Peter Pan and The Call of Duty

Peter Pan and The Call of Duty 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…)

Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

 

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind…. and another

His mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”…..Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are

 

We called it, “Animals in the Dark”.  In retrospect, it was a fitting name for a game that boys invented for the expressed purpose of rough-housing.  The rules were uncomplicated so even the least focused among us could instantly participate in the mayhem.  The goal was simple: survival.  One kid, usually a masochistic younger sibling, would draw the short straw to be blindfolded and turned lose into a pitch black room filled with bad intentions. 

The windows would be covered to achieve a perfect blackout.  The “animals” strained to adjust their eyes so they might be able to distinguish the defenseless, sightless victim as he wandered the room like Audrey Hepburn in Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark.  The animals were armed with make shift black jacks fashioned out of tube socks and pillows filled with underwear and knotted tee shirts.  Downstairs, an innocent Norman Rockwell scene unfolded with my Dad reading his newspaper, my mother baking a pie and a dog curled under the dining room table. But, all was not well……

 

My mother’s philosophy raising four boys was simple. There were no bad kids, only bad choices.  She understood the adolescent mind was a twisted topography of firebreaks and unconnected roads that often led to bad neighborhoods.  She also knew that adolescence was a protracted illness from which most would recover. She understood boys were physical forces of nature – wild things. Life was a succession of high and low pressure systems, constantly moving in and out of the geography of her boys creating dramatic and spectacular perfect storms of stupidity and achievement. When boys hit adolescence, their bodies started to wreak havoc – stretching, fighting, pulling and tugging.  Nothing seemed to properly fit a teenager and nothing could ever be fully articulated.  She understood that the body starved the brain, compensating for its exhausting Kafkaesque journey by conserving fuel for physical growth.  The brain would just have to catch up. Physiologically, this transformation caused teens to speak in a strange abbreviated dialect of “yups” and “nopes”. Boys became tribal animals learning the call of the wild and the unmistakable hierarchy of their pack.  They moved like herd animals in thick knots of baseball caps, shorts, athletic shoes and tunnel vision.  Life was whatever happened right in front of them. They had no peripheral vision.  They could hit a 20 foot jump shot but not seem to hit a toilet six inches in front of them.  They could remember the lyrics of a song or statistics of a third string running back but fail to remember to feed the dog or change their underwear.  Understanding the feral mind, my mom had a high tolerance for mischief and urged my father to develop a thicker skin to the slings and arrows of our outrageous behavior.  Boys will boys…

Max said ‘ Be Still” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all….and made him king of all wild things. ‘And now’ cried Max, ‘ let the wild rumpus start!”

The door creaked ever slightly. A blindfolded silhouette stood hesitating, unable to enter but incapable of resisting the siren’s call of abuse that was waiting motionless like a thousand trap-door spiders.  The room was a black hole from which nothing could escape.   Slipping in through the narrow crease of light, the shadow stopped again.  The door shut and for a moment, no one breathed.  Thwack !  A scream and laughter.  Thwack!  Thwack !   A cry for help and more sadistic laughter.  The game quickly disintegrated into a riot at an English football match.  The hooligans escalated their blind battle with screams, yelling and then a sudden crash of a glass.  The room went still.  Someone was moaning on the ground and a shaken voice whispered,

“dude, what was that?”  “ I think it was Mom’s lamp”  Downstairs, the thumping had aroused the dog who looked up to the ceiling and whimpered. My mother suddenly stopped kneading her pie dough and wiped her floured hands on her apron.  Her trouble sonar was already returning with pings of concern.. As she walked to the base of the stairs, she caught a glimpse of my father’s backside as he is roared up the stairs in rapid two step leaps.  His shoes pounded on the red tile floor creating the sensation of a brakeless truck barreling down an alleyway.  “Dad!” my brother hissed.  Even my friends had acquired a healthy fear of my father’s temper as he felt he had every parent’s proxy to discipline their children as his own.   At this moment, everyone rapidly sought sanctuary – under a bed, in the adjacent room or under a blanket.   The door burst open followed by a machine gun burst of expletives.  Even the injured victim with a rapidly closing left eye was crawling for safety.  The game was over. 

Fast forward.  It is Friday night, a particular moment in the week when wild things begin to stir.  On this night, I agreed to host thirteen of my son’s friends for a sleepover. The numerical omen of 13 was lost on me as I picked up several padded warriors from football practice.  On the way home, we stopped for gas and I agreed to buy them each a soft drink.  Five cans of 16 oz. Red Bulls suddenly appeared in my car.  It would be a very long night. Within a half hour, the group had swelled to a full pack. The family dog was in heaven as he instantly understood that this would be no ordinary night.  The animals loped uninhibited across the darkness of our property playing “manhunt” – the modern day equivalent to Animals in The Dark.  They descended on the dinner of pizza like rabid carnivores and proved once again that the toilet remains the most elusive target on earth.  The Red Bulls were kicking in about 11:30 as they adjourned to the basement – the basement that rests directly under our master bedroom.  For the next several hours the pack was in full motion with thumping, screams, laughter and the occasional angry shout of a wild thing who had ended up on the wrong side of a practical joke.  I repeatedly walked down to enforce curfew and each time, was neutered by my own nostalgia at the sight of the boys draped all over one another like pups in a carton – not the least bit self conscious that they were firmly in one another’s personal space. 

At 2am, I drew the line.  I pounded down the stairs and threw open the basement door.  Facing into the darkness, I hissed, “It’s 2am.  We can hear everything you guys are saying. SHUT UP and go to bed.”  For a moment, there was silence.  I stood triumphant the king of the wild things.  As I turned to close the door, someone passed wind.  A dozen fatigued giggles erupted from the ebony cave.  I turned away, utterly defeated but secretly smiling.  Whoever had control enough over their body to make that noise at that exact time would be forever memorialized in the pantheon of wild things. 

The next morning, as each wild thing was returned to his handler, we began to clean up and reconstruct our day.  My son who had slept a grand total of two hours, sat dazed, exhausted and triumphant, head leaning on his cocked arm as he slowly lifted a fork of pancakes to his mouth.  I looked at him and saw myself in that wolf suit, making mischief and cavorting on the island that I would one day leave to become an adult. Across all the years and over all the oceans of time, it was still the best to be a wild thing. 

“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye.  And he sailed back over a year….and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him…

 

And it was still hot.“

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mater Ex Machina – Mom in the Machine

magna-mater-1971

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

Our family gatherings are now reduced to weddings, funerals, anniversaries and medical crises.  On these rare occasions, we reconnect through story telling, usually at the expense of our father.  Each son arrives with his own mental shoe box full of stories, taken out and mischievously shared.  My Dad takes it well but at times, contests our version of the “Brussel Sprout Affair” or disputes the actual percentage of our wages he garnished for punishments.  My mother, who is now stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, sits and listens intently as we gather to gently dredge the river of our lives.  Her loud laugh and tireless energy depleted by a disease that has conspired to rob her of her mobility and sense of serenity.  Her eyes still flash bright, opal blue when we recount the myriad stories which have become threads in a raucous and irreverent family tapestry.

My mother was made to have four boys.  She used candor, insight and trust to soften and shape the well intended but clueless denizen of men that she inherited.  She had a sixth sense about people and would often encourage us to “use our antennas to read people and situations”.  “Everyone’s antenna is different with some people picking up only major signals, like your father. Others, like short wave radio operators, pick up multiple signals making them both intuitive and easily distracted.”  Her intuition proved an invaluable asset to my father in business and in life.  She could anticipate situations, reading people, and disarming stiff customers with her humor and alarming candor. She longed for a daughter but resigned herself that her life would be a world filled with dirty toilet seats, sweaty clothes and GI Joes.  She waited patiently for the day that her sons might bring home girlfriends and wives – –   girls who would later be very alarmed by just how much these boys confided in their mother.

Jack Nicholson once yelled at Tom Cruise, “you want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  My father was an advertising executive from a generation whose marital trousseau was limited to a strong work ethic.  He worked countless hours driven by the four horseman of financing college, orthodontia bills, mortgage and car payments.  My mother was left to serve as teacher, confessor and staff sergeant of this testosterone army.  She could handle the truth. Her army had basic rules:

1)    If I hear it from you first, the punishment will only be half as bad.  Her “tell me everything approach” worked as a catharsis for guilty minds and a means of teaching boys how to communicate.  The “tell me first “rule resulted in a scene to be repeated many times where a Turpin boy was seen racing home desperate to beat a patrol car or a neighbors call.  We referred to her as “Sodium Pentothal “as she could get anyone to tell her anything voluntarily.

2)    I’ll decide what I tell your father.  Given my dad’s limited bandwidth to deal with much beyond job and family obligations, my mother would not burden him with all the daily infractions and near death experiences that occurred.  She is only now breaking to him things that happened in 1982.

3)    I want you open to new things.  While my dad escorted us to church and religion each Sunday, my Mom offered us spirituality during the week.  She was curious about everything.  The house was littered with books about the sacred, profane and paranormal.  She reveled in history, scandal and alternative points of view.  She was a devil’s advocate that helped balance a house heavy with conservative dogma.  We read the bible on Sunday but Monday through Saturday, we perused books on psychic pets, the Bermuda triangle, famous hauntings and conspiracy theories (who really killed JFK, anyway).

4)    Grades: A’s meant freedom, B’s meant do your homework with the TV and radio off, C’s meant you are getting a tutor and D’s meant martial law.  My parents felt grades were “the canary “ in the obscure, coalmine existence of an adolescent.  There was no tolerance for poor academic performance.  However, there was patient recognition, (before terms such as Attention Deficit Disorder), that each kid learns differently.  She met with teachers.  She had the inside scoop on every person that made up our uneven world – teachers, friends, coaches, parents of friends.  She insisted on being informed.  All this from a woman who dropped out of college as a sophomore to marry a penniless, Army Second Lieutenant and later returned to complete college after 30 years to gain her degree.

In the wild seventies, she became a self anointed DEA officer.  She understood that a kid with red eyes and the pungent smell of smoke around them did not mean they had been out fighting forest fires, was struck by lightening or was just really tired.  Like a champion contestant on Name That Vice, she could identify bad behavior at 1000 yards and would never shy away from making sure we knew that she knew.  Her candor and caring made it safe for us and often for our friends, to confess issues that she could adroitly handle.

Her passion was the latest technology ( and useless gadgetry ) .  While this gave our family a critical start on personal computers well before most households knew that a Mac was anything but a burger, it also resulted in weird experiments: food being preserved under pyramids (Pyramid Power was big in the 70’s), dietetic forays – – no salt, all carbohydrates, no carbohydrates,  all fish, no fish, no fat, all rice, all protein, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Space Sticks and Tang ( if the astronauts can eat it, so can you boys).  Our house was a grand social and technological experiment in a period of great societal change. The 21st century Mom and the 19th century Dad managed the yin and yang of competing opinions, always agreeing on what mattered most.

We made all the classic mistakes. While our punishments usually fit our “crimes”, she defended us like a mother lion ‘lest anyone contend that her boys were “bad”.  She would always seem to appear in times of chaos to resolve the crisis du jour.   If I had one wish, it would be that I could descend and resolve the chaos of her Parkinson’s disease.  For my brothers and I she was,  “Mater Ex Machina”:  Mother in the Machine.

A Free Range Kid

A Free Range Kid

In 60’s and 70’s suburban Los Angeles, each planned community was a perfect grid of magnolia and palm tree lined streets with green carpets of manicured lawns stretching for entire blocks, interrupted only by cement driveways which served as primitive lines of demarcation for the packs of children that would roam their environs looking for field to play.  In our town at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, everyone knew the neighbors and the neighbors knew you.  It was difficult to engage in any form of civil disobedience – – blowing up anything with an M80s (1/8 stick of dynamite) purchased in Tijuana, BB gun wars, or heaving water balloons at passing motorists – – without someone id’ing you and reporting you swiftly to your parents, sometimes before you even made it home from the caper.  In my case, the fear of parental retribution would cause me to entertain wild thoughts of running away – – “I will sneak in, grab my clothes (and a few Hostess Fruit Pies) and shack up in Charlie’s tree house until I can get a job and then I will hitchhike to Montana.”  It did not matter that I was nine, uncertain of where Montana actually was or that Charlie’s tree house was a four by six spider colony.  This was secondary to avoiding the belt that was certain to find my adolescent behind for crimes against humanity.

When we moved into our new home in the summer of 1968, we quickly got to know our neighbors who lived behind our red tiled, stucco Mediterranean.  The backyard was still under construction and while my parents conducted their final walk through, we discovered a cachet of dirt clods that were unlike any organic material we had ever seen.  These massive dirt blocks, forged together from drought and construction digging, became weapons of mass destruction as my brothers and I squared off in primitive slit trenches and behind ivy fences.  As the battle raged, an errant clod flew over the redwood fence and resulted in a “splash”.  Like the old EF Hutton commercial, we froze, intrigued by the sudden sound of water.  My brother tossed another dirt clod over the fence testing the radius of the hidden water – – splash!  We took a third clod the size of Delaware and pushed it over the barrier- – “ker-plunk” followed by a geyser spiking higher than Old Faithful.  The barrage lasted for the next hour. As my father and mother toasted their new home and expanding social circle, the phone rang.  It was their new neighbors…their angry, new neighbors.  A reign of terror began that would last fifteen years. 

Despite these and many other transgressions, we were absorbed into this melting pot of young and old . Our neighborhood was a microcosm of every suburban community in America.  We had Howard, next door, who had possessed every conceivable power tool known to man and would voluntarily assist my father in fixing anything that broke, chipped or even looked like it might break. Years later, my youngest brother, home from college, got a hysterical call from Mildred, Howard’s wife, that he was gravely ill and needed to be lifted into the car so she could take him to the hospital.  The strapping do-it-yourselfer had been reduced to less than 100lbs from cancer but his sense of humor stayed in tact.  “Tell your Dad, he can have the band-saw if I don’t make it back home.”

 

We were all odd passengers lashed to the mast of a massive ship of streets and yards.  We had one neighbor who liked to make himself martinis, sit in a lawn chair and light off fireworks.  The problem was – – it usually around 12 at night and year round.   We sort of got used to the roman candles surging like a distant firefight and became indifferent to the Piccolo Petes that would shrill like incoming artillery fire.  We had your token grouchy old man who would threaten us with bodily harm ‘lest we venture on to his carefully manicured lawn to retrieve a baseball.  We named him “Groucho” and as we got older, we found increasingly ingenious ways to torment him including one night, lighting smoke bombs, donning dark bed sheets and circling the smoke, repeatedly chanting“ pagan sacrifice “.  I wasn’t sure what “peg and sacrifice “ meant but my older brother told me to say it.  Groucho called the police.  He reported hooded dwarves were committing ritual sacrifices on his dichondra and he had just reseeded. There was Mr. Brown who loved to sunbathe naked in his back yard which horrified Mrs. Cunningham next door, but the police would do nothing about it.  “Don’t look” they told her.  I recall lighting a fire in the bushes in front of another neighbor’s home but was so intent on my pyromania, I did not realize the fire was also in full view of their living room window where they sat and watched me.  Imagine my surprise as I exited the bushes with my friend, and noticed the police and fire truck car in front of our house.  I balled my eyes out when the fire chief said that they sent arsonists to reform school.  I was not sure what reform school was but I was sure they did not serve dessert there.

Diagonally to the north, we had the large Italian family with 12 kids.  They had their groceries delivered by The Helms Man Grocery Service – a luxury unheard of in the 70’s.   The Helms Man truck driver was not the sharpest tool in the shed and while other kids would distract him, we would empty his change dispenser and then buy candy from him with his money.  It worked for months until to our chagrin, a new driver showed up. Like all communities, we lived with illnesses, divorces, aging neighbors and people troubled by demons and dysfunction – – a bonanza of mania and mayhem.  There was the neighbor that snapped one day at work and came home to hold off the police for four hours with his son’s BB gun.  There was a suicide.  There was a murder.  There were robberies.  Life did not bypass this bucolic oasis.  It drove in like an ill wind every couple of years to remind us that we needed to look out for one another.   Through it all, every neighbor always was there for every other neighbor.  Every adult felt they had proxy authority to discipline other people’s kids and enforce a community standard.  We were free range kids – – roaming miles away on foot or by bicycle, making mistakes and learning coping skills that would serve us throughout life.

 

Times have changed.  Geography and social boundaries have made it harder to be a free range kid.  The requirements have not changed nor the have the dividends.  Free range kids need a little extra rope, independence, trust, support from their community and the ability to make mistakes.  Captive kids have “high bottoms” because parents love them to the point of not wanting them to fail, at anything.  Captive kids are tightly managed and live life within a set of guardrails built of myriad commitments and shielded with a two parent safety net.  When a free range kid gets into trouble sometimes he/she has to figure out how to get out of it.  Free range kids make bad choices but they learn, grow and some even believe these kids cope better when eventually introduced into “the wild”.    

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets.  I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?  ~Erma Bombeck, “No One Diets on Thanksgiving,”

 It’s 6:00PM on Thanksgiving day and the house is like an opium den.  Scores of adults are draped over furniture, lying on their sides staring vacantly at the Alcorn State versus Miami of Ohio football game.  Most do not even know where Alcorn State is but when sedated with tryptophan, a Pop Warner preseason game can hold one’s attention.  The sounds of dishes and glasses being washed somewhere in the distance will not motivate the majority of these living dead to move.  They may shift slightly reaching out a pathetic hand, trying to stop a child racing by and co-opt them into bringing them a diet coke.    

 In the house of my youth, my father and grandfather were always first through our Thanksgiving Day food line.  Chivalry died each Thanksgiving at 2:59pm when the lords of the manor felt it was their prerogative to initiate our caroling of consumption.  The men would move slowly like bull elephants, surveying each dish like discriminating judges at a Midwestern bake off.  To my mother’s horror, they would heap massive portions on their plates, amassing Mt Everests of food.  My grandfather would usually stuff a roll in his mouth as he inched along, and would occasionally turn and spray bread crumbs on us saying something completely incomprehensible.  “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full”, my mother would scold him.  She was quietly doing the math on food portions and realized that it was now unlikely that anyone under six foot tall would be eating anything other than yams and a couple of green string beans. 

 Thanksgiving was highlighted by a morning playing smash mouth football at the local elementary school.  We pulled every muscle, bent every finger, bloodied every nose and assumed the identity of every pro and college football star over the course two decades of the November Thursdays.  Everyone had the same idea and the fields would quickly crowd with familiar and strange new faces.  Each kid would show up with relatives from across the country who were making their every other year pilgrimages to visit relations.  We filled the offensive line with first and second cousins, kids with strange accents, hailing from exotic places like Dee-moyne and Merry-land.  They wore football jerseys with affiliations to schools such as the University of Iowa and The Maryland Terps.  In some cases, these kids played dirty using little known adult techniques such as crack back and body blocks.  There would be sudden fights, the way animals suddenly turn on each other at a watering hole as they seek alpha status.  Just as quickly, punches turned to slaps on the back.  “Hey, Hawkeye, good tackle!”

 The score of the game was never completely tracked and invariably, the entire game broke down into a massive scrum, once the first group of kids pealed away to go home.  Usually a twelve year old girl would ride up to the school fence and yell, “Jimmy, Mom says to get your butt home right now or you are going to be in HUGE trouble..”  As we melted away from the muddy grass, we piled through our back door full of dirt and bravado. Our mother would gasp and tell us to remove all our dirty clothes on the back porch. We would sprint naked past a sitting room of elderly relatives, perhaps flashing a rear end in a cheeky response to a dare.  Off in the distance, CBS sports announcers, Pat Summeral and Tom Brookshire were overheard discussing some aspect of a pathetic Detroit Lions offense. Thanksgiving was the one holiday likely to be celebrated by everyone you knew irrespective of their religious affiliation.  A baking turkey blended with the aroma of sautéed onions and stuffing created the most reassuring of all moods.  It was a time for family – -no distractions, gifts, holiday cards, competing social obligations, religious services or pressured traditions.  It was about eating and talking with your mouth was full.  

 Thanksgiving also heralded the beginning of the season of family dysfunction.  Like the swallows returning each year to the California Mission at San Juan Capistrano, age old scars and disagreements could suddenly flare.  “Liberals” and “Conservatives” were terms assigned to people as we listened to the generations of adults debating the economy and foreign policy.  I ascertained enough to learn that liberals were really enemy Soviet agents and were doing their best to turn America into a Baltic state.  For example, LA’s newly created HOV lane, known as the “Diamond Lane“ was created by a liberal who wanted to encourage you to have more children so you could get more money from welfare.  I assumed that meant the majority of the cars in that lane were driven by Catholics.  I was not sure what welfare was but I began to suspect having more than four kids was a great financial burden.  Why else would you need financial assistance?

 Our governor was Ronald Reagan.  He could do no wrong.  He looked like the guy you wanted to give the ball to on the last play of the game because somehow he would score.  In this era of less political correctness, the tenor and tone grew sharper as the meal wore on.  My Mom would pretend not to hear.  My grandmother was from a generation that had long since abandoned personal views that differed from her husband. My grandfather would nod in agreement and pour himself his fourteenth scotch. This was the stuff Norman Rockwell brushed over a bit in his painting.

 As the voices rose, every woman would excuse herself, ostensibly to help clean up, but really to escape the dogma and vitriol.  It was a sort of dine and dash.  We loitered near the table torn by boredom and the hope to overhear one of my father’s infamous blue streaks of swear words.  No amount of pumpkin, pecan or apple pie could anesthesize his dislike for Democrats.  As we got older and the table filled with socially responsible daughter-in- laws and independent thinking spouses, my father softened his words and picked his metaphors more carefully. Yet, his passion and his deep conviction could not always be restrained.  Thanksgiving was a time to be grateful and gratitude included appreciating those that kept our economy chugging, our country safe from foreign interests and our minds out of the gutter.  It seemed reasonable, just a little devoid of compassion.  My mother would always try to stem the bellicose editorial by suggesting, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full”.

 Today, the bodies are still draped across the house like accident victims.  The Thanksgiving topics are more politically correct. However, the epicenter remains family – – the chance to fill rooms with the voices of generations, laughing, debating, wrestling, struggling, rising and falling.  The spirit of Thanksgiving is still all about “us”.  We are a unit – – a team that looks out for one another, tolerates each other’s strange foibles and diverse political views and remain deeply bonded by the fact that no one on earth knows us better or loves us more unconditionally. 

 John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell, is other people”.  When it comes to Thanksgiving, hell is an empty house and having someone NOT tell you not to talk with your mouth full. . 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Logo of the Global Reality Channel
Image via Wikipedia

 

I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Over the years, I developed a taste for the German language. My admiration is not from its palate cleansing syntax but its highly logical nouns.   An example of simple words combining to make a more complex word might be Hundehütte (eng. doghouse) or Baumhaus (eng. tree house). German allows for highly complex compound nouns such as Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenskajuetenschluesselloch, which means “the lock in the cabin door of the captain of the company running steamers up and down the Danube”.  My favorite German word is scheudenfreud.  Translated, it means the fascination with another person’s misfortune.  The word describes an all too common unhealthy appetite in our human nature and captures the bubblegum essence of American media programming – – reality television.

We all, it seems, have a flawed predisposition to become consumed with other people’s failings and to live other’s lives vicariously.  Reality TV feeds this inate longing baking it into a range of menus from personal competitions to law enforcement.  Last week, 31.2m people devoured American Idol while 16m slowly savoured Survivor: Fiji.  While my family was gathered in the family room drinking in the acerbic sarcasm of Simon Cowell,  I was secretly taking in  the TV show, “Cops”.  I always feel guilty when landing on channel 58 – – just in time to watch a methamphetamine addict trying to outrace the entire Miami police force in his mother’s 1972 AMC Gremlin or a woman who has been on a binge for three straight weeks trying to convince the authorities she is Tsarist Princess Anastasia.  If I hear anyone coming towards my den, I quickly flip to ESPN.  How ‘bout those Yankees ?

And then there is “Jackass”, a show where faux stuntmen Johnny Knoxville, Weeman, Steve-O and Chris Pontius perform outrageously dangerous and insipid stunts.  I close the door to my office and laugh that deep, from the groin, painful laugh that only comes when you witness someone being injured doing something incredibly dumb.  “Jackass” gave rise to a follow on show called “ Wild Boys”.  The first episode of “Wild Boys” featured a sequence where Steve-O and Chris ate a variety of bizarre Asian foods culimnating in snorting wasabi mustard where they promptly, threw up.  Steve-O and Chris were then off to Africa where, donning only athletic supporters, they ran through a pride of lions dragging hams behind them on long hemp ropes.  This is about the point where being an arm chair historian, I wonder if the majority of Rome was watching a show called “ When Praetorian Guards Go Bad “ when the Barbarians  charged into the city limits and brought the great empire to its knees.  Or perhaps, everyone was wearing ipods and just did not hear them coming.

America is hooked on the empty carbohydrates of reality TV.  However, we cannot take credit for creating these cultural moon pies.   While it is true, like fast food and greenhouse gases, we are producing a disproportionate amount of reality TV,  Asia and Europe actually got the whole thing started.  It was Japanese and the Dutch who built on the theme and created game shows based on humiliation, survival and co-habitation. ( For those with stupid sense of humors like me, watch the YouTube episode of the Japanese reality show, Gaki No Tsukai – Silent Library, entitled: The Old Man Who Bites Tenderly, to illustrate just how “evolved” reality programming has become.)

TV pundits estimate literally thousands of new reality shows will be released in the next year.  I worry.  What does my fascination with other people’s misfortunes say about me ?  Why can I not skip to a channel that does not seek to demean, exploit, marginalize or ridicule ?  These shows are lugubriously seductive speakeasys.  Is one genetically predisposed to scheudenfreud ?  Was the Roman Colleseum a massive reality TV for the masses of the Empire so they might for a moment, be liberated from bad news of foreign wars, threat of plague, the increasing Roman deficit and the rising cost of chariots ?  Why can I not seem to resist this nightly dose of toxic cinema verite ?

The experts have divined that as many as half of American TV programs are now some variation of Reality TV.  I figure the other half must be some variation of ER or CSI and infomercials.  I was distraught to learn that as many as 82% of these shows are, in some way, shape or form, “scripted”.  What ?  You mean “Dog, The Bountyhunter” is really a security guard at a Chucky Cheese ?  Don’t tell me those uber babes of  “The Hills” are really Universal Studios tour guides.  Those long green spongey things on “ Fear factor” are not actually baboon adnoids?  The “Ghost Hunters” are not making contact with a thumping spirit but really just filming in a room over a night club in Soho with a big woofer? Flava Flav does not really don viking horns and a massive alarm clock around his neck when he goes out on dates ?  I feel like we need a new word for our salacious interest in other people’s false misfortunes, scheudenfreudfalshe.

I have a few ideas for shows.  There could be “Dancing With the Infidels” where Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton compete for a chance to run for an empty Senate seat.  No contestant is allowed to actually touch their partners or they will be eliminated.  “Rap and Cheese” could appeal to Francophiles by teaming up defrocked French politicians with hip hop artists in a race from Newark to Avignon.  There is so much potential material.

Another crack addict is being wrestled to the ground on “Cops”.  I realize that I am living in a time where the media is all too willing to enter my home to fuel my paranoia that the world is not full of possibilities, but instead choked with meth heads, terrorists and hookers.  I have become a nightly regular at the Fear and Consumption café where I get a healthy plate of “ Reality” TV, news and talk shows that fuels my concerns that my country is on the downward slope of its moral, spiritual, and economic preeminence.  It’s crowded in the F&C café and sometimes I have to wait for a seat.   While I realize that scheudenfreud is a natural human frailty, it is also a warning sign.  It’s a subtle hardening of the arteries in the chest of a pampered soul.  It can be mitigated by simply remembering that the real world is going on outside while reality TV flickers inside our homes.

Dad With a Capital “D”

Dad With a Capital “D”

The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat. – Robert Frost

I grew up in a house with four boys, where neighbors routinely referred to my mother as “that poor woman” and my father would walk in each night at 7 p.m. and calmly ask, “Who gets the belt?”

“Let’s see,” she would begin.  “Michael and his friends lobbed oranges at what they thought was a slow moving group of cars that turned out to be a funeral procession.  Our garage is full of audiovisual equipment stolen from the middle school after Tom used the glass cutter art kit we gave him for Christmas to cut a hole in the window.  The boys weren’t sure what to do with the merchandise.  Apparently your son does not have someone to fence the goods yet.  Miles was suspended for streaking what he thought was an all girls high school but mistakenly turned out to be the all girls elementary school and Patrick’s school counselor thinks he may have some form of personality disorder, as it’s the only acceptable excuse for his behavior.  Otherwise, it was a pretty good day.”  My father, unphased and a firm believer in corporal punishment, would swiftly mete out justice in hopes that his boys would grow up to be stewards of the community and not wards of the criminal justice system.

My father was a Dad with a capital D.  He would routinely break into tirades over politics, any form of incompetence, and “liberals” – including our local minister (Dad was convinced he was an agent for the KGB).  He never apologized.  Empathy was something “liberals” used as a Trojan horse term for income redistribution.  He never shared his feelings or cried, except perhaps at the collapse of the 1969 Cubs.  He was the king of his castle.  While his boys gave him a run for his money, our kingdom was under the martial law of a benevolent dictatorship – the illegitimate offspring of Pinochet and Marshal Tito.  While no one questioned for a minute that my mother was the real genius behind my father’s “success”, both as a businessman and a parent, he was the executive and judicial branch of the family.  Though Mom’s intuition could detect a fire, fight, any form of alcohol, illicit material or inappropriate behavior within a five-mile radius, he was the man.  Their partnership celebrated its fiftieth year this past summer.

Yet “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” generation carried obvious inequities.  Its chronic male chauvinism and silent female martyrdom led to unresolved conflict and dysfunction.  Later mothers and society, with the help of Gloria Steinem (another Russian Spy), broke through to celebrate equality and liberate women to apply their cunning intuition across a broader field of personal and professional opportunities.  The fathers, the Dads with a big D were left behind.  They grumbled, swore and continued to lament the erosion of societal values along with the slow emasculation of the American male.  As their sons wed and became a next generation of fathers, the sons quickly realized they were entering uncharted waters; Dad with the capital D appeared to be an outdated point of reference.

“I never changed as many damned diapers with all four of you boys as you do for her,” my father mumbled as I nimbly changed my newborn daughter.  He, thinking I’d been neutered in some UFO secret experiment; me, wondering when my wife would offer him a sprig of hemlock to stir his ice tea.  However, as I got older, I regained an appreciation for the big D.

Let’s face it, being a dad today carries a lot of benefits, though my job description is now titled with a lower case d.  While I see growing up in Big D’s house like France under Napoleon, he looks at my house like a twisted version of Lord of the Flies.  In my home, dad gets home from work to a wife and teenaged daughter locked in mortal combat over the amount of midriff her outfit is showing.  Like a UN peacekeeper, I don my blue helmet and try to break up the brutal internecine fighting, only to have them both turn on me and chase me into my office.  When disciplining my two boys, I’m supposed to use intimidating language like, “Let’s use our inside voices,” and the brutally decisive “Okay, mister, this time you really have lost a privilege.”  Dad with a big D wants to vomit.  The boys react to me as if I have the retaliatory power of Luxembourg and continue with their misbehavior.  You know what finally works?  A page out of the old Big D’s playbook – the occasional yell, immediate intervention, and the threat…always followed up with determined consequences.

Evolution is a funny thing.  The old big D Dad had to go, but the little d dad has to develop new tricks and methods to ensure his survival.  Occasionally activating those less politically correct genes to keep the herd moving west isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s nice to remember you can combine the soft skin of restraint and compassion with the hard sinews of being decisive, fair and tough – little d and big D combining to make a better man.

Arson and Old Laces

www.Army.mil
Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Arson and Old Laces

As a child, I was a backyard arsonist.  In the era of Vietnam and hidden enemies, my friends and I would spend hours, away from the watchful eye of my Mother, presiding over conflagrations of epic proportions.  It usually involved carefully laid Airfix 54 mm plastic soldiers advancing through a dense jungle of ferns and ivy toward a defenseless Marine firebase, and it was our job to “lay down that protective cover of napalm.”  Napalm took the shape of anything flammable.  As curious, red-blooded American boys in the ‘60s, we had never heard of things such as travel sports, electronic games or TVs with more than 13 channels.  We had more than enough time to discover the inflammatory properties of every liquid in our medicine cabinet, bathroom, cleaning closet and garage.

We quickly determined anything with alcohol content worked well to protect our besieged soldiers.  As the VC crept in, we showered them with a horrific ordinance of paint thinner, gasoline, model airplane glue, English Leather cologne, canned hairspray and Old Spice spray deodorant.  The air was a bittersweet miasma of odors and excitement.  The final barrage was intense.  We watched with great satisfaction as the enemy soldiers turned molten black and collapsed in utter defeat, melting literally back into the dirt, just yards in front of the protective wire of the grateful Marines.  The black eddies of thick toxic smoke would swirl and flicker with fire and, like Westmoreland, we would be satisfied.  As kids, we fashioned every conceivable homemade weapon and waged war on one another, building forts and digging ditches (the 20-foot tunnel we dug under the garage that almost caused it to collapse into a sinkhole during a rainstorm is another story…)

Our arsenal included firecrackers, crossbows that shot sharpened, green gardening stakes, slingshots made from surgical tubing, smoke bombs of salt peter and a healthy dose of imagination.  We had time and tools at our disposal.  We would leave the house every morning like pets being let outside, returning only for food or medical attention.  We floated like leaves blown from season to season.  If it was spring it was baseball or soccer.  Football in the fall.  Basketball in the winter and of course summers – a blur of day camps, sports, and long bicycle rides in search of a pool, creek, mischief or anything that could work up or relieve a good sweat.  Sport seasons were a maximum of 10 to 15 games followed by an all-star team that was usually thrown into a single elimination tourney against local towns.  There was really no such thing as travel or year-round sports.  I rode my bike to and from school.  A car ride to a friend’s house was an indulgence and walking home when the bike had a flat tire was standard.

My arson is now limited to my fireplace and my soldiers are arranged in neat rows in a display case, wishing a small child would break them out of their glass prison to wage war once again.  My bike has been replaced by a Lifecycle in the New Canaan Fitness Club.  My children have no interest in following in my footsteps.  They are too preoccupied and too in need of immediate gratification to meticulously build dirt bunkers, stick forts or rock bulwarks.  In addition to rarely playing in the dirt, their feet rarely touch the pavement – with muscles developed around soccer, not pedaling a single speed bike up a steep hill.  They are driven everywhere like dignitaries; the concept of walking is met with a martyred moan.  Couple this with society’s increasing trepidation that walking anywhere is unsafe…that the ubiquitous van full of pedophiles is out there, touring our neighborhoods looking for unescorted children.

I’m not sure if I am an anachronism complaining how society has gone to hell or whether there is legitimate cause for concern.  One of my peeves: is it really necessary to “declare your major” by the fifth grade when it comes to sports?  The pressure to specialize earlier and earlier has second graders in a 10-game soccer season and parents getting wound up over playing time and worried over nascent motor skills.  Meanwhile little Johnny is still pooping in his pants.  The beauty of trying everything is you gain different experiences and become more balanced.  Generalizing perhaps reduces your chance to become a multi-sport Varsity starter or a shoe-in to Yale, but you end up decent at inter-mural sports, passable at tennis, par at Frisbee golf and a great Trivial Pursuit partner.  Less organized activities sometimes brings a bonus of time – minutes of margin to innovate, imagine, experiment and, yes, occasionally get into trouble.

It seems that most kids literally have very little time for mischief.  And when they do, it becomes the great headline in our local newspapers.  Is it a sign of the decline of western civilization if kids occasionally go off “the reservation”?  Is it worrisome if they sit around the house, complain about being bored, and then get the ultimatum to go outside or start folding laundry?  Perhaps, one of them will wander over to the stream next to the house and dam it up until it overflows on to the Murphys’ property, getting me a late evening call from Charlie about the newly re-routed stream jutting across his driveway.  My Dad got those calls once a week.  Wilson tennis ball cans will be converted into a makeshift mortar that launches flaming number three balls into the twilight, triggering UFO calls from residents on West Road.  Perhaps a son or daughter might see a can of spray paint, then spy the hammer, nails and old wood, then build something – a catapult?  A crossbow?  Do I sound like Dr. Evil?

Given their schedules and our watchful eyes, it’s highly unlikely many kids will ever smell the acrid smoke of a burning battlefield of plastic soldiers.  Some would say that is a very good thing.  But I wonder…