Here’s the link to the new book, “53 Is the New 38”. If you are a fan of the blog, I’d encourage you to click on the link https://www.createspace.com/5704941 and order a copy for friends of family members. It’s just in time for the holidays. If you are middle aged or trying to convey to someone the utter thanklessness, ironic humor and indignity of middle age, this book offer you a voice of protest or a laugh-out-loud escape. Hope you enjoy it.
I’m a charming coward; I fight with words. Carl Reiner
In the 1952 John Ford classic, “The Quiet Man”, John Wayne and Victor McLaglen square off in what some film critics have touted as the greatest fistfight in the history of American cinema. The confrontation follows the two combatants across a half mile of County Mayo countryside as they exchange blows for a full twenty minutes. After seeing John Wayne in action, it seemed to me that a boy wasn’t really a man until he had administered or been given a fat lip in a fistfight.
When you grow up among boys, you get beaten more times than your grandma’s throw rug. It is a rite of passage to be punched in the arm every morning and pinned to the ground by your older sib’s friends who proceed to administer medieval tortures like ” pink belly’, ” cauliflower ear”, “super melvins” and the dreaded “monkey bump”. You learn quickly that to cry outside the family is to invite further ridicule. You choke back tears; rise up out of the dirt, florid and humiliated – – intent on plotting the slow, painful death of each tormentor. In later years, you just hope that one of them comes to you looking for a job.
Being regularly beaten up for a decade left me two choices – man up or move to Canada. In the 1970’s all conscientious objectors moved to the great white north. However, when it was pointed out to me that Canada had no McDonalds, I realized I must adapt to my hostile environment. Like an anthropologist I studied other families. I noticed that the best adjusted and least bruised kids were those who were quickest to cry wolf at the slightest fraternal infraction. I discovered that if I pretended to be more hurt than I really was, I could inflict greater pain than if I fought back.
It was a clever ruse to fake serious injury. At some level, my father knew that I was faking but he just could not stand the crying. He was angrier at my ear splitting screams and the disruption than the actual infraction. He would ruthlessly administer swift corporal punishment to the offending brother and then yell at me to calm down. Like a method actor, my ability to feign injury was the equivalent to the Star Wars Missile Defense System. It became a valuable prophylactic against the tyranny of older brothers.
While the internecine wars of boys were measured in scratches and welts, most of the scrapes I witnessed later in life, were one-punch affairs. Seasoned street fighters understood that landing the first punch improved their chances of survival. Cowards and thugs sometimes overcame opponents out of their weight class simply by deploying an underhanded technique called the “sucker punch”. The sucker punch was a risky and devious instrument of foreign policy where one considers the mere threat of violence as sufficient cause for a preemptive strike. This unanticipated offensive usually took the form of a head butt, nose punch or knee to the groin. It bought you time – precious time to press your advantage or in my case, run away if the attack failed.
Being the descendant of French Huguenots who fled from virtually everything, I was a pacifist and believed avoiding a fight was a good as winning one. Having spent a childhood getting pounded, I could sense when social tensions were creating a low-pressure system that only a fight could fill. When the potential for confrontation began to escalate, I would ease towards an exit. If a fight did break out, I would be out of harm’s way. Once the outcome was determined, I could stumble upon the scene and pretend that I was furious at having missed the combat. Yet fights were like flash fires and sometimes one could not be avoided. When the bullets started to fly, it was important to pick your fox hole mates very carefully.
I always stuck close to my buddies who wrestled. There was a great mythology around the physical prowess of football players. In my experience, a 260lb lineman moved like a Brontosaurus and possessed a similarly proportioned brain that gathered and processed data very slowly. Linemen were like the French forts of the Maginot line – big, imposing, and useless. Large guys just invited a sneak attack.
My fellow baseball players were generally useless in a scrape. They did not know what to do if they could find a mound to rush. Swimmers? Forget it. They were usually preening their green chlorinated hair in the bathroom and waiting for any opportunity to remove their shirt so they could show us their 42 abdominal muscles. A swimmer might attempt one swift, girly kick before rushing off like a seal to find water where they would dare you to come and get them.
It was always the scrappy 158lb middleweight wrestler that was the force to be reckoned. This was a guy that you ignored at your own risk. He was the high school equivalent of a Navy Seal. He was frozen in a permanent state of self-imposed suffering. He would spit, starve and sweat while wrapped in a plastic suit for three days trying to make weight for his next match. He had less body fat than a POW and a surly disposition from all of his personal sacrifices that went unnoticed by a student body that was mesmerized by more mainstream power sports. He labored anonymously on a dusty mat for hours, risking staph infections and dislocated limbs – often contorted against his will into positions worthy of a cirque d’ soleil acrobat.
On many occasions, a fight would threaten to break out, only to have the 175lb team captain slip underneath an errant blow and wrap the drunken offender up faster than you can say ” Little Annie’s Pretzels” At this point, the wrestler would look up like an annoyed animal trainer and say, “could you guys get me a beer?” Below him, the larger, more sloth like offender was straining to get out of a hold that Houdini could not have escaped. His captor would merely tighten his neck lock and whisper, “Had enough?” This was the inglorious bastard that you wanted as a wingman when things got hot.
Fighting was a part of growing up. Before society became wildly litigious, it was a foregone conclusion that where there were boys gathering, fists would fly. Some parents came up with creative ways of resolving disputes including forcing the adversaries to put on the boxing gloves and resolve differences in the ring.
My dad grew up boxing. In those days, kids would go to the YMCA or hang around gyms and learn the proper art of pugilism. ” Keep up your left” he would coach.
“Jab-jab-jab! Now, hit with the right cross!”
This was an era when professional boxing still held America captive with flamboyant light, middle and heavy weight fighters like, Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, and the greatest, Muhammad Ali. Hollywood glorified the grit, violence, discipline and rags to riches nature of boxing through movies like “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, “Rocky” and “Raging Bull”.
Where there is sanctioned violence, corruption is not far behind. Professional boxing ultimately turned on itself – fighting and splintering into divided federations and associations all claiming to be the lineal descendant of the National Boxing Association championship. A grittier and less heroic generation of thug fighters emerged and with them, America’s thirst for a heroic fist-fighter descended to a new low –- Ultimate Fighting.
In this graphic spectacle of modern day gladiators, combatants wrestle, kick, punch, choke and assault one another until a bloodied fighter taps out (yields), passes out, is knocked out or is TKO’d by the referee. They fight in a cage. When introduced many ultimate fighters reference years spent fighting in “The Octagon”. I have no idea where the Octagon is or if it is a real place. It sounds like it should be next to a cock-fighting ring in Bangkok. I know where the Pentagon is but this citadel of pain actually has three more sides than the epicenter of all American military operations.
Ultimate fighting is brutality and the new breeds of fighters that engage in this sport are not muscle bound pugilists but ex-college wrestlers and kick boxers. They are often former special-forces personnel who understand the art of hand-to-hand combat. They have names like Kevin “Kimbo” Slice and Quinton “ Rampage “ Jackson. I am drawn to it like a spectator watching a barroom brawl.
It seems as if fighting has “devolved” It has become more primitive. There is irony in this shift. Perhaps it is a reflection on our society. We discourage our children from fighting. We have become more gentrified and more accountable for our actions. We seek to tame the “Id” within us. In our efforts to evolve into a more gentile, lotus eating society, our reservoir of anxiety and hostility cannot find an outlet. Ergo, our need for brutal full contact fighting found inside an Ultimate Fighting cage. Are we more or less violent than 40 years ago? Are we unfulfilled and at our nature violent creatures? Is boxing dying because it’s not aggressive enough? Perhaps, we may find the answers to these and other questions inside the Octagon.
But just where the hell is it?
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.
Taming The Dancing Bear
“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”– Japanese proverb
It was the uniform of the condemned: the hand me down blue blazer, striped tie knotted with a baseball sized double Windsor, a starched white pin point, and itchy, gray wool slacks with razor edged military creases. It was not even Sunday. It was Saturday evening and I was going to the first of what promised to be several humiliating classes called “Cotillion”. I did not know what a cotillion was but judging from the wry, sardonic smile on my older brother’s face, I was not going to like it. Cotillion was supposed to transform us into young gentleman and ladies – gentrified aesthetes whose table manners were only exceeded by their ability to do the cha-cha. Each parent secretly held hopes that this rigorous social sandpapering would prepare their child to some day become the US cultural attaché to some exotic European country.
The dance macabre was held at the town community center and was hosted by the imperious Commander and Mrs. U. The Commander was a rigid cardboard cut out who feared no man except his spouse and dance partner, a Joan Crawford stunt double replete with hyperthyroid eyes and a fearsome tire skid unibrow. Her toxic perfume could have emptied an entire trench line in WWI. We suspected that life with Mrs. U was the equivalent of going to war – long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. We hugged the walls, a knot of restless and irritable fifth graders, pushing and shoving one another toward the demilitarized zone of ballroom floor that separated us from the mysterious tangle of Cinderella gowns, bowed hair and polished glass slippers.
“Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide” shrilled with mind numbing repetition through an ancient loudspeaker. For the young attendees, the experience was reminiscent of a political reeducation camp in Cambodia. For Mrs. U, each Saturday evening brought the chance to transform into a dreamy Blanche Dubois reliving a time when Tommy Dorsey music was floating on the cool autumn air and young men were lining up to fill her dance card. When the first few notes of Blue Danube fell like a soft silk veil, the U’s roamed the floor in a nostalgic blackout looking for partners. A silent rosary could be heard from the mouths of every child, ” Please do not pick me, please do not pick me.” An alabaster claw clutched my arm. “ Come with me, young man. Let’s show this ballroom how to waltz!” Nervous snickers and total humiliation swirled around me as Mrs. Unander proceeded to break me like a green colt. After enduring the Box Step with the skeleton lady, the music mercifully stopped. I returned to the fray of cowlicks and tight collars, emasculated and reeking of cheap perfume.
Our liberation from Cotillion and dancing was short lived. The early trauma was followed by an even greater confusion of middle school and high school dances. As boys, we understood that girls liked to dance and that asking the opposite sex to trip the light fantastic could lead to “going out” – – one of the many jasmine scented rites of passages compulsory to a young man’s journey. The gymnasium social scene was a tight onion of posturing and hormones. An outer layer of boys and girls adorned the gym walls and risers watching the vortex of motion with envy and contempt. The core of this anxious adolescent scallion was an evolving social order of post pubescent royalty – – princes, ladies in waiting, dukes, jesters and the first cut of prom kings and drama queens. The dancing was free form expression with boys confined to safe, unimaginative jerking from side to side with the occasional overbite and riff of an air guitar. The girls were infinitely more expressive with arms above their heads swaying like Moroccan belly dancers in a swirling hot wind. And then there were the mavericks – individualistic kids who dared to dance outside the safety zone – using moves borrowed from American bandstand or Soul Train to distinguish them and perhaps leap frog the established social hierarchy by dancing with the most popular girls. We would mock and badger these counter cultural souls from the safety of our shadows. Yet, we were the ones who were not dancing.
I tried to break ranks with my larger, inept brethren practicing moves in front of the mirror days before dances. There was simply no sequence of steps or motions that did not make me look as if I was on the cusp of an epileptic seizure. My father was no help. The man, who had grown up in a time with great dance steps like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, had one series of moves that my brothers and I simply referred to as “the hydroplane”. He would sway side to side like a Rodeo Drive palm tree while moving his hands parallel to the ground. It appeared as though he was a tragic Prometheus forever condemned to administer Pledge wax to an imaginary tabletop. My brothers were no help as they were equally challenged. My last hope, my mother, could not stop laughing each time we privately attempted to hustle. I was the dancing bear in the circus.
I married and was immediately diagnosed by my coordinated partner as suffering from severe rhythmic deficit syndrome (SRDS). SRDS can effect anyone but I was sadly the poster child for the disorder. My spouse patiently pushed therapy – – dancing at parties, weddings and informal gatherings. Each step was painful and I created excuses to avoid the rectangular parquets of humiliation. She signed us up for a couples dancing class but I flunked out. I observed other men also challenged with SRDS who loathed parties with bands and DJs. The music would start and this band of left footed brothers would flee to the toilets, bars and patios as if a fire had been declared, leaving their dates, partners and spouses to dance with one another and that same loathsome maverick that would see this opportunity to once again become the center of the galaxy of dancing queens.
It took twenty years but I finally stopped fleeing the party at the first machine gun burst of music. To my surprise, no one noticed ursus clumsius lumber on to the dance floor, as all were preoccupied with their own self- expression. They had obviously observed dancing bears before. As the bass thumped and the music pitched, I noticed the ghost of an awkward adolescent hesitating at the party door, looking back at me – a thick, teetering jenga stack of overbites and invisible guitar riffs – smiling and then melting away. I glanced around the floor and watched as other bears entered the fray. The maverick was still roaming the floor, ever the opportunist, feasting on partnerless women, urging all to join him in some Latin Salsa line step that he had learned while on a recent business trip to Sao Paolo. I smiled and moved predictably, balancing on my invisible circus ball – arms confined within the proverbial safety zone. Somewhere off in the cosmos, the Unanders would be smiling.
The girls were still beautiful. The music was still intoxicating. The best part of all was no one cared. Not even me.
Where The Wild Things Are
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind…. and another
His mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”…..Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are
We called it, “Animals in the Dark”. In retrospect, it was a fitting name for a game that boys invented for the expressed purpose of rough-housing. The rules were uncomplicated so even the least focused among us could instantly participate in the mayhem. The goal was simple: survival. One kid, usually a masochistic younger sibling, would draw the short straw to be blindfolded and turned lose into a pitch black room filled with bad intentions.
The windows would be covered to achieve a perfect blackout. The “animals” strained to adjust their eyes so they might be able to distinguish the defenseless, sightless victim as he wandered the room like Audrey Hepburn in Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark. The animals were armed with make shift black jacks fashioned out of tube socks and pillows filled with underwear and knotted tee shirts. Downstairs, an innocent Norman Rockwell scene unfolded with my Dad reading his newspaper, my mother baking a pie and a dog curled under the dining room table. But, all was not well……
My mother’s philosophy raising four boys was simple. There were no bad kids, only bad choices. She understood the adolescent mind was a twisted topography of firebreaks and unconnected roads that often led to bad neighborhoods. She also knew that adolescence was a protracted illness from which most would recover. She understood boys were physical forces of nature – wild things. Life was a succession of high and low pressure systems, constantly moving in and out of the geography of her boys creating dramatic and spectacular perfect storms of stupidity and achievement. When boys hit adolescence, their bodies started to wreak havoc – stretching, fighting, pulling and tugging. Nothing seemed to properly fit a teenager and nothing could ever be fully articulated. She understood that the body starved the brain, compensating for its exhausting Kafkaesque journey by conserving fuel for physical growth. The brain would just have to catch up. Physiologically, this transformation caused teens to speak in a strange abbreviated dialect of “yups” and “nopes”. Boys became tribal animals learning the call of the wild and the unmistakable hierarchy of their pack. They moved like herd animals in thick knots of baseball caps, shorts, athletic shoes and tunnel vision. Life was whatever happened right in front of them. They had no peripheral vision. They could hit a 20 foot jump shot but not seem to hit a toilet six inches in front of them. They could remember the lyrics of a song or statistics of a third string running back but fail to remember to feed the dog or change their underwear. Understanding the feral mind, my mom had a high tolerance for mischief and urged my father to develop a thicker skin to the slings and arrows of our outrageous behavior. Boys will boys…
Max said ‘ Be Still” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all….and made him king of all wild things. ‘And now’ cried Max, ‘ let the wild rumpus start!”
The door creaked ever slightly. A blindfolded silhouette stood hesitating, unable to enter but incapable of resisting the siren’s call of abuse that was waiting motionless like a thousand trap-door spiders. The room was a black hole from which nothing could escape. Slipping in through the narrow crease of light, the shadow stopped again. The door shut and for a moment, no one breathed. Thwack ! A scream and laughter. Thwack! Thwack ! A cry for help and more sadistic laughter. The game quickly disintegrated into a riot at an English football match. The hooligans escalated their blind battle with screams, yelling and then a sudden crash of a glass. The room went still. Someone was moaning on the ground and a shaken voice whispered,
“dude, what was that?” “ I think it was Mom’s lamp” Downstairs, the thumping had aroused the dog who looked up to the ceiling and whimpered. My mother suddenly stopped kneading her pie dough and wiped her floured hands on her apron. Her trouble sonar was already returning with pings of concern.. As she walked to the base of the stairs, she caught a glimpse of my father’s backside as he is roared up the stairs in rapid two step leaps. His shoes pounded on the red tile floor creating the sensation of a brakeless truck barreling down an alleyway. “Dad!” my brother hissed. Even my friends had acquired a healthy fear of my father’s temper as he felt he had every parent’s proxy to discipline their children as his own. At this moment, everyone rapidly sought sanctuary – under a bed, in the adjacent room or under a blanket. The door burst open followed by a machine gun burst of expletives. Even the injured victim with a rapidly closing left eye was crawling for safety. The game was over.
Fast forward. It is Friday night, a particular moment in the week when wild things begin to stir. On this night, I agreed to host thirteen of my son’s friends for a sleepover. The numerical omen of 13 was lost on me as I picked up several padded warriors from football practice. On the way home, we stopped for gas and I agreed to buy them each a soft drink. Five cans of 16 oz. Red Bulls suddenly appeared in my car. It would be a very long night. Within a half hour, the group had swelled to a full pack. The family dog was in heaven as he instantly understood that this would be no ordinary night. The animals loped uninhibited across the darkness of our property playing “manhunt” – the modern day equivalent to Animals in The Dark. They descended on the dinner of pizza like rabid carnivores and proved once again that the toilet remains the most elusive target on earth. The Red Bulls were kicking in about 11:30 as they adjourned to the basement – the basement that rests directly under our master bedroom. For the next several hours the pack was in full motion with thumping, screams, laughter and the occasional angry shout of a wild thing who had ended up on the wrong side of a practical joke. I repeatedly walked down to enforce curfew and each time, was neutered by my own nostalgia at the sight of the boys draped all over one another like pups in a carton – not the least bit self conscious that they were firmly in one another’s personal space.
At 2am, I drew the line. I pounded down the stairs and threw open the basement door. Facing into the darkness, I hissed, “It’s 2am. We can hear everything you guys are saying. SHUT UP and go to bed.” For a moment, there was silence. I stood triumphant the king of the wild things. As I turned to close the door, someone passed wind. A dozen fatigued giggles erupted from the ebony cave. I turned away, utterly defeated but secretly smiling. Whoever had control enough over their body to make that noise at that exact time would be forever memorialized in the pantheon of wild things.
The next morning, as each wild thing was returned to his handler, we began to clean up and reconstruct our day. My son who had slept a grand total of two hours, sat dazed, exhausted and triumphant, head leaning on his cocked arm as he slowly lifted a fork of pancakes to his mouth. I looked at him and saw myself in that wolf suit, making mischief and cavorting on the island that I would one day leave to become an adult. Across all the years and over all the oceans of time, it was still the best to be a wild thing.
“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye. And he sailed back over a year….and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him…
And it was still hot.“
In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina: God in the Machine.
In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina: God in the Machine.
Our family gatherings are now reduced to weddings, funerals, anniversaries and medical crises. On these rare occasions, we reconnect through story telling, usually at the expense of our father. Each son arrives with his own mental shoe box full of stories, taken out and mischievously shared. My Dad takes it well but at times, contests our version of the “Brussel Sprout Affair” or disputes the actual percentage of our wages he garnished for punishments. My mother, who is now stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, sits and listens intently as we gather to gently dredge the river of our lives. Her loud laugh and tireless energy depleted by a disease that has conspired to rob her of her mobility and sense of serenity. Her eyes still flash bright, opal blue when we recount the myriad stories which have become threads in a raucous and irreverent family tapestry.
My mother was made to have four boys. She used candor, insight and trust to soften and shape the well intended but clueless denizen of men that she inherited. She had a sixth sense about people and would often encourage us to “use our antennas to read people and situations”. “Everyone’s antenna is different with some people picking up only major signals, like your father. Others, like short wave radio operators, pick up multiple signals making them both intuitive and easily distracted.” Her intuition proved an invaluable asset to my father in business and in life. She could anticipate situations, reading people, and disarming stiff customers with her humor and alarming candor. She longed for a daughter but resigned herself that her life would be a world filled with dirty toilet seats, sweaty clothes and GI Joes. She waited patiently for the day that her sons might bring home girlfriends and wives – – girls who would later be very alarmed by just how much these boys confided in their mother.
Jack Nicholson once yelled at Tom Cruise, “you want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” My father was an advertising executive from a generation whose marital trousseau was limited to a strong work ethic. He worked countless hours driven by the four horseman of financing college, orthodontia bills, mortgage and car payments. My mother was left to serve as teacher, confessor and staff sergeant of this testosterone army. She could handle the truth. Her army had basic rules:
1) If I hear it from you first, the punishment will only be half as bad. Her “tell me everything approach” worked as a catharsis for guilty minds and a means of teaching boys how to communicate. The “tell me first “rule resulted in a scene to be repeated many times where a Turpin boy was seen racing home desperate to beat a patrol car or a neighbors call. We referred to her as “Sodium Pentothal “as she could get anyone to tell her anything voluntarily.
2) I’ll decide what I tell your father. Given my dad’s limited bandwidth to deal with much beyond job and family obligations, my mother would not burden him with all the daily infractions and near death experiences that occurred. She is only now breaking to him things that happened in 1982.
3) I want you open to new things. While my dad escorted us to church and religion each Sunday, my Mom offered us spirituality during the week. She was curious about everything. The house was littered with books about the sacred, profane and paranormal. She reveled in history, scandal and alternative points of view. She was a devil’s advocate that helped balance a house heavy with conservative dogma. We read the bible on Sunday but Monday through Saturday, we perused books on psychic pets, the Bermuda triangle, famous hauntings and conspiracy theories (who really killed JFK, anyway).
4) Grades: A’s meant freedom, B’s meant do your homework with the TV and radio off, C’s meant you are getting a tutor and D’s meant martial law. My parents felt grades were “the canary “ in the obscure, coalmine existence of an adolescent. There was no tolerance for poor academic performance. However, there was patient recognition, (before terms such as Attention Deficit Disorder), that each kid learns differently. She met with teachers. She had the inside scoop on every person that made up our uneven world – teachers, friends, coaches, parents of friends. She insisted on being informed. All this from a woman who dropped out of college as a sophomore to marry a penniless, Army Second Lieutenant and later returned to complete college after 30 years to gain her degree.
In the wild seventies, she became a self anointed DEA officer. She understood that a kid with red eyes and the pungent smell of smoke around them did not mean they had been out fighting forest fires, was struck by lightening or was just really tired. Like a champion contestant on Name That Vice, she could identify bad behavior at 1000 yards and would never shy away from making sure we knew that she knew. Her candor and caring made it safe for us and often for our friends, to confess issues that she could adroitly handle.
Her passion was the latest technology ( and useless gadgetry ) . While this gave our family a critical start on personal computers well before most households knew that a Mac was anything but a burger, it also resulted in weird experiments: food being preserved under pyramids (Pyramid Power was big in the 70’s), dietetic forays – – no salt, all carbohydrates, no carbohydrates, all fish, no fish, no fat, all rice, all protein, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Space Sticks and Tang ( if the astronauts can eat it, so can you boys). Our house was a grand social and technological experiment in a period of great societal change. The 21st century Mom and the 19th century Dad managed the yin and yang of competing opinions, always agreeing on what mattered most.
We made all the classic mistakes. While our punishments usually fit our “crimes”, she defended us like a mother lion ‘lest anyone contend that her boys were “bad”. She would always seem to appear in times of chaos to resolve the crisis du jour. If I had one wish, it would be that I could descend and resolve the chaos of her Parkinson’s disease. For my brothers and I she was, “Mater Ex Machina”: Mother in the Machine.
Allowance or Welfare?
“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt
October 1974 – My brothers and I wake up to a plain sheet of yellow paper taped to the door with chores for the weekend. Each duty is meticulously enumerated, detailed and distinguished as BYLH (Because You Live Here) or parsimoniously allotted a minuscule dollar value. The worst duty is sweeping the trash area, and the milk run is folding laundry or shining one of the 8000 pairs of cordovan wing tips that my father wears. He makes Imelda Marcos look frugal. There is no negotiation. Any effort at feigning illness is met with a cynical eye and an inventory of all the privileges a sick boy will not be able to enjoy this weekend. My father is dressed in an outfit that would make Mr. Blackwell turn in his grave – blue sweatshirt, cut-off military fatigues, white socks and yes, military boots. He means business.
Each Saturday morning is a long, slow, shuffled movement toward the area of our back yard we refer to as “the gulag.” To add insult to injury, 50% of my “wages” are garnished for my college fund. I will actually be in a lower tax bracket as an adult than I am now at 13 years old. The worst part of the entire process is the dreaded inspection where dad evaluates my work and usually says “it’s a good start.” Money is hard to come by and has to cover all the movies, sweets and trips to the sporting goods store that I can manage. Allowance for doing nothing? You might as well be on welfare. Allowance is viewed as a safety net that eventually becomes a hammock. Give a man a fish, feed him for the day. Teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime. No, his kids will not be paid for living under his roof.
October 2006 – “Dad, can I have my allowance?” Confused and not fully caffeinated yet, I ask my 13-year-old “hasn’t Mom already given it to you?” She hesitates. It’s the same look my eight-year-old has when his mouth is full of cookies and I ask if he was eating sweets. “I can’t remember if Mom paid me or not.” From the other side of the house I hear my wife’s voice: “She still owes us for June, July, August and September advances!” My daughter looks like a confidence man caught in the middle of a scam. She shrugs and walks off.
It’s estimated that teenagers will spend $ 89 billion this year with $ 34 billion coming from allowance. I am sure if we all talked with each other; we could pool our resources and get much better value for that $ 89 billion. Perhaps, instead of sponsoring a daughter with a debt rating worse than most third world countries (the IMF wouldn’t touch her with a 10-foot pole); I could spend a few dollars on more socially redeeming projects.
Early on, I researched various ideas for allowance and became completely confused. Develop a system! This article from a psychologist/family planner was most likely penned by an MIT grad espousing a complicated payment algorithm involving escalators, percentages and cost-of-living adjustments. I could only imagine this taking in families of Mensa members. Pay on time was recommended by another expert. What about paying back advances on time? What about paying back at all? The next allowance expert (presumably single with no children) states that allowance is not a control device. Hmmm, well then what use is it? Oh yes, it is a mechanism to teach my kids the value of money. It seems to me to be disabling more than enabling. Ah yes, another lever taken away by those who are part of the secret union TNP (Teens for Neutered Parents).
It’s never too early, pushed one kid’s advocate. I tried it. I gave a dollar bill to my youngest child and ended up in the emergency room after he ate it and got it stuck in his throat. Develop accountability. The big a-ha! This is the root cause in my Six Sigma analysis of the failures in my system. Like so many of my other paper tiger initiatives, it’s inevitably taken over by my spouse, modified for simplicity and reimplementation – the way a new CEO comes in and cleans up after a well intentioned but completely ineffective predecessor.
My wife tells me not to be such a cynic. I just keep remembering that chore sheet (even today, I see yellow paper and have a Pavlovian reaction where I stoop and start pulling weeds) and the rigidity of my father’s system. I find myself once again feeling like a cryogenic experiment, recently thawed after 20 years. My dad had it right, but I am too neutered in this day and age to reestablish the old rules.
As I write this, I am told I need to pick up my son at football practice. I survey my wallet. It’s empty. I ask my daughter if I can have the $20 she managed to weasel out of me. “When are you going to pay me back, Dad?” No respect.