A Touch of Grey

Grey Wolf
Image by Todd Ryburn via Flickr

A Touch of Grey

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

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

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

Touch of Grey, Robert Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Whencanicomhomma

Summer Camp Personalities
Image by Transguyjay via Flickr

 

Camp Whencanicomhomma

“Hello muddah, hello faddah

Here I am at Camp Granada

Camp is very entertaining

And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”

It was early winter when the phone call came from California.  It was below zero, and the woods seemed to be cracking under the arctic blast that had buffeted us for days. Our then 11-year-old daughter was catching up with a friend and hearing all about a two-week sleep-away camp, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  “Waterskiing, boys, horseback riding, boys, dances at night and…boys.”

Our first child pleaded with us to allow her to attend this amazing adolescent Pleasure Island.  After carefully evaluating Camp Skyline, we realized it was time to push the first chick a little farther from the nest.  In the ensuing weeks, as snow thawed and the first breath of spring hinted at warmer days, she marched around the house with a reckless bravado, crowing condescendingly at her brothers, “I am going away for two weeks this summer and you babies have to stay home.  You had better stay out of my room.  It’s going to be soooo fun without all of you.”  As younger brothers so often do, they looked up, merely shrugged and went back to their video games.

“I went hiking with Joe Spivy

He developed poison ivy

You remember Leonard Skinner

He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.”

The departure date finally arrived.  I served as escort on a transcontinental trip that included a brief stop in Denver where I had to give a speech. My daughter loved the taste of being an only child again and sat maturely in the audience as I delivered my presentation.  That night, we shopped along Denver’s esplanade – walking arm in arm and I was, for a brief moment again, “Daddy.”  The following day we landed in San Francisco, and drove to the East Bay where we stayed with friends.  In a mere twelve hours, canary yellow buses would portage a new generation of girls and boys  to Bass Lake and their summer world of adventure.

Late that evening, there was a tap on my bedroom door as my little girl walked into my room and asked if she could sleep in my bed.  This hadn’t happened for years — I could tell something was weighing on her mind.  The next morning dawned and she looked as if she was deploying for a year’s tour of duty in Afghanistan.  When we first spied the parking lot of idling school buses, her hand squeezed mine.  She sighed and hugged me tighter than she had in years.  As the buses drove off, scores of arms and hands waved from the windows. I spied her circumspect face under a tangle of enthusiastic teens and realized my sparrow was flying right into her first major bout of homesickness.

“All the counselors hate the waiters

And the lake has alligators

And the head coach wants no sissies

So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

 

Now I don’t want that this should scare ya

But my bunkmate has malaria

You remember Jeffrey Hardy

They’re about to organize a searching party.”
 

I recognized all the symptoms that morning – her need to use the bathroom, yawning, and an endless stream of redundant rhetorical questions.  You see, back in the summer of 1972, another young man (who remain nameless) attended High Sierra Summer Base Camp and went three days without eating any food – – claiming he had contracted a rare stomach parasite and needed to go home immediately.  His incredible persistence and exaggerated symptoms fooled all but the most veteran of camp counselors. At the boy’s insistence, the camp reluctantly arranged for the boy to call home where his parents refused to allow him to return before the week had concluded. Once reality set in, the boy was seized by the sudden craving for a hamburger.  Four days later, he returned home with pictures of trout caught in high mountain lakes, strange wonderful stories about new friends and a veteran’s resolve to return to the “greatest camp ever.”

“Take me home, oh muddah, faddah

Take me home, I hate Granada

Don’t leave me out in the forest where

I might get eaten by a bear.

Take me home, I promise I will not make noise

Or mess the house with other boys.

Oh please don’t make me stay

I’ve been here one whole day.”

 

 

Her first letter arrived within two days.  It was hastily written, as if the prison guards might arrive at any time and once again beat the soles of her feet.  “Please come get me, NOW,” she pleaded.  “It is horrible here and everyone is miserable.  It’s hot and there are mosquitoes and the food is terrible and I can’t sleep at night…”  The second postage stamped SOS suggested some form of child slavery might be operating at the camp as she was being forced against her will to bus tables as part of kitchen patrol.  Letter three alleged emotional abuse.  The Camp Skyline website which faithfully posted daily pictures of laughing campers and rowdy campfires – including a girl we recognized – seemed to conflict with her  information.

“Dearest faddah, darling muddah,

How’s my precious little bruddah

Let me come home, if you miss me

I would even let Aunt Bertha hug and kiss me.”

 

As was the case in 1972, the parents held firm and the letters stopped coming.  She was either dead or waterskiing.  We suspected the latter.  The day we arrived to pick her up at camp was emotional — she did not want to leave her new friends or the counselors she’d become so attached to.  “It was sooo incredible.” She leered at her brothers. ” And you won’t be able to come for at least two more years,” They looked up at her, shrugged and went back to their video games.

“Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.

Guys are swimming, guys are sailing

Playing baseball, gee that’s better

Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter.

~ Camp Granada by Alan Sherman

Isn’t It Ironic ?

Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence Universit...
Image via Wikipedia

“A traffic jam when you’re already late

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break

It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

It’s meeting the man of my dreams

And then meeting his beautiful wife

And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think

A little too ironic…and, yeah, I really do think…

It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Who would’ve thought… it figures…”

Ironic, Alanis Morrisette

“….And then there is ‘Acc-is-mus.’” My literature professor purposefully enunciated this term and then hesitated as if we were apprentices in some Masonic society and he was waiting for the customary due guard response. He carried on like a farmer feeding filet mignon to his prized swine. “This form of irony might reveal itself in the shape of feigned indifference when in fact, the exact opposite sentiment holds true – – underneath there lies extreme prejudice.”  I scribbled the cryptic words in the margins of a note pad already crowded with strange literary terminology and countless doodles that betrayed my disinterest.  Beside several unevenly spaced words, there were drawings of surfers cutting out of perfect pipeline waves and a baseball hitter pivoting on his back foot to make perfect contact with a rotating fastball.  My class notes would be useless to any other human and a harbinger of my failure to achieve an acceptable grade in Literature 101.

Next to my perfect sketch of a feathering wave, I had penned the words “contradiction”, “hyperbole” and “malaprop.” A half hour earlier, I had also absent mindedly written the word “anti-phrastic” but had been distracted by an attractive coed from an adjacent college that was walking by our lecture hall.  Having no idea what anti-phrastic meant or who this Helen of Troy was, I fell further behind in the lecture.  I suddenly had the disconnected feeling that I was watching ancient Athenians converse in Greek.  This led to more introspection and resulted in my missing the final two terms: “synecdoche” and “metonymy”.  My professor droned on. “These tropes are the essential building blocks of literary irony.  Irony, my aspiring wordsmiths, is a vehicle by which all effective writers and communicators can engage and enlist their audience.”

What the hell was a trope?  I thought.  I strained to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl who had floated like a cloud past my window.  Alas, she had vanished, stealing my attention, diverting my inspiration and perhaps sealing my fate in this class.

Before taking the notoriously humbling Lit 101 course – the equivalent of combining sixteen weeks at Marine boot camp and a colorectal exam, I had always considered myself a skilled prospector of irony.  I was an acolyte of Woody Allen and appreciated the dry, acerbic wits of Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and John Updike. I could separate the fool’s gold of camp-fire story irony from the timeless cunning of  Charles Dickens who excelled at situational and dramatic irony.  Whether it was his jilted bride that purposely raised a daughter incapable of love or an simple act of charity that led to a life-altering event, Dickens possesed an uncanny ability to divine irony out of the bleakest and hardened of places.

I grew up searching for meaning and irony in everything – history, television shows like the Twilight Zone and every song on the radio.  When you are young, everything is profound and ironic.  When you encounter irony as a child it is as if you have personally discovered some hidden message left exclusively for you – – a clue that might help unlock the mysteries of life. I remember memorizing the militant lyrics of Bob Dylan’s  “ When God’s On Your Side”:

But now we got weapons

Of the chemical dust

If fire them we’re forced to

Then fire them we must

One push of the button

And a shot the world-wide

And you never ask questions

When God’s on your side.

As a teen, my view of irony became cynical and agnostic.  Life was a Greek tragedy.  As a young literature major, irony was simply the Fates sadistically plucking at the gossamer strands of our mortal webs to remind us that we were mere pawns in some random cosmic chess game.  The universe offered no order or control.  When you are twenty years old, there is no shortage of conviction that you are the one who is in control and life is made or broken by your own best efforts.

Years later, when Alanis Morissette would paint her dark picture of life’s random injustices, critic Jon Winkour took exception to her ballad in an essay on Irony. In his tirade, he tried to dispel her notion of life’s ironic conditions. “Morissette’s situations purporting to be ironic are merely sad, random, or annoying. It is of course ironic that ‘Ironic’ is an unironic song about irony. Bonus irony: ‘Ironic’ is widely cited as an example of how Americans don’t get irony, despite the fact that Alanis Morissette is actually, Canadian.”

Fortunately, as with many things in life, we get older and learn from irony with the benefit of hindsight and perspective.  For many of us, wisdom comes when we finally begin to accept the cunning symmetry that is the universe.  Irony finds its way into your life like smoke under a door.  Instead of an empty cosmos inhabited by Gods who loathe mortals and toy with them like plastic figurines, we begin to see irony as a sign that there is a higher order to everything.  God indeed does exist and possesses a very warped and highly evolved sense of humor.   Perspective is not found in neon-lit classrooms or in a comfortable chair but in dark alleys and face down in a muddy street.  A gift is often wrapped around a brick and tossed through your window. A win is often disguised as failure.

Historical irony haunts us as we look back to see the most ecologically human of all people – – indigenous natives – become genocide victims at the hands of “civilized“ nations determined to fulfill their manifest destiny. There is irony in our present day foreign policy where it seems we are financing both sides of a war – – funding the enemy through fossil fuel dependence while fighting for our security to protect our right to stay addicted to the black opiate.  Some argue gunboat diplomacy can lead to peace. We keep rediscovering the painful irony that war is easy to begin and very hard to end. Closer to home, we are struggling to fix a system called “healthcare” that is desperately sick.

Even closer to our core, is the irony of materialism. It seems that the more you have, the more you fear losing and the less secure you feel. It seems those who have very little are often happier than those who have very much. It is ironic that one must try to live like they are dying to understand how to live.  Why is it that sinners make the best saints?  Why are there no atheists in fox-holes?

Yes, we can always agree to disagree. And of course, irony is the essential DNA of humor.  Why is it that men drive faster when they are lost?

Irony flits all around us like little celestial fireflies at twilight reminding us of a higher purpose.  It is the beauty of Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last professional at bat. It is Haley’s Comet appearing at the birth and death of one of America’s most brilliant literary lights- Mark Twain.  It is the simple contradiction of thorns on a rose.

Irony after all is not random coincidence or accidental contradiction. It is divine design.  It is a celestial yin and yang that stretch far beyond our mortal horizon line – – an imaginary barrier that only exists because as humans, we can only see so far.

I eventually did discover the identity of that perfect girl who left me in an attention deficit during my lecture that indian summer day–and no, I did not marry her.  However, I did hear, years later, that she went on to become an English professor at a midwestern college.  Ironic?  Perhaps. I squeaked by Lit 101 with a passing grade but not without a reproach from my professor for my verbal incontinence.  His note scribbled on my essay like a doctor’s prescription read,  “Michael, an antiphrasis to live by:  Less is more.”

I still don’t know what the hell he was talking about.

Watching for Falling Rock

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, USA
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Watching for Falling Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steel Magnolia

Cropped screenshot of Julie Christie from the ...
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Steel Magnolia

My mother said that I was being “truculent” and needed to be punished.

” Just wait until your father gets home!” She hissed.

Her irrational refusal to even entertain this all important sleep-over merely emboldened me. It was not just any overnight but 24 hours at the libertine household of Stephen, one of my more progressive friends whose mother had become the temporary focal point of all my adolescent fantasies.

“Because you already had a sleep over and you are dead tired.” She retorted. “You know the rules.” I was tired, having slept a total of 35 minutes in the last 24 hours. However, adrenaline and the prospect of seeing the angelic Mrs L – a woman who could have passed for the stunt double. for Julie Christie was too intoxicating.

My mother did not partake of  the poison gossip regarding Stephen’s mother who was rumored to be more liberal than a bordello madam. As a Southerner misplaced in a land of new money blue bloods and carpet baggers, Mrs L possessed a refreshing combination of self confidence, candor and beauty.

My mother  enjoyed her liberated and unfiltered assessment of our community. I occasionally overheard Mom defending the Crimson Tide interloper to some hypocritical country club maven who had declared “that woman” a threat to our cocooned decency.

With my parents going out with clients, I would be stuck with my brothers and our sitter Mrs Olsen, an angry, pruned spinster who baby sat for families with “difficult to mind” children. ( No one ever admitted to being a client of Mrs Olson publically. For with such an admission was to suggest that you did not have control of your own life – the home economics equivalent of an F. )

She was the scourge of the babysitting community – a substitute teacher packing a handgun and mace. Instead of laissez faire oversight by a blue haired lady that would raid your Dad’s liquor cabinet and fall asleep to Lawrence Welk, this prison guard did everything but give you a full cavity body search.

I was not going to remain in the captivity of this escaped war criminal when love and adventure awaited just blocks away. I had to find a way to surround myself with throw pillows, love beads and sitar music. Mom did not suffer fools and was conflicted at the thought of me spending too much time at a house that seemed to be permanently stuck in 1968’s Summer of Love. For all she knew, it was the east Los Angeles extension of the Hef’s Playboy mansion.

Her intuition was not all that far off. Their kids were allowed a glass of wine at dinner. The dog wandered the house and slept on the end of the parents bed. Mr L’s “gentleman’s” magazines lay brazenly on his office coffee table. They had a hot tub. Any adolescent boy would have paid his hard earned allowance to spend the night at the home of such French people. And I had been invited as a guest. Best of all, it was the home of the most beautiful Mom on the planet.

As is often the case with suburban families that do not neatly stitch into some xenophobe’s definition of the perfect nuclear damily, a divorce,unconventional lifestyle or counter cultural political orientation, could result in being undeservedly painted with a scarlet letter of disapproval.

Steve’s mother, Joanie, was a cool breeze of bell-bottomed pant suits, flowing floral blouses and earrings that fell in great hoops like rings at the playground. She was a Southern dervish of hair, diamonds and fingernails. She would enter the room followed by a jet stream of strong perfume while holding a cigarette with the world’s longest ash.

I adored her for an entire springtime – barely disguising a crush that would have had me run into freeway traffic at the mere flick of her finger. When Steve and I had once been caught spying on his older sister from the roof, she admonished me by calling me an “audacious rascal.” It was a priceless nom d’ guerre bestowed on a worthless prince by a magnificent queen.

Yet, between Sunday school and Lamp Unto My Feet adolescent guilt, I understood it was not appropriate to have impure thoughts about a friend’s mom. I tried imagining her mangled in an industrial accident. I considered her with a beard. Nothing worked. How could Steve’s dad even go to work in the morning being married to such a beautiful Alabama belle? I was befuddled and bewitched. I did the math of young men determining that I could attempt to court her in 1981 when I was 20 and she was 51. When I was 50, she would be 81. This could work.

Steve’s father was a creative director at a competing agency of my Dad’s. He had obsidian black hair that fell to his shoulders and lamb chop sideburns. He had drove a Porshe and mounted a massive Harley Davidson motorcycle on the weekends. He would rumble up to the soccer fields on a Saturday morning dressed in the Johnny Cash leather and black. He was every working man’s doppleganger – the other road, the riskier option and the life that you could have had if you had the guts. He was different and proud of it.

There were rumors borne either out of fact or petty jealousy that Steve Sr and the other creatives at this agency sat around all day smoking cannabis while getting in touch with their Super egos and that new secretary. While hip was very much in, too much hip meant dislocation for the men on the gray flannel suit generation. You go to one of “their” parties and you end up pulling keys from a community bowl, reading communist literature and living in a cheap motel estranged from the thing’s that matter most –church, family and community.

My crush was a source of great guilt and like most unexplained feelings of adolescence made me feel creepy. I was grateful at these testosterone times that I was not Catholic as I would have had to spill the beans in confessional and possibly spend the rest of my life making penance for my polluted imagination.

My only hope to win her would involve a series of improbable events starting with Steve Sr having a motorcycle accident, followed by young Steve being institutionalized in his grief. In her despair, I would be there, just like Gary Grimes was for Jennifer O’Neal in The Summer of ’42.

After finally getting my mother to consent to this all important sleep over, I drenched myself in English Leather cologne, combed my hair and was dropped off by my father. Steve Sr came out, ostensibly to chat but really to gloat over a recent account they had taken from my Dad’s agency. Joanie waved from the front door. I disappeared into the smoke, perfume and lava lamp light of Pleasure Island. It was on this night I had determined to profess my eternal love to my friend’s mother.

I recall Mrs L looking at me at dinner and sensing my anxiety. ” Michael, you look as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

I screwed up my courage and followed her into the kitchen. I was 14, and could get a job. I would soon be a professional baseball player. Suddenly she understood my peculiar intoxicated state. She had seen it before. Sensing my imminent confession, she asked me if I wanted to see her wedding album. She described her first kiss with Steve Sr and how exciting it would be for Steve Jr and I when we found the right girl. “Be different. Remember you only have to please yourself.” Joanie smiled and I could see her eyes glistening with tears.

I had no idea what she was talking about and I recall the next morning waking up disappointed but cured of my infatuation.

Years later, I heard she had died. She had divorced Steve Sr for serial infidelity, moved away and ended up in Charleston becoming the prized wife of a wealthy attorney who adored her and gave her the freedom to express herself.

I imagine her grave at the foot of some great magnolia. The cemetery is a sea of sad sameness – a long gray line of slate sentinels. A head stone stands with an epitaph from Rick Nelson’s song ” Garden Party”. ” Well it’s alright now. I learned my lesson well. You see you can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”

Meet The Parents

Meet The Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sandwich Hour

Medical Equipment in the hospital room
Image by cote via Flickr

Bad news usually stalks you under a cloak of darkness. After midnight, a ringing phone is a collect call from the shadowlands – a realm where the awful things that happen to other people find you.

The cell shrilled as we worked our way through traffic on a bright Sunday afternoon of broken clouds.

” Dad, had a stroke,” my younger brother shared with serious certainty.

” The doctors actually think he suffered two but we don’t know much right now. He’s paralyzed down his left side. He can talk but he’s blind in one eye. It occured in the back side of the brain where the speed of recovery is less certain.”

There was a long pause.

” Mike, you still there ?”

” Yeah, I’m just digesting it. How’s Mom ?”

“She’s doing almost too well. She thinks he will be home in a few days and doesn’t really grasp that everything has changed.”

My dad had been caring for my Mom who has Parkinsons disease for the last seven years. He had turned into a resilient caregiver. Over the years, we had teased him mercilessly on his heavy handed approach to child rearing. Yet, there was never any doubt how much we loved and respected him for making his family his primary priority. We were amazed at how easily he shifted from old school overlord and moody shapeshifter to new age male nurse when Mom got sick.

” She basically ran the house while I was building my career. ” He explained when asked if Mom’s constant care was wearing him down. ” It’s my turn and I love your Mom more than life itself. She has made me a better man and given me you four boys and a life beyond anything I could have imagined.”

When I would visit my parents I would always smile with amusement at their symbiotic routines. I would enter their house to find more prescription drugs than CVS, calendars with various doctor appointments, a hospital bed and durable medical equipment that now occupied the first floor living room — a virtual conveyor belt of medical delivery and 24 hour care.

While caregivers would come at strategic times of day and night to give Dad relief from Mom and my Mom relief from him, they had become a loving Abbott and Costello act.

With the TV blaring at AC/DC concert decibel levels, I would hear them yell at one another.

” I NEED MY MEDS, MILES” Mom would announce above the ear splitting dialogue of another Hallmark channel movie.

A yell from the second floor

” WE DON’T NEED TO CHANGE THE BEDS !”

“I SAID I NEED MY MIRAPAX AND SINOMAT !”

“RUTH ,I AM WEARING MY HAT ”

I once called and Dad was pratteling on about how proud he was of my mother for her resilience in the face of her debilitating disease. “Your Mom, Michael, is a brave woman. I love her so much.”

( A noise in the background of another voice and of course, a loud TV )

” Just a minute” he said with minor irritation. With his hand unevenly over the mouthpiece, I could hear him yell downstairs,” what ? Damn it Ruth, I am trying to talk to Michael. Can you just wait a damn minute?”

He returned to the phone perfumed in love and nostalgia. ” Where was I? Oh yeah, your Mom is just amazing.”

I was apprehensive as I called and heard a weak voice on the other end of 3000 miles. “I’m not afraid to die” he shared, ” I just want to be sure you boys take care of your Mom.”

He was exhausted. His brain was working at triple speed trying to repair the broken synapses and uprooted wires that had connected his muscular and nuerological circuit board. The physical therapy was brutal but necessary to quickly recondition the body to learn to walk – not unlike a toddler who must continue the frustrating trial and error of falling until he had mastered his equilibrium.

I flew out to LA where my younger brother had been busy sorting through a landslide of bills, logistics and a thousand speed dialed questions from my mom.

He looked exhausted and welcomed the cavalry. Another brother had also jumped in and we had soon stitched together a primitive stop gap safety net of care, financial support and hospital visitation.

I was unprepared for my visit. The man who had seemed so indestructible for 48 years of my life was bed ridden and vulnerable. ” This damn left hand has a life of its own.” he said weakly. ” Sure is good to see you, Michael. How’s your Mom?”

I was a wreck. My brain was a rapid screen saver show of faded polaroid vacation shots – the flat topped, ex-lieutenant and his four boys with heads shaved cleaner than recruits. ” Mom’s fine. Looks like you have gone to great lengths to get out of commode duty.”

He managed a smile and patted my hand. I was about to lose it but did not want to break the implied ” Stay Strong ” covenant that had been drilled home since an early age.

We talked for an hour until fatigue overwhelmed him, gently taking him from me as he slumped into a deep sleep.

“Welcome to the sandwich generation.” A voice chipped from behind a half drawn, hospital curtain. A gaunt, 50 something, cowboy of a man peered around the corner with a wry smile. His left side had been crushed in a motorcycle accident but he was now on the better side of weeks of arduous physical therapy.

He smiled sympathetically.
“Name’s Doug,” he held out a crooked talon of a hand that gripped mine like a vice. ” You get the complete short straw. You will be caring for your parents, possibly for those extended family that fall prey to the recession and your own kids who will have to work in the long shadows of a sputtering US economy.”

I thought, “who is this guy, Milton Friedman’s Hell’s Angels brother? ”

” Your Dad’s a great guy. All he talks about is you kids, your kids, his wife, Ruth, and of course, how much he dislikes the Obama Administration and Congress” Well, the stroke clearly has not effected his mind.” I mused.

I wondered if the extra burden of caring for Mom had been a factor in his stroke. In recent months, he seemed tired when I would see him but would quickly animate when the subject of politics or business arose.

But each time, he looked like he was losing steam and in some ways, lost to me – beginning some final journey that for the first time in years I could not join him on.

” Dad, where are you going.”

” A business trip, buddy. I will be back home tomorrow night to play baseball with you and your brothers.”

” Can I come?”

” Maybe when you are older pal,” I would watch as the car backed out of the driveway to take him to some exotic location like San Francisco or New York.

.Days later my visits became routine and I witnessed my father’s painful swim back to the surface of the whitewater that had broken his body – but certainly not his sense of humor.”

” I call this useless left hand, ‘ Harry Reid ” and my disobedient, frustrating left leg, ‘Nancy Pelosi’. He grinned. The nurses and physical therapists swirled around him having obviously been charmed by his graciousness and complete willingness to cooperate so he might be released to go home to my mother.

My brothers and I were now wrestling with their fixed income that had not anticipated 24 hour care for two people and a financial meltdown which redendered his fixed income instruments incapable of keeping pace with his expenses. For the first time in retirement, he would be eating into principal. For a depression baby, this was tantamount to deficit spending and leveraging your tomorrow.

Truth be told, he was fine but the anxiety over this next highly complicated stage of their life was weighing on them. Suddenly, father became son and son became father in a bizarre transformation that neither of us enjoyed. We discussed all the salient issues and tough possibilities. In the end. We agreed on a course of action.

Meanwhile, my Mom had mobilized wanting to take a greater role in decisions but missing details that would render her interventions more a distraction than a help. However, without my Dad’s equilibrium, the household was void of control and she was determined after seven years to fill the gap.

Again, we donned one another’s clothing and carried on a difficult discussion about our division of labor and the need for her to let us ” take over”. For someone who bailed boys out of every conceivable miscue and misstep, she still saw us as lacking a critical ingredient of pragmatism that only she possessed. It was some time before we forged an uneasy detente over next steps.

” How are Harry and Nancy today day, Dad?” I chirped as I entered his room the final morning before I was to leave LA

. He was unusually relaxed having gotten an initial conditional release to return home in few weeks. Some motor skills were returning. He would probably never drive his car again.

>”What do you expect from a couple of confused lefties – out of touch with the main body? It’s just one big give away show!”

I smiled and leaned over – hugging him longer than normal and feeling his release twice but choosing to prolong our embrace and not let go. ” I love you.”

” I love you too. I am proud of you and your brothers. Now if those damn Bears can only do something with Jay Cutler at QB, I will die a happy man.”

” I think you should tie your recovery to something more stable than a Chicago sports team.”

” Like what ? ” He laughed. ” The country is going to hell. Obama is running the biggest give away show since LBJ and America will keep reelecting fools like Reid and Pelosi to Congress instead of waking up and realizing they are leveraging our future.”

I left his hospital room and glanced back as he picked up the Wall Street Journal and scoffed at some headline. He was going to be fine and clearly was not going gently into that good night.

For one of the sandwich generation, I began my long journey down a new and unfamiliar road. There is no room for self pity or self centered thinking. It won’t be easy if oracle Doug proves correct – this triple decker sandwich of responsibility. But hey, if Dad can teach Harry Reid to hold a cup and Nancy Pelosi to dance, I can certainly carry my load…

Taming The Dancing Bear

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Image by Dawn Camp via Flickr

Taming The Dancing Bear

“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”– Japanese proverb

It was the uniform of the condemned: the hand me down blue blazer, striped tie knotted with a baseball sized double Windsor, a starched white pin point, and itchy, gray wool slacks with razor edged military creases. It was not even Sunday.  It was Saturday evening and I was going to the first of what promised to be several humiliating classes called “Cotillion”. I did not know what a cotillion was but judging from the wry, sardonic smile on my older brother’s face, I was not going to like it.  Cotillion was supposed to transform us into young gentleman and ladies – gentrified aesthetes whose table manners were only exceeded by their ability to do the cha-cha.  Each parent secretly held hopes that this rigorous social sandpapering would prepare their child to some day become the US cultural attaché to some exotic European country.

The dance macabre was held at the town community center and was hosted by the imperious Commander and Mrs. U. The Commander was a rigid cardboard cut out who feared no man except his spouse and dance partner, a Joan Crawford stunt double replete with hyperthyroid eyes and a fearsome tire skid unibrow. Her toxic perfume could have emptied an entire trench line in WWI. We suspected that life with Mrs. U was the equivalent of going to war – long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. We hugged the walls, a knot of restless and irritable fifth graders, pushing and shoving one another toward the demilitarized zone of ballroom floor that separated us from the mysterious tangle of Cinderella gowns, bowed hair and polished glass slippers.

“Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide” shrilled with mind numbing repetition through an ancient loudspeaker.  For the young attendees, the experience was reminiscent of a political reeducation camp in Cambodia.  For Mrs. U, each Saturday evening brought the chance to transform into a dreamy Blanche Dubois reliving a time when Tommy Dorsey music was floating on the cool autumn air and young men were lining up to fill her dance card. When the first few notes of Blue Danube fell like a soft silk veil, the U’s roamed the floor in a nostalgic blackout looking for partners.  A silent rosary could be heard from the mouths of every child, ” Please do not pick me, please do not pick me.” An alabaster claw clutched my arm.  “ Come with me, young man.  Let’s show this ballroom how to waltz!”  Nervous snickers and total humiliation swirled around me as Mrs. Unander proceeded to break me like a green colt. After enduring the Box Step with the skeleton lady, the music mercifully stopped. I returned to the fray of cowlicks and tight collars, emasculated and reeking of cheap perfume.

Our liberation from Cotillion and dancing was short lived.  The early trauma was followed by an even greater confusion of middle school and high school dances.  As boys, we understood that girls liked to dance and that asking the opposite sex to trip the light fantastic could lead to “going out” – – one of the many jasmine scented rites of passages compulsory to a young man’s journey. The gymnasium social scene was a tight onion of posturing and hormones.  An outer layer of boys and girls adorned the gym walls and risers watching the vortex of motion with envy and contempt.  The core of this anxious adolescent scallion was an evolving social order of post pubescent royalty – – princes, ladies in waiting, dukes, jesters and the first cut of prom kings and drama queens.  The dancing was free form expression with boys confined to safe, unimaginative jerking from side to side with the occasional overbite and riff of an air guitar.  The girls were infinitely more expressive with arms above their heads swaying like Moroccan belly dancers in a swirling hot wind.  And then there were the mavericks – individualistic kids who dared to dance outside the safety zone – using moves borrowed from American bandstand or Soul Train to distinguish them and perhaps leap frog the established social hierarchy by dancing with the most popular girls.  We would mock and badger these counter cultural souls from the safety of our shadows.  Yet, we were the ones who were not dancing.

I tried to break ranks with my larger, inept brethren practicing moves in front of the mirror days before dances.  There was simply no sequence of steps or motions that did not make me look as if I was on the cusp of an epileptic seizure.  My father was no help.  The man, who had grown up in a time with great dance steps like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, had one series of moves that my brothers and I simply referred to as “the hydroplane”.  He would sway side to side like a Rodeo Drive palm tree while moving his hands parallel to the ground.  It appeared as though he was a tragic Prometheus forever condemned to administer Pledge wax to an imaginary tabletop.  My brothers were no help as they were equally challenged.  My last hope, my mother, could not stop laughing each time we privately attempted to hustle.  I was the dancing bear in the circus.

I married and was immediately diagnosed by my coordinated partner as suffering from severe rhythmic deficit syndrome (SRDS).  SRDS can effect anyone but I was sadly the poster child for the disorder.  My spouse patiently pushed therapy – – dancing at parties, weddings and informal gatherings.  Each step was painful and I created excuses to avoid the rectangular parquets of humiliation.  She signed us up for a couples dancing class but I flunked out.  I observed other men also challenged with SRDS who loathed parties with bands and DJs.  The music would start and this band of left footed brothers would flee to the toilets, bars and patios as if a fire had been declared, leaving their dates, partners and spouses to dance with one another and that same loathsome maverick that would see this opportunity to once again become the center of the galaxy of dancing queens.

It took twenty years but I finally stopped fleeing the party at the first machine gun burst of music. To my surprise, no one noticed ursus clumsius lumber on to the dance floor, as all were preoccupied with their own self- expression.  They had obviously observed dancing bears before. As the bass thumped and the music pitched, I noticed the ghost of an awkward adolescent hesitating at the party door, looking back at me – a thick, teetering jenga stack of overbites and invisible guitar riffs – smiling and then melting away. I glanced around the floor and watched as other bears entered the fray.  The maverick was still roaming the floor, ever the opportunist, feasting on partnerless women, urging all to join him in some Latin Salsa line step that he had learned while on a recent business trip to Sao Paolo.  I smiled and moved predictably, balancing on my invisible circus ball – arms confined within the proverbial safety zone. Somewhere off in the cosmos, the Unanders would be smiling.

The girls were still beautiful.  The music was still intoxicating.  The best part of all was no one cared.  Not even me.

Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.

The Hulk

The Hulk

 

At a prepubescent 10 years old, I happily still sported baby fat and had no issues with my body image.  My innocent lack of self consciousness was shattered one fateful summer afternoon at the local community pool when it became very obvious to me that my breasts were larger than the 16 year old female lifeguard who I secretly admired.  Like Adam and Eve after eating the apple, I was suddenly aware of my pear-like physique. I could not deny other signs of my flagging vitality. The annual Presidential Fitness Test that was visited upon elementary school coach potatoes each fall was an embarrassing reminder that I did not possess the ” right stuff”.  The test revealed in a very public setting my most carefully guarded secret : I could not do a pull up. My inability to hoist my 130 lb, 5′ body over a metal bar that was less than 18 inches above my chin, was devastating.

 

My thirst for strength and fitness led me into an amusing phase of self obsession.  I became keenly aware of physically fit athletes.  I  marvelled at Olympian weight lifters.  I obsessed over the Mr Universe contests as Austrian Schwartzenegger and American Lou Ferrigno competed for the most perfect body.   I worshipped NFL defensive giants Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene and Dick Butkis as they prowled offensive backfields breaking quarterbacks like dry kindling.  In Pro Wrestling, Freddy Blassy epitomized the brash bravado that came with pectoral muscles.  He denounced all “pencil neck geeks” and made it clear that no bully would kick sand in your face if you were sporting biceps that could crush walnuts.

 

As with many seemingly benign adolescent obsessions, there was a dark secret leavened in with my enthusiasm, energy and determination. This closet shame led me to develop a secret gymnasium in our garage – fashioning weights from paint cans and broken rakes, dumbbells from sledgehammers and a pull up bar from a spare curtain rod.  My first workout was a train wreck as my 50lb bench press of paint cans slid off my makeshift bar and dented my Mom’s Ford Pinto.  I attempted a bicep curl with the hammer and dropped it over my back, barely missing my dog Max who had come to watch my covert self improvement with confused amusement.  He fled the garage yelping.  The final indignity was taking the spare curtain rod and fixing it between the beams of the garage rafters.  The wooden ladder creaked mockingly as I climbed to attempt my private chin up.   I grasped the narrow rod and hung for a moment in the air.  I squeezed every ounce of energy from my arms, arching my back  whipping my legs for momentum.  The rod bowed for a moment and then slowly lifted me to eye ball level.  My first pull up was within my grasp. I strained and heaved. I did not notice the strain on the metal until it snapped, catapulting me into a lawnmower which ripped a foot long tear in my new levis. The mower’s leaf catch was crumpled beyond repair as was my fragile ego. I was convinced that I was forever ” fat boy”.

 

Years later, despite stretching to 6′ 2″ and playing competitive sports at all levels, I still winced at those memories like a loose rock in my shoe.  Like so many paintings in the private galleries of our lives, we sometimes circle back to complete unfinished works.  At 43, I decided to reattempt body building in hopes of defying nature, gravity and Kelloggs food products.  As with all my obsessions, I attacked my new regimen with relentless gusto. I did not realize it but excessive weight lifting does odd things to a person’s body.  New muscles appear in unintended places.  The odd hump forms on your right shoulder.  Success is very uneven. New undiagnosed aches and pains play tricks on your mind.  Clothes do not fit.  Buttons pop off pants and dress shirts at an alarming rate. Yet, despite the Kafkaesque symptoms, everything feels a little more in control.  Your inner twenty-something begins to stir but struggles to escape its forty something prison of padding.

 

I found myself at the Fitness Club of New Canaan every day. I bought a lycra garment that squeezed me tighter than an English sausage.  I fell deeper into the abyss of self obsession. On business trips I found myself asking if the hotel fitness center had free weights.  On vacation, I would scour the area for the only gym within 100 miles the way others drive for hours trying to find an espresso drink in the Adirondacks. I was hooked.

 

I began to feed the obsession buying shirts one size too small. This fashion detour caused my spouse to wince with embarrassment. “It’s just a phase,” she kept repeating.  Despite my promotion back to size LG shirts, she continued to buy me XL clothing.  Did she not see what was happening to me ?  The guns ?  The pecs? The hump on my back ? I sensed her distain for my new found passion but ignored it figuring it could be worse.  I just knew that if I kept up my routine, it would be impossible for her to mock me with here black belt diminutives.  I was not lifting “little” weights at a “little gym”.  I was no longer a “little” obsessed. Nothing about weight lifting is small.  It is big.  You are big.  Everyone should be big.

  

I wanted to be even bigger. I was too afraid to try steroids as they were a) illegal, b) known to cause severe health problems and c) drive you insane once you run out of things to lift.  All I could think about was what were these exercise leviathans in Flex magazine eating and where could I get some of it.  If I could replicate their diets, I would be flexing well into my 90’s. It was on a routine visit to a fitness club retail store that I got my answer and had my eyes opened to a vast universe of nutritional supplements. As I walked the aisle of power powders and amino aids. I was confronted with grand promises and testimonials to the ultimate power of these products.

 

The first row of items trumpeted the amazing powers of whey.  What the heck was whey ? Didn’t Little Miss Muffet eat the stuff ?  Perhaps, if she had just eaten “Mega Isolate High Performance Whey” or Whebolic” she would have smashed that intrepid anachronid while in a whey rage and then followed his drooping silk thread back to wipe out his 2000 other family members.  There was an entire shelf of items that should be regulated  by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Musl Blast clearly targeted extreme athletes and soldiers of fortune. After two scoops of their powdered stimulant I could be a rippling machine of destruction,  climbing Mt Everest in the morning and perhaps toppling an Asian junta in the afternoon.

 

Nitro protein drink should be illegal in 12 countries.  It’s explosive combination of natural and synthetic supplements can transform even the meekest of weaklings into a time bomb of testosterone. This lean muscle maximizer utilizes Chernobyl strength doses of protein and induces anabolic insulin production for maximum creatine saturation.  Wow! I want that. Each serving is the nutritional equivalent of eating nine bison. Freak Fix, Pit Bull and Anabolic OD were my favorites.  I mean we’re all adults here. You are a freak and you need a fix. Drink this and go personally move your house to that new lot on Weed Street or get picked up by the police for chasing a UPS delivery truck. It’s your life.

 

At this point, I was becoming a supplement junkie in a creatine haze. I then had my moment of clarity.  The obsession with weights stemmed from my inability to do one stupid, lousy pull up.  I drove home and grabbed the chin bar that regularly bumped my head as I entered my son’s room.  I hung low and hesitated.  My body started to raise. The biceps strained and my back arched. My chin rose above the metal finish line and a lifetime of “fatboys” fell away.

 

Somewhere in the weightlifter universe, the Force shuddered.  Another potential “juicer” had just gone to the Dark Side.

 

Arson and Old Laces

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

Arson and Old Laces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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