The Weary Pilgrim - Dads

Dads

Many years ago I was telling my father about an upsetting phone call I had received when he interrupted me.  “That’s nothing”, he said, “You want a bad phone call? Once we were dug in near the Ardennes, when the Division Commander called us on the field phone. “Listen to me” he said, “Drop back one hundred yards, dig in, and get a clear field of fire – in the opposite direction.”

“What do you mean, the opposite direction?” Dad asked.

“The Germans have broken through our lines,” his Commander said. “They’re behind you.”

“You want a bad phone call?” Dad asked. “THAT is a bad phone call.”

This was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Fortunately for Dad and his 78th Recon Troop, Patton arrived in time to save the day, and Dad didn’t get captured or killed.

As I grew up, I made a number of assumptions about Dads. For one thing, I assumed they all had stories like this, stories they rarely told, but ones that had that ring of truth, stories that caused my Dad’s friends to pause for a moment of silence, because they all had similar stories that they rarely told as well.  I assumed all Dads had a couple of weapons they had taken from German prisoners of war and then smuggled home stuck in the back closet.  When I was young I was allowed to take them out and hold them, marveling at the journey they had taken to find their way here.

I assumed all Dads worked for one company their whole life. Dad’s father had been a GE guy, and he started working for GE when he was in high school, then continued after the war, working his way through the co-op plan of the University of Cincinnati, and then staying on for a total of forty years, until he retired to Vermont. I remember he refused to use the so-called Watts line, which was a toll-free long distance line at work, to call me at college. He would drive home for lunch once a month so he could call me from his home phone.

I assumed all Dads played catch with their kids, I assumed all Dads were wise and funny, got angry when you screwed up, but would always, repeat, always, be there for you after you screwed up.  I assumed all Dads went to see you play ball, encouraged you to join the boy scouts, went to church every Sunday, came to band concerts and school plays, and, when possible, track meets.

I assumed all Dads voted Republican.  The Vietnam War came along, I grew my hair down to my toenails, and when I was home from school we started arguing bitterly about the war. I challenged him to read some books about it, most notably ‘The Making of a Quagmire’ by David Halbertsam. He did, and then a strange thing happened – he changed his mind. A year or so before it became fashionable, he began to quietly oppose the war. He still voted Republican, he was still an intense patriot, but he saw no valid reason for that war.

I assumed all Dads worked all the time. No sooner did Dad retire, than he went out and got a job. He became a Guardian Ad Litem in the court system of Vermont, a position where basically you stand in for a parent or close relative for children or mentally challenged people who find themselves in the court system and have no one capable of acting in that capacity.  Vermont has the distinction of being the only state in the Union where GAL’s, as they are known, don’t get paid, but this didn’t matter a fig to Dad. It was a job, and for fourteen years he showed up on time, without fail, every week, until he retired from that post a few years ago.

I assumed that all Dads had a certain dignity, that this dignity armored them against the advance of aging, that as their shoulders stooped, as their steps faltered, as their hearing grew dim, this dignity remained a constant star, a light that was always there, however faint, day or night.

Last week was my parent’s 59th anniversary. Dad wasn’t feeling well, hadn’t really been feeling well for a while, but woke up at one point that afternoon to say to Mom, “Happy Anniversary.” Those were pretty much the last words he spoke. The next day he lost his battle with heart disease, and slipped quietly from this world, as quietly as he had passed through it.

I assumed all Dads left places better than they found them. Mine did.

Bye, Dad.

updated 2 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - I See A World

The Weary Pilgrim – I see a World...


Where people are free to be with those they love. It amazes me that, while I barely have the energy to get my laundry done, never mind earn a living, treat my aging parents with the love and care they so desperately need and deserve, and spare a little time to laugh with my friends, there are people who actually have the energy to devote large amounts of time to preventing people from living in a married situation with those they love.

Yes, I’m talking about the gay thing. The thing of it is, like a lot of straight guys,  I used to be somewhat homophobic. I grew up in a locker room world where homosexuals were jeered at, where nobody ever actually confessed to be ‘queer’, because if you did, you were in for a lifetime of being shunned, if not flat out assaulted. By and bye I slowly grew up ( well, pretty much ). But a good bit of this social horror remained. Then one day I called up Berklee College of Music and requested that they send me their best student to interview for an internship. A young heavy-set woman knocked on my door the next day. When I invited her in, I quickly realized three things: she was gay; she was really nice; and most importantly, she was the best person for the job. So I hired her. And we became the best of friends. A few years later she got married ( horrors!). Then she and her wife ( there – I said it – deal with it ) asked me to write adoption recommendations, as they each wanted to adopt the other’s biological sons. I did. They did. And as the years rolled by and their kids started to grow, I realized when I visited them that they were not only terrific parents, they were a lot better at it than I was.

Lest you think I veering into Pollyanna Land, there is a sad and realistic post-script. I recently found out they are getting divorced. And this divorce is fraught with all the sadness and loss that every other divorce I’ve ever heard of has. Fortunately, because they are married, and each is the legal parent of their children, there is no squabble over the parenting rights of the children, each of which has known them both as parents for their entire life. You don’t hear much about this end of the gay marriage controversy. But it is nevertheless a somewhat satisfactory resolution when compared to what could have happened had they simply been living with each other these many years.

I understand that with some folks, deeply held religious beliefs make this entire concept almost impossible to imagine, let alone accept. But most of the people I have met who hold homosexuality in contempt are those who simply have never actually known any gay people. I’m not suggesting that everyone run out into the streets seeking a gay person to take home for dinner. But it’s not a bad idea to remember that it’s really not a good idea to render a strong opinion on something you’ve only faintly heard about, and never really had any personal contact with. And with the damned recession taking jobs left and right, the crumbling infrastructure of our very bridges and tunnels, the rising cost of fuel, and new underwear bombs to worry about, isn’t it about time to devote our energies and time to something that truly threatens us? I’ve met the enemy, and I’m tired of it being us.

I remarked recently that, while I cold never vote for Rick Santorum, I admired his honesty. You have to give Barack Obama some credit on this one – he might have lost a few votes, but he clearly decided it was time to tell everybody how he felt. My guess is, Joe Biden shot his mouth off, the subject came up,  and Obama had a “Oh, what the Hell” moment.  As far as I’m concerned, he can have a few more – it’s refreshing.

******

In other news.....a couple of days ago I was reminded of an old joke. This guy, call him Stupid, gets a postcard from his friend, Stupider. Stupider invites Stupid to join him on a sea cruise. So Stupid buys a ticket, and off he goes to the coast. He finds his buddy climbing into this big wooden boat, so he sits down beside him. Next thing he knows,  some guy comes along and slaps ankle chains on him and hands him a big long oar. Some other guy starts pounding a drum and the next thing Stupid knows, he and Stupider and about a hundred other guys are rowing to England. A few weeks later they land. Off come the chains, and they both step onto the dock. “ You know, says Stupid, “I didn’t think it was really all that great.” “Oh, I don’t know,” says Stupider, “It was WAY better than last time.”

This past Sunday I did the JCC Triathalon again, and it was WAY better than last time. Imagine the start of this thing, with a couple of hundred people lined up around the pool – people are chatting about their experiences. The guy in front of me said, “ I hope I can cut a good 10 minutes off my bike time.” The woman behind me listened sympathetically and responded, “ With any luck I can cut a good 20 minutes off my overall.” They looked at me.  “I sure hope Downton Abbey gets a third season,” I said. I’m not absolutely sure I’m cut out for this.

But the people who participate have a lot in common with the volunteers who work the event – namely they smile a lot , and, truth be told, don’t look down on the wannabes ( me )  even a little. It’s amazing, given the breadth of talent and fitness, how welcoming the entire event is of all newcomers. I followed a man and his 10 year old daughter  in the last part, the 3 ½ mile run, and his support of her knocked me out. At least until they pulled so far ahead I started looking in vain for a cab. Three years ago the event sold out in five days, last year in two days, and this year in two hours. Word is clearly getting around about this event. If I can do it, trust me on this, you can too.   Training for next year’s event starts tomorrow. Or possibly next week. Actually, best to wait till the late fall – don’t want to get ahead of myself.


updated 2 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

The Waery Pilgrim in Kiwi-Land, Pt. 1 and 2

The Weary Pilgrim in Kiwi-Land


New Zealand is an island nation, actually made up of two large islands, situated just to the right of Australia. The two islands run north-south for about 950 miles, and the 4 !/2 million people are mostly in the north of the north island. I’m on the South Island, where there appear to be about three or four hundred people. All smiling.

Specifically, I’m in Christchurch, New Zealand. This town has been hit by a series of earthquakes, starting over a year ago, and continuing, with arbitrary lapses, up till a few weeks ago. I know you’re all looking forward to my next installment, which hopefully will not be submitted by my executor. About half of it looks like downtown Des Moines – tidy, chock-a-block with retail outlets, condos, restaurants, and the like. The rest of it is rubbles and dreams.

There is a fascinating city-centre known affectionately as the Container Mall. A year or two ago it was known as the Cashel Mall ( nobody knows who Cashel is – or was). Today it is a small walking district in the heart of the city made up of gaily painted cargo containers bearing small, bustling retail outlets. Throughout the rest of the city center are  portable wire fence compounds, inside of which are the remains of the city’s once proud retail and office buildings. And cranes. Lots and lots of cranes. It looks like the center of Berlin in late 1945, when the Marshal Plan was kicking in – there used to be a thriving city here, and before too long there will be again – the difference between Berlin and Christchurch being the indigenous population. They exhibit not a hint of suffering or malnourishment. Life here is good, it’s just been put on hold while the town fathers and leading industrialists figure out a plan of rebuilding that can withstand the next century of occasional seismic hiccups.

I wandered into a small office building to ask for directions, and an incredibly affable real estate agent explained the current dilemma in lovely Kiwi shorthand. The earthquakes here occurred only a few kilometers below the surface, achieving a velocity not normally found in other damaging quakes. Instead of causing the buildings to sway, the quakes basically ‘slapped’ the bottom of the buildings, with such speed as to cause them to lift into the air, sometimes slapping them again before they could settle. The devastation is such that most buildings are simply uninhabitable forever. And earthquake insurance is about as easy to get as front row seats to The Book of Mormon. So the city is making do with the gaily painted containers, and a quiet confidence that this is still the greatest place to live in the world.

I’m tempted to try and explain the complete and eternal friendliness of everybody I meet. The funny thing is, this seems to be a constant theme in my travels over the last few years. When I flew to Manila in 2009, I found it to be a horrible, oppressive, squalid, humid excuse for a habitable city. And yet I had to conclude that the people that lived there were wonderful, ever cheerful, ever helpful. I just couldn’t figure out how to get ten million of them on the plane with me when I left. My recent trip to Spain was a lot more joyful, due in no small part to the friendliness of those I met. Ditto the folks in Montreal. And Ireland. And so on. My point is, why don’t we start assuming that people everywhere will be friendly? Why is it always worth mentioning? Why, in short , is it a constant surprise?

I remember talking recently to a friend who had just returned from Vietnam – he simply loved the people there, and couldn’t get over how friendly they were to Americans. Mind you, I remember a decade or so during my formative years when every newscast featured footage of us trying to bomb them into the stone-age. I recently spent a week in the company of a dozen Germans, and they were welcoming and surprisingly good-natured when I tried to pretend I could ride a motorcycle as well as them ( I couldn’t). Bear in mind, my Dad, who is a pretty gentle soul, spent a year or so with an M-1 chasing their fathers through France.

So, okay, sometimes our surprise at the friendliness of other nations is understandable. But my point is, well, pretty much EVERYBODY is nice to us. ( Probably not true in sections of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and certain training camps in Yemen, but, hey, give it time. )

What’s going on here? Is it possible the Ugly American is turning into a swan? Or is human nature simply given to forgiveness and a secret yearning for the Rodney King Plea – Why can’t we just get along? I don’t know, but mean people seem to be in pretty short supply in most parts of the world we can easily reach.

Day 2 and 3 were spent in the Canterbury highlands, which are really the foothills of the Southern Alps. No kidding, they have real Alps here. In the company of fishing guide named Phil ( they all have names like Bob and Tom here – frankly, it’s a little unsettling this far from home ) walking up a couple of rivers. Not only are the rivers and the guiding closely regulated, the fish themselves have undergone a rigorous course in TTY – Tease The Yankee. You can see them, you can fish right to them, they’ll even chomp on your fly, but there must have been something really good on the Fish Network, because they were all in a hurry to get home. Like all good guides, Phil was a font of information about the country itself.

Here are a couple of curiosities about New Zealand:
-years ago they imported possums to farm for their fur. Except for a small trade in possum fur/merino wool gloves, the possum fur is no longer held in high regard. So rather than destroy the possums, they let them go.  Now the wilds are overrun with possums. New Zealand prides itself in its vast beech forests, but the possums consider beech shoots a delicacy, so they’re slowly deforesting these vast tracts. The current solution is to poison the possums. Wholesale. This in a country that is rigid about ecological management ( the nation is rabidly anti-nuclear, and there are not even coal-fired power plants )  Imagine the dilemma. Imagine dead possums all over the place. Weird.

   -     one of the reasons the possums proliferated so much is that there are no predators.        No snakes, no coyotes, no foxes, no bears, no furry woodlawn creatures with teeth. New Zealand was the last place in the world to be inhabited with people. When they got here there were only birds and bugs, no mammals and almost no reptiles. This is also why so many of their birds are flightless – they simply had nothing to fly away from.

-There are no handguns allowed anywhere in public. Period. If you want to, you can shoot one at a pistol range, but it has to live at the pistol range. Consequently, violent crime is just about non-existent.  

-A large amount of the population is given to extreme sports. All over the South Island there are signs for mountain biking and rock climbing. They even have a sport called friction climbing, which is basically a Spiderman competition up steep mountains. Without the Computer-graphic special effects. They actually carry mattresses up the mountains to cushion their inevitable falls in the first stage of the climb. I didn’t ask about the later stages. One of the main tourist attractions is Bungee jumping – it was invented here, and they pride themselves on the dearth of fatal accidents. Kind of like they way we feel about baked beans and Fenway Park. It is possible these people are crazy.

     -    all the fields are planted with windbreaks, large poplars and evergreens that are trimmed down into giant square hedges to allow the sun to hit the plants. Over time the prevailing winds bend the rows over about 10 degrees. The whole countryside looks like a drunken topiary.

On day four I played a round of golf off the road leading up to the Alps – it’s very odd playing golf in the pleasant noon-day sun looking up at a snow field several hundred yards ( okay, they call them meters ) overhead. It turned into a very weird game because friends of mine kept texting me the play-by-play of the Baltimore/Pats game – I would hit a shot, curse, look at my phone, curse, hit a shot, curse, look at my…well, you get the idea.  The Pats made out better than I did, by the way.

A few words on driving a car over here: For the first 40 or 50 times you get in the car, you realize some joker put the steering wheel on the wrong side. So you get out, walk around and get in the other side. This is supposed to help you drive on the left. It doesn’t. Fortunately, most of the people can take a joke. What’s really confusing, is, every time you try and signal a turn, the damned windshield wipers come on.  They measure distance in kilometers, too, which is really no big deal. A kilometer is just a mile that’s been on a really strict diet. Basically you just drive so the speedometer says 100 – it’s really cool, because you’re sure you’re getting away with something all the time. They have one-lane bridges all over the place – apparently they are very cost-conscious, or else someone had a sale on really narrow bridges, and they bought a ton of them.  The entire population is really very patient. Somehow by the end of the fourth day I managed to get the car back to Mr. Hertz without any fire, accident, or theft. The next morning I picked up my shiny red BMW bike and, assuming I can remember to look right at intersections, will report in on where that leads me.

Weary Pilgrim, i Kiwi-Land, Part 2 - Down Under and Over to the Right

Christchurch, Te Anau, Queenstown, Punakaiki, Wellington, Napier, Aukland: these were all waypoints on the GPS I forgot to bring. Flying through the countryside at what for Kiwis is warp-speed, I could barely glance at the map on my tank bag as the valleys, mountains, and towns flashed by. It didn’t matter that much, truth be told, as each place was as wonderful as the last – tourists are their main import, and no wonder.

New Zealand is to the Lord of the Rings as New Jersey was to Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets – each is a place fashioned for a film set.

The countryside itself is folded in little drama pieces – even the lowest hills are almost too steep to climb – the creeks in the center of the valleys actually flow down what look like creases in a sheet of paper.

And the people, sculpted by their very land, are happy to rise to the occasion. Or fall, as the case may be. Remember, this is a place where the natives tie rubber bands to their ankles and jump off bridges to RELAX.

Case in point for Kiwi’s craziness: the skid-biters.

During the first part of the last century, the deer imported for the pleasure of the New Zealand Sportsmen began to get out of hand. Due to the absence of any predators, before anyone could say ’Bambi’, there were way too many deer running throughout the island forests. So in the 1950’s the country authorized the wholesale slaughter of deer, and a new profession of hardy New Zealanders took to the highlands in large numbers and proceeded to shoot deer from any place, height, or object, like helicopters. Having a whole lot of venison on hand very suddenly, they looked around for a ready market and found, just to their north, the continent of Asia, which was suddenly very happy to buy venison by the gross ton.

Not surprisingly, the ‘deerkillers’ ( their word, not mine – I always defer to a friend of mine named John Sayles whose term for this is Bambi-cide ) became so efficient they started running out of deer to shoot.

What to do? The obvious answer, having created this huge market for venison, was to continue it by ‘farming’ deer, i.e., raise deer on large wild habitats, exactly the way we ranch cattle. But how to get the wild deer in the forest onto the farms? Simply put, they started jumping off helicopter skids onto the backs of running deer and hog-tying them on the spot, then lifting them up, up, and away with the very same helicopter, straight to the nearest deer-farm. In the following year 80 of these ‘skid-biters’ died doing this unbelievable stunt, so some wag invented a net-gun, whereby the skid-biter would shoot a net over the deer, and THEN jump down and a wrestle it to the ground. I am not making this up – I watched a movie about this, and could detect no flim-flamming in the footage. Bear in mind, by this time I had been in the country for a week, and had turned down the opportunity to bungee-jump several times ( my lumbago was acting up, or perhaps it was my common sense. No, I’m pretty sure it was my lumbago ), watched a few people fall off motorcycles, and generally gotten used to the whole New Zealand-jump-out-of-anything-high-up frame of mind. Anyway, the whole deer-farming thing is going splendidly, thank you very much.

A few notes on foreign travel:

The temperature is measured in centigrades. Also known by its nickname, Celsius. There are two ways to compute its equivalent in Fahrenheit. The first is, multiply the centigrade number by 9/5, then add 32. No calculator? Getting a headache? Then how about this:  0 is freezing, 10 is cold, 20 is just fine, and 30 is hot. Works for me. There won’t be a quiz, because I don’t like ‘em either.

They don’t have pennies. But they do have one and two dollar coins. You may not remember, but we have one dollar coins, too. But for some reason, we keep sticking them in our drawers, and they disappear from circulation. Their cash currency ( New Zealand dollars, worth about 95 cents on our dollar ) comes in slightly different sizes, so the bigger the currency, the bigger the bill. Once you get used to rounding up every cash transaction to the nearest dollar or dime, you really don’t miss the penny thing. Honestly, this kind of practicality is pretty attractive. Thank God they keep jumping out of things, or I might want to stick around.

They also have an emerging problem that strikes me as a little sad – despite their obvious addiction to exercise and the Great Outdoors, they are experiencing a sudden rise in obesity.  They’re not quite sure how to explain this, but one culprit that gets singled out is filling stations. There is no pay-at-the-pump option in the country. Once you fill up, you have to go into the office to pay, the reason being they believe the economy is helped by people making impulse purchases of fast snacks while they’re paying for their gas. A word to the wise: use that debit card at the pump.

Oh yes, their literacy rate is, get this, 99%. As is their courtesy rate. Actually it’s 100%. You will simply not meet a mean person in the land. I’m pretty sure they all went to New York City and became Giants fans.

Things that worry them: The weather ( worst, grayest, chilliest summer ever ); The economy ( some things are universal ); Whether or not they will repeat their rugby championship ( the All-Blacks, their national team, won the World Cup on their home soil this last year, and they may never stop talking about it ); Actually that’s pretty much it – these people aren’t given to complaining very much.

Two noteworthy things happened to me the last two days I was there: first, I lost my wallet. I discovered this aboard a ferry carrying me and the bike across the channel to Wellington – from the ship I immediately called a couple of cafes I had stopped in earlier for coffee. On the second one, the owner cheerfully announced they had found it, and would be happy to send it to my next hotel. It was waiting when I arrived, and no, there wasn’t a dime missing, even though they paid about 15 dollars to send it overnight. In case my mother reads, yes, I sent them a thank-you note and some bucks ( American ).

Secondly, on the last day of riding, I was stopped for speeding, doing 111 in a 100 zone ( remember, we’re talking kilometers here ) – this before I could get to my wallet, and when I was just about out of cash to pay the fine. I had been told at the outset of the trip that speeding can be selectively enforced, and that you sometimes have to pay the fine on the spot. I stood there by the side of the road, imagining the next several years crawling by in some county clink, while the rest of the world played “Whatever happened to Mason?” But the nice policeman and I talked it over for a while – turned out he owns a motorcycle too. On top of which, like most of the rest of the country, he could take a joke. Ten minutes later, I was on my way. No fine, no foul. No kidding. What a country.

So, I’m home, and yes, I missed Marblehead. We need to get some of those people over here so we can show them what I missed.




updated 2 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - The Rain in Spain

The Weary Pilgrim - The Rain in Spain.

The problem, as I see it, is that it ain't staying mainly in the Plain.  It's following fourteen motorcycles around the southern region of Andalusia, like when you were ten and your dippy cousin Eddie used to follow you around after Thanksgiving Dinner. I mean, we CANNOT get rid of it.

The thing of it is, motorcycles and rain go together like ketchup and pancakes. Things get messy, and nobody has any fun. No less than five people went down the first two hours after I got on my bike yesterday morning. When I pointed this out to our leader, Ramon, he snidely suggested I take mine off the kickstand.

I'm on a tour organized by Edelweiss, an Austria company that's been doing this around the world for thirty years.  There are sixteen people on 14 bikes, including folks from Puerto Rico, Germany, Israel, Canada, Korea, and a few wanderers from the US of A. Think of it as the United Nations in crash helmets.

There are all kinds of bikes on the tour.  We were talking about how bikes are always associated with movie stars. Most people are riding BMW's, just like the one ridden by Ewan MacGregor on a documentary shot in Mongolia last year.  There are a couple of Harleys ( Peter Fonda - Easy Rider ), and one or two Triumphs ( Marlon Brando - the
Wild Ones ). I have the only Honda ( Debbie Reynolds - the Singing Nun).

There are a few things you notice about Spain right away.  For one thing, it's one of those countries where everybody is thin. I've figured out that part of this is due to the size of the dinner plates. At each of the hotels we're booked at, the plates are roughly the size
of the ones that Barbie had when they threw her the engagement party when she hooked up with Ken. ( I wasn't invited, but my sister was, and she reported back in great detail.) Also, all their cars are wicked small, so they have to be able to get in them.

They have some fairly widespread notions on energy conservation – the hotel hallways all have motion detectors, so when you charge out of your room after dark, there is a second or two of total blackness, and then on pop the lights. It's like a surprise birthday party every time you leave your room, except you keep looking around in vain for your
friends and relatives.

And there is a slot in the wall just inside your front door for your key card. Until you put it in, none of the lights will work.  This made for some really hilarious moments the first time I used my room - I blundered around in the dark for fifteen minutes, hitting switch
after switch to no avail, thinking, "Can't they even change ONE stupid light bulb?"  On my way out to the lobby to complain about their inability to pay the light bill, I spotted the gizmo by the door, and slipped the card in, and Voila!, there was light all over the place. When you think about it, there are two obvious reasons for this system: first of all, you can't leave any lights on when you leave the room. More importantly, you can actually find your room key card when it's time to leave.  The time savings alone in that regard are amazing.

So far, we've seen three significant sights:  The first is the greatest tour draw in Spain, the Alhambra.  This is like a cross between Sturbridge Village and Las Vegas.  It's a
castle/fort/temple/residence built by the Moors in Grenada over a 200 year period, and then surrendered by them to the Spanish Monarchy in1492, which must have been a pretty good year in Madrid. The next is the downtown section of Grenada itself, which looks like the Casbah meets New Orleans.  Tiny streets, people selling everything legal,
and, I suspect, one or two things that kind of cross the line. And restaurants. Lots and lots of restaurants.  Everything seems expensive, until you remember you're paying in Euros. Then it seems REALLY expensive.

The third amazing thing we've seen is a weather report that says this thing called The Sun will come out tomorrow. We'll see. Reporting from the Costa Del Soaked, keep the light on. Actually, turn it off, this energy thing they do is contagious.


Part 2:

Okay, I’m back in Marblehead. When I left there were boats in the harbor, the sun was out, and you could go out without a sweater.  I flew back in the middle of the worst snow-storm in October I can recall, somebody took all the boats, and the temperature read the same, except in Celsius. Yup, home again.

The rest of the trip was conducted in a mixed omelet of rain, sun, fog, and just plain cloudy overhang – the good news was, people stopped falling over like bowling pins. The bad news was….actually, there wasn’t any, as southern Spain is a knockout in any weather. We sampled the roads between Grenada, Antequera, Arc de la Frontera, and Ronda. Ronda, by the way, is the highlight of any tour through Spain. It has a bridge in the middle of town with a view that must have made the day of the Spanish Tourist Bureau guy the first time he hit town. You look down, and it’s a seriously long way, we’re talking mini Grand Canyon here, and not too mini at that.  Then you look out past the chasm onto a plain that stretches to never-never land, where you can see more mountains in the distance. Everybody tries to take a picture of it, but unless you have an omni-max theatre to view the picture on, there’s no way you can appreciate the scope of what you’re seeing.

Images of Spain:
-First off, coffee.  The worst coffee in the worst restaurant is better than just about anything you can find in the rest of Europe, unless you count Italy’s preoccupation with espresso.  The Spanish, however, drink it in real life-size cups, and they always have warm milk handy. This warm milk thing could catch on here, trust me.
-Shoes: these people are very proud of their shoes, which in fact are pretty well made, and stylish to boot. Speaking of which, there are maybe three or four women in Spain who don’t wear boots, and I’m pretty sure they were on their way to the Boot Store.
-Ham and cheese.  This is the home of the ham and cheese sub, except it only comes with bread, ham, and cheese. Period. Every store and coffee shop sells them, and if there’s a jar of mustard in the country, they’re saving it for a special occasion.
-Tight clothes. On women, that is. Actually, tight is not the word. We’re talking the latex school of fashion, as in latex paint. I swear, there’s not even room for a coat of primer.


Also, the striking thing about the Spanish people is that they are, in fact, very ordinary, which is to say, like you and me. This is not a country of peasants, it’s actually very middle class. To be a little brutal about our expectations, when we hear people speaking in Spanish, we tend to think South or Central American, which in turn brings up the specter of illegal immigrants, working class families, and a host of images we carry from watching the Latino population in America grow from 1% to 20% in my lifetime.  But Spain is a country where just about everybody has a car, a home , and a job, and there’s not a sense that very many of these people want to go anywhere else, like, say, America. They’re reasonably friendly to tourists, but you get the sense they expect all of us to eventually go home. Sound familiar? Like I said, a lot like you and me.

Spain is part of the European Economic Community, which is to say they use the Euro.  Which means the single dollar is a coin. As is the two dollar currency. This makes for a lot of clinking as you walk along. It will never catch on here, as we are fond of our dollar bills. Try playing liar’s poker with coins sometime – can’t be done.

They don’t have a lot of bad food, unless you count the pastries, which just don’t have the zing of American munchies.  I think it’s a sugar thing – we’re just used to a ton of sugar. Want to go broke? Start a Weight-watcher’s franchise in Spain.

There is a public toilet somewhere in Spain, by the way. Or so I hear. I never actually saw one, but I know a guy who knows a guy…. I mean, there just has to be one somewhere. On the other hand, find one in Back Bay when you need it.

So it was a grand adventure, if a little scary at times.  I went out for a quick ride on our rest day with a couple of guys who used to race motorcycles. Big mistake.  On the way back to the hotel it started to rain, and I found myself taking sharp curves on a steep mountain as the sun started to fade. The next thing I know, I’m passing a bus. On a mountain. In the rain. In the dark. On a hairpin.  Thinking, wait a minute, This Is Vacation? What happened to reading bad novels on a beach?

Sometimes getting out of your comfort zone is a good idea.  I was so far out of mine, I needed a GPS to find my GPS. It was a good idea to go, and it’s an even better idea to return.



updated 2 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »