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.
From Russia With Love
In the summer of 1971, I saw the movie, “Dr Strangelove – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” At 10 years old, I did not totally appreciate the bizarre characters like Brigadier General Jack D Ripper or Dr. Strangelove. I could not entirely understand why Slim Pickens aka Major TJ “ King” Kong rode the atomic bomb out of the B52 bomber like a bucking bronco. However, I clearly understood that the US and Russia were fighting a Cold War. My fiery imagination was stoked by a father who was constantly criticizing the US for letting down its guard against “commies” and “spies”. Hollywood was full of “Reds” and while Senator Joseph McCarthy did his best in the 50’s to root out these ideological weeds, communist dogma was invasive and required relentless vigilance to detect and remove political parasites. The entertainment industry, Congress, all of Europe and even our church had been infiltrated by the vodka swilling, plate breaking, Gulag operating, godless collectivists who were just biding their time waiting for the last capitalist to sell them the rope that they would hang us with.
I had to do my patriotic duty and keep our neighborhood safe for democracy. This required me to develop a clandestine intelligence organization to inform on any person who might be providing secrets to the enemy. I was not sure what secrets the Reds could gather from a neighborhood that was more boring than watching paint dry. However, one never knew where a sleeper cell might be cocooned. Authors like Robert Ludlum described how sleeper agents could lay dormant for a generation. A Manchurian candidate could be activated with a simple phone call.
“ Is this Mrs. Ruth Turpin of 1828 Windsor Road?”
“ Yes, who is this?”
” Sasha sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
With this heavily accented, tongue twisting alliteration, my mother, the sleeper agent, would go into a brainwashed trance, drive her station wagon up the winding mountain roads of Mt. Wilson and blow up the radio tower disabling all radio and TV transmissions across the San Gabriel valley, isolating us from the outside world. Just up the street in Pasadena was Cal Tech, a bastion of high IQ engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists. We were indeed a tempting target. The 64,000 ruble question was which of my neighbors might be actually conspiring to sabotage our town. Could the confederate turn out to be someone we never suspected like green thumbed Mr. Seidell who upon being “ activated” would fly across the country to Washington DC and attempt to assassinate President Nixon with his trowel? Spies were clever and not easy to catch. They were ruthless and not above posing as retirees, gardeners and even parents.
I recruited my friends to assist me in patrolling our neighborhood. Of particular interest was Mr. Harmon who lived across the street with his parents and kept odd hours. We also had some concerns about Mr. Meister who routinely screamed at us to get off his lawn. Vodka and socialism made people angry and loud. Perhaps, Mr. Meister missed the snow of Moscow and was annoyed at the constant sun and temperate climate of Southern California. On a warm summer afternoon, armed with binoculars, a Polaroid camera and walkie-talkies, we embarked on a series of information gathering patrols.
The next morning, my mother received several angry calls from neighbors who were concerned over a disturbed child peering into windows, crawling through juniper bushes and in one case, taking a photograph. Although I was not identified in person, the default accusation on our block was to always blame the Turpin boys. Annoyed, and lacking actionable information, my mother could not deduce the identity of the young peeping Tom. As all good spies do, I convincingly lied when interrogated. I even provided an alibi. While she could not prove anything, she lectured me about people’s personal privacy. If she only knew that we had already uncovered some seamy information about some of our “upstanding “neighbors, including the disgusting fact that ultra tan Mr. Brown sunbathed in the nude and mowed his backyard in a Speedo while Mrs. Franke watched him from her adjacent upstairs window. It seemed moral decline was everywhere.
My parents were naïve and did not understand the town was teeming with traitors.I even suspected my brother of selling information to foreign agents. He was a weak individual with liberal ideas. I searched his room and discovered a magazine stuffed between his mattresses. It was called amazingly “ From Russia With Love” and had a beautiful woman in a provocative pose on the cover. It was obviously intended for fans of the 1963 James Bond thriller starring Sean Connery. The magazine was weathered and torn. I opened it and to my delight and shame, I saw photographs of naked “Russian” women. None of these women looked sinister like Spectre agent Rosa Klebb, the spy who attempted to kill James Bond with a poison tipped knife that jutted out from the end of her boot. No, these women seemed, well – – more open to détente.
As any dedicated spy would, I immediately disappeared behind the garage for to “study” the magazine to be certain that if I ever saw any of these women in public, I could identify them, even with their clothes on.
After committing each page to memory, I carefully tucked the magazine under my pillow and went off to school ready to share what I had learned with my friends in homeroom. I knew my brother would not report the magazine as missing. Yet, as I was sitting through Social Studies class, my mother was fatefully making my bed. I rode home in record time, as I was eager to examine the magazine models for other distinguishing features – beauty marks etc. As I walked in the back door, I immediately knew that something was not right. I was escorted into the dining room, which was the center for all corrective action. My mother looked overly concerned and for a moment I thought there had been a death in the family. “ Honey, is there anything you want to talk to me or your dad about?” I was stumped and then I saw the magazine on the chair next to her. “ That’s not mine.” I protested. “ It’s Tom’s!” I protested to no avail. She remained convinced of my guilt. “The neighbors have been complaining about someone peeking in their windows and now I have found this adult magazine in your room. I think you and dad need to have a talk. “
Suddenly, it hit me. It was all so clever – I had been framed. I was obviously getting too close to someone or something and “they” wanted me out of the way. Like my Dad always said, those Reds are pretty determined and would go to great lengths to remove any threat. Later that evening I endured my father’s unimaginative lecture on the birds and the bees. I had already heard a more graphic and entertaining version from Dennis Higgins in gym class. It would do me no good to attempt an explanation to my Dad. I would have to endure this punishment and bide my time.
One thing was certain. When I got older, I wanted to join the CIA – especially if it meant interrogating one of those Russian women. After all, I was probably the only guy who could pick them out of a police line up.
Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth. ~Erma Bombeck
In 2003, a little known motion picture was released called “Hell’s Highway: The True Story of the Highway Safety Films. The movie chronicled the world of Richard Wayman, an Ohio accountant, any others who in the mid 1960’s had a ghoulish hobby of filming auto accidents . Wayman and a cadre of concerned citizens spent a decade tracking police and ambulance calls and were often first on the scene responders to film the devastating effects of unsafe driving. These films were then packaged and force-fed to teenagers hungry for learner’s permits in Driver’s Education classes across America.
In a rite of passage reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell’s shock therapy in “A Clockwork Orange”, high school freshman of the 70’s were subjected to highly graphic movies of car crashes, mangled bodies and twisted metal. The movies attempted to persuade us that the automobile was hardly a toy. It was in fact, a freaking vessel of destruction. Yet, leading up to that day, we savored the opportunity to view these gruesome montages of death.
Everyone’s older sibling has told us about the highway safety films of Driver’s Ed. As a 15 year old, we did not see many R rated movies. Ultra violence was an emerging form of art in the minds of directors like Peckenpaugh and Kubrick, not part of kid’s video games or cable TV. Graphic film was verboten – a forbidden fruit reserved for mature audiences only. The idea of seeing something in school that might fetch an “M” or even “X” rating was almost too good to be true.
The lights dimmed. The air was thick with adolescent anticipation. As teenaged boys restlessly joked with paper-tiger bravado, the girls squirmed and shifted in their seats as if they were about to dissect a frog in biology. This was serious stuff. You had to have a signed permission slip by your parents to attend class that day. The canister of film had been faithfully threaded through the projector by the AV geek and the opening credits of “Death on the Highway” fell ominously down the screen like the broken lines of a lonely country road. Within five minutes we had seen three horrific car wrecks. Someone whispered in the dark,“ my brother told me (the film) ‘Last Prom’ had a guy with a pipe all the way through his head.” Suddenly, Inez Williams leapt to her feet and moaned as she tried in vain to make it to the door. In a scene out of Red Asphalt, she stumbled and threw up all over Ron Zeck’s size 13 shoes. It all happened so quickly, just like the young man in the coupe who decided to try to outrun the Southern Pacific train and ended up looking like a Home Economics burnt chicken.
Films like “Wheels of Tragedy” and “Mechanized Death” tried to show us what the consequences of bad choices could be for the young driver of a 2000 lb car. However, we were too mesmerized by the site of brains, blood and guts to really register that those entrails could be ours if we chose to blindly pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two-lane highway in New Mexico. Publically, I mastered my nausea and reveled in the gore with the other guys. Privately, I decided when I did learn to drive I would avoid the Southwestern US and train tracks altogether.
Next to facial hair or the discovery of your father’s stash of Playboy magazines, the Learner’s Permit was the ultimate gift a 16 year old could receive on one’s birthday. It was official recognition of one’s accelerating journey into adulthood and into the freedom that only a motor vehicle could provide. It was a plane ticket to exotic places far from the supervision of parents whose principal job description was to ruin your life.
By 16, I was under the impression that the only difference between an Eastern bloc country and my household was the lack of bread lines. My father had become intolerable as we clashed on issues as prosaic as grades, bedtime, curfew and where I would be for the evening. My mother would linger, sweeping in like a cool breeze to gently clean up the debris of our emotional head on collisions.
Subscribing to the Bombeck School of Driver’s Education, Mom refused to accompany us as we sought to master the art of driving her Ford Pinto. This was years before it was revealed that the green, compact car was a rolling can of C4 explosive just waiting to fry us to cinders ‘lest we be rear-ended by another teen driver. My mother’s extra sensory perception told her that teaching any of her four son’s to drive would be her undoing. The responsibility for motor vehicle instruction fell to my father who dreaded the act of slipping into the passenger side of the car. My father was not wired to be a passenger. It was an unnatural act. He was master and commander and had been driving the family station wagon as well as exclusively piloting his work car – the sleek silver Ford Seville – for years. The act of turning over his keys to a 16-year-old male with acne offended him to his core.
The moment we entered his car, the tics and anxious behavior began. His signature sniffling was a strange byproduct of his anxious mind. He was disconcerted and disoriented by lack of control. He winced as I adjusted the rearview mirror, moving his driver’s seat back, adjusting its angle. It was as if I was putting on his clothes.
He immediately shouted out instructions and warnings. ” Turn on the indicator.”
” Watch the curb!” “Jesus, look out for that car.” ” Watch it! Wait, wait, wait. Now! Go! Go! Go!” This would all unfold within the ten-yard span of driveway leading from our two-car garage on to our empty spacious suburban street.
The journey was hell for both of us – the son, needing to follow instructions to earn the privilege to continue to learn and the father grudgingly allowing his progeny to operate his favorite child. The Seville was a coddled sibling that was washed with a chamois cloth the size of a postage stamp and waxed faithfully each Sunday for the long week’s journey that lay ahead. My mother was allowed to operate his car only in extreme emergencies. As a result, the pinto’s interior resembled a refugee camp while the Seville remained pure as the day it rolled of the assembly line in Flint.
The driving lesson always ended before its scheduled time of conclusion. ” Pull over, pull over.” My father would shout. ” You’re gonna get us killed”. ” “What?” I would yell. “I missed that dog by three feet.” We would return home and the door would slam twice as we retreated to our individual caves of self-pity. My mother looked up and grinned. This was one of the few times where she did not get the short end of the stick. She was content to be “ next of kin” in the event we did not return.
31 years later, I am 47 and a passenger, having relinquished the front seat of my car to my oldest child who has just obtained her learner’s permit. I am torn between wanting to play the new age mellow father who seems outwardly indifferent to her wide turns and near misses, and wanting to seize control of the vehicle and bark orders like a coxswain. She has clearly not seen “Highway of Blood “or “Signal 30”. She turns to me after five minutes of driving along a bucolic country road and says,
“let’s take the Parkway, dad. Just one exit.” I am torn. I don’t want to discourage her but she has hardly gained the experience to navigate a high-speed thoroughfare, let alone the Food Emporium parking lot. I weaken. If my wife were present, the idea would be dismissed out of hand. I struggle between the goodwill and experience we might share and the risk of being at the whim of a new driver.
“Well?” She asks. Just then I remember that my recent change of dentists has resulted in transitioning of my dental records. I think of “Wheels of Tragedy” and a flaming crash as we careen over the meridian into oncoming traffic. I think of the burnt chicken corpse and the potential for the US Postal Service losing my dental records. How will anyone identify me?
“ You know honey, let’s wait a bit to tackle the Merritt.” She seems momentarily disappointed but content to explore the blue roads that circle the east end of town.
Somewhere in the cosmos, Richard Wayman is smiling.
Speed Sticks and Pushers
Health class (n), 1. A compulsory educational tollbooth through which every middle school child must travel. 2. A valuable roadmap for pre and post pubescents to assist navigation along the highways of life. 3. A learning curriculum designed to reverse all disinformation learned from one’s older siblings
In the days of Nixon, Watergate and presidential pardons, health class was segregated between girls and boys. There was the domesticus curriculae, better known as Home Economics, for girls; and “Health” class for boys hosted by our mustached, dolphin shorted PE teacher Mr. Stebbins who my father sarcastically remarked looked like an adult film star.
While the girls were railroaded into baking, maintaining proper Redbook posture and ultimately hypnotized into believing that Prince Charming did actually exist and was out there waiting wearing clean underwear, boys were taught the proper techniques for donning a jock strap, avoiding women with venereal diseases and abstaining from drugs with names like ” bennies”, ” uppers”, ” downers”, “Horse” and “Mary Jane”.
We were subjected to anti-drug propaganda to scare us straight. In the annals of anti-drug films, the 1967 classic, “Pit of Despair” stood as a classic – converting the most impressionable among us into paranoid purists who would rather die of influenza than take medication. After viewing “Pit Of Despair”, I was afraid to take so much as a Bayer aspirin for fear of waking up running naked down the Santa Monica freeway shrieking, ” the moon is following me…and he has a gun!”
Every anti-drug flick offered a similar plot featuring a normal suburban kid relenting to peer pressure, and agreeing to attend a wild “tea” party with lava lamps, 30 watt bulbs, throw pillows, sitar music, bell bottomed girls and drug dealers known as “pushers”. In a lost weekend of drug and alcohol abuse, the protagonist ends up with more holes in his arm than a cribbage board, screaming as he looks at his party mates who are no longer people but grotesque demons with narrow pink beaks. Instead of fleeing the den of iniquity, he takes a more direct route to the street, leaping out an open window shouting, “Look at me! I can fly!”. Meanwhile, his emotionally dead friends look on in sociopathic indifference as a rag doll dummy floats horrifyingly with flailing arms down to the cement sidewalk below.
Some were quick to dismiss the exaggerated melodrama of “Pit of Despair”, but we were all on the look out for pushers. I was convinced anyone with long hair or a beard was a drug dealer. Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a heroin dealer, Sportin’ Life, in the move, “Porgy and Bess”. He later sang a song in 1972 whose lyrics, I was convinced, were clearly code for encouraging drug use. The innocent ditty, “The Candy Man Can”, was played on countless conservative AM radio stations and hummed by clueless suburban housewives as they picked out their Webber Bread in the grocery store.
Drug use obviously was rampant and if you sniffed, puffed or popped, you were likely to immediately grow long hair, quit taking baths and barely manage a two-syllable response to any question. You pretty much just walked around all day saying, “solid, man.” These wild haired, drug crazed gutter trash were called “hippies” and they existed like body snatchers to co-opt you into a life of drugs, promiscuous sex and crime – the trifecta of worthlessness according to my father. John Lennon memorialized the quintessential hippie in the song, “Come Together.” The Beatles were notorious for putting symbols and subliminal drug messages in songs like “Hey Jude”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and even the “Yellow Submarine” extolling the virtues of expanding one’s mind with opiates and hard narcotics.
The insidious creep of drugs had to be stopped. According to my Dad, the “French Connection” from Marseilles to New York would need to be choked off in its tracks or America would become a giant opium den – succumbing to Communism because we could not see or hear the Reds coming through the haze of our smoke and loud music.
While girls blindly emerged from Home Economics as SWITs (Stepford Wives in Training) with new appreciation for the wonders of baking soda as a panacea for odors, heartburn and insect bites, boys suddenly saw powdered sugar and flour as sinister accessories for pushers to further corrupt the poison as they unleashed it on Main Street.
The officer who briefed us on drugs and the warning signs of addiction was a
Detective with a thick Brooklyn accent, which only seemed to underscore the gravity of our drug problem. After all, what’s a NY cop doing in Southern California unless the “connection” was somewhere lurking in the shadow of our ivory tower. He told us about cartels and drug lords. He told us to watch for pushers hanging around the playground and baseball fields.
As we jogged in gym class, we pondered the identity of the alpha pusher running our town’s local drug ring. Who was “Mr. Big?” The big kahuna was often depicted in movies as a benign law abiding citizen by day and a ruthless distributor of narcotics, prostitution and murder by night. Perhaps he could be our middle school principal, Mr. White. If he was the man, he could not be working alone. His VP of students, Mr. Gilligan, must be the strong arm of the operation – dealing not only drugs but also detentions. These clever punishments delayed kids after school and forced them to walk home alone where his network of pushers might more easily trap them.
I confided my entire theory to my brother and was immediately ratted out to my father. My Dad was furious, “You will get our butts sued. Michael. What were you thinking?” Weighing the cost/benefit of investigating a major drug ring but having to weed the backyard until the year 2015, I gave up on Mr. White. However, I never stopped scanning the playground for dealers. Sportin’ Life could be anywhere waiting to snare us into a life of addiction.
I am now told that today’s health classes are more politically correct but remain true to the major building blocks of adolescent development – drug and alcohol prevention, body change, sexual responsibility and hygiene. We can always tell when Health class is in session as one of our boys comes home smelling like a Mennen Speed Stick. For the next week, the boy is a walking Glade Room freshener as he lathers his entire body with deodorant hoping to attract someone or something. Usually, he attracts a few flies and the cat. At dinner, he informs us about hygiene as if we were immigrants just off the boat on Ellis Island. My wife nods with a sardonic smile indicating that perhaps her husband could use a refresher course.
Health class seems not to have lost its punch. It may carry a different scent and rely less on fear than information but it has come of age. It has kept pace with the 21st century and has finally understood that health is in the end, a coed experience. Kids do not seem too concerned about pushers and are clearly more informed about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles. Yet the Achilles heel of each generation is the fact that they believe they know more than their elders. Alas, they are still kids. The rote facts they learn are only words and not always understood. We only hope these seeds of health and wellness germinate at the right times.
And judging from the fact that my son has not bathed in three days, not everyone is practicing what is being preached. I have to go find that Speed Stick and leave it under his pillow.
The Anxious Dodger
A springtime ritual of male bonding in 1970’s Los Angeles meant trips to Chávez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles. It was the epicenter of our baseball universe – the sacred home stadium where each year our Los Angeles Dodgers would battle for the National League West pennant.
My father loathed the crowds and traffic of sporting events. Attending a game with 60,000 fans was a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and public urinals. Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was located in a very rough neighborhood.
The LA Coliseum in South Central LA hosted the 1932 Olympics, the Rams, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and the 1968 Watts riots. The Forum – home of the Lakers and Kings -was like Fort Apache precariously located in Inglewood, an area with more guards, barbed wire and barred windows than Folsom prison. Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Los Feliz Hills in East Los Angeles. East LA was often depicted in the media as an area dominated by gangs and drive by shootings. My father’s suburban anxiety manifested itself each time we would attend Dodger game. His paranoid behavior made our long day’s journey an emotional roller coaster as we rode shotgun scanning alleys and side streets for potential assailants.
While we lived less than thirty minutes drive from the actual ballpark, we would literally leave hours before the game, as my father did not want to ever be stuck in traffic. To the chagrin of his sons and wife, he was not particularly fond of going out. After a hard week at work, he subscribed to the FIFO method of socializing – – first in, first out.
We would exit the freeway winding through densely populated, graffiti stained neighborhoods of chain linked front yards where laundry hung on clothes lines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in a mistral wind. Like clockwork, my father would tell us to duck down in our seats and lock the doors. The toughest person I saw on the street before having my head jammed into my collarbone was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller. “ Careful, dad, that baby might put a cap in our rear end”, my older brother said sarcastically. At 15, he had begun to challenge my father’s peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity.
A magnificent 1970 Chevy Impala low-rider rumbled past – its occupants patrolling their barrio. The chrome wheels and custom sapphire blue paint job reflected the hazy midday sun. It was the ultimate Chicano cruiser and we were very impressed. My brother started to roll his window down. “ He dude, that’s a cool ca…” My father grabbed him and shoved him down in his seat. “Jesus H Christ. You want to get us killed?” The driver was a handsome tan twenty-something with arm tattoos and wrap around sunglasses. He dismissed us with a nod and continued rolling down the street. My brother continued. “ Dad what does H stand for in Jesus’ name? And isn’t his name really pronounced ‘hey-soos?’ Mexican people are still pissed off about us stealing California from them, dad. I hear they carry machetes and if your car breaks down they cut your head off and stick it on their front porch flag pole as a warning to other people who short cut through the barrio.”
“I’m scared,” I whined. My brother looked at me disgusted, “ I’m just joking, you peon!”
My father had had enough and looked ready to explode from the goading and logistical anxiety of driving four boys to a baseball game on a hot, smoggy Sunday afternoon. “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll ‘peon’ you” he snapped. My brother started laughing immediately and then my other brother realized what my father had said. I finally appreciated the double entendre and laughed extra loud to convince all that I had known all along that my father was threatening to urinate on my brother.
He would park in the same area, Lot Y – the furthest space from the stadium and closest to the exit of the parking lot. His greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when LA’s great social insurrection occurred. He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure would always be building until one day, they would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest. When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of men with machetes decided it was time to take back the state of California.
Our seats were in the right field pavilion – a word I assumed must certainly be French for outfield bleachers. The term “pavilion” sounded chic and elite. The fact you were sitting next to a guy wearing a wife beater undershirt and a tattoo that said, “Loco-motive“ did not seem to diminish your sense of prestige. By the end of the game, you and that maniac were blood brothers. You might even exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch – unified through the strange alchemy of beer, sun, foot long hotdogs and your common obsession with Tommy Davis.
If you were lucky, you would catch a glimpse of Roger Owens, the world famous peanut vendor whose uncanny accuracy with tossing peanuts made him an instant celebrity. Owens could thread a needle with a bag of nuts across twenty rows – -consistently landing the salty prizes in the hands of his intended targets. He would throw between his legs, behind his back, often peppering three different individuals at the same time with three different bags. According to the record books, his all-time personal record of most tossed peanut bags in a game was 2,400 bags set in 1976 in Dallas, Texas, at Texas Stadium during a Cowboys game.
About the sixth inning, my father would begin to furtively look at his watch and sniff as if he had a cold. This was his “tell –tale” twitch indicating that we were minutes from exiting the ballpark. By the seventh inning stretch, we were being hustled from our seats and running across a great desert of burning asphalt and cars. “ Dad, why are we running?” my brother would yell as we stumbled toward our car. “ We don’t want to get caught in traffic!” my father would scream back as he raced ahead. Years later, my younger brother realized that eight innings is not extra innings in baseball. He had never actually seen a game go beyond seven innings before being sequestered out of the stadium. In fact, he assumed hockey had two periods, football was three quarters and any basketball game was over once a team went up on their opponent by more than 20 points.
We raced toward the freeway on-ramp, heads ducked in the car, on the look out for General Santa Ana and the Mexican army. It was all very stressful – the ducking, the running, the rapid eating, the running, ducking, and 130-degree car with windows rolled up as tight as a submarine. About this time someone would declare himself carsick and throw up. Looking back, it all seemed very normal.
Years later, as I take my children to Yankee games, I find myself parking in lots that will afford me a rapid escape. It is the seventh inning stretch and I consider the dreaded purgatory of post game traffic. I turn to my boys and say,” let’s get going, guys.” There is a huge groan of resistance. Alas, I have become my father. Yet, with each spring, I repeat our ritual pilgrimage to the Bronx. (Wait, isn’t this the same Bronx where the 41st precinct was called “Fort Apache” and where the gang from the movie “The Warriors” fought a rival gang dressed in pinstripes wielding baseball bats?) Yet, like my father, I brush back my demons with a high, hard sigh because I know to a kid nothing is better than a hot dog, Pepsi, peanuts and a homerun. Eternal youth is walking into a stadium on a warm summer day, the air heavy with the smell of cut grass and the sharp contrast of a blue sky against a green manicured diamond.
In the realms of fathers and sons, there is area where age has no boundaries. It is a safe place where moments are shared and words need not be spoken. In this uncharted geography, you might come across a place of worship. It sometimes takes the shape of a baseball stadium. As you get closer, you hear the deep crack of a hard maple bat, the roar of a partisan crowd and a boy yelling to his father above the chaotic din,
“Dad, why do we have to leave the game early?”
You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland. And, I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. ~ Lawrence Fishburne, The Matrix
Thirty years ago, chronic conditions were attributed to a much smaller subset of society. People who had anxious limbs were encouraged to cut down on chocolate and caffeine, get more exercise and perhaps drink more water. Drivers who became apoplectic at the reckless maneuvers of other drivers were “hot heads.” People who experienced the occasional down day were considered to be feeling “blue.” Older men needed to use the bathroom more frequently and people in high stress jobs often found themselves reading books at night, unable to fall asleep.
It’s taken years for me to realize that I grew up chronically ill. I had a short attention span, wiggled like a worm on a hook and wheezed when I ran, especially if I hadn’t exercised for weeks. My penchant to eat too many cookies, tell lies when confronted with a punishment, forget to do my homework, chase girls, suffer the occasional nightmare and routinely punch my little brother when he bugged me – were all chronic conditions that went undiagnosed for years. I do not have the heart to tell my parents that the punishments they meted out were visited upon a hopelessly sick child. Thanks to Mike Adams of Natural News and the pharmaceutical industry, I now understand that I suffered from restless leg syndrome, attention deficit disorder, exercise-induced asthma, low blood sugar, chronic denial, irrational attraction, recurring hallucinogenesis, and periodic anger. It’s a miracle I made it through elementary school.
The medieval treatment for many of these non-progressive conditions involved a leather strap around 36” long, applied vigorously to the afflicted child’s gluteus maximus until the symptoms ceased. Other therapies were administered with open hands or common household implements. Supplemental cures included total quarantine or gardening and the sanitation therapy of cleaning latrines.
Physicians today are generally appalled at these methods, as we now know each of these conditions can be resolved with a prescription drug. We now understand that our DNA strands are virtual Rosetta stones, revealing myriad predispositions to illness. As we further explore this final frontier of divine programming, we rapidly develop drug therapies to arrest these genetic troublemakers in their tracks. You can now travel to Canyon Ranch and, for a small fortune, identify genetic markers that indicate how you might metabolically respond to certain diets or drug therapies. You can answer such nagging questions as “Am I more likely to respond to a low-fat or a low-carb diet?” and “On which psychotropic drug am I less inclined to gain weight?” It’s all very uplifting.
While it is exciting to watch the evolution of genetic therapies lead to a next generation of “designer” drugs, we are also descending into an era of increased self-diagnosis – and an expanded definition of what it means to be “chronically ill.”
I can’t watch television anymore without seeing a luminescent butterfly gently raining pixie dust on an entire city of sleep deprived type A personalities. They awaken after a fresh Lunesta induced sleep, rested and ready to operate heavy machinery. The Flomax commercial makes me have to go to the bathroom. I am jealous of these fishing, biking, and rafting crazies who spray each other with water and have not used the rest room in four days. Going to the bathroom never seemed so fun. High cholesterol and acid reflux ads show people eating pizza, cookie dough and possibly dirt while dropping their LDL lower than a Marin County vegetarian. And there are the ads dealing with, well, how should I say, erectile dysfunction. Everyone looks really, really…really happy. The men are mischievous and the women are playfully coy. The mood music is playing when suddenly, 50 of your closest friends drop in. But don’t worry; you will be on your game, potentially for the next 20 hours.
As we enter the 21st century, we must not let up. We must push for new therapies. Research is already underway for the following progressive conditions:
• Combat Disassociation Disorder – CDC affects millions. It is characterized by a complete disregard for the fact that your nation is at war. Symptoms include lack of concentration on issues relating to foreign policy, energy or deficit spending. In extreme cases, a CDC sufferer may attempt Richard Nixon impersonations.
• Situational Narcolepsy Syndrome – The drug industry hopes to eradicate this crippling condition that impacts one in two adult males worldwide. To quote an industry insider, “The market for an SNS cure is huge!” The condition is characterized by men absorbing less than 50% of information conveyed to them by their spouse or significant other. In clinical trials, a combination of drug therapy and super amplified hearing aids has shown remarkable success. A typical SNS sufferer might hear, “Honey, I need you to…Stamford…Johnny and Timmy…don’t forget…5 p.m.” After clinical trials, the same respondent was able to absorb the following: “Honey, I need you to get to Stamford by 4:30 to pick up Johnny and Timmy. Be sure to tell Carol that Timmy does not need a ride to soccer and call Sarah and tell her to walk to Starbucks at 5 p.m. I will pick her up there.”
• Vicarious Delusion Syndrome – The Fairfield County Athletic Association has recently contributed venture capital to JSU (Just Shut Up) Biosolutions, a biotech research lab focusing on therapies to treat individuals who attempt to live vicariously through the athletic careers of their children. VDS is characterized by fits of anger and limited peripheral vision. Hearing is often impaired and public outbursts may be followed by periods of profound social and personal alienation. Clinical trials have shown the experimental drug Justagame to work on the most advanced cases of VDS – parents who hang out at the local fields even when they have no children playing.
Thankfully, our friends in the biotech and pharma industries are hard at work to attack these and other illnesses. Imagine a future of malleable teenagers, attentive spouses, cooperative coaches and civilized spectators. Consider a life where you can sit through an entire episode of The Hills with your teenager without feeling nauseated.
It’s just around the corner, and I can’t wait. In the meantime, I will have to deal with anxiety, uncertainty, stress and anger the old fashioned way – through exercise, traditional medications and eating right. Tomorrow can’t get here soon enough for me. Actually, I’ve been told my constant preoccupation with the future is an undiagnosed case of Random Anticipatory Anxiety Syndrome; soon it, too, will be treated.
Better living through modern chemistry. Thank heavens!
God, Church and Construction Sites
Any Sunday, 1966 – Sunday was a day of paradoxes growing up in a house of four boys ruled by a father we affectionately referred to as “Colonel Kurtz”. My mother was a very spiritual person and found herself closest to God while lying in bed one day a week, with all five men out of the house at church. It fell to my father every Sunday morning to dress four boys and shuttle us to the local congregational church. The routine was a black comedy of ironies as my father would rush chaotically from room to room, tying double Windsor knots that in the old west could have been used to lynch cattle rustlers. He would swear, yell, and comb down cow licks with spit. We would then race to “our” church which was over ten miles away in an adjacent town. By the time we reached our destination, Dad would be relaxed and acting “ Christian “ while we would look like shell shocked soldiers returning from two weeks in the bush.
You see the church that we used to attend – – that friendly Presbyterian Church that was literally two blocks from our home where all our friends attended, had been taken over by “pinkos”. We were not really sure what “pinkos” were. We surmised there must have been a hygiene problem and everyone was getting conjunctivitis, a common condition we often exchanged at home. My older brother Miles explained that a “Pinko” was a “Communist “. This perplexed me. We saw no Cubans at the coffee table. No toasts were ever concluded with “dasvidnaya” and a smashed glass.
In looking back now on that fateful day, my brothers and I theorize that the annual stewardship sermon perhaps edged too stridently close to the notion of income redistribution and it sent my father into political apoplexy. That night, he declared we were going to “try” a new church the following week. That “try “turned into a ten year hiatus from our beloved sanctuary, friends and as a result, any desire to attend church.
Sundays always confused me. There was tension, swearing, tears and then a worship service that was the equivalent of watching paint dry. We refused to attend Sunday school as we knew none of the children from this new town. I would endure the sermon by doodling on offering envelopes and drawing football plays on the limited white space of the worship program. My tight shirt collar, hand me down blue blazer and loafers that could give blisters within ten steps, were the uniform of a religious slave. I hated it.
The values espoused in our new church – – worship, tolerance, compassion, empathy and service to others seemed so incongruous with the Bataan Death March experience we endured each week. As if to inflict a final unintended indignity, our drive home from church would invariably take us past a construction site where my father would surreptitiously pull the car to a stop and point to a pile of wood and debris. My father loved to have fires in the fireplace, a rare treat in LA where temperatures rarely dipped below 60 degrees. He would pathologically collect “discarded” two by fours at construction sites extolling their virtues as perfect kindling. He would then order each son to wiggle through a chain link fence like a Vietnam soldier and gather up an arm of “discarded” wood and rush back to the car before a junk yard dog or passing security guard might chase us for liberating the wood.
Any Sunday, 2006 – I now awaken each Sunday to a quiet house of people pretending to be asleep – one eye on the clock and one ear to the ground. As a new age Dad, there is less yelling and infinitely more negotiation. The Windsor knots are replaced by wrinkled button downs, khaki slacks and Merrills. Yet, the same moaning and reluctance returns as my possums are exposed. The half-hearted grousing about being tired, sick or not feeling spiritual. I smile. Their resistance is weak and a charming memory.
The reality is they need a church community and the church community needs them. They are the next generation of members who will form the nucleus of the lay ministry that serves the church membership and our community. I realize it starts with my resolve which on a cold day or after a late night out, wanes. But if I want my family to develop skills to cope in a world that seems so unwilling to reward character over charisma, they will need some spiritual grounding and it’s up to my wife and I to ensure this happens.
The key was finding a church home that felt right. It starts with clergy whose views best track with your own views of the world. As descendents of Huguenots who fled Europe to avoid the demands of a church that sought to control all aspects of their lives, we sought out a church that offered a community of people that sought to understand before being understood. Our pastor, Gary Wilburn, preaches tolerance, inclusion and responsibility to be a peacemaker. He avoids the harder edges of a more orthodox theology that can sometimes judge, exclude or seek to proselytize those who do not exactly blend into a singular view. My Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Islamic and Hindi friends all have found similar experiences at churches and synagogues as they sought a community that helped them form a healthier spiritual balance in life.
They say “Comedy is Tragedy plus Time” and in many ways, I can now laugh about my Heart of Darkness Sunday experience and the fact that after all that, the path through the jungle led me back to a community of God. 1966 was a different time and place. Yet, the need to serve a greater purpose than one’s self and to yield to a grander plan of a higher power stirs within all of us and has throughout time. In a town with seventeen churches, it seems like there has to be something for everyone. The key is getting everyone out of bed and getting involved in service.
One word of advice — God is generally not found in construction site woodpiles, especially on Sunday.