Here’s the link to the new book, “53 Is the New 38”. If you are a fan of the blog, I’d encourage you to click on the link https://www.createspace.com/5704941 and order a copy for friends of family members. It’s just in time for the holidays. If you are middle aged or trying to convey to someone the utter thanklessness, ironic humor and indignity of middle age, this book offer you a voice of protest or a laugh-out-loud escape. Hope you enjoy it.
In 1972, a bellicose French nationalist named Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front party and began chipping away at the veneer of France’s ubiquitous reputation as an open bridge to the third world and a bulwark against US hegemony. For its first fifteen years, the National Front was marginalized to the fringes of French politics and associated with extreme solutions and isolationist policies.
In the late 80’s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and deconstruction of the USSR ushered in a period of economic and political immigration across Africa, the Middle East and Europe not witnessed since the turn of the century. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union would be among the first nations to provide aid and infrastructure to countries experiencing civil, political, environmental and economic upheaval. The two nuclear powers were engaged in proxy wars fighting for the hearts and minds of unsettled nations hoping to advance or blunt one another’s ideologies.
With the deconstruction of the former Soviet Union, nations in turmoil suddenly became the burden of their closest Western neighbor. What was once the foreign policy problem of two superpowers became the yoke of European nations.
As immigrants flooded the border regions of various Western European countries, including France, racial and religious tensions escalated as refugees put a strain on social services, took jobs and in some cases committed crimes that seemed, to locals, to be an inexcusable act of biting the proverbial hand that was so generously feeding them.
The nadir of the “Le Penizination” of French politics hit in the 2002 Presidential elections when Le Pen finished ahead of then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and second to Jacques Chirac. Jospin and his Socialist Party was humiliated in his third place finish prompting Jospin to immediately resign from public life. Le Pen would now run against Chirac for the French Presidency.
The significance of the election did not make the front pages of American newspapers but moved with the speed of the plague across European and world media. The Le Pen vote was correctly interpreted as a referendum on many things — French leadership, a flagging economy, and higher unemployment but it also insinuated an ugly aspect aspect of the French character that had been so well hidden under the perfume and liberal élan of a historically open arms foreign policy.
The French electorate were elated and horrified at what they had set in motion. Most were publically proclaiming embarrassment that such a bigoted politician could insinuate his way within one step of the Presidency of the Republic. “Mon Dieu, how can this be? I did not vote for him!”
Obviously, someone checked the ballot for Le Pen and a quick analysis of the French voting districts confirmed that the majority of disaffected votes came out of the industrial regions and border provinces where Le Pen’s venomous attacks on immigrants found fertile ground.
To some, Le Pen was a lunatic ultra nationalist preying on the fears of a xenophobic population that was not coping well in a post Cold War world. To others, Le Pen was a savior from the Age of French superiority and self reliance. He was a ronin samurai beholding to no master except his conscience and the notion of France for the French. It seems he had nothing to lose and therefore, had no governor controlling what he said, when he said it or who he might attack in the name of unsanitized candor.
Embarrassed by accusations of closet racism and geopolitical disingenuousness, the French voted overwhelmingly for Chirac in the subsequent Presidential run-off, cutting Le Pen one step short of the highest office in the land. The French breathed a sigh of relief and went back to their espressos while other demagogues and charlatans took notice.
I was in the airport delayed and killing time by watching the recent Republican debates on Fox. An older gentleman in his mid-seventies watched bemused as candidates jockeyed for microphone time while Donald Trump stood with a look of superiority and self satisfaction not witnessed since Mussolini on a balcony in the Piazza Venizia in Rome.
Trump made quick mincemeat of Scott Walker and turned on Carly Fiorina. The man next to me shook his head and laughed,”You got to love that orange son of a bitch. He calls it like he sees it and is the only one who will tell the truth.”
It was not the first time I’d heard a rational person identify with the edgy Trump diatribe and admittedly, I found myself amused at his fearless political incorrectness. The “orange man” was indeed stating the obvious and telling it like it was. “The Russians don’t fear us. The Chinese are duplicitous trade partners waiting patiently for us to sell them the rope that they can use to hang us. Meanwhile, you guys are like Nero and his cronies fiddling while Rome is burning!”
The orange demagogue had some easy targets that night but he clearly is no champion for truth or fair play. He was, in many ways, a manifestation of the kind of person I have tried to avoid becoming over the course of my adult life. He appeals to the cynic and nationalist in us. Trump panders to the part of anyone that resents that fact that they have become part of a new minority where the “have nots” are voting people into office that conspire to raise taxes, mortgage our children’s future and give free stuff to illegals who refuses to even learn our language.
And this is when my father says, ” and your point is?” He often asks this with a mouth full of food prepared by his caregivers, who are all immigrants.
My point is that Trump is our generation’s Le Pen. He is a manifestation of shameless self-promotion and inflammatory rhetoric. He is the underbelly of American capitalism — a hubris ridden, self-aggrandizing buccaneer who lacks empathy and real hair color. There is nothing natural about the man.
It’s easy to pick apart what’s wrong with a country that is leveraged with debt, saddled with complicated social problems and guided by politicians that are more interested in their own survival than in serving as catalysts for change. Yet, I’m not so sure it’s an option for the USA to default on our debt in the same manner the Donald defaulted over four corporate bankruptcies.
It’s a hard job in politics to be a constructive catalyst for change and to exhibit the rare characteristics that bring people together and overcome partisan paralysis — attributes revealed in the energy and wit of Lincoln and the tenacity and courage of a Truman. The orange man grows off our fear and worships at the altar of himself. He knows that self interest is at the opposite end of self sacrifice.
Yet, the beauty of a democracy is you are allowed to vote out of self Interest. A democracy feels great when you’re in the majority. Changing demographics have relegated a generation of US Conservatives to the minority and they don’t like how it feels. It turns out that it’s no fun having your views ignored and concerns swept aside. It’s agonizing being force fed ideologies that chafe against your own beliefs and when the power to pass legislation passes to the opposition, it sucks to see the institutions you hold dear dismantled. It’s even more complex when the minority is the economic majority.
The Pareto Principal suggests that in a balanced market, 80% of the wealth will naturally find itself in the hands of 20% of the population. A natural bell curve of competence favors and rewards a minority. Should this minority be punished for their innovation and success? Yet, when 80/20 becomes 90/10 does the imbalance create a black hole of civil unrest that can destroy the society? The orange man seems to be suggesting that if we mess with the natural laws of selection, we are in deep doo-doo. He does not believe in the better angels of our nature. Might makes right and we should be justified in our fear. A vote for the orange man is a vote for the manifest destiny that once made America great — for those of us who were born here and love our country. We don’t believe in free-loaders and illegal immigrants. Hell, send ’em all back where they came from.
Yet, self interest is a tricky thing. In modest portions, it is compulsory to compete in a flat, crowded world; but, too much of it finds people running over others as they seek to get what they want. Being a minority often leads to hopelessness. Langston Hughes warned that there is nothing more dangerous than the man who believes there is no hope. Fear and cynicism are the currency in the realm of the minority. The majority will tell you to get over it. When you are in the minority, you may accuse those who don’t relate to your plight as ignorant or insensitive. You agitate for change and you look for a champion.
The key is seeking to understand that the world is not black and white but a color bar tinged with shades of gray and that for better or worse, we are a melting pot that we made great by our heterogeneity. How we balance meritocracy and free markets with social responsibility is a tough question. This is a much tougher query than who’s picture should appear on a ten dollar bill.
The orange man is inside everyone. He comes out when we are afraid that we will not get what we believe we need or want. He comes out when things don’t make sense. He pushes the panic button and says if we stay on this path, we are all screwed. Yet he has no answers — quick to kibbutz but purposely vague on how he might correct our course.
The fact is we are better than the orange man inside us. We can’t listen to those who speak only to self interest and fear. That’s where faith comes in and our belief that we can build a better tomorrow and still serve a higher purpose and a radius of responsibility beyond those we know.
I still don’t know who I want as President. But I can tell you who I won’t vote for — and if you give me a shirt for my birthday, just don’t make it orange.
I never thought of him as a bigot. For as long as I can remember he’s been an opinionated old man. Half the time, I didn’t really get the specific issue he was ranting about. He was just my neighbor, “Mr. C”. It was not until years later that I was old enough to recognize the fear and uncompromising distain that tinged his political diatribes.
He never seemed concerned that I heard him swear or cast aspersions on a particular ethnic group or politician. If it was happening on his property, he behaved like he had a sovereign’s immunity from consequence. We’re both older now — he well into eighties and me in college. I still go over and talk with him. I tend to cut older people slack and excuse any outburst as a symptom of mental deterioration — a circle of life where an adult once again passes through adolescence on his way to an increasing dependence on others. It’s got to suck, you know — getting older.
I fundamentally don’t agree with his views or the way he plants them like posts that support a barbed wire fence. We all make choices and should not be given a free pass to say whatever comes into our head without regard for others feelings or facts. People sometimes hide behind physical or emotional limitations and use them as an excuse to be exempted from social consequences. We too often give old people a get out of jail free card if they express hyper-orthodox views on sex, religion and politics.
Octogenarians don’t seem to care what they say. Hell, some older people don’t even zip up their pants or wipe their butts. I suppose I’d be cranky too if my body was failing me and the society I grew up in was moving away from the values that had served me as such a reassuring set of guideposts. I guess I’d feel everything was going to hell and I’d look to blame someone for the decline of the world, as I once knew it.
Mr. C was brought up by depression era immigrant parents – a silent generation where everyone feared everything and for good reason. There was high unemployment, poverty, diseases and other immigrants taking jobs. Every town had some kind of social hierarchy based on economics. Your goal was simple: stand on other people’s shoulders and use your God given talents to meet or exceed your parents’ standard of living. If that situation persisted today, it would weigh heavily on me. I’m used to the instantaneous resolution of a pill or a computer app. Today’s average person does not abide by lack of resolution and persistent uncertainty.
It seems his generation had to muscle through difficult times and accept uncertainty as a constant companion. In those days, a guy had to run over fear or be paralyzed by it. Mr C. clearly spent his life running shit over. He went into the Army to finance his college. He hated the Army but honored his commitment. No one ever gave him anything. He had to work for everything. As a result, he has little empathy for people who blame society for letting them down.
“A ‘victim’ is someone who is dead. Any one else is a survivor and must dust themselves off and get on with life. The world is not fair. There’s no such thing as society letting you down. Only you can let down society. The more we make it about ‘me’ and less about ‘we’, the closer we are to the moral decay of ancient Rome.”
I liked listening to him talk to nobody particular. Mom hated that I hung out at Mr. C’s but he paid me $4.00 an hour to weed his yard.
“Listen, charity is important part of any society but helping one’s fellow man is a personal decision and should be driven by those who feel the need to serve. Legislated charity is a slippery slope. It starts with the best intentions as a critical safety net for the less fortunate but when we introduce government into the mix, it quickly becomes a hammock. Beware of those with good intentions. It’s human nature to stop working hard if you can get things for free.”
The condition of dependence and rationalized victimization seem to my Mr. C to be most prevalent among American blacks. He points to Asians and Latinos as more cohesive communities that are anchored by a strong work, family and religious ethic. Bolstered by stronger values, they do not suffer disproportionate incarceration, poverty and mortality rates.
“I don’t know what happened to the black community. They can’t seem to elevate themselves above their circumstances and don’t realize that liberal politicians have kept them in perpetual bondage by validating their misguided sense of being victims. Give them welfare and buy a vote. Jesus, slavery ended 200 years ago. When are we going to stop allowing them to use Jim Crow as an excuse and take responsibility for their inability to win their own futures? ”
Nowadays, Mr. C’s political diatribes are prompted by an email forwarded to him by one of his retired friends or the Fox Channel that blares in his house every day like a loud speaker in some Pol Pot political reeducation camp.
He seems to fit all the traditional definitions of being prejudiced. He clearly has a problem with blacks as he feels they represent the most broken part of our society. He is quick to point out that blacks have much higher rates of incarceration, single parent homes and kids being born out of wedlock. The high school drop out rates are staggering and college graduation rates are sickeningly low. The mortality rate for urban African American men under the age of 25 is as high as Marines in Iraq.
I wonder why. Did we do this to them or did they do this to themselves? Who is responsible? Is it someone’s legacy? When does the current generation own their circumstances? Is that fair? How do you break the cycle of poverty and prejudice?
For someone who shows me so much unconditional love, my neighbor has no empathy for people he feels won’t help themselves. It’s a strange paradox to be loved by someone who is not family and at the same time, has so much disregard for and sectarian fear of others. I see so many things in him that I admire and I also see this great stain on his heart.
I guess it’s natural to see contradiction in people, as you become an adult. It’s that way with your own nation too. As a child, you idolize your parents. They are the center of your universe and they can do no wrong. Their views are your views.
Eventually, you develop your own opinions and values formed out of experiences. These nascent interpretations come in conflict with the dogma you so easily accepted as a child. You question and occasionally challenge adult’s simplistic views to complex issues. Some of these views are insensitive to the realities of now. One day, you come to the realization that you still love your parents but now see them for what they are — human beings with contradictions and biases influenced by their own lives.
It can be the same way with America. You love your country but as you mature and become more well read about alternative forms of government and the diversity of the world, you don’t fully buy into American actions with unequivocal support. You begin to question things and at times, disagree with Monroe Doctrine manifest destiny and the claim that we permanently occupy moral high ground because we are a free market democracy.
Yet, that’s the beauty of freedom. You aren’t required to be black or white, right or wrong. Much of life is indeed a color bar of shades of gray. The only sure way to raise your intelligence around racial, social, moral or political issues is through experience and informed debate. You must seek to understand people before being understood. I suppose bigotry is at its core, the refusal to engage in any other point of view.
I don’t know what’s happened in the seventy years that separates my Mr. C and I. I know that the 1960’s were a time of great social upheaval. A new generation tore away the fabric of nuclear family, white picket fence suburbia that had defined their generation’s goals and held them together during WWII and the Korean War. Mr. C deeply resented this disregard for American ideals and felt threatened by those that actively questioned the institutions that he felt made this country great. They had yet to pay the dues necessary to earn the right to bite the hand that fed them.
The further from crisis a society grows, the wider the generation gap between those that lived it and those who are raised on its distant mythology. Mr. C and I clearly use a different yardstick to measure success and progress in life. My generation wants to be happy and is not hung up on social conformity or political solidarity as a basis for belonging. We have been brought up to celebrate diversity and to cut other people slack for being different instead of challenging them to conform to a moral and social two-party system that does not adequately represent today’s diverse society composed of so many different voices and views. I don’t care if you’re gay, straight or transgender. You have a right to choose and to not die broke paying off a healthcare bill. It’s your life. Be happy.
I can see his eyes narrow and react to my occasional Rachel Maddow bleeding heart commentary. He calls me a “commie” even though Communism has passed the scimitar to Islamic fundamentalism as the greatest threat to the West. It’s clear to him that I’m not buying in to his generation’s notion that the best societies are Darwinist meritocracies where people must have the discipline to succeed or reinvent themselves to better compete. Yet, many who fail don’t reinvent themselves. They become wards of the criminal justice or welfare systems.
Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate men as they pay back society for their crimes. Welfare is intended to be a stopgap hand up until one becomes self-sufficient. The linchpin to his system working is personal transformation — private change with as little help from government as possible to ensure public debt does not grow and personal and corporate taxes stay low to enable to strong economy. “Jobs do more for self-esteem than a welfare check.”
It all sounds great but this change does not seem to be happening as more wealth gets concentrated in fewer hands and jobs get shipped overseas. The trickle down economics of Ronald Reagan seems to be drying up for the majority of the U.S. middle class.
I encourage my surrogate grandfather to read Jill Leovy’s book, Ghettoside, a non fiction detective story which helps deconstruct and frame the tragedy of unsolved murder rates of young black men in South Central LA. It provides an explanation for the rage in the black community as it deals with institutional urban neglect and the effects of uneven policing. Sometimes the problem is not aggressive policing but the lack of resolution investigating and prosecuting the murderers of young black men. When the community feels nothing will be done and that crimes will go unpunished, the community takes the law into its own hands and lawlessness reigns.
He listens to my statistics and my facts regarding the cycle of poverty and the stacked deck of social and economic barriers that make it hard for young black men to rise above their own circumstances. He can’t hide his racism. It’s subtle, the way a white man unconsciously pats his back pocket for his wallet when he sees a young black man walking towards him and then argues that there is no such thing as racism. “We have a black President, don’t we?” Dude, your bigotry is deep and its still in there. When you deny it, you just make it that much more real.
Ironically, blacks don’t help one another as much as they could. I read in sociology class that when many blacks beat the odds and succeed, many leave their communities and never look back. They believe they are worthy role models by the simple virtue of the fact that they overcame overwhelming odds. When they leave, they don’t rush back to their community. They depart for good — leaving others behind without a rope to climb out or an experienced hand to help. The class shared the story of an affluent black couple that tried to patronize black only business for one year. In the year of this noble experiment, the couple found there was one black owned grocery chain in the entire state of Illinois. Prior to the passage of Civil Rights Act, there were thousands of black owned businesses patronized exclusively by blacks. Ironically, when given the opportunity to eat and shop at white establishments, many blacks abandoned their own businesses to patronize white establishments. The forbidden fruit was now in their reach and in buying white, a generation inadvertently condemned another to decline and economic struggle. Ironically, the law that was passed to level the playing field, tilted it further in the wrong direction.
Harper Lee once wrote that bigotry and faith are disturbingly similar in that they both begin at the same place — where reason ends. I’ll always care for Mr. C like a grandfather but I realize that we have chosen different paths to interpret a world that often ceases to make sense.
I choose faith – faith in the better nature of people and optimism that I can find a new tribe that works toward an inclusive solution governed by a colorblind justice and economic system. My old friend’s fear blinds him to any solution other than tougher laws, longer sentences and punitive consequences for the bad choices that young men make each day in these communities. Self-centered fear seems to be the trigger for many of the unattractive aspects of the human condition. It’s clear that while fear and faith start at the same place, they can’t occupy it at the same time.
It’s time to leave Mr. C. I throw a few weeds in his green garbage bag. We hug and I can see he is proud of my independence – the son he never had. Unconsciously, he betrays his belief that eventually I’ll convert to his cynical ideology. If he’s right, I will find myself one day at war with a government that wants to tax me and redistribute my money to those who won’t work. “Welfare is a trap to ensure the poor’s continued dependence on politicians and social re-engineers.” It’s a cynical way to see the world but he’s been walking the earth seventy years longer than I have. I can’t dismiss him as a heretic without first accumulating my own experiences as data points to refute him.
Somewhere between his rigid conservative ethos and my altruistic belief that change is possible, the truth stirs and struggles to the light. Victor Hugo said that the truth will always find the light and the deeper you tried to hide it the more explosive it is when it’s finally revealed. Truth rests in the shadows and along the black and white edges of reality. It’s ironic that when it comes to black and white, the issues and solutions always seem to be gray. It takes courage to define them and to not allow ideologues to hijack the truth to pander to those who are afraid.
I do not doubt for a moment the pride he feels as he as he lives my life vicariously. He is now watching me leave and enter the world of men. We are so different. Sometimes, I wonder if I am as strong as him. Am I a more evolved version of my neighbor or a naive changeling that will eventually come to see the world on his rigid terms
To have the capacity to love someone who has such a different point of view strangely reassures me. It validates my belief that love is a stronger force than hate. We are all humans on a spiritual journey and in my case, I’m taking my first steps in search of meaning and purpose. It begins with my trying to navigate and understand the black and white landscape of Mr. C’s America.
Tolkien once wrote that “not all those who wander are lost”. Some of us are fortunate in life to come to the conclusion that our noblest aspects are not discovered at a desk but in foreign places and in moments when you are torn away from the moorings of all things familiar. Our souls were not fashioned to fit neatly into a narrow trench of material pursuit.
Perhaps this particular midsummer’s voyage would have made the perfect ad for Visa. “Flying to Europe to visit your son studying abroad? $800. Sleeping in the spare room of a five hundred year old haunted landmark in London? $100. Searching for the perfect cappuccino while contributing to your son’s delinquency on his first trip to Italy? Priceless…”
The recollection of three years living abroad and working across Europe and North Africa has remained with me – a thousand days spent off-balance and uneducated to the ways of so many new countries and cultures. The adrenaline rush of perpetual firsts became its own form of addiction and led to a dozen years of nagging withdrawal upon my repatriation back to America.
On the day that we disembarked with one way tickets back to the US, I made a private pact to ensure that my children would not lose touch with the places that shaped their formative years. Travel stimulates a different part of the brain and can invigorate talents that lie dormant when not germinated by challenge. The daily travails of an ex-pat are characterized by perpetual change and the lingering mélange of strange customs, languages and food. It is a lifestyle that leaves you at once exhausted and more alive for the experience of having to swim in waters so deep and so far off your own shore.
Earlier in the year, my eldest son had decided to study in London. In the past decade, his other siblings had joined me on special trips to the UK and continent of Europe but as an over-subscribed student athlete, he’d never really had the bandwidth to take an extended holiday back to retrace his London childhood spent in a green jumper and blue trousers. Whatever semblance of English civility he had gained those three years at the Hall School Wimbledon was undone in a matter of months after he returned to his Bohemian homeland of America. The boy who seemed bound for debate, cricket and English football ended up an all-state football and lacrosse player with American appetites and no real sense of his past self, the international child riding camels in North Africa and swimming in the Indian Ocean off the island of Mauritius.
He was no longer the cautious and polite patrician with the lilting British accent but a full-blooded, ten-point antler, male stag intent on rutting and rooting for adventure and cellphone numbers of the opposite sex. He is a young American man. Nineteen is a golden age. It is the light beer of adulthood — all the fun and less than one-quarter of the consequences. And oh, the places you can go when you are loose in London with a credit card!
I succeeded in convincing him and another college lacrosse friend that upon conclusion of their one month of study abroad that they must consent to a bed check from their fathers which would involve extending their tour for a week so they might experience Venice and the Italian Alps. Ostensibly, it was sold to everyone as a guys’ vacation. However, it also gave us a week to detox the boys — erasing whatever physical and moral decline that their newfound freedom was likely to usher in. God would not want their mothers to see them before we did.
In addition to An Introduction to Macroeconomics and Management Strategy 101, our neophytes would master life skills such as how to properly drink Guinness, how to snog with a British girl, the art of smuggling seven people into one cheap hotel room in Amsterdam and the talent of stretching a £10 note across four night clubs, velvet ropes and cover charges. Any trip abroad is essential LOTB training. LOTB simply stands for “Life Outside The Bubble.” My father’s version of LOTB for his four sons involved working the warehouse graveyard shift in a rough part of town loading trucks. Child labor laws have changed in four decades with the adolescent’s union assuming a much stronger position on the notion of chores and forced labor. The fear of one’s parents has been replaced by a greater fear of missing out – on anything.
Our pale young partisans had reached the end of their unchaperoned month and had gone native. Like all EU members in good standing, they were in violation of our pre-agreed financial covenants – running budget deficits and feeling that someone else should bail them out. When confronted with austerity, they bristled looking for a less painful way out. It was clear that in the span of a month, my initials had changed from MAT to ATM and my son had become Greece. Truth be told, I was delighted with what little I could divine from his vague texts and our brief FaceTime calls. There was an optimistic lilt in his voice. The boy was becoming a man. I would fetch him in London and have him join me for a week long return to Southern Europe — a second home whose current rubric is “live for today because tomorrow we will all be owned by Germans”.
I arrived in Heathrow to a tea-rose twilight that promised to stretch into the night for several more hours. I navigated Customs like an old hand having mindlessly repeated this rite of immigration a hundred times as an expat. As if to test my resolve, a British immigration agent gave me her best RBF (resting bitch face) scowl which I dismissed without so much as a hint of annoyance. I was happy to be back.
I had worked to keep up old relationships in every major city in Europe – many of these friends are truly European and offended if they learn that I was within fifty kilometers and did not call. We still maintain close acquaintances in London and I elected to call a good friend and cheekily request a couch with a view of the Thames. My lodgings were located at none other than the Royal Pensioners Hospital in Chelsea. The magnificent infirmary and pensioner apartments carry a prime SW4 post code opposite Battersea Park. The hospital grounds host the annual Chelsea flower show each spring and are an iconic symbol of Britain’s love affair with its military history and its ambassadors — charming pensioners in their red tunics and distinguished uniforms.
I spent my first day wandering through Chelsea, proper Pimlico, bustling Convent Garden, adventurous Leicester Square, sedate Mayfair and down through St James’ Park to The Horse Guards Barracks Toy Soldier Shoppe where I would add several new soldiers to my massive collection of lead figurines. The following morning’s weather returned to predictable summer rain – a fickle meteorological pattern that drove me crazy when we first moved to the UK. Like old times, I found myself driven indoors avoiding the precipitation and lazily channel surfing across English popular culture.
UK television programming has disturbingly succumbed to the US pollution drift of reality television. I found myself staring at a car wreck called the Jeremy Kyle show. Kyle, a Jerry Springer knock-off from Reading, had gathered an impressive roster of barely understood trailer trash that were debating their baby’s paternity and the cost/benefits of a consensual shag. The morning’s theme, “She’s a bad mum and if I’m the dad, I want full custody” was a ripper. In less then twenty minutes, I saw more tats than a Miami Ink parlor and a fist fight where the mum floored her man with a mean right cross. I flipped to BBC1 where I found Restoration Man, a keen medieval construction genius who was helping a naive history junkie buy and refurbish an eleventh century fixer upper in Kent. On the next channel was Council Flat Investigator – a program which featured responsible public employees trying to pinch welfare-subsidized Brits who were gaming the much maligned nanny state system. This week the investigators were in hot pursuit of Troy and Reggie, two lower-class geezers exploiting immigrants by subletting their £70 a month three bedroom flat for over £1200.
I was torn between housing fraud and the uplifting – no pun intended -“I’m 87 Stone and have a fat chance of (finding) work”. This program features morbidly obese Anglo-Saxons trying to navigate life while consuming twenty kilos of fish and chips every morning for breakfast. Eventually this meal of morning Schadenfreude made me feel physically ill. It was time for me to go for a proper walk in the rain.
As a guest of the Governor and Lady at the Royal Hospital, I had to be on my best behavior. The hospital is a fashionable four hundred years of history. Built by Charles II shortly after the military beheaded Charles I in the mid-seventeenth century, the new monarch retained renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren to design this military retirement home as a grand advertisement of the new regime’s appreciation for their army and soldiers. The Royal Hospital helped create an aura of invincibility around the newly minted king and made it easier to prosecute continued war against the French.
The hospital also is home to ghosts. I am convinced that many of these old buildings retain much of the energy that has been released over a half millennia. The Governor confirmed that the phantasms are indeed real but fairly well-behaved with activities confined to modest moaning and a penchant for redecoration — opening drapes and moving furniture around at odd hours.
While history and tradition sometime conspire to keep England lagging the modern world, she is embracing the digital age. The Imperial war museum has gone digital while Uber is decimating the once sacred black cab business. These symbolic cornerstones of service, working pride and competence have lost 40% market share to drivers that no longer need to memorize the location of every mews, close and road. Fresh off the boat foreign workers armed with GPS and a generation of smart phone based customers are stealing every client under the age of 35. The majority Conservative party is unwilling at present to protect the transportation industry from what they feel is a free market manifestation of the new global economy. Across the channel, French cab drivers are up in arms and on strike. In the UK, they grin and bear it.
I spent my afternoon hosting the boys at the remodeled Imperial War museum and filled their brains with stories of World Wars, Victoria Crosses and a golden age when the sun never set in the British Empire. After a late, last supper of fresh lamb from the farm of our very accommodating hosts, it was back to pack and a 4:45am wake up call.
After a chaotic morning of faulty BA check-in systems and impossible airport queues, we finally descended through a humid mid-day Italian sunshine into Marco Polo airport where a water taxi waited to transport us to the Grand Canal, St Marks and our grand Hotel Bauer in Venice.
St Marks Square was choked with tourists as we dragged our roller bags across the cobble stone piazza. The open ground was interrupted by the occasional ink blot of pooled sea water that had been deposited the previous night with the full moon’s rising tide. The northern Italian air was sticky and convection oven hot as massive thunderheads approached from the west. On the heels of the afternoon storm would be cool breezes and the reward of a mild evening spent in one of a hundred dimly lit piazzas alive with locals and foreign visitors.
As expected, the boys were happy in this tangle of history and humanity. They appeared mildly malnourished; sleep deprived and slightly jaundiced but they were bursting with stories – some that could never be repeated in the presence of clergy or their mother.
Traveling with two handsome young men with hummingbird metabolisms and a cat’s sense of adventure is a challenge and a joy. You are escorting a younger version of yourself — a changeling that is eager to suck the marrow from each day and possessing the instinct to live by the most simple of adolescent routines — sleep, eat, drink, cavort, repeat…
On this day, I had become a self-anointed yenta — repeatedly chatting up young attractive women between the ages of 17 and 25 to introduce to our embarrassed but amused sons. Their inept follow through confirmed that youth remains wasted on the young. Bill and I remain middle-aged troglodytes — harmless and invisible men who use humor and a dozen broken Italian words to broker introductions. The boys did not bridge any cultural divides that day but they demonstrated a duck’s aptitude to take to water and were now swimming comfortably in an Italian sea.
I always return to Italy. The ethos of Italia is a charming visceral celebration of all things aesthetic — the beauty of Caravaggio, a baroque depiction of the Virgin mother in the Ufizzi, the curve of a young woman’s calf, or the palatial architecture and perfumed history of a City that was at one time the center of world commerce and Renaissance.
On this trip, the Italian media were preoccupied by the rising tide of middle eastern and North African refugees that had fled chaos in Syria and the Sudan. Further from home, the Italians were riveted by the potential of Greece’s banishment from the EU brought on by debt and an unwillingness to accept draconian austerity measures. Southern Europe may once again lose their sovereignty to the Germans; this time in a bloodless, financial coup d’ main Street brought on by the terms of their bailout.
The Italians sense they may be the next EU recidivist to endure withering criticism of their inability to honor the fiscal guardrails required to belong to the powerful but deeply confederate European Union. National papers Corriere della Sera and La Republicca lament the corrupting nature of debt and the heavy price one generation may have to pay for the foibles of governments with life spans no greater than un mosca domestica, the housefly. The great empires of Western Europe are slowly being reduced by debt to mere tourist attractions.
I try to educate our testosterone-fueled wards on the economic woes raging across Europe but am met with limited interest and mild derision. You are never a prophet in your home piazza and it seems that the vagaries of failed monetary and social policies can’t compete with tan legs and short skirts. I get that. The boys are clearly going native each day as Italy’s sybaritic ethos permeates their thinking.
Perhaps the tales of the Doges could teach them how oligarchies tend to rot from within and how the general population eventually rises up when inequity and injustice becomes too palpable. History teaches that any new society is normally conceived out of chaos. And any rebirth, by definition, is both bloody and beautiful. My eyes dart up and down the international queue of souls waiting to enter The Doge’s Palace. It is a jewel – a preserved monument to medieval power housing a history of paintings and frescoes that highlight the relentless repetition of power’s rise and fall. The art is both a lesson and a warning — a distant mirror reflecting a society struggling with power, affluence, greed, decline and renaissance across millennia.
To many in Italy, the new ruling class is located somewhere to the north in a central bank. Euro zone membership now requires less than 2% inflation, a deficit less than 3% of GDP and public debt of no more than 60% of GDP. The U.S. could not meet this criteria. Many nations joined the Euro initially misrepresenting their fiscal circumstances and resolve to abandon socialistic public policies. Italians worry that a Greek exit from the euro would drive weaker members into a forced austerity leading to protracted depression and unemployment.
Others pro-austerity advocates cite that tough resolve is now required in Europe. The old guard of liberals must yield to a new global reality where deficit spending to prop up flagging economies and large government must yield to a more unregulated labor and capital market. A banishment from the euro would mean reintroducing the drachma and instantly devaluing everything. It would sure make feta cheese and baklava cheap. The challenge is when any debtor owes so much they simply cannot pay it back. Is it possible to find a middle ground of what some have coined “inclusive capitalism”? The Greeks have capitulated for now. The Italians are bracing for a tougher conversation — although for hard-line EU opponents, it is all sound and fury signifying nothing.
Today is too nice a day to worry about Italy’s tomorrow. Venice is a jewel and remains an adult paradise of rich visual treasures and impossibly wonderful food. We spend our days getting lost among tourists and in search of the fringes of the city where food and hospitality are more reasoned and authentic. The boys nibble on my history lessons as if they are being served steamed cauliflower. They sense these insights are intellectually nutritious but they can’t disguise their disgust. My fellow companion, Bill, listens without adding much — content to yield his time to the boorish Senator from Connecticut. He enjoys our daily discourse but knows the boys are more deeply committed to the venal pleasures of life on the Grand Canal. Italy, like these boys, is stuck in a permanent adolescence — believing that charm can get you past anything, that bad things happen to others and that problems do not require preparation or perspiration. If one covers ones ears long enough, perhaps the wolf at the door will believe no one is home and go away.
Our trip required that we must eventually depart Venice and drive north into the Dolomites searching for a hidden chalet, the Rosa Alpina, nestled among verdant alpine pastures and soaring granite minarets. Driving in Italy is not for the faint of heart. The A27 Autostrada was empty of cars with the exception of the occasional Fiat that would flash his lights as he tore past us at 160 kilometers per hour. People park their vehicles at bizarre angles as if they have spilled battery acid in their laps and cars move across traffic as if signals and passing lanes are optional. Driving is a Darwinian adventure requiring guts and caffeine.
Gratefully, most of the nation’s worst drivers were either on holiday or further south with their mistresses in Capri as we snaked our way through wine country and up to the great glacial valleys of the Sud-Tirol. The 1200 square kilometer area is renown for its winter skiing around Cortina. In the summer, the valleys appear like a pine-green codpiece that adorns the neck and shoulders of the serrated minaret range known as the Dolomites. The Dolmitti are a UNESCO world heritage site and a geologist’s Mecca. The alpine villages sit in succession like ports along a great gray ribbon of high mountain road with each wooden chalet and building festooned with corsages of petunias, geraniums and elysium that spill from the dormered window-sills.
Forests of pine and conifer grow thicker with the elevation and are highlighted by the soft light of a fresh mountain morning. The road snakes up and up — a single artery feeding the region from the south. The bases of peaks that explode from each side of the highway are crisscrossed with trails and the occasional day hikers armed with walking poles and rucksacks. The mountains dominate here and possess a sacred presence reassuring its inhabitants that they are protected in this place from the creep of civilization and the polluted march of carnivorous capitalism.
Our first morning is a perfect day without rain. We climb 1500 feet from the Capura Alpina trailhead through a pass and up on to a high meadow at the tree line. The ascent was difficult but tolerable, as the elevation here maxes out at no higher than 8,000 feet. We cross fifteen kilometers of rock and high mountain streams tumbling down from unseen glacial melt and culoirs of snow. We realize that we have taken the wrong path at one point but serendipitously find that our hike now offers stops at local refugios and a choice of canyons to conclude our trip. The surrounding peaks top out at over 10,000 feet but are only accessible via gondola lifts, goat trails or by rope and pitons secured by a professional guide.
In these high mountains, holidaymakers can choose across a range of high-end chalets, small tasteful pension hostels or refugios, a series of alpine cafes and huts linking an entire network of trails. We spend our days climbing and moving from one refugio to the next — always stopping for a cappuccino or bowl of soup. These sturdy huts feed and house weary walkers and climbers. When the clouds threaten, one merely looks to the map and hustles the next few miles to a refugio for shelter.
We are hardly roughing it as we retreat each night to our magnificent chalet replete with its two star Michelin restaurant and hopelessly attractive Italian girls who staff the restaurants and spa. The boys did their best to advance international diplomacy bridging the language divide with the doe-eyed staff. Neither group was multi-lingual and the occasional encounters were pure adolescent longing — a humorous combination of pidgin English, high school flirtation and rudimentary sign language. “Amore” is a universal libretto. A quick smile and eager flashing eyes, the allure of a promise, its all part of the music of youth. At some point, the ear grows to old to hear the notes although in Italy, the frequency of romance never goes undetected.
I love these trips if for no other reason that it allows me to plunge into the world of my son. I work hard to find these times when I can walk side by side in his march toward manhood. He is a wonderful and funny force of nature and a great partner in adventure. He is part of my legacy to a world that desperately needs people who will seek to understand before insisting on being understood.
The week goes by too quickly and in its place, we fashion an indelible moment that will stay with him for his life. Perhaps he’ll return here some day with his son and once again ask Italy to show him the genius of its marble cities and granite mountain ranges. The Italians have mastered many aspects of living a rich life. It is a society steeped in love, fear and faith. Amore is everywhere. As is the irony with so many cultures anchored by opposites, fear and faith are cousins who share a similar starting point, a point where reason ceases to offer the answers and one must advance on feelings rather than facts.
It had been a perfect afternoon and evening. We lingered in that moment before falling asleep, lying in the dark and talking. The lack of light and the reassuring comfort of a warm bed worked its magic as it had over so many years when he was a small boy seeking answers. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia.
“Buddy, remember when we spent that Halloween in Florence at the Villa la Massa? You were dressed as Spider Man and the hotel staff occupied all the rooms on the first floor to give you guys homemade candies?”
“Dad, I was like five.”
“You were such a cute kid — always hopping up and down everywhere. You were like a rabbit. You’d come into every room like pogo stick yelling, ‘hop!, hop! hop!’”
“You know, this has been a perfect…”
“Dad, don’t ruin it.”
“Yep, got it. G’night…”
As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, music and lyrics were used as a primitive Rosetta Stone to decipher a confusing world of mixed messages about love, social responsibility and any form of authority. As a third child, I benefitted and at times, paid a price, for emulating my older brothers. My siblings were accidental role models whose every word and action would be registered and filed in my mental folder of what could be defined as “cool”. Their clothes, hobbies, habits and especially their music were all fair game to be plagiarized, borrowed or stolen to fill the white canvas of my vanilla existence.
At night I would listen to songs that would concuss through my older brothers bedroom doors. Downstairs, in my father’s den, he would grimace at the rattling light fixture, enduring a ten-minute instrumental artillery barrage from massive JBL and Bose speakers.
“Turn that shit down!”
But not unlike the proverbial problem tenant in any upstairs apartment, the music never stayed down for long. I would tap my pencil on the living room table as the electric riffs of Carlos Santana, the whimsical musings of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, bellicose Jim Morrison, the smooth midnight sax of John Klemmer, the precise Eric Clapton, sweet Joni Mitchell, dulcet a capellaof Poco, the confederate militancy of the Allman Brothers, the twisted dirty love of Frank Zappa and a dozen other long haired iconoclasts invaded our home. Each lyric was a revelation and each note pulled you through the looking glass urging you to shed the conventions of your risk averse, soft suburban life.
As a kid, we spent hours listening to music. It was the centerpiece to any gathering and the accompaniment to every significant personal milestone – your first girlfriend, the break up, the epic eight keg party that got you grounded until 1989 or the week spent on Santa Catalina Island. When combined with the raw emotion of adolescence, music left an indelible mark and would forever allow you to instantly relive any moment when the initial chords of a particular song flickered to life. If your tastes took you toward rock or easy listening, you might find yourself quoting Jackson Browne or Kenny Rankin. If you were edgy and unsettled, you would search for musicians who gave words and sound to emotion that was struggling to swim to the surface of your own inarticulate existence. At 13, you were too young to know The Man but you were sure he and all his other controlling authoritarian friends were working overtime to keep you down.
Music was an emotional thread that bound us together in a time of social change. To adopt someone’s music was tantamount to patching into a gang. With the knowledge divined from hours of listening to artists, I formed a bridge to my brothers and to an older tribe of teens who had seen the Garden, tasted it’s forbidden fruit and not spent the rest of the night throwing it up.
Older brothers were a two edged sword. On one hand, they lived to torment you. Years later they are identified in therapy as the genesis of your inability to accept your own body image. Twenty years of being called “pumpkin head” can make buying hats problematic for a guy. Yet, brothers are a blessing and important lines of sight in the shrouded topography of youth. Big brothers were always one step ahead of you in the jungle of life – walking point, vanquishing bullies, explaining life on simple terms and most importantly breaking in your parents with “firsts” — the first car wreck, the first suspension from school, or the first unsanctioned party. Brothers are family standard bearers that help modify the bar of unrealistic expectation.
My eldest brother was exposed to the greatest radiation of hyperactive parenting. He was my conservative father’s first introduction to a world he could not control. A son was a tenured employee who could not be fired for various acts of grab-ass that would normally invite a pink slip at work. My eldest brother Miles was the first to battle with a patriarch who became a parent believing that he brought children into this world and he had a right to take them out of it. By the time my older brothers, Miles and Tom, had gone to college, they had domesticated my parents and left my younger brother and I with guard rails that had lost much of their electricity. By 1976, the year of our nation’s Bicentennial, my parents had initiated the withdrawal of their ground troops, abandoned the embassy and reluctantly afforded my younger brother and I a level of self governance. The youngest, Patrick, flourished under this laissez faire regime while I took full advantage of this new freedom to find trouble.
I owe my brothers many things. They were human shields unlucky in their birth order but more adroit in navigating the more punitive reactions of a loving but determined neocon as he desperately tried to fight the socialistic riptides of the sybaritic and psychedelic 60s. Their bedrooms were wallpapered with posters of peace signs, pot leaves, surfers and Dennis Hopper flipping off America from his hog in Easy Rider. But the posters were chump change compared to the music. The acid rock and seditious lyrics bugged my Dad. It was the clarion call of war – one generation declaring management no longer fit for duty.
One band in particular seemed to offend all conservative, Nixon loving hard hats. This particular San Francisco troupe captured the essence of the decade’s commitment to sex, psychedelic drugs and rock and roll. Their music and lyrics were Trojan Horse vessels disguising drug use and reckless behavior. Their skeleton riddled album covers identified them as The Grateful Dead. Most just called them The Dead.
While The Grateful Dead became heroes to a generation who felt the need to find a new community to follow, the band was viewed by anyone in authority as gateway to trouble. Any group with a name like The Dead must be a nihilistic bunch of freeloading potheads who lived like cockroaches in the lava lamplight of the Haight in San Francisco. The neighborhood was a notorious hotbed of acid, promiscuity and socialism. It might as well have been an annexed suburb of Moscow.
Conservatives shook their heads at this group of druggy miscreants. Their lead singer looked Jewish, had a Hispanic surname and was missing a finger on one of his hands. He had probably lost his digit helping Huey Newton and the Black Panthers make pipe bombs. The other guitarist looked like a deadbeat with deep-set serial killer eyes and a hustler’s dimpled chin. The band exuded waste and consumption. The more the establishment derided the Dead, the more drawn we were to their melodies.
The Dead sang about life – a hardscrabble and entangled existence filled with complicated relationships, drugs, free spirits, lost jobs and abandoned love. They were the mongrel offspring of blue grass, psychedelic rock and gritty Southern blues. It seemed the axiom held true even in our own house – one man’s white trash was another generation’s treasure.
Dead concerts were rumored to be a massive electric Kool-Aid acid test where individuals would alter their brain chemistry in search of a deeper meaning to the music and as an excuse to rotate uncontrollably for hours. The Dead were not just a band, they were a frame of mind and a vibe. The Dead Nation was a series of rippling concentric circles whose core was populated by roadies and travelling Dead Heads and whose outer rings were comprised of posers and people who just wanted to sing the refrain to Casey Jones. The concerts ranged from strange meandering acoustical journeys to raucous benders. The Dead did not always headline their concerts and shared the marquee with some legendary bands and performers. The combinations were often epic and spontaneous. The core of every concert always swirled around the self anointed laity of Dead Heads — a permanent diaspora of misfits and free spirits who would follow the band as they criss-crossed the country and continents.
As fans, we each had our favorite songs and albums. Like Rob Norton in Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity, there was a Dead Song for every occasion and a top ten list for each life moment. A blue circumspect mood might invite Unbroken Chain or Black Peter while an afternoon beach party would not be complete without Sugar Magnolia, Franklins Tower and Eyes of the World. The orthodox Dead Head was more resolute in their obsession. Favorite songs would include dates and venues and invite debate until dawn over where one might have heard the best rendition of Bertha or Momma Tried.
“No dude, you’re wrong. Cassady at the Orpheum July 16, 1976. That was Bobby at his best!”
“Nay. I must disagree, my good man. The Dead opening for Chuck Berry at Winterland 1967. Get real! Garcia earns his nickname, Captain Trips.”
“Excuse-e-moi. Three words. Fillmore East 1970. The Dead and the Allman Brothers.”
“Bonehead, you were like ten when they played at the Orpheum.”
“Listen man, my buddy played me this radical bootleg of the concert. It’s all you need to know…”
Other merry wanderers would delight in producing barely audible bootleg tapes of concerts or quoting obscure songs written by Hunter and Garcia or Weir and Barlow. A Dead enthusiast might know that the song Ripple was as rare as California rain and played a mere 38 times across a fifteen year period from the mid seventies to late eighties.
The goal of every aspiring Dead Head was to work across a dozen weekends to accumulate enough scratch to buy tickets to a concert. A Dead concert was your baptism to the sacred and the profane. It was where the future was waiting. Every kid lied about his or her experiences at concerts. Not unlike the forbidden book of liars known as Penthouse Forum, pilgrims returned from Dead shows with exagerated reports of behavior not witnessed since Caligula’s Rome. Most came for the music and left on two feet. A few ended up discovering some new boundary, which meant missing most of the concert because they were either throwing up under the grand stands, frantic because they forgot they ate some magic mushrooms and could not understand why the moon was now following them or simply worn down from trying to get the phone number of a spinning ballerina named Prairie Flower, a wispy free spirit whose Mendocino commune did not have electricity or an address.
Neophytes attending their first Dead show were appropriately wary and at the same time, naively desperate to seek out excess and in doing so, perhaps they might discover some latent aspect of their personality that could only be revealed in the uninhibited cocoon of a Dead show.
We felt a part of an exclusive but accepting tribe. We were not alone. According to website, Bio, merry Boomer deadheads included an odd mixture of liberal and conservative from Bill Walton, Barak Obama and Steve Jobs to Walter Cronkite, Ann Coulter and white collar executives who were desperate to temporarily escape a predictable life. The ultimate sin was to become what Jackson Brown referred to as a “Pretender” living in the shade of a freeway.
My first Dead show preceded my 17th birthday at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. I found myself wandering among a new breed of people who lived outside my suburban bubble. The natives moved like wild life across the green grass infield, spinning and dancing like human dreidels. Inhibition had left the city limits and in its wake left a visceral Summer of Love zeitgeist. The contact high was both symbolic and genuine as the police and security retreated into a soft, midnight blue perimeter. After eight hours of multiple bands and artists headlined by the Dead, we found ourselves separated from our friends and unable to find our ride home to Los Angeles. We navigated two miles to an onramp of Highway 101 and hung out our thumbs to hitchhike to an agreed gathering spot. Up to this point I had been afraid to take a public bus. A beaten Ford coughed to a stop as four Dead Heads bound for San Diego and the next Dead show welcomed us into their vehicle. A hundred miles later, we spilled out of the station wagon and caught a cab the rest of the way home.
Over the years, I would scour the Sunday Calendar section of the LA Times and would delight when I saw the Dead coming to any venue within 500 miles. I would abandon whatever trappings of responsibility I had accumulated to that point and disappear among the hippies and free spirits. There was never any judgment, only great music. I’d return the following Monday with stories and a sense that I had once again pushed the reset button of my life. I was still truckin’, looking for familiar faces in a sea of joyous humanity.
Over the years, my obligations overcame my sense of adventure and I found myself becoming a father in every sense of the word. I religiously listened to their music but stopped attending Dead shows. In times of intense responsibility, I found myself daydreaming of following the Dead to Egypt – perhaps to climb the Great Pyramids at dawn with Bill Walton and Bob Weir. To follow the band was to live a tumbleweed existence rolling from venue to venue sleeping on couches and park benches. I have friends who have followed artists. But bands broke apart and best friends self destructed as a result of egos and hubris. Very few tribes could replicate the sense of total self-determination that came with the life of a Dead Head.
The band never won a Grammy for an album nor for a song in the fifty years that they had performed for millions of fans. They were finally rewarded a lifetime achievement Grammy but one wonders whether they might ever find the fickle Rock & Roll Hall. They represented something deeper to a generation that was told it must choose between a two road highway system defined by success or want. Happiness was a destination all dividend accomplishment not a state of mind. We did not drink the Kool-Aid but instead looked for door number three.
Just as Jeff Bridges Big Lebowski struck a chord with GenXers who had become cynical to the material finish line that they was unattainable, a generation of Boomers before them were disaffected with the notion that their life’s goal was to meet or exceed some predetermined standard of living. Materialism seemed in conflict with joy. Happiness was getting what you wanted but it had an expiration date that came all to soon. Joy was measured in minutes of freedom and days spent living in harmony with and for others. Your new job description was to break the shackles of angry, Old Testament patriarchs who viewed contrarianism as tantamount to social anarchy. The ethos of the music was about love and disappointment, human frailty, success, failure and the gritty reality that so many people find as they navigate the shoals of real life – a life that bore no relation to the Brady Bunch. Our time on earth was Howl’s Floating Castle. It had no permanence except in experience found in other people and other places. The Dead’s music and lyrics could transform the darkest alley into a calm illuminated fireside with a single ballad.
37 years later across a half lifetime of change, I found the Dead again. A series of farewell concerts would take place over five nights in Palo Alto and Chicago.
On a soft Sunday night, a light San Francisco Bay breeze swept across a tangled sea of gray hair and tie-dyed shirts as a thousand illuminated phones flashed like fire flies in the twilight. I was a spiritual swallow descending on Levi Stadium. I was accompanied by two of my kids, my older brother, his wife and a close childhood friend who called Menlo Park home. Each pilgrim, fueled by nostalgia, came for a different reason. Most came just to once again smell the perfume of their own adolescence and to gather for a final time to celebrate the music of their lives.
We were suddenly all eighteen ( bad backs and all ), ready to leap tall building with a single bound. On the second night of a three night set. 75 year old Phil Lesh, the bassist, and a liver transplant survivor, thanked the audience and rhetorically laughed about their fifty year run.
“Who would have thought?”
My mind drifted to the distinct vocals and guitar work of their missing leader, Jerry Garcia. His spot had been taken that night by Trey Anastazio, lead singer from the band, Pfish. Bruce Hornsby assumed keyboards filling in for deceased Brent Mydland.
Fifty years. They had taken me to exotic places like the Mars Hotel, Franklins Tower and Terrapin Station. They introduced me to women who could wade in a drop of dew while wearing scarlett begonias. They told stories of menacing Dire Wolves and Jack Straw who murdered his best friend. They helped me relate to the mythology of life and love — always encouraging me to “keep on truckin”.
When the lights came on and the last encore note fell to earth, I hugged my brother and his wife and we high-fived. We wandered back across an expanse of green golf course and a thousand memories to our friends. The car was heavy with circumspect middle age fatigue until someone whispered, “Man, that was awesome”. It was indeed special to have been able to say thank you to the minstrels and muses, my band of fifty years — and to experience it with my brother and family like so many tangled roots in a massive living tree of my life. I kept thinking about the lyrics to so many songs written by Robert Hunter. One particular refrain kept coursing through my head. It summed up my life’s journey and the road that still lay ahead:
“…The shoe is on the hand that fits, there’s really nothing much to it. Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s all right. Oh well a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway. And that was all I had to say and it’s all right.
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive. We will get by, we will get by, we will get by, we will survive…”
It’s the middle of winter and I’m restless with a sense of disequilibrium and lack of purpose. I am a salmon with no stream to ford. A swallow that has overshot San Juan Capistrano. On this day, I am at war with the eaves of my home as they plead with me to allow them to just lay down and die, yielding to the opal blue ice shelves that form like glaciers and re-route ice melt under my roof shingles. Each intersection of roofline becomes a loose suture eagerly accommodating frigid water seeking a rivulet or stream that might deliver it to Long Island Sound. Somewhere across town, a plumber is smiling in his sleep.
I kick the snow off my boots after a pathetic episode with a roof rake and a confused dog that keeps trying to hump my leg. With my arms disabled, it’s an optimal time for him to challenge my alpha status. He waits until I am staggering under the 40-foot jousting stick and proceeds to mount my leg. One can only imagine what the local soccer mom is thinking as she passes my front yard on the way to a cross-town pick up. She makes a note to take a less profane route home and delay a hard conversation with little Johnny.
My back aches from fighting off my molester and the relentless hacking at the ice that keeps forming like a scab. I hesitate by the front door, leaning down to touch my toes and am once again attacked from behind this time with enough force that I hit my head on the front door and tumble into the foyer.
“Having a nice time?” My wife asks with amused sarcasm as she walks past under a mound of dirty clothes. The dog grabs a slipper and playfully shakes it in his mouth. My snow ensemble is designed to withstand wind chills of -5 but it makes it hard for me to move.
“Please just kill me.” I mutter.
The dog once again goes for me but this time I kick him and am immediately admonished.
“Ohhhh, he just wants to play!”
“Yeah, he wants to play San Quentin. The next episode will find me dressed like a poodle, smuggling him food from the prison cafeteria.”
“You REALLY need something to do.”
It is Saturday morning and I flirt with a distant memory of jogging along the strand of Manhattan Beach. I gallop past fit narcissistic Californians and watch as surfers and porpoises angle for position on a perfect feathered green wave. David Byrne appears on my shoulder. “How did you get here?…Is this your beautiful house?…Is that your beautiful wife?. Who’s dog is that?”
Self pity creeps in — tendrils of frigid February air winding through my poorly insulated doors and windows. The recent happy holiday infestation of my children home from college has been replaced by vacant silence of one child left at home. The slightest noise reverberates through the halls like an empty museum.
I am a grounded Black Hawk pilot no longer needed for adolescent patrols or required to participate in night-time reconnaissance missions. There are no more sudden fire fights borne out of stupidity or unanticipated crisis. The high school battlefront is becoming a distant memory and I’m now walking life’s journey with a wife and last child who are annoyingly organized and settled. I’m left with a tangle of frozen winter woods and a dog who keeps trying to jump my bones.
As my life responsibilities once again shift, I’m now confronted with the choice of pouring my newborn time into pleasure, purpose or meaning. Pleasure is easy and most fun. It is a cotton-candy sugar-buzz organized around venal gratification. It’s a giant roast beef sandwich at 1am. It’s a guy’s golf or ski trip. It is spending all day in my pajamas writing nonsense.
Purpose is the logical path – with most empty nest professionals doubling down with their personal time, investing back into their business and profession. It’s ironic but it is a time when you are most informed but often the least tolerant of those you are working with or for. You get opinionated and become less flexible.
Meaning is a tad abstract but is at the core of happiness. It comes from serving something grander than one’s self. Service is often an inconvenient no man’s land of anonymous need that lies just beyond the safe and convenient radius of those you prefer to help. However, for those that believe in Karma and spiritual balance sheets. Meaning creates goodwill and goodwill is useful currency on earth and in Heaven. It just can’t buy you anything at the local 7-11.
My savant son who watches TED talks all day informs me that I need a balance of all three buckets to achieve perfect life equilibrium. Moderation and balance are not my strong suits. And since when are my children presuming to give me advice on how to navigate the sparsely lit corridors of middle age. He is ridiculously rational and it annoys me. I want to stab him with his selfie stick.
What I really need to do is go pick up cigarette butts outside a halfway house or anonymously clean a public toilet with a toothbrush. My Dad used to call it pity-potty work. A little hard work on your hands and knees does wonder to moderate high-bottom self-pity. I think eating an apple fritter would be better.
I’m not sure where to begin. I consider the possibility of spiriting off to some third world country to build mud huts helping the impoverished out of the gutters of an overpopulated hell. Yet, I am a soft lad – lacking the constitution to stray too permanently from where I have been planted. I am worried that ISIS might kidnap me at the mall. I know I suffer from an overactive imagination and a healthy penchant for hypochondria. The third world seems awash in sinister characters, pesky paramecium and perpetual pandemics that would make find me washing my hands all day and over reacting to the slightest ache, twinge or itch assuming it is Ebola, the Bird Flu or a new strain of avian-monkey plague.
I could move back to California although according to my father, the state is now Satan’s lower colon and one must now pay very high taxes for crappy public services.
Perhaps all this middle-aged rumination is natural — driven by deprivation of sunlight, and exposure to freezing temperatures that thicken my blood triggering a condition known “mental mildew”.
I choose to move a muscle and change a thought. I enter my den electing to clean out a bloated storage closet. I find myself indiscriminately tossing out items the way a condemned man might suddenly consign his possessions to a passing stranger. It feels good to just throw things away without dwelling on their significance or intrinsic sentimental value.
I find a box that has survived every move since my childhood. It is jammed with the detritus of a glorious misspent youth. There are report cards, letters, coin collections, and odd items of sentimental value that so often find their way years later into some dusty desk caddy at a corner antique shop. A single cuff link from a senior prom, a coin with a naked lady (I am uncertain where this coin actually counts as currency but it must have been a magical place ), a lead soldier missing one arm, and a mercury head silver dime.
I find a fake ID from college. It is for Frank Manly from Missoula, Montana. Really? Manly? I note that in two weeks, it will be Frank ‘s birthday. He was a February baby and will now be 56. He was always four years older than me. He was a hellion but could not dance.
The pyromaniac in me is delighted to discover 40-year old firecrackers and one M80. I feel that old familiar thrill of arson and am suddenly itching to blow something up a model airplane or incinerate some soldiers.
There are Boy Scout merit badges earned across a thousand nights of hard ground camp outs, 50-mile hikes and knots that would confound Houdini. There were hysterically funny letters from a friend who had a summer college job on an oil rig. Far from Patrick O’Brien, my maritime mate, de-romanticized the notion of life at sea, characterizing his “two week on, two week off” gig as “a hellish descent into overpaid, undereducated men who work all day and watch pornography all night…. And then there is the bad side.”
Years before the Dangerous Catch, this kid was living the dream and almost losing his fore finger every day. This was also the same confederate who wrote to tell me that his dad had made him eat a city pigeon after he shot the bird for sport from his bedroom window. “We eat what we kill.” were the only words of grace his father muttered over my buddy’s piece of squalid squab. How’s that for a life lesson?
I root out my Middle school report cards — replete with Cs and Ds in citizenship. It was indeed a time of attention deficit and awkward hormone filled days. It was also a time of passions — Baseball cards, coins, stamps, puka shell necklace, and a bone dry miniature bottle of Testors olive green paint for a Revell British spitfire.
There were phone messages from my first job in the early 80s. My friend Lloyd would call specifically to torment the secretaries leaving perplexing missives such as, “Mike, call me back ASAP. If they cannot find me I’m hiding under my desk.”
There were passionate notes from my father remarking on the low IQ of California’s Democratic Congressional leaders including Senator Barbara Boxer who sent him a one sentence response to his three page letter lecturing her on supply side economics. He forwarded a copy of her curt response along with a short note to me: “Dear Michael, a deep thinker…”
There were thank you notes written at gunpoint to myriad relatives for a decade of birthday cards filled with five-dollar bills. More letters to me from my father and a hastily written social contract scratched in the hieroglyphics of a sixth grader trying to avoid some nuclear punishment resulting from a split second of bad judgment that involved three eggs and a massive black fin-tailed Cadillac.
There was a Polaroid of a big-boned six year old in 1967 squeezing the life out of a massive midnight black cat named Panther. Newspaper clippings from the San Marino Tribune trumpeted my Little League and High School athletic feats, followed by old national newspapers reporting Nolan Ryan no hitters, David Cone perfect games, presidential elections and gut-wrenching catastrophes. I moved my hand across the covers of Life magazines depicting the Tet Offensive, Apollo XIII, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, John Wayne, James Dean and Woody Allen holding a blow-up doll.
I stand up, stretching and carefully return the box to my closet. I am holding a full trash bag filled with less valued relics of my past, content to shed them like an old skin. However, the container and it’s treasures will remain — a permanent time capsule of my life – a journey of innocence, havoc, discovery, change and accomplishment.
I realize that this time is but another life interlude, a brief intermission before Act 3. What I have lost in physical ability, I have accumulated in knowledge, humility and a keener lens to the world. There is so much more to do and I clearly am going to need a bigger box.
As my blue mood lifts, I retreat to the floor to stretch, drawing my knee up to my back. I do not hear the door creak as I shift into a yoga position on my hands and knees. I do not see my assailant but am hit hard from an angle. It is the damn dog.
My wife looks up for her seat at the computer as a shrill “get the hell off of me!” bounces across three downstairs rooms.
Absentmindedly, she looks out the window and yells to me.
“Honey, what do you think about getting another dog?”
The grandfather clock chimed twelve am. The house was a silent sea of deep, rhythmic breathing, interrupted only by the sudden movements of an energized Australian Shepherd who was fixated on my every move. I sat exhausted among holiday detritus — screw drivers, instructions, unassigned nuts and bolts and scores of AA batteries. I was once again feeling sorry for myself and resenting the imminent holiday and its fatigue. Another Christmas.
I had predictably caved to commercialism spending well beyond my budget, stimulated by that seductive liar — nostalgia. I had gained five pounds at social and business gatherings and in a fit of self pity, wished that I could be transported back in time when I was the child upstairs sleeping. As if sensing my sullen mood, the dog rested his head on my knee. Suddenly, he perked his ears and darted behind the couch – – his emergency shelter any time that something is not right in the house.
“Get back in your beds! “ I hissed into the dark hallway.
Expecting to hear giggles and scampering feet, I instead heard what sounded like chains and cleaning equipment being dragged across our wooden floors. I raised my voice as I darted around the corner trying to catch the young spies in the act, “What are you doing down…?”
I startled, dumfounded at the odd specter hovering in front of me. A phantasm, clothed in mid-nineteenth century finery, swirled near the staircase. Ghostly baroque Christmas carols floated up from under his topcoat. “I am the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future. I have come to confer with you so that I might save you from a future that I was not able to escape”.
“I think you have the wrong house, Bub. Charlie was the investment banker. He lives next door.” The ghost hesitated, looking flustered and the music stopped. He materialized a little more clearly and descended to the floor. He reached a modest height of five feet but looked up at me through spectacles and a silver hedge row of furrowed brows.
“I knew they gave me the wrong address. No, wait, wait, wait. This is right. You are in the health care industry. Oh yes, this is the house. We have launched Project Merry Gentlemen this year. Last year, we haunted Congressional officials under Project Windsock. It did not do much good. Although several did not heed our warnings and were not reelected this year. This year, we have big business in our crosshairs. It was either come here or go march with the We Can’t Breathe crowd. Lot’s of causes but not many marchers in this neighborhood.
“We want to make sure you remember the role you free market capitalists are supposed to play in society. Some of you muckety mucks need to remember there is a God and you are not her!”
“Her?” I asked.
“It’s a long story”, the ghost sighed. “It says here you are a managed care consultant. I am not sure what that means but it sounds like an oxymoron.” I started to look defensive and he quickly changed the subject. “Look I got a lot of other business people to speak with tonight. I am initially visiting the ones that own only one house. They are easier to locate.”
I was puzzled, “uh, where exactly are we going and where are the other ghosts – you know, the ghosts of Christmas Present and Future?”. The ghost exhaled,
The ghost looked disgusted. “They all got laid off or demoted to other departments within Purgatory. About a year ago, Purgatory got overrun by a bunch of private equity guys. They started telling us we were the lowest margin department in the spiritual world and we needed to cut costs and reduce headcount. I now have three times the amount of hauntings as I used to have and I have had my goodwill pay frozen for one hundred years. The ghost of Christmas Past was made “redundant”. She’s now haunting houses part-time. Christmas Future has been redirected into Children’s Nightmares. He just got put on probation for causing the entire state of Nebraska to wet their bed. With the hood and skeleton hands, he’s a tad over qualified for bad dreams.”
“I thought Purgatory was the place between heaven and hell.” I asked, confused.
The ghost nodded his head. “A common misconception. We exist in a place that is sort of like – – Heaven’s mailroom. If we do well, we get promoted upstairs or if we are really lucky, we reincarnated back to earth as dogs.”
I leaned close and asked the millennium old question, “What about Hell. Is it, you know, real?” The ghost looked thoughtful and leaned in to whisper in my ear, “Hell is being a Jets fan.” He laughed and impend the front door with the wave of his hand.
“Let’s go visit your past and present and see if we can’t leave you with a little perspective at this important time of year.” A rush of frigid air swirled around us as we were caught up in a sort of funnel, spiraling up and then just as suddenly, alighting on a manicured lawn. Magnolia trees lined suburban sidewalks illuminated by street lamps. I saw a young pre-teen riding a ten speed bicycle by himself while a physician got back into his Ford after making a house call. I knew in an instant that we had fallen backward in the early 1970’s We floated in the air, hidden by the shadows of weak light cast from a few the massive living room bay window of a Spanish style home.
“What is all that noise inside?” the ghost asked as he craned his head, pressing his nose to the single pane glass.
“That”, I said, “is most likely my father, swearing as he puts up the Christmas tree.” I peered inside to spy four young boys running in and out of a room packed with presents while an Andy Williams Christmas song played on the hi-fi. The ghost mused, “It’s quite comfortable outside, why is there such a large fire in the fireplace? “
I suddenly felt a hot flash. “My Dad liked fires and fireplaces. He grew up in Chicago where they were both a necessity and a sentimental symbol of domestic bliss. It was always like an Indian sweat lodge when Dad cranked up the old Yule log. My Mom would go into the other room complaining that it was night time yet for her to have man-o-pause. I didn’t understand what Man-o-pause was but assumed it had something to do with the fact that we had a house full of men.”
We watched as a mongrel dog trotted up to the tree and lifted his leg to urinate while my father’s jaw dropped in stupefied horror. As he moved to kick the dog, the tree fell over.
“I loved Max,” I said absentmindedly. “He was the perfect dog for four boys. A few years later, he finally attacked something that was tougher than he was”
“And that was,“ asked the ghost.
“A moving van” I sighed…
We moved along a continuum of time as we walked invisibly among family parties, card games, laughter, endless baking, candle light church services, caroling, friends, gifts, and a rather embarrassing rearrangement of nativity figurines that resembled a swinger’s party. The moments melted into a montage of family life all sweetened by our time together. With each successive Christmas, our Southern California home seemed brighter, warmer and more festive – – the spirit of the season casting a light across every face. And somewhere in the distance, Andy Williams was always singing about it being the most wonderful time of the year.
“You see,” the ghost chastened me.” You really did have a wonderful life.”
I shot him a cynical glance. “Look Clarence, or whatever your name is… I’m not George Bailey trying to jump off a bridge. You just caught me wishing I could be a kid again – you know, for a few hours.” The ghost looked sympathetic but then became stern.
“My time is short. I am supposed to haunt at least ten more suits tonight. We have not even gotten to your gradual enslavement to work and your preoccupation with reality television. ” He looked me in the eye. “I just want to remind you that Christmas is a holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah. His life was all about serving others. This season is about your fellow man – -those you know and those you have never met. You know, ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ and all of that? Since you ruined your chances for public office in college, you can still inspire people by serving others and through your actions, remind them during this season that Christmas is a state of mind. Empathy and compassion are the chief ingredients to human kindness. It’s that warm nostalgic feeling that makes you want to buy gifts, light fires and curl up to watch reruns of Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop’s Wife.”
His face got stern, “You business types want free markets, limited regulation, small government and flat screen TVs. Ok, but that means you have to be responsible social stewards and help actively stitch together a social safety net to take care of those who are less fortunate. It’s in your spiritual job description if you’d ever bother to read it. You may feel more vulnerable in today’s economy but 95% of the world is financially worse off than you. I am not sure how you find time to get on your pity pot with so much going for you. By the way, if you do not choose to help those in need, there are those who would love to force you to do it. As they say at the office, I’d rather be the guy who writes the memo, than the one who has to read it.”
The ghost smiled and faded into a gossamer mist, finally disappearing. I woke up in my favorite chair with my back aching as it always does when I watch back to back episodes of Cops. I suddenly realized that the holiday season was really about those sitting around the tree, rather than what rested underneath it.
I walked through the house, turning out lights and hesitated for a moment, watching the Christmas tree and the glowing palette of ornaments reflecting the soft kaleidoscope of color. I heard the CD changer in the other room click and suddenly heard a familiar symphony of brass as Andy Williams started to croon, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.”
In the northern hemisphere, winters arrive like a black dog breathing permanent midnight. The gray threadbare days weave into a thick woolen canopy that never seems to lift. Despite the reassuring lights of Sloane Square, ice skaters in Mayfair and the annual grand Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, Christmas is a more muted and reverent affair in England. Each December 24th, St. Martins of the Field church broadcasts its medieval Christmas carol concert urging all the masters of the hall to rejoice and pray.
Along the cold and wind-swept Thames, a city hibernates waiting for the resurrection of spring. As an ex-patriot navigating life among millions, thousands of miles from the moorings of family, Christmas Eve was a hard time to avoid melancholy self-reflection.
Having been wrested from parents, neighbors, friends, familiar institutions and cultural touchstones, our young family was dispatched on a three-year odyssey that would test us and stretch our ability to cope. Without the traditional support structures, we were reduced to our lowest common denominator – us.
As we had sought to build a new life, we met other displaced diplomats. Out of mutual necessity, we forged deep connections to this diaspora of the disconnected. Over long dinners and timeless cups of tea, we would share the daily anxieties of international living where life had become a succession of indignities roaring past you in the middle of a motorway with no exit ramps. Change was everywhere – tugging at your elbow, tearing the side mirror off your car, visiting some mystery illness upon your family or delaying you in a foreign airport due to a sudden labor strike. It was mad cow and foot and mouth disease closures of a verdant but now forbidden countryside. It was an unexpected dog bite and the night terrors of a child unable to cope with the massive change of an international move. It was a washing machine the size of an Easy Bake Oven and a dryer that could only dry five pieces of clothing at a time. It was an alpenglow sunset in Zermatt and a pink pastel dawn in Provence.
We joined an international brigade that had voluntarily been assigned to new lives on a distant, fatal shore. Our new and extended “family” was a United Nations blend of ex-patriots and locals possessing passports from Peru, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, India, Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland. In another place and time, we might have had less in common with these global travelers and passed one another like ships. Yet, alone on this great ancient island, we found each other and watched as our children moved freely across narrow language barriers and cultural tightropes. Within months we had forged a multinational support network that would sustain us through every conceivable life event.
Holidays were initially the hardest of times. On this December 24th, the darkest corridor of the year, the ancient Druid festival of winter solstice would be celebrated. Christmas in England was a time of evergreens and hard frosts. A pale, frigid mist would settle on the Great Wimbledon Common and across the ancient headstones of St Mary’s church graveyard. The bleak mid-winter world stands still as the countryside settles into a deep sleep with the rolling hills of Newlan’s Corner and Box Hill sitting as silent citadels over the South Downs and Kent. In the Cotswolds, wool, market and cathedral towns with names like Chipping Camden, Broadway, Stow on the Wold and Upper Slaughter become fairy tale retreats for the wealthy with roaring fires, curiosity shops and antiques. It is a quiet, somber time filled with very personal celebrations of resurrection and renewal.
Each Christmas season, we visited with our friends and as we entered each rented home or flat, it would be adorned faithfully with native touches and talisman of their home countries. One day we might meet a koala with a Santa hat and the next week encounter rich religious icons of Latin America – – Madonna with Child, nativity figurines, candles and white papered gifts — grand colorful offerings of love and sentiment to be offered to those less fortunate at midnight mass..
At this time of year, it was important to keep our own traditions alive. To discard or ignore a cultural touchstone was to defile it and potentially sever another tie with your own past. It was inevitable that the longer one lived abroad, the more likely it was that one would morph into an international citizen – an odd changeling that was often less wedded to their nationality and more content to be considered part of the global melting pot of mankind.
Christmas was a time of year where I was left with the nagging feeling that I was denying my children some quintessentially American experience. I was obviously superimposing my childhood on to my international children and when those feelings would not fit them, I came away feeling as if I was somehow stunting their growth.
Our youngest was already exhibiting signs of advanced internationalism. Having moved to the UK when he was one, he was not being raised on the empty carbohydrates of Disney movies, American commercialism and a ruddy-faced department store Santa that smelled of Brut and bourbon. My son spoke with a lilting English accent, watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob The Builder. He wore a uniform to school and was frighteningly well mannered. He expressed curiosity about Father Christmas and wanted to “know him better.”
On this particular Christmas eve, I was feeling a wave of yuletide melancholy when the phone rang. It was our Finnish friend Robert. Bobby and his Peruvian wife, Laila, had joined our extended family after falling in with us on a wild and unforgettable family vacation to Morocco. Bobby was a towering bristled blond Nordic with a rapid-fire mind and a clear, practical lens to the world. The unusual union of a Finn and Peruvian in this international enclave was typical of our circle of friends – a merger of disparate cultures and genetics that produced perpetually clashing perspectives and two gorgeous children who spoke Finnish, Portuguese and Spanish.
According to Bobby, Christmas was first and foremost, a Finnish tradition. All Finns claim that the Lapp mountains of Korvatunturi, not the North Pole, are the true home to Father Christmas. This rugged winter landscape populated by the Sami people is a frozen wonderland of midnight lakes, deep conifer forests and sweeping mountains of ice. It is a magical destination where on certain clear December nights, the aurora borealis swirls and dances on invisible solar winds.
The Finns are stoic culture – except after a few shots of Vodka when they may break into song or break every piece of furniture in your house. They are a remarkably resilient people and have a fierce history of independence dating back to fated Roman efforts to subdue the tribes living in the “land of the cloudberries.”
“Michael, I have a dilemma,” Bobby said in a thick, educated accent. “Every year, my Finnish friend, Opi and I rent a Father Christmas suit and visit each other’s children, give them gifts, sing with them and then put them to bed” He hesitated. “Opi has abandoned me this year and has taken his family to Lapland. I have no one to play Joulupukki for my children. Could I get you to come over to my house, dress as Father Christmas and visit with them?” It was getting dark and in my late afternoon lethargy, I was feeling more like Scrooge than what the Finns refer to as “ Joulupukki- The Yule Goat”. Yet, there was an unspoken ex-patriot protocol that when someone in your foxhole needs help, you rise to the occasion.
Within an hour, I was barefoot in a frozen side garden, slipping on boots, a red suit, and a white beard that would have made ZZ Top jealous. I slipped on a long elfin hat and moved across the condominium parking lot in search of their flat. An elderly Englishman walking his Westie looked at me with curiosity and shrugged, “a bit lost, aren’t you?”
I could not see very well through my beard and white bangs. I tripped over a potted plant and thumped against the front door. I could hear someone whispering in Finnish and squeals of excitement inside. Laila opened the door and I greeted them in butchered Finnish. Bobby was taking pictures as I sat down to play with the children. They jumped into my lap and sang a traditional Finnish carol. The beard was gratefully disguising the fact that I had no idea what they were saying. I literally just bobbed up and down speaking gibberish.
The children hugged me with the strength of ten men. I felt myself slowly filling with that elusive goodwill and peace that perfumes the lives of those who choose to serve others. As I drove home, I suddenly saw this winter world for all its charm and tradition. It had lost its depressing decay and tired history. Our village was adorned with evergreens and white faerie lights winding down lampposts and across the eaves of brightly lit pubs. I was finally home.
I returned home to find my own children restless and unable to sleep. Filled with gratitude and a recognition that Christmas was about my own rebirth, I settled at the edge of the children’s beds to lull them with a yuletide tale of medieval England. The phone rang downstairs. “It’s Bobby” my wife yelled.
“Michael, I am around the corner now in the costume and was wondering if you wanted me to come in or just climb up on the roof and walk around” I had not expected this Finnish quid pro quo but eagerly encouraged him to come and inspect the house from the street as if he was sizing up how to land his sleigh on our narrow slate roof.
The children were still awake waiting for their story-teller when I instructed them to get up and peer between the indigo blue drapes to the street below where they might see something extraordinary. On this Christmas Eve, a 6’5″ Finnish Father Christmas visited my children on a dark and forgotten English close. “He’s so tall” My daughter squealed. “Santa tall?” my youngest asked rhetorically. Outside, the oversized elf strained, continued to look for ways to enter our chimney. The children watched mesmerized as The Yule Goat finally made his notations and disappeared into the night.
“Now quick” I whispered. “Get to bed before he sees you.” They leaped into their bunk beds and after twenty minutes of discussing Father Christmas, they fell into a satisfied sleep that carried them right into morning. It seemed that Christmas would find us after all, and came on the shoulders of a tall stranger from Lapland.
As my children progress into adulthood, I remind them of the visit from St Nicholas and hope they will carry this memory through the years until one night they might find themselves far from home and feeling disconnected from the spirit of the season. Perhaps then, they will remember that misty, frigid night when they first caught a glimpse of Joulupukki and their own father discovered that Christmas happens wherever there are people.
“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes
It was Christmas time in England. The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost. I looked out the window and sighed. After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.
Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception. In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed. Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits. Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead. The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.
My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub. I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.
“Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed. He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants. “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds. That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas. It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings. “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.” The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.
“Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”. “ 180 sterling ? You have got to be kidding me ? It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy. “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl. Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”. I asked him if he could wait a minute. It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman. I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms. The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin. I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal. Or, you can rescue this poor creature. She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )
This was not the way it was supposed to go. This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas. We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared. He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor. “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes. I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.
The drive home was a disaster. The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough. Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck. The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb. I collected myself. It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down. My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.
With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her. As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”. She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap. “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered. I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face. Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.
After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom. For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom. Christmas Eve finally arrived. The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas. The cat would not cooperate. The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house. All night I tracked and captured the animal. About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning, both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket. Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee. “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself. She’ll never know it was me.
I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship. I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck. The ringworm was already beginning to appear.
I never really took a regular medication for a condition before I was in my forties. My mother did not believe in pills. She was one part Christian Scientist and two parts Inuit Darwinist subscribing to the notion that sick children, like old people, should be just set outside the igloo at night and if they were still alive in the morning, they were allowed to rejoin the family. Illness and chronic conditions were things that plagued other people, like old man Norton who lived across the street. At 85, he suffered from heart failure and diabetes and it seemed like every other week they were lopping off one of his appendages as a sort of burnt offering to his disease. It was a preview of a movie I hoped to never see.
As a kid, you averted your eyes from the vagaries of aging, not so much out of denial but out of some misguided sense that old age only happened to other people. Deep down, you knew it would be waiting for you, like that German Shepherd that sometimes chased you on your bike. On sunny afternoons, I occasionally glimpsed Mr. Norton and he would wave to me from his wheel chair – all two arms, one foot and a half leg. It freaked me out and I made a pact that I would never succumb to old age. I would cheat it and commit to a life either so reckless or physically vigorous that chronic disease would simply shrug and pass me by. I would go out in a flash, perhaps spontaneously combusting on a rock and roll stage or slowly asphyxiating on the side of Mount Everest after rescuing a dozen Sherpas trapped inside a crevasse on the Khombu Icefall.
Despite my best efforts to remain a juvenile, middle age finally collared me. I am now bemused by my own denial – a self deception that seeps in like lugubrious fog obscuring moments of self reflection. I prefer to see myself in a certain light and favor friendships with people who conserve electricity — their “energy-saver” bulbs have a sort of muted Blanche Dubois quality that fails to expose my true age. I prefer pleats, spandex, “comfortable” levis, and larger versions of everything. I wear my shirt outside my pants and tend to avoid stripes which turn me into a large Faberge egg. My wedding day 33” inch waist has eroded like a Florida sinkhole, widening to 38”, a metric that is really only meant to define the circumference of old trees and an athlete’s vertical leap at a football combine. A protective shell has formed near the top of my solar plexus. It feels like a muscle but I am being told it is fat — presumably being stored in the event the Food Emporium ever goes on strike.
Global warming has begun. The canard that only women get hot flashes could not be less accurate. When you are large and in charge, you feel warm all the time. In a single winter day, you are both sweating and freezing as you go from windy, frigid streets to offices hotter than an Indian sweat lodge. In summer, you advocate the notion that thermometers should be calibrated by weight not by temperature as you would prefer to set the air conditioner to a cool 235 pounds each night instead of the balmy 105, favored by your wife who has not gained a pound across three children, two continents and a quarter century.
You start driving a nice sports car because it reminds you of a time when you could sit comfortably in the middle seat of an airplane and not feel like a human smore. People start to whisper when they see your new ride, “Tsk, tsk. He’s having a middle-aged crisis”. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that in 1986 when I did look good enough to actually drive my own convertible, I did not have two dimes to rub together and drove a puke green Renault Alliance that not unlike the French, would routinely sit down in the middle of a job and go on strike. We sports car drivers are not compensating for anything. We’re just enjoying the fruits of our hard labor and perhaps hoping not to be as invisible as we feel.
At 53, the body starts paying you back. The knees went first. Years of sports and running coupled with a pathetic version of stretching that involved making one effort to briefly touch my toes, gave me a bulging disc and hamstrings as tight as a cat-gut mandolin. The shoulders followed. Years in the weight room with poor technique, a mediocre baseball career as well as annual trips to the emergency room after countless injuries in Turkey Bowl football games, rewarded me with clicking joints reminiscent of a playing card hitting the spokes of a bicycle tire.
The latest manifestation of mortal decline occurred at Halloween while sucking on one of the many Tootsie Pops that I appropriated from my youngest son informing him that he must pay “a toll to the troll’. He might as well get used to being taxed now. As I succumbed to the inevitable urge to bite the hard candy, my right molar broke off like the Antarctic Ice Shelf. It would turn out to be an $1100 piece of candy and the birth place of my first crown. Thinking back, I’m sure old man Norton had his fair share of crowns but I had always assumed my teeth would be indestructible – at least I thought so in college when we opened beer bottles with them.
Middle Age now means moderation – another profane word. The whole diet thing is a touchy subject in any marriage where there is a weight imbalance. Yet, she tolerates me and often travels great verbal distances to find just the right word for self improvement. I listen in amusement wondering how my spouse might segue from ISIS to my losing ten pounds. It’s diplomatic genius. She ought to work in the UN. She uses code words to hint at lack of restraint – patronizing placeholders like “ healthy”, “balanced” and my favorite “portion control”.
Gratefully, the dog does not seem perturbed by my slow disintegration. He moves at my speed – an adoring shadow that has fallen in love with my insides and considers my outsides, merely a coat of extra fur. The dog and I agree on the true definition of “portion control”: eat until you are going to be sick. Normally, when he overeats, he goes outside, munches on some grass, returns and throws it all up on a nice rug. I just lie down and moan, informing my wife that I think I have the stomach flu. Meanwhile my son comes in the room to incredulously ask, “who ate all the cupcakes?” I try to blame the dog but he is in the other room throwing up grass.
I am suddenly noticing now that everything in the fridge is “low fat”. I search for sweets at midnight and the cupboards are filled with healthy things like nuts, dates and dried apricots. This is no longer my house, it’s a spice market in Baghdad. I search her favorite hiding places including the most clever default– the microwave. I am mildly insulted at our passive aggressive war of weight and wits – but hey, game on. She is Holmes and I am her arch enemy Professor More For Me. The dinners are very healthy with portions smaller than a French restaurant. Like Oliver Twist, I keep waiting for seconds but she has cleverly prepared only enough for one serving. “More? You want…more?!”
It’s not like I don’t try. The problem is the majority of calories I consume occur between 7PM and midnight. Night eating is a problem. It hits every man — the day arrives where you go to bed on a full stomach and wake up coughing with the sensation of napalm in your throat. My first thought was I was turning into a dragon and that perhaps I just needed to light a match to give birth to the fire in my esophagus. The next thing I know I am exchanging proton pump inhibitors like Zantac and Nexium with another middle aged stranger in a late night diner like a couple of crack heads.
Family photos also become an issue. It’s always subtle – one of your kids or your wife will say, “Here’s a good one of you, Dad!” with profound encouragement. This is code for you look like the Hindenburg or a human manatee in most of these shots but this photo (where we can’t see your face), may meet your denial criteria. I now find myself fighting over Christmas photos more than the kids. “Jesus, if you are going to use that one, at least tell everyone my due date.” “Oh great, we don’t need to tell them where this was taken because from this angle, I look like Asia Minor.” In the end, we decide to feature only kids and I finally concede to one couples photo that will be on the inside of the card. She looks great and in this one I look young enough that at least anyone who does not know us will assume she is my second wife and not my daughter.
I can almost hear the Christmas Card comments, “Wow, she looks great!” Pause. “ And he looks…um, prosperous!” The absence of praise should be construed as criticism. Yes, 53 has become the new 38. 38’s are everywhere: 38” waists, a maximum of 38 push-ups, 38 minutes jogging before the knee feels like you have been swatted by Malaysian riot police, 38 ways to hear someone say, “I would not wear that if I were you.”
Life has turned quickly from “do’s” to “don’ts”. The new regulations: Don’t eat fatty foods. Don’t eat after 7pm. Don’t eat meat, Don’t eat fat. Don’t eat refined sugar. Don’t eat gluten. ( I’d actually like an extra helping of gluten please, waitress and can you fry it into a little fritter so I can drizzle honey on it?”
It’s a losing battle in a three front war – with those who conspire to fix me, with my own lack of restraint and with Father Time. Winter is coming and the stakes are increasing.
Did someone say, “steaks”?
Sullen, dreary, dark shadow afternoons. Cold front door mornings that slap like a locker room towel and the endless layers of clothes thick enough to hide a rocket launcher. Comfort foods abound and whisper – hearty soups, breads, pastas, cookies — a universe of simple and complex carbohydrates designed to raise your blood sugar and your mood. It is a never ending battle between good and non fat.
At 53, my superhero outfit is a little tight. I think I popped a button off my lederhosen but its my job to be a “roll” model for other middle aged manatees. You want us on that wall. You need us on that wall. We just all can’t climb up on it at the same time or it might break. We have our purpose. We make the skinny people feel good and aren’t afraid to be the “before” picture in some ad touting self improvement. But inside our 38’s, we’re 33’s busting to get out. We need a little more restraint, a little more sunshine, a vanity based event like a wedding, reunion or family vacation where posing for a photo or removing one’s shirt is a requirement to keep us on the straight and calorie free path. It’s not too late. You may be middle aged but inside your fifty-three is a thirty-eight and underneath that it is a thirty-three. You know, sort of like a burrito. Yeah, that’s it.
Man, I’m hungry.
In early 2011, The Boston Globe shared the findings of a 20-page report from the Boston Foundation and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a report that somberly concluded that cities and towns must substantially increase the amounts their employees are required to pay in out-of-pocket expenses for services and to significantly increase their deductibles. Jeffrey D. Nutting, Franklin, MA. town manager, complained his town was still facing costs that wildly outpaced declining tax revenues or even the CPI. “Every dollar we spend on health care insurance is a dollar we don’t spend on jobs,’’ he said. “This is all about saving jobs. When insurance costs go up I have cut police, firefighters, or teachers.’’
Nutting said about 10 percent of the town’s $88 million budget now goes to health care costs, and he was facing a double-digit increase for next year. That was 2011.
In 2014, the healthcare conundrum is worsening. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the gross per capita cost to provide health benefits for public employees is averaging as much as $20,000 per worker. This is almost twice the national figure for most commercial health plans – eclipsing by a decent margin private sector, bargained plans. The mounting evidence is irrefutable – low co-pay plans with maximum amounts of reimbursement do little to improve member health or mitigate chronic illness — and often times lead to overconsumption of services, poor consumerism and limited accountability for personal responsibility around healthcare.
While the private sector has been busy cutting benefits, implementing high deductible plans, health savings accounts, cost sharing, mandatory bio-metric testing and plans designed to promote better consumerism, towns and their employees are still bickering over changing a $10 drug co-pay to a $15.
In the months ahead, we will hear more about a little known provision within the Affordable Care Act (ACA) called “The Cadillac Tax”. After overcoming rare joint opposition from unions and business, the ACA included a provision to impose a 40% excise tax on employers ( public and private) for any benefit plans offered to workers that exceed $10,200 per individual and $27,500 per family. It’s estimated that in 2018, a large percentage of the bargained plans offered to employees of cities and counties will exceed this allowable limit and trigger the tax on excess amounts. Many cities and counties eclipse this threshold today – four years ahead of the tax. The $3.2M question? ( I’m just taking a wild stab at $4,000 excise tax per public employee for a town of 800 workers ) — Are our public officials making provisions to deal with this now or are they tearing a page out of Washington’s self preservation playbook preferring to wait until the crisis is imminent before declaring fiscal martial law.
Its estimated in a recent survey by Consultant Towers Watson that by 2023, 82% of all plans, public and private, will be impacted by the Cadillac Tax – which makes the term “Cadillac Tax” a misnomer. It is really a stealthy first step toward capping or eliminating the last of the two sacred cows of tax exemption – the mortgage interest deduction on your home and the deductibility of employer-provided employee benefits. In the private sector, employers are sobering to this future liability and are planning to either explicitly reduce the cost of their plans, pass on the tax to their employees or simply give employees a stipend of taxable dollars and encourage them to purchase coverage through a public or private insurance exchange.
For communities across the US, the issues stand to become highly polarizing. Many town Board of Education and Town Employee Plans are not integrated, still clinging to generous plan designs that offer first dollar coverage with limited co-insurance and out-of-pocket costs and having not embraced the notion of consumer or personal health accountability.
Workers rightfully argue that the cost of healthcare represents a significant economic threat and these benefits insulate them from financial risk. The question is whether such rich plans result in healthier workers or actually drive costs higher by eliminating incentives to be good consumers or take personal responsibility for one’s health? The belief that having comprehensive, low cost benefits insures good health is belied by the consistently high levels of chronic illness and gaps in care that arise in many populations — conditions that arise out of poor lifestyle choices and from those who do not actively manage their chronic conditions. Aside from being poor consumers on the behalf of plan spsonsors, people covered under rich benefit plans do not have incentives to change. Change in health lifestyles typically comes from one of two areas: a pain in one’s chest or a pain in one’s pocketbook. Employers are recognizing the need for a bi-lateral social contract for personal health with employees and are requiring more from participants. Bargained plans have historically been opposed to any revisions or Big Brother oversight from taxpayers. As for public officials caught in the middle, the debate is a“ third rail” issue – “You touch it and you die!” It is proverbial line of death.
With the 2010 passage of the ACA, Congress heard from public employees that they needed time to renegotiate the terms of their collective bargaining agreements to determine who would absorb any potential tax penalty. Congress delayed implementation of the law until January 1, 2018. In the interim, there is very little evidence that any public officials are actively moving to discuss the potential for a 40% excise tax on as much as 40% of their benefits costs. The quickest road to being voted out of office is to wait until 2018 and attempt to sell taxpayers on the need to finance a 40% tax that could have been averted by planning and negotiation. The Cadillac Tax will pit tax payers and public workers against one another unnecessarily if leaders don’t act now to project the real costs, monetize these differences and renegotiate in good faith adjustments to wages to make up for inevitable reductions in benefits that will get plans more in line with costs – costs that will rise at twice the rate of private plans if left with rich, low co-pay plans and limited out-of-pocket costs.
In defense of many public workers, public officials for years have often negotiated extensions of rich benefits for retirement or medical benefits in lieu of wage increases. Workers were essentially trading modest cost of living wage adjustments for critical security — the promise of generous medical and retirement benefits. Public officials were obligating future generations of taxpayers to the net present value (NPV) of an obligation that they would not be accountable for – and might actually be a benefit from as a retiree. Workers were smart in understanding that annual medical inflation is multiples of the CPI and that guarantees on limited cost sharing and low out-of-pocket costs for healthcare were worth more than modest wage adjustments. The public officials appeared fiscally conservative to their constituents for balancing budgets while presiding over dramatic unfunded NPV increases in medical and pension liabilities. 2018 is the year of reckoning. Once US plans calculate the potential excise tax, most will conclude that the additional taxes are simply unacceptable.
A recent article in the Washington Post cited the Government Accountability Office warning that “health-care spending represents the single greatest threat to state and local government long-term fiscal health. In 2014, the GAO expects local government spending on health care to stand at 4.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product; by 2060, that number is expected to jump to 7.2 percent.” The article goes on to share that by mid-century, a whopping 50% of local tax dollars would need to go to financing healthcare.
Most Americans don’t understand the elements of the Affordable Care Act and tend to judge the legislation on very philosophical or personal experiences. If you have directly or indirectly benefited from the legislation – possibly due to a dependent or loved one previously unable to secure affordable coverage to a pre-existing condition, it’s a god send. Perhaps you were uninsured and now have coverage provided through an exchange at a cost proportionate to your ability to pay, you may be quick to defend the merits of the law. You may be opposed – confused by the Congressional Budget Office’s math which suggested the law would cut the deficit, costing $800B over ten years but offset by $940B in taxes, fees and penalties. A big part of the $940B is expected revenues raised by the Cadillac Tax. As with any corporate tax, these costs inevitable find their way to consumers. As it relates to the public sector, it remains to be seen how we choose to handle the bill.
One thing for sure, the tab for the party is coming due. The big question, is who is going to pay and do our local and state officials have the right stuff to facilitate a balanced dialogue with our valued public employees over how we are going to work together to absorb this tidal wave of taxation.
Michael Turpin is a part-time columnist, speaker and a thirty-three year veteran of healthcare – having served both as regional CEO of a major insurer and as an executive advising employers on healthcare design and financing.
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.
Yep, that’s my boy and I already miss him.
An interesting article on how national reform may reshape America’s hospitals. This was written in conjunction with my day job as a healthcare consultant. Enjoy and don’t get sick !
It’s June – a special time of year when we dump three million fingerling seniors into the ocean of adulthood. As graduates of the “we will love you until you learn to love yourself” school of helicopter parenting, you don’t want more advice. But, you’re going to get it any way. Most of you just want to head west or south to find sun and towns with no police blotters or curfews. Good luck with that.
Many of you were born in 1996, the Chinese year of the Pig. This explains the state of your bedrooms, motor vehicles and your penchant to leave wrappers wedged between pillows on the couch.
When you were born, most of us read something by Malcolm Gladwell or an article in Parents magazine telling us that if we desired high performance outliers, we had to hold you back a grade. As a result, your graduating class is an uneven skyline of red-shirted college students and overachieving youngsters. Some of you have been driving since your sophomore year – a few legally.
When we were born before the Civil War, the mid wife gave us a swat to make sure we would cry. It was also a preemptive punishment for all the stupid things we were likely to do. When you were born, swatting was considered child abuse, so the Obstetrician merely asked you how you were feeling. You naturally did not respond and so you got a few free nights in neonatal intensive care and we got a bill for $900,000.
1996 was a wild year. A computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov later found a website on cheats and shortcuts and subsequently beat Deep Blue. In 1996, a wonderful microcosm of America passed away before you could get to know them. You know their iconic images but you never really felt their physical presence. Gene Kelly was a star who danced while George Burns reminded us that age was merely a number. Erma Bombeck told us never to give the car keys to a teenager and Timothy Leary, well, let’s just say he explored inner space while Karl Sagan came back from outer space to tell us we were not alone. Ella Fitzgerald improvised her way to become the first lady of jazz while militant and talented Tupac Shakur died as violently as the lyrics of his brilliant rap. Tiny Tim was our first trip through the tulips in light loafers.
You were pretty normal. Like all children, you loved the notion of having special powers. We played Pokemon, watched Dragon Tales and Arthur, read Harry Potter and observed you with fascination as you got your first taste of dystopia in The Hunger Games. Up to that point, your idea of dystopia was a house without a pimped out basement and any kind of “because you live here” chores. A few years later, we all went to Washington DC for a family vacation, and got a real taste of futuristic dysfunction.
We tried to stop you from using violent video games but found them so much fun that we joined you on Black Ops missions. You always shot us in the back. When it came to inappropriate movies, it always seemed that you managed to see gory cinema du jour at someone else’s house. We still can’t figure out whose house because we all claimed that we did not allow blood and guts programming — unless of course, your Mom was out for the night and then we agreed that you would not tell about my smoking a cigar if I let you and your friends watch Jeepers Creepers 4.
For many of you, your biggest problems have arisen out of how to deal with a caste system borne out of prosperity. In life, as in nature, the seeds of true character only germinate during the wet winters of personal crisis. Some of you have already felt the sting of broken homes and tragedy. Green lawns and clean streets don’t immunize us from life. Some of you handled your challenges with incredible grace. Through these challenges, you guys cared for and loved each other. That capacity to put someone or something ahead of you is a sign of great emotional intelligence.
Like all of us you don’t like trials and tribulations. Hell, some of you don’t even like the dentist although it is ten times better now than when we were clutching the chair having cavities filled by escaped war criminals. I digress. The fact is you will need to have your fair share of failures and would prefer to avoid them. Woody Allen once shared “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
You are part of a demographic cohort called the “Millennials”. Authors Strauss and Howe educated us that your tribe is characterized by extreme confidence, social tolerance, a strong sense of entitlement and the narcissistic tendency to take photographs of yourself and post them 100 times a day. Like the generations that preceded you, you are regularly accused of being pampered and unprepared. Yet, Strauss and Howe boldly predict that you will become civic-minded and in the face of some yet to be defined great crisis, emerge as a hero generation. It will reassure us if you occasionally start looking up from your phones – if for no other reason than to see the bad guys when they are coming.
We see you seniors like Internet start-ups — full of promise, cool ideas and with a market cap that far exceeds the fact that you still don’t make any money. However, our irrational exuberance for you keeps us investing.
Please understand we do not like regulating your every move as teenagers but we are now being told that we are bad parents if you screw up. The headline seems to now be that life is over if you get caught doing something stupid. Here’s the good news: You’ll recover. America loves a comeback — just ask Bill Clinton who is the only head of state in US history to generate successive budget surpluses, be unsuccessfully impeached, have an affair, stay married, be President and possibly become a First Lady.
You are smart. You adapt rapidly — some of you resemble human thumbs. But please don’t use your handheld devices as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Nothing will ever replace the joy that comes from helping and interacting with other people. Be fearless. The only thing that seems to really scare you is Tony’s Deli being closed on a snow day.
You are a tolerant contrarian bunch that don’t seem to buy into any rigid dogma that excludes others, labels them or requires a greater than thirty hour workweek. You are like the French. You appreciate the finer things in life and prefer to be on vacation when you are not eating, making out or sleeping. You look great in shorts and Capris while the rest of us are putting in 25 watt Blanche Dubois GE light bulbs – ostensibly to conserve energy.
You have a chance to fix the financial mess we have left you but you have to decide between austerity or trying to grow your way out of the hole. Just remember that a strong middle class anchors any society and the true measure of any civilization is how we treat the least among us. Don’t watch MSNBC or Fox, you’ll live longer. South Park is okay. Life outside our bubble is hard – and not every body wants to play by the same rules. Being a humanist is hard. If any of you start a new political party, count me in – especially if it includes eating Nutella crepes and drinking cappuccinos.
Focus on other people because as a rule of thumb, most of you are your own worst enemy. You will spend your lives on a schizophrenic quest for interpersonal unification — trying to merge the tripartite of personalities that is you — the person you project to the world, the person you secretly believe yourself to be and the person your mother knows. The day those three people become one, you will be officially self-actualized or possibly doing thirty days in the can for having the guts to throw a shoe at a public official.
Life is messy, like your bathroom. You will fail and it will seem weird the first time you don’t immediately hear that familiar whump-whump of the parental helicopter on the horizon. You’ll have your Khe Sahn moments, isolated, no air support surrounded by circumstances that trigger all your self-centered fears. It’s in these moments you will find your capacity to dig in and fight harder. You’ll appreciate everything that you truly earn more than what is given to you.
That sore thing on your hand that you once got shoveling snow is called a callous. It’s a badge of honor suggesting that you worked hard. We can tell when we shake someone’s hands if they have ever met a rake or put in a day’s hard work. Although, be careful being fooled by golfers, they have callouses but tend to avoid late afternoon meetings.
If you choose to attend college, don’t waste your next four years. Get your butt out of bed and go to class. It costs about $2,230 per class so go and learn something. There’s more to life than knowing how to make a mean Mai Tai. To succeed in a flat, competitive world, you’ll need the equilibrium of a jet pilot and the guts of a burglar. You acquire those skills in alleyways, not in your room watching six consecutive seasons of Breaking Bad.
Don’t be a victim. I assure you that whatever higher power you worship has the same desire for you that we do — for you to be happy and to leave the world a better place than when you found it.
Just remember, people are not FTEs or headcount, we are souls on a spiritual journey. Everyone has value. Be a rock of predictability and an oasis of empathy. Never take the last of anything. Make your bed when you stay at someone’s house and strip the sheets. Don’t wear shoes without socks. If your first roommate is nicknamed “Lysol” or “Candyman”, ask for a new one. The semester won’t end well.
Remember Rome was not built in a day and that it rotted from within because of weak politicians, foreign wars and the fact that everyone was inside with their air conditioners on and could not hear the Vandals coming. For that reason alone, always keep a window open.
Be French and live well. Study history and remember the famous line of De Tocqueville, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”
Class of 2014, Vive le difference !
“And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants
There are some, down the road between hither and yon
That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
But on you will go, though the weather be foul.
On you will go though your enemies prowl
On you will go though the Hakken Kraks howl
Onward and up many a frightening creek,
Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak…”
~ Theodore Geiser aka Dr Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go
Stephen Covey once said, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.” It is inevitable that while on this existential expedition of Life that we will miss sign posts, lose our way and occasionally end up in a ditch. It is buried in the fine print of the human condition that we will periodically hit a bottom. The proverbial nadir can come in the form of any physical, emotional, spiritual or mental stimulus that compels us to make very important changes in our lives. A personal abyss can be filled with nasty nightmares where worst case scenarios keep playing in our heads like a 24 hour horror festival. An incubus can be tinged with painful humiliation or gut-wrenching spiritual doubt. While no light seems to escape from these metaphysical black holes, it is within them that souls are often reborn through life altering personal epiphanies.
Some people get lucky. They make rapid course corrections following moderate miscues. We call these fortunates ” high bottoms” — those who have had mild brushes with consequence and in doing so, make alterations that avoid the deeper canyons of catastrophe. Others are hard-headed and need to be tossed around in life’s white water before finally gaining perspective. Sometimes the most successful among us lack the basic ingredients of humility and self-awareness to see a bottom coming. Their spiritual GPS is still “searching for the satellite” as they speed through one of life’s guardrails. These advocates of self determination tend to rely on their own best thinking and are certain that if there is a God, he or she must look and think alot like them.
Just ask the endless parade of celebrities and power brokers who have seemingly had it all — only to sabotage their own lives. Each low is determined by a simple psycho-social equation: “The Probability of Change Is Inversely Proportionate To The Pain One Is Willing To Endure Before Taking Action.” How bad does it have to get? What needs to occur to cause someone to change the way they live? Not all crises of the soul are self-inflicted. Bad things happen to good people. Yet, life changing events test the very foundation of any person’s belief system. Often people find true spirituality and religion in these midnights of mortality. If you subscribe to the doctrine that life is a “testing place and not a resting place,” bottoms are critical ledges that can catch us and redirect us in a new, more positive direction. For those in the thick of crisis, Churchill offered sage direction: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Hubris and humility anchor the opposite ends of a spiritual continuum that begins as a perilous, high velocity rapid of self worship that eventually widens into a peaceful river of unconditional love. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is merely thinking of yourself less of the time. It is in our tormented moments that we come to the conclusion that only a power greater than ourselves can lift us into the light. Often that higher power manifests in the form of real people — individuals who see beyond our imperfections and focus on our possibilities. They reward us with their simple acts of forgiveness and love. In giving us grace, they receive it. They understand that we are all strands in a rope of compassion fashioned out of servants helping others rise from the ashes of their own spontaneous combustion.
It’s these acts of humanity and unconditional support that we see ourselves as part of a community of souls. We realize the greatest gift that we can give is ourselves to others. “Sinners make the best saints.” Bill Wilson often remarked when he was asked about the miracle of Alcoholics Anonymous. It all started for Wilson by sharing his bottom with another person in the throes of their own despair and in that moment of raw humanity, they discovered grace. Grace is everywhere and lines the pockets of every living soul. It is a currency that never depreciates.
A catalyst for transformation might be getting fired, a divorce, an arrest, being caught in a lie, hurting a loved one, an illness, the death of a friend, getting into trouble or the painful recognition that one is materially rich and spiritually bankrupt. Any relationship challenge or crisis can become a critical turning point in our belief system. When we fearless inventory our part in a fiasco, we often find our own egos skulking in the shadows — trying to convince us that we are victims and not responsible. Pain leads to humility. Humility leads to surrender. Surrender is followed by the revelation that we simply do not have all the answers or control. The recognition that there is a God and we are not him/her leads to a thirst for a theology whose principal tenets are anchored in serenity, humanity and tolerance
A soldier once said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Most of us have bargained with God for intervention or relief from a problem and usually reneged on promises once the crisis passed. Yet, sometimes a bargain sticks. Every religion is filled with examples of faith found in the midst of fear. It can take a crisis to shake us out of the illusion that somehow we’re exempt from life happening to us. “Life,” John Lennon said, “is what happens while you are busy making plans.” How we react to life — and whether we take life on life’s terms — ultimately determine our progress as human beings.
Ultimately, a bottom is a good thing. If for no other reason, we are taught to appreciate the peaks of our existence. Be of good cheer and remember that we never get dealt more than we can handle. Strife, pain and low points also allow us to know who our friends are, confirm our values and see that life can be so much more than we might see in our limited view. Travail shakes us from her chrysalis and we eventually take flight as butterflies — lifted on the gentle breezes of forgiveness and redemption.
It is Springtime and a time of rebirth. It is a time to remember, however low we go, we can always find grace. Enter Dr. Seuss, “…On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are…and you will succeed? Yes, You will indeed (98 and ¾ guaranteed)…and oh the places, you’ll go!”