310. Tragic Muscle Head Cars

My blog post numbers are getting up near the high horsepower engine range. It is just a natural association for me to recall that 327 CID was a Chevy engine, though I am no motor head.  There was a Ford 302. Chevy also had a 350, 396, and 427.  I just know that they were powerful and fast, too fast for the teenagers who tried to drive them. Which is perhaps symbolic of how woefully unprepared some adolescent males are to maneuver through the twisting course of adult life.

Where to begin?  Charlie Young drove a Camaro Z28 when we were all teenagers. I have no idea where he got the money to even buy the gas, though it was cheap in the early 1970’s. It was a sweet car to be sure, green base with wide white racing stripes. A shrine to the young male ego, sporting  slotted mags, a Hurst shifter, slick spoiler on the back, and fat tires. Yeah. Charlie posed in it like Clint Eastwood on a racehorse. Cool squint and a John Travolta smile.

There was talk of races behind the high school and big talk about how fast this car was or how fast that guy shifted gears. I don’t recall how Charlie fared in these much heralded races. I just recall that the Z28 went away one day, and not into a museum. He got married early and moved into a travel trailer parked in his parents’ side yard. The last I heard about Charlie was that he was working for the sheriff’s department back home transporting prisoners. Someone told me that one of the prisoners persuaded Charlie to stop at a liquor store during the trip to jail for one last good time. Good Time Charlie obliged and got drunk too; the prisoner escaped; Charlie was fired. The funny part is that there is no surprise here. It just got away from him like the Z28 did years before.

Let’s go up a few cubic inches. I believe Glenn Barret’s Nova SS had a 307 or a 350. I used to know these things like baseball players’ batting averages. Glenn’s car was red and black, manual transmission. He was constantly cleaning or waxing it, posing with the door open. He had this cool rolling start he liked to pull where he’d start the car just by popping the clutch. Cool cubed, man. He’d silently cruise into a parking space with the engine off or drift down a grade noiselessly and then pop that clutch. VRRRoooom!!

One day he was parked on the incline in front of Bobby Doering’s house, door open, coolness spilling out of his car like chilled air conditioning. He was all set to do the silent back out, but this time he forgot to close his door. As he glided back down the hill, his driver side door caught the fire hydrant he had neglected to account for. The interaction ripped his door out away from the frame of the car like an airplane wing.  Now this would upset any driver of any car, but factor back in that Glenn worshipped this Nova SS. It was his first love, his status symbol, his everything. Like Barry White sang,

“I know there’s only, only one like you
There’s no way they could have made two
Girl, you’re my reality, but I’m lost in a dream
You’re the first, you’re the last, my everything ”

He married young and took up golf. Not sure how either of those endeavors turned out.

Then there is the king of foolishness, the late Bobby Doering. He moved from Oklahoma in his junior year of high school. He could talk and bluster and brag with a western cockiness that was infectious and charming. He was famous for sayings like, “That sounds like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

Bobby had a couple of cute sisters, plus his dad had a Porsche that we drove around when we cut school. What more could a 17 year old need? He also played ice hockey when that was unheard of in our experience. What more? How about a  forest green Chevelle SS 396 with boss wheels and dual exhaust? One of the coolest cars ever.

 Bobby lacked common sense and a healthy fear of death or injury. He’d smoke the tires with no provocation whatsoever. I imagine there is great pressure to blow out the four barrel carburetor when you have one, just like the pressure to drive your dad’s Porsche 135 miles an hour on the Beltway while skipping school and listening to the Stones “Under My Thumb”.

Bobby was keen on my girlfriend’s girlfriend Lisa, who was 15 then, I think. Lisa’s parents weren’t too keen on Bobby being around Lisa, for obvious reasons.  However, on Halloween of that year Bobby was driving both girls around the neighborhood  in the SS 396 when he decided to gun the engine and smoke tires. He did and lost control of the green monster, dumping it into a deep ravine to his left. He and both girls fell forward as the Chevelle went 90 degrees into the concrete culvert. I forget the physical damage done. Everyone received injuries as no one wore their seatbelt. Bobby was bankrupted. The car was totaled but the loan against it was not. He had to get a job and work off the debts he’d accumulated while  worshipping at the shrine of the 396.

I don’t know when, but through the grapevine I learned that he died a couple of years later, maybe while playing hockey. Cardiac arrest. Rest in peace, bro, like Dick Clark– forever a teenager.

I don’t recall the CID of Mike Dean’s Charger or Challenger. It’s too far back there. It was a big muscle car, I do know. He hung out in the same neighborhood of Wilton Woods, where there were plenty of cute girls. Mike’s car was not the problem, though. The story is murky, but as I heard it he blew his brains out with a gun after this girlfriend dumped him. Too much power in the hands of boys wanting to be great.

Tragedies are poignant because they did not have to happen. Some character flaw or bizarre circumstance destroys a good manboy. Yeah, well let me finish by directing you to Tom Waits’ “Big Joe and Phantom 309”, a lovely old ballad with a tragic seed.


264. Fractions are not my friends

A math teacher colleague used to say to his eighth grade students, “Fractions are your friends”. His science buddy retorted “Decimals won’t deceive you”.  And the kids didn’t know what either one meant. The science guy had no use for fractions; they were a thing of the past, annoying anachronisms. “Real scientists only use decimals and the metric system. Fractions are like Roman numerals and Greek myths, for God’s sake!” he was heard to pontificate. Meanwhile, the crafty math teacher gave practical examples of fractions, noting that you can always convert a friendly fraction into a decimal, but you can’t always convert a dicey decimal into a handy fraction. And little kids can cut a paper pie into quarters with a crayon much easier than they can find twenty five hundredths of a pie.  See, fractions start with one; decimals are based on ten. Tomato, tomahto, tomato hawk… if you ask me. Fractions fracture; decimals decimate.

In my current business (the practice of functional mental health) fractions mean something very different. I believe everyone has issues–situations and episodes in their lives that present obstacles to overcome.  Death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, parenting problems, a head injury, having a child, moving, retirement, chronic illness, etc. These issues can suck the energy out of a healthy person and create a time of dysfunction. Some folks, however, seem to attract issues like a bug light attracts mosquitoes on a humid summer night. They are fractured by the onslaught of meteor shower insect issues. Other folks are remarkably resilient and hardly wobble when hit with just as many unexpected problems. Nurture and accidental combinations seem to account for a lot of the different reactions folks display in regard to the hurts and challenges in their lives. Some suffer well; most don’t.

Pathologies are another thing. They are categorized and measured by the DSM5, the  Adjustable Bible of Behavioral Health. ADHD, BIPOLAR DISORDER, OCD, BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER, PTSD, and hundreds of other disorders are described in the pages of this manual. These disorders are not merely situational, although some are driven by situations. Nature has a lot to do with many of these babies. But strangely enough, many DSM5 pathologies have no definitive cause, no source. As much as the mental health community would like uniformity and precision, and after millions of studies, it’s not there yet. Just look at the history of homosexuality, once considered a disorder, now considered a viable and legal lifestyle. Whoops.

The final category that I consider is character. It’s not listed in the DSM5 because it requires a moral position from the diagnostician, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a slippery slope to step upon. But let’s face it:  some folks are just bad, selfish, lazy, etc. because they choose to be. They don’t have any more issues than the average person and they don’t meet the criteria for any pathologies. They come from all sorts of family backgrounds and cultures and settings. And they choose to be dysfunctional. It’s easy in the moment or the short run. It’s easy if you have no purpose or meaning in your life or a moral compass or loved ones or a reputation or an education. However, in the long run a bad character’s life cannot end well without transformation.

Anyway, the point of this post is fractional people, broken folks… no matter how they got broken. I see them often individually. When someone knows he/she is a fraction of a whole, that’s okay. The client can work toward increased consciousness and wholeness. We call it integration, which comes from the same root word as integer, i.e., a whole number. Wholeness and health have the same base meaning as well. Oddly all of these terms point to “ONENESS”.

So a half of a man walks into a bar and starts chatting up a 2/3’s chica. It’s very exciting for both of them because their parents were also fractions, and in this bar there are mostly integers hanging around and a few square roots. Half man says, “I love the way the light glimmers off your long eyelashes. I’d love to buy you a drink and pursue a common denominator.”

Two thirds replies, “I’m an uneven fraction, Halfsie. I go on and on and on irrationally. Even men don’t get me. Odd men bore me.”

Half man, “That’s a real turn on for me, Baby. But if we get together, you’ll have to even out. Square up. Ya know?”

Two thirds, “You complete me, is that what you’re implying?”

Half man, “Something like that. Plus, we’d have a little extra.”

Two thirds, “Let’s hurry up and get married and have six kids. Three for you, three for me and one left over that we can adopt out.”

Half man, “Not in my world, you repeating digit head!”

Two thirds, “Oh, we need counseling to reconcile our love. Say you will, Half man.”

Half man, “Whatever it takes to solve this equation, Baby”.

Later in my office the fraction couple come in and explain their histories.

Half man, “Yeah, my first wife cheated on me with a mixed fraction. Told me I was nothing more than an inflated decimal. Point Five O. I gotta tellya, that hurt.”

Two thirds, “I don’t want to sound like a Disney princess here, but I think we have more than enough to make a whole number, Doc. Just do the math.”

Doc, “Well,  guys, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but when fractions hook up they don’t add up. They multiply.”

Half man, “What are you trying to say?”

Doc, “It’s like this:  1/2  x  2/3  =  1/3.  You don’t add fractions in marriage, you multiply them.”

Two thirds, “Don’t be silly. Why, that means we’ll make each other smaller than when we were alone.”

Doc, “That’s right.”

Half man, “But love is like glue, aint it? I mean, it can hold us together?”

Doc, “In a sappy pop song, love will keep you  together. But in reality you will have to face the law of diminishing returns.”

Two thirds, “Diminishing what? ”

Doc, “Economic theory, dear. It proposes a maximum efficiency is reached at some point, and anything added after that point actually results in less output.”

Half man, “That’s ridiculous. How could my fourth kiss diminish my third kiss?”

Two thirds, “If you didn’t shave or brush your teeth it could. I mean, theoretically.”

Half man, “So you’re taking his side now, huh?”

Two  thirds, “I was just saying…”








189. cruel renewal

Making all things new again. That’s a tall order, I think. Just making one simple thing new again is hard enough. Refinishing a piece of furniture, for example, requires five times the effort than the original finishing took. Think about it:  you have to strip the varnish or polyurethane with some solvent and a wire brush and fine tools to get into the grooves. Then you have to strip out the stain with more stain remover/solvent. At this point you have to sand the remaining stains or patches of finish to smooth out the original wood grain. Finer and finer grits of sandpaper need to be rubbed carefully with the grain. Then you wipe away the fine dust. Finally you are back to the starting point of new, bare furniture. But that’s what you do to restore the old wood to prime condition so that its luster and deep grain can be seen and appreciated again, or maybe for the first time.

Image result for maple trees pictures

My buddy Clark knows a lot about wood and renewal. He learned about trees as a kid in Patton, PA., walking through the woods to school cuz he’d been thrown off the school bus again and again for being a hyperactive ne’er do well. He was rejected frequently as a kid by humans but not by trees or pieces of wood. He learned about oaks and maples and birch and beech and box elder and walnut and cherry simply walking by them twice a day. He saw pines grow to their fullness and die in his lifetime. However, dead trees simply cross over to lumber for him. He eyes up  trees and looks for unique features that he can use in tables or bowls or just long runs for boards. And then he gets to work creating with saws and planer, lathe and chisels.

A couple of years ago I helped him saw up a spalted maple; that’s a downed tree which has been decaying with fungi but hasn’t rotted yet. The result of spalting is a beautiful array of discoloration, waves and rivulets of brown, red, and black paint spilled throughout the wood. Clark turns hunks of this stuff into gorgeous bowls that appear to be fired ceramic. You have to touch them to believe they are not ceramic but wood, not paintings of deserts landscapes but infected wood transformed into marble. Beauty birthed from death.

Image result for spalted maple lumber pictures

He learned about renewal by living a life full of zest and curiosity… after he was down and decaying like a fallen maple in the leaf mold.  Alcohol was the lightning and tornado that slew him. By age 35 his doctor told him he had a year to live if he did not quit drinking. He said, ” Thanks, Doc. I ‘m tired of living,” and went to the closest bar. He got so polluted on Yuenglings or Iron City beer that the bartender asked, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”  “Hell no,” he bellowed and order another. He had one more angry sip and announced, “Now I’ve had enough.” He stumbled out of the bar and right into the path of his beloved daughter and her best friend. (Timber!) No details remain except the pain of shame he saw on his precious girl’s face. Something transformative occurred in that one second. Clark grew on the level of consciousness even as his angry pride fell down face first. He recalls it like Paul falling off his horse on the way to Damascus. Clark went to rehab the next day. That was almost 35 years ago.

Since then he’s been sanding off the old varnish of youth, adolescence and early adult life. The mess of foolishness, the lacqeur of addiction and scars of selfishness. As he does this consciousness raising on a cognitive level, he’s finding more and more to like about himself… compassion, loyalty, a modicum of patience…and an artist’s heart/head/hands package. Late in life, to be sure, but there it is: beauty born from pain and suffering. He is spalted maple through and through, washed by the rivers of alcohol, rejection and rage that are dry riverbeds nowadays.Image result for spalted maple lumber pictures

One story of thousands will have to suffice. Ironic, of course. Up the road from his childhood house was a substantial estate owned by the Five Farabaugh sisters. They were well off spinster sisters. Clark’s dad agreed to be an informal caretaker of the property when the only male child left to run part of the A&P store chain out west. One by one the old ladies died off until there were no more. Still Clark’s father “Bunny” continued the upkeep of the property. When Clark went along to help, his father would say, “Don’t even think about stealing anything. We might be poor but we’re honest, by God.” There were many objects and knickknacks all over this grand Victorian house. In the attic the sisters had a miniature classroom where they had played school as little girls. He remembered thinking, “I could learn here. They would not beat me for being wiggly. They would favor me somehow.” In the old days the sisters had given his dad oranges at Christmas, which was unheard of by working class folks. Only the wealthy could afford citrus fruit in winter. Clark’s family not only ate them but his mom made marmalade from the peels. Then one day that fine house and every object in it burned to cinders and ashes. Nothing survived but memories. Nothing.

Nothing worked out in his life.  By age five he had developed a sense of doom. The spalting had begun. He wondered about the loose ends and unfairness of it all–

“Five old ladies, never had sex or got married or had kids or grandkids. What’s the point? They had wealth and it all disappeared. Just a waste. I shoulda stole something but the Old Man woulda killed me.”

Actually it did not disappear. Rather, it was breathed into Clark’s lungs and memory, spalding his soul. I’m sure if surgeons could extricate his soul and sand it down, it would radiate like his hero George Nakashima’s table tops. Renewed for all to see and appreciate. Nakashima was interned during WWII for being Japanese. That was his sole crime. Poetically, tragically,  or ironically that is where he learned to master woodworking under the tutelage of a master Japanese woodworker. More beauty born from pain and suffering.

So  often we screw up the unstained and painless new and have to claw our way back to a renewal that is soaked in barrels of liquid pain. But that is the difference between grapes and wine, sand and pearls, knowledge and wisdom.