Where The Wild Things Are

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.“

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mater Ex Machina – Mom in the Machine

magna-mater-1971

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.

A Free Range Kid

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”.    

 

Under The Wire

Under The Wire

A computer is like an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy

John Dunlop

Firebase Dell, Connecticut. 2100 Hours. External conditions:  Dark.  Reported movement outside the wire.  Central command is expecting enemy activity tonight.  Assignment : check and stabilize cyber-firebase Dell. Prevent intrusions and viral infection.

It’s late and I sit down to walk the computer perimeter.  As I scroll the endless sea of daily activity and peruse the America On Line notices, I notice a small gap.  It appears someone has wandered into a protected area and erased their footprints.  The enemy agent has been working on a less patrolled corner of the firebase trying to penetrate my protective defenses.  I can almost see him, in his little black pajamas, a coy intruder using stealth and exploiting our generation gap.  When I interrogate the suspect, he confesses that he was trying to get on Webkinz to feed his virtual animals.  I am suspicious.  Webkinz sounds like a foreign acronym for a deadly virus or worm. The next thing I know, I will be getting pop up emails from someone named Ivana suggesting that we meet at least once before moving ahead with the marriage.  How we went from Webkinz to Russian mail order brides I will never know.  The one thing I know for certain is once again, my computer will be compromised.

I have a constant battle with viruses on my PC.  It got so bad two years ago that  I had to swap out my hard drive.  I  would boot the computer and it would immediately tell me I have won the Ghana National Lottery and then whip me off to another website where I could buy copious amounts of Oxycontin, Viagra and Xanex.  If a person actually consumed all of these potential purchases, they would probably try to seduce a silverback gorilla at the Bronx Zoo and then spontaneously combust, or perhaps just become a conservative radio talk show host.  Point is, the gremlins had gotten under my meager defenses, penetrated my perimeter with virus after virus and completely ruined my hardware.

I decided to buy Norton Anti-virus to confound the virus gremlins.  For good measure, I overlayed MacAfee Firewall on top of it.  The result was the equivalent of fitting my computer with a protective chastity belt and then throwing the key into Long Island Sound.  I could not even figure out how to get on to the Internet without going through more doors than Maxwell Smart.  It felt like a maze of cyber metal detectors, frisking me before I even entered my own computer.  The application window kept saying that the delay was due to the computer loading an approved list of sites.  Yet, the approved sites slowly reduced to a Dell accessories store and Norton Update.  I began to refer to this unholy offspring of MacAfee and Norton as MacNorton.  MacNorton was so effective in controlling access that no one could use the computer.  My days of being plagued by messages suggesting I buy Rolex watches or help wealthy

Africans who wanted to deposit $ 10,000,000 into my bank account because I was named in someone’s last will and testament –  were all done.  I could not get on to AOL.  I finally found a way of accessing Internet Explorer by setting my computer back to an earlier date through System Restore, accessing AOL via the web and then retrieving my mail as a guest.  I might as well have been in doing all of this from an internet café in Madagascar.

No good deed goes unpunished.  Webkinz, YouTube, My Space, Itunes and a parade of other seemingly benign Trojan Horses all require some degree of permission.  Hiding in these cyber facades are little Greek cookies and enemy tracking devices that will case my perimeter looking for a weak spot.  “ Dad, if I don’t feed my Webkinz , he will die”. One of my kids complained. Hmmm.  Perhaps this was a great opportunity to teach my kids about one of life’s great mysteries and inevitable passages and do it in a virtual manner.  I wondered what would happen if we did not feed that virtual cat.  Would the Webkin become ravenous.  Would Webkinz animal control officers break into the cyber house to thwart the abuse ? Would the cat scratch the hell out of the furniture and foul the room before going to the great kitty litter box in the sky – – now that would be virtual reality !

I once again laid down the law that my office computer was off limits.  They saw me for the paper tiger that I am and waited for me to go to work.  They promised me to use the other computer that I had explicitly purchased for them to use to access the internet and play games.  The problem with this fully loaded Dell wireless laptop – – with the chrome bumpers and the V10 engine, is it was now so riddled with viruses that it just laid on its side and as you walked by it would whisper , “ kill me, please, just kill me“.  As we do not believe in computer euthanasia in my house, we just waited patiently for it to die.

I devised a plan.  I must first purchase an iMac for the “power user” 14 year old who has been capable of hacking into the Kremlin for years and has probably been on the payroll of the CIA since middle school.  The plain envelopes addressed to her from Langley, Virginia were a dead give away.  If I could neutralize the power user, I could cut enemy activity by 33% – 45%.  The black pajama crowd was more difficult to disable.  Being young boys, they are predisposed to only hear 25% of what they are told and obey 50% of that.  That is a 12.5 % compliance rate.  As a male, I understand their compliance will never be more than 50% but such a low likelihood of success required drastic measures.  I eliminated instant messaging.  I deleted games and applications.  I reinstalled Norton.  I calibrated firewalls to their age group and entered a new password.  It worked.

Nowadays, I come home and the computer boots up quickly.  The website history is gloriously weak and showing signs of diminished interest in the internet.  I am pleased.  While I write my latest diatribe, I receive an email announced with a “ping”. I toggle to received messages.  It’s a note from someone named Svetlana69 and she wants to know when I want to meet.