Lapped: My Running “Heroics”

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I’m running around the oval running track near the water tower that looms over the football field at Fair Lawn High School in 1969. I’m 17 years old, bushy-haired and skinny, and competing in my first track meet, running as hard as I know how.

We’re barely a lap into the one-mile race, one-fourth the distance to be covered, and already I’m losing badly, lagging behind the six or seven other runners. I’m pumping my arms and legs with all the force I can muster, gasping, grunting, groaning, yet the farther we run, the farther behind I fall.

I’d joined my high school track team in my junior year, inspired by the American Olympic gold medalist Jim Ryan, and also, to a lesser degree, by Marty Liquori and Kipchoge Keino of Kenya. They were great milers, striding so sleekly along, making the extremely difficult look so easy, and I wanted to run the mile, too.

Maybe running would rescue me from the asthma I had suffered since adolescence.

Maybe it would build my endurance.

Maybe if I ran fast enough, girls would admire me.

Maybe I would like myself better.

So I joined the track team in the fall of 1968, right after the Olympics in Mexico City.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

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Lapped: My Running “Heroics” (Part 2)

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I went to track practice in afternoons after school.

We would do different drills, cover different distances at different paces, practicing fast starts and fast finishes, doing the 100-yard dash, the 220, the 440, the half-mile, the mile, the two-mile.

Every Friday came the drill I found toughest of all, one 440-yard-run after another, either six or seven in a row, all with only a minute to rest in between. One day, exhausted to the point of nausea, panting myself breathless, I bent over under the stands, my stomach in violent upheaval, and puked my guts out.

Sometimes, such as then, I felt like quitting the team.

But soon I discovered myself running faster, feeling stronger, breathing better, and that kept me going. I still ran slower than anyone on the team, and clearly I was never going to be much good, much less win or place in any meets.

But I practiced in the offseason, timing myself with a stopwatch as I ran around the block surrounding our house, probably equal to a quarter-mile track. And the improvement I saw in myself that first track season, and the gladiatorial spirit I felt awakening in me, proved to be motivation enough, and I returned the next year.

The coach of the track team never asked me to run in the meets, and I never asked him to let me, so any time our milers went up against those from another town, I watched, wishing I were good enough to participate, knowing full well I might never be.

Week after week I practiced with the team, practiced pretty hard, too, and week after week I watched from the field as my colleagues went head to head against the local competition on the track. I felt so left out, so much a failure.

Then came the last track event of the season in my senior year, and I knew it was now or never, and so I asked the track coach to let me run in the mile.

P.S. – See part 3 tomorrow.

Nice Jewish Boy Gets Funky: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Out we strutted in front of the curtain, right up to the mikes, and on came “Cloud Nine” over the public address system. It was probably a Saturday night and the high school auditorium was packed with a few hundred spectators.

We lip-synched all the lyrics, just as we had practiced, and danced our number, stepping left, then right, forward, then back. We mimicked the Temps, who had some patented moves, hands flung overhead, hands gliding from side to side.

All along we tried to look super-cool, like we really were the very embodiment of Motown soul. We were all singing together and then I stepped out for my solo. I was pretending to be Eddie Kendricks, who sang falsetto.

And now came my lyrics: “And every man, every man, has to be free.” And I flung my hands aloft, trying to look like Mr. Soul.

I swear the entire auditorium broke into a laugh, surprising me with its force, a tidal wave of raucous laughing. Maybe it was because the solo was so flamboyantly, flamingly falsetto. Maybe it was because my moves were so heartfelt that I really sold the number in. Or maybe it was just the utter absurdity of a white Jewish boy from a split-level making like some funky ghetto dude from the down-and-dirty projects.

Or all three.

But whatever the explanation, I got a big kick out of it, unforgettably so. Someone else won the competition, I forget who, but it made no different to me, or to us. Larry and Eric and I caught kudos around the school for weeks, attaining a modest measure of celebrity, and you can be sure we thrived on it.

And as you’ve probably noticed, I love Motown still, no less today than I did that night almost 38 years ago. Still dance to it, too, either on the steps or the terrace.

And once, back around 1993, I got to meet Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy. It was an annual dinner on Ellis Island for something called the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations.

And coming toward me I saw none other than Mr. Gordy, instantly recognizable. He was the entrepreneur who had engineered it all.

And without hesitating for even a second, I went right over to him and put out my hand. “You’re responsible for a lot of great music,” I said, and shook his hand.

“Thank you,” he said with a smile, as if hearing this compliment for the first time in his life.
The big deal for me here went well beyond meeting Gordy. It was getting a chance to express my appreciation to him. To pay my respects.

In retrospect, I realize that I could have taken another minute to tell him about that talent show in my youth, and how we had paid our respects back then, too. But I must have thought better of doing that, and it’s probably just as well. Maybe, somehow, he knew anyway.

P.S. – Do you dance? Do your kids dance? Where do you stand on the whole dance issue?

Nice Jewish Boy Gets Funky

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I performed in a high school talent show when I was either 17 or 18, in 1970. I’d always loved just about anything Motown, and so my friends Larry and Eric and I got together to do the Temptations number, “Cloud Nine,” lip-synching of course.

I forgot who came up with the idea, though I’d like to believe it was me. We practiced, the three of us, at our house, in my bedroom. We played the song again and again, doing our dance moves in unison, choreographing how each of us would step forward for a solo.

We made for an interesting trio. Larry studied hard, got good grades and was outgoing, a good friend who once stopped a jealous boyfriend from trying to beat me up. Eric was almost his opposite, a loveable, happy-go-lucky goofball, indifferent to scholastics. You could say I was somewhere in between those two.

Oh, and we all played basketball.

Still, what brought us together here was our love of soul music. We loved it all, from the Temps to the Four Tops to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, Gladys Knight, the Jackson Five. We loved it because it made us all want to move, to dance. Somehow that sound from the gritty city of Detroit, that black sound, spoke to three white teenagers in the comfy suburbs of New Jersey.

All I remember from our practice sessions was Eric accidentally broke the cover to my record player. But I think we must have had fun and felt excited about doing our little tribute to the Temptations. The Temps were riding high then, probably the best known and best-selling Motown entertainers.

I wish I could remember what we wore, whether we all matched, just as the Temps did. I also wish someone had taken a picture so I could show it to you now, just in case you doubt your father once pulled this stunt.

As for our appearance on stage, it was a blast.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

My Height: A Short Story (Part 2)

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Well, my grandmother turned out to be telling me the truth. In the next two years, I probably added about four inches, reaching maybe five-four, 120 pounds, by age 15.And over the next two years, the pattern largely held true, with me gaining another five inches or so, making it to about five-nine, 140 or 150.

And even after I got my driver’s license, at 17, I picked up another inch, arriving at my final destination of five-ten-and-a-half.

But in all the years since then – and it’s now four whole decades, I’ve learned some lessons about height.

For starters, I never quite outgrew the feeling of being short.And so I always find myself rooting for the shortest basketball players. It thrilled me that in 1986 the NBA slam-dunk contest champion was won by five-six Spudd Webb (and last year by five-nine New York Knick Nate Robinson).

And I often found the shortest players both the best teammates and the toughest opponents on the basketball court. I’d rather go up against a taller player almost any day. In my experience, shorter players always have more to prove – after all, they’re short – and what’s more, they know they have more to prove.

As a result, they play harder.They run faster and longer, fueled by extra incentive.They also tend to be quicker.

Tall players, on the other hand, know they have less to prove.Sometimes it’s as if being tall all by itself is enough to do the job.In general, taller players tend to try less hard, take the game for granted, even play lazy.I almost never worry about going up against taller players.

No, it’s the shorter players you have to watch out for.It’s the shortest players I always find the toughest to stop.

P.S. – Is height a factor in your family? How so?

My Height: A Short Story

Dear Michael and Caroline,

It was probably right around the age of 12 that I started to worry about winding up too short.All my friends were taller, some probably as much as six inches taller, and most of my classmates, too, male and female alike.

I’d already taken an interest in sports, in playing baseball and basketball and football, and I wanted to excel, but being shorter than my competitors seemed no advantage. I’d also taken a blooming interest in girls, in how much prettier they are than boys, and being short was no big plus there, either.

The event that really brought home my height difference with my contemporaries was my bar mitzvah. As it happened, I had a triple bar mitzvah, because we three were all born around the same time.

One guy, named Mike, was already almost six feet tall.The other, named Ross, was a husky five-six. And then there was me, barely five feet tall and maybe – maybe – 100 pounds.
You can see the photos in my bar mitzvah album, Mike looming like a skyscraper, then Ross, then me, lowslung as Manhattan’s West Village.

OK, so set aside for a moment such considerations as childhood self-consciousness (if you can in good conscience actually do so).Forget that except perhaps socially my height really made no difference.What really bothered me now as the worry that I might always be short.

I thought I might never grow any taller.

And I remember expressing my worry to my grandmother.

“I’m so short,” I might have said. “Why am I so short? Am I never going to get any taller?”

And my grandmother always reassured me that I would get taller, that I would eventually catch up with my friends, that I might even attain greater height than they.

I tried to believe her.But I suspected she was merely telling me what she felt she needed to tell me, what I should hear, rather than the truth.

I would have to see for myself.I would have to see it in the mirror and in the clothes I wore getting too small.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

How I Went Full-Tilt Bozo: Part 3

Dear Michael and Caroline,

We all went to a diner with my father in New Jersey once. For some reason he decided that dinner was the ideal occasion for him to give all of us an explicit description of brain surgery. We’re all there in a booth enjoying our food and he’s telling us how the skull has to be sawed open, even demonstrating with his hands the act of cutting. He might even have made some reference to drilling.

He went on in this vein, evidently utterly clueless of the likely effect on anyone with an interest in uninterrupted digestion. I felt kind of grossed out. But merely to say so would hardly be imaginative, nor would it make anyone at the table, least of all me, feel any better. So I went for the funny.

As I recall, I winced with disgust, waved my hand to indicate all of us eating, and said, “Dad, do you think you could give us a break?” My father paused and you could see him in that instant recognizing the incongruity of it all – incongruity, by the way, so often being absolutely essential to comedy – this explicit narrative on cranial surgery during our family dinner.

Suddenly he exploded with laughter, bending forward in his seat, laughing harder and louder than ever before. All of us laughed right along with him, and the meal went better from then on, the food going down just right.

Sometimes humor works its trick. It’s magic, a sprinkling of fairy dust.

P.S. – Are you funny? Are your kids funny? Is this good, bad, both or something in between?

How I Went Full-Tilt Bozo: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

In my earliest memories, I’m trying to make my mother laugh, anything to get her to forget her deafness, to render it irrelevant, to enable me to forget, too, that she could never hear me, or hear anything else in life for that matter.

Make mommy laugh, my mandate went.

My humor thus seems born of this, the central sadness of my life.

Once with others, my mischief had less to do with spreading sunshine, really, than with making me feel less ill at ease and even somewhat important. If I can get someone to laugh, it makes me feel, even to this day, less uncertain, less awkward and alienated, more in control somehow. I’m unable to help myself and am totally at the mercy of this whim.

As it turns out, I’ve always seen my sense of humor as both blessing and curse. Sometimes my fooling around has backfired bigtime – landed me in detention, wound up insulting others, led to my being branded unserious, a wise guy.

Truth be told, anyone who can see the humor in life takes the world quite seriously. A joke is just a risk you run. Some will laugh, others will just stare. It’s touch and go, a catch-as-catch-can proposition, just like most everything else.

P.S. – See part 3 tomorrow.

How I Went Full-Tilt Bozo

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Always I’ve wanted to make people laugh. I made silly faces in class to break up my fellow students. I pretended to trip on the sidewalk or walk into trees to amuse my friends.

One day in high school I found out my classmates had voted me Class Clown (male division) for 1970. Somehow it came to be decided that I would be photographed for the school yearbook holding a bottle of whisky. That was before I knew my mother was an alcoholic, or I might someday be.

One night, years earlier, I had a party for friends at our house, my parents out for the night. I had to be maybe 15. My friends hung out in our living room while I would emerge from my bedroom at the head of the stairs to do my act.

Each time I came out I might affect a British accent or lumber out like a hunchback – I loved doing Quasimodo – or just talk in a silly, high-pitched voice a la Jerry Lewis. For a while there, I broke everyone up, no one more than my friend Larry, who always laughed hardest and considered me a king of comedy, so much so he would laugh even in anticipation of my pulling something funny.

So it went all through my boyhood and on into adulthood, me always answering the impulse to go for a laugh. I might be introduced to girls as a guy with a sense of humor.

I’ve maintained my reputation to a degree, but my stabs at comedy have changed, evolving from vaudevillian slapstick to something more cerebral, more laced now with wit and wordplay than physical antics. I’ll always feel like a clown at heart, always fantasized about going to clown college – yes, Ringling Brothers has one – for a magazine assignment.

But I’ve also had to watch my step.

The funny business that goes over well in eighth grade will often come across as out of place in a job at an office. So I’ve learned to temper my sense of humor, to hold it back and deploy it only at strategic moments.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Why I Felt Too Cool For School: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Suddenly, without ever quite realizing why, I found myself able to listen to my professors.
Suddenly I saw school as a place where I could go with other students to learn stuff, including how to think.

Suddenly I recognized that I could go from being a rather hapless, hopeless high school student – graduating, it still pains me to acknowledge, maybe 500th or 600th in a class of 700 – to someone rather serious, maybe even a touch scholarly.

Of course I loved the classes in Literature and had a really good teacher of Shakespeare who grew animated and acted out scenes. But I also came to like History and Psychology, too. And naturally my grades improved, to about a “B” average, and so did my self-respect and pride. And I’m really glad it all changed like that.

From then on I’ve always felt like a student, curious, ready even to sit still and listen, at least once in a while.

And it all probably had a lot to do with me becoming a writer and a journalist, because reporters ask questions and listen to the answers and find out stuff to tell the world. And when it comes to a job, to making a living, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

It took me a long time to see that life itself is the best school.

P.S. – Have you ever told your kids about your experiences in school – and your attitude toward it?

Why I Felt Too Cool For School

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I pretty much never really actually wanted so very much to go to school either.
School was away from home, where I had my own room, right near the kitchen and the bathroom and the den with the new TV.

School was in a building really long and tall, with stairwells and an auditorium and a boiler room.

School had all those other little kids, too, boys and girls, cute and less than cute, all coming out in the halls at the bell to go here and go there.

School had all those teachers, too, who got to tell you what to do, whether you could go to the bathroom and had to do homework or take a test.

Worst of all, I guess, worse even than how far from home school took me and all the strangers in the halls and the bossy teachers, was school was where you had to stay put.

You had to stay in your seat and listen and learn and some day you would suddenly walk out the door all smart and educated.

And here was the problem for me. I never really wanted to sit and listen (I’ve never changed all that much since then, either, have I?).

No, I would look out the window and daydream about playing baseball and, later on, maybe when I got to be about 12 or 13, I started to pay attention to those intriguing creatures called girls.

In school, I always pretty much wanted to be somewhere else so I could be doing something else. I wanted to be out playing baseball or stickball with my friends or watching some monster movie on TV or maybe in the park climbing a tree higher and higher until the branches grew too short and thin for me safely to go any higher.

And all the while, as I sat in class, a prisoner, bored, seeing no point in this activity, the teachers would be talking, talking, talking, and I would once again find myself utterly incapable of the one act expected of me, namely listening.

No, I never wanted to listen to anyone, because to me listening meant obedience and behind beholden, and I preferred my freedom and independence, the freedom to imagine my life as I saw fit, and the independence to live it as I saw fit, too.

And now we get to the real problem here. I was too young for school, too immature, completely unprepared for its demands, too undisciplined. I should have started school at maybe 18.

I say 18 because that’s when I went to college and started to like school.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Take The Pledge: Write Letters To Your Kids

Dear Reader,

I hereby officially invite you to take the pledge to write letters to your kids.

Why should I, you might well ask yourself.

Well, for starters, taking the pledge to write letters to your kids is now free.
True, it was free before. But now it’s even freer.
In fact, it’s twice as free.
That’s a 50% savings!
Here’s the catch, though. It’s a one-time offer only.
Or at least it will be until the second time it’s offered.
Consider this now my second offer.
But here’s the clincher: if you’re under 100 years old, you get 15% off.
And if you’re older than 100 years of age, you get 20% off.
Need more reasons? How about these?
If you take the pledge, you’ll never get fat.
You’ll never get old.
You’ll earn a million dollars a day working from home in your spare time.
Can any other pledge you know make such claims?
The answer to that question starts with an “n” and ends with an “o.”

But just in case you need more incentives, here you go:
1. It will make you feel good.

2. It will make your kids feel good.

3. It will make the world a better place.

4. It will make the world a better place (I said that already, but it’s worth repeating).

5. You’ll learn about yourself and your life.

6. You’ll realize just how very much you love your kids.

So act now. Or an hour from now. Or whenever convenient. Happiness guaranteed or your money back, no questions asked.

P.S. – You can take the pledge here: http://letterstomykids.org/pages/take-the-pledge

P.S.S. – Our regularly programming resumes tomorrow with a two-part series called “Too Cool For School.”