Give Me Darien or Give Me Death

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...
Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He [Moriarty] is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” Sherlock Holmes, The Final Problem

The last game of the regular season was a nail biter fought against a motivated rival that wanted nothing more than to prove their prowess as a 8-1 team, secure regional bragging rights and defend their year-long hold on the coveted Turkey Bowl championship trophy. Our boys were 12-0 and recently crowned FCIAC champs, now fighting to stay ranked number one in CT and for the right to join the rarefied pantheon of undefeated teams from their high school.

As with all things New England, the weather proved a fickle twelfth man – denying each squad the ability to leverage some perceived advantage. The scoring see-sawed across missed and executed assignments, made and incomplete plays, turnovers, penalties, and defensive and offensive gems. It was a thrill and agony for thousands of Darien and New Canaan fans who left the warmth of their homes in hopes of sautéing their dinners with a win in the eighty-fourth annual Thanksgiving Day meeting of the two border town rivals.

Over the years, this particular rivalry has become part of our unique, small town mythology. As the parent of a senior player, I was very familiar with the families on both sides of the ball – having shared a decade of sidelines with my fellow New Canaanites and equally invested Darien parents at countless football and lacrosse games. The only thing that separated us over the years had been a thin green patch of field and an invisible geographic line of demarcation that moved like an EKG from east to west across Southern Fairfield County.

In a place where we must endure waiting – for spring, for summer, for a seat on a train, for a storm to stop, for electricity to go back on, for a market to turn and for a second chance to right a wrong, rivalries give our lives discreet meaning. Our rivals teach us much about ourselves – how to overcome defeat, how to behave in victory, how to work hard and how to focus. It’s about periodically having your best laid plans thwarted and not getting too comfortable with press clippings or self charted trajectory. Like the old west, it’s a reminder that on any given day, there may be a guy out there who can draw his gun a little faster.

I was informed upon moving to New Canaan that the tribe to the south was indeed the enemy. Like us, they were successful, war-like and athletic. As in nature, there was only room at the top of the food chain for one champion. Initially, I found it hard to distinguish them from our own – and it seemed that our mutual disdain, like property taxes, was foisted upon us when we signed the mortgage papers. We were in fact, like two twisted oaks arising out of the same single root system. Later in life, my daughter would return home from college across three thousand miles of America and announce that her new best guy friend was a guy named Grant from Darien. Mon enfant? Sacre Bleu?

Personally, I love being a part of the almost century long rivalry between these sibling communities. Competition is the essence of our American ethos and it brings us meaning and purpose. A player is not only competing for the right to assert his/her alpha status – a rank which, by the way, carries only a 364 day shelf life; but, the competitor also gets to experience what it feels like to be a standard bearer for their town. Any regional competition becomes much more than a game, it evolves into a hot stove debate over generational genetics and who has the better coffee shop and diner. And oh, those games can be barn burners.

Like Holmes and Moriarty, Superman and Lex Luther or Batman and the Joker, rivals need each other to fuel their own identities. Closer to home, it helps promote a sense of team and community and it creates life lessons. Irrespective of statistical match-ups, each year it seems our teams prove worthy of one another. As in life, there have been epic struggles and disappointing blow-outs, tear-jerkers and made for TV endings that somehow felt as though one or the other side had been favored by the Gods. More practically, these were the first opportunities for high-bottom kids raised in cocoons of managed self-esteem to have to bite from the bittersweet apple of momentary failure.

Any rivalry that runs deep can get out of hand. Having gratefully grown up before police blotters and social media attacks on kids who (yes, it is true) occasionally make bone-headed choices, I have seen fist fights, petty pre-school exchanges between adults, school graffiti and a Wild Kingdom episode from 2012 where some weak prostate alumnae thought it would be funny to urinate on our players’ gym bags (BTW, most of those gym bags smelled the same even after the incident, so the joke’s on you guys).

Yet, compared to some of the dumb things I saw growing up, most of these bad decisions can be classified as misdemeanors of stupidity. (I did, however, think it would be clever to give the first hundred Darien fans urine specimen cups as a gate prize at this year’s Turkey Bowl but I was dismissed from the adult’s table before I could get much support.) The fact is our kids do get caught up in the rivalry and don’t always have the same evolved filters or restraints that adults are “supposed” to exhibit. The good news is kids all grow up and eventually, with exception of Washington politicians and talk show hosts, they learn not to act on the first thought that comes into their head.

I stared up at the scoreboard as the last Ram pass fell incomplete. For the first time this season, it showed a visitor winning the game, 28-24. It was a very sad moment for the senior players and the fans on the west side of the field but I could feel the elation from those parents and families shivering in the visitor section. Yes, a few Darien students ran on to the field taunting us like protestors at a G8 summit but it is hard to take anyone too seriously wearing designer high tops and a Hermes silk handkerchief tied around their face.

It did sting to lose — especially to our rivals. But, there was something about the loss that added another log to the eighty-five year old fire. It created more conversation, more conviction and a level of focus. It passed a baton to a next generation of underclassmen to protect or wrest back the trophy.

Rivalry is part of any ecosystem. It seems at our core, we are all competing and at the same time, need to identify with something greater than ourselves. We need to benchmark our progress against something that we respect that is immediate. It’s in these rivalries that we discover the best and worst in ourselves as communities and as individuals. An annual grudge match that grew out of a muddy field to give bragging rights to one half of a tiny part of Southern Connecticut, has come of age.

As I watched my son collapse on the couch later that day, I knew there was nothing I could do to console him. Time, friends and copious amounts of food and football would ease his pain. These are quiet moments where a pregnant pause can feel like nine months. However, young adults are resilient and life lessons are important alloys to building stronger characters of steel.

“They played well.” He said sighing to no one in particular. “It was a thousand little things that killed us.”

I just sat listening as he deconstructed the day in random sound bites, finally lifting his bruised body off the couch.

“I sure hope we see them again in States.” He grabbed some food from the fridge and went upstairs to take a shower.

I smiled, slowly climbing out of my vicarious parental funk.

Yeah, I thought, just wait until next time!”

Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark

 

When the AARP membership letter arrived, I put it in a pile of misdirected mail and prepared to walk it over to my

The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

next door neighbor, Charlie. Imagine my elation and surprise when I discovered that it was addressed to me. Apparently, I had joined a new demographic.

I had unceremoniously turned 50 in September and had no interest in celebrating the autumn solstice of my life with 100 of my closest detractors. I told my loving wife that a quiet, more personal commemoration would be appropriate — perhaps a new sports car or a trip to Europe. This seemed infinitely preferable to ripping the seat of my pants while trying to do the worm on the dance floor at my 50th fete.

At a half century, I was now entering October country — that shadowy meridian that separates the last sighs of September’s Indian summer of youth and the cooler, denuded November twilight of mature life. It’s in the autumn of our days that the unexpected tends to happen. There are days when I really just want to be 10 years old again with my greatest concern being what I would wear for Halloween. Yet it is 2011, not 1971. Reality is no longer a horizon line road that seems to carry on forever. I felt jinxed.

Perhaps my negativity created a sort of karmic low-pressure system or I may have offended the gods of suburban living because no sooner had I begun to wallow in self pity that the Great Nor’easter of Oct. 30 hit. I was just two days into being Mr. Mom, having been left behind by my highly organized captain who had slipped out of the country to visit our daughter who is studying abroad. The remaining crew was a pathetic ship of fools — the hapless husband, two determined teenage boys, a bulimic Australian Shepherd and a demonic house cat that was now using her urine as a warped form of foreign policy.

When the electricity died Saturday afternoon, I initially smiled as the reassuring switches and subsequent thrum of the back-up generator kicked in. I was the ant who had elected to invest in the future while across the state, male grasshoppers were being berated by their partners for being too cheap or too New England-proud to make provisions for the potential for electrical outages. I admit that the purchase of the generator was a no-brainer. My home lacks a certain charm when there was no running water, heat and ESPN. It quickly becomes a giant port-o-potty.

As parsimonious people, the cost and logistics of burying a 1,000-gallon propane tank in my garden did not sit well with me. I elected instead to go with a smaller, above ground 120 gallon propane tank. Before moving to New England from California, the biggest propane tank I had seen was on a Coleman camping stove — and that damn thing lasted for a year. Surely a 120-gallon tank of propane could run my house for a month. I would later learn that 120 gallons can power a lamp and an electric clock for about a day. Throw in teenage electrical thieves who steal heat while you are freezing, computers while you are blacked out, microwaves while you are drinking iced coffee and take 20-minute hot showers — and your propane and serenity is good for 10 minutes.

As the propane tank slowly drained of its life force, the service company informed me that they could not make it to my house for several days — ensuring that I was now going to run out of power. Apparently, they were running out of power. This led me to the draconian decision to ration our electricity. My energy conservation plan was not well received by the natives. Truth be told, it bugged me. We had bought the generator so we would not have to sit in the dark. Yet, here we were sitting in the dark trying to conserve energy. It felt like the ever-perplexing paradox of having to clean the house before the cleaning people arrive. The dishes piled up. The toilets remained unflushed. By day three, we avoided the laundry room as if there was something living inside the 5-foot pile of dirty clothes.The cat disappeared and I feared the highly fragrant laundry mass had devoured her.

For meals, I resorted to take-out and a Mad Lib bachelor recipe: grilled cheese (you add the plural noun). When we ran out of milk, I suggested to the boys that they use the leftover Diet Coke on their breakfast cereal.

“It tastes good. I ate Corn Flakes with Tab all the time in college.”

The dog kept whimpering trying to convey to me that I was obligated to take him on his daily 5-mile run. I just whimpered back at him. The cat retaliated for my neglect of the litter box by peeing on the floor. I slipped in it. I thought about peeing on her but she was too quick.

Meanwhile, the propane gauge fell like a barometer. We were down to 5 percent. School was canceled which required me to work from home. Working from home is overrated for executives. One tends to lose credibility on business calls when dogs and teens are screaming in the background. With the propane dying, I had to decide whether to eat my children or ship them off to friends who offered to host them while I presided over the death of my generator. Since they are not properly tenderized, I elected the latter and returned home. The propane was now down to 2 percent. Like a lone survivor with a single bullet in the chamber of his gun, I was not sure whether I wanted to use the final wisps of energy to watch ESPN or clean the world’s most disgusting load of dirty dishes. I went for the dishes.

I turned off all the lights, sat in the darkness and ran the dishwasher — the only light on in my property was the tiny red dial indicating the status of the wash cycle. I sat adrift in ebony self pity. When do the boils and lice arrive? There was an odd thrum as the generator gasped and finally died. Outside, I suddenly noticed a light flicker at Charlie’s house. I heard the distant clicking of a computer printer resetting in the den. I cautiously approached the light switch and click, glorious light poured down from the blackened recesses of the heavens. Power was restored. I admit to waiting until the next afternoon (I’m no dummy), to pick up the boys only to be informed by our friends that one of them may have been exposed to head lice.

Yes, Job, there is a Santa Claus. The parasites had indeed finally arrived. One radioactive shampoo, two pick-ups and a reassuring Zumbach’s coffee later, our family was reunited. I relaxed for the first time in days. The phone rang. My Optimum cable, which has been as reliable as a blind man in a bar fight, had come back to life. The TV flickered. There it was — ESPN. A toilet flushed. There was a cheer and then just as quickly, the lights went out. I moaned and turned around — only to see my teenage son smiling as he flipped back on the light switch.

“Just messing with you, Dad,” he said.

And A River Runs Through It

Icicles at Partnachklamm, Garmisch Partenkirch...
Image via Wikipedia

Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while. ~Kin Hubbard

I have a home that rests on the neck of a gentle slope in the deep New England winter woods.  It’s length faces north while its soft shoulders fall to the east and west.  A master bedroom window stands as a sentinel spying to the southwest across a fenced garden and a rectangle of boxwoods. Inside, an east/west beige wall separates the master from a living room that is warmed by soft, winter light. The wall stretches from a pinewood floor to an arching sapphire blue ceiling – and a river runs through it.

The Eskimo People have over fifty terms to describe “snow”. I am now fairly certain that thirty of them are curse words.  The past thirty days have conspired to entomb my entire world in a brittle, frozen coffin of ice.  My   holiday Dickens village needs to be updated to include new figurines of elderly who have fallen on skate rink sidewalks, roof ice and water removal men and unwitting commuters whose shoes have been eaten away by the leprosy of winter sidewalk salt.

As a native Californian, my eighth New England winter has been an arctic blast of humiliating reality.  When I first considered relocating to rural life, I envisioned low rock walls, ponds and Thoreau self-sufficiency. Instead I was forced to dig wells, manage septic tanks and depend on a fragile 220V kite string of electrical line. I recall Fairfield County friends lamenting to us that global warming had robbed Connecticut of its Currier and Ives winters and left in its wake a mild province of wintry mix nights and endless springtime mud.

On February 1st, while my basement ceiling was leaching water through the taped edges of its drywall edifice, I began to understand why northern longitude cultures have the highest suicide rate.  At the exact moment that a three-foot ice dam was redirecting snow melt under my roof shingles, through the attic, down my living room wall, through the ceiling to create a new tributary of the Rowayton River, I was worrying more of an oncoming Ice Age than a hot, flat and crowded world.

It is in these rare times of Man versus Wild, I am reminded that I am the useless descendent of a more self-reliant and practical line of survivalists and self-sufficient laborers.  I hail from a generation molded out of Play Dough, not forged from rich metal alloy. I can barely replace a smoke alarm battery. I am a member of a soft palmed, latter stage service-based Boomer Generation with a penchant for outsourcing everything — including manual and menial labor. When catastrophe strikes, I keep dialing until I can get through to someone who knows what the hell is going on at my house.

Ours is a demographic that throws its backs out while sitting at desks, sneezing or putting on socks. After a childhood indentured to Silent Generation Sergeants who dealt out punitive chores and “because you live here” hard labor, many of us rebelled and purposely atrophied our fledgling do-it-yourself muscles. In doing so, we revived the handyman industry.  We secretly loathe household crises as they reveal our limitations. Despite a garage filled with power tools and promise, we simply cannot “ git ‘er done.” In a rare moment of reverse discrimination, women expect men to intuitively know how to battle Mother nature.  We are expected to vanquish the monsters of leaks, creaks and cracks.  “You are a guy – you are supposed to know how to fix stuff.” Ok, you are a woman, where is my chicken cordon bleu and my chocolate souffle? For God’s sake I got a C+ in wood shop!

I glance up at a seething frozen mass the size of the Khombu Ice Fall.  My wife suggests that I grab the ladder and chip away at the twelve-foot serpent of blue-gray glacier.  I would rather french kiss a cannibal than risk assaulting this Hillary Step of ice. “Sure. Just grab me the flame thrower from the basement.“ For a nanosecond, she believes me to be in earnest. She catches herself, briefly breaking eye contact with this icy sword of Damocles, smirking at my eye roll and crooked, half smile. Yes, I am a modern day disappointment.

I long to drill holes in these ice jams, insert M80 quarter sticks of dynamite and blow up the whole mess.  I secretly want to stand on the home’s prominent cupola – – hands on my hips, head back and project a deep manly laugh to the neighborhood as I display by snow-free roof.. Instead I skulk inside pacing – waiting like an expectant father for the snow removal guy with his legion of strong backs and canary yellow snow shovel attached to his 12 cylinder, 400hp truck.

Later in the day, insult is heaped upon injury.  In a haunted mansion moment, our electricity begins to flicker in perpetual brown out.  With only 120V powering our home, we have no heat, water or appliances. Yet, half power is just enough to preclude our expensive generator from kicking in.  We are in a twilight purgatory. I stare at the tangled guts of a fuse box.  “ My wife yells downstairs, asking me if I checked the circuit breaker.” I lie and shout back “of course!” I am too embarrassed to admit to having no clue where the breaker rests on this circuit board of confusion. I shake my head. How ironic that I should have a river in my walls but no water from my faucets.

I am stuck in a bad Ingmar Bergman film.  The stark white landscape, the nihilistic monotony of slate gray days and the slow erosion of our sanity from delays, disruptions and the creaking weight of 3 feet of ice and snow squatting on our home like a fat man, has me perpetually uneasy.

In the last 30 days my entire property has transformed into the Lake Placid Olympics complex.  To the east, there is an exciting luge run where one can buckle into one of three multi-ton automotive sleds and course out of control down a 30 degree pitch of ice hill.  The passengers often scream but are hard to hear over the drone of the nearby generator and industrial drying equipment perpetually blowing air into my now broken walls. The front yard is a world-class skating rink. I must now hire a phalanx of workers to clear my roof, chisel ice, open up walls, replace saturated insulation, aerate narrow spaces and dry out the soaked carpet and wood flooring.

Massive eight foot icicles hang like dragon’s fangs from fragile drains. Ice dams have formed between gabled windows and along the edges of the roof. They loom – sapphire blue clots that are pushing my home toward cardiac arrest. As is often the case, I leave it to my spouse to administer CPR and sneak away earlier than normal to an office with running water, adults and electricity.

We are not alone in our winter distress.  It has been a thankless month in Fairfield County.  After sending my spouse flowers for supervising a lifetime’s worth of repairs, I made dinner reservations. It was my fatted calf offering to my life partner and an Old Testament God who had chosen to test us with a biblical trifecta of ice storms, snow days and power outages.

At dinner, we run into some Kathy and Kevin. Kevin has also sent flowers and is now treating his better half to an evening out.  Kathy related the bitter epiphany of her week as she sat outside on battered knees chiseling frozen poopsicles that were conspicuously placed like Easter Island statues across a deck of snow.  As her children and animals watched her from a warm inside with blank, insouciant stares, she had her moment of clarity. “I have a freaking MBA and I am out here in a snow storm chipping dog poop out of ice with a screwdriver. I kept wondering, ‘where exactly did my train leave its tracks’?” She went on to describe an all too familiar set of January indignities – – a frigorific month of logistical chaos, icy roads and a house full of snow day teens that seemed to believe life was someone else’s responsibility.

It is a familiar prologue. In the southwest corner of her home, a warm, inviting living room looks across a southern frozen front lawn.  Yet its brow is furrowed.  The ceiling is clearly sagging under the weight of winter.  There is a narrow corridor between the roofline – a crawl space that rests above this popular common room – – and a river runs through it.