in Missoula, MT as a day hand working at a dude ranch while my love interest had parachuted into a Wall Street investment bank internship.  As I lived out the first few weeks of my Norman McLean fly fishing fantasy, she was slowly being seduced by the Big Apple and her 35-year-old boss.  It was clear after a succession of emotionless and increasingly distant phone calls that she had lost interest – – finding someone older, wiser and with an expense account.

I remained sullen for days, wallowing in self-pity. I was even more annoyed that my martyred behavior was going completely unnoticed by my bunkhouse mates –  a silent sinew of cowboys who rarely spoke or paid much mind to me unless I asked them a direct question.  Always keeping their own counsel and not wanting to meddle in anyone’s affairs, these emotional tree stumps saw nothing abnormal in the fact that I had been dumped – or as they like to call it, “bucked off a filly”.

The cowboys finally tired of my melancholy and set about “fixing me” – – admitting me to their midnight fraternity which convened each evening over beer and music to share emotional war stories and malign the opposite sex.  We were an odd remuda of misfits that had at one time or another been a passenger on love’s ship of fools.  I had been stung hard and my friends were concerned about the possibility of a rebound relationship.  While I had managed to offend most of the cabin girls at the ranch with my college boy arrogance, the town of Missoula still abounded with willing small town girls and the occasional divorcee with two young kids that worked as the check out girl at the local Super Save.

I was told to abstain from “wimun” for thirty days and report each night for therapy. The diagnosis, prognosis and treatment always concluded with the prescription: “Take a few beers and call me in the morning.”  Physical therapy required me to join five rail thin dudes in filthy jeans and cowboy boots as we crammed into the cab of a rusted Ford pickup.  We would drive along the ancient Blackfoot river at dusk – –  seven dusty miles to a dimly lit roadside bar where we would listen to music, drink and shoot pool.

The juke box played only country and western music.  In Montana, The Doors were things you walked through.  The Boss was someone you worked for and the Grateful Dead were war heroes.  Music and life lessons were taught each night by professors Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Anderson, Ronnie Millsap and Tanya Tucker.  The lyrics seemed written just for me and each night, a different surgeon would seek to suture my eviscerated self-esteem. Each ballad sought to assure its listener that life was not over but in fact, on the cusp of being lived more deeply. I was neither the first nor the last person to ever allow a female get the best of him.

The wranglers with whom I shared the bunkhouse fell in and out of love at the drop of a ten gallon hat.  A guest/ranch hand affair had a shorter life expectancy than a lightening bug in a room full of flypaper. Each week was a soap opera with an all too predictable script. Introduce one new single female guest. Stir in the ingredients of ten wranglers. Watch as a doomed relationship heats up between successful Wrangler A and a clearly out-of-his-league female guest B. Their romance percolates like cowboy coffee over a morning campfire and heats up at BBQs by the river and under the spell of crimson sunsets.

There was something in that fresh Montana air. Perhaps it was the glimpse of a less complicated life or the sudden absence of confusing urban materialism that stirred some latent homesteading gene in these city girls – driving them into the arms of these weathered, sinewy, reliable, monosyllabic cowboys who worked like ants – lifting ten times their weight, stringing a mile of barbed wire, and still having the stamina to dance all night to the Cotton-Eyed Joe.  Tragically, the perfume of moonlit nights and high alpine sage faded into the musky reality of earthy communication, limited professional prospects and a parochial inability to know the exact location of Atlanta, Georgia.  The red hot romantic fire would quickly smolder. All the while, a distant transistor radio would sit illuminated in the bunk house window playing classic country music that hung like smoke of a distant forest fire.

In the summer of 1981,  country music became forever burned into my musical liturgy.  I instantly identified with the tortured baritone of Keith Whitley, a gifted rising country star who chose fame over family and drank himself to death. His penchant for self destruction battles with his self awareness and self effacing humor in each song.   In ” It Ain’t Nothin”, Whitley is “lower than well digger’s shoes, knee-deep in a mess of blues.” In his haunting signature song, “ I’m No Stranger To The Rain “, Keith seemed to understand that he could never escape his own demons. “I’m no stranger to the rain. I’m a friend of thunder.  Lord, is it any wonder lightning strikes me ?  I’ve fought with the devil, got down on his level, but I never gave in so he gave up on me…”

I never forgot those feelings or the promise that I would recover to love again. There was integrity in the music and century-old, oak understanding in the lyrics.  Above all, this music was all American.  The songs were anthems to our way of life and dedicated to everyday men and women enduring hard knocks and taking risks.  Whether the singer got his or her black eye from a lost job, broken marriage or lost opportunity, every song seemed to revolve around having the courage to carry on. The songs also remind you to celebrate the little treasures of life –butterfly kisses at night with a young daughter or remembering to live your life like you were dying.  Country is not about serving yourself first, it’s about putting service ahead of yourself – – to your country, family and those less fortunate.  They are ballads of the broken and the brave. They preach personal responsibility and perseverance.

Country captures what it is like for those who live within the noble lines of life. It’s music fills a void in many of us. It teaches the value of family, and the simple pleasures that arise out of hard work and sacrificing for something that is worth the wait.  It serenades those who live, love and labor — and celebrates our authenticity and nationalism while lamenting our broken dreams, imperfection and disappointment. It’s all part of our personal life lessons as a people and as a country.

In the end, Americans are as durable as denim. When we get bogged down by our own divisiveness and self pity, we occasionally need to be kicked in the ass – perhaps in a song. The lyrics are sharp and to the point — tomorrow’s another day and nothing happens until someone starts doing something.  And don’t forget to give it everything you got. After all, that’s what it means to be “country strong”.

Scent of An Imposter

A bottle of Old Spice cologne.
Image via Wikipedia

 

Scent of An Imposter

Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. – John Steinbeck

When I was 16, I would douse myself with my father’s English Leather cologne in hopes of attracting the opposite sex.  The English Leather television commercial suggested that once I donned the fragrance of the British elite that I would be surrounded by magnificent Scandinavian women and would speak with the cultured accent of an Oxford graduate.  Hai Karate competed for my attention promising that a few modest drops would have me using martial arts skills to drive off the women who would be insane with lust as a result of a mere whiff of the olfactory aphrodisiac.

Brut promised to transform you into a race car driver, fighter pilot or an investment banker capable of doing the most sophisticated deal in the world.  If you used Brut, Fabergé suggested a life of daring exploits, athletic feats and of course, someone always on your elbow.  Musk For Men seemed the closest thing to a human pheromone that one could use.  Just the name sounded like you were burying your face into a twenty five year old Buffalo robe.  I am not exactly sure what kind of woman you would attract with musk but odds are you would not have to spend a lot on dinner.  Old Spice would transform you into a rugged merchant marine that could hoist a tankard of ale with one arm, spear a whale at 100 yards with the other and then hug Miss Ireland, who was working part-time as the local dock barmaid, with the…wait, that’s three arms.  Well, when you use Old Spice, you can do the work of one and a half men.  Each fragrance promised to change me from an awkward, testosterone time bomb to a suave James Bond capable of seducing every woman under the age of 40 in western Europe and then save the world – – all before dinner.  The reality was a bit different.  Other than being followed by a German Shepherd for several blocks, the scent failed to attract anyone or radically alter my romantic future.

The film, “Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, plunged us back into the world of men’s colognes from the 1970’s. In this highly intelligent exchange between anchorman Ron Burgundy and his beat reporter, Brian Fantana, they discuss the selection of colognes that Brian will choose (from his wall of colognes) to attempt to seduce the new female anchor, Veronica.

Brian Fantana: [about Veronica] I’ll give this little cookie an hour … Time to musk up.
[opens cologne cabinet]
Ron Burgundy: Wow. Never ceases to amaze me. What cologne you gonna go with? London Gentleman, or wait. No, no, no. Hold on. Blackbeard’s Delight.
Brian Fantana: No, she gets a special cologne… It’s called Sex Panther by Odeon. It’s illegal in nine countries… Yep, it’s made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.
Ron Burgundy: It’s quite pungent.( makes a face)
Brian Fantana: Oh yeah.
Ron Burgundy: It’s a formidable scent… It stings the nostrils…in a good way.
Brian Fantana: Yep.
Ron Burgundy: Brian, I’m gonna be honest with you, that smells like pure gasoline.
Brian Fantana: They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time it works, 100% of the time[cheesy grin]
Ron Burgundy: That doesn’t make sense.
Brian Fantana: Well… Let’s go see if we can make this little kitty purr.

This year, I decided to ask my wife for some cologne for Christmas.  “There’s so much to choose from, you’d better do some research and pick one “she informed me.  I knew the marketing firms were still promising teenaged boys reckless pleasure from the likes of Axe and Fierce.  Yet, I assumed they knew better than to barrage a forty something with promises of anything other than not being followed by a dog.  I decided to research the latest colognes while shopping.  You would have thought by now that America had learned of the hollow promises of those purveyors of eau d’toilette. Can’t fool me, Yves St. Laurent.  I know that means “toilet water” in French. Yet, the desire to develop a unique scent and perhaps become another man is as powerful today as it has ever been.  The brands of cologne are mind numbing with each promising to transform me into a more swarthy version of myself.

Unforgiveable is presumably a scent so powerful that it compels even the most circumspect person to commit acts that would never be condoned in the light of day.  Put on Unforgiveable and you may just tell off your boss or buy that Alfa Romeo.  L’Anarchiste suggests your scent alone can win the girl and bring down your government at the same time – – if you are man enough.  Lucky You cologne does not try to even disguise the fact that you should be thanking them for selling you the cologne.  If you did not get a date with Musk, perhaps you should try Diesel, especially if you are in the market for a partner who can change the oil in your car.   Mille grazie Roma !  I can feel the olive melanin creeping into my skin and my abdomen muscles popping out just getting a whiff of the Italian cologne.  Put a dab on each cheek and look incredibly dazzling in your uniform and do not notice as thieves knock off the local bank.  After all, the sun is hitting your profile just right and you are Roma!

There are some even more interesting and provocative brands. For example, there is Paradox for the man nobody understands.  I can just see the commercial, a man walks into the party and everyone he talks to gives him an odd look.  “He is obtuse.  He is obscure.  He is – – Paradox.” How about Quorum? This is for the man who you hear and smell before you actually see him.  “You are so pungent it is as if you always have a majority in the room – -you have Quorum.” Then, there is Swiss Army – – I am not certain exactly who would want to smell like the Swiss Army – perhaps someone in the Albanian army?  My favorite is Joop.  “It’s whimsical.  It’s zany.  And it completely violates every law of nature – Yes, it is Joop.”

Suffice to say, whether you desire to be a sultan of the night with Drakkar Noir or a rogue fifteen century Asian despot called Shogun, there is a scent for every other man you want to be. I came up with a brand for Wall Street mortgage securitization specialists : “Dignity – when you have lost it all, at least you still have your Dignity.” For politicians, there’s Gossamer. “For the man everyone can see through, there’s Gossamer”.  In the end, the best name is simply Demara, named for Ferdinand Demara, “the Great Impostor”, who masqueraded as a Trappist monk, surgeon, cancer researcher and prison warden.  He was finally caught, but not before he proved that if a man wants to be someone else, all he needs is guts and perhaps, a little cologne.

A Little Romance

Courting-Couple-at-Midnight--Post-cover--1919-...
Image by x-ray delta one via Flickr

 

A Little Romance

 

Men are like a fine wine. They all start out like grapes, and it’s our job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d like to have at dinner” Kathleen Mifsud

Men and woman have a different definition of what “romantic” means.  To psychologists, a romantic state is an endorphin and dopamine fueled experience – – a neurochemical “matrix” that allows us to see things as we want them as opposed to the way that they really are.  Romance’s accessories are lighting, old movies, alcohol, nostalgia and anywhere in Europe.  Men, generally do not get high marks for being romantic.  They are “explicit “creatures, and much further down the emotional evolutionary chain.  Men, like Pokemon, evolve in stages.  Most start in the “Pig “stage, a sort of larval state where everything is about them.  They eat, sleep, make noises, don’t call back and tell their friends everything that happened on your date. In time, life punishes this behavior and men move to the “Clueless“ stage.  Cluelessness is most commonly characterized by the statement, “what did I do? “ Clueless men take a three day trip with their college buddies every year and always come home too tired to take out the trash. Finally, after dedicated coaching and nights on the couch, men begin to walk erect and enter the “Considerate” stage.  This final stage is fragile and highly vulnerable to regression back to Clueless or even Pig phases.  Maintaining the Considerate stage requires years of marriage, therapy or the ability to admit to at least three Pigs that you cried during the movie “Brokeback Mountain”. Pigs can sometimes pose as Considerates.  However, they inevitably get caught.

There are documented records of an even higher stage called “Romantic” but it seems no male has ever been able to truly stay in this position.  It is a bit like climbing Mt Everest and being over 22,000 feet.  It is a death zone where no one can survive. Remaining in this zone too long begins to psychologically damage a male.  Binary brains cannot function with open ended questions such as “what are you thinking “and “who would you have married if you did not marry me?” Romance by its sheer nature is built on the seemingly conflicting virtues of spontaneity and meticulous preparation.  Therapists refer to it in metaphoric terms such as “setting the table” or “playing the mood music”. Men generally fail to understand the concept of playing mood music.  Men are rap musicians and clanging gongs.  They are overt, direct and venal.  Men march out to the windy plain and fight the enemy until the death.  Women, on the other hand, are folk musicians and piccolos.  They prefer to move stealthily, never engaging in direct confrontation, slowly winning a war of attrition through relentless passive aggressive behavior.

“Men always want to be a woman’s first love – women like to be a man’s last romance.”   – Oscar Wilde

The fact is if romance was a shirt, men would buy ten of them and be out of the store in five minutes.  Men don’t generally like ballads or love songs by Cole Porter.  They hate poetry. Walt Whitman?  Uh….wasn’t he…? ……Not that there is anything wrong with

that.! Shelley, Keats and Yeats? Weren’t those the names of the girls on Charlie’s Angels? Guys don’t want a soul mate, they want a cell mate. Guys want to be John Belushi in Animal House smashing the guitar of the guy with the goatee reading poetry and singing ballads on the stairs.  For some men, romance is as simple as having the lights out while watching Charles Bronson in “Death Wish”.  They can’t understand the difference between The Newark Marriott and Auberge d’Soliel in Napa Valley, except that one is a lot more expensive and has a smaller pool.  These men are the target demographic of the floral, greeting card and confection industries on Valentine’s Day.  Red roses, a Whitman Sampler and a beautiful card and you will be Charles Boyer.  Wait, wasn’t he a third baseman for the Milwaukee Braves?  

Marriage is the process of finding out what kind of person your spouse would have really preferred – Anonymous

 

Lack of romantic IQ is an age old liability.  The Greeks had myriad words to describe the many facets of love – – Eros was perhaps the most applicable word for romance and passionate love. In Southern Europe, many men are born “Considerate” and sometimes attain the highest evolutionary form of “Romantic”.  However, this only applies when they are courting a mistress or college student backpacking for the summer.  Across the Southern Mediterranean, men have a reputation for being hopeless Romantics but regression is always around the corner.  It is quite a different story in Northern Europe where being romantic is still synonymous with wearing a clean pair of underwear.  

 

The great question… which I have not been able to answer is, “What does a woman want?” — Freud

 

In the 19th century, there was a brief surge of estrogen in the cosmos in the form of the Romantic movement which encouraged impulse and intuition over repetition and reason.  Men liked the part of romanticism that encouraged them to be reckless and unaccountable. Men felt more free to read poetry, enjoy art, and pick petals off daisies while on a picnic in the country.  However, the Pigs began to worry that they were being overrun by the Clueless and the Considerate.  No one was showing up for hangings, bare knuckle fist fights or helping to break up local picket lines during labor strikes.  The bars were empty in the middle of the week. The Pigs started a rumor that anyone who read poetry was indeed a Communist.  This quickly led to a massive peer pressure regression known to many historians as “The Great Backslide of 1898”.  With Romanticism dying, the bell curve of behavior was more balanced, The Pigs breathed a sigh of relief.

 

However, society has continued to evolve.  Pigs are increasingly chastised for their misogynist views.  The Clueless attend classes with their partners and use “I“ phrases for sharing how they are feeling.  Considerates understand that relationships are a zero sum game and one is always in danger of being in a deficit position.  These men are beginning to realize that a little romance is not life threatening.  It may require watching a movie about far away places or star crossed lovers caught up in epic conflicts that conspire to keep them apart.  It may mean sitting outside listening to John Mayer music float gently on a warm summer night.  Romance means appreciating intrinsic beauty whether it is found in a lingering glance or a spontaneous kiss.  Considerates are finally grasping what Gable and Lombard had going.  They appreciate sunrises and sunsets.  They understand even the most ancient ember can be rekindled and that romance is its oxygen. They see integrity in monogamy.  Some even recognize when another man is a Pig, although this is a very advanced state of Considerate.

 

Valentine’s Day is framed with sepia sentiment, devoted nostalgia and stories of lovers whose words, music, and deeds transcend time. It targets the Clueless, occasionally snags a few Pigs and is supported by legions of Considerates.  Valentine’s Day for most men is a compulsory 24 hour chick flick.  For women, it is another chance for their partner to show a modicum of romantic intelligence and perhaps evolve.

Au Revoir Mon Enfant

Le Nôtre's central axis of the Tuileries' part...
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“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”…. (We see well only with the heart)

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The first beams of le soleil d’été crawled up the Champs D’Elysses like an early morning tide rising along the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. The city streets were littered with debris and the fading accents of revelry that had only just melted away with the sunrise.

Our street, Rue de Berri was quiet and not yet stirring.  The morning light was only tapping at the highest windows festooned with potted geraniums and midnight blue wrought iron.  A burst of wind, having wandered off the main boulevard carried the stale smell of an urban summer and brushed back our hair.

I had come to Paris with my 16-year-old daughter to suspend, even for a moment, her rapid ascent into the higher elevations of adulthood.  We had planned the trip for over a year but in such difficult times, I was tempted to cancel our journey. Yet, instinctively, I understood she was slipping away.  In time, she would become a distant speck on my horizon line as she pursued her raison d’être.

Given her increasingly independent routine, we had become passing ships. Extemporaneous engagement had been supplanted by negotiated interaction.  Our world was changing – with her universe expanding and mine contracting to supply, support and finance her inevitable departure.  It seemed my initials were slowly changing from M-A-T to A-T-M.  Paris was perhaps now, or never.

We wandered out into a magnificent, cloudless summer morning. Cafes hissed happily with the steam of espresso machines and joie d’ vivre. Sleep-deprived baristas mumbled at patrons as they laid out baskets of chocolate croissants and pastries.

The day would lead us across the Place d’ Concorde through the Tuileries Gardens and across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay.  After studying Pissarro in art, she was amazed to see the original subject for her semester report, “Vegetable Garden and Trees in Blossom”, painted in Pontoise in the spring of 1877.  The masterpiece         hung prosaically on a wall alongside Manets, Renoirs and Matisse plein air oils.

We immediately fell into Van Gogh’s 1887 ” Starry Night Over The Rhone” with its glowing celestial swirls of starlight and the warm lights of taverns spilling across a sequined midnight blue river.

I was eager for her to see the whimsical strokes of Toulouse-Lautrec who prowled the bordellos and dancehalls of the Montmartre neighborhoods.  It was here that Paris shed any sense of morality and laid bare a world of venal feelings, colors and characters.

We finally fell out into a warm afternoon following the Seine, blown by a strong breeze and the need for motion.  We rented bikes at Vélib – the ingenuous Parisian bicycle rental kiosks and service stations strategically situated throughout the city.  We biked along the river to the Tour Eiffel, Le Trocadero and along bike paths to the Latin Quarter to explore, shop and lose ourselves in the historic, bustling alleys.

We exchanged more smiles and glances than words during our exploration.   As she slipped her arm into mine, it was worth a thousand affections and I had to resist acknowledging the moment.  I can still recall enjoying an experience with my father until he would shatter the moment with innocent enthusiasm. “Isn’t this great?” – a rhetorical question that would be rebutted with a superficial smile.  To publically memorialize any moment to a teen is to kill it – transforming it from substance to a saccharine platitude.  Formal moments were now implicit, having been explicitly left behind long ago like a discarded beanie baby or blanket.

On this night, le grand fete de la Musique- the music festival marking the first day of summer was spreading across the city center.  Our Metro screeched to a halt at Châtelet as we climbed up to a late afternoon multitude surging and straining to feel the youth and music of the June evening. In a deep caffeine and crepe blackout, we coursed through the narrows arteries of the Left Bank moving from one animated coterie of partiers and street performers. There was a sudden blood trail that led to a recently broken fight and three arrests. A young bohemian sat bloodied on the ground as police officers attempted to reconstruct the crime scene.

Across the Seine on the the Île de la Cité, steps that fell down to the quays and embankments served as an amphitheatre for hundreds of people listening to an African guitarist.  The bateau-mouches ( fly boats ) coursed silently across the slate blue water reflecting a night sky of stars and a palette of colored festival lights, lanterns and lamps in their wake.   Notre Dame’s buttresses were bathed in soft pastel light while inside, prayer candles and the gentle chants of medieval baroque music reverently beckoned passersby to sit and reflect. There was magic everywhere.

The Parisian summer night fell slowly – hesitating, and lingering like the gangly silhouettes of teens with their tangerine glow of cigarettes and faces occasionally illuminated with the paparazzi burst of light from a passing car.  Three AM.  It was the realm of these young vampires – sinewy, sartorial and invincible.  They possess a élan for life and belief that tomorrow only happens to other people.  While they wait for life to happen at night, la vie is invisibly passing them by day.  Their restless migration along narrow cobbled streets and across abandoned gardens is occasionally punctuated with a wild yell or pitched outburst. With the dawn, they vanish –presumably undead in some tiny garret apartment awaiting another twilight.

The following day, we travelled to Versailles – my daughter not much older than the Austrian Princess, Marie Antoinette who would marry Louis, Dauphin of France.  He would ascend the throne in 1774 to become Louis XVI.  Marie would reside at Versailles and at the Palace of the Tuileries until 1791 when the reign of terror ushered in France’s First Republic.

As we entered Versailles halcyon gardens, the clouds moved across a brilliant aquamarine sky – great man-o-wars casting shadows across fields of rolled hay and poplar trees. Against a backdrop of shimmering fountains, we descended into the gilded age of opulence and patrician consumption. The gardens of Versailles cover over 800 acres.  A mathematician’s dream, the property was perfectly symmetrical dominated by manicured 30′ high boxwood bosquets that formed intricate passages and mazes.  Alabaster sentinels – statues of mythological heroes frozen in perpetual triumph and tragedy, guarded each path’s junction.

We followed La Croix – The Grand Canal, a crucifix shaped lake edged with footpaths that skirted in and out of the shade of massive horse chestnut trees.  Magnificent swans patrolled the shallows for snails and rudely turned their tails and bottoms at us as they scanned the emerald lake for breakfast.

We stopped and lay across the rough grass staring up at the sky. A middle aged French couple descended the mild sloping hill to our left and sat to picnic.  Within minutes they were rolling across their blankets like mating water buffalo, indifferent to the great risk to one another or their violent public display of affection. We assigned them names and circumstances that seemed to only heighten our amusement. When “Monique’s” blouse started to hike up her alabaster trunk, we agreed that our lunch would be spoiled if we persisted on spying on this amorous wild kingdom encounter.

We returned to Central Paris and retraced the footsteps of Hemmingway, Pound, Sartre, Camus, Picasso, Stein and Fitzgerald.  We tossed back espressos at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.  I imagined them to be the opaque green absinthe liquors that fueled the conversations of great writers in Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast.  We moved on to shadow artists in Montmartre and peruse the Quai booksellers that sat rigidly next to their long green coffins of artifacts.

On our last evening, we crawled up on to the roof of our hotel and watched the golden lights of the Tour Eiffel.  Off in the opposite direction, The Sacre Coeur shined like Camelot at Montmartre. We sat silent drinking in the history and elegance.

Just as suddenly as we had stumbled on to Rue d’ Berri, we were descending into a hazy east coast evening, falling back into old patterns – texting friends, emailing and checking the blackberry. As the car crunched across the gravel of our front driveway, my daughter turned to hug me.  “Daddy, that was the greatest trip.  I will remember it forever.” Just then, her phone rang and her face lit up recognizing a friend’s voice.  She ran upstairs as I lugged in our pregnant suitcases.

Tickets to De Gaulle? Expensive. Hotel Lancaster? Very expensive.  Sitting on the roof of a hotel looking across the City of Lights through the eyes of your own daughter?

Priceless….

The Dude Abides

Left to right: The Dude (Jeff Bridges), Donny ...
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The Dude Abides

 

Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me, Lebowski?  David Huddlestone, The Big Lebowski

 

On its ten year anniversary, Andy Greene of Rolling Stone magazine attempted to explain why an offbeat comedy, The Big Lebowski, became “the most worshipped comedy of its generation”.  I count myself among the denizens who regularly quote, watch and discuss the 1998 Coen Brothers movie about an LA slacker named Jeffery “the Dude” Lebowski, a peacenik anti-hero who becomes mistaken for another Jeffery Lebowski, an LA millionaire with financial and personal problems. As a Dude connoisseur, I savored Greene’s entrée along with Walter Kirn’s side dish analysis of Dude, the ultimate underachiever.  Greene makes a persuasive argument as to why a decade of Generation X’s and Y’s related so clearly to a man who was and is, the antithesis of our hard charging society.

At its most basic level, any motion picture is created to entertain. However, film is art and an important lens through which we interpret, depict and assess society and ultimately, ourselves.  The Big Lebowski follows an unemployed forty something pot head who refers to himself simply as “ the Dude”, as he is haplessly drawn into a bizarre plot of kidnapping, extortion, pornography and deception. As Greene describes, “ the narrator ( a man simply known as the Stranger )…intones, ‘sometimes there’s a man who well, he’s the man for his time and place’. The odd truth is this man may have been a decade ahead of his time.  Today, as technology increasingly handcuffs us to schedules and appointments – in the time it takes you to read this you have missed three emails – there’s something comforting about a fortyish character who will blow an evening lying in the bath tub, getting high and listening to an audiotape of whale songs.  He is not the 21st century man.  Nor is he Iron man – and he’s certainly not Batman.  The Dude doesn’t even care about a job, a salary, a 401k and definitely not an iPhone.  The Dude just is, and he’s happy.”

The Dude still appeals to a multi-generational audience.  He has fans like myself – – the salt and pepper, latter stage Baby Boomers, known as the Generation Joneses, who were programmed by their Silent Generation parents to become economic grunions, genetically returning each day, month and year to beaches of hard labor in hopes of exceeding our parents’ standard of living and in doing so, writing the next great chapter for America.  The Jones generation exists as a fragile bridge and no man’s land between the rules and conventions of the Silent and Boomer crowd and the self obsessed cynicism of the Gen X’s and Y’s.  Generation Joneses were raised by the firm hands of self-reliant sergeants who believed in a strong military, free market, and the possibility that anything could be overcome with hard work. This ethos could vanquish any threat – a need, a want, a rival or even a foreign power with dark intentions.

The Silent and Boomer generations react viscerally to characters like the Dude.  He is a ne’er-do-well and a slacker.  Slackers are societal ticks and chronic underachievers who rationalize their inability to compete in our meritocracy by criticizing, pontificating, using mind altering substances and garnering unemployment checks from the very establishment they target with so much languid contempt.  To the older generation, the Dude is like Europe – – impractically egalitarian, unmotivated and content to constantly regress to the mean. Socialism is Dudeism .  Dude would rather see America lay medicated in a warm mineral bath listening to NPR than enforce its individual and collective imminent domain.  The Dude’s indolent lifestyle is a threat and virus that must be halted.  The fact that the emasculated Dude is content just to be and accepts life as it comes – “ strikes and gutters, ups and downs…you know, the Dude abides” – is lost on those whose lives are a frenetic merry go round of materialism and indentured obligation.

The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?

The Dude: Employed?

The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?

The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?

The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…

The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

Dude is an anti-hero.  He is a pacifist. Jeff Dowd writes, “He’s a character who’s very loyal to his friends, but in some ways, he’s a real intellectual drifter, a person who doesn’t really care what people think about him. I mean obviously, if it’s the middle of night, and you’re in Ralph’s in your robe and jellies, then obviously you don’t care all that much about what people think of you. He’s a character that sees the truth.” He is, by society’s definition a bum.  However, through the eyes of generations who have come to the depressing realization that they may not exceed their parent’s standard of living but instead inherit record deficits, a global environmental crisis, foreign wars and back breaking energy dependence, none of which was their doing,  Dude’s minimalistic lifestyle in a Venice Beach apartment looks downright noble. To many, Dude was and is, a metaphor for all who have been dragged against their will into conflicts and circumstances beyond their control – Vietnam, Iraq and a world that no longer seems full of possibilities but fraught with sharp edges.  He is the ultimate conscientious objector to a subtle social war.  It is a battle being waged against the weeds in our society – – the bums, ne’er do wells, bleeding hearts and those who cannot or will not help themselves.  The Big Lebowski and his ilk want to clear the fields of these useless dandelions who refuse to get with the program.  His “program” is a life of unilateralism whose offspring are fear and consumption.  Millionaire Jeffery Lebowski, The Big Lebowski, is the embodiment of this ideology – crippled, manipulative, angry and rich. He is a living picture of Dorian Gray, a canvas that reveals every twisted wrinkle of a man who has everything but has lost his soul.

 

The Dude: You thought that Bunny had been kidnapped and you were @$^*ing glad, man. You could use it as an excuse to make some money disappear. You’d just met me… You human paraquat! You figured ‘Oh, here’s a loser. A deadbeat, someone the square community won’t give a @$#% about.

The Big Lebowski: Well, aren’t you?

The Dude: Well… yeah.

Dude is surrounded by a supporting cast of misfits – – life’s tragic figures and confederates including a gang of malevolent German nihilists who nip and tear at his mellow cocoon.  He is ill equipped to deal with the bizarre circumstances that engulf him or the arrogant elitists who continuously put him in harm’s way.  While most of us cannot condone how Dude chooses to express his “rejection of absoluteism”, we have a soft spot for him.  We see him as a green branch bending in a strong wind but not yet breaking.  He is inept but loyal.  He is an ash from an old cigarette lit in the 60’s that never quite extinguished.  He is a relic and a reminder that it is ok to march to the beat of a different drum and not be persecuted or labeled for choosing the path of less resistance.

In the end, Walter Kirn describes “His Dudeness” in simple terms: “ The Dude is one of those saintly underachievers, those holy screw ups who make it ( life ) somewhat bearable. His greatest powers are not to use his power and to acknowledge, serenely, without resentment – that in the end, he doesn’t have much power.  Forever may he stagger.  Long may he weave.”

 

 

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

 

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind…. and another

His mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”…..Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are

 

We called it, “Animals in the Dark”.  In retrospect, it was a fitting name for a game that boys invented for the expressed purpose of rough-housing.  The rules were uncomplicated so even the least focused among us could instantly participate in the mayhem.  The goal was simple: survival.  One kid, usually a masochistic younger sibling, would draw the short straw to be blindfolded and turned lose into a pitch black room filled with bad intentions. 

The windows would be covered to achieve a perfect blackout.  The “animals” strained to adjust their eyes so they might be able to distinguish the defenseless, sightless victim as he wandered the room like Audrey Hepburn in Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark.  The animals were armed with make shift black jacks fashioned out of tube socks and pillows filled with underwear and knotted tee shirts.  Downstairs, an innocent Norman Rockwell scene unfolded with my Dad reading his newspaper, my mother baking a pie and a dog curled under the dining room table. But, all was not well……

 

My mother’s philosophy raising four boys was simple. There were no bad kids, only bad choices.  She understood the adolescent mind was a twisted topography of firebreaks and unconnected roads that often led to bad neighborhoods.  She also knew that adolescence was a protracted illness from which most would recover. She understood boys were physical forces of nature – wild things. Life was a succession of high and low pressure systems, constantly moving in and out of the geography of her boys creating dramatic and spectacular perfect storms of stupidity and achievement. When boys hit adolescence, their bodies started to wreak havoc – stretching, fighting, pulling and tugging.  Nothing seemed to properly fit a teenager and nothing could ever be fully articulated.  She understood that the body starved the brain, compensating for its exhausting Kafkaesque journey by conserving fuel for physical growth.  The brain would just have to catch up. Physiologically, this transformation caused teens to speak in a strange abbreviated dialect of “yups” and “nopes”. Boys became tribal animals learning the call of the wild and the unmistakable hierarchy of their pack.  They moved like herd animals in thick knots of baseball caps, shorts, athletic shoes and tunnel vision.  Life was whatever happened right in front of them. They had no peripheral vision.  They could hit a 20 foot jump shot but not seem to hit a toilet six inches in front of them.  They could remember the lyrics of a song or statistics of a third string running back but fail to remember to feed the dog or change their underwear.  Understanding the feral mind, my mom had a high tolerance for mischief and urged my father to develop a thicker skin to the slings and arrows of our outrageous behavior.  Boys will boys…

Max said ‘ Be Still” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all….and made him king of all wild things. ‘And now’ cried Max, ‘ let the wild rumpus start!”

The door creaked ever slightly. A blindfolded silhouette stood hesitating, unable to enter but incapable of resisting the siren’s call of abuse that was waiting motionless like a thousand trap-door spiders.  The room was a black hole from which nothing could escape.   Slipping in through the narrow crease of light, the shadow stopped again.  The door shut and for a moment, no one breathed.  Thwack !  A scream and laughter.  Thwack!  Thwack !   A cry for help and more sadistic laughter.  The game quickly disintegrated into a riot at an English football match.  The hooligans escalated their blind battle with screams, yelling and then a sudden crash of a glass.  The room went still.  Someone was moaning on the ground and a shaken voice whispered,

“dude, what was that?”  “ I think it was Mom’s lamp”  Downstairs, the thumping had aroused the dog who looked up to the ceiling and whimpered. My mother suddenly stopped kneading her pie dough and wiped her floured hands on her apron.  Her trouble sonar was already returning with pings of concern.. As she walked to the base of the stairs, she caught a glimpse of my father’s backside as he is roared up the stairs in rapid two step leaps.  His shoes pounded on the red tile floor creating the sensation of a brakeless truck barreling down an alleyway.  “Dad!” my brother hissed.  Even my friends had acquired a healthy fear of my father’s temper as he felt he had every parent’s proxy to discipline their children as his own.   At this moment, everyone rapidly sought sanctuary – under a bed, in the adjacent room or under a blanket.   The door burst open followed by a machine gun burst of expletives.  Even the injured victim with a rapidly closing left eye was crawling for safety.  The game was over. 

Fast forward.  It is Friday night, a particular moment in the week when wild things begin to stir.  On this night, I agreed to host thirteen of my son’s friends for a sleepover. The numerical omen of 13 was lost on me as I picked up several padded warriors from football practice.  On the way home, we stopped for gas and I agreed to buy them each a soft drink.  Five cans of 16 oz. Red Bulls suddenly appeared in my car.  It would be a very long night. Within a half hour, the group had swelled to a full pack. The family dog was in heaven as he instantly understood that this would be no ordinary night.  The animals loped uninhibited across the darkness of our property playing “manhunt” – the modern day equivalent to Animals in The Dark.  They descended on the dinner of pizza like rabid carnivores and proved once again that the toilet remains the most elusive target on earth.  The Red Bulls were kicking in about 11:30 as they adjourned to the basement – the basement that rests directly under our master bedroom.  For the next several hours the pack was in full motion with thumping, screams, laughter and the occasional angry shout of a wild thing who had ended up on the wrong side of a practical joke.  I repeatedly walked down to enforce curfew and each time, was neutered by my own nostalgia at the sight of the boys draped all over one another like pups in a carton – not the least bit self conscious that they were firmly in one another’s personal space. 

At 2am, I drew the line.  I pounded down the stairs and threw open the basement door.  Facing into the darkness, I hissed, “It’s 2am.  We can hear everything you guys are saying. SHUT UP and go to bed.”  For a moment, there was silence.  I stood triumphant the king of the wild things.  As I turned to close the door, someone passed wind.  A dozen fatigued giggles erupted from the ebony cave.  I turned away, utterly defeated but secretly smiling.  Whoever had control enough over their body to make that noise at that exact time would be forever memorialized in the pantheon of wild things. 

The next morning, as each wild thing was returned to his handler, we began to clean up and reconstruct our day.  My son who had slept a grand total of two hours, sat dazed, exhausted and triumphant, head leaning on his cocked arm as he slowly lifted a fork of pancakes to his mouth.  I looked at him and saw myself in that wolf suit, making mischief and cavorting on the island that I would one day leave to become an adult. Across all the years and over all the oceans of time, it was still the best to be a wild thing. 

“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye.  And he sailed back over a year….and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him…

 

And it was still hot.“

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resolution Number 9

Gloria Steinem wdydwyd
Image via Wikipedia

 

Resolution Number 9

 

“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.” ~ Joey Adams

It was the time of year that fatigued my father most.  Christmas was a brakeless, high speed joy ride down a boulevard of excess – the profligate purchasing of gifts, a succession of business and neighborhood parties, a month long garland of decorations, and sheer exhaustion that weighed you down like lard laden fruitcake.  The week between Christmas and New Years arrived like the eye of a hurricane offering a momentary respite where we might reconstruct our predictable November routines and gather up the debris of December celebration.

The dead calm worried my father.  He knew the toll the holidays took on my mother.  Like a seasoned meteorologist, he knew the back half of the holiday storm still packed high emotional winds and potential for damaged feelings.  He was useless at this time of year. This generation of men in grey flannel suits were as relevant as flightless dodo birds when separated from their workplace.  The normal midweek rhythms of my mother’s matriarchal rule were shattered when five men were suddenly home and idle.  It was an extreme time that exaggerated the normal warts and imperfections of life.  The soiled laundry and dirty dishes grew in geometric proportions.  The perfect storm of lazy teenagers on vacation coupled with a husband who kept saying “ whaah?” with a mouth full of food, seemed to only increase steam in the family pressure cooker.  In a startling role reversal worthy of anthropological study, mother and father temporarily switched places.

Mom would shock us with a sudden flash of impatience or an actual curse-word. We thought only fathers swore.  She would talk to herself as she picked up clothes that had been littered as if the owners had all caught fire.  She began to exhibit all the signs of a person ill with the radiation poisoning from broken routines, serial thoughtlessness and excessive family time.  My father was bewildered.  Only he held the tenured role of moody shape shifter and mercurial overlord.  It was my mother’s role to be a placid lake of restraint and a predictable oasis that offered protection to all from the rise and fall of the testosterone barometer.  When she was in a foul mood, the entire equilibrium of the family unit was destabilized.  We all prayed it would not result in one of her resolutions.

Despite our best efforts to navigate my mother’s eggshells and landmines, someone would inevitably trigger an invisible trip wire and there would be an explosion of self pitied emotion and dreaded pronouncements.  The catalyst may have been as prosaic as a freshly laundered towel thrown into the hamper after just one shower or a half-gallon of milk left out to sour.  As myopic men, we did not understand that her cumulative frustration was like magma rising into a volcanic chamber.  Our chronic insensitivity and my father’s inability to protect her as domestic wingman created the fissure that would trigger a sudden and violent eruption – sometimes heard several blocks away.

Her new year’s pronouncements were communicated like a centurion announcing an edict from Caesar.  “In direct response to my repeated attempts to get you boys to hang up your towels, put away your laundry or refrain from eating all the lunch snacks, we will now do the following:  1) The linen closet will be locked with a pad lock Monday through Friday and you will not be issued a new towel until Saturday.  2) You are now responsible for your own laundry.  I suggest you wash and fold it over the weekend.  3) You will now make your own lunches and if you forget to make your lunch, you will go hungry. “ She was angry and defiant.  We glanced at our father.  If you had looked up the word “eunuch” in Webster’s dictionary, his facial expression would have been the word’s illustration.  Earlier in the day, she had given him a “ detailed” list of complaints and resolutions that got his complete attention.  He simply looked at us and said, “She who must be obeyed has spoken.” For her sudden surge of feminism, Gloria Steinem would have pinned a medal on Mom. Hell hath no fury than a mother when she has had enough.

We dreaded her resolutions especially those involving food and logistics.  “We are all going to eat healthy”, she declared one New Year’s Day.  This translated into several weeks of culinary experiments whose nadir was a dinner menu featuring brussel sprout soup ,“pizza fish” and flavored tofu cake.  Even the dog would not eat it. Other resolutions included a transportation pool where each child was allowed a maximum two car rides a week.  This lead to a black market of transportation credits being swapped by boys with the laziest paying dearly for someone else’s passenger slot. There were mandates for time to be spent studying, playing games, showering, talking on the phone, and playing sports.  There was even talk of removing all toilet seats after a near-sighted teen had failed to put the seat up in her bathroom for the fifth consecutive day.  This gave rise to much speculation – was she actually going to carry her own seat around with her?

The first week following any declaration was a pathetic black comedy as the four blind mice struggled with their new responsibilities – – washing colored and white laundry together to produce a whole line of shrunken pink and gray clothing.  Lunches were routinely forgotten.  Laundry was not really folded but instead chewed and shoved like wads of gum into drawers guaranteeing that when worn, one looked as though they had been dragged behind a Chevy truck. Inevitably, martial law softened.  Her resolutions had the life expectancy of a housefly. We were pitiful recidivists and she knew it.  The day one heard, “ here, let me do that!” was the moment that we knew that sanity was being restored.

As we married and formed our own families, my father bore the brunt of Mom’s annual fiats around health, fitness, and life.   He became a human lab rat being subjected to the latest new age cures that hawked salt free diets, pyramid power to preserve food, biorhythm devices to monitor one’s life waves, erogenous zones and transcendental meditation.  Dad would sneak cheeseburgers and Cokes like an alleyway addict while quietly complaining to us that new age communists had invaded his home.  He finally drew a line in the sand when she suggested that regular colonic cleansing would do wonders for his temper.  We would remind him that her brief but inspired storms of self-improvement would eventually pass and might even do him some good.  He would grumble like Lurch from the Addams Family and shuffle off hoping that the current fiber diet he was on would not take him too far from a restroom.

Years later, we find ourselves making these same declarations to our kids.  More exercise, less fatty foods, Sunday dinners together, reading more, less TV, one hour of computer time strictly regulated, no chores means no allowance… Our declarations and good intentions stretch like a long kite string across a sky of generations.  Like my mother, my resolve weakens as the reward of behavior modification is always overpowered by the hassle of resolution enforcement.  As I write this, my kids rooms look like the KGB has just finished an illegal search, dinner dishes have been abandoned on the table, the trash has not been put out, the dog is gnawing on a pair of sunglasses and my ten year old has been playing a computer game called Spore for three days straight.  I could swear he has a five o’clock shadow.  I can also feel the magma growing in my spouse.

It’s time for one of those New Year’s resolutions.  “Ok, you guys, starting January 2nd, there’s going to be a few changes around this place – starting with bedtime and limits on the computer.”  I get no response.  In fact, no one is looking up from their cell phones where they are text-messaging friends. “Uh, sure Dad, whatever you like, say”, someone mutters absentmindedly to their chest.  I realize I, too, have become the emasculated reformer. I think it’s time to call my Mom and ask her for her recipe for pizza fish, brussel sprout soup and tofu cake.

That ought to get their attention.

 

 

Mater Ex Machina – Mom in the Machine

magna-mater-1971

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

Our family gatherings are now reduced to weddings, funerals, anniversaries and medical crises.  On these rare occasions, we reconnect through story telling, usually at the expense of our father.  Each son arrives with his own mental shoe box full of stories, taken out and mischievously shared.  My Dad takes it well but at times, contests our version of the “Brussel Sprout Affair” or disputes the actual percentage of our wages he garnished for punishments.  My mother, who is now stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, sits and listens intently as we gather to gently dredge the river of our lives.  Her loud laugh and tireless energy depleted by a disease that has conspired to rob her of her mobility and sense of serenity.  Her eyes still flash bright, opal blue when we recount the myriad stories which have become threads in a raucous and irreverent family tapestry.

My mother was made to have four boys.  She used candor, insight and trust to soften and shape the well intended but clueless denizen of men that she inherited.  She had a sixth sense about people and would often encourage us to “use our antennas to read people and situations”.  “Everyone’s antenna is different with some people picking up only major signals, like your father. Others, like short wave radio operators, pick up multiple signals making them both intuitive and easily distracted.”  Her intuition proved an invaluable asset to my father in business and in life.  She could anticipate situations, reading people, and disarming stiff customers with her humor and alarming candor. She longed for a daughter but resigned herself that her life would be a world filled with dirty toilet seats, sweaty clothes and GI Joes.  She waited patiently for the day that her sons might bring home girlfriends and wives – –   girls who would later be very alarmed by just how much these boys confided in their mother.

Jack Nicholson once yelled at Tom Cruise, “you want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  My father was an advertising executive from a generation whose marital trousseau was limited to a strong work ethic.  He worked countless hours driven by the four horseman of financing college, orthodontia bills, mortgage and car payments.  My mother was left to serve as teacher, confessor and staff sergeant of this testosterone army.  She could handle the truth. Her army had basic rules:

1)    If I hear it from you first, the punishment will only be half as bad.  Her “tell me everything approach” worked as a catharsis for guilty minds and a means of teaching boys how to communicate.  The “tell me first “rule resulted in a scene to be repeated many times where a Turpin boy was seen racing home desperate to beat a patrol car or a neighbors call.  We referred to her as “Sodium Pentothal “as she could get anyone to tell her anything voluntarily.

2)    I’ll decide what I tell your father.  Given my dad’s limited bandwidth to deal with much beyond job and family obligations, my mother would not burden him with all the daily infractions and near death experiences that occurred.  She is only now breaking to him things that happened in 1982.

3)    I want you open to new things.  While my dad escorted us to church and religion each Sunday, my Mom offered us spirituality during the week.  She was curious about everything.  The house was littered with books about the sacred, profane and paranormal.  She reveled in history, scandal and alternative points of view.  She was a devil’s advocate that helped balance a house heavy with conservative dogma.  We read the bible on Sunday but Monday through Saturday, we perused books on psychic pets, the Bermuda triangle, famous hauntings and conspiracy theories (who really killed JFK, anyway).

4)    Grades: A’s meant freedom, B’s meant do your homework with the TV and radio off, C’s meant you are getting a tutor and D’s meant martial law.  My parents felt grades were “the canary “ in the obscure, coalmine existence of an adolescent.  There was no tolerance for poor academic performance.  However, there was patient recognition, (before terms such as Attention Deficit Disorder), that each kid learns differently.  She met with teachers.  She had the inside scoop on every person that made up our uneven world – teachers, friends, coaches, parents of friends.  She insisted on being informed.  All this from a woman who dropped out of college as a sophomore to marry a penniless, Army Second Lieutenant and later returned to complete college after 30 years to gain her degree.

In the wild seventies, she became a self anointed DEA officer.  She understood that a kid with red eyes and the pungent smell of smoke around them did not mean they had been out fighting forest fires, was struck by lightening or was just really tired.  Like a champion contestant on Name That Vice, she could identify bad behavior at 1000 yards and would never shy away from making sure we knew that she knew.  Her candor and caring made it safe for us and often for our friends, to confess issues that she could adroitly handle.

Her passion was the latest technology ( and useless gadgetry ) .  While this gave our family a critical start on personal computers well before most households knew that a Mac was anything but a burger, it also resulted in weird experiments: food being preserved under pyramids (Pyramid Power was big in the 70’s), dietetic forays – – no salt, all carbohydrates, no carbohydrates,  all fish, no fish, no fat, all rice, all protein, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Space Sticks and Tang ( if the astronauts can eat it, so can you boys).  Our house was a grand social and technological experiment in a period of great societal change. The 21st century Mom and the 19th century Dad managed the yin and yang of competing opinions, always agreeing on what mattered most.

We made all the classic mistakes. While our punishments usually fit our “crimes”, she defended us like a mother lion ‘lest anyone contend that her boys were “bad”.  She would always seem to appear in times of chaos to resolve the crisis du jour.   If I had one wish, it would be that I could descend and resolve the chaos of her Parkinson’s disease.  For my brothers and I she was,  “Mater Ex Machina”:  Mother in the Machine.

Is It A Shoe Decision

Deutsch: Ausstellung Materielle Beweise der Gr...
Deutsch: Ausstellung Materielle Beweise der Gräueltaten in Auschwitz I English: Exhibition Material Proofs of Crimes at Auschwitz I Polski: Wystawa Materialne Dowody Zbrodni w Auschwitz I Español: Exibicion de Pruebas Materiales de los Crimenes en Auschwitz I (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often find myself listening to my children as they lament their challenges of the day and remind them of the differences between problems arising out of affluence and melodrama of the real world.

Prior to living in New Canaan, we spent several years in London where we received a baptism of fire in international living and in life. Our close family friends, Kathy and Ross, were Australian ex-pats whose children lined up perfectly with our own and whose ability to live in the moment made each day an adventure and every dinner a life lesson.  One evening I was complaining over dinner about a particularly difficult decision at work and Ross smiled and asked “ Well, mate, is it a shoe decision ? “  I was stumped and assumed this yet another of his Aussie colloquialisms.

Ross shared that his boss and mentor, Frank, was an Auschwitz survivor.  Frank was 48 when he emigrated penniless from the former Czechoslovakia.  His philosophy of living catapulted him to become CEO of one of the world’s multinational corporations.  Frank would often ask Ross “ is it a shoe decision ? “ when chiding Ross on taking life too seriously.

Frank shared that when he was a teenager, they were rounding up Jews and taking them to the camps.  The stress was unbelievable as each night Frank and an increasingly shrinking ghetto of survivors would wait for the pounding at the door.  ‘They always came at night and gave you no time to gather your things.  Off people went ‘( Most never returned ).

‘The night they came for me, for some reason, I did not expect it.  I was tired and was counting on a good nights sleep.  It was bitterly cold that winter and I had fortunately dressed in heavier winter pajamas.  They Nazis burst in, and I could only grab one thing.  I chose for some reason to grab two pairs of shoes.  I put on one pair and sliped the others inside my bedclothes.  The train was horrific – hours standing with no place to sit or use the toilet, people dying all the way over the several hour train ride to Birkenau -( Auschwitz )

‘It became clear to me that my extra pair of shoes would mean life for someone.  We were forced to stand for hours in freezing rain and snow. People’s feet would get frost bite and gangrenous.  Once the gangrene set in, they were whisked off to the gas chambers. I had two friends with me from home – both without shoes.  I knew that the person I gave the shoes to would live and the one without the shoes would most likely die. The night of my decision, I agonized until morning, a more tortured soul you could not find.  The next day, I gave the shoes to one friend, while the other watched.  He bore me no ill will.  The friend without shoes died in the gas chambers weeks later with infected feet.  My other friend ? He is an Auschwitz survivor today. ‘

‘ So you see, Ross’ he shared, ‘ here’s the way I look at it: Is it a shoe decision ?  Is it life or death ? Because if it is, you must take the time to be sure you search every corner of your soul for the truth.  Pray for guidance.  If it is not life or death.  Think.  Decide.  Act and never look back.  If it is wrong you can change your mind.  Be a good man.  Do the right thing.  But, agonizing over little problems that do not decide life or death is a waste of your life.  Leave worry for the other man.’

I think back many times on that dinner in London.  I think of the safety, security and affluence we enjoy and remind my children that none of our problems are “ shoe decisions”.  Words to live by, particularly these days when the world outside our cocoon seems so beset with conflict and hatred.

Under The Wire

Under The Wire

A computer is like an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy

John Dunlop

Firebase Dell, Connecticut. 2100 Hours. External conditions:  Dark.  Reported movement outside the wire.  Central command is expecting enemy activity tonight.  Assignment : check and stabilize cyber-firebase Dell. Prevent intrusions and viral infection.

It’s late and I sit down to walk the computer perimeter.  As I scroll the endless sea of daily activity and peruse the America On Line notices, I notice a small gap.  It appears someone has wandered into a protected area and erased their footprints.  The enemy agent has been working on a less patrolled corner of the firebase trying to penetrate my protective defenses.  I can almost see him, in his little black pajamas, a coy intruder using stealth and exploiting our generation gap.  When I interrogate the suspect, he confesses that he was trying to get on Webkinz to feed his virtual animals.  I am suspicious.  Webkinz sounds like a foreign acronym for a deadly virus or worm. The next thing I know, I will be getting pop up emails from someone named Ivana suggesting that we meet at least once before moving ahead with the marriage.  How we went from Webkinz to Russian mail order brides I will never know.  The one thing I know for certain is once again, my computer will be compromised.

I have a constant battle with viruses on my PC.  It got so bad two years ago that  I had to swap out my hard drive.  I  would boot the computer and it would immediately tell me I have won the Ghana National Lottery and then whip me off to another website where I could buy copious amounts of Oxycontin, Viagra and Xanex.  If a person actually consumed all of these potential purchases, they would probably try to seduce a silverback gorilla at the Bronx Zoo and then spontaneously combust, or perhaps just become a conservative radio talk show host.  Point is, the gremlins had gotten under my meager defenses, penetrated my perimeter with virus after virus and completely ruined my hardware.

I decided to buy Norton Anti-virus to confound the virus gremlins.  For good measure, I overlayed MacAfee Firewall on top of it.  The result was the equivalent of fitting my computer with a protective chastity belt and then throwing the key into Long Island Sound.  I could not even figure out how to get on to the Internet without going through more doors than Maxwell Smart.  It felt like a maze of cyber metal detectors, frisking me before I even entered my own computer.  The application window kept saying that the delay was due to the computer loading an approved list of sites.  Yet, the approved sites slowly reduced to a Dell accessories store and Norton Update.  I began to refer to this unholy offspring of MacAfee and Norton as MacNorton.  MacNorton was so effective in controlling access that no one could use the computer.  My days of being plagued by messages suggesting I buy Rolex watches or help wealthy

Africans who wanted to deposit $ 10,000,000 into my bank account because I was named in someone’s last will and testament –  were all done.  I could not get on to AOL.  I finally found a way of accessing Internet Explorer by setting my computer back to an earlier date through System Restore, accessing AOL via the web and then retrieving my mail as a guest.  I might as well have been in doing all of this from an internet café in Madagascar.

No good deed goes unpunished.  Webkinz, YouTube, My Space, Itunes and a parade of other seemingly benign Trojan Horses all require some degree of permission.  Hiding in these cyber facades are little Greek cookies and enemy tracking devices that will case my perimeter looking for a weak spot.  “ Dad, if I don’t feed my Webkinz , he will die”. One of my kids complained. Hmmm.  Perhaps this was a great opportunity to teach my kids about one of life’s great mysteries and inevitable passages and do it in a virtual manner.  I wondered what would happen if we did not feed that virtual cat.  Would the Webkin become ravenous.  Would Webkinz animal control officers break into the cyber house to thwart the abuse ? Would the cat scratch the hell out of the furniture and foul the room before going to the great kitty litter box in the sky – – now that would be virtual reality !

I once again laid down the law that my office computer was off limits.  They saw me for the paper tiger that I am and waited for me to go to work.  They promised me to use the other computer that I had explicitly purchased for them to use to access the internet and play games.  The problem with this fully loaded Dell wireless laptop – – with the chrome bumpers and the V10 engine, is it was now so riddled with viruses that it just laid on its side and as you walked by it would whisper , “ kill me, please, just kill me“.  As we do not believe in computer euthanasia in my house, we just waited patiently for it to die.

I devised a plan.  I must first purchase an iMac for the “power user” 14 year old who has been capable of hacking into the Kremlin for years and has probably been on the payroll of the CIA since middle school.  The plain envelopes addressed to her from Langley, Virginia were a dead give away.  If I could neutralize the power user, I could cut enemy activity by 33% – 45%.  The black pajama crowd was more difficult to disable.  Being young boys, they are predisposed to only hear 25% of what they are told and obey 50% of that.  That is a 12.5 % compliance rate.  As a male, I understand their compliance will never be more than 50% but such a low likelihood of success required drastic measures.  I eliminated instant messaging.  I deleted games and applications.  I reinstalled Norton.  I calibrated firewalls to their age group and entered a new password.  It worked.

Nowadays, I come home and the computer boots up quickly.  The website history is gloriously weak and showing signs of diminished interest in the internet.  I am pleased.  While I write my latest diatribe, I receive an email announced with a “ping”. I toggle to received messages.  It’s a note from someone named Svetlana69 and she wants to know when I want to meet.

The Anxious Dodger

Dodger Stadium
Image via Wikipedia

 

The Anxious Dodger

A springtime ritual of male bonding in 1970’s Los Angeles meant trips to Chávez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles.  It was the epicenter of our baseball universe – the sacred home stadium where each year our Los Angeles Dodgers would battle for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and traffic of sporting events.  Attending a game with 60,000 fans was a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and public urinals.  Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was located in a very rough neighborhood.

The LA Coliseum in South Central LA hosted the 1932 Olympics, the Rams, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and the 1968 Watts riots.  The Forum – home of the Lakers and Kings -was like Fort Apache precariously located in Inglewood, an area with more guards, barbed wire and barred windows than Folsom prison.  Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Los Feliz Hills in East Los Angeles.  East LA was often depicted in the media as an area dominated by gangs and drive by shootings. My father’s suburban anxiety manifested itself each time we would attend Dodger game.  His paranoid behavior made our long day’s journey an emotional roller coaster as we rode shotgun scanning alleys and side streets for potential assailants.

While we lived less than thirty minutes drive from the actual ballpark, we would literally leave hours before the game, as my father did not want to ever be stuck in traffic.  To the chagrin of his sons and wife, he was not particularly fond of going out.  After a hard week at work, he subscribed to the FIFO method of socializing – – first in, first out.

We would exit the freeway winding through densely populated, graffiti stained neighborhoods of chain linked front yards where laundry hung on clothes lines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in a mistral wind. Like clockwork, my father would tell us to duck down in our seats and lock the doors. The toughest person I saw on the street before having my head jammed into my collarbone was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.  “ Careful, dad, that baby might put a cap in our rear end”, my older brother said sarcastically.  At 15, he had begun to challenge my father’s peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity.

A magnificent 1970 Chevy Impala low-rider rumbled past – its occupants patrolling their barrio.  The chrome wheels and custom sapphire blue paint job reflected the hazy midday sun. It was the ultimate Chicano cruiser and we were very impressed.  My brother started to roll his window down.  “ He dude, that’s a cool ca…” My father grabbed him and shoved him down in his seat. “Jesus H Christ. You want to get us killed?”  The driver was a handsome tan twenty-something with arm tattoos and wrap around sunglasses.  He dismissed us with a nod and continued rolling down the street.  My brother continued. “ Dad what does H stand for in Jesus’ name? And isn’t his name really pronounced ‘hey-soos?’ Mexican people are still pissed off about us stealing California from them, dad. I hear they carry machetes and if your car breaks down they cut your head off and stick it on their front porch flag pole as a warning to other people who short cut through the barrio.”

“I’m scared,” I whined.  My brother looked at me disgusted, “ I’m just joking, you peon!”

My father had had enough and looked ready to explode from the goading and logistical anxiety of driving four boys to a baseball game on a hot, smoggy Sunday afternoon.  “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll ‘peon’ you” he snapped.  My brother started laughing immediately and then my other brother realized what my father had said.  I finally appreciated the double entendre and laughed extra loud to convince all that I had known all along that my father was threatening to urinate on my brother.

He would park in the same area, Lot Y – the furthest space from the stadium and closest to the exit of the parking lot.  His greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when LA’s great social insurrection occurred.  He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure would always be building until one day, they would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest.  When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of men with machetes decided it was time to take back the state of California.

Our seats were in the right field pavilion – a word I assumed must certainly be French for outfield bleachers.  The term “pavilion” sounded chic and elite. The fact you were sitting next to a guy wearing a wife beater undershirt and a tattoo that said, “Loco-motive“ did not seem to diminish your sense of prestige.  By the end of the game, you and that maniac were blood brothers.  You might even exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch – unified through the strange alchemy of beer, sun, foot long hotdogs and your common obsession with Tommy Davis.

If you were lucky, you would catch a glimpse of Roger Owens, the world famous peanut vendor whose uncanny accuracy with tossing peanuts made him an instant celebrity.  Owens could thread a needle with a bag of nuts across twenty rows – -consistently landing the salty prizes in the hands of his intended targets. He would throw between his legs, behind his back, often peppering three different individuals at the same time with three different bags.  According to the record books, his all-time personal record of most tossed peanut bags in a game was 2,400 bags set in 1976 in Dallas, Texas, at Texas Stadium during a Cowboys game.

About the sixth inning, my father would begin to furtively look at his watch and sniff as if he had a cold.  This was his “tell –tale” twitch indicating that we were minutes from exiting the ballpark. By the seventh inning stretch, we were being hustled from our seats and running across a great desert of burning asphalt and cars. “ Dad, why are we running?”  my brother would yell as we stumbled toward our car.  “ We don’t want to get caught in traffic!” my father would scream back as he raced ahead. Years later, my younger brother realized that eight innings is not extra innings in baseball.  He had never actually seen a game go beyond seven innings before being sequestered out of the stadium.  In fact, he assumed hockey had two periods, football was three quarters and any basketball game was over once a team went up on their opponent by more than 20 points.

We raced toward the freeway on-ramp, heads ducked in the car, on the look out for General Santa Ana and the Mexican army.   It was all very stressful – the ducking, the running, the rapid eating, the running, ducking, and 130-degree car with windows rolled up as tight as a submarine.  About this time someone would declare himself carsick and throw up.  Looking back, it all seemed very normal.

Years later, as I take my children to Yankee games, I find myself parking in lots that will afford me a rapid escape.  It is the seventh inning stretch and I consider the dreaded purgatory of post game traffic.  I turn to my boys and say,” let’s get going, guys.” There is a huge groan of resistance.  Alas, I have become my father. Yet, with each spring, I repeat our ritual pilgrimage to the Bronx. (Wait, isn’t this the same Bronx where the 41st precinct was called “Fort Apache” and where the gang from the movie “The Warriors” fought a rival gang dressed in pinstripes wielding baseball bats?) Yet, like my father, I brush back my demons with a high, hard sigh because I know to a kid nothing is better than a hot dog, Pepsi, peanuts and a homerun. Eternal youth is walking into a stadium on a warm summer day, the air heavy with the smell of cut grass and the sharp contrast of a blue sky against a green manicured diamond.

In the realms of fathers and sons, there is area where age has no boundaries. It is a safe place where moments are shared and words need not be spoken.  In this uncharted geography, you might come across a place of worship. It sometimes takes the shape of a baseball stadium.  As you get closer, you hear the deep crack of a hard maple bat, the roar of a partisan crowd and a boy yelling to his father above the chaotic din,

“Dad, why do we have to leave the game early?”