Jurassic Mom

Mother helping her young son to urinate.
Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Accidental Counselor

California State Park Ranger “Jeff” Jeffrey Se...
Image by mikebaird via Flickr

People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.  ~Ogden Nash

It was “career day” at San Marino High School in sunny 1977 Southern California.  Our school district was determined to better illuminate for students the intricate machinery of the working world in hopes of aligning our nascent avocations with future vocations.

In Homeroom, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to ascertain our strengths, weaknesses, passions and peccadilloes.   The teachers and counselors were told to take this process very seriously and I can distinctly recall being reprimanded during the assessment as I rolled my eyes at the questions.

1.Which words best describe you:  a) follower b) leader;

2. Your best work environment involves  a) working indoors standing up b) working indoors sitting down c) working outdoors standing up d) working outdoors sitting down.

I looked for the missing answer – e. none of the above.  I mean a lot depended on if I had to sweat or walk very far to work. Did the job pay at least $4.00 an hour?  Could I perform this task while watching TV?  Would someone need to inspect my work before I could go home for the night? I needed to clarify these questions. I raised my hand. “ I don’t know, Turpin.” whispered my perpetually annoyed homeroom teacher, Mister C.

“Just try to find one that describes you.”  “ What if none of them describe me?’ I chirped.  He scolded, “don’t get smart, mister.  You have 15 more minutes. “

The test results were collected, tabulated and cross-referenced with our most recent grades.  Together this data was somehow triangulated to provide a rich social X-ray into your potential as a contributing member of society.   Once you were labeled and categorized, you were scheduled to meet with your “counselor” to discuss the findings.

My mother was highly skeptical of these educational gimmicks that periodically worked their way through our school district.  Guiding four sons from elementary through high school, she had experienced every charlatan and their new age educational reforms. She had seen them all – the “academics”, the “socialists” and the 26- year-old“ Ivy league PhDs” – cycling through the school district as teachers, principals and superintendents.  She distrusted profiling tests that attempted to pigeonhole a child early in their development – especially during sophomore year where most kids were still trying to understand rudimentary geometry and the deep mysteries of the opposite sex.

My career and college counselor tripled as a social studies teacher, driver’s education instructor and junior varsity baseball coach.  He was a nice, slow moving brontosaurus and clearly not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. Personally, I was delighted that my JV baseball coach was my ombudsman to the real world.  We never really discussed work, college or even what my father did. We just talked baseball.  Time would fly as we chatted about the Dodgers and our own JV team.  Suddenly, he would glance up at the clock and say, “Oops, time’s up. Better get you to fifth period. See you at practice.”

On the day of my career day debrief, I received a packet that explained the testing methodology.  I was excited.  Perhaps the results would be my burning bush in life – revealing to me my predisposition to be an entertainment czar or an international import/export mogul. I went into Coach’s office where he sat, feet on his desk nursing a mug of coffee with the word “ Coach” stenciled on its side. “ Well, Turpin, let’s see what we have here.“ He opened to an official looking testing scorecard that was pre-populated with graphs, charts and complicated percentages. He looked at the report as if it were written in German.  He clearly had no clue what the bar charts and median scores meant. I held my breath. “ So, it says here, let’s see, that you – – should really consider a career as a fish and game warden.”

I waited for more but that was it.  “You know coach, my Dad’s in Advertising, does it say anything about that?  I’m also a pretty good artist and I actually like English” He seemed stumped that I had not just accepted my fate.  He hesitated and handed me a brochure that said “ Fish and Game Warden – A life of adventure.” Everyone had been talking all day about careers.  The girl behind me was going to be in international fashion.  The straight A, math savant in the front row of my Geometry class was going to be a banker.  And moi?  I was going to arrest people for illegal fires, and not carrying a fishing license.

I initially did not say anything at dinner that night but I was worried. I had been pre-programmed by my father to believe that a vocation involving a shovel, heavy machinery or a shirt with my name stenciled on it was a vine that would bear limited fruit.  Success did not come from sitting in a fire tower glancing across an ocean of evergreens looking for a puff of smoke.  I did not tell my mother but as usual, she found out.  She had found the crumpled Fish and Game warden brochure in my blue jeans’ pocket.  She confronted me and I promptly spilled my troubled guts. She listened intently but was secretly seething.  She was clearly concerned that Coach was slated to also be my “college counselor”.

It was at this moment that she privately declared war on the school district and their college admissions counseling program.  To protect her boys and their friends, she would go into business for herself as a college applications consultant.  In retrospect, it was a brilliant move for a woman who had subordinated much of her own life to keeping four potential felons on the straight path toward college.  Her “competition” were part-time educators and overworked, multi-tasking idealists. Marketing would not be a problem. She was already somewhat of a micro celebrity among other women in our town for her candor and pragmatism in dealing with boys.

Over next ten years years, she took on hundreds of surrogate children and their parents as clients.   She learned every loophole, admissions officer preference, essay styles and moods of universities across the country.  She also could divine within the first hour of meeting a kid those oh so important intangibles – was the kid an over achiever or underachiever?  Was he/she spending too much time smoking in the east parking lot? Did they have undetected learning disabilities? She could tell who was mature enough to handle a larger university and which kid would be likely never to be heard from again if they entered the Greek system of some massive state school.

She was tough and candid with her protégés but admired by the kids and parents alike.  There was only one casualty – my father, who could not understand her need to work and fill his home with teenagers after he had worked so hard to get them out.  He kept urging her to sell her business or quit.  Her hours were killing him – as she was often unavailable to cook him dinner or talk when he staggered in from a business trip. He tried to put his foot down.  She simply ignored him.

The worm turned one spring when my father decided to join an exclusive business lunch and dinner club in Los Angeles.  It would be the perfect place to host clients and it was close to his office.  Yet, what was supposed to be an application formality had suddenly become, at best, a 50/50 chance for admission when my Dad’s contact on the new member committee had quit. His membership sponsor apologized.  He simply could no longer promise success with so many applicants – many of whom had better contacts than my dad.

The fateful afternoon arrived when my father sat down to lunch with the membership committee.  He did not know a single person.  There would be no one to vouch for his character or citizenship. A sense of gloom came over him as he realized his application would most likely be rejected.  The serious chairman of the committee leered at him and hesitated.  He looked perplexed as if he was trying to jog his memory. “Turpin , Turpin, Turpin.  Your wife isn’t Ruth Turpin, is it? “

My father stammered, “Y-e-s. Ruth is my wife.”

“Well fellahs,” said the gruff chairman with a grin, “ This man’s wife helped get my daughter into Stanford. The least I can do is let her husband into the California Club.”

That night he arrived home and sheepishly recounted the story to my Mom.  He never uttered a disparaging word about her business again.  He finally understood that helping all these kids was her sweet revenge on life and the school district as well as her personal antidote to the emotional trauma of an empty nest. To this day, a year does not go by that someone will come up to me or one of my brothers with a quizzical look and say, “Turpin, Turpin, Turpin….Is your mom, Ruth?“

And not a fish and game warden to be found.

Peter Pan and The Call of Duty

Peter Pan and The Call of Duty 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Were You Thinking ?

Helen leaving for Troy with Paris, as depicted...
Helen leaving for Troy with Paris, as depicted by Guido Reni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Were You Thinking?

The troubles of adolescence eventually all go away – it’s just like a really long, bad cold.  ~Dawn Ruelas

Psychologists have now determined that the physical development of the brain takes a strange turn during the teenaged years.  I could get very technical but the message is basically that their synapses, mental message boards and other neuroelectronics essentially start to behave like a PC that is overloaded with viruses and spyware. The teenager’s decision process becomes increasingly impaired as a cocktail of hormones, natural physiological changes and reality television confuses logic signals and reroutes information into inaccessible files.

The results of these mental brown outs are missteps of monumental proportions that defy logic and beg the question of an errant teen: ” what were you thinking?”  The answer to this enigmatic question was recently discovered and published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Simply put”, as one psychologist stated, “we now know they ( teens ) are not thinking…”.

Neurologists and adolescent specialists have irrefutable empirical evidence that between the ages of about 13 -23, the brain becomes impaired and only later in one’s twenties, does the old gray matter reconnect to function at a higher level of judgment.  It has been this way since the beginning of time.  In ancient Greece, young Paris kidnaps Helen of Troy and kicks off war between Sparta and Troy.  Imagine the surprise when Spartan King Priam goes down to the cellar to get some nectar and finds Helen and Paris playing spin the gourd? Knowing this will spark  Pan Hellenic warfare, Priam looks at his son and screams, “what hath thou in thine head?”  To which the youth shrugs and dons his best stupid face.  Priam is about to say something and then shakes his head in disgust and prepares for war.

The story about George Washington getting a new axe for his birthday and cutting down the cherry tree is the stuff of American mythology.  The fact that any adult would give a teenaged boy an axe on his birthday is a slight judgment lapse.  The fact that he could not tell a lie is only partially true.  The actual question was, ” George Hamilton Washington, you just cut down our favorite cherry tree.  Boy, what were you thinking? “. To which the father of our country replied, ” I cannot tell a lie.  I dunno…”

Stories of teen retardation are as common as fleas on a dog.  In our neighborhood, a week did not pass without the eternal question, “what were you thinking?, being asked to some teen wearing the stupid face. The fact that it is an act of nature, not the absence of nurture, that drives these mind numbing insensitive acts gives hope to thousands of adults whose teens are beginning to exhibit signs of poor judgment.  Take comfort in the knowledge that while teenagers are behaving like useless extra-terrestrials, you are not alone.  Consider the following episodes from my generation (all the names have been changed to protect the guilty):

+ John Smith discovers his father’s supply of prophylactics and begins to sell them at school to other teenaged boys, even though 80% of the purchasers have no real idea what they are.  A full 100% of his customers carry them in their wallet as a sign of status but will not use them for years, two, I am quite certain, never.  Mrs. Smith notices Dad’s supply dwindling, does some quick math and immediately suspects Mr. Smith of infidelity.  John comes home from school to find his Dad and Mom locked in mortal combat and ascertains enough to realize his new business has almost brought down the house of Smith.  He confesses.  ” John, what were you thinking?”.

+ Twins Scott and Ted Jones hear of a great trick to play on people by putting a hose in the mail slot of a person’s front door and turning it on.  What a funny joke!  The boys decide before a two-week family trip to the beach to experiment on their own home and insert the hose in their front door. The neighbor’s phone call does not come for four days.  It is rumored that the plumber had to restrain Mr. Jones whose head almost exploded when son Scott remarked, “we did not think that($10,000 in water damage) was going to happen?”

+ Teenager “Tom” tries to outrun the local police in his Mom’s Cordoba.  Aside from its “fine Corinthian leather” upholstery, the family car has little left after being used by two successive teenaged drivers.  The vehicle has been reduced to about 120HP, two cylinders and a constant squeaking that is reminiscent of a gerbil running on a wheel. An octogenarian in an electric wheel chair could overtake the car.  Tom still believes he is Gene Hackman in the French Connection.  He makes it three blocks before being corralled by the town police for reckless driving. He and his friend insist to his apoplectic parents ” the cops were out to get them.”  Um, what were you possibly …oh never mind.

+ Teen “Greg” decides to break into the local middle school with a glass cutter that he was given for his arts and crafts class.  He steals thousands of dollars of audio-visual equipment and decides to keep it in the family garage until he can figure what to do with ten overhead projectors.  The concept of obtaining a person to fence his stolen goods is lost on this suburban BSIW (Brain Surgeon In Waiting).  When his father discovers the equipment and wants to know where Greg got it, Greg shares that the ” school gave it to him”.  One phone call and Greg is on his way to the police station and unable to answer the ubiquitous question, “son, what were you thinking?”

The list of teen miscues is endlessly reassuring and unsettling.  It is a timeless arcade of missteps, landmines and vacant thinking.  It is the realm of the naïve and invincible who believe their immortality is only superceded by the fact that only ” other people get caught”.  It is the universe of the thoughtless, literally and figuratively.  The good news is the brain eventually reconnects and these masters of disaster all go on to reasonably productive lives.  Post script: “John” is now a very successful attorney ( and sells legal prophylaxis) .  “Scott and Ted” are mechanics ( and still hose people ) . “Greg” is a well-to-do investment banker ( some believe he is still stealing from people ) and”Tom”? He’s a happily married, well-adjusted businessman, baseball coach and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.

( And he still does not know what he was thinking…)

From Russia With Love

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

From Russia With Love

 

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

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

 

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

 

“ Yes, who is this?”

 

” Sasha sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Resolution Number 9

Gloria Steinem wdydwyd
Image via Wikipedia

 

Resolution Number 9

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That ought to get their attention.

 

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets.  I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?  ~Erma Bombeck, “No One Diets on Thanksgiving,”

 It’s 6:00PM on Thanksgiving day and the house is like an opium den.  Scores of adults are draped over furniture, lying on their sides staring vacantly at the Alcorn State versus Miami of Ohio football game.  Most do not even know where Alcorn State is but when sedated with tryptophan, a Pop Warner preseason game can hold one’s attention.  The sounds of dishes and glasses being washed somewhere in the distance will not motivate the majority of these living dead to move.  They may shift slightly reaching out a pathetic hand, trying to stop a child racing by and co-opt them into bringing them a diet coke.    

 In the house of my youth, my father and grandfather were always first through our Thanksgiving Day food line.  Chivalry died each Thanksgiving at 2:59pm when the lords of the manor felt it was their prerogative to initiate our caroling of consumption.  The men would move slowly like bull elephants, surveying each dish like discriminating judges at a Midwestern bake off.  To my mother’s horror, they would heap massive portions on their plates, amassing Mt Everests of food.  My grandfather would usually stuff a roll in his mouth as he inched along, and would occasionally turn and spray bread crumbs on us saying something completely incomprehensible.  “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full”, my mother would scold him.  She was quietly doing the math on food portions and realized that it was now unlikely that anyone under six foot tall would be eating anything other than yams and a couple of green string beans. 

 Thanksgiving was highlighted by a morning playing smash mouth football at the local elementary school.  We pulled every muscle, bent every finger, bloodied every nose and assumed the identity of every pro and college football star over the course two decades of the November Thursdays.  Everyone had the same idea and the fields would quickly crowd with familiar and strange new faces.  Each kid would show up with relatives from across the country who were making their every other year pilgrimages to visit relations.  We filled the offensive line with first and second cousins, kids with strange accents, hailing from exotic places like Dee-moyne and Merry-land.  They wore football jerseys with affiliations to schools such as the University of Iowa and The Maryland Terps.  In some cases, these kids played dirty using little known adult techniques such as crack back and body blocks.  There would be sudden fights, the way animals suddenly turn on each other at a watering hole as they seek alpha status.  Just as quickly, punches turned to slaps on the back.  “Hey, Hawkeye, good tackle!”

 The score of the game was never completely tracked and invariably, the entire game broke down into a massive scrum, once the first group of kids pealed away to go home.  Usually a twelve year old girl would ride up to the school fence and yell, “Jimmy, Mom says to get your butt home right now or you are going to be in HUGE trouble..”  As we melted away from the muddy grass, we piled through our back door full of dirt and bravado. Our mother would gasp and tell us to remove all our dirty clothes on the back porch. We would sprint naked past a sitting room of elderly relatives, perhaps flashing a rear end in a cheeky response to a dare.  Off in the distance, CBS sports announcers, Pat Summeral and Tom Brookshire were overheard discussing some aspect of a pathetic Detroit Lions offense. Thanksgiving was the one holiday likely to be celebrated by everyone you knew irrespective of their religious affiliation.  A baking turkey blended with the aroma of sautéed onions and stuffing created the most reassuring of all moods.  It was a time for family – -no distractions, gifts, holiday cards, competing social obligations, religious services or pressured traditions.  It was about eating and talking with your mouth was full.  

 Thanksgiving also heralded the beginning of the season of family dysfunction.  Like the swallows returning each year to the California Mission at San Juan Capistrano, age old scars and disagreements could suddenly flare.  “Liberals” and “Conservatives” were terms assigned to people as we listened to the generations of adults debating the economy and foreign policy.  I ascertained enough to learn that liberals were really enemy Soviet agents and were doing their best to turn America into a Baltic state.  For example, LA’s newly created HOV lane, known as the “Diamond Lane“ was created by a liberal who wanted to encourage you to have more children so you could get more money from welfare.  I assumed that meant the majority of the cars in that lane were driven by Catholics.  I was not sure what welfare was but I began to suspect having more than four kids was a great financial burden.  Why else would you need financial assistance?

 Our governor was Ronald Reagan.  He could do no wrong.  He looked like the guy you wanted to give the ball to on the last play of the game because somehow he would score.  In this era of less political correctness, the tenor and tone grew sharper as the meal wore on.  My Mom would pretend not to hear.  My grandmother was from a generation that had long since abandoned personal views that differed from her husband. My grandfather would nod in agreement and pour himself his fourteenth scotch. This was the stuff Norman Rockwell brushed over a bit in his painting.

 As the voices rose, every woman would excuse herself, ostensibly to help clean up, but really to escape the dogma and vitriol.  It was a sort of dine and dash.  We loitered near the table torn by boredom and the hope to overhear one of my father’s infamous blue streaks of swear words.  No amount of pumpkin, pecan or apple pie could anesthesize his dislike for Democrats.  As we got older and the table filled with socially responsible daughter-in- laws and independent thinking spouses, my father softened his words and picked his metaphors more carefully. Yet, his passion and his deep conviction could not always be restrained.  Thanksgiving was a time to be grateful and gratitude included appreciating those that kept our economy chugging, our country safe from foreign interests and our minds out of the gutter.  It seemed reasonable, just a little devoid of compassion.  My mother would always try to stem the bellicose editorial by suggesting, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full”.

 Today, the bodies are still draped across the house like accident victims.  The Thanksgiving topics are more politically correct. However, the epicenter remains family – – the chance to fill rooms with the voices of generations, laughing, debating, wrestling, struggling, rising and falling.  The spirit of Thanksgiving is still all about “us”.  We are a unit – – a team that looks out for one another, tolerates each other’s strange foibles and diverse political views and remain deeply bonded by the fact that no one on earth knows us better or loves us more unconditionally. 

 John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell, is other people”.  When it comes to Thanksgiving, hell is an empty house and having someone NOT tell you not to talk with your mouth full. . 

 

 

 

 

 

Dad With a Capital “D”

Dad With a Capital “D”

The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat. – Robert Frost

I grew up in a house with four boys, where neighbors routinely referred to my mother as “that poor woman” and my father would walk in each night at 7 p.m. and calmly ask, “Who gets the belt?”

“Let’s see,” she would begin.  “Michael and his friends lobbed oranges at what they thought was a slow moving group of cars that turned out to be a funeral procession.  Our garage is full of audiovisual equipment stolen from the middle school after Tom used the glass cutter art kit we gave him for Christmas to cut a hole in the window.  The boys weren’t sure what to do with the merchandise.  Apparently your son does not have someone to fence the goods yet.  Miles was suspended for streaking what he thought was an all girls high school but mistakenly turned out to be the all girls elementary school and Patrick’s school counselor thinks he may have some form of personality disorder, as it’s the only acceptable excuse for his behavior.  Otherwise, it was a pretty good day.”  My father, unphased and a firm believer in corporal punishment, would swiftly mete out justice in hopes that his boys would grow up to be stewards of the community and not wards of the criminal justice system.

My father was a Dad with a capital D.  He would routinely break into tirades over politics, any form of incompetence, and “liberals” – including our local minister (Dad was convinced he was an agent for the KGB).  He never apologized.  Empathy was something “liberals” used as a Trojan horse term for income redistribution.  He never shared his feelings or cried, except perhaps at the collapse of the 1969 Cubs.  He was the king of his castle.  While his boys gave him a run for his money, our kingdom was under the martial law of a benevolent dictatorship – the illegitimate offspring of Pinochet and Marshal Tito.  While no one questioned for a minute that my mother was the real genius behind my father’s “success”, both as a businessman and a parent, he was the executive and judicial branch of the family.  Though Mom’s intuition could detect a fire, fight, any form of alcohol, illicit material or inappropriate behavior within a five-mile radius, he was the man.  Their partnership celebrated its fiftieth year this past summer.

Yet “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” generation carried obvious inequities.  Its chronic male chauvinism and silent female martyrdom led to unresolved conflict and dysfunction.  Later mothers and society, with the help of Gloria Steinem (another Russian Spy), broke through to celebrate equality and liberate women to apply their cunning intuition across a broader field of personal and professional opportunities.  The fathers, the Dads with a big D were left behind.  They grumbled, swore and continued to lament the erosion of societal values along with the slow emasculation of the American male.  As their sons wed and became a next generation of fathers, the sons quickly realized they were entering uncharted waters; Dad with the capital D appeared to be an outdated point of reference.

“I never changed as many damned diapers with all four of you boys as you do for her,” my father mumbled as I nimbly changed my newborn daughter.  He, thinking I’d been neutered in some UFO secret experiment; me, wondering when my wife would offer him a sprig of hemlock to stir his ice tea.  However, as I got older, I regained an appreciation for the big D.

Let’s face it, being a dad today carries a lot of benefits, though my job description is now titled with a lower case d.  While I see growing up in Big D’s house like France under Napoleon, he looks at my house like a twisted version of Lord of the Flies.  In my home, dad gets home from work to a wife and teenaged daughter locked in mortal combat over the amount of midriff her outfit is showing.  Like a UN peacekeeper, I don my blue helmet and try to break up the brutal internecine fighting, only to have them both turn on me and chase me into my office.  When disciplining my two boys, I’m supposed to use intimidating language like, “Let’s use our inside voices,” and the brutally decisive “Okay, mister, this time you really have lost a privilege.”  Dad with a big D wants to vomit.  The boys react to me as if I have the retaliatory power of Luxembourg and continue with their misbehavior.  You know what finally works?  A page out of the old Big D’s playbook – the occasional yell, immediate intervention, and the threat…always followed up with determined consequences.

Evolution is a funny thing.  The old big D Dad had to go, but the little d dad has to develop new tricks and methods to ensure his survival.  Occasionally activating those less politically correct genes to keep the herd moving west isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s nice to remember you can combine the soft skin of restraint and compassion with the hard sinews of being decisive, fair and tough – little d and big D combining to make a better man.

A Few Good Men

Cover of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are fr...
Cover of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

A Few Good Men

“You want me on that wall!  You need me on that wall!” ~Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men

I have traveled extensively on business over the course of a 29-year career.  As a road warrior, I’ve developed coping mechanisms which includes an emotional auto pilot that switches on as I move across countries and continents.  I often return from these trips like a veteran returning from a foreign war and wonder why my spouse looked so tired and compromised.  There was no band or patriotic appreciation for my sacrifices of the week.  In fact, all I really got was the look. Men know the look.  It is a silent statement of contempt that says, “You think you were fighting the Taliban?  While you were sitting with your buddies in the officers club, I was in the bush fighting three little kids.”  Immediately, I would be plunged into resentment.  “It’s not like I have been sitting in a hot tub with my buddies” (well, at least not on this business trip).

How hard can it be to hold it together for a few days when I am away?  “Get some help” was my most common retort when I was rightfully called out for being unhelpful at dinner and bedtime.  She would rationally respond, “The kids want to spend time with you, which means you need to get off the sofa and help… and preferably without the eye roll.”  I would relent, but not without noting her obvious lack of appreciation for how important I was.

Over the years, I realized she was right.  How fleeting the time was when the troops were young, idealistic and hung on my every command.  They wanted to cuddle, hear a bedtime story or just talk.  I learned from John Gray, who wrote Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus that everything (a person does in a relationship) is really only worth one point.  Putting the kids to bed?  One point.  Jewelry?  Sorry, just one point.   I had to accept that a relationship was tantamount to a bank account where your surplus or deficit was determined by how many withdrawals or deposits you made.  Deposits were best made without being asked; withdrawals required permission.  I was constantly overdrawn.  Still, I would wallow in self-pity and think, “I’d love for her to do my job for a day.  Let’s see how she would feel after hiring, firing, traveling, then dodging angry clients and rabid shareholders.”  Never mind that she had experienced an 11-year career as an executive when she finally retired.

I got my first taste of my spouse’s logistical genius when we went away together and my brother-in-law and his wife agreed to watch the kids.  They had no children, and we figured this experience might prime the engine of parenthood.  The kids were excited … he’s a popular uncle — youthful, high energy, and funny.

Upon our return home, my brother-in-law literally fled the house like it was haunted.  As he was racing to load his car, he kept repeating, “I don’t know how you guys do this.”  His wife was more subdued, but it was obvious the experience had set them back in their plans to have a family.  As their car screeched out of the driveway kicking up pebbles, I asked my daughter, “What happened?”  She was nonchalant: “Nothing, Dad, really.  Every night Uncle Andrew would go to bed with a stomach ache and Aunt Marguerite would take over.  I think he wasn’t ready for all the stuff that Mom does.”  “How hard can it be?” I thought.

A year later, my wife had a family emergency and we agreed she needed to go to Los Angeles for a week.  I made sure I cleared the calendar at work so I could get everyone to school and then be home for the afternoon routine.  The days leading up to her trip were filled with naive bravado.  “We’ll be fine” I smiled.  I was not really listening as she told me all the details to remember.  It’s a known fact that men retain on average 50% of what their partners tell them; I’m no exception.  “Just write it down,” I said absent mindedly as she talked to me while packing her bags.

The eve of her departure she handed me something that looked drafted by a Chief Master Sergeant of the Marine Corps.  0630 – Breakfast, load backpacks, etc.  This went on until 0830, when all the kids were supposed to be on different buses and out the door.  I completed the tasks and raced to work, which turned into a confusion of business and carpool calls to other Master Sergeants confirming drop-offs and pick-ups, the logistics of music lessons, sports practices and play dates — all timed to within minutes of one another to allow for minimum collateral down time.  From 1500 to 1800, I was watching, driving or cooking for what seemed like nine kids, many of whom I had never laid eyes on before or who lived on strange streets that I never even knew existed in this town.  All the time I would be hearing, “Mom knows where Jimmy lives.  Mom never makes me eat this.  Mom already did that, Dad.”  The mind-numbing routine went into overdrive at 1800 as the troops chafed against their substitute Sergeant.  “The teacher said we don’t have to hand this in…” my son pleaded.  I checked the Master Sergeant’s field manual.  Page 3, paragraph 5 under Homework: Always sign and make sure that the homework is provided to the teacher.  It is always due on Thursday.  The Master Sergeant had expected this resistance and had made provisions.

At 2330, I was standing over the kitchen sink wavering in a sort of half sleep, mindlessly putting dishes into the dishwasher and surveying what looked like a scene from a DEA drug bust.  The house was trashed.  The school snacks had been ransacked, the laundry pile seemed to have exploded and there were five more pages of coordinates dedicated to the following day.  The next morning I felt like I had never slept.  My secretary asked me if I was sick when I crawled into the office.  “Yes” was all I replied.

“So how is everyone?” the sunny voice asked over the phone from California.  My son blurted, “Dad forgot my lacrosse stick today and left Jack at the field.  His Mom had to pick him up.” Turncoat!  Benedict Arnold!  I was busted.  “I wrote it all in the book,” she said with that disappointed tone.  I felt like I was in front of the court marshal inquisition explaining how my unit got overrun so easily.  I threw myself on the mercy of the court.

Like Patton’s Third Army at Bastogne, the Master Sergeant finally returned to relieve her besieged fort.  She walked in to examine clean barracks with all children’s logistics successfully executed.  Kitchen Patrol was concluded.  “Not bad,” she smiled as she surveyed the order.  I never got around to telling her that I took two days of vacation just to deal with the chaos.  I woke up the following morning and was relieved to once again see the guard tower to my left occupied.  Driving to work, I smiled.  My side of the “wall” never looked so good.

Allowance Or Welfare

Cauldron of Coins

Allowance or Welfare?

 

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 

October 1974 – My brothers and I wake up to a plain sheet of yellow paper taped to the door with chores for the weekend.  Each duty is meticulously enumerated, detailed and distinguished as BYLH (Because You Live Here) or parsimoniously allotted a minuscule dollar value.  The worst duty is sweeping the trash area, and the milk run is folding laundry or shining one of the 8000 pairs of cordovan wing tips that my father wears.  He makes Imelda Marcos look frugal.  There is no negotiation.  Any effort at feigning illness is met with a cynical eye and an inventory of all the privileges a sick boy will not be able to enjoy this weekend.  My father is dressed in an outfit that would make Mr. Blackwell turn in his grave – blue sweatshirt, cut-off military fatigues, white socks and yes, military boots.  He means business.

 

Each Saturday morning is a long, slow, shuffled movement toward the area of our back yard we refer to as “the gulag.”  To add insult to injury, 50% of my “wages” are garnished for my college fund.  I will actually be in a lower tax bracket as an adult than I am now at 13 years old.  The worst part of the entire process is the dreaded inspection where dad evaluates my work and usually says “it’s a good start.”  Money is hard to come by and has to cover all the movies, sweets and trips to the sporting goods store that I can manage.  Allowance for doing nothing?  You might as well be on welfare.  Allowance is viewed as a safety net that eventually becomes a hammock.  Give a man a fish, feed him for the day.  Teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime.  No, his kids will not be paid for living under his roof.

 

October 2006 – “Dad, can I have my allowance?”  Confused and not fully caffeinated yet, I ask my 13-year-old “hasn’t Mom already given it to you?”  She hesitates.  It’s the same look my eight-year-old has when his mouth is full of cookies and I ask if he was eating sweets.  “I can’t remember if Mom paid me or not.”  From the other side of the house I hear my wife’s voice: “She still owes us for June, July, August and September advances!”  My daughter looks like a confidence man caught in the middle of a scam.  She shrugs and walks off.

 

It’s estimated that teenagers will spend $ 89 billion this year with $ 34 billion coming from allowance.  I am sure if we all talked with each other; we could pool our resources and get much better value for that $ 89 billion.  Perhaps, instead of sponsoring a daughter with a debt rating worse than most third world countries (the IMF wouldn’t touch her with a 10-foot pole); I could spend a few dollars on more socially redeeming projects.

 

Early on, I researched various ideas for allowance and became completely confused.  Develop a system! This article from a psychologist/family planner was most likely penned by an MIT grad espousing a complicated payment algorithm involving escalators, percentages and cost-of-living adjustments.  I could only imagine this taking in families of Mensa members.  Pay on time was recommended by another expert.  What about paying back advances on time?  What about paying back at all?  The next allowance expert (presumably single with no children) states that allowance is not a control device.  Hmmm, well then what use is it?  Oh yes, it is a mechanism to teach my kids the value of money.  It seems to me to be disabling more than enabling.  Ah yes, another lever taken away by those who are part of the secret union TNP (Teens for Neutered Parents).

 

It’s never too early, pushed one kid’s advocate.  I tried it.  I gave a dollar bill to my youngest child and ended up in the emergency room after he ate it and got it stuck in his throat.  Develop accountability.  The big a-ha!  This is the root cause in my Six Sigma analysis of the failures in my system.  Like so many of my other paper tiger initiatives, it’s inevitably taken over by my spouse, modified for simplicity and reimplementation – the way a new CEO comes in and cleans up after a well intentioned but completely ineffective predecessor.

 

My wife tells me not to be such a cynic.  I just keep remembering that chore sheet (even today, I see yellow paper and have a Pavlovian reaction where I stoop and start pulling weeds) and the rigidity of my father’s system.  I find myself once again feeling like a cryogenic experiment, recently thawed after 20 years.  My dad had it right, but I am too neutered in this day and age to reestablish the old rules.

 

As I write this, I am told I need to pick up my son at football practice.  I survey my wallet.  It’s empty.  I ask my daughter if I can have the $20 she managed to weasel out of me.  “When are you going to pay me back, Dad?”  No respect.

God, Church and Construction Sites

Braswell Congregational Holiness Church's Sund...
Image by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr

God, Church and Construction Sites

 

Any Sunday, 1966 – Sunday was a day of paradoxes growing up in a house of four boys ruled by a father we affectionately referred to as “Colonel Kurtz”.  My mother was a very spiritual person and found herself closest to God while lying in bed one day a week, with all five men out of the house at church.  It fell to my father every Sunday morning to dress four boys and shuttle us to the local congregational church.  The routine was a black comedy of ironies as my father would rush chaotically from room to room, tying double Windsor knots that in the old west could have been used to lynch cattle rustlers.  He would swear, yell, and comb down cow licks with spit.  We would then race to “our” church which was over ten miles away in an adjacent town.  By the time we reached our destination, Dad would be relaxed and acting “ Christian “ while we would look like shell shocked soldiers returning from two weeks in the bush.

You see the church that we used to attend – – that friendly Presbyterian Church that was literally two blocks from our home where all our friends attended, had been taken over by “pinkos”.  We were not really sure what “pinkos” were.  We surmised there must have been a hygiene problem and everyone was getting conjunctivitis, a common condition we often exchanged at home.  My older brother Miles explained that a “Pinko” was a “Communist “.  This perplexed me.  We saw no Cubans at the coffee table.  No toasts were ever concluded with “dasvidnaya” and a smashed glass.

In looking back now on that fateful day,  my brothers and I theorize that the annual stewardship sermon perhaps edged too stridently close to the notion of income redistribution and it sent my father into political apoplexy.  That night, he declared we were going to “try” a new church the following week.  That “try “turned into a ten year hiatus from our beloved sanctuary, friends and as a result, any desire to attend church.

Sundays always confused me.  There was tension, swearing, tears and then a worship service that was the equivalent of watching paint dry.  We refused to attend Sunday school as we knew none of the children from this new town.  I would endure the sermon by doodling on offering envelopes and drawing football plays on the limited white space of the worship program.  My tight shirt collar, hand me down blue blazer and loafers that could give blisters within ten steps, were the uniform of a religious slave.  I hated it.

The values espoused in our new church – – worship, tolerance, compassion, empathy and service to others seemed so incongruous with the Bataan Death March experience we endured each week.  As if to inflict a final unintended indignity, our drive home from church would invariably take us past a construction site where my father would surreptitiously pull the car to a stop and point to a pile of wood and debris.  My father loved to have fires in the fireplace, a rare treat in LA where temperatures rarely dipped below 60 degrees.  He would pathologically collect “discarded” two by fours at construction sites extolling their virtues as perfect kindling.  He would then order each son to wiggle through a chain link fence like a Vietnam soldier and gather up an arm of “discarded” wood and rush back to the car before a junk yard dog or passing security guard might chase us for liberating the wood.

Any Sunday, 2006 – I now awaken each Sunday to a quiet house of people pretending to be asleep – one eye on the clock and one ear to the ground.  As a new age Dad, there is less yelling and infinitely more negotiation.  The Windsor knots are replaced by wrinkled button downs, khaki slacks and Merrills.  Yet, the same moaning and reluctance returns as my possums are exposed.  The half-hearted grousing about being tired, sick or not feeling spiritual.   I smile. Their resistance is weak and a charming memory.

The reality is they need a church community and the church community needs them.  They are the next generation of members who will form the nucleus of the lay ministry that serves the church membership and our community.  I realize it starts with my resolve which on a cold day or after a late night out, wanes.  But if I want my family to develop skills to cope in a world that seems so unwilling to reward character over charisma, they will need some spiritual grounding and it’s up to my wife and I to ensure this happens.

The key was finding a church home that felt right.  It starts with clergy whose views best track with your own views of the world.  As descendents of Huguenots who fled Europe to avoid the demands of a church that sought to control all aspects of their lives, we sought out a church that offered a community of people that sought to understand before being understood.  Our pastor, Gary Wilburn, preaches tolerance, inclusion and responsibility to be a peacemaker.  He avoids the harder edges of a more orthodox theology that can sometimes judge, exclude or seek to proselytize those who do not exactly blend into a singular view.  My Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Islamic and Hindi friends all have found similar experiences at churches and synagogues as they sought a community that helped them form a healthier spiritual balance in life.

They say “Comedy is Tragedy plus Time” and in many ways, I can now laugh about my Heart of Darkness Sunday experience and the fact that after all that, the path through the jungle led me back to a community of God.  1966 was a different time and place.  Yet, the need to serve a greater purpose than one’s self and to yield to a grander plan of a higher power stirs within all of us and has throughout time.  In a town with seventeen churches, it seems like there has to be something for everyone.  The key is getting everyone out of bed and getting involved in service.

One word of advice — God is generally not found in construction site woodpiles, especially on Sunday.