Chanticleer Reviews had named “53 Is The New 38” a finalist in its Journey Awards for non fiction. Winner TBD as of Aptil 2017. Cash and prizes! The book, was also recognized as a finalist for Humor/Comedy earlier this year at the Indie Book Awards, this second recognition for the book is really fun and reiforces the notion that even a broken watch is correct twice a day! Here’s a link to the book.https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1517093694?fp=1&pc_redir=T1
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?
Tolkien once wrote that “not all those who wander are lost”. Some of us are fortunate in life to come to the conclusion that our noblest aspects are not discovered at a desk but in foreign places and in moments when you are torn away from the moorings of all things familiar. Our souls were not fashioned to fit neatly into a narrow trench of material pursuit.
Perhaps this particular midsummer’s voyage would have made the perfect ad for Visa. “Flying to Europe to visit your son studying abroad? $800. Sleeping in the spare room of a five hundred year old haunted landmark in London? $100. Searching for the perfect cappuccino while contributing to your son’s delinquency on his first trip to Italy? Priceless…”
The recollection of three years living abroad and working across Europe and North Africa has remained with me – a thousand days spent off-balance and uneducated to the ways of so many new countries and cultures. The adrenaline rush of perpetual firsts became its own form of addiction and led to a dozen years of nagging withdrawal upon my repatriation back to America.
On the day that we disembarked with one way tickets back to the US, I made a private pact to ensure that my children would not lose touch with the places that shaped their formative years. Travel stimulates a different part of the brain and can invigorate talents that lie dormant when not germinated by challenge. The daily travails of an ex-pat are characterized by perpetual change and the lingering mélange of strange customs, languages and food. It is a lifestyle that leaves you at once exhausted and more alive for the experience of having to swim in waters so deep and so far off your own shore.
Earlier in the year, my eldest son had decided to study in London. In the past decade, his other siblings had joined me on special trips to the UK and continent of Europe but as an over-subscribed student athlete, he’d never really had the bandwidth to take an extended holiday back to retrace his London childhood spent in a green jumper and blue trousers. Whatever semblance of English civility he had gained those three years at the Hall School Wimbledon was undone in a matter of months after he returned to his Bohemian homeland of America. The boy who seemed bound for debate, cricket and English football ended up an all-state football and lacrosse player with American appetites and no real sense of his past self, the international child riding camels in North Africa and swimming in the Indian Ocean off the island of Mauritius.
He was no longer the cautious and polite patrician with the lilting British accent but a full-blooded, ten-point antler, male stag intent on rutting and rooting for adventure and cellphone numbers of the opposite sex. He is a young American man. Nineteen is a golden age. It is the light beer of adulthood — all the fun and less than one-quarter of the consequences. And oh, the places you can go when you are loose in London with a credit card!
I succeeded in convincing him and another college lacrosse friend that upon conclusion of their one month of study abroad that they must consent to a bed check from their fathers which would involve extending their tour for a week so they might experience Venice and the Italian Alps. Ostensibly, it was sold to everyone as a guys’ vacation. However, it also gave us a week to detox the boys — erasing whatever physical and moral decline that their newfound freedom was likely to usher in. God would not want their mothers to see them before we did.
In addition to An Introduction to Macroeconomics and Management Strategy 101, our neophytes would master life skills such as how to properly drink Guinness, how to snog with a British girl, the art of smuggling seven people into one cheap hotel room in Amsterdam and the talent of stretching a £10 note across four night clubs, velvet ropes and cover charges. Any trip abroad is essential LOTB training. LOTB simply stands for “Life Outside The Bubble.” My father’s version of LOTB for his four sons involved working the warehouse graveyard shift in a rough part of town loading trucks. Child labor laws have changed in four decades with the adolescent’s union assuming a much stronger position on the notion of chores and forced labor. The fear of one’s parents has been replaced by a greater fear of missing out – on anything.
Our pale young partisans had reached the end of their unchaperoned month and had gone native. Like all EU members in good standing, they were in violation of our pre-agreed financial covenants – running budget deficits and feeling that someone else should bail them out. When confronted with austerity, they bristled looking for a less painful way out. It was clear that in the span of a month, my initials had changed from MAT to ATM and my son had become Greece. Truth be told, I was delighted with what little I could divine from his vague texts and our brief FaceTime calls. There was an optimistic lilt in his voice. The boy was becoming a man. I would fetch him in London and have him join me for a week long return to Southern Europe — a second home whose current rubric is “live for today because tomorrow we will all be owned by Germans”.
I arrived in Heathrow to a tea-rose twilight that promised to stretch into the night for several more hours. I navigated Customs like an old hand having mindlessly repeated this rite of immigration a hundred times as an expat. As if to test my resolve, a British immigration agent gave me her best RBF (resting bitch face) scowl which I dismissed without so much as a hint of annoyance. I was happy to be back.
I had worked to keep up old relationships in every major city in Europe – many of these friends are truly European and offended if they learn that I was within fifty kilometers and did not call. We still maintain close acquaintances in London and I elected to call a good friend and cheekily request a couch with a view of the Thames. My lodgings were located at none other than the Royal Pensioners Hospital in Chelsea. The magnificent infirmary and pensioner apartments carry a prime SW4 post code opposite Battersea Park. The hospital grounds host the annual Chelsea flower show each spring and are an iconic symbol of Britain’s love affair with its military history and its ambassadors — charming pensioners in their red tunics and distinguished uniforms.
I spent my first day wandering through Chelsea, proper Pimlico, bustling Convent Garden, adventurous Leicester Square, sedate Mayfair and down through St James’ Park to The Horse Guards Barracks Toy Soldier Shoppe where I would add several new soldiers to my massive collection of lead figurines. The following morning’s weather returned to predictable summer rain – a fickle meteorological pattern that drove me crazy when we first moved to the UK. Like old times, I found myself driven indoors avoiding the precipitation and lazily channel surfing across English popular culture.
UK television programming has disturbingly succumbed to the US pollution drift of reality television. I found myself staring at a car wreck called the Jeremy Kyle show. Kyle, a Jerry Springer knock-off from Reading, had gathered an impressive roster of barely understood trailer trash that were debating their baby’s paternity and the cost/benefits of a consensual shag. The morning’s theme, “She’s a bad mum and if I’m the dad, I want full custody” was a ripper. In less then twenty minutes, I saw more tats than a Miami Ink parlor and a fist fight where the mum floored her man with a mean right cross. I flipped to BBC1 where I found Restoration Man, a keen medieval construction genius who was helping a naive history junkie buy and refurbish an eleventh century fixer upper in Kent. On the next channel was Council Flat Investigator – a program which featured responsible public employees trying to pinch welfare-subsidized Brits who were gaming the much maligned nanny state system. This week the investigators were in hot pursuit of Troy and Reggie, two lower-class geezers exploiting immigrants by subletting their £70 a month three bedroom flat for over £1200.
I was torn between housing fraud and the uplifting – no pun intended -“I’m 87 Stone and have a fat chance of (finding) work”. This program features morbidly obese Anglo-Saxons trying to navigate life while consuming twenty kilos of fish and chips every morning for breakfast. Eventually this meal of morning Schadenfreude made me feel physically ill. It was time for me to go for a proper walk in the rain.
As a guest of the Governor and Lady at the Royal Hospital, I had to be on my best behavior. The hospital is a fashionable four hundred years of history. Built by Charles II shortly after the military beheaded Charles I in the mid-seventeenth century, the new monarch retained renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren to design this military retirement home as a grand advertisement of the new regime’s appreciation for their army and soldiers. The Royal Hospital helped create an aura of invincibility around the newly minted king and made it easier to prosecute continued war against the French.
The hospital also is home to ghosts. I am convinced that many of these old buildings retain much of the energy that has been released over a half millennia. The Governor confirmed that the phantasms are indeed real but fairly well-behaved with activities confined to modest moaning and a penchant for redecoration — opening drapes and moving furniture around at odd hours.
While history and tradition sometime conspire to keep England lagging the modern world, she is embracing the digital age. The Imperial war museum has gone digital while Uber is decimating the once sacred black cab business. These symbolic cornerstones of service, working pride and competence have lost 40% market share to drivers that no longer need to memorize the location of every mews, close and road. Fresh off the boat foreign workers armed with GPS and a generation of smart phone based customers are stealing every client under the age of 35. The majority Conservative party is unwilling at present to protect the transportation industry from what they feel is a free market manifestation of the new global economy. Across the channel, French cab drivers are up in arms and on strike. In the UK, they grin and bear it.
I spent my afternoon hosting the boys at the remodeled Imperial War museum and filled their brains with stories of World Wars, Victoria Crosses and a golden age when the sun never set in the British Empire. After a late, last supper of fresh lamb from the farm of our very accommodating hosts, it was back to pack and a 4:45am wake up call.
After a chaotic morning of faulty BA check-in systems and impossible airport queues, we finally descended through a humid mid-day Italian sunshine into Marco Polo airport where a water taxi waited to transport us to the Grand Canal, St Marks and our grand Hotel Bauer in Venice.
St Marks Square was choked with tourists as we dragged our roller bags across the cobble stone piazza. The open ground was interrupted by the occasional ink blot of pooled sea water that had been deposited the previous night with the full moon’s rising tide. The northern Italian air was sticky and convection oven hot as massive thunderheads approached from the west. On the heels of the afternoon storm would be cool breezes and the reward of a mild evening spent in one of a hundred dimly lit piazzas alive with locals and foreign visitors.
As expected, the boys were happy in this tangle of history and humanity. They appeared mildly malnourished; sleep deprived and slightly jaundiced but they were bursting with stories – some that could never be repeated in the presence of clergy or their mother.
Traveling with two handsome young men with hummingbird metabolisms and a cat’s sense of adventure is a challenge and a joy. You are escorting a younger version of yourself — a changeling that is eager to suck the marrow from each day and possessing the instinct to live by the most simple of adolescent routines — sleep, eat, drink, cavort, repeat…
On this day, I had become a self-anointed yenta — repeatedly chatting up young attractive women between the ages of 17 and 25 to introduce to our embarrassed but amused sons. Their inept follow through confirmed that youth remains wasted on the young. Bill and I remain middle-aged troglodytes — harmless and invisible men who use humor and a dozen broken Italian words to broker introductions. The boys did not bridge any cultural divides that day but they demonstrated a duck’s aptitude to take to water and were now swimming comfortably in an Italian sea.
I always return to Italy. The ethos of Italia is a charming visceral celebration of all things aesthetic — the beauty of Caravaggio, a baroque depiction of the Virgin mother in the Ufizzi, the curve of a young woman’s calf, or the palatial architecture and perfumed history of a City that was at one time the center of world commerce and Renaissance.
On this trip, the Italian media were preoccupied by the rising tide of middle eastern and North African refugees that had fled chaos in Syria and the Sudan. Further from home, the Italians were riveted by the potential of Greece’s banishment from the EU brought on by debt and an unwillingness to accept draconian austerity measures. Southern Europe may once again lose their sovereignty to the Germans; this time in a bloodless, financial coup d’ main Street brought on by the terms of their bailout.
The Italians sense they may be the next EU recidivist to endure withering criticism of their inability to honor the fiscal guardrails required to belong to the powerful but deeply confederate European Union. National papers Corriere della Sera and La Republicca lament the corrupting nature of debt and the heavy price one generation may have to pay for the foibles of governments with life spans no greater than un mosca domestica, the housefly. The great empires of Western Europe are slowly being reduced by debt to mere tourist attractions.
I try to educate our testosterone-fueled wards on the economic woes raging across Europe but am met with limited interest and mild derision. You are never a prophet in your home piazza and it seems that the vagaries of failed monetary and social policies can’t compete with tan legs and short skirts. I get that. The boys are clearly going native each day as Italy’s sybaritic ethos permeates their thinking.
Perhaps the tales of the Doges could teach them how oligarchies tend to rot from within and how the general population eventually rises up when inequity and injustice becomes too palpable. History teaches that any new society is normally conceived out of chaos. And any rebirth, by definition, is both bloody and beautiful. My eyes dart up and down the international queue of souls waiting to enter The Doge’s Palace. It is a jewel – a preserved monument to medieval power housing a history of paintings and frescoes that highlight the relentless repetition of power’s rise and fall. The art is both a lesson and a warning — a distant mirror reflecting a society struggling with power, affluence, greed, decline and renaissance across millennia.
To many in Italy, the new ruling class is located somewhere to the north in a central bank. Euro zone membership now requires less than 2% inflation, a deficit less than 3% of GDP and public debt of no more than 60% of GDP. The U.S. could not meet this criteria. Many nations joined the Euro initially misrepresenting their fiscal circumstances and resolve to abandon socialistic public policies. Italians worry that a Greek exit from the euro would drive weaker members into a forced austerity leading to protracted depression and unemployment.
Others pro-austerity advocates cite that tough resolve is now required in Europe. The old guard of liberals must yield to a new global reality where deficit spending to prop up flagging economies and large government must yield to a more unregulated labor and capital market. A banishment from the euro would mean reintroducing the drachma and instantly devaluing everything. It would sure make feta cheese and baklava cheap. The challenge is when any debtor owes so much they simply cannot pay it back. Is it possible to find a middle ground of what some have coined “inclusive capitalism”? The Greeks have capitulated for now. The Italians are bracing for a tougher conversation — although for hard-line EU opponents, it is all sound and fury signifying nothing.
Today is too nice a day to worry about Italy’s tomorrow. Venice is a jewel and remains an adult paradise of rich visual treasures and impossibly wonderful food. We spend our days getting lost among tourists and in search of the fringes of the city where food and hospitality are more reasoned and authentic. The boys nibble on my history lessons as if they are being served steamed cauliflower. They sense these insights are intellectually nutritious but they can’t disguise their disgust. My fellow companion, Bill, listens without adding much — content to yield his time to the boorish Senator from Connecticut. He enjoys our daily discourse but knows the boys are more deeply committed to the venal pleasures of life on the Grand Canal. Italy, like these boys, is stuck in a permanent adolescence — believing that charm can get you past anything, that bad things happen to others and that problems do not require preparation or perspiration. If one covers ones ears long enough, perhaps the wolf at the door will believe no one is home and go away.
Our trip required that we must eventually depart Venice and drive north into the Dolomites searching for a hidden chalet, the Rosa Alpina, nestled among verdant alpine pastures and soaring granite minarets. Driving in Italy is not for the faint of heart. The A27 Autostrada was empty of cars with the exception of the occasional Fiat that would flash his lights as he tore past us at 160 kilometers per hour. People park their vehicles at bizarre angles as if they have spilled battery acid in their laps and cars move across traffic as if signals and passing lanes are optional. Driving is a Darwinian adventure requiring guts and caffeine.
Gratefully, most of the nation’s worst drivers were either on holiday or further south with their mistresses in Capri as we snaked our way through wine country and up to the great glacial valleys of the Sud-Tirol. The 1200 square kilometer area is renown for its winter skiing around Cortina. In the summer, the valleys appear like a pine-green codpiece that adorns the neck and shoulders of the serrated minaret range known as the Dolomites. The Dolmitti are a UNESCO world heritage site and a geologist’s Mecca. The alpine villages sit in succession like ports along a great gray ribbon of high mountain road with each wooden chalet and building festooned with corsages of petunias, geraniums and elysium that spill from the dormered window-sills.
Forests of pine and conifer grow thicker with the elevation and are highlighted by the soft light of a fresh mountain morning. The road snakes up and up — a single artery feeding the region from the south. The bases of peaks that explode from each side of the highway are crisscrossed with trails and the occasional day hikers armed with walking poles and rucksacks. The mountains dominate here and possess a sacred presence reassuring its inhabitants that they are protected in this place from the creep of civilization and the polluted march of carnivorous capitalism.
Our first morning is a perfect day without rain. We climb 1500 feet from the Capura Alpina trailhead through a pass and up on to a high meadow at the tree line. The ascent was difficult but tolerable, as the elevation here maxes out at no higher than 8,000 feet. We cross fifteen kilometers of rock and high mountain streams tumbling down from unseen glacial melt and culoirs of snow. We realize that we have taken the wrong path at one point but serendipitously find that our hike now offers stops at local refugios and a choice of canyons to conclude our trip. The surrounding peaks top out at over 10,000 feet but are only accessible via gondola lifts, goat trails or by rope and pitons secured by a professional guide.
In these high mountains, holidaymakers can choose across a range of high-end chalets, small tasteful pension hostels or refugios, a series of alpine cafes and huts linking an entire network of trails. We spend our days climbing and moving from one refugio to the next — always stopping for a cappuccino or bowl of soup. These sturdy huts feed and house weary walkers and climbers. When the clouds threaten, one merely looks to the map and hustles the next few miles to a refugio for shelter.
We are hardly roughing it as we retreat each night to our magnificent chalet replete with its two star Michelin restaurant and hopelessly attractive Italian girls who staff the restaurants and spa. The boys did their best to advance international diplomacy bridging the language divide with the doe-eyed staff. Neither group was multi-lingual and the occasional encounters were pure adolescent longing — a humorous combination of pidgin English, high school flirtation and rudimentary sign language. “Amore” is a universal libretto. A quick smile and eager flashing eyes, the allure of a promise, its all part of the music of youth. At some point, the ear grows to old to hear the notes although in Italy, the frequency of romance never goes undetected.
I love these trips if for no other reason that it allows me to plunge into the world of my son. I work hard to find these times when I can walk side by side in his march toward manhood. He is a wonderful and funny force of nature and a great partner in adventure. He is part of my legacy to a world that desperately needs people who will seek to understand before insisting on being understood.
The week goes by too quickly and in its place, we fashion an indelible moment that will stay with him for his life. Perhaps he’ll return here some day with his son and once again ask Italy to show him the genius of its marble cities and granite mountain ranges. The Italians have mastered many aspects of living a rich life. It is a society steeped in love, fear and faith. Amore is everywhere. As is the irony with so many cultures anchored by opposites, fear and faith are cousins who share a similar starting point, a point where reason ceases to offer the answers and one must advance on feelings rather than facts.
It had been a perfect afternoon and evening. We lingered in that moment before falling asleep, lying in the dark and talking. The lack of light and the reassuring comfort of a warm bed worked its magic as it had over so many years when he was a small boy seeking answers. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia.
“Buddy, remember when we spent that Halloween in Florence at the Villa la Massa? You were dressed as Spider Man and the hotel staff occupied all the rooms on the first floor to give you guys homemade candies?”
“Dad, I was like five.”
“You were such a cute kid — always hopping up and down everywhere. You were like a rabbit. You’d come into every room like pogo stick yelling, ‘hop!, hop! hop!’”
“You know, this has been a perfect…”
“Dad, don’t ruin it.”
“Yep, got it. G’night…”
An interesting article on how national reform may reshape America’s hospitals. This was written in conjunction with my day job as a healthcare consultant. Enjoy and don’t get sick !
It’s June – a special time of year when we dump three million fingerling seniors into the ocean of adulthood. As graduates of the “we will love you until you learn to love yourself” school of helicopter parenting, you don’t want more advice. But, you’re going to get it any way. Most of you just want to head west or south to find sun and towns with no police blotters or curfews. Good luck with that.
Many of you were born in 1996, the Chinese year of the Pig. This explains the state of your bedrooms, motor vehicles and your penchant to leave wrappers wedged between pillows on the couch.
When you were born, most of us read something by Malcolm Gladwell or an article in Parents magazine telling us that if we desired high performance outliers, we had to hold you back a grade. As a result, your graduating class is an uneven skyline of red-shirted college students and overachieving youngsters. Some of you have been driving since your sophomore year – a few legally.
When we were born before the Civil War, the mid wife gave us a swat to make sure we would cry. It was also a preemptive punishment for all the stupid things we were likely to do. When you were born, swatting was considered child abuse, so the Obstetrician merely asked you how you were feeling. You naturally did not respond and so you got a few free nights in neonatal intensive care and we got a bill for $900,000.
1996 was a wild year. A computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov later found a website on cheats and shortcuts and subsequently beat Deep Blue. In 1996, a wonderful microcosm of America passed away before you could get to know them. You know their iconic images but you never really felt their physical presence. Gene Kelly was a star who danced while George Burns reminded us that age was merely a number. Erma Bombeck told us never to give the car keys to a teenager and Timothy Leary, well, let’s just say he explored inner space while Karl Sagan came back from outer space to tell us we were not alone. Ella Fitzgerald improvised her way to become the first lady of jazz while militant and talented Tupac Shakur died as violently as the lyrics of his brilliant rap. Tiny Tim was our first trip through the tulips in light loafers.
You were pretty normal. Like all children, you loved the notion of having special powers. We played Pokemon, watched Dragon Tales and Arthur, read Harry Potter and observed you with fascination as you got your first taste of dystopia in The Hunger Games. Up to that point, your idea of dystopia was a house without a pimped out basement and any kind of “because you live here” chores. A few years later, we all went to Washington DC for a family vacation, and got a real taste of futuristic dysfunction.
We tried to stop you from using violent video games but found them so much fun that we joined you on Black Ops missions. You always shot us in the back. When it came to inappropriate movies, it always seemed that you managed to see gory cinema du jour at someone else’s house. We still can’t figure out whose house because we all claimed that we did not allow blood and guts programming — unless of course, your Mom was out for the night and then we agreed that you would not tell about my smoking a cigar if I let you and your friends watch Jeepers Creepers 4.
For many of you, your biggest problems have arisen out of how to deal with a caste system borne out of prosperity. In life, as in nature, the seeds of true character only germinate during the wet winters of personal crisis. Some of you have already felt the sting of broken homes and tragedy. Green lawns and clean streets don’t immunize us from life. Some of you handled your challenges with incredible grace. Through these challenges, you guys cared for and loved each other. That capacity to put someone or something ahead of you is a sign of great emotional intelligence.
Like all of us you don’t like trials and tribulations. Hell, some of you don’t even like the dentist although it is ten times better now than when we were clutching the chair having cavities filled by escaped war criminals. I digress. The fact is you will need to have your fair share of failures and would prefer to avoid them. Woody Allen once shared “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
You are part of a demographic cohort called the “Millennials”. Authors Strauss and Howe educated us that your tribe is characterized by extreme confidence, social tolerance, a strong sense of entitlement and the narcissistic tendency to take photographs of yourself and post them 100 times a day. Like the generations that preceded you, you are regularly accused of being pampered and unprepared. Yet, Strauss and Howe boldly predict that you will become civic-minded and in the face of some yet to be defined great crisis, emerge as a hero generation. It will reassure us if you occasionally start looking up from your phones – if for no other reason than to see the bad guys when they are coming.
We see you seniors like Internet start-ups — full of promise, cool ideas and with a market cap that far exceeds the fact that you still don’t make any money. However, our irrational exuberance for you keeps us investing.
Please understand we do not like regulating your every move as teenagers but we are now being told that we are bad parents if you screw up. The headline seems to now be that life is over if you get caught doing something stupid. Here’s the good news: You’ll recover. America loves a comeback — just ask Bill Clinton who is the only head of state in US history to generate successive budget surpluses, be unsuccessfully impeached, have an affair, stay married, be President and possibly become a First Lady.
You are smart. You adapt rapidly — some of you resemble human thumbs. But please don’t use your handheld devices as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Nothing will ever replace the joy that comes from helping and interacting with other people. Be fearless. The only thing that seems to really scare you is Tony’s Deli being closed on a snow day.
You are a tolerant contrarian bunch that don’t seem to buy into any rigid dogma that excludes others, labels them or requires a greater than thirty hour workweek. You are like the French. You appreciate the finer things in life and prefer to be on vacation when you are not eating, making out or sleeping. You look great in shorts and Capris while the rest of us are putting in 25 watt Blanche Dubois GE light bulbs – ostensibly to conserve energy.
You have a chance to fix the financial mess we have left you but you have to decide between austerity or trying to grow your way out of the hole. Just remember that a strong middle class anchors any society and the true measure of any civilization is how we treat the least among us. Don’t watch MSNBC or Fox, you’ll live longer. South Park is okay. Life outside our bubble is hard – and not every body wants to play by the same rules. Being a humanist is hard. If any of you start a new political party, count me in – especially if it includes eating Nutella crepes and drinking cappuccinos.
Focus on other people because as a rule of thumb, most of you are your own worst enemy. You will spend your lives on a schizophrenic quest for interpersonal unification — trying to merge the tripartite of personalities that is you — the person you project to the world, the person you secretly believe yourself to be and the person your mother knows. The day those three people become one, you will be officially self-actualized or possibly doing thirty days in the can for having the guts to throw a shoe at a public official.
Life is messy, like your bathroom. You will fail and it will seem weird the first time you don’t immediately hear that familiar whump-whump of the parental helicopter on the horizon. You’ll have your Khe Sahn moments, isolated, no air support surrounded by circumstances that trigger all your self-centered fears. It’s in these moments you will find your capacity to dig in and fight harder. You’ll appreciate everything that you truly earn more than what is given to you.
That sore thing on your hand that you once got shoveling snow is called a callous. It’s a badge of honor suggesting that you worked hard. We can tell when we shake someone’s hands if they have ever met a rake or put in a day’s hard work. Although, be careful being fooled by golfers, they have callouses but tend to avoid late afternoon meetings.
If you choose to attend college, don’t waste your next four years. Get your butt out of bed and go to class. It costs about $2,230 per class so go and learn something. There’s more to life than knowing how to make a mean Mai Tai. To succeed in a flat, competitive world, you’ll need the equilibrium of a jet pilot and the guts of a burglar. You acquire those skills in alleyways, not in your room watching six consecutive seasons of Breaking Bad.
Don’t be a victim. I assure you that whatever higher power you worship has the same desire for you that we do — for you to be happy and to leave the world a better place than when you found it.
Just remember, people are not FTEs or headcount, we are souls on a spiritual journey. Everyone has value. Be a rock of predictability and an oasis of empathy. Never take the last of anything. Make your bed when you stay at someone’s house and strip the sheets. Don’t wear shoes without socks. If your first roommate is nicknamed “Lysol” or “Candyman”, ask for a new one. The semester won’t end well.
Remember Rome was not built in a day and that it rotted from within because of weak politicians, foreign wars and the fact that everyone was inside with their air conditioners on and could not hear the Vandals coming. For that reason alone, always keep a window open.
Be French and live well. Study history and remember the famous line of De Tocqueville, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”
Class of 2014, Vive le difference !
In ancient Athens, the philosopher Diogenes wandered the daylight markets holding a lantern, looking for what he termed, “an honest man.” It seems since the dawn of the consumer economy that customers and buyers have traded most heavily on a single currency – trust. Three millennia later, our financial system still hinges on the basic premise that the game is not rigged and any trusted intermediary is defined by a practitioner who puts his client’s interests ahead of his own.
Anyone responsible for procurement of healthcare may feel like a modern-day Diogenes as they wander an increasingly complex market in search of transparent partners and aligned interests. The art of managing medical costs will continue to be a zero-sum game where higher profit margins are achieved at the expense of uninformed purchasers. It’s often in the shadowed areas of rules-based regulation and in between the fine print of complex financial arrangements that higher profits are made. Are employers too disengaged and outmatched to manage their healthcare expenditures? Are the myriad intermediaries that serve as their sentinels, administrators and care managers benefiting or getting hurt by our current system’s lack of transparency and its deficit of information?
Who’s to Blame for the Failure to Rein In Healthcare Costs?
In his recent column “Yes, Employers Are To Blame for Our High Medical Prices,” Princeton political economist Uwe Reinhardt controversially lays partial blame for the healthcare cost crisis at the feet of employers. Reinhardt suggests that some employers have been passive, uninformed and in some cases, unable to muster the internal energy to get their own leadership teams to commit time to becoming more informed purchasers of health services. Where corporate procurement might realize aggressive discounts from vendors, healthcare has remained outsourced to insurers who have been largely unsuccessful in controlling rising costs and conflicts of interest.
Poor procurement arises out of a failure to act properly – to be informed, to be prepared and to ask the right questions. Some critics of our broken system complain that employers are simply getting poor advice from consultants, agents and brokers who often move at the speed of disruption-averse clients. Some point to government for public-to-private cost-shifting, poorly conceived legislation, and poor regulatory oversight over an industry that has witnessed the rapid consolidation of hospitals and insurers into an oligopoly of control that is difficult to deconstruct.
As the next phases of reform plays out across public and commercial markets, unintended consequences, odd alliances and new conflicts of interest will arise out of the ground fog of purchasing choices. Employers without a firm grasp of the key elements of healthcare cost-management are likely to fall prey to flavor-of-the-month stop gap solutions or Trojan Horse cost-shifting schemes that may control employer costs but will do little to ameliorate underlying negative trends.
Will Self-Centered Fear Reveal the Worst of the Industry?
Healthcare industry stakeholders are scrambling to remain relevant as the locomotive of Obamacare leaves the station. Players once considered essential stewards and stations along the tracks to controlling healthcare costs are worried that they may soon be bypassed. Disintermediation is weighing heavily on anyone who sits in between those that deliver care and those who consume it. The national vision seems clear: universally affordable health coverage leading to lower costs for both the private and public sectors. And while we are at it, let’s toss in a free flat-screen TV.
Employers are naturally cynical to the legislative complexities of the ACA and are having a tough time trying to figure out how to use the momentum of health care reform to make changes that will insulate them from future cost increases. But, it’s hard to know which direction to go – especially when opinions diverge around the likelihood that market-based reforms can lead to sustained low single-digit medical trend. It’s getting hard to know whose opinion to believe, and worse yet, what is motivating their point of view.
The anxiety around disintermediation is causing many stakeholders to explore how to move up and down the services value chain in an effort to carve out a permanent role as a participant in the new age of healthcare delivery. In doing so, many firms are discovering inherent channel conflicts and developing facilities that may cannibalize their own existing business models to survive the digital transformation of an analog industry.
If we believe that any 2.0 version of a solution should be better, faster and cheaper, we should be excited about the changes that lay ahead. The challenge for employers will be to see through to the institutional incentives that are causing many players to pivot into new business models – consultants selling products, hospitals selling insurance, insurance companies becoming providers, and employees being asked to become consumers. Just how muddy is the water getting? Consider the following positions.
As inpatient admissions continue to decline and larger healthcare systems find themselves burdened with brick-and-mortar overhead and high unit costs, there is pressure to continue to pivot into integrated health delivery and higher volumes of ambulatory and outpatient services. So far, so good.
With healthcare reform, these same hospitals are being encouraged to form risk-bearing Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) to help manage population health of retirees and share in the subsequent savings that could be achieved by focusing on value instead of volume. It seems an easy jump to turn an ACO into a commercial venture offering employers the ability to contract directly with the large hospital system as their medical home – essentially becoming an HMO, bearing risk for the health of its members. Incentives change from treating illness to keeping people healthy. The big problem is most of the hospital systems putting their toe in the water of these risk arrangements are also the most expensive hospitals in any PPO network.
Will these hospitals be able to achieve competitive unit cost and low year-on-year trend increases, or will they simply reduce some cost by disintermediating insurers but continue to charge higher costs for services? Once risk shifts to integrated healthcare delivery systems, expect more liability arising out of alleged conflicts of interest and rationing of care.
Many argue that insurers, not unlike banks, have become highly risk averse and are rapidly moving toward a new role as health service and technology infrastructure providers. Most insurers have failed to become trusted consumer brands. Much of this distrust is arguably deserved given their historic insensitivities to customer service and business practices that left purchasers unable to decipher the complex and seemingly arbitrary calculus of pricing and claims payment policies. Most small and mid-sized employer renewals have become frustrating annual rites of passage.
Truth be told, most fully insured employers are beginning to understand that healthcare is like a Las Vegas casino – if you play long enough, the House always wins. The deck is further stacked against business as employers are often scared away from more efficient financing methods like self-insurance to fully insured, bundled programs where all health services are provided through a single insurer including RX, behavioral health, chiropractic and radiology. Bundling affords insurers ample pricing mobility to move required margins across a range of services to achieve their profit targets. While there is nothing illegal with these business practices, it does give rise to healthy cynicism regarding the industry’s commitment to achieve affordable care over personal profit. As one healthcare executive commented, “Look, our job is to hide the Easter eggs and your job (as an advisor) is to find them.”
Public managed care stocks are enjoying 52-week highs as Wall Street clearly sees no signs of near-term pricing pressure. Optically, the new insurer business model, which is now expanding into Medicaid and Medicare, gives the appearance that insurance firms are operating at lower margins while their health service subsidiaries report record growth and profit. It’s hard to trust a vendor who is both serving clients as claim payer and providing services through a subsidiary for undisclosed transfer pricing. This practice will give rise to conflicts of interest as payers pivot into providing care.
Large consulting firms have long-since laid claim to the high ground of objective employer advocacy. As retiree medical and RX costs began to balloon in the late 2000’s, consulting firms saw value in carving out elements of these costs from insurers — creating owned and managed facilities to purchase drugs and offer defined contribution retiree exchanges. A rush of mergers and consolidations introduced additional services to traditional Human Resource and Employee Benefits consultants offering outsourced administration and defined contribution exchanges for active employees. The success of these first-generation facilities led to higher margin annualized revenue streams and a pressure to expand proprietary product solutions into a culture that had historically been agnostic to solutions and vendors.
As employers express interest in exchanges and alternative delivery models, consulting firms see an opportunity to leverage their trusted relationships to steer clients to owned and operated facilities. While clearly believing their owned solutions offer a better mousetrap, the fee for service consulting community is now confronted with a business model conundrum. Do we create products and proprietary facilities to meet the profitable and growing demand for administration and service platforms? If so, will our own consultants consent to steering our customers to our own facilities?
To add additional pressure, Wall Street has rewarded public consulting firms and defined contribution/benefits administration companies with generous valuation uplifts – increases in market cap well ahead of actual enrollment, creating internal pressure to promote exchange participation to deliver on analyst expectations. Certain analysts are convinced that the majority of large employers will convert to exchange-based purchasing in the next decade and in doing so, they are seeking to invest in firms that seem positioned for these future purchasing trends.
The administrative services that accompany many proprietary online enrollment platforms will benefit exchange managers, creating almost captive relationships as employers see higher frictional costs moving from one exchange to another. Employers may essentially be stuck paying annual administration and commissions as part of an exchange-based relationship. Where a consultant should play the role of trusted advisor to help choose the exchange that is best for their client, firms will now be pushing their people to endorse their own exchanges, and in some cases, promote financing arrangements that defy decades of empirical data — in particular those exchanges that are encouraging employers to convert from self-insurance back to fully insured financing as a means to promote purer competition between carriers. Befuddled HR professionals are increasingly torn between long-term institutional relationships and a nagging suspicion that their consultant is now promoting a model out of self-interest. Now armed with hammers, it appears that every client is beginning to go look like a nail.
Brokers and agents have long enjoyed a too-cozy rapport with their HR and Benefits counterparts in small and mid-cap America. In the world of middle-market brokerage, generalists are often advising generalists and relationships routinely trump fiduciary accountability. Brokers leverage relationship-based trust and are often heavily influenced by how they are remunerated. Some brokers prefer fully insured plans as administrative costs, taxes, fees and commissions are commingled and not as visible to a cursory review of costs. One could argue that commissions by their very nature create conflict of interest. The continued practice of volume and contingent-based bonus payments also clouds the broker’s ability to claim total objectivity.
Most relationship-based employers do not question or understand their broker’s remuneration arrangement or in some cases, may knowingly pay higher commissions to their broker so the broker might serve as an outsourced benefits staff – using headcount that HR could never successfully justify internally because of finance and staffing controls.
Healthcare 2.0 will be characterized by data – lots of data and an increased dependence on compliance and technical resources that will shake the traditional transactional broker profit model to its core. Informed clients will desire transparency and accountability for all services, and judge value based on a numerator of outcomes divided by a denominator of cost of services. Brokers will need to be able to demonstrate actionable interventions, improve clinical trends, assist with optimal financing arrangements (including actuarial support for plan value-setting and financial forecasting), provide strong communications and HR support for concierge and employee engagement tools, and understand healthcare economics expertise to hold insurers accountable for achieving network discounts while limiting hidden margins and fees. Transactional placement skills will be table stakes as the 2.0 broker reinvents themselves as a solutions provider with no embedded conflicts of interest. The big question remains: Is it possible for the broker’s goals to align completely with the client’s goals?
A Human Resources manager facetiously shared with me, “I got into the business because I really liked people and I hated math. I now spend my days with a calculator trying manage a massive human capital spend and I don’t really like people.” If you watch where most HR and Benefits Managers’ feet go, it is not in the direction of disruption and greater intervention into the personal and consumer healthcare habits of employees. America’s C Suite has been surprisingly unwilling to spend the time with HR to understand the root causes of their healthcare costs and instead condones what is now a regular and unimaginative annual cost-containment exercise of cutting benefits and increasing contributions as a means to achieve a workable healthcare renewal price point.
While Professor Reinhart’s gentle rebuke of HR may have been a bit undeserved, it is not completely without merit. Structure has long since trumped strategy in employer healthcare plan management. A good renewal sees very little changing, when in fact, change must occur if behavior is going to change. “Disruption” is a broad, amorphous HR term used to describe anything that creates additional work in the form of employee complaints and additional distractions from the job of doing one’s job. To avoid the steeper slopes of the healthcare cost-containment mountain, those charged with overseeing Human Capital have travelled the easier, well-trod trails of cost-shifting, resulting in the erosion of take-home pay.
Given that 90% or more of America’s HR and Benefits professionals are responsible for healthcare but are not rewarded for delivering low, single-digit medical trend, it’s no wonder that their focus is on where they do get rewarded – limiting noise, smoothing feathers and keeping the planes and trains of human capital running on time.
One HR Manager related, “It’s hard to get management to focus on the complexities of healthcare spend. They want to see the year-over-year costs and whether their doctor is still in the PPO network. They don’t have the attention span or interest in tackling all these issues.” Sound familiar?
So Who Can An Employer Trust?
Trust and transparency must be the currency that anchors the employee benefits marketplace of tomorrow. No one in a corporate HR and Benefits role can afford to be seen as a friend and not be seen as a fiduciary. Stakeholders – insurers, consultants, brokers, providers – are all scrambling to preserve their roles as trusted B2B advisors while nervously anticipating a growing consumer market. While public exchanges limp along and blue states and red states fight over the notion that reform is succeeding, employers will be on their own for the foreseeable future – forced to revisit their vision, strategy and structure for healthcare and benefits. In the end, it’s all about aligning incentives. If a CEO tells his/her HR team that 2015 bonuses hinge on managing medical costs to a 3% trend or less – without raising contributions or reducing benefits – one wonders whether friends will become overnight fiduciaries.
In the months and years ahead, employers will find themselves wandering among the tall trees of monolithic insurers and a dizzying new roster of online and consumer engagement tools. It will be all about alignment of interests and holding people accountable for results – not bedside manner. Purchasing will require a lot of homework, faith and a strong sense of the corporate values of the partners you choose to help you shape your plans.
If ever there was a time for honest, unfiltered advice, it’s now. The search is on for affordable healthcare and for stakeholders who are beholding only to their client’s interests to get costs under control
Winter…was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run. – Mark Helprin, Winters Tale
I am swimming through March like a hulking creature trapped under a layer of ice. During this annual period of prolonged hibernation, I only move towards food and light. I am restless, irritable and discontent. If a scientist espousing the irrefutable evidence of global warming were to cross my cantankerous path, I would beat him with my snow shovel and bury him in a shallow grave filled with rock salt.
Each weekend, I don my running gear, desperate for exercise and dopamine. On this particular Saturday, weak sunshine courses through the family room windows suggesting that spring has indeed arrived on the wings of red-breasted robins and lavender crocus
I open the front door to a blast of Alberta air that slashes my face and causes the dog to retreat into the foyer. Brody, my fearless Aussie, looks up at me to gauge my resolve to exercise. He seems to be suggesting that we stay home and forage for leftovers. As it stands, we are already likely to be last to die in a famine.
It is 30F with a wind chill that has reduced the sun to a useless dead apricot in the sky. It seems to have lost much of its potency after a prolonged stay in the Southern Hemisphere. Clouds course overhead casting frigid shadows as they rush to the Northeast to deposit more snow. The bloated pirate Winter mocks us, declaring us summer landlubbers, unfit for the brittle day that hangs like an icicle. Screw it. We are going outside – even if one of us has to eat the other. We brave four miles of northern wind and frozen inkblot ponds. Not a robin or crocus in sight.
We later retreat indoors while the persistent wind claws at our windows. Heat courses out a decade of unattended cracks, broken weather stripping and an attic that could double as a meat locker. My front hallway has more cold spots than a haunted house. Growing up in in Los Angeles, we opened the windows for air conditioning and closed them for heat. It now costs me $100 a month for each precious degree I wish above 55F.
At this time of year, the dividends of four-season living elude me. I don’t really mind the snow but temperatures under 20F really piss me off. As a native Californian I know I have a choice to live here but my home state has changed. I am not sure I am attractive enough now to live in California. I left the Golden State a svelte thirty-eight year old and now resemble a friendly manatee – a work out video’s permanent “before” photograph.
It hurts to know it is 80F in LA. Despite its fiscal woes, a recent 4.7 earthquake (we call these baby tremblers “jello-jigglers”), a 100-year drought and a few mudslides, it still looks pretty damn good.
I recall almost succumbing to the early March Lion just walking five blocks up 10th Avenue after a cab driver dropped me prematurely in ten-degree weather. During my right-angle walk into a fierce headwind, I tried to speak to a mummified pedestrian who sounded like Kenny from South Park. I needed the shelter of a coffee shop.
The faceless bundle of laundry pointed toward a brown awning whipping in the north wind. I exploded into to the coffee shop on a jet stream of angry wind. The pierced, tattooed girl behind the counter considered me with classic militant disdain. She looked uninterested as I struggled to recover the use of my face.
I sat in a corner and considered this subzero moment. The City was now a clenched fist – – rigid, fighting to hold on to everything much like a hoarder refuses to part with any possession. It will not release heat in the summer and clutches to its infertile chill in the winter. We lunge down its streets and cut through its passages, tightening into pill bug pedestrians that hobble between cars and plumes of frozen air.
I enter the lobby of a building on Madison Avenue as a bitter gust courses through the revolving doors. I take the elevator to my client’s floor. It is now like a Native American sweat lodge. I may soon discover my spirit animal as I almost pass out from the ninety-degree heat. In the client’s foyer, I have a heat stroke vision of the great white manatee. The aquatic behemoth moves nimbly under the water, twisting as he scours the ocean floor for turtle grass. He turns and grins with his bizarre prehensile upper lip. He has my eyes. Opal blue optimism shines as he jerks to one side and disappears under a dust devil of underwater sand.
The winter daylight seems to last less than four hours before a purple twilight canopy is cloaked over the frigid boulevards. I exit the office to catch the 6:09 train only to slip on an agate piece of ice that causes my foot to shoot into the side of a fire hydrant. I can almost hear the salt pulverizing the leather of my shoes as I hop on one foot across 38th Street and stumble toward Grand Central.
A bike messenger screams at me as he tears through a red light dressed only in a cotton shirt and spandex pants. He will most likely be dead in one hour but I respect his sartorial protest. He probably thinks he is a snow leopard. I am uplifted by his refusal to allow this frozen season to defeat him. He yells into my face and races toward a different fate.
I am suddenly exhausted and crave caffeine, and carbohydrates. I cannot think too far into the future. I have already overdrawn my bank account of thoughts of warmer days and French jazz spilling out on to a café on the Champs D’Elysse. I am frozen and pissed off. It’s March, for God’s sake. Until May, I will be crowded in a shadowed glen of denuded trees that slowly push buds toward the arching Southern light. Spring cannot arrive too soon. This manatee needs sun, warm water and a little turtle grass.
As I walk across 42nd , I am approached by a gray, shaggy oracle. He greets me in mid-sentence as if we are picking up on a conversation that had been cut short. He is speaking a strange frozen gutter dialect. We are having a NY moment. Crazy always finds crazy.
This prophet speaks to me about the cold weather through a gray tangle of hair, inebriation and filth. He is either asking me for some money or informing me that a group of trolls will begin hunting me tonight. I have violated my Mother’s golden rule of never making eye contact with the insane. Our senses lock and he continues his three-tooth soliloquy that is unlike any language I have ever heard. I am transfixed. He senses my winter lunacy. He has found a soul mate and I’m going to miss my train. I hand him a sawbuck and tumble inside the station.
Two things stay certain: it is still winter and crazy always finds crazy.
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
— I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, William Wordsworth, April, 1804
Springtime in Northern England is a time of inspired renewal. Lavender crocus and sun kissed daffodils peek from under moss-covered rocks and along the tufts of broken heather that interrupt the fells, crags, scars, hows and pastures of the Lake District. The weather is a fickle, undependable companion with four seasons visiting every day. The wind sweeps down from the northwest unfurling great banners of rain and swirling mist. Suddenly, a swath of cornflower blue appears and expands into a great chasm of sky bursting with unfiltered spring sun. The verdant landscape comes alive in a kaleidoscope of painter’s palette color accentuated by the natural light.
The shadows move slowly whispering and creeping toward you as the light stretches out of abbreviated winter hibernation. Each spring day is a reward for the incarceration of a bleak midwinter. It is a time for poets, writers and artists.
Dove Cottage is situated on the edge of Grasmere in the Lake District. William Wordsworth, his wife and his sister Dorothy, occupied the cottage in 1799. It was on a day of broken clouds and rambling near Lake Ullswater, that Wordsworth’s sister recorded in her diary the simple perfection of daffodils peeking through the muddy ground to welcome the sun. As he reflected on her entries later that evening by blazing firelight, the poet was inspired to record his famous serenade to the citrine harbingers of spring. The Lake District was Wordsworth’s joy. Until his family had literally outgrown their beloved cottage, increasing by three Wordsworth children in four years, they would not entertain leaving this mystical Eden. Ultimately, the family moved a few kilometers away to Rydal Mount where they remained for 37 years
Behind the cascading slate roofed cottage, John’s Wood stands silent – named for Wordsworth’s brother John, a sea captain who had perished at sea. The hill climbs sharply up the rock strewn Loughrigg Fell, a thousand foot outcrop of bracken-clad knoll. From the fell, poets looked north on the magnificent River Rothay that cascaded down through villages of Grasmere and Rydal Water. To the south, more midnight ribbons of blue water converge before feeding Lake Windermere.
The Lakes are terraced here with footpaths and low slate walls, hemming in great flocks of Swaledale sheep. It is lambing season. A restless knot of cotton white ewes swirls in a pasture disguising scores of small unsteady legs that stumble and stretch to catch their mothers for a morning meal. Hill fog spills into the steep draws and ridges that form like tendons bracing the massifs and peaks. With names like Scafell Pike, Great End, Skiddaw Little Man and Great Gable, the mountains draw thousands of hikers and ramblers each year. The Lakes derive their ubiquitous greenery from annual rainfall of over 80 inches but only an average of 2.5 hours of sun per day. When the sun appears, it is cause for celebration. Villagers and locals are suddenly still. They smile, squinting up to the heavens, basking in the precious warmth. Suddenly, everything is still again as shadows move like islands in the stream of a great malachite ocean.
Across the valley, lies Near Sawrey and Hill Top House – the summer farm of Beatrix Potter for 37 years. Aside the simple gardens, massive hedgerows climb, obscuring adjacent fields and tarns. Rabbits dart in and out of the thickets reminding us of a young girl who watched out a bedroom window sketching mice, geese, ducks and rabbits, meticulously weaving their shapes and movements into stories that would captivate an eternity of children.
There is something in the flat light that falls in this northeastern corner of the Western hemisphere –the emerald broken land above the 54th parallel. Pastoral artists like Constable, Watson and Cozzens labored across rock-strewn fields to paint in open air a soft palette of spring and summer colors. As the daylight advances, twilight suspends the day in a chrome blue light lasting for hours. Dusk finally yields to a black galaxy of night interrupted by the twinkling solitary lights of remote inns, pubs and small farms. For any artist, The Lakes are a compulsory corner of the Great maker’s garden, a watercolor combination of elements constantly combining to create new shades of rain, mist, mountains and sun.
If you travel to the Lakes to wrap yourself in an English Spring, consider stopping at the edges of Lake Windermere. On its southern edge, sits the Rothay Manor Hotel – an elegant country house run by the Nixon family for over 40 years. In a reassuring mahogany pub, springtime hikers and travelers recovering from their journeys among the scores of lakes and tumbling rivers can drink a pint of lager and contemplate a framed poem, The Ambleside Weather Glass, that hangs next to a gabled picture window:
When Wansfell weaves a cap of cloud,
The roar of Brathay will be loud.
When mists come down from Loughrigg fell,
A drenching day gray heads foretell.
When breezes blow from Coniston,
Twere best a mackintosh put on.
If down from Kirkstone pass they come,
You better go not far from home.
When Redscree frowns on Ambleside,
The rain will pour both far and wide.
When Wansfell smiles and Loughrigg’s bright,
Twill surely rain before the night.
Yet should in nets on Windermere,
Twelve pickled salmon do appear.
No rain will fall upon that day,
And men may safely make their way.
Wordsworth considered the Lake District a spiritual Mecca and a paradox of the highest order – a living, breathing place that never ceased to change and through its constant motion, like the sea and the seasons, it’s ceaseless energy was in itself a reassuring symbol of a divine hand that moved across the land. Spring it seemed was and remains a time when for a brief moment, the sun appears, breaking through the chill of winter and isolation. In its cascading beams of light, one might spy the face of God smiling in the swaying grace of a canary yellow daffodil or in the solitary journey of a single cloud.