Once Upon a Hurricane or How I Learned To Love My Generator

Storm clouds over swifts creek
Storm clouds over swifts creek (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am slowly crossing off items on my “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” list. I have had a brush with a nurse shark in Hawaii, and run around like a headless chicken during Southern California earthquakes. I’ve fled falling ash from suburban fires and narrowly missed the eruption of Mt Etna. This does not even take into account my numerous acts of self sabotage during college. I still have several boxes that remain unchecked: being chased in New Guinea by cannibals, being stuck in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness or watching a Presidential election with my father. But as of last week, we could attest to surviving our first hurricane

Riding out Sandy seemed exciting. We were miles from the coast and nestled in between the shoulders of two wooded hillsides. While a storm meant certain disruption, Mother Nature was also grounding our two teenage sons – forcing our nuclear family back into a week of close-quarter, analog evenings of card games and trash talk.

As the Monday evening barometer dropped, the tri-state was silently cut from its moorings and we floated helplessly out to sea. Above Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, most were cut off and clueless to the insanity raging outside our darkened windows. The wind began to rake across a century of trees – accelerating like a freight train passing across a narrow gauge track. Our electricity suddenly cut-out followed by the reassuring thrum of our generator. The lights flickered reminding us of our fragile tether to life’s basic amenities. Our cable, phone and internet communications provider, heretofore known as (Sub)Optimum, collapsed quicker than the French along the Maginot line. True to their regular advertising, we had once again become victims of (Sub) Optimum’s “triple play” — one hit leading to three outs.

Sandy howled and scratched at our patio door daring us to gaze upon her savage face. Peering through paned windows, I could see the eerie Aurora Borealis glow of transformers exploding in the distance. I acquiesced to Sandy’s taunts and opened the door to bellowing wind, swirling debris and deep, obsidian night. Like so many of the stupid people we see on television, I did not understand that the hurricane had launched a thousand sharpened arrows in the form of branches and sticks — any of which could have skewered this suburban pumpkin faster than you can say “he had it coming”. Our resident risk manager informed me to shut the door and retreat into the house. As I closed one door, the garage door mysteriously started to open on its own, a victim of a confusing electrical surge.

Dawn brought wreckage. The lawn was riddled with angled punji sticks, silently launched from the wild archers of the prior night. A massive oak was uprooted in my neighbor Charlie’s yard – its seven foot circumference trunk proving no match for the invisible hand that randomly harvested it like a troublesome dandelion. A hemlock lay on its side leaving a massive headstone of dirt and roots that reached eight feet into the air. Electrical wires dangled like twisted entrails – a cat’s cradle of broken conveniences – reminding me that my tiny generator and its 150 gallons of propane was the only thing standing between me and the movie The Village.

Over the next few days, an entire region would be reminded of property lines, introduced to tree wardens, forced to read the fine print of their homeowner’s policies and come to grips with terms like: “acts of God”, “proximate causes” and “business interruption”. A presidential election would pass the tri-state unceremoniously like a distant clipper ship. We finally accessed newspapers and televisions and learned of tragic deaths, overwhelmed neighborhoods and homes swept out to sea. Lower Manhattan was flooded and plunged into darkness. Transportation was ground to a halt and the NYSE closed for a historic two days.

I became irritable and discontent. I decided to focus my rage on my cable provider, (Sub)Optimum – ordering them to restore my cable, phone and internet – this very minute. I punctuated my temper tantrum with a firm “or else.”

“Or else what?” inquired the calm therapist who had been hired to mollify abusive customers until their arms tired. I was stumped and hung up.

School was cancelled. The kids ditched us like a bad neighborhood and headed for families with heat, cable and full refrigerators. Every few hours, the generator wheezed like a fat man climbing a flight of stairs and our lights would fade to brown. A yellow warning light began to blink on the generator indicating a low level of oil.

It was indeed a fortnight of strange days. Lines began to form at Steve’s local Gulf station as a rumor circulated that bandits from Wilton had hijacked a gasoline truck and rerouted it to Orem’s diner. I saw six people chasing a propane truck offering money. Someone told me that a woman in New Jersey woke up and found a six foot shark swimming in a salt water filled depression on her front lawn. A teenager was rumored to have thanked his parents for a ride to a friend’s house. My man, Mitt Romney, lost his bid for the White House. To cap a week of indignities, Old Man Winter did an early autumn drive by and hit us in the face with a pie of slush and snow.

The absence of electricity and mass media created a vacuum giving people way too much time to think. Many ruminated over the election and declared the results tantamount to the opening of Revelations’ Seventh Seal. Others quietly smiled in darkened houses and apartments feeling their first flicker of power in a week. I admit I was depressed over the election results. I descended into my usual abyss of self pity with my biggest concern that I would not be able to fit into the cardboard box that I expected to be living in by 2016. My butt was getting too big.

In my darkest moment, the lights suddenly flickered on. The computer router lights grinned green and the television pinged on. If it is true God only gives us what we can handle then it seemed he had determined that I had a low threshold for pain. The good news is we’re all still together. Yes, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. We have to dig out of a mess of trees, wires, budget deficits, mounting debt, partisan politics and disturbing fractures along racial and social fault lines. Closer to home, I will still suffer the periodic indignities of Sub-Optimum and I will keep asking our local officials how much it costs to bury all our electrical wires (according to newly minted State Congressman Tom O’Dea, it’s about $1m a mile). Personally, I will miss my emergency telephone updates. I would gladly pay higher taxes just to have someone walk by my house each night reassuringly yelling “one o’clock and all is well.”

One thing is certain: our ability to gracefully navigate environmental, political, social and climate changes will define us as a generation. Frankly, I’m over my depression. I’m getting energized and am ready for a good fight. You can take away my electricity — but I’ll be damned if you’re going to take away my power.

The Ballad of Pancho and Kenny

Gimme head with hair

Long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming,

Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there hair

Shoulder length or longer

Here baby, there mama

Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair….

Hair, Broadway production of Hair

In 1968, America was in the throes of social anarchy as legions of bearded beatniks advocated making “love not war”, recreational use of drugs and “stick it to the man” rock and roll.

In this time of clashing values and political unrest, a suburban nuclear family could gratefully distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. The anarchists fit a certain profile: they wore head bands, John Lennon glasses, Birkenstocks sandals, and jacket vests with stitched patches of peace signs, marijuana leaves and phrases like “hell no, we won’t go”.  Yet, the simplest of litmus of tests for identifying a potential  sh*t-stirrer was – –  the length of his hair.

I was taught to fear hippies – although there were very few of them in my neighborhood.  Some of the older kids in our town had started to wear their hair long – really long – over their ears and down past their shoulders.  They looked like girls from the back and seemed to act like them – eschewing sports and always talking about not wanting to fight. If China ever invaded the US, they would probably run away or be too “high on drugs” to even here the tanks coming. They would congregate next to the Shell station or sit on the playground wall after school, smoking cigarettes and shaking their heads as if they were debating how to best blow up City Hall.

The best defense against these social parasites was to unfurl one’s own flag to the world.  As an ex-military man who now pledged his allegiance to the economic and corporate vitality of America, my father felt it was important that his young boys conveyed his values to the world and served as a living example of a home that had kept proper priorities.  His gesture of solidarity to the conservative values of Richard Nixon came in the form of a buzz hair cut.

Once a month on a Saturday morning, my brothers and I would be spirited from our beds to Kenny and Poncho’s local barber shop –  a nexus of conservatism and a great source of personal reaffirmation for my father who often felt besieged after a workweek spent in the chaos of a world tilting on its axis.  As he paraded his four young sons into the four chair, microscopic closet reeking of cologne and talcum powder, a crowd of elderly patriots would momentarily lower their newspapers and nod in approval as my father’s young recruits were declared fit for duty and processed for the future of America.

The door opened with the tinkling of a bell that was hooked above the unstable glass door.  Heavy set Kenny would glance in our direction as he shaped a perfect line the neck of a guy that could have been a stunt double for Jack Webb.  He would look down at us and shake his head with feigned irritation, “You’re late Marines.”  I am not sure Kenny had actually ever served in the military.  From the smell of him, the only action he ever saw was on Friday nights at the local High Brow Lounge. He sported a white barber’s smock that seemed incongruous with his slicked back Elvis pompadour.  You would never catch this oiled manatee without a Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his wry, Southern mouth.

To Kenny and my father, long hair was the enemy.  It was a sign of unrest and confusion. Long hairs were like small Asian countries that if allowed to develop unmanaged would blossom into havens of communism, disease and corruption. Having short hair was a sign of a man’s willingness to subordinate himself to a higher purpose. The disintegration of the Army started with a private’s hair, soon bled into personal hygiene and ultimately tore down the very fabric of society – setting us back to the Stone Age, a dark, godless time of venal pursuits, hand to hand survival and no Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

The actual buzz cut took very little time to administer but garrulous Kenny would prolong the experience – asking you questions intended to embarrass you and make the old men chuckle.  “So you got a girlfriend, sport?” I could see his reflection in the mirror as he looked over my shoulder and winked at a man facing me in the bullpen.  “Well, – – sort of.” I stammered. I lied, not wanting to invite further ridicule.  “Sort of?“ Kenny exaggerated his reaction.  He poked his comb in my direction, “Either you do or you don’t!” My father laughed as Kenny’s brother, Poncho urged him to sit still ‘lest he cut his throat with the straight razor.  My father sighed as Poncho covered his face in hot towels and slapped Club Man Lemon Lime cologne on his cheeks.

The finale of our shearing ritual included having your neck and face wiped with a brush covered in suffocating talcum powder.  The clean up rarely liberated all the severed hairs as they invariably fell down the back of your shirt and clung to your neck causing you to itch until your next shower. I would sit and watch Kenny repeating his rite of passage on three other brothers – their hair tumbling down to the ground like Communists mowed down by a machine gun.

My father would linger at his barber shop man cave – talking politics leavened with rich, blue swear words to underscore his contempt for the state of Congress and the state of the nation.  My older brother would ease drop on the heated conversation as if somehow he might pick up vital intelligence that would help him better conform as the first child in this house fashioned out of rigid political timber.  We would roll out of the barber shop like four freshly minted tennis balls, unconsciously feeling our heads and neck where the peach fuzz of our adolescent hair remained as a silent reminder to our lifetime commitment to this man’s military.

Yet, this was a time of profound change and it became inevitable that shifting social mores and restless adolescence would invade the prehistoric oasis of Kenny and Pancho’s barber shop.  It was a normal autumn Saturday with football in the air.  My father was facing a day of sidelines, yard work, and a briefcase bulging with office work.  I had once again volunteered to be the first to be sheared and had sat down to the October edition of Sports Illustrated when I distinctly heard my older brother give Kenny instructions on how to cut his hair.  I was certain I had just heard him say, “Just leave the side burns”.

There was a moment of palpable tension as several older men lowered their newspapers.  Perhaps Poncho might have even nicked my dad’s throat with the straight razor – – a miscue as rare as Southern California snow. Kenny looked confused. He hesitated and looked over at my father who had started to rise in his chair.  He looked at my brother who simply stared ahead – aware of the consequences he was now setting into motion.

“Since when did you start telling Kenny how to cut your hair?” my father growled.  “Since today.  It’s my hair, you know.” It was like watching a car wreck.  I could not peal my eyes away.  The entire wall of men and boys was now fixated on the barber, the crew cut father and his eldest son.  My father made the next move. “Just the usual, Kenny. Right son?” He leaned back slowly closing his eyes as if the issue had been nipped in the bud. My brother burst with a second countermanding command, “That’s fine, Kenny, but please leave a little more on top and keep the side burns.”

I could have given him the Congressional Medal of Honor that day. He always had it the toughest as the eldest of four boys.  He would spend twenty years breaking in my father and mother to the ways of a world that was counter-cultural to their stiff upper lip, depression era childhoods.  At this precise moment, as a lanky adolescent, banana republic teenager, he was declaring his independence from the tyranny of our Saturday morning buzz haircuts.  It was a beautiful moment.

As with all initial brave acts of independence, his “hair” rebellion was ruthlessly suffocated.  Kenny administered a number 4 razor trim and my brother walked into the autumn morning as clean as a cue ball unable to fit in with a growing subculture of friends whose parents had consented to shoulder length hair. However, the damage was now done.  Within months, my brother was getting his hair cut at a “stylist” – a compromise tendered by my mother to prevent more social unrest.  My father had little use for “stylists” and for any haircut that cost more than $5.

That Independence day was the first fracture in our family unit and perhaps portended the changes that would ultimately consume Pancho and Kenny.  As the 70’s washed over all of us, kids let their hair grow free and the faithful knot of conservative barbershop warriors died, drifted or disappeared.  Kenny and Pancho’s closed and was replaced by, of all places, a hair salon called “The Gates of Spain.”.

Today, my father’s hair is still cut like an Augusta fairway.  He remains a handsome and confident character, a successful retiree who is delighted to see short hair make its comeback.  He smiles as he takes his daily walk at the beach and sees the hundreds of shorn young men looking as if they just completed officer’s candidate school.

Deep down, he knows the majority of them are “slackers” who would not know a hard days work if it were to kick them in the rear end.  Yet, perhaps the short haircuts are a harbinger of a return to simpler things and better times.  Perhaps, we are on the edge of a new epoch when a person’s value is measured not by his poison rhetoric or critical condemnation of his country but by the content of his character and whether or not he creates something of value – – like a good old fashioned buzz cut.

A Guide To The Golden State

California State Route 1 shield
Image via Wikipedia

A Guide To The Golden State

Each August, we pack two shirts, shorts, swimsuits, flip-flops and a few pair of underwear and return like swallows to California to see family, dive into the emerald Pacific and run down our self esteem comparing ourselves to legions of cosmetically altered people who resemble clothing store mannequins.

As native Californians, we often hear friends planning a trip out West. It’s always good to get an insiders perspective. To help you maximize your trip and avoid unnecessary embarrassment, I offer a primer on the Golden State – it’s psychology, its citizenry and its odd etiquette.

First, a lesson in geography. California is a fractured amalgam, comprised of semi- autonomous regions similar to Spain — the country from which we initially stole California.  Its massive GDP makes the state the 9th largest economy in world with a current debt rating just above the Ukraine and Romania.  The regions are defined by geography and a maximum allowed number of Whole Foods stores.  These Baltic bastions include: Southern Cal, Central Cal, Northern Cal and all points north of Napa Valley.

Southern Cal extends from the Mexican border crossings east to Palm Desert and north to Malibu. Orange Counts and San Diegans take exception to this unilateral annexation of their regions but other than beaches, Marines, Fashion Island and a few amusement parks, Orange County and San Diego serve as Southern Cal’s pimped out basement.

LA is an area, not a place. NYC is a place but in La-La Land there is no center. Do not go to downtown LA.  There is nothing there but street urchins, Staples Center and New York restaurants. If you are going to stay in LA, stay in Westwood, Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach.  Beverly Hills is expensive and overrated.  Do not go to the San Fernando Valley – again, nothing there.

Do not go to Malibu thinking you will bump into Matthew McConnahey frolicking with his perfect body in the surf. His beach is private and the size of a postage stamp.  If you must go to Malibu, have dinner at the Saddle Peak Lodge in Malibu Canyon. It is a 1930’s hunting lodge set back in the Santa Monica Mountains. Order the bear or buffalo. Be sure to make your reservation between the annual fire and mudslide seasons.

If you must go to Venice Beach to see the orange, veiny psychotic people who roller skate while juggling chain saws, take one hour, leave the car running and then head south to Newport Beach to walk, lie out and body surf. Go to Balboa Island and the Fun Zone. Order Mexican food – this is where nachos were invented. Attend the Sawdust festival in Laguna Beach and see the Pageant of the Masters .

When you finally visit Southern California beaches, understand there is an implicit beach towel ” no fly zone” equal in length to the heighth of the largest adult in your party.  I am not sure what it is about the Coney Island syndrome where people must connect their towels in some grotesque quilt of humanity.  People from the East Coast and other countries seem to have no problem with family style sunbathing – choosing to lay their blankets within centimeters of another group of strangers.

In addition to enduring your major violation of sunbathing personal space, the offended party gets an unsolicited stereo concert of your family dysfunction as you scold your kids, talk about your sister-in-law and comment ad nauseum about the perfect weather.  This is in addition to witnessing your alabaster folds of manatee skin as you use an entire bottle of SPF 45 on your back.

Central California begins 50 miles north and inland once you descend the desolate stretch of I-5 known as the Grape Vine. The name is a misnomer as there are no grapes here, let alone flora of any kind.  It is appears that 1-5 may have been a US Army testing ground for the defoliant, Agent Orange.  In the spring these same barren hillsides of chaparral are a rolling ocean of tangerine poppies.  Think of The Wizard of Oz and the creepy wicked witch voice,” poppies, poppies..”

Inland Central California, aka the San Joaquin Valley, is the hub for earthquakes, mortgage defaults, agriculture and long, vacant stretches of interstate as uninspired and vacuous as Paris Hilton. The Central California coast between Malibu, up to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and ultimately Big Sur, denies even knowing its inland sibling.  It is embarrassed to admit any affiliation and stands a bit like Barcelona and the Catalans – bold and independent. In 1968, Central Coasters attempted to create their own language but the Santa Barbarians could not unlock their jaws to enunciate the pronoun “dude” and the fleeting dialect died.

Northern Cal really begins at Carmel although geographically, San Francisco marks the center of the state.  Everything about Northern California is unique. It is home to academics, inventors, militant activists, people of every sexual orientation and Nancy Pelosi. Anything one could ever desire is within a two hour drive of San Francisco – which is quite a contrast to LA where a two hour drive gets you about five miles from Westwood to Marina Del Rey on the 405 freeway.

In a 200 miles radius, one can visit Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Pebble Beach, Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, and Napa as well as the Gold Country and Sutter’s Mill where in 1849, the face of America changed forever with the flash of a nugget in the rippling shallows of the American River. Northern Californians do not like Southern Californians.  So Cal steals their water through a mischievous artery called the California aqueduct.  And then just to spite them, Los Angelinos flush their toilets incessantly and keep the water on while brushing their whitened teeth. Angelinos are also arsonists, ritualistically starting brush fires each October because their homes have negative equity and they want to collect insurance.

San Francisco is ground zero for militant liberalism.  It is the most inclusive city west of Amsterdam and prides itself on sniffing out discrimination wherever its insidious tendrils may be taking root.  Legislation has actually been passed to protect the ugly (who is actually going to claim being hit with the ugly stick?), the overweight and the excessively sweaty.

The City is the home of brotherly love – literally, and it is a sight to behold when the gay pride parade courses through the Castro district.  Men dressed as high school flag girls work complex routines more adroitly than any of the girls that went to my high school. In this wonderfully nutty Eden, or Gomorrah, depending on your religious views, you can call a girl a “dude” and a guy a “chick”. It is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, mores and yes, Nancy Pelosi.

If you cross the Golden Gate, you enter magnificent Marin County home of the pony tailed, Birkenstocked aging hipsters who spike their own trees and grow their own produce.  They are Dead Heads, iconoclasts and counter-culturalists. To visit Marin and hike in the shade of twisted native oaks on Mt Tamalpais is to know serenity. If someone offers to sell you marijuana, do not accept the invitation. He/ she is most likely an undercover cop.  True Marin County residents grow their own “herbs” and give it away like tomatoes and zucchini to neighbors.

Once beyond Marin and through Napa – it gets a bit, how should we say, rustic?

You still have several hours along 1-5 to get to the Oregon border.  This is the true Northern California but most do not acknowledge it as anything other than the home of Sasquatch (Bigfoot), meth labs, pot farms and Mt Shasta.

A few simple tips when visiting the Golden State:

1) Never, ever say ” Callie” when describing the state of California.  “Callie” is the name of a 14-year=old golden retriever with bad hips. She is a horse one step from the glue factory that your children ride at a Bronx petting zoo.  To castrate the Golden state’s name is to defile it and show your provincialism with the excruciating effect of nails across a blackboard. Yes, it is a stupid and parochial reaction to an innocent abbreviation but hey, we cannot help it.

2) Do not, I repeat, ever refer to the City of San Francisco as “Frisco”.  Frisco is the guy Jack Wagner played on the soap opera “General Hospital”. Frisco is the name of a down and out character trying to change his luck on “Fantasy Island.” (The plane! the plane!)To a Northern Californian, when you reference San Francisco – you acknowledge it simply as ” The City”. I know most of you believe there is really only one “City” and it is called The Big Apple. However, there are two – and the other is a jewel by the bay.

To a Southern Californian, you are free to refer to San Francisco as the Bay Area or “that screwed up place where all the liberal nut jobs live and accuse us of stealing water.”

3) Do not get your colon cleansed, your tongue pierced or model for someone who promises to introduce you to Sting if you show a tad more skin. If driving and someone flips you off, just smile and wave.  They have a gun and have probably killed three people that same day.

In the end, do not feel out of place.  Everyone is from somewhere other than California. The difference is they are trying to be someone else. You, on the other hand, don’t care that you are wearing black socks, sneakers, and shorts and possess skin whiter than a harp seal.

Have fun and if you see Sting — give him my regards.

The Summertime Blues

mowing

Well my mom and pop told me, “Son you gotta make some money,

If you want to use the car to go ridin’ next Sunday”

Well I didn’t go to work, told the boss I was sick

“Well you can’t use the car ’cause you didn’t work a lick”

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do

But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran,

My teenaged children explained to me the other day that summer was supposed to be a time for sleeping in, staying up late, sleep-overs and high end camps which indulged the mind, body and soul.  I shared with them that summer break was an anachronism, the last buggy whip of an age of tanned, outdoor laborers who planted, tended and harvested their own food.  The three-month holiday was invented in agrarian America to accommodate the need for child labor in the fields during planting season.  Summer was a time when “industrious” and “ dedicated” young men and women were shipped out to the countryside to earn the redeeming calluses only found on the end of a shovel, plow or milking stool. Sunday was the only day of rest and a time where community was not forged by incessant texting between a gaggle of unimaginative, acne-ridden teens but with your family and neighbors at church.  Fun was a relative term.  “Kids, isn’t it fun to pick this cotton? First one to get to two bushels, get’s a slice of Mom’ s blueberry pie that is cooling on the windowsill”  “Honey, let’s get up at 3:30am tomorrow instead of 4am to milk the cows.  What a time we had this morning with Old Bessie! “

My father understood clearly that idle hands were the devil’s workshop.  Summer was an outmoded and socialistic invention of a liberal government more riddled with commies than a deer has ticks.  Three months off from hard labor would render the US apathetic and defenseless.  When we had all become teenagers, he gathered us one May afternoon and announced that we must get jobs for the summer to finance our profligate spending habits.  Allowance, which he felt was tantamount to welfare, was a relic of our past. The problem with welfare, he moralized, was that people began to view it as an entitlement and became dependent.  Instead of serving its intended purpose as stop gap assistance until one could become self sufficient, welfare became a money tree under which one could indefinitely rest and still feel sorry for themselves.

Instead of reacting violently to being suddenly cut-off from the pater familius gravy train, we took the news reasonably well.  Summer could be boring and the chance to earn money starting any number of businesses seemed terribly exciting.  We were relishing the prospect of having our own money and as a result, not being subjected to statements like, “ whose money is this anyway?”, “ oh, that’s right, I went to work today and you sat here like a lazy sack of …”, “when you are eighteen and can pay your own way, then maybe I will listen to what you have to say.”

Each kid devised his own strategy on how to make money.  There were the low value ideas like lemonade stands and redeeming bottles and cans for change.  The primary source of income was of course, the hard labor of neighborhood yard work.  Somehow, cleaning someone else’s yard for money seemed less of an imposition than cutting one’s own lawn.  It’s my belief that years from now, sociologists will recognize The Boomer generation as the last of the “mow and rake” demographic – before swelling ranks of harder working “mow and blow” immigrants crowded us out with superior technology and indefatigable work ethics.  It would now seem like corporal punishment if I deigned to make one of my kids mow our lawn or rake leaves.

However, in the days of cold war, children were considered free labor and a landscaping professional was any kid who had used an electric mower or had facial hair. The main tool of the trade was the ancient lawn mower -a rusted manual cutting cylinder with a rotating blade.  The simple mechanical design was unimproved since it was invented in 350 BC by a Greek teen that could not swing a scythe but was told to cut the wheat or he could not attend the Poison Oracles concert that evening at the local amphitheatre. The mowing implement was harder to push than a field plow or shopping cart filled fifty-pound sacks of dog kibble and a broken wheel.

To operate the cast iron monstrosity, one would have to back up several paces to build enough momentum to cut through any lawn higher than one half inch. As the blade ripped through the various varieties of suburban grass – Bermuda, St Augustine, Fescue, and Kentucky Blue – the whirling blades filled the air with green shrapnel and debris.  By the end of a lawn cutting session, you resembled a bizarre grasslands creature –covered in flecks of emerald, sweat and whatever insects du jour were visiting for that season.  It seemed the grass fell everywhere except into the ancient canvas grass catch that hung precariously behind the machine on two hooks adjacent to the back wheels.

After cutting and raking up the grass, you were expected to edge the lawn with a device that looked like the unholy union of a jousting stick and a pizza cutter.  The metal blade knifed along the sidewalk and garden beds as you carefully trimmed the rectangle of property to geometric perfection. After all, an uneven yard suggested to your neighbors that if you could not control your lawn, how could you possibly hold the rest of your life together?

Leaves were accumulated with a bizarre device called a rake. It was a cumbersome implement made from fragile metal strips that made a distinct scratching sound as they were dragged across garden beds and backyards.  If raking was not tedious enough, the final indignity involved depositing your detritus into the trash.  Instead of launching leaves into your neighbor’s front drive or into woods where property lines blurred and ticks reigned, you were forced to stand in the trash cans stomping down on the debris to make room for more clippings.  Invariably, the trash can would tip vaulting you and your days work onto the cement where you would lie for moments, bleeding and angry that you must repeat this Promethean task all over again. .  Eventually, you succeeded and became expert in jamming eighty cubic feet of leaves into a 20-gallon trashcan.  It made my father quiver with pride to see his four sons bouncing up and down in his trash cans tamping down debris like serfs in the fields.  There would be times, when out of sheer elation he would come out and jump in the trash bin with us.

My eldest brother loathed this manual labor as it gave him blisters and uneven tan lines.  He quickly figured out that everyone needed his or her windows washed especially in the unfiltered light of a Southern California summer.  He formed a window washing business and proceeded to make a fortune.  It was genius – low overhead – a squeegee, ammonia, rags and an FM radio – and there was little competition.  He could complete a 3000 square foot home – inside and out in about three days bringing in $ 150. He quickly figured out that condos and apartment complexes had identical layouts, a fixed number of same sized windows and air conditioning.  He went door to door in upscale condos complexes offering to do windows for $40 a unit – usually completing his work in less than two hours.

The local YMCA helped out by creating a kid’s job bank where local citizens could call and offer a job including details of where, how much, when and who.  These were before the days of trucks driving down to Stamford to pick up highly industrious undocumented workers desperate for any paying job.  We were the labor force desperate for money and in those 70’s summers and we lived off an economy of yard work, spring cleaning and vacation support services – watering, feeding pets, gathering mail.  A community understood that it needed to create a consumer class among its kids to support our summer economy. Neighbors felt an obligation to keep the teens employed and out in the open where they might find less trouble, more supervision and self esteem.  Parents understood that their kids needed to work.

Years later, two of my three kids have summer jobs.  I am hitting .666, which is not a bad batting average for this Ivory Tower Division team. My third child is threatening to call protective services as he has determined that most ten year olds are not supposed to be working.  I point out that they are not supposed to be playing some game called “ Spore “ for 92 hours straight, either. He can earn cash around the house doing yard work, washing a car or a cleaning a window.  Minimum wage seems beneath him.  I am this close to pulling that lawn mower out and tasking him with taking on the front yard.  He may even grow a beard right in front of me just from the sheer maturation of the hard work and industry that would be foisted upon his narrow shoulders.

And then again, I may be forced to go out and help him – showing him how to cut, rake, edge and stomp on the cans.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Never mind.