Category Archives: Walsh Wonderings Column

When Wonder Goes Missing

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on August 2, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

I’m spoiled. While four billion people watched last week’s opening ceremonies for the Olympics, I was busy trying to catch up on old episodes of America’s Got Talent. That’s right: I was watching someone whose “talent” was getting hit in the crotch while England spent $42 million on acclaimed director Danny Boyle to create a visual extravaganza that would celebrate the entire history of Great Britain in a little under three hours. (No small feat—I figured the Middle Ages would have lasted at least as long as dinner.) All Boyle managed to do was scrape together 15,000 volunteers to put on the most ambitious show in England’s storied history.

(By the way: don’t spoil it for me. I know it’s a big deal, but I fell asleep before it was over. I still don’t know if the guy who gets hit in the crotch makes it to the next round.)

NBC crowed that 40 million Americans watched the ceremony, but what were the other 275 million doing? 111 million of us watched the Super Bowl, and that only had two teams from the same country playing one sport! Assuming maybe 20 million Americans had dates that Friday night, this still leaves an awful lot of people who found something more interesting to do than watch television. Ignoring for the moment the gravity of the situation (there’s something better than watching TV?), we must acknowledge that we’ve become very hard to please. When I was growing up, we planned our summer vacation around The Battle of The Network Stars with Howard Cosell. Now most of us don’t have the attention span to look up The Battle of The Network Stars or Howard Cosell on the internet.

The other day I overhead someone complaining he felt “ripped off” after watching the Amazing Spider Man remake. Normally I’d be the first one to say that there should be a rule about “remaking” a wildly successful movie franchise that’s less than ten years old. (Twinkies last longer.) However, this guy just spent eight bucks on a matinee ticket for a movie that took hundreds of skilled artists almost two years and $230 million to complete. I’d hate to have to buy that guy a birthday present.

Unfortunately, just as I get comfortable on my high horse, along comes the opening ceremony to bring me back to reality (if not reality TV). I couldn’t be bothered to watch it live—I watched it on my DVR over the weekend. What did I miss? Nothing much, just a military flyby as David Beckham sped the Olympic flame to the stadium by boat and 7,500 actors transformed the field into a replica of London itself. Kenneth Branagh and JK Rowling emerged from their respective holes to find 30 Mary Poppinses descending from the sky on lighted umbrellas to fight a forty-foot tall Voldemort above hundreds of children dancing deliriously with their nurses on spinning bedframes below. 965 drummers accompanied the towers that tore out of the earth and rose into the sky to commemorate the industrial revolution and mark those lost during two world wars. The 79,000 square feet of real grass making up the “British meadow” were transformed into a living ring of molten fire that became the last of the five giant Olympic rings hauled into the air over the frenzied crowd. The ringing of a 25-ton bell preceded the dropping of seven billion pieces of paper onto almost 10,000 ecstatic athletes parading around the grounds in multicolor splendor. 204 copper petals representing each nation were lit before erupting into the giant Olympic Cauldron that would burn like a fallen sun for the next sixteen days. 70,799 pixel screens affixed to the stadium seats created a neon canvas rivaled only by the dazzling fireworks display that lit up London like the second coming of the Blitzkrieg.

I mean, the thing began with the freakin’ Queen parachuting out of an airplane with James Bond into the packed stadium to the sounds of God Save The Queen (delivered first by a children’s choir, then later by the Sex Pistols on tape) and ended with Paul McCartney getting over 80,000 people to sing along to “Hey Jude.” What more could they do to get me to watch, outside of Amelia Earhart returning to tell us about the true origins of Easter Island

Instead, I skimmed through most of it while I finished an egg sandwich, fast-forwarding through commercials and anything that wasn’t exploding. Some people with funny accents spoke, a female graduate student faked her way into the Indian delegation, every British musical act of the last half-century was crammed into a montage, and the Queen looked as if someone had just trampled through her lilies. You know, typical English stuff.

I felt bad, like the kid with the expensive present who plays with the box instead, until I read about Margaret Abbott. In 1900, Margaret was an American art student in Paris when she saw an advertisement for a local golf tournament. She entered, had a nice round, and won a porcelain bowl. What she didn’t know was that the “tournament” was actually part of a horribly planned Olympics and that she’d just become the first American woman to win an Olympic event. That’s how anti-climactic the Olympics can be, even when you’re in them.

This morning, I decided to watch it one more time (mostly to laugh at the lady who managed to sneak into the Indian delegation), but my wife had already deleted it. She needed room for the new season of Project Runway.

The Survivor Tree

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on July 17, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

It’s odd to see a memory under construction, the conscious act of recollection cemented and planted in full view of a curious public. Odder still is the attempt to make that memory sacred in the face of the sacrilege that caused it to come into being. That’s why I wasn’t surprised that my wife and I almost missed the most powerful symbol of the September 11 Memorial & Museum this weekend, lost as it was amid the sheer audacity of the blooming six-acre World Trade Center site.

The memorial was tasked with casting the grief of a nation into permanence, replacing the thousands of handmade epitaphs dotting the city from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to Union Square. Understandably, eyes are drawn upward to One World Trade Center’s “Freedom Tower” as it wills itself into existence on the New York City skyline. A crane atop the structure reaches out a bony finger like Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Man,” each massive steel girder hoisted thousands of feet into the heavens in blasphemous defiance of gravity as life is breathed into the scarred ground.

Below, the gaping maws of two man-made waterfalls marking the footprints of the old towers create a subdued orchestra drowning out the construction crews surrounding the site. The rush of cascading water is eerily reminiscent of the fall of the towers themselves, and teary-eyed visitors scour the bronze plates for the names of loved ones on the parapet walls that line the pools. The unfinished museum, consisting of two trident beams from the original towers, sits lifeless and encased in glass. An aching, painful absence permeates everything.

It’s amid this paralyzing emptiness that the “survivor tree” stands in quiet opposition to the overwhelming feeling of loss. A whisper in a sea of screams, it sends a message that the glass and steel above it cannot, a permanence and hope of which these manmade things are incapable. Hundreds of young swamp oak trees seem to huddle protectively around this last survivor pulled from the wreckage of the fallen towers, but its mere presence suggests a power that renders protection meaningless.

In October of 2001, the trunk of this callery pear tree was uncovered from the smoldering rubble in the plaza of the World Trade Center, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage. Like the citizens of the city, callery pear trees flourish in urban areas because they are tolerant of a variety or soil types, drainage levels, and soil acidity. Originally planted in the 1970’s, the charred and blackened stump was carefully exhumed and sent to a Bronx nursery as it clung to life. Soon, like the nation itself, the tree began to heal. In the process, it became a more fitting memorial than any of the buildings that now rise around it.

Even after the ten-year anniversary of the attacks and the opening of the memorial site, we are still left to make sense of the tragedy. We rush to rebuild because that’s what our country does best, yet we are no closer to ensuring it never happens again. There’s no “good” that will ever come out of this. Therefore, the callery pear tree is an all-too-fitting symbol for this event: like our best intentions, they do not bear much fruit.

Instead, these trees are resilient. The survivor tree, like the World Trade Center site itself, is springing to life even though it still bears the scars of the attacks. One can actually see the timeline of 9/11 on the gnarled bark and dead holes on the trunk that then give way to clean, healthy limbs springing unblemished toward the sky. In the same way, the rebuilt office buildings of the World Trade Center rise above the ever-present orange netting and temporary sidewalk fencing, a testament to hope and a commitment to life.

In essence, the 9/11 memorial site attempts to carve out a place for peaceful contemplation on ground consecrated by horror. This can’t be accomplished by sheer force of will, but rather with the understanding that we we’ll never truly understand anything. The site provided its own memorial in the form of the survivor tree: a living, healing symbol that reminds us that while we cannot sweep away the pain of the past, we can still go on and continue to grow.

An offshoot of this tree was recently planted in Oklahoma City to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the federal building bomb that claimed 168 lives. Three other “clones” have been cultivated with plans for many more, a reflection of our need for tangible connections to this simple sign of hope in the middle of that horrible day’s madness.

Before I saw it for myself, I measured the progress at the site by the number of stories on the Freedom Tower or the date the museum was due to open. Now I realize it’s more accurately gauged by the strength of a pear tree’s root system. There’s an old Appalachian saying: “Rough weather makes for strong timber.” In this way, the tree is stronger than any memorial we might build around it.

Quieting The Fans

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on July 5, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

A few weeks ago, the New York Mets asked season ticket holders if they’d be open to the idea of a designated “quiet seating section” at Citi Field. Among its features would be a lowered volume on the PA announcer and the absence of music or cheerleading. This section would be located in the boondocks of the second deck in left field, where the seats normally go for $20 to $78 depending on the opponent. If you were interested, in other words, you’d have to be quiet while complaining about overpaying for your tickets.

Soon, the online world was abuzz with complaints. Why not bring a set of earplugs, they reasoned. Why even go to a ballpark if you don’t want noise? For many, the stadium is the place our wives send us so we don’t look foolish screaming at the TV. The furor died down only after a subsequent press release stated that the purpose of the survey was to investigate ways in which autistic fans could better enjoy the game

Frankly, I never understood what all the fuss was about in the first place. It’s not as if they were asking the whole stadium to go silent. Any Met fan will tell you that our home games have been eerily quiet for years by the time we reach the eighth inning. Heck, any game not pitched by Santana or Dickey this year could be designated an “excitement-free zone.” Who needs a quiet “section” when the entire stadium is the quietest area of New York every time playoff season arrives?

It’s not as if this policy would affect many people, either: the Mets sit comfortably in the bottom half of the league in attendance despite a sparkly new $850 million stadium. My dad would have loved Citi Field; the only reason he took me to Met games was because he hated crowds, and the ridiculous new pricing model they’ve employed ensures more unsold seats than a Paris Hilton concert. Even after reducing capacity by 16,000 seats from the old Shea Stadium, home games at Citi Field have all the excitement of the waiting room for jury duty.

I’ve been a Met fan all my life, but I don’t think they’re going far enough. As long as they’re asking my opinion, how about adding a “limited visibility section” for those of us who can’t bear to watch our bullpen blow another late-inning lead? Or maybe a section that guarantees the people directly behind me won’t carry on a running conversation with the people directly in front of me… for the entire game? I’d pay extra if there were a section that outlawed Yankee fans from reminding me they’ve won 25 more championships than we have, but I’ll settle for a section where the seats swivel so I can watch the US Open over at Arthur Ashe Stadium rather than endure another September meltdown.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the fact that Mets management is reaching out to the fan base to improve the ballpark experience, but don’t insult us. When a burger costs ten bucks, parking is $32, and a ticket around the third base line starts at $225, I need a bank loan—not a quiet zone—to take the family to a game. How about a section of seats we can actually afford? Unfortunately, it looks as though they left all those over at Shea.

An Open Letter to The Window Seat

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on June 21, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

Farewell, my lightly scratched and slightly fogged friend. Parting is such sweet sorrow. We’ll always have Paris. And Heathrow. And Chicago O’Hare.

It’s not you—it’s me. Like cigarettes and unlimited data plans, I can no longer afford you. Still, we had our moments, didn’t we? Remember when I could stuff my laptop under you? (That was when I could afford the extra bag.) Remember when I’d fall asleep on your plexi-glass shoulder? (That was before they charged fees for extra legroom.)

Remember when there was only one set of footprints? That was when I carried you—actually, your entire airline—out of bankruptcy in 2001.

Three weeks after the attacks of 9/11, Congress passed the Air Transportation Safety and Stabilization Act. It provided grants, loan guarantees and tax waivers valued at $15 billion to save the airlines’ bacon. Your parent airline never liked me, though, and now they’ve figured out yet another way to keep us apart: extra fees for window seats. Parents can be cruel like that.

In retrospect, ours was a relationship doomed from the start. It started as a fling, a one-flight stand on the red-eye from Orlando. I was just coming off a long-term relationship with the aisle seat, where my legs dangled carelessly in the delicious open spaces only flight attendants dared to tread. After an ugly breakup caused by overbooking, we were thrown together amid the chaos of coach. Accustomed to being shoehorned like crayons in a box on every flight, the comfort of your concave embrace was a revelation.

How could I resist you? From the protection of the window seat, there were no more glares as passengers tripped over my feet in the aisle. I no longer worried about falling asleep on a stranger’s arm on long flights; instead, I rested my pillow against your vibrating hull. There were no more bruised knees from the beverage cart; no bonks on the head each time someone opened the overhead bin; no getting up every time passengers with teacup bladders needed to use the bathroom.

Alas, your parents (like the Capulets and Montagues before them) conspired to keep us apart. They started by charging for my second bag, then charging for the first. Soon they were weighing my bags and measuring my carry-ons. Upset we were still seeing each other, they took away my in-flight meal and hid the blankets and pillows. I had to pay extra for using my frequent flier points, then had to pay fees for using my phone to book those frequent flier points. I had pay for the lousy movies after purchasing the lousy headphones. On top of all this, I had to pay extra for the fuel. The fuel! That’s like renting a tuxedo and being charged a fee for using the fabric.

Let’s face it: your parents were always looking for a better match and a larger dowry. It’s become common practice to overbook flights and leave the poor souls at the reservations desk to explain that a “reservation” is a tenuous promise at best (just ask the Native Americans). Quite frankly, at this point you’re too high-maintenance. The reality is I settled for you because I couldn’t afford dating your sisters in business or first class. Besides, I can’t handle the pressure of whether to leave the window shade up or down, and other passengers hate me for my indecision. My wife is jealous of our relationship and resents being relegated to the pinched purgatory that is the middle seat.

If anything, it should be less expensive to sit at the window. We’re the ones who alert the rest of the plane to the weird creature out on the wing in mid-flight. (Or do you have to pay extra for the wing seat?) My biggest fear is that you’ll get over our breakup too quickly. According to a recent forecast from trade group Airlines for America, flights will be packed this summer. Your parents should be very happy—they’ll probably add a fee on oxygen by then.

Mommy’s Meth Lab

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on June 7, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

My mom ran a meth lab out of her house for years without getting caught; she stockpiled enough simulants and inhalants to make Charlie Sheen weep. My kindergarten teacher (who shall remain nameless to protect her family) was even worse; she let her students handle so many drugs that it’s a miracle any of us managed to crawl out of there alive. However, after reading the news this week, I realize that my beloved Gammy was the worst of all: she used bath salts.

When I was growing up, glue sniffing was a phase that lasted about a day or two in elementary school art class. Trying to get high off a bottle of Elmer’s was like trying to suck a bowling ball through a straw: it could be done if you tried hard enough, but there wasn’t much of a payoff. Sure, you might hear a story about a model airplane enthusiast going off the rails every now and again, but who could blame them? When you gave kids glue, paint, contact cement, and small amounts of gas in a windowless room and expected them to spend hours fumbling over tiny details, it doesn’t take a Grateful Dead fan to figure out the first trip that plane is taking.

It was a time when parents had fewer “hidden dangers” in the house from which to protect their children—mostly things like paint chips, asbestos, or the accidental ingestion of cleaning products tucked away on the high shelves. Nowadays, more and more people are drawn to that very shelf in search of a cheap, readily-available high. Stealing a bit of dad’s liquor or stumbling upon an older brother’s “secret stash” has been replaced by something far more sinister: studying ingredient labels.

Stealing mommy’s Ambien is so 2011. These days, kids are finding novel ways to use household products in ways we never imagined. As a kid, I never looked at the felt-tip markers as a door to another world… I just used them draw doors. I never thought of spending my newspaper route money on paint solvent or correction fluid or contact cleaner. Unfortunately, these have now become common inhalants, both cheap and accessible.

By modern standards, my parents’ home warehoused a laundry list of mind-altering substances. The kitchen cabinets contained aerosol air fresheners, degreasers, whipped cream dispensers, peppermint extract, and nutmeg. The bathroom cabinets were full of hair spray, cough medicine, nail polish, ammonia, and toilet bowl cleaner. In today’s climate, my dad’s workshop stocks of spray paint, gasoline, and car wax would make him a suburban Pablo Escobar.

Regardless of where they fall internationally on science achievement tests, it seems our kids are developing a fatal interest in chemistry. Data from the 2011 “Monitoring the Future” study, an annual survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, shows that 13 percent of 8th graders reported abusing inhalants in the past year. Most of these inhalants come in the form of common substances found around any household. Even worse is that 41 percent of 8th graders don’t consider the regular use of inhalants to be harmful, and 65 percent don’t think trying inhalants once or twice is risky. These ingredients create a recipe for disaster.

Yesterday’s pre-school glue sniffing did not involve the potency of the chemicals kids are experimenting with today. This isn’t smoking banana peels after seeing a Velvet Underground album cover—today’s popular “experiments” are exponentially more toxic and could irrevocably damage the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, nerves, and brain.  Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can induce heart failure and death. If our kids don’t yet understand the severity of this problem, we need to better educate ourselves in order to educate them.

When something as innocuous as bath salts can cause a person to cannibalize another as happened in Miami last week, it’s time to re-think our approach to drug education. For instance, last fall the Drug Enforcement Administration banned three of the chemicals used in bath salts (38 states had already enacted their own such bans) yet none of these actions prevented this horrific act. California coughers can offer an interesting precedent as to the efficacy of this thinking. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra and limited ephedrine to cough and allergy remedies because it was being abused as a weight loss aid. In 2009, the FDA banned over-the-counter phenylpropanolamine in cough syrup. In January of 2012, in an attempt to stem its epidemic abuse as a hallucinogen, California banned the sale of cough syrup to minors altogether.  In short, it kept banning individual ingredients until it eventually banned the substance altogether—there simply too many ingredients left that could produce a high.

It seems as if focusing on the availability of the substance alone isn’t enough. When the drug of choice can be found in something as unoffending as a can of Lysol, we can’t legislate the problem away. More focus on educating adolescents as to the dangers of these trends might yield better results, not to mention exploring the reasons they wanted to escape like this in the first place. That doesn’t mean we should stop taking dangerous substances off the market, but rather that we should start figuring out why people turn to inhaling cleaning fluid to numb their pain.

After all, our society managed to get along just fine with gasoline and paint and even nutmeg for centuries before children turned them into hallucinogens. Maybe we adults are as much of the problem as the substances these kids are abusing.

The Human Conditioning

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on May 17, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

The thief had been stealing money from us for weeks before we caught onto it. Just last night, I spied the hulking figure squatting inside my open window, waiting. I wanted to reach over to my sleeping wife, to protect her, to warn her—but the sweat-soaked sheets glued me to the bed. The guttural growls coming from the intruder failed to wake our dogs, leaving only me to see the robbery unfold.

I watched helplessly as the burglar greedily sipped at the air around us. I felt naked and exposed as the thought hit me: I had no defense against this cold-hearted criminal. Whatever power I’d had to protect my family was lost the moment that open window allowed this creature access… the moment my carelessness had provided the opportunity…

The moment I’d bought it on sale at Walmart.

Air conditioners, like cable TV, GPS, and the Ab Roller, are luxuries that somehow turn into necessities when our guards are down. Applying the old drug dealer’s adage that “The first hit is free,” most of us experiment a bit with our disposable income. After all, America’s economy is built upon indulgences like wedding china that will rarely, if ever, get used. These days, frugality can be seen as downright unpatriotic. If we’re not careful, however, this can bloom into full-scale addiction. Overnight, our cable package could include the Guam Channel and 24-hour coverage of Sudoku tournaments. Worse, it could lead to central air conditioning.

Like vampires or vacuum cleaner salesmen, air conditioners have to be invited in—an evil we bring upon ourselves. As anyone who’s seen the monthly electric bill can tell you, air conditioning is evil. Check the utility costs after a heat wave—I’ve had muggers who left me with more money. And yet it only takes a short time with air conditioning to make it irreplaceable. I find it impossible to switch back to the fan after a few nights delighting in the frosted windowpane cloud of cooled air. When the electricity goes out, my withdrawal symptoms would put Robert Downey, Jr. to shame.

The entire concept of air conditioning is designed to separate us from nature. We spend all winter cooped up and dreaming of warmer weather only to cower inside during July and August like snowmen afraid to melt. We install monstrous boxes in our windows that block out the sun, then close every other window and door to keep the cold air in—it’s as if we’ve moved inside the refrigerator. Also like the refrigerator, I always forget to change the filter—in this case, a large, netted screen so full of scum and filth that I shudder to breathe at all. The first weeks of use lead to endless sneezing, red eyes, and an insatiable desire for chest x-rays until I finally remember to wash the filter out.

My father, who grows smarter as I get older, didn’t believe in air conditioning. He didn’t believe in blinds, window shades or curtains, either, because his house was designed to get his kids out of bed quickly. If we were uncomfortable and the sun shining directly into our eyes each morning, we’d be more likely to get up and out of his hair. This really helped keep the electric bill down, and I’m beginning to think this might be a way to keep the utility companies from robbing me blind each month.

Oh, I’ll keep an air conditioner or two for emergencies, but they’ll only be invited in as guests, not tenants. That way, it’ll give me an excuse to break out the wedding china.

Bouncing and Insomnia

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on May 3, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

One doesn’t often think of mattresses until lying sleepless in them for hours at a clip. In the well-lit showroom, all of them seem comfortable. That the “memory foam” will suffocate my wife and I in summer, or that the “dual zone” option will leave one of us sleeping in a crater, never enters our minds.

A night in a hotel changes that. We’re thrown into a no-win situation: if we love the bed, we end up hating our own.  When we get back, we’ll run down the laundry list of ways our bed doesn’t stack up, staying up all night adding foam layers or switching pillows. If we don’t like the hotel bed, we’ll be up all night playing with the AC or switching pillows. Only one thing is for certain: regardless of the mattress, we’ll hate those pillows.

Mattress comfort was not a priority in my father’s house. Like heat in the winter or “free time,” comfort took a back seat to utility. A navy man, he spent forty years sleeping on a bed sewn from two twins rather than paying for a king. (His queen did the sewing.) It must have been a nostalgic nod to his years on naval destroyers that led him to purchase the used trampoline bunk beds for his sons. To be fair, they didn’t start out as trampolines. Instead, they started out as threadbare webs of thin wire held together by hundreds of small springs. The only thing that kept them from tattooing their chicken wire design into our backs were the stained mattresses that appeared to have been taken too soon from their mother—they were as thick as a seventh grade mustache.

While completely unacceptable for actual sleep, they turned out to be fantastic trampolines. My parents hated trampolines almost as much as they hated buying king size mattresses. They refused to let us on them after a friend had been paralyzed in their youth. These army surplus bunk beds were perfect replacements, and I took to wearing an old football helmet to soften the blow as I hit the ceiling. Eventually, we stretched the wire netting until the beds became little more than wire hammocks inside the metal frame.

There was an element of danger that went far beyond the obvious risk of the rusted springs finally snapping. My family followed proper prison protocol: as the youngest boy, I was forced to sleep in the top bunk. At the slightest offense, my oldest brother would lie in the bunk below me as I lay sleeping. He would place both feet lightly on the springs of my bed, which sagged down toward him like an old water balloon. The mattress above squeezed through the wire springs like sausage casings, allowing for a solid footing. He would then kick his legs up into the mattress of my bunk, catapulting me a full five feet into the air. Sometimes I slammed into the ceiling, my face crushed against the white stucco and bearing its imprint for hours afterward. Other times I was flung past the bed altogether and landed in a heap on the floor, my Spiderman pajamas doing little to cushion the fall.

“What in the Sam Hill is going on up there?” my dad would roar upon feeling the thud.

“Nothing,” my brother would reply, glaring at me as if it were my fault that I couldn’t find a way to stick the landing. Random attacks such as these triggered insomnia, of course, but there was no “telling on” my bothers or sisters in my house. In my dad’s eyes, we were all guilty of complicity anyway.

And so, many years later, this is where the hotel pillow’s “memory foam” brings me. The so-called mattress upon which I was meant to sleep is a felt-covered slab of granite beneath me. My wife, who refuses to acknowledge its borders, has made the “dual zone” of the bed irrelevant. It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I’m typing this column because I know sleep will not find me here.

Instead, I need to remind myself to ask for a bouncier bed next time I check in. Insomnia is much more fun on a trampoline.

Please Don’t Kill Me

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on April 19, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

And yes, I mean that literally. Folks like me who ride a motorcycle around Fairfield County in April aren’t just taking our lives into our own hands—we’re putting them in yours… and honestly, some of you don’t seem all that jazzed about it.

There is an unspoken agreement between all drivers on the road: we promise not to swerve into each other at high speed just because the lady at the lunch counter forgot the fries with our order. The pilots of planes, trains, and cruise ships make this same tacit agreement, yet they very rarely come close enough to each other to worry. Car drivers, on the other hand, barrel toward each other at ungodly speeds while separated by nothing but faith and a pair of painted yellow lines. Unlike pilots, who demonstrate high levels of competency and mental stability over time before being trusted with the lives of their passengers, anyone with a pulse and a pair of keys can get behind the wheel of a car.

Scarier still, there is a bravado that envelops people when they step into a metal cage with seat belts, air bags, and heated coffee cup holders. Grandma Jones has led a long, full life—she has no problem cutting against traffic while trying to figure out the GPS. The wonder of automated travel, streaking across open roads at speeds that took modern man centuries to finally achieve, fails to fully capture the attention of giddy teenagers on cell phones. People have become so bored of driving that the failure to multi-task while doing so is seen as a waste of precious time. We choose to forget that we are literally risking our lives hundreds of times on each quick trip to the store. We pretend that nobody in the surrounding bullets of metal and glass is falling asleep, texting, or returning from an all-night bender.

We motorcycle riders are not allowed that luxury because we are exposed. The typical car is several thousand pounds; a truck several tons; the typical motorcycle weighs only a few hundred. We do not have seat belts, safety bars, or side-impact air bags—we are surfers atop a hurtling roller coaster. In a collision between the three, one of us is going to end up a stain on the road—guess which? For this reason, my brother refers to motorcyclists as “organ donors.

Our only defense is a healthy skepticism of every driver on the road, the absolute certainty that someone is about to do something stupid. (You know, the same attitude dads have about their sons.) That, and gearing up for each ride as if we’re trekking across Antarctica even amid the brutal heat of August.  The thick leather jacket, heavy-duty gloves, industrial boots and blue jeans are the only thing keeping us from smearing our skin across the road like clumped Chapstick as soon as we dump the bike. My gear gives me all the flexibility of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, yet my entire body needs to react in a split second to keep someone else’s carelessness from becoming my swan song. Of course, that’s assuming I know what’s coming—and that’s not always a given in the soundless world of a well-made motorcycle helmet.

Ironically, one of the attractions of Connecticut motorcycling is we don’t have mandatory helmet laws. However, I need to protect the few brain cells I have left after years of bicycle crashes, skateboard spills, college happy hours and “Brady Bunch” re-runs. Alas, even the safest helmets offer limited visibility; heavily padded on all sides with a narrowed window through the hard shell, they reduce peripheral vision to a rumor. This is why you see us craning our necks on either side of the bike—we’re not miming a matador, but rather desperately trying to see who might be flying up behind us because our rear-view mirrors are the size of gum wrappers.

I gained a new appreciation for road awareness only after I stepped out from behind the safety of my SUV and saw how fragile life can be for cyclists. There’s a contingent of drivers who believe that anything on two wheels is an insult, an obstacle to be ignored or squeezed to the sidewalk. Every roundabout becomes a game of “Frogger”—no one knows who has the right-of-way, and some drive as if they get bonus points for making me soil my pants.

It’s worse in the Northeast because we’re just not used to sharing the road with motorcycles. Most bikes are parked during the winter and rainy seasons before they pop out of garages like lilies once the days get warmer. Suddenly, drivers are faced with eerily solitary lights approaching them from the other lane. They figure it’s a car in the distance, and take that fateful left turn… into the path of a defenseless biker.

This is where I need to remind you of our contract, Dear Driver. I have to promise my wife I’ll be careful each time I ride, but I’m not sure if anyone’s whispering that in your ear. So consider it whispered.

I know that, like putting our heads between our knees before the plane crash, this offers only the illusion of safety. Still, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to keep up that illusion.

Taking on Another of Life’s Humiliations

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on April 6, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

I recently undertook a fitness challenge from a fitness challenge from a friend, which is a prettier way of saying I’ve allowed myself to be humiliated on a weekly basis. This humiliation takes the form of something that’s been the bane of my existence since elementary school: pushups.

I’ve always thought of pushups as the ultimate waste of energy. When I lie down on the floor, I usually plan on staying down there for a while. There’s something incredibly humbling about the symphony of groans and creaking bones that accompany my efforts to lower myself to the ground. Birthing cows make less noise. As a result, outside of looking for contacts or trying to unplug the answering machine, I tend to put most of my focus toward staying on my feet.

I do acknowledge that it’s a great workout, such as it is. It primarily targets the muscles of the chest, triceps, and shoulders, but for me it’s a full-body workout: every muscle in my body shakes like a frightened kitten as I try to push myself off the ground. If shaking uncontrollably were a workout, I’d be Jack LaLane.

There’s also a pushup for every personality type: “rookies” (those learning the basic movement) or “pansies” (people like me who treat pain as God intended — something to be avoided) prefer the kind that allows for the knees to touch ground. This simulates the form of a pushup without al that ugly effort they normally require. Then there are the show-offs, the ones who perform their pushups on their fingers or using the backs of their hands. These are the type of people who ride racing bikes on walking paths and they should be avoided at all costs … especially the backs of their hands. Finally, there are those who perform the one-handed pushup, usually in the most crowded area of the gym. They tend to undress in front of you in the locker room with a careless disregard for towel usage before going home to watch Rocky IV. Again. Seriously; ask them.

However, pushups fail to appeal to me on even a symbolic level: right after you push yourself up from the ground, you consciously lower yourself back down again. It’s an exercise Anthony Robbins would do if Anthony Robbins were a depressed emo teenager. It seems silly to expend so much energy pushing one’s body mere inches off the carpet, although I admit it allows me to see how much dog hair has managed to escape the maw of our vacuum cleaner.

Still, I couldn’t escape the inevitability of pushups as I grew up. My swim and soccer coaches assigned them with wild abandon. In my zeal to get them over with, I resorted to what my older brother referred to as “rabbit pushups,” a quick muscle-twitch action that accompanies a barely discernible bending of the elbow before it straightens back out. Rather than a test of strength, it looks as if someone is having a seizure on a plank. I had to do pushups at Fairfield Prep for every minute I was late for class. After the first week, I was rarely late for class.

However, any exercise used as punishment should be called by its real name: punishment. I don’t see anyone suggesting we chain cannon balls to our legs and break rocks. On a practical level, I have my dignity to worry about. As I get older, I find myself hoarding what little I have left. I recently found out that the world record for the most push-ups performed without stopping (or even asking for a defibrillator) is held by Minoru Yoshida of Japan: he did 10,507.

Last night before bed, I did 11. I don’t think I can take this kind of beating.

The Beckoning Beach

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on March 22, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

As seagull calls echo across the empty beach, I revel in the fitful sunshine that warms my face in spite of stiff March winds. While the calendar turns slowly toward spring, the melodies of summer can be heard just underneath the breeze. If I try hard enough, the sounds of a youth spent at these shores bubbles to the fore: “Robert Francis Walsh, you get out of that water right now or so help me God…”

My mom never needed to finish those kinds of sentences, and she certainly never needed God’s help to carry out a punishment. However, it was always a chore to get her youngest boy out of Long Island Sound while the sun was still up. Growing up in a family with seven kids, the beach offered the space and privacy that a house crammed with nine people could not. People in large families realize that “privacy” is a relative thing, especially when the only room with a lock on it is the bathroom (and even that can be easily opened with a nail file).  Privacy was the ability to lose myself amid the laughing and screaming of hundreds of other kids at the beach.

While Long Island Sound was never known for its cleanliness when I was growing up, it was an oasis for me. Because the media made more of the occasional sewage overflow than was justified, swimming twenty yards out was truly a solitary experience. Most beach-goers only took quick dips and then raced up to the shack to shower off. Floating contentedly in the frigid, salty water by the buoys while the lifeguards tried to whistle me in, this was only place in the world where I felt truly alone. It was easy (and fun) to ignore the whistles of the frantic lifeguards from the shore when feeling a calm that I could never experience at home. As a result, I was rarely in a rush to leave.

Maximizing my beach time was a study in delicate escalation. Because of the size of our family, a trip to the beach involved planning one might expect when storming the beaches of Normandy. Gathering our things to go home was worse. My mom could spend an hour gathering her kids, collecting trash, packing up the cooler, balls, and floats while drying out her kids, shaking out the towels and shoes, and trudging back to the car… where the final shaking, drying, and packing into the car would begin.

In a family our size, however, it was easy to stay out of sight until the last moment. Inevitably, my mom would notice that I was missing, and the game would begin. Any child who struggles to stay in the water “just a little bit longer” ends up attempting it in four stages. In the interest of any of our younger readers who might need some pointers, I’ll outline them here. Stage One involves temporary deafness: face away from the shore and make a show of splashing around a lot—this will lend credence to your story when you later claim that you didn’t hear your mom screaming like a banshee at you from fifteen yards away. If she’s tired, she’ll give up and send someone else out to get you. Congratulations: you just bought yourself another five to ten minutes. If not, you’ll arrive at Stage Two.

At this stage, you realize she’s not going away. It’s best to turn and feign surprise, as if to say, “Oh, were you talking to me?”  Acknowledge that you understand her and that you’re coming in. This must be done swiftly, as she will stay and wait for you if she gets too upset. As soon as she turns her back, slowly bounce and float your way toward shore. This is often good for at least another ten minutes. Moving to the side instead of toward shore will ensure that you are at least in a different spot each time your mom sees you… the illusion of progress is often enough to appease the over-burdened mother. If not, you must act quickly!

Stage Three is the moment of truth; if played improperly, you will have a very long car ride home. If your mom realizes that you are simply ten yards down the shoreline instead of shaking the sand from your swimsuit, you have to play your trump card. “I lost my ear plug!” you yell, looking worriedly at the water around you. It’s not what you lose: it could be a ring, a Frisbee, a Spiderman action figure… just make sure you don’t go out there empty-handed.

Stage Four, like DEFCON 2, is an escalation that should never occur. Stage Four is when you simply reply, “No.” Your choices are very limited here, unless your parents are naïve enough to bribe you back to shore. If this is the case, you probably don’t even have to bother with the first three stages. If not, you either start swimming toward Long Island in the hope of starting a new life, or you swim back to the beach to await your sentence. If you were in my family, you had a better shot at survival if you tried for Port Jefferson.

Even as the chill air brings me back to the present, I feel the pull of this wonderful body of water. No matter how old I get, I appreciate the beauty of the Sound as warm weather approaches. My hearing has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but even I can hear the pleas from my wife as she stands on shore and tries to get me to swim in. “Robert Francis Walsh, you get out of that water right now or so help me God…”