I’m Building A Safe Place And You Can’t Come!

             So the kids are coming home – from college, from new jobs in far away cities and out from underneath a mountain of college applications. The age-old axioms still hold true. While life is ephemeral, this time of year is a cunning psychosocial re-run that is as perennial as Jimmy Stewart racing down the snow covered streets of the mythical town of Bedford Falls, NY.

My eldest is now a businesswoman and has developed a range of opinions. Her latest revelation is the 38% withholding being faithfully absconded from her bi-weekly paycheck. To her fraternal grandfather’s delight, she is rethinking her political convictions. Thanks to Obamacare she can almost bridge the period where our insurance and Medicare cover her so she might never have to actually purchase it for herself. Yes, George Bailey, it really is a wonderful life!

My college sophomore arrived in a cloud of dust – disgorged from a massive SUV full of teens, filthy laundry and a cacophony of coughs that was reminiscent of a TB ward. He is the middle man on the homo sapien evolutionary chart — not quite upright. He can hit a jump shot from thirty feet but cannot seem to find a trashcan or hit a toilet. As with all mid-semester collegiates, he is paler than a cue ball and unaware that most people go to bed before 3am. Within moments of his arrival, the foyer looks like an alleyway in Mumbai as discarded clothes and food wrappers litter the floor attracting an adoring entourage of cat and dog who will swim under him like pilot fish for as long as he is home.

My final child, a high school senior, is in the process of breaking up with us. We recognize all the signs – curt but polite  responses, unreturned texts, and a palpable annoyance at the littlest peccadilloes like my breathing or how I chew food. Between the avalanche of completing his college applications and a young person’s burning ambition to march toward the front-lines of manhood, he is ready for reassignment.

Holiday expectations quickly morph into resentments and I’m getting annoyed that no one is paying attention to me. Even bribery to spend time together is not working as they have their own money. Most years, I become a grump – silently wallowing in self-pity, overeating, and talking to the dog as he sympathetically receives my latest Martin Luther list of complaints about the decline of the modern pater familus.

Yet this year, it’s different. There is a movement across America that is warming the mud of my holiday self absorption. Contrary to some people’s opinion that I am wearing a garland of pity fashioned out of misguided self-interest and rice-paper sensitivity, I have learned that I am actually a victim of discrimination.

I knew it – ageism, mildly overweightism, suburbanism – you name it; these subtle forms of overt exclusion seep from the pores of a hyper-judgmental world. After carefully reading up on the demands of a legion of determined students across America’s universities who are bravely confronting the meanness and unconscious prejudice of their cocooned educational institutions, I declared my own independence.

After emerging from football hibernation in my man-cave on Thanksgiving Day while my wife had been spending her day in the kitchen, she had the audacity to ask me to peel potatoes. I was naturally upset as I did not expect a request for support – after all, food preparation is traditionally women’s work. My wife is also British. I explained that since half of my family was Irish, I could not understand her insensitivity to asking me to peel potatoes. Having immigrated to the US during the last potato famine and having endured the poverty, racism and tyranny of English colonialism and US slum lords, I was appalled that she would be so culturally unrealistic to expect me to peel a few praties on the graves of my ancestors.

As she smirked and raised an eyebrow, I stomped my foot.

“I won’t stand for this micro-aggression. Your making me relive my forefathers’ humiliation as they stepped off the boat at Ellis Island.”

She handed me a bowl and the peeler. “You’re lucky that we both love the same person.”

Church was no refuge. The stewardship sermon encouraged me to reach deeper into my pocket to support those less fortunate. This made me feel bad. I don’t like it when people make me feel bad and I made a mental note to petition the Worship committee to be more understanding that sermons should not discriminate against anyone who does not feel like helping poor people. The worship challenge now is to find a lowest common denominator subject that can appeal to every soul in our hyper-heterogeneous congregation. My suggestion included a primer on how to operate a lathe or make a bird feeder – but perhaps I was now being bigoted because some members may not know what a dowel is.

Micro-aggression was everywhere. Clients wanting me to work on their projects without regard for how I was feeling or what I had going on. “Look, Homeland is on tonight and I’m feeling kind of fragile today.”Bosses expecting me to meet deadlines and conform to their definition of performance. Like who knows better than I do about how I perform? Later, while deep in thought at a traffic light, a woman bullied me by honking her horn. Here I was worrying about Kim Kardashian’s latest pregnancy and I am attacked.

The micro-aggression storm grew in intensity as my supposed “Friends” did not press “like” on my latest posting on Facebook. The accountant called. The IRS, ever the aggressor, was expecting me to pay increased taxes to keep funding our inefficient and dysfunctional government. The biggest insult arrived from my son’s safe haven college asking me to remit this semester’s full tuition – a bloated payment that helps fund a majority of other students who are on financial aid. Gratefully, I learned that many of those receiving my support were my brothers and sisters in self pity.

 I was depressed. It seemed wherever I looked, ageism, body-ism, sectarianism ( I’m convinced Methodists and Catholics keep secrets and won’t share them ) and discrimination followed me like cheap cologne. I declared to my family that I needed a safe place (aside from my bathroom) where I could feel unthreatened.

I emailed our First Selectman to ask if He would consider converting the local teen center to a fat-guy, judgment-free zone where late boomers could watch football, play Christmas music year round, eat pie, smoke a cigar, not have to answer client calls, or help anyone with anything unless we felt like it. I would want the front desk clerk at this Shangri-La of lethargy to weigh 300lbs to make us feel thin. Best of all, I’m going to demand that someone else pay for this as compensation for years of dislocation.

My Selectman wrote me back.

“Thanks for the terrific suggestion. I’m not sure where things stand with the re-purposing of this location but we will certain circle back to you. I can completely understand how you feel and want to better understand your issues. Sincerely, Rob”

His note was riddled with undercurrents of aggression and sarcasm. How you feel? Clearly he was singling me out. Understand? What, I’m not speaking well enough for you to comprehend my concerns? I bet you think I have a couple of Krispy Cremes tucked in my cheeks? It’s because I’m over fifty? Or maybe you don’t like the fact that I’m in healthcare or drive a Ford. Note to self: Demand his resignation. I’m not going away.

I’m going to find my safe place and when I get it, he won’t be invited. In fact, I’ll make sure all those people that made me feel like a middle aged, silver-haired baby will be in the parking lot being told they can’t join my carnival of conceit. I’ll show them that it does not pay to be judgmental, exclusive and close-minded.

It’s sad that they will never understand what it means to be me. Once I’m in my safe place, I’ll never have to waste time away from Homeland trying to explain it to them. They will be out of my life – expunged by the segregation that they once subjected me to.

I may need to find a new job, new clients, maybe even a new family, and well, a lot of stuff. But I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m going to demand someone reimburse me for all those things.

By the way, has anyone seen my U-9 participation trophy?

 

 

Mr. C’s America

imagesI 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.

Birth Daze

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...
Image via Wikipedia

Birthdaze

On my thirteenth birthday, parties and multiple presents suddenly ceased.  There was no special stature afforded me on the anniversary of my birth.  My father slipped out the backdoor as he did each morning and left for work.  The kitchen was choked with the usual frenetic preparations for school obscured in a haze of fried bacon and burned toast.  My mother mentioned that my birthday dinner of hamburgers would be warming in the oven when I got home from football practice, as she and my father were out entertaining clients that evening.  It seemed as though I was no longer a “cute” puppy worthy of special attention.   I stared at the ground not wanting to cry and secretly wished stigmata would appear on my palms to reveal my deep spiritual martyrdom.  My only birthday present, a baseball glove, had been purchased weeks before and immediately put to use.  My only other gift was a bizarre offering from my grandfather, whom I was now certain, was slipping into senility.  Instead of my annual birthday card replete with a crisp $10 bill, he sent me a coffee can full of pennies and peppermints.

That night, I surveyed the wreckage of my birthday and considered the cruel net present value of my waning childhood — pennies, mints and a shriveled burger on a stale bun.  My older brother sensed my dejection and confirmed my worst fears: “Dude, your birthdays are over…”  My dog Max trotted over and flopped next to me with a heavy sigh.  I looked at him and he seemed to be saying, “Don’t look at me.  I don’t even know how old I am.”

Denial became anger.  My friend, Gary, was having his Bar Mitzvah.  I was not even sure what this ancient rite of passage entailed but I heard it meant money, presents, cake and the ability to invite girls to a party.  Now I wanted to be Jewish. Gary would be carried in a chair as everyone celebrated the fact he had become a man.  People would stuff money in his trousers like a Chippendale’s dancer.  He might even grow a beard right then and there from the sheer testosterone of so many acknowledging his manhood.  And here I sat, the Protestant nobody, eating a stale burger and counting out $3.23 in pennies that smelled like Maxwell House.  I suddenly realized that birthdays, like hormones, changed.

In the post pubescent teenage years, each birthday is an event in two phases: the perfunctory family celebration, endured by the teen like a morning in church, followed by a “bash.”  In the lexicon of the ‘70s, a successful bash was defined as an event with no adult supervision, limited police intervention and no one getting sick in your car.  In your twenties, the festivities involved an evening out with everyone, I mean everyone — friends, coworkers, and that Romanian immigrant you met who was bussing your table at the wine bar in Century City.  Then birthdays become justification for self-indulgence and life lessons.  The “I made it” mentality kicks in and you seek to reward yourself.  This leads to an extension course at the school of hard knocks as your celebrations take a bizarre turn — resulting in waking up the next day with a fat lip, no idea where you parked and a $1000 wad of your VISA receipts signed by someone named Little Ray.

In your thirties and forties, you celebrate your birth anniversary with the parents of your children’s friends who have become your friends.  You realize your social circle is now completely composed of those who live in your dimension.  Their unwavering companionship is your gift.  They offer you understanding and never question why your foxhole smells the way it does.  Their foxhole is in the same shape.  You dream of the perfect adult birthday present: zero accountability for 24 hours — everyone just leaves you alone.  All you want is to sleep in, work out, play a little golf, maybe get a massage or haircut.  You want to eat something unhealthy, watch your favorites on TV and not be told to turn the channel, clean a dish, pick up a kid or move a trash can.

In your fifties, you begin to dread birthdays like the snap of a latex glove preceding a prostate exam: “This may feel a little uncomfortable.”  You mourn the passing of each year and consider celebrating the day of your birth tantamount to dancing on your own grave.  Some regress, anxiously looking in their life’s rear view mirror to inventory all regrets.  The day becomes an unnecessary black Sabbath of angst and meaningless self-pity.  This may culminate in the rash purchase of a sports car or, worse yet, running off with your personal trainer (Porsche and Viagra ads actively target these unfortunates.)  Yet most of us avoid these irrational impulses and pay homage only to birthdates divisible by five.  We use the “in between” birthdays as justification for binging on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

As you get on in years, you appreciate every birthday you’re granted but prefer celebrating in privacy, perhaps just a quiet dinner with another couple or someone older than you.  You buy all your own birthday presents because you are no longer willing to be gracious.  Hell, it hasn’t really been about you for the last 20 years.  You eventually get to a point where you don’t want to see anyone, including yourself in the mirror.  A great birthday is simply a day when all your body parts obey.

Birthdays follow a cunning symmetry in life.  As an infant, your first few find you wetting your pants and rubbing cake all over your face while unfamiliar people crowd around you and take flash photos.  You really haven’t a clue as to what’s happening or why that fat woman with blue hair keeps pinching your cheek.  You get angry when someone you don’t know sits next to you — that seat was reserved for your imaginary friend.  Then 80 years later life comes full circle and you’re once again wetting your pants, wondering what’s going on and missing your mouth with cake by a country mile.  You still get angry when someone sits next to you as you tell everyone repeatedly that this seat is reserved for Lana Turner.  They don’t listen, so you hurl your cake and it just happens to hit your stuck-up daughter-in-law in the face, who runs from the room crying, claiming after all these years you still hate her.

Now that is a great birthday.

Camp Whencanicomhomma

Summer Camp Personalities
Image by Transguyjay via Flickr

 

Camp Whencanicomhomma

“Hello muddah, hello faddah

Here I am at Camp Granada

Camp is very entertaining

And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”

It was early winter when the phone call came from California.  It was below zero, and the woods seemed to be cracking under the arctic blast that had buffeted us for days. Our then 11-year-old daughter was catching up with a friend and hearing all about a two-week sleep-away camp, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  “Waterskiing, boys, horseback riding, boys, dances at night and…boys.”

Our first child pleaded with us to allow her to attend this amazing adolescent Pleasure Island.  After carefully evaluating Camp Skyline, we realized it was time to push the first chick a little farther from the nest.  In the ensuing weeks, as snow thawed and the first breath of spring hinted at warmer days, she marched around the house with a reckless bravado, crowing condescendingly at her brothers, “I am going away for two weeks this summer and you babies have to stay home.  You had better stay out of my room.  It’s going to be soooo fun without all of you.”  As younger brothers so often do, they looked up, merely shrugged and went back to their video games.

“I went hiking with Joe Spivy

He developed poison ivy

You remember Leonard Skinner

He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.”

The departure date finally arrived.  I served as escort on a transcontinental trip that included a brief stop in Denver where I had to give a speech. My daughter loved the taste of being an only child again and sat maturely in the audience as I delivered my presentation.  That night, we shopped along Denver’s esplanade – walking arm in arm and I was, for a brief moment again, “Daddy.”  The following day we landed in San Francisco, and drove to the East Bay where we stayed with friends.  In a mere twelve hours, canary yellow buses would portage a new generation of girls and boys  to Bass Lake and their summer world of adventure.

Late that evening, there was a tap on my bedroom door as my little girl walked into my room and asked if she could sleep in my bed.  This hadn’t happened for years — I could tell something was weighing on her mind.  The next morning dawned and she looked as if she was deploying for a year’s tour of duty in Afghanistan.  When we first spied the parking lot of idling school buses, her hand squeezed mine.  She sighed and hugged me tighter than she had in years.  As the buses drove off, scores of arms and hands waved from the windows. I spied her circumspect face under a tangle of enthusiastic teens and realized my sparrow was flying right into her first major bout of homesickness.

“All the counselors hate the waiters

And the lake has alligators

And the head coach wants no sissies

So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

 

Now I don’t want that this should scare ya

But my bunkmate has malaria

You remember Jeffrey Hardy

They’re about to organize a searching party.”
 

I recognized all the symptoms that morning – her need to use the bathroom, yawning, and an endless stream of redundant rhetorical questions.  You see, back in the summer of 1972, another young man (who remain nameless) attended High Sierra Summer Base Camp and went three days without eating any food – – claiming he had contracted a rare stomach parasite and needed to go home immediately.  His incredible persistence and exaggerated symptoms fooled all but the most veteran of camp counselors. At the boy’s insistence, the camp reluctantly arranged for the boy to call home where his parents refused to allow him to return before the week had concluded. Once reality set in, the boy was seized by the sudden craving for a hamburger.  Four days later, he returned home with pictures of trout caught in high mountain lakes, strange wonderful stories about new friends and a veteran’s resolve to return to the “greatest camp ever.”

“Take me home, oh muddah, faddah

Take me home, I hate Granada

Don’t leave me out in the forest where

I might get eaten by a bear.

Take me home, I promise I will not make noise

Or mess the house with other boys.

Oh please don’t make me stay

I’ve been here one whole day.”

 

 

Her first letter arrived within two days.  It was hastily written, as if the prison guards might arrive at any time and once again beat the soles of her feet.  “Please come get me, NOW,” she pleaded.  “It is horrible here and everyone is miserable.  It’s hot and there are mosquitoes and the food is terrible and I can’t sleep at night…”  The second postage stamped SOS suggested some form of child slavery might be operating at the camp as she was being forced against her will to bus tables as part of kitchen patrol.  Letter three alleged emotional abuse.  The Camp Skyline website which faithfully posted daily pictures of laughing campers and rowdy campfires – including a girl we recognized – seemed to conflict with her  information.

“Dearest faddah, darling muddah,

How’s my precious little bruddah

Let me come home, if you miss me

I would even let Aunt Bertha hug and kiss me.”

 

As was the case in 1972, the parents held firm and the letters stopped coming.  She was either dead or waterskiing.  We suspected the latter.  The day we arrived to pick her up at camp was emotional — she did not want to leave her new friends or the counselors she’d become so attached to.  “It was sooo incredible.” She leered at her brothers. ” And you won’t be able to come for at least two more years,” They looked up at her, shrugged and went back to their video games.

“Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.

Guys are swimming, guys are sailing

Playing baseball, gee that’s better

Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter.

~ Camp Granada by Alan Sherman

Diary of a “Husky” Kid

Pumpkin Head
Image by nickhall via Flickr

My dad used to describe kids like me as “big boned”, “solid” or “husky”.  Even at an early age, the word ” husky” bugged me as it seemed to be a verbal primer meant to gently veil an uglier undercoat adjective –“chubby”.  Just hearing the term “husky” still makes me want to suck in my gut.  Having two older brothers who could consume 12,000 calories in a single sitting and still look like extras in the remake of Angela’s Ashes made me even more self-conscious and in search of a cure for the metabolic deuces that I had been dealt in this unfair game called adolescence.

I took after my German grandfather with a square frame and large head.  It was not actually until the second grade that anyone outside of my family called attention to my unique physiology.  We had moved in our town forcing me to switch elementary schools.  I hated everything about my new school “Valentine”– its’ unisex name, it’s strange children, the long, sterile hallway that descended down to the adjacent middle school and our massive playground that would make an agoraphobic run for cover. I was a big kid for my class – often mistaken for a third or fourth grader. I was desperately lonely for my old friends the first day I was shoved out of the car and into Mrs Stone’s second grade class.

It was less than an hour before I got tagged with my first epithet. “Hey, pumpkin head!” I turned around amused, looking for the person who would be the butt of this funny word.  I whirled to confront two elfin, toe-headed boys – identical twins dressed in white tee shirts, blue jeans and red cloth Keds.  I had the sudden sensation of sea sickness as my twin tormentors merged into a symphony of abuse.  “How come your head is so big?” The slightly older brother by two minutes, David, looked at his brother, Ed. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Another kid wandered over as my blood pressure rose. Soon there were five kids forming a crescent-shaped peanut gallery behind my two hecklers.

I was unprepared and could only retaliate with a pathetic reference to their microscopic size.  Years later, I would regret not coming up with something infinitely more cutting such as “my dog leaves larger %$##@’s than you on our front lawn.” However, it is always in retrospect that we come up with our best retorts – – normally thirty minutes following verbal fisticuffs.

“For a guy with such a big head, you’re pretty dumb.” (laughter)

I can’t recall exactly which insult made me snap but I distinctly remember taking off after the Dillhofer twins. In a scene out of Animal Planet, I was thoroughly confounded by the twin meerkats darting in opposite directions, mocking me and shouting “pumpkin head” A teacher intervened and to my shock, five kids fingered me as the instigator.  On my first day attending Valentine school, I was marched to Miss Pratt’s office fuming and despondent.

After school, I raced home and went into self-exile behind the garage – plotting my revenge on the Dillhoefers, my teacher, the principal and anyone associated with moving their children to a new school.  I sat crying with my dog Max, a mongrel kindred spirit with Rastafarian-matted hair. He was my unconditional shadow indulging me as I sat cursing my fate and physique.

My older brother had been kicking a soccer ball against the other side of the garage when the ball lifted over the tile roof and landed in the ivy near my hiding place.  I did not move to pick it up but waited until my brother turned the corner.  In an act of sheer compassion that only an older sibling could muster, he saw me crying and asked, “What are you blubbering for, fat boy?” Thus began my journey as a husky kid.

When I look back at those pictures now, I see a happy boy who loathed running, could hit a baseball a country mile and who never met a donut he did not like. I grew into a well-mannered, husky adolescent that could navigate his way through most challenges.  I became the anchor man in tug of wars, the clean up hitter, the guy who lifts everyone else to safety but then gets caught because he can’t lift himself over the wall. I never completed a single pull up in the President’s fitness challenge and could not run a mile in less than ten minutes.

Yet, when you are 12, today is tomorrow and also the rest of your life.  Stories and parables about people “growing out of this” and “ overcoming that” are propaganda created by parents too loving to break the inevitable truth to you – that you will one day grow up to do belly flops in a local circus or perhaps haunt some stretch of woods in rural America.  “There he is ‘Big Head’, run!” As the children scream and retreat down the mountain path, the pathetic middle-aged ogre with the hydrocephalus head whimpers and retreats to his cold, midnight granite cave.

As a husky kid, my biggest challenge was clothing.  There was no such thing as elastic. In a modest family, one must wear hand me downs from older siblings.  I do not recall ever having a waist size less than 32” and was perpetually popping buttons, ripping crotches and tearing the seat of my older brothers’ worn corduroy trousers.  The advent of denim prolonged my wardrobe but could not completely compensate for my thunder thighs and U-Haul rear end.  While these attributes made me every coach’s dream on the baseball diamond, I was a tailor’s nightmare and an expensive line item in my parent’s back to school budget.

My greatest fear was removing my shirt in public.  My brothers looked like POWs with washboard stomachs and adolescent hair in all the right places.  I resembled alabaster play dough in process.  I had annoying baby fat under my arms which seem to accentuate my chest.  My brother’s referred to them as “man-boobs” – a term which I did not care for.

Summer meant the beach, public swimming pools, swim parties and sun bathing.  I loathed the fast metabolism jocks with their abs and muscle definition.  They were like relief maps with distinct features – mountains of sinew and flat deserts devoid of flab. I was like Antarctica – a large white land mass with no distinguishable features. I could not exactly pinpoint my biceps, abdominal muscles or quadriceps as they were all well insulated under a protective layer of permafrost baby fat.

Further trauma would await me in the Fall at school when we would invariably square off in basketball requiring one to either be shirts or skins.  To be go skin in middle school PE was to advertise your darkest fears to an audience of unforgiving, insensitive pinheaded boys. To further exacerbate the problem, a game might be held outside in full view of the girls who would be doing jumping jacks or running the way girls who did not exercise often ran – in a sort of headlong tumble as if they were falling down hill.

My gym teacher, Mr Stebbins, loathed me for my myriad efforts to avoid Physical Education.  My conscientious objection to sweating made him angry. He resembled an adult film star with his dolphin gym shorts, tight muscle shirt, blond sideburns and moustache.  He looked at me with sardonic disdain as he picked sides for basketball. “Turpin – skins”.  He might as well have said, “Turpin, naked!” I took my shirt off and quickly crossed my arms convinced from my brother’s chiding that I had bigger breasts than Raquel Welch and most of the girls now circling the playground with their spastic, angular lunges. For the next 30 minutes, I felt like a bowl of jello moving from one side of court to another.  I became lost in my self loathing.

My mother sensed my despondency that evening when I refused to eat dinner.  This was indeed an event as rare as a lunar eclipse.  Oblivious to my plight, I heard my father groan from the other room pleading with God to exterminate every liberal in Congress. My mother noticed I had not touched my Swanson’s fried chicken TV dinner. Her nickname was “Sodium Pentathol” because she could induce a confession faster than a priest threatening you with a hair shirt. My loss of appetite was concerning and she was determined to root out its cause.

She tried not to smile as I dredged up the last few years of frustration with my physique..  She suggested I write the pros and cons of my temporary condition on paper and when done, we would weigh the right and left sides of the ledger for balance.  I winced at the word “weigh” but agreed to consider trying to find the positive side of my weight.  Was there a constructive side?  Where was it?  Could you see it in the mirror?  At last, I agreed to indulge her.  As I pondered the positives of portly, I came up with a few “advantages”.

1)      I would be last to die in a famine or of radiation poisoning after a nuke given my slow metabolism

2)      When my voice changed, I could become rich and famous like R&B singer Barry White aka The Walrus of Love

3)      My size made me a success in any activity that involved as little running as possible. This left me golf pro, baseball player or bakery chef as potential career paths

4)      I was less likely to be injured if ever shot in the stomach by a cannonball at close range

I quickly ran out of pros and shifted to the cons which invariably revolved around girls – the inability to attract or retain one.  I had girls as friends but they treated me more like a brother or a cuddly Cyrano whose physical liabilities disabled him as a threat and relegated me to a role of trusted confidante and romantic go between.

After perusing my list of assets and liabilities, my mother resorted to what all parents do, she told me a series of lies about family members.  To believe her was to accept that my razor thin uncle who could shower in a shotgun barrel had spent his adolescence trapped inside an ugly duckling façade of baby fat.  Others in my family had also been dealt these identical character building cards and had emerged post puberty with the physiques of swans. I took the bait and began patiently to wait – scanning my own horizon lines for any signs of maturation.

True to her word, I did grow over the summer before high school and like a stunted winter plant finally stretched to new heights under the arc of omnipresent sunshine.  My body changed and with it, I moved on to the more myopic and selfish preoccupations of teenagers.  The story had a happy ending as Cyrano eventually got his Roxanne and later became a social advocate – carrying a message to a next generation of huskies whose self esteem seems more under attack from media images that perpetuate an airbrushed myth of acceptance through visceral beauty.

I still see that husky kid.  He comes around from time to time.  He rents a guest house in the back of my mind and occasionally orders a pizza or eats too many cookies.  He does not come with me to the gym and stays home while I go out for a jog.  He loves old movies, hanging out with the family and gets excited when he sees fresh bananas in the fruit bowl because it means Mom has gone to the supermarket.  He’s a kind kid.  Most of all, he understands that words can hurt more that just about anything – – except perhaps, any sport that involves running or a cannonball shot directly into your stomach at close range.

Scent of An Imposter

A bottle of Old Spice cologne.
Image via Wikipedia

 

Scent of An Imposter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to The Teen Behavioral Network

teen titans
Image by istolethetv via Flickr

How strange that the young should always think the world is against them – when in fact that is the only time it is for them.  ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960

Tired of late night cell phone debates with your teens over dubious sleep-over locations and questionable acquaintances?  Worried what kind of den she is calling from ? Unsure whether those red eyes are really from studying or fighting forest fires?  Does your teen make OJ Simpson look truthful? Consider joining The Teen Behavioral Network (TBN)

At TBN, our mission has remained the same, helping teens avoid self sabotage.  During your child’s transformation from adolescence into adulthood, they are statistically at greater risk from a host of acute physical and mental illnesses ranging from situational retardation syndrome (SRS), serial mood swings (SMS), poor peripheral vision (PPV) and episodic events such as auto accidents, broken bones and ruptured relationships.

We want to take this opportunity to socialize you to the benefits, provisions and clinical protocols of our program.  TBN is an incentive based care coordination program underpinned by an exclusive network of friends, acquaintances and families.  Under a typical TBN program, your teen’s activities will require them to call an 800 number to obtain preauthorization for certain risk based activities. Our goal is to help direct them toward people, places and activities that are most likely to reduce their risk for catastrophic events which could sidetrack their progress in life.

Based on decades of evidence and outcomes based data, we have designed a comprehensive physical and mental health program that incorporates the following:

1)      Biometric, academic and psychometric baseline testing – At TBN, we believe you cannot improve what you cannot measure. Periodically, your teen will submit to a basic biometric testing administered by a primary care physician.  We will test key biometric markers such as fasting glucose (blood sugar), weight, blood alcohol and banned substances to baseline overall health status.  We triangulate this data with your child’s grade point average and a two-hour annual psychotherapy session to determine an overall risk score. The lower a teen’s risk score, the less likely they are to commit a monumentally stupid act which could irreversibly impact their future.  Our goal is to reward good behavior and to limit at risk activities to within our preferred partner network.

Based on each child’s risk score, we develop a customized plan to assist them in moving toward “first quartile” social stewardship and personal responsibility.  Our assessment may uncover abnormally high glucose and insulin levels from consumption of sodas, fatty foods and empty carbohydrate diets.  The absence of lactic acid in your teen’s muscles may suggest they are leading too sedentary a lifestyle. 

Our initial baseline risk assessment will graph your member teen’s risk status against local, regional and national peer risk groups to drive toward improvement.  As he/she achieves milestone events, our incentive plan rewards them with behavior points which can be converted into a range of valued rewards such cell phone minutes, PC and phone upgrades, sleep-overs at approved in-network homes and iTunes purchases. Failure to achieve agreed targeted benchmarks results in a series of compulsory physical and behavioral remediation programs offered through affiliated local law enforcement and armed services partnerships

2)      Preferred Partner Organization (PPO) – Every teen member will be provided a customized approved network designating “in-network” friends, family and institutions.  Members may participate in a range of activities in network with no out of pocket expense or preauthorization. 

TBN has gone to great lengths to develop a process for screening and stratifying in-network friends, families and institutions. We pride ourselves on the little things. Our “family” reviewers perform on site inspections and are sensitized to the most subtle signs of laissez-faire oversight such as the absence of alcohol or medicine cabinet inventory controls or content blocking on cable and computers.

While our criteria is kept extremely confidential, each network is unique based upon your teen’s risk profile and the risk factors attributable to other teen members. Certain low risk places or people such as a local church youth group, YMCA or deli are likely to be shared across multiple teen networks.  Certain “in network” friends may receive additional performance stars for characteristics such as intellect judgment, civic responsibility, home supervision and number of text messages sent in a 24 hour period. Five star friends are considered “centers of excellence” (COEs).  COEs are eligible for subsidized activities such as inclusion on family vacations, movies, deli and coffee coupons.

Given the extreme variability of teenagers, our PPO network guide is updated hourly

3)      Out-of Network PPO Access – A teen attempting to access out-of-network friends or institutions must submit an out of network request at least 24 hours prior to the planned event.  Our 24 hour authorization line is staffed with retired teachers, clergy, grandparents, animal trainers and clinical psychologists expert in dealing with pathological behavior.

 You will be provided five micro-chip GPS patches that can be surreptitiously  inserted in your teenagers phone, purse and/or high top sneakers.  The “soft perimeter” tracking device allows you to instantly access your teen’s location via any personal computer or cell phone.  

 Unauthorized Out of network PPO activity may include penalties such as chore deductibles and/or community service co-pays. Each teen must submit location information that includes a JPEG photograph transmitted via cell phone for verification. 

We have retained several per diem private investigators to assist the out of network approval review process.  For a few extra dollars a month you can receive full individual and family background checks and a risk dossier outlining of all public domain information of every person and institution with whom your child may be attempting to affiliate..

4)      Appeals – Teens desiring to appeal out of network denials can request a supervisory appeal from our verification team. Our appeals teams are composed of recovering alcoholics, parole officers and social workers – – all bi-lingual in text messaging and English.  We have recently contracted with Apple to introduce “ iTruth”, a polygraph based wireless application for the iPhone where teens can  attach sensor pads from their phone USB port to their temples. Through an ASP server, users can be evaluated to determine if they are telling the truth. Future programs include iBlow, a breathalyzer app and iBrain, a dopamine and serotonin measurement device.

5)      Final Appeals – Some determined teens may refuse to accept appeals as a basis for final resolution. In these cases, we have designated a “final appeals” protocol. A teen may invoke two final appeal challenges within a one year coverage period – similar to professional football’s red flag challenge.  We employ retired juvenile court judges on 24/7 retainers to arbitrate specific appeals.  Appeal overturn rates for 2010 were less than .005%.  Problematic or disrespectful members will be automatically redirected to a payphone at Bellevue Hospital for the Criminally Insane where teens can attempt to reason with equally irrational people.  These calls are recorded and forwarded to the member parent for entertainment value.

At TBN, our program is simple – – we seek to improve the health and well-being of your teen and to assist them as they navigate a period where they are physiologically and socially incapable of distinguishing risk and consequences.  Youth participants are socialized to understand that in a small town, one’s reputation is easy to lose and hard to recover.

Our motto: “Trust But Verify” reflects our mission to establish guard rails characterized by mutual respect, honesty and consequences for behavior.  We will leave no teen behind and our goal is to ensure that any misstep is minor ……………….(no pun intended).

Steel Magnolia

Cropped screenshot of Julie Christie from the ...
Image via Wikipedia

Steel Magnolia

My mother said that I was being “truculent” and needed to be punished.

” Just wait until your father gets home!” She hissed.

Her irrational refusal to even entertain this all important sleep-over merely emboldened me. It was not just any overnight but 24 hours at the libertine household of Stephen, one of my more progressive friends whose mother had become the temporary focal point of all my adolescent fantasies.

“Because you already had a sleep over and you are dead tired.” She retorted. “You know the rules.” I was tired, having slept a total of 35 minutes in the last 24 hours. However, adrenaline and the prospect of seeing the angelic Mrs L – a woman who could have passed for the stunt double. for Julie Christie was too intoxicating.

My mother did not partake of  the poison gossip regarding Stephen’s mother who was rumored to be more liberal than a bordello madam. As a Southerner misplaced in a land of new money blue bloods and carpet baggers, Mrs L possessed a refreshing combination of self confidence, candor and beauty.

My mother  enjoyed her liberated and unfiltered assessment of our community. I occasionally overheard Mom defending the Crimson Tide interloper to some hypocritical country club maven who had declared “that woman” a threat to our cocooned decency.

With my parents going out with clients, I would be stuck with my brothers and our sitter Mrs Olsen, an angry, pruned spinster who baby sat for families with “difficult to mind” children. ( No one ever admitted to being a client of Mrs Olson publically. For with such an admission was to suggest that you did not have control of your own life – the home economics equivalent of an F. )

She was the scourge of the babysitting community – a substitute teacher packing a handgun and mace. Instead of laissez faire oversight by a blue haired lady that would raid your Dad’s liquor cabinet and fall asleep to Lawrence Welk, this prison guard did everything but give you a full cavity body search.

I was not going to remain in the captivity of this escaped war criminal when love and adventure awaited just blocks away. I had to find a way to surround myself with throw pillows, love beads and sitar music. Mom did not suffer fools and was conflicted at the thought of me spending too much time at a house that seemed to be permanently stuck in 1968’s Summer of Love. For all she knew, it was the east Los Angeles extension of the Hef’s Playboy mansion.

Her intuition was not all that far off. Their kids were allowed a glass of wine at dinner. The dog wandered the house and slept on the end of the parents bed. Mr L’s “gentleman’s” magazines lay brazenly on his office coffee table. They had a hot tub. Any adolescent boy would have paid his hard earned allowance to spend the night at the home of such French people. And I had been invited as a guest. Best of all, it was the home of the most beautiful Mom on the planet.

As is often the case with suburban families that do not neatly stitch into some xenophobe’s definition of the perfect nuclear damily, a divorce,unconventional lifestyle or counter cultural political orientation, could result in being undeservedly painted with a scarlet letter of disapproval.

Steve’s mother, Joanie, was a cool breeze of bell-bottomed pant suits, flowing floral blouses and earrings that fell in great hoops like rings at the playground. She was a Southern dervish of hair, diamonds and fingernails. She would enter the room followed by a jet stream of strong perfume while holding a cigarette with the world’s longest ash.

I adored her for an entire springtime – barely disguising a crush that would have had me run into freeway traffic at the mere flick of her finger. When Steve and I had once been caught spying on his older sister from the roof, she admonished me by calling me an “audacious rascal.” It was a priceless nom d’ guerre bestowed on a worthless prince by a magnificent queen.

Yet, between Sunday school and Lamp Unto My Feet adolescent guilt, I understood it was not appropriate to have impure thoughts about a friend’s mom. I tried imagining her mangled in an industrial accident. I considered her with a beard. Nothing worked. How could Steve’s dad even go to work in the morning being married to such a beautiful Alabama belle? I was befuddled and bewitched. I did the math of young men determining that I could attempt to court her in 1981 when I was 20 and she was 51. When I was 50, she would be 81. This could work.

Steve’s father was a creative director at a competing agency of my Dad’s. He had obsidian black hair that fell to his shoulders and lamb chop sideburns. He had drove a Porshe and mounted a massive Harley Davidson motorcycle on the weekends. He would rumble up to the soccer fields on a Saturday morning dressed in the Johnny Cash leather and black. He was every working man’s doppleganger – the other road, the riskier option and the life that you could have had if you had the guts. He was different and proud of it.

There were rumors borne either out of fact or petty jealousy that Steve Sr and the other creatives at this agency sat around all day smoking cannabis while getting in touch with their Super egos and that new secretary. While hip was very much in, too much hip meant dislocation for the men on the gray flannel suit generation. You go to one of “their” parties and you end up pulling keys from a community bowl, reading communist literature and living in a cheap motel estranged from the thing’s that matter most –church, family and community.

My crush was a source of great guilt and like most unexplained feelings of adolescence made me feel creepy. I was grateful at these testosterone times that I was not Catholic as I would have had to spill the beans in confessional and possibly spend the rest of my life making penance for my polluted imagination.

My only hope to win her would involve a series of improbable events starting with Steve Sr having a motorcycle accident, followed by young Steve being institutionalized in his grief. In her despair, I would be there, just like Gary Grimes was for Jennifer O’Neal in The Summer of ’42.

After finally getting my mother to consent to this all important sleep over, I drenched myself in English Leather cologne, combed my hair and was dropped off by my father. Steve Sr came out, ostensibly to chat but really to gloat over a recent account they had taken from my Dad’s agency. Joanie waved from the front door. I disappeared into the smoke, perfume and lava lamp light of Pleasure Island. It was on this night I had determined to profess my eternal love to my friend’s mother.

I recall Mrs L looking at me at dinner and sensing my anxiety. ” Michael, you look as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

I screwed up my courage and followed her into the kitchen. I was 14, and could get a job. I would soon be a professional baseball player. Suddenly she understood my peculiar intoxicated state. She had seen it before. Sensing my imminent confession, she asked me if I wanted to see her wedding album. She described her first kiss with Steve Sr and how exciting it would be for Steve Jr and I when we found the right girl. “Be different. Remember you only have to please yourself.” Joanie smiled and I could see her eyes glistening with tears.

I had no idea what she was talking about and I recall the next morning waking up disappointed but cured of my infatuation.

Years later, I heard she had died. She had divorced Steve Sr for serial infidelity, moved away and ended up in Charleston becoming the prized wife of a wealthy attorney who adored her and gave her the freedom to express herself.

I imagine her grave at the foot of some great magnolia. The cemetery is a sea of sad sameness – a long gray line of slate sentinels. A head stone stands with an epitaph from Rick Nelson’s song ” Garden Party”. ” Well it’s alright now. I learned my lesson well. You see you can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”

On The Street Where You Live

Charlie Brown kisses the Little Red-Haired Girl.
Image via Wikipedia

On The Street Where You Live

I have often walked down this street before;

But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.

All at once am I, several stories high.

Knowing I’m on the street where you live.

Are there lilac trees in the heart of town?

Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?

Does enchantment pour out of ev’ry door?

No, it’s just on the street where you live!

And oh! The towering feeling

Just to know somehow you are near.

The overpowering feeling

That any second you may suddenly appear!

People stop and stare. They don’t bother me.

For there’s no where else on earth that I would rather be.

Let the time go by, I won’t care if I

Can be here on the street where you live.

Lerner and Lowe, My Fair Lady

Autumn leaves.  Cool, misty evenings under ethereal Friday-night lights. It is a consuming, timeless soap opera whose episodes may never be forgotten by its actors. Adolescence is a four-season sport and rose-colored romance is in full October bloom.  It begins in September with new faces and the slow, steady march toward maturity.  A sudden annual collision with the opposite sex brings conflicting signals, fleeting hookups, unrequited crushes and heart wrenching breakups.  It is a time of football stand cheers and under the bleachers tears. A three-symbol text message can be a weapon of mass destruction or a winning lottery ticket.

The first crush has been finally given a clinical designation by the pharmaceutical industry – HATO1 (Heart Ache, Total Obsession number 1). HATO1 has been confirmed by the Center for Disease Control to be more virulent and permanently damaging than its highly communicable cousin H1N1.  The delirium alone can linger longer and its effects may be felt over an entire lifetime.

Yet, the age of the Internet and cellular phones has spawned a virtual form of romance that has reduced the art of puppy love.  We have faded from adolescent courtship – – the mood music of a thousand notes passed in class, and a proxy courtship where vicarious messengers and best friends confirmed the terms of your first steady relationship.  Romance is now a massive roving gang of polygamous boys and girls speaking in text, sound bites and cyber encounters that are mistaken for substantive interactions.  Kids believe they are “going out” with someone simply based upon how many hours they have logged speaking on Ichat.  It is now possible to date and actually never see your beloved’s lower torso.

Some time ago, one of my children came into dinner and declared to the family that he was now going out with “Girlfriend 1”.  We asked him when this all came about.

“We were Ichatting,” he said cockily.

We spent the next half hour teasing him and theorizing on where his new relationship might go.  He might actually have to see her – in person.  A half an hour later, he came back into the kitchen and declared they had broken up.  “What happened,” I asked.  “Things got too complicated. We’re both ok with it. ” I laughed and asked him which of them was getting the dog.  He gave me his classic “ you are an odd man” leer and left the room.

From the premature age of nine, I was dazzled with girls.  Having watched way too many old movies, I was consumed with the idea of having a larger than life, epic romance.  But as is often the cruel fate of nature and the Gods, I was not proportioned correctly, wore hand me down clothes that did not fit (they were too tight) and had the head the size of a pumpkin. I was Charlie Brown perpetually courting the “little red-haired girl.” Like the animated anti-hero, my heart was also oversized.  My inability to attract the opposite sex – except for an equally corpulent buck toothed girl named Martha –did not deter me from playing Cyrano to many of my more swarthy friends – advising them in the nuances of romance.

I offered tips on how to avoid such relationship killers as pregnant telephone pauses (always make notes of everything you want to say). I counseled on how to avoid being labeled a poor kisser (I had never kissed anyone myself but endorsed the use of Spearmint Binaca).  I picked out a cheap jeweler where one could purchase a talisman of affection (always have your St Christopher medallion and chain ready to give her as a token of going steady). I shared verbatim my brother’s strategy of feigned indifference – -always walk by her class looking straight ahead.  It makes you look like you can take her or leave her, and always observe the 48-hour rule of not calling back after a successful call. Having watched two savvy older brothers navigate the treacherous straits of romance, I dreamed of becoming the greatest mariner d’ amour yet.  Now, if only I had a boat and could find some water.

Each back to school September I would fall in love with the new girl who just moved to town.  Perhaps, this new recruit would see beyond my XXL hat size, cement calves and famine immune figure. Perhaps, I was a born too late. In Medieval times, girls would have chased me as only a scion of a family fortune would be prosperous enough to possess his own love handles.  The thin were not in.

In days before they clinically defined my actions as “stalking ” and my crush as an”obsession”, I would lather up with my father’s Hai Karate or English Lavender cologne and mount my trusty ten speed to ride up and down my love’s street, hoping to see and be seen. In retrospect, I am quite certain that inside their new home, between boxes and echoing chaos, an amused mother was peering out of a drape-less window, ” Holly, who is that boy outside that keeps riding his bike in front of our house? ” A magnificent 10-year-old brunette girl with waist length ponytails – a Cindy Crawford in waiting, would glance outside. “Oh, that’s some boy in my class. He must live nearby.”

An irritated father enters the rug-less living room lugging a box of books and glances out the window. ” Who’s the fat kid.”? His wife punches him in the ribs and he winces.

” It’s cute, Tim.  Holly already has an admirer.”

That entire exchange was pretty much the kiss of death.  Once parents acknowledged you favorably, you were toast. I was the super polite kid that the moms always thought was “cute” but the girls clearly saw as “endorsed” which removed any forbidden fruit allure.  Girls liked the rogues and boys who were so distracted by sports and activities that they did not even notice they were involved with the girl. Years ago when my daughter declared she was ” going out” with a boy.  I asked, “Does he know it?”

I was persistent and would find ways to be in the neighborhood. I just wanted to catch a glimpse of her long brown hair, see her smile and hear her funny laugh. At school she would not look at me and was always protected by a gauntlet of giggling, acerbic girls. It was agony – this crush – a thick lump of aching coal glowing in my chest day and night. Invariably, l would abandon every one of my own rules and frighten the poor girl into the arms of a more indifferent boy.

Later in high school, nature and genetics would thankfully stretch me and re-contour me into a baseball and basketball player.  Yet, in a strange way, I never wanted to forget that chubby lothario on his bike – doing figure eight turns, hoping to catch a glimpse of his girl.  You can never really forget it for somehow it’s memory makes you feel more alive.

It’s a Thursday night and I am now picking up my son from football.  He suggests I drive home along an unfamiliar route. He is mute – a virtual CIA agent – offering very little information on why I need to take this circuitous route home. “ Just do it, dad,” he hisses.  I comply knowing something is up.  “Ok, slow down,,” he demands absentmindedly from the passenger seat.  We cruise silently by a large house – windows illuminated and people moving across a dining room clearing dishes.  He takes out his cell phone and text messages with the speed of a court stenographer.“

It’s dark and wet.  Mustard and sienna stained leaves litter the edges of the rural road. The boy looks up and glances one more time toward the friendly colonial lit up like a jack-o-lantern. For a moment, I spy the silhouette of a young girl at the window.

“Ok, let’s go.”

“ What was that all about? “ I ask.

“ Nothin’.  Let’s get home.”

I suddenly recall that ancient ache and realize this must be the street where she lives.

A Brief History of the Promenade

A typical gathering, with boys in tuxedos, and...
Image via Wikipedia

 

Telling a teenager the facts of life is like giving a fish a bath.  ~Arnold H. Glasow

It is a night unlike any other in America.  It is twelve hours of paradox with one generation holding a candlelight vigil terrified by the combustible fusion of immaturity and immortality.   Off in the distance another generation dives headlong into a mosh pit of tuxedoed kings and gowned queens eager to erase eighteen years of privation.  It is prom night. 

Prom is a seminal life event for most American teens.  For some, the memory of a prom is a private scar or missed opportunity.  For others, it is a wistful breeze of emotion that floats in on the scent of a gardenia.

Most academics contend the origin of the prom is British and relates simply to the concept of the promenade – a long parade of guests who would parallel into a ballroom or gathering area at the beginning of a social event.  Escorts and debutantes would arrive in six horse carriages, the 19th century equivalent of a stretch limo, to socialize and dance.  It was a patrician affair where one would exhibit their breeding, etiquette and possibly end the evening donning a Victorian lampshade for a few cheap laughs.   

Anthropologists dismiss Anglo claims of the United Kingdom as the epicenter of the prom.  Researchers have traced the actual first prom back to a period dating to the Pleistocene and the lower Paleolithic periods when the first members of the family of man walked the planet. The term “prom” was actually a collective noun used to describe a gathering of mixed gendered adolescent Homo erectus.  

Reconstructing these gatherings has proven difficult, as the teens seemed to gather in one place and then move unpredictably – usually to the leeward side of a granite outcrop or thicket of trees.  “We surmise” muses Timothy Pimthwaite of the London Anthropological Society, “that these proms of juvenile hominoids would gather, secrete some sort of pheromone which would in turn, arouse the group and attract more hominoids causing a frenzied series of interactions and mating behaviors.  Within minutes, the groups would move out of sight of the adult Cro-Magnons – as if hiding or experimenting with brief independence.  The youth would seek protective cover from prominent landmarks such as caves and thickets. A few industrious ones even climbed trees.  What they were doing has never been documented. 

It was in these thickets that one anthropologist encountered discarded hollowed out gourds which male researchers assumed were primitive cups that held some sort of nectar.  One female researcher, who also happened to be a mother of five teenagers, quickly surmised that these were in fact, the first Stone Age beer cans.

Researchers theorize that the formal pairing of adolescents to celebrate prom as “dates” was a relatively recent phenomena dating back to the 1890s when British men got tired of attending dances with other British men  — as no self respecting Victorian woman would actually be seen “ dancing”.  This was also the golden age of British pantomimes where male actors would dress up as women to entertain audiences with silly skits and stories.  Given that the Queen Victoria resembled a man made all of this same gender activity remarkably good form. 

However, it took a nudge from the continent to move the Brits off of same sex proms. The first co-ed prom took place in the Austro-Hungarian Alsace in 1914.  The teenage graduation party was a smashing success.  Unfortunately, many of the youths got drunk at a local Hofbrau house and in a fit of patriotic fervor, the boys and girls carried their party into neighboring France and occupied a French village for a week, escalating tensions between the Hungarian Empire and France.  A week later a Serbian shopkeeper whose windows had been broken in the post party melee, shot arch Duke Ferdinand, whose son was one of the lead-offending vandals, sparking WWI.  It seems even then, kids did not understand the consequences of their actions and adults ended up footing the bill.

The prom disappeared for a few years as most kids graduated and were immediately sent off to Flanders to fight.  For a few years, only girls and flat-footed, deaf men were attending proms.  In 1919, the prom entered its golden age as returning soldiers and high school sweethearts were reunited in church halls to give thanks for the end of the global conflict.  The prom became a dignified and respectful affair with ballroom dancing, fruit punch and prayer.  Other than the occasional Catholic sneaking into an Anglican church to spike the punch or bribe the bandleader to play “The Vatican Rag”, things moved rather smoothly into the early 20th century.

In the 20’s, the prom became immensely popular among elite colleges and finishing schools.  In industrial America, most teens bypassed higher education to work and as a result, the prom went private.  In the era of F Scott Fitzgerald and Jay Gatsby, tuxedos and fashionable gowns gained a foothold – transforming the tame Puritanical dance into a patrician orgy of celebration. It was during this decade that teens started to wear increasingly outrageous ensembles as a form of misguided self-expression.   This unfortunate period is now classified as the “ dark age of fashion “ and at its nadir, the purple tuxedo was born. 

Proms carried on.  There were triumphs and tragedies as generations gathered for a fraction of a lifetime – one night – and then went off to college, work, wars and distant hard lives that would carve deep lines in the faces of these young adults so full of life.  There were auto accidents and drug overdoses compelling parents to leave their homes and anxiety-ridden vigils and engage to help shape the evening’s festivities so that the teens might enjoy their rite of passage but make it safely home the next day. 

Fifty years later in the 70’s, there would be nostalgic revival of late 20’s fashion fiascos. In one instance, critics described a black polyester and chiffon gown as only fit for someone “dressing like a centerfold for Farmer’s Almanac Magazine” and abused another rhinestone ensemble as a “ truck stop fashion tragedy. “  Combining these sartorial train wrecks with mullet and feathered hairstyles hijacked the prom into a new territory.  It was no longer a tradition to be meticulously honored but a generational annual rite of self-expression.  

Certain accoutrements have resiliently survived the years of metamorphosis.  The fragrant corsage and the boutonniere known as the “man flower” remain important accessories even into the 21st century.  The prom is now a well-oiled machine where communities and parents organize to build safe environments where teens can roam and forge a personal album of memories.  Text messaging, cell phones, helicopter parenting and electronics have supplanted word of mouth, massive amplifiers, speakers and telephone trees of overly paranoid parents.

Yet time waits for no man.  Each prom, like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present has a life span of 12 hours. The early morning light enters somewhere off in the distance like a theatre cleaning crew reminding the actors and actresses that their passion play is concluding.  A young man sits exhausted as his date lays her head on his shoulder and falls asleep.  The smell of her perfumed hair and warmth of her breath on his neck stir a restless flutter that grows and seeks to express itself – – out of his body, out of his town and beyond his adolescence. 

There is a swirl of lights – a merry-go-round of time and motion.  The chrysalis breaks with the dawn and the butterflies are released into the wild. They float off into the morning mist – graceful and invincible.  Some may not return to this place.  Others will faithfully return like swallows every five years to remember.

Yes, it was the prom and it was their time.

From Russia With Love

Cover of "From Russia with Love (James Bo...
Cover via Amazon

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.

 

Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.

Kiss Me You Fool

Cover of "A Place in the Sun"
Cover of A Place in the Sun

“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.'” – Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 3

It was a first kiss much like many other first things – awkward and tinged with an electric guilt that always accompanied the first taste from a forbidden apple.  Everyone was making out – – at least this was the scouting report from the locker room, a pubescent hot stove network of chronic adolescent liars. If I was to believe my friends wrapped in their microscopic dish rag gym towels, shivering in the cold morning air that coursed through the frosted gymnasium windows, everyone had gotten to first base – Everyone with the exception of me.

Seventh grade was a treacherous strait of hormone infested waters set against a skyline of uneven boys and girls of every imaginable height.  Each kid was a building under construction – – from awkward skyscrapers to stunted single story apartments.  Your body was in the first act of some Kafkaesque transformation and your mind was becoming ready and cautiously willing to explore the perfumed corners of a universe that suddenly seemed more complex than just one year before.  In retrospect, middle school girls were much more predatory than their more slowly evolving opposites. Girls matured faster than boys and had a greater curiosity for the strange hieroglyphics of love.  These budding drama queens were hardly advanced in the sending and receiving of the signals of attraction.  It was more that they had become in love with the idea of being in love and required a supporting actor to experiment with life’s passion play.  Boys became willing and fumbling accomplices but were ill equipped to navigate the contradictions of romance.  Inevitably, their inability to comprehend the opposite sex fated most nascent relationships to life spans measured in hours and days. At first, I lied like all the rest of them, boasting of a torrid affair with a thirty year old school teacher in Arizona while on vacation with my family at the Grand Canyon.  Upon rigorous interrogation from a cerebral cynic named David Schuck, my story shifted and became even more colorful.    Several boys “oohed” and “aahed” but David remained tortured and unconvinced, leering at me with the squinting eyes of a conflicted moral inquisitor.

My preoccupation with kissing was in fact, more deeply rooted in an early childhood spent watching classic movies with my mother who could never convince my father to watch any film that did not end with someone being shot with a 44 magnum.  We would hoist a large basket of laundry into the den and fold clothes while Bogie clutched Bacall and Gable fell for Lombard.  There was the frozen fated kiss of Lara and Zhivago and the lushly, seductive lips of Rita Hayworth corrupting a naïve Tyrone Power in “Blood and Sand”.  Yet, the best kiss – the greatest kiss of all time, was between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in The Sun”.  That lip lock was a union of two magnificent forces of nature, the fated kiss of two young immortals – irresistibly drawn to one another in a timeless American tragedy that would conspire to keep them apart. Their chemistry was extraordinary and palpable enough that even a kid could understand how passion could penetrate the soul.  While most boys my age hid their eyes at such a union with a muffled groan, I tilted my head while my mouth slowly moved mimicking the kiss.  I was transfixed. All I knew is I needed to be ready when my Elizabeth Taylor came along.

I practiced on the full-length mirror in my bedroom until my little brother walked in on me and accused me of being a Homo Sapien.  I was highly offended by the allegation and punched him in the stomach.  My burst of masculinity seemed to dissuade him from casting furthering aspersions on my manhood.  But I needed to practice – resorting to kissing my arm until my mother asked me why I had so many strange bruises along my forearm.  “They almost look like… hickies” I heard her tell my father.

Yet the more I analyzed the actual art of kissing, the more disgusting it seemed. It involved opening your mouth very wide, like a basking shark and then attaching yourself to her mouth which was also open wide.  One of you would have a strained neck by the end of the process but it was necessary to attach your mouths and hold your breath for as long as possible until one of you swooned, passed out or just pulled away saying, “ no, this is all wrong”.  There were even more disturbing rumors of Kissing 2.0 which involved wandering tongues. For someone like me with a sensitive gag reflex, an unwelcome tongue could precipitate an apocalyptic disaster.  It was all so complicated and troubling. Yet, with each gym class, my biological clock was ticking louder than an aging debutante. I was convinced that everyone had “ made out”.  Even Jim Emmett, the lowest form of amoeba on the seventh grade social food chain and master of the habitual lie, purported some type of liaison with the check out girl at the Market Basket grocery store.

It was Valentine’s Day, a day I had come to loathe.  On this day, Valentines with candied Necco hearts were delivered from secret admirers and romantic interests.   To raise money, service clubs would sell the Valentines with messages like “ Be Mine” or “Love You”.  A “popular” person could receive scores of Valentines or perhaps like Charlie Brown some might be left with a single Valentine from their math tutor Mrs. Hearn.

My secret valentine arrived after fifth period social studies.  All it said was, “ Kiss Me”.   I looked around the room, hoping that by some miracle it had been sent to me by the statuesque Scandanavian goddess, Kerry Kostlan.  Our eyes met but her gaze was filled with only her normal contempt.  Brad Wetmore leaned over and whispered, “I know who sent you that Valentine.  Meet me after school.” Instead of excitement, panic immediately set in.  I glanced at the clock and it was already 2:00pm.  I had left my emergency osculation kit at home – Spearmint Binaca and English Leather cologne. At 3PM, I would most likely meet “her” and perhaps she would want her kiss.  This was not going according to plan.  Perhaps, my rite of passage could wait a tad longer.

As the bell sounded, I raced to my locker and on toward the bike racks where I would flee home on my ten speed.  As I turned the corner, I saw Bradley.  He motioned for me to come over to where he was half hidden in a shadowed passageway between the gymnasium and woodshop.  Behind him was his girlfriend, Kolynn and a shy girl with long tangled blond hair.  It was Tracy, Kolynn’s best friend. Minutes later, we were playing truth or dare and Kolynn dared me to kiss her best friend.  The moment was at hand.  It was not Elizabeth Taylor on the balcony of a Newport Rhode Island mansion.  It was a kind-eyed, chestnut-maned girl with a mouthful of steel and a horse-faced overbite. I moved toward her and she smiled the nervous half grin of a willing neophyte.  I tilted my head and squinted my eyes opening my mouth – wide, very wide.  Through the haze of my eye slits I could discern total amusement as her eyes laughed with compassion.  She moved over and grabbed my chin, closing my mouth awith the pinch of her thumb and forefinger, and pressed her lips onto mine.  My chest filled with tiger-tailed butterflies while my knees yielded to the electricity. Her mouth was warm and soft like dough frosted with cherry lip-gloss.  I held my breath and waited.  I was about to pass out as I no one had informed me that a man was allowed to breathe out of his nose while making out. She thankfully moved away, floating off and smiling.  “See you later” she giggled and whispered something to Kolynn, who laughed.

Later as Bradley and I rode our bikes home, I was triumphant.  I tried to be cool but I could not contain my enthusiasm.  I just wanted to talk.  In fact, I was talking so much, I did not notice that Bradley was no longer behind me, and had turned off a block before to go home.  “So what did she say,“ I said, as I turned around to an empty street. I did not see Bradley nor the parked car but I do remember very distinctly the metallic crash and a flash of excruciating pain in my hand.  I looked down and my finger was bent back to my hand – obviously dislocated.  There was a brutal shock of electricity up my arm as I shook my hand and suddenly felt the joint pop back into its socket.

The hand was already swelling and my bike was a mess.  As these were the days before helicopter parents and cell phones, I walked the ruined bike home, cupping my hand to my chest.  But all I could think about was that kiss.  I had finally made it to first base and joined Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable and Bogart.

In fact, I was pretty sure not even Bogie had ever held his breath as long as I held mine with Tracy.  Must be all that exercise in gym class.

Arson and Old Laces

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Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Arson and Old Laces

As a child, I was a backyard arsonist.  In the era of Vietnam and hidden enemies, my friends and I would spend hours, away from the watchful eye of my Mother, presiding over conflagrations of epic proportions.  It usually involved carefully laid Airfix 54 mm plastic soldiers advancing through a dense jungle of ferns and ivy toward a defenseless Marine firebase, and it was our job to “lay down that protective cover of napalm.”  Napalm took the shape of anything flammable.  As curious, red-blooded American boys in the ‘60s, we had never heard of things such as travel sports, electronic games or TVs with more than 13 channels.  We had more than enough time to discover the inflammatory properties of every liquid in our medicine cabinet, bathroom, cleaning closet and garage.

We quickly determined anything with alcohol content worked well to protect our besieged soldiers.  As the VC crept in, we showered them with a horrific ordinance of paint thinner, gasoline, model airplane glue, English Leather cologne, canned hairspray and Old Spice spray deodorant.  The air was a bittersweet miasma of odors and excitement.  The final barrage was intense.  We watched with great satisfaction as the enemy soldiers turned molten black and collapsed in utter defeat, melting literally back into the dirt, just yards in front of the protective wire of the grateful Marines.  The black eddies of thick toxic smoke would swirl and flicker with fire and, like Westmoreland, we would be satisfied.  As kids, we fashioned every conceivable homemade weapon and waged war on one another, building forts and digging ditches (the 20-foot tunnel we dug under the garage that almost caused it to collapse into a sinkhole during a rainstorm is another story…)

Our arsenal included firecrackers, crossbows that shot sharpened, green gardening stakes, slingshots made from surgical tubing, smoke bombs of salt peter and a healthy dose of imagination.  We had time and tools at our disposal.  We would leave the house every morning like pets being let outside, returning only for food or medical attention.  We floated like leaves blown from season to season.  If it was spring it was baseball or soccer.  Football in the fall.  Basketball in the winter and of course summers – a blur of day camps, sports, and long bicycle rides in search of a pool, creek, mischief or anything that could work up or relieve a good sweat.  Sport seasons were a maximum of 10 to 15 games followed by an all-star team that was usually thrown into a single elimination tourney against local towns.  There was really no such thing as travel or year-round sports.  I rode my bike to and from school.  A car ride to a friend’s house was an indulgence and walking home when the bike had a flat tire was standard.

My arson is now limited to my fireplace and my soldiers are arranged in neat rows in a display case, wishing a small child would break them out of their glass prison to wage war once again.  My bike has been replaced by a Lifecycle in the New Canaan Fitness Club.  My children have no interest in following in my footsteps.  They are too preoccupied and too in need of immediate gratification to meticulously build dirt bunkers, stick forts or rock bulwarks.  In addition to rarely playing in the dirt, their feet rarely touch the pavement – with muscles developed around soccer, not pedaling a single speed bike up a steep hill.  They are driven everywhere like dignitaries; the concept of walking is met with a martyred moan.  Couple this with society’s increasing trepidation that walking anywhere is unsafe…that the ubiquitous van full of pedophiles is out there, touring our neighborhoods looking for unescorted children.

I’m not sure if I am an anachronism complaining how society has gone to hell or whether there is legitimate cause for concern.  One of my peeves: is it really necessary to “declare your major” by the fifth grade when it comes to sports?  The pressure to specialize earlier and earlier has second graders in a 10-game soccer season and parents getting wound up over playing time and worried over nascent motor skills.  Meanwhile little Johnny is still pooping in his pants.  The beauty of trying everything is you gain different experiences and become more balanced.  Generalizing perhaps reduces your chance to become a multi-sport Varsity starter or a shoe-in to Yale, but you end up decent at inter-mural sports, passable at tennis, par at Frisbee golf and a great Trivial Pursuit partner.  Less organized activities sometimes brings a bonus of time – minutes of margin to innovate, imagine, experiment and, yes, occasionally get into trouble.

It seems that most kids literally have very little time for mischief.  And when they do, it becomes the great headline in our local newspapers.  Is it a sign of the decline of western civilization if kids occasionally go off “the reservation”?  Is it worrisome if they sit around the house, complain about being bored, and then get the ultimatum to go outside or start folding laundry?  Perhaps, one of them will wander over to the stream next to the house and dam it up until it overflows on to the Murphys’ property, getting me a late evening call from Charlie about the newly re-routed stream jutting across his driveway.  My Dad got those calls once a week.  Wilson tennis ball cans will be converted into a makeshift mortar that launches flaming number three balls into the twilight, triggering UFO calls from residents on West Road.  Perhaps a son or daughter might see a can of spray paint, then spy the hammer, nails and old wood, then build something – a catapult?  A crossbow?  Do I sound like Dr. Evil?

Given their schedules and our watchful eyes, it’s highly unlikely many kids will ever smell the acrid smoke of a burning battlefield of plastic soldiers.  Some would say that is a very good thing.  But I wonder…