Lord of the Condom

Everyone carries maps in their heads. The best route from here to there might be about traversing difficult terrain, by-passing traffic, or navigating emotional shoals.

I can detail the floor plan of each house I lived in growing up. But the emotional map of my childhood homes was always the same. There were common rooms with smells of good food and rooms for privacy, concentration and sleep. Basements were damp and often forbidding.

And there were those boundaries beyond which one dare not pass, like my parent’s room. Their room wasn’t scary. It was just a place I had no business being. Which makes sense. Parents need space to be together without intrusion.

Imagine my surprise then, when my mother gave me a very private gift from my Dad.

I was at the age where my curiosity about girls raged, driven by a flood tide of hormones. This gift was given to me after I digested the book about ‘The Creation of a Life,’ also handed to me by my parents. They said to read it and come to them with any questions I might have. (Yeah, right.)

The book contained many diagrams designed to dampen my instinctive enthusiasm for the wild act of procreation. It was all so theoretical. I knew what I wanted.

But I received this gift before I had the epiphany that the captivating (and sexy!) figures all the girls were developing, actually contained very real persons. Can you say ‘superficial’?

I think I was in the ninth grade.

Mini-skirts were very popular. How can I describe the exquisite daily torture I suffered watching the girl next to me in home room repairing yet another run in her panty-hose, half-way up her thigh? (Anything I can do to help?)

Trust me when I say my interests ran to the purely physical. Of course, emotions were important too. My emotions!

It was a crazy time.

One day, after school, Mom handed me a rolled-up pair of socks and said, “Dad doesn’t need these anymore. He said to give them to you.” Huh? Socks? What was that about?

Putting them away, something crinkled and inside one sock I discovered a condom, still wrapped in its clear plastic wrapping! Hot damn! Now I had some questions.

Did Mom know what she was giving me? Was I supposed to use it? Or, if not, what was the point? Did I receive it accidentally? Was it left over from one of Dad’s business trips and she didn’t know about it? Or had Mom discovered it and was sending a message to Dad?  If I asked Mom, was I busting Dad? If I asked Dad, would he answer me honestly? How would I know? If it was safe to ask questions, why the secrecy? Was this the same mother who disapproved of her child watching Betty Boop cartoons because Betty was too provocative? I was perplexed and had no one to talk to.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Huzzah! What an opportunity! I couldn’t wait to use it. I felt free! I was ready. Knowing it was secure in my wallet, I didn’t walk, I swaggered. I saw things differently. People saw me differently. That little plastic package was going to make me a man!

Now I just needed a girlfriend!

Of course, my friends gave me plenty of advice. They assured me they could use it better than me.  Their envy was palpable. I wanted very badly to share it, but not with them.

I knew the theoretical mechanics of the situation but there were too many missing elements for successful implementation; mainly a willing female. This appeared to be an insurmountable problem. It was excruciating, but I had to come to terms with the fact that, though granted great power, I lacked opportunity, or the sophistication to recognize it should it knock.

How to broach the subject with a likely young lady? I was clueless! Finesse? You must be joking.

My condom was going to waste. It was a tragedy!

Eventually I realized, if desperate, I could find some girl with whom to use my precious condom. But then what of the ensuing complications? Would she want attention? Dates? Affection? If expected to invest all that time and trouble, I wanted to be with someone I actually liked and wanted to be seen with. This was getting complicated.

This great power I possessed began to possess me.

Finally, the precious condom became an absurd reminder of my inexperience. Reality called me out from the dark corners of my imagination. I hid it in my sock drawer. Family tradition.

****

A few years ago, I visited my parents in Florida. I had kids of my own. We were all adults. Decades had passed. While recalling old times I thought to ask them. It was so long ago. I could finally put the mystery to rest. It would be a funny story to share.

I got blank stares. No one knew anything. Nope. Nothing. Wasn’t me. Move along, nothing to see.

I couldn’t believe it.

There are some boundaries that one simply cannot cross.

How My Dad Solved the Cuban Missile Crisis

My father was a confident man. I never saw him anxious for anything. If he ever was, he kept it to himself. Even in the face of his own impending death, he put his concerns aside to comfort his loved ones, assuring them that all would be well.

He joined the Marines after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. He fought in the South Pacific until he returned stateside for officer’s training school.

While in the Solomon Islands, he was assigned to the radio corps. Once an island was ‘pacified,’ his job was to lead a squad past any remaining resistance to the highest point on the island and install an antenna with which to establish radio communications to the outside world.

Hauling radio equipment up a mountain can’t be that easy. Doing so while an enemy is shooting at you would be nigh impossible.

I think, after surviving that, everything else was just gravy for him.

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October of 1962, the threat of nuclear war was a big deal. A few years before, Nikita Khrushchev had declared “We will bury you.” Now they were installing ballistic missiles in Cuba, aimed at us. What next?

Nowadays, nuclear annihilation is just one more item on the menu of devastating threats.  But then the weight of potential nuclear conflict was palpable.

I remember the many air raid drills conducted at my school. The idea that hiding under my desk would protect me in the event of a nuclear attack, seemed fanciful to me even then.

The poster advising citizens “In the event of nuclear attack, tuck your head between your knees and kiss your ass good-bye” had not been published yet. However, it perfectly captured the ironic sense of those drills. Mass incineration might be our collective fates, but at least we would be orderly and quiet.

At that time we lived in Wilmar, a farming town in central Minnesota, about two hours west of Minneapolis, out good old Highway 12.

The news on radio and TV incessantly explored all the ramifications should war break out.  Every night WCCO would broadcast a map of Minnesota. The animated overlay graphically depicted the radius of damage we could expect should an atomic bomb hit Minneapolis. Concentric circles would radiate out to 100 miles in every direction from ground zero. It was terrifying.

Everyone I knew was anxious. We had no context from which to judge these dire threats to everything we had ever known. Those Russians were crazy.

One promising solution was to build a private bomb shelter. The news talked about these and Popular Mechanics magazine published an article describing all the things a shelter should contain. It would be cramped but safe. It was do-able.

Dad had been through the war. I gathered some friends and approached him about the feasibility of building such a shelter.

He said, “You don’t need it.”

“Why not? The maps say the explosion will reach 100 miles and Wilmar is 100 miles from Minneapolis.”

“But we live on the west end of town. The radiation will never reach us.”

His perfectly reasoned argument put our minds at rest. Days later, the crisis was over. The Russians had blinked.

My Dad was so smart.

Hits and Misses from the Past Year

It has been a very busy January and I have not produced much new writing this month.

However, the last year was an opportunity to write my blog, re-publish some items from my output at the Tolucan Times, and also, in a burst of creativity, to write a series of eight short plays. One of these received “semi-finalist” status in a short play competition.

Some of my blog posts did not get the attention I thought they deserved so to reprise 2016, I offer a collection of links for those of you who might enjoy a play review, a commentary, or a few memories from my past in no particular order:

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/lying-in-wait-for-santa/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/11/29/the2tails-helps-you-celebrate-your-inner-mermaid/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/an-evening-with-betsy-oconnell-is-an-evening-well-spent/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/10/04/sexist-pet-costumes-or-the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-leaving/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/09/25/p-l-a-y-noir-one-acts-as-dark-as-it-gets/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/an-occasional-squall-would-add-to-the-source-and-create-a-rising-crescendo/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/say-centanni-for-romantic-italian-dining-in-burbank/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/racing-with-evolution/

https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/missed-opportunities/

Enjoy!

 

 

The Perfectly Musical Storm

I was fortunate to spend my childhood in a small town where my imagination was sparked by whatever I might encounter day by day. My friends and I would build dirt forts and re-enact great battles we imagined from the last war.

I would wonder at the spontaneous generation of tadpoles from winter runoff into what had been a dry hollow the previous fall. Red-winged Blackbirds would call from atop a swaying forest of cattails towering over my head.

I smoked my first cigarettes, furiously consuming a pack of Pall Malls with a friend, trying to fathom this insane adult habit.

There seemed to be scrap lumber always available so tree forts were my introduction to both wielding a hammer and also how to fall from a height without breaking my skull.

I lost count of the number of nails that I stepped on. Tetanus shots were an annual affair. In time they became just an annoying interruption to whatever project was currently at hand. Neither the nails nor the shots inhibited me.

Once after a cloudburst I was inspired with a spontaneous project. The rain had mainly passed so being outside was not an invitation for a lightning strike. It was damp but not dangerous. The smell of wet grass filled the air.

No one was around, this was purely for my own enjoyment.

The strong but brief rain left a multitude of thin waterfalls streaming from our roof. I guess the rain gutters hadn’t been cleared since fall, because water was finding its way off the roof in every way but the down spout. Each source dripped in its own staccato rhythm.

I raided the kitchen cupboards for pots and aluminum tins of various size. They were always saved, just in case, but never used until now. I placed a tin or tub beneath each stream, amplifying them and ending up with a watery percussion orchestra. It was a glorious cacophony!

My dog Sam was always interested in my projects and followed me closely, always ready should I need assistance of some sort. It was good to have an uncritical audience always at my side.

An occasional squall would add to the source and create a rising crescendo.

Eventually, my ever patient mother called from inside and asked me to cut the racket. It just wasn’t lyrical enough for her taste. Aluminum doesn’t allow for much tuning for pitch. I was mainly capturing the varied rhythms. Sheesh!

Avant Guarde composers Harry Partch and John Cage would have been impressed with my found music but I did not hear of them or their work for another decade. This was original with me, nothing derivative about it. A one-time performance. My own tin pan alley.

The memory of this brief event passed almost as quickly as the storm that initiated it. Now, decades later, it affords me a glimpse of my sensibilities before entering middle school. I now can share this fresh memory with my readers who might find such an account sparks similar memories for them.

Share your story!

 

Distinctive Differences

Hans was the eccentric old guy at the photo lab, where I worked. He was a technician and good at his job. He came across as a kindly old gentleman with a German accent. He minded his business and didn’t bother anyone.

It seemed like everyone in Minnesota had an accent, German, Scandinavian or the weirdest mix of all, Minnesotan.

One day, while on break, he told me about growing up in Germany before WWII. Then he told me about joining the German army and fighting for the Third Reich in Yugoslavia. Then he told me about how their leader, Adolf Hitler, was misunderstood by the world. Poor old Adolf “did a lot of good things,” he said. With great power comes great forgiveness, as Spiderman says. No, wait.

Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” had been released a few years before. My impression of Hans blended with the hilarious, Nazi playwright from that movie, waxing ecstatic over “what a wonderful dancer” Hitler was. Hans wasn’t so demonstrative but he did insist ‘der Fuhrer’ was misunderstood.

A few years later, on my first day of film school in Tampa, Florida, all the buzz was about one instructor, Karl who was a former Luftwaffe pilot in WWII. All the Jewish students were anxious about taking his classes.

Not to worry, Karl, though as severe in countenance as his reputation would suggest, never betrayed any prejudice against any group or individual. He treated everyone with the same superior disdain in keeping with his perfectionist temperament. Considering the styles of some of the other instructors, Karl was consistent, predictable and a purveyor of solid technical information.

Karl also had a dry sense of humor. At least that is how we chose to see it. A fellow student, Bill, once drew Karl into sharing some personal history with us. He was pressed into the German military service as a young teenager and trained to fly a reconnaissance plane, which were unarmed. He spoke tersely of getting captured when a British squadron of fighter planes came out of the clouds and forced him to land.

Bill asked, “But since your plane could fly higher and faster than theirs, couldn’t you have escaped?” Karl gave Bill a look that would unnerve a hawk and delivered a perfect Teutonic response. “You never retreat.” For years we would quote him with our best approximation of his German accent.

Karl came to the United States when he was released from the POW camp. He never looked back.

Years later, in Los Angeles, I worked for his niece, Karola. When I interviewed with her for the job, hearing her last name, her accent, and seeing those familiar features, I knew she could be no one else’s kin. It was an unusual application of my ‘old school tie’.

In the ‘80s, I edited a ‘sword and sorcery’ flick in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a popular genre then. Before going there, all I knew about Argentina was their ‘open door,’ non-extradition policy that welcomed Nazis escaping prosecution after WWII. Mad Magazine always poked fun at their pompous, latter day fascism.

While visiting the set one day, the studio photographer approached me and introduced himself as Juan Schultz, in a curious, German/Spanish accent. In conspiratorial tones, he told me proudly about his being Hitler’s staff photographer. He claimed he documented Hitler meeting Mussolini, and shaking hands with the Pope. He challenged my disbelief with insistent defensiveness. Alas, photographic proof was lost in his hasty exit from Germany.

He escaped to Argentina and changed his name after the war, like many others, to avoid prosecution. He was well on in years, and it could have been true. A shame about that proof.

I’ll never understand why anyone would brag about that, even if true. It is hardly the stuff one puts on their resume. Or, at least I wouldn’t. But in Buenos Aires, it seemed to open many doors.

People cannot keep dark secrets from the light. The same qualities of character that lead us into dark actions, are those which cause us to proudly broadcast them.

My co-worker Hans was an Al Bundy type, nostalgic for the glory days of that game winning touchdown. How could condemning something so glorious be anything but the result of a misunderstanding?

Karl was not nostalgic. He was no ideologue. As anyone would, he pursued opportunities to forge a new life in his adopted country. But he didn’t trade on his past.

Juan was the oddest one. While successfully escaping responsibility for his participation in infamy, he also made his fortune from those associations. And within the right context, he burnished his reputation from his sordid past.

These three men are familiar types. Not specific to one time or place, they are found throughout humanity. We each find ourselves carried by the currents of history. How we choose to respond to those forces is what is telling.

 

 

Eyebrows and Fog

My mother is a woman to be reckoned with. She recently celebrated her ninety-third birthday at her home. About fifty people brought her flowers and cards. One attending friend (who drives her to the gym) told me he once offered her his opinion on politics.

“She got this hard look in her eye and let me know just what she thought of my opinion. I won’t make that mistake again.”

I know that look. My siblings and I would joke about “the eyebrow.” When that eyebrow went up it was time to get out.

Mom was always pragmatic. One Sunday I just didn’t feel like going to church. I was about six years old. Rather than fight with me, or deal with a cranky kid in church, she gave me the eyebrow and made me promise to sit on the front stoop until she got back. That morning I learned about keeping my word, about trust and about grace. I knew not to cross her. I was outside, but my world was confined to our front step until she drove back up our drive.

Mom is one of the “Greatest Generation.” She grew up in the Great Depression, the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her mother was divorced at a time when no one divorced. Being a single mother of four, her mother worked selling advertising at a Polish newspaper in Detroit, Michigan. When she was laid off “because a man needed the job,” she struck a deal to work for commission only, and still out-earned the “needy man” on salary. My mother, only a girl then, pulled up the slack at home.

Mom picks her battles and generally wins them. “Fair is fair” was our primary ethical teaching when growing up. It seemed to apply to everything but when pressed, no one could quite explain what it meant.

My dog Sam chased some kids biking by our house and scared them, but she wasn’t vicious. Mom went to court to fight for Sam’s life. Mom stood up to the judge. He threatened her with “contempt of court” but she didn’t back down. She demanded that he be fair and won. We were so proud of her when she  saved my dog Sam.

Driving at night was the only activity intimidating to my Mom. If she had to, she would tough it out but night blindness is tough to bluster through. Whatever the situation, a solution was found.

One night she needed to pick up my sister after her piano lessons. It was dark and foggy. Mom brought my brother Jeff and me along and had us hang out of the windows to help navigate up the winding four lane parkway. I was behind her and Jeff hung out the passenger side window.

When I saw our car approaching the curb on the opposite side of the road I yelled out. Mom swerved back to the right and pulled over. It was just too much for her. Jeff didn’t have his license yet but was tall enough to reach the pedals and steer. Mom put him behind the wheel. Jeff got a lesson and we got my sister and safely home.

I recently asked her if she remembers that night and she affirmed it was as vivid as if it were yesterday.

She is now packing to fly across country to visit her first great-grandson, and teach him a thing or two about eyebrows.

 

Third Party Blues

“Uh oh! There’s only one more scoop of ice cream left. Not enough to split four ways. I guess I’ll just put in my bowl. No one will notice. More for me.”

Sounds like some politician “redistributing” wealth into his own pocket.

The prevailing ethical guidance I received from my mother when growing up was “Fair is fair.” That phrase was in regular use when any dispute arose.

The one who served was always the last to choose when dessert time came. It kept the server honest. What a concept.

My sister Jan was always on board for this. She became the dessert ‘meister’. Her servings of ice cream always surpassed expectations. She didn’t short herself, or anyone else. What a great sister.

In fifth grade I learned another principle of Distributive Justice.

My class had nine boys and thirteen girls. Our teacher, Miss Hendrickson asked for nominations to elect our class president.

There was no campaign, there were no responsibilities. It was a popularity contest. But Miss Hendrickson had a subtler lesson to convey.

The class immediately coalesced into ‘parties’ organically determined by gender, not ideology (gender is not an ideology, nor is popularity). We boys quickly realized that our four vote deficit put us at a huge disadvantage.

Who would be so primitive as to vote based merely on gender? Fifth graders.

A note to those who think there is no difference between the sexes. Try telling that to a fifth grader. Try getting three girls to switch their vote to the boy (or vice versa) and your theory will be dashed. Anyone would know they had more to lose than to gain by switching sides in that contest.

(Even if the boy was ‘cute’ only one girl stood to benefit by switching her vote. And she could expect to pay dearly for her fawning disloyalty.)

The girls gloated and the boys wailed as each side considered the implications of the uneven distribution of votes. It was an unsolvable problem.

The most popular boy, Barry, got nominated and seconded. The boys were grimly determined to vote as a block despite the certain defeat.

Of course, the girls nominated one of their own. However, factions formed and a dispute arose over which of the two most popular girls should be nominated. With shushing and demands for solidarity they settled on a single candidate. It would be a cake walk.

Then Barry did something outrageous and incomprehensible. Probably the smartest kid in the class, Barry broke ranks and nominated the second most popular girl for class president. How could he!

An immediate outburst of protest from the boy’s camp denounced this betrayal. Barry assured the boys that he knew what he was doing. Another boy seconded the nomination.

Despite Barry’s assurances, some purists in the boy’s camp continued to grumble about this travesty.

A girl asked Miss Hendrickson if it was legal for a boy to nominate a girl.

Smiling at the drama, our teacher said the nominations are open and students could nominate whomever and as many as they wish. She repeated that everyone can vote once for whomever they desire.

The girls realized that with the girl’s vote split, Barry might win. A flurry of whispering and emphatic gestures ensued. They tried to enforce party unity but with little success. And they neglected to counter by nominating a second boy.

I’m sure it is no surprise that Barry won the majority vote, straight down ‘party’ lines. The girl’s mixed loyalties blinded them and made Barry’s ploy a success.

I forgot about that little event until Ross Perot ran for president in 1992, on a third party ticket against George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. His splitting the Republican vote gave us Bill Clinton. Thanks Ross.

These days there is much discussion on both sides about possible third and maybe even fourth party runs for president.

I can’t wait.

 

Missed Opportunities

My 2nd grade teacher, a young, pretty, blond woman, Miss Johnson, did her best to maintain order in the classroom while also trying to teach us something.

I had my differences with her but, when I heard Miss Johnson retired the year after she taught my class, it never occurred to me that I might be responsible. It was curious that a teacher would choose to leave the profession at such a young age.

The first conflict I had with Miss Johnson makes sense in retrospect. She knew I was a fan of the great children’s book, “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel”. It was a classic, stark depiction of how evil capitalists drive poor workers out of their jobs with their endless pursuit of ever more efficiency. Mike gets drawn into a contest to prove his steam shovel’s worth by out-digging some new gizmo that excavates faster and cheaper. (A thinly veiled updating of the folk legend, John Henry).

Mike proves to be so successful with his steam shovel, that he effectively digs himself out of a job by digging himself into a hole so deep that he cannot get out. (Politicians, take note.) Mike proved himself to be a hard worker, not the smartest brick in the pile.

Mike ends his days quietly tending his beloved steam shovel, now converted into a furnace, in the basement of the office building constructed above them. On reflection, the message seems muddled. But, at least Mike owned the tools of production!

Miss Johnson decided to dramatize this morality tale and engaged the whole class in the construction of a steam shovel out of card-board boxes. Unbeknownst to me, she was in a power struggle (with me) for control of the class. Casting me as Mike Mulligan was the center piece of her plan to regain control.

Being essentially a one character drama, and also being primarily an internal conflict, of Mike proving himself to himself, this was a boring story to watch (despite my stellar acting). More to the point, she expected the whole class to sit passively for the performance of a one-man show, when the essence of learning is active engagement. This woman didn’t know the first thing about stage-craft!

Did she cast me as the star and sole character to make me an ally? Or to disenchant the rest of the class with my ‘over-arching ego’? I will never know.

I sensed she held me responsible for the unenthusiastic response from my classmates. It couldn’t have been her writing, directing or choice of material.

Perhaps she felt I put in a lackluster performance. To be honest, the steam shovel kept upstaging me.

The real break between Miss Johnson and myself occurred later that winter. During lunch and recess, students were required to play outside in the snow.

Miss Johnson instituted a policy that anyone returning to class with wet pants, was required to remove them, and sit in class with their coat wrapped around their waist. Her stated reason was concern that we not catch pneumonia from sitting in damp clothes.

That girls were not subject to this draconian treatment, due to their wearing skirts and dresses, struck me as blatantly sexist. (True!) Requiring only boys to sit in their underwear in a co-ed class was an unabashed strategy of shame and humiliation. It was also weird.

Other boys attempted to play the situation for laughs by ‘accidentally’ dropping their covering and other antics. I would never submit to such undignified treatment.

Miss Johnson knew instinctively that she would have a first class war on her hands, should she ever demand that I remove my pants. Despite her efforts to intimidate, she knew her limits.

It was rumored (and I take no pride in this) that I was the cause of Miss Johnson’s premature retirement. My mother told me the full story when I was in college.

Miss Johnson told my mother that I had control of her class. She claimed, “When John wants to work, everyone works, and when John wants to play, everyone plays.” She further asserted that I had proven impervious to her attempts to win me over and wrest control of the class from my hands.

This came to light when Miss. Johnson requested an interview with my Mom, about my behavior. They discussed her efforts to control me, in the classroom, while my classmates and I quietly read.

I knew nothing of this power struggle. Imagine, a 2nd grader successfully conspiring to lead fellow students in rebellion against their teacher. Does this seem plausible? If only…

My mother claimed that as the meeting progressed, she watched me demurely read my book. She found it absurd that I was somehow diabolically defying this obviously incompetent teacher. I appeared incapable of the monstrous behavior described to her.

I was flabbergasted when she told me, and dismayed at the long, lost opportunity. If I had had any idea, of the power I held, imagine what I would have accomplished.

The course of my life could have been so different. I could’ve been a contender.

I could have taken over the world!

 

Be Like Me

No, actually. I think you should be like you, more than you should be like me.

Ever realize, when people talk to you, they would rather be talking to themselves? Whether they are smarter than me or less so, the dominant standard for ‘shouldness’ is that I should adapt to how they see the world.

Really?

I don’t want to. I like the way I see things. I think everyone’s life would be better if they saw the world like me. Don’t you agree?

Or would it? If we all see things exactly the same, aren’t some of us redundant?

I have known some seriously smart people in my life. Their ability to grasp concepts in a moment that I must struggle with, is humbling. Yet some of those ‘geniuses’ spend their lives barely keeping menial jobs.

Not that productivity is the standard for a person’s worth.

Some people are smart but barely able to function on a daily basis. So is what makes them so smart, the ability to get others to tie their shoes for them? Thanks but no thanks.

The standard is also not the ability to talk circles around another. That soon becomes a form of circus act. The entertainment value of talking down to those less gifted is quickly depleted.

When teaching Special Education students in Middle School, I learned the greatest barrier to their learning was learned helplessness. They were convinced they couldn’t learn. Yet they learned that it was easier not to try, than to try and fail.

However, incremental failing is how most of us learn.

Give these kids a video game and most of them could beat me at it. But they considered themselves stupid because ‘anyone can play video games’. Anyone but their teacher.

A huge part of the problem is the medium in which most of us communicate – words, and the concrete value many of us place on abstract concepts.

For instance, can you grasp ‘smart’? Or ‘not smart’? How do they feel? Which one has more heft? Is a person bright because they have been enlightened?

So many words are metaphors of metaphors that if looked at too closely, a word’s meaning simply evaporates from too intense a gaze. Words are useful tools but don’t try to fix a car with one.

For all their subtle beauty, words seem to hold us back more often than not. As the avalanche of words grows, actual communication diminishes. I sometimes wonder how communication takes place at all.

Can one truly understand anyone else? Some speakers remind me of sleepwalkers groping blindly with phantom dreams. Who cares about transmitting information? Is there an app for that?

People used to worship objects. More and more, they idolize the words representing those objects. The word is not the thing.

The notes on the page of sheet music are not the music we hear, but are actually coarse symbols of that which cannot be contained or described. And there is a quality in the playing that cannot be noted. Only enjoyed.

Words, like musical notes, can only point to the glowing, ineffable variety that abounds before us .

I half suspect the animal kingdom, sensing how effectively words distance us from direct experience, abandoned words to us, less advanced humans. Animals seem to get along pretty well without our self-proclaimed ‘higher reasoning abilities’. If they spoke to us, I suspect they would tell us to stop meddling.

We humans are so good at making distinctions that we fail to embrace the whole. Then time and again we end up with the proverbial, dissected frog and deny that it could ever have jumped.

After all, who directs a flock of birds in their spontaneous, wheeling arpeggio of flight? Let me see the memo.

Our generation, so adoring of its own incessant verbiage, forgot the concept of ‘less is more’.

During WWII, my future father-in-law, wrote his bride daily while stationed in Europe. Knowing his letters would be read by others, he used encoded messages, within his text, to keep her informed of his whereabouts. Both efficient and effective, he layered his words with multiple meanings.

If economy of expression is a mark of this elusive intelligence, I accept that this long essay disqualifies me.

Nowadays, our so called ‘social media’ leaches the ‘social’ from our lives. As the output of words increases, meaning is diminished proportionately. And personal distance is also increased.

One small advance, Twitter, restricts the length of our innumerable empty declarations to 140 characters. Huzzah!

Emoticons, our new hieroglyphic mode of expression, confound me. My attempts look more like the curse words found in the comic strips than the coy expression I intended. #(:-!%!

Texting allows us to transform what would be a ten second verbal exchange into a multi-layered series of confusions, misfires and murk. Add ‘auto-correct’ to that and we are one, tipped domino away from the collapse of Western civilization.

Ultimately, it isn’t the word count, but the meaning and emotion evoked that counts.

Words can wound or open our eyes to the sublime. Who would think mere vibrations in space, something as pliable as words, could pierce a heart so deeply? Please explain exactly how that works (in 25 words, or less).

In college I had the opportunity to attend two concerts by the musical genius/trickster, John Cage. His most famous work 4’33” consists of a single musician or group, not playing their instruments for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The ‘piece’ (such as it is) consists of the ambient sounds made by the audience, but any ‘musical’ sound is forbidden.

I never had the pleasure of witnessing a performance of 4’33”. (I just discovered there is an app allowing me to ‘play’ this piece by myself! Some might consider that self abuse.)

The first concert consisted of selections of Henry Thoreau’s writing, cut up into words and phrases and reassembled randomly to be read aloud. This reduced the words to mere sounds and sapped any coherent meaning from them. It was a real toe tapper.

Then, I saw a concert of a pianist playing Cage’s ‘Star Maps’ (the score was created by superimposing star maps on a musical scale), which was stark and coldly beautiful.

After the ‘Star Map’ concert, Cage accepted questions from the audience. After answering several cerebral questions from people ‘in on the game’, Cage called upon me.

Attempting to add to the absurdity, I asked him, why don’t avant-garde composers write music that is ‘happy’?

Pressed for clarification I added, if all sound can be considered ‘music’, why not write music that evokes positive emotions rather than leaving one feeling alienated and depressed? (Whatever that means…)

He mumbled something about his belief that such music is ‘happy’. That he closed the questioning down at that point, surprised me. Many in the audience were audibly disgusted at my jejune question.

My understanding was, the whole enterprise was a playful exploration of how our minds attach meaning to random sounds. Yet my question was treated as too insipid to be considered. Considering the context, why was my ‘meaningless’ question worth less than anyone else’s?

How could one silly question so easily puncture the hot air balloon of their elevated discourse?

Isn’t This Fun?

I once participated in an egg toss with my son Eliot, at a company picnic. Our egg, despite being dropped on the grass several times, miraculously survived the game intact. I kept the prized egg safe and brought it home to cook.

Breaking the shell revealed the yoke and white, pre-scrambled. Despite its un-marred appearance, the soft interior could not survive the many shocks to its delicate membranes.

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“Isn’t this fun?”

That is the last thing I said to my sister on our first toboggan ride down ‘Suicide Hill’, before we wiped out.

When we hit the dip, I went airborne and landed spread-eagled on my face. I slid a few feet but didn’t move. Witnesses thought I was dead.

So much for pratfalls.

My sister also went airborne but landed on her tail bone. That must have hurt. I didn’t hear about her until after I regained consciousness.

Luckily, I didn’t break my neck. They rolled me onto the toboggan and pulled it to the chalet at Wirth Park in Minneapolis.

I woke up blind. I was in shock. Violent convulsions wracked my body until long after my stomach was empty.

Between convulsions, a paramedic asked me questions. He ran his finger nail up the sole of my foot to determine if I had sensations in my extremities. Which foot did I feel? Could I clench my right fist? My left? He passed a flashlight beam over my eyes.

I felt someone’s cool hand on my forehead.

I began to sense dim light. My sight slowly returned.

My parents couldn’t be located. Without their authority, and insurance information, we had nowhere to go. Neighbors were there for us. Cell phones didn’t exist.

My folks arrived and took us to the hospital. I had stabilized by then. It was cold and dark.

In the emergency room, a doctor glanced at me as he walked by. “Oh no. We can’t have this.” He came up to me, smiled, and popped my nose back straight. I never saw him again.

Keeping me alive had been the priority. That my broken nose drew attention meant the immediate crisis was past. Good to know I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life looking like a Picasso portrait.

I spent the night hospitalized, but with little rest. The nurses woke me every half hour to take my blood pressure ensuring I hadn’t hemorrhaged. They ignored my demands to let me sleep.  I never got to thank them.

My recovery was slow. A TV was set up in my room but I couldn’t stand the frenetic pace and shrill cheerfulness pouring from the screen.

A friend brought over some comedy albums to listen to, Bob Newhart and Vaughn Meader’s “First Family”. Though I knew the material, it now was a jumble of voices punctuated by raucous laughter.

Even ‘soothing’ music was too intense for me. Watching snow fall was about all I could handle, if the sound was turned down.

Movies and TV dramas portray a concussion as of little more consequence than a hang nail.

The hero falls off a cliff. He gets up, dusts himself off and declares with slightly crossed eyes, “I’m okay. Just a concussion…” He then returns to juggling, or playing drums, hardly missing a beat.

My experience was substantially different.

I had time to think, but an orderly thought process was an unfamiliar concept. My scrambled brain wasn’t even producing white noise.

After a week of my staring into space, my mother asked my siblings to play Hearts with me. The game had basic rules, required moderate manual dexterity, and provided simple memory exercise. It was the perfect game to focus my brain again.

I missed two full weeks of school and didn’t feel 100% after that.

Ideally, I think that trauma begets intelligence. With adversity, one develops strategies, abilities and perspective with which to deal with life.

We learn from our mistakes.

Or not.

I tried to learn from my older brothers’ mistakes. But very occasionally I came up with some doozy that they never would.

I have run off enough cliffs and into enough walls to know I lack Wiley Coyote’s resilience.

I now prefer steep learning curves to steep hills.

However, exercising judicious caution, one must not forfeit the liberty to take on risk. You cannot avoid risk. You must manage it.

When falling, whether to the left or right is ultimately a meaningless question. The goal is staying balanced on the wire.

Life threatening mistakes push the envelope too far, too fast. And there is always the risk of never applying those ‘invaluable life lessons’, because the clock stopped ticking.

It took a long time to recover from that concussion. Some people think I never did. Suffice to say, I was never quite the same.

Is anyone?