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.”

The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

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 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

The Diary of A Mad Third Grader

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“The only problem with the world is a lot of people DON’T have ADD” — Andy Pakula, CEO of Think! Interactive Marketing

“He just can’t sit still…I think he gets it from my father who everyone refers to as ‘George Blast-off’.  He can’t stop moving.  If Dad’s not working, he’s golfing or planting his monster gardens with tomatoes the size of basketballs.  Really.  Its quite amazing.” Nervous laughter.

“Ma’am, I know this difficult but have you ever considered Ritalin? I mean, it’s a big step but clinically it’s proven to help many hyperactive kids.” The voice sounded vacant and bored like the conductor guy who mindlessly asked for our ticket on the Amtrak train to San Diego.

“Ritalin?  Oh no, no, no… Really, I don’t think so.  I’d rather have him twitching like a worm on hot pavement than jumping out a third story window yelling, ‘Look at me, ‘I can fly’ Thank you very much.  Anyway, boys are wiggly creatures.  They’re always making noises, and shifting around to liberate some body part. You know, Mister Crimms, I was actually born a Christian Scientist.  Didn’t see a doctor before I was nine and only when they thought I might have polio.  We converted to Lutheranism at thirteen.  My father was German and convinced my mother that God approved of immunizations although he used to make us sleep together in one room when one of us got sick.  ‘Get it all done at once’. He would shout in German.”

I was swaying like a palm tree on the top of a wide oak worktop that doubled as the nurse’s office storage cabinet.  I was playing a game to see how far I could lean headlong without falling off the bench.  I rocked headfirst peeking around the corner to spy on my mother as she mimicked her father, my Grandpa George.  The young male counselor with the flattop haircut stared unimpressed as Mother rose half way in her seat and raised her hand in the air looking just like my father during one of his Sunday night dinner diatribes.

“Look, Mrs. Turpin, Michael has a ‘D’ in citizenship.  He’s a very friendly boy but he’s disrupting the other students.  He talks in class, can’t sit still and today, he provoked one of our special education kids into chasing him around the room during rest time.  I believe he’s suffering from hyperactivity syndrome or possibly some type of undiagnosed personality disorder.”

There was a pause as the thermometer dropped in the office. My mother’s tone went serial killer cold.  I knew that voice.  It was a declaration of war – the seven seconds before the bomb is dropped and life as we knew it would be forever changed.

“Now whom are we talking about, Mister Crimms? It’s my understanding that the boy in question is quite enormous – a lot bigger and older than Michael – and it would be unnatural not to run if someone older and larger was pursuing you.  That’s a sign of intelligence.  Exactly how long have you been employed by the district’s pediatric counseling office?”

“Now, Ma’am, if you’re questioning my experience…”

“Just answer my question, young man.”

“Well, if you must know, I finished my graduate degree in pediatric psychology from St Mary’s last year and I am getting my PhD from USC.”

He sounded officious and offended.  “Look, I have seen Methylphenidate work very well on children to help them focus.”

“Mr. Crimms, you know, I’ve done my research.  The sources of any child’s hyperactivity can stem from a number of organic sources like sugar, caffeine, food allergies and other environmental causes.  Why would you want to dope him up without ruling out all other sources first? How do you explain his high marks in all the subject matter tests?  He is intellectually in the top ten percent on all tests.”

She composed herself, “With the exception of physical education, my son is a very committed student.  He does have an aversion to organized exercise.  He hates PE but plays Little League and YMCA football. The child can play for hours with his toy soldiers and his brothers.  Why on any given day, he’ll spend hours out of doors …”

“Ma’am, some savants have been documented to possess extremely gifted intellects but lack the social filters and controls.  These syndromes stem from innate behaviors and chemical imbalances that medication can help to mute.”

“Chemical imbalances? Are you a student psychologist or Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest?  Have you read the book, Mr. Crimms?  It’s seems modern medicine cannot always cure what we have the capacity to remedy ourselves.  It’s as much about self-esteem as it is about brain chemistry.”  She stood up and walked into the foyer clutching my wrist.  As she turned to leave the office, she bullwhipped one last barb at the fledgling educator.

“What’s next, shock therapy? Are you sure you did not study under Tennessee Williams or Ken Kesey?”

My mother would always get in the last word.  In a scene that would repeat itself with each of her sons over many years, she rushed me out of the nurse’s office – speaking to herself and her mother as if Gran was walking right behind us.

“Mother, will you listen to the man? A personality disorder? How dare he?  He looks too young to even drive a car.” She stopped and looked down at me, smiling.

“Tomorrow, we’re weaning you off that god damn Mountain Dew and Pop Tarts!”

Years later, she would be proven correct on almost every front. She rarely confided in my father about our brushes with educators at school.  She knew almost every boy had difficulty concentrating and sitting still.  She also understood that he disapproved of the gentle process of diagnosing a problem by eliminating the potential causes.  He preferred  more medieval remedies to correct any kid who appeared on the wrong trajectory.

“Cut that crap out.” He would hiss as I tapped my tight-fitting loafers against the pew in church. He would slip his arm behind me and knock me on the back of my head like it was a door.

“Ouch, that hurts, Dad.”

“I’ll give you something to cry about if you cannot keep still.”

We always sat in the back row of the Presbyterian church so that he could administer mid-sermon punishments with fewer witnesses. We sat two deep on either side.  If he was highly agitated, he could simply lean back and knock multiple heads together like the Three Stooges.

 Between the toe tapping, wrestling, whispers and sudden outbursts, the people seated in front of us must have assumed we were visiting Baptists. 

“They are such animated Christians,” a woman whispered to her husband.

For a low attention span kid, an organized religious service was tantamount to being nailed to a cross.  I tried everything – drawing on pew envelopes, even listening to the minister urging me to accept Jesus as my personal savior.  I had accepted him as the Son of God but I was fairly certain that he was less my savior and more a bearded goodie-two-shoes accountant who scrupulously recorded each and every one of my misdemeanors and could not wait to tattle them to his father.  God knew that we played with matches, had impure thoughts and occasionally made crank phone calls to our next-door neighbor pretending to be her grandson.

My mother did not seem to worry about our spiritual destinies but instead focused on the more temporal problems of grades and social assimilation.  She was certain that diet, exercise and more frequent activity breaks would allow any mildly “hyperactive” male to improve in social responsibility.  She understood that boy’s exceled at the things that interested them the most and most often floundered when lacking interest in a subject.  My brothers and I could spend hours focused on a single task — drawing, assembling model air planes or painting miniature 78mm Airfix soldiers with petite Testors brushes, recreating the precise regimental colors of the British 8th Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps.

One would need the Jaws of Life to pry me away from any form of television or film, particularly a double feature movie at the Rialto Theatre – although my brother had recently misinformed me that the theatre’s proprietor had hung himself during a kiddie matinee and had swung lifelessly across the illuminated screen in front of one hundred horrified third graders.  His ghost was rumored to haunt the poorly illuminated bathrooms that rested at the base of an ominous staircase leading from the mezzanine theatre seats.  This led me to avoid the toilet and in a full-bladdered crisis, courageously attempt to pee in a Coke cup. This, of course, disrupted my friends who laughed and stood up to move, which attracted the flashlight light of a conscientious theatre usher. Shortly thereafter, my mother was having yet another discussion with the very much alive theatre manager regarding my mental stability.

My mother understood that four boys were a breeding ground for germs and adolescent neurosis.  She preferred to organically unravel each twitch, tic and nervous repetition to understand the demons that occasionally set up shop in our vulnerable minds.  Nurture would win out over nature and the subconscious would always give up the bodies that rested at the bottom of a child’s mind.  Like Freud and Jung, she believed in interpreting dreams and in psychoanalysis.  The last few minutes before a tired child fell asleep was a pre-hypnotic phase where semi-conscious kids were likely to give up secrets and be open to home remedies to counter strange fear based behavior.

In the last ten minutes of every night, she would appear like Florence Nightingale, the angel of the night-light, gently extracting the day’s mental splinters of bullies, bad teachers, first crushes, bad choices and the irrational phantasms that arose out of sibling disinformation.

I always felt that I was her favorite.  She seemed to spend more time with me than the others – interpreting my behavior and my dreams, reassuring me that one day those twitching cement pipe legs and monkey mind attention span would morph into the butterfly of a grown man and athlete.  I was, in fact, the most neurotic of our four man army.

“Michael, dreams where you are being chased or can’t get out away from something, those are your subconscious mind trying to work through problems.  It’s healthy.  The reveries where you fly or move things with your mind? Those are power dreams.  You may even be in astral flight where your soul is out exploring in the world.  I often wonder what you were in a past life?  I am sure you were a kind king or perhaps or a Shaolin warrior.”

I smiled thinking of myself as a benevolent monarch or a flying lethal weapon, perforating a knot of evildoers with a soaring kick and arm chop.

My father would be waiting for my mother — a trim and shadowed spectator in the doorway, peering into my room but not buying into her “Age of Aquarius BS”.

“Jesus Ruth, don’t fill his head with that crap.  He’s got one life and he’s gotta stop screwing around to make the most out of it.“

My mother continued to look down at me, her smile piercing the darkness. “You’re father was a Templar Knight in a past life. He likes to fight for what he believes is right.” My father shook his head and once again took the Lord’s name in vain.

“Well, you may be right.  I’d like to go over to the Middle East and kick some ass again.” He laughed as he walked back into the light of the hallway.

My mother ran slender fingers across my scalp.  “Such wonderful hair.”

“I gotta a big head.  Somebody called me pumpkin head today.”

“Honey, everyone in our family has big heads.  They’re full of brains.  Third grade is a tough time.   You need to ignore the other kids and learn to sit still and focus on what your teacher says.  When you’re bored and you want to talk to your neighbor, just take out a piece of paper and write down what you want to say.  That way the teacher won’t get mad at you for disrupting the class.  Got it?  Here, I got you this.”

She opened a white paper bag from the local stationary store handing me a leather bound book.  She turned on the bedside lamp. I opened it and saw that she had written my name on the first page: Property of Michael Turpin.  “You write everything you think and feel in here.  Draw pictures or doodle.  It’s a diary and it’s better than any silly old pill from a doctor to help you focus.”

Months later my father would discover what was to be the first of many diaries.  Inside were primitive hand drawn pictures of epic WWII battles, monsters, space ships, and racecars and in almost every picture, there was a kid with a big head who was the clear protagonist in the illustration. He would often use X-Ray powers from his mind to vanquish the bad guys.

“Jesus H Christ.  A shrink would have a field day with this crap. Why in the hell is this kid drawing Captain Pumpkin Head?”

My mother just laughed as she ran her fingers through his haircut that grew like straight grass above his unusually large cranium.

“Yes, dear.  It’s strange. I wonder where he gets that from…”

Guns, Germs and Hypochondriacs

Opposites attract.

Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's...
Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's senior drill instructor, bellows cadence while practicing for Company G's final drill competition. Deutsch: Ausbilder (Drill Instructor) beim United States Marine Corps. Español: Un instructor abordando a los marines estadounidenses. A drill instructor addressing United States Marines / Not Drill Sergeant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They also  marry and discover along the primrose path of marital bliss what the French call, “le difference”.  Love is indeed blind and when a couple is first intoxicated by mutual attraction,  a thick cataract forms over their eyes  – precluding any ability to see things for what they are.  Eventually the X and Y chromosomes recover from their initial pheromone-fueled joy rides and discover the differences in how they approach life.  

Men are loud, visceral creatures who aggressively seek to conquer and accumulate.  Secretly, they are neonates seeking to return to the womb.  Women are more subtle and versatile forms of fauna using their twin skills of nature and nurture to navigate a thankless peanut gallery of expectations. Privately, they just want to be in charge of an all-Italian male model pool cleaning service.

Men are a mass of contradictions. After years of being indulged by their mothers, watching sitcom matriarchs and digesting blatant misinformation from other men, they enter marriages and relationships with a distorted expectation of what their partner must bring to the party.  Apparently, a nice cheese dip is not enough. Men also want their mommy.

Women fall in love with the notion of being in love.  Men appear to them like puppies – cute, friendly and somewhat fragrant.  By the time, they have been taken home, it is too late to give them back and your house smells.    When a woman realizes that her knight in shining armor is really sporting tin foil, wearing dirty underwear and perpetually prone to watch re-runs of the Godfather, a woman can become disillusioned.  This is why you often see mothers and daughters crying at a wedding.  They are not overcome with emotion.  The mother, having drank too much champagne, has just taken their daughter aside and shared with her what life might be like after the honeymoon.  Men misinterpret this matromonial female cry-a-thon as a byproduct of nostalgia when in fact, it is Mom breaking to daughter the news that behind the hunter-gatherer lurks a child who just wants to stay home from work and play with his plastic soldiers.

When it comes to the cold and flu season, roles change with women often morphing into the “drill sergeant “ and men into the “baby”.  A drill sergeant views illness as a temporary setback that must be denied at all costs.  Sickness is a self-fulfilling prophesy and the drill sergeant refuses to acknowlege anything less than blood from three orifices.  Drill sergeants hail from large families and the “suck it up“ school of parenting.  They believe in mud poultices and Mary Baker Eddy.  Babies, however,  are still nostalgic for small country inns, soft blankets and the pulsing heart beat that comes at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” — anything that reminds them of the nine months inside Mom’s pouch. 

Men become huge infants when they are ill.   The slightest cold or fever is usually the beginning of a pandemic. Women are taught to endure.  This plays itself out each season as men complain to other men that their wives show them little sympathy when they are ill.  Wives must keep the house going even when they are sick and as a result, have contempt for “babies” who cannot get up to get a cup of water, let alone, help with the kids.

Men never really notice when their wives are ill.  “My wife never gets sick” a friend shared with me as his wife was coughing up a lung while we were out to dinner.  Yet, when a man is sick, he reverts to fetal rocking, moaning and deep adolescent dependence.  To a drill sergeant, this contemptible behavior is worthy of court-marshal.

I should have registered the subtle harbingers of  intolerance when my wife and I were dating.  I knew she was a first generation Brit.  However, I assumed the “stiff upper lip” and “it’s just a flesh wound” thing was Monty Python hyperbole.  I assumed when the chips were down or coming up, she would transform into a Florence Nightingale that would nurture me by candle light – holding a vigil by my side of the bed until I was well.

 I had grown up in a household where sickness afforded you a temporary celebrity status. In the home of my mother, there was an unwritten  rule that if you were even thinking of getting ill, you went right to bed, eschewed all social obligations and incubated until the illness either hatched or the false alarm had passed.  My mother would organize around the illness.  She would sit like Mother Teresa, a kind silhouette in the flickering shadows of a night-light – cooling our feverish heads, rubbing our backs and humming soft songs.  In a four-boy family where you had to compete for everything – – food, air, space and attention, illness gave you temporary immunity from obscurity.  I often found myself envying my brothers when they became sick.  The mother shepherd focused exclusively on her one wounded lamb, assigning us to our father who resented the fact that he had to talke care of us. It was clearly better to be sick than under the care of a man who still insisted that the Germans had been invited into Poland in 1939.

The arrival of a major epidemic like chicken pox or measles was greeted with 19th century pragmatism – – the infected child and his brothers were quarantined together in a room until everyone came down with the illness.  “Best to get it all over at once “, She would shrug.  In later years, we would feign illness by placing the thermometer on a hot lamp or enduring scalding hot showers to raise our body temperatures.  We would then moan like ghosts wandering into her room to complain of a headache.

When I became a parent, I would disintegrate into worry when my first child became sick.  Yet, I had been trained by the best in triage and bedside manner.  In a strange way, their maladies made me feel more relevant.  Enter the British wife.  To the British female, illnesses are like road works, a temporary impediment that must be driven around.    Years later, as we brought children into the world, the “Stiff Upper Lip“ school and the “It Could Be Plague“ schools would routinely clash over diagnoses and prognoses.

At the first sneeze, she would say, “it’s just a cold.” I would be certain it was Ebola.  At the sound of a muffled midnight cough or sniffles, I was on the phone demanding access to a pediatrician.  A headache ? Meningitis.  That sore throat could be bird flu.  “The last I checked none of us have been to China” my spouse would respond.  ” We ate Chinese food the other night. Those dumplings could have been cooked by a carrier. “

As more children were born, I mellowed, graduating from burning the pacifier when it fell from their mouths, to wiping it on my pants to just popping it back in their mouths. My spouse, born to a midwife in a small English village, seemed pleased with my progress.  We made quantum leaps such as actually agreeing to carry on with a vacation if one of the children came down with the sniffles or developed a cough.  We braved a dinner party if I felt a little under the weather.  And yes, we did send a child to school before they had been symptom free for 48 hours (that one had me sweating)

I suppose this pragmatic return to 19th century medicine is healthy. But, there are times when my entire family is fighting illness — coughing and sneezing, spreading their germs throughout the house – that I hide, paranoid and alone in my den.  I sit wide-eyed reading – a modern day Howard Hughes devouring a book like, Guns, Germs and Steel.  I may have lost the germ wars at home, but I am staying informed on epidemics and holding out for the day when they reconsider my years of hypochondriacal behavior and shake their heads saying, “My God, he was right“.

That’s usually about the only time my wife declares she needs an aspirin.

Taking A Walk on The Wilde Side


“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”  So wrote the acerbic, witty and unrelenting Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.  Wilde openly led a movement of aestheticism and public decadence in a time when sins were expected to be committed with discretion out of the public eye of a highly pious Victorian society.  The age-old struggle of good versus evil and the ensuing black comedy that resulted from every human’s double life was his central theme – one as apropos today as it was during the time of this “wicked” Irish iconoclast.

As a recovering collegiate sybarite and literary enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Wilde.  I am drawn to his sarcasm and often rely on his wit when trying to contend with a world that judges too harshly.  While I cannot condone Wilde’s lifestyle choices, I could never disparage his genius.  Like so many great writers and contrarians, his tortured soul and conflicted contempt for what Victorian society viewed as “decency” compelled him to persistently test its boundaries.  In doing so, he sealed his own fate but left us timeless footprints in the forms of quotes, stories and plays.  Wilde might have been considered a troublesome dissident by today’s standards — constantly prodding and testing our conventions and hidden hypocrisies.  Although I wonder if Wilde was born in 1964 instead of 1854, if society would have been more forgiving — celebrating his brilliance and choosing to not be so offended by his habitual testing of the status quo.  A few gems:

  • Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, fa...
    Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated, leaning forward, left elbow resting on knee, hand to chin, holding walking stick in right hand, wearing coat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    “ A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal..” My mother called it “compulsive candor.  Wilde’s strengths taken to excess became his weakness and ultimately led to his decent into a determined frontal assault on society.  However, the truth was too tempting to not flaunt in the face of a pious England that held itself in such high esteem while choosing to conduct its venal pursuits in far off places and under the complicated cloak of class and corruption.

  • “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them more.” There is indeed power, liberation and humor in forgiveness.  Making one’s amends and stepping up to apologize for your part of a conflict defuses a situation and gives you the upper hand.  One spiritual advisor once chided me to pray for my enemies.  “Perhaps if he gets exactly what he wants, he may no longer offend you or better yet, he may actually get what is coming to him. Either way, it’s out of your hands and it takes away people’s power over you to forgive them – especially without their permission.”
  • “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seems in a society that has come to judge material gain as a yardstick for personal advancement, we have come to understand how much everything costs but have lost our ability to understand intrinsic value.  Real moral and spiritual value requires a more complex calculus of living whose numerator is one’s impact on others – the lives we change and the legacies we leave divided by the price others pay as we achieve them. Many build wealth but may not recognize the intangible deficits they accumulate over a lifetime of misguided priorities.
  • “Wisdom comes with winters.” Our emotional intelligence is forged from the difficulties we endure.  The unexpected stone thrown through the bay window of our lives often forms the foundation for stronger character and a more resilient future.  Every winter holds the promise of an ensuing spring of insights, but only if we have the humility to seek these lessons.
  • “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” We often say be careful what you wish for.  “You want to make God laugh?  Tell him your plans.”  In praying for something, perhaps we would be better served praying for strength to deal with whatever is to come our way.  Our own best thinking and resolve to get our way usually get us into a tangled mess.  Perhaps our lives are best guided by a point of reference other than ourselves.

In the end, Wilde’s determined sybaritic lifestyle – “working is the curse of the drinking classes”  where “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”) – became his undoing.  In the midst of his physical and intellectual self-indulgence and his war against the English establishment, he penned brilliant works of literature : The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Canterville Ghost among others.

Wilde dared to suggest that human beings are a mass of contradictions.  We must periodically remind ourselves, as mistakes are made, boundaries broken and glass shattered, that it’s all part of the human condition.  As we move back and forth along life’s continuum between self and selfless, we should never forget that no one is without fault.

Wilde paid the ultimate price by flaunting his own self-destructive behavior in the face of an unforgiving society, then publicly challenging its hypocrisy.  He was imprisoned and died penniless three years later.  His “gross indecency” led to his mortal defeat, but also opened society’s aperture to tolerance and change.  He left us as an immortal — a fire that burned too bright, too hot and became too dangerous for the conventions of his day.  

Even now, as I finish this essay and tiptoe into a darkened kitchen in search of Easter candy hidden by my wife, Wilde whispers to me, “I can resist anything but temptation”.

Pizza Dreams

Marc Chagall

Pizza Dreams

….Mr Fenton Allentuck describes the following precognitive dream, “ I went to sleep at midnight and I saw my grandfather about to be run over by a truck in the middle of the street, where he was waltzing with a clothing dummy…. I had an uneasy feeling that some men were trying to break into my room and shampoo me.  But why ? I kept imagining shadowy forms and at 3A.M. the underwear I had draped over the chair began to resemble the Kaiser on roller skates.  When I fell back asleep I dreamed again, a hideous nightmare in which a woodchuck was trying to claim my prize at a raffle…  Woody Allen, Without Feathers

I am wandering the hallways of my high school dressed only in my underwear.  My best friend walks by asking me telepathically, “Where have you been all semester?  We have the calculus final today!”

I dodge in and out of shallow doorways and across cold pavement to find my locker.  I have forgotten the combination.  I am a dead man.  No graduation.  No college.  No job.  My life is ruined…

I wake up in a cold sweat with the moon streaming through the bedroom bay window.  I shuffle towards the kitchen while the cat trails affectionately underfoot mistakenly thinking it is time for breakfast.  I open the refrigerator and sigh, a pathetic figure cast in pale light.  It was only a dream.

Each night between the witching hours of 2am and 6am, average people are transported through a subconscious rabbit hole and across a bizarre kaleidoscope of disconnected faces, symbols and places.  The results range from the comical to the terrifying.  Some dreamers journey back in time to face old demons or attempt to amend unresolved conflicts. Others boast of encounters with random celebrities.  Some profess X-Men super powers – – flying at breakneck speeds or deploying telekinesis to move objects with their thoughts.

There is the classic “Groundhog Day” dream where one wakes up, relieved to be free from their early morning incubus, only to fall asleep and have the dream pick up where they left off.  The most terrifying dreams are “chase dreams” where someone is pursuing you – –  perhaps an insurance salesman or someone from the Tea Party.  I recall a nightmare featuring a buck-toothed girl who had stalked me in elementary school informing me that we had just been married.  As I fled the church, she started chasing me on a big wheel.  I could not seem to outrun her but was finally able to will myself awake.  If my wife had sat up in bed at that precise moment with false buckteeth saying , What’s up doc? “, she would be collecting now on my life insurance.

Lately, I have been having some wild dreams.  Perhaps, it is anxiety associated with my eldest going off to college or the post traumatic stress associated with Irene.  I keep dreaming the Levco guy is filling my house with chocolate milk – which is annoying because I am lactose intolerant.  Another dream has me dressed up like Dorothy from the wizard of Oz and someone keeps shouting, ” it’s a micro-burst, it’s a micro-burst!”  When I correct him and say, no, you mean tornado.” He turns to me and angrily chastises me.  ” It’s bad for business to say, ” tornado”.  We use the term “micro-burst.  It’s better for property values.”

I am uncertain if my nightly visits to the Twilight Zone are caused by unresolved conflict, odd midnight eating habits or an overactive imagination.  My mother used to have an expression for the kind of dream where you woke up saying, ” What the hell was that!”. She simply called it a “pizza dream”.

Pizza dreams are not all bad.  Some people have made a fortune off their dreams and hallucinations.  Jack Nicklaus, struggling with his golf game, had a vivid midnight vision where he was striking the ball with an unconventionally short, modified swing.  He awoke and tried the swing successfully on the golf range which resulting in a marked improvement in his game.

Samuel Coleridge wrote his famous Kubla Kahn after waking up from a drug induced dream.  Mary Shelley, along with husband Percy and Lord Byron, was housebound in a Swiss castle during a violent storm  and agreed to a competition with the famous writers over who could tell the most frightening ghost story.  After retiring to nap (and consuming a hallucinogenic), she awoke with a vision of  a creature so terrifying that it literally induced her to question the essence of Man and God.  No, it was not Sarah Palin.  It was a creature grafted out of cadaver body parts – purloined by grave robbers in the dead of night — nope, it wasn’t Ron Paul or Barney Frank either.  It was Frankenstein. ( P.S. she won the bet !).

As a child who had more nightmares than Stephen King, my new age mother tried to explain to me that dreams were subconscious fields and mental alleyways where humans tried to work through our anxieties or mental struggles.  My mother was always curious about the strange films playing in the midnight theaters of our minds.  She expressed great interest in our nocturnal adventures, considering our forays into the unknown as potential “out-of-body” experiences known as “astral flight” to deep struggles of conscience known as “guilt”.

Our Age of Aquarius mother read countless books on dream interpretation – – from Freud, Jung, and Cayce to the interpretations of Native American shamans.  Each Sunday, we were forced at gunpoint to church by our father, only to come home and struggle to reconcile the sacred and the profane of Western Christianity and new age spiritualism.  Our mother explained that the bible was filled with examples where God would choose to appear to individuals in dreams and through these encounters convey a divine message. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians considered dreams as omens and harbingers of great importance.  Each society and religion maintained a social order where those who could decipher the hieroglyphics of dreams – – elders, medicine men, oracles and sages were raised to positions of prestige and power.

Freud asserted that each of us possesses a subconscious, Id, and the conscious, Super Ego. These irresistible forces of hidden desire (teenagers) regularly clash each night with the immovable objects of temporal restraint (parents).  As the mind works through these physical and emotional challenges, it paints mental canvases more complex and bizarre than any created by Picasso or Chagall.

Unlike Freud, Jung did not seek to interpret dreams as tangled sexual symbols requiring therapeutic intervention.  Jung considered dreams a collateral universe where the subconscious mind worked furiously over problems, unresolved issues, philosophical conundrums and latent desires.

There are many who consider dreams a highway to the paranormal, a lonely road to another dimension of our existence – – one that happens just outside of our mind’s eye.  Rod Serling called it the “ Twilight Zone”.  Ray Bradbury called it “October Country”.  Alien abductions, spiritual guidance, premonitions, past lives and psychopompic events (encounters with deceased loved ones ) have all been documented through dreams.  Lincoln was said to have a clear premonition ten days before his own assassination where he dreamed of mourners and a corpse in the East wing of the White House.  A soldier informed him that the shrouded figure was “ the body of the President, killed by an assassin”

In 1961, a dream researcher’s case study quickly turned into perhaps the most credible case of alien abduction ever documented.  A Canadian couple, Betty and Barney Hill, returning from holiday in New Hampshire began to experience health problems and terrifying nightmares.  When hypnosis revealed identical stories of an alien abduction and medical experiments, while driving along lonely US Highway 3, dream specialists were dispatched to investigate.

Betty Hill’s nightmares never ceased and graphically included minute details of a medical procedure conducted by her abductors that included the unheard of description of a needle that was inserted into her belly button.  The fantastical medical procedure that she so accurately shared under hypnosis is now commonly recognized as a routine process to withdraw eggs for purposes of in-vitro fertilization. (Ok, this is usually where Twilight Zone music plays…..)

Whether you see dreams as a disjointed, meaningless theatre of the absurd or a clash between the temporal and unknown, the subconscious mind is the last wilderness of our generation.  Dreams can portend events like Nostradamus or haunt us for past sins like a relentless Javert.   Like so many other invisible psychic sinews that bind us, we are linked by our fascination with these odd subconscious episodes and bonded by the common phenomena of waking up back in high school in our underwear.

We have also concluded that we must, at all costs, avoid eating pizza after 11 at night.

A Touch of Grey

Grey Wolf
Image by Todd Ryburn via Flickr

A Touch of Grey

…..I know the rent is in arrears
The dog has not been fed in years
It’s even worse than it appears
but it’s all right.

Cow is giving kerosene
Kid can’t read at seventeen
The words he knows are all obscene
but it’s all right….

Oh well a Touch Of Grey
Kind of suits you anyway.
That was all I had to say
It’s all right.

Touch of Grey, Robert Hunter

The first grey hair showed up when I was seventeen.  This sudden loss of melanin in this particular follicle coincidentally followed my first Grateful Dead concert.  It seemed a novelty at the time – – a rare phenomena like corn snow that would occasionally fall for two minutes every few years in Los Angeles and then melt quickly against the wet, warm asphalt.  That single hair was a harbinger of a silver flood that would transform me from ingénue to elder statesman by thirty.

Dickens once said that “Regrets are the natural property of grey hairs.”  While scientists insist the process of graying is genetic, I am convinced that I earned most of my silver the hard way.   I am a firm believer that each grey hair is a “reward” for life’s travails: telling your boss what you really think, hitting a seventeen at the blackjack table with your semester’s spending money on the line, losing your toddler in a department store for an hour only to have her emerge laughing from a circular clothes rack where she had watched you frantically search muttering “she’s going to kill me.  She’s going to kill me!”  It’s having your computer literate child hack through every parental control application you have installed.  It is a call at 3am.

Some people run from the grey.  They use cosmetic products to mask the salt that starts to sprinkle in their hair.  Guys, I hate to tell you but those products don’t seem to really work for men.  I see a guy who I know is pushing fifty but he has hair blacker than a bowling ball at Rip Van Winkle lanes.  It’s not good genetics.  It’s bad shoe polish.  And there are those who nurture their single strand of hair that could actually stretch across the state of Utah.  Lovingly, each morning they wind that massive black mamba around their head, carefully avoiding swim parties, wind tunnels and head massages.

Grey is a state of mind.  Youthful Satchel Paige, the oldest major leaguer of his day debuted for the Cleveland Indians at age 42 after years as a star in the Negro Leagues.  He was the first African-American player in the American League.  Ever the ingenue, Paige was constantly asked about his age.  He would rhetorically ask, ”if you did not know how old you are, how old would you be?”

For me, it’s only as a result of mirrors and cameras that I am reminded that I have physically yielded to middle age.  I still feel twenty and as my spouse will attest, I maintain a highly childish and warped sense of humor and see comedy everywhere….in growing up in a house full of boys, Will Ferrell, neo-conservatives, movies like This is Spinal Tap and The Big Lebowski and well, everything. Certainly my inability to be serious for sustained periods of time has sometimes proved a social impediment.  However, immaturity occasionally serves as a tender bridge to a surly teenager or a disgruntled friend.  It is also healthy.  It’s a known fact that one’s immune system is reinforced through the simple act of laughter.  Laughing suppresses the release of cortisol and epinephrine, two chemicals known to attack the immune system.  According to studies “laughter activates the T cells, B cells, immunoglobulins, and NK cells; it helps to fight viruses, and regulates cell growth.”  It starts with learning to laugh at oneself.  Grey hair gives you permission.  It’s a rite of passage and a merit badge that suggests you have been around long enough to know that Mel Torme was not a forward for the New York Knicks, Hunter S Thompson was not the 39th President and Jerry Garcia is not an ice cream.

A silver streak means you may have felt the deep ache of losing a close friend to illness.  It means you have known disappointment. Grey means you are on your way to realizing the only person that can make you happy – – is you.  It means you understand that comedy is tragedy plus time, and that you never burn a bridge because you invariably need to  cross it again.  Grey hair teaches you to be careful how you treat people on the way up because you will meet them again on the way down.   A little frost around the temples means you understand that expectations can become resentments.

A little grey means you probably have lost something that you could not afford to lose.  You most likely have discovered that you can’t control life but you can control how you react to it.  A little salt and pepper has you finally figuring out the more you focus on other people, the less likely you are to feel sorry for yourself.  You understand that fame and fortune can be a trap and that your legacy will be how many lives you have touched, not what you have accumulated.  You understand that class is style, not stature.

Let’s face it, society celebrates youth and has a tendency to view “grey” the way some Americans view Europe – – old, past its prime and seemingly jealous of the adolescent that has arrived to assume the role of the Alpha.  Youth may have size, strength and a sense of immortality but often lack the perspective that comes with age.  Insight is gained through pain and the bitter experience of getting what you think you want only to find it is not what you needed. Grey is humility.  It is being able to say “I’m sorry” but not spend the rest of your life self-flagellating.   It is being able to laugh at your own expense, not at someone else’s.  Grey may lack the visceral allure of youth but it radiates the intrinsic beauty of a centered soul.  In the end, age teaches us that nothing in the world is black and white.

Everything, as the Grateful Dead suggest, has a “touch of grey “.

Fear and Footsie on Metro North

I don’t have a fear of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

– Woody Allen

Every time I board the Metro North, I ritualistically choose the window in the two passenger aisle.   Inevitably, a Talmadge Hill or Glenbrook commuter crosses my 38th Parallel invading my personal space. We sit, silent sardines packed in the belly of an iron beast rattling toward the city.

As I drift between my blackberry and a depressing NY Times, his leg shifts and brushes mine.  He mumbles “sorry”, not wanting me to think he did this on purpose. I retract my leg quickly as if electrocuted.  Later,  he falls asleep and his foot is touching mine.  I must shift my shoe but not so quickly that he wakes and thinks I have some sort of “problem”.  So I wait for the proper moment and then, ever-so-slightly, break contact off with his interloping foot.  My new window seat position has my back slightly turned to the aisle and my legs are now bent to the window.   By the time we arrive in Grand Central, I am hunched over like Golem protecting his “precious” ring.  Yes, it’s just another exhausting morning for this mild neurotic.

I am certain I am not alone in my garden of odd peccadilloes. In fact, it is every psychotherapist’s raison d’etri to crawl like entomologists through the jungles of our minds catching and examining the strange paramecium that wriggle in the darkness of our subconscious.  The Metro North seat mate contact thing is just one of the many odd little habits that I carry around with me like a tattered blankie. The root cause of my personal defects may never be diagnosed.  Did my mother inhale too much foot powder during her pregnancy.  Perhaps it is a more deeply metastasized problem arising out of my childhood. Perhaps it was the infamous 1971 Brussels Sprout Affair where my no-nonsense father made my brother eat dog-saliva coated sprouts after he caught Tom shoving them into the maw of our normally dependable canine disposal.  Was it having a Democrat and a Republican for parents?  Whatever the reason, each of us occasionally dredges our dark mental swamp where weird little ideas and notions swim in seclusion.

Things get interesting when peccadilloes morph into phobias. It is also the DNA of human comedy.  Some irrational fears that I have encountered among friends and relatives include: an anxiety over hot liquids, distress about drains, dread of dark windows, concern over clowns (it is real and called coulrophobia), or just a freaking strange obsession when someone with socks touches your feet when you are also wearing socks. There are others I can personally relate to:  a fear of the basement, fear of elevators, aversions to taking one’s pulse or even so much as having a vein under surveillance.

My father has lived for years with Bolshephobia ( fear of Bolsheviks ).  The aversion resulted in an intense dislike of Democrats, or anyone who ever uses the terms ” redistribution”, “fair” or “equal”. He is terrified of politicians from Northern California.  Growing up, we oftened accused my mother of having intensely irrational fears.  She had a visceral aversion to sleep overs at friend’s homes when only a teenaged sibling was babysitting.  She had hives over our attending rock concerts, riding motorcycles, hitchhiking or coming home with a girl with body tats and an ex-boyfriend who had the mailing address – Prisoner No. 95435, San Quentin, CA. How paranoid can a parent be ?

Phobias often plague the rich and famous.  Most are familiar with the chronically misophobic billionaire Howard Hughes who spent the last several years of his life locked naked in a Las Vegas penthouse apartment that was sanitized hourly and meticulously monitored. Less known, is the famous hexakosioihexekontahexaphobic – artist Marc Chagall who feared goats until, on the advice of his therapist, he confronted his demons by painting his horned tormentors floating harmlessly while being subdued by cherubs.

Yes, many suffer from a strange brew of irrational fears:  Soceraphobia : the fear of parent in laws.  The fear of Germans?Teutophobia.  Tuetophobes tend to also fear personal trainers and engineers.  Pogonophobes have a great fear of people with beards.  Bearded ladies are often used to treat this condition as this mental double negative can snap someone out of their anxieties or in a few rare cases, make them jump out of a third story window.   Lachanophobics are normally under the age of 12 and fear vegetables.  Selenophobics possess a deep fear of the moon.  I do recall a selenophobic event after a college frat party where I was absolutely certain the moon was following me.  No matter which way I turned, it was after me.

I have actually invented a few clinical terms for my own private peeves: kareokaphobia – the fear of singing in public.  Teshaphobia – fear of John Tesh music and purgaphobia – the fear of shopping with one’s spouse.  Many men suffer from Stamaphobia  – the fear of being asked to carpool to a birthday party in Stamford.

Angst, paranoia, needling fear — are all merely symptoms of being human.  Psychotherapists and psychologists have financed many a ski trip to San Moritz mining the diamonds of anxiety that are littered across the acres of our subconscious minds. In the end, Woody Allen, Monk, Jack Nicholson and a more open society have made it ok to be a tad neurotic.  Everyone sees the world through their own unique looking glass.  My kaleidoscope sees beautiful colors, odd shapes and the occasional shadow created by fractured perspective.

The aperture of the guy now seated next to me on the Metro North? I am not sure what he sees.  I only wish his foot would stop touching mine.

Scent of An Imposter

A bottle of Old Spice cologne.
Image via Wikipedia

 

Scent of An Imposter

Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. – John Steinbeck

When I was 16, I would douse myself with my father’s English Leather cologne in hopes of attracting the opposite sex.  The English Leather television commercial suggested that once I donned the fragrance of the British elite that I would be surrounded by magnificent Scandinavian women and would speak with the cultured accent of an Oxford graduate.  Hai Karate competed for my attention promising that a few modest drops would have me using martial arts skills to drive off the women who would be insane with lust as a result of a mere whiff of the olfactory aphrodisiac.

Brut promised to transform you into a race car driver, fighter pilot or an investment banker capable of doing the most sophisticated deal in the world.  If you used Brut, Fabergé suggested a life of daring exploits, athletic feats and of course, someone always on your elbow.  Musk For Men seemed the closest thing to a human pheromone that one could use.  Just the name sounded like you were burying your face into a twenty five year old Buffalo robe.  I am not exactly sure what kind of woman you would attract with musk but odds are you would not have to spend a lot on dinner.  Old Spice would transform you into a rugged merchant marine that could hoist a tankard of ale with one arm, spear a whale at 100 yards with the other and then hug Miss Ireland, who was working part-time as the local dock barmaid, with the…wait, that’s three arms.  Well, when you use Old Spice, you can do the work of one and a half men.  Each fragrance promised to change me from an awkward, testosterone time bomb to a suave James Bond capable of seducing every woman under the age of 40 in western Europe and then save the world – – all before dinner.  The reality was a bit different.  Other than being followed by a German Shepherd for several blocks, the scent failed to attract anyone or radically alter my romantic future.

The film, “Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, plunged us back into the world of men’s colognes from the 1970’s. In this highly intelligent exchange between anchorman Ron Burgundy and his beat reporter, Brian Fantana, they discuss the selection of colognes that Brian will choose (from his wall of colognes) to attempt to seduce the new female anchor, Veronica.

Brian Fantana: [about Veronica] I’ll give this little cookie an hour … Time to musk up.
[opens cologne cabinet]
Ron Burgundy: Wow. Never ceases to amaze me. What cologne you gonna go with? London Gentleman, or wait. No, no, no. Hold on. Blackbeard’s Delight.
Brian Fantana: No, she gets a special cologne… It’s called Sex Panther by Odeon. It’s illegal in nine countries… Yep, it’s made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.
Ron Burgundy: It’s quite pungent.( makes a face)
Brian Fantana: Oh yeah.
Ron Burgundy: It’s a formidable scent… It stings the nostrils…in a good way.
Brian Fantana: Yep.
Ron Burgundy: Brian, I’m gonna be honest with you, that smells like pure gasoline.
Brian Fantana: They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time it works, 100% of the time[cheesy grin]
Ron Burgundy: That doesn’t make sense.
Brian Fantana: Well… Let’s go see if we can make this little kitty purr.

This year, I decided to ask my wife for some cologne for Christmas.  “There’s so much to choose from, you’d better do some research and pick one “she informed me.  I knew the marketing firms were still promising teenaged boys reckless pleasure from the likes of Axe and Fierce.  Yet, I assumed they knew better than to barrage a forty something with promises of anything other than not being followed by a dog.  I decided to research the latest colognes while shopping.  You would have thought by now that America had learned of the hollow promises of those purveyors of eau d’toilette. Can’t fool me, Yves St. Laurent.  I know that means “toilet water” in French. Yet, the desire to develop a unique scent and perhaps become another man is as powerful today as it has ever been.  The brands of cologne are mind numbing with each promising to transform me into a more swarthy version of myself.

Unforgiveable is presumably a scent so powerful that it compels even the most circumspect person to commit acts that would never be condoned in the light of day.  Put on Unforgiveable and you may just tell off your boss or buy that Alfa Romeo.  L’Anarchiste suggests your scent alone can win the girl and bring down your government at the same time – – if you are man enough.  Lucky You cologne does not try to even disguise the fact that you should be thanking them for selling you the cologne.  If you did not get a date with Musk, perhaps you should try Diesel, especially if you are in the market for a partner who can change the oil in your car.   Mille grazie Roma !  I can feel the olive melanin creeping into my skin and my abdomen muscles popping out just getting a whiff of the Italian cologne.  Put a dab on each cheek and look incredibly dazzling in your uniform and do not notice as thieves knock off the local bank.  After all, the sun is hitting your profile just right and you are Roma!

There are some even more interesting and provocative brands. For example, there is Paradox for the man nobody understands.  I can just see the commercial, a man walks into the party and everyone he talks to gives him an odd look.  “He is obtuse.  He is obscure.  He is – – Paradox.” How about Quorum? This is for the man who you hear and smell before you actually see him.  “You are so pungent it is as if you always have a majority in the room – -you have Quorum.” Then, there is Swiss Army – – I am not certain exactly who would want to smell like the Swiss Army – perhaps someone in the Albanian army?  My favorite is Joop.  “It’s whimsical.  It’s zany.  And it completely violates every law of nature – Yes, it is Joop.”

Suffice to say, whether you desire to be a sultan of the night with Drakkar Noir or a rogue fifteen century Asian despot called Shogun, there is a scent for every other man you want to be. I came up with a brand for Wall Street mortgage securitization specialists : “Dignity – when you have lost it all, at least you still have your Dignity.” For politicians, there’s Gossamer. “For the man everyone can see through, there’s Gossamer”.  In the end, the best name is simply Demara, named for Ferdinand Demara, “the Great Impostor”, who masqueraded as a Trappist monk, surgeon, cancer researcher and prison warden.  He was finally caught, but not before he proved that if a man wants to be someone else, all he needs is guts and perhaps, a little cologne.

All Creatures Great and Small

If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands? ~Milton Berle

I noticed the red hooded house finch as it darted past me gaining and losing altitude from a beak filled with long pine needles.  He was clearly in the process of building a nest. Off just to the side of the house came a cheerful warble and series of chirps.  A female finch was obviously supervising her mate’s construction of her spring nursery.

“I think a bird is building a condominium on our front door.” I shouted as I came inside. I turned around to examine the wreath with its arrangement of dried flowers and bird nests filled with artificial gray speckled eggs.  I could see how a finch could be fooled into thinking this was perhaps a perfect spot for public housing.

“Oh, my,” my spouse smiled approaching with curious approval.  She frowned. “Not exactly the most convenient location.” She pointed to the base of a fresh cone of tightly constructed twigs, green needles and mud.” A solitary speckled turquoise egg had tumbled out and now rested precariously on a ledge of uneven stained rattan.

I moved closer.” Oh, don’t touch it!” She whispered. Within minutes there was a sign on the door reading ” Birds Nest – knock lightly or use side door.” Mother Nature was now in charge.

Upon arriving home from work later in the week, family court was in session. “I didn’t do it.” was the plea from my youngest son who was being arraigned on one count of egg manslaughter and two counts of contravening a direct order to use the back door.

I had to give him credit. He had obviously been watching the Discovery Channel. “Listen, mom.  Birds lay more eggs than they need because some will die. It’s part of nature.” Yet, my spouse was already deeply attached to her feathered sister and her four unborn children. She knew Moms drew the short end of the stick. Occasionally, we would catch glimpses of the male finch, only to see him fly off to watch highlights of ESPN through someone’s den window or hang around a bird feeder talking to cardinals.  Like all males, he was always off somewhere when things happened.

As I watched the mother of my children open her heart to yet another dependent, I could not help but smile at the timeless ties between all mothers and the extended families of pets and animals that they are forced to adopt over the course of a child’s life.

Not a day that went by in the house of my youth that a boy would not come home, cupping some mysterious maimed, captured or presumably lost life form and beg the eternal question, “can I keep him?”

My mother dreaded these encounters – – the filthy child replete with earnest, Wild Kingdom expression. She had endured this “Groundhog Day “movie time and again. It always concluded with her feeding, caring, emotionally attaching and then eventually flushing, dumping or burying the pet of the month.  A pet’s lifespan might be reduced by one-half when it was introduced to our house of four boys, sadistic cat and determined dog.  By week two, the animal had usually been attacked, dropped so many times it had brain damage (that’s amazing, your lizard is so docile) or starved from neglect.  Invariably, it fell to our mother to make the last few months of the animal’s life as comfortable as possible. Caring for pets was just another thankless footnote in the fine print that she had failed to read when she met and married her dashing second lieutenant in 1955.

Our home was a living farm. Each boy’s room was adorned with some live animal – – an ant farm with red ants encased in a plastic window, a fish bowl or terrarium with a reptile that was always hidden under a dry branches or a rock.  There was a brief period of turtles that was cut short by a libelous article in Ladies Home Journal about diseases turtles carried including salmonella and e coli.  Since she knew we had not washed our hands since LBJ was President, turtles became amphibians non grata in our home.

There was a rodent period with rats, mice and hamsters.  A hamster is essentially what you get if you breed a rat and a mouse. They lived in expensive translucent plastic cages joined by tubes and habitation spaces called a Habitrail.  At one point, my brother had four hamsters moving through a complex grid of adjoining cages, tubes and running wheels – – until the cat discovered how to knock the tubes off and proceed to harvest the chubby hot dogs one by one across a long hot summer afternoon while we were at the beach.

When the inevitable last breath bubbled from the lips of a pet, our mother was there like a funeral home director to make arrangements. In a period where heads of state funerals were often shown live on TV, we held a public burial for our kangaroo rat who we had made the mistake of housing with our common gangster house rat.  No one knows what words were exchanged but the next morning, we found “Oz” without his head and Fritz covered in blood with a ” hey, he called me vermin and nobody calls me vermin” look.

We used kite string to lower Oz into a two-foot hole.  Given his condition, it was closed casket. We somberly returned to the house, ate some Oreos and reflected on the good times we had with the kangaroo rat for all of the two weeks that he had been in our family.  We were learning about life and death.

The 70s was a Wild West time for pets. In many houses, mothers actually allowed snakes as pets.  There was one problem: serpents always escaped. My mother drew the line at snakes.  She loathed them and refused to even entertain an earthworm after hearing of a Burmese Python that escaped into its owners house (the son apparently did not tell his parents that the six foot snake had flown the coop), ate the family cat, and was finally captured after it slithered under the dining room during a dinner party with a huge bulge in its mid section.

Our mother understood that caring for pets was essential to a child learning responsibility.  Perhaps the most dominant trait she hoped to teach was to subordinate oneself to a greater purpose, person or cause.  She knew pets could teach us how to unconditionally care.  I am certain my mother resented every poop scoop, litter box, meal worm, salt lick, fish feed, and squeaky hamster wheel moment of it. Yet, like all moms her feet went in one direction – – forward — for a kid, for a dog and even for a slimy, brown newt.

Fast forward to Finchville 2010. I hear a grand commotion and screaming. “Dad! Dad!” My son is yelling.  “The bird flew in the front door and the cat has it!” More emotional shouts as my wife, daughter, her boyfriend and our two sons are attempting to rescue the bird. The cat’s tail is twitching in triumph as the mother finch struggles in her mouth. My spouse asserts herself. ” Crystal, let her go!”

The cat is stunned with the scolding when she had expected praise.  The stunned mother finch falls to the ground and flies erratically into my daughter’s bathroom. For the next hour, the animal rescuers try vainly to coax the bird out of the tiny upstairs bath. Judging from all the arguing and yelling, it is not going well. I am annoyed, as it is looking inevitable that I am going to be asked to play Animal Control. My daughter’s boyfriend has been banished into the dark front yard and instructed by my wife to warble like a male finch.

As I walk upstairs I hear him tweeting outside (lucky your buddies cannot see you doing this) trying to coax the bird outside. I enter the bathroom and stoop down to grab the bird as it flaps to the other side of the room and hits the wall. My wife squeals, “Oh, don’t hurt her.” I finally cradle the bird and toss her into the night. As I turn in triumph, she proceeds to fly right back into the illuminated window.  As I reach to grab the bird, my wife turns off the light thinking the light was confusing the bird. I now cannot see a thing and proceed to crash into my daughter’s shelf.  Perfume and shampoo noisily cascade to the floor.  “What are you doing in there?” my daughter yells from outside. More crashing.  “Turn the light on! I cannot see a thing!”I finally catch the finch and drop her into the ebony chasm of the front garden. My wife runs downstairs to see if the brave girl has returned to her dimpled blue eggs.

Hours later, we finally see her tiny head poking out of the nest. She is back safely – for now.  My spouse is exhausted but content having helped her feathered friend to save her fledgling family. The crisis has passed. As we talk across the darkness at bedtime, I can hear her exhaustion and relief.  “What a scene that was. I hope she and the babies are alright. As she falls asleep, I recall the old Yiddish proverb, “God cannot be everywhere at once.  That is why he invented mothers.”

Off Piste

Los Angeles skyline and San Gabriel mountains.
Image via Wikipedia

Off Piste

“Skiing: the art of catching cold and going broke while rapidly heading nowhere at great personal risk.” Anon.

In 1970’s Los Angeles, winter sports were comprised of baseball, basketball and AYSO soccer. Our bleak midwinter days were filled with mild sunshine and temperatures that lingered in the low 70s. Ice was confined to a silver bucket on your Dad’s wet bar – reserved for those who might request a Dewar’s and soda. Snow was a Currier and Ives sentiment and a meteorological miracle.

Having fled eighteen endless Chicago winters, my father considered any voluntary recreational sport involving sleet, snow or ice as the equivalent of paying someone to perform a root canal on a healthy tooth.  It was a completely unnatural act.

He had cured us of our desire to play hockey and ice skate with one ill-fated trip to a local skating rink.  However, every four years, the Olympics would appear on television and captivate us with the notion that skiing could attract girls like bears to honey. It was clear that skiing was reserved for the rich, famous and those who spoke with European accents. It was a sport for patrician royalty, like falconry and fox hunting.

For my mother, raising four boys on an ad executive’s meager salary did not qualify our family for a vacation in a far off Alpine fantasyland. She was also uniquely sober to the risks of snow plow, parallel and telemark turns having broken her leg while racing downhill with college friends at Lake Tahoe. To our delight, she graphically recounted her compound fracture, hospitalization and surgery, showing us the 8 inch shin scar and a repair replete with plates and screws that permanently braced her shattered fibula.

She, like so many others, had succumbed to the allure of the slopes and its après ski romanticism. She was fascinated with the advertisements of magnificently tanned, turtle necked intellectuals drinking wine and laughing with affectation. She could almost smell the pungent bite from the bubbling cheese fondue. But, in this fantasy, she could only see them from the waist up.  No one was wearing a leg cast.

My father was secretly relieved of her aversion to downhill skiing and made it clear to anyone who inquired that it would require a small fortune to equip our adolescent army. Our money could stretch more economically if invested in a fortnight summer beach house in nearby Newport Beach. He had zero interest in driving with chains on his car, layering four boys in wool and down only to have them declare that they needed to use the bathroom.

In California, there were enticing rumors of snow – great drifts of moisture rich precipitation known as “Sierra Cement”. It fell in copious amounts measured in feet, not inches – somewhere to the north and east of Los Angeles. Occasionally after a fast moving local clipper of cold rain, we would be enthralled with the snow capped peaks of Mt Wilson and the surrounding Angeles National Forest as they peered through a conveyor belt of gray cotton clouds. Yet, snow was an abstraction to native Angelinos. It was something to be experienced vicariously – on the news, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or on the distant peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Yet, the lure of snow was intoxicating – to sled, build snowmen and barrage one’s enemies with an ordinance of hardened ice and snowballs was foreign and fun.  However, the thought of donning stiff plastic boots anchored by wire clips and leg breaking bindings did not really appeal to us. Playing in the snow seemed natural. Skiing was beyond our comprehension. To bind oneself into 205cm fiberglass spears and attempt to slide down an icy canyon, like a displaced piece of granite tumbling toward a certain compound leg fracture like our mother appealed to no one — except my contrarian older brother.

My brother discovered skiing in middle school after being invited by a well heeled friend to Mammoth Lakes, an exclusive ski resort. The alpine town rested at the base of jagged granite minarets that in some places, vaulted over 14,000 feet. On its tallest peaks, Sierra snow hid in sapphire blue couloirs year round. It was rumored that in good years, it was possible to ski in shorts and a tee shirt on July 4th.

I watched with green envy as my mother took my brother to the local ski outfitter, Sport’s Chalet, where he rented skis, purchased an arctic parka worthy on a National Geographic explorer, ski pants and gloves. To add insult to injury, he was given a $ 200 stipend to cover lift tickets, food and miscellaneous expenses. Apparently my father was unwilling to accept anyone’s charity for his son’s first ski experience.  To this day, I am convinced he pocketed the money.

He was only gone for three days but when he stumbled through our front door, I could have sworn that he was speaking with a French accent. He regaled us with stories of snow storms, down hill ski racing, girls in hot tubs, gondolas and panoramic views of the jagged Ansel Adams wilderness. His raccooned eyes twinkled as he talked in a new foreign language that seemed to trivialize my plebeian suburban existence. “The key to skiing moguls is following the fall line and leaning over your tips” He said with expert familiarity. I had always thought a mogul was some kind of Indian prince or a businessman. He continued, “…and then Karl did this radical helicopter off a jump. I got some serious air when I jumped off the Cornice”.

I was insanely jealous. I wanted that cool neon parka, skin tight ski pants and raccoon tan. I wanted to be Olympic champion Jean Claude Killy seated on a bear skin rug, holding a Courvoisier brandy as I seduced my latest French model girlfriend by a roaring alpine chalet fire. I wanted to ski but all I could think about was my Mom’s twisted fibula.  Each Saturday my paranoia would be reinforced with the opening clip to the Wide World of Sports where Jim McKay would voiceover: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…” At the point where McKay said “ and the agony of defeat” a ski jumper would descend down a massive ramp, catch his ski edge and hurtle sideways off the ramp,  presumably to break every bone in his body. As he crashed through barriers and exploded in a rag doll mass of spandex and equipment, you could not help thinking, “why would any sane person do that?”

There were apocryphal stories about this guy and his horrific crash. “I hear he died.” One kid said as we discussed the unfortunate ski jumper. Another more experienced liar chipped in, “I heard every bone in his body was broken and his head popped off in his helmet when they tried to remove it.”

My mother sensed my interest in skiing and encouraged me to accept a friend’s recent invitation to ski but I created all kinds of excuses to avoid the dangerous neck-breaking slopes to the north. I just could not help thinking of Hans-Peter Shatteredpelvis or whatever his name was. This was perhaps one sport I could do without. I was wracked with doubts. What if my ski bindings did not release – would I break a leg? What if my friends take me up to the top of the mountain assuring me I can traverse down doubled diamond runs called Spleen Alley and Tibia Twister. What if I take a wrong turn and get lost like the Donner party. Would I have to eat squirrels and perhaps another skier who had also strayed off piste?

As all parents do, I was forced to confront my demons and master them – lest they added to my bucket list of activities that I would regret never having tried. At gunpoint, I accepted an invitation to go to Mammoth for skiing. I was now the beneficiary of the investment in equipment and clothes. As I layered on itchy long underwear, pants, outer garments and a North Face ski parka, I wondered whether I should have worn a diaper as it would clearly take two hours to strip down to be able to use the toilet.

On that fateful day, I learned to snow plow and discovered the joy of a beginner’s ski run.  I developed a mild hemorrhoid going up and down an odd contraption known as a poma-lift.  I mastered the mounting and exiting the quad chair and by the end of the week had gone to the top of the mountain – only to wet my pants as I slid down a vertical black diamond face slope called, Dave’s Run.

My favorite part of the day was removing my cement ski boots and regaining circulation in my hands and feet.  We sat in a hot tub with fourteen other people including a cute girl who asked me where I was from.  For a moment, I entertained assuming a French accent and describing my parent’s modest ski chalet at the foot of Mont Blanc in Chamonix.  Instead, I blushed and dipped my head under a cloak of steam and bubbling water.  It was all too much.

Years later, I annually force my reluctant brood on to the slopes of a ski resort.  The mornings are always the same – a chorus of moans and complaints.  The death march to the first run is a time that is best forgotten with sharp words and hollow threats.

We ski together to gain an appreciation for the mountains in winter and for the sheer exhilaration of making first tracks after a midnight of soft powdered snow.  Unlike my family, I am able to consider the trip an investment rather than an expense.  We are making moments like snow angels. As we gather after a long day, broken and sore from moguls, tree skiing and chaotic racing, we lie next to one another – exhausted and content.  I am not Jean Claude Killy but I am Dad – – amie and provocateur of the annual winter ski adventure.

Los Patinadores en Invierno ( Skaters in Winter)

LA Kings primary logo from 1967 82.
Image via Wikipedia

“Style is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward” Robert Frost

I have an antique engraving of late 19th century Spanish skaters fastening their blades as they prepare to glide across a great sheet of frozen opaque lake.  The etching is small and the figures are muted and impressionistic – the way one might dream about a past life – as if you are looking through a great frosted telescope through to some simpler time.

I recall as a child watching ice-skating in the Olympics – rooting for the hopelessly outclassed Americans as East Germans, Russians and Scandinavian pixies gracefully floated, skimmed and sailed across the blurred rink accumulating near perfect scores.

When our US skaters were not getting smoked in some far-off rink in Boogerglob, Yugoslavia, our hockey teams were getting worked over like Poland during the Blitz.  My father had told me of the “ miracle “ in 1960 when the unheralded Americans won the Gold beating Canada, the Russians and the Czechs at Squaw Valley California.  However, I grew up during the cold war and a period of total Soviet domination.  The US was no match for these bladed automatons jacked up on steroids and vodka. The eastern bloc teams had lots of time on their hands to practice. After all, home was a sterile one bedroom apartment shared with five people, two government run TV channels and bread lines.

In California, winter happened to other people in other places and ice rinks were as uncommon as wool sweaters and US gold medalist winter Olympians.  My first glimpse of an indoor ice rink was the Great Western Forum in Inglewood where the Los Angeles Kings played hockey.  I liked hockey instantly.  Hockey was exotic.  It was played on an ice rink that rested under the glossed wooden floors of the Lakers basketball court.  Hockey players were as fast and big as football players.  They were missing teeth, had scars all over their faces and were angry all the time.  They were like pirates or life without parole prison inmates.

It looked dangerous and exciting to try to score.  Once you got around six potential felons, you had to try to slap the puck past a faceless demon called the goalie.  Perhaps, he was so ugly that he was not allowed to show his face. Maybe goalies wore masks so fans would not recognize and assault them in the parking lot for allowing a goal.  I was mesmerized.  I forced my Dad to drive us great distances through very dangerous neighborhoods in South Central LA to watch the Kings slashing center Marcel Dionne, speedy forward Butch Goring and the courageous goalie – Rogie Vachon.

Alas, like most expansion teams, the Kings were hardly royalty.  They stank.  And it seemed whenever the Canadiens, Flyers, Bruins or Black Hawks came into town, my team got crushed.  To add insult to injury, the victors would usually leave one of their past-their-prime players behind with the Kings in some horrendous trade that would prolong our long painful climb our of expansion adolescence.

What I really liked best – was the fighting.  They called the players who fought “ goons” which I thought was hysterical.  The only goon I had ever seen was Alice, The Goon on Popeye.  With names like Dave “ Tiger” Williams and Dave “ Cement-head” Semenko, these insane asylum candidates wracked up more penalty minutes than maximum-security prisoners.  They had nicknames like “ The Grim Reaper”, “The Hammer” and “Bloody O’Reilly”. They high- sticked, slashed, cross checked, punched, gouged and broke more orbital bones than a medical examiner.  The goon’s job was simple: retaliate and protect their star player from the other team’s goons.

When a fight would break out, the gloves would fly off and the adults (refs) would not even try to break up the brawl.  For a kid who sought to be freed from the yoke of parental oversight and the suffocating civility of rules based games, hockey was sanctioned violence.  The referees just stared at the scrum of wild punches and ripped jerseys while everyone in the stands went absolutely berserk.  Eventually the refs jumped in once the players had punched themselves silly.

I decided I wanted to learn to play hockey and skate.  My father had grown up in a time of hockey leagues and early morning ice rinks and did not want to spend his weekends indoors in what smelled like a three week-old duffel bag.  He was a Californian now.  There was football, tennis, baseball, paddle and soccer – all to be played outdoors.

I dreamed of snow and ice-skating but did not understand that for ice to form, a person must endure consecutive days of bitter cold.  On New England lakes and ponds, there was no Zamboni machine to smooth the natural irregularities of a frozen body of water.  The ice accumulated and moved indiscriminately like a crack across a windshield.  But I had to try. Ice-skating and hockey looked so easy and I wanted to meet my Peggy Fleming on a frozen pond where we might waltz or tango and then spin around waiting until one of you fell to the ground and looked at the other and said, ” kiss me, you fool.”  I lacked the imagination to speculate what would happen much beyond this point.  I was ten.

My father bobbed and weaved with me like an outmatched prizefighter. Growing up in suburban Chicago and then discovering Eden at the University of California at Berkeley, my father vowed he would never return to the raw, sideways sleet and arctic winds that knifed across Lake Michigan. He had learned to skate, sled and survive in the snow but traded his Currier & Ives childhood for an aquamarine Christmas morning of 60 degrees and the rhythmic sway of palm trees.

I kept chipping away at his paternal guilt and finally convinced him that my inability to skate would one day keep me from getting into a good college.  He was about to say “ no” for the thirtieth time, when he got a wry smile across his face and said, “ Sure”. I will never forget his mischievous smile. He confessed that his aversion to snow had perhaps unfairly denied his sons the ability to attempt a triple axle.  In what we thought was a rare fit of nostalgia, he drove us to a suburban ice rink on Christmas Eve to “learn” to ice skate

The excitement was palpable as I laced my razor–edged rockets and ran my finger along the dull but intimidating blade that ran from the toe to heel. I was mentally already on the ice – a goon in search of mayhem and perhaps a six –year-old that I could check into the boards.   I got up to try to walk in the skates and my ankles buckled.  I fell to one knee and hit the ground hard. My eyes watered but I did not cry.

We walked on to the ice and I fell backwards, hitting my large head like a pumpkin dropping on the kitchen floor.  I had no helmet and saw stars as my head cracked on the hard ice.  A strange ensemble of people gingerly moved with arms under weak fluorescent lights flailing and awkwardly lunging like drunken sailors.  Suddenly, a pink flash shot past me.  A magnificent teenaged girl came to a knife edged stop and spun in place.  She was like a music box ballerina suspended by celestial gossamer strings.  I was in love. I tried to get up and my leg shot out from under me as if it had been fired from a rocket.

My father lifted and guided me to the railing where I moved myself along a great rectangular rink for one hour.  Each time the rose colored girl skated by, I let go and fell injuring some hidden body part with a flash of white-hot pain.  It was on my eleventh consecutive fall that I conceded that I did not have the patience or pain threshold to learn to skate or keep up with the pink projectile.  It was my secret shame – being so hooked on hockey and knowing that I could not even stand on skates.

The following morning, I awoke to sensations not dissimilar to the black plague.  Severe aching limbs consistent with internal bleeding, bruising and feverish.  My father looked on with amusement as I struggled downstairs and declared that I must have the flu.  My skating career officially died anno domini one thousand nine hundred seventy two.

Years later, I look on at skating with a twinge of envy and great respect.  I never returned to the ice.  I often slow my car to  watch as a small group gathers by the edge of  black frozen ponds.  Skaters ease on to the ice and breeze across dark, crosshatched arteries of rock hard water.  I now understand why the best skaters have quadriceps larger than many Christmas turkeys.  It is magic to stand in a cold biting wind, teetering on the razor thin edges of a single blade, pushing out with one leg while bracing the other leg to move ahead.  Slash-glide-slash-glide.  You move like winter wind across the ebony water trapped below.

It is part of the cinnamon scented of the holidays – these simple pleasures.  It is a new pair of skates under a tree.  It is a pond iced over to its proper depth.  It is frozen twilight and a single, solitary person floating like a downy feather across a frosted sheet of glass.  It’s Christmas Eve and the skaters cannot wait for the next day. I watch from a raised embankment along a serpentine road. I am thinking once again of that elegant ancient etching of “Los Patinadores En Invierno”– wispy shadows cast from another time. The skaters disappear, an evergreen pine suddenly obscuring my view.

The pond, it seems, goes on forever.

Screwtape 2009

“Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home on Earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.” The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

In 1942, CS Lewis penned the Screwtape Letters – a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape and his nephew, an apprentice tempter named Wormwood. The letters chronicle the advice and counsel that the elder demon provides to his willing associate to help him corrupt a mortal Englishman known only as ” the Patient”.  In the correspondence between the two demons, God is simply referred to as “The Enemy” and Satan as “Our Father Below.” Character is a sin and sin is character. Wormwood’s task is straightforward:  Lead the Patient, by whatever means necessary, away from The Enemy and to eternal damnation. Lewis’ creative narrative is timeless and gives clever context to the temptations that erode our morality and the strong temporal winds that conspire to blow us off the straight and narrow path.  While Lewis was a Christian, his allegory transcends any denomination in focusing humorously on our common fragility as human souls.  His demons have spent centuries examining man – attempting to exploit our weaknesses, especially our propensity to not learn from the past.

While Wormwood seeks to trick and trap the Patient into great sins and spectacular moral missteps, Screwtape is constantly counseling endurance and vigilence. A demon’s job, not unlike a lion resting near a herd of gazelles, is to be patient, hanging back in the shade, waiting for an opportunity to confuse, distract or separate his prey from the rest of the herd. Damnation, it seems, is best achieved through separating one’s prey from The Enemy and from others within his community who might seek to protect him.  Hell, after all, at its’ most fundamental level, is separation from The Enemy. Spiritual decline starts imperceptibly through self pity and self indulgence.  We are, in Screwtape’s view, toads that can be cooked to death by merely bringing the water of self interest to a gradual boil.  If you make things too hot, too quickly, he cautions Wormwood, the patient will leap from the cauldron and escape.

In 1942, Anglican England was  less concerned about politically correctness around issues such as the separation of church and state.  Britain was infinitely more preoccupied with physical survival against the Nazi war machine. Mid-twentieth century  society still enforced tighter guardrails around morality, religion and social conformity. As war raged in deserts, mountains and at sea, there was a battle for the soul of man that flashed every moment of a person’s life.  Lewis’ Great Deceiver sought to exploit the fear that permeated the corners of every community. He dispatched his minions to cultivate new values – a morality of selfish pleasure, self seeking and self interest. As one reviewer opined, “Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as good and neither demon is capable of acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it.”

What advice might Screwtape proffer to a more seasoned Wormwood in 2009? Would he be pleased with the state of our society? What kind of exchange might we intercept between the experienced corrupter of men send via his blackberry to his brash novitiate tempter?

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Greetings from Venezuela, dear Wormwood.  I regret not bearing witness to your coming of age across the great green Atlantic. While I am nostalgic for the mist and slow moral decay of England, I do enjoy the turbulence of Central and South America. With such poverty, despotism and half the population under 20 years old, this is fertile ground for multinational corporations to exploit the poor, political fundamentalism and a great cup of inexpensive coffee. The closer you get to the Equator, it seems the hotter it gets – literally and figuratively. This is where all the action is. How goes your new assignment, nephew?

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I was delighted to get your card and photographs.  How did you get Hugo Chavez to pose in women’s clothing? I am off to a very good start since being reassigned to America from England last September.  The October financial meltdown was perfect brimstone from Our Father Below. Everyone is afraid and as you have so often lectured, fear and faith cannot occupy the same space.  As people get more paranoid over their material circumstances, they become myopic to the needs of others.  Self centered fear is tinder dry hope and I spend most of my day as a spiritual arsonist setting little fires – destroying peace of mind – releasing carcinogenic defects of character to sicken and weaken Patients.  People become selfish, irritable and discontent.  They blame others. They fight, hoard, hate and best of all, worry only about themselves.  It’s a beautiful thing, really. Yours, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: What a plum assignment! You even have cable TV and an economic crisis. Is it true what they say that 90% of Americans believe in the Enemy but they gratefully think it is politically incorrect to mention him or talk of him? I have trouble in some of these more religious Latin American countries as the churches are constantly sending mixed messages to my target audience. I try to convince those less fortunate that The Enemy has abandoned them and that religion is an opiate designed to medicate them in their dire circumstances – but the power of hope and faith is strong. I suggest working through reality television, the internet, violent video games, fashion magazines and the music industry.  Keep casting shadows, Screwtape.

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I am doing my best to create unrest playing politics. I learned from you the art of hedging and playing both sides. I have started a non profit group called America First which I use as a shell to promote scandalous anti-liberal propaganda.  I also fund another group called Government for The People where I try to discredit conservatives and moderates who might interfere with the massive expansion of social programs.  Fortunately, most Americans have short attention spans and can only handle 144 words at a time.  Thus, the creation of Twitter and decline of print media. It’s much easier to undermine a nation with an entrenched two party system.  I particularly like to discredit Blue Dogs and non-profit groups who preach being of service.

Everyone thinks the freshman President is an agent of Our Father Below but the fact is, he won’t even take our suggestions.  Even we are uncertain where he stands. It’s amusing and exciting  to not be able to find anyone who will admit voting for him.  I am constantly whispering in potential Patients’ ears about how the President is going to ruin the country. I haven’t seen this kind of angst and animosity since Neville Chamberlain gave his “Peace in our time” speech. Warmly, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org:  My brave and noble acolyte, remember the key to social decomposition is a multiplicity of factions and fundamentalism. You must create suspicion, self centered fear and doubt.  Focus your Patients on what they do not have and what may be denied to them. If someone looks they might do the right thing, cast doubts about their own circumstances.  Use the media to promote the notion that the world is a hopelessly screwed up cat’s cradle of self interest and we have to get whatever we can out of it.  Make everyone think they are on their own. It’s a cold world out there – well, except down here in Sweatville.  Have you read Sarah Palin’s new book? Our Father Below was clearly the first angel to “go rogue”. Perhaps we should recruit her? Would she recognize you if you joined her husband’s snowmobiling team?  Respectfully, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I have not read her musings.  I have already signed her ex-son-in-law to a kiss and tell book deal. It will actually be written in comic book format as he has a low IQ and nothing to say – a perfect recruit! I may leave a few copies of her book on Barney Frank’s doorsteps for giggles – although I think Barney would rather read Levi’s book.  I listen to rap, hip-hop and have force my posse to watch MSNBC and Fox each night to grasp the polar extremes.  I preprogrammed one patient’s TV to an infomercial channel that promises him $ 10,000 a week from buying and selling houses using sub-prime loans and government money.  I have corrupted Patients through infomercials – urging them to clean their colons, quit their jobs,  become day traders and on-line poker players.  (I usually let them win a few hands at PokerStars.com and suddenly they have mortgaged the house thinking they are Phil Ivey). I am a huge fan of transfats, high fructose corn syrup and sugar. What better way to displease The Enemy than helping hawk junk food to kids and obese adults.  Have you ever seen a morbidly obese person try to tie their shoes? – G2G, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: LOL. I am off to tour the Amazon this weekend and drop in on President Lula in Brazillia. He is hosting Ahmadinejad from Iran. We have done such a good job in Sao Paolo, it is too dangerous even for a demon.  I had two pitchforks stolen from the valet’s closet last trip.  The Enemy still lurks in the shadows of the slums and in despicable do-gooder groups. However, they can only do so much   Antipathy toward and from the US is creating new enemies and shutting down critical channels of communication and financing. Your admiring uncle, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org:  Uncle, I do worry about the Christmas season.  There’s a lot of regression in America this time of year.  People become aware of one another’s circumstances.  There’s less self pity.  The Enemy seems to go on the offensive every December.  It seems like every January First, we regress back to square one. Worried, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Don’t forget the tried and true New Year’s recipe for creating distance between the Enemy and his Patients.  For women, the “3 Ms”: men, muffins and Mastercard.  If you can get them into bad relationships, eating to medicate feelings and mindlessly shopping, it will surely lead to a negative loop of behavior that will drive greater self loathing.  Our Father Below loves self loathing.  For men, the “3 Ws”:  women, wealth and worth.  Once men start to feel sorry for themselves or believe that they are their masters of their own destinies, they self destruct. It is beautiful to watch.  They have affairs, indulge, posture, and wallow in self pity.  They have less time to parent, lead in their communities or carry the Enemy’s message to others.

Christmas is a tricky time but like rich fudge, its sugar high eventually wears off. G2G. Hugo is about to nationalize the food industry and then we are off to Kabul for a two week vacation in the Pashtun.  Can’t wait. Your loving uncle, Screwtape.

The Life and Times of Chip Douglas

Tige Andrews with Mod Squad co-stars, Michael ...
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The Life and Times of Chip Douglas

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home.  ~David Frost

I grew up with three caregivers – a mother, father and a black and white Admiral 21″ surrogate baby sitter.  My electronic aupair was a warm, friendly spirit whose tubes and wires glowed piping images of perfect nuclear families, communities where morality always triumphed over self-interest and colorful paragons of law and order who went by names like Mannix, Rockford, Kojak and McGarret.

Many a generation Joneser grew up as the seventh child of the Brady Bunch, the fourth kid in My Three Sons and the sixth kid, second row percussion in the Partridge family. While later generations would be Saved By The Bell or snared by Family Ties, I learned about the give and take of life in a large depression era family from The Waltons.   I registered everything that I saw on television and tried to bring these core values into our home.  At night, I would stare into the dark at bedtime and envy how the Waltons all said “good-night” to one another.  The simple act of wishing one another a safe slumber seemed to consummate that deep bond that any family should feel toward one another.  I recall screwing up my courage to introduce a new fraternal bond among my brothers.  I sat silent as the final bedside lights dimmed straining my eyes into the darkness of my older brother’s bedroom, watching for any sign of movement.

“ Night, Tom!” I whispered.  No response.  In a slightly louder voice, “ Good-night, Tom”  Still no reply.  “ Good…” A high top sneaker flew through the door and hit me in the face.  “ Shut-up, you goon.  What do think you’re on, the Waltons?“

I was Chip Douglas, the disturbed vidiot cableman in The Cable Guy, emulating much of what I saw in movies and on television.  I had great empathy for single parents after watching Bill Bixby in “ The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”  It seemed in the 70’s people who were divorced wore a sort of scarlet letter on their foreheads.  We would listen undetected as parents gossiped on the phone about the nature of marital break ups and “divorcees”.  Kids often got labeled as “bad” because they had the misfortune of growing up in a broken home.  I wondered if these same gossipy paragons of virtue had watched Brian Keith struggle as a single dad in “Family Affair” or Dihann Carroll in “Julia”, whether they might realize that most single parents sacrificed more for the sake of raising their children.

We were introduced to Archie Bunker who revealed the comical shortcomings of provincial bigotry.  “M*A*S*H” reminded us of the futility of war. The teenagers of “Room 222” at Walt Whitman High School were bright, driven kids navigating the treacherous shoals of life’s personal, social and political shores.  Each week, a small boat would brush against a difficult issue such as tolerance, drugs and gulp, sex.  These students were guided by a progressive American History teacher, Pete Dixon, who steered them through difficults straits toward adulthood and commanded his crew with velvet understanding.

And then there was my favorite show,  “The Mod Squad”.  This hippie detective drama offered up the three ultra-cool undercover officers:  Julie Barnes played by gorgeous Peggy Lipton, Pete Cochran played by Michael Cole and the fly guy of all-time – Linc Hayes played by Clarence Williams III. I idolized Linc and his teflon indifference to the injustice of society.  Linc had it all going on.  His signature line was a celebration of urban simplicity, “ solid, man.”

I waited endlessly for the day that I could say “ Solid man.“  I finally laid this multicultural affirmation on my father after he told me to sweep out the garage.  Expecting a fight, he was confused by my response. He hesitated and squinted at me as if I had uttered some disrespectful epithet.  We stared at one another.  I could see his wheels turning wanting to reprimand his son for calling him “man” but clearly he was in the deep end of the generational pool.  He shook his head and walked away.  I swaggered to the garage having known that on this day, I stuck it to The Man.

Television shows of the late 60s and 70s offered you families and lives that you wanted to emulate.  Characters were kind, comical, sympathetic and predictable. These were the kind of people with whom you’d vacation, invite to your BBQ and ask to watch your children while you took a vacation to the Poconos.  TV tied America up in a neat little bow and gently walked you through the difficult social and cultural issues that tore at the fabric of its family values in the newspapers, on college campuses and across a great green ocean in Vietnam.

In 1973, the top shows according to Nielsen were: All in the Family, The Waltons, Sanford and Son ,M*A*S*H, Hawaii Five-0, Maude, Kojak (tie), The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (tie), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (tie), Cannon (tie), The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bob Newhart Show (tie), The Wonderful World of Disney (tie) ,Gunsmoke and Happy Days.

In the 70’s, kids played outside because there was no cable TV.  Programming was spread across 11 channels offering a narrow adolescent primetime on cartoon Saturday mornings and early evening sitcoms. Mornings were filled with game shows, soap operas and Jack Lalanne exercise classes. 70’s afternoon television was filled with talk shows, news and boredom. Friday and Sunday nights were primetime slots as 80% of all families were assembled to share an evening meal together and then watch their favorite show. TV was an acceptable companion.  While futurists like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov portended the intellectual downfall of mankind from the boob tube, we watched a Sunday evening double header of Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the Wonderful World of Disney.  We did not feel stupid.  We felt entertained and informed.

I confess to still carrying on my affair with my television although I am overwhelmed by my cable selections and offended by our lowest common denominator preoccupation with all things forbidden.  Each night, out of habit, I turn on the tube. My spouse turns off the TV when I leave the room.  This annoys me. I turn it back on.  She turns it off.  She hates television.  Being the son of an advertising man and having a sardonic preoccupation with the decline of society, I watch dark things and cable sitcoms.  When no one is watching I turn on “Lock Up – Behind Bars in America”.  I am beyond schadenfruede.  I am now actively seeking to consort with all of life’s undesirables – its blemishes, warts and shame

The Center for Media Literacy has tried to reach out to me.  The CML recently published a five point manifesto attempting to help Americans realize that television is not a magic lens to the world.  Reality TV – it seems – is not so real.  News is more entertainment than objective reporting. To those couch potato adults and their chubby pre- diabetic progeny who now have over 400 hundred channels from which to choose 24/7 television, the CML laid out a simple set of truths:

1) You are smarter than your TV

2) TV world is not the real world

3) TV teaches us that some people are supposedly more important than others

4) TV does the same things over and over

5) People use the TV to make money

I know this is a shocker but over 100M Americans do not understand these basic concepts or know that Belgium is in Europe.

The Waltons have been replaced by the Gosselins. TV detectives are no longer all male, fat, bald or based in Hawaii. Mary Tyler Moore and Newhart have moved on or out of therapy.  The Western is dead and Disney is an entire channel. Sonny died in a ski crash and Cher is still dating 20 year olds. We long for Happy Days but now realize the Six Million Dollar Man is a golden parachuted CEO of a failed bank.  Along the way, we are now warned of enlarged prostates, restless legs, sleeping problems and situational anger.  All of this could result in vomiting, severe bone pain, abdominal bleeding, chest palpitations, or suicidal thoughts – – and if all fails, go out and buy a snuggie.

Goodnight and sweet dreams. “Buenos Noches, Tia Tequilla.” “Buonanotte, Snookie.” “Bonne nuit, Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Where the hell is John Boy?

October Country

chaneyjrlon03

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright…”

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright…”

Curt Siodmak

There’s a shaded glen on the edge of any small town where apparitions and dimly lit phantasms move with the silent uncertainty.  It’s a shadowed meridian separating the Indian summer days of September and the twilight chill of a dying November.  The celebrated science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called it “October Country” — a slate gray world where things happen out of the corner of your eye and life seems to be just a quick gasp away from the extraordinary.  It’s along these foggy back roads and footpaths of the unconscious mind that a young boy is likely to meet things that go bump in the night.

Monsters represent our first collision with life’s deep mysteries – forces that we cannot control but might possibly be controlled by how we respond to them.  Later in life, our childhood preoccupations – dinosaurs, sharks and imaginary beasts fall away and are replaced by temporal threats – terrorists, financial insecurities and a world that seems to always be on the cusp of chaos.  While we have grown gray, we have never forgotten those first feelings of irrational adolescent fear when we were forced to confront the creatures and demons that lived in the deep forests of our imaginations.

In 1969, the movie “The Wolfman” prowled the foggy roads and villages of the television countryside.  Lon Chaney Jr. played Larry Talbot, a poor American unfortunate warned by a traveling gypsy that he would be bitten by a werewolf and would transform into a carnivorous monster at the next full moon. “The Wolfman” scared the dog dirt out of me. Once bitten by a werewolf, you would be doomed to become a creature of the night.  The fact that you would kill by a full moon and then wake up the next morning refreshed could mean anyone could be a werewolf.  Since I had a bad habit of sleep walking, I would often wake up in unfamiliar parts of the house.  Had I killed an old woman the night before? Was that hair in my teeth mine?

Were others werewolves?  I watched to see who ate the extra hamburger and who seemed to enjoy their steak rare.

Yet, after seeing the movie, Dracula, I was uncertain if werewolves scared me more than vampires.  The early vampires of film were hardly the young, swarthy teens of the Twilight series.  In 1922, creepy FW Murnau filmed the German silent film “Nosferatu”.  To say the ugly stick had hit this Teutonic vampire was an uber understatement. How this gangly ghoul got any fräulein to show her face, let alone her neck, was beyond the rules of the natural world.  Later, actors like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred as leading vampires seducing women and leaving a trail of blood and perfume in their wake.  In a strange way, these ugly middle-aged actors gave men hope.  If a pallid 40 something guy that looked like a grocery store manager could get a gorgeous woman to surrender her neck and about five pints of plasma by saying, “ look into my eyes, my eyes “ in a faux eastern European accent, there was a chance that paying that $60 cover charge for a NY night club was not in vain.

Between my own preoccupation with these scary stories, horror movies and comic books with names like “ The Unexpected” and “ Tales from the Crypt”, my imagination had no room for rational thought to filter the ghosts, demonic possessions and phantasms.  My obsessions turned inevitably to irrational fear and I began hearing noises under my bed and seeing monsters in scabrous shadows.

The fear became so acute I literally found it impossible to walk the ten feet of hallway from my bedroom to the restroom.  So, like most red-blooded eight year olds, I improvised.  If awakened during the black hours between midnight and five am, I would relieve myself behind the bedroom door.

For weeks, my new solution worked beautifully until, to my horror, the cat started to also relieve herself in my spot behind the door.  At first, I whisked her away but I realized that during school hours she would be using my room as a litter box.  I decided to kill the increasingly stinging odor of ammonia with a bottle of my father’s English Leather cologne.  The mixture of cologne and urine created a pungent scent reminiscent of a loo in London’s Waterloo Station. The new aroma was successful in repulsing the cat that would not even enter my bedroom.

“What-the-hell-is-that-smell?” My dad asked as he came into my room.  I was jolted with a consequence I had not contemplated.  What if my parents discovered that I had been peeing behind the door? Being a young boy, I was highly skilled at the art of diversions and redirected his attention to my recently organized desk drawer and numerous questions about his job.

He would shake his head still unable to find the epicenter of the miasma.  “I swear to God if I catch either that cat or dog upstairs, I am going to tie them to the back of a truck.” I thought about implicating the animals but loved them too much to risk the potential that he might leave them tied to a moving van  I went to bed each night declaring that this would be the night I would brave the darkness for the sake of hygiene and yet, each time I awoke, I could not risk getting my trachea ripped out by Larry Talbot aka Wolfman.

Each night, I would stare at my Aurora plastic models that I had constructed with the glowing faces and hands – the Wolfman, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Dracula. I would turn on my radio to listen to the voice of midnight DJ’s as if to reassure myself that others were awake somewhere. Like clockwork, the song “Nights in White Satin” would moan like a dirge out of the weak illuminated light of my AM radio.  The Moody Blues would croon hauntingly, ” breathe deep, the gathering gloom, watch lights fade from every room…Cruel orb that rules the night, removes the color from our sight…” By the time the British voice asked the listener, “ and which is an illusion,” I was utterly freaked out and convinced that outside my room the undead waited patiently to eat my face.

By day, I was a young, invincible fear junkie wanting to hear every gory detail about every scary thing that ever happened to anyone – particularly kids my age.  My brother was very accommodating – sharing stories of escaped insane asylum inmates with hooks for hands. He told me of ghostly hitchhikers that warned drivers of dangerous roads and people buried alive.  By the time you finished a fireside autumn monster story session, you would more likely let your kidneys fail than venture by yourself into a darkened toilet.

The day arrived when my mother decided to pull up all the shag rugs to take advantage of the wood floors that rested unappreciated under the bedroom carpets.  In the corner of my bedroom was a rotted hole where the permanently wet wood had yielded my relentless nightly assaults.  Instead of being implicated, my mother mistakenly presumed that the shower was leaking.  When I arrived home,  she was moments away from paying a plumber to tear up the floors to find the leak in the shower tray.  In a moment of moral crisis, I confessed that I had been fouling the bedroom corner for eight months.  Instead of punishing me, she just sat down and started to laugh until she literally cried.  “ Please just use the toilet,” she said. “ And stop reading all that garbage that scares you at night.”  She never did tell my father.

I stopped my midnight number one runs but occasionally a bad dream got the better of me and I found myself racing into my parents’ bedroom to sleep on their floor.  My father hated this invasion of privacy.  It was bad enough to have four boys and no intimate time with one’s spouse but I also had the annoying habit of thumping my head on the pillow when I was scared.  On a typical night, one could hear a rhythmic pounding from my room as I soothed my anxieties and quite possibly damaged my brain.

My Dad would know I had arrived as he was soon awakened by the THUMP-THUMP-THUMPING of my head pounding the floor at the foot of his bed.  In a half stupor, he would say, ” Jesus Ruth, the workers are here awfully early!” Then he would slip temporarily back into slumber.  At the next THUMP-THUMP he would bolt awake recognizing the cranial percussion.  If an anthropologist were studying the scene, he would explain my head banging as the innate warning system of an animal trying to terrify its antagonists – both real and imagined. Eventually, the concussive noises would die down and I would pass out from sheer exhaustion.

” Michael, cut that crap out.” He would hiss in the dark.

I was relieved that he was awake. If I could just fall asleep before him, all would be well.  At first, I was too anxious and felt too much pressure to sleep.  Soon, his snores indicated that he had left me behind to find my way through October country.

Thump! No reaction.

I could not stop myself but wanted to avoid another rebuke. THUMP-hesitate -THUMP! “Damn it, Michael. Cut that out or you have to go back to your room.”  I smiled. I could tell he was more awake now.  I would be able to fall asleep before him and would live to see another dawn.

It seemed in October country the sun came up later and the night arrived well before it was welcome.  However, if you could keep your dad awake, at least until you fell asleep, you just might make it to your ninth birthday.