The Most Wonderful Time of The Year – A Ghost Story

The grandfather clock chimed twelve am. The house was a silent sea of deep, rhythmic breathing, interrupted only by the sudden movements of an energized Australian Shepherd who was fixated on my every move.   I sat exhausted among holiday detritus — screw drivers, instructions, unassigned nuts and bolts and scores of AA batteries.  I was once again feeling sorry for myself and resenting the imminent holiday and its fatigue. Another Christmas.

I had predictably caved to commercialism spending well beyond my budget, stimulated by that seductive liar — nostalgia.  I had gained five pounds at social and business gatherings and in a fit of self pity, wished that I could be transported back in time when I was the child upstairs sleeping.  As if sensing my sullen mood, the dog rested his head on my knee. Suddenly, he perked his ears and darted behind the couch – – his emergency shelter any time that something is not right in the house.

 “Get back in your beds! “ I hissed into the dark hallway.

Expecting to hear giggles and scampering feet, I instead heard what sounded like chains and cleaning equipment being dragged across our wooden floors.  I raised my voice as I darted around the corner trying to catch the young spies in the act, “What are you doing down…?”

I startled, dumfounded at the odd specter hovering in front of me.  A phantasm, clothed in mid-nineteenth century finery, swirled near the staircase.  Ghostly baroque Christmas carols floated up from under his topcoat. “I am the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  I have come to confer with you so that I might save you from a future that I was not able to escape”.

“I think you have the wrong house, Bub.   Charlie was the investment banker.  He lives next door.”  The ghost hesitated, looking flustered and the music stopped.  He materialized a little more clearly and descended to the floor.  He reached a modest height of five feet but looked up at me through spectacles and a silver hedge row of furrowed brows.

  “I knew they gave me the wrong address.  No, wait, wait, wait. This is right.  You are in the health care industry.  Oh yes, this is the house.  We have launched Project Merry Gentlemen this year.  Last year, we haunted Congressional officials under Project Windsock. It did not do much good. Although several did not heed our warnings and were not reelected this year.  This year, we have big business in our crosshairs. It was either come here or go march with the We Can’t Breathe crowd. Lot’s of causes but not many marchers in this neighborhood.

“We want to make sure you remember the role you free market capitalists are supposed to play in society.  Some of you muckety mucks need to remember there is a God and you are not her!”

“Her?” I asked.

“It’s a long story”, the ghost sighed. “It says here you are a managed care consultant.  I am not sure what that means but it sounds like an oxymoron.” I started to look defensive and he quickly changed the subject.  “Look I got a lot of other business people to speak with tonight. I am initially visiting the ones that own only one house.  They are easier to locate.”

I was puzzled, “uh, where exactly are we going and where are the other ghosts – you know, the ghosts of Christmas Present and Future?”.  The ghost exhaled,

The ghost looked disgusted. “They all got laid off or demoted to other departments within Purgatory.  About a year ago, Purgatory got overrun by a bunch of private equity guys.  They started telling us we were the lowest margin department in the spiritual world and we needed to cut costs and reduce headcount.  I now have three times the amount of hauntings as I used to have and I have had my goodwill pay frozen for one hundred years.  The ghost of Christmas Past was made “redundant”.  She’s now haunting houses part-time.  Christmas Future has been redirected into Children’s Nightmares.  He just got put on probation for causing the entire state of Nebraska to wet their bed.  With the hood and skeleton hands, he’s a tad over qualified for bad dreams.”

“I thought Purgatory was the place between heaven and hell.” I asked, confused.

The ghost nodded his head. “A common misconception. We exist in a place that is sort of like – – Heaven’s mailroom.  If we do well, we get promoted upstairs or if we are really lucky, we reincarnated back to earth as dogs.”

I leaned close and asked the millennium old question, “What about Hell.  Is it, you know, real?” The ghost looked thoughtful and leaned in to whisper in my ear, “Hell is being a Jets fan.” He laughed and impend the front door with the wave of his hand.

“Let’s go visit your past and present and see if we can’t leave you with a little perspective at this important time of year.”  A rush of frigid air swirled around us as we were caught up in a sort of funnel, spiraling up and then just as suddenly, alighting on a manicured lawn.  Magnolia trees lined suburban sidewalks illuminated by street lamps.  I saw a young pre-teen riding a ten speed bicycle by himself while a physician got back into his Ford after making a house call.  I knew in an instant that we had fallen backward in the early 1970’s  We floated in the air, hidden by the shadows of weak light cast from a few the massive living room bay window of a Spanish style home.

 “What is all that noise inside?” the ghost asked as he craned his head, pressing his nose to the single pane glass.

“That”, I said, “is most likely my father, swearing as he puts up the Christmas tree.”  I peered inside to spy four young boys running in and out of a room packed with presents while an Andy Williams Christmas song played  on the hi-fi.  The ghost mused, “It’s quite comfortable outside, why is there such a large fire in the fireplace? “

I suddenly felt a hot flash. “My Dad liked fires and fireplaces.  He grew up in Chicago where they were both a necessity and a sentimental symbol of domestic bliss.  It was always like an Indian sweat lodge when Dad cranked up the old Yule log. My Mom would go into the other room complaining that it was night time yet for her to have man-o-pause.  I didn’t understand what Man-o-pause was but assumed it had something to do with the fact that we had a house full of men.”

We watched as a mongrel dog trotted up to the tree and lifted his leg to urinate while my father’s jaw dropped in stupefied horror. As he moved to kick the dog, the tree fell over.

“I loved Max,” I said absentmindedly. “He was the perfect dog for four boys.  A few years later, he finally attacked something that was tougher than he was”

“And that was,“ asked the ghost.

“A moving van” I sighed…

We moved along a continuum of time as we walked invisibly among family parties, card games, laughter, endless baking, candle light church services, caroling, friends, gifts, and a rather embarrassing rearrangement of nativity figurines that resembled a swinger’s party.   The moments melted into a montage of family life all sweetened by our time together.  With each successive Christmas, our Southern California home seemed brighter, warmer and more festive – – the spirit of the season casting a light across every face. And somewhere in the distance, Andy Williams was always singing about it being the most wonderful time of the year.

“You see,” the ghost chastened me.” You really did have a wonderful life.”

I shot him a cynical glance.  “Look Clarence, or whatever your name is… I’m not George Bailey trying to jump off a bridge.  You just caught me wishing I could be a kid again – you know, for a few hours.” The ghost looked sympathetic but then became stern.

“My time is short.  I am supposed to haunt at least ten more suits tonight. We have not even gotten to your gradual enslavement to work and your preoccupation with reality television. ” He looked me in the eye.  “I just want to remind you that Christmas is a holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah.  His life was all about serving others.  This season is about your fellow man – -those you know and those you have never met.  You know, ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ and all of that?   Since you ruined your chances for public office in college, you can still inspire people by serving others and through your actions, remind them during this season that Christmas is a state of mind.  Empathy and compassion are the chief ingredients to human kindness.  It’s that warm nostalgic feeling that makes you want to buy gifts, light fires and curl up to watch reruns of Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop’s Wife.”

His face got stern, “You business types want free markets, limited regulation, small government and flat screen TVs.  Ok, but that means you have to be responsible social stewards and help actively stitch together a social safety net to take care of those who are less fortunate.  It’s in your spiritual job description if you’d ever bother to read it. You may feel more vulnerable in today’s economy but 95% of the world is financially worse off than you.  I am not sure how you find time to get on your pity pot with so much going for you.  By the way, if you do not choose to help those in need, there are those who would love to force you to do it.  As they say at the office, I’d rather be the guy who writes the memo, than the one who has to read it.”

The ghost smiled and faded into a gossamer mist, finally disappearing. I woke up in my favorite chair with my back aching as it always does when I watch back to back episodes of Cops.  I suddenly realized that the holiday season was really about those sitting around the tree, rather than what rested underneath it.

I walked through the house, turning out lights and hesitated for a moment, watching the Christmas tree and the glowing palette of ornaments reflecting the soft kaleidoscope of color.  I heard the CD changer in the other room click and suddenly heard a familiar symphony of brass as Andy Williams started to croon, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.”

Dad Duty

There are three stages of a man’s life:  he believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus. ~Author Unknown

It was a chilly Northern California evening, as I finally settled into the great green chair in the family room.  It had been a long day – church school, hiking, playgrounds, muddy dogs and an avalanche of diapers, nuks and mushy Wheat-A-Bix crackers.  It was now 9 p.m. and it was my time.  The second half of the 49ers game was kicking off, and the last of my feral children was nodding off.  As I fell into the deep cushions, a blood curdling scream echoed down the hall.  “Pi-yo-yoke!”  “Pi-yo-yoke!”  It was my two-year-old and it sounded as if the furies of hell had been unleashed in his room.  I rushed down the narrow corridor just behind my wife.  It was worse than I had expected.  His beloved companion Pinocchio, the stuffed toy purchased during our fall visit to Disneyland that was never, ever far from his side, was missing.  He was an inconsolable knot of anger, thrashing like a worm on a hot sidewalk and then suddenly going stiff with a form of frustrated rigor mortis.  As my wife tried to gently lay him down in his crib, I made a move to slip unnoticed out of the room and sneak back to watch the 49ers game.  I’ll just leave you two to sort this out…

“I can’t find his stuffed Pinocchio,” my spouse yelled frantically.  She turned and whispered reassuringly to the apoplectic child, “Here’s kitty, honey.”  He shrieked louder, tossing the tabby away with agitation, and fell back into the crib in twisted agony.  “Shhhhhhh, sweetie.  You’re going to wake up your brother and sister.”  I stood there, helpless, the UN observer – well intentioned but overmatched.  “Don’t just stand there, Michael.  Go find Pinocchio!”

As she tried to console him, I tore apart the car and house.  I could hear the cries from inside and cringed when new voices join the chorus.  I rushed back inside with one of the stupid faces I wear when I am adding no value to a situation.  “Wait” my wife blurted. “I know where Pinocchio is.”  She hesitated as if retracing footsteps.  “We left him at the reservoir today when we went for our walk with the kids.  We have to go get him.”  I knew instantly what it meant when we was used in this context.  It meant I (we) was about to drive through a frigid, muddy night to a rural reservoir and go hunting for a stuffed toy.

Thirty minutes later, I was trudging up a steep slope choked with weeds and soft mud.  The state park had long since closed and there was no access except by foot.  I slipped and drove my knee six inches into the soft dirt.  My foot suddenly disappeared into a mire of fresh mud, finally yielding my sock but keeping my loafer as a memento of the journey.  I pulled the destroyed shoe from the wet swamp with a heave and a few choice words.  I stumbled on to the hillside plateau and was soon moving along the ribbon of walking trail that paralleled the ebony water.  I spied the play structure, but my imagination started to play tricks on me.  It was, as the poet Frost described, “a night of dark intent.”  It was the perfect place for a serial killing.  I could just see the shadow of the 6’8” sociopath with a hook for a hand, dangling Pinocchio from his sharpened prosthesis.  “Looking for something, mister?” The probability of a serial killer actually swinging on the sets near my son’s toy was close to zero, but that did not deter my paranoia.  I rushed to every corner of the play area with no success.  As I dejectedly turned to hike back to my car, I noticed the silhouette of an alpine hat and a jutting proboscis propped up on the picnic table.  Geppetto had found his wooden boy.

Eager to be home, I fell down the hill, ripping my sweats on a rock after getting tangled in the roots of an oak tree.  As I tumbled on to the street, I approached my car to find a parking ticket tucked neatly under the wiper blade.  I grabbed it in disgust and drove silently home.  As I crept into the house, I heard the familiar splash of the kitchen faucet and the tinkling of dishes being cleaned.  “Great,” she whispered, ignoring my ripped pants and single shoe.  She walked down the quiet hall to place the stuffed boy in Cole’s crib.  “He fell asleep just after you left.”  They say “comedy is tragedy plus time” and I can now chuckle about my winter midnight hike at the Lafayette Reservoir.  I was not laughing at the time; I was feeling totally put out.  I now realize it was all part of dad duty.

Dad duty changes with each generation as society and social patterns shift.  I love to take the starch out of my Father by dredging the comedy and mild dysfunction that has settled deep in the tributary of our lives.  Yet, I’ve always known he had no higher priority than his family.  I often refer to his generation as the “Dad’s With the Big D.”  They were benevolent dictators, masters and commanders.  Martial law, a strong hand and absolute respect were prerequisites to survival on their tightly run ship.  A Big D Dad was shaped by hands scarred from a Great Depression, world wars and the sense that each generation could improve on the work of those that preceded it.  Life outside his neighborhood was reported through newspapers, magazines and an illuminated radio dial.  Fear was a stranger always lurking in the shadows as polio, communism, war and poverty made a person conservative, patriotic and self-reliant.  My Dad intuitively knew that anything worthwhile was earned and that only hard work could overcome limitations and barriers.  The price he and other Dads paid was occasionally missing milestones that marked their children’s progress in the world.  Yet, they never wavered.  It was their duty.

Dad duty now dictates that a “good” father make every recital, sporting event, choral concert and life moment to be certain we’re supporting our kids.  The commanding general has morphed into a more benign therapist who hovers in a helicopter above each child broadcasting carefully crafted messages over a PA system.  These dads are modern-day wranglers who must actively participate in guiding every head of the herd as it moves inevitably west.  While the new age dad’s job description may have more fine print, the pay remains the same.  Your compensation?  A first dance with your daughter at an Indian Princess outing.  That first hit in tee ball.  Introducing a new book or place to your child and watching them revel in the experience.  The realization that vicarious joy is deeper than personal satisfaction and that being dad means loving unconditionally; your heart has bandwidth that you never imagined.  It crystallizes a concept of the universe where a higher power loves you, blemishes and all, and wants only the best for you.  It helps you understand the precious gift of being responsible for another person and it magnifies your respect for other parents.  Having my own children finally helped me clearly see the man who was my Father.  He was, and still is, a parent with enormous integrity who refused to ever forget that his family was his top priority.  His greatest joy was vicarious as he helped guide and support the success and happiness of his four boys.

They may call it dad duty, that’s an oxymoron.  The chance to serve as a father is perhaps the greatest gift any man can experience.

Birth Daze

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

Birthdaze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that is a great birthday.

Diary of a “Husky” Kid

Pumpkin Head
Image by nickhall via Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of the Promenade

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

 

It had been a rough first six months since our move to England. Each child was showing the strain of change and unfamiliar circumstances.  I arrived home one evening from a business trip to find my wife striking the washing machine in complete frustration. 

“This stupid thing is so small I can only wash one sheet at a time.”  It seemed as though it would never stop raining. The fickle sun would appear at odd and inconvenient times like an unreliable friend.  While intellectually invigorated by our European move, we underestimated the emotional trauma of being cast adrift from friends, family and the familiar rhythm of our Northern California lifestyle.

 

My parents had joined us in London for the children’s October break and like most Brits, we immediately fled the damp emerald isle for the warmer embrace of Southern Italy.   We landed in Rome and were immediately serenaded by the whimsical strings of a city wired on life and caffeine.  Rome was a marching band with no conductor.  Every Italian seemed to move without regard for traffic lanes, lights or legal parking.  The classically laissez faire Italian police were more intent on staking out single women than suspicious characters. Vespas buzzed like mosquitoes while autumn starlings banked and rose in an aerial ballet. With each hour, we regained our warm weather equilibrium and sense of adventure.  After three days of fountains, forums and fusilli, we escaped north to explore Florence and the surrounding ancient hill towns of Tuscany resting like unsteady siena crowns on the crests of hills forested with beech, oak and chestnut trees. 

 

We arrived at our hotel, Villa La Massa, on October 31st. The chrome morning mist rose slowly, taking its time to shake off low gray clouds.  A wet chill loitered in the ravines and hollows and in between the villa’s main house and the guesthouses that peered over the southern banks above the Arno. There were no black cats, pumpkins or dark effigies of witches and goblins.  The long, pebbled driveway guarded by columned cypress trees and an ancient wrought iron gate, showed no signs of imminent pagan celebrations.  Our children, ages 7, 4 and 2, were only mildly interested that it was All Hallows Eve.  Back in America, giggling adrenaline-fueled goblins would be racing in and out of the shadows and light cast by houses a thousand grinning jack-o-lanterns.  It would be a night of sugar, ghouls and mayhem.  I sighed.  At our old home, we would be wandering our neighborhood – – faceless flashlights inching along dark streets and cul de sacs greeting the silhouettes and voices of our friends. Halloween was America and an essential milestone in the life of a young family and we were missing it.   

 

On this warm, windy day, I volunteered to take the children to the Etruscan hill town of Fiesole while my parents and wife wandered the back alleys of Florence. We spent a glorious morning chasing and playing among the ancient amphitheatres, roman baths and ruins.  A local restaurant owner adopted us, treating us to lunch at his local café where we were overwhelmed with freshly baked foccacia, homemade pastas and pizza. As the sun’s arc dropped toward the West, we descended into the valley of the Arno, navigating a patchwork quilt of vineyards and farms.  As we followed the narrow road back to our hotel, I could see the Duomo and the medieval skyline of the city that was once the cradle of the Italian city-states.  For all the enthusiasm I felt for being in this special place, I was suffering from a parochial melancholy wondering whether my decision to work overseas had been a mistake.  Was I denying my children a quintessentially American childhood?  Would they one day ask me, “Dad, what’s Halloween?”

 

European interest in the celebration of Halloween was mixed.  Given the more reverent traditions surrounding festivals like The Day of The Dead, Italians resisted the secular commercialism of monsters and Milky Ways.  Yet, there were signs of Catholic unrest.  In Milan, Halloween festivities were held by American schools and often spilled over into local communities.  In Bologna, the Miss Strega” (Miss Witch) beauty contest was held to identify the most enchanting sorceress.  A few Roman novelty shops had displayed masks, monster memorabilia and treats.  Yet, the Villa La Massa showed no signs of western infestation. It was just another sleepy Tuesday.

 

Unbeknownst to me, my clever spouse had packed a Donald Duck mask, a spider man outfit and all the accessories that a Hawaiian dancer would ever require.  Prior to departing that day for Florence, she had approached the charming concierge, Sylvia, explaining that the children were far from home and missing an important holiday; would she allow them to come down to the foyer that evening to trick or treat – knocking on the office and storage room doors of the sparsely occupied hotel where we might give them candy?  She left uncertain if our polished patron understood her request.

 

Once home, my wife whipped the kids into a happy lather explaining the significance of Halloween, their apparel and trick or treating.  Dusk brought frenetic preparation and squealing enthusiasm as the children donned their costumes.  I walked down the narrow hallway where a sinister suit of armor looked disapprovingly on my waddling two year old Donald Duck who would not stop making sounds like a dying Merganser.  A serious super hero and a seven-year-old hula girl bolted past the wobbly toddler.   We fell down the elegant staircase like a spilled bucket of tennis balls, crashing across the cobblestone breezeway toward the main house.  There were signs of movement inside the lobby as shadows darted across the row of equal-sized, closely placed windows. Soft light spilled out into the courtyard from the prominent portico.

 

Sylvia gasped with sheer delight as my youngest child quacked, announcing his arrival.  To my surprise, the entire hotel staff lined the foyer like an honor guard.  Each employee – waiters, maids, porters, groundskeepers and drivers – was holding a basket filled with homemade Italian treats.  Throughout the day, the Italians had baked and wrapped homemade cookies and chocolates.  The children were instructed to close their eyes as their hosts darted off to the first floor rooms. As each child approached a guest room door, it would swing open with an Italian feigning surprise and raising their hands in disbelief.  Sylvia suddenly had an idea and motioned us to follow her toward the restaurant kitchen.  She was explaining in broken English that she wanted to have the children trick or treat the head chef.  This spontaneous suggestion elicited disapproving looks from several of her male colleagues.  As a gourmet hotel, the chef was the mercurial lord of the manor.  Yet, Sylvia seemed determined to enter Hell’s kitchen.  My older children sensed the reticence of the staff and held back while our youngest recklessly burst through the cucina’s swinging doors clucking like a hen heavy with eggs.  There was silence, followed by a sudden burst of baritone laughter. The doorway suddenly filled with a large, handle bar mustached Italian chef holding my son and pinching his cheeks. The staff applauded.  Sylvia leaned in victorious and whispered, “they are terrified of him.  They have never seen him smile.”  We lingered in the hotel for some time forging a primitive bridge out of ragged Italian and English words as the children unwrapped candies and explored the living room.

 

We later walked slowly across the empty grounds and into the guesthouse, climbing past a not so malevolent suit of armor to our rooms. My anxiety had melted away.  It was clear that I had been wrong.  We were not missing anything back in America.  Our best Halloween will forever be remembered as a magical blend of cypress trees, ancient ruins, laughing chefs and doting Italians.

 

Meraviglioso! 

 

 

The Anxious Dodger

Dodger Stadium
Image via Wikipedia

 

The Anxious Dodger

A springtime ritual of male bonding in 1970’s Los Angeles meant trips to Chávez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles.  It was the epicenter of our baseball universe – the sacred home stadium where each year our Los Angeles Dodgers would battle for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and traffic of sporting events.  Attending a game with 60,000 fans was a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and public urinals.  Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was located in a very rough neighborhood.

The LA Coliseum in South Central LA hosted the 1932 Olympics, the Rams, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and the 1968 Watts riots.  The Forum – home of the Lakers and Kings -was like Fort Apache precariously located in Inglewood, an area with more guards, barbed wire and barred windows than Folsom prison.  Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Los Feliz Hills in East Los Angeles.  East LA was often depicted in the media as an area dominated by gangs and drive by shootings. My father’s suburban anxiety manifested itself each time we would attend Dodger game.  His paranoid behavior made our long day’s journey an emotional roller coaster as we rode shotgun scanning alleys and side streets for potential assailants.

While we lived less than thirty minutes drive from the actual ballpark, we would literally leave hours before the game, as my father did not want to ever be stuck in traffic.  To the chagrin of his sons and wife, he was not particularly fond of going out.  After a hard week at work, he subscribed to the FIFO method of socializing – – first in, first out.

We would exit the freeway winding through densely populated, graffiti stained neighborhoods of chain linked front yards where laundry hung on clothes lines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in a mistral wind. Like clockwork, my father would tell us to duck down in our seats and lock the doors. The toughest person I saw on the street before having my head jammed into my collarbone was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.  “ Careful, dad, that baby might put a cap in our rear end”, my older brother said sarcastically.  At 15, he had begun to challenge my father’s peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity.

A magnificent 1970 Chevy Impala low-rider rumbled past – its occupants patrolling their barrio.  The chrome wheels and custom sapphire blue paint job reflected the hazy midday sun. It was the ultimate Chicano cruiser and we were very impressed.  My brother started to roll his window down.  “ He dude, that’s a cool ca…” My father grabbed him and shoved him down in his seat. “Jesus H Christ. You want to get us killed?”  The driver was a handsome tan twenty-something with arm tattoos and wrap around sunglasses.  He dismissed us with a nod and continued rolling down the street.  My brother continued. “ Dad what does H stand for in Jesus’ name? And isn’t his name really pronounced ‘hey-soos?’ Mexican people are still pissed off about us stealing California from them, dad. I hear they carry machetes and if your car breaks down they cut your head off and stick it on their front porch flag pole as a warning to other people who short cut through the barrio.”

“I’m scared,” I whined.  My brother looked at me disgusted, “ I’m just joking, you peon!”

My father had had enough and looked ready to explode from the goading and logistical anxiety of driving four boys to a baseball game on a hot, smoggy Sunday afternoon.  “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll ‘peon’ you” he snapped.  My brother started laughing immediately and then my other brother realized what my father had said.  I finally appreciated the double entendre and laughed extra loud to convince all that I had known all along that my father was threatening to urinate on my brother.

He would park in the same area, Lot Y – the furthest space from the stadium and closest to the exit of the parking lot.  His greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when LA’s great social insurrection occurred.  He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure would always be building until one day, they would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest.  When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of men with machetes decided it was time to take back the state of California.

Our seats were in the right field pavilion – a word I assumed must certainly be French for outfield bleachers.  The term “pavilion” sounded chic and elite. The fact you were sitting next to a guy wearing a wife beater undershirt and a tattoo that said, “Loco-motive“ did not seem to diminish your sense of prestige.  By the end of the game, you and that maniac were blood brothers.  You might even exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch – unified through the strange alchemy of beer, sun, foot long hotdogs and your common obsession with Tommy Davis.

If you were lucky, you would catch a glimpse of Roger Owens, the world famous peanut vendor whose uncanny accuracy with tossing peanuts made him an instant celebrity.  Owens could thread a needle with a bag of nuts across twenty rows – -consistently landing the salty prizes in the hands of his intended targets. He would throw between his legs, behind his back, often peppering three different individuals at the same time with three different bags.  According to the record books, his all-time personal record of most tossed peanut bags in a game was 2,400 bags set in 1976 in Dallas, Texas, at Texas Stadium during a Cowboys game.

About the sixth inning, my father would begin to furtively look at his watch and sniff as if he had a cold.  This was his “tell –tale” twitch indicating that we were minutes from exiting the ballpark. By the seventh inning stretch, we were being hustled from our seats and running across a great desert of burning asphalt and cars. “ Dad, why are we running?”  my brother would yell as we stumbled toward our car.  “ We don’t want to get caught in traffic!” my father would scream back as he raced ahead. Years later, my younger brother realized that eight innings is not extra innings in baseball.  He had never actually seen a game go beyond seven innings before being sequestered out of the stadium.  In fact, he assumed hockey had two periods, football was three quarters and any basketball game was over once a team went up on their opponent by more than 20 points.

We raced toward the freeway on-ramp, heads ducked in the car, on the look out for General Santa Ana and the Mexican army.   It was all very stressful – the ducking, the running, the rapid eating, the running, ducking, and 130-degree car with windows rolled up as tight as a submarine.  About this time someone would declare himself carsick and throw up.  Looking back, it all seemed very normal.

Years later, as I take my children to Yankee games, I find myself parking in lots that will afford me a rapid escape.  It is the seventh inning stretch and I consider the dreaded purgatory of post game traffic.  I turn to my boys and say,” let’s get going, guys.” There is a huge groan of resistance.  Alas, I have become my father. Yet, with each spring, I repeat our ritual pilgrimage to the Bronx. (Wait, isn’t this the same Bronx where the 41st precinct was called “Fort Apache” and where the gang from the movie “The Warriors” fought a rival gang dressed in pinstripes wielding baseball bats?) Yet, like my father, I brush back my demons with a high, hard sigh because I know to a kid nothing is better than a hot dog, Pepsi, peanuts and a homerun. Eternal youth is walking into a stadium on a warm summer day, the air heavy with the smell of cut grass and the sharp contrast of a blue sky against a green manicured diamond.

In the realms of fathers and sons, there is area where age has no boundaries. It is a safe place where moments are shared and words need not be spoken.  In this uncharted geography, you might come across a place of worship. It sometimes takes the shape of a baseball stadium.  As you get closer, you hear the deep crack of a hard maple bat, the roar of a partisan crowd and a boy yelling to his father above the chaotic din,

“Dad, why do we have to leave the game early?”

 

A New Prosperity

A New Prosperity

 

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.

 

The Rainy Day – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

A recent book entitled, The End of Prosperity hits the bookshelves as a best seller.  The sense of gloom and uncertainty settles like wisps of ground fog on a region where 16% of jobs are connected to the financial sector, more than twice the average of other parts of the country.  Movies like Revolutionary Road depict affluent suburbs as soulless Edens, corrupted by ambition – a dark land where character and dreams of selfless idealism are sacrificed on the petard of material pursuit.  Prosperity it seems has committed suicide.

 

Prosperity has long been a mysterious and ever changing alchemy whose elemental chart is defined by a society through the building blocks of culture and shared values.

 In Colonial America, a prosperous person was a self reliant individual who had sufficient food, and shelter and land.  As America matured, property and possessions – acreage of arable farmland, livestock, silver and gold, possessions, power, and influence became the weights that tilted the scale of public opinion of a man’s value.  Somewhere along the way, our net worth became synonymous with our total worth.  If one achieves material success, society deifies them for their ability to create and harvest wealth.  For some, this reward of temporal immortality proves a golden calf trap leading to broken promises, lost dreams and shattered interpersonal relationships.  The insatiable pursuit of prosperity drives some people to compromise values and ideals.  The journey of life and the joy of finding one’s cadence and role in society can be preempted by the pressure to engage in reckless sprints and exhausting pushes toward a material mountain top that ultimately proves a false summit. 

 

As we navigate these troubled times, we are confronted with changes that threaten to rearrange our best laid plans in life – OUR best laid plans.  John Lennon said that “life is what happens, while you’re busy making plans” Our definitions of success, community and values are under siege from a perfect storm that is engulfing the entire global economy.  Some are better off than others, piloting more seaworthy craft.  Yet, each day brings a worrisome vigil as we peer through the rain streaked window at a never ending succession of white caps and rough seas that climb and heave around us.  A rogue wave sweeps across a neighbor’s schooner and it melts beneath the surface.  We mutter a silent prayer thanking God for his blessings. “There but for the grace of God go I”. Yet, I wonder if less hardship and pain is indeed grace or the left hand of God temporarily exempting me from the harder shaping that might mold me into the person I am ultimately intended to be.

 

My uncle is a liberal iconoclast and the diametric opposite to his older brother, my father, the entrenched conservative.  Eight years my Dad’s junior, my father’s brother attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when society was under siege by a generation questioning the course of our country.  He graduated and served for eight years in the US navy as an officer, seeing much of the world, and returned home with a devil’s advocate need to solve for the omnipresent inequities of the world.  He is a brilliant professional water color artist who lives deep in the mist shrouded, lichen covered woods of the Pacific Northwest.  During one of our rare dinners, we were freely skating over the thin ice of politics and religion.  Always the contrarian, he was questioning a slip of my tongue as I described a situation where I had been at grave financial risk and I had been “blessed” when I was spared a bad outcome.  “I suppose to follow your theology to its fullest extent would mean that anyone who does not have financial success is considered not to be blessed?

 

This is where I always get uncomfortable as I do not want to apologize for realizing some of the dividends of my life’s hard work nor am I prepared to voluntarily allow him to redistribute my life savings like a commissar in Zhivago’s Russia.  Yet, he is constantly leading somewhere – always coaxing me out of the shadows of self interest, down a difficult slope into a gentle valley where common humanity and empathy run like streams filled with nuggets of gold.  In this fertile plain, you get what you need, not necessarily what you want. He is always quick to assure me he is not admonishing me nor advocating I divest my holdings, donate them to a non profit so I can realize my true purpose by serving lepers in the gutters of India.  However, he is reminding me that my things are merely accessories to my life and that a prosperous life is a life whose balance sheet is measured in deeds and lives touched.

 

“Michael, I have travelled the world and I have seen levels of poverty that would undermine your faith in humanity.  I have seen communities where neighbors support one another and where no child will ever become orphaned.  I have lived in places where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day and cares for multiple generations of family members.  In these same societies whose life expectancies lag ours by decades, there are fewer incidents of suicide, use of prescription drugs for depression and a higher incidence of faithful religious conviction and tithing than in our most affluent communities.  What exactly is it that makes us believe we are blessed by our ‘quality of life?’ He paused.  He is not affiliated with any church but instead professes a belief in a universal higher power that runs like an aorta through the religions of the world.  “What if, as your King James Bible says, that it is harder for a camel to move through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.  (I hate it when he does this to me.  It ruins dessert)

 

But as usual, he gets me thinking.  Instead of agonizing over an end to prosperity as a material society might define it, why not be open to a new era of prosperity?  This prosperity will not be defined by a social hierarchy based on financial gain but instead on the deeds that further our aspiration that all that live in America might be free from fear and want.  This does not mean everyone should own a home but it means we should aspire that everyone might have some place to live.

 

 A new prosperity will be characterized by a realignment of values where as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “the content of one’s character” is celebrated over all other visceral measures.  A noble society is what the ancient Greeks described as one where “old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath”.  It is where people make provisions for the most frail and vulnerable among us.  It is where people accept responsibility and do not seek to blame someone else for their circumstances.  A new prosperity sweeps away business and political leaders who have been corrupted by power and their myopic pursuit of personal gain and supplants them with leaders who have the courage and restraint to achieve responsible success and who view every employee and their families as assets and investments.   In a great society, we take notice of and make provisions for older citizens whose fixed incomes have been savaged by the collapse of the financial markets and who are terrified over their futures.  We should be celebrating our teachers, peacemakers, civil servants and mentors that work together to prepare a next generation that must shoulder our mistakes and lead us toward sustainable solutions. 

 

We long for fragrant, easy nights and soft pastel days without want or fear.  A great society strives for these things for all its citizens.  It is a time of opportunity and transformation.  Sometimes the very outcome we feel we need is the thing that ultimately threatens to hold us back from a better possibility.  In the words of Tennyson,” Ring out the false pride in place and blood; the civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of odd disease; ring out the narrowing lust of gold; ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Now that’s what I call prosperity.

 

The Budget

The Budget

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship”– Benjamin Franklin

When last October’s Wall Street bombshell tore jagged lacerations in my net worth, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that the bleeding had not abated.  There were myriad fiscal punctures in my lifestyle leaving a trail that even a blind hunter could follow. My frugal spouse was pleased when I suddenly expressed interest in our finances.  It seemed I had finally awakened to smell the financial coffee or at least I had started to count the beans.

I freely admit to not grasping the concept of moderation. More is better and better still, is now.  I have never been a profligate spender but I have not balanced a checkbook or kept an ATM receipt in 15 years.  A budget was simply the absence of deficit spending and taking any surplus and burying it like a jar of pennies in the retirement yard.  My discretionary spending vices are confined to collecting antique lead soldiers and roaming the endless stalls of eBay while in a $ 4 triple latte blackout.  Like many Americans, I pay for convenience and for the ability not to wait in a line or on a line.  I am in fact, the ultimate target consumer for the retail industry.  When I need to update my wardrobe, I buy everything I need for the next 24 months in one store in less than 30 minutes.  The first time my wife went shopping with me she became physically ill from what looked to her like a feeding frenzy of a starved hog.

In these recent hard times, I have become disgusted by my lack of fiscal discipline. I find myself muttering the word,” simplify” as I notice for the first time the price tags on everything, It’s like a witch has put a curse on me: “ You will now clearly see the cost of everything!“  “ No, no, please! Anything but that!”

I daydream of living near Walden Pond in a ramshackle, drafty railroad hut penning manifestos against the materialism, corruption and greed in America. In saner moments, I realize that if I actually did go off by myself into the woods, I would probably have to fold my own laundry – a thought that terrifies me.

I dreamed the other night about our first house – a 1200 square foot cottage, three miles from the beach in Southern California.  Air conditioning was achieved by opening a window.  Heat was achieved by shutting the window.  There was no basement engine room filled with heating units and oil tanks that seem to be in perpetual need of a $ 700 refill.   I am not sure the close quarters of that Newport Beach hobbit hole could accommodate our family of five without a domestic dispute consigning us to the police blotter, but I do recall waking up with the nostalgic longing for that low mortgage payment, small garden and a downsized lifestyle.

I became determined to take action against the rising swarm of enervating expenses that swirled around my head like summer midges.  My first target was America Online. To embolden my efforts, I drank an entire pot of coffee and, with my legs twitching like a second grader in church, I grabbed the telephone.

A few days earlier, I realized I had been paying $25 for an AOL Premium Service that I could essentially get for free.  I was outraged that AOL would take advantage of my ignorance and lethargy.  I called the 800-number and immediately got “ Sam”, an outsourced Eastern European service technician, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, grinning through the phone like the Cheshire cat.  At one point in the call, I heard what sounded like automatic gunfire.  I asked Sam if he was in danger of being executed if he did not convince me to keep my premium plan.  Sam laughed and assured me that the staccato hammering was merely construction on his building.  When I explained my situation, Sam was very sympathetic and offered me the $11.99 fee instead of the $ 25.90 fee.  I assured him I just wanted free email.  Sam offered me the $ 9.99 package.  No, Sam, I am.  Green eggs and ham and free email, man.  But Sam was good.  In fact he was hungrier and more determined than this reformed consumer.  After twenty minutes of verbal rope a doping and more information about firewalls and technical support than my over cauliflowered ear could possibly handle, I relented to the $9.99 plan.  I needed to lie down.  Saving ten dollars a month was hard business.

I called the oil company ready to threaten cancellation unless they could offer me the Hugo Chavez super economy rates.  I did not have a back up plan, other than ordering twelve cords of wood to be delivered as soon as possible. The oil company agent was obviously an out of work securitization specialist who detailed a complex algorithm for locking in a rate that involved hedges against Russian wheat and Moroccan olives. The topic shifted uncomfortably to ways that I could cut my utilization costs.  He asked me highly invasive questions about my insulation and energy efficiency.  Was he implying that I was not green?  I have natural insulation but that is not the point.  “I want cheaper rates or else.”  “Or else what?” He asked.  “Or else, …I’ll hang up.”  Just about this time, I felt a 20 degree draft knifing through the living room – coming from the patio door that one of the kids had just left wide open when they got up to take the dog out.  I am quite certain if anyone were to drive by our house with an infrared camera, we would look like Chernobyl as the fuel rods were melting.  Perhaps the price of the oil was not the entire problem.

I graduated to cable, broadband and phone. Between being charged for an Optimum Online voice mail box that is jammed with irretrievable messages dating back to ancient Rome – “ Hail, this is Caesar, please ask Senator Pretorius to send more men and supplies.  I have crossed the Rubicon. (Silence) I hope I am dialing the right numerals” – and 900 activated channels including an entire network dedicated to Latvian folk dancing, I am paying more for cable than I am contributing to my 401k.  However, weaning a couch potato from cable is slow and must be achieved similar to dosage reduction from steroids.  Just moving from hi-definition to non-HDTV makes a person feel as if they have glaucoma.  On second thought, let’s hold off on the cable.

I had my list of other remedies that would help suture my thousand cuts – teenaged I pod charges, gasoline, electricity, vacation expenses, dry cleaning and food.  My scorched earth austerity efforts went on all morning and yielded over $ 300 a month savings.  It was not exactly the greatest return on investment but it felt good.  It was the same feeling you get after cleaning the basement or garage.  Life seemed a little more in equilibrium.

My son walked in with tangled morning hair and stretched his arms, “ Dad, what have you been doing in here?”  I explained my jihad on non-essential spending.  He listened with that bored vacuous expression of a person who is just waiting for an opening to ask for something.  “Dad, all the guys are doing this lacrosse thing and I was hoping I could do it to.”

“ How much does it cost, buddy?”

“I think Teddy and Harry said like $300…”

I laughed out loud.

 

 

The Harvest List

The Harvest List

 

THESE are the times that try men’s souls…. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  Thomas Paine, The Crisis

 

My good friend was recently thrown into the abyss of unemployment, a casualty of the catastrophic climate changes that have engulfed the financial services community.  He was sharing with me his journey to find employment and how he found himself interviewing at a surviving bank for a position that he had held years earlier in his career.  “I was interviewing with a kid ten years younger than me. When it was over, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to shake his hand or slap him”.  We talked for a long time.  It seemed our summer fields were infinitely more vulnerable to the vagaries of life’s winter storms. I knew that in the next few years, we would see more turbulence, uncertainty and financial insecurity sweep across our land.  The barometer was dropping, twilight had arrived and all we could do was watch as the storm rolled towards us.

 

For many, the current financial crisis is a catastrophic storm wreaking havoc after years of Indian summer – – a placid stretch of warm days and cool nights propped up by a high pressure system of easy credit and leverage.  During periods of fair weather, even the most veteran of farmers can gain a false sense of security and begin to believe in their own power to prevail over the forces of nature. Affluence is a warm wind that lulls us with a sense of independence and a belief that we have gained immunity from misfortune. In periods of abundance we attach enormous value to our “things” and at some level, to ourselves.  When the unexpected occurs, our self-esteem, now lashed to the limbs and stalks of our personal possessions, sometimes breaks at the very time we need courage and fortitude. Fear becomes a tornado touching down indiscriminately, conjured in the depths of our imagination, blocking out all light.  We can give up, or we can carefully replant, giving thanks for the real wealth we have harvested in our lives. 

 

Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” Kahil Gibran

 

In the days of agrarian America, Fall was a time of harvest – – reaping the benefits of good weather and their own hard work of ploughing, planting, gathering, mending and managing.  The harvest was a time to take an inventory of what one had accumulated for his/her efforts and to give thanks. In a period before science and technology had conspired to de-mythologize life and the cosmos, uncertainty was a silent stalker, following each person just out of the corner of their eye. Disease, famine, wars, and economic downturn could sweep unannounced into lives leaving wreckage and devastation in their wake.  People had to cope with tragic events as a condition of human existence.  It was rare to find the man who did not understand his fragile contract with the fates.

 

Society was more religious.  People understood out of necessity that a community bonded by common interest was significantly less vulnerable than a fragile archipelago of self absorbed islands.  Churches and societies became critical affinity groups for people who sought the companionship and support of a larger foundation of shared values.  These groups were defined by principles that advocated service as a framework for survival – – serving each other and in doing so, ensuring that the most at risk did not suffer. In the Great Depression, families were keenly aware of one another circumstances, not out of the human frailty of being preoccupied with another’s misfortune but out of the understanding that “no man is an island” and any family’s failure diminished another.  A mother might gently suggest to her child to invite a particular friend over for dinner, knowing that that child’s family was struggling and that one less mouth to feed might provide some modicum of relief to a family navigating the white water of misfortune.  At dinner, grace was shared to remind everyone of the essential blessings of life, health and community.

 

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Cicero

 

Each of us possesses a harvest list.  It’s assets might include the laughter of a child who sees the world as a magical place of endless possibilities.  It’s the warm fire of humanity kindled by a thousand tiny sparks of those who serve others.  It’s a house jammed with friends and family. It’s having somewhere to go and someone to see.  It’s not being alone.  It is knowing someone will always be there for you.  It’s the smell of autumn smoke hanging in the early morning air.  It is seeing someone we love achieve something important.  It is watching a close friend beat an illness.  It is holding hands and waiting for the darkest hours to pass to witness yet another glorious dawn.  It’s having the courage to ask for help and having the magnanimity to offer it.  It is the bounty of a community that cares about one another.  It is generosity.  It is people who serve as the mortar that connects the bricks of our daily lives.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that each person has a choice of either lighting a candle or cursing the dark.  The sand foundations that we all periodically build our lives on eventually destabilize.  The rocks that form the strongest foundations in our lives rest near us.  They elevate us so that we might rise above the clouds of fear and see our possibilities and breathe the deep fresh air of hope.  Those rocks are our family, our church, friends, neighbors and even those whom we have never met but through the act of helping them, they actually enrich us.

 

Life will carry on.  The autumn leaves still play chase across muddy ground, restless after falling from treetops colored from a miraculous divine palette.  The low rock walls predictably curl and duck along narrow roads as dark ponds slowly prepare to for winter.  It’s the perfect time of year to remember that everything happens for a reason and that there is a plan for each of us.  The darkest moments precede the most magnificent personal awakenings.  Fear has no role in the passion play of life.  It disables us and distracts us from realizing our potential.  It causes us to ignore the bounty we have been given.  In this time of loss, change and challenge, our harvest list remains rich. We just need to be sure to take the time to recognize everything that we possess – – physically, intellectually and spiritually.  It’s all there, right underneath our noses, between the lines – – our priceless intangibles that rest on the other side of our temporal ledger. 

Hard Times

(The Depression) The Single Men's Unemployed A...
Image via Wikipedia

Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.

A Pirate King

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depict...
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-Gener...
Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-General C. H. Workman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!

The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert & Sullivan

 

After 25 years of laboring on the great, sweaty iron dreadnoughts of insurance and healthcare, I recently decided to jump ship.  My plan was several months in the making and every step had to be meticulously detailed.  Yet, even with maps, charts, compass and provisions, it would require a leap of faith to relinquish my role as first mate in a for profit navy to become an adventurer.  Like most fair weather sailors, I was unnerved by sailing solo and tended to lose my emotional nerve when the economic seas got too rough or my ship drifted too far from the shore.  Yet, the lure of new ports of call and the thrill of no longer being under the yoke of a distant monarchy compelled me to resign my station.  I would leave my decks in good order to embark on a summer as a ronin privateer.  For three months, I would be beholding to no master.  I would wait until the Fall when the days shortened and the winds shifted to seek out a new fleet.

 

I made a log of everything I wanted to accomplish in ninety days.  Upon further review, I realized I was being a bit delusional in thinking that in a mere three months I could explore the vast open ocean of my life’s unfulfilled ambitions.   My first mate/chief petty officer gently suggested a course correction.  It was clear she did not want me rooting around the galley every day disrupting the routines of the other sailors.  She had enlisted with me for breakfast and dinner, not for lunch.  “Why don’t you just spend the time fishing, hiking, writing, golfing and spending time with the troops.” She was on to something.  Why could I not reinvent myself from ship’s captain to pirate king.

 

“NOW his future lay plain before him, and glowing with unimaginable splendor. …How gloriously he would go plowing the dancing seas, in his long, low, black-hulled racer, the Spirit of the Storm, with his grisly flag flying at the fore! And at the zenith of his fame, how he would suddenly appear at the old village and stalk into church, brown and weather-beaten, in his black velvet doublet and trunks, his great jack-boots, his crimson sash, his belt bristling with horse-pistols, his crime-rusted at his side, his slouch hat with waving plumes, his black flag unfurled, with the skull and crossbones on it, and hear with swelling ecstasy the whisperings, “It’s Tom Sawyer the Pirate!—the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main!” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

 

My first official week of being a pirate king was a blend of seasickness and excitement.  I was still gaining my sea legs learning the first mate’s regimen of feeding the crew, cleaning the main sails and delighting in the endless archipelago of activities that a pirate king could explore. I watched as the shoreline disappeared and was amazed at how quickly the breach that I had left in my old ship’s lines had closed.  I felt guilty for leaving my station but knew this was a rare opportunity to be in the company of adventurers.  It was summer with long lingering twilights and warm sunny days.  I had to adjust my senses from constant battle and hand to hand fighting to once again being in touch with the subtle indulgences of life – the distant slap of a fish as it rose in the afternoon shallows, the youthful ambition to explore a deserted island or the patience to rest quietly in a hammock buffeted by an early morning breeze.  My time was limited.  I knew September was out there, hunting me like an English Man of War.  My first mate wisely suggested that I needed a star to steer by.  She suggested a special “ Pirate King and Me“ trip that might forge a lifetime memory and conveniently get me out of the way.

 

 

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late,  
Jimmy Buffet, A Pirate Looks at Forty

 

My youngest son was the first beneficiary of Operation Pirate King.  I suggested that we drive up to the White Mountains in Northern New Hampshire to attempt to climb Mt. Washington.  Over the course of four days, we would become Long John Silver and Captain Kidd, modern day buccaneers – – pillaging pop tarts, tossing back pints of Sprite grog, raiding room service, playing poker, and recklessly racing past our bedtime like hobos easily eluding a one legged rail yard policeman.  The spontaneity of the adventure took us both by surprise as we suddenly graduated from maps and graphs to sailing up Highway 93 past signs alerting us to watch for moose, bear and deer.  The Presidential Range loomed above us atop a great sea of pine trees.  We anchored in the harbor of the Mountain View Grand, a 19th century hotel gilded with a rich history of generational reunions, presidential visits and simpler times.  On our first full day, we attacked the “Tuck” trail, a 2200 foot vertical ascent to Tuckerman’s ravine, the most vertical route up Mt Washington. At the base camp, a 700 foot headwall climbed above the timber line to a serpentine spine of rock trail that gained another 1000 feet to the summit. To these two free-booting pirates, the gray gathering rain clouds and the fact that we had consumed our last Pop Tart an hour earlier proved too daunting.  The tallest peak in New England would not hoist our flag today but we would be return to take the granite citadel.

 

Over the next three days, we competed as only plunderers can, fighting for bragging rights in fishing, swimming, billiards, gin rummy, poker, golf, and ping pong.  The hotel staff negotiated a détente with us, giving us free reign in the restaurant and assigning us stature by allowing us the same table each evening where we inventoried our spoils and mapped out our plans to loot the following day for all that it was worth.  Our expedition was quickly coming to an end. While bike riding on a trail in Franconia Notch State Park, we saw a large black dog running toward us, presumably off leash with no owner in sight.  My fellow buccaneer excitedly turned to me, “Dad, I think that is a bear”.  Lacking a spyglass and unencumbered by our matriarchal risk manager, we inched closer, watching the bear cub as he ambled towards us and then disappeared into the wild north woods.  It was a classic moment — wild kindred spirits coursing past one another in a great ocean of forest and woods, hurdling toward some unknown fate. That last evening, we sat in the dark talking, in glorious violation of our bedtime curfew sharing tales of treasure, murder and betrayal.  He asked me to once again tell him the story of black hearted pirates.  When we got to the part about the blood thirsty Blackbeard, my son became very still.  I presumed that he was contemplating a misshapen, seven foot, hulking sociopath who robbed, pillaged and killed his confederates for the slightest infraction.  As with all scary summertime stories, the conclusion brought a long pregnant pause and the timeless question:

 

 

“Dad, where did Blackbeard live?”

 

 

“I think……right….. around……. HERE!”

 

 

“Sure” he laughed with the bravado of the unconvinced.  He laid motionless, a still, frozen shadow on an adjacent bunk.

 

 

“Don’t worry pal.  The pirate king won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

 

 

He relaxed. “ ‘Night dad.  I had a fun day”…As my sailor slipped off into the land of nigh, I smiled.  It was a wonderful thing to be a pirate king….

 

Arson and Old Laces

www.Army.mil
Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Arson and Old Laces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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