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.
“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes
It was Christmas time in England. The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost. I looked out the window and sighed. After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.
Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception. In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed. Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits. Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead. The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.
My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub. I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.
“Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed. He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants. “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds. That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas. It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings. “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.” The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.
“Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”. “ 180 sterling ? You have got to be kidding me ? It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy. “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl. Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”. I asked him if he could wait a minute. It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman. I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms. The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin. I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal. Or, you can rescue this poor creature. She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )
This was not the way it was supposed to go. This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas. We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared. He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor. “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes. I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.
The drive home was a disaster. The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough. Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck. The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb. I collected myself. It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down. My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.
With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her. As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”. She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap. “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered. I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face. Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.
After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom. For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom. Christmas Eve finally arrived. The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas. The cat would not cooperate. The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house. All night I tracked and captured the animal. About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning, both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket. Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee. “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself. She’ll never know it was me.
I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship. I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck. The ringworm was already beginning to appear.
Jack Bauer Must Die
It’s midnight on a Tuesday. The laundry is a massive multi-colored heap lying unattended on the mudroom floor. The computer flashes, “you have 312 new emails”. The dishes ferment slowly in the sink of what looks like a neglected soup kitchen. The dog gnaws on a Ferragamo shoe while the cat temporarily passes out in a fetid litter box reeking of ammonia.
Upstairs there is thumping indicating the resident adolescents have yet to fall asleep. The absence of authority permeates the house like the smell of a recent fish dinner. The television beeps like digital clock and a monotone voice announces, “The following takes place between 2am and 3am.”
My wife looks at me and asks rhetorically, ” You think the kids are asleep?” With my best codependent face, I reassure her. “Oh – – yeah. I’ll check them in a minute.”
We hit the “play episode” button – pathetic addicts in a deep cocoon of denial. We are in the middle of a debilitating video blackout watching the television show “24”. I cannot sleep until I find out whether the president will call back the bombers or he will permanently excommunicate his annoying, conniving Lady Macbeth ex-wife. My wife is praying a new character – an urbane, handsome middle-eastern Oxford graduate will not be killed. ” Oh, I hope Raiza lives,” she squeals anxiously clutching a pillow. I am not jealous. He has that “ I am a dead man “ look written all over him. I give him two episodes tops. I have become conditioned to not get attached to anyone on this show.
We are together but alone – each trapped in our own inescapable web of emotional knots tied to this soap opera serial drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a seemingly indestructible instrument of US counter terrorism in a world that demands morally ambiguous actions to defeat the forces of evil that threaten our American way of life.
Wherever Jack Bauer goes people die – usually bad guys. However, if you get too close to Jack Bauer – not unlike a career as a stunt man, living among New Guinea cannibals or raising a 200lb chimpanzee as your own child, your life expectancy is reduced by about fifteen years. And for goodness sake, don’t hire Jack’s daughter Kim Bauer as your baby sitter or au pair. This kid is a tornado of bad karma.
Kim’s misadventures make teenagers that have ended up in their hometown police blotters look like cherubim. In just 24 hours, innocent Kim rescues a young girl from her abusive father, discovers the girl’s dead mother, gets in multiple car accidents – one that results in her boyfriend losing his leg, pulls a gun on four different people- killing one at her Dad’s urging, endures a siege as a hostage, escapes from police custody, witnesses a nuclear explosion, and is trapped inside a bomb shelter with a reclusive survivalist. Tough day at school, hon? Throughout this entire period, Kim keeps interrupting her father on his cell phone as he is trying to save Los Angeles and/or the President of the US, David Palmer, whining “Dad, just come get me.” Kids just don’t change – they still see themselves as more important than the future of the free world.
Jack does not eat. He does not go to the bathroom. Jack does not sleep. He is the ultimate warrior. He makes the tough decisions and employs brutal methods that waffling bureaucrats cannot make in the face of danger. While interrogating a smug bad guy who displays indignant bravado given the government’s weak knee decision to grant him immunity, Bauer simply shoots the creep and asks his colleagues for a hacksaw so he can cut off the snitch’s head off and use the prize to insinuate his way in with some domestic terrorists. As we watched “the head in a bowling bag” scene, we heard a noise behind us and to our dismay, realized our ten-year-old son had been spying on the episode from the doorway. As my wife ushered him out of the room to bed, I could hear her talking to him as they went up stairs. “ Honey, you know that cutting people’s heads off is not very nice, right?
Each hour is a heart pounding shot of epinephrine with soap opera lack of resolution that leaves a viewer aching and feverish for more. My wife calls the library at 1am to extend our rental. “Hi, we rented DVDs for “24” for Season 2. Can we recheck them for another two days? I assume you are not there right now but I wanted to call anyway.” ‘I assume you are not there?’, I say mocking her. Most librarians are not fiddling with their Dewey decimals at 1am; And yes, sweetheart, please get “24 -Season Three” tomorrow. If I am lucky, I may get sick from no sleep. We can stay home and put a blanket over the windows like trailer park crack addicts and do “24 in 24.” We can parcel the kids out to neighbors and send out for pizza. We can be Sid and Nancy.
The problem with our “24” addiction is not only the need for constant injections of Jack and his Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU); it is the fact that we are only on Season 3. As we race to catch the “24” train, it keeps moving. “24” is now on season 7 and in our sprint to present day, we are subordinating health, hygiene and domestic responsibilities watching consecutive episodes which leave us completely over stimulated and vulnerable to odd dreams.
After a disturbingly symbolic dream where I cut my boss’ head off and present it to our private equity owners in exchange for some restricted shares of stock, I awake in a cold sweat realizing my obsession with “24” is threatening my sanity. When my son would not confess to using his brother’s computer, I found myself wondering how quickly he would crack if I water-boarded him. I routinely now refer to my children as ” hostiles” and ” friendlies” and suggest to my wife that when we have teens over we establish a soft perimeter around the basement. When my daughter claimed she was in town but was in fact, at a friend’s party, I briefly considered using Google Earth to triangulate her location, “neutralize” the entire group and then drop them off at the local police station courtesy of “A Friend of 24.”
I realized that we are now in the grip of a mania and that for the bad dreams to end, Jack Bauer must die. The problem is the guy won’t expire. He has been injected with more drugs than a Jersey milk cow, stabbed, shot, clubbed, injured in a plane crash, suffered numerous brain damaging head blows – and like Jason from Halloween, keeps getting up.
There is a side of me that understands that art sometimes imitates life. Does the US employ spooks and shadow agencies like CTU who fight clandestine battles right under our noses on US soil? Do I approve of Jack Bauer’s tactics? Will democracy prevail over authoritarianism? Will Kim Bauer get through a day without breaking the law or maiming her latest boyfriend? Will Jack Bauer ever shave, eat or have a bowel movement? Perhaps some fiber might loosen him up literally and figuratively.
It’s late and we have just secured the first episodes of Season Three. As I read my column to my wife, we chuckle at our obsessive behavior and get the kids off to bed.
We have a civilized evening – cleaning up the house, walking to retrieve the DVDs and watching just three episodes – trying to convince ourselves that we can get
the “24” monkey off our backs any time we like. As we turn out the lights, she is still. I can tell she is thinking. This is our last private moment before sleep where we discuss kids, the future and any other important unattended issue.
“You know, if you tell everyone in town that they can rent those DVDs from the library for free, we will never make it to Season 7. The secret will be out.”
That’s my girl.
A Free Range Kid
In 60’s and 70’s suburban Los Angeles, each planned community was a perfect grid of magnolia and palm tree lined streets with green carpets of manicured lawns stretching for entire blocks, interrupted only by cement driveways which served as primitive lines of demarcation for the packs of children that would roam their environs looking for field to play. In our town at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, everyone knew the neighbors and the neighbors knew you. It was difficult to engage in any form of civil disobedience – – blowing up anything with an M80s (1/8 stick of dynamite) purchased in Tijuana, BB gun wars, or heaving water balloons at passing motorists – – without someone id’ing you and reporting you swiftly to your parents, sometimes before you even made it home from the caper. In my case, the fear of parental retribution would cause me to entertain wild thoughts of running away – – “I will sneak in, grab my clothes (and a few Hostess Fruit Pies) and shack up in Charlie’s tree house until I can get a job and then I will hitchhike to Montana.” It did not matter that I was nine, uncertain of where Montana actually was or that Charlie’s tree house was a four by six spider colony. This was secondary to avoiding the belt that was certain to find my adolescent behind for crimes against humanity.
When we moved into our new home in the summer of 1968, we quickly got to know our neighbors who lived behind our red tiled, stucco Mediterranean. The backyard was still under construction and while my parents conducted their final walk through, we discovered a cachet of dirt clods that were unlike any organic material we had ever seen. These massive dirt blocks, forged together from drought and construction digging, became weapons of mass destruction as my brothers and I squared off in primitive slit trenches and behind ivy fences. As the battle raged, an errant clod flew over the redwood fence and resulted in a “splash”. Like the old EF Hutton commercial, we froze, intrigued by the sudden sound of water. My brother tossed another dirt clod over the fence testing the radius of the hidden water – – splash! We took a third clod the size of Delaware and pushed it over the barrier- – “ker-plunk” followed by a geyser spiking higher than Old Faithful. The barrage lasted for the next hour. As my father and mother toasted their new home and expanding social circle, the phone rang. It was their new neighbors…their angry, new neighbors. A reign of terror began that would last fifteen years.
Despite these and many other transgressions, we were absorbed into this melting pot of young and old . Our neighborhood was a microcosm of every suburban community in America. We had Howard, next door, who had possessed every conceivable power tool known to man and would voluntarily assist my father in fixing anything that broke, chipped or even looked like it might break. Years later, my youngest brother, home from college, got a hysterical call from Mildred, Howard’s wife, that he was gravely ill and needed to be lifted into the car so she could take him to the hospital. The strapping do-it-yourselfer had been reduced to less than 100lbs from cancer but his sense of humor stayed in tact. “Tell your Dad, he can have the band-saw if I don’t make it back home.”
We were all odd passengers lashed to the mast of a massive ship of streets and yards. We had one neighbor who liked to make himself martinis, sit in a lawn chair and light off fireworks. The problem was – – it usually around 12 at night and year round. We sort of got used to the roman candles surging like a distant firefight and became indifferent to the Piccolo Petes that would shrill like incoming artillery fire. We had your token grouchy old man who would threaten us with bodily harm ‘lest we venture on to his carefully manicured lawn to retrieve a baseball. We named him “Groucho” and as we got older, we found increasingly ingenious ways to torment him including one night, lighting smoke bombs, donning dark bed sheets and circling the smoke, repeatedly chanting“ pagan sacrifice “. I wasn’t sure what “peg and sacrifice “ meant but my older brother told me to say it. Groucho called the police. He reported hooded dwarves were committing ritual sacrifices on his dichondra and he had just reseeded. There was Mr. Brown who loved to sunbathe naked in his back yard which horrified Mrs. Cunningham next door, but the police would do nothing about it. “Don’t look” they told her. I recall lighting a fire in the bushes in front of another neighbor’s home but was so intent on my pyromania, I did not realize the fire was also in full view of their living room window where they sat and watched me. Imagine my surprise as I exited the bushes with my friend, and noticed the police and fire truck car in front of our house. I balled my eyes out when the fire chief said that they sent arsonists to reform school. I was not sure what reform school was but I was sure they did not serve dessert there.
Diagonally to the north, we had the large Italian family with 12 kids. They had their groceries delivered by The Helms Man Grocery Service – a luxury unheard of in the 70’s. The Helms Man truck driver was not the sharpest tool in the shed and while other kids would distract him, we would empty his change dispenser and then buy candy from him with his money. It worked for months until to our chagrin, a new driver showed up. Like all communities, we lived with illnesses, divorces, aging neighbors and people troubled by demons and dysfunction – – a bonanza of mania and mayhem. There was the neighbor that snapped one day at work and came home to hold off the police for four hours with his son’s BB gun. There was a suicide. There was a murder. There were robberies. Life did not bypass this bucolic oasis. It drove in like an ill wind every couple of years to remind us that we needed to look out for one another. Through it all, every neighbor always was there for every other neighbor. Every adult felt they had proxy authority to discipline other people’s kids and enforce a community standard. We were free range kids – – roaming miles away on foot or by bicycle, making mistakes and learning coping skills that would serve us throughout life.
Times have changed. Geography and social boundaries have made it harder to be a free range kid. The requirements have not changed nor the have the dividends. Free range kids need a little extra rope, independence, trust, support from their community and the ability to make mistakes. Captive kids have “high bottoms” because parents love them to the point of not wanting them to fail, at anything. Captive kids are tightly managed and live life within a set of guardrails built of myriad commitments and shielded with a two parent safety net. When a free range kid gets into trouble sometimes he/she has to figure out how to get out of it. Free range kids make bad choices but they learn, grow and some even believe these kids cope better when eventually introduced into “the wild”.
Speed Sticks and Pushers
Health class (n), 1. A compulsory educational tollbooth through which every middle school child must travel. 2. A valuable roadmap for pre and post pubescents to assist navigation along the highways of life. 3. A learning curriculum designed to reverse all disinformation learned from one’s older siblings
In the days of Nixon, Watergate and presidential pardons, health class was segregated between girls and boys. There was the domesticus curriculae, better known as Home Economics, for girls; and “Health” class for boys hosted by our mustached, dolphin shorted PE teacher Mr. Stebbins who my father sarcastically remarked looked like an adult film star.
While the girls were railroaded into baking, maintaining proper Redbook posture and ultimately hypnotized into believing that Prince Charming did actually exist and was out there waiting wearing clean underwear, boys were taught the proper techniques for donning a jock strap, avoiding women with venereal diseases and abstaining from drugs with names like ” bennies”, ” uppers”, ” downers”, “Horse” and “Mary Jane”.
We were subjected to anti-drug propaganda to scare us straight. In the annals of anti-drug films, the 1967 classic, “Pit of Despair” stood as a classic – converting the most impressionable among us into paranoid purists who would rather die of influenza than take medication. After viewing “Pit Of Despair”, I was afraid to take so much as a Bayer aspirin for fear of waking up running naked down the Santa Monica freeway shrieking, ” the moon is following me…and he has a gun!”
Every anti-drug flick offered a similar plot featuring a normal suburban kid relenting to peer pressure, and agreeing to attend a wild “tea” party with lava lamps, 30 watt bulbs, throw pillows, sitar music, bell bottomed girls and drug dealers known as “pushers”. In a lost weekend of drug and alcohol abuse, the protagonist ends up with more holes in his arm than a cribbage board, screaming as he looks at his party mates who are no longer people but grotesque demons with narrow pink beaks. Instead of fleeing the den of iniquity, he takes a more direct route to the street, leaping out an open window shouting, “Look at me! I can fly!”. Meanwhile, his emotionally dead friends look on in sociopathic indifference as a rag doll dummy floats horrifyingly with flailing arms down to the cement sidewalk below.
Some were quick to dismiss the exaggerated melodrama of “Pit of Despair”, but we were all on the look out for pushers. I was convinced anyone with long hair or a beard was a drug dealer. Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a heroin dealer, Sportin’ Life, in the move, “Porgy and Bess”. He later sang a song in 1972 whose lyrics, I was convinced, were clearly code for encouraging drug use. The innocent ditty, “The Candy Man Can”, was played on countless conservative AM radio stations and hummed by clueless suburban housewives as they picked out their Webber Bread in the grocery store.
Drug use obviously was rampant and if you sniffed, puffed or popped, you were likely to immediately grow long hair, quit taking baths and barely manage a two-syllable response to any question. You pretty much just walked around all day saying, “solid, man.” These wild haired, drug crazed gutter trash were called “hippies” and they existed like body snatchers to co-opt you into a life of drugs, promiscuous sex and crime – the trifecta of worthlessness according to my father. John Lennon memorialized the quintessential hippie in the song, “Come Together.” The Beatles were notorious for putting symbols and subliminal drug messages in songs like “Hey Jude”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and even the “Yellow Submarine” extolling the virtues of expanding one’s mind with opiates and hard narcotics.
The insidious creep of drugs had to be stopped. According to my Dad, the “French Connection” from Marseilles to New York would need to be choked off in its tracks or America would become a giant opium den – succumbing to Communism because we could not see or hear the Reds coming through the haze of our smoke and loud music.
While girls blindly emerged from Home Economics as SWITs (Stepford Wives in Training) with new appreciation for the wonders of baking soda as a panacea for odors, heartburn and insect bites, boys suddenly saw powdered sugar and flour as sinister accessories for pushers to further corrupt the poison as they unleashed it on Main Street.
The officer who briefed us on drugs and the warning signs of addiction was a
Detective with a thick Brooklyn accent, which only seemed to underscore the gravity of our drug problem. After all, what’s a NY cop doing in Southern California unless the “connection” was somewhere lurking in the shadow of our ivory tower. He told us about cartels and drug lords. He told us to watch for pushers hanging around the playground and baseball fields.
As we jogged in gym class, we pondered the identity of the alpha pusher running our town’s local drug ring. Who was “Mr. Big?” The big kahuna was often depicted in movies as a benign law abiding citizen by day and a ruthless distributor of narcotics, prostitution and murder by night. Perhaps he could be our middle school principal, Mr. White. If he was the man, he could not be working alone. His VP of students, Mr. Gilligan, must be the strong arm of the operation – dealing not only drugs but also detentions. These clever punishments delayed kids after school and forced them to walk home alone where his network of pushers might more easily trap them.
I confided my entire theory to my brother and was immediately ratted out to my father. My Dad was furious, “You will get our butts sued. Michael. What were you thinking?” Weighing the cost/benefit of investigating a major drug ring but having to weed the backyard until the year 2015, I gave up on Mr. White. However, I never stopped scanning the playground for dealers. Sportin’ Life could be anywhere waiting to snare us into a life of addiction.
I am now told that today’s health classes are more politically correct but remain true to the major building blocks of adolescent development – drug and alcohol prevention, body change, sexual responsibility and hygiene. We can always tell when Health class is in session as one of our boys comes home smelling like a Mennen Speed Stick. For the next week, the boy is a walking Glade Room freshener as he lathers his entire body with deodorant hoping to attract someone or something. Usually, he attracts a few flies and the cat. At dinner, he informs us about hygiene as if we were immigrants just off the boat on Ellis Island. My wife nods with a sardonic smile indicating that perhaps her husband could use a refresher course.
Health class seems not to have lost its punch. It may carry a different scent and rely less on fear than information but it has come of age. It has kept pace with the 21st century and has finally understood that health is in the end, a coed experience. Kids do not seem too concerned about pushers and are clearly more informed about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles. Yet the Achilles heel of each generation is the fact that they believe they know more than their elders. Alas, they are still kids. The rote facts they learn are only words and not always understood. We only hope these seeds of health and wellness germinate at the right times.
And judging from the fact that my son has not bathed in three days, not everyone is practicing what is being preached. I have to go find that Speed Stick and leave it under his pillow.
A Few Good Men
“You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” ~Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
I have traveled extensively on business over the course of a 29-year career. As a road warrior, I’ve developed coping mechanisms which includes an emotional auto pilot that switches on as I move across countries and continents. I often return from these trips like a veteran returning from a foreign war and wonder why my spouse looked so tired and compromised. There was no band or patriotic appreciation for my sacrifices of the week. In fact, all I really got was the look. Men know the look. It is a silent statement of contempt that says, “You think you were fighting the Taliban? While you were sitting with your buddies in the officers club, I was in the bush fighting three little kids.” Immediately, I would be plunged into resentment. “It’s not like I have been sitting in a hot tub with my buddies” (well, at least not on this business trip).
How hard can it be to hold it together for a few days when I am away? “Get some help” was my most common retort when I was rightfully called out for being unhelpful at dinner and bedtime. She would rationally respond, “The kids want to spend time with you, which means you need to get off the sofa and help… and preferably without the eye roll.” I would relent, but not without noting her obvious lack of appreciation for how important I was.
Over the years, I realized she was right. How fleeting the time was when the troops were young, idealistic and hung on my every command. They wanted to cuddle, hear a bedtime story or just talk. I learned from John Gray, who wrote Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus that everything (a person does in a relationship) is really only worth one point. Putting the kids to bed? One point. Jewelry? Sorry, just one point. I had to accept that a relationship was tantamount to a bank account where your surplus or deficit was determined by how many withdrawals or deposits you made. Deposits were best made without being asked; withdrawals required permission. I was constantly overdrawn. Still, I would wallow in self-pity and think, “I’d love for her to do my job for a day. Let’s see how she would feel after hiring, firing, traveling, then dodging angry clients and rabid shareholders.” Never mind that she had experienced an 11-year career as an executive when she finally retired.
I got my first taste of my spouse’s logistical genius when we went away together and my brother-in-law and his wife agreed to watch the kids. They had no children, and we figured this experience might prime the engine of parenthood. The kids were excited … he’s a popular uncle — youthful, high energy, and funny.
Upon our return home, my brother-in-law literally fled the house like it was haunted. As he was racing to load his car, he kept repeating, “I don’t know how you guys do this.” His wife was more subdued, but it was obvious the experience had set them back in their plans to have a family. As their car screeched out of the driveway kicking up pebbles, I asked my daughter, “What happened?” She was nonchalant: “Nothing, Dad, really. Every night Uncle Andrew would go to bed with a stomach ache and Aunt Marguerite would take over. I think he wasn’t ready for all the stuff that Mom does.” “How hard can it be?” I thought.
A year later, my wife had a family emergency and we agreed she needed to go to Los Angeles for a week. I made sure I cleared the calendar at work so I could get everyone to school and then be home for the afternoon routine. The days leading up to her trip were filled with naive bravado. “We’ll be fine” I smiled. I was not really listening as she told me all the details to remember. It’s a known fact that men retain on average 50% of what their partners tell them; I’m no exception. “Just write it down,” I said absent mindedly as she talked to me while packing her bags.
The eve of her departure she handed me something that looked drafted by a Chief Master Sergeant of the Marine Corps. 0630 – Breakfast, load backpacks, etc. This went on until 0830, when all the kids were supposed to be on different buses and out the door. I completed the tasks and raced to work, which turned into a confusion of business and carpool calls to other Master Sergeants confirming drop-offs and pick-ups, the logistics of music lessons, sports practices and play dates — all timed to within minutes of one another to allow for minimum collateral down time. From 1500 to 1800, I was watching, driving or cooking for what seemed like nine kids, many of whom I had never laid eyes on before or who lived on strange streets that I never even knew existed in this town. All the time I would be hearing, “Mom knows where Jimmy lives. Mom never makes me eat this. Mom already did that, Dad.” The mind-numbing routine went into overdrive at 1800 as the troops chafed against their substitute Sergeant. “The teacher said we don’t have to hand this in…” my son pleaded. I checked the Master Sergeant’s field manual. Page 3, paragraph 5 under Homework: Always sign and make sure that the homework is provided to the teacher. It is always due on Thursday. The Master Sergeant had expected this resistance and had made provisions.
At 2330, I was standing over the kitchen sink wavering in a sort of half sleep, mindlessly putting dishes into the dishwasher and surveying what looked like a scene from a DEA drug bust. The house was trashed. The school snacks had been ransacked, the laundry pile seemed to have exploded and there were five more pages of coordinates dedicated to the following day. The next morning I felt like I had never slept. My secretary asked me if I was sick when I crawled into the office. “Yes” was all I replied.
“So how is everyone?” the sunny voice asked over the phone from California. My son blurted, “Dad forgot my lacrosse stick today and left Jack at the field. His Mom had to pick him up.” Turncoat! Benedict Arnold! I was busted. “I wrote it all in the book,” she said with that disappointed tone. I felt like I was in front of the court marshal inquisition explaining how my unit got overrun so easily. I threw myself on the mercy of the court.
Like Patton’s Third Army at Bastogne, the Master Sergeant finally returned to relieve her besieged fort. She walked in to examine clean barracks with all children’s logistics successfully executed. Kitchen Patrol was concluded. “Not bad,” she smiled as she surveyed the order. I never got around to telling her that I took two days of vacation just to deal with the chaos. I woke up the following morning and was relieved to once again see the guard tower to my left occupied. Driving to work, I smiled. My side of the “wall” never looked so good.