A Passage to Italy Part Two: Glass and Marble

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Tolkien once wrote that “not all those who wander are lost”. Some of us are fortunate in life to come to the conclusion that our noblest aspects are not discovered at a desk but in foreign places and in moments when you are torn away from the moorings of all things familiar. Our souls were not fashioned to fit neatly into a narrow trench of material pursuit.

Perhaps this particular midsummer’s voyage would have made the perfect ad for Visa. “Flying to Europe to visit your son studying abroad? $800. Sleeping in the spare room of a five hundred year old haunted landmark in London? $100.  Searching for the perfect cappuccino while contributing to your son’s delinquency on his first trip to Italy? Priceless…”

The recollection of three years living abroad and working across Europe and North Africa has remained with me – a thousand days spent off-balance and uneducated to the ways of so many new countries and cultures. The adrenaline rush of perpetual firsts became its own form of addiction and led to a dozen years of nagging withdrawal upon my repatriation back to America.

On the day that we disembarked with one way tickets back to the US, I made a private pact to ensure that my children would not lose touch with the places that shaped their formative years. Travel stimulates a different part of the brain and can invigorate talents that lie dormant when not germinated by challenge. The daily travails of an ex-pat are characterized by perpetual change and the lingering mélange of strange customs, languages and food.  It is a lifestyle that leaves you at once exhausted and more alive for the experience of having to swim in waters so deep and so far off your own shore.

Earlier in the year, my eldest son had decided to study in London. In the past decade, his other siblings had joined me on special trips to the UK and continent of Europe but as an over-subscribed student athlete, he’d never really had the bandwidth to take an extended holiday back to retrace his London childhood spent in a green jumper and blue trousers. Whatever semblance of English civility he had gained those three years at the Hall School Wimbledon was undone in a matter of months after he returned to his Bohemian homeland of America. The boy who seemed bound for debate, cricket and English football ended up an all-state football and lacrosse player with American appetites and no real sense of his past self, the international child riding camels in North Africa and swimming in the Indian Ocean off the island of Mauritius.

He was no longer the cautious and polite patrician with the lilting British accent but a full-blooded, ten-point antler, male stag intent on rutting and rooting for adventure and cellphone numbers of the opposite sex. He is a young American man. Nineteen is a golden age.  It is the light beer of adulthood — all the fun and less than one-quarter of the consequences. And oh, the places you can go when you are loose in London with a credit card!

I succeeded in convincing him and another college lacrosse friend that upon conclusion of their one month of study abroad that they must consent to a bed check from their fathers which would involve extending their tour for a week so they might experience Venice and the Italian Alps. Ostensibly, it was sold to everyone as a guys’ vacation. However, it also gave us a week to detox the boys — erasing whatever physical and moral decline that their newfound freedom was likely to usher in. God would not want their mothers to see them before we did. 

In addition to An Introduction to Macroeconomics and Management Strategy 101, our neophytes would master life skills such as how to properly drink Guinness, how to snog with a British girl, the art of smuggling seven people into one cheap hotel room in Amsterdam and the talent of stretching a £10 note across four night clubs, velvet ropes and cover charges.  Any trip abroad is essential LOTB training. LOTB simply stands for “Life Outside The Bubble.” My father’s version of LOTB for his four sons involved working the warehouse graveyard shift in a rough part of town loading trucks. Child labor laws have changed in four decades with the adolescent’s union assuming a much stronger position on the notion of chores and forced labor.  The fear of one’s parents has been replaced by a greater fear of missing out – on anything.

Our pale young partisans had reached the end of their unchaperoned month and had gone native. Like all EU members in good standing, they were in violation of our pre-agreed financial covenants – running budget deficits and feeling that someone else should bail them out. When confronted with austerity, they bristled looking for a less painful way out. It was clear that in the span of a month, my initials had changed from MAT to ATM and my son had become Greece. Truth be told, I was delighted with what little I could divine from his vague texts and our brief FaceTime calls. There was an optimistic lilt in his voice.  The boy was becoming a man.  I would fetch him in London and have him join me for a week long return to Southern Europe — a second home whose current rubric is “live for today because tomorrow we will all be owned by Germans”.

I arrived in Heathrow to a tea-rose twilight that promised to stretch into the night for several more hours. I navigated Customs like an old hand having mindlessly repeated this rite of immigration a hundred times as an expat. As if to test my resolve, a British immigration agent gave me her best RBF (resting bitch face) scowl which I dismissed without so much as a hint of annoyance. I was happy to be back.

I had worked to keep up old relationships in every major city in Europe – many of these friends are truly European and offended if they learn that I was within fifty kilometers and did not call. We still maintain close acquaintances in London and I elected to call a good friend and cheekily request a couch with a view of the Thames. My lodgings were located at none other than the Royal Pensioners Hospital in Chelsea. The magnificent infirmary and pensioner apartments carry a prime SW4 post code opposite Battersea Park. The hospital grounds host the annual Chelsea flower show each spring and are an iconic symbol of Britain’s love affair with its military history and its ambassadors — charming pensioners in their red tunics and distinguished uniforms.

I spent my first day wandering through Chelsea, proper Pimlico, bustling Convent Garden, adventurous Leicester Square, sedate Mayfair and down through St James’ Park to The Horse Guards Barracks Toy Soldier Shoppe where I would add several new soldiers to my massive collection of  lead figurines.  The following morning’s weather returned to predictable summer rain – a fickle meteorological pattern that drove me crazy when we first moved to the UK. Like old times, I found myself driven indoors avoiding the precipitation and lazily channel surfing across English popular culture.

UK television programming has disturbingly succumbed to the US pollution drift of reality television. I found myself staring at a car wreck called the Jeremy Kyle show. Kyle, a Jerry Springer knock-off from Reading, had gathered an impressive roster of barely understood trailer trash that were debating their baby’s paternity and the cost/benefits of a consensual shag. The morning’s theme, “She’s a bad mum and if I’m the dad, I want full custody” was a ripper. In less then twenty minutes, I saw more tats than a Miami Ink parlor and a fist fight where the mum floored her man with a mean right cross. I flipped to BBC1 where I found Restoration Man, a keen medieval construction genius who was helping a naive history junkie buy and refurbish an eleventh century fixer upper in Kent. On the next channel was Council Flat Investigator – a program which featured responsible public employees trying to pinch welfare-subsidized Brits who were gaming the much maligned nanny state system. This week the investigators were in hot pursuit of Troy and Reggie, two lower-class geezers exploiting immigrants by subletting their £70 a month three bedroom flat for over £1200.

I was torn between housing fraud and the uplifting – no pun intended -“I’m 87 Stone and have a fat chance of (finding) work”. This program features morbidly obese Anglo-Saxons trying to navigate life while consuming twenty kilos of fish and chips every morning for breakfast. Eventually this meal of morning Schadenfreude made me feel physically ill. It was time for me to go for a proper walk in the rain.

As a guest of the Governor and Lady at the Royal Hospital, I had to be on my best behavior. The hospital is a fashionable four hundred years of history. Built by Charles II shortly after the military beheaded Charles I in the mid-seventeenth century, the new monarch retained renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren to design this military retirement home as a grand advertisement of the new regime’s appreciation for their army and soldiers. The Royal Hospital helped create an aura of invincibility around the newly minted king and made it easier to prosecute continued war against the French.

The hospital also is home to ghosts. I am convinced that many of these old buildings retain much of the energy that has been released over a half millennia.  The Governor confirmed that the phantasms are indeed real but fairly well-behaved with activities confined to modest moaning and a penchant for redecoration — opening drapes and moving furniture around at odd hours.

While history and tradition sometime conspire to keep England lagging the modern world, she is embracing the digital age. The Imperial war museum has gone digital while Uber is decimating the once sacred black cab business.   These symbolic cornerstones of service, working pride and competence have lost 40% market share to drivers that no longer need to memorize the location of every mews, close and road. Fresh off the boat foreign workers armed with GPS and a generation of smart phone based customers are stealing every client under the age of 35. The majority Conservative party is unwilling at present to protect the transportation industry from what they feel is a free market manifestation of the new global economy. Across the channel, French cab drivers are up in arms and on strike.  In the UK, they grin and bear it.

I spent my afternoon hosting the boys at the remodeled Imperial War museum and filled their brains with stories of World Wars, Victoria Crosses and a golden age when the sun never set in the British Empire. After a late, last supper of fresh lamb from the farm of our very accommodating hosts, it was back to pack and a 4:45am wake up call.

After a chaotic morning of faulty BA check-in systems and impossible airport queues, we finally descended through a humid mid-day Italian sunshine into Marco Polo airport where a water taxi waited to transport us to the Grand Canal, St Marks and our grand Hotel Bauer in Venice.

St Marks Square was choked with tourists as we dragged our roller bags across the cobble stone piazza.  The open ground was interrupted by the occasional ink blot of pooled sea water that had been deposited the previous night with the full moon’s rising tide.  The northern Italian air was sticky and convection oven hot as massive thunderheads approached from the west. On the heels of the afternoon storm would be cool breezes and the reward of a mild evening spent in one of a hundred dimly lit piazzas alive with locals and foreign visitors.

As expected, the boys were happy in this tangle of history and humanity. They appeared mildly malnourished; sleep deprived and slightly jaundiced but they were bursting with stories – some that could never be repeated in the presence of clergy or their mother.

Traveling with two handsome young men with hummingbird metabolisms and a cat’s sense of adventure is a challenge and a joy. You are escorting a younger version of yourself — a changeling that is eager to suck the marrow from each day and possessing the instinct to live by the most simple of adolescent routines — sleep, eat, drink, cavort, repeat…

On this day, I had become a self-anointed yenta — repeatedly chatting up young attractive women between the ages of 17 and 25 to introduce to our embarrassed but amused sons. Their inept follow through confirmed that youth remains wasted on the young. Bill and I remain middle-aged troglodytes — harmless and invisible men who use humor and a dozen broken Italian words to broker introductions. The boys did not bridge any cultural divides that day but they demonstrated a duck’s aptitude to take to water and were now swimming comfortably in an Italian sea.

I always return to Italy. The ethos of Italia is a charming visceral celebration of all things aesthetic — the beauty of Caravaggio, a baroque depiction of the Virgin mother in the Ufizzi, the curve of a young woman’s calf, or the palatial architecture and perfumed history of a City that was at one time the center of world commerce and Renaissance.

On this trip, the Italian media were preoccupied by the rising tide of middle eastern and North African refugees that had fled chaos in Syria and the Sudan. Further from home, the Italians were riveted by the potential of Greece’s  banishment from the EU brought on by debt and an unwillingness to accept draconian austerity measures.  Southern Europe may once again lose their sovereignty to the Germans; this time in a bloodless, financial coup d’ main Street brought on by the terms of their bailout.

The Italians sense they may be the next EU recidivist to endure withering criticism of their inability to honor the fiscal guardrails required to belong to the powerful but deeply confederate European Union. National papers Corriere della Sera and La Republicca lament the corrupting nature of debt and the heavy price one generation may have to pay for the foibles of governments with life spans no greater than un mosca domestica, the housefly. The great empires of Western Europe are slowly being reduced by debt to mere tourist attractions.

I try to educate our testosterone-fueled wards on the economic woes raging across Europe but am met with limited interest and mild derision. You are never a prophet in your home piazza and it seems that the vagaries of failed monetary and social policies can’t compete with tan legs and short skirts. I get that. The boys are clearly going native each day as Italy’s sybaritic ethos permeates their thinking.

Perhaps the tales of the Doges could teach them how oligarchies tend to rot from within and how the general population eventually rises up when inequity and injustice becomes too palpable. History teaches that any new society is normally conceived out of chaos. And any rebirth, by definition, is both bloody and beautiful. My eyes dart up and down the international queue of souls waiting to enter The Doge’s Palace. It is a jewel – a preserved monument to medieval power housing a history of paintings and frescoes that highlight the relentless repetition of power’s rise and fall. The art is both a lesson and a warning — a distant mirror reflecting a society struggling with power, affluence, greed, decline and renaissance across millennia.

To many in Italy, the new ruling class is located somewhere to the north in a central bank. Euro zone membership now requires less than 2% inflation, a deficit less than 3% of GDP and public debt of no more than 60% of GDP. The U.S. could not meet this criteria. Many nations joined the Euro initially misrepresenting their fiscal circumstances and resolve to abandon socialistic public policies. Italians worry that a Greek exit from the euro would drive weaker members into a forced austerity leading to protracted depression and unemployment.

Others pro-austerity advocates cite that tough resolve is now required in Europe. The old guard of liberals must yield to a new global reality where deficit spending to prop up flagging economies and large government must yield to a more unregulated labor and capital market. A banishment from the euro would mean reintroducing the drachma and instantly devaluing everything. It would sure make feta cheese and baklava cheap.  The challenge is when any debtor owes so much they simply cannot pay it back. Is it possible to find a middle ground of what some have coined “inclusive capitalism”? The Greeks have capitulated for now. The Italians are bracing for a tougher conversation — although for hard-line EU opponents, it is all sound and fury signifying nothing.

Today is too nice a day to worry about Italy’s tomorrow. Venice is a jewel and remains an adult paradise of rich visual treasures and impossibly wonderful food. We spend our days getting lost among tourists and in search of the fringes of the city where food and hospitality are more reasoned and authentic. The boys nibble on my history lessons as if they are being served steamed cauliflower. They sense these insights are intellectually nutritious but they can’t disguise their disgust. My fellow companion, Bill, listens without adding much — content to yield his time to the boorish Senator from Connecticut. He enjoys our daily discourse but knows the boys are more deeply committed to the venal pleasures of life on the Grand Canal. Italy, like these boys, is stuck in a permanent adolescence — believing that charm can get you past anything, that bad things happen to others and that problems do not require preparation or perspiration. If one covers ones ears long enough, perhaps the wolf at the door will believe no one is home and go away.

Our trip required that we must eventually depart Venice and drive north into the Dolomites searching for a hidden chalet, the Rosa Alpina, nestled among verdant alpine pastures and soaring granite minarets.  Driving in Italy is not for the faint of heart. The A27 Autostrada was empty of cars with the exception of the occasional Fiat that would flash his lights as he tore past us at 160 kilometers per hour. People park their vehicles at bizarre angles as if they have spilled battery acid in their laps and cars move across traffic as if signals and passing lanes are optional. Driving is a Darwinian adventure requiring guts and caffeine.

Gratefully, most of the nation’s worst drivers were either on holiday or further south with their mistresses in Capri as we snaked our way through wine country and up to the great glacial valleys of the Sud-Tirol. The 1200 square kilometer area is renown for its winter skiing around Cortina.  In the summer, the valleys appear like a pine-green codpiece that adorns the neck and shoulders of the serrated minaret range known as the Dolomites. The Dolmitti are a UNESCO world heritage site and a geologist’s Mecca. The alpine villages sit in succession like ports along a great gray ribbon of high mountain road with each wooden chalet and building festooned with corsages of petunias, geraniums and elysium that spill from the dormered window-sills.

Forests of pine and conifer grow thicker with the elevation and are highlighted by the soft light of a fresh mountain morning. The road snakes up and up — a single artery feeding the region from the south. The bases of peaks that explode from each side of the highway are crisscrossed with trails and the occasional day hikers armed with walking poles and rucksacks. The mountains dominate here and possess a sacred presence reassuring its inhabitants that they are protected in this place from the creep of civilization and the polluted march of carnivorous capitalism.

Our first morning is a perfect day without rain.  We climb 1500 feet from the Capura Alpina trailhead through a pass and up on to a high meadow at the tree line. The ascent was difficult but tolerable, as the elevation here maxes out at no higher than 8,000 feet. We cross fifteen kilometers of rock and high mountain streams tumbling down from unseen glacial melt and culoirs of snow. We realize that we have taken the wrong path at one point but serendipitously find that our hike now offers stops at local refugios and a choice of canyons to conclude our trip. The surrounding peaks top out at over 10,000 feet but are only accessible via gondola lifts, goat trails or by rope and pitons secured by a professional guide.

In these high mountains, holidaymakers can choose across a range of high-end chalets, small tasteful pension hostels or refugios, a series of alpine cafes and huts linking an entire network of trails. We spend our days climbing and moving from one refugio to the next — always stopping for a cappuccino or bowl of soup. These sturdy huts feed and house weary walkers and climbers. When the clouds threaten, one merely looks to the map and hustles the next few miles to a refugio for shelter.

We are hardly roughing it as we retreat each night to our magnificent chalet replete with its two star Michelin restaurant and hopelessly attractive Italian girls who staff the restaurants and spa. The boys did their best to advance international diplomacy bridging the language divide with the doe-eyed staff. Neither group was multi-lingual and the occasional encounters were pure adolescent longing — a humorous combination of pidgin English, high school flirtation and rudimentary sign language. “Amore” is a universal libretto. A quick smile and eager flashing eyes, the allure of a promise, its all part of the music of youth.  At some point, the ear grows to old to hear the notes although in Italy, the frequency of romance never goes undetected.

I love these trips if for no other reason that it allows me to plunge into the world of my son.  I work hard to find these times when I can walk side by side in his march toward manhood. He is a wonderful and funny force of nature and a great partner in adventure. He is part of my legacy to a world that desperately needs people who will seek to understand before insisting on being understood.

The week goes by too quickly and in its place, we fashion an indelible moment that will stay with him for his life. Perhaps he’ll return here some day with his son and once again ask Italy to show him the genius of its marble cities and granite mountain ranges. The Italians have mastered many aspects of living a rich life. It is a society steeped in love, fear and faith. Amore is everywhere. As is the irony with so many cultures anchored by opposites, fear and faith are cousins who share a similar starting point, a point where reason ceases to offer the answers and one must advance on feelings rather than facts.

It had been a perfect afternoon and evening. We lingered in that moment before falling asleep, lying in the dark and talking. The lack of light and the reassuring comfort of a warm bed worked its magic as it had over so many years when he was a small boy seeking answers. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia.

“Buddy, remember when we spent that Halloween in Florence at the Villa la Massa? You were dressed as Spider Man and the hotel staff occupied all the rooms on the first floor to give you guys homemade candies?”

“Dad, I was like five.”

“You were such a cute kid — always hopping up and down everywhere. You were like a rabbit. You’d come into every room like pogo stick yelling, ‘hop!, hop! hop!’”

(Silence)

“You know, this has been a perfect…”

“Dad, don’t ruin it.”

“Yep, got it. G’night…”

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.

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.”

The Politics of Father and Son

The Politics of Father and Son

 

I am the son of a diehard Republican.  We often speak late in the evening across 3000 miles of America to discuss the economy, politics and trends in business.  I fancy myself as a middle ground moderate that advocates fiscal conservatism, social activism and open arms internationalism.   I never leave the fairway on issues.  My political ball can be found in the center left or right.  Rarely, will I find the rough reserved for those with hooks and hard right slices.  I am the voter every politician seeks to woo.  The fact that my views on public policy seem to lack the hard calluses of conservative conviction bothers my Dad but we like talking politics.  Discourse raises our collective IQ around issues – blending black and white opinions into a slate gray amalgam where clear answers are not easily found.

 

“Dad, I am voting for Obama.”

 

(Silence)…

 

“As far as I’m concerned, McCain comes across like the angry old conservative that loves to chase liberals off his lawn.  I have no doubt that McCain is a good man, but he is well past his buy/sell date and has been part of the party that brought us record deficits, two wars, laissez faire regulatory oversight and back breaking energy dependence.”

 

(Sound of crickets)…

 

“Obama knows he will not get the vote of those he is planning on taxing.  He is actually being transparent about the fact that we will be negatively impacted by his tax policies.  Yet, his tax cuts for the middle class are three times those of McCain.  His tax plan will cost $ 3.5B vs. McCain’s $5.1B.  The national debt has doubled under the Republicans.  When you voted against Democrats, you always did so telling me that you did not endorse politicians who would increase the deficit, intervene into the free market – (like nationalizing banks), and hijack the country on an idealistic joyride. Isn’t that where we are today after eight years of Bush? ”

 

There was a heavy sigh on the phone.  Finally he spoke. “ Well if it was just about tax policies, I suppose I could tolerate higher taxes but it won’t stop there.  You just watch.  Jimmy Carter showed us what incompetent fiscal and foreign policymaking can do to the country.  He focused on unemployment with jobs programs that bloated the federal deficit while establishing a program of wage and price controls. Neither worked. By the end of the 1980, we still had high unemployment and 18% interest rates resulting in stagflation.  We know nothing about Obama – we don’t.  America is hungry for hope and grazing on his cotton candy rhetoric because Bush has ruined the Republican party.  If that damn McCain would just be himself and stop listening to his handlers  ‘attack tactics’, people might see through the great orator Obama and realize he is just a tissue paper, give away artist.”

 

I felt the need to defend my decision to endorse the dynamic Illinois senator with the razor thin resume. “Dad, you’re right that we don’t know a whole lot about him.  However, I do not believe he consorts with terrorists and people disloyal to America.  That’s just a hangover political tactic from the Republicans who have spent eight years seasoning our opinions with fear.  I want to believe in something and someone. I am sure he believes that trickle down economics disproportionately favors those at the top and falls well short of helping those at the bottom.  His life experiences probably include a point of view that justice and prosperity is uneven in America. He probably believes that the underbelly of free market capitalism is marked by inequity and a more polarized society.   However, I do not believe you can vilify anyone for having that political view.  For many, that was their experience, particularly under Reagan and Bush. “

 

He snorted a cynical chuckle.  “Here’s the problem.  The next President inherits an economy in deep trouble.  The Treasury Secretary and the White House will have unprecedented power.  I am very concerned Obama’s policies will probably deepen the recession and expand government at a time when we need to learn to live within our means by reducing government, decreasing entitlement programs and putting money back into the hands of all consumers by making the Bush tax cuts permanent.  I am telling you, you have no idea how much damage a guy like this can do – to our legal system by liberalizing the Supreme Court, to our economy by deepening the multi trillion dollar deficit and to our national security by screwing up the next critical steps we make in foreign policy.  I may not like McCain but I am not going to vote for a guy that represents more risk to the nation.”

 

He was getting into a lather and I knew that I could probably make him spontaneously combust if I mentioned those who must not be named – – Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid.  He had worked hard to save for retirement.  He was feeling more at risk than ever.  He was also tired.  He had lost confidence in those who he had supported for so long.   The race still had a few weeks to go. Yet, deep down, he knew that this time the majority of swing voters were too fed up, too betrayed and too angry at the Bush administration to reverse their desire for a new direction when real fear was scratching at their door.

 

(More silence.) He was giving me the last word.

 

“You know Dad, I guess it get’s down to hope and faith.  I wager that Obama is a good man.  I am certain his life experiences will shape his policies. However, he is a smart guy and if he brings into his administration strong business leaders – the Buffets, Diamonds or Grosses, I think pragmatism will triumph over idealism.  Like Thomas Friedman, call me a sober optimist. “

 

A pause.  “ Well, let’s just hope you’re right. But, I’m still not going to vote for him.”

 

“Love you, Dad”. 

 

(Click.)

 

There are three things in life I can always count on – death, taxes and the fact my father will never, ever vote for a Democrat.  I’m ok with that. It’s his country too.

 

Me and Myself and the Mets

Shea Stadium - 2007 New York Mets-Boston Red Sox
Image via Wikipedia

To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.

April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.  The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king.  To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.

But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper.  The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue.   It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees.  There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia.  For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.

The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens.  “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation.  In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348.  For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.

The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams.  In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college.  It seemed as if he was born and then went to work.  But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities.  He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family.  Yet, he was drawn to the Mets.  In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town.  Some called them the workingman’s team.  His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.

In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership.  The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.

Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans.  Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy.  At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game.  The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play.   The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”.  On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.”  1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history.  To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.

The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field.  That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard.  On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.

September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence.  The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea.  The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate.  Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey.  The father had not seen Shea in 20 years.  The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth.  Yet, it was somehow apropos.

For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.