I’m Building A Safe Place And You Can’t Come!

             So the kids are coming home – from college, from new jobs in far away cities and out from underneath a mountain of college applications. The age-old axioms still hold true. While life is ephemeral, this time of year is a cunning psychosocial re-run that is as perennial as Jimmy Stewart racing down the snow covered streets of the mythical town of Bedford Falls, NY.

My eldest is now a businesswoman and has developed a range of opinions. Her latest revelation is the 38% withholding being faithfully absconded from her bi-weekly paycheck. To her fraternal grandfather’s delight, she is rethinking her political convictions. Thanks to Obamacare she can almost bridge the period where our insurance and Medicare cover her so she might never have to actually purchase it for herself. Yes, George Bailey, it really is a wonderful life!

My college sophomore arrived in a cloud of dust – disgorged from a massive SUV full of teens, filthy laundry and a cacophony of coughs that was reminiscent of a TB ward. He is the middle man on the homo sapien evolutionary chart — not quite upright. He can hit a jump shot from thirty feet but cannot seem to find a trashcan or hit a toilet. As with all mid-semester collegiates, he is paler than a cue ball and unaware that most people go to bed before 3am. Within moments of his arrival, the foyer looks like an alleyway in Mumbai as discarded clothes and food wrappers litter the floor attracting an adoring entourage of cat and dog who will swim under him like pilot fish for as long as he is home.

My final child, a high school senior, is in the process of breaking up with us. We recognize all the signs – curt but polite  responses, unreturned texts, and a palpable annoyance at the littlest peccadilloes like my breathing or how I chew food. Between the avalanche of completing his college applications and a young person’s burning ambition to march toward the front-lines of manhood, he is ready for reassignment.

Holiday expectations quickly morph into resentments and I’m getting annoyed that no one is paying attention to me. Even bribery to spend time together is not working as they have their own money. Most years, I become a grump – silently wallowing in self-pity, overeating, and talking to the dog as he sympathetically receives my latest Martin Luther list of complaints about the decline of the modern pater familus.

Yet this year, it’s different. There is a movement across America that is warming the mud of my holiday self absorption. Contrary to some people’s opinion that I am wearing a garland of pity fashioned out of misguided self-interest and rice-paper sensitivity, I have learned that I am actually a victim of discrimination.

I knew it – ageism, mildly overweightism, suburbanism – you name it; these subtle forms of overt exclusion seep from the pores of a hyper-judgmental world. After carefully reading up on the demands of a legion of determined students across America’s universities who are bravely confronting the meanness and unconscious prejudice of their cocooned educational institutions, I declared my own independence.

After emerging from football hibernation in my man-cave on Thanksgiving Day while my wife had been spending her day in the kitchen, she had the audacity to ask me to peel potatoes. I was naturally upset as I did not expect a request for support – after all, food preparation is traditionally women’s work. My wife is also British. I explained that since half of my family was Irish, I could not understand her insensitivity to asking me to peel potatoes. Having immigrated to the US during the last potato famine and having endured the poverty, racism and tyranny of English colonialism and US slum lords, I was appalled that she would be so culturally unrealistic to expect me to peel a few praties on the graves of my ancestors.

As she smirked and raised an eyebrow, I stomped my foot.

“I won’t stand for this micro-aggression. Your making me relive my forefathers’ humiliation as they stepped off the boat at Ellis Island.”

She handed me a bowl and the peeler. “You’re lucky that we both love the same person.”

Church was no refuge. The stewardship sermon encouraged me to reach deeper into my pocket to support those less fortunate. This made me feel bad. I don’t like it when people make me feel bad and I made a mental note to petition the Worship committee to be more understanding that sermons should not discriminate against anyone who does not feel like helping poor people. The worship challenge now is to find a lowest common denominator subject that can appeal to every soul in our hyper-heterogeneous congregation. My suggestion included a primer on how to operate a lathe or make a bird feeder – but perhaps I was now being bigoted because some members may not know what a dowel is.

Micro-aggression was everywhere. Clients wanting me to work on their projects without regard for how I was feeling or what I had going on. “Look, Homeland is on tonight and I’m feeling kind of fragile today.”Bosses expecting me to meet deadlines and conform to their definition of performance. Like who knows better than I do about how I perform? Later, while deep in thought at a traffic light, a woman bullied me by honking her horn. Here I was worrying about Kim Kardashian’s latest pregnancy and I am attacked.

The micro-aggression storm grew in intensity as my supposed “Friends” did not press “like” on my latest posting on Facebook. The accountant called. The IRS, ever the aggressor, was expecting me to pay increased taxes to keep funding our inefficient and dysfunctional government. The biggest insult arrived from my son’s safe haven college asking me to remit this semester’s full tuition – a bloated payment that helps fund a majority of other students who are on financial aid. Gratefully, I learned that many of those receiving my support were my brothers and sisters in self pity.

 I was depressed. It seemed wherever I looked, ageism, body-ism, sectarianism ( I’m convinced Methodists and Catholics keep secrets and won’t share them ) and discrimination followed me like cheap cologne. I declared to my family that I needed a safe place (aside from my bathroom) where I could feel unthreatened.

I emailed our First Selectman to ask if He would consider converting the local teen center to a fat-guy, judgment-free zone where late boomers could watch football, play Christmas music year round, eat pie, smoke a cigar, not have to answer client calls, or help anyone with anything unless we felt like it. I would want the front desk clerk at this Shangri-La of lethargy to weigh 300lbs to make us feel thin. Best of all, I’m going to demand that someone else pay for this as compensation for years of dislocation.

My Selectman wrote me back.

“Thanks for the terrific suggestion. I’m not sure where things stand with the re-purposing of this location but we will certain circle back to you. I can completely understand how you feel and want to better understand your issues. Sincerely, Rob”

His note was riddled with undercurrents of aggression and sarcasm. How you feel? Clearly he was singling me out. Understand? What, I’m not speaking well enough for you to comprehend my concerns? I bet you think I have a couple of Krispy Cremes tucked in my cheeks? It’s because I’m over fifty? Or maybe you don’t like the fact that I’m in healthcare or drive a Ford. Note to self: Demand his resignation. I’m not going away.

I’m going to find my safe place and when I get it, he won’t be invited. In fact, I’ll make sure all those people that made me feel like a middle aged, silver-haired baby will be in the parking lot being told they can’t join my carnival of conceit. I’ll show them that it does not pay to be judgmental, exclusive and close-minded.

It’s sad that they will never understand what it means to be me. Once I’m in my safe place, I’ll never have to waste time away from Homeland trying to explain it to them. They will be out of my life – expunged by the segregation that they once subjected me to.

I may need to find a new job, new clients, maybe even a new family, and well, a lot of stuff. But I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m going to demand someone reimburse me for all those things.

By the way, has anyone seen my U-9 participation trophy?

 

 

Postcards Hung on A Distant Mirror

imagesThere is an ancient oak on the corner of my rural street that is always first to turn its back on summer. The pastel colors appear unobtrusively frosting the highest branches and whisper that change has once again found me. Life in a small New England town has its own predictable rhythm of seasons and stages. The dog days of August have been reduced to a collage of digital pictures littered across Facebook pages – a happy memorial to moments when our family once again finds each other for adventures across lakes, mountains and across two coasts of America.

My body and my priorities are shifting with middle age as I become keenly aware of the passage of time. As a helicopter Boomer, I have spent two decades along a thousand green grass sidelines and silhouetted in the deep recesses of school auditoriums. I did not want to miss a single moment of my captive constituents. It is in sharp contrast to my own childhood where we were released into the wild as soon as we could master a Schwinn bicycle. Fathers were only seen after 9PM at night and on weekends.

My Dad chuckles at the myriad photographs of our teenagers logging more frequent flyer miles than a traveling salesman.  He wonders whether my insistence on work life balance is an improvement on his T-Rex parenting or perhaps a sign of the permanent blurring of the lines between parent and child and as such, the decline of Western Civilization.

“You don’t see the Chinese attending every school concert.”  It’s always about the Chinese.

“Well, Dad, I don’t know.  I’m not living there.  And besides, most families have only one child.”

We usually end up tangled in a kite string knotted with political disagreement.

“I was not supposed to be your friend. I was preparing you,” he would retort as we argued over his logic enforcing some nuclear punishment for a molecular misdemeanor. Ah yes, grasshopper, times have changed.

I now find no greater pleasure than sitting around an August dinner table becoming the butt of my adult Millennials revisionist recounting of any day spent together – unplugged and in close quarters. As they grow old and leave our nest, the house has transformed into a listless museum of artifacts from an earlier time. I am reduced to a mere curator.

I am the ornithologist who, having spent months feeding his captive condors with a bizarre plastic hand puppet, must now release them into the wild. Our drop-offs at college have now become emotional pilgrimages as we take endless iPhone photographs and splash them affectionately across social media documenting our fledglings in their new nests. This sits in sharp contrast to 1979 when my parent’s loaded up my possessions in large hefty bags — barely slowing their car down to 15mph before shoving me out on to the curb of a blazing hot suburban, Claremont College street.

I could have sworn I heard Dad say, “Have a nice life!” as he whistled “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My mother yelled something about not mixing colored and whites ( she meant laundry)  and my father reminded me for the millionth time of the myriad sacrifices he had made to finance my expedition into a private college education. Within days, he would turn my bedroom into a third home office. There was no such thing as a living shrine to his collegiate children. It was his house and he was taking determined to take ground lost to his teenaged parasites…damn straight!

An hour away, I was optimistically navigating a phalanx of young men moving toward what I thought was a keg of beer but turned out to be the only good-looking girl on our entire campus. I was on my own.

My roommate, Donald, was a circumspect academic who instantly assessed that I was going to be a problem. He had arrived hours before me – with both parents. His side of the room was outfitted with a mini-refrigerator, coffee machine, photographs of his family and a stereo system that resembled a NASA workstation. He was an only child.

After living wild among four feral boys, an insane cat and a promiscuous dog, I was unprepared for this massive dose of personal consideration and responsibility. I was a slob and could leave a trail that Helen Keller could follow. I was Oscar and Donald was my Felix. I am not sure which of us was more distressed by the fickle fates that lashed us together. He was a soft, erudite Eloi – spending his early mornings reading the Wall Street Journal in the dining hall, and faithfully attending 8AM classes while I led the sullied life of a carnivorous Morlock, laboring at night – refusing to rise before the sun had arced above the trees to remind me that lunch was being served.

Over the year, the room became a collision of ideologies. One roommate – a German laser guided missile who would make provisions for events that might be years away; the other, a loud Irish skyrocket with no discernable trajectory. Donald was a genuine passive aggressive. He would not have survived a nanosecond in the house of my father. He looked at me as if I was an I-5, ten-car pile up and would talk to himself in first person when he was upset with me. As a single cell paramecium that moved only toward light, food, Grateful Dead music and the opposite sex, I was an alien – an extraterrestrial from a universe that seemed content with chaos and the sybaritic notion that tomorrow was at least 12 hours away.

I caught him one day dressed in his “church clothes”. It was a Tuesday and it seemed odd that this organized Lutheran would be attending a religious service.

“Did someone die? Are you, like, going to a funeral?” I asked.

“I’m interviewing for a summer internship with Goldman Sachs.” He sighed in the mirror as he looped his foulard tie under his collar.

I was perplexed. “Why would you want to work at a department store for the summer? I mean you could do much better working in a warehouse or washing windows.”

He started talking to himself again. “He thinks it’s a department store…a department store…” He left the room. I waited a few minutes and then helped myself to some Chips Ahoy cookies from his refrigerator and turned on an old episode of the Twilight Zone on his television. I laughed to myself thinking of Don working in the Men’s department in some lonesome mall.

It all flooded back to me as I dropped my son off at college this week. In many ways, he is my carbon copy – and each of his life experiences flood me with déjà vu moments of amusement. His departure has left our home with only one child remaining – me. My sixteen year old is unervingly responsible to a point where I am uncertain whether he was a changeling from the hospital.  There is now no one to blame for a mess or accuse of eating the last cookies. My collegiate was my air cover and my deflection and I was now releasing him into the wild.

We lugged his bedding, lacrosse gear, clothes and yes, coffee maker up to a pleasant two-bedroom suite on a heavy, humid afternoon. Students swirled like fireflies in blazing red shirts flashing smiles that masked apprehension and nervous sense of adventure. His roommate arrived – another lacrosse player and wide-eyed freshman excited to be free of his hand puppet feeders. Once the all-important beds were made and clothes put away, it was time to leave. The Resident Assistant stopped by to remind them of an orientation session while they stared out the window at a gaggle of girls confidently moving across the quad toward the cafeteria.

He seemed happy. I leaned in, “Be a good roommate. Don’t be a slob. Don’t waste this opportunity.” I was running out of advice – since most of it had already been heaped ad nauseum on his shoulders through four years of high school micro-management.

I turned one last time.

“Hey, if UBS or any of the local business guys interview on campus, let me know. You should get an interview.”

He gave me an odd look. “Why would I want to work at a postal company? I’m wanna make money. Besides, next summer is so far away.”

I opened my mouth and instead just took a deep breath.

Yep, that’s my boy and I already miss him.

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…”

Jurassic Mom

Mother helping her young son to urinate.
Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Tannenbomb

A Christmas tree inside a home.
Image via Wikipedia

Oh Tannenbomb

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

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

— Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Pan and The Call of Duty

Peter Pan and The Call of Duty 

As another northeast evening descends, lingering magically with far off electrical storms and flashes of lightening bugs, I am drawn to the fragrant, familiar abandon of youth through my summer children. It is in these long twilights that I feel their years slipping through my fingers like so many precious grains of hourglass sand. I become keenly aware of my need to play.

Their insatiable quest for stimulation and action shakes me out of a rigid work routine that is agnostic to the season – transforming me into Peter Pan, Confederate General in the army of the mischievous and reckless Lost Boys. 

Our home becomes a single parent household as I break curfews, co-opt kids into late night movies and ice cream runs, disregarding carefully negotiated boundaries designed to wean them from their adolescent impulses. We race across a cool shadowed plain of grass chased by an over stimulated Australian Shepherd.  We throw a baseball in the fading light of a day that will soon be lost forever, or we hibernate like opium den addicts playing forbidden video games. 

In these Pan periods of regression, I am often the recipient of well deserved criticism – most recently when I led my band of brothers on a late night run toGame Stop where we bought the Xbox Live video game “Call of Duty 4.”

It seemed harmless enough – brave American Special Forces soldiers engaged in a series of clandestine urban and third world conflicts – often times having to move precipitously through the detritus of broken cities and burned out towns to root out insurgents. 

When my son, donned his Xbox headset, connected to the Internet and was suddenly descending from a Black Hawk helicopter into an urban hell of chaos, I was transfixed.  My first reaction was to whisper, “That — is so cool…” My endorsement was immediately overheard by my horrified spouse who lectured me about how hard she had been working to prevent these high violence, virtual reality videos from shattering my children’s cocoon of innocence. 

 “Look” she pointed, as my son fragged several insurgents with a phosphorus grenade. “Hmm?” I said absentmindedly with one eye on her and one over her shoulder surveying the action. 

I could not control myself. “Buddy, you let one of ’em get away. No, no.” I waved my finger to the left corner of a dusty street as his combat avatar ran firing his automatic weapon. 

“Over there. Shoot him in the back!  Ooh, you missed.  Oh, good. You got him.” 

Relieved, I turned with my best “now what was it you wanted, honey” look and was met with the same distain and disgust that any mother exhibits after discovering something ungodly in a sink, un-flushed toilet or laundry basket.

“What game are you going to bring home next: Serial Killer’?” 

Voice over: “Yes, kids, coming out for Christmas, it’s Serial Killer – Demons and Despots. You must try to avoid criminal profilers and detectives as you rack up body counts. If you buy now, you will receive a bonus pack of history’s most murderous dictators – Stalin, Amin, Kim Jung II, Hitler, Pol Pot and Caligula.  

You must find ways of hiding your genocide victims and evading your countrymen and/or inquisitive UN investigators who wonder what the smell is that is coming from under your presidential palace Your goal is to stay in power for as long as possible by any means necessary – even if it means signing a treaty with another despot.”

As I break out of my Don Pardo impression, my spouse shakes her head. “You really need help. Why don’t you think up some video games that will prepare them for the real world? ”

That got me thinking again.  With today’s technology, why not create a series of Education and Empathy Games — E Squared Gaming, Inc.   Our first game could be a collaboration with Electronic Arts and the Sims producers called,” Sims – Office Politics.” 

In Sims -OP, adolescent gamers can choose between starting their own business raising private equity or venture capital or go to work for a big company.

There are multiple scenarios based on company’s size, regulatory exposure, competitive position, and complexity.   One can pick roles ranging EVP Sales, Legal Council, Controller, CFO, President, CEO and Chairman. The goal is always the same – make as much for yourself and the shareholders as possible, consolidate power, rope-a-dope with regulators and if indicted, get immunity as by rolling over on your colleagues faster than a street paver. 

Or how about a lesson in civics with, “Race for Congress.” In this action paced virtual cesspool, you begin as a neophyte entrepreneur running for a vacant House or Senate seat. You must gather supporters and political momentum. You gain experience points as you commit gaffes and miscues that set your campaign back. The computer program interfaces with your Sims hard drive folder and imports any illicit or embarrassing episodes such as affairs or drug use from your past that may be dredged up by a nosey reporter or by your political opponent. 

You must cut hallway deals with special interests and learn to stay on message with the media irrespective of what’s being asked.  If elected, you become a freshman legislator and must deal with pressure from your party to conform to policies that may piss off your constituents back home.  You learn to vote for bills that have no hope of passing to maintain the optics that you are your own man. You earn points for successfully slipping pork into legislation and building a summer home with free labor. You learn the golden rule that you either have a seat at the table or you are on the menu.  

You can then purchase a bonus pack – “Race for the Whitehouse” where you are nominated for the Presidential primary. You must make campaign promises you know you cannot keep, hold press conferences, spend more time than a moose in New Hampshire and even appear on Oprah.  

If you make it to the Oval office, there are wars, lusty interns, bio-terrorism threats, a derelict brother, recession, and scandals. Your personal dashboard includes a geopolitical crisis index, homeland security color bar, public popularity meter and a moral and spiritual compass that determines your level of corruption.

“Recession 2008” is certain to become a classic.  Players dodge predatory lenders, wild swings in the Dow, plunges in net worth, marital problems – all the while trying to remain employed. 

The game is designed to help players gain empathy and understanding for all classes of society. After a few months of staying up all night trying to keep the repo man from taking the car, having to sell your prized baseball card collection to pay for COBRA benefits or trying to qualify in a bankrupt state for unemployment, gamers will never again look at a homeless individual and say, “get a job.”

“Public Servant” is a parent’s dream where a young gamer selects a city, county, state or Federal job – all of whose public domain budgets are preprogrammed.  Players must contend with the bureaucracy and Catch-22’s of inefficient government. Gaming health is predicated on five biometric markers that indicate a public servant’s risk for chronic illness.  Random scenarios include berserk co-workers, budget cuts, drug testing, layoffs, labor disputes and devious public officials.  After playing this game, your kid will be saying please and thank you to every public employee they meet. 

As I inventory the endless permutations of real life video gaming for kids, my son, jumps into a virtual tank and blows up a neighborhood in Mogadishu. I wonder if I could ever get him interested in my reality. The problem is if he played my reality games, he’d probably never come out from underneath his bed.

“Being a grown up seems too scary, Dad.”

“Amen to that brother. Move over and give me that controller.”

A Brief History of the Promenade

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Meraviglioso! 

 

 

From Russia With Love

Cover of "From Russia with Love (James Bo...
Cover via Amazon

From Russia With Love

 

In the summer of 1971, I saw the movie, “Dr Strangelove – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”   At 10 years old, I did not totally appreciate the bizarre characters like Brigadier General Jack D Ripper or Dr. Strangelove.  I could not entirely understand why Slim Pickens aka Major TJ  “ King” Kong rode the atomic bomb out of the B52 bomber like a bucking bronco.  However, I clearly understood that the US and Russia were fighting a Cold War.  My fiery imagination was stoked by a father who was constantly criticizing the US for letting down its guard against “commies” and “spies”.  Hollywood was full of “Reds” and while Senator Joseph McCarthy did his best in the 50’s to root out these ideological weeds, communist dogma was invasive and required relentless vigilance to detect and remove political parasites.  The entertainment industry, Congress, all of Europe and even our church had been infiltrated by the vodka swilling, plate breaking, Gulag operating, godless collectivists who were just biding their time waiting for the last capitalist to sell them the rope that they would hang us with.

I had to do my patriotic duty and keep our neighborhood safe for democracy.  This required me to develop a clandestine intelligence organization to inform on any person who might be providing secrets to the enemy.  I was not sure what secrets the Reds could gather from a neighborhood that was more boring than watching paint dry. However, one never knew where a sleeper cell might be cocooned.  Authors like Robert Ludlum described how sleeper agents could lay dormant for a generation.  A Manchurian candidate could be activated with a simple phone call. 

 

“ Is this Mrs. Ruth Turpin of 1828 Windsor Road?”

 

“ Yes, who is this?”

 

” Sasha sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

With this heavily accented, tongue twisting alliteration, my mother, the sleeper agent, would go into a brainwashed trance, drive her station wagon up the winding mountain roads of Mt. Wilson and blow up the radio tower disabling all radio and TV transmissions across the San Gabriel valley, isolating us from the outside world. Just up the street in Pasadena was Cal Tech, a bastion of high IQ engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists.  We were indeed a tempting target.  The 64,000 ruble question was which of my neighbors might be actually conspiring to sabotage our town.  Could the confederate turn out to be someone we never suspected like green thumbed Mr. Seidell who upon being “ activated” would fly across the country to Washington DC and attempt to assassinate President Nixon with his trowel?  Spies were clever and not easy to catch.  They were ruthless and not above posing as retirees, gardeners and even parents. 

I recruited my friends to assist me in patrolling our neighborhood.  Of particular interest was Mr. Harmon who lived across the street with his parents and kept odd hours.  We also had some concerns about Mr. Meister who routinely screamed at us to get off his lawn.  Vodka and socialism made people angry and loud.  Perhaps, Mr. Meister missed the snow of Moscow and was annoyed at the constant sun and temperate climate of Southern California.  On a warm summer afternoon, armed with binoculars, a Polaroid camera and walkie-talkies, we embarked on a series of information gathering patrols. 

The next morning, my mother received several angry calls from neighbors who were concerned over a disturbed child peering into windows, crawling through juniper bushes and in one case, taking a photograph.   Although I was not identified in person, the default accusation on our block was to always blame the Turpin boys.  Annoyed, and lacking actionable information, my mother could not deduce the identity of the young peeping Tom.  As all good spies do, I convincingly lied when interrogated. I even provided an alibi. While she could not prove anything, she lectured me about people’s personal privacy.  If she only knew that we had already uncovered some seamy information about some of our “upstanding “neighbors, including the disgusting fact that ultra tan Mr. Brown sunbathed in the nude and mowed his backyard in a Speedo while Mrs. Franke watched him from her adjacent upstairs window.  It seemed moral decline was everywhere.

 

My parents were naïve and did not understand the town was teeming with traitors.I even suspected my brother of selling information to foreign agents.  He was a weak individual with liberal ideas.  I searched his room and discovered a magazine stuffed between his mattresses.   It was called amazingly “ From Russia With Love” and had a beautiful woman in a provocative pose on the cover. It was obviously intended for fans of the 1963 James Bond thriller starring Sean Connery. The magazine was weathered and torn.  I opened it and to my delight and shame, I saw photographs of naked “Russian” women.  None of these women looked sinister like Spectre agent Rosa Klebb, the spy who attempted to kill James Bond with a poison tipped knife that jutted out from the end of her boot.  No, these women seemed, well – – more open to détente.  

 As any dedicated spy would, I immediately disappeared behind the garage for to “study” the magazine to be certain that if I ever saw any of these women in public, I could identify them, even with their clothes on.

 

After committing each page to memory, I carefully tucked the magazine under my pillow and went off to school ready to share what I had learned with my friends in homeroom.  I knew my brother would not report the magazine as missing.  Yet, as I was sitting through Social Studies class, my mother was fatefully making my bed. I rode home in record time, as I was eager to examine the magazine models for other distinguishing features – beauty marks etc.  As I walked in the back door, I immediately knew that something was not right.  I was escorted into the dining room, which was the center for all corrective action.  My mother looked overly concerned and for a moment I thought there had been a death in the family.  “ Honey, is there anything you want to talk to me or your dad about?”  I was stumped and then I saw the magazine on the chair next to her.  “ That’s not mine.” I protested.  “ It’s Tom’s!”  I protested to no avail. She remained convinced of my guilt.  “The neighbors have been complaining about someone peeking in their windows and now I have found this adult magazine in your room. I think you and dad need to have a talk. “

Suddenly, it hit me.  It was all so clever – I had been framed.  I was obviously getting too close to someone or something and “they” wanted me out of the way. Like my Dad always said, those Reds are pretty determined and would go to great lengths to remove any threat.  Later that evening I endured my father’s unimaginative lecture on the birds and the bees.  I had already heard a more graphic and entertaining version from Dennis Higgins in gym class.  It would do me no good to attempt an explanation to my Dad.  I would have to endure this punishment and bide my time. 

One thing was certain.  When I got older, I wanted to join the CIA – especially if it meant interrogating one of those Russian women.  After all, I was probably the only guy who could pick them out of a police line up.

 

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And it was still hot.“

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resolution Number 9

Gloria Steinem wdydwyd
Image via Wikipedia

 

Resolution Number 9

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That ought to get their attention.

 

 

Mater Ex Machina – Mom in the Machine

magna-mater-1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Free Range Kid

A Free Range Kid

In 60’s and 70’s suburban Los Angeles, each planned community was a perfect grid of magnolia and palm tree lined streets with green carpets of manicured lawns stretching for entire blocks, interrupted only by cement driveways which served as primitive lines of demarcation for the packs of children that would roam their environs looking for field to play.  In our town at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, everyone knew the neighbors and the neighbors knew you.  It was difficult to engage in any form of civil disobedience – – blowing up anything with an M80s (1/8 stick of dynamite) purchased in Tijuana, BB gun wars, or heaving water balloons at passing motorists – – without someone id’ing you and reporting you swiftly to your parents, sometimes before you even made it home from the caper.  In my case, the fear of parental retribution would cause me to entertain wild thoughts of running away – – “I will sneak in, grab my clothes (and a few Hostess Fruit Pies) and shack up in Charlie’s tree house until I can get a job and then I will hitchhike to Montana.”  It did not matter that I was nine, uncertain of where Montana actually was or that Charlie’s tree house was a four by six spider colony.  This was secondary to avoiding the belt that was certain to find my adolescent behind for crimes against humanity.

When we moved into our new home in the summer of 1968, we quickly got to know our neighbors who lived behind our red tiled, stucco Mediterranean.  The backyard was still under construction and while my parents conducted their final walk through, we discovered a cachet of dirt clods that were unlike any organic material we had ever seen.  These massive dirt blocks, forged together from drought and construction digging, became weapons of mass destruction as my brothers and I squared off in primitive slit trenches and behind ivy fences.  As the battle raged, an errant clod flew over the redwood fence and resulted in a “splash”.  Like the old EF Hutton commercial, we froze, intrigued by the sudden sound of water.  My brother tossed another dirt clod over the fence testing the radius of the hidden water – – splash!  We took a third clod the size of Delaware and pushed it over the barrier- – “ker-plunk” followed by a geyser spiking higher than Old Faithful.  The barrage lasted for the next hour. As my father and mother toasted their new home and expanding social circle, the phone rang.  It was their new neighbors…their angry, new neighbors.  A reign of terror began that would last fifteen years. 

Despite these and many other transgressions, we were absorbed into this melting pot of young and old . Our neighborhood was a microcosm of every suburban community in America.  We had Howard, next door, who had possessed every conceivable power tool known to man and would voluntarily assist my father in fixing anything that broke, chipped or even looked like it might break. Years later, my youngest brother, home from college, got a hysterical call from Mildred, Howard’s wife, that he was gravely ill and needed to be lifted into the car so she could take him to the hospital.  The strapping do-it-yourselfer had been reduced to less than 100lbs from cancer but his sense of humor stayed in tact.  “Tell your Dad, he can have the band-saw if I don’t make it back home.”

 

We were all odd passengers lashed to the mast of a massive ship of streets and yards.  We had one neighbor who liked to make himself martinis, sit in a lawn chair and light off fireworks.  The problem was – – it usually around 12 at night and year round.   We sort of got used to the roman candles surging like a distant firefight and became indifferent to the Piccolo Petes that would shrill like incoming artillery fire.  We had your token grouchy old man who would threaten us with bodily harm ‘lest we venture on to his carefully manicured lawn to retrieve a baseball.  We named him “Groucho” and as we got older, we found increasingly ingenious ways to torment him including one night, lighting smoke bombs, donning dark bed sheets and circling the smoke, repeatedly chanting“ pagan sacrifice “.  I wasn’t sure what “peg and sacrifice “ meant but my older brother told me to say it.  Groucho called the police.  He reported hooded dwarves were committing ritual sacrifices on his dichondra and he had just reseeded. There was Mr. Brown who loved to sunbathe naked in his back yard which horrified Mrs. Cunningham next door, but the police would do nothing about it.  “Don’t look” they told her.  I recall lighting a fire in the bushes in front of another neighbor’s home but was so intent on my pyromania, I did not realize the fire was also in full view of their living room window where they sat and watched me.  Imagine my surprise as I exited the bushes with my friend, and noticed the police and fire truck car in front of our house.  I balled my eyes out when the fire chief said that they sent arsonists to reform school.  I was not sure what reform school was but I was sure they did not serve dessert there.

Diagonally to the north, we had the large Italian family with 12 kids.  They had their groceries delivered by The Helms Man Grocery Service – a luxury unheard of in the 70’s.   The Helms Man truck driver was not the sharpest tool in the shed and while other kids would distract him, we would empty his change dispenser and then buy candy from him with his money.  It worked for months until to our chagrin, a new driver showed up. Like all communities, we lived with illnesses, divorces, aging neighbors and people troubled by demons and dysfunction – – a bonanza of mania and mayhem.  There was the neighbor that snapped one day at work and came home to hold off the police for four hours with his son’s BB gun.  There was a suicide.  There was a murder.  There were robberies.  Life did not bypass this bucolic oasis.  It drove in like an ill wind every couple of years to remind us that we needed to look out for one another.   Through it all, every neighbor always was there for every other neighbor.  Every adult felt they had proxy authority to discipline other people’s kids and enforce a community standard.  We were free range kids – – roaming miles away on foot or by bicycle, making mistakes and learning coping skills that would serve us throughout life.

 

Times have changed.  Geography and social boundaries have made it harder to be a free range kid.  The requirements have not changed nor the have the dividends.  Free range kids need a little extra rope, independence, trust, support from their community and the ability to make mistakes.  Captive kids have “high bottoms” because parents love them to the point of not wanting them to fail, at anything.  Captive kids are tightly managed and live life within a set of guardrails built of myriad commitments and shielded with a two parent safety net.  When a free range kid gets into trouble sometimes he/she has to figure out how to get out of it.  Free range kids make bad choices but they learn, grow and some even believe these kids cope better when eventually introduced into “the wild”.    

 

Under The Wire

Under The Wire

A computer is like an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy

John Dunlop

Firebase Dell, Connecticut. 2100 Hours. External conditions:  Dark.  Reported movement outside the wire.  Central command is expecting enemy activity tonight.  Assignment : check and stabilize cyber-firebase Dell. Prevent intrusions and viral infection.

It’s late and I sit down to walk the computer perimeter.  As I scroll the endless sea of daily activity and peruse the America On Line notices, I notice a small gap.  It appears someone has wandered into a protected area and erased their footprints.  The enemy agent has been working on a less patrolled corner of the firebase trying to penetrate my protective defenses.  I can almost see him, in his little black pajamas, a coy intruder using stealth and exploiting our generation gap.  When I interrogate the suspect, he confesses that he was trying to get on Webkinz to feed his virtual animals.  I am suspicious.  Webkinz sounds like a foreign acronym for a deadly virus or worm. The next thing I know, I will be getting pop up emails from someone named Ivana suggesting that we meet at least once before moving ahead with the marriage.  How we went from Webkinz to Russian mail order brides I will never know.  The one thing I know for certain is once again, my computer will be compromised.

I have a constant battle with viruses on my PC.  It got so bad two years ago that  I had to swap out my hard drive.  I  would boot the computer and it would immediately tell me I have won the Ghana National Lottery and then whip me off to another website where I could buy copious amounts of Oxycontin, Viagra and Xanex.  If a person actually consumed all of these potential purchases, they would probably try to seduce a silverback gorilla at the Bronx Zoo and then spontaneously combust, or perhaps just become a conservative radio talk show host.  Point is, the gremlins had gotten under my meager defenses, penetrated my perimeter with virus after virus and completely ruined my hardware.

I decided to buy Norton Anti-virus to confound the virus gremlins.  For good measure, I overlayed MacAfee Firewall on top of it.  The result was the equivalent of fitting my computer with a protective chastity belt and then throwing the key into Long Island Sound.  I could not even figure out how to get on to the Internet without going through more doors than Maxwell Smart.  It felt like a maze of cyber metal detectors, frisking me before I even entered my own computer.  The application window kept saying that the delay was due to the computer loading an approved list of sites.  Yet, the approved sites slowly reduced to a Dell accessories store and Norton Update.  I began to refer to this unholy offspring of MacAfee and Norton as MacNorton.  MacNorton was so effective in controlling access that no one could use the computer.  My days of being plagued by messages suggesting I buy Rolex watches or help wealthy

Africans who wanted to deposit $ 10,000,000 into my bank account because I was named in someone’s last will and testament –  were all done.  I could not get on to AOL.  I finally found a way of accessing Internet Explorer by setting my computer back to an earlier date through System Restore, accessing AOL via the web and then retrieving my mail as a guest.  I might as well have been in doing all of this from an internet café in Madagascar.

No good deed goes unpunished.  Webkinz, YouTube, My Space, Itunes and a parade of other seemingly benign Trojan Horses all require some degree of permission.  Hiding in these cyber facades are little Greek cookies and enemy tracking devices that will case my perimeter looking for a weak spot.  “ Dad, if I don’t feed my Webkinz , he will die”. One of my kids complained. Hmmm.  Perhaps this was a great opportunity to teach my kids about one of life’s great mysteries and inevitable passages and do it in a virtual manner.  I wondered what would happen if we did not feed that virtual cat.  Would the Webkin become ravenous.  Would Webkinz animal control officers break into the cyber house to thwart the abuse ? Would the cat scratch the hell out of the furniture and foul the room before going to the great kitty litter box in the sky – – now that would be virtual reality !

I once again laid down the law that my office computer was off limits.  They saw me for the paper tiger that I am and waited for me to go to work.  They promised me to use the other computer that I had explicitly purchased for them to use to access the internet and play games.  The problem with this fully loaded Dell wireless laptop – – with the chrome bumpers and the V10 engine, is it was now so riddled with viruses that it just laid on its side and as you walked by it would whisper , “ kill me, please, just kill me“.  As we do not believe in computer euthanasia in my house, we just waited patiently for it to die.

I devised a plan.  I must first purchase an iMac for the “power user” 14 year old who has been capable of hacking into the Kremlin for years and has probably been on the payroll of the CIA since middle school.  The plain envelopes addressed to her from Langley, Virginia were a dead give away.  If I could neutralize the power user, I could cut enemy activity by 33% – 45%.  The black pajama crowd was more difficult to disable.  Being young boys, they are predisposed to only hear 25% of what they are told and obey 50% of that.  That is a 12.5 % compliance rate.  As a male, I understand their compliance will never be more than 50% but such a low likelihood of success required drastic measures.  I eliminated instant messaging.  I deleted games and applications.  I reinstalled Norton.  I calibrated firewalls to their age group and entered a new password.  It worked.

Nowadays, I come home and the computer boots up quickly.  The website history is gloriously weak and showing signs of diminished interest in the internet.  I am pleased.  While I write my latest diatribe, I receive an email announced with a “ping”. I toggle to received messages.  It’s a note from someone named Svetlana69 and she wants to know when I want to meet.

Speed Sticks And Pushers

Speed Sticks and Pushers

 

Health class (n), 1. A compulsory educational tollbooth through which every middle school child must travel.  2. A valuable roadmap for pre and post pubescents to assist navigation along the highways of life.  3. A learning curriculum designed to reverse all disinformation learned from one’s older siblings

 

In the days of Nixon, Watergate and presidential pardons, health class was segregated between girls and boys. There was the domesticus curriculae, better known as Home Economics, for girls; and “Health” class for boys hosted by our mustached, dolphin shorted PE teacher Mr. Stebbins who my father sarcastically remarked looked like an adult film star.

 

While the girls were railroaded into baking, maintaining proper Redbook posture and ultimately hypnotized into believing that Prince Charming did actually exist and was out there waiting wearing clean underwear, boys were taught the proper techniques for donning a jock strap, avoiding women with venereal diseases and abstaining from drugs with names like ” bennies”, ” uppers”, ” downers”, “Horse” and “Mary Jane”.

 

We were subjected to anti-drug propaganda to scare us straight.  In the annals of anti-drug films, the 1967 classic, “Pit of Despair” stood as a classic – converting the most impressionable among us into paranoid purists who would rather die of influenza than take medication. After viewing  “Pit Of Despair”, I was afraid to take so much as a Bayer aspirin for fear of waking up running naked down the Santa Monica freeway shrieking, ” the moon is following me…and he has a gun!”

 

Every anti-drug flick offered a similar plot featuring a normal suburban kid relenting to peer pressure, and agreeing to attend a wild “tea” party with lava lamps, 30 watt bulbs, throw pillows, sitar music, bell bottomed girls and drug dealers known as “pushers”. In a lost weekend of drug and alcohol abuse, the protagonist ends up with more holes in his arm than a cribbage board, screaming as he looks at his party mates who are no longer people but grotesque demons with narrow pink beaks.  Instead of fleeing the den of iniquity, he takes a more direct route to the street, leaping out an open window shouting, “Look at me! I can fly!”.  Meanwhile, his emotionally dead friends look on in sociopathic indifference as a rag doll dummy floats horrifyingly with flailing arms down to the cement sidewalk below.

 

Some were quick to dismiss the exaggerated melodrama of “Pit of Despair”, but we were all on the look out for pushers. I was convinced anyone with long hair or a beard was a drug dealer.  Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a heroin dealer, Sportin’ Life, in the move, “Porgy and Bess”. He later sang a song in 1972 whose lyrics, I was convinced, were clearly code for encouraging drug use.  The innocent ditty, “The Candy Man Can”, was played on countless conservative AM radio stations and hummed by clueless suburban housewives as they picked out their Webber Bread in the grocery store.

 

Drug use obviously was rampant and if you sniffed, puffed or popped, you were likely to immediately grow long hair, quit taking baths and barely manage a two-syllable response to any question.  You pretty much just walked around all day saying, “solid, man.” These wild haired, drug crazed gutter trash were called “hippies” and they existed like body snatchers to co-opt you into a life of drugs, promiscuous sex and crime – the trifecta of worthlessness according to my father. John Lennon memorialized the quintessential hippie in the song, “Come Together.”  The Beatles were notorious for putting symbols and subliminal drug messages in songs like “Hey Jude”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and even the “Yellow Submarine” extolling the virtues of expanding one’s mind with opiates and hard narcotics. 

 

The insidious creep of drugs had to be stopped.  According to my Dad, the “French Connection” from Marseilles to New York would need to be choked off in its tracks or America would become a giant opium den – succumbing to Communism because we could not see or hear the Reds coming through the haze of our smoke and loud music.

 

While girls blindly emerged from Home Economics as SWITs (Stepford Wives in Training) with new appreciation for the wonders of baking soda as a panacea for odors, heartburn and insect bites, boys suddenly saw powdered sugar and flour as sinister accessories for pushers to further corrupt the poison as they unleashed it on Main Street.

 

The officer who briefed us on drugs and the warning signs of addiction was a

Detective with a thick Brooklyn accent, which only seemed to underscore the gravity of our drug problem. After all, what’s a NY cop doing in Southern California unless the “connection” was somewhere lurking in the shadow of our ivory tower.  He told us about cartels and drug lords.  He told us to watch for pushers hanging around the playground and baseball fields.

 

As we jogged in gym class, we pondered the identity of the alpha pusher running our town’s local drug ring.  Who was “Mr. Big?”  The big kahuna was often depicted in movies as a benign law abiding citizen by day and a ruthless distributor of narcotics, prostitution and murder by night.  Perhaps he could be our middle school principal, Mr. White. If he was the man, he could not be working alone. His VP of students, Mr. Gilligan, must be the strong arm of the operation – dealing not only drugs but also detentions.  These clever punishments delayed kids after school and forced them to walk home alone where his network of pushers might more easily trap them. 

 

I confided my entire theory to my brother and was immediately ratted out to my father.  My Dad was furious, “You will get our butts sued.  Michael. What were you thinking?”  Weighing the cost/benefit of investigating a major drug ring but having to weed the backyard until the year 2015, I gave up on Mr. White.  However, I never stopped scanning the playground for dealers.  Sportin’ Life could be anywhere waiting to snare us into a life of addiction.

 

I am now told that today’s health classes are more politically correct but remain true to the major building blocks of adolescent development – drug and alcohol prevention, body change, sexual responsibility and hygiene.  We can always tell when Health class is in session as one of our boys comes home smelling like a Mennen Speed Stick.  For the next week, the boy is a walking Glade Room freshener as he lathers his entire body with deodorant hoping to attract someone or something.  Usually, he attracts a few flies and the cat. At dinner, he informs us about hygiene as if we were immigrants just off the boat on Ellis Island.  My wife nods with a sardonic smile indicating that perhaps her husband could use a refresher course. 

 

Health class seems not to have lost its punch.  It may carry a different scent and rely less on fear than information but it has come of age. It has kept pace with the 21st century and has finally understood that health is in the end, a coed experience.  Kids do not seem too concerned about pushers and are clearly more informed about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles.  Yet the Achilles heel of each generation is the fact that they believe they know more than their elders.  Alas, they are still kids. The rote facts they learn are only words and not always understood.  We only hope these seeds of health and wellness germinate at the right times.

 

And judging from the fact that my son has not bathed in three days, not everyone is practicing what is being preached.  I have to go find that Speed Stick and leave it under his pillow.