Hit Your Bottom, Find Your Top

Cover of
Cover of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants

There are some, down the road between hither and yon

That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go, though the weather be foul.

On you will go though your enemies prowl

On you will go though the Hakken Kraks howl

Onward and up many a frightening creek,

Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak…”

~ Theodore Geiser aka Dr Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go

Stephen Covey once said, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”  It is inevitable that while on this existential expedition of Life that we will miss sign posts, lose our way and occasionally end up in a ditch.  It is buried in the fine print of the human condition that we will periodically hit a bottom.  The proverbial nadir can come in the form of any physical, emotional, spiritual or mental stimulus that compels us to make very important changes in our lives.  A personal abyss can be filled with nasty nightmares where worst case scenarios keep playing in our heads like a 24 hour horror festival.  An incubus can be tinged with painful humiliation or gut-wrenching spiritual doubt.  While no light seems to escape from these metaphysical black holes, it is within them that souls are often reborn through life altering personal epiphanies.

Some people get lucky.  They make rapid course corrections following moderate miscues.  We call these fortunates ” high bottoms” — those who have had mild brushes with consequence and in doing so, make alterations that avoid the deeper canyons of catastrophe.  Others are hard-headed and need to be tossed around in  life’s white water before finally gaining perspective.  Sometimes the most successful among us lack the basic ingredients of humility and self-awareness to see a bottom coming.  Their spiritual GPS is still “searching for the satellite” as they speed through one of life’s guardrails.  These advocates of self determination tend to rely on their own best thinking and are certain that if there is a God, he or she must look and think alot like them.

Just ask the endless parade of celebrities and power brokers who have seemingly had it all — only to sabotage their own lives.  Each low is determined by a simple psycho-social equation: “The Probability of Change Is Inversely Proportionate To The Pain One Is Willing To Endure Before Taking Action.”  How bad does it have to get?  What needs to occur to cause someone to change the way they live?  Not all crises of the soul are self-inflicted.  Bad things happen to good people. Yet,  life changing events test the very foundation of any person’s belief system.  Often people find true spirituality and religion in these midnights of mortality.  If you subscribe to the doctrine that life is a “testing place and not a resting place,” bottoms are critical ledges that can catch us and redirect us in a new, more positive direction.  For those in the thick of crisis, Churchill offered sage direction: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Hubris and humility anchor the opposite ends of a spiritual continuum that begins as a perilous, high velocity rapid of self worship that eventually widens into a peaceful river of unconditional love.  Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is merely thinking of yourself less of the time.   It is in our tormented moments that we come to the conclusion that only a power greater than ourselves can lift us into the light.  Often that higher power manifests in the form of real people — individuals who see beyond our imperfections and focus on our possibilities.  They reward us with their simple acts of  forgiveness and love.  In giving us grace, they receive it.  They understand that we are all strands in a rope of compassion fashioned out of servants helping others rise from the ashes of their own spontaneous combustion.

It’s these acts of humanity and unconditional support that we see ourselves as part of a community of souls. We realize the greatest gift that we can give is ourselves to others.   “Sinners make the best saints.”  Bill Wilson often remarked when he was asked about the miracle of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It all started for Wilson by sharing his bottom with another person in the throes of their own despair and in that moment of raw humanity, they discovered grace.  Grace is everywhere and lines the pockets of every living soul.  It is a currency that never depreciates.

A catalyst for transformation might be getting fired, a divorce, an arrest, being caught in a lie, hurting a loved one, an illness, the death of a friend, getting into trouble or the painful recognition that one is materially rich and spiritually bankrupt.  Any relationship challenge or crisis can become a critical turning point in our belief system.  When we fearless inventory our part in a fiasco, we often find our own egos skulking in the shadows — trying to convince us that we are victims and not responsible.  Pain leads to humility.  Humility leads to surrender. Surrender is followed by the revelation that we simply do not have all the answers or control.  The recognition that there is a God and we are not him/her leads to a thirst for a theology whose principal tenets are anchored in serenity, humanity and tolerance

A soldier once said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  Most of us have bargained with God for intervention or relief from a problem and usually reneged on promises once the crisis passed.  Yet, sometimes a bargain sticks.  Every religion is filled with examples of faith found in the midst of fear.  It can take a crisis to shake us out of the illusion that somehow we’re exempt from life happening to us.  “Life,” John Lennon said, “is what happens while you are busy making plans.”  How we react to life — and whether we take life on life’s terms — ultimately determine our progress as human beings.

Ultimately, a bottom is a good thing.  If for no other reason, we are taught to appreciate the peaks of our existence.  Be of good cheer and remember that we never get dealt more than we can handle.  Strife, pain and low points also allow us to know who our friends are, confirm our values and see that life can be so much more than we might see in our limited view.  Travail shakes us from her chrysalis and we eventually take flight as butterflies — lifted on the gentle breezes of forgiveness and redemption.

It is Springtime and a time of rebirth.  It is a time to remember, however low we go, we can always find grace.  Enter Dr. Seuss, “…On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are…and you will succeed?  Yes, You will indeed (98 and ¾ guaranteed)…and oh the places, you’ll go!”

The Ballad of Pancho and Kenny

Gimme head with hair

Long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming,

Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there hair

Shoulder length or longer

Here baby, there mama

Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair….

Hair, Broadway production of Hair

In 1968, America was in the throes of social anarchy as legions of bearded beatniks advocated making “love not war”, recreational use of drugs and “stick it to the man” rock and roll.

In this time of clashing values and political unrest, a suburban nuclear family could gratefully distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. The anarchists fit a certain profile: they wore head bands, John Lennon glasses, Birkenstocks sandals, and jacket vests with stitched patches of peace signs, marijuana leaves and phrases like “hell no, we won’t go”.  Yet, the simplest of litmus of tests for identifying a potential  sh*t-stirrer was – –  the length of his hair.

I was taught to fear hippies – although there were very few of them in my neighborhood.  Some of the older kids in our town had started to wear their hair long – really long – over their ears and down past their shoulders.  They looked like girls from the back and seemed to act like them – eschewing sports and always talking about not wanting to fight. If China ever invaded the US, they would probably run away or be too “high on drugs” to even here the tanks coming. They would congregate next to the Shell station or sit on the playground wall after school, smoking cigarettes and shaking their heads as if they were debating how to best blow up City Hall.

The best defense against these social parasites was to unfurl one’s own flag to the world.  As an ex-military man who now pledged his allegiance to the economic and corporate vitality of America, my father felt it was important that his young boys conveyed his values to the world and served as a living example of a home that had kept proper priorities.  His gesture of solidarity to the conservative values of Richard Nixon came in the form of a buzz hair cut.

Once a month on a Saturday morning, my brothers and I would be spirited from our beds to Kenny and Poncho’s local barber shop –  a nexus of conservatism and a great source of personal reaffirmation for my father who often felt besieged after a workweek spent in the chaos of a world tilting on its axis.  As he paraded his four young sons into the four chair, microscopic closet reeking of cologne and talcum powder, a crowd of elderly patriots would momentarily lower their newspapers and nod in approval as my father’s young recruits were declared fit for duty and processed for the future of America.

The door opened with the tinkling of a bell that was hooked above the unstable glass door.  Heavy set Kenny would glance in our direction as he shaped a perfect line the neck of a guy that could have been a stunt double for Jack Webb.  He would look down at us and shake his head with feigned irritation, “You’re late Marines.”  I am not sure Kenny had actually ever served in the military.  From the smell of him, the only action he ever saw was on Friday nights at the local High Brow Lounge. He sported a white barber’s smock that seemed incongruous with his slicked back Elvis pompadour.  You would never catch this oiled manatee without a Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his wry, Southern mouth.

To Kenny and my father, long hair was the enemy.  It was a sign of unrest and confusion. Long hairs were like small Asian countries that if allowed to develop unmanaged would blossom into havens of communism, disease and corruption. Having short hair was a sign of a man’s willingness to subordinate himself to a higher purpose. The disintegration of the Army started with a private’s hair, soon bled into personal hygiene and ultimately tore down the very fabric of society – setting us back to the Stone Age, a dark, godless time of venal pursuits, hand to hand survival and no Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

The actual buzz cut took very little time to administer but garrulous Kenny would prolong the experience – asking you questions intended to embarrass you and make the old men chuckle.  “So you got a girlfriend, sport?” I could see his reflection in the mirror as he looked over my shoulder and winked at a man facing me in the bullpen.  “Well, – – sort of.” I stammered. I lied, not wanting to invite further ridicule.  “Sort of?“ Kenny exaggerated his reaction.  He poked his comb in my direction, “Either you do or you don’t!” My father laughed as Kenny’s brother, Poncho urged him to sit still ‘lest he cut his throat with the straight razor.  My father sighed as Poncho covered his face in hot towels and slapped Club Man Lemon Lime cologne on his cheeks.

The finale of our shearing ritual included having your neck and face wiped with a brush covered in suffocating talcum powder.  The clean up rarely liberated all the severed hairs as they invariably fell down the back of your shirt and clung to your neck causing you to itch until your next shower. I would sit and watch Kenny repeating his rite of passage on three other brothers – their hair tumbling down to the ground like Communists mowed down by a machine gun.

My father would linger at his barber shop man cave – talking politics leavened with rich, blue swear words to underscore his contempt for the state of Congress and the state of the nation.  My older brother would ease drop on the heated conversation as if somehow he might pick up vital intelligence that would help him better conform as the first child in this house fashioned out of rigid political timber.  We would roll out of the barber shop like four freshly minted tennis balls, unconsciously feeling our heads and neck where the peach fuzz of our adolescent hair remained as a silent reminder to our lifetime commitment to this man’s military.

Yet, this was a time of profound change and it became inevitable that shifting social mores and restless adolescence would invade the prehistoric oasis of Kenny and Pancho’s barber shop.  It was a normal autumn Saturday with football in the air.  My father was facing a day of sidelines, yard work, and a briefcase bulging with office work.  I had once again volunteered to be the first to be sheared and had sat down to the October edition of Sports Illustrated when I distinctly heard my older brother give Kenny instructions on how to cut his hair.  I was certain I had just heard him say, “Just leave the side burns”.

There was a moment of palpable tension as several older men lowered their newspapers.  Perhaps Poncho might have even nicked my dad’s throat with the straight razor – – a miscue as rare as Southern California snow. Kenny looked confused. He hesitated and looked over at my father who had started to rise in his chair.  He looked at my brother who simply stared ahead – aware of the consequences he was now setting into motion.

“Since when did you start telling Kenny how to cut your hair?” my father growled.  “Since today.  It’s my hair, you know.” It was like watching a car wreck.  I could not peal my eyes away.  The entire wall of men and boys was now fixated on the barber, the crew cut father and his eldest son.  My father made the next move. “Just the usual, Kenny. Right son?” He leaned back slowly closing his eyes as if the issue had been nipped in the bud. My brother burst with a second countermanding command, “That’s fine, Kenny, but please leave a little more on top and keep the side burns.”

I could have given him the Congressional Medal of Honor that day. He always had it the toughest as the eldest of four boys.  He would spend twenty years breaking in my father and mother to the ways of a world that was counter-cultural to their stiff upper lip, depression era childhoods.  At this precise moment, as a lanky adolescent, banana republic teenager, he was declaring his independence from the tyranny of our Saturday morning buzz haircuts.  It was a beautiful moment.

As with all initial brave acts of independence, his “hair” rebellion was ruthlessly suffocated.  Kenny administered a number 4 razor trim and my brother walked into the autumn morning as clean as a cue ball unable to fit in with a growing subculture of friends whose parents had consented to shoulder length hair. However, the damage was now done.  Within months, my brother was getting his hair cut at a “stylist” – a compromise tendered by my mother to prevent more social unrest.  My father had little use for “stylists” and for any haircut that cost more than $5.

That Independence day was the first fracture in our family unit and perhaps portended the changes that would ultimately consume Pancho and Kenny.  As the 70’s washed over all of us, kids let their hair grow free and the faithful knot of conservative barbershop warriors died, drifted or disappeared.  Kenny and Pancho’s closed and was replaced by, of all places, a hair salon called “The Gates of Spain.”.

Today, my father’s hair is still cut like an Augusta fairway.  He remains a handsome and confident character, a successful retiree who is delighted to see short hair make its comeback.  He smiles as he takes his daily walk at the beach and sees the hundreds of shorn young men looking as if they just completed officer’s candidate school.

Deep down, he knows the majority of them are “slackers” who would not know a hard days work if it were to kick them in the rear end.  Yet, perhaps the short haircuts are a harbinger of a return to simpler things and better times.  Perhaps, we are on the edge of a new epoch when a person’s value is measured not by his poison rhetoric or critical condemnation of his country but by the content of his character and whether or not he creates something of value – – like a good old fashioned buzz cut.

Libra, 49

Anatomical Man, Les Très Riches Heures du duc ...
Image via Wikipedia

When the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars. Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, The Age of Aquarius…. Aquarius! Aquarius!

(Aquarius, Hair)

I just hit 49.  It sounds like a lucky number.  7 is its square root.  It is a mere one year before the mortal male equinox of 50 – a life moment that is generally followed by the purchase of a sport’s car, a pointless fling with someone in the personal training industry or a kidney stone. These gray temple birthdays are generally a time where I just want to be left alone to eat five Clark bars sitting by myself in the closet.

As a younger man, I sought to find meaning in everything and was desperate to unlock the mysteries of life – and my brother’s piggy bank safe where he kept his loose change.  My mother was a classic mid-70’s, new age Californian who believed that cosmic law superseded dogmatic religious doctrine.  My father, on the other hand, was a huge fan of dogma. He felt that authoritarian religion was the glue that held together the family, the community and society. If we had lived in the 12th century, we would have rose to the call of Pope Gregory VIII and his band of crusaders to take the stuffing out of  Saladin.  While we were in Jerusalem fighting for the Holy Father, my mother, most likely would have been stoned, burned or drowned as a witch – simply for her insubordinate fascination with the sacred and profane.

Her preoccupation with new age spirituality resulted in a library of coffee table books on the paranormal, psychic pets, vortexes, and Native American mythology, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Astrology.  We were encouraged to employ such ground breaking devices such as the Bio Mate, a calibrated series of dials that could track one’s biorhythms and in doing so, better understand your invisible meridians that moved like radioactive sine waves through your body. On our 21st birthday, my mother paid for each son to see a famous psychic to have our auras read.

Astrology was very popular in the 70s.  It seemed everyone knew “his or her sign” in the Age of Aquarius.  I was born Libra, Cancer rising.  The “rising”, known as the ascendant, was explained to me to be the astrological sign that was emerging in the east at the time that I was born.  The ascendant is the initial impression one might make in a first encounter.  One’s ascendant is your veneer to the world.  Years later, an astrologer would show me my birth chart replete with its Conjunctions, Opposites, Squares, Trines, Sextiles, Semi-Squares, Sesqui-Quadrates, Semi-Sextiles, Quintiles, Bi-Quintiles and Inconjunctions.  It was harder to grasp than my college Statistics course.

Secretly, I did not buy into this celestial gobbledygook but it really seemed to resonate with my primary target: new age girls. Being so fluent in these strange sciences and dark arts gave me confidence like I was secretly wearing the coolest psychedelic shirt at a Dead show. It was my destiny to wait until the moon was in the seventh house and then I would find a Virgo with whom I would mate.  In reality, I loathed the sign of Virgo because it sounded like Virgil – which was the name of our neighbor who mowed his lawn shirtless each Sunday revealing more hair on his back than our entire family had on its heads.  I decided instead that I wanted a Gemini, maybe two – since they normally travel in pairs.

I could not reconcile my Mom’s Bay Area spirituality with my father’s rigid Southern Cal religious Christianity. I sort of played on both teams – depending on the circumstances. My mom had equipped me well to disguise myself as a new age chameleon.  While, it resulted in some memorable liaisons, I did not meet any sane individuals.  Eventually, I grew weary of the Stevie Nicks knock-off who believed she was a Welsh witch. I gagged on the fruit and granola sprite that swore that she could talk to her dead grandmother.  I longed for a more traditional partner whose religious order did not include running naked through redwoods at night.   Like the prodigal son, I staggered back to traditional Christianity. But, to this day, out of habit, I always check my horoscope.

I remain a classical Libra. Librans are a creative lot and look strong at first glance but we are essentially fragile spirits.  We are the equivalent to that knock off antique furniture you buy at Pier One or The Bombay Company.  We look so good in the store but once assembled, we can’t stop wobbling or handle much pressure.

We are an “air” sign.  Astrological insiders know that each sign is comprised of one of the four elements.  It could also mean that we are airheads.  We value freedom – of thought, expression and movement – which explains why most Libran men prefer to wear boxer shorts.

We are diplomats, aesthetes and easy-going ne’er do wells who prefer justice, balance and a good piece of cherry pie. We despise loud people and find smoking a huge turn-off.  We like long walks on the beach and oops, wait, I am sounding like a former playmate of the month.  Where was I?

Our Achilles heel is our vanity.  The fact that my wife and I both love the same person seems to support this theory.  I am told we Librans can be unreliable, superficial and indecisive.  This explains why friends have repeatedly encouraged me to run for public office.

I am told our “ruling planet” is Venus.  I am uncertain what a ruling planet does but I assume it involves some form of disapproval.  To have “Venus in Libra” suggests you are intimate, adore the attention of others, passionate, naturally compromising and always in search of a harmonious, good time.  This explains the behavior of several Librans: Bill Clinton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bill Wilson (Founder of AA), Genghis Khan, John Lennon, Princess Grace and HP Lovecraft.  Boy, I would kill to attend that dinner party.

Librans are politically independent – except once a year when Venus is aligned with Mars. On this night, we have an uncontrollable urge to eat a quart of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and vote for William Howard Taft for President. Fortunately, Taft is dead – all 300lbs of him, but we still long for more full figured politicians.

Other famous Libras include Evel Knieval – which explains every bad choice I ever made in college.  As you survey the list of Mr. and Mrs. Librans – you unearth myriad writers, actors, poets, activists, educators, politicians and only one Nazi.  Alas, you find only two Presidents.  It seems the law of averages would suggest we should have at least twice as many heads of state.  Perhaps we were writing poetry in Math class instead of being like the Taurus tool in the front row that kept raising his sycophantic hoof for attention.

Some websites advise you on how to attract a Libran woman.  They are sensual and visceral creatures.   You are most likely to meet one at a Mother’s Natural Food store, a Grateful Dead concert or in France. Traffic stopping Parisian Librans include Catherine Denueve and Bridget Bardot.

According to Zodiac Signs Astrology.com: “Environment is important for the Libran woman.  Make sure the first date is somewhere classy and elegant with posh surroundings, such as lunch at an elegant bistro. (Immediately following lunch) walk along the tree lined pathways of a ravine in the summertime with the flowers blooming.  She will feel at peace and love it.  Give her compliments and tell her how much she is appreciated. She may reply bashfully but with each compliments, the radiant glow inside her will shine brighter and brighter. She may need a few days away from you.  But don’t despair, she is merely pressing the reset button on the relationship. Be dramatically romantic by tucking sweet love notes into her pocket. Pick her flowers and watch old films. These things bring great joy to the Libra woman and they make her feel special”.

You know, come to think of it, forget it.  This is way, way too much work.  Find a tree-lined ravine with wild flowers?  Love notes? Are you kidding me? What if you live in Cleveland?

My advice is to those who have grown weary of e Harmony and Match.com and want to attempt celestial matchmaking – is go in search of another sign.  I actually hear Aquarians are cheap dates and do not mind washing other people’s underwear.  Obviously, if you can find those Gemini twins, that would be, well – – a spiritual experience.