Don’t Be Dumb Tonight

old time halloween 2I believe in the young, who in many ways are miles ahead of the rest of us. Still, they do make some super-dumb moves at times.Below, four tales by way of illustration. Let’s call this a Halloween Night Sermon For Us All.’

EXAMPLE ONE : On a morning suddenly overcast, a young person called home from his workplace to ask his dad to put up the windows in his car, which was parked on the street. “Sure! Where are the keys?” his dad asked. “Where they always are: in the ignition,” responded the kid.“You leave your car on the street? Unlocked? With your keys in the ignition?” squeaked the dad in disbelief. “You don’t think it might get stolen?”“Oh no,” said the kid. “Who would do that?”

Let’s see, I can’t help thinking here: Maybe the person who took my neighbor’s bike right from his garage? Maybe the one who took my baby’s stroller from off my front porch and pitched it in the lake? Maybe one of the five separate individuals who stole my car on five separate occasions?

EXAMPLE TWO: A s16-year-old girl took a notion to go running. At 10 at night. On a street with narrow twisty roads. “But it’s not safe to run now, especially not there!” her mother told her. “Don’t be silly!” replied the daughter. “There aren’t even any streetlights!” (Huh?)

EXAMPLE THREE: One morning at a convenience store, a young stranger stocking shelves turned to me with a radiant smile and said this: “I get off work at 2:00 every day. Then I take a shower and go get drunk.”  “You don’t mean that,” I said. “I do. I get drunk! Every day! Right after work!” “You’ll regret that one day,” I said. “Maybe when I’m 40,” said the kid.(If you GET to be 40, I thought.)

EXAMPLE FOUR, and this by way of showing that I have been plenty dumb myself: When I was 18, I used to hitchhike. Kids did back then. Of course I always wore my good blue dress to show I was well brought up. I hitchhiked to western Massachusetts. I hitchhiked to New Haven, Connecticut. But when I hitchhiked to Cambridge to see the boy I would one day marry, he said I showed bad judgment.

It took putting my thumb out that next weekend to show me how right he was:

The man who pulled over that day had baby gear in his back seat of his car and looked a lot like Mister Rogers. When I approached his passenger-side window to find out his destination, he asked if I would do a particular thing. When I recoiled in horror, he asked if I would maybe just watch.

I hung up my thumb then and there.

And so, in this final hour before the blowout that Halloween night now is, I would say only this to the young: 

Sooner or later Time will claim your bike and your baby carriage; your brand-new car and that bright young sparkle in your eye. Earth is a beautiful place and and it’s ours to live in. But it’s also the place where we will die. It just seems foolish to invite an early departure. Other than that I say have a ball!

happy halloween


False Gods

Justin Bieber Arrested2You hear a lot these days about our young people: How they don’t know much. How they can’t name the last three Presidents, say, never mind the first three. 

I read a survey of youth designed to reveal what they wanted in life – lots of money, they said, fast cars, fame – and It has me remembering the time a 13-year-old I’ll call Jenny came to my house and said it outright: 

“I don’t want to be known for any one thing,” she said cheerfully. “I just want to be famous.”

“You know Jenny,” I  remember saying back.  “You could say that I’m so-called ‘famous’ in every town that runs a picture of me alongside my column in the paper but.. it’s nothing. I mean it doesn’t help. Mostly it just means strangers stare at you and think you don’t have feelings.”

“Listen to this,” I went on: ‘One day an older woman beckoned to me from a group of women she was standing with. ’My friends wanted to know who Terry Marotta was,’ she said. They looked at me. Nobody spoke. ’That’s all,’ she finally added. ‘They just wanted to see what you looked like.’

 “So see what I mean? It’s not helpful. And sometimes, it hurts. And seeking it can be a kind of addiction.

Years ago, I went to a wedding where the father of the bride was so famous he had to sit in a chair the whole night wearing an expression that said,  “Please. It’s my daughter’s day.” People respected that – until the second or third drink. Then they surrounded him, and his smiled was forced and tired.

“No, don’t wish for fame, Jenny, I ended by saying. “The Queen of England has fame and who are her close friends do you think? The serving woman who helps dress her? The serving man who brings her her breakfast tray?”

The survey also cited the famous people the kids said they wanted to be like: Entertainment figures and athletes to a one. There were no political or spiritual leaders on the list. No humanitarians. No inventors.

But the kids aren’t to blame here. If they worship money it’s because we worship it. If they crave gadgets and fast cars it’s because we do too. If they covet fame and the big life is may be because they think it can protect them from a rising sense that the small life is not enough.

One day, I was driving  with a 15-year-old I I’ll call James, who needed a ride to a place where he could take some standardized tests, because he wondered if he should go to a new school.

He had had a bad year, and was at a loss. Three months before, a fire destroyed his home. His mother was severely burned. His little stepsister perished, as did the younger brother, who he had always said was his best friend in this world.

But on this day we didn’t speak of that. We spoke instead of the survey, for he had seen it too, and it bothered him.

“Entertainers,” he said.

“Fame,” I said.

“Money,” he said. “Cars.”

“Is that what we’re here for?” I asked rhetorically.

He paused. He looked out the car window.

“I always thought we were here to serve God.”

No, fame and money don’t help – and they appear to have done very little to ease the troubled young heart of a Lindsay Lohan, say, or a Justin Bieber, who is  running widely afoul of the law right now.

Let’s hope more of us can learn to be like James, who gave me permission to tell his story here; and who, in trying hard to do well and find his path is surely  serving God.

Memory Distorts: The Winter of ’64

Memory sure distorts. I could have sworn the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the same night I had that party where nearly 60 kids showed up and, as my diary, tells me, “ground chips into the rug, dumped sandwiches on chairs, tore books, spilled Cokes, flicked ashes, broke the television (Freddy fixed it), broke the glass punch ladle etc.” Maybe you can make out the writing for yourself down below here.

I also had the memory that, as the Beatles sang and the party roared on, some of the more poorly behaved boys, the ones who arrived smoking, were seen holding a bottle of Clorox. I know that the next morning I found out my little pet alligator dead, his ivory tummy thrown to the sky  in the shallow water of his enamel tub which smelled suspiciously like a swimming pool. (The party was held in our basement where the washer and dryer were, as well as the clothesline, which we took down for the night. (Clotheslines! Remember clotheslines?))

It’s true all this happened but it wasn’t the Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan night at all. The party was on January 4, 1964 whereas the big night on NBC was February 9 of that year as we were all told again and again yesterday.

How I blush to see what I revealed of myself in that diary: the way I was ‘auditioning’ one boyfriend and easing out another at age 14. The way I so callously described my mother’s poor bloody hand when she climbed up over the counter where we folded the clothes, hoisted the sash of the window she was bent on polishing for this silly party with one hand and then – too late – saw that same sash slam down onto her other hand. I only say that it ‘bled disgustingly’ but  even at the time I remember my heart swelling with love and gratitude to her for trying to make things nice for me and help me work my way in to the big new school.

Here’s my favorite picture of the pre-Ringo Beatles, just as they were just starting out – and here at the top, obviously, is that diary entry too. Long time passing since those days all right!

george john paul at 16


No TALKING to My Friends! Mum!

scan0003I drove 400 miles in six hours’ time and then kept myself awake until midnight yesterday so I could send a Happy Birthday text to someone whose fate was closely linked to my own in a delivery room once. Drove from Boston clear to Albany and back to record seven  ‘commentaries’ for  Northeast Public Radio, to me the best Pubic Radio station in the whole country hands down.

One of these pieces I offer below here, because it’s about this boy of mine. Its tenderness makes me blush a little, but how can I not return nostalgically to those days, as someone who is still trying to get used to the fact that he’s not nearby anymore? The fact  that he doesn’t bang in the back door like his big sisters do, cracking open a beer and talking a mile a minute?

~ Sigh ~  Anyway, here’s who that boy was in the 8th grade. Who I thought he was anyway. Who we all were maybe:


They say boys separate from their fathers either by beating them at what the dads do best or refusing to compete at all. How girls separate from their moms I remember well. Our oldest used to spend hours talking on the phone in my home office and writing little notes on my all my stuff. (“I’m not writing on your stuff” these notes sometimes said) but about how a boy separates from his mom I know only this: It’s isn’t quick and it isn’t easy.

When my boy was 12 he thought I was the best thing since Tic Tacs. I used to go into his school every year to talk about Writing From Personal Experience, maybe even get the kids to try it.

First we’d loosen up by telling stories, like the one about how my underpants fell down when I was seven. I was the Flag Bearer at a full-dress Flag Raising ceremony, with nary a hand to spare lest Old Glory touch the ground, when the elastic snapped and those little panties descended – and fast.

Kids love stuff like this, and before we knew it, everyone in the class was laughing, and no one more than my own child.

But by the time he turned 13 I just seemed to embarrass him.His teacher called up that year to ask If I’d help chaperone a field trip to see “Romeo and Juliet” on stage. I quick switched some appointments and jumped at the chance.

Michael left the room when he heard the news.

“OK, a few ground rules,“ he said on his return:  “No talking to anyone. No sitting near me in the theater. No explaining the play to the kids beside you.”

Well, I failed on all three counts. We tried again with the carpools-to-out-of-town-soccer-games issue.

“Parents don’t talk when they do these carpools!” he said through gritted teeth. “They just drive and keep quiet.”

I failed again – repeatedly even.  He just needed a little distance, maybe.

He got it that summer, He went away to a camp in the Berkshires called Emerson , a camp that happens to be on the same 130 acres as the one I went to for 11 years, owned by my family and called Fernwood in those years.

Halfway though his time there we went to visit him.

He was making some separation progress anyway:  a child who for years refused to even pick up a tennis racquet at his father’s invitation suddenly said, “Dad! Want to volley?” When they rejoined his sisters and me the two of them were  smiling, if winded. “I’m awesome!” reported the son. “I crushed him!” said his father.

“Hey, Mike!” I spoke up then. “Let’s you and I walk over to the girls’ cabins.” I wanted to see if my name was still there, carved high in the rafters.

“Are you kidding?  I’m not allowed to go there!”

“C’mon it’s Family Day!” I said. “Even the girls cabins will be crawling with males! And if they ask, I’ll tell them I went to camp here.” And I started on alone.

Suddenly he was right there beside me. “OK, go to Bunk J,” he said, walking fast. “Quick, got a pen?” he said. I gave him one. “I’ll stand guard,” I said. Then he ducked into the empty bunk, stood on a girl’s trunk, and amid 60 years worth of names, wrote “Mike Marotta” in bold caps high on the cabin wall.

“A fine influence YOU are!” said his dad when we got back and reported the deed. My boy and I just traded a little smile I remember. And all I could think was “maybe we’ll separate next year.”