Starry night

Our four year-old grandson, Tyler, is an aficianado of fine art and classical music. 

Seriously. He’s been like this for half of his life, since he was a mere child enthralled by the cartoon series Little Einsteins on the Disney Channel.

This painting may be familiar to you but in case you don’t know the title and artist, you could just ask Tyler. It’s the renowned Starry Night by Dutch impressionist Vincent Van Gogh.
Tyler has it hanging in his bedroom. Oh, not the original, of course. Just a poster. It’s there, right next to many others including one his Nana and I considered a startling discovery in the bedroom of a very little boy.

There, among the Thomas the Train tracks and electronic piano is Edvard Munch’s alien nightmare, The Scream.

I don’t get it. Art, I mean.

Oh, I recognize the craftsmanship involved in combining all those tiny brush or pen strokes to create a picture which is recognizable as an image from life or imagination. Even impressionists leave an impression on me. (Though, don’t get me started on the chaos of abstract, or modern, art.)

No, what I don’t get is the marvelous functioning of minds that perceive with dazzling clarity worlds I cannot fathom. The ability of genius to sense beyond my senses is a divine gift which challenges the concept of normal and allows me an occasional glimpse into a greater reality.

I find it enormously comforting.

Sometimes a child so young that he struggles to express himself verbally may also be dancing in the heavens while picking out the classic melodies of Mozart and Chopin on a toy keyboard with nothing but a cartoon and an undiscouraged potential to guide him.

The gifted frolic like otters in many realities at once while the vast rest of us cling to “normal.”

Forever and ever, amen!

Carolann and me, June 4, 1988Twenty-one years ago today CarolAnn and I stood together in front of a small lake before a crowd of some three hundred seated on hay bales. They were all dressed in Western boots and hats and beaming with love, or at least anticipation.

The minister was perched above us, standing on a small platform on the back end of an ancient buckboard wagon adorned with flowers. We were in white, he was in his black robe wearing a silly looking cowboy hat with feathers sticking out of the brim, a last-minute donation by a member of the congregation.

He was proud of that hat.

The horses on which we had arrived held their quiet respect.

Under an overcast sky which had threatened to rain on all of us since our arrival a few hours earlier, our minister began the traditional address:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God to join this man and this woman in the eternal bonds of holy matrimony.”

A peacock cried out from the distance: “Help! Help!”

That is truly how peacocks sound and what they seem to be yelling. It cracked everybody up.

I mugged mercilessly.

The ceremony continued. Our sons, ages eleven and seven, dressed in their own little Western tuxedos and cowboy hats, brought forth the rings.

“If anyone can show cause why this man and this woman should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace!”

My six groomsmen, a rugged gang of cowboys, drew their revolvers and scanned the crowd with a scowl and certain threat. Everybody laughed again.

And then, God chimed in.Milhous Ranch June 4, 1988

The clouds that had covered the proceedings all day parted slightly, dramatically, and an array of golden sunbeams shot through the sky and landed squarely and solely on CarolAnn and me.

I swear, that’s just how it happened. The crowd noticed. We heard the whispered exclamations.

The minister glanced up with more than a hint of awe.

“By the power vested in me by the state of California and the County of Nevada, I hereby pronounce you man and wife.”

I kissed her.

Gunshots rang out from my groomsmen, hooting and hollering as the crowd laughed, cheered, and cried.

Twenty one years ago today.

Our love is all grown up. We are grown up. And happily honeymooning, still.

In the words of “our song,” (which I talked Randy Travis into singing for us live on KABC radio in Los Angeles…)

…as long as old men sit and talk about the weather,
as long as old women sit and talk about old men.
If you wonder how long I’ll be faithful
just listen to how this song ends…
I’m gonna love you forever and ever..,
Forever and ever…
Forever and ever…
Forever and ever…

  A-men!”

Here’s what’s up, Doc…

Like most men my age I don’t go to the doctor often enough.

Why should I? I’m fine.

The last time I paid a visit to my local learned disciple of Hippocrates was sometime last year when I had a panic attack. It had never happened before and with no experience I was concerned that I might be in the early throes of a heart thing. Not a heart attack. You know, just a “thing.”

It was very responsible of me. “Honey,” I told Carolann, “I think you should take me to the emergency room just to have this thing checked out.”

Aside from the fact that those hastily-spoken words cost me hundreds of dollars despite months of haggling with my insurance company, it was probably the most grownup thing I’ve done in decades.

It was only a panic attack. Twenty-nine people in my office had been fired that day. Go figure.

But, doctors need to understand something and if you know one personally, please do us all a favor and send him or her the following note:

Your holy Magnificence;

Mindful as I am of your superior breeding, social standing, intellect, training and anthropological evolution, I will make this as brief as possible. I am, of course, properly awed to be graced by your audience. As a mere mortal who has mindlessly placed my very life in your hands simply because you have a waiting room (EXCELLENT choice of name, by the way!) littered by the moaning, wheezing, coughing street denizens from Oliver!, and by the very impressive framed, yellow sheets of mumbo-jumbo accreditation posted on the wall nobody ever read, I beseech you:

Please remove the scale from the hall between your gatekeeper’s station and my holding cell, wherein I await you.

I am in your office because I’m sure that I have contracted cancer. Prostate, heart, throat, lung, stomach, hair or nails cancer — whichever it is, I’m sure I have one or more. (I work in the news business.) If not cancer, a malignant brain tumor. Or maybe I have something medical science hasn’t yet discovered. Terminal toe fungus, perhaps. The point is, I’m not visiting you and your insurance poltergeists just for my health.

You people scare the shit out of me and I know it’s by design.

But then you insist on conditioning me for Your Highness’s arrival. Protocol must be observed.

I am called forth from my leisurely repose in the company of the unwashed, looking at, but not actually reading, a six month old copy of Parenting magazine.

Your unholy Host hands me yet another clip board with still more pages to fill out, pages that require long answers handwritten into very short blank spaces. She bids me forth, into your lair. First, however, inevitably as death itself, I am ordered to stand on the scale.

I could be clutching an obviously broken arm, a compound fracture with bone protruding from my elbow; I might be spewing blood from an otherwise empty eye socket, and still you would need to know my weight.

WHY??

I’m sorry, Excellence. Guess I’m just a little self-consciousness.

I do note, however, that your big, professional, no doubt expensive scale inevitably registers me at fifteen pounds heavier than the one in my bathroom.

Nevertheless, I swallow that indignity and step into examination room 2 or 3. Sometimes 4, but that’s okay because you might already be in number 3! Or maybe you’re in number 5 and I have another hour to wait. Who knows? Not me. Nor, do I have a need to know! And certainly,  your staff isn’t troubled to take a wild guess.

And so, I sit… rising occasionally to examine the enlightening, if not fascinating, forty-year-old charts of the unisex human abdomen revealed in full — though, no doubt, inaccurate — color.

And then, suddenly, the ultimate indignity — your twenty-three year old female assistant, undersecretary nurse, or whatever the hell she is, enters and tells me to strip to my waist so that I might sublimate myself to await your esteemed arrival.

She leaves me to my privacy. She gives me a pleasant smile.

It’s not a personal smile. It’s nothing at all like the “checking you out!” smiles I got from twenty-three-year-old women when I was twenty-six. It’s a smile like my granddaughter might give me if she had just met me for the first time in her life and thought I smelled funny.

She leaves, closing the door before I gather the presence of mind to ask, “When you say strip to the waist, do you mean from the top down or from the bottom up?” At my age I can’t ask a twenty-three-year-old girl something like that, anyway. I’ll wait for you, Herr Doktor!

And I wait. And I wait some more.

I want to phone my wife for support but there is no cell service here.

I peek inside the drawers. Very long q-tips; ancient, barbaric looking instruments which have uses I can’t imagine.

I play with the pump on the wall-mounted blood pressure monitor which is never used because you have newer, better ones in the bottom drawer, purchased at CVS Pharmacy.

I don’t mind that the issues of Sports Illustrated in your examination rooms are eight months old. I never read them in the first place. I’ll start now, as I conscientiously forget about my terminal earlobe cancer.

Finally, you arrive!

The door fairly bursts from it’s insignificant hinges in your ethereal presence!

“Mr. Williams!” you boom, thrown into an unearthly relief of backlit brilliance. “How are we today?”

I begin to stammer that “we” are fine but I never quite get the words past my trembling, genuflecting lips.

“I see you still haven’t lost that weight,” you intone, with a wink and a flash of a teasing smile. But I know the underlying prognosis is terminal. I’m going to die very soon because I’m fat. You told me that the last time I was here and now you’re reminding me as gently and cruelly as possible. My fault. My bad. I haven’t lost weight and now I shall die.

By the time you’ve looked in my wax-impacted ears, my decay-laden, bad-breath mouth and my relentlessly bloodshot, darting eyes…

I have no idea why I came in here to begin with.

I just want to go home. Now.

Nostalgia run amuck

As I get older and have determined as a pert-near certainty that the time of my life will never pause or reverse itself, I increasingly find I am comparing life in America when I was a child with the great fears and uncertainties of now and tomorrow.

I get a lot of emails from my contemporaries (an odd word to apply to people well past midlife) which tickle my brain to call out my happy, youthful self and to remember:

…when Mom stayed home and cooked and cleaned while I went to school and Dad brought home the bacon.

…when every breakfast was eaten at the table with the whole family there to discuss their daily plans and hopes. We’d reconvene for dinner to discuss our daily achievements.

…when we had no virtual technological distractions except for three channels of black and white small screen miracles.

–when Sundays were for church and family; when nobody had what they wanted but everybody had all they needed.

You get those emails, too. They’re fun. But maybe the most engaging ones are those which remind us how much more safe and sane our old world seemed.

We didn’t have “drive-by” random murders in the fifties and sixties. Never.

None of my friends was ever snatched off the street by a gang-banger or boogie man.

None of the kids I knew was ever physically assaulted or molested. Not that I ever heard of, anyway.

Inevitably these journeys through the past offer us wistful glances of a world that was much easier to navigate and in which we could lay our heads at night, secure in the comfort and peace of our own bedrooms, on our Spin and Marty sheets and pillow cases, and with a quiet “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” we could revel in the day we just lived and exalt in the gift of yet another day tomorrow. And for all the tomorrows we could imagine and more.

So, here’s how I see it.

It doesn’t matter when you were born. My four and six-year-old grandsons will have the same wondrous journeys and make the same magical memories as I did, and as did my father and grandfather before me. And fifty years from now they’ll tell their kids and grandkids how primitive life was in the early twenty-first century.

And they’ll love the memories.

No time is better than another. The magic lies in being young enough to have nothing with which to compare it.

‘twixt text or tweet

This morning in one of my KABC radio newscasts I read a story about British scientists who are developing digital technologies to assist the elderly and disabled in matters of everyday living.

The story explained how one invaluable tool we’ll all soon have to help us find our way through the labyrinth of our old-age dodderage is a Global Positioning System to find what we need in the grocery store.

Need to track down the canned peas? Check your GPS.

And they’re serious.

At this point in my life, as a young elderly man, I still bear enough conceit to believe that if I eventually get so befuddled as to be unable to find the canned vegetables without consulting my Garmin Geezer I should probably stay home.

How the hell am I supposed to find the store in the first place if I can’t find the peas once I get there?

And, we all know how adept the elderly are at figuring out how to use new gadgets and how much they enjoy the challenge!

My dear mother, bless her heart, is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Her sharp wit, her native intellect and her instinctive, loving charm have been an inspirational influence in me for fifty-eight years. They still are.

But the computer we bought her for Christmas several years ago is just a giant paperweight in her dining room. It’s furniture, actually. She placed doilies on the monitor and speakers. My bronzed baby shoes adorn the keyboard. She sprays lemon-scented Endust on the cpu tower, carefully avoiding the power button so as not to accidentally activate the thing.

And I’m starting to get it…

I’ve been paying bills and shopping online for nearly two decades. I embraced the interactive charms of the Internet back in the day when Prodigy allowed you to post notes on bulletin boards and anxiously await responses from people thousands of miles away.

I play Lord of the Rings Online and before that I spent years with my wife and our international friends playing Everquest and Everquest II. We talk into microphones in real-time with people around the world while we’re playing. (Though, we don’t know the next door neighbors.)

Email is the twentieth century invention of the wheel and fire.

I IM (Instant Message); I have a Facebook page which commands about 40% of my semi-wasted life (much more if you subtract the time I sleep) and now, dadgummit…I have been sucked into Twitter.

I admit this with a mix of confusion and shame:

I am tweeting.

I don’t get it, but I’m curious and trying to keep an open mind.

Twitter, for those of you who have real lives with face-to-face personal relationships, is a means of communicating with people in the most shallow way yet devised, with very short bursts of written expression.  You have a limit of 140 typed characters for each message with which you decide to annoy your friends and loved ones. These are called “Tweets.” These can be read by your “followers” on computers and Internet-enabled cell phones like Blackberry and iPhone.

For example, imagine you’re at work between conferences with your law partners and a potential major corporate client. During a quick break you check your Twitter:

“I’m trying to decide whether to take a nap or go buy milk.”

“I need a nap. Or a beer. Or both.”

“Wish you were here. Not really, LOL! 🙂 I prefer being alone in my cave but I want you to think highly of me.”

And, the honest tweet you’ll never receive:

“The best thing about Twitter is that I can tell you what I’m thinking without having to listen to your response. C-ya!”

Minute to minute intrusions throughout the day, meaningless mind farts to and from people you love and used to admire.

I swear…

Among the many gifts God gave us none is greater than the ability to keep our thoughts to ourselves and the inherent good judgement to do so.

“And theyyyrre off!…”

On Mondays I figure out how long I’ve been unemployed. Today begins my twelfth week as a victim of the depressed economy. (That was wry humor. I’m not a victim of anything. I just have a long subscription to life.)

I’m neither ashamed nor much concerned by my layoff. I know Americans take pride in working hard and I did for nearly forty years. Now I’m taking pride in catching a break and spending my free days wisely. I’m resting, seeing more of my family and Carolann and I have taken up a new hobby: horse racing.

I suppose most people with extra time on their hands discover gardening or join reading groups. Carolann and I have discovered how to box exactas and read racing forms. Yesterday we spent our third full day in three weeks at Santa Anita Park and we love every minute of it. The storied home of Seabiscuit absolutely oozes a dramatic history involving magnificent animals and courageous, short men. The weather is perfect, the landscaping is immaculate and every thirty minutes is spent in brow-furrowed study, the anticipatory trip to a parimutuel window and the race itself, a climax of mass excitement!

I’m convinced that Santa Anita is populated by Central Casting. Everybody you’ve ever seen in a racing movie is there: old men in frumpy hats pulling on cigarettes and studying charts, young men filled with too much beer and testosterone, and happily, though somewhat oddly — families with young children looking as if they took a wrong turn enroute to Disneyland.

The sweet aroma of fresh grass, rich turf and plush floral displays, the Call to the Post, the clunk and ringing of the starting gate and the roar of the crowd is all quite invigorating.

If learning to gamble seems like a ridiculous pastime for somebody unemployed and pinching pennies, consider this: Six hours of outdoor fun and wagering excitement yesterday cost us about seventeen bucks. Next week we might win*. Try to beat that at a movie theater.

* In the spirit of full disclosure I must report Carolann actually did win yesterday. My losses dragged down our average.

Of aging gracefully: keeping up or giving up

“When I look at the younger generation, I despair of the future of civilisation.” — Aristotle, 300BC

Not exactly an original thought, is it? Who among us over 40-somethings hasn’t worried about the future of the world because we just don’t understand kids today? And yet, if you’re like me, you are also annoyed that over the years you have apparently turned into your own father.

My father was a good, strong man in every way; he was a devoted and loving dad and a good provider. He could make me think, make me smile and he hugged me when I needed courage. But at some point he just stopped going along with all the nonsense in the world.

As he got older my dad used to rail against the collapse of American values, corruption in American politics and the loss of American jobs (to China, mainly.) When he whittled it all down he figured all the problems in this country started in millions of homes at empty dinner tables while moms as well as dads conducted their own lives outside of the house. He never expressed his disdain for women working outside the home but I think he felt it. Kids were left to raise themselves, he’d say, parents were allowing kids freedoms they weren’t ready to enjoy responsibly.

Life, my dad thought, had gone down the crapper. As he put it to me more than once, “I like people individually but as a species we’re not worth a damn.”

Sometimes I think that way, too. It annoys me, not because I’m channeling my dad but because it feels like I’m digging in my heels and giving up. I’m edging closer to the rocking chair and I don’t want to go there.

Yesterday the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition. Newspapers across the country are losing their grip on the Information Age. There’s just too much competition from electronic gadgets and cyber sources. Nobody has time to read anymore. “News” is gleaned from short sound bites on television and radio. Broadcasting is a technology slipping into history

Nobody wants to talk these days. We’d rather text and tweet than actually have a conversation. Expressing ourselves electronically is easier and more efficient; it removes the inconvenience of having to listen.

As I watch the world evolve beyond my personal comfort zone I have come to understand why each succeeding generation eventually reaches a point where it can’t or simply refuses to keep up. We all fall victim to the inevitable grip of nostalgia and are given to wistful expressions of “Back in my day…” We long for a simpler time that probably wasn’t really simpler, we were just younger, more curious and more resilient.

We just get tired, I think. That’s okay but when we do that we have to accept a very hard truth: time is passing us by and our culture won’t stop to wait for us to catch up.

Whether that is aging gracefully or quitting, you’ll have to decide for yourself. I’m going to try to keep up for awhile.

(Copyright 2009, D.L. Williams. All rights reserved.)

“There, but for the grace of God…”

I always thought that seemed a smug presumption.

You know the rest of it: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It presumes that the poor bastard you’re referring to did not have (and by implication must not have deserved) the grace of God and you are therefore thankful to God that it was somebody else and not you who was dropped into life’s dunk tank.

A couple of weeks ago I got a note from a special friend telling me that he had just attended his son’s 32nd birthday party. It was a joyous affair with many friends and members from both sides of the young man’s family in attendance. The birthday boy’s own daughter was there. You can just imagine.

Then, my friend told me that a couple of days later his son, his pride and joy, had been killed in a car crash while going to the mountains for a day of snowboarding with a friend.

I reject the smug presumption and yet, I can’t stop thinking it.

My own son’s 32nd birthday was two days ago, barely a week after my friend lost his. We went to dinner, gave him gifts, sang to him, lit candles, cut the cake and when the evening was over I hugged him tighter than usual and told him this story.

“You’re not supposed to bury your kids,” I told my son as he held his own son in his arms. “When you were born I made a deal with God. I promised to raise you and give you all the things you would need to make a wonderful, happy life for yourself. In exchange I simply asked that he not let me bury you.”

I hugged him again. I hugged my grandson and my friend, though he wasn’t there.

And I gave silent thanks to God in the form of a seemingly smug presumption. But now I realize it isn’t like that.

It’s just the natural confluence of relief and faith.

Nothing special

This morning I took my almost-four-years-old grandson to school.

His parents are out of town and though he spent the night with his maternal grandparents they both leave for work very early. So, I had the pleasure of driving to their home at 4:30AM and being on hand when Tyler awoke around 7:00.

He was very pleased to see me.

“Oh, yeah!”

Still wiping the sleep from his eyes he suddenly remembered that I would be here for him this morning. He flashed a drowsy grin and ran to me, bare feet slapping the wood floor, his favorite soft baby blanket slung over one arm. His arms went up as mine went down and I lifted him high over my head. We hugged and smiled as is our habit and standard greeting.

I guess he thinks I’m sort of special and for that great honor I know he is right.

At first I just sat on the couch and held him on my lap, allowing him to wake up gently.

I don’t like brisk, lively beginnings to a day. I like slow, quiet starts and I think Tyler does, too. At least this morning he did. I held him in my big, bear-like grandpa arms and spoke to him softly.

“Did you sleep good?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready for a great day?”

“Yeah!”

We talked like that for maybe ten minutes, me asking leading questions designed to put him in a happy frame of mind, him responding affirmatively and with increasing animation. Finally, we decided it was time to get dressed and off to school with a stop at McDonalds for breakfast.

And that’s the way my day began. No big deal and yet quite remarkable.

As I look back on nearly sixty years of life I am always amazed at how little of it I remember with any degree of detail or certainty. I remember the big things but not much of the ordinary and that just makes sense, really.

On a cold, dazzling-bright February morning Tyler and I ate eggs and sausage at McDonalds surrounded by old men in ballcaps sipping coffee and solving the world’s problems.

He’s not going to remember this.

I will never forget it.

Confession of an American Heretic

The young man was clean, well-groomed and polite.

“Going to watch the game Sunday?”

“Isn’t everybody?” I replied glibly without a split-second’s hesitation. I don’t know why. I’ve never done anything like that before. I know from more than fifty years of living that lies corrode one’s soul. Besides, when you lie about sports or politics  you inevitably get caught in your own web.

“Who’s going to win?” he smiled.

“Steelers,” I assured him. Where was this coming from? What malignant spirit had taken possession of me? Why was I fibbing about something of absolutely no consequence? And yet, I wasn’t finished.

“Is it going to be blowout?” the young man pressed while guiding the courtesy shuttle toward my home, which suddenly seemed a continent away. We couldn’t get there soon enough to shut me up.

“I don’t know,” I said with wrinkled brow, the very picture of a man examining his superior expertise, “I don’t think so but Pittsburgh’s defense is just too good for the Cardinals.”

Ten minutes earlier I had no idea who was playing in the Superbowl tomorrow. When I’m sitting in the waiting room of the Toyota dealer’s service department I’ll read anything I can find. Ten minutes earlier it happened to be the sports page, which I never read anywhere else.

And now I was lying to a clean young man, well-groomed and polite.

I could brush this off as a victim of cultural insistence. I am an American man. We worship at the alter of the NFL. While I have boldly, even cheerfully admitted to preferring chick flicks to action movies and my inherent ineptitude when the subject turns to Motor Trend magazine this — this is beyond the pale.

I don’t care about football. Not even the Superbowl.

Those were the most painful two sentences I have ever written. The shame is coursing through my stomach. I can’t stop thinking of my father and my sons. They expect more from me. I am grateful my camping buddies aren’t here to witness this. Confession may be good for the soul but it can torture the heart.

I don’t care one whit about football.

Please, let me be alone.