More Deep Thoughts from the Shallow End

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Now, to give you a break from my letters, here are some lines you might find worth remembering:

· Maybe snob is just another word for a person with high standards.

· Life is too serious ever to take too seriously.

· I have to tell you a secret. I have no secrets from you.

· If I have any religion at all, I would say it’s this: gratitude.

· Words are the air I breathe.

· My attitude about success is more or less this: if you’re never tired and nothing hurts, you really need to try harder.

· Panic is inventive.

· Fiction is my favorite reality.

· Inspiration is everywhere.

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The Prince of Pushups: Part 2

Dear Michael,

Months into it, you were already nearing 100 pushups, a remarkable milestone, and then you passed it and kept right on going.

Mom and I marveled at your pursuit of this holy grail, even as we found it puzzling. For example, your whole routine was pushups. No running, no crunches, no jumping jacks or lunges or squats or curls or presses or yoga. Just pushups, classic pushups, still perhaps the single best all-around strength training available.

But so what? You kept putting up those big numbers day after day, your smile of self-satisfaction ever-wider. I forget the context, whether you had a girlfriend around or were doing well in school or had your friendships with Mike and others. But again, so what? Somewhere along the line, you had made up your mind to do as many pushups as possible.

You reached 110, 115, 120. Unreal. You’d now registered almost four times more pushups than I had ever done, leaving me, as you had with your running, in the dust. You had decided you were going to do what you were going to do, and now, come hell or high water, you were doing it, showing a will that refused to waver.

Finally, one day you came out to tell us you had hit 125 pushups, and I squeezed your biceps in admiration. You’d gone as far as you could go, farther than any of us, including you, ever expected. You’d done more pushups than all but a few men on the planet ever could do.
I just hope you learned your lesson well. If you can do 125 pushups, you can do anything.

P.S. — Last year Michael set a new record of 183 pushups.

The Prince of Pushups

Dear Michael,

“I’m going to do my pushups,” you told us one day, as I recall. And back to your room you went, closing the door for your mission of the moment.

You came out later to let us know how many pushups you had done. It had to be somewhere around 40 or 50, and I quickly congratulated you. It amounted to more pushups than I had ever managed.

You smiled with satisfaction at your accomplishment, as you had every right to do. You were – what? 19 years old, maybe 20? And feeling your oats.

Some days later you informed us of your latest feat in this pushup venture: you had cranked out 55 or 60 now. You were still panting a little from the exertion, your arms glossy with sweat.
At every opportunity over the coming weeks, you gave us the latest scoop on your status. You were out to do as many pushups as your muscles could muster.

Who knew why you set out on this enterprise? To the best of my knowledge, you had no plans to join the Marines, nor to enter professional wrestling, nor to do a sideshow act on the boardwalk in Coney Island. Apparently you simply decided to test yourself, to pit yourself against yourself.

And so over the next few months, you would do the deed. Get down on your carpet, hands shoulder-length apart, feet out straight, bringing your nose down next to the floor along with your chest and hips, and grind out those pushups.

We would hear you from the living room as you went through your labors, hear you grunt and groan as you strained to set a new record for the day.

“He’s doing his pushups again,” I might tell Mom.
“So it seems,” she might say.

Out of your room you would then come to deliver your latest bulletin to us. Now you had peeled off 70 pushups, or 75, or 80. The number rose to astonishing new heights. Your already thick biceps now looked even thicker. How high could you go in this private Olympic event of yours?

Every day you got down to business, doing your stuff on the floor in your room. Your grunts and groans grew louder as you approached, then exceeded, your previous limits, surpassed your former frontiers, and discovered the possibilities of your own strength.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Deep Thoughts from the Shallow End

Dear Michael and Caroline,

And now, direct from my archives and intended as a break from my ramblings, let me hand you a few favorite lines:

· Disappointment is instructive

· Words are the universe I occupy

· Why live as if every day might be your last? Better to live as if every day were your first

· All I ever wanted, really, was to run my own life

· Everything good I am today comes from Elvira

· Just because you’re unsure about which direction to take is no excuse for taking no direction at all.

A City Girl from Head to Toe: Part 2

Dear Caroline,

It all makes me so happy, all this gallivanting around town you’ve gotten to do, because I know it makes you happy and it makes Mom happy, too.
Mom has taken you all over the place because she wanted you to live the kind of life she might have wanted to live if she had known back then, as she knows now, that such lives could be lived.

And because if she were unable, as a girl in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to be a gal about town, a cosmopolitan gal, a sophisticate about culture and cuisine and couture, then you might as well be.

And that would actually be even better, because Mom would rather see you enjoy the privileges, the entitlements, the little extravagances, especially now, while you’re young and still forming, than to have had it herself.

It’s given her a chance to share with you a city of secrets and surprises that she never really saw much as a girl herself.

And now I see how you are because of all that, all those trips with Mom, all those lunches and shows and shopping expeditions, how savvy you are about sales and specials and bargains and values, how keenly tuned your eye is to quality, how you know your way around, including how to elbow a rude tourist, a valuable skill indeed.

You’re a real New Yorker, proud, tough, knowing. It makes me happy, too, so happy, that you’ve gotten to be a gal about town, because now you’ll always be one. You’ll always have this upbringing to draw from and guide you every time you go to a museum or look in a shop window or order a dinner in a restaurant.

Question of the day: Is it a plus or a minus for a kid to grow up in a city — and why?

A City Girl from Head to Toe

Dear Caroline,

You’re such a gal about town. You’ve gone everywhere in Manhattan that counts. The Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. Soho and the East Village. Times Square and the West Village. Harlem. You know which bus line goes where.

You’ve wandered around the Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/) and can probably find the sarcophagi and the Rembrandts without a map.
You’ve ambled through the long, tall, cool halls of the American Museum of Natural History (http://www.amnh.org/), admiring the blue whale and the shark’s jawbone suspended overhead.

You’ve attended the opera at Lincoln Center (http://new.lincolncenter.org/live/), and the ballet, too, and of course all the Broadway shows, especially “Phantom” at The Majestic(http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com/new_york/).

You’ve sauntered through all the best stores, Saks (htp://www.saksfifthavenue.com/Entry.jsp) and Bergdorf (http://www.bergdorfgoodman.com/) and all the little specialty shops, too, looking at dresses and handbags and shoes and makeup.

You’ve seen so many of the splendors of the city, the lobby of the Plaza (http://www.theplaza.com/) and Radio City Music Hall (http://www.radiocity.com/) the tree at Rockefeller Center (http://www.rockefellercenter.com/).

You’ve gone to school in historic Town Hall,(http://the-townhall-nyc.org/) and saw great cabaret songs sung there, too.

You’ve gone to so many restaurants in so many neighborhoods, sampling the cuisines and developing a discriminating palate.

By now you must know Manhattan as well as any 19-year-old, and certainly as well as any 19-year-old from — ahem, yes, admit it — Queens.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Boy, Hooked on Movies

Dear Michael,

Maybe it all started with “Jaws.” Then again, maybe it was “Ghostbusters.” Or, for that matter, “Diehard,” or “Predator,” or “Lethal Weapon.”

But it definitely started somewhere, at some time, with one particular movie, in one particular moment of inspiration. And then, suddenly, you were hooked for life.

I just wish I knew that moment.

Maybe it happened when you were only two years old and watched “The Never-Ending Story” in our living room for two hours without moving. Or when Bruce Willis in “Diehard” has to transform himself from estranged husband and father to heroic cop.  Or when Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters” wisecracks about everything under the sun.

We know something got you going – an action scene, a line of dialogue. Or maybe it was bigger than that – maybe it was how you felt in the theater, watching the screen, how you felt transported outside of yourself and into another reality.

But something, whether large or small, made you say to yourself, “This is for me. This is what I want. This might even be what I want to do.”

I’ll tell you this. Some time back I came up with a line about myself that felt as true as any ever before. “Fiction is my favorite reality.” No wonder I’ve read so many novels and short stories – and yes, watched so many movies. It’s the appeal of a parallel universe, an alternate reality. It’s the allure of a story well told that either brings me in touch with something new and fabulous, or closer to myself, or, best of all, both.

I find myself drawn in, as if by an ocean tide, to “The Godfather,” to “On The Waterfront,” to “It Happened One Night” and “Strangers On A Train” and “Double Indemnity.” The movies (and the books I read and some of the writing I’ve done) took me out of myself so I could be someplace else. A perfect formula for someone like me, who so often felt, especially after the age of 18, rather like a misfit, anxious about my place in the world, insecure, alienated.

Ah, but the movies were always so much more than a quick fix, a medicine for whatever ailed me. Movies meant education and entertainment, and fun and, at best, art.

So I loved seeing you love movies, too.

I loved taking you to a movie theater and – say, in the middle of a scene in “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” – turning to you and seeing your face aglow in the moonlight of the big screen, so enraptured.

I loved your intensity about movies – how raptly you listened, how strictly you forbade interruptions, how analytically you dissected a movie afterwards.

I loved how strongly you felt about movies, too – how sure of your opinions you became. It gave us something we enjoy to share.

Maybe movies will be where your destiny lies. Maybe now you’ll create movies for others.
I think you can. In fact, I know you can. You’ve got it all – the knowledge of movies, the love of movies and all the talent in the world. All you need now is a little luck and the will to make it happen.

P.S. — Here are links to three movie reviews Michael wrote while in college for

Cinemablend.com:

“Chicago”
http://www.cinemablend.com/reviews/Chicago-2002-485.html

“Eurotrip”
http://www.cinemablend.com/reviews/Eurotrip-113.html

“Lords of Dogtown”
http://www.cinemablend.com/review.php?id=989

Caroline Commences Part Two

Dear Caroline,

We see you now at the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park in winter. You’re bundled up in a turtleneck sweater, tan overcoat and furry black cap, the skyline of Central Park South soaring behind you. You’re smiling adorably, as usual. But something is different from the other photos.
You’re different.

You’re older now, maybe 13 or 14, no longer quite the little girl. You understand more, know more, see more. You’ve already lived something of a life, gathering experience.

So let’s go one more quick round here with some photos of you.

Here you are with your hair cut shorter, a page boy sort of bob with bangs. You’re wearing hoop earrings and some makeup, lipstick and so on. You’re trying to look older, and you do, beautifully so.

There you are in some kind of leotard, your arms bare. You’re smiling slightly, looking off to the side, and you seem somehow tentative, uncharacteristic for you. It’s as if you sense your girlhood coming to a close, and the dawn of the adult Caroline. You’re unsure quite what to expect, even though you know it will be good.

Finally, we see you now at maybe 18 or 19. You’re wearing a black V-neck, your hair elegantly swept back from your forehand. You’re in a restaurant – maybe Violino, the place we go to near Lincoln Center, before we see “The Nutcracker” – and Michael is seated next to you. Your smile is subdued here, no teeth showing. You’re happy, but grown-up happy. You look gorgeous, every inch the refined young woman. It’s as if you already suspect, rightly so, that the best is yet to come.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 6

My final 10 top tips — or is it 12? — for writing letters to your kids.

8. Tell A Story. You know what I’m talking about. Your toddler is venturing his first steps. Right away we wonder what will happen next. Your toddler wobbles, keels over and cries. Will he get up? The suspense is killing us. We’re rooting for the kid now. We’re sure he’s going to prevail through this setback. In doing my journals, I looked for memories that offered an issue, a conflict, a turning point, a decision. Michael kept getting ear infections, for example. Caroline worried about Michael going out late at night. I looked, too, for signs of growth, of a change in character, of a coming to terms. Then I might – might, mind you – interpret the events just described and to translate it all into some kind of insight. Might try to characterize it somehow, bringing a fragment to fruition. As in: “Only then did I realize . . . ” I’ve always put stock in the idea that it’s less a matter of what you know than what you make of what you know. Disclaimer: You could get all experimental and surreal about it, without even getting your creative license renewed first. That’s cool. We’re all artists at heart, man.

9. Make Every Word Count. See # 7 (Briefer Is Better). I’m such a stickler about this philosophy I’m putting it here twice. Ever sentence should advance the overall cause. Nobody expects you to capture every single detail – only the right details, the ones absolutely essential. Nail those details.

10. Remember: Anyone Can Write. I know it sounds like lip service, so let me clarify here. Everyone has stories to tell. That’s the truth. You’ve probably told plenty of stories yourself, perhaps even told those stories well. Every life has its drama. And nobody knows your story better than you. Writing is different from talking, of course. You have to get your story on the page. That means parking yourself in a chair. It takes a little more time and a lot more patience. Do you have to be a writer? No. You can do it anyway. You might even do it better, less self-consciously, free of pretense. It comes down to harnessing a certain power we all have within us. But you’ll find the motivation. After all, you’re doing it for your kids.

Now, for some bonus tips:

. Give Yourself A Hand. I wrote the journals by hand. The handwritten comes across as far more personal than anything typed – more organic, more authentic. The written word has a primal quality that harks back to the stories told on cave walls.

12. Keep Secrets. I kept the journals a secret from my kids. I wanted to spring the gifts as a surprise at Christmas. Keeping a lid on the news made the project so much more fun for me. I went at my handiwork with a sense of anticipation bordering on the giddy.

P.S. – So what do you think? Any advice I left out? Ready to take action?

P.S.S. – Just a reminder here: I invite all of you to contribute a guest blog, “Why I Took The Pledge” – a short essay about what you plan to tell your kids in 2011, along with your bio and a family photo. To volunteer, just e-mail me at bobbrody@hotmail.com.

P.S.S.S – Our regularly scheduled programming resumes tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 5

Here, to flesh out my top-10 list, are two more tips on how to write letters to your kids:

6. Keep It Spontaneous. I know: this tip directly contradicts tip # 2 (Plan It Out). Let me explain: I planned the journals precisely so I could then be spontaneous. If you start with a sense of the general direction to take, then you no longer need to worry too much about coming up empty or the course to follow. So I wrote with absolute spontaneity, my operating principle to shoot straight from the hip, going with pretty much whatever I felt the impulse to say. I changed nothing, crossed out nothing, added nothing after the fact – no second-guessing, nothing off-limits, everything done on the first take. If I veered off-topic, so much the better. I went what Robin Williams, in describing peak experiences in standup comedy, once called “full-tilt bozo.” You may find it takes you some place holy. Disclaimer: You might prefer to sweat over every sentence. Be my guest. Who am I to suggest you do otherwise?

7. Briefer Is Better. Most of my journal entries ran about 400 words (a little longer than this post today). I’ve always liked writing that’s more suggestive than expansive – writing that’s implicit, allusive, understated, elliptical. It seems to me infinitely more dramatic to leave more between the lines than you put in the lines themselves – to say what you have to say without quite coming right out and saying it. I also believe in letting facts speak for themselves. Facts tend to be eloquent. Let those facts accrue, telling your story for you, the less explanation, the better. The trick is to leave out whatever you can leave out without actually appearing to have left anything out. Kids, like adults, know how to fill in the blanks. Trust me on that. Disclaimer: Ramble willy-nilly from one non sequitur to the next without any prayer of coherence for all I care. Digress about wallpaper. No need to take my word about anything. I just work here.

P.S. – Part 6 (the final installment) will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 4

Here, elaborating on my top-10 list, are two more tips on how to write letters to your kids:

4. Single Out The Highlights. I could have written about anything. But I knew I would be better off writing about something. And better still, something particular. Something, if possible, singular. In short, I looked to tell the story that is mine and mine alone to tell. So I sifted through all my notes for promising prospects, the better to set some priorities. I felt the urge to zero in on memories that resonated as somehow special, on experiences that mattered, that meant something – to seize, above all, on moments. The momentous, even if only quietly so. It might be a single action or comment or an incident or a series of episodes – the day Michael first beat me in a sprint, the warm summer morning I held Caroline in my arms in the pool at our beach club. For me, it had to be specific. It had to be tangible. It had to be revealing — a moment of understanding and discovery, perhaps even a revelation. I scrounged, too, for anecdotes that might get at something larger – how, for example, a father might welcome his son surpassing him physically and the implications thereof. Disclaimer:You have the right to remain arbitrary in your approach. You may have more fun being freewheeling. This is supposed to be a pastime rather than a job.

5. Stick To A Schedule. Every Saturday or Sunday morning before breakfast, in the chair in our bedroom, I logged an entry in my journals. That’s what worked for me. Same time, same place, day in and day out. It keep the commitment doable, and so I easily found the time and energy needed. The pieces came fast, each materializing in an hour or less, and soon my pace acclerated. In a year, I racked up 50 little stories – in two, 100. Disclaimer: Do your stuff any time the mood strikes you. Going by clockwork or lockstep, or imposing any kind of discipline or organization on yourself, may well be all wrong for you. I respect that. Nobody needs to be a robot about it. So vary the days and hours and locations if that rings your chimes. The overarching idea here is to get it done — nothing more, nothing less. After all, your kids are waiting for the news you’re about to deliver.

P.S. – Part 5 will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 3

Here, in further detail than I gave in my top-10 list yesterday, are the first three tips on how to write letters to your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. If you really mean to do it, chances are you will. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition as far as I’m concerned. So you might treat the idea the same as you would getting married or quitting cigarettes. In my opinion, anyone half-hearted should sit this dance out. Here’s a little trick I used long ago when wondering whether I should marry my then girlfriend, Elvira. I asked myself every day, “Should I marry her?” I asked myself the same question for at least 25, 30 days in a row, and every day got the same answer. Day after day my answer came back as a “yes.” That self-survey helped me decide. We’re now married 33 years.

2. Plan It Out. Before I jotted down a single word, I daydreamed for weeks about what I might write. I went onto our terrace and stared at the sky until my memory opened its gates, letting images and fragments of dialogue pour through. Memory is a muscle, and I gave mine a workout. Then I took shorthand – “gleaned my teeming brain,” as John Keats wrote. “Caroline singing for Nanna,” one note said. “Michael going out late at night,” said another. All my recollections struck me as fair game: births, deaths and anything in between. My notes ran longer than expected or needed, pretty much the kitchen sink. But ultimately they served as cues and clues to the stories that came. So please, muse away. Disclaimer: You may prefer simply to cut loose in your journals, going with whatever comes to mind, without planning at all. Hey, it’s still a free country.

3. Vote For Reality. I’m big on facts. Often I like facts better than I do opinions. Facts are presumably verifiable and certainly more believable. My son Michael and I sometimes butt heads. That’s a fact. My daughter Caroline sometimes resists my advice. That’s a fact, too. All of us occasionally feel tempted to rewrite history, to paint the past only with bright, sunny colors. But kids have an inherently keen sense of truth. Whatever you say, they will find you out. So you might as well keep it real.

P.S. – Part 4 will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101: Part 2

Here, then – in brief for now, with further details to come in the week ahead – are my top 10 tips for writing letters to your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. No, really. Decide wholeheartedly. You’re either in or you’re out. That’s square one.

2. Plan It Out. Do at least an outline. Even Shakespeare needed a blueprint. Call it a GPS for the flow of your thoughts.

3. Vote For Reality. Kids can smell spin from a mile away. So opt for the truth about yourself and your family, however much it might hurt you to do so.

4. Single Out The Highlights. Draw only from the richest memories, the most lasting moments, at your command. Forgo trivia and the otherwise mundane.

5. Stick To A Schedule. A little regularity never hurt anyone. A half hour or so once a week is probably realistic – better still, shoot for a set time on a set day.

6. Keep It Spontaneous. First thought, best thought, poet Allen Ginsberg famously said. Theoretically, then, you’ll bring yourself within flirting distance of the genuine.

7. Briefer Is Better. It’s the soul of wit, no? Enough said.

8. Tell A Story. Each entry will ideally have a real narrative, how this happened, then that happened – in short, a beginning, a middle and an end. Maybe even a point or two as well.

9. Make Every Word Count. Your readers will, in a sense, be keeping score. So why waste any time?

10. Remember: Anyone Can Write. We all have stories to tell. We’re all storytellers at heart. Period.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

Letters to My Kids 101

Let’s say you’re ready to make the big leap. You’re going to record your family history for – in effect, write letters to – your kids.

Good for you. Nothing like committing yourself to an high-priority personal project to shore up the soul.

Still, right around now you might be asking yourself some questions about how to go about documenting this history.

Where should I start?

Should I go randomly or chronologically?

How do I say to my kids what I want to say?

How can I make it memorable?

And so on, into infinity and beyond .

Well, all I can tell you is how I went about it. I devoted two years to keeping journals for both our kids, compiling more than 100 vignettes, amounting to nearly 70,000 words, all of which last year started to appear in this blog. From my experience I probably gleaned some lessons that I can now turn into a useful tip or two for you.

Even so, I claim no special expertise here. I’ve never studied the art and science of family history, much less published my findings in a scholarly journal. If you’re looking for a proven formula, or a prescription of some kind, or gospel graven in marble, you probably came to the wrong guy.My only expertise is my experience.

But right now I will offer you some advice I consider key. And that’s this: Go at it more or less however you wish. After all, I’m me and you’re you.

For example, you might write letters to your kids using a quill pen to capture your memories in a leather-bound volume, all by scented candlelight. Then again, you might be inclined to videotape your recollections, or chronicle your life by means of a podcast, or start a blog, or a vlog, or text a message a day, or issue tweets.

Hey, it’s your call.

You might want to start your letters to your kids in the present and work backwards in time. Or to begin at the beginning and bring the story forward. Or jump around from year to year with flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Again, that’s your prerogative.

You might write letters to your kids with the merriest of hearts, brimming with love and understanding and compassion and even wisdom. Or, on the other hand, you might prefer to look back on your life in anger, unleashing all the bile and bitterness at your command. Or both. Or neither.

To thine own self be true, and all that.

Here’s my point: you’re going to have to do this on your own. That’s just a fact. And what that means is that you’ll have to find the approach that best suits you.

If you’re feeling French today, please feel free to call this strategy laissez faire (“a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action,” says definition).

Still, I’m going to take a crack at being of service to you here. It’s kind of my job, really. So over the next few days, I’ll be posting some advice about writing letters to your kids – a six-part series that shares my top 10 tips. Call it a starter kit if you like, a do-it-yourself kind of deal. How to decide what to write. How to find the time. How to do justice to your memories.

Please regard these tips as nothing more than guidelines, meant only to make this easier going for you. My aim is simple: to help you – at least any of you who night need a little help – to get going in the right direction.

Again, this is your life we’re talking about. You know your life better than anyone else — it’s your turf; you can rightly claim absolute sovereignty – and you get to tell your story as you please. You’re the true authority, the last word here, so you get final cut.

So go with your gut. That’s my only real edict. Do what comes naturally. Soon enough you’ll get into a groove.

And if you’re lucky, you might even find your true voice. A voice your children will hear loud and clear and cherish for the ages.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.