Jurassic Mom

Mother helping her young son to urinate.
Image via Wikipedia

All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable. Fran Lebowitz

“He is in a phase”, she signed absent mindedly as she mixed ground beef, eggs and spinach into an any time of the day “feed a family” concoction she called “Joe’s Special”.  The phase was a term my mother used as an intellectual shield – an emotional whistling in the dark that reassured her and others that the highly anti-social behavior being exhibited by one of her sons was in fact, temporary.   “Phase, my ass. “ My father would hiss.  “I’ll phase him.” My father would always threaten to retaliate using whatever last word had rubbed him in the wrong fashion. If a child were to curse his brother calling him a “dwebe”, my father would snarl that if we did not stop fighting he would “dwebe” us.  He was, in fact, a paper tiger and his comments often actually made no sense.  His admonishment would only serve to confuse us as he mixed misunderstood teen epithets into a knee-jerk Molotov cocktail of threats.  My mother would sigh – trapped in this endless rut of testosterone and male thoughtlessness.  Life was not as she had expected.  She had come to understand that little boys really were made from snails and puppy-dog tails. 

She longed for a daughter but in a time before selective reduction and high-tech pregnancies, the risk of having a fifth boy was greater than her desire to enter a room perfumed with pigtails and Barbie dolls.  She instead dwelt in a land of dirty underwear, GI Joes, wet beds and savage tribal fighting.  Barely thirty with four boys was tantamount to a life of hard labor.  It was a physical world of daredevils whose sense of adventure was only eclipsed by a total disregard for personal safety.  Life was a succession of sudden earth quakes and flash floods that ripped across her domestic suburban life and hardened her into a clever cartographer who would come to master the bizarre topography of the adolescent mind. 

It was not atypical to have a child in crisis – a tiny mind struggling to adapt to the greater oceans of maturity.  On this particular day, my older brother was in the throes of some undiagnosed adolescent angst which manifested itself in a constant need to urinate. He could not actually pee with any person watching or standing within a twenty-foot radius.  This created a range of insurmountable issues for a family that lived in a four bedroom, two-bath home where the urinal was shared by four children.  While we gathered outside the locked bathroom door jumping with a full-bladdered frenetic wiggle, my brother would stand for minutes, a frozen Flomax poster child three decades before his time.  As we pounded on the door, he would swear at us and threaten to relieve himself on us.  We quickly realized his condition made this threat virtually impossible.

We tormented him mercilessly with nicknames like “pee-wee” and “peanut bladder”. We took advantage of any opportunity to distract him during a potty run. We were immediately chastised by my mother and informed that his condition was brought on by nerves.  It would only be a modest inconvenience.  This proved highly inaccurate for over the course of one weekend we waited a half hour at a restaurant, twenty minutes at a movie theatre and a grand 45 minutes outside of a gas station rest room while he concentrated – clearing his mind of any thought other than an empty night sky  and a great porcelain moon.  The slightest distraction was a setback – a knock on the door, a shout, a honking horn or the flush of a nearby urinal would return him to lock-down mode.  A week later, the doctor found nothing physical wrong with him and suggested that perhaps the frenetic rush of our testosterone filled home was overwhelming his nervous system.   “He’ll grow out of it”, the pediatrician reassured her. 

My mother improvised purchasing a knit ski cap and encouraged him to pull it down over his eyes each time he used the toilet.  “Imagine you are alone in the desert.  It’s night. No one can see you.”  He immediately questioned her. 

“What if there is a scorpion or a sidewinder?” Nearby, my father narrowed his eyes like a reptile as he peered above his Wall Street Journal.

“Listen, you numskull. There are no god damn reptiles or scorpions in Mom’s desert. “ 

My brother had a very high IQ and was not buying it.  “Which desert?  The Mojave?  The Sahara? There are Gila monsters, coral snakes…”

 “Enough! Why can’t he be on the moon for God’s sake?”

 My savant sibling rolled his eyes at my father’s obvious ignorance and asserted very empirically,” There is no gravity or oxygen in space.  It is 100 degrees below zero and my pee would freeze.”

 My father uttered a guttural growl and shifted from the room.  In time, my mother and brother agreed on a biofeedback loop that relaxed his bladder and allowed him to return to the land of the continent.  Her pragmatism was legendary with boys.  Yet, she longed for a girl to share secrets and dabs of perfume.  The secret society of boys was a dirty sock drawer of half-thoughts and grunts.  Yet, she would be denied entry to the world of girls and get drawn into a deeper season of young men.  She developed a keen antenna as sensitive as any mother in the animal kingdom.  She would innovate, investigate, interrogate and if necessary, incarcerate. She had to make adjustments for every conceivable circumstance.  “Life is what happens while your busy making plans.” She would quote John Lennon. When the unexpected came scratching at our door, she would accept life’s unannounced intrusions with a resigned sardonic greeting from Steinbeck, “Ah yes, the best laid plans of mice and men ….”

 Her life as a mother of young men was an anthem to family anthropology, tolerance and comical dysfunction.  A mother first learns acceptance and then comes to understand that it is perfectly normal not to be normal. It is the human condition to err and it is a mother’s job to ameliorate the suffering that accompanies accidents, mishaps and comical collisions. Now in her twilight years, she rests in a chair and remembers fondly the comical journey of her boys.

 She loves to retell the story of a certain January Saturday night. I still wince in pain at the stinging memory. She was readying for a rare evening out – a chance to disappear into the lace and tinkling cocktail glasses of an adult dinner party.  The teenaged baby sitter has just arrived.  My mother’s perfume permeated the upstairs hallway as she prepared for a long-awaited evening away from her feral boys. Her low-cut evening gown and pearl necklace were accentuated by crimson lip stick so red that it could knock a man into Sunday. 

 In the chaos of the adults changing to go out and the babysitter’s arrival, my brother and I shut our bedroom door, turned down the lights and began to play with his new Christmas present, a desk lamp with a high-powered light bulb.  We had discovered that if one turned the lamp upside down, it would project images on to the ceiling of the darkened room.  We laughed hysterically at the silhouettes of our hands as they produced dogs, rabbits and eventually more bizarre and inappropriate shadows.  This led to my brother putting his finger beside his shorts and making an even more obscene gesture.  More hysterical laughter followed. Another brother joined the exhibition.

 It was at this point, as is so often the case that a devil lighted on my brother’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we projected our private parts on to the ceiling?”  At 5 years old, I quickly agreed.  After all, we were boys and boys did gross things for a cheap laugh. Soon something that resembled the Hindenburg was floating across the white sky. The gigantic shadow was met with howls of laughter.  We quickly discerned that the closer the light was to the object being projected, the more pronounced the projection.  No one seemed too concerned that the bulb of the desk lamp was now heated to over 500 degrees.  As I volunteered to take another turn, my brother got a mischievous look in his eye.  To this day, he swears he did not intend to burn my “twig and berries” with the lamp. 

 My unearthly howl of pain seemed to rise out of the depths of Hades.  It was at this precise moment that my mother realized that a life with four boys would be a perpetual blind-folded rollercoaster ride.  If she could not have a little girl, perhaps, the best she could do was to make sure that the “little girl” inside of her survived this deviant siege from her feckless pirate progeny.

 Moments later, I ran out of the bedroom and down the stairs naked – shrieking that my franks and beans were on fire. The baby sitter was visibly unnerved by my nudity and hysteria. She was now having second thoughts about her evening assignment.  My father sensed this and immediately moved to reassure her as my mother tried to corral me as I contorted in naked pain. I distinctly recall her laughter and tears as she developed an ice pack fashioned out of my father’s underwear and a Saran Wrap. She smiled surveying the boy who literally and figuratively had been burned for bearing it all.

There would be decades of monumental blunders,  incidents and a lifetime full of pea-brained male mistakes.  Yet the girl became the woman, the nurse, the confessor, the educator, the ombudsman, the partner and the warden.  She grew up but never stopped softening our world, leaving in her wake a scent of love and understanding.  If you ask her today if she regrets not having a girl, she laughs. “Oh, I don’t think a girl would have survived in this prehistoric clan. There was only room for one girl and God clearly wanted that person –to be me.”

Watching for Falling Rock

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, USA
Image via Wikipedia

Watching for Falling Rock

When I was eight years old, my grandfather moved from Southern California to Sedona, Arizona.  My dad did not completely understand his father’s decision to exile himself from civilization and his immediate family. The move was cause for consternation and subtle tension.

Yet, my grandfather had wanted a new start.  Suffering from chronic arthritis and the emptiness of having lost his wife of 30 years to breast cancer, he had remarried to a woman that neither son really accepted as their true mother.  With a private resolve, he longed to renew his life among the great red rock mesas and cliffs of the mythic West.  He did not view this retreat from humanity or family as a resignation from life but in fact, a beginning born out of the ashes of tragedy. My grandfather’s renaissance rose like the phoenix and over the next fifteen years, he transformed into a quirky artist, high desert outdoorsman and amateur Native American historian.

His letters were rich narratives describing the desert as a vast and ever changing ocean of life. He came to understand the hidden power and the healing presence of the natural wonders of the world. He was reborn at the sight of the Grand Canyon and cured of his gray flannel color blindness after gazing across the Painted Desert.  He marveled at the swirling, polished ravines of Canyon De Chelly. He often wrote to us of the ancients that had lived in these sacred places — the Navajo and Hopi who had walked as one with the land prospering in cliff dwellings under great overhangs of red rock and limestone.

We would travel over hundreds of miles of broken, lonely space to visit him in a mobile home outpost whose floor was a carpet of rocks, red soil and saguaro cactus reaching up to a great blue house of sky. We preferred taking the overnight Southern Chief Amtrak that followed intermittent stretches of Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago.  My grandfather would navigate his car up the serpentine roads of magnificent Oak Creek canyon to pick us up in Flagstaff on the 7AM train.  It was our first taste of freedom and he would begin to feed our restless imaginations from the moment we stepped on to the cool dry morning air.  He would faithfully retrace his route down the canyon’s nauseating switchbacks descending into warmer air and the backwater pueblo that rested like a homestead in some John Ford movie.

During our visits, he would take us hiking and point out the more hidden aspects of the desert and the natural world that seemed so foreign to suburban children.  At night, he would tell stories of the West and always regale us with the timeless classic of an Indian brave named Falling Rock who had disappeared trying to warn his people against the gathering threat of soldiers and the encroaching tide of pioneers.  The story always concluded with Rising Star, the Navajo chief and father of Falling Rock, consenting to the Army to peacefully lead his people to a life on the reservation in exchange for help finding his lost beloved son.  “That is why you will always see signs that say, ‘ Watch for Falling Rock’, he would conclude – allowing the weight of the night and the unsolved mystery of a boy swallowed up by history to settle on our narrow shoulders.

Over the years, the LA train deposited fewer boys on that summer green platform.  Finally, there came a day when no boy wanted to spend a “boring” week in the hot desert with an old man and his dog.  When he died, it seemed like some ancient tie had been severed.

As the years carved lines onto our faces, my three brothers and I went the way of men and built our own lives, allowing obligations and temporal commitments to eclipse the sage scented memories of four squinting, crew-cut boys standing next to a man with a hiking stick and a white and brown dog.

My brothers and I intuitively understand that we are bonded by a thousand invisible sinews forged during those summers of diving into an ice cold canyon creek, dodging cholla and cactus across a blazing hot broken field of rocks looking for arrowheads or sitting silent bathed in the glow of a twilight fire. Those strands stretch across a thousand miles of ribboned interstate and time. We remain mirrors of one another but we are each painted with a slightly different mix of colors from a palette of sunshine yellow 60’s, brown and orange shag 70’s, chrome and silver 80’s and black and blue 90’s.

We are a genetic collision of German resoluteness, Irish mischievousness, English hooliganism and French elan. We were pounded in the same blacksmith’s forge, alloys created out of a firebrand conservative and a new age free spirit. Over time, the boys that had once scoured the mountainsides for Falling Rock and marveled at the mysteries of great lightening storms and ancient tribes – lost their sense of wonder. As Kurt Vonnegut once lamented,” We do, diddly do, what we must, middly must, until we bust, bodily bust.”

We now only see one another when life crushes one of us with an unforeseen landslide. We gather at odd, unpredictable times, rarely achieving a quorum for a dinner or lunch –separated by miles and our own dreams. To find ourselves together unobscured by the shadow of a funeral, crisis or life milestone is a rare and fragrant moment as fleeting as a night blooming cirrus.

Observing the silent march of our independent lives, I was determined to bring us together for the simple purpose of celebrating our connection to one another.  The storms of the previous two years had not left us untouched and had formed new fissures of uncertainty across our paths.  Fear is a funny thing.  It seems when you need people the most, you often choose to isolate yourself – choosing to follow your own best thinking which often excludes those that know you best. While your partner or spouse may be there for you, no one knows you like your brother.

I became obsessed with getting my brothers together.  What better place for us to gather than among the red rocks of Sedona?  Perhaps this special place that was so symbolic of our childhood and spiritual rebirth could reconnect us to the powerful mythology of our past.  It had been over 30 years since we had communed in that sleepy community of hippies, artists and restless souls in search of some great intangible.

I sent out an earnest invitation reminding each brother that hospital beds and church pews were not appropriate locales for reunions. I challenged everyone to retrace one last time those same ribbons of highway to the crimson rock sanctuary of our grandfather. I was nervous that the memories of those few summers had been swept by life’s flash floods leaving only rock strewn gulches of empty space in their wake.  Gratefully, everyone accepted.

As the long gray line of boys arrived, I was pleased to find us falling comfortably into old stories, gently dredging the sediment of our past and current lives. Our birth order remained forever established but had clearly molded from a line to a circle. With the addition of our own children and partners, the group had swelled to thirteen.  Those outside the inner sanctum of boys could only watch in amusement as our sarcasm, hyperbole and humor rekindled a thousand stories. To their chagrin, neither my father nor our mother were able to attend to defend themselves from our relentless revisionist barrage of warm hearted lampoons.

Our time together dissolved too quickly under warm, wind swept days and cool mountain evenings.  On the last night, a sunset burned tangerine pink illuminating the great citadels of iron and limestone to the east. We paused and said nothing as if we all understood how brief our time together would be. We were ten years old again – laughing and recklessly hurtling through life like dust devils whipped up by a sudden burst of canyon wind.  The energy from forty summers past returned to radiate from somewhere among those great iron, lime and sandstone monuments.

On my final day, I looked back one last time across the great canyon lands and was warmed by a new memory and by the thought of our own shadows that would now forever dance among the mysterious Kachina who dart unseen across this mythic landscape. I turned, not wanting to say goodbye, rolling on to stretch of canyon highway that would lift me over a mountain pass and gently descend into suburban Phoenix.  As we narrowed between two monoliths called Cathedral and Bell Rock, I noticed a warning sign, “Watch for Falling Rock.”

At that same moment, perhaps on a dusty blood red road, the silhouette of an old man and dog can almost be seen disappearing into the adjacent National forest.  He comes here every day to walk his dog at twilight – and on this night, he is pleased because his grandsons have returned one last time to honor him – – simply by the act of never forgetting.

Meet The Parents

Meet The Parents

Home is where you can say anything you like cause nobody listens to you anyway. ~Author Unknown

Thanksgiving is the front end of a month long holiday banquet of expectations. When children are young, we work to create traditions that will serve as important family touchstones. As children get older, Thanksgiving is a time of transition with sentimental hope yielding to the inevitable realities of change. Often a mother’s only desire is for one more year as a family unit. That dreaded Thanksgiving finally arrives on a cold wind where someone is absent – lost to new in-laws or competing priorities.

For the mother of four boys, the holidays were a losing battle fought with an unseen enemy – – the mother of the new “serious” girlfriend. My mom had always accepted us as wayward Tomcats yet we always seemed to find our way back home slipping in through the backdoor with massive appetites, dirty laundry and an unspoken need to be wrapped in holiday affection.

The girls that seemed to come and go like purple jacaranda blossoms, suddenly made repeat appearances. Her boys were transforming under the relentless company of these “serious “ girlfriends – dressing well, arriving on time and bathing regularly. She was actual excited to be rescued from this male planet so completely devoid of estrogen. Yet, the changes left her melancholy. Somewhere along the way, the holidays had changed. She was now slowly opening her family to new people, new traditions and at times, coming up second as the place to be.

It had been this way for a while with her teens. Those that were still living at home could not wait to move out. They disappeared like spooks into the night but they always appeared the next morning. One morning a bed was empty – then, another. With three empty chairs this Thanksgiving, there would be too much food and too many memories.

She grudgingly accepted that she must now share her sons with the “competition”. Love and the approval of potential future in-laws were too powerful a force to overcome. She loathed the emasculated October phone call that tiptoed toward the inevitable excuse – – a stuttering son dropping that he would not be coming home this year but instead be spending it with Carole in Princeton or Brooke in Colorado.

My father was delighted with the absence of competition for food, the family room TV or shower hot water. Like a prisoner marking hard time, he had been awaiting liberation for years. There were no more missing shirts, fugitive pairs of underwear or car left with a mere 1/12 of a tank of gas. The idea of a full turkey dinner with only three mouths to feed (my younger brother was still at home but he had perfected the art of total invisibility) was as appetizing as pecan pie. On the other hand, the idea of his castle being filled with young women – – suppressing his ability to swear, forcing him to go last through the food line and dress up for dinner, was annoying to him. He worked hard and finally the holidays meant hardly working. As he hugged my mother and reassured her that it would be a “ just like old times ”, she rolled her eyes longing for the chaos of a full house.

While the family matriarch was navigating the martyred stages of an empty nester, my brothers and I were being blown to the four corners of the state to “meet the parents.” I had heard from my brothers of strange customs and odd in-laws. These stories were usually pried from them over threat of death as they were now walking on the slippery slope toward permanent domestication. My future spouse was born in Britain to a highly intelligent, engaged Scot/Brit mother and a kind, cerebral English father. Being a provincial West Coast American, I assumed a trip to their home would be the equivalent of visiting one’s grandmother – a more mature but familiar culture where colorful people spoke like Charles Dickens characters and the holidays were one grand protracted celebration of life. Being a Brit, my future spouse gave me no advance cultural training other than her penchant to drink copious cups of tea and to spread butter on top of butter.

The introductions were difficult as I realized that she had not informed them that her new “friend” was indeed a serious replacement for an old boyfriend with whom her parents had been quite fond. This disappointment was poorly disguised by my future mother-in-law but completely lost on her dad. The small talk was painful with minutes like dog years. The matriarch was not happy with this changeling boyfriend. Meanwhile, her father was still trying to understand why someone my size had never played rugby.

A phone call from her sister thankfully broke the social stalemate.

As we walked to the garden, I conceded that her parents despised me. “I might as well be French.” I shared with desperation. She looked surprised. “ Oh, no. They really like you.”

I tried to help in the kitchen but was ushered out to the foyer where an ancient television sat silent and neglected. “What games are on?” I yelled across an open family room. “Oh, we don’t watch much television except PBS – you know “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Avengers” and “Rumpole of the Bailey” – – we do like the Dallas Cowboys !”. At the mention of the Cowboys I perked up. There was hope.

An ancient animal resembling a flea market mink suddenly leapt up onto the sofa and proceeded to wrap her tail around my head. The rhythmic purring could not perfume the smell. It was the odor of recently deceased road-kill. Yet, this escapee from the “Pet Sematary” was quite alive. Within moments, I descended into a wheezing fit of sneezes as the zombie cat followed me and would jump into my lap whenever I would sit. I loathed cats but I did not want to reveal this ugly parochial side of my personality. “ Oh, looook. Molly likes you.” my girlfriend smiled as she happily set the dinner table and winked.

An appetizer of cheese and crackers appeared with what looked like a dark dollop of animal feces and cloudy tangerine orange jam with paprika adorning the middle of the tray. I was starving – but the dark, chunky mass had already started to spread and had touched several of the cheese wedges and crackers. My expression betrayed my ignorance. “It’s Branston Pickle and Major Grey’s chutney’” she said urging me to the inedible offering. “ We put it on everything. It’s great. Here taste this.” She shoved the wheat biscuit with dark chunky jelly and cheddar cheese into my mouth before I could create an excuse. I gagged.

It was like this all afternoon. Since Thanksgiving is hardly a British tradition – the holiday gave them the opportunity to combine the best parts of old and new culinary traditions. I was confronted with my lifetime nemesis – brussel sprouts – as well as a bizarre concoction of white onions, milk, flour and garlic known as “white sauce.” In this sea of alien side dishes, the traditional entrees appeared – all originally accentuated with the spices of a foreign cook’s cultured hand. All eyes were on me as I devoured everything put in front of me.

The salad presented innocently enough with onions, tomato and sliced cucumber. However, I soon bit into a massive clove of garlic. I hesitated, smiling with my mouth closed. No one noticed my discomfort as I slowly chewed. I assumed this “Eating Of The Giant Raw Garlic Clove” was a Dunn family tradition. I was honored and ill. My eyes were beginning to water and my throat began to burn. I tried to speak for a moment but was unable to utter a sound. Chasing the clove with tons of water, I was relieved temporarily– only to turn a salad leaf and find another even more monstrous clove lurking below.

I closed my eyes and bit into it. Tears flowing down my face.

“ Oh, my,” my future mother in law blurted. “ I am so embarrassed. I usually rub the bowl with cloves of garlic before putting in the salad but I thought I had removed them. You poor boy, don’t have to eat those…”

Gratefully, I put the massive white herb down and became the object of modest admiration for taking on the monster garlic. Even my future brother in law, the tough outdoorsman, was impressed. Later that evening, as I was helping clean the dishes, my future mother in law was more relaxed and it was clear that we had crossed the Rubicon together.

As I related the story later that evening to my parents – wishing them Happy Thanksgiving, my mom laughed a deep chuckle and there was a small pause on the phone.

“You’re still coming for Christmas Eve right? “

“Yes, mom and I am bringing Caroline if that is ok.”

“Oh, yes. We’d love it! Won’t we Miles?”

I could not hear my father’s response but I could just see him wincing and thinking. “Damn, there go my leftovers.”

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Oh Tannenbomb

A Christmas tree inside a home.
Image via Wikipedia

Oh Tannenbomb

Before the ice is in the pools
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

— Emily Dickinson

The holiday season is a time of grand irony. It is a wassail of potent ingredients — cinnamon tradition, candy-stripe anticipation, clove-scented memories, orange-peel nostalgia and egg-yolk dysfunction. The mélange simmers over the course of December, building into a highly combustible brew. Add in a few relatives, alcohol and close quarters and you are in for a Christmas full of secular surprises.

Our Titanic holiday season was officially christened with the thump of an ancient train set that would be heaved onto our playroom floor after being wrested from the spiders and dust mites that reigned supreme in our basement. It was followed by a six-foot plastic Santa, illuminated with a powerful 200-watt bulb, placed precipitously on the seldom-used balcony outside my parents’ upstairs window. To those passing by in motor vehicles at night, it appeared we were being overrun by extraterrestrials. “Good God, Norma, there’s an alien climbing in the window of that house!”

Christmas lights followed, faithfully tracing the eaves of our red-tiled Mediterranean home. Each light was nailed with a sharp swear word as my father blasphemed his way through the decoration process. The gods despised his profane embrace of the Christmas season and would torment him with strands of colorful light bulbs that would never fully illuminate. As a conservative, he considered these electrical outages a challenge to his American ingenuity and resolve. These lights were like small banana republics: If one light fell into communistic darkness, a domino effect of failures would surely follow, resulting in an entire house, perhaps even a neighborhood, yielding to yuletide ignominy. A house with broken bulbs said much about a man and his inability to provide for his family. His battles with extension cords, burned-out fuses and blacked-out gaps of lights were the stuff of legends and were always punctuated by unholy utterances.

“The man that lives in daddy’s mouth is saying bad words again,” reported my younger brother to my mother. He adored my father too much to accept the fact that dad had probably once won a gold medal at a sailor-cursing convention. When the defective bulbs were finally bested, the colored lights had no logical sequence and ran on in analog confusion — two reds, a blue, two greens followed by a white, and then two more reds. Across the Mason-Dixon financial dividing line known as Huntington Drive, St Albin’s Road homeowners would skillfully string alternating red and green lights across roofs and around each dormer window. Their 100 foot pine trees were brilliantly lit with a palette of perfectly numbered lights that flickered like a thousand roman candles, while our roofline and single hibiscus plant looked as if we were the home office for the Center for the Color Blind.

The advent calendar soon arrived as an important calculator as we counted down to Christmas Eve. This magical talisman with its fragile pre-cut “doors” elicited irresistible curiosity from each child, especially after my older brother told me that the Catholics used these calendars to pass messages to one another. It could very well contain the secrets of Fatima. By Dec. 3, every window had been vandalized by children willing to risk eternal damnation for the opportunity to decipher the odd illustrations that presumably had been sanctioned by the Vatican. Not far behind would be the old Gumps department store box filled with chipped and scuffed Nativity figurines. We would watch while my mother would faithfully arrange them, humming the theme song from the Harry Simeone album, The Little Drummer Boy. Within hours, the nativity was reconfigured into a highly inappropriate scene where all participants and its choreographer were surely going to hell. About this same time, Baby Jesus would disappear and miraculously appear days later in the dog’s mouth as he lay on the floor chewing what my mother had thought was a bone. It was now time to start lobbying for our Christmas tree.

My mother was the daughter of a German immigrant and was orthodox about the mechanics of purchasing of our tree. Der Weihnachtsbaum could be procured no earlier than two weeks before the Christmas Day. The tree must be at least 7 feet tall, a blue spruce pine and must be purchased at the local tree lot run by the YMCA. My mother was very loyal to the Y for keeping her boys occupied and out of jail. My father dreaded the entire process of acquiring the tree. To visit the Y lot in the fading glow of sparkling lights, with its army of clueless volunteers who could not be fired because they were in fact, volunteers, was the equivalent of being forced to attend a village idiots convention. He never referenced the tree lot by name, but instead chose to refer to it simply as “Clod City.”

The men rubbed their chins and walked around our car. There must have been six of them. “How you want to put this on the wagon?” asked an overweight, ruddy-faced fellow holding a hand axe. “I got an idea,” shouted a tall, dour mortician of a man, “let’s swing it across the back and push it forward.” My father would be apoplectic with contempt at this point, imagining the deep scratches in his Fleetwood station wagon’s roof. Invariably, he could tolerate the confederacy of dunces no longer and would order us to help him hoist the evergreen up and over the luggage rack rails that lined the roof of the car. The men, already sensing my father’s distain for their logistical retardation, melted away mumbling something to the effect, “it’s all yours, *&%^$!” Christmas seemed to be a time where everyone swore. A half hour later, our car would ease into our driveway, after an excruciating snail’s pace 5-mph drive across town. Our spiritual education was not yet complete.

The tree would be trimmed, adorned with lights, festooned with ancient ornaments and carefully positioned in the far corner of our living room where the dog would be least likely to urinate on it. Our tree stand had been handed down, presumably from Italians, which caused our tree to lean like the famous campanile of Pisa. The perpetual tilt of our holiday sapling was an emotional hemorrhoid to my father, leading him to constantly manipulate its position with primitive joists of newspaper and magazines. This, in turn, would guarantee its continued instability until the inevitable day arrived, when a door would slam, a person might raise their voice or the wind would blow outside, and the tree, on cue, would crash to the ground with a shatter of ornament and light bulb glass. The “Crashing of the Christmas Tree” was a rich tradition in our stucco cocoon of abnormality and as with all family dysfunction, seemed quite normal. Years later, I would become restless and irritable as Christmas approached, not understanding that the ritual of going to Clod City to curse our way through the purchase of the perpetually falling evergreen was as important to me as the presents, ceremony and gilded glitter. It was, after all, a familiar and reassuring routine.

Years later, I visited my parents at Christmas time. They had long since retired and were living blissfully in a seaside empty nest. I noticed their tree, fashioned out of wrought iron, presumably designed by some famous sculptor catering to those who are still recovering from post-traumatic tree disorder. “Nice tree, Dad. I’m surprised Mom let you get out of going to Clod City.” He thought for a moment and then flashed a mischievous smile. “Those guys were the stupidest human beings on the planet. Why, I remember….” I looked at my mother, who was laughing, and smiled, “Merry Christmas, Mom.” 

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

 

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind…. and another

His mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”…..Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are

 

We called it, “Animals in the Dark”.  In retrospect, it was a fitting name for a game that boys invented for the expressed purpose of rough-housing.  The rules were uncomplicated so even the least focused among us could instantly participate in the mayhem.  The goal was simple: survival.  One kid, usually a masochistic younger sibling, would draw the short straw to be blindfolded and turned lose into a pitch black room filled with bad intentions. 

The windows would be covered to achieve a perfect blackout.  The “animals” strained to adjust their eyes so they might be able to distinguish the defenseless, sightless victim as he wandered the room like Audrey Hepburn in Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark.  The animals were armed with make shift black jacks fashioned out of tube socks and pillows filled with underwear and knotted tee shirts.  Downstairs, an innocent Norman Rockwell scene unfolded with my Dad reading his newspaper, my mother baking a pie and a dog curled under the dining room table. But, all was not well……

 

My mother’s philosophy raising four boys was simple. There were no bad kids, only bad choices.  She understood the adolescent mind was a twisted topography of firebreaks and unconnected roads that often led to bad neighborhoods.  She also knew that adolescence was a protracted illness from which most would recover. She understood boys were physical forces of nature – wild things. Life was a succession of high and low pressure systems, constantly moving in and out of the geography of her boys creating dramatic and spectacular perfect storms of stupidity and achievement. When boys hit adolescence, their bodies started to wreak havoc – stretching, fighting, pulling and tugging.  Nothing seemed to properly fit a teenager and nothing could ever be fully articulated.  She understood that the body starved the brain, compensating for its exhausting Kafkaesque journey by conserving fuel for physical growth.  The brain would just have to catch up. Physiologically, this transformation caused teens to speak in a strange abbreviated dialect of “yups” and “nopes”. Boys became tribal animals learning the call of the wild and the unmistakable hierarchy of their pack.  They moved like herd animals in thick knots of baseball caps, shorts, athletic shoes and tunnel vision.  Life was whatever happened right in front of them. They had no peripheral vision.  They could hit a 20 foot jump shot but not seem to hit a toilet six inches in front of them.  They could remember the lyrics of a song or statistics of a third string running back but fail to remember to feed the dog or change their underwear.  Understanding the feral mind, my mom had a high tolerance for mischief and urged my father to develop a thicker skin to the slings and arrows of our outrageous behavior.  Boys will boys…

Max said ‘ Be Still” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all….and made him king of all wild things. ‘And now’ cried Max, ‘ let the wild rumpus start!”

The door creaked ever slightly. A blindfolded silhouette stood hesitating, unable to enter but incapable of resisting the siren’s call of abuse that was waiting motionless like a thousand trap-door spiders.  The room was a black hole from which nothing could escape.   Slipping in through the narrow crease of light, the shadow stopped again.  The door shut and for a moment, no one breathed.  Thwack !  A scream and laughter.  Thwack!  Thwack !   A cry for help and more sadistic laughter.  The game quickly disintegrated into a riot at an English football match.  The hooligans escalated their blind battle with screams, yelling and then a sudden crash of a glass.  The room went still.  Someone was moaning on the ground and a shaken voice whispered,

“dude, what was that?”  “ I think it was Mom’s lamp”  Downstairs, the thumping had aroused the dog who looked up to the ceiling and whimpered. My mother suddenly stopped kneading her pie dough and wiped her floured hands on her apron.  Her trouble sonar was already returning with pings of concern.. As she walked to the base of the stairs, she caught a glimpse of my father’s backside as he is roared up the stairs in rapid two step leaps.  His shoes pounded on the red tile floor creating the sensation of a brakeless truck barreling down an alleyway.  “Dad!” my brother hissed.  Even my friends had acquired a healthy fear of my father’s temper as he felt he had every parent’s proxy to discipline their children as his own.   At this moment, everyone rapidly sought sanctuary – under a bed, in the adjacent room or under a blanket.   The door burst open followed by a machine gun burst of expletives.  Even the injured victim with a rapidly closing left eye was crawling for safety.  The game was over. 

Fast forward.  It is Friday night, a particular moment in the week when wild things begin to stir.  On this night, I agreed to host thirteen of my son’s friends for a sleepover. The numerical omen of 13 was lost on me as I picked up several padded warriors from football practice.  On the way home, we stopped for gas and I agreed to buy them each a soft drink.  Five cans of 16 oz. Red Bulls suddenly appeared in my car.  It would be a very long night. Within a half hour, the group had swelled to a full pack. The family dog was in heaven as he instantly understood that this would be no ordinary night.  The animals loped uninhibited across the darkness of our property playing “manhunt” – the modern day equivalent to Animals in The Dark.  They descended on the dinner of pizza like rabid carnivores and proved once again that the toilet remains the most elusive target on earth.  The Red Bulls were kicking in about 11:30 as they adjourned to the basement – the basement that rests directly under our master bedroom.  For the next several hours the pack was in full motion with thumping, screams, laughter and the occasional angry shout of a wild thing who had ended up on the wrong side of a practical joke.  I repeatedly walked down to enforce curfew and each time, was neutered by my own nostalgia at the sight of the boys draped all over one another like pups in a carton – not the least bit self conscious that they were firmly in one another’s personal space. 

At 2am, I drew the line.  I pounded down the stairs and threw open the basement door.  Facing into the darkness, I hissed, “It’s 2am.  We can hear everything you guys are saying. SHUT UP and go to bed.”  For a moment, there was silence.  I stood triumphant the king of the wild things.  As I turned to close the door, someone passed wind.  A dozen fatigued giggles erupted from the ebony cave.  I turned away, utterly defeated but secretly smiling.  Whoever had control enough over their body to make that noise at that exact time would be forever memorialized in the pantheon of wild things. 

The next morning, as each wild thing was returned to his handler, we began to clean up and reconstruct our day.  My son who had slept a grand total of two hours, sat dazed, exhausted and triumphant, head leaning on his cocked arm as he slowly lifted a fork of pancakes to his mouth.  I looked at him and saw myself in that wolf suit, making mischief and cavorting on the island that I would one day leave to become an adult. Across all the years and over all the oceans of time, it was still the best to be a wild thing. 

“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye.  And he sailed back over a year….and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him…

 

And it was still hot.“

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resolution Number 9

Gloria Steinem wdydwyd
Image via Wikipedia

 

Resolution Number 9

 

“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.” ~ Joey Adams

It was the time of year that fatigued my father most.  Christmas was a brakeless, high speed joy ride down a boulevard of excess – the profligate purchasing of gifts, a succession of business and neighborhood parties, a month long garland of decorations, and sheer exhaustion that weighed you down like lard laden fruitcake.  The week between Christmas and New Years arrived like the eye of a hurricane offering a momentary respite where we might reconstruct our predictable November routines and gather up the debris of December celebration.

The dead calm worried my father.  He knew the toll the holidays took on my mother.  Like a seasoned meteorologist, he knew the back half of the holiday storm still packed high emotional winds and potential for damaged feelings.  He was useless at this time of year. This generation of men in grey flannel suits were as relevant as flightless dodo birds when separated from their workplace.  The normal midweek rhythms of my mother’s matriarchal rule were shattered when five men were suddenly home and idle.  It was an extreme time that exaggerated the normal warts and imperfections of life.  The soiled laundry and dirty dishes grew in geometric proportions.  The perfect storm of lazy teenagers on vacation coupled with a husband who kept saying “ whaah?” with a mouth full of food, seemed to only increase steam in the family pressure cooker.  In a startling role reversal worthy of anthropological study, mother and father temporarily switched places.

Mom would shock us with a sudden flash of impatience or an actual curse-word. We thought only fathers swore.  She would talk to herself as she picked up clothes that had been littered as if the owners had all caught fire.  She began to exhibit all the signs of a person ill with the radiation poisoning from broken routines, serial thoughtlessness and excessive family time.  My father was bewildered.  Only he held the tenured role of moody shape shifter and mercurial overlord.  It was my mother’s role to be a placid lake of restraint and a predictable oasis that offered protection to all from the rise and fall of the testosterone barometer.  When she was in a foul mood, the entire equilibrium of the family unit was destabilized.  We all prayed it would not result in one of her resolutions.

Despite our best efforts to navigate my mother’s eggshells and landmines, someone would inevitably trigger an invisible trip wire and there would be an explosion of self pitied emotion and dreaded pronouncements.  The catalyst may have been as prosaic as a freshly laundered towel thrown into the hamper after just one shower or a half-gallon of milk left out to sour.  As myopic men, we did not understand that her cumulative frustration was like magma rising into a volcanic chamber.  Our chronic insensitivity and my father’s inability to protect her as domestic wingman created the fissure that would trigger a sudden and violent eruption – sometimes heard several blocks away.

Her new year’s pronouncements were communicated like a centurion announcing an edict from Caesar.  “In direct response to my repeated attempts to get you boys to hang up your towels, put away your laundry or refrain from eating all the lunch snacks, we will now do the following:  1) The linen closet will be locked with a pad lock Monday through Friday and you will not be issued a new towel until Saturday.  2) You are now responsible for your own laundry.  I suggest you wash and fold it over the weekend.  3) You will now make your own lunches and if you forget to make your lunch, you will go hungry. “ She was angry and defiant.  We glanced at our father.  If you had looked up the word “eunuch” in Webster’s dictionary, his facial expression would have been the word’s illustration.  Earlier in the day, she had given him a “ detailed” list of complaints and resolutions that got his complete attention.  He simply looked at us and said, “She who must be obeyed has spoken.” For her sudden surge of feminism, Gloria Steinem would have pinned a medal on Mom. Hell hath no fury than a mother when she has had enough.

We dreaded her resolutions especially those involving food and logistics.  “We are all going to eat healthy”, she declared one New Year’s Day.  This translated into several weeks of culinary experiments whose nadir was a dinner menu featuring brussel sprout soup ,“pizza fish” and flavored tofu cake.  Even the dog would not eat it. Other resolutions included a transportation pool where each child was allowed a maximum two car rides a week.  This lead to a black market of transportation credits being swapped by boys with the laziest paying dearly for someone else’s passenger slot. There were mandates for time to be spent studying, playing games, showering, talking on the phone, and playing sports.  There was even talk of removing all toilet seats after a near-sighted teen had failed to put the seat up in her bathroom for the fifth consecutive day.  This gave rise to much speculation – was she actually going to carry her own seat around with her?

The first week following any declaration was a pathetic black comedy as the four blind mice struggled with their new responsibilities – – washing colored and white laundry together to produce a whole line of shrunken pink and gray clothing.  Lunches were routinely forgotten.  Laundry was not really folded but instead chewed and shoved like wads of gum into drawers guaranteeing that when worn, one looked as though they had been dragged behind a Chevy truck. Inevitably, martial law softened.  Her resolutions had the life expectancy of a housefly. We were pitiful recidivists and she knew it.  The day one heard, “ here, let me do that!” was the moment that we knew that sanity was being restored.

As we married and formed our own families, my father bore the brunt of Mom’s annual fiats around health, fitness, and life.   He became a human lab rat being subjected to the latest new age cures that hawked salt free diets, pyramid power to preserve food, biorhythm devices to monitor one’s life waves, erogenous zones and transcendental meditation.  Dad would sneak cheeseburgers and Cokes like an alleyway addict while quietly complaining to us that new age communists had invaded his home.  He finally drew a line in the sand when she suggested that regular colonic cleansing would do wonders for his temper.  We would remind him that her brief but inspired storms of self-improvement would eventually pass and might even do him some good.  He would grumble like Lurch from the Addams Family and shuffle off hoping that the current fiber diet he was on would not take him too far from a restroom.

Years later, we find ourselves making these same declarations to our kids.  More exercise, less fatty foods, Sunday dinners together, reading more, less TV, one hour of computer time strictly regulated, no chores means no allowance… Our declarations and good intentions stretch like a long kite string across a sky of generations.  Like my mother, my resolve weakens as the reward of behavior modification is always overpowered by the hassle of resolution enforcement.  As I write this, my kids rooms look like the KGB has just finished an illegal search, dinner dishes have been abandoned on the table, the trash has not been put out, the dog is gnawing on a pair of sunglasses and my ten year old has been playing a computer game called Spore for three days straight.  I could swear he has a five o’clock shadow.  I can also feel the magma growing in my spouse.

It’s time for one of those New Year’s resolutions.  “Ok, you guys, starting January 2nd, there’s going to be a few changes around this place – starting with bedtime and limits on the computer.”  I get no response.  In fact, no one is looking up from their cell phones where they are text-messaging friends. “Uh, sure Dad, whatever you like, say”, someone mutters absentmindedly to their chest.  I realize I, too, have become the emasculated reformer. I think it’s time to call my Mom and ask her for her recipe for pizza fish, brussel sprout soup and tofu cake.

That ought to get their attention.

 

 

Mater Ex Machina – Mom in the Machine

magna-mater-1971

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

Our family gatherings are now reduced to weddings, funerals, anniversaries and medical crises.  On these rare occasions, we reconnect through story telling, usually at the expense of our father.  Each son arrives with his own mental shoe box full of stories, taken out and mischievously shared.  My Dad takes it well but at times, contests our version of the “Brussel Sprout Affair” or disputes the actual percentage of our wages he garnished for punishments.  My mother, who is now stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, sits and listens intently as we gather to gently dredge the river of our lives.  Her loud laugh and tireless energy depleted by a disease that has conspired to rob her of her mobility and sense of serenity.  Her eyes still flash bright, opal blue when we recount the myriad stories which have become threads in a raucous and irreverent family tapestry.

My mother was made to have four boys.  She used candor, insight and trust to soften and shape the well intended but clueless denizen of men that she inherited.  She had a sixth sense about people and would often encourage us to “use our antennas to read people and situations”.  “Everyone’s antenna is different with some people picking up only major signals, like your father. Others, like short wave radio operators, pick up multiple signals making them both intuitive and easily distracted.”  Her intuition proved an invaluable asset to my father in business and in life.  She could anticipate situations, reading people, and disarming stiff customers with her humor and alarming candor. She longed for a daughter but resigned herself that her life would be a world filled with dirty toilet seats, sweaty clothes and GI Joes.  She waited patiently for the day that her sons might bring home girlfriends and wives – –   girls who would later be very alarmed by just how much these boys confided in their mother.

Jack Nicholson once yelled at Tom Cruise, “you want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  My father was an advertising executive from a generation whose marital trousseau was limited to a strong work ethic.  He worked countless hours driven by the four horseman of financing college, orthodontia bills, mortgage and car payments.  My mother was left to serve as teacher, confessor and staff sergeant of this testosterone army.  She could handle the truth. Her army had basic rules:

1)    If I hear it from you first, the punishment will only be half as bad.  Her “tell me everything approach” worked as a catharsis for guilty minds and a means of teaching boys how to communicate.  The “tell me first “rule resulted in a scene to be repeated many times where a Turpin boy was seen racing home desperate to beat a patrol car or a neighbors call.  We referred to her as “Sodium Pentothal “as she could get anyone to tell her anything voluntarily.

2)    I’ll decide what I tell your father.  Given my dad’s limited bandwidth to deal with much beyond job and family obligations, my mother would not burden him with all the daily infractions and near death experiences that occurred.  She is only now breaking to him things that happened in 1982.

3)    I want you open to new things.  While my dad escorted us to church and religion each Sunday, my Mom offered us spirituality during the week.  She was curious about everything.  The house was littered with books about the sacred, profane and paranormal.  She reveled in history, scandal and alternative points of view.  She was a devil’s advocate that helped balance a house heavy with conservative dogma.  We read the bible on Sunday but Monday through Saturday, we perused books on psychic pets, the Bermuda triangle, famous hauntings and conspiracy theories (who really killed JFK, anyway).

4)    Grades: A’s meant freedom, B’s meant do your homework with the TV and radio off, C’s meant you are getting a tutor and D’s meant martial law.  My parents felt grades were “the canary “ in the obscure, coalmine existence of an adolescent.  There was no tolerance for poor academic performance.  However, there was patient recognition, (before terms such as Attention Deficit Disorder), that each kid learns differently.  She met with teachers.  She had the inside scoop on every person that made up our uneven world – teachers, friends, coaches, parents of friends.  She insisted on being informed.  All this from a woman who dropped out of college as a sophomore to marry a penniless, Army Second Lieutenant and later returned to complete college after 30 years to gain her degree.

In the wild seventies, she became a self anointed DEA officer.  She understood that a kid with red eyes and the pungent smell of smoke around them did not mean they had been out fighting forest fires, was struck by lightening or was just really tired.  Like a champion contestant on Name That Vice, she could identify bad behavior at 1000 yards and would never shy away from making sure we knew that she knew.  Her candor and caring made it safe for us and often for our friends, to confess issues that she could adroitly handle.

Her passion was the latest technology ( and useless gadgetry ) .  While this gave our family a critical start on personal computers well before most households knew that a Mac was anything but a burger, it also resulted in weird experiments: food being preserved under pyramids (Pyramid Power was big in the 70’s), dietetic forays – – no salt, all carbohydrates, no carbohydrates,  all fish, no fish, no fat, all rice, all protein, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Space Sticks and Tang ( if the astronauts can eat it, so can you boys).  Our house was a grand social and technological experiment in a period of great societal change. The 21st century Mom and the 19th century Dad managed the yin and yang of competing opinions, always agreeing on what mattered most.

We made all the classic mistakes. While our punishments usually fit our “crimes”, she defended us like a mother lion ‘lest anyone contend that her boys were “bad”.  She would always seem to appear in times of chaos to resolve the crisis du jour.   If I had one wish, it would be that I could descend and resolve the chaos of her Parkinson’s disease.  For my brothers and I she was,  “Mater Ex Machina”:  Mother in the Machine.

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?”

 

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…

God, Church and Construction Sites

Braswell Congregational Holiness Church's Sund...
Image by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr

God, Church and Construction Sites

 

Any Sunday, 1966 – Sunday was a day of paradoxes growing up in a house of four boys ruled by a father we affectionately referred to as “Colonel Kurtz”.  My mother was a very spiritual person and found herself closest to God while lying in bed one day a week, with all five men out of the house at church.  It fell to my father every Sunday morning to dress four boys and shuttle us to the local congregational church.  The routine was a black comedy of ironies as my father would rush chaotically from room to room, tying double Windsor knots that in the old west could have been used to lynch cattle rustlers.  He would swear, yell, and comb down cow licks with spit.  We would then race to “our” church which was over ten miles away in an adjacent town.  By the time we reached our destination, Dad would be relaxed and acting “ Christian “ while we would look like shell shocked soldiers returning from two weeks in the bush.

You see the church that we used to attend – – that friendly Presbyterian Church that was literally two blocks from our home where all our friends attended, had been taken over by “pinkos”.  We were not really sure what “pinkos” were.  We surmised there must have been a hygiene problem and everyone was getting conjunctivitis, a common condition we often exchanged at home.  My older brother Miles explained that a “Pinko” was a “Communist “.  This perplexed me.  We saw no Cubans at the coffee table.  No toasts were ever concluded with “dasvidnaya” and a smashed glass.

In looking back now on that fateful day,  my brothers and I theorize that the annual stewardship sermon perhaps edged too stridently close to the notion of income redistribution and it sent my father into political apoplexy.  That night, he declared we were going to “try” a new church the following week.  That “try “turned into a ten year hiatus from our beloved sanctuary, friends and as a result, any desire to attend church.

Sundays always confused me.  There was tension, swearing, tears and then a worship service that was the equivalent of watching paint dry.  We refused to attend Sunday school as we knew none of the children from this new town.  I would endure the sermon by doodling on offering envelopes and drawing football plays on the limited white space of the worship program.  My tight shirt collar, hand me down blue blazer and loafers that could give blisters within ten steps, were the uniform of a religious slave.  I hated it.

The values espoused in our new church – – worship, tolerance, compassion, empathy and service to others seemed so incongruous with the Bataan Death March experience we endured each week.  As if to inflict a final unintended indignity, our drive home from church would invariably take us past a construction site where my father would surreptitiously pull the car to a stop and point to a pile of wood and debris.  My father loved to have fires in the fireplace, a rare treat in LA where temperatures rarely dipped below 60 degrees.  He would pathologically collect “discarded” two by fours at construction sites extolling their virtues as perfect kindling.  He would then order each son to wiggle through a chain link fence like a Vietnam soldier and gather up an arm of “discarded” wood and rush back to the car before a junk yard dog or passing security guard might chase us for liberating the wood.

Any Sunday, 2006 – I now awaken each Sunday to a quiet house of people pretending to be asleep – one eye on the clock and one ear to the ground.  As a new age Dad, there is less yelling and infinitely more negotiation.  The Windsor knots are replaced by wrinkled button downs, khaki slacks and Merrills.  Yet, the same moaning and reluctance returns as my possums are exposed.  The half-hearted grousing about being tired, sick or not feeling spiritual.   I smile. Their resistance is weak and a charming memory.

The reality is they need a church community and the church community needs them.  They are the next generation of members who will form the nucleus of the lay ministry that serves the church membership and our community.  I realize it starts with my resolve which on a cold day or after a late night out, wanes.  But if I want my family to develop skills to cope in a world that seems so unwilling to reward character over charisma, they will need some spiritual grounding and it’s up to my wife and I to ensure this happens.

The key was finding a church home that felt right.  It starts with clergy whose views best track with your own views of the world.  As descendents of Huguenots who fled Europe to avoid the demands of a church that sought to control all aspects of their lives, we sought out a church that offered a community of people that sought to understand before being understood.  Our pastor, Gary Wilburn, preaches tolerance, inclusion and responsibility to be a peacemaker.  He avoids the harder edges of a more orthodox theology that can sometimes judge, exclude or seek to proselytize those who do not exactly blend into a singular view.  My Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Islamic and Hindi friends all have found similar experiences at churches and synagogues as they sought a community that helped them form a healthier spiritual balance in life.

They say “Comedy is Tragedy plus Time” and in many ways, I can now laugh about my Heart of Darkness Sunday experience and the fact that after all that, the path through the jungle led me back to a community of God.  1966 was a different time and place.  Yet, the need to serve a greater purpose than one’s self and to yield to a grander plan of a higher power stirs within all of us and has throughout time.  In a town with seventeen churches, it seems like there has to be something for everyone.  The key is getting everyone out of bed and getting involved in service.

One word of advice — God is generally not found in construction site woodpiles, especially on Sunday.