Empty Nest Diaries Part 1: Denial

 A guy can wear the dark glasses of denial for only so long. Eventually, it gets so dark you have to remove them to be sure you are hitting the toilet. Yet, denial is fundamental to psychological survival. It’s a form of emotional procrastination allaying our anxieties until we man up enough to show up to life’s inevitable root canals. 

Denial is a comforting enabler and companion– he is the ultimate sycophant that tells me that my excess weight is no big deal – in fact, my jelly belly may come in handy following the famine, economic and social meltdown that may occur if Trump or Clinton is elected. My good buddy denial indulges my lethargy whispering that I “deserve to conserve” my energy while my 100lb wife unloads 200lbs of groceries from the car. 

Yet, that perfect storm day inevitably arrives when you hit a birthday divisible by five coinciding with a sobering milestone that confirms your mortality. At that moment, life exposes your feckless friend denial as a seductive liar. In that dark passage, you must reassess who your real friends are and finally swap out that Blanche Dubois 25W energy saver light bulb for a 100 watt spot light. 

In a few weeks I am hitting 55. It’s okay. I understand there is no permanence in this life. We are all Joad families one step removed from the dust bowl where we maybe forced to pack up the chickens and rocking chair and head off into parts unknown. 

And so it came to pass that the next season of life arrived and dropped autumn leaves at our door. We released our last kid ( and a hell of a big tuition check ) to college and came home to an empty museum. 

I admit to being a tad blue. I like hanging with my kids and love being a Dad. Releasing your pups into the wild is a Born Free moment. If you didn’t cry when Ilsa was turned loose by her humans, you can stop reading this and go back to reading the personal ads in your Soldier of Fortune magazine. 

I am a wimp. I cry at old movies and reruns of Family Affair ( I’m looking like Mr French every day ). Passage of time moments are always bittersweet. They are the last day of a great vacation, the final holiday present to be opened or the delicious penultimate paragraph of an epic novel. Joy can be found in the simple serendipity of coincidence. 

I’m temporarily indulging my self pity through an obnoxious display of exhibitionism. This includes sharing the accomplishments of all my kids with anyone who has the misfortune of making eye contact with me. I’m really bad in working into any conversation the fact that my youngest son is now at Duke, my middle boy is loving lacrosse at Wesleyan and that my daughter is happy in her life and career. 

I can segue from any topic to kids faster than you can say Coach K. You want to discuss Syria? Did you know one of Assad’s nephews may have gone to Duke where my son is? 

I have Blue Devil swag to go with my Cardinal and golf USC football and dirty bird Wesleyan lacrosse outfits. See how I worked each kid into this again? Sneaky! 

Today I’m sporting the Blue Devil baseball cap and navy pullover with its D insignia – even though it’s 90 degrees out. I am becoming what I used to loathe – a pathetic suburban boor who mistakes his children’s accomplishments for his own. As of yesterday, my wife has given me exactly thirty days to snap out of it. 

To a naturalized Brit, my ostentation is all terribly bad form and must be beaten down like a banana republic rebellion. 

She is annoyed with my new found conceit ( as if my old egotism was not enough). She is proud of all of our children but is egalitarian in her distribution of praise and attention. I, on the other hand, feel like the insane guy at Penn Station just trying to make eye contact with someone. I have something I want to share. Instead of someone saying “get a job”, they’re probably muttering “get a life.” I’m trying, really. 

My spouse is not emotionally invincible and is coping with her own version of the empty nest bends — that rapid ascent toward the quiet surface of abandoned bedrooms. She is genetically predisposed to suffer in silence and not draw attention. As if the last kid leaving was not bad enough, our one year old cat ran off and has not returned. This cat was a sweet surrogate of sorts and was doing such a marvelous job of distracting us from our confusion. 

She would crawl into bed with us at night and patter behind us in search of affection. She also gave us huge cases of poison oak. Each night passing cats are likely to spy two shadows scratching their arms yelling “here kitty kitty !” 

Out nighttime searches have yielded nothing. Posters and offers of reward have remained unclaimed and I’m struggling with the fact that she is gone. I keep turning on Disney’s Homeward Bound and reading about animals lost for months who have returned home. I don’t think those families lived adjacent to Wiley Coyote -the half wolf/half chupacabra that trots through our dreams each night. 

I’m bummed. I look for a sty of self pity where I can wallow and question the meaning of my new life and ponder the hopelessly complicated mysteries of life like why a dog sitter when explicitly told to keep doors shut, opened the damn door and the cat escaped. I’m having a hard time with forgiveness. 

I really don’t understand martyrdom. I need to share and get fake empathy back from my friends. I know when people ask “how’s it going” that 99.9% hope that I say “great”. The burden of bad news is a downer. 

Yet, I like to share. I am the anti-Percival, forever on a selfish quest for a grail of sympathy or an extra piece of chocolate cake. 

I like attention and constant action. I like waking up to life’s problems and reacting when God hits perpetual hard fungo ground balls my way. I loved the purpose that three dependent children gave me as I navigated the tightrope of work and life. 

Kids are the ultimate air cover. You eat your meal and then finish their food. You use them as an excuse to revert to your favorite period of adolescence. BB gun? Done! You can blame them for everything. Who took the last cookie? Probably Cole. Who left the window down during the rainstorm? Most likely Brooke. Honey come to bed? I’m teaching the boys how to use an RPG on Call of Duty! Geez! 

I’ve known this empty nest day was coming. You may see me wandering Greenley Road at night calling out for a cat and scratching my arms like an addict. If you stop, I’ll tell you my problems and likely find a way of telling you about each kid and my son at Duke.

Better yet, for your own sake, just honk hello and keep driving — at least until I snap out of it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Selectman wrote me back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Order Your New Michael Turpin Book!

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Here’s the link to the new book, “53 Is the New 38”.  If you are a fan of the blog, I’d encourage you to click on the link https://www.createspace.com/5704941 and order a copy for friends of family members.  It’s just in time for the holidays. If you are middle aged or trying to convey to someone the utter thanklessness, ironic humor and indignity of middle age, this book offer you a voice of protest or a laugh-out-loud escape.  Hope you enjoy it.

The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

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 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

Postcards Hung on A Distant Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned one last time.

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

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

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

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

The Diary of A Mad Third Grader

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“The only problem with the world is a lot of people DON’T have ADD” — Andy Pakula, CEO of Think! Interactive Marketing

“He just can’t sit still…I think he gets it from my father who everyone refers to as ‘George Blast-off’.  He can’t stop moving.  If Dad’s not working, he’s golfing or planting his monster gardens with tomatoes the size of basketballs.  Really.  Its quite amazing.” Nervous laughter.

“Ma’am, I know this difficult but have you ever considered Ritalin? I mean, it’s a big step but clinically it’s proven to help many hyperactive kids.” The voice sounded vacant and bored like the conductor guy who mindlessly asked for our ticket on the Amtrak train to San Diego.

“Ritalin?  Oh no, no, no… Really, I don’t think so.  I’d rather have him twitching like a worm on hot pavement than jumping out a third story window yelling, ‘Look at me, ‘I can fly’ Thank you very much.  Anyway, boys are wiggly creatures.  They’re always making noises, and shifting around to liberate some body part. You know, Mister Crimms, I was actually born a Christian Scientist.  Didn’t see a doctor before I was nine and only when they thought I might have polio.  We converted to Lutheranism at thirteen.  My father was German and convinced my mother that God approved of immunizations although he used to make us sleep together in one room when one of us got sick.  ‘Get it all done at once’. He would shout in German.”

I was swaying like a palm tree on the top of a wide oak worktop that doubled as the nurse’s office storage cabinet.  I was playing a game to see how far I could lean headlong without falling off the bench.  I rocked headfirst peeking around the corner to spy on my mother as she mimicked her father, my Grandpa George.  The young male counselor with the flattop haircut stared unimpressed as Mother rose half way in her seat and raised her hand in the air looking just like my father during one of his Sunday night dinner diatribes.

“Look, Mrs. Turpin, Michael has a ‘D’ in citizenship.  He’s a very friendly boy but he’s disrupting the other students.  He talks in class, can’t sit still and today, he provoked one of our special education kids into chasing him around the room during rest time.  I believe he’s suffering from hyperactivity syndrome or possibly some type of undiagnosed personality disorder.”

There was a pause as the thermometer dropped in the office. My mother’s tone went serial killer cold.  I knew that voice.  It was a declaration of war – the seven seconds before the bomb is dropped and life as we knew it would be forever changed.

“Now whom are we talking about, Mister Crimms? It’s my understanding that the boy in question is quite enormous – a lot bigger and older than Michael – and it would be unnatural not to run if someone older and larger was pursuing you.  That’s a sign of intelligence.  Exactly how long have you been employed by the district’s pediatric counseling office?”

“Now, Ma’am, if you’re questioning my experience…”

“Just answer my question, young man.”

“Well, if you must know, I finished my graduate degree in pediatric psychology from St Mary’s last year and I am getting my PhD from USC.”

He sounded officious and offended.  “Look, I have seen Methylphenidate work very well on children to help them focus.”

“Mr. Crimms, you know, I’ve done my research.  The sources of any child’s hyperactivity can stem from a number of organic sources like sugar, caffeine, food allergies and other environmental causes.  Why would you want to dope him up without ruling out all other sources first? How do you explain his high marks in all the subject matter tests?  He is intellectually in the top ten percent on all tests.”

She composed herself, “With the exception of physical education, my son is a very committed student.  He does have an aversion to organized exercise.  He hates PE but plays Little League and YMCA football. The child can play for hours with his toy soldiers and his brothers.  Why on any given day, he’ll spend hours out of doors …”

“Ma’am, some savants have been documented to possess extremely gifted intellects but lack the social filters and controls.  These syndromes stem from innate behaviors and chemical imbalances that medication can help to mute.”

“Chemical imbalances? Are you a student psychologist or Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest?  Have you read the book, Mr. Crimms?  It’s seems modern medicine cannot always cure what we have the capacity to remedy ourselves.  It’s as much about self-esteem as it is about brain chemistry.”  She stood up and walked into the foyer clutching my wrist.  As she turned to leave the office, she bullwhipped one last barb at the fledgling educator.

“What’s next, shock therapy? Are you sure you did not study under Tennessee Williams or Ken Kesey?”

My mother would always get in the last word.  In a scene that would repeat itself with each of her sons over many years, she rushed me out of the nurse’s office – speaking to herself and her mother as if Gran was walking right behind us.

“Mother, will you listen to the man? A personality disorder? How dare he?  He looks too young to even drive a car.” She stopped and looked down at me, smiling.

“Tomorrow, we’re weaning you off that god damn Mountain Dew and Pop Tarts!”

Years later, she would be proven correct on almost every front. She rarely confided in my father about our brushes with educators at school.  She knew almost every boy had difficulty concentrating and sitting still.  She also understood that he disapproved of the gentle process of diagnosing a problem by eliminating the potential causes.  He preferred  more medieval remedies to correct any kid who appeared on the wrong trajectory.

“Cut that crap out.” He would hiss as I tapped my tight-fitting loafers against the pew in church. He would slip his arm behind me and knock me on the back of my head like it was a door.

“Ouch, that hurts, Dad.”

“I’ll give you something to cry about if you cannot keep still.”

We always sat in the back row of the Presbyterian church so that he could administer mid-sermon punishments with fewer witnesses. We sat two deep on either side.  If he was highly agitated, he could simply lean back and knock multiple heads together like the Three Stooges.

 Between the toe tapping, wrestling, whispers and sudden outbursts, the people seated in front of us must have assumed we were visiting Baptists. 

“They are such animated Christians,” a woman whispered to her husband.

For a low attention span kid, an organized religious service was tantamount to being nailed to a cross.  I tried everything – drawing on pew envelopes, even listening to the minister urging me to accept Jesus as my personal savior.  I had accepted him as the Son of God but I was fairly certain that he was less my savior and more a bearded goodie-two-shoes accountant who scrupulously recorded each and every one of my misdemeanors and could not wait to tattle them to his father.  God knew that we played with matches, had impure thoughts and occasionally made crank phone calls to our next-door neighbor pretending to be her grandson.

My mother did not seem to worry about our spiritual destinies but instead focused on the more temporal problems of grades and social assimilation.  She was certain that diet, exercise and more frequent activity breaks would allow any mildly “hyperactive” male to improve in social responsibility.  She understood that boy’s exceled at the things that interested them the most and most often floundered when lacking interest in a subject.  My brothers and I could spend hours focused on a single task — drawing, assembling model air planes or painting miniature 78mm Airfix soldiers with petite Testors brushes, recreating the precise regimental colors of the British 8th Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps.

One would need the Jaws of Life to pry me away from any form of television or film, particularly a double feature movie at the Rialto Theatre – although my brother had recently misinformed me that the theatre’s proprietor had hung himself during a kiddie matinee and had swung lifelessly across the illuminated screen in front of one hundred horrified third graders.  His ghost was rumored to haunt the poorly illuminated bathrooms that rested at the base of an ominous staircase leading from the mezzanine theatre seats.  This led me to avoid the toilet and in a full-bladdered crisis, courageously attempt to pee in a Coke cup. This, of course, disrupted my friends who laughed and stood up to move, which attracted the flashlight light of a conscientious theatre usher. Shortly thereafter, my mother was having yet another discussion with the very much alive theatre manager regarding my mental stability.

My mother understood that four boys were a breeding ground for germs and adolescent neurosis.  She preferred to organically unravel each twitch, tic and nervous repetition to understand the demons that occasionally set up shop in our vulnerable minds.  Nurture would win out over nature and the subconscious would always give up the bodies that rested at the bottom of a child’s mind.  Like Freud and Jung, she believed in interpreting dreams and in psychoanalysis.  The last few minutes before a tired child fell asleep was a pre-hypnotic phase where semi-conscious kids were likely to give up secrets and be open to home remedies to counter strange fear based behavior.

In the last ten minutes of every night, she would appear like Florence Nightingale, the angel of the night-light, gently extracting the day’s mental splinters of bullies, bad teachers, first crushes, bad choices and the irrational phantasms that arose out of sibling disinformation.

I always felt that I was her favorite.  She seemed to spend more time with me than the others – interpreting my behavior and my dreams, reassuring me that one day those twitching cement pipe legs and monkey mind attention span would morph into the butterfly of a grown man and athlete.  I was, in fact, the most neurotic of our four man army.

“Michael, dreams where you are being chased or can’t get out away from something, those are your subconscious mind trying to work through problems.  It’s healthy.  The reveries where you fly or move things with your mind? Those are power dreams.  You may even be in astral flight where your soul is out exploring in the world.  I often wonder what you were in a past life?  I am sure you were a kind king or perhaps or a Shaolin warrior.”

I smiled thinking of myself as a benevolent monarch or a flying lethal weapon, perforating a knot of evildoers with a soaring kick and arm chop.

My father would be waiting for my mother — a trim and shadowed spectator in the doorway, peering into my room but not buying into her “Age of Aquarius BS”.

“Jesus Ruth, don’t fill his head with that crap.  He’s got one life and he’s gotta stop screwing around to make the most out of it.“

My mother continued to look down at me, her smile piercing the darkness. “You’re father was a Templar Knight in a past life. He likes to fight for what he believes is right.” My father shook his head and once again took the Lord’s name in vain.

“Well, you may be right.  I’d like to go over to the Middle East and kick some ass again.” He laughed as he walked back into the light of the hallway.

My mother ran slender fingers across my scalp.  “Such wonderful hair.”

“I gotta a big head.  Somebody called me pumpkin head today.”

“Honey, everyone in our family has big heads.  They’re full of brains.  Third grade is a tough time.   You need to ignore the other kids and learn to sit still and focus on what your teacher says.  When you’re bored and you want to talk to your neighbor, just take out a piece of paper and write down what you want to say.  That way the teacher won’t get mad at you for disrupting the class.  Got it?  Here, I got you this.”

She opened a white paper bag from the local stationary store handing me a leather bound book.  She turned on the bedside lamp. I opened it and saw that she had written my name on the first page: Property of Michael Turpin.  “You write everything you think and feel in here.  Draw pictures or doodle.  It’s a diary and it’s better than any silly old pill from a doctor to help you focus.”

Months later my father would discover what was to be the first of many diaries.  Inside were primitive hand drawn pictures of epic WWII battles, monsters, space ships, and racecars and in almost every picture, there was a kid with a big head who was the clear protagonist in the illustration. He would often use X-Ray powers from his mind to vanquish the bad guys.

“Jesus H Christ.  A shrink would have a field day with this crap. Why in the hell is this kid drawing Captain Pumpkin Head?”

My mother just laughed as she ran her fingers through his haircut that grew like straight grass above his unusually large cranium.

“Yes, dear.  It’s strange. I wonder where he gets that from…”

Aristotle and The Teenager

Ancient Love
Image by ozgurmulazimoglu via Flickr

Aristotle and the Teenager

Aristotle: Plecia, I want a word with you.

Teen:  (hammering with a chisel) Just a minute, father.  I am finishing up this instant tablet.  (more chiseling) There…now, what is it father?

Aristotle:  Your mother informs me that instead of attending philosophy class today you were seen exchanging tablets with a group of teens behind the amphitheatre.  I have it on good authority that one of these boys was actually a Spartan.

Teen:  (clearly lying) It wasn’t me.  I was in philosophy, and I did not go near the amphitheatre during the daytime.  I know the rules about going close to the rushes.

Aristotle:  (raising an eyebrow) Diogenes was wandering in the rushes and watched as the girls and boys were flirting and exchanging tablets.

Teen:  (looking guilty) Diogenes?  The ascetic?  Why do you even talk to that wandering lunatic?  He lives inside a clay jar.  He never takes a bath.  He walks around Athens with a lamp, in the daytime.  And even if I was with Spartans, which I was not, they could teach us a thing or two about sticking up for ourselves.  They’re much more sophisticated than the Athenian boys, who just wrestle and discuss philosophy and logic.

Aristotle:  Aha!  So you admit it!

Teen:  Father, you are ruining my life.  I am the only Athenian girl who doesn’t have a messenger to deliver my instant tablets.  Lycestra has her own scribe and her own messenger.  You and mother still think it’s 500 BC instead of 300 BC.  Wake up.  You have no idea what it is like to be the daughter of a philosopher who lives in the past.

Aristotle:  (looking perplexed) First of all, Lycestra’s father is an Oracle and makes many drachmae giving advice.  I am a mere academic at Plato’s Academy.  You know I’m thinking about tutoring that Macedonian prince, but I am not in it for money.

Teen:  (sensing an opening) You give everyone the impression you are so progressive with your speeches and your teaching, but you will not even allow me to go to the Pan-Hellenic Concerts at Thermopylae.  You preach freedom of thought, but you keep me a prisoner.  If you ask me, you are a master of the great hypocrite.

Aristotle:  (looking insulted) I cannot believe you would say that.  When you wanted to dye your hair green for the festival of Promethia, your mother and I agreed.  You wanted a magpie as a pet and as your muse.  We let you have the bird even though it defecated all over my tunic.

Teen:  (rolling her eyes) Whatever…

Aristotle:  I told you not to use that word anymore unless you are contrasting between logical points and are uncertain of the value difference between the two.  I find the term dismissive and disrespectful.

Teen:  (shrugging) Okay, how about everything you say has no relevance to me and my unfulfilled needs prevent me from relating to you on any level?  If I didn’t depend on you for food and shelter, I would denounce my filial relationship with you as some queer joke by Zeus and flee to Troy to become an actress in dramatic theatre.  I want my freedom!  (stomps her foot)

Aristotle:  (clasps his hands and smiles) Fabulous.  That is what I am talking about.  You have been listening in humanities class.  You mentioned all your necessary and possible prerequisites.  You are using modal logic.  While your opinions are not worthy, they are well stated.

Teen:  (screaming) Father, you are not listening to me…(hesitates) I have a date tonight with a Spartan named Leonidas.  He has asked me to go to the Pythian wrestling matches and to dine with him afterward at the Aqueduct Grill.

Aristotle:  Have you gone to the public fountains to fill the goatskin sacks with water?

Teen:  I was going to do that later.  I’m still considering whether I want to do it.  I heard you tell your student the other day that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Aristotle:  How you twist my words.  I meant that you can open to other views without accepting them.  It does not mean you should avoid fulfilling your most basic of covenants, your family chores.  (The door opens; a dwarf enters and hands the teen a tablet – the dwarf waits and looks bored as the teen smiles while reading the tablet.  She hands the dwarf a new message.  He leaves.)  What is this?

Teen:  (looking lovesick) That was from Leonidas.  I told him I would meet him when the shadows reach the steps of the amphitheatre.

Aristotle:  If you leave this house tonight, you will be grounded for the entire Delia Festival!

Teen:  (under her breath) Whatever…

Aristotle: (cringing) There is that word again.  It means nothing and torments me like a scratching cat on the wooden door of my soul.

Teen:  (changing tactics) Father, how will I ever be independent unless I am allowed to make my own choices?  I need a chance to make mistakes, learn and depend on my own thinking.  Don’t you tell me every day “Happiness depends upon ourselves?”

Aristotle:  (closing eyes and reflecting)…Perhaps…you have a point.  But stay away from the rushes and be aware that I am going to tell Diogenes to keep an eye on you.

Teen:  (looking excited) Oh, thank you, daddy!

Aristotle:  Oh, now I am daddy?

Teen:  Yes, and I take back everything I said.  Can I have 40 drachmae to buy squid to throw at the winning wrestlers?

Aristotle:  Didn’t I advance your allowance through the Festival?

Teen:  I cannot remember…please? (She smiles a frozen smile.)

Aristotle:  Very well. But get that water from the fountains!

(He hands her coins. The teen runs off into another part of the house.  She begins furiously chiseling another message. He picks up a tablet and tries to read it.  It is written in a bizarre code of half words and acronyms.  He shakes his head and puts the missive down.  A magpie flies up, alights on his arm, hops up and poops on his shoulder, then flies away.)

Aristotle shakes his head, “The gods, too, are fond of a joke.”

Camp Whencanicomhomma

Summer Camp Personalities
Image by Transguyjay via Flickr

 

Camp Whencanicomhomma

“Hello muddah, hello faddah

Here I am at Camp Granada

Camp is very entertaining

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

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

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

“I went hiking with Joe Spivy

He developed poison ivy

You remember Leonard Skinner

He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.”

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

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

“All the counselors hate the waiters

And the lake has alligators

And the head coach wants no sissies

So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

 

Now I don’t want that this should scare ya

But my bunkmate has malaria

You remember Jeffrey Hardy

They’re about to organize a searching party.”
 

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

“Take me home, oh muddah, faddah

Take me home, I hate Granada

Don’t leave me out in the forest where

I might get eaten by a bear.

Take me home, I promise I will not make noise

Or mess the house with other boys.

Oh please don’t make me stay

I’ve been here one whole day.”

 

 

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

“Dearest faddah, darling muddah,

How’s my precious little bruddah

Let me come home, if you miss me

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

 

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

“Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.

Guys are swimming, guys are sailing

Playing baseball, gee that’s better

Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter.

~ Camp Granada by Alan Sherman

Summers With Lampwick

Disney's Electrical Parade: Lampwick and Pinocchio
Image by armadillo444 via Flickr

“Juvenile delinquency is a modern term for what we did when we were kids” -Anon

My mother called them, “Lampwicks”.

She ascribed this sobriquet to any of our friends who exhibited anti-social tendencies.  She seemed to have a sixth sense about boys and almost mystically understood which kid would be most likely to become Chief Justice or a ward of the criminal justice system. “Lampwick” was the name of the truant, ne’er-do-well, delinquent kid who befriended Pinocchio as the two “boys” were swept off by the dark shadows of temptation to a seeming adolescent paradise called, “Pleasure Island.”

In this land of youthful hedonism, there were no adults and a cornocopia of self indulgent choices – – shooting pool, staying out past curfew, smoking cigars, damaging public property, eating candy and exhibiting limited common sense.  Lampwick was Disney’s and every suburban picket fence parent’s poster child for the “wrong” kind of companion.

Each town had its Lampwicks – the habitual class clowns, east parking lot smokers and reckless free spirits who were on a first name basis with every vice principal and cop in town.  While some parents were not up to speed on kids and their transgressions, my mother knew every kid’s rap sheet. She knew that people judged a kid by the company he kept.  Shady companions could lead you down dark alleys and get you into trouble. It was, after all, out of the sight of parents where bad judgment could take root and blossom into highly regrettable mistakes.  The simple act of “borrowing” another kid’s bike for a joyride could eventually lead an adolescent to commit mass murder in Kansas for no apparent reason.

Like most matriarchs, she deployed a powerful BS meter that included a lie detector system more sensitive than a Cal Tech seismograph. She could easily distinguish the earnest kid from the obsequious trouble maker. Over time, she simply defaulted to the code word, “Lampwick”, as a terminal judgment – forever branding any undesirable acquaintance that we might try to insinuate into our circle of friends.

Summer was her greatest challenge as we were rudderless ships – – unable to navigate a day pregnant with possibility because we lacked imagination and our closest friends who had left town for family vacations and sleep away camps.  With the loss of our approved social circle, we went in search of new confederates.  Summer was a season for exploration, experimentation and rite of passage “firsts”.  July and August meant hot sidewalk days that simmered slowly and dissolved into heavy, woolen nights that would cloak our illicit activities. The grass stayed dry under your bare feet as the evening could never quite reach down enough to find its dew point.

The child of the 70’s was not oversubscribed.   Summer’s primary focus was to find a source of income.  To a kid, a job meant financial freedom and spending money.  To a parent, work meant less potential idle time for trouble.  Inevitably, most kids ended up partially employed and filled long open afternoons in search of water, dangerous liaisons and forbidden things.

Summer meant new things – the kid who just moved to town and did not know a soul, a day camp or a summer school class.  Invariably, one would make new “friends”. In our house, it might start with an innocent request to spend the night at “James” house. Having never met James, his parents or not knowing whether James was real or on a work furlough program from the California Youth Authority, my mom would insist on meeting and interrogating my new companion. If he passed this simple litmus test, the sleep-over might be redirected to our home where she could carefully size up the child as well as discern the level of engagement from his parents. She would look for signs of absentee parenting – did they call to speak with her about the alleged sleepover? Did the father even bother to slow down the car when he dropped James off? My mother considered the “drop-off” a leading indicator of how active a parent was in managing their child’s activities.

Mom understood that the mistral winds of July and August carried on them lost souls and latch-key kids whose absence of supervision was only eclipsed by their complete lack of judgment.  They were sirens calling to us with promises of throwing jack knives, shop-lifting from one eyed store owners and staying out all night. They were Lampwicks offering us the chance to bite from a tree laden with forbidden fruit.  After all, no one was ever home or sober at Lampwick’s house.

My mother’s finely tuned antenna could detect any criminal in waiting: the arsonist, extortionist, the joy rider, the daredevil, the school yard bully, the BB gun freak, or the demolition expert. Her thinly veiled, sodium pentothal questioning could disarm any kid into revealing a personality profile that would reliably indicate the probability for a restful summer or a summer full of arrests.

I was in the throes of begging to spend the night at the broken home of a boy I had just met at the community pool.  Within a span of 2 hours she had gleaned through her phone tree of friends and a few select questions the fact that the boy’s brother was a suspected drug dealer, the house was teeming with teens that had no supervision because the Mom was holding down two jobs while the stay at home grandmother was motionless in the den watching “As The World Turns” in a semi stupor.

How the heck she could gather this much intel in such a short period of time was beyond my comprehension. In a time before police blotters, she always seemed to know before I did which of my friends had broken his arm trying to jump his moto-cross bike off the roof of the school. She knew who had been arrested for shop lifting and who had been disarmed after shooting their Daisy BB gun at cars.  As a red-blooded child of adventure, I was starved for the adrenalin rush that only came from being chased or at risk of physical injury.  This led to a succession of alliances with boys who my mother had blacklisted for their ingenious ability to break the law and whose parents seemed impotent to stop them.

Through my arsonist friend, Ed, I developed a profound fascination with fire.  My budding pyromania and Ed’s engineering prowess teamed us up to create the first tennis ball cannon. The device was constructed by hollowing out three metal Wilson tennis ball cans, taping them together and puncturing the base of the bottom can with a ballpoint pen.  We would spray copious amounts of lighter fluid into the sides of the three-foot mortar and then shake the lighter fluid to even distribution.  We would load the device with a tennis ball soaked in gasoline, leveling the improvised weapon at a predetermined target. A match would be placed against the small pen hole at the base of the bottom can. With an oxygen sucking “whoosh!,” a flaming tennis ball would be propelled 500 feet through the silky morning sky.

As the incendiary bomb landed on the neighbor’s roof igniting dry leaves, we panicked – scrambling up a trellis in an effort to extinguish the blaze. The home’s elderly occupant was suddenly concerned at the sound of reindeer on her roof as she was certain that Christmas was not for several more weeks. A phone call, sirens, an ill-timed leap into another neighbor’s garden led to our subsequent “arrest”. Hours later, the verdict was delivered – – Ed was given the death sentence of Lampwick.

Despite my mother’s best efforts to steer us along a straight path, we could not help but test the boundaries of our suburban cocoon. We once built an elaborate mannequin out of street clothes and dropped it off a bridge into the path of an oncoming car.  The horrified driver stopped and took our dummy resulting in the loss of clothing and a visit from the police when my friend, Mike realized that his mother had written his name in an indelible marker on his shirt collar and pants.

We pretended to foist an invisible rope that caused cars to screech to a halt. Using surgical tubing and a plastic funnel, we fired water balloons, oranges and eggs with pin-point accuracy at buses, trucks and bicyclists without regard to the damage or risks that would ensue. We once tried to ride our bicycles twenty miles through fenced off sewage culverts.

Invariably, we were ratted out, eye-witnessed, caught, injured, or incapable of out-peddling a police car on our bikes – and subsequently incarcerated. Each kid’s parent would inventory the circumstances and promulgate punishments and tighter controls to prevent their child from becoming labeled “delinquent” in our small town.

After my new friend Scott and I got caught stealing bottles from the back of a store so we could turn them to the same store for recycling refunds, my mother had declared enough and forbid me from seeing my friend. I had to call him and share the bad news that he had made the dubious Lampwick list.

As I was preparing to dial his home, the phone rang.  It was Scotty.  “Mike, my parents won’t let me come over to your house any more.  They say you are a bad influence. “

He was suggesting that I was Lampwick.

I shivered at the thought.  Every kid knew that Lampwick eventually turned into a donkey and was dragged off into the salt mines of Pleasure Island to labor forever as a beast of burden – a high price to pay for making bad choices. Upset at the tables being turned, I sought out my mother for advice.  She smiled as if she had been waiting for this opportunity. “You remember what happened to Pinocchio? He almost turned into a donkey as well. Just be careful…“

At 12 years old, I did not buy into the whole Disney Pinocchio parable.  But just in case, I went in to use the bathroom and studied the mirror.

Were my ears getting bigger?

.

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.

October Country

chaneyjrlon03

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright…”

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright…”

Curt Siodmak

There’s a shaded glen on the edge of any small town where apparitions and dimly lit phantasms move with the silent uncertainty.  It’s a shadowed meridian separating the Indian summer days of September and the twilight chill of a dying November.  The celebrated science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called it “October Country” — a slate gray world where things happen out of the corner of your eye and life seems to be just a quick gasp away from the extraordinary.  It’s along these foggy back roads and footpaths of the unconscious mind that a young boy is likely to meet things that go bump in the night.

Monsters represent our first collision with life’s deep mysteries – forces that we cannot control but might possibly be controlled by how we respond to them.  Later in life, our childhood preoccupations – dinosaurs, sharks and imaginary beasts fall away and are replaced by temporal threats – terrorists, financial insecurities and a world that seems to always be on the cusp of chaos.  While we have grown gray, we have never forgotten those first feelings of irrational adolescent fear when we were forced to confront the creatures and demons that lived in the deep forests of our imaginations.

In 1969, the movie “The Wolfman” prowled the foggy roads and villages of the television countryside.  Lon Chaney Jr. played Larry Talbot, a poor American unfortunate warned by a traveling gypsy that he would be bitten by a werewolf and would transform into a carnivorous monster at the next full moon. “The Wolfman” scared the dog dirt out of me. Once bitten by a werewolf, you would be doomed to become a creature of the night.  The fact that you would kill by a full moon and then wake up the next morning refreshed could mean anyone could be a werewolf.  Since I had a bad habit of sleep walking, I would often wake up in unfamiliar parts of the house.  Had I killed an old woman the night before? Was that hair in my teeth mine?

Were others werewolves?  I watched to see who ate the extra hamburger and who seemed to enjoy their steak rare.

Yet, after seeing the movie, Dracula, I was uncertain if werewolves scared me more than vampires.  The early vampires of film were hardly the young, swarthy teens of the Twilight series.  In 1922, creepy FW Murnau filmed the German silent film “Nosferatu”.  To say the ugly stick had hit this Teutonic vampire was an uber understatement. How this gangly ghoul got any fräulein to show her face, let alone her neck, was beyond the rules of the natural world.  Later, actors like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred as leading vampires seducing women and leaving a trail of blood and perfume in their wake.  In a strange way, these ugly middle-aged actors gave men hope.  If a pallid 40 something guy that looked like a grocery store manager could get a gorgeous woman to surrender her neck and about five pints of plasma by saying, “ look into my eyes, my eyes “ in a faux eastern European accent, there was a chance that paying that $60 cover charge for a NY night club was not in vain.

Between my own preoccupation with these scary stories, horror movies and comic books with names like “ The Unexpected” and “ Tales from the Crypt”, my imagination had no room for rational thought to filter the ghosts, demonic possessions and phantasms.  My obsessions turned inevitably to irrational fear and I began hearing noises under my bed and seeing monsters in scabrous shadows.

The fear became so acute I literally found it impossible to walk the ten feet of hallway from my bedroom to the restroom.  So, like most red-blooded eight year olds, I improvised.  If awakened during the black hours between midnight and five am, I would relieve myself behind the bedroom door.

For weeks, my new solution worked beautifully until, to my horror, the cat started to also relieve herself in my spot behind the door.  At first, I whisked her away but I realized that during school hours she would be using my room as a litter box.  I decided to kill the increasingly stinging odor of ammonia with a bottle of my father’s English Leather cologne.  The mixture of cologne and urine created a pungent scent reminiscent of a loo in London’s Waterloo Station. The new aroma was successful in repulsing the cat that would not even enter my bedroom.

“What-the-hell-is-that-smell?” My dad asked as he came into my room.  I was jolted with a consequence I had not contemplated.  What if my parents discovered that I had been peeing behind the door? Being a young boy, I was highly skilled at the art of diversions and redirected his attention to my recently organized desk drawer and numerous questions about his job.

He would shake his head still unable to find the epicenter of the miasma.  “I swear to God if I catch either that cat or dog upstairs, I am going to tie them to the back of a truck.” I thought about implicating the animals but loved them too much to risk the potential that he might leave them tied to a moving van  I went to bed each night declaring that this would be the night I would brave the darkness for the sake of hygiene and yet, each time I awoke, I could not risk getting my trachea ripped out by Larry Talbot aka Wolfman.

Each night, I would stare at my Aurora plastic models that I had constructed with the glowing faces and hands – the Wolfman, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Dracula. I would turn on my radio to listen to the voice of midnight DJ’s as if to reassure myself that others were awake somewhere. Like clockwork, the song “Nights in White Satin” would moan like a dirge out of the weak illuminated light of my AM radio.  The Moody Blues would croon hauntingly, ” breathe deep, the gathering gloom, watch lights fade from every room…Cruel orb that rules the night, removes the color from our sight…” By the time the British voice asked the listener, “ and which is an illusion,” I was utterly freaked out and convinced that outside my room the undead waited patiently to eat my face.

By day, I was a young, invincible fear junkie wanting to hear every gory detail about every scary thing that ever happened to anyone – particularly kids my age.  My brother was very accommodating – sharing stories of escaped insane asylum inmates with hooks for hands. He told me of ghostly hitchhikers that warned drivers of dangerous roads and people buried alive.  By the time you finished a fireside autumn monster story session, you would more likely let your kidneys fail than venture by yourself into a darkened toilet.

The day arrived when my mother decided to pull up all the shag rugs to take advantage of the wood floors that rested unappreciated under the bedroom carpets.  In the corner of my bedroom was a rotted hole where the permanently wet wood had yielded my relentless nightly assaults.  Instead of being implicated, my mother mistakenly presumed that the shower was leaking.  When I arrived home,  she was moments away from paying a plumber to tear up the floors to find the leak in the shower tray.  In a moment of moral crisis, I confessed that I had been fouling the bedroom corner for eight months.  Instead of punishing me, she just sat down and started to laugh until she literally cried.  “ Please just use the toilet,” she said. “ And stop reading all that garbage that scares you at night.”  She never did tell my father.

I stopped my midnight number one runs but occasionally a bad dream got the better of me and I found myself racing into my parents’ bedroom to sleep on their floor.  My father hated this invasion of privacy.  It was bad enough to have four boys and no intimate time with one’s spouse but I also had the annoying habit of thumping my head on the pillow when I was scared.  On a typical night, one could hear a rhythmic pounding from my room as I soothed my anxieties and quite possibly damaged my brain.

My Dad would know I had arrived as he was soon awakened by the THUMP-THUMP-THUMPING of my head pounding the floor at the foot of his bed.  In a half stupor, he would say, ” Jesus Ruth, the workers are here awfully early!” Then he would slip temporarily back into slumber.  At the next THUMP-THUMP he would bolt awake recognizing the cranial percussion.  If an anthropologist were studying the scene, he would explain my head banging as the innate warning system of an animal trying to terrify its antagonists – both real and imagined. Eventually, the concussive noises would die down and I would pass out from sheer exhaustion.

” Michael, cut that crap out.” He would hiss in the dark.

I was relieved that he was awake. If I could just fall asleep before him, all would be well.  At first, I was too anxious and felt too much pressure to sleep.  Soon, his snores indicated that he had left me behind to find my way through October country.

Thump! No reaction.

I could not stop myself but wanted to avoid another rebuke. THUMP-hesitate -THUMP! “Damn it, Michael. Cut that out or you have to go back to your room.”  I smiled. I could tell he was more awake now.  I would be able to fall asleep before him and would live to see another dawn.

It seemed in October country the sun came up later and the night arrived well before it was welcome.  However, if you could keep your dad awake, at least until you fell asleep, you just might make it to your ninth birthday.

Walk It Off

broken ankle
Image by freeparking via Flickr

“Pain is weakness leaving the body” – Tom Sobal

In 1000 AD England, King Elthred was supreme ruler on earth. To villagers and peasants, life was a fragile gossamer strand that could be snapped by a sudden invisible hand as easily as one might brush aside a spider’s web.

Healers relied on sacred and profane remedies to exorcise the physical demons that brought plagues and misery. In darker times, giving in meant giving up. People learned early to chide and cajole the injured and infirmed ( gettest thou out of bed, you are fine !) as if to acknowledge the severity of their condition would make it a self fulfilling prophesy.

In the late 1500’s, an unusual illustrated journal maintained by an 11th century monk revealed much about life and death in the dark ages. In one protracted pictograph of medieval medicine, leaches were applied to the legs of individuals with circulatory and psychological ailments.  With their parasitic poultice in tow, the afflicted were expected to walk great distances – presumably to increase circulation – which in turn would swell the growth of the leach until it would literally burst off the patient’s skin.  This bloody explosion was said to mark the point at which the bad blood had been extracted, improving the odds for a speedy recovery.  It was theorized by one etymologist that this was the genesis of the Anglican stiff upper lip expression – “walk it off.”

Centuries later, I recall being beaned in the right leg during a high school scrimmage by Jim Gott, an all-county pitcher who threw laser fastballs in excess of 90 mph.  Gott went on to enjoy a decade long career in Major League Baseball with stints as a reliever for the Blue Jays, Giants and Dodgers. On this day, he all but fractured my femur with a low and tight slider that chose not to break.  I am reminded of the blinding flash of pain as well as the taste of red dirt on my tongue as I writhed in the chalk of the batters box. I distinctly recollect the unsympathetic cacophony of fathers and coaches who all yelled out precisely at the same moment, “walk it off, Turpin!”

As I got up limping on one leg, I shot an indignant leer through the chain-linked backstop. I saw distain on their ancient faces and could almost divine their prehistoric thoughts.  “that kid, what a milk toast. “ and “It’s just as well his father isn’t hear to see this.”

Injuries were common in the era of free-range kids. There were road rash bicycle accidents, sandlot football broken arms, Fourth of July firework burns, and new scout knife gashes. We knew emergency room nurses on a first name basis. Yet these ladies only saw a fraction of our maladies as with most families of our generation, we used the “O Squared” method to triage medical events.  The O squared rule simply stated that one must have been bleeding from at least two orifices to merit professional medical attention. This therapeutic best practice was not unique to our family.  It was an indispensable axiom for our entire neighborhood including the Del Santo family, a classically prolific, eleven-kid Italian Catholic family that lived directly diagonal to our back yard.

The Dels kitchen was a 24-hour MASH hospital. I can distinctly recall one of the Del Santo boys breaking his finger and attempting to get treatment from Mrs. Del, a saint of a mother who, while holding a screaming child, cooking bacon and eggs and dragging two other toddlers attached to her ankles, adroitly administered a field dressing with the detached calm of a battlefield corpsman.

In a treatment torn from the page of a survivalist field manual, Mrs. Del grabbed a long plastic Lego, scotch tape and set the finger.  Both patient and parent seemed content with the makeshift splint although, I was personally stunned that the stopgap remedy became permanent and was never replaced with the popular metal splint encased in white gauze and athletic tape.

In the days of  “man up” medicine, athletic coaches did not get sued for pushing athletes to the point of heat exhaustion or vomiting. Having survived the Army with a crusty Master Sergeant who was the only survivor of a platoon overrun in North Korea, my father considered pain an essential process in forging stronger character.  Through suffering, one could achieve a higher plane of consciousness where pain ultimately subsided.  (We now know this higher plateau to be known as shock.) However, in the days of ” tough it out” and shake it off”, no one iced a monkey bump the size of a golf ball, paid attention to the bruise on your left quad that resembled the continent of Australia or woke you up every hour after taking a shot to the head in football.

It was not uncommon to come into the house balling uncontrollably after you had just pounded a nail through your hand while building a primitive fort or plunged an ice pick into your thigh while removing grout from shower. Parents of the 60s would actually hit you to calm you – perhaps influenced by war movies where the tough officer slaps the hysterically wounded man. ” Get a hold of yourself, Bob. You still have your other leg.” Once slapped out of your self-pity, your parent would proceed to pour stinging rubbing alcohol on your gaping wound causing you to shriek and leap uncontrollably out of your chair.  Another therapeutic slap reduced you to a drooling, blubbering, shaking mass of blood stained clothes.

In days before the over prescription of antibiotics created superbugs and killer staph infections, a boil would not be considered life threatening but instead be lanced with a sterilized sewing needle and protected with a simple 3 inch Band-Aid.  A summer splinter was dug out with that same needle as you were screaming, “ no, I can walk with this in my foot, no!”

One would think with this tough love education that we would have grown into a society of practical homeopaths eschewing formal medicine for crazy glue, anti-bacterial ointment and a rubber belt to bite on. As we became parents, we changed from Darwinian fatalists into empathetic hyperactive helicopter parents.  Actually, the opposite occurred.  At every sniffle, sneeze or throaty cough, we rushed our first-borns to emergency clinics and to pediatricians begging for antibiotics because we could not stand the uncertainty of an illness.  We wanted instant resolution and it contributed to creating a healthcare system that was all too eager to accommodate our anxieties.

As we got older and realized our children were more or less indestructible objects, we became part of the cavalcade of “ walk it off “ parents.  After our son fell while swinging on his pull up bar, we chastised him and sent him to bed – despite his complaints that his hand was hurting.  Two days later, he was diagnosed with a broken bone in his hand (ok, so maybe it was four days later).  Our daughter took a bad spill while playing soccer – again there was whining about a sore shoulder and neck.  “ You’re fine,” we told her as she complained about being too sore to practice.  Three days later we were looking at the X-Ray that revealed the broken collarbone. Oops!

It is a cool autumn football night as I wander over to midweek practice fields that buzz under an eerie glow reminiscent of alien landing lights.  There is a symphony of yells, whistles, smacking helmets and tribal clapping followed by a singular outburst  “break!”

A padded adolescent warrior lies on the ground and is slow getting up.  As players take a knee in a sign of solidarity, a coach sympathetically touches the players shoulder pad and coaxes him to sit up. Across the turf field, a father paces uneasily. His large build and slight limp suggest a lifetime of contact athletics.  I am secretly critical as he is obviously barely restraining his need to run on to the field to hold his son. He moves closer to the sideline straining to see his player, attempting to ascertain the nature of his injury.  As a veteran “ tough it out” parent, I start towards him to reassure him that his progeny will be fine.  He can hold it in no longer. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he screams,  “Come on Jimmy, you’re fine.  Get back in there!”

I feel a sudden chill and for a moment, sense my father is right behind me, seated on wooden bleachers urging me to suck it up and get back in the game.  I turn, expecting to see him restlessly pacing, waiting for me to dust myself off and hustle down to first base.

There is no one there.  As I turn to return to my observation post, I stumble over an equipment bag tossed on the sidelines and hit my knee on the gurf field.  Dusting myself off and limping over to the fence, I glance up hoping no one has witnessed my gaffe.  In the shadows lurks another late 40’s father.  He is obviously an alumnus of the “suck it up academy”.

“Walk it off, dude” he says with a chuckle.

AcroNumb

 

It was late on a school night and my den was alive with the frenetic keyboard tapping of what sounded like a court reporter convention.  My daughter was happily instant-messaging her friends.  Curiosity got the better of me as I surreptitiously entered the den and glanced over her shoulder.  She faced a screen jammed with scores of instant messaging boxes – launching and responding into what seemed a huge cyber gaggle of teens.  The screen was awash in acronyms – “BRB, CSL, TTYL, BFF, PO, CD9, TMB and EG.”  Umberto Eco or Dan Brown would have a field day with these cryptic symbols and hieroglyphics.  The IMs kept flying; given my fascination and bad eyesight, I drew closer to the screen – an ancient moth drawn to an adolescent light.  The floorboard creaked as I tiptoed, and my daughter simply typed in three letters: “POS.”  The screen went dead. 

“Hi, Dad, what’s up?” she said, without turning her back.  Being in the managed care industry, I was naively intrigued that she would be discussing Point of Service (POS) medical plans with her friends.  Perhaps she had been listening to my conversations all these years.  Could it be she was espousing the virtues of an open access healthcare plan instead of a closed panel HMO or PPO?  “Oh hey, hon.  How’s it goin’?” I queried nonchalantly as I picked up a paper I did not need and studied it, walking slowly toward the front hallway.  As I passed through the doorway into the foyer, the typing resumed at a chaotic clip.  I later learned that those three letters stood for “Parent Over Shoulder.

I have become intrigued by the IM and text messaging culture, its secret codes and attention to brevity.  As a writer, and recovering verbal incontinent, I am fascinated by this generation’s embrace of acronyms as a social communication tool.  To experiment, I’ve attempted to incorporate this into my daily work and home communications.  My hypothesis?  If I could get everyone to use acronyms and incomplete sentences, perhaps we could save valuable lines of text, computer storage capacity and time.  This “savings” multiplied across a town or a 40,000-person organization could mean millions in productivity gains as well as improved loss control for carpal tunnel syndrome – and even reduced litigation from less decipherable and protracted emails.

 

At work, the beta test backfired.  I was delighted to receive acronym laden messages, but I had no idea what they meant.  I was not deterred.  I decided to develop a series of codes for my fellow baseball coaches in Cal Ripken Baseball:

NKNP – Nice kid, nuisance parents

GANB – Great arm, no bat

DG – Daisy gazer

GPPSK – Great player, possible serial killer

OTCTC – Other team’s coach too competitive

NAPFPP – No arm, (but has) pool for post-season party

GCRC – Good carpool route candidate

The permutations were endless.  My fellow coaches initially thought I was misspelling my emails and text messages, so they spell checked my missives, which made things worse.  One of my spell checked emails was deciphered to misread that we rob the snack shack at 7:15 pm but arrive one hour early to practice (presumably to rehearse the heist). 

I tried and tried to weave these consonants, like strands of random DNA, into new words that might combine into something profound.  Half the time, I would forget what each letter stood for and need the Rosetta Stone to decipher my own cryptogram.  Was my productivity really improving? 

I decided to spelunk deeper into the cavernous world of IM’ing.  With the help of the Web, I assembled a starter lexicon for the naïve and uneducated parent to help others get grounded in the language of those who dwell in the place I now referred to as the Kingdom of Acro-numbs.  For example,  9 or POS meant parent watching, 99: parent no longer watching, 143 stands for I love you, 404: I haven’t a clue, EG is Evil Grin, LMAO – laughing my arse (if you are a pirate) off, MIRL – meet in real life.  This was just a mere sip of the strange, feckless nectar that was fueling the IM and text generation.  

“Dad, don’t get so emo!” my daughter exclaimed the other night.  When I asked exactly what that was, I was informed that “emo” people are highly emotional and sort of clueless.  Yet, after hearing a carpool full of kids talking in slang and acronyms, I was feeling a bit “emo” over the future of the English language.  I worry about the limited probability that anyone from the class of 2011 or beyond has any chance of writing a popular novel or winning a literary prize.  At best, many of these crypto-communicators might win an honorable mention from the CIA for developing a system of linguistics so obtuse that not even Navajo Wind Talkers could crack their code. 

My greatest concern is that these insidious little acronyms are continuing to fall like droplets of acid rain, polluting our spoken and written reservoirs.  We are accepting a less complete language.  I, for one, will fight the trend and continue to paint my literary canvas with long, tedious strokes – replete with mind numbing fifty cent words – while the next generation will slash, poke and dab its verbal artwork with a palate knife fashioned from acronyms.  We shall see whether our increasingly short attention span will yield to this new world of mindless short cuts or whether we will come to our senses, and demand another Faulkner or Buckley to emerge and rescue us from our castrated syntax.  It is my hope that the IM culture is a temporary nadir in American communication. 

A teenaged girl has entered my den as I write.  G2GTOS… (Got To Go, Teen Over Shoulder).

Oh Tannenbomb

A Christmas tree inside a home.
Image via Wikipedia

Oh Tannenbomb

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

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

— Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Pan and The Call of Duty

Peter Pan and The Call of Duty 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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