Birthday Ramble

This is a  post on my 58th birthday as I race toward old age with no regrets and no apologies for indiscretions. Though lame, I’m still young at heart, had a great time getting here, will enjoy what’s left and cling with fury to my rebel spirit, borne of the Sixties.

Maybe I should start capturing my thoughts on tape or carry a notepad, pulling to the side of the road to jot down catchy phrases that flow from my imagination. That’s what I kept thinking on the highway Friday morning, alone with my thoughts as I so often am, be it walking the dogs, secluded in a forest stand, on the road, or just sitting at my computer during the day, thinking, probing, sneaking into forbidden territory, peeking over hedgerows. Who makes it forbidden? That’s what I always ask. And then I realize it’s seldom anyone worthy of respect unless seeking a flock. Not me. I’d rather be that solitary ram observing from a promontory ledge, descending now and again for visits, otherwise aloof, following my own principles, sidestepping confrontation.

I was told young that an idle mind is a devil’s workshop, which may be true for some; was, in fact, true for me. Not anymore. I have learned to enjoy introspection and reflection, stranding myself on distant islands of thought, kneading stimuli onto an impressionistic canvas, fog evaporating to expose raw pains and pleasures, joys and heartache, the reasons why. I guess it’s existentialism. And when you think about it, are we not all isolated beings trying to fit into the whole? Or is it a hole? Are we not, with or without friends and family, just flotsam and jetsam in a vast sea of hostile humanity? In the absolute, aren’t we all alone? Some don’t believe it. A decent man who makes his living helping families cope with issues once told me in convivial conversation that existential thought was passé. After that assessment, I never listened to a word he said, just nodded my head with one of those empty Prozac smiles. I knew then that life was clearer to me, the flunky, than him, the expert with gilt-framed degrees, just another self-absorbed therapist paid to impart conventional wisdom irrelevant to flocks of one.

Before departing Friday on my 138-mile journey to pick up 5-year-old grandson Jordie in Montpelier, I chose Tara Nevins’ CD “Mule to Ride” for musical companionship; loud, of course, her blissful fiddle carrying me away like butterfly lust, stirring thoughts and memories, good and bad, all enticing. There was plenty to think about, poignant memories, me returning to Vermont’s capital city for the first time since my namesake son’s December funeral. Prior to that, my previous journey up that same Route 89 occurred before first light, racing my big black touring rig to watch him die. This time, before I left, my wife asked if I remembered overnight dreams about Gary. I did not. She said I had dreamt of him. She heard me call out his name twice in the darkness, like I saw the back of his head in a dense, busy crowd and wasn’t sure it was him. That was news to me. No recollection. Made me wonder what else she’s heard in my sleep.

The Interstate was enveloped in gray, somber skies and occasional rain, some hard, as I cruised with the CD player roaring, lifting my consciousness. Virtuoso bluegrass musicians can bring tears to my eyes when I concentrate, their riffs and harmonies so crisp, clear and inspirational. Why be afraid to admit such a thing, even to tough guys who carry guns or wrestle jackhammers? Tears are not shameful, not feminine, either. Art can move a man, and some of those harmonies and riffs were moving indeed, bringing euphoria to my dark, reminiscent soul. I remember thinking how sad it is that artists and nature can achieve perfect harmony, but not human societies, where it’s fleeting at best, non-existent at worst, always elusive. You watch something as simple as a gray squirrel scampering through oak limbs shielded from birds of prey by foliage and know they are friends, leaves and squirrels, even though they have never hugged or spoken. The cow or horse deposits pasture manure and from it springs life and sustenance. Not so with humankind, the great harmony breakers whose wastes kill and maim and pollute, bring blood and mucus to lungs. This revelation sparked in me momentary shame, guilt for being one of them, a harmony breaker. The music pulled me there. Yes, the music, Tara Nevins’ hard-driving bluegrass fiddle slicing through me like a cutlass, the plaintive lyrics about love and loss, pain and suffering soothing my soul. I was riding melody to psychological exploration and discovery.

Suddenly my mind wandered to Gary’s music, the songs he wrote about love of his family and distrust of authority. He never forgot or forgave the blue-clad brute who body-slammed him and broke his neck in a parking lot while handcuffed behind his back, or the ones who pinned him to the pavement with a knee in his back to handcuff him, supposedly for assaulting them. A miracle videotape passersby recorded by chance told a different tale, one the authors of official reports decided better avoid the courtroom. Perjury is crime, even when committed by law-enforcement officials. Police brutality is no different than rape or pedophilia. The victim’s helplessness plants deep hatred and distrust that can later sprout in song and sonnet, rant and rave and rap. As I thought of this and other complications I have grappled with over the years, I started to fantasize about writing a book, not about salmon and shad and cougars, or hunting and fishing yarns, or ballpark heroes; about life and sense of place, greed and shame and exploitation, other risque subjects most folks are afraid to talk about, ashamed to admit. I’m not interested in missionary-style books like those being hawked every day on Morning Joe, or even the bestsellers written by stylists who rise quickly to the top by staying inside the cultural paddock. No, give me the rebels any day. I’d prefer to pen something that’s banned in the schools, censored by the government, burned in the public square by freedom’s proud guardians. Yes, I know, it’s pure fantasy, but I’d like to bull-rush taboos, enrage main street and get the devout flock, the ones sitting in the front row, squirming like sheep grazing in the shadow of that solitary wolf biding its time from high, barren outcropping.

My mind was racing. Why didn’t I have a recorder? This was great stuff bubbling to the surface. I wanted to capture it. The imagery, the fire, inappropriate metaphors that would roil conservative stomachs, send the afflicted knock-kneed to the john. Blasphemous, anti-establishment, outrageous; all of the above. I was on a roll, felt liberated, defiant and bold. But then it all came to an abrupt halt, like waking from a dream, one you try to go back to sleep for. A big green roadside sign broke my spell. It read “Exit 8, Montpelier, 1 Mile.”

I lowered the volume, bore right onto the exit ramp and merged with traffic following the Winooski River. The capital building, its brilliant gilt dome aflame under dull skies, soon came into view. From there, it was a left at the lights, over a bridge, a quick left, a right and another quick left onto a street named Deerfield. Imagine that: Deerfield, my hometown and that of my kids’; just around the corner, an intersecting street named Greenfield. Coincidence? You tell me. Surreal, for sure.

I pulled into the driveway and got out. Jordie and his mom were scrambling to pull things together. Little Arie stood at a second-floor window, chin barely clearing the sill, peering out. He recognized the big black sedan, was excited.


“Sorry, Arie Safari, only Grampy.”

He wasn’t disappointed, gave me a warm, genuine smile inside.

Soon Jordie and I were back on the road for my return trip to Massachusetts. I reached down and turned the CD player off. This journey would be different, no rambling thoughts or fantasy, just plain conversation, man to boy, boy to man. We weren’t on the road five minutes before the subject of Gary arose. Tim and Kenny had visited. They missed Daddy. My wife learned the next day that Tim took one look at Jordie and cried, the loss so fresh and painful, the resemblance striking. Then Jordie mentioned Mommy’s new friend Matt; he knew karate and martial arts. What can you do? We knew it was coming.

The air had changed. The return trip would be equally poignant, more grounded and less stimulating. I had ridden in alone with the swelling tide, was now riding the ebb tide home with Jordie. I hope I can help the kid become a good man, teach him life’s lessons. Maybe teachers will warn him not to listen, will tell him I’m a bad influence. Perhaps he’ll ignore their advice.

I guess all I can ask is that he follows his conscience and clears his own path, isolated and vulnerable like the rest of us. I’ll be sure to teach him that the most important person in the world to know is yourself. Then, maybe, you can process the rest.

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