Thursday, January 24, 2019

AFTER THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE

                   NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN                                                    

            
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
It takes a lot to change a man
Hell, it takes a lot to try       
                     
                    Jason Isbell                         

October 21, 2018


It was a morning much like many of the mornings,  these days. He awoke, as usual, too early and with the now familiar disquieting and restless anxiety that sat heavy in his chest.  Autumn made its first appearance during the night, a blustery Northwest wind blowing in on an early morning brilliantly blue and brittle sky, signaling the end of another season - another summer. As he lay in his bed listening to the high, lonesome sound of wind whistling through the halyards at the backyard dock, a dull apprehensive anticipation enveloped him - not a dread of what was going to happen, but the pervading, empty sensation that, once again, nothing was going to happen. He would fill this day, like most days, with meaningless errands and made up tasks. A golf game, a boat ride - place holders that ticked off the hours and minutes - to what final end he no longer knew. Now, these days, with greater frequency, he questioned where all this was leading. Unfamiliar with a rudderless course, life, it seemed was a sometimes confusing and meandering trail with no directional signs.

Despite spending his feral formative years navigating through the maelstrom of (what he considered) real cultural and social revolution in the quixotic ’60’s, he does not recognize these current day phony cultural warriors - these people, this place - he now calls the “New America”. He recollects McCarthy’s Children’s Crusade during the apex of the Vietnam War in the summer of 1968, when political leaders were shot down ignominiously on the street like common gangsters, entire cities were really burning and under attack, (not simply under some laughable micro-siege by Antifa delinquents in black ski masks heaving folding chairs through store-front windows). During the Senate Judiciary hearings he watched with a baffled amusement as zombie undergraduates stormed the steps of the Supreme Court building like a scene from the Walking Dead, (only with marginally better groomed “walkers’’), chanting in unison some mindless slogan while banging on the imposing front door as if it were a flimsy cyclone fence.

He wonders out loud how it could be possible that 25% of Millennials claim they suffer from symptoms of PTSD as a result of the 2016 election of Donald Trump! If the reaction to the Presidential election of a single ill-mannered, inarticulate boor evinces this level of pathological derangement, with what frantic ferocity would these self-absorbed snowflakes react if the United States government, under the auspices of the U.S. Army, was snatching them out of their Transgender Studies class and shipping them 9,000 miles to some shithole jungle to get shot at by brown people? Would they scream racism, complain about toxic masculinity…make a safe space demand?  He wonders what sort of trigger warnings would be elicited if the National Guard was shooting them down on campus? Is life so devoid of meaning in this Mr. Rogers, marshmallow universe that relatively trivial events automatically attain an elevated life and death status?

He recalls a recent conversation on an airplane with a University of Florida card-carrying millennial, a very bright, attractive second year law school student, a seemingly normal young lady…until she steered the conversation into the foggy realm of “Social Justice”. For one and a half hours she passionately pontificated on the enlightened post-modern positions of the “movement” with a litany of cultural evils, touching upon; white privilege, critical race theory, thought crime, hate crime, hate speech, man-splaining, gender assumption, cultural appropriation, Nazism, fascism, feminism and misogyny – among others. Virtually every practiced phrase was a formal proclamation, a noble declaration worthy of a granite monument etching. He conscientiously summoned his focus and listened intently, because, well…because he actually thought she had a point.

As she recited her well rehearsed mantra as if by rote, his singular thought was that the ink on the handwriting was already drying on the wall for this highly motivated and socially conscience  young woman. She would toil in the legal vineyards (probably for one of those ubiquitous overly virtuous subsidized civil rights non-profit law firms), diligently working 65 hours a week. She would date well into her late 30’s, routinely detecting alarmingly serious defects in every man she encounters until her mother’s jokes about being single are no longer funny. Despite a nagging self doubt, she would convince herself that a primary dogma of the feminist altar at which she worships clearly espouses the incontrovertible tenet that men are excess baggage, beat up old Samsonite too worthless to drag through life and unnecessary for her happiness and fulfillment.  In her permissively emancipated progressive world, she would seriously consider lesbianism (some of her best friends are gay) but will reject it as too messy. She will end up spending her solitary nights perusing facebook, casting a cynical eye towards her old friend’s children, completely alone - except for her 20 cats and her disadvantaged clients. Self righteousness, ultimately, has its price.  

As spurious, sanctimonious and morally superior messages are delivered daily by fiat through a smarmy and compliant media, could the seemingly inconsequential concerns of these social justice soldiers be of such import that they even approach what his generation experienced? But what could be expected from a generation, coddled from birth, who receive instruction in manhood based on a virtue signaling shaving commercial from a razor company? He reminds himself that these are only children whose singular experience with governance is the example set by high-end deal brokers, an elitist political class that had long ago betrayed its people. Corrupt sell-outs who despise the very constituents that elected them and have metastasized into mercenary political day traders, short selling constitutional freedoms and civil liberties. However, never too busy between domestic deals to still recognize the profit opportunity for nation building and wars in far-away, off-brand countries. He realizes the children are blameless victims - the inevitable product of 35 years of the re-educational gulags – laughingly referred to as the government-run public school system.

Or perhaps, he reluctantly concedes, his disdain for this new age belief system is just a naturally occurring generational affair, another symptom of aging - a lack of cognitive fluidity, an ideological rigidity that leaves no room for new and unfamiliar ideas, only a reticent and intractable philosophical stubbornness - the cynical unreasoned equivalent of the old nasty white-haired cat screaming “…get off my lawn!”

He ponders the entire idea of coming back to this place after nearly half a century - much of it looks the same, feels the same - but has an odd cacophony, a remotely unremembered dissonance. With a melancholy flash of the obvious, he realizes it is not the place that is so different - it is he who has changed. He realized that the sub-conscience rationale for his return at this late stage of life, perhaps based in folly, was an effort to reach back and make things right - a cosmic “do over”. But throughout his life and travels, this place by the water, especially this water, the Lake St. Clair of his boyhood was a special place with an easy, familiar feel – as comfortable as slipping into an old pair of Levis.

He remembered another simpler time when an early morning offshore breeze, a rising sun, dancing on perfect water as flat as gleaming ice - skis ready to go - was the most important event of the day. He reflected on the days, now more than 50 years past, when, in his naive and unsullied reality, seemingly every experience was new and shiny and exciting; the exhilarating sensation of popping a longneck; that slender blue-eyed girl - his adolescent muse - half child, half woman, who wore a thin mustache of perspiration on her upper lip on those lazy sun-baked mornings and who fascinated him from the giddy-up; all those young buddies experiencing the exhilarating pure joy of youth. Now, with the worldly treasure he has accumulated over a lifetime, what would he give for one day, one hour - a single moment - in that time? He considers the reality of movement in three of the dimensions of space - back and forth, to and fro, up and down. Only the fourth - time - is static, limited to forward movement at the predetermined pace of the universe. For even back in the day he recognized that this life was divided into moments - mere snapshots in time - and the moment would not last - would survive only in memory. 

 One week, perhaps next summer, he would top off the tanks and head out to the shipping channel. And then, free from the limitations of space and time, make a course due Northeast, past the islands that dot the St. Clair River, right to the mouth of Lake Huron to revisit the ports he remembered as a boy traveling on his father’s 42 foot Chris Craft Constellation (elevated helm, gleaming teak decks, bulbous bow high up on the prow - the absolute perfect boat). But memory, like so many areas of life is seldom accurate. For years he had related colorful stories to his wife of the quaint romance of the picturesque little lakefront towns remembered from his youth, but a trip earlier in the summer to Port Sanilac for a wooden boat show proved to be fantastically disappointing.

The voyage began with a three hour boat trip up the St. Clair River, through Port Huron and Lakeport along the east coast of Michigan, past the Lexington lighthouse, until surprisingly, he found his way to Port Sanilac. He maneuvered the 33 foot Sea Ray into the relatively new and unfamiliar, municipal marina, where apparently the entire dock staff was on strike, compelling his wife to handle the lines. Concrete docks, smooth and clean, replaced the uneven, ancient wooden structures that he recalled would inevitably result in splinters when one risked shoeless ambulation. Finding a well, he set out for town, his wife in tow, in search of a bag of cocktail ice.  

Entering the outskirts of town he located what he thought might be the outdoor covered roller skating rink which, all those years ago, doubled as a dance floor and “casino” on weekends. In his memory he recalled a shiny white, gingerbread trimmed, old timey edifice, with a spacious smooth wooden floor, lights strung overhead in circus big top fashion and posters plastered in the immediate area and throughout the entire town which advertised to the visiting boaters:

“…Dance to the Stylings of the Guy Lombardo Traveling Orchestra –
                 As Seen On The Perry Como Show!!”

What he found was a rotting and dilapidated wooden wreck of peeling paint, peppered with posted “CONDEMNED” signs, barely standing - as lonely as an abandoned, tinsel decked curbside Christmas tree on a cold January morning.

Moving on, he found the piece of ground where the old clap-board General Store once stood – old ceiling fans, the musty smell of licorice and tobacco, well worn pine floors and weary screen doors - where his dad would send him from the marina to fetch ice in his red Radio Flyer. In its place now sat a dirty, rundown concrete block convenience store and a two-pump, no-name gas station. Instead of the big-bellied, white-haired old men of his memory that sat around a pickle barrel smoking Lucky Strikes and trading local gossip, was now a contingent of young, mangy, heavily tattooed townies and greasy haired toothless layabouts with the dental hygiene of a mini-meth head convention, all of whom appeared to have done more drugs than an entire research center of retired lab rats. Standing behind him, his wife (the Living Martyr) thankfully, only smiled. “Picturesque”, she intoned as she turned on her heel, “and romantic”.

Time touches everything. Maybe next summer he’d journey a little farther – maybe up to the Great Stone City at the tip of the thumb where the deep orange sunsets were strikingly magnificent. From there, across the prodigious Saginaw Bay to Au Sable point and Tawas City and points north…hope springs eternal in the breast of a true Time Traveler. Who knows - the quest for yesterday’s respite might just be found tomorrow.

Nirvana, it’s been said, is always just up the road.



Sunday, June 17, 2018

LESSONS OF OUR FATHERS


 The human heart beats approximately 4800 times an hour, over 100,000 times a day…an incredible 3.3 billion times in the lifespan of an average human. Consistent dependability like that would imply a level of reliability - behavior so unwaveringly predictable it can be found only in degenerate gamblers, phony Christian businessmen and sycophant Democrats. Life’s vagaries, however, preclude any such assumption regarding the untimely appearance of the Reaper - no respecter of age or wealth or innocence or health. Exactly when that final heartbeat will occur is a cosmic lottery. Believe it – this life becomes a precarious proposition after the age of 65 for everyone you ever loved and everyone that ever loved you, an irrefutable fact I came to fully realize this past autumn.

After exposure to the Hepatitis A virus - from a Grosse Pointe MI restaurant that will go unnamed (Champ’s on Mack Avenue) - Freddie Van languished on Death’s Door for four weeks and ultimately landed in Winter Park Hospital for 6 days suffering from a severe case of Jaundice, his skin as yellow as a canary perched on a Daisy. 

After the second day in the hospital, I counted 55 scenarios that could kill me, (without even leaving the hospital), tabulating the different ways by marking on a legal pad 11 groups of five using four vertical strokes and a diagonal slash. On the fourth night, for the first time in 10 years I dreamed of my Father and was convinced I was going to die. 

This was not the “Father as Prophet” with goatee, long hair and flowing white robes that came to me in the last dream a decade ago when the Prostate cancer, (another of life’s many unexpected surprises), nearly vanquished me - but this time a silent and ominous apparition that didn’t speak and vanished as quickly as he appeared. This was not boding well and, for the 100th time I contemplated, after nearly 67 years, if this is how it all ends - not with a bang but with a whimper - death by a thousand cuts.

The following morning when I informed my medical “team” of my imminent demise, the three docs did not take the news well.  

The chief Doc, some off-brand Asian with a face like an old catcher’s mitt whose degree was doubtless obtained from some matchbook Medical College during the Tet offensive, was stunned. “What make you think you die? You much improve every day - we find nothing wrong. You good shape - you get very better”.(Although his diction was precise and he spoke with a perfect, non-regional American accent, his sentence structure and syntax screamed “In-country Hooch”.)

“Do more tests”, I remarked, “you’ll find something”, still thinking of my Pop’s unworldly visitation the night before and convinced it had some ethereal meaning. After several more days of seemingly random sticking, poking, blood-taking and waiting for results with extreme consternation - feeling like one of a dozen “possible” fathers nervously waiting for the results of the maternity tests on the Maury Pauvich Show - I survived and was released, weakened but heroically alive.  

However, the looming ephemeral figure of my Dad in the hospital room struck a portentous note of dread deep within me. My father is currently deceased, having ridden off into the celestial sunset with his personal Pale Rider over 25 years ago. In the intervening years I had not been given to contemplation about his life and  its affect upon me - over time the musings had become eerily silent. 

This year, however, after some reflection I realized the attrition rate of many of my friend’s fathers is off the chart which - would be expected from an age group in their late 80’s and 90’s, even for paragons of indestructibility. They were a different kind of cat, this assemblage of men. From the incomparable successes of a single man who built a world-class company and achieved Furniture Magnate status to the myriad small business owners, this generation of Patriarchs were resigned, duty-bound and at times stoic - encompassing a world-view that was unfailingly unyielding. 


I am part of that Boomer generation - American males, born in the middle of the last century to fathers, many who endured a Great Depression and survived World War II or the Korean “Conflict” - hard men, tough as month-old beef jerky who had seen much and were not simply proud of their resilience, but stubbornly exalted in it. It was an era in America, long before the fear of toxic masculinity and politically correct institutional emasculation of males when fathers fulfilled an important role in child rearing - especially boys. After the rigors of deprivation and war they dreamed big, and, upon their return many of them reasoned their unique sacrifices were not made to simply seek the normalcy of the suburbs, to burn beef on the backyard BBQ and acquire a second car to find only a modicum of satisfaction in merely grabbing their little piece of the American Dream. 

They attempted to instill in us what we were told were the uniquely American values of hard work, fair play and, above all, winning. Their lesson was simple, direct and embodied the admirable certitude and determination of that generation; in Post-War II America, one’s self worth and value was derived from what one produced - the score was kept by the material stuff acquired and accumulated. 

For the most part our young lives, if not perfect, were very good. As kids, life was simple. We idolized our sports icons – the Wheaties box heroes who, whether through clean living or a compliant press, never seemed to be challenged with aberrant social pathologies like drug addiction, wife beating, obnoxious braggadocio and the pathetic self absorption so prevalent in the New America. Life, as we understood it was uncomplicated, especially in Parochial schools (where there was no “Time Out”…maybe “Knockout” when you screwed up); everyone knew the rules and you violated them and got whacked at your own peril. This was no country for snowflakes - swift and uncompromising justice provided clarity.

Our teenage and college years were spent pursuing the mindful and purposeful indolence which was the hallmark of the ’60’s. But the tectonic plates of cultural change were shifting - cities burned, American icons and political leaders were assassinated, college-age kids went on strike and, in an ironic prequel, universities became the incubator for social upheaval (as the French say - “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”).  

Some of us grew our hair out, demanded freedom for John Sinclair (incredibly serving a 10 year prison sentence for possession of three joints), embraced the hipster nomenclature of the day and, to show we were unique and independent thinkers, embraced a “revolutionary - lite” social program that every swinging dick we knew was espousing. The entire University system was led by the phony radical, academician charlatans and poseurs of the period who self-recognized as the anti-war, cultural elite of the Midwest. (Curiously, many of of these very same toadies grew up to be the Bush neo-con crowd of today - now busily getting us into wars…go figure). 

This was the age of a cataclysmic social compact of radical thought and open, inclusive dialogue and we, the Boomers, were on the leading edge.This new progressive dynamic  professed to encompass all ideologies and people - provided, of course, that  they agreed with us. Naturally, all this political and sociological heavy lifting did not interfere with chasing girls, power drinking, smoking dope and living life “sans souci”. 

But, ultimately the apples did not fall too far from the aboriginal tree as we eventually strove to fulfill the dreams of our fathers, greedily grabbing with both hands the stuff of life, fervently hoping that one of the things that we acquired would prove to be the Rosetta Stone, that singular piece of the Happiness Puzzle that at times eluded our depression era parents. 

We sprinted through our prime, glided through middle age and ultimately (if fortunate enough) assumed senior status. Then, facing a shortened runway, irregular bowel movements, chronic bursitis and a heretofore inordinate and inexplicable fear of heights when ascending 2 foot stepladders, we exercised the prerogative of age seldom allowed in our salad days. Now, Fathers and Grandfathers ourselves, we cast back our memories to ponder our earlier, simpler lives and after a lifetime of striving - on those one-too-many-single-malt late nights - at times we yearn for what has passed and what is lost. And in those quiet moments of reverie, we remember the lessons of our Fathers, the good…and the not so good.     

My father, a successful businessman, whose personal life was sometimes a Demolition Derby was a notorious boozer and gambler, an unrepentant, unreliable rounder and irredeemable rogue…and I worshipped him. In 1989, ravaged by the effects of chemotherapy and radiation and (against my mother’s wishes) adamantly refusing any additional “treatments”, he was quite aware he was never leaving St. John’s hospital alive. At the time he was waging a heated battle from his hospital bed (more of a rear guard action/fighting retreat) with my mother. With only weeks to live, the old man was resisting the idea of allowing a priest to administer the Last Rites of the Church.

The specific priest in question happened to be Father Barton, the Pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea, who, over the years had been befriended by my mother. As President Emeritus and Board Member of the Alliance de Francaise de Detroit, my mom would invite Father Barton to receptions she hosted at our home  when an important Francophile was in town. My Pop (a WWII vet) detested these functions and once, (after a near-lethal dose of Johnny Walker Black), called the French Ambassador a “…cheese-eating-wine-swilling-surrender-monkey”. Which, needless to say, did not resinate well with my mom. But, as much as my Pop may have despised the foppish Frenchman, his distaste for Father Barton was boundlessly inexhaustible, believing him to be a leach and a boorish clown. At these receptions, the good Father would guzzle champagne and stuff himself with the rich “Cuisine Francais” - Foi gras, Moules a la creme and Crepes - like a death row inmate who had a midnight date with the electric chair. 

As I was in town between shows and, as the oldest, I was tasked by my mother to redeem my Dad’s mortal soul by convincing him to receive the final sacrament. “I don’t want that phony fish-eating son-of-a-bitch within 20 yards of me – dead or alive”, my old man croaked defiantly. “I’m going wherever I’m going and this Padre’s mumbo-jumbo won’t make any difference. What the hell does he know anyway…the fool is from Columbus”. 

Now, my father actually had no idea where Father Barton came from, and, while not an un-travelled man, (having lived in Europe after the war until 1950), my dad was a parochial, wall-to-wall, native Detroiter (St. Bernard grade school, South Eastern High School). His  intractable belief was that, with exception of a few World Capitals, the Motor City was the center of the universe – the town that put the entire world on wheels. In his traditional tool and die reality, if your business was not involved somewhere in the manufacturing chain of creating a widget of substance, weighty enough that if dropped on one’s foot it would leave a bruise, you did not even register a blip on his manufacturing Richter scale. 

His standard disparaging characterization of any individual which had fallen into his disfavor, (a catalogue of miscreants and transgressors that had reached encyclopedic proportions over the years - the sort of number one might see on MacDonald Golden Arches signs), was to imply that these adversaries were ignorant small town hicks, i.e. : not from Detroit.

To my mother, a convent educated European, his irreligious heretical apostasy of declining this last chance at his heavenly reward, regardless of the officiate, was totally unacceptable. But the Old Man was uncompromisingly intransigent. Although he sent all his children to Catholic school, his Sunday Mass attendance when we were kids was only obtained by virtue of  my mother’s guilt-ridden insistence - but he had been calling it in for years. By the time I was in high school my Father’s use for religiosity of any description had been worn threadbare and he ceased all church related events. Chances of the Last Rites being administered by any priest were absolute zero…especially by a rube from Columbus.

In a  last ditch effort to create some semblance of peace for my mom in his waning weeks, I appealed to reason. Reaching back to Father Van Overbeek’s Religion, Logic and Rhetoric class from my High School days, I cited “Pascal’s Wager”, which states simply that rational humans bet with their life that God either exists or he doesn’t.   

“At this point, what do you have to lose? Let Barton come in and go through a 10 minute ceremony”, I implored. “Pop, be reasonable…what if you’re wrong?”

My Dad smiled (more of a grimace) and barked a raspy laugh through his tracheotomy, slowly shaking his head. “Then”, he said softly, “God help me”.

Father Barton never showed up for the Last Rites. He did, however, show up at the old Hunt Club for the free luncheon and drinks after the funeral…a leach ’till the end.

In recent months I have reflected on the life and death of my Father. Like many of us, in later life I have come to realize that he, in no small measure, was a driving force in my successes and, perhaps, some failures. He was a hard man to know - a hard man to love who marched to the beat of his own impetuous drummers, incautiously dove into his life head first and lived and died on his own terms with few regrets. 

When it’s my time, I hope I can do as well.


Freddie Van
(a fatherless child of god)  




Monday, February 15, 2016

“THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED”


Originally written in February 2015 but not posted to VandalNation

On a funereal February morning in 1959 I was at my desk, peering through the classroom window, watching the huge snowflakes pile up in drifts on the playground at St. Joan of Arc parochial school, fearfully contemplating the loss of my immortal soul and my imminent trip to the sinful regions of hell for the sacrilegious consumption of two pieces of bacon.

In those guilt-plagued, dismally dogmatic days of Catholicism, the taking of morning communion required a four hour fast prior to receiving the sacrament, and this was actually the source of my anxious trepidation. As a result of this fasting business, parochial school students (“Little Cadets for Christ” as we were called by our century old self flagellating principal,  Sister Paul of the Perpetual and Never Ending Misery) had to pack not only a lunch but a breakfast, the latter to be eaten after the daily 8:00 a.m. Mass  and compulsory communion.

My 9-year old mind cursed my weakness, my inability to “…avoid the near occasion of evil” which resulted in the unfortunate bacon devouring incident earlier that morning, when temptation completely overcame me and I surreptitiously snatched those seductive strips right off of my younger brother’s breakfast plate. Thankfully, he was quite content to give up the purloined pork quietly, without a fight. Fortunately for me, my brother was a non-eater – I cannot remember him ever eating a meal at the table – who had the highly developed skill of hiding and moving his food around his dish in an attempt to create the impression of an empty plate.

“Appelez-vous de rester a jeun pas de nourriture ce matin,” (“remember the fast—no food this morning”)  my mom, facing the stove reminded me in French, which, back in the day, was only spoken around the house by my mother and us two boys, much to the chagrin of my East side Detroit father.

“Speak English, damn it” he barked, which always elicited a sly smile from my mother.
“Oui, ma mere”, I said as I turned my back to the table, quickly jamming the greasy meat into my mouth.

According to church doctrine which was drummed into our little catholic crania with the intensity of a Soviet re-education gulag, the earlier eating violation made me ineligible to receive communion.  My problem, the nagging thought that struck a religious chord of dread deep within my eternal soul (which scared the shit out of me that particular morning) was, when I took communion anyway, I was looking at the Catholic equivalent of a Class “A” major felony… a MORTAL SIN!  

In those days at Parochial School, the obligatory morning Mass was not the casual, happy-faced, low key affair of today with guitar strumming hippie-scum and the never ending handshaking and the “go in peace” over-familiar interaction. Mass was disquietingly austere and somber, a private experience creepily replete with the “smells and bells”, the entire event (songs and liturgy) performed in Latin…and sometimes (in a High Requiem funeral Mass) with a dead guy lying right in front of the altar. As intimidating and distracting as all this may have been to 9 year old, the very idea of not receiving daily communion at morning Mass was inconceivable, an anathema.  Occasionally some wise guy would plant his butt on the pew and refuse to get with the communion program.  Such ill advised behavior would be met with swift, pitiless and frightfully harsh retribution, humiliatingly delivered in front of the entire school.  Rapid response nuns would converge like a well organized Swat Team and surround the violator, plucking him out of the pew by the ear and delivering him with dispatch to a nearby confessional, where, by some metaphysical religious phenomena, the perpetrator was met by a waiting priest who was already seated deep in the horrifically dark recesses of the confessional box, beckoning like some eerie Hammer film character. The clear implication was that these Draconian measures were not only warranted but necessary… only a single step from calling in Father Damien to exorcise the Godless infestation which snatched the spirit of the guilty nine year old malefactor and compelled him to skip the Blessed Sacrament.  

So, that morning at Mass, when our second grade teacher Sister Mary Joseph began her communion line routing routine, directing the kiddie traffic up to the communion rail like a colossal crossing guard penguin, I knew full well that failure to get in the queue would place me in imminent jeopardy. I proceeded to panic in the pew and got in line, opting for eternal damnation, which I figured would at least buy me some time before the swift and certain Devine retribution would strike. Believe it – back in the day, Jews had nothing on parochial school children when it came to dragging around all that overstuffed Samsonite, packed to popping with self reproachful angst. To suggest Catholic kids had only a slight guilt problem was like saying Jeffery Dahmer had a mild eating disorder.
With this mindset, I sat staring out the window, filled with self loathing and unable to eat the breakfast my mom had packed, gloomily pondering my mortal sin and my untimely eternal damnation… at only 9 years of age. 

“Hey, you know what?” I turned away from the window to see Jimmy Versical, lanky and lop-eared even then, eyes bulging, bursting with news. “Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens were all killed in a plane crash last night!” he blurted, unable to hold it in any longer. “I heard it on the radio…it’s true – you can ask John or Joe,” which automatically cinched the veracity of the claim. John and Joe were Versical’s older brothers, 11 and 12 respectively and, for all practical purposes ersatz adults in addition to being walking Wikipedia on all subjects related to Rock and Roll music. Versical and I would spend hours in his basement listening to his older brother’s 45’s on a rickety little (state of the art) portable record player turned up to “full” volume, the music squeaking out of the single tinny speaker barely louder than a church mouse fart. (Show that antique devise to a person under 20 years of age and watch them scratch their heads attempting to determine its function.)
We loved The Silhouettes’ “Get A Job” (yip, yip, yip, yip, yip, yip, yip – mum, mum, mum, mum, muma, Get a job…), Rick Nelson’s “Be – Bop Baby(Be-bop baby in her old blue jeans, just as sweet as she can be…just my Be-bop baby and me), The Penguin’s “Earth Angel” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lyman & the Teenagers. Our favorites were The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace”, Richie Valens’  “La Bamba” and all of Buddy Holly, who, in the pantheon of Rock and Roll Gods of the day, was 1st among equals.

The lyrics of this musical genre were decidedly un-cerebral, simple and sweet and spoke of an old fashioned innocence – love, life, loss – all the emotional raw material necessary to achieve the American Dream.  Although these notions may be completely unfamiliar to contemporary America, it was music that celebrated the “Be-Anything-You-Want-Baby-Boomer”, coming of age generation and reflected the culture of the day perfectly.

Versical’s excited utterances created a buzz in the classroom, drawing a crowd as half eaten egg sandwiches and thermoses filled with tepid cocoa were abandoned at the desks. Billy Zerrilli, both his tiny hands wrapped around a breakfast cannoli (his mother always made him the most magnificent post communion breakfasts in the school) piped in.

“No foolin’, Sam?” he intoned, using his very best Eddie Haskell impression. Billy, a naturally loquacious   skinny little smart-ass, had it down perfectly, capturing not just the voice and head bobbing physical characteristics but the essence of the character. Close your eyes and you would think Ken Osmond was actually in the room, cracking wise. Billy, always the perfect gentleman in front of the nuns, was actually the most foul mouth kid in the class.

“No foolin’—they’re dead, probably burned to a crisp Joe says,” Versical answered. The huddled group of 2nd graders all solemnly nodded in unison, recognizing the gravity of the situation. When a 5th grader (especially one with Joe Versical’s Rock and Roll celebrity bona-fides) made an official proclamation like this, it was as reliable as a police report.

“How come they didn’t use their parachutes?” Little Sammy Ventimiglia asked suspiciously.
“There was no time – they probably crashed into a mountain…or something,” Jimmy Versical speculated emphatically, realizing instantly he was on shaky ground with this theory, which was pure conjecture.

Sal, who sat in the “V” section as a result of the anally alphabetical organizational classroom chart on which all nuns insisted, was not mollified by Jimmy’s lame explanation. (Curious how lifelong friendships are sometimes forged by virtue of the pure randomness of the first letter of one’s surname.)
“How do you know they hit a mountain…maybe snow got in the engines and froze them up!” Sammy challenged, pointing out the window to the snow-filled playground.  As 2nd graders with a rather limited world view and, (as it was not yet part of our curriculum), any knowledge of geography, it never crossed our mind to question Sammy’s logic …that the weather conditions might have been different  some 2000 miles away where the crash actually occurred. (In fact, although the snow-blown weather conditions were present, pilot error was the official determination of the cause of the crash.)

“Well, anyway…they’re dead,” said Versical morosely.

Suddenly my concern for my own eternal spiritual situation, at least for the moment, was secondary. I was unfamiliar with death, never even having known anyone who had died, and probably didn’t entirely grasp the concept of mortality.  However, as a result of the 24/7 church indoctrination, we all had a propensity to view virtually everything in our lives through a prism of religiosity. So overwhelmed  was I with this concept of my own spiritual transgression, my first thought was if the Almighty would arbitrarily and capriciously allow a tragedy like this to befall someone as famous Buddy Holly – with  no warning whatsoever – what  terrible fate may await me…any second?  What if Buddy did not have the benefit of, in the parlance of the nuns, “…the state of grace” when he bought it? What if he was smeared with the shit stain of mortal sin and therefore doomed? If there was no time for parachutes, I reasoned, there probably would not be time for what your confessor would refer to as “…a good Act of Contrition”. 

My predicament was, literally, a matter of life and death. With a three day wait until Saturday confession (this was Thursday – mid-week confessions were heard on Wednesday and the rules were definitive – a “Good Act of Contrition” was insufficient when a confessor was handy), I had created a multiple day exposure to eternal damnation. 
Upon further reflection I realized that Buddy might not have even been Catholic and, again, according to church dogma as translated by the nuns, would probably burn to a crisp anyway in the fire and brimstone of the abyss; Church doctrine of the day was quite clear regarding non-Catholic’s limited chance at hitting the heavenly lottery. (Protestants, however, were in a better position than the poor Jews who, according to Sister Mary Joseph, were utterly and completely locked out of Goyim glory, celestially speaking. Forget about Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists…they were not even on the Vatican radar.)

The logical extension of this theological thought process hit me with a blinding flash of the obvious; if poor Buddy was a non-catholic – almost certainly doomed – and wasn’t bound by all this fasting nonsense and ubiquitous rules and regulations, he could eat all the bacon he wanted – whenever he wanted – with probably no affect on his immortal soul. As I was constantly unable to resist temptation and already in deep shit with this mortal sin affair, I was fairly convinced that I would never be able to hack Catholicism and dared to wonder if perhaps I could switch teams…maybe hook-up with one of the off-brand religions like Methodist or Episcopalian. Based on what I could glean from my few non-catholic buddies, these surrogate orthodoxies appeared to be a virtual lights-out-steel-cage-free-for-all … no fish requirement on Fridays (and no more of those dreadful Friday TunaLinks either – an early version of a meat substitute product made of tuna fish shaped like a hotdog that managed to taste like neither), no standing, sitting, kneeling at church on Sunday – actually no mandatory church on Sundays! No more terrifyingly somber confessionals. No more keeping score of mortal and venial sins (Sister Mary Joseph actually had developed a point formula for keeping track of our sinful transgressions, with each venial sin assigned a point value. Too many points and the sheer weight of your collective venial sins magically morphed into one massive mortal sin, placing you in harm’s way for all of eternity.) I realized the idea of abdicating Catholicism was, of course, a pipe dream; my Mom would never allow it. I was stuck, my soul slowly circling the ecclesiastical drain.

“Breakfast period is over,” announced Sister Mary Joseph suddenly from the front of the classroom, her slight brogue immediately distinguishable from our nasal mid-western accents. “Return to your desks and clean up your area,” she said sternly, shooting the fish-eye directly my way, sniffing out sin like some pious bloodhound.  She was a newly minted nun, a first class Irisher, round-faced and pudgy, with translucent white skin and a saddle of brown freckles running across the bridge of her little pug nose. Outfitted in the traditional garb of the nuns of the day (think “Bells of Saint Mary”), her hair-hiding- habit concealed what we all guessed was a thatch of bright red tresses, although due to the black ironclad costume, we would never really know. So heavily ensconced in oppressively modest clothing were the nuns back in the day, it was doubtful that Sister MJ ever even had a glimpse of her own pristine cooter.

Later that day after lunch I remember we were instructed to fall in line (in parochial school, one “lined up” for literally everything…coming, going – eating, shitting) to file into the church basement to watch “Bert the Turtle”, a  Civil Defense film (“There was a turtle by the name of Bert...Bert the turtle was very alert!” Apparently, as a turtle, Bert had the unique advantage of handily hauling around a fallout shelter on his back.) The film depicted schoolchildren who, upon seeing the “flash” of an atomic weapon, were instructed to “roll, duck and cover”, (I am not making this up), which, amazingly, was our singular defense against a nuclear holocaust. 

After the propaganda film, the older kids, Joe Versical among them, who were also in attendance and familiar with the film, demonstrated the proper method of the “roll, duck and cover” preparedness maneuver.

“What’s up with him?” Joe asked his brother Jimmy, noticing my less than enthusiastic duck and cover effort.

“He broke his fast before communion this morning and committed a mortal sin… he’s worried about his soul,” Jimmy cavalierly answered, as if I had forgotten to brush my teeth that morning.

“What?” Joe laughed. “What a dope – that’s only a venial sin…everybody knows that. The only reason they don’t want you to eat before is that it’s too hard to pick the pieces of the Host out of the puke when you punks get sick!” (Joe was correct about picking the Host out of the mess the little shits – who were constantly getting sick and puking all over practically everything – would make, especially in the winter. The Ecumenical Council theory of Transubstantiation – the conversion of spirit to body – maintained that the Communion Host was not simply the symbolic body of Christ, but was literally the body of Christ, therefore necessitating the officiate to collect the remains of the Eucharist  from the mess.)

Joe had already gone through the Confirmation process the year before, elevating him to official “Soldier of Christ” status – a very big deal in the Catholic Church. As far as I was concerned, this opinion was authoritative and there was absolutely no need for additional theories which would only muddy the waters. Doctrine-wise, I was in the clear.

My immediate sense of relief was palatable.  I did a quick point count in my head and determined that I was well within the venial sin maximum – with points to burn – and in no immediate danger of crossing over to the mortal sin side. No longer plagued by the sword of reverential reprisal hanging over my head and off the eternal damnation hook, I cruised through the rest of the day, sans souci, my child’s mind quickly shifted gears leaving questions of life, death and faith for another day.
So thankfully angst-free was I that before the school day had expired, I fished into my pocket for the $3.00 that had been earmarked for the purchase of a genuine Northland Pro hockey stick and magnanimously ponied- up for yet another “Pagan Baby”.

For the uninitiated, the so-called “The Pagan Baby Rescue Fund” was a 1950's missionary program operated under the auspices of the arch-diocese of Detroit with the ostensible goal of baptizing into Catholicism every child in the universe, thereby saving countless souls from the eternal damnation. This was accomplished through the (paid) “sponsorship” of unsaved little pagan babies by parochial school children within the Diocese. Sponsorship "donations" were  $3.00 per child and entitled the student sponsor to confer upon the little “pagan” a Christian name, which was codified on a handsome certificate of baptism and sponsorship. The nuns would then hang these certificates above the blackboard along with a picture of the newly minted Catholic child. While I was pretty much geographically challenged, I had seen countless Tarzan films at the Saturday afternoon movies and it was clear that these poor little "pagans" were of some sort of African heritage. 

Encouraged by the nuns, kids in our school would compete to see who could step-up and "save" the most pagan babies. By acquiring this latest little celebratory pagan (my 7th - all numbered consecutively and christened as "Freddie" after me, their magnanimous sponsor), I was building quite an impressive virtual Pagan Plantation, leap-frogging Dean Williams, my nearest competitor, who was trailing badly with only 5 babies in his little stable. 

Alas, later that day I received my first lesson in phony religiosity. After school that same dreary February afternoon, I wandered into an empty 4th grade classroom down the corridor where I had occasion to see the string of their pagan baby pics hung over the blackboard. To my horror, I identified at least three of my little Freddie pagans in that picture lineup. Apparently the Arch-diocese, in perpetrating this pagan baby racket, were more than happy to take my $3.00 per pagan fee, but too cheap to buy more than one set of bogus African baby pictures. Further investigation showed that every classroom had the exact set of 30 photos of the same sorrowful, soul-less African kids. Disillusioned with the entire spurious sham, pagan baby Freddie #7, sadly, was the last soul I saved.  


I have reflected on that winter day many times over the last 57 years, amused at how the world has so drastically evolved it would be unrecognizable to that little kid who is still searching for answers to life's unsolvable riddles. We have come far, my fellow Boomers and I, from those sometimes somber, black and white days of America, right through the turbulent times of social upheaval in the '60's. We were the Vanguard of a Cambrian explosion of an exhilarating metastasis, the leading edge of a revolutionary transition. We were special, we foolishly told ourselves, chosen especially to be the instrument of epoch change...only to finally realize that time touches everything and, to our chagrin, like some cosmic bad joke, we grew up to be no more unique than anyone else.   

And what of my pals who shared that day so long ago?  Billy Zirilli faded into the ether of time, long forgotten by history. Jimmy Versical was still searching, sadly contemplating the limits and latitude of loss from the bottom of a bottle until his untimely death at age 63.  

Little Sammy Ventimiglia? Sammy grabbed the brass ring of life, establishing success on the building blocks of three basic principles: 1) Never waste an opportunity to make a friend; 2) Never do business with people that have no money; 3) Never cook Marinara gravy in a white shirt.

And me? I long ago resolved at least one of the age old questions…it was right in front of me all these years, buried in the lyrics of the day:

What is Love?
Five feet of heaven on a ponytail…
The cutest ponytail -
That sways with a wiggle when she walks.
                                     The Playmates, 1959
That’s it for now. Try not to freeze your asses off and I'll see you all  down the road.

Freddie Van
(a simple child of god)

Friday, January 15, 2016

GOD, MAN AND TRUMP IN THE NEW AMERICA: ON EXPERIENCING “THE DONALD”

The phenomenon of Donald Trump is as puzzling as it is alarming, and not solely because he’s the only presidential candidate in history who has the cajones to appear in public with a dead badger on his head. In the most stunning display in all of Lackeydom, virtually all of the electronic media -- most notably conservative talk radio and the cable TV political talking heads (especially FOX News and its star anchorman, Bill O’Reilly, the Ron Burgundy of cable news) are burning out their olfactory systems chasing the anterior regions of “The Donald” hoping desperately to cop a sniff. For most of these defacto apologist toadies, loss of access is the motivating factor which is manifested by a compulsion to justify their journalistic malpractice in accepting Trump’s rambling braggadocio, nonsensical narratives and his ever increasing outrageous “policy” positions -- which change from day to day depending on the capricious vagaries of his current mood.

To be fair, there is something inherently wrong with any profession that not only allows, but encourages, its adherents to viciously besmirch colleagues and friends of long standing with baseless innuendo and outright lies while touting their own "deeply held" Christian values with a certitude found only in small children and imbeciles. But Trump takes his own brand of political disparagement to an innovative new level. His sophomoric “shoot-from-the-lip” style of reckless name-calling, imprecise language, exaggerated claims and amazingly uninformed positions elevates banality to new, nosebleed  heights while lowering social discourse to uncharted depths. His laziness in lack of preparation and inability to focus on detail in virtually all of his proposals is matched only by the reticence of any of the media to “drill down” on his ideas.  The rambling, stream of consciousness, non-answer diatribes may seem unique to our new class of celebrity media sycophants, but his bluster is merely another (albeit novel) form of the same age-old evasive double-speak -- the KY jelly that the political class has been using to “schlong” the American public for decades. When other candidates are up at zero-dark-thirty pressing the flesh in coffee shops in the primary states, “The Donald" is literally “phoning it in” – doing call-in interviews -- with cable news morning talk show rabble that grovel shamelessly while serving up a steady diet of softball questions.  Possessing neither the discipline nor patience, Trump would be to good governance what Eddie Haskell was to sincerity.

During one of the earlier debates, while Jeb Bush, (in whose head Trump lives...rent free), was pointing out the myriad inconsistencies of his positions, the split screen depicted “The Donald” clowning and mugging for the camera, bobbing his head and peering down his nose with an arrogant, disdainful frown. Cross his arms and place a black Fez on his pathetic comb-over and he would be a dead ringer for Benito Mussolini in the iconic veranda scene. At the same debate, Hugh Hewitt (one of the few journalists that actually came prepared with follow-up questions) queried Trump on the condition of the aging Nuclear Triad. Trump, who has consistently bragged that, among all the candidates, he “…is the best on the military,” appeared momentarily panicked at the question, eyes glazing over, like a guy in an S&M 3-way choking on the leather collar while desperately trying to remember the safeword.  He quite clearly had never even heard of the Nuclear Triad, which didn't stop him from embarking on a cringe-worthy, long-winded, loquacious wild goose chase, finally summing up with the head scratching statement “…Nuclear is important to me – very, very important”.

“The Donald” is the ultimate result of 35 years of corrupt teacher-unions, government-run re-educational gulags that we laughingly refer to as the public school system, which have simultaneously produced a dumbed-down electorate while inculcating political correctness in a media that prizes above all else celebrity -- even ignominious notoriety --  believing it to be preferable to no celebrity at all. Trump may be Kabuki Theater, but he is ratings and an incredibly large segment of the electorate watch and listen with the rabid enthusiasm of a “Desperate Housewives” zealot. Why not? “The Donald”, fluent in the dumbed-down patois of this riff-raff, understands more than anyone the debilitating appeal of coarseness in the culture. In this plastic, God-less, soul-less place that is the New America, image is everything and the guy who gets on TV and accumulates the most stuff is, by enthusiastic acclamation, the new Moses.

Trump and Obama, like any populist demagogues, rely on three primary principles: 1.  A Cult of Personality that is driven by abrasive ego and emphasizes glittering promises, a perpetual campaign mode and rhetoric over solutions and action: 2. A disillusioned, dispirited, desperate and frightened electorate who have lost faith in the traditional institutions and are personally invested in the individual candidate and the ideology: 3. Something (a disenfranchised group or an ideology) to loathe and blame for all the ills of the nation.

Both individuals are self absorbed egotists whose fascination with their sense of self is inexhaustible and whose sole purpose for existence is to bask in the glow of their own celebrity. Both have that insipid demagogic tendency towards gross exaggeration. And, perhaps the most unappealing personality trait of all… neither can accept responsibility for the consequences of their own behavior, occasionally denying, with a scary Orwellian certainty, repeated remarks made publicly on film.

But the genesis of Trump (or someone like him) is inevitable as it is understandable. He is, in fact, the bastard child of a corrupt, elitist  conservative party that is afraid to lead and has co-opted incrementalism as an official policy, creating a conspiracy of intellectual dishonesty indistinguishable from the progressive movement. The frustrating failure of any Republican legislative response to constitutionally questionable executive orders and a consistent pattern of pathological prevarication by so-called conservatives have set the table for a Trump candidacy. And the last seven years of the current resident of Pennsylvania Avenue and an equally corrupt administration has done little to assuage the people’s concern.

Obama is a captain who has not merely fallen asleep at the helm -- he has jumped ship.  Despite numerous terrorist attacks at home and abroad, Obama inexplicably warns that Global Warming and gun control are the greatest threats to our national security. Not to be one-upped in geopolitical nonsense, Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated after the Jihadist attack in San Bernadino that her greatest fear was  -- wait for it… Islamophobia ? Really? In light of that unpaid butcher's bill and, even in this era of outrageous political correctness, is it conceivable that we could officially bestow upon Muslims the most coveted of all classifications in the New America -- victimhood?  Mr. Obama’s cavalier disinclination to acknowledge that Jihadists are even in this country (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) has alarmed and angered a majority of the people. And in this New America anger has become the default response, the singular empowering emotion, personified by Trump. His angry, unfiltered, freestyle scorched earth speechifying under the guise of anti-political correctness gives free reign to say almost anything, regardless of the damage to the body politic.

However, in this case, let's shoot the messenger and not the entire message. As inarticulate and uninformed as he may be, Trump has posited questions which strike a note of clarity regarding several serious concerns: Is it a universal right, morally or legally, for anyone to emigrate into America. Given a Department of Homeland Security vetting process that couldn't catch a Jihadist at an ISIS strategy meeting in Raqqa, is it such paranoid lunacy (as Progressives suggest) to call for a hiatus on all Middle Eastern immigration for a specified period of time? Do Americans have a right, in equity or in law, to know who’s entering its borders, keep track of them when they are admitted and access their social media before they arrive? One can only imagine the national outrage had FDR issued an Executive Order in 1942 allowing only German citizens emigrate to the U.S. -- but never Nazis.

As difficult as it is for Westerners to comprehend, Islam combines the unholy trinity of religion, politics and culture within the legal framework of Sharia Law. This 6th century form of government regulates the public and private lives of its adherents and is grossly incompatible with Western culture. Those skeptics that claim the implementation of Sharia in America is a straw-man argument – that it would never become the law of the land here--need only consider the Western Democracies of France, England and Belgium and the creation of “no go” areas of that “blended culture”. Have we as a nation sunk so deep in this politically correct, multicultural abyss of excrement that the very Constitutional freedoms and values created and implemented in Western civilization have now become our suicide pact?

It is a distinct possibility that a Trump candidacy could be a Titanic disaster, perhaps ushering in a more virulent culture-altering Progressive agenda. But he has peeled back the scales from our eyes; has asked painfully penetrating questions, challenged long held truths about an elitist political class that no longer serves the governed and has clearly demonstrated that a citizenry, free-born will not accept an out-of-control Big Brother Federal government. At the very least, he has made many of us re-think – regardless of one’s political proclivities - what it means to be an American.

However, watching Trump from afar does not give a meaningful measure of the man, and, in the summer of 1988, once again being fortunate to be on the right side of history, I had the opportunity to encounter “The Donald”-- Mr. Personality his own self in the flesh. At the time, Davey Johnson, (then the manager of the New York Mets), and I are in the process of launching an IPO (Celebrity Resorts, Inc.). I'm in New York to attend a “Meet and Greet” at Delmonico’s downtown for our market maker J.W. Gant and Co. (the “king” of the penny stock brokers) for the last of the “Dog and Pony” shows for the New York stockbrokers (commonly referred to as “ticket pimps”). The soiree is scheduled for the next evening and tonight I’m going to the last game before the All Star break at Shea Stadium in the Manager’s Field Box, the very seats where two years before I watched in disbelief as Billy Buckner, hobbling pathetically on the inside of his ankles, booted Mookie Wilson’s soft grounder that ultimately cost Boston the World Series. (In one of baseball’s great ironies, Buckner, a stellar 22 year veteran, one time NL batting champ and lifetime .289 hitter with over 2700 hits, will be remembered forever only for those two seconds.)

I'm accompanying Davey’s cousin to the game, (an attractive aerobics instructor whose husband was out of town) and meeting her at the #7 Train subway station directly in front of the stadium. She’s running late and it’s the 2nd inning by the time the usher shows us to the box. Davey’s field box has four seats on the first base line – two on the rail and two directly behind -- all four are the best seats in the house with a perfect close-up view (even for Shea) of all the action. I give the usher a ten-spot and notice his sheepish look as he glances at the tickets. Averting my eyes, he leads us down to field level to the box where I determine the source of the kid’s consternation; the seats are already occupied -- by none other than “The Donald” himself in the company of some unidentified younger babe.

At that time Trump is riding high, his problematic financial situation still only a rumor. Remaining seated, he ignores us, ostensibly focusing on the game as we stand in awkward silence in the aisle. It was clear the usher, a pimple-faced kid outfitted in parachute pants, an official “Mets Usher” T shirt and a Mets hat over a crop of unruly red hair has dummied up and suddenly disappears, quicker than a mob informer entering a witness protection program.

“I believe you're in our seats,” I say in as conciliatory a tone as I could muster. “We have the two in front.” Trump finally impatiently scowls up at me, like I’m a Fuller Brush salesman standing on his porch with my case of samples.

“I’m very, very good friends with Davey…I’m sure he meant to give me these seats,” he says, making no attempt to conceal his contempt at even being challenged for sitting in the wrong seats. “It was an oversight,” he says dismissively, turning back to the game. As any sports devotee will testify, grabbing someone else’s seats is gauche, but apparently this guy is insistent on laying claim to these four feet...just so he can be seen on the rail? This blue-blooded Bozo is way out of line and Davey’s cousin, a transplanted New Yorker who has adopted the “take no prisoners” attitude of the natives, realizes it and gives me a sidelong glance as if challenging my testicularity. I dismiss the idea of letting him know that I'm Davey’s business partner and I’m with his cousin. Nobody in America is going to “one up” this swollen ego. It’s clear…there ain’t no hook big enough for this guy’s hat.

I stand firm, showing the young lady I've got a little gravitas and I'm not just some rube from Florida. “Yes sir, but these are still our seats,” I reply. hoping to strike a quiet tone of assurance, which, at that moment I do not possess. Trump stands, rising to his impressive 6’ 2” height, lips pursed in a smart-ass smirk I'd love to slap off his arrogant face. He glowers at me impatiently, a jaw jutting jackass, face contorted into a mask of disgust. “Do you know who I am?” he asks, almost rhetorically.

In the presence of the Great Man I founder momentarily, drawing an uncharacteristic rhetorical blank, but inspiration strikes -- I quickly recover. “Yes sir, Mr. Trump, I do… do you know who I am?” I ask. Just then the crowd roars at the crack of a bat and he lifts his head, looking over my shoulder at the field beyond me. Reluctantly he turns his attention back to me. "I have no clue," he sniffs, like the self-important prick he is.

Holding up the two ticket stubs in the form of a “V”, I look directly at him. “I'm the guy,” I say confidently, “with two tickets on the rail,” -- and smile after him as he storms off into history.

Hope everyone had  a great Holiday Season. And -- no shit -- drink the good whiskey now!

Freddie Van

(a freeborn American child of God)
           

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Racing Algernon

Some time ago during a conversation concerning my 91-year old mother's Alzheimer's diagnosis, a lifelong friend and retired surgeon -- no stranger to death in all of its dreadful configurations -- related one of those dictums that rattle around in one's head like a persistently annoying jingle, a tinny little tune that won't go away. "Forget all that crap you read in the obits about '...peacefully entering eternal rest surrounded by his loving family...' " he observed. "The late stage life cycle is usually painful, slow and almost always ugly."  

His analysis, though brutally pragmatic, was devastatingly accurate. After a series of falls resulting in broken bones and myriad injuries that led to several hospital visits and a three month stay in a rehabilitation facility, my mother began her slow, steady downward spiral both physically and cognitively. At one point she was admitted to the hospital for a week with a dangerously low hemoglobin count, totally oblivious to her surroundings. As her condition deteriorated, Hospice (yet another one of these ubiquitous end of life Medicare funded programs) paid a visit and dropped off some of their tony literature. The slick, color brochure, which promises a "pain free, dignified transition", depicted what appears to be a stress free loving family surrounding a white haired (but stylishly young) debonair gentleman, clearly the patriarch, who is lounging comfortably in a hospital bed in a private room setting. They are virtually beaming at the camera, their smiles radiating happiness, as if they were preparing to treat old Dad to a day at Disney instead of a celestially eternal dirt nap. In post-modern America, we package even The Grim Reaper like so much toothpaste. 

Surprisingly, she bounced back from the hospital stay and was placed directly into a Rehabilitation Center. The rehab facility "a clean well lighted place" almost completely financed by Medicare and Medicaid, simultaneously smelled of disinfectant and old-age decay is, for many "residents" the end of the line, a holding tank for all manner of the debilitated -- stroke victims, advanced Parkinson's, Alzheimer and dementia patients. When not going through the motions of "rehabilitation" sessions, those residents in various states of diminished mental and physical capacity are lined up at the nursing stations in their respective wings so the staff may monitor their movements. Invariably, upon seeing a stranger approach, they will reach out with ancient, thin skinned and translucent hands and, almost to a resident, ask some variant of the question "...can you get me out of here?" 

In some sad way, these octogenarians are a colorful cast of characters: The poor old guy, a stroke victim, who perpetually sat in his wheelchair, right arm held forward stiffly in a Nazi salute, left leg extended backward on the outside of his wheelchair as if eternally running the 100 meter high hurdles who every 30 seconds would loudly exclaim  "...on the money, buddy", a phrase he uses to communicate everything from bathroom requests to hunger. Or the retired investment broker who did not so much suffer from dementia as he reveled in it and who loudly blamed "...those Jew lawyers" for his forced commitment by his family. Or the patient, a perpetually smiling butterball of a man, suffering from some undisclosed ailment, who occasionally had to be restrained lest he spent his entire day hopping and jumping along the walls of the corridors throughout the facility, resembling a midget leaping up to mail a letter.   

During my mom's 99 day stay in rehab, I befriended a 94 year old long retired lawyer whose mental acuity was razor sharp but was physically so decrepit he had difficulty manipulating the toggle switch on his electric wheelchair. I would occasionally run into him outside in a little garden/gazebo area where we would discuss a variety of topics. He was a surprisingly adroit individual, with an incredible memory for dates and numbers -- not just for a 94 year old, but for anyone -- and an entertainingly dry, acerbic wit. In my conversations with him, I am mindful of the literature on nursing home protocol I have read on interacting with the aged...always encourage an upbeat attitude -- focus on a positive future. My elderly friend, a hopeless cynic, would have none of it. On one  meeting outdoors in the garden, on one of those breezy, crystal clear, gorgeous Florida days in early Spring, the sky so blue it made the ocean jealous, I opined that it was "...a  beautiful day to be alive". The old guy carefully placed his book (Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil") on his lap, peered at me over the top of his cheaters and simply scoffed. "Young man", he said with a sardonic smile,  "I wouldn't go that far".   

My mother's short term memory has deteriorated months ago and now the disease is doubling down, racing at a breakneck speed, affecting her hand-eye coordination and her ability to ambulate, confining her to permanent wheelchair status. Despite this, and the fact she really should be placed in a skilled nursing situation, I manage to locate and finagle her a spot in an excellent facility that provides 24/7 care, but is not inundated with the unsettling senile screamers and weepers who can be frightening.  In her newly decorated room I watch my mom, staring vacantly at her hands as if they were newly grown, undiscovered appendages. Her lips move soundlessly, now rarely able to articulate the words even on those rare occasions when she actually formulates a thought. Oddly, when she does speak, she often slips into French, her native tongue. (A government interpreter in Europe after WWII, she was fluent in three languages and, typically with Alzheimer's, what is most ingrained -- i.e.; language in her case -- is the last faculty to completely deteriorate.) 

"Quand je voudrez allez a la maison?" (when may I go home) she asks, gazing intently at some invisible spot on the ceiling. I do not tell her I sold her home seven months ago. 

"Peutre demain, ma", (maybe tomorrow) which is my standard reply in what little of the language I remember from childhood.  

"Okay," she says in a thin, frail voice, "okay", still focused on a specific point on the ceiling.  

My research on the hereditary nature of the disease is indeterminate and, despite my mother's life threatening precarious plight, I cynically contemplate and focus on my own future -- how will this affect me. Despite the unseemliness of the thought, only the slightest shadow of shame floats through my consciousness -- but does not linger. More than 64 years of Baby-Boomer self absorption indemnifies me from any guilt. I am steadfastly secure in my selfishness.

These days, every misplaced set of keys, inability to recall the name of an acquaintance or momentary mental lapse strikes a frightening chord of dread deep within me. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Could this be me in 20 years? 10 years? 5 years? Will I eventually devolve into some helpless, non-ambulatory, non-verbal sack of mush, curled up in a fetal position. My worst nightmare -- Consummate Wise Guy regresses into a primitive, imbecilic Knucklehead Smith. According to the  American Academy of Neurology, (an impressively sounding outfit) and a number of other equally distinguished and notable organizations which I have encountered in my Internet investigation, there is an established  correlation between concussions and Amyloid (a toxic protein) deposits, which are thought to cause Alzheimer's.

I run through my checklist of lifetime concussive events, mostly sports related, for the thousandth time. It dawns on me that for the first 21 years of my life I used my head as either a battering ram or a speed bag. My early sports activity clearly puts me at risk for the disease. Several visits to specialists does not diminish my consternation. They are generous in their cavalier advice --"wait and see"..."don't worry about it"..."we'll revisit it in a year or so..." -- the very sort of worthless platitude you would expect from another egotistical, narcissistic Baby-Boomer who is unaffected by my situation. (Which is precisely the problem with the Boomer Generation -- over solicitous concern for every third-world reprobate on the planet but absolutely zero empathy for those that are truly victimized and suffering. Little wonder this country is in such a calamitous condition.)  

Today at the Nursing facility, as everyday, the residents are put through a series of "rehabilitation" exercises ranging from physical and occupational  therapies to speech and cognitive exercises. This afternoon's cognitive therapy is an art class, which is attended by a dozen or so Alzheimer's/dementia residents, exclusively  women. They are given brushes, watercolors and a canvass on an easel and are instructed to paint a bunch of colorful flowers in a vase which is setting on a small table in the center of the room. I slowly saunter around the circle of elderly artists examining their work. While none are in danger of shocking the art community as the next Grandma Moses, all of their work vaguely resembles a vase containing flowering plant life of some description.  

My mom's effort, however, appears to be something akin to Picasso's greatest hits...if he was smoking crack when he painted it. After a few minutes she loses interest and simply stares mindlessly at the canvas, her thoughts lost in some private, inaccessible space to which only she is privy. She exudes a somber sadness, a melancholy loneliness that is profoundly visceral and heartbreaking.  

And so now begins the long goodbye -- the slow, steady unpacking of her  cognitive suitcase. Based on my observation of the other Alzheimer's patients here who are in the later stages of the disease, the future appears to be less than hopeful. This insidious disease, a thief with a burglar's brass balls, robs one's memories and then, almost as an afterthought, in a merciless coup de grace -- a heartless smash and grab -- brazenly snatches what little is left. This woman, who survived Nazi occupied France as a teenager, three  impetuously feral sons and a husband who marched to the beat of his own private intemperate demons, is a survivor and will not "... go gently into that good night". But her end will not be swift. It will not be merciful. 

What is it like for her, I wonder, on those nights alone in the darkness of her room, eyes wide with fear unseen, sleepless, silently staring -- death and dementia at the door? In those transient moments of lucidity, does she despair of all hope? Or maybe, does she glimpse, for only a fleeting second, a happier time from days long past? And in that brief, ephemeral reverie, does she remember -- feel the very fabric of her life, each day in every detail -- the memory making even the ordinary simply too beautiful to bear. 

Freddie Van

(a hopeful child of god)