I no longer like butterflies. Those miserable little hyperactive buzzards flutter around like drunk scraps of tracing paper. “Oh they’re beautiful, especially the Monarchs,” everyone says. Why? Because of their colors? Their fragility? We just like things more delicate than we are. As George Carlin famously pointed out, we eat more lobsters than bunnies because bunnies are soft and furry and lobsters look like miniature monsters. No contest. Honestly, I used to love the little beauties, butterflies. I was always intrigued that the average life span is less than a year. I watched documentaries about the monarchs’ migration from northern regions of the states to the mountains of southern Mexico. I couldn’t find my way there with a map and a guide, and these little fuckers do just fine every single year. But lately I have lost interest. They’re as disturbing to me now as the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.”
And as to the “The Wizard of Oz, ” the scariest scene is not the flying monkeys, or the balls of fire the Wicked Witch of the West throws down upon the bone-dry scarecrow. It is the hour glass filled with red sand set up in the castle room with Dorothy. Such a small scene in an irritating film still affects me half a century later. “You see that?” the witch cries to the terrified Judy Garland, “That’s how much longer you have to be alive! And it isn’t long, my sweetie. It isn’t long!” This scared the crap out of me. You mean it’s that easy, I thought, to no longer exist? Someone just flips the hourglass and the sands run out? My heart raced every time the camera focused on the depleting red grains dripping through the huge timepiece.
It didn’t help that during those years my mother watched “Days of Our Lives,” and the opening sequence was always, “Like sand through the hourglass, so go the Days of Our Lives.” Whoa! Talk about depressing. I was raised saturated in this daily dose of “you’re going to die soon.” Growing up near the beach probably didn’t help; the shifting patterns of sand symbolized to me the passing of seconds and hours and days and years. And when aunts and uncles exclaimed I had an “old soul” I thought they were ordering last rites.
So some sense of urgency festered in me from quite early on. I started attacking my ambitions like I had just three weeks left before the sand ran out. When I was young, I had an outrageous list of dreams, ambitions, or “fantasies” as most others called them. One of the first brilliant ideas was doomed for failure: My friend Todd and I had been sending up rockets; the ones with a gun-powder-filled battery shoved up their tails which we bought from a hobby shop. We were getting good at this and our imagination ran away fast. This was around 1973 and I was totally into adventure. Papillon had just come out and my mind was already bent on traveling to faraway lands. Mostly, though, I was obsessed with becoming an astronaut. I knew all their names, and I had memorized every detail I could find about rockets, their speeds, thrust, history and expectations. I had a brown cpo jacket and asked my mother to sew on an American flag and a NASA patch. When we went into stores I liked to pretend people thought I must have something to do with the space program. I played it cool, of course, holding my mom’s car keys like I just got back from the Johnson Space Center. I was twelve.
Even so, Todd and I had a plan. We were going to take apart the batteries to study how they are made, and then we would make a large one that could carry one of us, me, into the clouds. We knew we would have needed a heat shield to exit the atmosphere and return—we weren’t dumb—so we planned to use a metal garbage can. We only were going to lift a few hundred feet just to show the naysayers we earned our patches. So we slowly filled a coffee can with the gun powder from several dozen batteries bought over several months. But one night Todd left the coffee can on his patio in the rain. We didn’t have enough money to buy more batteries so we tossed the plan and played baseball. A few years later I moved away and found more pragmatic plans. I am not certain, however, if I was ever so serious or energetic as I was when I thought I was going into the clouds. To me that fantasy was simply reality’s childhood.
Back then I couldn’t possibly know that eventually the most treasured content of my bucket list would be the simplest of thoughts—plans really—like lying on the floor playing Risk and Boggle with my son and sharing a bowl of pretzels while we laughed at the anxious final seconds of each round. Or the one of walking slowly through a mall with my dad, sitting on a bench reminiscing or being quiet, sitting having Scotch on Tuesday nights. I was always excited to be able to sit and watch a baseball game on television with him, neither of us saying a word. That doesn’t sound a bit like a dream for anyone’s bucket list, but it makes it into most of ours at some point. I thought of all those small moments while standing in the doorway to his room during his last days. I’d lean against the wall and stare at the paper butterfly, the universal symbol of comfort care, on the door jam. It’s crazy how the simple moments like time together get overshadowed by fleeting ideas like skydiving and hot air ballooning.
I’m certain at some point early on in my life while listening to “Days of Our Lives” my mind turned toward adventure. I’m equally sure that my dad had a lot to do with that. Every Christmas he bought us books and for some reason, perhaps intuition, the ones he picked for me all focused on outrageous escapades. Robin Lee Graham’s The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone; Peter Jenkin’s A Walk Across America, Bound for Glory about Woody Guthie, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and more. These were obvious influences for me, and growing up a child of the late sixties certainly added to the action. From the moment of Kennedy’s decree to reach the moon to actually reaching the moon occupied exactly my first nine years of life. Many moments in my youth lit a fire under me that still burns. This can be both exhilarating and exasperating.
Still no one ever told me I was wrong. No one ever indicated anything I suggested was a bad idea, only that it was too early, or that I was “too young.” So dreams got pushed aside, never making it to the “did that already” bucket but never really leaving the list. It took me years to realize the dreams we fill our lives with don’t necessarily play out in chronological order. I’m lucky, actually, that some chaotic appearances on my radar don’t coincide with their fruition. I learned quickly that if things don’t play out as planned to just toss them back in the bucket and let them simmer around awhile like a lottery ball.
I have only a little desire left to climb in a garbage can and light a fire under my ass, but since then biking around Ireland made the list. Or maybe I’ll just go back to Spain. And more than a few folks older than me sail the Caribbean well into their sixties. Sometimes it’s just that we take the long way. I had other bad ideas besides dying in a flaming piece of metal. There was the time my friend Tom and I were going to push a desk from Tucson to Washington, DC to point out corporate waste while people were starving to death. Even philosopher and writer Leo Buscaglia dropped us a line to wish us luck. It took us a while to realize he was being sarcastic. No good Monarch would waste his time on such nonsense, no matter how noble. Butterflies, man. Butterflies. .
Whenever my son and I would play that Boggle game, he flipped that damn hourglass with the three-minute timer and tap his finger. My anxiety level increased and my blood pressure peaked. He couldn’t know he was feeding the trauma of PTSD from some fictional witch. “In good time,” I can hear her saying. It was that threatening decree, “In good time,” that motivated me. Still, she never said “in time”; it was always, “In good time.” Exactly