Saturday, July 31, 2010


This is a difficult story to tell. Because it is not something I am very proud of.

Back in the mid-70’s I had a group of friends. Just a bunch of kids morphing into adults trying to stave off the boredom of Midwestern life. One of this extended group was a guy named Bernie. I’ll leave off his last name. Bernie was a few years older than the rest of us. Which, given the times we lived in, turned out to be a gap too large to bridge. Here is why.

I was born in 1958. I was 12 when the Kent State shootings occurred. I was 13 when the draft was implemented to supply the Vietnam War with troops. I was 15 when the draft ended and I was 17 when Saigon fell, essentially ending the war. By about three years, I was too young to serve.

Bernie wasn’t.

Younger people who have no memory of Vietnam may find this difficult to understand, but there was a time in this country that we did not ‘honor’ our troops. Many of the efforts we see today to thank troops for their service in Afghanistan or Iraq is atonement for how we treated our returning Vietnam vets. In a word, it was shameful. And again, younger people may not understand this – men and women served their country proudly, some not by choice, and were ostracized, marginalized or ignored upon their return home. Some even were scorned and spat upon. It happened.

The obvious question is: Why? How could we have allowed this behavior? I think it was a combination of American hubris and denial. Vietnam was the first war we ever lost. It was also the first war that was brought into our living rooms, with Walter Cronkite giving nightly reports - not of glorious American conquests, but of the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre and body counts. With little or no understanding of how our national security was threatened, many of us could not understand our presence there. When Saigon fell and our troops came home (with the tragic exception of 58,226 of them), we had a collective awkwardness.

There was a natural instinct to blame someone. And instead of identifying the true culprits – the politicians who passed the Gulf Of Tonkin resolution that grossly and immorally escalated the conflict coupled with military officers whose main concern was enemy body counts so they could get promoted – the blame was placed wrongly and tragically on the returning troops. Respected? Hell, those guys were being called baby killers. Honored? We had just gotten our butts kicked by a ragtag group of indigenous people on their turf. We weren’t in the mood for parades. And when these young men (and women) came home, many wanted to just get on with their lives and re-assimilate with their old friends.

That’s all Bernie wanted to do.

Bernie just wanted to drink beer, chase girls and hang with his old buds. And while on the surface there were ‘hey man, glad you’re back’ affirmations, Vietnam was not talked about amongst us. We did not ask what it was like over there, but he would go there himself, much to our discomfort. He would talk about what it was like on foot patrol in the Mekong Delta, when one of us would change the subject to the latest Springsteen album release. Bernie played guitar, and I still see him playing the song Seagull by Bad Company. It is a song of protest, of the horrid meaninglessness of war. He sang these words –

Now you fly, through the sky, never asking why,
And you fly all around 'til somebody, Shoots you down.

Bernie sang with an outpouring of emotion only combat vets know, venting, processing, purging. Sadly, his audience hadn't yet begun to process any of it--nor did we have the emotional fortitude or mental maturity to "be there" for him. We didn't want to be yanked out of our semi-slacker get-high extended party by someone who witnessed the worst of mankind. So we ignored it and changed the subject. Bernie eventually got the hint and stopped talking about Vietnam. Then he eventually stopped hanging with us.

And you fly away today
And you fly away tomorrow
And you fly away, leave me to my sorrow.

I never saw Bernie again – I do not even know if he is still alive. If I were to discover that his life fell apart not because of what happened to him in the war, but rather because we, his friends, were immature assholes....Well, lets just say I own it.

Vietnam opened up our eyes onto this shame. Shame that we, the people that did not have to serve there, own. And to that end, one of the few positive developments that came out of Vietnam was it matured us as a country. No longer did we possess hubris-ish greatness. We learned (or did we?) we are not assured winners. And, most importantly, we learned who are heroes. So those aging Vietnam vets you come across, some sleeping under bridges, have earned every ounce of respect proffered to veterans of any of our other conflicts. If they are homeless, ponder why...instead of affixing blame. Their service was never properly honored. They carry an emotional burden beyond our comprehension.

I am sorry, Bernie. You deserved so much better from your country. And you sure as hell deserved much better from me.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lies My Parents Told Me

Let me state right at the top - I did not have an abusive childhood. I was not raised in some kind of propaganda bubble of distortions that burst violently when I struck out on my own. My parents were not those kinds of people. They loved me and my siblings, and wanted only the best for us. They put a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and in my specific case, me through college. Twice. They were loving, caring, and nurturing people. I have written stories on this blog about their compassionate nature.

But they told me lies.

Not knowingly. This was not an attempt at brainwashing. Instead, they conveyed certain “truths” as they understood them that, due to changes in our socioeconomic and cultural mores, became falsehoods. I certainly do not blame them for this. They thought they were imparting undeniable, unchanging realities as a preparation for my adult life. As I found out, they weren’t. Case in point - here was something my dad told me as a teenager:

“Get a Union job and you will have a job for life.”

Wow. By today’s standards that is an almost laughable statement. But in 1972 in Akron, Ohio, it was a truth. Akron was a Union town. Voted Democrat like clockwork. Dominated by a rubber industry that showed no signs of letting up. The rivers were polluted and the odor of burnt rubber permeated the air. The economy hummed along, and with it, tens of thousands of good-paying union jobs in the factories. So to my dad, getting one of those plum union positions were basically a contract for life. Do forty-odd years at a union job, get a gold watch and a nice pension, and spend your golden years playing golf and visiting Florida twice a year. It worked for him.

But it didn’t work for me. When I graduated college in 1981, the rubber industry was in decline. Wildcat strikes and union concessions crippled the industry (example - the United Rubber Workers negotiated a contract that provided a THIRTY FIVE PERCENT pay increase for their workers over THREE years). Jobs were lost to foreign companies. Akron suffered along with our compatriots in the auto industry - Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit. Those Union jobs dried up and went away. What my dad told me ended up being a lie. Here was another -

“The most important thing you can have is good credit.”

Now, having good credit is important. But the most important thing I could have? Eh. I would place a number of things higher - happiness, good health, peace of mind, healthy children - above having a good credit score. Maybe I am picking apart dad’s advice too much, but I distinctly remember him telling me that good credit was “The most important” thing I could have. Okay, maybe that’s a top-tenner. But no way is it the most important thing. Finally, there was this one:

“Real estate is the best investment you can make.”

Hey, good advice. Unless you bought a house in 2005. Suddenly that “best investment” became a sinkhole of negative equity. Again, in my parent’s time, purchasing a house was a consistent, three-to-five percent a year increasing investment. In the last decade it has become anything but that. Home buying has become as speculative as buying stocks. This will hopefully change as we dig out of the major recession that the implosion of the housing market caused, but I would seriously question the wisdom of real estate being the “best investment you can make.” Hell, these days even municipal bonds aren’t a sure thing. Shove the money under a mattress.

And ironically, purchasing a home that has precipitously declined in value has affected my…get ready…credit score. All I needed was to get laid off from a union job and my parents would have hit the trifecta.

The lesson? To me it's this: My parents meant well...but they could not have predicted how our world changed.

Who could have?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Big Bill

Recently I have taken to reading books by David Sedaris. For those that don’t know, Sedaris is a hilarious essayist of everyday life. His work was referred to me by my boss Linda, who handed me two of his books. I can tell you that he has actually made me laugh out loud at many of his biting views of life and family. Linda thinks my writing has a familiarity with Sedaris, and I can tell you after reading his work, that I am extremely flattered by the comparison. Thank you, Linda…and best wishes in Austin.

Anyway, Sedaris expends a lot of effort describing memorable characters in his life, which got me thinking about similar characters in my life. Once I went down this path of pondering, it didn’t take me long to conjure my memories of Bill Casey, affectionately known as Big Bill.

Big Bill was the father of one of my close friends, Paul Casey. Paul & I were golfaholics in our younger days, and both of us were quite good players - Paul moreso than me, but we would enter amateur tournaments together & wager on who would fare better. We even played team events together. And to this day Paul still swings a mean stick out in Las Vegas where he still plays amateur events. Me? Age and yips have atrophied my game. I just play for fun now.

Anyway, back in the day many of our rounds were with Big Bill. To begin with, that moniker was not to describe him physically, as he was maybe five-seven, built round, sort of like a humpty-dumpty shape. It was more a term of endearment, given to him since he was the patriarch of the Casey Clan. Big Bill was born and raised in New Jersey, educated at Princeton, married to a stunningly beautiful woman. But when you first met him, none of these attributes presented themselves. He came across curmudgeonly. He always smoked a cigar, and would talk through it, giving his pronunciation a stifling effect, sort of like talking through wax paper. That, coupled with his Jersey accent, made him tough to understand. Toss in some peppery language, and you would get phrases like “Gawwwdammit Pfaul , I pfuckin’ toldya to reed more brake in dat pfutt…”

One time I was lamenting about a recent break-up with a girl. As I was explaining what went wrong, Big Bill interrupted, “Maybe yer chieph”. Not understanding him, I asked him to repeat - “Maybe yer CHIEPH”. One more time please, Bill. He took the cigar out of his mouth and finally, without the garbler in his mouth, he said, “MAYBE YOU’RE CHEAP.”

Yeah, Big Bill was direct.

What was cool about Big Bill was how he lived his life. Large. Remember that stunningly beautiful wife I mentioned? I had occasion to see a picture of them when they first got married back in the 50’s - Here was a young Big Bill, not looking much differently than he did 30 years later - kind of short and stocky, with this knockout gorgeous blonde who was at least 3 inches taller than him. And the look on Big Bill’s face was priceless - he was laughing uncontrollably, as if he was saying ‘That’s right - I may not be the best-looking guy in the world…but I got the BABE! TAKE THAT! AHHHHHAHAHAHAAA!!!!’ And my mind conjured up this image of Big Bill charming, well, the pants off of her. And making her his wife. I admire that kind of chutzpah.

Big Bill passed away a few years ago in Florida. And every year the Casey Clan gets together and has a golf outing in his honor. Paul flies in from Vegas. I was able to participate a couple of years ago, and in between imitating him with a "Gawwwdammmit Pfaul..." phrase, we laughed until he cried.

Just as Big Bill would have wanted it - live large, laugh a lot....and don't be chiepf.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Life Is Weird

Standing on the third tee at The Old Course at St. Andrews, your mind in confused. Laid out in front of you is a moonscape of humps, bumps, hills and pot bunkers. Where do you aim? What is the correct choice of line? What if you hit it exactly where you planned and it bounces off in an unintended direction? Or, how about mis-hitting your drive only to receive a fortuitous bounce into Position A? Processing this load of information can tend to make someone chuck strategy out the window and simply grip ‘n rip, and let the chips fall where they may.

Golf is life. And life is weird.

When we reach a certain age, usually in the late teens, we are expected to decide on what we want to do with our lives. Plans are made – college perhaps, or a trade school. Often decisions are delayed in order to prolong childhood. Marry someone wealthy. Hitchhike across Europe. Join the military. We are metaphorically standing on the third tee at St. Andrews looking out at the panorama of what may await, we make a decision…and we swing away. And it is precisely at that point – when the metaphorical clubhead meets the ball – when we have lost control of the outcome. All we can really do is make a decision. That’s it.

Yes, I know many will say that it is far more complicated than that – that proper planning, discipline and adherence to a strategy will garner the desired outcome. Horsehockey. What those activities do is perhaps raise the possibility of the desired outcome, but really, the ball is now in the air and the wind could shift at any moment, and when it lands – even if it was only a foot off of where you aimed – an undesired outcome may occur. You enroll in college…but you meet a girl, fall in love, get married, drop out, have a family. In the literal blink of an eye, your plan of graduating college has morphed into raising a family.

Is it any wonder psychologists are in business? This life stuff is hard. Unpredictable. Full of self-doubt – why did I marry that girl? Why didn’t I lay up short of that pot bunker? I didn’t want to be deployed to Iraq. I didn’t expect the ball to land in a divot. I didn’t expect the economy to take a nosedive. Why did the wind change direction in mid-flight? Why did she leave me? I should have taken more club. I should have finished college.

Life is weird...but it is also redemptive. A golf course has eighteen holes, so no matter what your decision off that third tee resulted in, a fourth hole awaits. And a fifth, sixth, seventh and so on. Earlier mistakes are forgotten and we start anew. There may be a lingering effect on the scorecard, but opportunities abound for recompense. This explains second marriages, career changes, returns to college. Criminal records can be expunged, marriages dissolved, bankruptcy reorganizations occur. In essence, decisions gone awry – or just plain bad decisions – can be forgiven. That stupid choice to take on that pot bunker can result in a memorable recovery shot that you will be telling your grandkids about. And is that not the essence of life? It's not what we accomplish. It's what we overcome.

I often use the metaphor of life imitating golf imitating life. For good reason. There is no adversary per se in golf - it is just you and the course. How you manage your way around the course will determine your success. And you never 'defeat' the course. You can return the next day and the course is still there, unaffected by your presence the day before. The course doesn't care if you are there or not. This is life. Life sits there, ready for you to play it...or not. Life is eternal, our presence isn't. Life doesn't need us - we need it. And if we choose to play it, amazing things await.

Life is indeed a course to be played – a series of decisions, results, recalibrations, course corrections, reboots. In this context, life is long, beautiful, adventurous, cruel, redemptive, unpredictable, fair, unfair...and weird.

Play away.