I recently published a post ( The Orange Man Inside of Me ) on why I think Donald Trump is bad for America and how “Trumpism” is tainting public opinion and polarizing parties.
I admit that my politics are a mongrel confusion of liberal and conservative beliefs based on personal experiences and influenced by the true north of Karma and the practical GPS of different moral and real world coordinates — data points provided by my friends, my own education, upbringing, sense of justice and my business experience. My DemoIndependican views do not fit neatly in a box and at times, are at war inside of me as the fiscal conservative battles the open-minded altruist for a solution where peace and prosperity can reign supreme. Human nature does not always allow for happy endings. Sometimes we have to choose between civil liberty and national security. It’s not always simple to know the right answer.
I love my friends because they care enough to engage. One close friend, Kaleb, chose to take some umbrage with my recent manifesto about Trump — although we both agree we would like Trump to go away. He felt the need to defend the core of the Conservatives. Interestingly, many of his views and beliefs guided my early years and to this day, give me a healthy respect for those Conservatives like my father who have stuck to their guns. It seems everyone’s message is being attacked these days. You can’t raise the public’s political IQ without giving equal time to help us all find the truth in the middle.
I’m reprinting Kaleb’s response as it is articulate and spot on in reminding us of a platform that has not been able to get traction in Wsshington despite a majority presence for Conservatives inside the beltway…I yield the floor to my colleague from California.
“Turp, Conservatives are not mad because the number of minorities are increasing. We’re not racist, sexist or homophobic. We don’t hate nature or love war. We believe in American exceptionalism, law and order, and liberty and equality under the law – not in the fairness of an outcome. We have observed in human history that progress is made when energy, intelligence and free markets pick winners. Governments are incapable of doing that for long. We have a wise approach to solving the world’s problems that is based in reality and achieving results, not sitting in a coffee bar and enlisting support of “do-gooder” causes that are actually counterproductive to addressing the causes – rather than the symptoms – of many socio-economic problems.
We view people as individuals, not as members of tribes or groups incapable of thinking in ways other than identified by the mass media. With remarkably few exceptions compared to the mounds of demonizing crap heaped on us by the Left, we don’t demean our opponents or impugn their integrity or motives unless they do it themselves. We can win on the merits of our own social and economic arguments and don’t need to resort to Clintonesque tactics outlined in Rules for Radicals.
So here’s the background for understanding Trumpism. Trump is an egomaniac and an ass. The only reasons he’s given prominence by the left wing media are because he “sells papers” and more important, his approach will do long term damage to the GOP campaign prospects by pitting “law and order” Republicans against those who have a more common sense approach to immigration issues. He’s the perfect candidate for the left wing media. Through the Trump campaign they can cover and embarrass Republicans while feeling good that they have been “fair” in covering the waterfront of political positions.
“Trumpism ” is about Republicans who are pissed: not about losing power – but about having gained it and having it not exercised in Washington for conservative solutions. We have the largest number of Republicans in Congress since Hoover, a majority in the Senate and on the US Supreme Court, 31 governors, the largest # of state legislatures under GOP control (68 of 98 partisan chambers) and the most GOP legislators ever elected. Yet the taxing, spending, regulating, Constitutional lawlessness, record borrowing, executive orders instead of legislation, withdrawal from international obligations, using moral equivalency to undermine allies and support terrorist organizations, implement treaties w/o Senate approval, impose more federal mandates, use government intimidation of conservatives … it just keeps going on and on. So Trump calls BS on this, as someone needs to. Good for him. I hope he now gives way to someone responsible who can win the presidential election and turn the tide so that those majorities rule. Isn’t that what democracy is about?”
There is an ancient oak on the corner of my rural street that is always first to turn its back on summer. The pastel colors appear unobtrusively frosting the highest branches and whisper that change has once again found me. Life in a small New England town has its own predictable rhythm of seasons and stages. The dog days of August have been reduced to a collage of digital pictures littered across Facebook pages – a happy memorial to moments when our family once again finds each other for adventures across lakes, mountains and across two coasts of America.
My body and my priorities are shifting with middle age as I become keenly aware of the passage of time. As a helicopter Boomer, I have spent two decades along a thousand green grass sidelines and silhouetted in the deep recesses of school auditoriums. I did not want to miss a single moment of my captive constituents. It is in sharp contrast to my own childhood where we were released into the wild as soon as we could master a Schwinn bicycle. Fathers were only seen after 9PM at night and on weekends.
My Dad chuckles at the myriad photographs of our teenagers logging more frequent flyer miles than a traveling salesman. He wonders whether my insistence on work life balance is an improvement on his T-Rex parenting or perhaps a sign of the permanent blurring of the lines between parent and child and as such, the decline of Western Civilization.
“You don’t see the Chinese attending every school concert.” It’s always about the Chinese.
“Well, Dad, I don’t know. I’m not living there. And besides, most families have only one child.”
We usually end up tangled in a kite string knotted with political disagreement.
“I was not supposed to be your friend. I was preparing you,” he would retort as we argued over his logic enforcing some nuclear punishment for a molecular misdemeanor. Ah yes, grasshopper, times have changed.
I now find no greater pleasure than sitting around an August dinner table becoming the butt of my adult Millennials revisionist recounting of any day spent together – unplugged and in close quarters. As they grow old and leave our nest, the house has transformed into a listless museum of artifacts from an earlier time. I am reduced to a mere curator.
I am the ornithologist who, having spent months feeding his captive condors with a bizarre plastic hand puppet, must now release them into the wild. Our drop-offs at college have now become emotional pilgrimages as we take endless iPhone photographs and splash them affectionately across social media documenting our fledglings in their new nests. This sits in sharp contrast to 1979 when my parent’s loaded up my possessions in large hefty bags — barely slowing their car down to 15mph before shoving me out on to the curb of a blazing hot suburban, Claremont College street.
I could have sworn I heard Dad say, “Have a nice life!” as he whistled “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My mother yelled something about not mixing colored and whites ( she meant laundry) and my father reminded me for the millionth time of the myriad sacrifices he had made to finance my expedition into a private college education. Within days, he would turn my bedroom into a third home office. There was no such thing as a living shrine to his collegiate children. It was his house and he was taking determined to take ground lost to his teenaged parasites…damn straight!
An hour away, I was optimistically navigating a phalanx of young men moving toward what I thought was a keg of beer but turned out to be the only good-looking girl on our entire campus. I was on my own.
My roommate, Donald, was a circumspect academic who instantly assessed that I was going to be a problem. He had arrived hours before me – with both parents. His side of the room was outfitted with a mini-refrigerator, coffee machine, photographs of his family and a stereo system that resembled a NASA workstation. He was an only child.
After living wild among four feral boys, an insane cat and a promiscuous dog, I was unprepared for this massive dose of personal consideration and responsibility. I was a slob and could leave a trail that Helen Keller could follow. I was Oscar and Donald was my Felix. I am not sure which of us was more distressed by the fickle fates that lashed us together. He was a soft, erudite Eloi – spending his early mornings reading the Wall Street Journal in the dining hall, and faithfully attending 8AM classes while I led the sullied life of a carnivorous Morlock, laboring at night – refusing to rise before the sun had arced above the trees to remind me that lunch was being served.
Over the year, the room became a collision of ideologies. One roommate – a German laser guided missile who would make provisions for events that might be years away; the other, a loud Irish skyrocket with no discernable trajectory. Donald was a genuine passive aggressive. He would not have survived a nanosecond in the house of my father. He looked at me as if I was an I-5, ten-car pile up and would talk to himself in first person when he was upset with me. As a single cell paramecium that moved only toward light, food, Grateful Dead music and the opposite sex, I was an alien – an extraterrestrial from a universe that seemed content with chaos and the sybaritic notion that tomorrow was at least 12 hours away.
I caught him one day dressed in his “church clothes”. It was a Tuesday and it seemed odd that this organized Lutheran would be attending a religious service.
“Did someone die? Are you, like, going to a funeral?” I asked.
“I’m interviewing for a summer internship with Goldman Sachs.” He sighed in the mirror as he looped his foulard tie under his collar.
I was perplexed. “Why would you want to work at a department store for the summer? I mean you could do much better working in a warehouse or washing windows.”
He started talking to himself again. “He thinks it’s a department store…a department store…” He left the room. I waited a few minutes and then helped myself to some Chips Ahoy cookies from his refrigerator and turned on an old episode of the Twilight Zone on his television. I laughed to myself thinking of Don working in the Men’s department in some lonesome mall.
It all flooded back to me as I dropped my son off at college this week. In many ways, he is my carbon copy – and each of his life experiences flood me with déjà vu moments of amusement. His departure has left our home with only one child remaining – me. My sixteen year old is unervingly responsible to a point where I am uncertain whether he was a changeling from the hospital. There is now no one to blame for a mess or accuse of eating the last cookies. My collegiate was my air cover and my deflection and I was now releasing him into the wild.
We lugged his bedding, lacrosse gear, clothes and yes, coffee maker up to a pleasant two-bedroom suite on a heavy, humid afternoon. Students swirled like fireflies in blazing red shirts flashing smiles that masked apprehension and nervous sense of adventure. His roommate arrived – another lacrosse player and wide-eyed freshman excited to be free of his hand puppet feeders. Once the all-important beds were made and clothes put away, it was time to leave. The Resident Assistant stopped by to remind them of an orientation session while they stared out the window at a gaggle of girls confidently moving across the quad toward the cafeteria.
He seemed happy. I leaned in, “Be a good roommate. Don’t be a slob. Don’t waste this opportunity.” I was running out of advice – since most of it had already been heaped ad nauseum on his shoulders through four years of high school micro-management.
I turned one last time.
“Hey, if UBS or any of the local business guys interview on campus, let me know. You should get an interview.”
He gave me an odd look. “Why would I want to work at a postal company? I’m wanna make money. Besides, next summer is so far away.”
I opened my mouth and instead just took a deep breath.
It’s June – a special time of year when we dump three million fingerling seniors into the ocean of adulthood. As graduates of the “we will love you until you learn to love yourself” school of helicopter parenting, you don’t want more advice. But, you’re going to get it any way. Most of you just want to head west or south to find sun and towns with no police blotters or curfews. Good luck with that.
Many of you were born in 1996, the Chinese year of the Pig. This explains the state of your bedrooms, motor vehicles and your penchant to leave wrappers wedged between pillows on the couch.
When you were born, most of us read something by Malcolm Gladwell or an article in Parents magazine telling us that if we desired high performance outliers, we had to hold you back a grade. As a result, your graduating class is an uneven skyline of red-shirted college students and overachieving youngsters. Some of you have been driving since your sophomore year – a few legally.
When we were born before the Civil War, the mid wife gave us a swat to make sure we would cry. It was also a preemptive punishment for all the stupid things we were likely to do. When you were born, swatting was considered child abuse, so the Obstetrician merely asked you how you were feeling. You naturally did not respond and so you got a few free nights in neonatal intensive care and we got a bill for $900,000.
1996 was a wild year. A computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov later found a website on cheats and shortcuts and subsequently beat Deep Blue. In 1996, a wonderful microcosm of America passed away before you could get to know them. You know their iconic images but you never really felt their physical presence. Gene Kelly was a star who danced while George Burns reminded us that age was merely a number. Erma Bombeck told us never to give the car keys to a teenager and Timothy Leary, well, let’s just say he explored inner space while Karl Sagan came back from outer space to tell us we were not alone. Ella Fitzgerald improvised her way to become the first lady of jazz while militant and talented Tupac Shakur died as violently as the lyrics of his brilliant rap. Tiny Tim was our first trip through the tulips in light loafers.
You were pretty normal. Like all children, you loved the notion of having special powers. We played Pokemon, watched Dragon Tales and Arthur, read Harry Potter and observed you with fascination as you got your first taste of dystopia in The Hunger Games. Up to that point, your idea of dystopia was a house without a pimped out basement and any kind of “because you live here” chores. A few years later, we all went to Washington DC for a family vacation, and got a real taste of futuristic dysfunction.
We tried to stop you from using violent video games but found them so much fun that we joined you on Black Ops missions. You always shot us in the back. When it came to inappropriate movies, it always seemed that you managed to see gory cinema du jour at someone else’s house. We still can’t figure out whose house because we all claimed that we did not allow blood and guts programming — unless of course, your Mom was out for the night and then we agreed that you would not tell about my smoking a cigar if I let you and your friends watch Jeepers Creepers 4.
For many of you, your biggest problems have arisen out of how to deal with a caste system borne out of prosperity. In life, as in nature, the seeds of true character only germinate during the wet winters of personal crisis. Some of you have already felt the sting of broken homes and tragedy. Green lawns and clean streets don’t immunize us from life. Some of you handled your challenges with incredible grace. Through these challenges, you guys cared for and loved each other. That capacity to put someone or something ahead of you is a sign of great emotional intelligence.
Like all of us you don’t like trials and tribulations. Hell, some of you don’t even like the dentist although it is ten times better now than when we were clutching the chair having cavities filled by escaped war criminals. I digress. The fact is you will need to have your fair share of failures and would prefer to avoid them. Woody Allen once shared “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
You are part of a demographic cohort called the “Millennials”. Authors Strauss and Howe educated us that your tribe is characterized by extreme confidence, social tolerance, a strong sense of entitlement and the narcissistic tendency to take photographs of yourself and post them 100 times a day. Like the generations that preceded you, you are regularly accused of being pampered and unprepared. Yet, Strauss and Howe boldly predict that you will become civic-minded and in the face of some yet to be defined great crisis, emerge as a hero generation. It will reassure us if you occasionally start looking up from your phones – if for no other reason than to see the bad guys when they are coming.
We see you seniors like Internet start-ups — full of promise, cool ideas and with a market cap that far exceeds the fact that you still don’t make any money. However, our irrational exuberance for you keeps us investing.
Please understand we do not like regulating your every move as teenagers but we are now being told that we are bad parents if you screw up. The headline seems to now be that life is over if you get caught doing something stupid. Here’s the good news: You’ll recover. America loves a comeback — just ask Bill Clinton who is the only head of state in US history to generate successive budget surpluses, be unsuccessfully impeached, have an affair, stay married, be President and possibly become a First Lady.
You are smart. You adapt rapidly — some of you resemble human thumbs. But please don’t use your handheld devices as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Nothing will ever replace the joy that comes from helping and interacting with other people. Be fearless. The only thing that seems to really scare you is Tony’s Deli being closed on a snow day.
You are a tolerant contrarian bunch that don’t seem to buy into any rigid dogma that excludes others, labels them or requires a greater than thirty hour workweek. You are like the French. You appreciate the finer things in life and prefer to be on vacation when you are not eating, making out or sleeping. You look great in shorts and Capris while the rest of us are putting in 25 watt Blanche Dubois GE light bulbs – ostensibly to conserve energy.
You have a chance to fix the financial mess we have left you but you have to decide between austerity or trying to grow your way out of the hole. Just remember that a strong middle class anchors any society and the true measure of any civilization is how we treat the least among us. Don’t watch MSNBC or Fox, you’ll live longer. South Park is okay. Life outside our bubble is hard – and not every body wants to play by the same rules. Being a humanist is hard. If any of you start a new political party, count me in – especially if it includes eating Nutella crepes and drinking cappuccinos.
Focus on other people because as a rule of thumb, most of you are your own worst enemy. You will spend your lives on a schizophrenic quest for interpersonal unification — trying to merge the tripartite of personalities that is you — the person you project to the world, the person you secretly believe yourself to be and the person your mother knows. The day those three people become one, you will be officially self-actualized or possibly doing thirty days in the can for having the guts to throw a shoe at a public official.
Life is messy, like your bathroom. You will fail and it will seem weird the first time you don’t immediately hear that familiar whump-whump of the parental helicopter on the horizon. You’ll have your Khe Sahn moments, isolated, no air support surrounded by circumstances that trigger all your self-centered fears. It’s in these moments you will find your capacity to dig in and fight harder. You’ll appreciate everything that you truly earn more than what is given to you.
That sore thing on your hand that you once got shoveling snow is called a callous. It’s a badge of honor suggesting that you worked hard. We can tell when we shake someone’s hands if they have ever met a rake or put in a day’s hard work. Although, be careful being fooled by golfers, they have callouses but tend to avoid late afternoon meetings.
If you choose to attend college, don’t waste your next four years. Get your butt out of bed and go to class. It costs about $2,230 per class so go and learn something. There’s more to life than knowing how to make a mean Mai Tai. To succeed in a flat, competitive world, you’ll need the equilibrium of a jet pilot and the guts of a burglar. You acquire those skills in alleyways, not in your room watching six consecutive seasons of Breaking Bad.
Don’t be a victim. I assure you that whatever higher power you worship has the same desire for you that we do — for you to be happy and to leave the world a better place than when you found it.
Just remember, people are not FTEs or headcount, we are souls on a spiritual journey. Everyone has value. Be a rock of predictability and an oasis of empathy. Never take the last of anything. Make your bed when you stay at someone’s house and strip the sheets. Don’t wear shoes without socks. If your first roommate is nicknamed “Lysol” or “Candyman”, ask for a new one. The semester won’t end well.
Remember Rome was not built in a day and that it rotted from within because of weak politicians, foreign wars and the fact that everyone was inside with their air conditioners on and could not hear the Vandals coming. For that reason alone, always keep a window open.
Be French and live well. Study history and remember the famous line of De Tocqueville, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”
Winter…was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run. – Mark Helprin, Winters Tale
I am swimming through March like a hulking creature trapped under a layer of ice. During this annual period of prolonged hibernation, I only move towards food and light. I am restless, irritable and discontent. If a scientist espousing the irrefutable evidence of global warming were to cross my cantankerous path, I would beat him with my snow shovel and bury him in a shallow grave filled with rock salt.
Each weekend, I don my running gear, desperate for exercise and dopamine. On this particular Saturday, weak sunshine courses through the family room windows suggesting that spring has indeed arrived on the wings of red-breasted robins and lavender crocus
I open the front door to a blast of Alberta air that slashes my face and causes the dog to retreat into the foyer. Brody, my fearless Aussie, looks up at me to gauge my resolve to exercise. He seems to be suggesting that we stay home and forage for leftovers. As it stands, we are already likely to be last to die in a famine.
It is 30F with a wind chill that has reduced the sun to a useless dead apricot in the sky. It seems to have lost much of its potency after a prolonged stay in the Southern Hemisphere. Clouds course overhead casting frigid shadows as they rush to the Northeast to deposit more snow. The bloated pirate Winter mocks us, declaring us summer landlubbers, unfit for the brittle day that hangs like an icicle. Screw it. We are going outside – even if one of us has to eat the other. We brave four miles of northern wind and frozen inkblot ponds. Not a robin or crocus in sight.
We later retreat indoors while the persistent wind claws at our windows. Heat courses out a decade of unattended cracks, broken weather stripping and an attic that could double as a meat locker. My front hallway has more cold spots than a haunted house. Growing up in in Los Angeles, we opened the windows for air conditioning and closed them for heat. It now costs me $100 a month for each precious degree I wish above 55F.
At this time of year, the dividends of four-season living elude me. I don’t really mind the snow but temperatures under 20F really piss me off. As a native Californian I know I have a choice to live here but my home state has changed. I am not sure I am attractive enough now to live in California. I left the Golden State a svelte thirty-eight year old and now resemble a friendly manatee – a work out video’s permanent “before” photograph.
It hurts to know it is 80F in LA. Despite its fiscal woes, a recent 4.7 earthquake (we call these baby tremblers “jello-jigglers”), a 100-year drought and a few mudslides, it still looks pretty damn good.
I recall almost succumbing to the early March Lion just walking five blocks up 10th Avenue after a cab driver dropped me prematurely in ten-degree weather. During my right-angle walk into a fierce headwind, I tried to speak to a mummified pedestrian who sounded like Kenny from South Park. I needed the shelter of a coffee shop.
The faceless bundle of laundry pointed toward a brown awning whipping in the north wind. I exploded into to the coffee shop on a jet stream of angry wind. The pierced, tattooed girl behind the counter considered me with classic militant disdain. She looked uninterested as I struggled to recover the use of my face.
I sat in a corner and considered this subzero moment. The City was now a clenched fist – – rigid, fighting to hold on to everything much like a hoarder refuses to part with any possession. It will not release heat in the summer and clutches to its infertile chill in the winter. We lunge down its streets and cut through its passages, tightening into pill bug pedestrians that hobble between cars and plumes of frozen air.
I enter the lobby of a building on Madison Avenue as a bitter gust courses through the revolving doors. I take the elevator to my client’s floor. It is now like a Native American sweat lodge. I may soon discover my spirit animal as I almost pass out from the ninety-degree heat. In the client’s foyer, I have a heat stroke vision of the great white manatee. The aquatic behemoth moves nimbly under the water, twisting as he scours the ocean floor for turtle grass. He turns and grins with his bizarre prehensile upper lip. He has my eyes. Opal blue optimism shines as he jerks to one side and disappears under a dust devil of underwater sand.
The winter daylight seems to last less than four hours before a purple twilight canopy is cloaked over the frigid boulevards. I exit the office to catch the 6:09 train only to slip on an agate piece of ice that causes my foot to shoot into the side of a fire hydrant. I can almost hear the salt pulverizing the leather of my shoes as I hop on one foot across 38th Street and stumble toward Grand Central.
A bike messenger screams at me as he tears through a red light dressed only in a cotton shirt and spandex pants. He will most likely be dead in one hour but I respect his sartorial protest. He probably thinks he is a snow leopard. I am uplifted by his refusal to allow this frozen season to defeat him. He yells into my face and races toward a different fate.
I am suddenly exhausted and crave caffeine, and carbohydrates. I cannot think too far into the future. I have already overdrawn my bank account of thoughts of warmer days and French jazz spilling out on to a café on the Champs D’Elysse. I am frozen and pissed off. It’s March, for God’s sake. Until May, I will be crowded in a shadowed glen of denuded trees that slowly push buds toward the arching Southern light. Spring cannot arrive too soon. This manatee needs sun, warm water and a little turtle grass.
As I walk across 42nd , I am approached by a gray, shaggy oracle. He greets me in mid-sentence as if we are picking up on a conversation that had been cut short. He is speaking a strange frozen gutter dialect. We are having a NY moment. Crazy always finds crazy.
This prophet speaks to me about the cold weather through a gray tangle of hair, inebriation and filth. He is either asking me for some money or informing me that a group of trolls will begin hunting me tonight. I have violated my Mother’s golden rule of never making eye contact with the insane. Our senses lock and he continues his three-tooth soliloquy that is unlike any language I have ever heard. I am transfixed. He senses my winter lunacy. He has found a soul mate and I’m going to miss my train. I hand him a sawbuck and tumble inside the station.
Two things stay certain: it is still winter and crazy always finds crazy.
“He [Moriarty] is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” Sherlock Holmes, The Final Problem
The last game of the regular season was a nail biter fought against a motivated rival that wanted nothing more than to prove their prowess as a 8-1 team, secure regional bragging rights and defend their year-long hold on the coveted Turkey Bowl championship trophy. Our boys were 12-0 and recently crowned FCIAC champs, now fighting to stay ranked number one in CT and for the right to join the rarefied pantheon of undefeated teams from their high school.
As with all things New England, the weather proved a fickle twelfth man – denying each squad the ability to leverage some perceived advantage. The scoring see-sawed across missed and executed assignments, made and incomplete plays, turnovers, penalties, and defensive and offensive gems. It was a thrill and agony for thousands of Darien and New Canaan fans who left the warmth of their homes in hopes of sautéing their dinners with a win in the eighty-fourth annual Thanksgiving Day meeting of the two border town rivals.
Over the years, this particular rivalry has become part of our unique, small town mythology. As the parent of a senior player, I was very familiar with the families on both sides of the ball – having shared a decade of sidelines with my fellow New Canaanites and equally invested Darien parents at countless football and lacrosse games. The only thing that separated us over the years had been a thin green patch of field and an invisible geographic line of demarcation that moved like an EKG from east to west across Southern Fairfield County.
In a place where we must endure waiting – for spring, for summer, for a seat on a train, for a storm to stop, for electricity to go back on, for a market to turn and for a second chance to right a wrong, rivalries give our lives discreet meaning. Our rivals teach us much about ourselves – how to overcome defeat, how to behave in victory, how to work hard and how to focus. It’s about periodically having your best laid plans thwarted and not getting too comfortable with press clippings or self charted trajectory. Like the old west, it’s a reminder that on any given day, there may be a guy out there who can draw his gun a little faster.
I was informed upon moving to New Canaan that the tribe to the south was indeed the enemy. Like us, they were successful, war-like and athletic. As in nature, there was only room at the top of the food chain for one champion. Initially, I found it hard to distinguish them from our own – and it seemed that our mutual disdain, like property taxes, was foisted upon us when we signed the mortgage papers. We were in fact, like two twisted oaks arising out of the same single root system. Later in life, my daughter would return home from college across three thousand miles of America and announce that her new best guy friend was a guy named Grant from Darien. Mon enfant? Sacre Bleu?
Personally, I love being a part of the almost century long rivalry between these sibling communities. Competition is the essence of our American ethos and it brings us meaning and purpose. A player is not only competing for the right to assert his/her alpha status – a rank which, by the way, carries only a 364 day shelf life; but, the competitor also gets to experience what it feels like to be a standard bearer for their town. Any regional competition becomes much more than a game, it evolves into a hot stove debate over generational genetics and who has the better coffee shop and diner. And oh, those games can be barn burners.
Like Holmes and Moriarty, Superman and Lex Luther or Batman and the Joker, rivals need each other to fuel their own identities. Closer to home, it helps promote a sense of team and community and it creates life lessons. Irrespective of statistical match-ups, each year it seems our teams prove worthy of one another. As in life, there have been epic struggles and disappointing blow-outs, tear-jerkers and made for TV endings that somehow felt as though one or the other side had been favored by the Gods. More practically, these were the first opportunities for high-bottom kids raised in cocoons of managed self-esteem to have to bite from the bittersweet apple of momentary failure.
Any rivalry that runs deep can get out of hand. Having gratefully grown up before police blotters and social media attacks on kids who (yes, it is true) occasionally make bone-headed choices, I have seen fist fights, petty pre-school exchanges between adults, school graffiti and a Wild Kingdom episode from 2012 where some weak prostate alumnae thought it would be funny to urinate on our players’ gym bags (BTW, most of those gym bags smelled the same even after the incident, so the joke’s on you guys).
Yet, compared to some of the dumb things I saw growing up, most of these bad decisions can be classified as misdemeanors of stupidity. (I did, however, think it would be clever to give the first hundred Darien fans urine specimen cups as a gate prize at this year’s Turkey Bowl but I was dismissed from the adult’s table before I could get much support.) The fact is our kids do get caught up in the rivalry and don’t always have the same evolved filters or restraints that adults are “supposed” to exhibit. The good news is kids all grow up and eventually, with exception of Washington politicians and talk show hosts, they learn not to act on the first thought that comes into their head.
I stared up at the scoreboard as the last Ram pass fell incomplete. For the first time this season, it showed a visitor winning the game, 28-24. It was a very sad moment for the senior players and the fans on the west side of the field but I could feel the elation from those parents and families shivering in the visitor section. Yes, a few Darien students ran on to the field taunting us like protestors at a G8 summit but it is hard to take anyone too seriously wearing designer high tops and a Hermes silk handkerchief tied around their face.
It did sting to lose — especially to our rivals. But, there was something about the loss that added another log to the eighty-five year old fire. It created more conversation, more conviction and a level of focus. It passed a baton to a next generation of underclassmen to protect or wrest back the trophy.
Rivalry is part of any ecosystem. It seems at our core, we are all competing and at the same time, need to identify with something greater than ourselves. We need to benchmark our progress against something that we respect that is immediate. It’s in these rivalries that we discover the best and worst in ourselves as communities and as individuals. An annual grudge match that grew out of a muddy field to give bragging rights to one half of a tiny part of Southern Connecticut, has come of age.
As I watched my son collapse on the couch later that day, I knew there was nothing I could do to console him. Time, friends and copious amounts of food and football would ease his pain. These are quiet moments where a pregnant pause can feel like nine months. However, young adults are resilient and life lessons are important alloys to building stronger characters of steel.
“They played well.” He said sighing to no one in particular. “It was a thousand little things that killed us.”
I just sat listening as he deconstructed the day in random sound bites, finally lifting his bruised body off the couch.
“I sure hope we see them again in States.” He grabbed some food from the fridge and went upstairs to take a shower.
I smiled, slowly climbing out of my vicarious parental funk.
I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.
~ Dr. Seuss
The cell phone vibrated against my leg as I sat watching ushers move down the center aisle of the sanctuary carrying plates for its tithes and offerings. It was communion Sunday – a service that often had a life of its own slipping past the expected time of dismissal. I was restless as I saw the LED light flashing through my thin wool slacks. If I could just glance at the…
A “don’t even think about it” Puritan laser penetrated my temple as I shifted ever so slightly away from my disapproving spouse to see if I could work my phone up to the top of my pocket. I was in the last seat of the aisle with a perfect defilade from everyone except my partner who was determined to save me from damnation – and winning my game this week.
I had travelled all week and had been unable to complete my fantasy football roster. I was waiting for text updates on certain injured players – attempting to gain any insights from the NFL hot stove of experts who would recommend a starter. One of my running backs had suffered a concussion the previous week and I was desperate to find out if he had passed his cognitive readiness tests. I was undecided between two receivers and was trying to find out if a certain all-Pro corner would be returning from injured reserve to defend one of my two wide-outs. Earlier in the week I had begun following two of my players on Twitter hoping I might decipher their castrated missives to divine whether they were going to start.
It is called Fantasy Football because those who play it live in a parallel reality. At times, I prefer this reality to my real one. To enable my addiction, the NFL launched Red Zone, a single station airing only seven hours a week on Sundays — dedicated to tracking every score across fourteen games. On any given Sunday, a total of 60 touchdowns might be faithfully recorded and shared with viewers while a masthead of Fantasy Football statistics by position and player streams live across the base of one’s television. Just thinking about it makes me shiver with delight.
Each week, my fellow owners and I drown ourselves in statistical minutiae seeking any advantage the way a stock analyst might rummage through the footnotes of a 10-Q filing. If a player is a rookie, they want to know how fast he completed the three cone drill during the combine? What was his vertical leap? How fast did he run the 20 yard shuttle?
Part of FFL addiction is bragging rights. In a time of political correctness, we are less courageous at home or at the office and less inclined to dish insults or speak our minds. Men need outlets. Each week, I look forward to abusing my fellow owners for their missteps that may lead them to start an injured player or not understand the historical significance of how travel and time zones effect west coast teams that travel east to play away games.
When a fellow owner’s player is arrested in a pink ballerina outfit, driving the wrong way on an interstate in a car loaded with cans of Red Bull stolen from a Green Bay convenience store, it compels me to write my fellow owner a note of condolence. I’m sure he is feeling disappointed in his player and like a parent, only wants what’s best for his 22-year-old wide receiver making $22M. The fact that the player brought to the NFL a rap sheet longer than Eminem, and was acquitted for manslaughter while in pre-school is of no concern. Can he score touchdowns?
A recent NYT op-ed by CD Carter complained that Fantasy Leagues dehumanize players – essentially turning them into cattle to be bought and sold without regard for them as people. The author was deeply concerned. “Instead of a young running back on the verge of a contract that would mean financial security for his family, we see glistening yards per carry. Instead of an aging quarterback making one last run at glory, we see completion percentages and red zone efficiency.”
Uhhh, yeah. I think he just summed up the entire universe of real franchise owners. If you think my lens is a tad jaundiced to the dehumanizing world of professional sports, try looking at players through the eyes of the media, owners hungry for a return on multi-million dollar contracts and coaches whose livelihoods depend on those dehumanizing factoids like completion percentages on third downs, yards after catch and a young man’s probability to avoid arrest for making sexual advances toward beer cart girls at off-season golf tournaments. Alas, there is no room for delicate sensibilities in either the real or imagined NFL. It’s brutal, degrading and dehumanizing — and then there is a bad side.
I realize some Fantasy Leagues can get really out of hand. One could argue the credit default market was essentially an unregulated financial fantasy league where buyers and sellers were promising to indemnify one another based on whether a third-party debt holder paid or defaulted on loans. That fantasy league turned out to have no commissioner and be all too real – ending with taxpayers, Lehman and the stock market taking a helmet to helmet hit on the chin.
Other fantasy leagues can get downright bizarre. Consider About2Croak.com – the too close for comfort fantasy league where you get points if your celebrity dies during that particular year. You pick 25 celebrities and get points based on a system that subtracts the dead celeb’s age from 150. Obviously, your portfolio must include a few sure bets like Betty White but you get more points if a dark horse celeb like Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan choose to steer their Bentley into a telephone pole. Yes, it’s sick but hey, that’s why I like it. It is Schadenfreude on steroids. It’s not enough to revel in other’s misfortune or death, you want to profit by it. Wait, that’s what the insurance industry is for…
Sometimes you need to retreat into a world of fantasy. If medicating your difficult day with M&Ms and Manhattans does not move the needle, it may require disappearing into a parallel universe where you can manage a stable of warriors and win fame with shrewd trades and cunning insights. You can be king or queen for a day and the master and commander of your private cabal of friends. In my case, it’s an eight man, breakfast club that convenes most weekends to commiserate and compare notes on life, sports and trends that make life worth living – like friends and Fantasy Football.
So I’m back in church and I am still distracted. Who should I start, Andre Johnson or Josh Gordon. Maybe I’ll sit Gordon and put in Chris Ivory as my flex player. What to do? I need a burning bush. Actually, I wish had Reggie Bush but someone else got him.
My minister reads a piece on world mission and discusses the riches of ancient times. Gold, silver, ivory…
Did he say, “Ivory”?
It’s a sign. I reach for my phone to add Chris Ivory of the Jets. My wife frowns and whispers.
“Put that away, right now.”
“I have to submit my line…”
She has a black belt in emasculating looks of disapproval. I roll my eyes and abandon the phone. I know better than to take on my commissioner.
After the service, my minister greets us. Knowing his passion for the Chicago Bears and the memory of my wife’s lingering disdain, I confessed my act of spiritual insubordination. He smiled and leaned in, “Go with Josh Gordon. Schaub is playing terrible and can’t throw the ball to Johnson. Besides Cleveland is up against Atlanta and they rank last against the pass. Both corners are injured.”
I pursed my lips and raised my eyebrows in approval. I knew I liked this guy. As I walked out to the Common Room. I heard him call behind me.
I am slowly crossing off items on my “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” list. I have had a brush with a nurse shark in Hawaii, and run around like a headless chicken during Southern California earthquakes. I’ve fled falling ash from suburban fires and narrowly missed the eruption of Mt Etna. This does not even take into account my numerous acts of self sabotage during college. I still have several boxes that remain unchecked: being chased in New Guinea by cannibals, being stuck in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness or watching a Presidential election with my father. But as of last week, we could attest to surviving our first hurricane
Riding out Sandy seemed exciting. We were miles from the coast and nestled in between the shoulders of two wooded hillsides. While a storm meant certain disruption, Mother Nature was also grounding our two teenage sons – forcing our nuclear family back into a week of close-quarter, analog evenings of card games and trash talk.
As the Monday evening barometer dropped, the tri-state was silently cut from its moorings and we floated helplessly out to sea. Above Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, most were cut off and clueless to the insanity raging outside our darkened windows. The wind began to rake across a century of trees – accelerating like a freight train passing across a narrow gauge track. Our electricity suddenly cut-out followed by the reassuring thrum of our generator. The lights flickered reminding us of our fragile tether to life’s basic amenities. Our cable, phone and internet communications provider, heretofore known as (Sub)Optimum, collapsed quicker than the French along the Maginot line. True to their regular advertising, we had once again become victims of (Sub) Optimum’s “triple play” — one hit leading to three outs.
Sandy howled and scratched at our patio door daring us to gaze upon her savage face. Peering through paned windows, I could see the eerie Aurora Borealis glow of transformers exploding in the distance. I acquiesced to Sandy’s taunts and opened the door to bellowing wind, swirling debris and deep, obsidian night. Like so many of the stupid people we see on television, I did not understand that the hurricane had launched a thousand sharpened arrows in the form of branches and sticks — any of which could have skewered this suburban pumpkin faster than you can say “he had it coming”. Our resident risk manager informed me to shut the door and retreat into the house. As I closed one door, the garage door mysteriously started to open on its own, a victim of a confusing electrical surge.
Dawn brought wreckage. The lawn was riddled with angled punji sticks, silently launched from the wild archers of the prior night. A massive oak was uprooted in my neighbor Charlie’s yard – its seven foot circumference trunk proving no match for the invisible hand that randomly harvested it like a troublesome dandelion. A hemlock lay on its side leaving a massive headstone of dirt and roots that reached eight feet into the air. Electrical wires dangled like twisted entrails – a cat’s cradle of broken conveniences – reminding me that my tiny generator and its 150 gallons of propane was the only thing standing between me and the movie The Village.
Over the next few days, an entire region would be reminded of property lines, introduced to tree wardens, forced to read the fine print of their homeowner’s policies and come to grips with terms like: “acts of God”, “proximate causes” and “business interruption”. A presidential election would pass the tri-state unceremoniously like a distant clipper ship. We finally accessed newspapers and televisions and learned of tragic deaths, overwhelmed neighborhoods and homes swept out to sea. Lower Manhattan was flooded and plunged into darkness. Transportation was ground to a halt and the NYSE closed for a historic two days.
I became irritable and discontent. I decided to focus my rage on my cable provider, (Sub)Optimum – ordering them to restore my cable, phone and internet – this very minute. I punctuated my temper tantrum with a firm “or else.”
“Or else what?” inquired the calm therapist who had been hired to mollify abusive customers until their arms tired. I was stumped and hung up.
School was cancelled. The kids ditched us like a bad neighborhood and headed for families with heat, cable and full refrigerators. Every few hours, the generator wheezed like a fat man climbing a flight of stairs and our lights would fade to brown. A yellow warning light began to blink on the generator indicating a low level of oil.
It was indeed a fortnight of strange days. Lines began to form at Steve’s local Gulf station as a rumor circulated that bandits from Wilton had hijacked a gasoline truck and rerouted it to Orem’s diner. I saw six people chasing a propane truck offering money. Someone told me that a woman in New Jersey woke up and found a six foot shark swimming in a salt water filled depression on her front lawn. A teenager was rumored to have thanked his parents for a ride to a friend’s house. My man, Mitt Romney, lost his bid for the White House. To cap a week of indignities, Old Man Winter did an early autumn drive by and hit us in the face with a pie of slush and snow.
The absence of electricity and mass media created a vacuum giving people way too much time to think. Many ruminated over the election and declared the results tantamount to the opening of Revelations’ Seventh Seal. Others quietly smiled in darkened houses and apartments feeling their first flicker of power in a week. I admit I was depressed over the election results. I descended into my usual abyss of self pity with my biggest concern that I would not be able to fit into the cardboard box that I expected to be living in by 2016. My butt was getting too big.
In my darkest moment, the lights suddenly flickered on. The computer router lights grinned green and the television pinged on. If it is true God only gives us what we can handle then it seemed he had determined that I had a low threshold for pain. The good news is we’re all still together. Yes, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. We have to dig out of a mess of trees, wires, budget deficits, mounting debt, partisan politics and disturbing fractures along racial and social fault lines. Closer to home, I will still suffer the periodic indignities of Sub-Optimum and I will keep asking our local officials how much it costs to bury all our electrical wires (according to newly minted State Congressman Tom O’Dea, it’s about $1m a mile). Personally, I will miss my emergency telephone updates. I would gladly pay higher taxes just to have someone walk by my house each night reassuringly yelling “one o’clock and all is well.”
One thing is certain: our ability to gracefully navigate environmental, political, social and climate changes will define us as a generation. Frankly, I’m over my depression. I’m getting energized and am ready for a good fight. You can take away my electricity — but I’ll be damned if you’re going to take away my power.
Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. – Socrates
It was a steamy Saturday summer afternoon in 2003 as we drove home from Rip Van Winkle Lanes where I had treated the kids and their friends to bowling and pizza. As turned north off the Post Road, my daughter shouted to the car, “We’re passing the cemetery; everyone’s gotta hold their breath.” I had a rare epiphany that it would be a bad idea for me to take part in this game as my lung capacity had diminished since my days of holding my breath through the entire Santa Monica tunnel in the West Los Angeles of my youth. I would have a hard time explaining to my wife and auto insurer how I passed out and drove into the living room of a residential home.
On this particular afternoon, I breathed through my nose and inched ever so slightly over the speed limit to allow the children to avoid a haunting. Every adolescent exhaled at the exact time as we reached Norwalk Community College. One breathless little girl confidently informed the car, ”Guys, always remember if you can make it to NCC, you can breathe.”
I would pass our local community college a hundred times over the next nine years – never understanding or appreciating that it was a place where oxygen was flowing back into the lives of individuals who had held their own breath – delaying dreams under the burden of poverty or circumstance. In the last twenty-four months, I have watched NCC transform through its capital campaign and expansion, reaching towards an even higher purpose – nourished by a community, its own selfless faculty and the NCC Foundation, a non-profit seeking to ensure that where ever there is a will to learn, we will always find a way to accommodate it.
Two weeks ago, Norwalk Community College’s respiratory nursing program graduated 34 students. Their average age was 32 years old. They were a diverse group, hailing from fifteen countries and speaking eleven languages. They had overcome incredible odds, difficult curriculum and their own doubts. They beamed and exhaled – understanding that they had achieved another milestone in their climb to greater opportunity and an improved standard of living. The graduates pulsed with a life-force guided by an urgency to give back to a community that had offered them a hand as they lifted themselves above their own situations. They were eager to help fill the void that will widen in the next twenty years as a percentage of an aging Boomer population succumbs to respiratory conditions common to the elderly –chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia.
My friend, Mike Hobbs and Jane H. Kiefer, Executive Director for the NCC’s Foundation had arranged for me to meet a cross-section of current nursing student and recent graduate nurses. I met Tashia, a single mom and fourth year student who returned for her degree at age 34; Maria, a nursing graduate and veterinary oncologist researcher; Nick , a new father and former IT employee who felt a deeper calling to serve in healthcare, Elizabeth , a nursing graduate whose calling was fueled by the energy of her faculty; Eliana, a respiratory care graduate who was racing to get her diploma before delivering her own baby; Victoria, a respiratory care student who was driven by desire to make a difference; Grace, a determined and inspired mother of five who overcame barriers that would have defeated anyone with less conviction about her own potential and Dorcas, a mother of three, who had to defeat language limitations, and the strong gravitational pull of obligations that prevented her from rising above her circumstances. In her journey from minimum wage to graduate, she made a $ 6.10 wage stretch far enough to ford a river of doubt – fulfilling her dream to be a nurse and serve others.
In many instances, the NCC Foundation and NCC faculty combined to provide support for these students helping them through challenging course material, life events and circumstances that would have caused others to let go of their dreams. The heroes in this story are real people – the students and those teachers that would not let them quit. For some, it is a hard to believe chapter in a fairly tale written by countless Fairfield County families whose contributions to the Foundation helped underwrite the dreams of these students in a time when budget deficits threaten to condemn more to lives that fail to reach find their potential.
As we sat in the soft breezes of a perfect spring day, I was moved by their quiet determination and personal pride. I sat next to Tashia, a single mother who recognized that she alone held the key to her own future. An honors student from Westport, Tashia was the first in her family to attend a four-year college but after three years of college, she ended up pregnant by a high school sweetheart and was unable to continue school as a single mother. She needed to go to work and recognized that she had to subordinate all her dreams to provide for her child.
As Tashia focused a new career as mother and wage earner, she became critically ill – ending up in and out of the healthcare system. It was a chance encounter with a nurse that she changed the course of her life.
“At one hospital, a nurse took an interest in me and told me I should go to become a nurse myself. She just looked at me and told me “I can see you doing this, it may be in your soul”…She asked me questions, got to know me and I began to trust her. Knowing how much she impacted my life, I wanted to do more with mine.”
The road to a new career in nursing as a working single mother seemed impossible. But she was not to be deterred. A will to fulfill her purpose was burning and the naysayers, who told her she had one too many obligations to change lanes to a new life, only reinforced her determination.
“I was told it was impossible. However, I didn’t listen (to the critics) because I had no choice. I was determined to finish nursing school and work full-time while being a single mom to a preteen. Doing it any other way wasn’t an option. I worked extremely hard so (my employer) would not let me go. Luckily, I have an amazing boss that has done everything she can to keep me on as full-time. I remember it was about this time that I discovered the movie “The Secret”. It was where I was inspired to maintain positivity in my life. When I spoke about school, I never said ‘if I pass’, I always say, ‘When I pass’.”
She took one class each semester while working full-time. She had to delay her own gratification. Life was about making sacrifices and earning the chance to take another class. I thought of my own community and felt so inspired by a woman who wanted to work so hard for the opportunity to work harder. The ambition to be a nurse could only be accomplished one step at a time and there was no way of finessing the vertical difficulty of her climb.
“I began with Humanities ( and earned a chance at ) to Chemistry to Anatomy and Physiology I and II while working full-time as a supply chain manager at a growing local company. Work was just as stressful as schoolwork but I somehow managed to finish up my prerequisites. I nearly (ended up) homeless. Out of the graces of God, I found a home. I had to complete this program. There were tears, fears, life changes and incredible setbacks, but with the help of my classmates and the help of the school resources – supportive nursing staff, the wonderful women from the FE$P (NCC Foundation) program etc., I was able to succeed. This year I was nominated by a nursing chair for an award, ‘Women of Promise and Distinction’. It was a proud moment and it made me understand that it had all been worth it. I was incredibly honored and surprised! My motivation is my daughter. NCC has given me many things but I believe the biggest (life lesson) has been (to never give up) hope. I now have a future.”
Tashia is just one of thousands of continuing education students attending NCC each year. The leaders I met did not claim to be extraordinary; but treasured their accomplishments and the commitment they demonstrated to improve themselves. They understand that everyone does not succeed and that having a chance to take part is merely table stakes in the game of life. They don’t feel anyone owes them anything but they understand the obligation they have to make something of themselves to repay the acts of unconditional support that were provided at critical times of their journey.
For anyone who cynically still wonders whether the support for community based organizations makes a difference in people’s lives, they need look no further than the intersection of Richards Ave. and West Cedar Road. It is the nexus of will and willingness. It is where an entire community of souls can exhale knowing they have made it past the graveyard of dreams.
I have already come up with a new tag line for NCC: “Norwalk Community College – It’s Okay, You Can Breathe Now.”
“Uniqueness is the commodity of glut.” Matt Ridley, Genome
In the ancient animal kingdom of my youth, there were only two kinds of dogs –mongrels and pedigrees.
Purebred dogs dominated film and television as canines like Lassie and her Aryan cousin, German Shepherd Rin-Tin-Tin, proved time and again that the pedigreed dog was indeed man’s best friend. The mongrel dog, however, was viewed as a poor relation and a mere supporting actor. With names like Tiger and Scout, these mud-bloods were furry accessories and semi-domesticated symbols of the nuclear family.
They greeted us on our front door steps, would willingly eat broccoli passed under the table, slept in dog houses and protected personal property across America’s rural and suburban communities. Mongrel dogs were a microcosm of our nation – a melting pot whose murky mélange of genetics produced a strange but even stronger alloy of person and animal.
Veterinarians were trained in school to use more politically correct clinical terms like “pound puppy” or “mixed breed” to describe a dog with questionable heritage. Our vet explained that our mix breed dog was smart and resourceful – a testimony to his confused lineage and hard knocks upbringing. Max was a poodle, shepherd and terrier mix. It must have been quite a party the night he was conceived. His genetic cards left him looking like the lead guitarist in an acid rock band — wild, matted hair, crazed eyes and an inability to focus. He was a fearless guard dog with the guts of a burglar and a pit bull’s resolve. Max was fearless and would chase anything that moved including cats, trash men, small children and trucks — the latter of which eventually bested him.
Our neighbors on the other hand, had a pure bred Dalmatian — a dog more tightly wound than the lug nuts on a new bridge. Luigi had managed to bite every kid in our town — a rap sheet that his owner felt was undeserved. In the epoch of Jurassic parenting where children were always considered guilty until proven innocent, a kid might come home crying of a dog bite and immediately be interrogated by an angry adult, “ well, what the hell did you do to make Luigi bite your arm?” In these days, children were considered sub-human and the benefit of the doubt always fell to the Kennel Club canine with papers.
Around the block was another purebred – a German shepherd named Lobo who had probably been inbred more times than the descendants of the Bounty on Pitcairn Island. Lobo had bad hips and could not catch an eighty year old with a walker. However, he was crafty. He would crouch by a low retaining wall – waiting patiently for kids walking home from school before he thrust his front legs on to the wall and lunged at us savagely barking. His owner, Mr. Heitzenbach, would yell at us while his dog threatened to turn us into eunuchs. “Hey you kids, quit teasing that animal.” Germans loved their purebreds. Yet most of their breeds –Doberman Pinschers, Shepherds, and Mastiffs were bred primarily for law enforcement or personal property protection. Even my grandparent’s schnauzer, Flossie, had a chip on her shoulder. The only exception to this Aryan purebred factory of fierce creatures was the dachshund, which was really the French’s idea of a funny birthday present to the Kaiser who liked weinershnitzel. As usual, the Germans failed to see the humor and a few weeks later invaded the Alsace.
As an adult, I finally confronted my sense of inferiority for never having owned a pure bred and purchased an Australian Shepherd. I had always been fascinated with working dogs — Border Collies, Aussies and Queensland Healers. Brody, the tricolor Aussie herder was our first effort to join the elite circle of pedigree owners. As I drove to the dog park with Brody, I felt a strange mixture of pride and betrayal. Somewhere in the cosmos, Max was lifting his leg on me for selling him out. Driving into Spencer’s Run car park, I spied a United Nations of breeds intermingling, chasing, tumbling and pouncing.
Brody’s genetic programming kicked in within a minute of the dog park. He wanted to go to work. The park was imploding with happy anarchy and he was determined to restore law and order. I suddenly heard the dreaded four-word query that would plague me for months to come. I scanned the yard for Brody and watched as he stood victorious over a Weimaraner. The incensed owner pointed at Brody and screamed, ” Ok, whose dog is this?”
Minutes later I was skulking out of the dog park like a drunk thrown out of a German beer hall during Oktoberfest. It’s actually hard to get tossed from a dog park or a German bar in October. But Brody had out worn our welcome. As I dragged my happy but bewildered buddy to the car, a woman walked by with a microscopic caramel-colored, short hair dog with massive ET eyes, alert ears and perfect hypoallergenic hair.
“Hmm. What kind of dog is he?” I asked.
She surveyed me and my Aussie as if we were both immigrant convicts fresh off the ship at Ellis Island. “Francine is a triple chi-mini-poo”
“Isn’t that a drink at Starbucks,” I asked.
“She is three parts Chihuahua, one part miniature pinscher and one part cockapoo. She never sheds, understands Spanish and English and has one bowel movement a day that is the size of a peanut.”
I suddenly pondered Brody’s relentless regularity, his shedding, matted hair that required constant brushing and felt woefully inadequate as if my leaping, twisting, enthusiastic herder was an outdated version of some new cell phone.
“Let’s go home, Buddy. I need to read some Tolstoy to you tonight.” I walked away dejectedly and then remembered her condescending look.
“You know, on second thought, let’s go back into that dog park and make some trouble for these mutants.”
As we reentered doggie Disneyland, I was suddenly aware of the weird and subtle genetic nuances in many of these dogs. They were not just labs, spaniels, cockapoos and terriers -they were genetically modified vegetables. An animal scurried by my feet and I jumped. It resembled a NYC roof rat more than a dog. It ran passed me and jumped into the arms of its owners. The man cooed, to the dog-rat saying, ” Good boy, Cujo.” I wondered if Cujo slept on a bed or in a hamster cage.
I could not help but ease drop on two new age, millennium Mendels as they described their genetically altered companions. “Ginger is a ChiShihTzuNot – a Chi Shih Tzu mix with a Nottingham terrier. She’s not like that BullShihtz over there.” She pointed to what looked like a miniature bulldog wearing a curly brown hair shirt. “The Bull breeds are so mischievous and unreliable. Ginger is very consistent. If she scratches at the door, she really does need to go outside to use the rest room. This breed is all business.”
Brody ran off as he spotted a Springer Spaniel racing along the fence line. I could almost see his brain calculating the angle that would assure him the shortest distance to intercept the moving object. As he bolted, I whistled at him to stop. It was no good, his genetics were firmly in control and it was looking as if I would be once again be kicked out of the dog park. In a flash, he closed the distance on his prey and lowered his head, ready for a spectacular takedown. As I winced and cringed, the Spaniel miraculously sprouted two small flaps and lifted itself in the air as Brody crashed into the dog park railing and tumbled head over the heels. The spaniel fluttered harmlessly to the ground and continued on his run. Brody looked like a cold cocked fighter – staggering back to me and collapsing at my feet.
A young man leaned over and smiled. ” Pretty cool huh, he’s one of those Flying Turkey BoxSprings — a cross between a Springer, Boxer and turkey vulture. Apparently, they are one hell of a dog. They even eat roadkill. Don’t you just dig his weird little wings?”
I shook my head and then noticed one dog, walking with determined conviction, his left side to the fence. He patrolled with serious intensity, never leaving the park’s perimeter. He had the head of a mastiff, the wrinkled chrome-blue folds of a sharpei and musculature of a bulldog. He looked powerful but clearly was uncomfortable mingling with the mixed breeds.
“So what kind of dog is that?” I asked pointing at the tough solitary creature.
The young man looked up and shook his head. “Oh Newt, he’s always here. He’s a strange mix between a Neapolitan and a Conroy pit ball. It’s a weird breed. He’s very tough but never leaves the right side of the fence. Don’t approach him from the left, he lacks peripheral vision and he might bite you.”
What the heck do you call a breed like that.”
He smiled and turned to reply as he was walking away.
You arrived eighteen years ago on a cool April breeze. You were late, as usual. The doctor swore that the ultrasound picture showed you with the umbilical cord connected into your ears. It was only when he screamed, “bus, bus!”, that you decided to grace us with your presence.
Some of you were our first kids, while others merely slipped into a birth order and immediately began throwing elbows – fighting for food, attention and a sense of identity. We often watched you when you slept to make sure you were still breathing. It sounds creepy but that’s what you do when you get handed a complex piece of machinery with no instruction manual.
As infants, you won us over instantly with your first drunken sailor steps, gassy smiles, funny laugh, relentless requests for Goodnight Moon and your ability to look us right in the eye and disobey. For a brief time we were the center of your universe but somewhere along the way, we were relegated to the status of a distant planet.
In time, we annoyed you. We hovered – a relentless helicopter thump of windy opinions, emphatic ideas, dogmatic directions, do’s, don’ts – forever laying out an endless highway of guardrails. You constantly probed the invisible fence line of our values probing for gaps and weak linkages – all the while hoping for that one weekend when we parents would be dumb enough to go away and leave you at home swearing on a stack of Bibles that you were not going to have a party. Speaking of parties, we never understood how your generation could be so environmentally correct as to pack up all your beer cans in a hefty bag only to throw them by the side of some random road. Yes, we bugged you. We were always running out ahead of you trying to remove obstacles or prevent you from making the same mistakes that we made in another time when society seemed more tolerant of the self inflicted wounds of youth.
Our job has always been to love you until you learn to love yourself. If you don’t believe us, it’s in our job descriptions which are filed down at City Hall.
You grew up during a time of silver technology bubbles, crimson red real estate busts, and a great purple dinosaur named Barney. We taught you tolerance and tried to explain terrorism. Life swirled around you at fiber optic speed and as the language of society changed, you adapted faster than we did. You became our bridge to a new millennium – fluent in a new castrated language called texting. You shared that The Shins were not just bones in our leg. You gave us endless, magical hours by your bedside reading of Muggles, Wizards and Deatheaters. You were our eyes and ears helping us understand that we were literally the last family in Connecticut that did not possess an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad. Come to think of it, there seems to be a lot of “I’s” in that list of essentials. No wonder the Wii did not get much traction.
We never shared that we have worried for years that you were schizophrenic as you often revealed multiple personalities in the course of a five minute dinner conversation. You multi-tasked like an Isaac Assimov science fiction robot, studying, watching Hulu Plus, listening to iTunes, texting and looking at yourself in the mirror – – while still seeming in touch with reality. Most people of our generation are precribed heavy doses of lithium to prevent this kind of manic behavior and claim to receive their instructions from an alien space craft hovering just over the tree line.
As your parents, we celebrated every one of your prosaic little accomplishments – I mean every one. We attended more recitals, art shows, scrimmages, games, and microscopic milestones – not wanting to miss or regret a moment of your lives. We were and are your biggest fans. You taught us that material satisfaction has a brief shelf life while true joy that arises out of seeing someone you love get what they need, endures.
You are our chance to do things better – to be kinder, more resolute, less selfish and more open and understanding of a hot crowded world. Speaking of “hot”, we are so much cooler than you think but we are not allowed to tell you these stories as it violates the terms of our parole.
We live in a time of viral information. Some of you learned the hard way that a reputation is easier to lose in a small town than your favorite hoody. But don’t worry. One of the advantages of growing up in a small town is there are fewer witnesses. You may feel that you have not accomplished much but you are already ahead of 90% of the world just because you showed up. “And oh, the places you will go!”
To obtain your degree in Life, you are going to have to attend some night classes in the School of Hard Knocks. Bonehead 101 will teach you that your own best thinking can get you in trouble. Advanced Diversity prepares you for the fact that not everyone shares your values, politics or your belief that “The Hangover” was the greatest film of your generation. Tolerance 201 reveals that some may dislike you the moment they meet you because of what you represent or because you forgot to shower that morning. Don’t sweat it. There are 6B people in the world – most of whom do not bathe and who want the same things that you want – happiness, security and 24/7 access to a secure wireless router.
You will need to learn delayed gratification. Whether you like it or not, everything gets a little harder from here and you will wait longer for things that you would like to have right away. There’s more competition for everything – education, jobs, and natural resources – – many of the things that you always assumed would be there when you wanted them.
You will have to author your own definition of success so society does not typecast you into a role that leaves you unfulfilled. Your goal is to discover your passion – this is your “avocation”. Your mission is to find a way of getting paid for performing the aforementioned avocation so that we do not have to keep slipping you $20. This “mission” will be hereafter known in paragraph 3, subsection 4 of our social contract as your “vocation”. The ability to combine one’s avocation and vocation is the holy grail of life. Otherwise, you end up in the insurance industry. In parental vernacular, we refer to any form of compensation you receive from a third party for services rendered as “getting off the payroll.” That should be our mutual goal.
We are proud of you. We have a lot of faith in you. You are smarter, more informed, more talented and more resourceful than many who have preceded you. You figured out how to avoid doing all your chores and still get an allowance. You see the world – not in shades of black and white but as a broad palette of colors and possibilities. As your revered principal has always told you, every door is open to you from this point. It’s only through making wrong choices that you choose to close an open door.
We will miss seeing you at Zumbachs and Tony’s Deli. If you want to come back and visit, that would be nice. We will be hanging out down by the Mobil station. It is the greatest time of your lives – a convergence of youth, strength, possibility, lack of inhibition and personal freedom.
I am struggling to climb out of a deep canyon of mourning and mortality as I lament the loss of my friend, spiritual coach, and former Presbyterian pastor Gary Wilburn.
For the last year, his wife and best friend Bev has chronicled his temporal battle with ALS through a tender email communication across a continent of midnights. Their decision to move to a small town in Baja Mexico so Gary might spend his final days near his beloved Pacific Ocean and family, created a daily odyssey of joys and logistical challenges that left me feeling as though I was a spectator to some grander game of life.
I have written often about Gary, the way an adult might nostalgically reflect on a mentor, teacher or coach who had an influence on their life. We all have people who appear on our life’s path and sadly, it is often in hindsight that we come to realize the gift that was embodied in their ideals, spirit and lens to the world. He was my coach and I will miss him.
Gary Wilburn arrived in California as a young toddler clinging to the hand of a single mother. His father had left the family at an early age – leaving Gary forever wondering what the physical love of a father, a power greater than himself, was like. In a story that tracks remarkably to a biblical parable, he and his penniless mother arrived in Northern California with no place to stay and were shown kindness not by the pillars of society but by some women of ill repute – – spending their first evening among the working girls of a bordello.
His life’s journey would mold the man who would one day decide to become a compassionate educator for justice, equity and humanity. His life was far from ordinary. Yet, he was quick to avoid conversations about himself. He instead focused on those with whom he was entrusted. Occasionally, in quiet discourse and even once in a sermon, Gary revealed aspects of a childhood that was at once, filled with love and at the same time, a more complicated contradiction as his mother worked in a shadow world of government agents and individuals focused on keeping Hollywood and Los Angeles free of the divisive influences of communism and socialism. He would tell stories of a loving home filled with songs and compassion. Yet across the street, a spook my stand in the dark illuminated only by the tangerine glow of a cigarette. Gary’s world was a swirling whirlpool of political dogma and humanity – a mass of seemingly opposed forces.
Gary’s spiritual pursuits were sparked by his life experiences – -a recognition that we were all flawed and fallen but that within us, a divine spark flickers and cannot be extinguished. His mission was to free that light from its prison of self pursuit and self interest.
When we met for the first time, it was if Gary had already punctured through my well developed veneer of fair weathered Christianity and pegged me for what I truly was – – someone with good intentions who rarely acted on them. Instead of lecturing me each Sunday with sermons berating my indifference or patronizing my lack of action in a world filled with inequity and suffering, he led me by the hand like the Ghost of Christmas Present sharing the joys and tragedies borne out of the bondage of self preservation and materialism. Gary knew his flock. They were successful people – CEOs, financial professionals, high performing men and women whose best ideas and self reliance had resulted in material success and comfort. It was an infinitely harder community to convince to pursue a different road when so many had been rewarded in a temporal world for their focus and work ethic.
Gary was determined to share how affluence could become a trap and how believing in yourself as the source of one’s own success, erects your entire self worth on a mortal and inevitably unstable foundation. He tried to teach that spiritual currency of personal worth was of a higher denomination than the temporal currency of net worth. He attempted to show how epiphany could be found in the darkest corners of our lives. Trial, travail, questioning, doubt and suffering were vital DNA for an advanced soul – a soul that understood that there are no burning bushes along this earthly path only people who choose to serve as a vessel for a divine light.
I viewed Gary Wilburn as my coach and captain – – the John Wooden of my spiritual life. Not unlike my hero Wooden, he cared deeply for his “players” and his pyramid for success was built on a foundation of family, service and integrity. His sermons preached relentless repetition of service in hopes that one’s acts of kindness might actually become embedded parts of a person’s character. He understood that it was our nature to be selfish and self centered athletes. For many, we enter life’s parquet courts each day expecting to be the center of the offense. We insist that someone “give us the ball.” It was all about winning the game and the end justified the means. It was up to this coach to redefine what “winning” really meant in an agnostic world that often played by a different set of rules.
Gary would often cry as he delivered his locker room sermons – angered by the inhumanity and indifference that he witnessed in the world. Like children, we would sometimes sit and wonder, “why is he so upset? Is he angry with something that I did?” Invariably, we would be gently reminded that most of our errors were not those of commission but omission. Our fouls were apathy, indifference and a tolerance of the mediocre. We could only win when we played together as a team –as a congregation that was bonded by values and common community.
There is always tension when a coach is whipping his team into shape. Some dislike the pace of change or the candor of the message. A head coach has to deal with alumni and boosters who provide financial support and bring with their contributions strong opinions about the game, how it should be played and what defines success. It seems in sports and in churches, everyone has a different expectation of what the institution should be achieving. Gary understood that an area like Fairfield County could serve as a beacon of generosity and compassion or be seen as the poster child for guarded self interest. Gary was determined to lead his players into discovering the joy of this game called life and to become excited about the spiritual dividends of a life well lived.
Behind every great coach, there is often the partner that holds it all together. John Wooden would tell you the greatest accomplishment of his life was not his winning record or national championships but meeting and marrying his wife Nell. Gary Wilburn would not hesitate to convey his love for Bev who at the end, was clearing Gary’s breathing tube every fifteen minutes through out the day and night so he might live to witness another glorious sunrise. It was Bev’s loving chronicle of Gary’s final days that allowed many of us to grieve more softly in the knowledge that Gary accomplished everything that he had set out to do in life and was wrapped in love every step of his journey.
Someone once said, “the smarter a person is, the harder it is for them to change because they think they have it all figured out. That is why sinners make the best saints. They bring a humility to their spiritual journey which opens the door to understanding. The humble man realizes that one must first seek to understand before being understood.”
I recall a coach in college telling me that I was “over-thinking” things. He pointed to another player who was leading our team with RBIs with runners in scoring position. “He listens. He practices. He does not think about new things as unnatural or different. He repeats them over and over again until they become natural and a part of how he plays. Face it, your best thinking only got you this far. You will never get better until you learn to take someone else’s advice on how to play the game.”
We all need coaches and teachers. No matter how old we are, our life’s journey is one of constant self discovery and improvement. When you are lucky enough to find someone who dedicates their life to helping you become a better person, it is the ultimate gift. Not only do you become a better person for their counsel but you begin to understand that your life’s legacy is helping others compete in this difficult, beautiful game called life.
We lost two life coaches this month. Coaches Wooden and Wilburn have joined a heavenly staff that still stands undefeated. Their one wish is perhaps to keep alive their principles and for us to practice them in all our affairs. We are, after all, their players and our greatest tribute to them is to that we go out every day and compete with integrity always with an eye toward winning the game the right way. Perhaps, we may become a next generation of coaches so that their message might never fall silent in the locker rooms of life.
It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves. ~Edmund Hillary
Gang, you picked one heck of a year to be released into the wild – – and I do not mean your first frat or sorority party. I’m talking about a hot, flat and crowded world that suffers from serial hubris and an inability to learn from history. In the past year, we have seen many people at their worst and best. You eventually learn that everyone is imperfect – except the Dave Matthews Band. It’s hard to believe, but in time, your parents will actually get smarter as you receive higher education. It sounds counterintuitive but trust me.
We are all souls moving along a human continuum that is at one end, anchored by ignorance, self worship and tanning salons and on the other side, is love and humility. Think “Snookie” from “Jersey Shore” at one extreme and Mother Theresa on the other. We each rise and fall along this silk thread called life. It is impossible to be young and not suffer from self obsession, especially when you have a pimple. Many of the mistakes we make, we commit out of self centered fear – – fear of rejection, fear of not getting what we believe we need, fear of fear, fear of not having at least 3 gigs on our cell phone or personal computer. The “Fear List” goes on and on and is normally released once a year by the same people who make the Farmer’s Almanac.
We learned in school about people who have dedicated their lives to leaving the world a better place than when they found it. We found out that conceit and fear have destroyed entire civilizations. Sadly, most of us give up wanting to be President (some of you will eliminate your chances for public office at your first college party). As we grow older and slow from the weight of responsibilities, material pursuit and Krispy Kreme donuts, we lose our ambition to change the world. Churchill once said, “If you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart. If you are not conservative when you are old, you have no head.” Right now, it’s all about heart. Later, it will be about heartburn.
This is your time to indulge all of life’s possibilities and remember that the only doors that are shut to you in life are the one’s you choose to close by your actions or inaction. The French have a term, “raison d’etri”- – translated it simply means: “reason to exist.” What will be your reason to exist? As you head into higher education, gap years, travel, jobs or a period of life exploration, never lose sight that everyone comes off the same spiritual assembly line. We all hail from the same maker – – some of us just choose to become higher performance vehicles, while others succumb to their own self imposed limitations. A few crash and need some time in the shop.
In the last 12 months, you have witnessed a year of firsts – – a new President, landmark legislation attempting to fundamentally change our healthcare and financial systems, record unemployment, environmental disaster, unprecedented human suffering and the acoustic shadows of improvised explosive devices killing American soldiers half way around the world. Amidst this chaotic age of hope, blight and frailty, your lights are shining like head lamps of climbers in a dark storm. Each of you is a candle in the dark – a catalyst for change where ever you go. You do not have to travel to the edges of Darfur to find the marginalized, the underserved, the hopeless and the inhumane – you can actually do this by visiting Congress.
You just have to get out of your self interest long enough to notice need and chances to be of service. It’s like the movie “The Matrix”. Self interest is the blue pill. You can take it and continue to move along life’s path insulated from the ugly truths that lurk on the edges of our lives or you take the red pill, descend down the rabbit hole and see where it takes you.
You always have choices although sometimes, the only thing you can change is your attitude. Feeling sorry for oneself is one of the more overrated indulgences in life. It’s a waste of time. A Czech Holocaust survivor, Sir Frank Lempl, tells a story about his procuring an extra pair of shoes at Auschwitz and having to decide which of his two closest friends (both shoeless and suffering) would receive them. The shoes meant life as winter meant long hours of work in the snow, frost bite and eventual death in the gas chambers when one could no longer walk. Lempl stared deep into his soul, made his decision and saved the life of one friend and could not prevent the death of another. He called it his “Shoe Decision.” In relating this story to a friend, he shared that most decisions in life “are not shoe decisions ‘. Pray for guidance. Try to ensure that your choice is not made out of self interest but human interest, and then get on with living. To Sir Frank Lempl, there is no place for regret or feeling sorry for oneself. Pick yourself up, make your amends and get on with life. It is worth noting that Sir Frank came to London penniless when he was 50 years old and founded one of the largest construction companies in the world, Bovis-Lend Lease.
Your best lessons will come in the form of pain – – physical, emotional, intellectual and psychic. These moments of clarity are difficult and at the times, you will not see the forest for the trees to realize you are getting exactly what you need (BTW, this will always be different than what you wanted). There will be days when it seems like the entire cosmos has turned its back on you. Remember that you are only given what you can handle and strife is the ultimate compliment from a God who has a wicked curveball and a highly evolved sense of humor. Your essence of being a person, along with gray hairs – will emerge from these trials. You will discover a lot about yourself and others – who your real friends are and who were only hanging around for the free food.
To learn to forgive is like learning how to eat right, you will never regret it. Resentment is junk food – it only creates emotional fat and has no value. I have to admit vindictiveness tastes good but it ends up giving you reflux – (ask your dad what that is). Pray for your enemies. Praying that the idiot who bugs you gets whatever they need is hard. Understand though, that by forgiving, you take away people’s power over you. It is true. Trust me. I tried it once and it worked! It’s hard to do – sort of like learning to juggle or riding a unicycle. However, once you get the hang of it, you suddenly realize that no one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.
Whatever you have done up to this point, it does not really matter. That’s bad news for the social X-rays and drama queens but great news for those of you who remain undiscovered or ended up in the police blotter. You are all equal sized tadpoles and will now be swimming in a bigger ocean. Sorry to break the news to you amphibians but we are all here but for a brief period of time so make the most out of it. Dance with your hands outside the safety zone. Risk rejection knowing that somewhere out there, someone beyond your wildest expectations is waiting to be your partner – you just may have to travel through Slovenia to meet them.
Do not get depressed about the way you find the world. Your job is to change it and our job is to try to stay out of your way while you pull down some of our grand monuments to self interest. Don’t blindly accept a two party system. Crank the music but invite your neighbors to the party so they do not call the police. Write thank you notes. Do something nice for someone every day but do not tell a soul – – it is the ultimate overture of selfless service. The good news is the most important person – you – will know what you did and 365 acts of kindness later, you will be changed for the better.
The people who seem so important today may not even show up to your 30 year reunion because high school was their life’s high water mark. Other less visible classmates that did not appear to have it going on will end up doing some very interesting things. Some do not ever return so cherish your time together. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, you may not like the answer.
Above all, enjoy these years where your bodies are strong, your ambitions are boundless and your belief that anything is possible is amplified in every cocky little thing you do. Just remember humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is simply thinking of yourself less of the time. It is also occasionally taking out the trash without being asked.
Go get ‘em. Breathe deep and scream at the top of your lungs. Never give a ride to a hitchhiker with a prosthetic hook. Don’t party too hard – all you are doing is medicating your ability to live life. Hendrix, The Doors and Dave sound just as good without losing control and you are much more likely to sing on key. Try to change your bed sheets at least once a semester and remember not to mix colored and white clothes in the laundry. Exercise regularly – – the “Freshman Twenty” is real!( ask your mom). And yes, according to Dr Fessler DDS, you still must floss.
And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected. – Spike Milligan
The first omen was a door that was practically ripped from my hands as I attempted to enter Zumbachs Coffee for my noonday latte. Although midday, a sinister pall of slate gray twilight had descended over the south side of town. A plastic bag whirled in tight frenetic circles as fat rain-drops began to splatter across the hoods of parked cars. It seemed as if everything was suddenly holding its breath.
After a winter of discontent, an uneventful two days of rain seemed a modest down payment towards spring. The Doppler radar on the weather channel had shown bright bands of swirling concentric green and orange driving up the eastern seaboard and circling counter clockwise from west to east. It was a classic late winter nor’easter but with forecasted wind gusts of 40mph it was hardly March roaring like a lion. It would be a fine day to make a fire, be worthless in my favorite chair and annoy my spouse.
As it was the weekend, I was assigned drop-offs and pick-ups. Around 3:45pm, I shuttled my youngest son over to a sleep-over, a mere milk run mile from our home. The wind had picked up and the road was littered with the leaves, rotten sticks and broken branches pruned and tossed aside by a mysterious hand lurking somewhere west in nearby woods. I noticed a tree had fallen in my neighbors yard – its roots completed uplifted in a great, gaping circle of sod. It looked like one of those HO Scale trees that would fall over on your electrical train set when the glue finally lost its adhesive. A little further up the road, I saw another splintered white pine with its branches weighing down a power-line to within a few feet of the ground. White sparks flew from the wire.
As I slowed to rubberneck – indulging both my son and my inner pyromaniac, a 20′ long branch rushed down from the heavens crashing across the hood of my soft top convertible, shattering the side mirror and careening off to the driver’s side. I slid to a stop and turned to my son asking him if he was ok. We realized that we had just missed being crushed through the canvas top.
As I gathered myself, another tree fell across the road. Exhilaration and adrenaline suddenly arced into electric fear as my adventure disintegrated into the movie, “2012”. I was suddenly angry that I had not checked my Mayan calendar that morning. I would have seen that today was a dress rehearsal for the end of the world. At a minimum, I would have told the boys to wear clean underwear.
And so I became a hapless protagonist in some disaster film. Would I be listed in the credits by name or merely as “Driver No 3″ – who is electrocuted into a burnt chicken about two minutes into the heart pounding disaster sequence. I hit the gas and over the next 100 yards was pelted with flying debris, horizontal rain and even thought I saw a flying cow. I kept looking for the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse but realized they were in Washington trying to get the healthcare bill passed.
After getting my son safely to his destination, I spent the next 45 minutes trying to find an open road to my home. Every street was blocked. Certified Emergency Response Team volunteers, already mobilized with chain saws and yellow crime scene tape were trying to redirect determined drivers from recklessly forging through the debris and possibly into downed electrical wires.
It did not seem to register with people that this situation was serious and beyond their control. In fact, some drivers were visibly outraged at the volunteers as if the CERTS had somehow been off behind a barn playing with a Ouija board and caused all this to happen. I could almost hear the words from the angry man in the Mercedes. ” I need to get through.” He shouted. It was the same guy I see at the airport trying to cut to the head of the line because he is more important than the rest of us. The volunteer was infinitely patient but I am sure was thinking: ” Unless you are from Cablevision and on your way to my house to reconnect my cable, you’re out of luck pal.”
My neighbor Charlie is one of those brave souls that gets calls in the middle of the night saying, “please go stand in the middle of some dark road and help inconsiderate people get home safely – oh, and be nice. Nice towns have higher property values.” Personally, I’d rather stay in bed and be judged on my good intentions. I am sure some people actually think these emergency response volunteers are on some kind of power trip. Actually, it’s the opposite. When there is no power, they get to take a trip – to some lonely ebony intersection and wait. It’s cold, thankless and dangerous as numb skulls drive right up to within two feet of your soon to be severed legs and ask impertinently ” how do I get home?” to ” how come I was not informed that a storm might prevent me from getting home?” What do I look like a Garmin to you?
I encountered more downed trees. Fences were ripped open and a barn was crushed under a massive hemlock that could no longer handle the 60-70 mph gusts. I weaved a serpentine route through north Stamford and finally arrived on my street. The wind tugged at my car door handle trying to get me to come out and play.
The entrails of my side mirror hung out like the guts of an injured buddy in some war movie. I could almost hear my car, coughing and sputtering. “It’s getting dark. I can’t see your face any more. Can you please just give me a little drink of water.” I turn to the mechanic. He shakes his head. ” You can’t give a guy who is gut shot anything to drink.”
The shag hickories and pines raged overhead like run-away locomotives. I was now leaning over my front wheel like an octogenarian on a Sunday afternoon drive. I finally rounded the final corner of my road and glided into my garage, a broken skiff barely making it to safe harbor.
As I entered the mudroom, the house was flickering like the haunted mansion at Disneyland – lights were dimming and suddenly glowing brighter. The roar of the generator brought both relief and annoyance as I knew our power had failed.
The generator was an expensive but important investment made over three years ago when a fierce January blizzard turned our home into a Finnish ice hotel. Pipes burst and I slowly fell out of love with every material possession I owned. I had new respect for the men of the Hudson Bay Company who lived and trapped along Canada’s great Hudson bay often enduring winters where an inch of ice would form on the “inside” of their winter log lodgings.
After two additional black outs and confirmation from neighbors that our street was what long time CL&P vets referred to as ” FOLO” ( First out, last on ), I vowed to never again be given a wedgie by Mother Nature. I researched generators capable of powering my home for weeks if necessary. When I realized these generators were the size of mid-sized sedans, I settled for one that could power a modest consumption of electricity for three days.
I had endured blackouts before in Southern California. Most were short lived brown outs during heat waves – perfect storms of air conditioning units being activated at precisely the same time. It was there I got my first exposure to a public utility.
My father would later sarcastically explain to me that it was a “special” kind of person that chose to work for a utility. I assumed he meant those X-men and daredevils that lived to go out in storms to rage against nature – wrestling with electrical wires spitting like poison Cobras, mending broken limbs and clearing fractured thoroughfares.
Dad was referring to the management back at the utilities’ home office. Seems the field force were rough and tumble, ready for action soldiers but there was always someone in the head office who had to deploy the teams. They were, in his words, “bureaucrats.”
“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” he ranted. It seemed harsh. Perhaps they did not know any better – being forced to grow up playing little bureaucrat games, “Ok, everyone, stand in a circle and the first person who does anything loses.”
I picked up the phone. It was dead. The Internet was out and cable was not functioning. I now understood what it meant to be part of Cablevision’s Optimum Triple Play. ” Buy three services from us and if nature hits a hard line drive, you are out — three times. ” Being a baseball player, I should have remembered a triple play was a bad thing. I called the cable company from a cell that does not get reception. ”
Welcome…push number…English…service…answered in the order…twenty minutes.” I hung up.
On Sunday, I surveyed what appeared to be a series of bombs having been detonated all over town. Yet, I did not see a single Connecticut Light & Power truck. I saw the police and volunteers but no utility. Perhaps CL&P were without power and waiting for someone else to come turn on their electricity. I did not realize it at the time but the rumor eventually got out that some middle manager at CL&P would not release the X-Men and daredevils to clear our driveways and fix our wires because the utility did not want to pay their workers extra time for working on a Sunday.
Bureaucrats! I knew it!
Well, for the next four days we fell back a century. We played games, built roaring fires, and watched DVDs on our personal computers – just like the pilgrims. I read an entire book. We hosted a few friends who were in need of a hot meal and warm shower. It was an adventure.
Driving to work the next day. I saw utility repair trucks from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and even Quebec. I spotted a CL&P truck on the Merritt parkway exiting off exit 31 to North Street. I guess once the threat of time and a half had passed, the bureaucrat allowed all to go back to work. One of my colleagues who lives in Stamford accused me and the other “rich” people of New Canaan of redirecting all the utility manpower from Stamford. That one stumped me. ” I actually think all the CL&P guys are in Greenwich eating quiche as the bureaucrats started alphabetically, and everyone knows G comes before N and S. She was unconvinced.
We survived. The car has $2000 of damage but everyone is all right. I was lamenting my experience on a sideline at lacrosse last week. On the drive home, my son asked me, “Dad, what’s a bureaucrat.”
I thought for a moment and said, ” someone who does not want you to have electricity.” He seemed satisfied with my answer.