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.
There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle. ~Alexis de Tocqueville
My son recently approached me as he worked his way through a Government assignment at school.
“Dad, I need to write a paper that outlines my political ideology and shares what party best represents that point of view. I kinda know but there’s so much stuff and I am not sure I agree with all of it.”
“Welcome to the real world.” I said with a mouthful of food.
I am now only asked to kill spiders, give out car keys or money. This was a rare bridge building moment for father and son. We all get nostalgic when we see our children clawing at the chrysalis of their hermetically sealed suburban life — trying to understand the bigger world picture and define themselves. What should I say?
I hesitated, plunging back into the ancient waters of my own adolescence and a similar conversation.
“Dad, I have a project where I need to share what my political views are and why.”
“Let me see that? Who gave you this assignment anyway? Was it that new teacher, that commie Berkeley grad with the long hair? Tell Professor Trotsky that as long as you breathe, eat my food and live in this house, you are a $#@! Republican. Is that clear? If you would like to join any other party, I suggest you sleep outside near the garbage cans so you can get used to the life that you will be living if you vote people into office who promise you something for nothing.”
“Okay. So we are all Republicans?”
“Yes. We are not simpleton, do-gooders who give away other people’s money. We don’t want to live on the public charity. We work for a living and believe that small government and low regulation creates a vibrant economy and jobs for everyone who is willing to work. If you won’t work, get the hell out of here and go live in Europe where they give you free stuff in exchange for your votes. We believe in God, a strong defense, small government, no debt, low taxes and personal responsibility.”
“What about poor people?”
“Well, if they can work, they need to work. If they can’t, we help them. If they won’t, we throw them out of the lifeboat. Can’t feed everyone on the lifeboat, you know…”
After submitting my paper, my Social Studies teacher gave me a passing grade. It was a safe and politically correct gesture for a liberal teacher in a homogenous, conservative suburban middle school. He clearly wanted to give my father the middle finger and my paper a “D+”. Instead, he offered me a “B” and a perfunctory smile. He had carefully written questions at the bottom of the paper. “Good paper. Think about the other side of every argument. Why is welfare a bad thing? Do you believe people born in poverty like being poor? Does a kid born in Downey have the same chance at success as a kid born in San Marino?”
I showed my father “our” paper and the B. “Jesus H Christ, the commie gave us a B!” He seethed as he read the commentary. “Jesus, Ruth – (we all thought at one time or another that our mother’s name was really Jesus Ruth) – the district is dredging the bottom of the LA River with some of these pinko teachers.” Once again, there was a Communist in the woodpile. I had heard enough at dinner to know that a pinko was a Stalin-loving, freedom snatcher and not someone afflicted with conjunctivitis.
Over the years, I would cling to my father’s views and wear them like Kevlar – protecting myself from all the unseen forces that conspired to strip me of my hard-fought gains in life. It was not until I moved abroad that I began to form an almost unwelcome and more complex ideology that did not fit neatly into an orthodox two-party bucket.
I would now sit down with my son and hear his views on a variety of social, fiscal and geopolitical issues.
He glanced at his cell phone for messages. “Well, for starters, I don’t see what the big deal is about gay rights, abortion or immigration. We need to be more tolerant. “
I interrupted. “Okay, well it sounds like you are a Democrat.”
“Yeah, but we have also been talking about the debt. I don’t like the national debt. I mean I have to pay for it when I get older and I didn’t even get to enjoy it. It’s gonna be hard to find a job when I get out of college and the government is still spending more every year than it has.”
“Hmm. You sound like a Republican.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think we should be involved in foreign wars and we should cut defense spending. We should become energy independent as long as we don’t trash the environment trying to achieve it. I don’t want to have to worry about the Middle East. It’s just oil, oil, oil and terrorists…”
“Yes. Good points. So maybe you’re a….”
“And, when I make money I guess I’m willing to pay higher taxes to support disadvantaged people but I want people to show some responsibility and work. I don’t think we should make it easy to not work. I think we should spend more on roads and education and less on bailing out banks and Wall Street. Big companies seem like they are ripping us off and the government can’t do much about it. Small government is good but only if you can trust Capitalism. I’m not sure we can. And I don’t even understand the healthcare stuff.”
Neither do I…and I work in the industry.
“Well, son, you have just summed up the American conundrum. We are socially sympathetic but fiscally conservative. People want jobs and they don’t want to pay for anybody else’s problems unless they are in real need. If government is small, it falls to business and individuals to try to solve for the holes that inevitably occur in society. If you can’t close those holes, they widen causing more people to fall through until one day, the minority is the majority and then, the tables get flipped.”
He looked at me with a bored, vacuous expression. “What? So, which party is closer to all that?”
“Buddy, I have no freaking idea. But, if you find their club house, will you let me know?”
In 1976, it was a hell of a time to be a conservative. OPEC embargoes, women’s liberation, Carter, Watergate, the fall of Saigon, Laos and Cambodia as well as sex, drugs, rock & roll tugging at the pant legs of teenagers. It’s indeed a dark ( and humorous ) time in the Force of the Alpha Jedis…Read the book and expand your mind! Here:s the link ! Pop it in your URL and buy some for friends and family. Don’t let your kids read it. It will blow your cover. http://www.amazon.com/BiCentennial-Rex-Tales-T-Rex-Volume/dp/1481200054
”This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest, a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna have so much *%$#%ing fun they’re gonna need plastic surgeons to remove the smiles from our *&^%ing faces. – Chevy Chase, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”
In the days before emission standards, mandatory seat belts and mini vans, there was the family station wagon. This V8, 360 horse power gas guzzler was a modern day Conestoga wagon on steroids. Over two decades, this car and others liked it transported more adventurous families to more domestic destinations than any commercial airline.
A mixture of concern and excitement sparked with the ignition of the Chevy Impala wagon. Like the crew aboard the Pequod, we knew that with each mile, we would be further indentured to the whims of our Captain Ahab who would not rest until he could safely guide his ship into the parking space of a distant motel. The trip would span three states, 1000 miles, four motels, eight rest stops and one empty glass gallon Motts Apple Juice bottle. There were no bathroom stops until we reached our destination for the day. That’s what the Mott’s apple juice jar was for. ( I am not making this up ) The captain of this craft felt he could make better time if his sailors used a make-shift urinal. The process of relieving one’s self was a tad humiliating as it involved crawling into the back of the wagon and trying to hit a target the size of a lacrosse ball while being heckled by three spectators. Where’s the Flomax when you need it?
The luggage was secured to the automobile’s roof rack with a gray canvas cover and rough, hemp rope. The cargo was tied with angry knots that would have confounded Houdini. The back of the car was a jig saw puzzle of cardboard boxes filled with groceries, clothes and odd supplies. A sleeping bag cushioned the ground between the boxes offering a place to lay down — if you happened to be a midget or contortionist. On any given day, a child would be unnaturally curled in breech birth position between the boxes.
The anxiety was palpable. It was dawn and in the cool twilight, each child felt ill and out of sorts. Privately, each boy was confronting his “Four Horseman of Travel” – our possessed driver, the eventual need to pee, the endless purgatory of Interstate 5 and the most fearsome specter of all – carsickness. My brother was so afraid of getting sick that he once threw up before we even got out of the driveway. Dad pumped the brakes harder than an organist during Handel’s Messiah creating a sensation not dissimilar to being on an Alaskan crab trawler on the TV show “Most Dangerous Catch”.
“Dad, can I please put down the window?”
“Go to sleep. I’ve got the air conditioning on.” He directed his comment toward my mother. Secretly, he would have loved to open the windows to the 100 degree heat but my Mom hated July in Central California. He did not like what air conditioning did to his mileage. Every time he filled the car with 35 cent a gallon Shell gasoline, he copiously recorded his mileage on an index card and tucked it back into his glove compartment. I never understood his fascination with the Impala’s miles per gallon. One thing was certain, he hated using the air conditioning and always turned on the recycled “economy” air before yielding to our protests about the car’s heat.
My older brother was always first to barf. He tried to roll down the window but his scrambled eggs hit the top of the windows and sprayed back toward the middle seat. We all screamed and tried to move away as if an alien had burst out of his chest. My Dad swerved, pulling over to the shoulder of the road, a skidding plume of flying pebbles and dust. In the rear of the car, my youngest brother had been covered with a towel trying to go to the bathroom in the Motts Apple jar. In a flash, the bottle spilled a quart of urine onto the sleeping bag. It was only 11am and the vehicle already smelled like a Metro North urinal during the evening commute. Yes, we were on “vacation”. My father looked as if he might spontaneously combust. About this time, my Mom took control – – taking out a moist wash cloth and paper towels. She turned around to calmly administer Dramamine and housekeeping service.
We were probably on our way to a cheese factory or perhaps to see the world’s “largest ball of string”, a sight that the AAA Road Guide insisted was a “must see”. Just the notion of a detour adding time to our journey made me dry heave. The only antidote to nausea was a restless Dramamine induced sleep or some sort of mental distraction. The boredom of road trips and the constant need to avoid thoughts of motion sickness required us to play games such as trying to identify license plates from different states. Kids living on the east coast might regularly see licenses from multiple states. However in a state the size of California, an Oregon, Idaho or even Nevada plate was a big deal. Hawaii, Maine and Alaska plates were the rarest according to my brother and as such, not a day would go by that a boy emphatically claimed that he had seen the someone with plates whose mottoes read: The Aloha State, Vacationland or North To The Future.
Lunch was at roadside parks or rest stops. Our rations were PBJs that bled through the white wonder bread to form soggy clotted tarts. Grapes and cheetos followed, chased by warm Shasta Lemon Lime soda. We lodged in motels with two queen beds for a family of six. Kids slept on the floor or in roll away cots. Within minutes, our room would be transformed into a refugee camp. We would head for the green, over-chlorinated pool that was usually surrounded by a metal fence and worn chaise lounges. We swam until we resembled shriveled Shar Peis. As we crawled from the water, we squinted through chlorine burned eyes that produced an odd chemical halo if you would gaze directly at an illuminated light.
Despite the chaos and drama, we loved these adventures. My parents understood that these trips were critical building anchors in our restless lives. We looked forward to each summer and begged my parents for more. Food tasted better on the road. We slept deeper, read more books, used our imaginations and stimulated parts of our brain that had gone dormant under the prosaic routine of the school year. These trips were in fact, treasured times together. The family road trip required patience, teamwork and stamina — all attributes we could not achieve on our own.
Someone once said that “a family vacation is much like love and childbirth – anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia.” Even to this day, driving is still boring. “When will we get there” remains the eternal question from the back seat. However, road trips are no longer the equivalent of a buckboard wagon lurching across an endless prairie. Starbucks has replaced Stuckey’s Diners. Interaction has been replaced by a tangle of white earphones and hand held electronic devices. Vacations are silent passages where each person is a self contained entertainment system. Yet, despite its metamorphosis, the family car vacation remains a rite of passage. As kids mature earlier and earlier and seek to fly the nest, the road trip is an important touchstone reconnecting family and reinforcing the ties that bind us.
As for me, I love our road trips. Although it was years later that I realized that not every family required their male occupants to relieve themselves in a jar. And yes, I still have to close my eyes when drinking apple juice.
They also marry and discover along the primrose path of marital bliss what the French call, “le difference”. Love is indeed blind and when a couple is first intoxicated by mutual attraction, a thick cataract forms over their eyes – precluding any ability to see things for what they are. Eventually the X and Y chromosomes recover from their initial pheromone-fueled joy rides and discover the differences in how they approach life.
Men are loud, visceral creatures who aggressively seek to conquer and accumulate. Secretly, they are neonates seeking to return to the womb. Women are more subtle and versatile forms of fauna using their twin skills of nature and nurture to navigate a thankless peanut gallery of expectations. Privately, they just want to be in charge of an all-Italian male model pool cleaning service.
Men are a mass of contradictions. After years of being indulged by their mothers, watching sitcom matriarchs and digesting blatant misinformation from other men, they enter marriages and relationships with a distorted expectation of what their partner must bring to the party. Apparently, a nice cheese dip is not enough. Men also want their mommy.
Women fall in love with the notion of being in love. Men appear to them like puppies – cute, friendly and somewhat fragrant. By the time, they have been taken home, it is too late to give them back and your house smells. When a woman realizes that her knight in shining armor is really sporting tin foil, wearing dirty underwear and perpetually prone to watch re-runs of the Godfather, a woman can become disillusioned. This is why you often see mothers and daughters crying at a wedding. They are not overcome with emotion. The mother, having drank too much champagne, has just taken their daughter aside and shared with her what life might be like after the honeymoon. Men misinterpret this matromonial female cry-a-thon as a byproduct of nostalgia when in fact, it is Mom breaking to daughter the news that behind the hunter-gatherer lurks a child who just wants to stay home from work and play with his plastic soldiers.
When it comes to the cold and flu season, roles change with women often morphing into the “drill sergeant “ and men into the “baby”. A drill sergeant views illness as a temporary setback that must be denied at all costs. Sickness is a self-fulfilling prophesy and the drill sergeant refuses to acknowlege anything less than blood from three orifices. Drill sergeants hail from large families and the “suck it up“ school of parenting. They believe in mud poultices and Mary Baker Eddy. Babies, however, are still nostalgic for small country inns, soft blankets and the pulsing heart beat that comes at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” — anything that reminds them of the nine months inside Mom’s pouch.
Men become huge infants when they are ill. The slightest cold or fever is usually the beginning of a pandemic. Women are taught to endure. This plays itself out each season as men complain to other men that their wives show them little sympathy when they are ill. Wives must keep the house going even when they are sick and as a result, have contempt for “babies” who cannot get up to get a cup of water, let alone, help with the kids.
Men never really notice when their wives are ill. “My wife never gets sick” a friend shared with me as his wife was coughing up a lung while we were out to dinner. Yet, when a man is sick, he reverts to fetal rocking, moaning and deep adolescent dependence. To a drill sergeant, this contemptible behavior is worthy of court-marshal.
I should have registered the subtle harbingers of intolerance when my wife and I were dating. I knew she was a first generation Brit. However, I assumed the “stiff upper lip” and “it’s just a flesh wound” thing was Monty Python hyperbole. I assumed when the chips were down or coming up, she would transform into a Florence Nightingale that would nurture me by candle light – holding a vigil by my side of the bed until I was well.
I had grown up in a household where sickness afforded you a temporary celebrity status. In the home of my mother, there was an unwritten rule that if you were even thinking of getting ill, you went right to bed, eschewed all social obligations and incubated until the illness either hatched or the false alarm had passed. My mother would organize around the illness. She would sit like Mother Teresa, a kind silhouette in the flickering shadows of a night-light – cooling our feverish heads, rubbing our backs and humming soft songs. In a four-boy family where you had to compete for everything – – food, air, space and attention, illness gave you temporary immunity from obscurity. I often found myself envying my brothers when they became sick. The mother shepherd focused exclusively on her one wounded lamb, assigning us to our father who resented the fact that he had to talke care of us. It was clearly better to be sick than under the care of a man who still insisted that the Germans had been invited into Poland in 1939.
The arrival of a major epidemic like chicken pox or measles was greeted with 19th century pragmatism – – the infected child and his brothers were quarantined together in a room until everyone came down with the illness. “Best to get it all over at once “, She would shrug. In later years, we would feign illness by placing the thermometer on a hot lamp or enduring scalding hot showers to raise our body temperatures. We would then moan like ghosts wandering into her room to complain of a headache.
When I became a parent, I would disintegrate into worry when my first child became sick. Yet, I had been trained by the best in triage and bedside manner. In a strange way, their maladies made me feel more relevant. Enter the British wife. To the British female, illnesses are like road works, a temporary impediment that must be driven around. Years later, as we brought children into the world, the “Stiff Upper Lip“ school and the “It Could Be Plague“ schools would routinely clash over diagnoses and prognoses.
At the first sneeze, she would say, “it’s just a cold.” I would be certain it was Ebola. At the sound of a muffled midnight cough or sniffles, I was on the phone demanding access to a pediatrician. A headache ? Meningitis. That sore throat could be bird flu. “The last I checked none of us have been to China” my spouse would respond. ” We ate Chinese food the other night. Those dumplings could have been cooked by a carrier. “
As more children were born, I mellowed, graduating from burning the pacifier when it fell from their mouths, to wiping it on my pants to just popping it back in their mouths. My spouse, born to a midwife in a small English village, seemed pleased with my progress. We made quantum leaps such as actually agreeing to carry on with a vacation if one of the children came down with the sniffles or developed a cough. We braved a dinner party if I felt a little under the weather. And yes, we did send a child to school before they had been symptom free for 48 hours (that one had me sweating)
I suppose this pragmatic return to 19th century medicine is healthy. But, there are times when my entire family is fighting illness — coughing and sneezing, spreading their germs throughout the house – that I hide, paranoid and alone in my den. I sit wide-eyed reading – a modern day Howard Hughes devouring a book like, Guns, Germs and Steel. I may have lost the germ wars at home, but I am staying informed on epidemics and holding out for the day when they reconsider my years of hypochondriacal behavior and shake their heads saying, “My God, he was right“.
That’s usually about the only time my wife declares she needs an aspirin.
When the AARP membership letter arrived, I put it in a pile of misdirected mail and prepared to walk it over to my
next door neighbor, Charlie. Imagine my elation and surprise when I discovered that it was addressed to me. Apparently, I had joined a new demographic.
I had unceremoniously turned 50 in September and had no interest in celebrating the autumn solstice of my life with 100 of my closest detractors. I told my loving wife that a quiet, more personal commemoration would be appropriate — perhaps a new sports car or a trip to Europe. This seemed infinitely preferable to ripping the seat of my pants while trying to do the worm on the dance floor at my 50th fete.
At a half century, I was now entering October country — that shadowy meridian that separates the last sighs of September’s Indian summer of youth and the cooler, denuded November twilight of mature life. It’s in the autumn of our days that the unexpected tends to happen. There are days when I really just want to be 10 years old again with my greatest concern being what I would wear for Halloween. Yet it is 2011, not 1971. Reality is no longer a horizon line road that seems to carry on forever. I felt jinxed.
Perhaps my negativity created a sort of karmic low-pressure system or I may have offended the gods of suburban living because no sooner had I begun to wallow in self pity that the Great Nor’easter of Oct. 30 hit. I was just two days into being Mr. Mom, having been left behind by my highly organized captain who had slipped out of the country to visit our daughter who is studying abroad. The remaining crew was a pathetic ship of fools — the hapless husband, two determined teenage boys, a bulimic Australian Shepherd and a demonic house cat that was now using her urine as a warped form of foreign policy.
When the electricity died Saturday afternoon, I initially smiled as the reassuring switches and subsequent thrum of the back-up generator kicked in. I was the ant who had elected to invest in the future while across the state, male grasshoppers were being berated by their partners for being too cheap or too New England-proud to make provisions for the potential for electrical outages. I admit that the purchase of the generator was a no-brainer. My home lacks a certain charm when there was no running water, heat and ESPN. It quickly becomes a giant port-o-potty.
As parsimonious people, the cost and logistics of burying a 1,000-gallon propane tank in my garden did not sit well with me. I elected instead to go with a smaller, above ground 120 gallon propane tank. Before moving to New England from California, the biggest propane tank I had seen was on a Coleman camping stove — and that damn thing lasted for a year. Surely a 120-gallon tank of propane could run my house for a month. I would later learn that 120 gallons can power a lamp and an electric clock for about a day. Throw in teenage electrical thieves who steal heat while you are freezing, computers while you are blacked out, microwaves while you are drinking iced coffee and take 20-minute hot showers — and your propane and serenity is good for 10 minutes.
As the propane tank slowly drained of its life force, the service company informed me that they could not make it to my house for several days — ensuring that I was now going to run out of power. Apparently, they were running out of power. This led me to the draconian decision to ration our electricity. My energy conservation plan was not well received by the natives. Truth be told, it bugged me. We had bought the generator so we would not have to sit in the dark. Yet, here we were sitting in the dark trying to conserve energy. It felt like the ever-perplexing paradox of having to clean the house before the cleaning people arrive. The dishes piled up. The toilets remained unflushed. By day three, we avoided the laundry room as if there was something living inside the 5-foot pile of dirty clothes.The cat disappeared and I feared the highly fragrant laundry mass had devoured her.
For meals, I resorted to take-out and a Mad Lib bachelor recipe: grilled cheese (you add the plural noun). When we ran out of milk, I suggested to the boys that they use the leftover Diet Coke on their breakfast cereal.
“It tastes good. I ate Corn Flakes with Tab all the time in college.”
The dog kept whimpering trying to convey to me that I was obligated to take him on his daily 5-mile run. I just whimpered back at him. The cat retaliated for my neglect of the litter box by peeing on the floor. I slipped in it. I thought about peeing on her but she was too quick.
Meanwhile, the propane gauge fell like a barometer. We were down to 5 percent. School was canceled which required me to work from home. Working from home is overrated for executives. One tends to lose credibility on business calls when dogs and teens are screaming in the background. With the propane dying, I had to decide whether to eat my children or ship them off to friends who offered to host them while I presided over the death of my generator. Since they are not properly tenderized, I elected the latter and returned home. The propane was now down to 2 percent. Like a lone survivor with a single bullet in the chamber of his gun, I was not sure whether I wanted to use the final wisps of energy to watch ESPN or clean the world’s most disgusting load of dirty dishes. I went for the dishes.
I turned off all the lights, sat in the darkness and ran the dishwasher — the only light on in my property was the tiny red dial indicating the status of the wash cycle. I sat adrift in ebony self pity. When do the boils and lice arrive? There was an odd thrum as the generator gasped and finally died. Outside, I suddenly noticed a light flicker at Charlie’s house. I heard the distant clicking of a computer printer resetting in the den. I cautiously approached the light switch and click, glorious light poured down from the blackened recesses of the heavens. Power was restored. I admit to waiting until the next afternoon (I’m no dummy), to pick up the boys only to be informed by our friends that one of them may have been exposed to head lice.
Yes, Job, there is a Santa Claus. The parasites had indeed finally arrived. One radioactive shampoo, two pick-ups and a reassuring Zumbach’s coffee later, our family was reunited. I relaxed for the first time in days. The phone rang. My Optimum cable, which has been as reliable as a blind man in a bar fight, had come back to life. The TV flickered. There it was — ESPN. A toilet flushed. There was a cheer and then just as quickly, the lights went out. I moaned and turned around — only to see my teenage son smiling as he flipped back on the light switch.
“Just messing with you, Dad,” he said.
The sudden pivot in the meteorologist’s forecast was highly displeasing. Having already missed an opportunity for a white Christmas, I was now fixated on our imminent four day mini-break to Orlando where we would achieve some old fashioned family time with our increasingly oversubscribed teenagers.
Boxing Day was spent sluggishly cleaning up from Christmas and nervously watching the weather channel as the predictions of a winter nor’easter were confirmed. A perfect storm of airline emasculating, zero visibility winds and tarmac snarling snow had descended over the entire region. With snowfalls predicted to entomb the tri-state with levels of up to three feet, I started to understand why native Northeasterners have come to loathe the romantic notion of a late December snowstorm. The woods may be lovely, dark and deep but snow means no flight out to find some heat.
Our flight had an ETD of 6am Monday — during the peak of the storm. The question was not whether our flight would be delayed, it was simply whether we would be able to book a later flight once the airline came clean and cancelled our morning escape to Florida.
At 11am Sunday morning, Flight 987 was officially cancelled. The 800 number provided by the airline was overwhelmed to a point where any ticket holder tenacious enough to cling to the queue was being asked to call back later – and then uncerimoniously dropped from the call. Logistical certainty was in short supply on this day. We continued to badger the airline to determine if a late Monday or early Tuesday departure might salvage our best laid plans.
After finessing our way to a customer service operator ( I do not recall how we found this trap door – perhaps we indicated that we had “ special” needs ), we were told that we could get five tickets to Orlando late Wednesday evening or early Thursday morning. The understanding agent did not seem to divine that this new itinerary would afford us less than 48 hours in the Sunshine State. Given that 30 of those hours would be either dark or with temperatures less than 50 degrees, I was skeptical of a decent return on investment.
The agent offered to reschedule our return but this would require rebooking my tickets for an additional $150 penalty per ticket. I did some quick napkin calculus and determined this vacation would cost us around $100 for each hour of potential sunshine. I could save $3500 if I bought everyone their own jar of Vitamin D and three free sessions at Savage Tropic tanning salon.
We peacefully euthanized our vacation late Boxing Day afternoon. Our teens temporarily mourned the passing of our trip the way one might lament the death of a distant relative. After five minutes of self-reflection, they shifted their attention to the living and began rapidly pinging their friends for sleepovers, parties and any other forms of nocturnal activity.
My wife would require more time to recover from our vacation’s sudden cardiac arrest. She was facing the grim reality of an entire week with a thoughtless quartet of the undead – creatures of the night who would conspire to overrun her best efforts to keep a clean house, avoid endless meal preparation and hourly carpools.
As a stay at home vacation Dad, I am at best, a weak surrogate and at my worst, a human sinkhole of mixed messages undermining my family’s carefully negotiated routines and boundaries regarding curfews, chores and accountability. I am like wildlife in the garden – a novelty that is glimpsed at dawn and at twilight but rarely during day. It seems only mad dogs, Englishman and the unemployd venture into the noonday sun.
Instead of pushing everyone to bed at an early hour for a December 27th 5am departure, we stayed up until 2am playing poker and watching old movies. Our cancelled flight allowed us to dive into a week of freshly fallen snow and a clear calendar. I quickly took the cue from my teenagers and began a slow transformation into a vampire.
My first mistake was suggesting the XBox 360 be moved upstairs from the basement into the family room so we could enjoy a big screen version of FIFA 2011 soccer, NCAA football, Tony Hawk Underground and of course, the culturally enriching Call of Duty – Black Ops.
Most of my “black ops” activities are confined to eating unhealthy food late at night and frivolous purchases on eBay. However, I was now being recruited into an adolescent band of brothers whose motto was “leave no man behind – alive.” Aside from their annoying habit of shooting me in the back for sport, my boys drew me into hours of constant violence in some of the poorest nations around the globe. Other than learning how to operate an automatic Famas gun, throw a ballistic knife and engage cross-bow explosives, I was beginning to show signs of PTSD and was not improving domestic policy at home.
Later that evening, my wife realized the open week was not trending in her favor. As she laid down the holiday rules and regulations ( she had just discovered that the dog had urinated by the door because none of us had noticed his whimpering ), I stood by her side with genuine disdain for my teens. “Look guys, mom is right. You need to pull your weight around here.” She turned and looked at me incredulously. “Really?”
Falling in with these slacker vampires had been so easy. It was reminiscent of college — late nights, sleeping in until noon, occasionally venturing out to a movie, ordering take out, and groaning with exaggerated inconvenience when asked to do anything where there was nothing in it for me. It was an amazingly rapid metamorphosis from parent to parasite.
Two days into my Twilight regression, I had my moment of clarity. I glanced up to survey a hoarder’s landscape of squalor – – Cheez-It and Goldfish boxes, empty bottles of diet coke and empty Nutri-Grain wrappers. The evening before, I had stayed up until 3am to finally defeat my eldest son in a barn burner football game that went into double overtime. The dog was asleep on the couch while two teens sat in a digital stupor on separate computers watching reruns of Modern Family on Hulu. To the shock of my fellow primates, I pushed the “save” button on my latest game of NCAA Football. I was now into my third season of the Dynasty segment of NCAA Football 2011. I was no longer a contributing member of society but I was virtual head coach of the USC Trojans. I had also developed an almost stenographer type dexterity with my fingers – using what felt like 12 digits to work every A – Z button on the controller.
My son glanced up, “Dad, where are you going? You just unlocked a new level in your game” A new level?, I thought. I was suddenly very afraid that if I descended deeper into this artificial gridiron matrix, I might never return. I had to escape from the underworld of the undead and return to the surface of the living – and I had to leave right now.
I showered and shaved, glancing at the unimpressive image of a pale, blood shot-eyed baby boomer. I emerged into the crisp air and sunshine of a gorgeous winter afternoon. I had to get away from my home and drive – – anywhere. My car seemed to guide me into town where the sidewalks were likely to be alive with adults and responsible people – presumably others who had missed their flights or did not live in a sarcophagus of teens.
Suddenly, I spied my wife’s car and spotted her moving slowly down the street – presumably window shopping for post holiday bargains or a family practice attorney. “Hey” I said breathlessly as I caught up to her. She was pleased to see that I had escaped the iron grip of the Lost Boys. We lingered over a latte fueled lunch and made plans for the new year.
The afternoon was dying and yielding to purple twilight. Suddenly, the streets were beginning to empty. The human beings were slowly returning home to prepare meals, read books, rest by a fire and contemplate the next days and all of its possibilities. A knot of new shadows appeared outside our café window. Six young vampires wearing cotton hooded sweat shirts, shorts and high top sneakers were moving across a frigid street on a restless roll. Two boys yelled into the cell phone of a third as he held his phone back and shoved the nearest vampire. They had all temporarily abandoned their computers and XBoxes to roam the town in search of a source of entertainment.
I felt a Call of The Wild stir as I surveyed the aimless, rudderless spill of hormones as they splashed on to the sidewalk. They would soon end up at a new safe house, retreating by the light of day, waiting for another restless night. My blackberry suddenly buzzed and a message appeared from the world of adults – – a misguided colleague choosing to work the graveyard slot between Christmas and New Years. I put away the blackberry and returned to my partner and to our plans.
I smiled realizing that I did not make a very good vampire. Vampires did not understand the difference between living in the moment and living as if there was no tomorrow. Vampire’s consider the past an empty bucket of ashes, the present an endless horizon line road and the future as something that happens to other people.
My wife and I were thinking about the future, about our new year and about things we needed to do to make a difference. I felt my chin, freshly cleared of a 48 hour goatee of vampire stubble. They had almost pulled me in – into their red pill world of artificial intelligence and the insatiable craving for constant distraction.
I had survived my time with the Lost Boys. As I sipped my coffee, I wondered how it was possible that I had ever survived the purgatory of my own youth. For all of its challenges and responsibilities, it was good to be above ground and among the mortals ready to take on another new year.
It was September and with four boys finally back in school, my mother acted as if she had just been informed that her life threatening illness was in complete remission. Nothing fazed her – not the early autumn heat waves, suffocating smog or chaotic evening routines filled with school forms, bike bags, books, homework assignments and back to school nights. It was, as Andy Williams crooned, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In 1976, we were officially on our own. She had declared her independence, no longer rising with us at dawn – choosing instead to sleep in and get my youngest brother off to school at the civilized hour of 8am.
It was the first day of my freshman year and I needed to wear something that made a statement about who I was. Perhaps a new girl would notice me or an upper class cougar would choose to toy with my affections. As I looked at my pathetically worn periwinkle Hang Ten tee shirt with its signature footprints, I knew I must take a calculated risk. I considered the suicidal thought of borrowing my older brother’s Carlos Santana tee shirt – yet, this was simply too perilous a move considering that we shared the same high school hallway. I was desperate. I needed to showcase that this middle school caterpillar had emerged from his summer chrysalis to become a teenaged tiger-tail. It was in this moment of imminent crisis that I made the fatal decision to “borrow” one of my father’s pinpoint Oxford dress shirts.
My father was a hoarder. He literally possessed and stored every piece of clothing he had ever bought. His dress shirts filled multiple dressers and several bureaus. Each drawer was filled with a prime color palette of neatly folded and bagged 16/34 dress shirts that easily accommodated my adolescent build. My mother stirred softly as I tiptoed in to survey his treasure trove of Brooks Brother Oxford cottons. In typically twisted adolescent reverse psychology, I resented his surfeit of clothes. He had so much and I had so little. I also considered the low probability that he would even know that one of his sixty shirts was even missing. I was wrong.
My father had been the eldest of two sons by eight years. He took little interest in his younger brother and considered himself an “only child”. He inherited Midwestern frugality and understood the need to care for possessions to ensure they would last. The shadows of the Great Depression had only recently receded and the goal in any family of modest means was to get maximum utility out of any apparel, appliance, toy or equipment. When your shirt collars frayed, you reversed them and squeezed another two years out of the garment. Frugality was tough but at least as an only child, he never had to share.
When my father married and had four boys, he had no notion of how his organized, rational world would come unhinged. Life became a permanent freeway and he was living in its middle lane. He now seemed to understand why men died earlier than their spouses.
His home office became his castle and its door his portcullis. One could not enter this sacred chamber without knocking. At times, his door would be locked. One was forbidden to borrow a pencil, piece of paper, tape, scissors or any other item from this eight by eight man cave. My mother accepted his periodic self exile as a way for the “only child” to cope with the fact that he must now share everything. He loved his family but needed some place where he could work, protect his sanity and preserve a few precious possessions. He could not trust his sons to care for his things the way that he had been required when he grew up.
Weekends would find him justifiably ballistic as tools that he had wirebrushed and lubricated after each use were left to rust outside by a teen trying to fix a flat tire. He would see red as paint brushes were not cleaned as prescribed with turpentine and returned to their milk carton home – but instead discarded to harden like rigid punk rock mohawks. Bikes were routinely left on the front lawn and sometimes stolen. He could not fathom how this spoiled generation had so little regard for precious possessions. We were pampered, unappreciative, sloppy, and undisciplined ingrates who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.
His biggest peeve was how we treated our Sunday clothes. He would turn five shades of purple when entering our closets to see blue blazers and clip-on ties cast on the floor with grey slacks crushed under items that had been tossed into the closet when we were ordered to clean our rooms. For an ex-Army officer, our disrespect for clothes portended disregard for other things – work, authority and responsibility. To add insult to injury, our indigence came with a price tag as it was often necessary to take our wrinkled finery to the local cleaners to be steam pressed. My father hated paying for laundering dress shirts and dry cleaning.
My mother had gone on strike several months back refusing to iron or press anyone’s clothes. She had done the math and realized that her domestic obligations were paying her less than minimum wage. My father was convinced that some labor organizer in the neighborhood had undermined her commitment to Home Economics. This was a time of women’s independence led by Gloria Steinhem and the “I am Woman“, communist Helen Reddy crowd. Outsourcing something as intimate as the care of his clothing to a third party that charged an exorbitant .50 per shirt was anathema to my father. (Mr) Delsandro, the drycleaner proprieter, might just as well be wearing pantyhose over his face and wielding a gun. He was engaging in highway robbery.
Delsandro did not like my father. My father intimidated him. It was not uncommon to enter the cavernous cleaners and find the front counter unattended. The drone of rotating dryers, the hot breath of steam and the chemical smell of dry cleaning would conspire to push any kid outside. Through the front window, I would watch as my Dad would rapidly ring the small bell indicating a customer had arrived. The owner would appear from behind a mechanized clothes line of hanging garments and plastic bags. As soon as he saw my father, his pace would slow – the way a dog moves once it has been ordered out of doors. He would endure the detailed list of my father’s demands and specific requests for mending, spot repairs and pressing.
My mother had recently issued another edict that was ostensibly part of a grander plan to prepare us for when we went to college. It required that we wash and fold our own laundry – including washing and ironing our own shirts. In life as in politics, it is an accepted fact that when simple systems try to regulate complex systems, unintended consequences follow. As our fresh supply of laundered clothes dwindled, we chose not to wash our own clothes as instructed. We instead began to steal clothes from our father and then slip the soiled goods back into his laundry hamper. None of us knew that the others were also swiping his tightie whities and tube socks. I did not realize it but my brother had also crossed into the valley of death and taken several dress shirts.
On a bright Saturday morning, my Dad and I were doing errands and made an unexpected stop at the cleaners. A young girl came out to the counter and asked if she could help us. “Is your father here?” my Dad sarcastically inquired. There was a pause. She glanced nervously behind her. “He’s busy in the back. Can I help you?” To the rear of the building, hiding underneath an endlessly rotating line of hanging garments, my father spied two legs. “I know you’re back there, Delsandro!” He shouted. The man’s legs were frozen. My father feigned a smile to the young teenager and spoke over her shoulder. “Please, tell your father when he is no longer busy that he needs to call me. I am now missing FIVE shirts!” My heart nearly exploded in my chest. How the heck was he missing five shirts? I had only swiped two.
Terrified that I would held responsible for all the missing shirts or would be implicated in the death of Mr Delsandro as my Dad stuffed him into an industrial dryer, I confessed to my mother that we had been stealing my father’s clothes. When she stopped laughing, she chastised me and my brothers ( who were not happy that I ratted them out ) for creating such tension for my father. She explained that he had been an only child and was very meticulous about his things. She told us each to wash and fold our laundry – the Catholic equivalent of five “Hail Marys” and three “Our Fathers”. Once again engaging her Solomon-like wisdom. my mother “miraculously” discovered the five missing shirts. She promptly took us clothes shopping and agreed to one weekly wash of clothes – if we consented to fold and iron our own laundry.
My father’s supply of undergarments and dress shirts returned to normal inventories. However, he still suspected that he was being insulated from the truth. After years of broken buttons, misplaced garments and too much starch, my Dad could never bring himself to apologize to the dry cleaner. However like Holmes and Moriarty or Batman and the Joker, these two men needed each other. While he could have patronized any other cleaners, my Dad seemed to delight in this strange game of cat and mouse with his Delsandro.
Like all adolescent recidivists, we continued to ocasionally sneak his clothes in times of crisis and lethargy. As we grew older and all wore similar sized clothes, we actually had the audacity to argue with him when he caught us that the clothes were actually ours. Dad finally broke down and lifted his leg on his entire wardrobe by writing “DAD” in indelible ink on every sock, pair of underwear and shirt that he owned. For years, my youngest brother thought “DAD” was a competing brand with Haines.
It is now decades later and my clothes are disappearing at the hands of thankless sons who covet my socks, gym shorts and tee shirts. I can now sympathize with the man who I initially wrote off as selfish and unreasonable. After chastising my oldest boy for stealing my shorts, he retorted, “they look a lot better on me than they do on you.” Like the endless line of garments moving methodically around the dry cleaners rack, life was repeating itself.
It’s just like the man said, “What goes around, indeed, does come around again.”
Lost in Lost
After enduring a year-long addiction to the serial television drama “24”, I voluntarily submitted to Serial Television Addiction and Recidivism Eradication therapy (STARE) at Silver Hill. Serial TV addiction effects every demographic ranging from college students and women addicted to soap operas and weekly black comedies like Desperate Housewives to middle aged “Nick-o-loadies” that spend days watching reruns of Dark Shadows and Peyton Place. Therapy was intense and included a 12 Step program written in the format of a TV Guide. We were forced to learn the real names of actors and actresses, unsuccessfully locate places like Port Charles ( General Hospital) and watch eight consecutive of hours of Gomer Pyle USMC. Aside from a slight gag reflex every time I hear Jim Nabor’s sing Christmas carols, I have suffered no long term side effects from my Clockwork Orange shock treatment.
I have now sobered to the dangers of watching highly addictive weekly TV series. I break into a sweat if I watch the evening news for more than ten minutes. I took an oath to my “24” Home group to never again watch any show or film with Kiefer or Donald Sutherland. Fanaticism is particularly harsh in this age of overloaded advertising. The serial TV addict wastes hours on their habit – – often consuming thirty minutes of carbohydrate commercials just to get to the more meaty half hour fix of weekly programming.
My family had also succumbed to the intoxicating weekly dramas of “24” and “Heroes”. In 2009, our house transformed into a den of neglect and weak intentions. We were like something out of the disturbing A&E show “Hoarders” – a bizarre world of shut-ins, trapped in denial where garbage was piling up, the dog had eaten the cat and bills had gone unpaid.
We resolved to attend therapy sessions as a family – agreeing that we would shake the dreaded vidiot monkey together. Initially, our intervention went well. Yet, I noticed my eldest son was restless and irritable in group therapy. He took a month to concede that Jack Bauer and CTU were fictional characters but he remained insistent that President Obama was not a US citizen and that the Bermuda Triangle was indeed a real phenomena. “There are places in the Pacific where electromagnetic forces can create alternative realities.” He asserted. I dismissed this as too much exposure to Bill O’Reilly. That afternoon, I blocked the Fox channel on our TV.
Yet, something was not right. I overheard my youngest son talking about some new friends: Jack, Hugo and Sayid. I heard my daughter discussing “The Others” and a “smoke monster”. As a high school junior, I assumed these were euphemisms for kids that were on the fringe of her social circle and a fellow teen with a nicotine habit.
I arrived home one Monday evening to an empty kitchen, family dog licking dinner plates left on the table and no sign of human movement. From a distance, I could hear mechanical thumping and screams as if a person was being mangled in an industrial accident. I raced to the door of our bedroom and burst in on an opium den of junkies. In the flickering darkness, I found my four recidivists abandoned in the television series, “Lost.”
“I thought we agreed no more TV series” I said to my spouse, recalling our stolen evenings of 2009 as we watched 7 consecutive seasons of “24”. “Oh, don’t be such a poop.” She laughed. “Sit down and watch with us.”
“Shhhh!” hissed my oldest son. “What just happened?” She asked him anxiously.
“Your dinner is in the oven” she said absently not taking her eyes off the screen.
I sullenly shuffled to the kitchen with the family dog patterering behind me, a tri-color remora shadowing me in hopes of feasting on my leftovers. As I sat eating dinner alone, my Aussie rested his head on my loafer and sighed that deep heave that only a dog can muster. He understood the pain and abandonment of addiction as he had probably not been fed in days. Off in the distance, I could hear a muffled cacophony of mayhem as some mysterious mechanical monster savaged another castaway.
I mindlessly ate and pondered a future of weeks without companionship as my brood descended into scattered DVD boxes and arguments over who jumped ahead to watch another episode. It was not enough that they were in the grips of their own mania. They were determined to corrupt me. Like dime bag drug dealers they whispered. “Oh, come on. Try it. Don’t be afraid. You’ll really like it, Dad.” My youngest son grabbed my arm. Even the dog was now intrigued by a Golden retriever that was regularly featured on each episode. Et tu, Brody?
As I resisted, I became alienated from them in little ways. I resented their private inside jokes and “Lost” conversations. “Mom, what is up with Locke and why did he not push the button?” “Do you think Libby is real or fake like Hurley’s other friend from the insane asylum?”. ” Who is Ben, really ?”
My wife tried to rationalize their addiction. She explained that developing this common time with our teens could create valuable paths of communication. I wasn’t buying what she was selling.
” That’s what you said about ’24’ and I ended up having dreams about wanting to cut my boss’s head off and carry it around in a bowling bag.I was convinced the guy at the convenience store was a hostile terrorist cooking enriched uranium in the bathroom.” It was true. Overexposure to Jack Bauer had left me convinced that torture was a perfectly appropriate way to discipline anyone – including a child or an insubordinate employee. ” You may not like my methods,” I would say to my victim, ” but this company needs people like me.”
I glanced at the TV screen as it flickered the letters L-O-S-T. I became combative.”How do you expect me to believe that all these good looking people ( except Hugo ) were actually on the same plane? The average commuter flight is filled with overweight Americans all hit with the ugly stick.”
“Come on, it will be fun. It can be our date night.” She shoved me in between two boys and the dog. My “date” then crawled back in between the corner of the couch and my daughter.
From what I could ascertain, in 1974, a clandestine research group was transported to an island in the South Pacific where they began to track, monitor and even tap into a mysteriously powerful magnetic pulse.The project — known as Dharma – flirted with Einstein’s theory of relativity and distorted concepts of space and time. It was on this remote cay that something went terribly wrong, resulting in a catastrophic vortex that wreaked havoc on the cosmos and an unfortunate commercial airline bound for Australia. The island and Flight 815’s seventy-one surviving passengers share sinister secrets and a bizarre relationship that feels as though every character has died and is somehow trapped in an inexplicable purgatory.
The scene opens to a torn fuselage of a jet resting on a tropical beach as passengers mill in indecision. Two male underwear models, Sawyer and Jack, argue over some trivial matter. Ok, I now get why the girls are drawn to the show. Two seconds later a scantily clad girl removes her blouse to sunbathe while another twenty-something relives her checkered past in an action packed flashback. Check! Now I get the boys’ motivation.. A golden lab trots down the beach. Our Australian shepherd tilts his head and gives a nuetered “woof” at the television. Yes, it seems there is something for everyone on this mysterious island.
I am worried about being manipulated by the producers of “Lost”. I know I am going to get sucked in to a somewhat plausible plot that will disintegrate into a plot line that ends up like the Weekly World News with a picture of an alien shaking hands with ex-President Bill Clinton or a Batboy on a rampage. The fear of losing all those precious emotionally invested hours to some fantastical Captain Nemo comic book plot compels me to leave the room. Must – re-sist-temp-ta-tion!
Our house is silent except for that incessant thumping and screaming. I pretend to leave, shouting. “Ok, I’m going now. Cindy Crawford is at the door and we are running away together to start a beauty mark clinic in Laguna Beach! I won’t be home until 2019.
“Ok, I’ll see you guys next month. I’m off to film a reality TV pilot on latch key husbands”
Disgusted, I plop in my favorite chair and stare at a vacant flat screen. Framing the television is a bookcase of classical literature whose protagonists are shipwrecked, shanghaied, imprisoned, cuckolded and left for dead. I rise and pick up Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I clearly recall my first reading of Edmond Dantes, his imprisonment and improbable escape from Marseille Bay’s island prison, Le Chateau D’If. Yet, all I can think about is Jack Bauer. What would agent Bauer do to those French bourgoise after they unjustly jailed him? It would definitely involve a cattle prod.
My “24” addiction is returning. I can feel it. My palms are sweating. I need a fix. My family is not here to prevent my descent into a roller-coaster ride of adrenaline.
I suddenly recall it is Monday night. “24” will be on in less than a half hour. Relief falls like soft rain. My nose stops running. I can almost hear Jack Bauer on his head set, “We’re ten minutes out. The Tac team is on its way. Hang on, damn it. Just hang on!”
Christmas In Kamchatka
I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly – Steven Wright
Competitiveness is like a morning cowlick that never seems to settle. It pops up in the most prosaic circumstances – at the family room table across a game of Hearts as a son-in-law drops the queen of spades on his mother-in law for the third straight hand. It is in the sharp elbows that suddenly fly in your annual family “touch” football game and it is constant skirmishes along the borders of Kamchatka during the Christmas Day game of Risk.
We like playing games in my family. I pretend not to be competitive but it is a thin veneer. The art of enjoying any contest as a type A cutthroat adult is to always win but never let others catch you trying to win. Let them speculate on your motives but do not get caught blatantly attempting to succeed. It is important to fake humility and to reinforce this with periodic excursions away from the board game – – requiring people to call you back. Forcing them to shout, “it is your turn” can make you a master of misdirection. You must appear to not care. When crushing a nine-year-old niece in Sorry, you must seem sympathetic. ” I rolled a six? Oh I guess that means you are bumped back to home. …What do you know? I win! (Tears) Ohhh, don’t worry sweetheart (feigned sympathy), your uncle Michael was just REALLY lucky this time. Honey, don’t cry, (more fake commiseration) it’s only a silly game.”
Each year, the same board games reappear – relics of the age of Parker Brothers, imagination, 11 television channels and computers the size of city blocks. It was the era of Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, Parcheesi and Yahtzee. Later, we expanded our repertoire to include Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit. In fits of adult nostalgia, we re-purchased these games on EBay, at yard sales and on rainy days while on summer vacation assuming that we could vicariously recapture those magic nights through our children. Instead our children balked – bored by the games simplicity and alarmed by our hypocrisy as we espoused sportsmanship while nonchalantly trying to force them into Chapter 11 with hotels on Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana Avenues.
Once a year, the board games are excavated from an all purpose storage cabinet in our family room. I am immediately on the defensive as my unimaginative teens complain about the games as too long, too boring or too simple. They possess that latent American gene that screams for instant resolution and constant action.
I am difficult to beat in Risk. I am like the Chinese. While teenagers think in terms of minutes, I think in terms of hours. I fight a guerrilla war of attrition – first seizing the seemingly insignificant continent of Oceania comprised of Australia/Indonesia. I use the continent’s two bonus armies each turn to annoyingly pick away at anyone who tries to control Asia, Africa or the Americas. By the time my hordes of freedom fighters have rid the last continent of my blue, green and yellow opponents’ armies, no one is paying attention. They are watching television, texting or have left the room – indifferent Westerners bored with this protracted analog war of dice, luck and strategy. Perhaps the next American version of Risk should include a “surge” scenario that reduces the game duration to 18 minutes. This seems to be the maximum amount of time this generation prefers to wage war.
Monopoly holds broader appeal although I always end up being forced to be the boot – which really bothers me. Others get to be the battleship, cannon or even a Yorkshire terrier. I am convinced the boot is jinxed, as I can never seem to land on Boardwalk when it is free to be purchased. The boot usually lands on the luxury tax space until someone has built a hotel on Park Place and then it seems happy to pay $1500 for a shoeshine.
There are two types of Monopoly players – Main Street and Wall Street. Wall Streeters buy everything, make deals and forge alliances. They mortgage their own properties to raise more money to buy more properties and build more hotels. They are always one dice roll from bankruptcy. These risk-addicted individuals take on maximum leverage and seek to create a bubble that will pop in the face of their Main Street opponent. Main Street is cautious but naive. They buy properties like Mediterranean and Vermont Avenues because it is cheap to build hotels. Main Street buys utilities and railroads. Against the advice of armchair observers, Main Street trustingly trades Park Place to Wall Street for $1000 cash, Connecticut Ave and three free “lands”. An hour later, Main Street has mortgaged his last property and is begging for one last turn so he might pass Go and avoid losing his racecar. The Wall Street ruthlessly crushes him like a cigarette butt.
In our house, my opponents are subject to constant third party coaching from in-laws and do-gooders who do not want to risk actually competing but loiter like homeless people and shamelessly kibitz. “Watch out for your Dad.” shouts my mother-in-law. “Don’t do that deal, sweetie,” my wife says to my son. “Don’t you see in one hour, you will land on Park Place and owe him everything?” I look up with a frozen perfunctory grin – “who are you people, regulators? Don’t you have homes? Or perhaps some Christmas cards to write?”
My bloodthirsty competitiveness was borne out of a third child Darwinian struggle for attention in a four-child ecosystem. Competition was everywhere and my father did not necessarily attempt to diffuse it. He correctly assumed that the youngest would struggle more fiercely and in doing so, perhaps be that much more braced for what lay ahead in the great oceans of life.
There was no mercy when playing games in our male dominated household. Games taught you valuable life skills such as “ the game face”, “ blackmail, extortion and intimidation. Each Christmas competition was a page torn from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate. “ My brother was the master of blackmail and misinformation. He understood when Sun Tzu mused, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. “He could make me choke faster than a large piece of filet mignon. I can remember that fateful Christmas when I finally prevailed over him at Risk. As I harassed his pitiful armies across North America to a last stand in Greenland, I understood the sense of power of Alexander, Genghis Kahn and Caesar. On this night, I was master of the universe.
Later Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary tested our left and right brains. Trivial pursuit is more daunting and clearly creates social and generational barriers. As a sports, history, literature and movie buff, I can adequately vie for 2/3’s of the pie wedges. However, I am lost in geography and without Bunsen burner in science. Trivial Pursuit has produced a variety of themed versions that hold more attention from younger family members. However, the popular culture version has about as much appeal to me as a regular culture – a Petri dish of wriggling micro-celebrity parasites that will only infect and weaken society. If you ever catch me playing a game where the “Octo-Mom” is an answer to anything, please kill me.
Pictionary is very frustrating. As an artist, I am outraged when my wife’s Pictionary partner correctly interprets her Neanderthal hieroglyphic representing “global warming” while my impatient teammate is screaming out names of countries as I am trying to correctly draw the horn of Africa on my brilliant rendition of the earth. Pictionary was invented by the legions of the artistically challenged that wanted to get back at their more talented right-brained siblings. Pictionary is hell.
There are card games – hearts, poker, gin and bridge. All of these games afford opportunities for reprisals, heckling and old-fashioned spirited competition and as the last card falls, the final property flips into foreclosure or the final pie piece is won, there is a great sigh. Arms stretch and a slow migration occurs – usually to the refrigerator as the vanquished look to food for solace and comfort. The game accoutrements are collected and carefully returned to their boxes. It will be another year before we do battle. However, there are really no losers. We have huddled together once again like all families since the beginning of time. A tiny human tribe – loving, fragile and imperfect – drawn together by competition and the chance, perhaps, to proclaim themselves ruler of the holiday.
Meet The Parents
Home is where you can say anything you like cause nobody listens to you anyway. ~Author Unknown
Thanksgiving is the front end of a month long holiday banquet of expectations. When children are young, we work to create traditions that will serve as important family touchstones. As children get older, Thanksgiving is a time of transition with sentimental hope yielding to the inevitable realities of change. Often a mother’s only desire is for one more year as a family unit. That dreaded Thanksgiving finally arrives on a cold wind where someone is absent – lost to new in-laws or competing priorities.
For the mother of four boys, the holidays were a losing battle fought with an unseen enemy – – the mother of the new “serious” girlfriend. My mom had always accepted us as wayward Tomcats yet we always seemed to find our way back home slipping in through the backdoor with massive appetites, dirty laundry and an unspoken need to be wrapped in holiday affection.
The girls that seemed to come and go like purple jacaranda blossoms, suddenly made repeat appearances. Her boys were transforming under the relentless company of these “serious “ girlfriends – dressing well, arriving on time and bathing regularly. She was actual excited to be rescued from this male planet so completely devoid of estrogen. Yet, the changes left her melancholy. Somewhere along the way, the holidays had changed. She was now slowly opening her family to new people, new traditions and at times, coming up second as the place to be.
It had been this way for a while with her teens. Those that were still living at home could not wait to move out. They disappeared like spooks into the night but they always appeared the next morning. One morning a bed was empty – then, another. With three empty chairs this Thanksgiving, there would be too much food and too many memories.
She grudgingly accepted that she must now share her sons with the “competition”. Love and the approval of potential future in-laws were too powerful a force to overcome. She loathed the emasculated October phone call that tiptoed toward the inevitable excuse – – a stuttering son dropping that he would not be coming home this year but instead be spending it with Carole in Princeton or Brooke in Colorado.
My father was delighted with the absence of competition for food, the family room TV or shower hot water. Like a prisoner marking hard time, he had been awaiting liberation for years. There were no more missing shirts, fugitive pairs of underwear or car left with a mere 1/12 of a tank of gas. The idea of a full turkey dinner with only three mouths to feed (my younger brother was still at home but he had perfected the art of total invisibility) was as appetizing as pecan pie. On the other hand, the idea of his castle being filled with young women – – suppressing his ability to swear, forcing him to go last through the food line and dress up for dinner, was annoying to him. He worked hard and finally the holidays meant hardly working. As he hugged my mother and reassured her that it would be a “ just like old times ”, she rolled her eyes longing for the chaos of a full house.
While the family matriarch was navigating the martyred stages of an empty nester, my brothers and I were being blown to the four corners of the state to “meet the parents.” I had heard from my brothers of strange customs and odd in-laws. These stories were usually pried from them over threat of death as they were now walking on the slippery slope toward permanent domestication. My future spouse was born in Britain to a highly intelligent, engaged Scot/Brit mother and a kind, cerebral English father. Being a provincial West Coast American, I assumed a trip to their home would be the equivalent of visiting one’s grandmother – a more mature but familiar culture where colorful people spoke like Charles Dickens characters and the holidays were one grand protracted celebration of life. Being a Brit, my future spouse gave me no advance cultural training other than her penchant to drink copious cups of tea and to spread butter on top of butter.
The introductions were difficult as I realized that she had not informed them that her new “friend” was indeed a serious replacement for an old boyfriend with whom her parents had been quite fond. This disappointment was poorly disguised by my future mother-in-law but completely lost on her dad. The small talk was painful with minutes like dog years. The matriarch was not happy with this changeling boyfriend. Meanwhile, her father was still trying to understand why someone my size had never played rugby.
A phone call from her sister thankfully broke the social stalemate.
As we walked to the garden, I conceded that her parents despised me. “I might as well be French.” I shared with desperation. She looked surprised. “ Oh, no. They really like you.”
I tried to help in the kitchen but was ushered out to the foyer where an ancient television sat silent and neglected. “What games are on?” I yelled across an open family room. “Oh, we don’t watch much television except PBS – you know “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Avengers” and “Rumpole of the Bailey” – – we do like the Dallas Cowboys !”. At the mention of the Cowboys I perked up. There was hope.
An ancient animal resembling a flea market mink suddenly leapt up onto the sofa and proceeded to wrap her tail around my head. The rhythmic purring could not perfume the smell. It was the odor of recently deceased road-kill. Yet, this escapee from the “Pet Sematary” was quite alive. Within moments, I descended into a wheezing fit of sneezes as the zombie cat followed me and would jump into my lap whenever I would sit. I loathed cats but I did not want to reveal this ugly parochial side of my personality. “ Oh, looook. Molly likes you.” my girlfriend smiled as she happily set the dinner table and winked.
An appetizer of cheese and crackers appeared with what looked like a dark dollop of animal feces and cloudy tangerine orange jam with paprika adorning the middle of the tray. I was starving – but the dark, chunky mass had already started to spread and had touched several of the cheese wedges and crackers. My expression betrayed my ignorance. “It’s Branston Pickle and Major Grey’s chutney’” she said urging me to the inedible offering. “ We put it on everything. It’s great. Here taste this.” She shoved the wheat biscuit with dark chunky jelly and cheddar cheese into my mouth before I could create an excuse. I gagged.
It was like this all afternoon. Since Thanksgiving is hardly a British tradition – the holiday gave them the opportunity to combine the best parts of old and new culinary traditions. I was confronted with my lifetime nemesis – brussel sprouts – as well as a bizarre concoction of white onions, milk, flour and garlic known as “white sauce.” In this sea of alien side dishes, the traditional entrees appeared – all originally accentuated with the spices of a foreign cook’s cultured hand. All eyes were on me as I devoured everything put in front of me.
The salad presented innocently enough with onions, tomato and sliced cucumber. However, I soon bit into a massive clove of garlic. I hesitated, smiling with my mouth closed. No one noticed my discomfort as I slowly chewed. I assumed this “Eating Of The Giant Raw Garlic Clove” was a Dunn family tradition. I was honored and ill. My eyes were beginning to water and my throat began to burn. I tried to speak for a moment but was unable to utter a sound. Chasing the clove with tons of water, I was relieved temporarily– only to turn a salad leaf and find another even more monstrous clove lurking below.
I closed my eyes and bit into it. Tears flowing down my face.
“ Oh, my,” my future mother in law blurted. “ I am so embarrassed. I usually rub the bowl with cloves of garlic before putting in the salad but I thought I had removed them. You poor boy, don’t have to eat those…”
Gratefully, I put the massive white herb down and became the object of modest admiration for taking on the monster garlic. Even my future brother in law, the tough outdoorsman, was impressed. Later that evening, as I was helping clean the dishes, my future mother in law was more relaxed and it was clear that we had crossed the Rubicon together.
As I related the story later that evening to my parents – wishing them Happy Thanksgiving, my mom laughed a deep chuckle and there was a small pause on the phone.
“You’re still coming for Christmas Eve right? “
“Yes, mom and I am bringing Caroline if that is ok.”
“Oh, yes. We’d love it! Won’t we Miles?”
I could not hear my father’s response but I could just see him wincing and thinking. “Damn, there go my leftovers.”
Before the ice is in the pools —
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —
Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!
— Emily Dickinson
The holiday season is a time of grand irony. It is a wassail of potent ingredients — cinnamon tradition, candy-stripe anticipation, clove-scented memories, orange-peel nostalgia and egg-yolk dysfunction. The mélange simmers over the course of December, building into a highly combustible brew. Add in a few relatives, alcohol and close quarters and you are in for a Christmas full of secular surprises.
Our Titanic holiday season was officially christened with the thump of an ancient train set that would be heaved onto our playroom floor after being wrested from the spiders and dust mites that reigned supreme in our basement. It was followed by a six-foot plastic Santa, illuminated with a powerful 200-watt bulb, placed precipitously on the seldom-used balcony outside my parents’ upstairs window. To those passing by in motor vehicles at night, it appeared we were being overrun by extraterrestrials. “Good God, Norma, there’s an alien climbing in the window of that house!”
Christmas lights followed, faithfully tracing the eaves of our red-tiled Mediterranean home. Each light was nailed with a sharp swear word as my father blasphemed his way through the decoration process. The gods despised his profane embrace of the Christmas season and would torment him with strands of colorful light bulbs that would never fully illuminate. As a conservative, he considered these electrical outages a challenge to his American ingenuity and resolve. These lights were like small banana republics: If one light fell into communistic darkness, a domino effect of failures would surely follow, resulting in an entire house, perhaps even a neighborhood, yielding to yuletide ignominy. A house with broken bulbs said much about a man and his inability to provide for his family. His battles with extension cords, burned-out fuses and blacked-out gaps of lights were the stuff of legends and were always punctuated by unholy utterances.
“The man that lives in daddy’s mouth is saying bad words again,” reported my younger brother to my mother. He adored my father too much to accept the fact that dad had probably once won a gold medal at a sailor-cursing convention. When the defective bulbs were finally bested, the colored lights had no logical sequence and ran on in analog confusion — two reds, a blue, two greens followed by a white, and then two more reds. Across the Mason-Dixon financial dividing line known as Huntington Drive, St Albin’s Road homeowners would skillfully string alternating red and green lights across roofs and around each dormer window. Their 100 foot pine trees were brilliantly lit with a palette of perfectly numbered lights that flickered like a thousand roman candles, while our roofline and single hibiscus plant looked as if we were the home office for the Center for the Color Blind.
The advent calendar soon arrived as an important calculator as we counted down to Christmas Eve. This magical talisman with its fragile pre-cut “doors” elicited irresistible curiosity from each child, especially after my older brother told me that the Catholics used these calendars to pass messages to one another. It could very well contain the secrets of Fatima. By Dec. 3, every window had been vandalized by children willing to risk eternal damnation for the opportunity to decipher the odd illustrations that presumably had been sanctioned by the Vatican. Not far behind would be the old Gumps department store box filled with chipped and scuffed Nativity figurines. We would watch while my mother would faithfully arrange them, humming the theme song from the Harry Simeone album, The Little Drummer Boy. Within hours, the nativity was reconfigured into a highly inappropriate scene where all participants and its choreographer were surely going to hell. About this same time, Baby Jesus would disappear and miraculously appear days later in the dog’s mouth as he lay on the floor chewing what my mother had thought was a bone. It was now time to start lobbying for our Christmas tree.
My mother was the daughter of a German immigrant and was orthodox about the mechanics of purchasing of our tree. Der Weihnachtsbaum could be procured no earlier than two weeks before the Christmas Day. The tree must be at least 7 feet tall, a blue spruce pine and must be purchased at the local tree lot run by the YMCA. My mother was very loyal to the Y for keeping her boys occupied and out of jail. My father dreaded the entire process of acquiring the tree. To visit the Y lot in the fading glow of sparkling lights, with its army of clueless volunteers who could not be fired because they were in fact, volunteers, was the equivalent of being forced to attend a village idiots convention. He never referenced the tree lot by name, but instead chose to refer to it simply as “Clod City.”
The men rubbed their chins and walked around our car. There must have been six of them. “How you want to put this on the wagon?” asked an overweight, ruddy-faced fellow holding a hand axe. “I got an idea,” shouted a tall, dour mortician of a man, “let’s swing it across the back and push it forward.” My father would be apoplectic with contempt at this point, imagining the deep scratches in his Fleetwood station wagon’s roof. Invariably, he could tolerate the confederacy of dunces no longer and would order us to help him hoist the evergreen up and over the luggage rack rails that lined the roof of the car. The men, already sensing my father’s distain for their logistical retardation, melted away mumbling something to the effect, “it’s all yours, *&%^$!” Christmas seemed to be a time where everyone swore. A half hour later, our car would ease into our driveway, after an excruciating snail’s pace 5-mph drive across town. Our spiritual education was not yet complete.
The tree would be trimmed, adorned with lights, festooned with ancient ornaments and carefully positioned in the far corner of our living room where the dog would be least likely to urinate on it. Our tree stand had been handed down, presumably from Italians, which caused our tree to lean like the famous campanile of Pisa. The perpetual tilt of our holiday sapling was an emotional hemorrhoid to my father, leading him to constantly manipulate its position with primitive joists of newspaper and magazines. This, in turn, would guarantee its continued instability until the inevitable day arrived, when a door would slam, a person might raise their voice or the wind would blow outside, and the tree, on cue, would crash to the ground with a shatter of ornament and light bulb glass. The “Crashing of the Christmas Tree” was a rich tradition in our stucco cocoon of abnormality and as with all family dysfunction, seemed quite normal. Years later, I would become restless and irritable as Christmas approached, not understanding that the ritual of going to Clod City to curse our way through the purchase of the perpetually falling evergreen was as important to me as the presents, ceremony and gilded glitter. It was, after all, a familiar and reassuring routine.
Years later, I visited my parents at Christmas time. They had long since retired and were living blissfully in a seaside empty nest. I noticed their tree, fashioned out of wrought iron, presumably designed by some famous sculptor catering to those who are still recovering from post-traumatic tree disorder. “Nice tree, Dad. I’m surprised Mom let you get out of going to Clod City.” He thought for a moment and then flashed a mischievous smile. “Those guys were the stupidest human beings on the planet. Why, I remember….” I looked at my mother, who was laughing, and smiled, “Merry Christmas, Mom.”
Peter Pan and The Call of Duty
As another northeast evening descends, lingering magically with far off electrical storms and flashes of lightening bugs, I am drawn to the fragrant, familiar abandon of youth through my summer children. It is in these long twilights that I feel their years slipping through my fingers like so many precious grains of hourglass sand. I become keenly aware of my need to play.
Their insatiable quest for stimulation and action shakes me out of a rigid work routine that is agnostic to the season – transforming me into Peter Pan, Confederate General in the army of the mischievous and reckless Lost Boys.
Our home becomes a single parent household as I break curfews, co-opt kids into late night movies and ice cream runs, disregarding carefully negotiated boundaries designed to wean them from their adolescent impulses. We race across a cool shadowed plain of grass chased by an over stimulated Australian Shepherd. We throw a baseball in the fading light of a day that will soon be lost forever, or we hibernate like opium den addicts playing forbidden video games.
In these Pan periods of regression, I am often the recipient of well deserved criticism – most recently when I led my band of brothers on a late night run toGame Stop where we bought the Xbox Live video game “Call of Duty 4.”
It seemed harmless enough – brave American Special Forces soldiers engaged in a series of clandestine urban and third world conflicts – often times having to move precipitously through the detritus of broken cities and burned out towns to root out insurgents.
When my son, donned his Xbox headset, connected to the Internet and was suddenly descending from a Black Hawk helicopter into an urban hell of chaos, I was transfixed. My first reaction was to whisper, “That — is so cool…” My endorsement was immediately overheard by my horrified spouse who lectured me about how hard she had been working to prevent these high violence, virtual reality videos from shattering my children’s cocoon of innocence.
“Look” she pointed, as my son fragged several insurgents with a phosphorus grenade. “Hmm?” I said absentmindedly with one eye on her and one over her shoulder surveying the action.
I could not control myself. “Buddy, you let one of ’em get away. No, no.” I waved my finger to the left corner of a dusty street as his combat avatar ran firing his automatic weapon.
“Over there. Shoot him in the back! Ooh, you missed. Oh, good. You got him.”
Relieved, I turned with my best “now what was it you wanted, honey” look and was met with the same distain and disgust that any mother exhibits after discovering something ungodly in a sink, un-flushed toilet or laundry basket.
“What game are you going to bring home next: Serial Killer’?”
Voice over: “Yes, kids, coming out for Christmas, it’s Serial Killer – Demons and Despots. You must try to avoid criminal profilers and detectives as you rack up body counts. If you buy now, you will receive a bonus pack of history’s most murderous dictators – Stalin, Amin, Kim Jung II, Hitler, Pol Pot and Caligula.
You must find ways of hiding your genocide victims and evading your countrymen and/or inquisitive UN investigators who wonder what the smell is that is coming from under your presidential palace Your goal is to stay in power for as long as possible by any means necessary – even if it means signing a treaty with another despot.”
As I break out of my Don Pardo impression, my spouse shakes her head. “You really need help. Why don’t you think up some video games that will prepare them for the real world? ”
That got me thinking again. With today’s technology, why not create a series of Education and Empathy Games — E Squared Gaming, Inc. Our first game could be a collaboration with Electronic Arts and the Sims producers called,” Sims – Office Politics.”
In Sims -OP, adolescent gamers can choose between starting their own business raising private equity or venture capital or go to work for a big company.
There are multiple scenarios based on company’s size, regulatory exposure, competitive position, and complexity. One can pick roles ranging EVP Sales, Legal Council, Controller, CFO, President, CEO and Chairman. The goal is always the same – make as much for yourself and the shareholders as possible, consolidate power, rope-a-dope with regulators and if indicted, get immunity as by rolling over on your colleagues faster than a street paver.
Or how about a lesson in civics with, “Race for Congress.” In this action paced virtual cesspool, you begin as a neophyte entrepreneur running for a vacant House or Senate seat. You must gather supporters and political momentum. You gain experience points as you commit gaffes and miscues that set your campaign back. The computer program interfaces with your Sims hard drive folder and imports any illicit or embarrassing episodes such as affairs or drug use from your past that may be dredged up by a nosey reporter or by your political opponent.
You must cut hallway deals with special interests and learn to stay on message with the media irrespective of what’s being asked. If elected, you become a freshman legislator and must deal with pressure from your party to conform to policies that may piss off your constituents back home. You learn to vote for bills that have no hope of passing to maintain the optics that you are your own man. You earn points for successfully slipping pork into legislation and building a summer home with free labor. You learn the golden rule that you either have a seat at the table or you are on the menu.
You can then purchase a bonus pack – “Race for the Whitehouse” where you are nominated for the Presidential primary. You must make campaign promises you know you cannot keep, hold press conferences, spend more time than a moose in New Hampshire and even appear on Oprah.
If you make it to the Oval office, there are wars, lusty interns, bio-terrorism threats, a derelict brother, recession, and scandals. Your personal dashboard includes a geopolitical crisis index, homeland security color bar, public popularity meter and a moral and spiritual compass that determines your level of corruption.
“Recession 2008” is certain to become a classic. Players dodge predatory lenders, wild swings in the Dow, plunges in net worth, marital problems – all the while trying to remain employed.
The game is designed to help players gain empathy and understanding for all classes of society. After a few months of staying up all night trying to keep the repo man from taking the car, having to sell your prized baseball card collection to pay for COBRA benefits or trying to qualify in a bankrupt state for unemployment, gamers will never again look at a homeless individual and say, “get a job.”
“Public Servant” is a parent’s dream where a young gamer selects a city, county, state or Federal job – all of whose public domain budgets are preprogrammed. Players must contend with the bureaucracy and Catch-22’s of inefficient government. Gaming health is predicated on five biometric markers that indicate a public servant’s risk for chronic illness. Random scenarios include berserk co-workers, budget cuts, drug testing, layoffs, labor disputes and devious public officials. After playing this game, your kid will be saying please and thank you to every public employee they meet.
As I inventory the endless permutations of real life video gaming for kids, my son, jumps into a virtual tank and blows up a neighborhood in Mogadishu. I wonder if I could ever get him interested in my reality. The problem is if he played my reality games, he’d probably never come out from underneath his bed.
“Being a grown up seems too scary, Dad.”
“Amen to that brother. Move over and give me that controller.”
Resolution Number 9
“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.” ~ Joey Adams
It was the time of year that fatigued my father most. Christmas was a brakeless, high speed joy ride down a boulevard of excess – the profligate purchasing of gifts, a succession of business and neighborhood parties, a month long garland of decorations, and sheer exhaustion that weighed you down like lard laden fruitcake. The week between Christmas and New Years arrived like the eye of a hurricane offering a momentary respite where we might reconstruct our predictable November routines and gather up the debris of December celebration.
The dead calm worried my father. He knew the toll the holidays took on my mother. Like a seasoned meteorologist, he knew the back half of the holiday storm still packed high emotional winds and potential for damaged feelings. He was useless at this time of year. This generation of men in grey flannel suits were as relevant as flightless dodo birds when separated from their workplace. The normal midweek rhythms of my mother’s matriarchal rule were shattered when five men were suddenly home and idle. It was an extreme time that exaggerated the normal warts and imperfections of life. The soiled laundry and dirty dishes grew in geometric proportions. The perfect storm of lazy teenagers on vacation coupled with a husband who kept saying “ whaah?” with a mouth full of food, seemed to only increase steam in the family pressure cooker. In a startling role reversal worthy of anthropological study, mother and father temporarily switched places.
Mom would shock us with a sudden flash of impatience or an actual curse-word. We thought only fathers swore. She would talk to herself as she picked up clothes that had been littered as if the owners had all caught fire. She began to exhibit all the signs of a person ill with the radiation poisoning from broken routines, serial thoughtlessness and excessive family time. My father was bewildered. Only he held the tenured role of moody shape shifter and mercurial overlord. It was my mother’s role to be a placid lake of restraint and a predictable oasis that offered protection to all from the rise and fall of the testosterone barometer. When she was in a foul mood, the entire equilibrium of the family unit was destabilized. We all prayed it would not result in one of her resolutions.
Despite our best efforts to navigate my mother’s eggshells and landmines, someone would inevitably trigger an invisible trip wire and there would be an explosion of self pitied emotion and dreaded pronouncements. The catalyst may have been as prosaic as a freshly laundered towel thrown into the hamper after just one shower or a half-gallon of milk left out to sour. As myopic men, we did not understand that her cumulative frustration was like magma rising into a volcanic chamber. Our chronic insensitivity and my father’s inability to protect her as domestic wingman created the fissure that would trigger a sudden and violent eruption – sometimes heard several blocks away.
Her new year’s pronouncements were communicated like a centurion announcing an edict from Caesar. “In direct response to my repeated attempts to get you boys to hang up your towels, put away your laundry or refrain from eating all the lunch snacks, we will now do the following: 1) The linen closet will be locked with a pad lock Monday through Friday and you will not be issued a new towel until Saturday. 2) You are now responsible for your own laundry. I suggest you wash and fold it over the weekend. 3) You will now make your own lunches and if you forget to make your lunch, you will go hungry. “ She was angry and defiant. We glanced at our father. If you had looked up the word “eunuch” in Webster’s dictionary, his facial expression would have been the word’s illustration. Earlier in the day, she had given him a “ detailed” list of complaints and resolutions that got his complete attention. He simply looked at us and said, “She who must be obeyed has spoken.” For her sudden surge of feminism, Gloria Steinem would have pinned a medal on Mom. Hell hath no fury than a mother when she has had enough.
We dreaded her resolutions especially those involving food and logistics. “We are all going to eat healthy”, she declared one New Year’s Day. This translated into several weeks of culinary experiments whose nadir was a dinner menu featuring brussel sprout soup ,“pizza fish” and flavored tofu cake. Even the dog would not eat it. Other resolutions included a transportation pool where each child was allowed a maximum two car rides a week. This lead to a black market of transportation credits being swapped by boys with the laziest paying dearly for someone else’s passenger slot. There were mandates for time to be spent studying, playing games, showering, talking on the phone, and playing sports. There was even talk of removing all toilet seats after a near-sighted teen had failed to put the seat up in her bathroom for the fifth consecutive day. This gave rise to much speculation – was she actually going to carry her own seat around with her?
The first week following any declaration was a pathetic black comedy as the four blind mice struggled with their new responsibilities – – washing colored and white laundry together to produce a whole line of shrunken pink and gray clothing. Lunches were routinely forgotten. Laundry was not really folded but instead chewed and shoved like wads of gum into drawers guaranteeing that when worn, one looked as though they had been dragged behind a Chevy truck. Inevitably, martial law softened. Her resolutions had the life expectancy of a housefly. We were pitiful recidivists and she knew it. The day one heard, “ here, let me do that!” was the moment that we knew that sanity was being restored.
As we married and formed our own families, my father bore the brunt of Mom’s annual fiats around health, fitness, and life. He became a human lab rat being subjected to the latest new age cures that hawked salt free diets, pyramid power to preserve food, biorhythm devices to monitor one’s life waves, erogenous zones and transcendental meditation. Dad would sneak cheeseburgers and Cokes like an alleyway addict while quietly complaining to us that new age communists had invaded his home. He finally drew a line in the sand when she suggested that regular colonic cleansing would do wonders for his temper. We would remind him that her brief but inspired storms of self-improvement would eventually pass and might even do him some good. He would grumble like Lurch from the Addams Family and shuffle off hoping that the current fiber diet he was on would not take him too far from a restroom.
Years later, we find ourselves making these same declarations to our kids. More exercise, less fatty foods, Sunday dinners together, reading more, less TV, one hour of computer time strictly regulated, no chores means no allowance… Our declarations and good intentions stretch like a long kite string across a sky of generations. Like my mother, my resolve weakens as the reward of behavior modification is always overpowered by the hassle of resolution enforcement. As I write this, my kids rooms look like the KGB has just finished an illegal search, dinner dishes have been abandoned on the table, the trash has not been put out, the dog is gnawing on a pair of sunglasses and my ten year old has been playing a computer game called Spore for three days straight. I could swear he has a five o’clock shadow. I can also feel the magma growing in my spouse.
It’s time for one of those New Year’s resolutions. “Ok, you guys, starting January 2nd, there’s going to be a few changes around this place – starting with bedtime and limits on the computer.” I get no response. In fact, no one is looking up from their cell phones where they are text-messaging friends. “Uh, sure Dad, whatever you like, say”, someone mutters absentmindedly to their chest. I realize I, too, have become the emasculated reformer. I think it’s time to call my Mom and ask her for her recipe for pizza fish, brussel sprout soup and tofu cake.
That ought to get their attention.