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!

Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEG_5704941

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.

Women Are From Venus, Men Are Just Arsons

Burning

In the summers of my youth, campfires were rite of passage places where one’s physical celebration of the day could not consecrated until flames flickered and chased away the final shades of twilight lupine sky.  It was a sacred time where a boy could poke a stick into burning embers and experience the raw power of Prometheus and Zeus.

Greek mythology teaches us about the dawn of man, when life was an epic struggle for survival.  Mortals were at the whim of Gods whose capricious acts often visited disaster and plunged them into darkness.  Humans needed divine allies in the heavens and there was no better friend than crafty Prometheus. Driven to return fire to the hands of man, The Titan trickster deceived all-omnipotent Olympian, Zeus, stealing the secret of combustion and releasing the heavenly bounty to mortals.  In committing this celestial felony, Prometheus was condemned to have his liver eaten each day by a voracious eagle, only to have the liver grow back and be eaten again for eternity.   With his gift of fire, Prometheus was ensured a heroic place in our pantheon of Gods.  But he got burned in the process.

It seemed that fire has forever been both a blessing and a curse.  With Prometheus’ gift came fascination, chaos, destruction, warmth, romance and mythology.  As children, we learned some hard lessons and came to understand the risks filled euphemisms as “he likes to play with matches” and “that could easily become an uncontrolled burn”.  Yet, we are fascinated with fire.  We gaze into the bursts of swirling flames thrown from a bonfire on a clement summer’s night, we can almost sense something in the air – a magical confluence of charged ions, created out of combustion, smoke and an electric night.  For a moment, we are at the warm center of a safe universe while all around us swirls ebony unknown.

From an early age, men more than women, seem to be obsessed by fire.  Criminal profilers confirm that 90% of all arsonists are male.  Many of these unfortunates use fire to act out unfulfilled aggression and power. Most women would agree with this prognosis as they watch their husbands, boyfriends and significant others yield to uncontrolled pyromania when afforded the opportunity to build a fire.

For men, there are essentially two types of fire starters the pyro-purists and the anxious arsons.  The “pyro-purist” believes a fire is like a slow kiss.   In the pyro-purist world, initial sparks should come from a flint and steel, flicked into a small hollowed log where it can be succored with gentle breath and fed like a baby chick — nurtured with small combustible pieces of cotton and rotted wood chips.  The purist is certain that in a past life he was an explorer or mountain man.  Near the fireplace are the tools of his trade – the building blocks of combustion : tinder dry kindling, paper, sticks and bone dry branches.  For this hearty pioneer, each fire is like conceiving and rearing a child.  He must give it confidence.  It must be coaxed and led through its adolescence until it bursts into a mature blaze that is finally worthy of a log.

The purist knows that the finest fires come from a slow, even burn – a fire that throws off extreme heat with only a wisp of light smoke.  These glowing works of art can only be achieved from hardwoods – ash, oak, hickory, dogwood and almond wood.  Each type of wood is like an exotic coffee throwing off its own unique aroma and flavor with earthy rich smoke and even fragrant burns. If you are hosting an outdoor party, perhaps a split pinion pine with its deep resins and occasional pops and crackles might be in order.  An intimate dinner for two requires a cedar, which offers a heat that slowly builds and throws off a seductive aroma.

A big-time burnmeister insists that all his logs be seasoned in a protected woodpile for six months.  These fanatics of flame understand the gift of combustion and that each log brings a certain thermal energy content.  It is not just a fire, it is homage to Prometheus.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “anxious arsonist”.  This impatient greenhorn does not grasp the concept of kindling and combustion.  After three frustrated attempts to get rain-soaked logs that are heavier than concrete sewer pipes, he retreats from the fire pit scouring the perimeter for anything flammable including his child’s favorite stuffed animal or perhaps his spouse’s ancient down jacket. The next phase of his helpless huffing and puffing might include hacking green branches from an adjacent tree which produce more smoke than an NYPD gas canister.  To this environmental disaster, he may add toilet paper, torn magazines and even the road map that helped him navigate to his godforsaken campsite.

The neophyte’s blaze begins and ends unceremoniously with a great-polluted gasp of smoke and sizzled hissing that leaves all family members with coughs similar to incurable tuberculosis. The anxious arsonist is undeterred and begins a frenetic search for highly flammable items including Mennen underarm deodorant, perfume and the lighter fluid that was intended for the morning pancake breakfast.  In one great mushroom cloud burst of incompetence, the fire ignites and the Dr Flamenstein is knocked back to the ground with singed eyebrows and a blackened face.  It does not matter.  He stands and proclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Women witness this bizarre ritual every summer and shake their heads at the pathetic Groundhog Day behavior of the anxious arsonists and pyro-purists. It is simply a fact – men are obsessed with making fires.  But according to some sociologists, the more advanced the civilization, the more men grow up unable to shake the arson monkey off their backs. It seems the less we play with fire as kids, the less the need to burn leaves our psychological systems.  As anthropologist, Dr Daniel Fessler describes, western society is regressing.  We have moved from playing with matches and to anxious arsons.  Fessler writes:

The latter aspect ( man’s penchant for fire making) stands in contrast to results from a survey of ethnographers which reveals that, in societies in which fire is routinely used as a tool, children typically master control of fire by middle childhood, at which point interest in fire is already declining. This suggests that when fire learning is retarded in western children, arguably due to patterns of fire use in modern societies that are atypical when viewed from a broader cross-cultural perspective, fire repressed men will have a higher probability to become arsonists.”

It has been confirmed that we need to let our kids play with matches. If we don’t allow an occasional controlled burn, we are elevating the odds that years from now we may be paying for junior’s decision to torch a truck stop outside of Bishop, California. Psychologists further argue that the need to make fire grows and becomes a surrogate for latent sexual frustration playing out in a destructive behavior.  About this time, many men are saying, “I am not sure I like where this whole thing is going.”  Ok, I admit it.  I made all this stuff up because some kid paid me $20 to try to convince his Mom to let him shoot off some bottle rockets.

But, hey, it is summer time and a campfire remains one of life’s simple pleasures.  The fire you dig may rest deep into the cool sands of a beach, blazing recklessly – urging its audience to dance some pagan homage to the summer equinox or it is hidden – tucked carefully between large granite rocks by a lake, sheltered from high alpine winds that sweep down, tugging at the flames and dispersing curious smoke that seems to follow you wherever you choose to sit.  In the firelight, our shadows leave us and sway giving the illusions of shape shifting giants rising like great waves.

In the end, the fires we make are homages to the Gods. The fires we start allow us for a brief time to gather, share our mythology leaving only footprints and shadows. With the heat splashing our faces and our backs turned to the cold night, we come to better understand our physical world and chase away the things that go bump in the night.  And when our little ones grab a stick, igniting a broken branch and their imaginations, let them play a while.  It was, after all, a gift – – and anything worth receiving must be shared.

Scent of An Imposter

A bottle of Old Spice cologne.
Image via Wikipedia

 

Scent of An Imposter

Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. – John Steinbeck

When I was 16, I would douse myself with my father’s English Leather cologne in hopes of attracting the opposite sex.  The English Leather television commercial suggested that once I donned the fragrance of the British elite that I would be surrounded by magnificent Scandinavian women and would speak with the cultured accent of an Oxford graduate.  Hai Karate competed for my attention promising that a few modest drops would have me using martial arts skills to drive off the women who would be insane with lust as a result of a mere whiff of the olfactory aphrodisiac.

Brut promised to transform you into a race car driver, fighter pilot or an investment banker capable of doing the most sophisticated deal in the world.  If you used Brut, Fabergé suggested a life of daring exploits, athletic feats and of course, someone always on your elbow.  Musk For Men seemed the closest thing to a human pheromone that one could use.  Just the name sounded like you were burying your face into a twenty five year old Buffalo robe.  I am not exactly sure what kind of woman you would attract with musk but odds are you would not have to spend a lot on dinner.  Old Spice would transform you into a rugged merchant marine that could hoist a tankard of ale with one arm, spear a whale at 100 yards with the other and then hug Miss Ireland, who was working part-time as the local dock barmaid, with the…wait, that’s three arms.  Well, when you use Old Spice, you can do the work of one and a half men.  Each fragrance promised to change me from an awkward, testosterone time bomb to a suave James Bond capable of seducing every woman under the age of 40 in western Europe and then save the world – – all before dinner.  The reality was a bit different.  Other than being followed by a German Shepherd for several blocks, the scent failed to attract anyone or radically alter my romantic future.

The film, “Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, plunged us back into the world of men’s colognes from the 1970’s. In this highly intelligent exchange between anchorman Ron Burgundy and his beat reporter, Brian Fantana, they discuss the selection of colognes that Brian will choose (from his wall of colognes) to attempt to seduce the new female anchor, Veronica.

Brian Fantana: [about Veronica] I’ll give this little cookie an hour … Time to musk up.
[opens cologne cabinet]
Ron Burgundy: Wow. Never ceases to amaze me. What cologne you gonna go with? London Gentleman, or wait. No, no, no. Hold on. Blackbeard’s Delight.
Brian Fantana: No, she gets a special cologne… It’s called Sex Panther by Odeon. It’s illegal in nine countries… Yep, it’s made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.
Ron Burgundy: It’s quite pungent.( makes a face)
Brian Fantana: Oh yeah.
Ron Burgundy: It’s a formidable scent… It stings the nostrils…in a good way.
Brian Fantana: Yep.
Ron Burgundy: Brian, I’m gonna be honest with you, that smells like pure gasoline.
Brian Fantana: They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time it works, 100% of the time[cheesy grin]
Ron Burgundy: That doesn’t make sense.
Brian Fantana: Well… Let’s go see if we can make this little kitty purr.

This year, I decided to ask my wife for some cologne for Christmas.  “There’s so much to choose from, you’d better do some research and pick one “she informed me.  I knew the marketing firms were still promising teenaged boys reckless pleasure from the likes of Axe and Fierce.  Yet, I assumed they knew better than to barrage a forty something with promises of anything other than not being followed by a dog.  I decided to research the latest colognes while shopping.  You would have thought by now that America had learned of the hollow promises of those purveyors of eau d’toilette. Can’t fool me, Yves St. Laurent.  I know that means “toilet water” in French. Yet, the desire to develop a unique scent and perhaps become another man is as powerful today as it has ever been.  The brands of cologne are mind numbing with each promising to transform me into a more swarthy version of myself.

Unforgiveable is presumably a scent so powerful that it compels even the most circumspect person to commit acts that would never be condoned in the light of day.  Put on Unforgiveable and you may just tell off your boss or buy that Alfa Romeo.  L’Anarchiste suggests your scent alone can win the girl and bring down your government at the same time – – if you are man enough.  Lucky You cologne does not try to even disguise the fact that you should be thanking them for selling you the cologne.  If you did not get a date with Musk, perhaps you should try Diesel, especially if you are in the market for a partner who can change the oil in your car.   Mille grazie Roma !  I can feel the olive melanin creeping into my skin and my abdomen muscles popping out just getting a whiff of the Italian cologne.  Put a dab on each cheek and look incredibly dazzling in your uniform and do not notice as thieves knock off the local bank.  After all, the sun is hitting your profile just right and you are Roma!

There are some even more interesting and provocative brands. For example, there is Paradox for the man nobody understands.  I can just see the commercial, a man walks into the party and everyone he talks to gives him an odd look.  “He is obtuse.  He is obscure.  He is – – Paradox.” How about Quorum? This is for the man who you hear and smell before you actually see him.  “You are so pungent it is as if you always have a majority in the room – -you have Quorum.” Then, there is Swiss Army – – I am not certain exactly who would want to smell like the Swiss Army – perhaps someone in the Albanian army?  My favorite is Joop.  “It’s whimsical.  It’s zany.  And it completely violates every law of nature – Yes, it is Joop.”

Suffice to say, whether you desire to be a sultan of the night with Drakkar Noir or a rogue fifteen century Asian despot called Shogun, there is a scent for every other man you want to be. I came up with a brand for Wall Street mortgage securitization specialists : “Dignity – when you have lost it all, at least you still have your Dignity.” For politicians, there’s Gossamer. “For the man everyone can see through, there’s Gossamer”.  In the end, the best name is simply Demara, named for Ferdinand Demara, “the Great Impostor”, who masqueraded as a Trappist monk, surgeon, cancer researcher and prison warden.  He was finally caught, but not before he proved that if a man wants to be someone else, all he needs is guts and perhaps, a little cologne.

Welcome to The Teen Behavioral Network

teen titans
Image by istolethetv via Flickr

How strange that the young should always think the world is against them – when in fact that is the only time it is for them.  ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960

Tired of late night cell phone debates with your teens over dubious sleep-over locations and questionable acquaintances?  Worried what kind of den she is calling from ? Unsure whether those red eyes are really from studying or fighting forest fires?  Does your teen make OJ Simpson look truthful? Consider joining The Teen Behavioral Network (TBN)

At TBN, our mission has remained the same, helping teens avoid self sabotage.  During your child’s transformation from adolescence into adulthood, they are statistically at greater risk from a host of acute physical and mental illnesses ranging from situational retardation syndrome (SRS), serial mood swings (SMS), poor peripheral vision (PPV) and episodic events such as auto accidents, broken bones and ruptured relationships.

We want to take this opportunity to socialize you to the benefits, provisions and clinical protocols of our program.  TBN is an incentive based care coordination program underpinned by an exclusive network of friends, acquaintances and families.  Under a typical TBN program, your teen’s activities will require them to call an 800 number to obtain preauthorization for certain risk based activities. Our goal is to help direct them toward people, places and activities that are most likely to reduce their risk for catastrophic events which could sidetrack their progress in life.

Based on decades of evidence and outcomes based data, we have designed a comprehensive physical and mental health program that incorporates the following:

1)      Biometric, academic and psychometric baseline testing – At TBN, we believe you cannot improve what you cannot measure. Periodically, your teen will submit to a basic biometric testing administered by a primary care physician.  We will test key biometric markers such as fasting glucose (blood sugar), weight, blood alcohol and banned substances to baseline overall health status.  We triangulate this data with your child’s grade point average and a two-hour annual psychotherapy session to determine an overall risk score. The lower a teen’s risk score, the less likely they are to commit a monumentally stupid act which could irreversibly impact their future.  Our goal is to reward good behavior and to limit at risk activities to within our preferred partner network.

Based on each child’s risk score, we develop a customized plan to assist them in moving toward “first quartile” social stewardship and personal responsibility.  Our assessment may uncover abnormally high glucose and insulin levels from consumption of sodas, fatty foods and empty carbohydrate diets.  The absence of lactic acid in your teen’s muscles may suggest they are leading too sedentary a lifestyle. 

Our initial baseline risk assessment will graph your member teen’s risk status against local, regional and national peer risk groups to drive toward improvement.  As he/she achieves milestone events, our incentive plan rewards them with behavior points which can be converted into a range of valued rewards such cell phone minutes, PC and phone upgrades, sleep-overs at approved in-network homes and iTunes purchases. Failure to achieve agreed targeted benchmarks results in a series of compulsory physical and behavioral remediation programs offered through affiliated local law enforcement and armed services partnerships

2)      Preferred Partner Organization (PPO) – Every teen member will be provided a customized approved network designating “in-network” friends, family and institutions.  Members may participate in a range of activities in network with no out of pocket expense or preauthorization. 

TBN has gone to great lengths to develop a process for screening and stratifying in-network friends, families and institutions. We pride ourselves on the little things. Our “family” reviewers perform on site inspections and are sensitized to the most subtle signs of laissez-faire oversight such as the absence of alcohol or medicine cabinet inventory controls or content blocking on cable and computers.

While our criteria is kept extremely confidential, each network is unique based upon your teen’s risk profile and the risk factors attributable to other teen members. Certain low risk places or people such as a local church youth group, YMCA or deli are likely to be shared across multiple teen networks.  Certain “in network” friends may receive additional performance stars for characteristics such as intellect judgment, civic responsibility, home supervision and number of text messages sent in a 24 hour period. Five star friends are considered “centers of excellence” (COEs).  COEs are eligible for subsidized activities such as inclusion on family vacations, movies, deli and coffee coupons.

Given the extreme variability of teenagers, our PPO network guide is updated hourly

3)      Out-of Network PPO Access – A teen attempting to access out-of-network friends or institutions must submit an out of network request at least 24 hours prior to the planned event.  Our 24 hour authorization line is staffed with retired teachers, clergy, grandparents, animal trainers and clinical psychologists expert in dealing with pathological behavior.

 You will be provided five micro-chip GPS patches that can be surreptitiously  inserted in your teenagers phone, purse and/or high top sneakers.  The “soft perimeter” tracking device allows you to instantly access your teen’s location via any personal computer or cell phone.  

 Unauthorized Out of network PPO activity may include penalties such as chore deductibles and/or community service co-pays. Each teen must submit location information that includes a JPEG photograph transmitted via cell phone for verification. 

We have retained several per diem private investigators to assist the out of network approval review process.  For a few extra dollars a month you can receive full individual and family background checks and a risk dossier outlining of all public domain information of every person and institution with whom your child may be attempting to affiliate..

4)      Appeals – Teens desiring to appeal out of network denials can request a supervisory appeal from our verification team. Our appeals teams are composed of recovering alcoholics, parole officers and social workers – – all bi-lingual in text messaging and English.  We have recently contracted with Apple to introduce “ iTruth”, a polygraph based wireless application for the iPhone where teens can  attach sensor pads from their phone USB port to their temples. Through an ASP server, users can be evaluated to determine if they are telling the truth. Future programs include iBlow, a breathalyzer app and iBrain, a dopamine and serotonin measurement device.

5)      Final Appeals – Some determined teens may refuse to accept appeals as a basis for final resolution. In these cases, we have designated a “final appeals” protocol. A teen may invoke two final appeal challenges within a one year coverage period – similar to professional football’s red flag challenge.  We employ retired juvenile court judges on 24/7 retainers to arbitrate specific appeals.  Appeal overturn rates for 2010 were less than .005%.  Problematic or disrespectful members will be automatically redirected to a payphone at Bellevue Hospital for the Criminally Insane where teens can attempt to reason with equally irrational people.  These calls are recorded and forwarded to the member parent for entertainment value.

At TBN, our program is simple – – we seek to improve the health and well-being of your teen and to assist them as they navigate a period where they are physiologically and socially incapable of distinguishing risk and consequences.  Youth participants are socialized to understand that in a small town, one’s reputation is easy to lose and hard to recover.

Our motto: “Trust But Verify” reflects our mission to establish guard rails characterized by mutual respect, honesty and consequences for behavior.  We will leave no teen behind and our goal is to ensure that any misstep is minor ……………….(no pun intended).

A Halloween Soldier

Kinder feiern Halloween - 2004
Image via Wikipedia

Clothes make a statement.  Costumes tell a story.  ~Mason Cooley

In a time before litigation and neighborhood watch programs conspired to elevate Halloween mischief into misdemeanors, All Hallows Night stirred the delinquent within every kid.  What is now called vandalism was once labeled “rascalism.”  October 31st marked the first pearl in a delicious string of holidays – spaced gratefully over two months – allowing just enough time for a kid to recover from overindulgence or regain privileges that were perhaps lost for some silly misunderstanding such as hitting a public bus with an egg. It was a night fueled by sugar and poor judgment.

I had declared Halloween costumes as “stupid” at the sage age of eleven opting instead to don my father’s oversized, olive-green army jacket with its deep pockets and durable, double stitched woolen lining.  The coat was a talisman of good fortune having missed the Korean War, endured two years of officer candidate school and survived one angry gunnery NCO from Alabama who hated ROTC-trained second lieutenants.  It was warm, twilight camouflage when one needed to elude a parent, patrol car or older kid with dark intentions. Best of all, it carried my surname, “TURPIN”, tattooed in indelible military font on its white lapel.  My father considered me as I prepared to go out into the night, “That’s not much of a costume! You need some fake blood and bullet holes.” I rolled my eyes.  Parents were such losers.

My friends and I would begin discussing Halloween plans in September.  We were filled with bravado as we meticulously planned a mission whose success would be measured in pounds of candy, shattered pumpkins and ounces of shaving cream released on unwitting victims. To venture into a Halloween night in the 1970s was a risky business.  You must be armed and ready to rumble at a moment’s notice.

The standard issue weapon of choice for an All Hallows infantryman was shaving cream. We started by purchasing several cans of highly pressurized Gillette’s “The Hot One” self heating shaving cream.  It was the closest thing one could get to canned napalm. Many of us modified our weapons, creatively improving their accuracy and reach by inserting a sewing needle into the inch high nozzle.  We would melt plastic around the pin, waiting to remove the pin once the nozzle’s tip had cooled. The result was a microscopic hole from which the shaving cream would release – producing a highly pressurized stream of heated cream that could reach as far as ten feet.

When one was doused with The Hot One, one would experience a gradual burning sensation as the cream began to rise in temperature.  The Hot One was your pepper spray of choice – and the only weapon in your arsenal designed to discourage the local wildlife. If all went well, your larger assailant intent on stealing your booty would be writhing on the ground while you made good your escape into the suburban midnight

I was determined this year to prove myself as the most reckless of pranksters – – the stupid guy willing to throw the smoke bomb into the police station or pump three eggs into the side of a bus.  Yet, I was all bravado and no bite – a brash paper tiger that was more afraid of my father’s belt than peer humiliation.  Like the soldier in Red Badge of Courage, I wondered what I would do when faced with the elephant of combat, would I run or man up and emerge the hero.  Perhaps my coat would give me the courage that I suspected that I lacked.

The early part of that Halloween evening fell into cool, purple twilight.  The heat of the Indian summer day was receding and pockets of autumn air rushed down the residential streets. Daylights savings had run its course.  The early evening was the safest time to move openly from house to house.  We were typical smartalecks and often grabbed handfuls of tiny Tootsie rolls as the nice elderly lady urged us to just take one piece to leave some for the other children.  Behind her, her curmudgeonly husband would scowl.  He was most likely a WWII veteran and was disgusted that I was defiling an US Army officer’s coat.  “So, what are you?  A Soldier?“ he asked sarcastically. “ No, he’s a bee keeper” quipped one of my more disrespectful friends. (Laughter)  The older man shook his head as he confronted the decline of America’s youth and returned to Walter Cronkite.

As youth filled twilight yielded to a more adult sinister night, Jack-o-lantern candles dimmed and the manicured lawns and sidewalks emptied of all but a few shadowy stragglers rushing toward a warm fire and a candied feeding frenzy. We now moved into deeper waters of consequence – a submarine wolf pack in search of a bloated merchant Cadillac or a defenseless gas guzzling station wagon.

A van pulsing with loud music suddenly broke the silence, skirting around a corner and splashing us with an uneven jerk of halogen headlights.  Gratefully, the suspicious vehicle raced past us, revving its 300 hp, eight-cylinder engines. Someone inside the van yelled something incomprehensible at us. What is it with boys that the smallest kid in your group always feels compelled to throw the first punch or in this case, return the presumed insult?

It is hard to describe the terror a kid feels when a van packed with older teens suddenly hits its demon red brake lights and makes a U-Turn.   My friend and I had the good fortune of being next to a long private driveway and retreated into the dark while the rest of our group scattered in a flowering burst of panic.  The van sped past us chasing two of the more slovenly members of our group.  The doors and windows of the car were now open and we could see teens hanging out manically whooping like wild Indians.  No where in our meticulous planning had we made provisions for this Little Big Horn.  I suddenly remembered my own eggs resting like pinned grenades in my coat. I turned to my accomplice. He nodded, somehow reading my mind that this hiding place gave us perfect cover and that a direct hit with the eggs might distract the van long enough to allow our friends to make their escape.

In rapid fire succession, we launched five eggs – two of which thumped against the back of the van – causing it to slam on its brakes.  There was a moment of confused debate.  The van was a raging bull uncertain where to charge.  As we hesitated and ducked behind the safety of a high wall, a pair of flood lights flashed on from an adjacent garage.  Our hiding place had been revealed.

We bolted out on to the asphalt road where the van began to give chase.  We stopped, heaving for air and stood perfectly still inside a tangled juniper bush.  The van slowly moved down the street and  idled like a Tiger tank.  We could overhear arguing inside the vehicle.  It suddenly peeled off into the night.  My thoroughly shaken partner offered to have his parents drive me home.  I declined – figuring if someone’s parents drove me home that my mother would suspect that I had thrown eggs at cars – which I had.

As my buddy melted into the darkness, I smiled triumphantly and moved up the street, keeping to the shadows.  As I prepared to cross our town’s main drive, the van from hell suddenly reappeared.  I heard someone yell, “Get that kid!”

I sprinted across light traffic and made it to the south side of the street.  As I wheeled around the corner and across the lawn of neighbor, I had forgotten about a stiff wire that had been anchored to brace an ancient live oak tree.  The wire rose out of the ground at a 45 degree angle and reached ten feet up to the middle trunk of the oak.  Another wire braced it from the side of the house.  The rigid wire was exactly the height of my face and as I turned the corner to sprint across the wet grass, the ½” thick wire struck me directly in the face.

It must have looked as if I had been shot by a high-powered rifle as my legs carried in front of me and my head flew backwards.  I was completely horizontal when I hit the grass.  I lay motionless.  The van pulled up and I could hear the teens inside talking in low tones.  I heard, “dude, I think he’s dead.” As was, and still is the case with most teens when confronted with a sudden need to think clearly, they panicked and drove off.

The bridge of my nose was now bleeding and I had a diagonal bruise across my nose and forehead.  I staggered home the two final blocks not caring if I was caught out in the open.  I was finished with being the troublemaker.  It was hazardous duty. I would have preferred to have been home, eating my little brother’s candy and watching “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

I walked in the door and my dad, working in his study, glanced up at me.  Outside, a van rumbled slowly past our house like a Vietnam Delta patrol boat. He took one look  – bloody face, mud stained army jacket and massive diagonal welt.  He smiled, “Now that’s a costume!”

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Santana
Image via Wikipedia

It was September and with four boys finally back in school, my mother acted as if she had just been informed that her life threatening illness was in complete remission. Nothing fazed her – not the early autumn heat waves, suffocating smog or chaotic evening routines filled with school forms, bike bags, books, homework assignments and back to school nights. It was, as Andy Williams crooned, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In 1976, we were officially on our own. She had declared her independence, no longer rising with us at dawn – choosing instead to sleep in and get my youngest brother off to school at the civilized hour of 8am.

It was the first day of my freshman year and I needed to wear something that made a statement about who I was. Perhaps a new girl would notice me or an upper class cougar would choose to toy with my affections. As I looked at my pathetically worn periwinkle Hang Ten tee shirt with its signature footprints, I knew I must take a calculated risk. I considered the suicidal thought of borrowing my older brother’s Carlos Santana tee shirt – yet, this was simply too perilous a move considering that we shared the same high school hallway. I was desperate. I needed to showcase that this middle school caterpillar had emerged from his summer chrysalis to become a teenaged tiger-tail. It was in this moment of imminent crisis that I made the fatal decision to “borrow” one of my father’s pinpoint Oxford dress shirts.

My father was a hoarder. He literally possessed and stored every piece of clothing he had ever bought. His dress shirts filled multiple dressers and several bureaus. Each drawer was filled with a prime color palette of neatly folded and bagged 16/34 dress shirts that easily accommodated my adolescent build. My mother stirred softly as I tiptoed in to survey his treasure trove of Brooks Brother Oxford cottons. In typically twisted adolescent reverse psychology, I resented his surfeit of clothes. He had so much and I had so little. I also considered the low probability that he would even know that one of his sixty shirts was even missing. I was wrong.

My father had been the eldest of two sons by eight years. He took little interest in his younger brother and considered himself an “only child”.  He inherited Midwestern frugality and understood the need to care for possessions to ensure they would last. The shadows of the Great Depression had only recently receded and the goal in any family of modest means was to get maximum utility out of any apparel, appliance, toy or equipment. When your shirt collars frayed, you reversed them and squeezed another two years out of the garment. Frugality was tough but at least as an only child, he never had to share.

When my father married and had four boys, he had no notion of how his organized, rational world would come unhinged. Life became a permanent freeway and he was living in its middle lane. He now seemed to understand why men died earlier than their spouses.

His home office became his castle and its door his portcullis. One could not enter this sacred chamber without knocking. At times, his door would be locked. One was forbidden to borrow a pencil, piece of paper, tape, scissors or any other item from this eight by eight man cave. My mother accepted his periodic self exile as a way for the “only child” to cope with the fact that he must now share everything. He loved his family but needed some place where he could work, protect his sanity and preserve a few precious possessions. He could not trust his sons to care for his things the way that he had been required when he grew up.

Weekends would find him justifiably ballistic as tools that he had wirebrushed and lubricated after each use were left to rust outside by a teen trying to fix a flat tire. He would see red as paint brushes were not cleaned as prescribed with turpentine and returned to their milk carton home – but instead discarded to harden like rigid punk rock mohawks. Bikes were routinely left on the front lawn and sometimes stolen. He could not fathom how this spoiled generation had so little regard for precious possessions. We were pampered, unappreciative, sloppy, and undisciplined ingrates who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.

His biggest peeve was how we treated our Sunday clothes. He would turn five shades of purple when entering our closets to see blue blazers and clip-on ties cast on the floor with grey slacks crushed under items that had been tossed into the closet when we were ordered to clean our rooms. For an ex-Army officer, our disrespect for clothes portended disregard for other things – work, authority and responsibility. To add insult to injury, our indigence came with a price tag as it was often necessary to take our wrinkled finery to the local cleaners to be steam pressed. My father hated paying for laundering dress shirts and dry cleaning.

My mother had gone on strike several months back refusing to iron or press anyone’s clothes. She had done the math and realized that her domestic obligations were paying her less than minimum wage. My father was convinced that some labor organizer in the neighborhood had undermined her commitment to Home Economics. This was a time of women’s independence led by Gloria Steinhem and the “I am Woman“, communist Helen Reddy crowd. Outsourcing something as intimate as the care of his clothing to a third party that charged an exorbitant .50 per shirt was anathema to my father. (Mr) Delsandro, the drycleaner proprieter, might just as well be wearing pantyhose over his face and wielding a gun. He was engaging in highway robbery.

Delsandro did not like my father. My father intimidated him. It was not uncommon to enter the cavernous cleaners and find the front counter unattended. The drone of rotating dryers, the hot breath of steam and the chemical smell of dry cleaning would conspire to push any kid outside. Through the front window, I would watch as my Dad would rapidly ring the small bell indicating a customer had arrived. The owner would appear from behind a mechanized clothes line of hanging garments and plastic bags. As soon as he saw my father, his pace would slow – the way a dog moves once it has been ordered out of doors. He would endure the detailed list of my father’s demands and specific requests for mending, spot repairs and pressing.

My mother had recently issued another edict that was ostensibly part of a grander plan to prepare us for when we went to college. It required that we wash and fold our own laundry – including washing and ironing our own shirts. In life as in politics, it is an accepted fact that when simple systems try to regulate complex systems, unintended consequences follow. As our fresh supply of laundered clothes dwindled, we chose not to wash our own clothes as instructed.  We instead began to steal clothes from our father and then slip the soiled goods back into his laundry hamper.  None of us knew that the others were also swiping his tightie whities and tube socks. I did not realize it but my brother had also crossed into the valley of death and taken several dress shirts.

On a bright Saturday morning, my Dad and I were doing errands and made an unexpected stop at the cleaners. A young girl came out to the counter and asked if she could help us. “Is your father here?” my Dad sarcastically inquired. There was a pause. She glanced nervously behind her. “He’s busy in the back. Can I help you?” To the rear of the building, hiding underneath an endlessly rotating line of hanging garments, my father spied two legs. “I know you’re back there, Delsandro!” He shouted. The man’s legs were frozen. My father feigned a smile to the young teenager and spoke over her shoulder. “Please, tell your father when he is no longer busy that he needs to call me. I am now missing FIVE shirts!” My heart nearly exploded in my chest. How the heck was he missing five shirts?  I had only swiped two.

Terrified that I would held responsible for all the missing shirts or would be implicated in the death of Mr Delsandro as my Dad stuffed him into an industrial dryer, I confessed to my mother that we had been stealing my father’s clothes. When she stopped laughing, she chastised me and my brothers ( who were not happy that I ratted them out ) for creating such tension for my father. She explained that he had been an only child and was very meticulous about his things. She told us each to wash and fold our laundry – the Catholic equivalent of five “Hail Marys” and three “Our Fathers”.  Once again engaging her Solomon-like wisdom. my mother “miraculously” discovered the five missing shirts.  She promptly took us clothes shopping and agreed to one weekly wash of clothes – if we consented to fold and iron our own laundry.

My father’s supply of undergarments and dress shirts returned to normal inventories. However, he still suspected that he was being insulated from the truth.  After years of broken buttons, misplaced garments and too much starch, my Dad could never bring himself to apologize to the dry cleaner. However like Holmes and Moriarty or Batman and the Joker, these two men needed each other.  While he could have patronized any other cleaners, my Dad seemed to delight in this strange game of cat and mouse with his Delsandro.

Like all adolescent recidivists, we continued to ocasionally sneak his clothes in times of crisis and lethargy.  As we grew older and all wore similar sized clothes, we actually had the audacity to argue with him when he caught us that the clothes were actually ours.  Dad finally broke down and lifted his leg on his entire wardrobe by writing “DAD” in indelible ink on every sock, pair of underwear and shirt that he owned. For years, my youngest brother thought “DAD” was a competing brand with Haines.

It is now decades later and my clothes are disappearing at the hands of thankless sons who covet my socks, gym shorts and tee shirts. I can now sympathize with the man who I initially wrote off as selfish and unreasonable. After chastising my oldest boy for stealing my shorts, he retorted, “they look a lot better on me than they do on you.”  Like the endless line of garments moving methodically around the dry cleaners rack, life was repeating itself.

It’s just like the man said, “What goes around, indeed, does come around again.”

East Meets West

Two people on the shore of the Pacific Ocean
Image via Wikipedia

No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell. — Jewish Proverb

As a native Californian, I return to the Golden State each summer in an effort to imprint into my children’s psyches the wonders and weirdness of the West Coast. Each of my kids entered this world through a California pediatric ward looking glass but they are now Easterners – – preferring a lacrosse stick to a hiking staff and already developing that type-A need for constant motion and engagement.

We have worked to raise them in a household that is accented with the images and soft impressions of our native state.  I am the cultural attaché of the family, routinely using terms such as “dude” to address any member of our clan – including the dog.  I wear shorts in 20 degree weather. I am never too far from a baseball cap and flip flops.

It is important that my children remain in touch with their west coast roots. I fear that one day Los Angelinos may ascribe an unkind epithet to anyone who was born in California but cannot speak her language.   To truly grasp California ethos is to gain an appreciation for the muddied genealogy of a melting pot culture.  California is an alien nation and a bridge to a land of diametric contradictions.  It is venal and selfless.  It is a Garden of Eden with 14,000 foot peaks and rugged coastline and it is a corrupted paradise. It’s prime dialects are surfer, gangster, vegan and wannabe.  To be Californian is to embrace the narcissistic, the liberated, the tough, the organic and the cosmetically insane. The state seeps into every pore of your being.  You love it and hate it. To reside in California is the romantic equivalent of being married to a beautiful but highly unstable person.  You cannot possibly live with them but you are convinced to your tan lines that you could never leave them.

My efforts to keep some redeeming aspect of California alive in my Connecticut home are failing.  My visions of raising rabid, bi-coastal body surfers who could run with the bulls in New York while rappelling down mountain sides to catch, clean and eat their own trout have been derailed by a humid, temperamental geography of urbane, aggressive over achievers illuminated by bright, big city lights and a backdrop of militant New England individualism.

Our trips out West are always carefully planned to include a week at the beach visiting relatives followed by a week in the mountains to “get back to our roots”.  The beach is the quickest place for a native Californian to identify out of state interlopers.  Fortunately, for the us, most beach front residents are too mellow or too stoned to notice when a non-Californian violates beach etiquette.

My children pay no heed to my coaching. They race blindly across the beach front strand like it is 43rd and Madison – – inviting glares from scantily clad underwear models riding bikes up and down the fashion show thoroughfare.  The boys preoccupation with throwing a lacrosse ball, building sand castles, and attempting to boogie board four foot, neck snapping shore breaker waves – – are certain tells that they are from all parts East.  The surfers seem oblivious, vacuously watching for the next set of waves – wet suits peeled to their waists. They peer off into a deep blue distance — bleached, bare-chested sand pipers with calloused hands tucked under crossed arms.

Visiting the Pacific Ocean is only a prelude to our annual attempts to harmonically reunite east and west within our children. We share a deep affinity for the Sierra Nevada range – a crooked eastern spine of rigid ancient fissures that stretch 400 miles to the Cascades and south to the arid Tehachapi Pass.  Within this Range of Light, one can find the “tallest and oldest trees, deepest canyons, highest mountains and waterfalls and greatest snow depth in the contiguous US.”  As children, we spent summers deep in these conifer forests far from the light and pollution of Los Angeles learning how to camp, be self sufficient and to gain an appreciation for a sky filled with a celestial collision of stars, meteors and constellations.

As we attempt to bestow this California wilderness gift on our children, we are met with resistance. Our “perfect day” is considered a cruel, modern version of the Bataan Death March as we hike up 9,000 foot trails crossing great lupine and paint brushed meadows to eventually rest and fish alongside serene mountain lakes

On this particular mountain vacation, my teenaged Taliban have already attempted several insurrections and have filed a list of conditions around length of hikes, amount of exercise, and when one must rise in the morning.  Adhering to the Jack Bauer axiom that “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” I find myself playing the timeless “because it is my house, my car and I own your rear end until eighteen” card.  This is the parental nuclear option. While it is always guaranteed to extinguish any insurrection it often leaves the ground emotionally radioactive for some period of time..

10:00am – We have left Los Angeles to begin the six hour drive up to Mammoth Lakes. . We stop at a local juice bar to breakfast on healthy smoothies that include green tea extract, bee pollen and other “boosts” that can only be understood by a nutritional alchemist.  In a moment of great euphoria I order wheat grass shots for the entire family.  My youngest son looks closely at the watery green solution that resembles animal bile and declares, “I’m not drinking that!” I persuade him that this family journey can only be christened with a double shot of wheat grass.  “It’s like eating four pounds of vegetables” I exclaim.  This comment seems to have the opposite effect on him as he swigs the potion and immediately makes a face similar to the one he might make when he cleans the cat’s litter box.

11:30am – My youngest son has just vomited up his wheat grass, blueberry smoothie and morning bagel all over the inside of the front seat.  My older children are screaming and squeezing to the opposite side of the car. I have to admit, he warned me. After advising us that he did not feel well, he proceeded to purge his liquid breakfast with the same vigor of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”.  The family trip is clearly not proceeding as planned.

Our route will take us through an over-built, foreclosed and now less populated Antelope Valley where super commuters still navigate two savage hours of traffic each way, each day to a job near downtown or West LA.  Just when it seems as if Highway 14 has you permanently in its suburban grasp, it releases you into a desolate stretch of never-ending horizon line known as the Mojave Desert.   My spouse and I take turns enthusiastically narrating a fifty miles stretch of box canyons, ancient burned out volcanic cinder cones and historical landmarks. My teens are unusually attentive to our travel narrative until we realize that they are all connected to iPods and have not heard a single word that we have said.

We arrive to cloudless sapphire blue skies and a brisk west to east clipper that blows determined down each afternoon from the high mountain passes.  After a first day hike into a beautiful but mosquito infested lake, the children spend the evening connecting via text and iChat presumably to complain that they are being held against their will in this prehistoric granite citadel. I overhear hushed tone expressions like “OMG – I am hiking with Satan” and “I cannot move, I am so sore…”  I smile and move to the sofa to read.

After declaring a moratorium on electronics, we spend the remainder of the week mountain biking, hiking, fishing and working out. The complaints dwindle and the family reforms each evening – – laughing, playing board games and heckling one another during low stakes Texas Hold ‘Em.  At one point, I actually see all three teens having a conversation.

To distract them from rehashing their list of hiking grievances – – the altitude, the distance, the bugs, the grade of the trail etc, we play a trivia game where they might earn credits that could be traded later for dessert, kitchen patrol exemptions and poker chips.  As we switchback our way upwards towards a hidden lake, I ask them questions ranging from world history and pop music to California factoids. The boys are hopelessly competitive and are quick to blurt out random answers to any question.  I start with any easy question that was drummed into the oldest two when they were living in England.  “Who discovered King Tut’s tomb?” Before anyone can say “Howard Carter”, my youngest son who has no recollection of living in the UK blurts out,” Brendan Frazer”.  My daughter laughs out loud. ” You idiot, he was the star of the movie, The Mummy!“

“What was Ghandi’s first name?.” My oldest daughter cringes and says, “Oh, I know this.” My oldest tson blurts out, “Jeff!” I look at him and smile. “Jeff Ghandi?”  I shake my head, “I weep for the future of this country.”  He smiles a wider grin and asks, “Was that his name?  Did I get it right?”

I ask a geography question. “Where is the Caspian Sea”. My youngests blurts out, “Narnia.” Our laughter permeates the trail. They barely notice that we have climbed to over 10,000 feet.   We crest a forested ridge and gaze down over a tear drop emerald lake surrounded by a massive 14,000 foot granite crest. The secluded lake is buffeted by lodge pole, conifer and blue spruce pines that are only interrupted by stands of sequined summer aspen.

We drop our packs and dive into the lake.  Screams echo across the silent cliffs as we shriek from the shock of the cold water.  I purify some drinking water from a stream and sit back with my reading book as the great heaving sweep of afternoon wind brushes across the water in a wrinkled sequined shimmer.  I glance over to see each kid reading a book or softly casting a rooster tailed, Mepps lure into a dark slate canyon of water that drops precipitously from our shallow rock-shelved shore.

“Dude”, my youngest says to his older brother.  “This place is wicked.” My eldest son is more non committal to public displays of enthusiasm.  He glances across the stream that feeds this midnight blue expanse of water, alert to the day’s first hiker – a pony tailed young man accompanied by magnificent Samoyed husky. “Yep, it’s sick. You know when I am older I am going to have four dogs” My wife smiles and I glance up at my daughter who is perched like a pika on a rocky outcrop.  She is normally most likely to be offended by any overt show of family solidarity. Yet, today, she looks up at me and smiles sardonically.  “Good choice – – dude.”

Ah yes, the Nutmeg State is doing a little Golden State.  East is finally merging with West and as they say on the strand, “it’s all good.”

Why Blotter?

A senior police officer of the Hamburg police ...
Image via Wikipedia

“Love and scandal are the great sweeteners of tea.” Henry Fielding

I realize there is a thin line of misfortune that separates pariahs and personalities. This is particularly true for kids. Since minors have been proven to lack the neural transmitters and synapses to consistently exercise good judgment, it’s no wonder that teens find their way into print each week. Personally, I am very empathetic when this happens to a kid as I committed, contemplated, attempted, or chickened out of many of the same offenses that occasionally befall today’s teens.

In another place and time, I or one of my three brothers would have been weekly features in the recidivist roll call in the San Marino Tribune. The paper might have read: “A minor was cited for reckless driving when he lost control of a Ford Granada, striking a Mercedes with such force that it flipped on to the front lawn of a Virginia Road resident. A 14 year old minor was apprehended after attempting to jump off the roof of a Roanoke Road home on his bicycle. Two minors were arrested for detonating quarter sticks of dynamite in the scorer’s shack at Valentine Field. Three youths were arrested for trespassing on a vacant construction lot and for destruction of public property for attempting to operate an idle backhoe.“

It was impossible for my mother to conduct damage control when the phone trees of gossips were lit up with our latest transgressions. We were the topic du jour in a petty parliament of night owls eager for news of someone’s demise. I can only imagine how stressed out she would have been if the local paper tattooed the scarlet letter on our adolescent foreheads by blotting us – names or no names. She understood her responsibilities in raising her boys and recognized that it took a village to keep them out of trouble. She just did not think it should include the village newspaper.

My parents had no problem with shaming, grounding, weeding, spanking and other medieval forms of punishment. However, I am sure my mother would have drawn the line at having our miscues published like a Little League write up. While she had an instinct for delinquent DNA, she also believed that there were no “bad kids”, only “bad choices”. She felt any kid deserved a chance to recover from any mistake and that small town reputations were more difficult to recover than money invested in Florida swampland. Time, maturity, compassion and consequences tended to straighten a crooked back better than any public humiliation.

I often wonder if a creative kid wrote up the police blotter what they might list as a week’s worth of noteworthy felonies and misdemeanors:

A 45 year old Bonus Ridge resident has not been charged but is under investigation for his role in packaging subprime securities, exploiting inaccurate S&P agency credit ratings and financially benefiting from the sale of these instruments to institutional customers. Authorities believe the man was part of a unit that originated predatory sub-prime loans to uninformed consumers – – consumers who were almost certain to default on loans after teaser rates reset. “From where I sit, it may not have been illegal,” stated a high school senior, “but it was ethically and morally wrong.”

A local politician was recently the subject of a citizen’s arrest for portraying himself as a “blue dog moderate” while voting for legislation that will dangerously increase the US public debt to over $ 12T dollars in 2011. The arrest was conducted by five 16 year-old-teens attending a local town hall meeting where the representative refused to directly answer any questions about his voting record or the accumulating public debt. One teen was quoted as saying, “I feel like I am going to have to pay for a wild party that I never even got to go to.”

A 49 year old Cuckoo Street woman was arrested for reckless driving after she drove her BMW into a local pond. The driver was apparently on her cell phone – admonishing her teenaged daughter for texting and cell phone usage – when she hit a flock of Canadian geese and skidded into the west side of the pond.

58 adults were cited for “Serial Hypocrisy” in separate incidents last week. As part of “I Will Do As I Say Week”, parents were given “poor citizenship” citations – the proceeds of which will go to finance local education budgets. Police Officer Walker Talk commented, “It’s great to see kids calling adults out on their own inconsistent behavior.” 78% of the misdemeanor citations were attributable to disruptive behavior, lying, being under the influence of prescription drugs while lecturing teens, duplicity and researching old flames on the internet.

A 37 year old Narcissus Lane man was found guilty of threatening another adult during a Little League game. The incident which took place at during a local tee-ball game, involved a parent verbally abusing his son’s volunteer coach for failing to put his seven year old in to play shortstop. The  coach was bewildered, “At one point, (the accused) told me to ‘put his kid at short or he would take home all the after game snacks. That’s when I called the cops. I mean, the whole team started to cry.“

Alas, it does seem that none of us are perfect.  Some just seem to get caught. Ironically, failure and misfortune are stepping stones for some to find humility and wisdom. A kid who does not fail may carry a higher probability for later in life “crash and burn” incidents because they never learned how to stumble and pick themselves up. As we sadly often see, adult mistakes can be much more devastating than any committed by a hormone impaired teen trying to find their own path into adulthood.

I am all for consequences but let them be private and focused on humility and not humiliation. Many of these same clueless adolescents will end up shouldering our burdens – propping our pillows, paying our deficits, funding our social security and trying to keep our country on a path that will not ultimately result in our relegation to second class economic status. When deconstructed most adolescent transgressions are really sins of omission and not commission –failure to think, failure to understand consequences, failure to recognize that one’s own best thinking is highly flawed.

I’d prefer we did not mix the errors of adults and kids. I guess if we must continue to include nameless minor offenders in a long, predictable line of stupidity, let’s print their miscues under a separate dishonor roll entitled: “What Were You Thinking?” I vote we keep our kids out of the newspaper until we have something nice to say. Self esteem remains for many kids a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we spend enough time cultivating a positive image in every kid – even those who commit bonehead mistakes, it’s bound to make a difference.

Now that, my friends, would be news.

To The Class of 2010

The first appearance of the concept of the &qu...
Image via Wikipedia

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.  ~Edmund Hillary

Gang, you picked one heck of a year to be released into the wild – – and I do not mean your first frat or sorority party.  I’m talking about a hot, flat and crowded world that suffers from serial hubris and an inability to learn from history.    In the past year, we have seen many people at their worst and best. You eventually learn that everyone is imperfect – except the Dave Matthews Band.  It’s hard to believe, but in time, your parents will actually get smarter as you receive higher education.  It sounds counterintuitive but trust me.

We are all souls moving along a human continuum that is at one end, anchored by ignorance, self worship and tanning salons and on the other side, is love and humility.  Think “Snookie” from “Jersey Shore” at one extreme and Mother Theresa on the other.  We each rise and fall along this silk thread called life. It is impossible to be young and not suffer from self obsession, especially when you have a pimple.  Many of the mistakes we make, we commit out of self centered fear – – fear of rejection, fear of not getting what we believe we need, fear of fear, fear of not having at least 3 gigs on our cell phone or personal computer.  The “Fear List” goes on and on and is normally released once a year by the same people who make the Farmer’s Almanac.

We learned in school about people who have dedicated their lives to leaving the world a better place than when they found it.  We found out that conceit and fear have destroyed entire civilizations.  Sadly, most of us give up wanting to be President (some of you will eliminate your chances for public office at your first college party). As we grow older and slow from the weight of responsibilities, material pursuit and Krispy Kreme donuts, we lose our ambition to change the world. Churchill once said, “If you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart.  If you are not conservative when you are old, you have no head.” Right now, it’s all about heart. Later, it will be about heartburn.

This is your time to indulge all of life’s possibilities and remember that the only doors that are shut to you in life are the one’s you choose to close by your actions or inaction. The French have a term, “raison d’etri”- – translated it simply means: “reason to exist.” What will be your reason to exist?  As you head into higher education, gap years, travel, jobs or a period of life exploration, never lose sight that everyone comes off the same spiritual assembly line.  We all hail from the same maker – – some of us just choose to become higher performance vehicles, while others succumb to their own self imposed limitations. A few crash and need some time in the shop.

In the last 12 months, you have witnessed a year of firsts – – a new President, landmark legislation attempting to fundamentally change our healthcare and financial systems, record unemployment, environmental disaster, unprecedented human suffering and the acoustic shadows of improvised explosive devices killing American soldiers half way around the world.  Amidst this chaotic age of hope, blight and frailty, your lights are shining like head lamps of climbers in a dark storm.  Each of you is a candle in the dark – a catalyst for change where ever you go.  You do not have to travel to the edges of Darfur to find the marginalized, the underserved, the hopeless and the inhumane – you can actually do this by visiting Congress.

You just have to get out of your self interest long enough to notice need and chances to be of service.  It’s like the movie “The Matrix”.  Self interest is the blue pill.  You can take it and continue to move along life’s path insulated from the ugly truths that lurk on the edges of our lives or you take the red pill, descend down the rabbit hole and see where it takes you.

You always have choices although sometimes, the only thing you can change is your attitude.  Feeling sorry for oneself is one of the more overrated indulgences in life. It’s a waste of time.  A Czech Holocaust survivor, Sir Frank Lempl, tells a story about his procuring an extra pair of shoes at Auschwitz and having to decide which of his two closest friends (both shoeless and suffering) would receive them.  The shoes meant life as winter meant long hours of work in the snow, frost bite and eventual death in the gas chambers when one could no longer walk.  Lempl stared deep into his soul, made his decision and saved the life of one friend and could not prevent the death of another. He called it his “Shoe Decision.” In relating this story to a friend, he shared that most decisions in life “are not shoe decisions ‘.  Pray for guidance.  Try to ensure that your choice is not made out of self interest but human interest, and then get on with living.  To Sir Frank Lempl, there is no place for regret or feeling sorry for oneself.  Pick yourself up, make your amends and get on with life.  It is worth noting that Sir Frank came to London penniless when he was 50 years old and founded one of the largest construction companies in the world, Bovis-Lend Lease.

Your best lessons will come in the form of pain – – physical, emotional, intellectual and psychic.  These moments of clarity are difficult and at the times, you will not see the forest for the trees to realize you are getting exactly what you need (BTW, this will always be different than what you wanted).  There will be days when it seems like the entire cosmos has turned its back on you.  Remember that you are only given what you can handle and strife is the ultimate compliment from a God who has a wicked curveball and a highly evolved sense of humor.  Your essence of being a person, along with gray hairs – will emerge from these trials.  You will discover a lot about yourself and others – who your real friends are and who were only hanging around for the free food.

To learn to forgive is like learning how to eat right, you will never regret it.  Resentment is junk food – it only creates emotional fat and has no value.  I have to admit vindictiveness tastes good but it ends up giving you reflux – (ask your dad what that is). Pray for your enemies. Praying that the idiot who bugs you gets whatever they need is hard.  Understand though, that by forgiving, you take away people’s power over you.  It is true.  Trust me.  I tried it once and it worked! It’s hard to do – sort of like learning to juggle or riding a unicycle.  However, once you get the hang of it, you suddenly realize that no one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.

Whatever you have done up to this point, it does not really matter.  That’s bad news for the social X-rays and drama queens but great news for those of you who remain undiscovered or ended up in the police blotter.  You are all equal sized tadpoles and will now be swimming in a bigger ocean.  Sorry to break the news to you amphibians but we are all here but for a brief period of time so make the most out of it.  Dance with your hands outside the safety zone.  Risk rejection knowing that somewhere out there, someone beyond your wildest expectations is waiting to be your partner – you just may have to travel through Slovenia to meet them.

Do not get depressed about the way you find the world.  Your job is to change it and our job is to try to stay out of your way while you pull down some of our grand monuments to self interest.  Don’t blindly accept a two party system. Crank the music but invite your neighbors to the party so they do not call the police.  Write thank you notes.  Do something nice for someone every day but do not tell a soul – – it is the ultimate overture of selfless service.  The good news is the most important person – you – will know what you did and 365 acts of kindness later, you will be changed for the better.

The people who seem so important today may not even show up to your 30 year reunion because high school was their life’s high water mark.  Other less visible classmates that did not appear to have it going on will end up doing some very interesting things. Some do not ever return so cherish your time together. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, you may not like the answer.

Above all, enjoy these years where your bodies are strong, your ambitions are boundless and your belief that anything is possible is amplified in every cocky little thing you do. Just remember humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is simply thinking of yourself less of the time. It is also occasionally taking out the trash without being asked.

Go get ‘em.  Breathe deep and scream at the top of your lungs.  Never give a ride to a hitchhiker with a prosthetic hook. Don’t party too hard – all you are doing is medicating your ability to live life. Hendrix, The Doors and Dave sound just as good without losing control and you are much more likely to sing on key. Try to change your bed sheets at least once a semester and remember not to mix colored and white clothes in the laundry. Exercise regularly – – the “Freshman Twenty” is real!( ask your mom). And yes, according to Dr Fessler DDS, you still must floss.

Vaya Con Dios!

On The Street Where You Live

Charlie Brown kisses the Little Red-Haired Girl.
Image via Wikipedia

On The Street Where You Live

I have often walked down this street before;

But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.

All at once am I, several stories high.

Knowing I’m on the street where you live.

Are there lilac trees in the heart of town?

Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?

Does enchantment pour out of ev’ry door?

No, it’s just on the street where you live!

And oh! The towering feeling

Just to know somehow you are near.

The overpowering feeling

That any second you may suddenly appear!

People stop and stare. They don’t bother me.

For there’s no where else on earth that I would rather be.

Let the time go by, I won’t care if I

Can be here on the street where you live.

Lerner and Lowe, My Fair Lady

Autumn leaves.  Cool, misty evenings under ethereal Friday-night lights. It is a consuming, timeless soap opera whose episodes may never be forgotten by its actors. Adolescence is a four-season sport and rose-colored romance is in full October bloom.  It begins in September with new faces and the slow, steady march toward maturity.  A sudden annual collision with the opposite sex brings conflicting signals, fleeting hookups, unrequited crushes and heart wrenching breakups.  It is a time of football stand cheers and under the bleachers tears. A three-symbol text message can be a weapon of mass destruction or a winning lottery ticket.

The first crush has been finally given a clinical designation by the pharmaceutical industry – HATO1 (Heart Ache, Total Obsession number 1). HATO1 has been confirmed by the Center for Disease Control to be more virulent and permanently damaging than its highly communicable cousin H1N1.  The delirium alone can linger longer and its effects may be felt over an entire lifetime.

Yet, the age of the Internet and cellular phones has spawned a virtual form of romance that has reduced the art of puppy love.  We have faded from adolescent courtship – – the mood music of a thousand notes passed in class, and a proxy courtship where vicarious messengers and best friends confirmed the terms of your first steady relationship.  Romance is now a massive roving gang of polygamous boys and girls speaking in text, sound bites and cyber encounters that are mistaken for substantive interactions.  Kids believe they are “going out” with someone simply based upon how many hours they have logged speaking on Ichat.  It is now possible to date and actually never see your beloved’s lower torso.

Some time ago, one of my children came into dinner and declared to the family that he was now going out with “Girlfriend 1”.  We asked him when this all came about.

“We were Ichatting,” he said cockily.

We spent the next half hour teasing him and theorizing on where his new relationship might go.  He might actually have to see her – in person.  A half an hour later, he came back into the kitchen and declared they had broken up.  “What happened,” I asked.  “Things got too complicated. We’re both ok with it. ” I laughed and asked him which of them was getting the dog.  He gave me his classic “ you are an odd man” leer and left the room.

From the premature age of nine, I was dazzled with girls.  Having watched way too many old movies, I was consumed with the idea of having a larger than life, epic romance.  But as is often the cruel fate of nature and the Gods, I was not proportioned correctly, wore hand me down clothes that did not fit (they were too tight) and had the head the size of a pumpkin. I was Charlie Brown perpetually courting the “little red-haired girl.” Like the animated anti-hero, my heart was also oversized.  My inability to attract the opposite sex – except for an equally corpulent buck toothed girl named Martha –did not deter me from playing Cyrano to many of my more swarthy friends – advising them in the nuances of romance.

I offered tips on how to avoid such relationship killers as pregnant telephone pauses (always make notes of everything you want to say). I counseled on how to avoid being labeled a poor kisser (I had never kissed anyone myself but endorsed the use of Spearmint Binaca).  I picked out a cheap jeweler where one could purchase a talisman of affection (always have your St Christopher medallion and chain ready to give her as a token of going steady). I shared verbatim my brother’s strategy of feigned indifference – -always walk by her class looking straight ahead.  It makes you look like you can take her or leave her, and always observe the 48-hour rule of not calling back after a successful call. Having watched two savvy older brothers navigate the treacherous straits of romance, I dreamed of becoming the greatest mariner d’ amour yet.  Now, if only I had a boat and could find some water.

Each back to school September I would fall in love with the new girl who just moved to town.  Perhaps, this new recruit would see beyond my XXL hat size, cement calves and famine immune figure. Perhaps, I was a born too late. In Medieval times, girls would have chased me as only a scion of a family fortune would be prosperous enough to possess his own love handles.  The thin were not in.

In days before they clinically defined my actions as “stalking ” and my crush as an”obsession”, I would lather up with my father’s Hai Karate or English Lavender cologne and mount my trusty ten speed to ride up and down my love’s street, hoping to see and be seen. In retrospect, I am quite certain that inside their new home, between boxes and echoing chaos, an amused mother was peering out of a drape-less window, ” Holly, who is that boy outside that keeps riding his bike in front of our house? ” A magnificent 10-year-old brunette girl with waist length ponytails – a Cindy Crawford in waiting, would glance outside. “Oh, that’s some boy in my class. He must live nearby.”

An irritated father enters the rug-less living room lugging a box of books and glances out the window. ” Who’s the fat kid.”? His wife punches him in the ribs and he winces.

” It’s cute, Tim.  Holly already has an admirer.”

That entire exchange was pretty much the kiss of death.  Once parents acknowledged you favorably, you were toast. I was the super polite kid that the moms always thought was “cute” but the girls clearly saw as “endorsed” which removed any forbidden fruit allure.  Girls liked the rogues and boys who were so distracted by sports and activities that they did not even notice they were involved with the girl. Years ago when my daughter declared she was ” going out” with a boy.  I asked, “Does he know it?”

I was persistent and would find ways to be in the neighborhood. I just wanted to catch a glimpse of her long brown hair, see her smile and hear her funny laugh. At school she would not look at me and was always protected by a gauntlet of giggling, acerbic girls. It was agony – this crush – a thick lump of aching coal glowing in my chest day and night. Invariably, l would abandon every one of my own rules and frighten the poor girl into the arms of a more indifferent boy.

Later in high school, nature and genetics would thankfully stretch me and re-contour me into a baseball and basketball player.  Yet, in a strange way, I never wanted to forget that chubby lothario on his bike – doing figure eight turns, hoping to catch a glimpse of his girl.  You can never really forget it for somehow it’s memory makes you feel more alive.

It’s a Thursday night and I am now picking up my son from football.  He suggests I drive home along an unfamiliar route. He is mute – a virtual CIA agent – offering very little information on why I need to take this circuitous route home. “ Just do it, dad,” he hisses.  I comply knowing something is up.  “Ok, slow down,,” he demands absentmindedly from the passenger seat.  We cruise silently by a large house – windows illuminated and people moving across a dining room clearing dishes.  He takes out his cell phone and text messages with the speed of a court stenographer.“

It’s dark and wet.  Mustard and sienna stained leaves litter the edges of the rural road. The boy looks up and glances one more time toward the friendly colonial lit up like a jack-o-lantern. For a moment, I spy the silhouette of a young girl at the window.

“Ok, let’s go.”

“ What was that all about? “ I ask.

“ Nothin’.  Let’s get home.”

I suddenly recall that ancient ache and realize this must be the street where she lives.

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).

The Summer of Staycation

By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacation less class. ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

2009 has been coined the summer of the “stay-cation” – a socio-economic shift wherein families remove the pearls of multiple vacation destinations and string a more frugal necklace of “econo-tivities” and close to home travel. In these uncertain times, many will reacquaint themselves with the simpler things in life – a club that one has joined but never has actually visited, a body of water that rests patiently within miles of their home or perhaps a return to a childhood vacation community where one expended the last gasps of a memorable adolescent summer.

In lieu of ladling additional debt on top of a chiiped beef breakfast of broken balance sheets, fractured assets and wobbly economic prospects, many families are rediscovering the joy of road-side motels, derelict cabins and beach houses with porches packed with a generation of sunburned sardines in sleeping bags. The stay-cation is a blessing for a society of spend now, worry-later Americans. Summers have evolved into chaotic ballets of vacation trips, sleep away camps, and travel sports only interrupted by the occasional few days home where we shake our heads at the carefully planted vegetable garden now rotting from neglect.

We patronize these less elaborate holiday trips as a sort of temporary inconvenience to be endured during hard times. The American dream includes improving on every aspect of the generation that preceded it. Yet, I wonder if the high voltage, sugar rush uber holiday has ultimately less long term spiritual nutritional value than the simple staycation. The truth is the staycation is an echo of a simpler time when families scrimped, saved and ultimately crowned, what mother’s considered an interminable three month heat wave of thankless servitude with one grand, end of August two week hiatus to a body of fresh or salt water.

It was in the long shadows of these bronzed final days of freedom, that many of us found a first kiss, a first vice or heard our first adolescent urban legend. It was sitting next to an outdoor firepit with toes buried deep in cool sand that we discovered our parents were once children and that our sibling was actually,  kind of funny. Like desert reptiles, sun engulfed us – burning, peeling and freckling our skin while emmersing us in a fortnight of sand granules that relentlessly found their way into every inconvenient orifice via one’s bed, ears, food and undershorts.

Those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s know that summer is a narrow window to form even the tiniest callous on the hands of a soft suburban adolescent. Its ingredients included a seven hour family road trip in an overstuffed station wagon that looked like it was the get-away car from a convenience store robbery. It meant being wedged between packing cartons filled with an assortment of cardiovascular disease agents – white bread, Jif peanut butter, eggs, bacon, margarine, and Crisco vegetable shortening ( lard) to fry chicken. These vehicles were not travelling entertainment systems but lairs of carsickness, internecine warfare and misery. In these pits of dispair, one could just as easily get hit by the driver or a passenger seated next to you, as you could be slammed by another car.

The drive to reach your August destination was mere mood music for the main event – a broken down beach house with one toilet, an outside shower and futon beds for anyone under the age of 18. The vacation supplies included canvas blow up rafts that within the week would literally sandpaper the nipples right off your body. There were stiff fins meant for WWII Navy seals that would give you blisters across the tops of your toes after three strokes. There was a cooler – a monstrosity of a device weighing more than any family member except your father. Each year, it would be filled with ice and miraculously lugged two miles down to the beach like those large stone faced edifices on Easter Island. No one truly remembers how all the equipment was transported to the beach as the entire  walk was a sort of Bataan Death march where only under hypnosis could one possibly reconstruct the actual events.

The beach abode that looked so charming in the Polaroids turned out to be the unholy offspring of a Richard Scarry bunny house and Fawlty Towers. You would innocently open a door and be met by screams and curse words from an octagenarian who had been left behind by the family that occupied the hose before you.  The dresser drawers of ancient flea market furniture, were lined with curled floral paper that clung to the wood only at the location of a dark undiscernable stain. The tap water tasted as if it had been distilled through an old sock. Rarely was laundry placed neatly in a drawer. It was recklessly and delightfully thrown into a corner where it grew and growled over the course of a two week stay until it would be domesticated in a large canvas bag. Laundry Day was the equivalent to the Allstar break in baseball, a sort of hygenic timeout and initial light at the end of the tunnel for my mother. On this day, we would haul dirty clothes to a local laundromat where we would spend an exhilarating morning washing, drying, and folding while spying on damaged bachelors, aging debuttantes and lonely hearts as they showcased their unfulfilled lives and their undergarments on adjacent tables.

These 70’s trips were vacation for everyone except mothers. Moms were still trapped in that seam between female liberation and indentured servitude. There were rumors of vacations at hotels with maid service and spacious condominiums where children were sequestered in separate rooms like typhoid patients. However, most figured these were just exaggerations started by other female prisoners of domesticity to keep up morale. It would take my mother weeks to recover from these trips. Whether it was the toilet that had not been flushed since the Eisenhower administration, an indelible marker slash that looked as if it had been left by Zorro or the blood trail across the living room floor, this was not going to be the year that we would honor any of her house rules or get our security deposit refunded.

Yet, it was on these summer journeys that we learned how to crew our family ship. We awoke to days of bright, blinding blue skies and the anxious riffle of curtains as they would gust in the breezes of a new morning. We fell asleep to a sensation of constant motion having spent an entire day in the water – our dreams bracketed by the relentless pounding of midnight waves rising and falling below a gently sloped dune. We did not see these trips as a step down from anything. The vacations primary purpose was not to entertain us – – but to keep us together as a unit, expanding our understanding of one another – exchanging insights and mythology that only surfaced from that strange sodium pentathol brew of salt water, fresh air, adventure and fatigue.

It was not quite a complete summer trip unless we rediscovered the utter chaos of an Emergency Room trying to negotiate with a hospital administrator whom my father suggested had “the world’s smallest brain”, My mother quickly understood they also possessed a black belt in the nuances of the word “no”.

“Will my son’s broken wrist be covered by my policy?”

“No ma’am. We need your credit card”.

“Do you accept insurance?”

“No ma’am”

“Well then can you at least talk to someone from my husband’s human resources department about how his insurance pays direct reimbursement?”.

“Maam, I am not authorized to accept insurance. Our insurance person is at lunch. I have been told not to talk to other people.”

“I’m a person.”

“You are a payer.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Maam, I can only answer questions about this hospital’s policy as it relates to the costs of your son’s broken wrist.”

“What if I plunge this pencil into your eye socket? Do you think you can see me better – you know, as a person? “

While to some coddled kiddies and cocooned communities, this primitive form of holiday is a sign of the impending apocalypse, for a generation who grew up without seat belts, stuck in a purgatory of long, air conditionless station wagon road trips, it’s a return to the halcyon days of youth. It remains to be seen whether the staycation is merely a solid patch on an otherwise slippery, material slope or whether it is the first sign of spring in society’s discontented winter search for liberation from its never ending need for affluent diversion.

In the end, perhaps it is a second chance to discover that less is more – – and that the best things in life still remain free.

Except, of course, a broken wrist.

What Were You Thinking ?

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

What Were You Thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of the Promenade

A typical gathering, with boys in tuxedos, and...
Image via Wikipedia

 

Telling a teenager the facts of life is like giving a fish a bath.  ~Arnold H. Glasow

It is a night unlike any other in America.  It is twelve hours of paradox with one generation holding a candlelight vigil terrified by the combustible fusion of immaturity and immortality.   Off in the distance another generation dives headlong into a mosh pit of tuxedoed kings and gowned queens eager to erase eighteen years of privation.  It is prom night. 

Prom is a seminal life event for most American teens.  For some, the memory of a prom is a private scar or missed opportunity.  For others, it is a wistful breeze of emotion that floats in on the scent of a gardenia.

Most academics contend the origin of the prom is British and relates simply to the concept of the promenade – a long parade of guests who would parallel into a ballroom or gathering area at the beginning of a social event.  Escorts and debutantes would arrive in six horse carriages, the 19th century equivalent of a stretch limo, to socialize and dance.  It was a patrician affair where one would exhibit their breeding, etiquette and possibly end the evening donning a Victorian lampshade for a few cheap laughs.   

Anthropologists dismiss Anglo claims of the United Kingdom as the epicenter of the prom.  Researchers have traced the actual first prom back to a period dating to the Pleistocene and the lower Paleolithic periods when the first members of the family of man walked the planet. The term “prom” was actually a collective noun used to describe a gathering of mixed gendered adolescent Homo erectus.  

Reconstructing these gatherings has proven difficult, as the teens seemed to gather in one place and then move unpredictably – usually to the leeward side of a granite outcrop or thicket of trees.  “We surmise” muses Timothy Pimthwaite of the London Anthropological Society, “that these proms of juvenile hominoids would gather, secrete some sort of pheromone which would in turn, arouse the group and attract more hominoids causing a frenzied series of interactions and mating behaviors.  Within minutes, the groups would move out of sight of the adult Cro-Magnons – as if hiding or experimenting with brief independence.  The youth would seek protective cover from prominent landmarks such as caves and thickets. A few industrious ones even climbed trees.  What they were doing has never been documented. 

It was in these thickets that one anthropologist encountered discarded hollowed out gourds which male researchers assumed were primitive cups that held some sort of nectar.  One female researcher, who also happened to be a mother of five teenagers, quickly surmised that these were in fact, the first Stone Age beer cans.

Researchers theorize that the formal pairing of adolescents to celebrate prom as “dates” was a relatively recent phenomena dating back to the 1890s when British men got tired of attending dances with other British men  — as no self respecting Victorian woman would actually be seen “ dancing”.  This was also the golden age of British pantomimes where male actors would dress up as women to entertain audiences with silly skits and stories.  Given that the Queen Victoria resembled a man made all of this same gender activity remarkably good form. 

However, it took a nudge from the continent to move the Brits off of same sex proms. The first co-ed prom took place in the Austro-Hungarian Alsace in 1914.  The teenage graduation party was a smashing success.  Unfortunately, many of the youths got drunk at a local Hofbrau house and in a fit of patriotic fervor, the boys and girls carried their party into neighboring France and occupied a French village for a week, escalating tensions between the Hungarian Empire and France.  A week later a Serbian shopkeeper whose windows had been broken in the post party melee, shot arch Duke Ferdinand, whose son was one of the lead-offending vandals, sparking WWI.  It seems even then, kids did not understand the consequences of their actions and adults ended up footing the bill.

The prom disappeared for a few years as most kids graduated and were immediately sent off to Flanders to fight.  For a few years, only girls and flat-footed, deaf men were attending proms.  In 1919, the prom entered its golden age as returning soldiers and high school sweethearts were reunited in church halls to give thanks for the end of the global conflict.  The prom became a dignified and respectful affair with ballroom dancing, fruit punch and prayer.  Other than the occasional Catholic sneaking into an Anglican church to spike the punch or bribe the bandleader to play “The Vatican Rag”, things moved rather smoothly into the early 20th century.

In the 20’s, the prom became immensely popular among elite colleges and finishing schools.  In industrial America, most teens bypassed higher education to work and as a result, the prom went private.  In the era of F Scott Fitzgerald and Jay Gatsby, tuxedos and fashionable gowns gained a foothold – transforming the tame Puritanical dance into a patrician orgy of celebration. It was during this decade that teens started to wear increasingly outrageous ensembles as a form of misguided self-expression.   This unfortunate period is now classified as the “ dark age of fashion “ and at its nadir, the purple tuxedo was born. 

Proms carried on.  There were triumphs and tragedies as generations gathered for a fraction of a lifetime – one night – and then went off to college, work, wars and distant hard lives that would carve deep lines in the faces of these young adults so full of life.  There were auto accidents and drug overdoses compelling parents to leave their homes and anxiety-ridden vigils and engage to help shape the evening’s festivities so that the teens might enjoy their rite of passage but make it safely home the next day. 

Fifty years later in the 70’s, there would be nostalgic revival of late 20’s fashion fiascos. In one instance, critics described a black polyester and chiffon gown as only fit for someone “dressing like a centerfold for Farmer’s Almanac Magazine” and abused another rhinestone ensemble as a “ truck stop fashion tragedy. “  Combining these sartorial train wrecks with mullet and feathered hairstyles hijacked the prom into a new territory.  It was no longer a tradition to be meticulously honored but a generational annual rite of self-expression.  

Certain accoutrements have resiliently survived the years of metamorphosis.  The fragrant corsage and the boutonniere known as the “man flower” remain important accessories even into the 21st century.  The prom is now a well-oiled machine where communities and parents organize to build safe environments where teens can roam and forge a personal album of memories.  Text messaging, cell phones, helicopter parenting and electronics have supplanted word of mouth, massive amplifiers, speakers and telephone trees of overly paranoid parents.

Yet time waits for no man.  Each prom, like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present has a life span of 12 hours. The early morning light enters somewhere off in the distance like a theatre cleaning crew reminding the actors and actresses that their passion play is concluding.  A young man sits exhausted as his date lays her head on his shoulder and falls asleep.  The smell of her perfumed hair and warmth of her breath on his neck stir a restless flutter that grows and seeks to express itself – – out of his body, out of his town and beyond his adolescence. 

There is a swirl of lights – a merry-go-round of time and motion.  The chrysalis breaks with the dawn and the butterflies are released into the wild. They float off into the morning mist – graceful and invincible.  Some may not return to this place.  Others will faithfully return like swallows every five years to remember.

Yes, it was the prom and it was their time.