My Serious Side (Hitherto Little Known)

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Now comes a breather from these vignettes. Here are some lines, mostly serious, intended to define me, and maybe more:

· Some people just naturally know how to enjoy life. Others order salad.

· Any resemblance between perception and reality is largely a coincidence.

· Now that I’m older, it gets late earlier.

· The future always arrives unannounced.

· Nothing is as it used to be. Maybe nothing ever was.

· Girls grow up sooner than boys. Boys never really do catch up.

· You write something nobody asked you to write, send it to an editor who never asked you to send it, and cross your fingers that finds a home in front of a reader who never asked to read it.

· I crave a daily dose of beauty, however small — even, if quite feasible, a glimpse of the divine. It could be the sunset, a Walt Whitman poem or the faces of my children.

· If I belong in any category, I would term myself post-cute.

· We all carve out this groove for ourselves. And we like that groove. It’s our groove. But it’s still a groove, the same stuff repeated over and over. Life can actually get too groovy. Sometimes we feel we should change grooves, get a new groove going. And maybe we should.

· I’m too guarded. Must be on guard against that.

· I’ve lived a life narcissistic to a degree most people would find unthinkable.

· I’m optimistic, hopelessly so.

· What is a pessimist, really, but an optimist who’s deeply confused?

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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.

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.

Valentine’s Day Special: My Last First Date

Dear Michael and Caroline,

We double-date the first time, Elvira and I, with her friends Diane and Carmen. We hit a restaurant in New York City’s Little Italy, Puglia’s on Hester Street. Fettucine, garlic bread, the whole nine yards.

Immediately I’m taken with Elvira. She’s adorable, but she’s also got a good heart, and she’s smart, too. Naturally, she makes me nervous.

So I do what a guy in that situation might do. I clam up, too jittery to say anything. I also drink too much red wine, the house red – much too much – all without eating.

Afterwards, we head back uptown, to the apartment building in the Chelsea neighborhood where I live on the third floor and her Diane and Carmen on the first. We’re all saying goodnight, and then Elvira and I are alone.

“Would you like to come up?” I ask, feeling pretty frisky.

“No, thank you,” she says gently.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m going to stay here tonight, with my friends.”

And then I say something I never should have said. Something that I find it hard to believe I said. Something that I’m still sorry and embarrassed and ashamed I said.

“What are you,” I say, “a lesbian or something?”

Now, you’re welcome to chalk up this remark to all the red wine I had drunk, or to rank immaturity, or to a guy being a guy, taking the only recourse left to his manly pride after seeing his advance rebuffed – questioning a woman about her sexual preferences – or just garden-variety idiocy. Or all of the above.

Whatever my motivation, I know instantly I’ve made a major mistake.

Surely Elvira will now react in kind. She’ll slap my face or call me rude or walk away or challenge me to do something anatomically impossible to myself. Or all of the above. No matter what happens, I suspect, I will somehow have to pay the consequences.

But no. The 23-year-old Italian girl from Brooklyn with the doe-like brown eyes and cute bangs never blinks or balks. Instead, she laughs it off and looks me right in the eyes.

“You’ve had too much to drink,” Elvira says to me. “It’s late at night and you have no idea what you’re saying. So let’s just ignore it and wish each other good night.”

Well, I think as we part company, that is certainly going to be that. Under no circumstances will I ever get to see this one again. I’ve blown it. Our first date is going to be our last date

But that, too, proves untrue. I call Elvira the next day to apologize, and she accepts. I then invite her out again, and she takes me up on that, too.

Elvira and I keep going out together, seeing no one else. The next year, we move in together in Queens. Two years later we become engaged. The following year we get married. Before the decade ends, we have two children, a son and a daughter. Next month we mark our 32nd wedding anniversary.

Talk about close calls. Our romance almost ended before it began – one blind date, over and out, all thanks to a comment that showed my judgment to be highly suspect at best. It haunts me to consider all the opportunities we would have missed, the wedding never held, the love never gained, the children never born.

Luckily, Elvira gave me that second chance She saw something redeemable in me, whatever it might be, and bet the house.

Yuks Amuck

Dear Michael and Caroline,

So enough with the serious stuff, yes? Let’s take a breather here and catch some chuckles. As they say, he who laughs, lasts.

Herewith, then, with amusement aforethought, are my attempts at such:

She drank only on special occasions. Like daylight.

I passed a pleasant evening, as well as, truth be told, a moderate-sized kidney stone.

Maybe I’m pressing my luck here. But that’s okay. It needed ironing anyway.

The minute she arrived, she had somehow already overstayed her welcome.

I’ve spared no expense, nor, for that matter, have I incurred any.

You know the term “time will tell?” Well, sometimes time tells too much. Maybe once in a while I should just tell time to shut the fuck up.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Yuks Amuck: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

· Does my fat make me look fat?

· I’m unlucky in romance. Even my self-love goes unrequited.

· I made a mistake. It’s what the Japanese call a faux pas.

· I hit the gym regularly, but lately it’s gotten ticked off and hit me back.

· He promised to wait for her indefinitely, perhaps even longer.

· Husband to wife on vacation: “I’m surprised we all got through today without killing each other.” Wife to husband: “Well, there’s always tomorrow.”

· For some years now I’ve suffered from rather a serious anatomical abnormality. It’s called having my head up my ass.

· If you’re ever hoist on your own petard, please, whatever you do, go immediately to the nearest emergency room.

Dad Waxes Philosophical, Bores Children To Sleep

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Now for some random lines, mostly serious, cobbled together to illustrate my personality and, to some extent, my preoccupations:

  • That summer of 2008, when I got laid off, turned out to be the summer that never was – the summer I went without seeing the Atlantic Ocean, or hitting a baseball, or going into a pool to swim or, for that matter, a single vacation day.
  • It’s good always to have a smile in your voice. My voice usually sounds to me like more of a grimace.
  • For most guys, being married is like living in an assisted living facility. I’m such a guy.
    I was designed to be domestic. I required little domesticating.
  • It took me a long time – too long, really – to discover that people skills can actually come in quite handy.
  • You know what I love? Someone accusing me of overthinking. Because you never want to be guilty of thinking too much, do you?
  • Uh, oh. There’s that look on her face again. Same look I see with almost everyone I know. Someone’s getting exasperated with me. Story of my life.
  • How can I ever be close to anyone, as close as I always claim to want to be, if all I ever do is keep my distance?
  • Joke I must. Because in funny I trust.
  • My favorite quote of all time, straight from ”Ethics Of The Fathers” in The New Testament, is this: “The ultimate criterion of character is the contribution we make to human happiness.

Punch Lines For The Kids

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Now, without further ado, a few more lines that just might prompt a sound approximating a laugh:

· Sometimes it feels like life is a test and I should have studied harder.

· My favorite food is pie in the sky.

· If I were a Broadway show, I probably would have already closed.

· Our eyes met. Then they shook hands.

· My favorite sport is fishing for compliments.

· Dusk fell, apparently with no one around willing to catch it.

· I forget just about everything. I even forget all the stuff I remember.

· Crazy is the new normal.

· Possibly my major advantage in life is that I look much smarter than I really am.

· I took a personality test the other day. The idea was to find out whether I actually had any personality.

· Given a choice, you should probably make it.

· He talks so much crap that he should take toilet paper wherever he goes.

· As I get older, I wake up earlier and earlier. At some point I’m going to start waking up before I go to sleep.

· You can always count on me to keep my commitments. Once I break a promise, it stays broken.

· Do these jeans make me look bald

P.S. — Please take my survey on family history:

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NT8H2NP

A Voice Unheard: My Mother and I

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My mother never heard me cry as a baby. Every time I cried, as I must have, over being hungry or scared or constipated or whatever, my complaints literally fell on deaf ears.

Rather, my cries were seen. Our apartment was rigged with a sound system expressly to capture my crying. Those cries were translated into flashes of light. So my cries at least became public knowledge.

But still, my mother never heard it. So even though she saw those lights flashing, she had no idea how my cries sounded, whether loud or soft, wailing or whimpering, pianissimo or staccato.

And so this central connection between any mother and child – the ability to interpret this most primal of signals, that of a baby crying – was missing between me and my mother.
Of course no one is to blame here, and I’m faulting no one. My mother was, is, deaf, profoundly deaf, hearing neither me nor my sister nor her husband nor even her own mother and father.

That’s just how she turned out, unfortunately.

And even though I’ve wondered long and hard how being deaf affected her, I’ve probably spent even more time wondering how her deafness has influenced me.

I have a few theories.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

A Voice Unheard: My Mother and I: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I suspect, for example, that having a deaf mother made me especially sensitive to sound. All my life it seems my ears have operated really well, tuned in to pick up even the lowest frequency on the airwaves. And I’ve long had a particular aversion to the sound of many voices at once, and the burden of trying to make out who is saying what. And I particularly hate noise.

As for why any of this is so, maybe it’s because, in seeing my mother live her life deaf, I’ve tried somehow to make up for it, to balance out the universe.

Maybe it’s because, as happened in my earliest boyhood, when I carried on conversations over the phone with my grandmother on behalf of my mother, I’ve come to function as her proxy, her set of ears for the world at large.

As theories go, it’s pretty good, and certainly comes in handy.

Another theory is along similar lines: that I am conducting an act of compensation. All my life my mother never heard me at all. Never heard my voice, nor heard anything I did nor a single word I said. In our conversations, she frequently misunderstood me, asking me to repeat myself, to speak more slowly and more clearly. All this back and forth must have frustrated me, yet I tried and tried, because I had the largest of all incentives, that of wanting to please my mother, to see her smile. And eventually, years later, she would generally understand me just fine. But all that struggle, the difficulty of getting through, the hardship of letting her know what I wanted for lunch or where I was going with my friends, must have marked me for life – left me, if you will, as Shakespeare said of Richard III’s deformity, “rudely stamped.”

And so it was that early on in my life, in my teens, I decided to be a writer. For as a writer I could try to make myself understood at least, maybe even minimize the probability of being misunderstood. And rather than my mother asking me to repeat myself, I could do my own revisions until I got the words right. My writing would make sure I would never again go unheard. Everyone who read me would, in effect, hear my cries.

My Nana’s Concierge Service

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My grandmother would do anything for me, and often did.
In my earliest memories as a boy, my Nana would make me anything I wanted to eat, at any time, without any question or hesitation. She would make me French Toast and coffee heavy on the milk, all most delicious.

Throughout my life, even well into adulthood, Nana would look to feed me. When I took my first apartment in Manhattan, on East 7th Street between Avenues A and B, she would give me food to take home. Brisket, stuffed cabbage, the plumpest, juiciest shrimp, tuna salad made with her own hands (complete with carrots and raisins), homemade chopped liver, macaroons, and on and on.

In my every visit to her apartment, she would offer me something to eat, a snack, a sandwich, a nosh, something, anything. Her drive to feed me was primal, instinctive and all-powerful. Sometimes I would agree to eat something she offered just because I felt I should, and because it was easier than saying no, because to say no would disappoint her and leave me feeling guilty.

Her desire to feed me, to see me eat and grow sated and strong as a result, expressed itself as a force of nature, like a strong wind that bends everything in its path.

Ah, but her wish to see me happy went well beyond food.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

My Nana’s Concierge Service: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

She took me everywhere in Manhattan, as my own parents never had. I would stay overnight with my grandparents, often for a few days during school vacation, and every day Nana would take me on some adventure in the great city.

As a boy, especially one growing up in the suburbs, I saw the city as all hustle and roar, as a movie that was all action without letup, something to see and hear at every turn. Nana took me to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall (for movies yet!), the New York Historical Society (where I pored over newspapers from the Revolutionary War), Central Park, a toy store on the Upper East Side called Rappaports, Schrafts (for ice cream sodas), Chock Full of Nuts, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barney’s (where Barney himself once took care of us) and who knows where else.

She would do anything for me, my grandmother.

She listened to me at length and heard my words as my parents never could.
She praised me for being smart and beautiful and clever.

In later years, she would remind me of a remark I apparently made at the Guggenheim Museum (yet another cultural landmark she took me to). We were there looking at some modern painting, maybe a product of Abstract Expressionism. And I said, according to her, “If you turn it upside down, it will look the same.”

And so it was that she poured herself into me, poured all of herself, her hopes and wishes, her attention and affection. And to me it always felt all-consuming, as if I were in the embrace of something towering and mountainous, inescapable. Through her, probably as much as anyone, I learned to speak and behave, learned manners and diction and appreciation of history and culture and Manhattan itself.

All our adventures centered on Manhattan. I rarely saw her outside it. She came to be synonymous with it, its representative, its most loyal advocate and tour guide.
Without her – her care, her guidance, her very presence – I might well have grown up feeling shunned, unloved, isolated, alone.

P.S. – See Part 3 tomorrow.

My Nana’s Concierge Service: Part 3

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Much of what I have turned out to be – for good and for ill, because, I, too, am rather a snob – I am because of my Nana. She gave me her all from the very start, even wheeling me around the Bronx as a baby.

She saw so much in me, maybe a second chance to be the right kind of mother. She saw in me a child who could hear her, as her first child, my mother, never could. She saw in me, too, a child largely obedient, respectful, appreciative, compliant, descriptions all most likely inapplicable to her second child, my Uncle Leonard.

She must have seen me, even, as a kind of opportunity for redemption, for success where she felt she had previously failed.

In short, she had her reasons for treating me as well as she did, reasons that probably had more to do with her than with me.

Oh, and here’s yet another reason, perhaps the most important of all. She might have blamed herself for my mother being deaf, and so she might have held herself responsible for her deaf daughter’s son as well.

She probably saw me as a child who could never get from my parents everything she could get me, neither the attention nor the culture nor the guidance. By the same token, just as she always made me feel special – secure, loved – so must taking care of me have made her feel special, even vaguely heroic, a stature she no doubt savored.

All this is to say, if nothing else, that I wish for everyone in this life to have at least once the kind of love my grandmother had for me, a grandmother who would do anything for me, and often did. You know what I mean. You, too, count among the lucky ones in this regard. And that has always made me feel lucky all over again.

P.S. — Please tell me about your own Nana.

Cradled in My Father’s Arms

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I heard my father never held me as a baby. My grandmother Sheft told me that. It could be true.
Maybe he, new to babies, felt uncomfortable holding one. Maybe his own father never held him as a baby, either.

Then again, maybe my grandmother just never saw my father hold his first-born son. Or maybe my mother never saw my father hold me as a baby, and then told my grandmother. That could be the case.

If so, what might it mean?

Maybe my father held me when no one was looking. Maybe he waited until my mother and grandmother left the room, and only then, without anyone else around, with no one to tell him he was doing it wrong or should stop, he would hold me.

Or maybe he slipped over to my crib at night when everyone was sleeping and saw me awake and picked me up. It could be he just wanted complete privacy in this most intimate act. He might have wanted no one to see him as he cradled me in his arms and brought my face close to his face and told me he loved me.

He might have preferred to be alone with his baby boy, free to touch my cheek with his finger and stroke my brow and generally admire the creature he had co-created.

That’s what I’d like to believe happened.

But whether I actually do is another matter altogether.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Cradled in My Father’s Arms: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

This much I know for sure: I saw my father less during my childhood than I would have liked, and as an adult, too, for that matter. His presence in my life was defined largely by his absence. In that sense, it reminds you of a character in a play who mostly stays offstage, talked about but unseen.

He had his work to do, managing apartment buildings with his father in Newark, and that kept him busy from early morning to later at night. He took me to Newark with him a few times, and I saw him check in with the superintendents, bringing beer as a gift and explaining to me why.
We would ride to work on the Garden State Parkway, father and son, he behind the wheel of his powder-blue Chevy station wagon, and I would be so happy. Any time he had to stop short, he stuck out his arm across the front seat to keep me from tumbling forward against the dashboard, keeping me safe (this was before seat belts).

He wore a hearing aid his whole life – it might squawk and screech sometimes, like a message on a ham radio trying to come through – but he heard anything I said pretty well.
Once, while driving to his buildings, he started talking about God. He said that what was different about being Jewish was you had a choice about whether to believe in God.

Another time, as he built a bar in our den – he was always quite handy – he told me he disliked drinking alcohol because it left him depressed. He told me something about my Uncle Leonard, too, as if confiding a dark family secret – that he never really got along all that well with anyone.
He pulled the same move about my Uncle Ward, too, sharing a confidence that he never really worked, and that was because he already had so much money. He made these remarks to me, I believe, more to be instructive than to belittle anyone. He was trying to explain a little of the world to his son.

Now I find myself trying to explain my father to you, and to myself, too. Let me tell you this. He found his true calling later in life.

P.S. – See Part 3 tomorrow.

Cradled in My Father’s Arms: Part 3

Dear Michael and Caroline,

He went hunting in 1969 and slipped on a rock and hurt his back and was unable to move or call for help. This predicament gave him an idea.

Establish a network enabling the deaf to communicate with each other and everyone else, including the police and fire departments. And that’s what he would eventually do with teletypewriters, first in New York and New Jersey, then nationwide.

He was a pioneer honored at dinners and given awards and written about in newspapers, and I was proud of him, or at least I am now (his noble mission back then seemed just to be something else that took him away from his family).

Of course that’s how men acted then, husbands and fathers, because that’s how they were expected to act – all business, the kids pretty much incidental.

When my father died in February, 1997, keeling over from a massive heart attack in his girlfriend’s kitchen, my Uncle Ward had something to say. We had held the funeral service and given the eulogy and said kaddish and laid him in the soil, and now we were all going to leave him behind, alone, much as he always wanted to be. And good old Uncle Ward decided to answer the impulse to be profound and wise and enlightening.

So he said to me and Mom, as I recall, “Well, I know he could have spent more time with his family, but he’s a hero to the deaf community, so we should still think of him as a success.”
I would like to tell you I agreed, because it would make me seem generous and understanding and forgiving. But then Ward was never the baby his father never held.

My Mother, Disabled by the Disease of Denial

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My mother, despite being profoundly deaf since infancy, took piano lessons as a girl. It was my grandmother’s idea.

Why her daughter should play an instrument she was unable to hear is uncertain. But I can guess.

Maybe she wanted my mother to feel like a person equipped with normal hearing, same as almost everyone else. Or maybe my grandmother wanted to fool herself into believing her daughter could hear. Or both.

Whatever the case, I’ve long imagined my mother taking those piano lessons in the Bronx. She’s seated at the keyboard, her hands arched, the teacher instructing. She plays a tune, unable to tell whether she’s played it well, with no clue whether she’s missed a note.
Oh, mother why? she must have wondered. Why must I play piano? I’m deaf. What’s the point?
But there my grandmother might be, watching the lesson, even delighting in hearing her deaf daughter play piano.

Ah, yes, she might be thinking. My daughter can play piano. She’s as good as anyone else, and now she knows it.

It’s hard to decide what to make of all this.

Certainly my grandmother had the best of intentions. That’s why she had my mother take dance lessons, too. Again, my mother learned to perform to sounds she was unable to perceive. She would pick up the steps to the waltz and mimic the teacher gliding across the dance floor to the strains of Strauss, only she would do so to silence.

Maybe my mother felt like all the other girls as she danced, and maybe her mother felt like all the other mothers there, at least in those moments.

Let’s all pretend. Let’s all pretend Aileen can hear.

This game of make-believe took other forms, too. My mother wound up educated in the so-called oralist tradition. You learned to speak the same as hearing people, with your mouth rather than relying on your hands, and to read lips. Use of sign language, whether at home or in school, was expressly prohibited. Nobody should be able to detect your deafness, lest you be stigmatized.

In those days, back in the 1930s and 1940s, deafness was still seen largely as a version of stupidity. More than a few deaf children were misdiagnosed as retarded, even institutionalized as such. So one must understand the times, the cultural context, rather than be quick to condemn.

Still, my mother and her friends used sign language in school anyway, secretly, under the desks. Nothing could suppress this elemental means of communication and expression. Nature will out. Plants will break through the soil, no matter what the environment.

I see my mother as a girl in class, perhaps wearing pigtails and a uniform. She is shaping words with her fingers under her desk for the next girl over to see.

Did you see the new boy. I think he’s cute. What do you think? They’re both smiling now, my mother and her classmate, and the conversation goes on, silent but hardly wordless, bridging the barrier of sound, making a connection. My mother is deaf and she knows she’s deaf, but she’s happy. She’s letting herself be deaf and adapting to it rather than pretending otherwise or letting her mother pretend otherwise. They’re giggling, my mother and her friend, and the teacher has no clue, and neither does my grandmother. Freedom of expression at its most basic and most beautiful, unchecked and unstoppable.

My grandmother meant well – she always meant well, no one ever really doubted that, though you know what people say about the best of intentions – but games of pretend, carried too far, can have consequences unintended and unforeseen. A deaf girl can grow up without quite accepting herself as deaf, without quite believing her own mother accepts her as deaf, suspecting society at large refuses to accept her as deaf, too. She can grow up feeling, if anything, even more apart, more an outlier, than she otherwise might.

It’s a question of identity. Who am I, that’s the question, and is the person I am different from the person my mother wants me, expects me, to be? That’s the issue.

You can hear, my grandmother seems to insist. If you just try hard enough – if you take piano lessons and learn to dance the waltz to music and speak with your mouth rather than your hands – you will be able to hear. You just have to try hard enough.

But my grandmother got that wrong, and her daughter paid the price. Denial is also a disability.

The Boy Who Became My Father

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father lost most of his hearing, the result of nerve deafness, before he turned one year old.
He grew up in a small house in a section of New Jersey called Weequahic, in Newark, heavily Jewish in the 1940s and 1940s. His parents, Harry and Anna, both from Austria, sent him away, on a train, to a special school for the deaf in St. Louis, when he was a boy, maybe only eight or nine.

He was hard of hearing, severely so, able to make out perhaps 10% of all sounds, and this was back before hearing headsets or aids were of great use. He probably had difficulty making himself understood or understanding those around him, frustrating everyone, including himself.

The school in St. Louis was expensive, all that special training plus room and board and the train trips back and forth to New Jersey once or twice a year, but somehow, I’m told, my grandparents, then still of modest means, managed to pay for it year after year. It was a sacrifice and they went without, forgoing new clothes and furniture and vacation, because they wanted my father equipped to survive in the world with the skills he would need, most prominently an ability to speak and comprehend the speech of others.

My father was an absent-minded boy at home, his sisters told me, “his head in the clouds,” a description later echoed by his mother-in-law, my grandmother Sheft. He kept to himself, in his room, and conducted small science experiments, once causing some chemicals to explode.
He went to school in St. Louis for 10 years and I’m certain it left him feeling lonely, maybe even abandoned, and I doubt he ever really felt all that close to anyone in his life, though I could well be wrong, and would like to be.

But let me stick with the little I know. He had two younger sisters, Zelda and Gail, and from what I have gathered, they got all the attention in those days. They were pretty, they had sociable personalities and they enjoyed perfect hearing. Whether my father resented this favoritism I can only guess. How his sisters treated him is purely a matter of speculation.

This much I know, too: my father was bright and athletic, and to no small degree driven. I say this because he played on his high school football team, and more important, because he was accepted as a student at Rutgers University in 1944. Rutgers was then, and still is, a highly respected school, and my father had to be among the very few students there with almost no hearing. As he later told me himself, he always sat in the first row in class, the better to hear the teacher, and also took more notes than other students, the better to doublecheck.

My father was pretty pigheaded back then, and this habit would prevail through his life, both to his credit and detriment equally. For example, it was generally accepted among his family that nobody could tell him much of anything. He was going to do what he was going to do, no matter what his parents or sisters or teachers told him.

I would later see this tendency at work myself years later, as would my mother, her mother and my sister.

P.S. — See Part 2 tomorrow.

The Boy Who Became My Father: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father graduated from Rutgers in 1948 – I forgot to mention he entered the Army for a spell, too, and apparently trained pilots; I saw photos of him, in his flight gear, near a plane on an airfield – and again, for anyone with so little hearing to finish college in those days was no small accomplishment.

By the way, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the decision my grandparents made to send my father away to school. It’s easy to pass judgment and call this a terrible decision, inflicting a second sense of loss in a small boy like that, maybe just to get him out of the house. But it was the 1930s, the Great Depression had already set in, and my grandparents were doing what people with deaf or almost-deaf children did back then, turning to the acknowledged experts for help. So I want to be fair about that.

After college my father went to work at a place called Three Guys From Harrison, a kind of precursor to Home Depot My father told me how the job interviewer asked him whether he knew anything about retail sales. The answer was no, but my father said yes. He had to bluff to get the job, and so he found himself hired. I guess he tended to customers in the aisles and labeled prices on products and loaded stock in the backrooms, but it was no job for someone with his mind, so scientific and inventive.

Years later, my father would tell me he probably could have become an engineer – and maybe should have – rising through the ranks at some company like IBM or Xerox or Boeing or GM. It would turn out he was good at anything mechanical, whether a clock or a car or a washing machine. He was drawn to technology, had an aptitude for it, was fascinated by it, was what marketers would be quick to call an early adapter.

Eventually, and happily for him, he would answer his calling. But now it’s 1949 or so and my father goes to some local event held for the deaf community and meets a woman named Aileen, then 21 or so. She’s beautiful – no really, she looks like Elizabeth Taylor, almost a dead ringer for her – and she comes from a solid professional family in New York City (then living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx). I heard his advances toward her were unwelcome at first, but he persisted.

One day he climbed a ladder or a fire escape onto her apartment building in the Bronx and crawled into her window.

I always wonder how the families saw each other then. On one side, you had the Brodys, my grandfather Harry Brody an eighth-grade dropout and still a peasant at heart, owner of a bar, the son a hard-of-hearing Rutgers graduate. On the other side, you had the Shefts, my grandfather Benjamin a certified public accountant in a proper office, my grandmother Gertrude by then already putting on airs, the daughter completely deaf from a bout with meningitis in infancy.

It must have seemed a step up for my father, winning the heart of a gorgeous girl from New York City whose father, unlike his, had also graduated college). It might have seemed a step up for my mother, too, because even though the Brodys had less money and lived in New Jersey – imagine that, people living in New Jersey! – he was only hard of hearing, able to benefit from the better hearing aids now, and certainly he was ambitious. Why else would he climb into her bedroom window that night?

Whatever the case, they soon became engaged and married. They honeymooned in July, 1951, at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills – then and for a long time considered the Plaza of the Catskills – and took a one-bedroom apartment at 910 Sheridan Avenue, near The Grand Concourse in the Bronx, for about $100 a month.

Eight months and two weeks later my father and mother became parents for the first time.

Can you guess who that kid was?

How My Grandmother Anointed Me Prince Robert

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Look at my grandson. Just look at him. Is he the most beautiful grandson you ever saw? He’s mine, you know. All mine. Yes, I’m his grandmother, his Nana, and he’s my grandchild, the very first.

That’s how it was with my Nana, the only Nana who ever really mattered to me. That’s what she said and that’s how she thought.

Look at my grandson. He’s so smart. That’s why he’s bored in school and never does his homework and gets such poor grades. He’s so clever.

That’s why he’s always making wonderful observations at museums and in restaurants and wherever I take him. He’s so sensitive, too sensitive. That’s why he talks back to teachers and gets in trouble and everything bothers him and he feels hurt and angry half the time. Look at him and listen to him and marvel at him.

All hail, Prince Robert!

He’s the smartest, most beautiful, most sensitive grandson in history. I would do anything for him – take him to Rappaport’s toy store on Third Avenue or the Guggenheim or Saks Fifth Avenue or Schrafft’s or Chock Full o’Nuts.

I’ll make him French Toast and coffee with a lot of milk and sugar and I’ll let him stay up later than his parents do and watch whatever he wants on TV.

He can do no wrong and never will. He’s my grandson, after all, so how could he? It’s genetically impossible. Moses had nothing on him. He’s perfection itself. He’s everything to me. He’s my second chance, a child who’s neither deaf nor wildly disobedient, so unlike my daughter and son, a chance to start over, a clean slate, a child to spoil worse than rotten, a child over whom I might exert full control.

Everything he does is right. Even everything he does wrong is right. Every word he writes is brilliant. He’s going to accomplish something big.

That’s how it felt with her. She hovered, my guardian angel, my Greek chorus, my personal cheerleading squad. She pulled out all the stops, showered me with compliments and peptalks, assured me I could accomplish anything. I was the chosen one. I could walk on water.
It meant the world to me back then, especially at my youngest, getting this extravagant attention, this unwavering love. Every child should at least once in life be so lucky. Every boy should have at least a moment to feel like a prince.

Me and the Boys of Alden Terrace

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Every Sunday afternoon, with something like clockwork regularity, we boys all gathered at Paul Solomon’s house. Me, Don, Andy, Carl, Steve, sometimes Mike and Larry. We had to be 12, 13, 14 years old, all of us living on the same block or two, in the same kinds of split-level houses built in the 1950s, going to the same school.

We watched either pro football or pro basketball, on the only color TV in the neighborhood, the football field suddenly lush green, the basketball court suddenly a golden hue. It might be the Green Bay Packers against the Dallas Cowboys, both teams then dominant, or the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics, also powerhouses.

After the games, we would all put on our overcoats and caps and go outside to play touch football in the street in front of Paul’s house. Our field went from telephone pole to telephone pole, probably about 50 yards, with the sidelines marked by the curbs on either side. Sometimes a car or two would be parked out on the street (most stayed in driveways) and we had to play around those (though sometimes we accidentally collided into one going out for a pass).

We played two-on-two or three-on-three, depending on how many guys showed up, and we went at it all afternoon, oblivious of time and responsibility and the world at large, our minds intent on the next pass, the next catch, scoring the next touchdown.

Paul, the biggest and strongest then, played the best (he would later be the only one of us to join the high school football team). He had the calm air of the superior athlete, and usually played quarterback.

Don, my best friend, a lefty, could run fast, and so could Andy.

Me, I could throw and catch pretty well, always equipped with better arms than legs.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Me and the Boys of Alden Terrace: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Only now, though, do I realize how odd it was for us to play football in the street. We lived in the suburbs, after all, with a grassy, sloping park barely 100 yards away. Maybe it was because the street gave us readymade end zones and boundaries, whereas in the park we would have had to create our own demarcations.

Or maybe it had to do with where our parents came from, New York City, mostly the Bronx. In the city, you played mainly in the street, close to the apartment you called home. So maybe we played in the street as some kind of unconscious carryover from our old neighborhoods, an unacknowledged inheritance from our parents.

At any rate, those games represented a special moment in my life. We all came together, me and my chums, to play ball. We huddled and called our plays, our buttonhooks and down-and-outs and our going-longs, and played football all through the January and February afternoons.
Nothing else going on in the world mattered and, as far as we could tell, nothing else ever would. All that counted was to be out there playing a game in the cold with your friends. We came together almost magnetically, gravitationally, without even a phone call first, to test ourselves against each other, to see who would win, to mimic everything we saw the Packers and the Cowboys do on TV.

We all knew each other so well, knew each other’s mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, had gone to each other’s houses. We took the same classes, had the same teachers. We all loved to play – that was the real common denominator on those winter days. We all wanted to excel as athletes.

I never had anything like that again, a band of friends with whom you could kid around and burp and fart. Never again would I feel so close to other males, in friendships that ran so deep, so unquestioning. I never even came close, neither in college nor at any office.

It was the circumstances that made it possible, I suppose, the time and place and our proximity to each other, all of us the same age. We had something special, irreplaceable, a closeness.
But at least I had that once, and sometimes once can be enough.

It might have to be.

Poppa Takes Me to the World Series

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My grandfather Benjamin Sheft took me to Yankee Stadium to see Game Four of the 1964 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. Nothing could have made me happier.

The outing had two elements I loved with all my heart: my grandfather and baseball (largely in that order). Luckily, the two often went hand in hand.

My grandfather took me to games at the stadium maybe once a year, starting in 1960, when I was only eight years old.

He once bought me an encyclopedia of baseball records that I devoured, a massive volume with every statistic imaginable. He also got me a subscription to the New York Daily News so I could read about the Yankees in the sports pages.

Poppa and baseball went back pretty far. He saw Babe Ruth play, and Joe DiMaggio, and all the rest. He lived for more than 20 years in the Bronx, where I was born. He and I could talk baseball, and often would. Which team won or lost, which player was doing well or poorly.
My own father had long since lost interest in baseball, too busy with work and other preoccupations. In any given Fall, my father would have no clue – I know because I quizzed him – which teams were competing in the World Series.

So that gave me an extra reason to adore my grandfather. He filled in for my father on the baseball front. And in the best of scenarios, a 12-year-old boy who loves baseball will be able to share his love with someone older, a brother, an uncle, a father, a Poppa. He needs someone to show him how to fill out a scorecard, and tell him how good Gehrig was at first base or why Casey Stengel was such a character.

So it was multiply lucky for me that now he was taking me to the only World Series game I would ever see in person. We pulled into the parking lot and walked toward the stadium under the elevated train tracks, the sun shafting through onto all the fans thronging in. All along the sidewalks vendors sold pennants and caps and programs, scalpers calling out to make a sale, the aroma of hot dogs in the air.

With each step my anticipation of the game grew.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.
.

Poppa Take Me to the World Series: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

We passed through the turnstiles and took the winding ramp upwards. Higher and higher we went, the ground receding below us, until we reached the top level and stepped out into the stands. I never tired of that first glimpse of the field, and I never will.

It’s wondrous. When you’re still a kid, especially, any major-league ballfield seems impossibly green and vast and gorgeous, and at first you suspect you’re dreaming. And this was Yankee Stadium, with its classical frieze rimming the sky, the mother of all stadia. Yankee Stadium during the World Series to boot, the Yankees dominant for so long then, a dynasty.

We went to take our seats, there in the upper deck in left field, about as far away from home plate as you could possibly be without leaving the premises, maybe 500 feet away. It felt stratospheric, like being suspended over the action in a hot-air balloon.

We’d always sat closer in, maybe along the first-base line, or on the third-base side, close enough to hear the crack of bat on ball as it actually happened, close enough to hear a fastball smacking into the catcher’s mitt. Up there in the dizzying upper deck, all you could hear was the roar of the crowd, and the players looked so small. You’d hear bat on ball a fraction of a second after it actually happened.

But none of that, being so high up and so far away from home plate, made any difference to me.

I was at the World Series with my grandfather. What else counted? He loved me enough (and baseball, too) to have taken me there. All other considerations – how short I was, my lousy grades at school, my problems with my parents – fell by the wayside.

The day turned out to be as thrilling as I expected. The 1964 Yankees had Mantle and Maris and Yogi Berra, the Cardinals Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Tim McCarver. The Yankees took a 3-0 lead, but then Ken Boyer – the brother of Yankees third-baseman Clete Boyer – hit a grand slam, giving the Cards a 4-3 win.

As it happened, he hit the homer to left field. I saw it coming toward us, sailing out from home plate, and held up my glove to catch it. Closer and closer the ball came. But it landed in the first deck, directly down below us. The stadium went wild. At that moment I turned to my grandfather.

“I wish this would never end,” I said.

He looked back at me with a smile I would call serious, outlined in a shade of rue.

“Everything comes to an end,” he said.”

I had no idea what he meant.

Even so, I doubted it was true. How could that be?

For a long time afterwards, I refused to believe him, refused, with all the brute will of an innocent, that anything you loved had to come to an end.

Split-City Fakeout: “D” Day in Our Family

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father and mother called my sister Linda and I to the kitchen table one night to announce some news to us. “We have something to tell you,” my father said, and right away I sensed something unusual going on.

My parents never really had anything to tell us. As far as I can recall, they kept everything to themselves, whatever it might be. My sister and I looked at my mother and prepared to listen. I was probably about 10 years old and she eight. We must have expected to glean the news from my mother’s face. But no such luck.

“Your mother and I are getting a divorce,” my father said.

I had a basic idea of what the word “divorce” meant. It definitely meant something bad. We looked at my mother, my sister and I, as if to seek an explanation, or maybe hoping she would reveal this all to be some kind of prank. Her face reddened and she cast her eyes down, apparently ashamed.

“We are going to live separately,” my father said, trying to define the new terms of our family arrangement. It was a bad moment, I recall, this announcement. The news hit me with a wallop. No more family, or at least no more foursome.

I’ve forgotten the rest of this gathering. Maybe my father said more, but most likely he did as he had always done and retreated into the safety and solitude of silence. Almost certainly my mother gave no elaboration, either. Maybe I asked a question, such as “What will happen now?” or “Why?” or “Was it my fault?” I must have had such questions swelling in my mind. But chances are, I was too dumbfounded to come up with anything to say.

Of this much I’m sure: Linda and I went back to our rooms believing our parents were going to be divorced. Our family would now officially break apart.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Split-City Fakeout: “D-Day” in Our Family: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

As it happened, we were mistaken in that belief. My parents stayed together for another 20 years or so. By the time they actually did divorce, Linda and I had long since gone out to live on our own, me in New York City, she in Los Angeles. I was even already married myself.
And when the divorce finally came, all I could really think – heartless as it might sound – was that it was about time. That divorce was long overdue.

It pains me to acknowledge that, but it’s true, as they themselves would probably have acknowledged. It just seemed to me, based on living with my parents for 20 years and knowing what I knew about how they got along, that they never really did each other much good.

Maybe early on, in the first flush of marriage, they had, feeling a love deep and real. And maybe even later on, they enjoyed being together, raising Linda and I together, getting through life together. But I never had such an impression.

They always seemed – often, anyway – so much at odds. They argued over the kitchen table, both with us there and without us there, my mother usually the aggressor, seething and hissing and probably accusatory, my father passive, taking it, pleading for understanding. I can only guess at the issues disputed – grandparents, children, money, maybe my father away working so much. My mother raised her voice, too, my father never. My mother would pound the table. Now, maybe all this seemed so only because as a child, I was naturally alert to signs of trouble.

Maybe I missed the signs of stability and trust and loyalty.

But I doubt it. My mother always had her agenda and my father had his, and at no point did they seem to have an agenda for the four of us, for the whole family. Neither seemed – and again I’m going only by the signs I saw – willing to put the other first, to compromise, to consider the greater good. Neither really seemed to want the responsibilities of marriage, much less of parenthood.

When you get right down to it, it’s as if even while married for those 32 years, they were already divorced.

Boys of Summer

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Always, in recalling your hometown, you return to the landmarks, to the places where something happened. Your first kiss. Your first fist fight. Your first poem. You return to those landmarks with your eyes wide open, all but expecting to see it all again.

And so I go back to Fair Lawn now and again, looking for myself all over, retracing my boyhood. I can still see Dunkerhook Park, on the outskirts of town, about a mile from our home. You went down Fair Lawn Avenue past River Road and crossed a short old bridge so narrow it accommodated only one car at a time. The road twisted again, and then there lay the park, tucked lower than the rest of the town, almost a secret. As parks go, it had the usual amenities – swings and slides, picnic benches, a gravelly parking lot.

But one day when a teenager, I went to Dunkerhook with my friends Kevin and Eric, and we took a dirt path into the woods that wound along a stream. Soon we had left the other park visitors well behind, nothing around us but trees and bushes, no sounds but those of the birds chattering and the stream gurgling below us. Deeper into the woods we went, watching our step on the fallen branches and stones underfoot.

Only Kevin knew where we were going, or so he claimed, saying we would soon be there. Kevin knew something about Dunkerhook, and had promised to show it to us, and now we were here.
The woods grew denser, the outline of the path we followed fainter, the stream seemingly louder. You never knew with Kevin. He was kind of a con man, always kidding around, making wisecracks. He always got the better of Eric.

I went through spells of friendship with Kevin and Eric, close for a while, then no longer close, but we always stayed friends, coming back together.

And now Kevin was luring us into unknown woods on a whim that we would somehow find the experience entertaining. Maybe he had brought three cute girls here to meet us or, more likely, discovered a dead raccoon, or a treehouse, or a cave.

We suspected that whatever he wanted to show us, it would probably be pretty cool.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Boys of Summer: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

“There,” Kevin said without warning.

“Where?” Eric asked. Yes, I wondered, where? 

“Right there,” Kevin said, pointing ahead.

Ah, yes. There indeed. The stream below us, so narrow for so long, had widened into an oval shape, just like a pool. A watering hole, where the stream deepened from inches to feet, with steep banks all around, ridged by the roots from surrounding trees, exposed through the soil.

Eric and I scanned the spot, struck with admiration for Kevin, who had now shared his secret with us.

And just then the watering hole got even better. Next to the bank on one side loomed a tall tree with thick branches stretching out. Dangling from the lowest, thickest branch, maybe 10 feet above the watering hole, was a length of thick rope with a knot at the end. Someone had come along and wrapped the rope around the branch just so, creating the best possible ride.

Right away I recognized the possibilities. And I wasted no time. I took off my sneakers and socks and shirt and shorts, now only in my briefs. I clambered up the tree, the bark biting into my skin, my nostrils flaring so wide I could now whiff the lush, fertile woods around me.

I reached out to grip the knot at the end of the rope.

I tugged to test its security.

All systems go.

I pulled the rope back toward me and held tight and pushed away from the tree and swung into the air out over the watering hole with Eric and Kevin egging me on and then I let go and dropped and splashed right into the welcoming pool below and went down fast underwater and felt the mud on the bottom with my toes and came up to breathe.

Whoa.

And that’s how we three spent that particular afternoon at Dunkerhook Park. Swinging off a rope into a stream, swinging with utter abandon, the abandon of boys playing it all joyously by ear. Seeing who could swing out the farthest, cheering each other on.
As I say, you never knew with Kevin. But this time he came through with a true treat, no con job. Never before or since can I recall acting with quite that degree kind of abandon. Can any activity be wilder, less inhibited, than sending yourself hurtling off a tree into the water below? We felt like Tarzan. I wanted to pound my chest with my fists and yodel from the treetops.

That’s among the many gifts of childhood, that sense of being carefree. It lasts only a short while, never fully to be regained.

The House I Grew Up In

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I remember every square inch of the house I grew up in. I guess that will happen after you spend 20 years in a place.

But I probably recall the details so well more because of when I lived there – as a child – than because of how long. Early in life, everything registers, makes a deep impression, shapes you.

And so it was with our house. It was pretty much the first home I ever had – I’m discounting the one-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx that my parents and I occupied for my first two-and-a-half years.

I arrived in our house in Fair Lawn before turning three, in 1954, and left it a month after my 23rd birthday, in May, 1975 (I leave out two years of college spent in Boston right after high school).

In a sense, for the longest time, that house in Fair Lawn, that post-World War II split-level, with its three bedrooms upstairs and sloping front lawn, was my whole universe.
My room was directly across from our second bathroom, right off the stairs, the first stop on the second floor. Down the hall, straight to the end, then to the left, lived my sister (did I mention her room was larger than mine, in the corner, with windows on two walls rather than one?). Catty corner to her room was where my parents slept, complete with private bathroom and shower.

Ah, but that was only our top floor. Across the hall from my room, high on the wall off the steps, was the entrance to the attic. You had to climb up and crawl in, and it was a low-slung space, always dim and dusty. An attic, especially to a child, connotes a certain creepy intrigue. What could possibly be up there? What secrets might be buried? I never found out, at least nothing I can recall. We must have stored something up there.

The steps near my room led to the rest of the house, maybe eight or ten steps. Framed on the wall next to the steps were butterflies pinned in place, all colors and all kinds. At the foot of the steps was a gallery space of sorts, tiled to set it off from the surrounding carpet, with an overhead lamp hanging down. To the right was the front door to the house. Straight ahead was the living room, with a wide picture window and, at the end, a fireplace.

You develop a keen sense of geography, of what’s where, as a child in your house.
Turn left and you enter the kitchen, passing the steps to the den downstairs. To the right is a kind of bay for our kitchen table with four chairs. Refrigerator, oven, sink, stove as you go right. Then the back door to the house. Next came an entrance to our dining room, curling around as an extension of the living room.

Now we go down to the den, the ceiling close overhead on the steep steps. Over to the left is the closet my father once used as his office, then the door to the garage. At one point we had a piano near the door, later a teletype machine. The room felt like a bunker because it was set partly below ground, the long windows along the back looking onto our driveway and High Street, low enough to be about level with the wheels of our cars.

Turn right from the steps and you enter a door to the basement, another land of mystery. The concrete steps wound to the right, bringing you to yet another planet in the galaxy of our house, cool and quiet and apart. Here were the washer and dryer, the boiler, two walk-in storage closets that smelled of cedar, really a small apartment in itself, with small windows set high.

Why do I give you this tour? I want you to see what I saw, and know where I lived, and how, if only to have some sense of my origins.

Later I will tell you more. I’ll go beyond the layout to show you the landmarks in the house that mean the most. I’ll tell you what happened in that house with my mother and father and sister and me. I’ll tell you where and when it happened – and maybe, if possible, even why.

P.S. – How well do you remember the home you grew up in?

Crossing The Hudson, From Then To Now

Dear Michael and Caroline,

For years all through my boyhood, my father drove our family over the George Washington Bridge. Almost always we were going from our house in Fair Lawn to visit my maternal grandparents, the Shefts, at 79th Street and Second Avenue, and always we took the George Washington Bridge.

It would be the four of us, my sister and I in the back seat, headed in for Passover or Thanksgiving or just a Sunday dinner. The bridge was tall and long and wide, all steel and cables suspended over the Hudson River. And as we crossed, I always looked to the right, toward the south, because there, spread out along the horizon, lay the towers of Manhattan.

We lived in a town of maybe 35,000 in Bergen County, where almost everyone had a house and was white and had some money, and on weekend mornings you heard all the lawnmowers going. So the George Washington Bridge came to mean something special. It connected us to a different universe, another dimension.

For here in Manhattan, as I learned as a young boy, was everything I saw in the movies and read about in books. Here, I knew, were the Wall Street tycoons and the ladies who lunch, the Broadway theaters and all those yellow cabs streaming through the night. That bridge, with its structure so muscular, those cables like tendons in the arms, linked my past and present to what would become my future.

I had no idea back then, at the age of 6 or 10 or 14, that Manhattan would remain my destination. Then again, maybe I suspected it. Certainly I always felt a gravitational pull toward that skyline. Certainly so much that I came to love was there.

Little did I realize, back then, that I would at the age of 23 move there and work there and meet Elvira there. And it was the George Washington Bridge that transported me to the rest of my life, that conveyed me all those years, in the 1950s and 1960s, from my old home to my new one.

My Father Appoints Me A Member Of The Bar

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Back again we now go into our house, home to so many memories, key to so many secrets, back we go to discover ourselves anew.

Let’s go down to the den, at the second lowest level, to the recliner where my father watched TV and, more often, napped. There he would lay, sleeping, snoring away, tired from working all the time, tired, too, no doubt, from everything else, from being a son, a brother, a husband, a father. No wonder he needed a nap.

And as he napped, all I might think was, it’s another opportunity missed, another chance for us to talk, to play, to hang out. He sought refuge from us all, political asylum, and sleep turned out to be the only neutral country that would take him in, a zone of his own, the better to zone out.

Now let’s step lower still, down to the basement, where for a while we set up a ping-pong table right alongside the washer and dryer. My mother and I played ping-pong there, probably pretty often, too. She had played as a girl, and grown into an accomplished player, winning tournaments and maybe a trophy or two, and she played well all right.

But what I remember most affectionately about those contests with her had nothing to do with the swiftness of her serve or the smoothness of her backhand or her sharp reflexes on return shots. No, it’s how much fun she had playing.

She would laugh as we played, a laugh here and a laugh there, whether she scored or missed. She simply delighted in the sport. Ping-pong remains among the few activities I can recall my mother and I undertaking enjoyably together.

Back to the den we now go, because there, in the mid-1960s, my father built a bar. Where other men would have bought a piece of furniture to serve as a bar, my father actually constructed one from scratch. He appointed me, then maybe 11 or 12, to be his helper.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

My Father Appoints Me A Member Of The Bar: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

One day we mapped out the site for the project, in the corner near the door to the basement. He had some measuring to do, and needed another body.

He had to line up spots on the ceiling with corresponding locales on the floor. So he held over my head a string with a metal weight on the end that stretched down to the floor. He jotted a dot on the ceiling with his pencil and I, following his instructions, did the same below.

I remember feeling a deep sense of satisfaction at this modest mission, even though my apprenticeship turned out to be short-lived and my father, intent as ever, took it from there.

In the end, the bar curved in a semi-circle from wall to wall, complete with a runner for your feet and a flip-top entrance-exit, the surface a bright white Formica, quite a handsome number all in all.

He built the bar, come to think of it, more to express himself, and probably for social reasons, than because he drank much. In fact, my father once told me, apropos of who knows what, that he never really liked liquor. “I might have one drink,” he said. “But alcohol leaves me depressed. My first drink is usually my last.”

Maybe he sought, in so saying, to warn me about booze. But certainly he played bartender, serving drinks to friends at parties my parents gave, just as my grandfather, his father, had made a living as a bartender, in a bar he owned in Newark.

So much else happened in this house, of course – my parents arguing at the kitchen table, the arguments audible from my bedroom; bringing a girlfriend to my bedroom for a makeout session; my grandfather Sheft visiting on those long-ago Friday afternoons, primarily to reassure my mother with promises and cash; playing my four-piece Ludwig drum set in the basement, making believe I was in a band and really cool; my sister bringing over her girlfriends for sleepovers, arousing my early curiosity about girls.

If I realize anything at all, it’s that a house is more than rooms and a roof. It’s an organism pulsing with life, and now, all these years later, it pulses still, pulses in memory.

Here in this house I came to love the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, to marvel at the movies “King Kong” and “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” to read Mailer and Roth and Updike and Vidal, to forge my friendships with Don and Larry and Bob, to admire my extensive collection of Playboy issues, to perform with solid mediocrity as a student, to recognize, however dimly, that my parents so often seemed at odds with each other, with my sister and I strictly secondary players in the family drama.

So much started there.

So much ended there, too.

And so much, at least in my memory, goes on still.

Me And The Boys Of Alden Terrace

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Every Sunday afternoon, with something like clockwork regularity, we boys all gathered at Paul Solomon’s house. Me, Don, Andy, Carl, Steve, sometimes Mike and Larry. We had to be 12, 13, 14 years old, all of us living on the same block or two, in the same kinds of split-level houses built in the 1950s, going to the same school.

We watched either pro football or pro basketball, on the only color TV in the neighborhood, the football field suddenly lush green, the basketball court suddenly a golden hue. It might be the Green Bay Packers against the Dallas Cowboys, both teams then dominant, or the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics, also powerhouses.

After the games, we would all put on our overcoats and caps and go outside to play touch football in the street in front of Paul’s house. Our field went from telephone pole to telephone pole, probably about 50 yards, with the sidelines marked by the curbs on either side. Sometimes a car or two would be parked out on the street (most stayed in driveways) and we had to play around those (though sometimes we accidentally collided into one going out for a pass).

We played two-on-two or three-on-three, depending on how many guys showed up, and we went at it all afternoon, oblivious of time and responsibility and the world at large, our minds intent on the next pass, the next catch, scoring the next touchdown.

Paul, the biggest and strongest then, played the best (he would later be the only one of us to join the high school football team). He had the calm air of the superior athlete, and usually played quarterback.

Don, my best friend, a lefty, could run fast, and so could Andy.

Me, I could throw and catch pretty well, always equipped with better arms than legs.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Me And The Boys Of Alden Terrace: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Only now, though, do I realize how odd it was for us to play football in the street. We lived in the suburbs, after all, with a grassy, sloping park barely 100 yards away. Maybe it was because the street gave us readymade end zones and boundaries, whereas in the park we would have had to create our own demarcations.

Or maybe it had to do with where our parents came from, New York City, mostly the Bronx. In the city, you played mainly in the street, close to the apartment you called home. So maybe we played in the street as some kind of unconscious carryover from our old neighborhoods, an unacknowledged inheritance from our parents.

At any rate, those games represented a special moment in my life. We all came together, me and my chums, to play ball. We huddled and called our plays, our buttonhooks and down-and-outs and our going-longs, and played football all through the January and February afternoons.

Nothing else going on in the world mattered and, as far as we could tell, nothing else ever would. All that counted was to be out there playing a game in the cold with your friends. We came together almost magnetically, gravitationally, without even a phone call first, to test ourselves against each other, to see who would win, to mimic everything we saw the Packers and the Cowboys do on TV.

We all knew each other so well, knew each other’s mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, had gone to each other’s houses. We took the same classes, had the same teachers. We all loved to play – that was the real common denominator on those winter days. We all wanted to excel as athletes.

I never had anything like that again, a band of friends with whom you could kid around and burp and fart. Never again would I feel so close to other males, in friendships that ran so deep, so unquestioning. I never even came close, neither in college nor at any office.

It was the circumstances that made it possible, I suppose, the time and place and our proximity to each other, all of us the same age. We had something special, irreplaceable, a closeness.

But at least I had that once, and sometimes once can be enough.

It might have to be.

Little Boy, A Thief In The Night

Dear Michael and Caroline,

It would be in the middle of the night, maybe 2 or 3 or 4 o’clock, in the house where we all lived, and I alone would be awake. I would slide out of my bed and tread slowly down the carpeted hall toward my parent’s bedroom.

My father would be snoring thunderously, my mother sleeping silently beside him. I would enter the room, alert to any snorts or shifts that might signal my parents were going to awaken any moment and discover me there.

I was a boy on a mission, maybe eight or nine or ten years old, hard to know for sure. It gave me a thrill to be there like that, a secret intruder within my own family, a sense of danger. I was doing something no one knew about, much less suspected.

It would be difficult to see much in there with all the lights out, and it might take a few minutes to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Soon the room would come clearly into view, the bed, the night tables and lamps.

Of course I had little cause to fear being found out. My mother is profoundly deaf, and my father was hard-of-hearing. Neither was going to hear me tiptoeing in on the carpet, or a creaking of the floorboards beneath.

Yet any sleeping creature senses vibrations, and probably aromas, and maybe even changes in the molecules in the air. So I still ran the risk of being caught in mid-adventure.

Still, I pressed on, headed toward my destination. Just past the closet stood a bureau, and next to that a coat rack where my father hung the pants he wore that day. I reached into the pockets and felt the dollar bills there.

On any given night, my father might pack a billfold of about $200 – he required cash on hand for his job managing residential and office properties – mostly twenties with a few tens, fives and singles. Sliding my hand into the pocket, I would then pull out a few bills. I would examine the billfold in its entirety and calculate how much I could take without tipping my hand – maybe a twenty and a five, say. Triumphantly, I would return to my bedroom with my ill-gotten gains, the cash I had stolen straight from my father’s pockets, a suburban pickpocket.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Little Boy, A Thief In The Night: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I was a repeat offender, returning to the scene of the crime – hard to quantify here – maybe five times, or ten, or 15.

My father never said anything about the missing money, neither to me, nor, so far as I knew, to my mother. Whether he ever even noticed the money missing I had no idea.
I liked to believe that he knew about my midnight mischief all along, and decided to let it go, sure I would lose interest in committing larceny and stop. It’s better than believing I had simply put one over on him.

Eventually I stopped of course, and that was that. It was never about the money anyway. I had an allowance, maybe $5 a week, quite generous and upper-middle-class an allocation for a 10-year-old in 1962. My grandfather Sheft might slip me some money now and then, and besides, I never wanted for anything. I could get a soda at the soda fountain and bubble gum and a comic book if I wanted. I could afford pretty much anything.
But in stealing money, I must have wanted something from my father.

Anything.

A piece of him.

Day after day, night after night, he would be here and gone, here and gone, always out working and, even when home, remote and all but incommunicado. I needed to connect with him somehow, maybe to draw his attention, maybe to hurt him, maybe to fool him.

So I stole his money.

Years later, still living at home, I felt bad about my sin. However out to lunch my father might be – and make no mistake: out to lunch he most certainly was – my thefts were altogether unjustifiable.

I considered setting the record straight with him. I had probably taken all of $200 from him during my crime spree. For a while I contemplated gradually giving it all back. But then I realized my conscience needed no easing. Doing what I had done, I was well within my rights. My father owed me something, and I took it. He had cheated me – of his presence, of his participation – and so I cheated him right back.

Into The Suburban Wild We Went

Dear Michael and Caroline,

In our walk to Thomas Jefferson Junior High School every school day morning, we could have taken a route through the streets, same as all the other kids. Gone down this block, then up that block, sticking to the sidewalk, playing it safe.

But no. Instead, we took a shortcut, preferring the woods – or, more like it, the swamp. We would enter a parking lot behind the Grange Hall and head toward the tall reeds, a stream running through it all. We had to tiptoe across the rocks to keep our shoes dry. A rain would leave the ground muddy and the leaves on the trees dripping wet. The reeds stood so thick and tall that we could barely see 10 feet ahead.

Still, we trod on through the thickets. We were boys, traveling in a pack, a tribe unto ourselves, me and Don and Paul and Carl and Steve and Andy and maybe Larry and Mike, and we were doing what boys often do, roughing it, proving ourselves, thrusting ourselves into the wild.

And so it went in Fair Lawn in the mid-1960s. Even though the town was established by the 1920s, and pretty well populated by the 1950s, during my boyhood it still had traces of the wild, little pockets here and there. Only now that I’ve lived so long in a city do I clearly see that at last.

It took my friends and I a while to outgrow this tendency to venture into the wild. We pulled the same stunt in high school. Rather than take the streets to Fair Lawn High School, we cut across a baseball field off Saddle River Road and then, more daring still, crossed the railroad tracks that ran through town.

Crossing railroad tracks, back in those naïve, ignorant days, had yet to be stamped taboo. So cross the tracks we would, we suburban swashbucklers, doing our derring-do.
To approach those tracks lent our days a thrill. For starters, you had to beware no train was coming from either direction. You listened for the chugging, chuffing sound, the screeching rattle of metal grating against metal, the whistle wailing its warning.
We would play games to see how close we could cut it, either darting across the tracks just seconds before the train passed or simply standing close to the train as it went by.

Once we came across a dead raccoon laying on the tracks, obviously run over by the train. Its eyes bulged out, as if from shock, and its teeth were askew, as if bared one last time. We marveled at that raccoon, the first we had ever seen outside of a zoo.

But that’s how it went if you traveled in a pack. We would each somehow try to outdo the other, prove ourselves braver or more skilled, or both. One of us might fling a rock at the passing train, or lay a branch in its path.

Life then felt like an experiment. Everything was trial and error and improvisation, each moment impossible to predict. Fair Lawn then still retained a touch of the rural.

On the next block over from ours, surrounded by nothing but dirt and trees, stood a large, wooden barn, for decades unoccupied except by mice and bats. One night the fire department burned it down. All the neighborhood, especially the kids, came out to watch the barn go down in flames, the night sky all aglow with brilliant orange and red flickering.

Houses would now be built there, just as townhouses now occupy the swamp that served as our shortcut to junior high school. The swamp, the train tracks — it all formed the map for our boyhoods. The town was still young then, and so were we. We and the town also still had a touch of the wild.

Jewish Boy Plays Hooky

Dear Michael and Caroline,

A 12-year-old boy, short, skinny, frizzy hair, is slapping a spaldeen against a brick wall at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, playing hooky from Hebrew school. It’s me, of course.

I’d gone to Hebrew school for maybe two years by then, and had at least another year to go until my bar mitzvah. I’d never wanted to attend, but my parents had insisted, mostly my father, saying I should learn about Jewish history, understand my identity, my cultural heritage.

I found the classes boring, all that stuff about Abraham being ready to kill his son and Moses being found in the reeds of the Nile. On and on the teachers droned, teaching us the Hebrew alphabet and the pronunciation of words and the meaning of Purim and asking us to study and come back the next time ready to recite a passage.

All in all, I preferred to play handball against a brick wall, much as I was doing now, daring the authorities with this bold act of hooky.

My father had talked to me a little over the years about being Jewish, about enterprising Jewish businessmen and about anti-Semitism, and I could tell he took no small pride in being Jewish. My mother never really talked about it at all.

We certainly never discussed Jewish affairs as a family, nothing about Israel or the Bible or the prophets, nothing about the Holocaust or Jewish destiny. So I must have sensed some disconnect between my obligation to go to Hebrew school and how our immediate family lived its life, its decidedly secular, only marginally Jewish life.

The principal of the Hebrew school came outside that day and caught me red-handed – why I had opted to play hooky right there on the premises I’ll never grasp – and brought me inside for a gentle talking-to. I never played hooky again, chastened by my capture, and went on to get my bar mitzvah, never to return to Hebrew school again.

I’ve never stopped feeling Jewish, though, and caring about being Jewish, even though I no longer go to Sabbath services or observe the Jewish holidays. Hebrew remains an ancient tongue I have no urge to master. And God is still a rumor I have yet to verify. In a sense, it’s as if even today I’m still somehow playing hooky.

Fair Lawn Remembered: GPS Of Memory Points Homeward

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Back again to Fair Lawn, my hometown, we now go. We’re at Memorial Pool, where we spent our early summers, kids on a makeshift municipal beach. You could smell the yeast wafting over the Passaic River from the brewery in Paterson, and from the concession stand came the appetizing fragrance of greasy French Fries.

In the summer of 1967, everyone listened to the Doors doing “Light My Fire,” and it played loud over the radio during a basketball game there one day. You played hoops one afternoon for three hours even though it had to be 90 degrees out and wound up puking your guts out.

All your friends and classmates went to Memorial Pool. You would lay around watching the girls, seeing, too, which guy now had hair on his chest. On July 4th, you went there at night for the fireworks, the whole town flocking there with blankets and beach chairs and coolers to watch the sky explode with brilliant color.

You would go, early on, with your parents, and as the fireworks boomed across the pool, thundering through the air, you would pretend to be a soldier during a bombing, each blast dropping you suddenly to the sand, hand clutched to your heart.

Ah, those warm, wet, languid days without end, no real care except maybe whether you would be brave enough to go off the high dive or some girl you liked would catch your eye.

If you live in your hometown long enough, you get to know just about every square inch of it, and so it went in Fair Lawn.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Fair Lawn Remembered: GPS of Memory Points Homeward: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Over here lay Radburn, the section you knew best. It was closest, with its tall trees fit for climbing and its amphitheater for summer productions and the sloping hill where, at 20 or so, you lay on the grass on a blustery November night, half drunk on Chivas Regal or Johnny Walker Black, just admiring the dynamics of the El Greco night sky. Here, too, you climbed those tall trees, clambering as far as your prowess and daring would take you, branch by precarious branch, higher and higher, until finally you ran out of either branches or nerve.

Over there is High Street, leading you to what you called town, where you could get a comic book and a drink with cherry or lemon or lime in a conical paper cup at the soda fountain. You went up High Street in Fall, under the tall trees with a canopy of leaves, and you would hear little cracking, popping sounds all around: the acorns dropping off the trees, a few beaning you.

Town meant only one place: Gorlen’s, where you stuck your gum under the soda fountain counter and read Superman or Archie and Jughead back behind the magazine rack until the owner came along after an hour or so to kick you out.

High Street featured structures you saw as almost strange in Fair Lawn: apartment buildings. Most of the residents of the town lived in single-family homes with two or three or maybe four bedrooms – none, come to think of it, really much bigger or smaller than any other. Apartments, with common entrances and shared driveways and surrounding grounds, seemed to you then such an alien concept. Almost everyone you knew lived in a house, and so anyone who lived in an apartment struck you as somehow down on his luck and deserving of sympathy.

It’s all mapped out in your head, your hometown, preserved in amber, its DNA now your DNA.

P.S. – See part 3 tomorrow.

Fair Lawn Remembered: GPS of Memory Points Homeward: Part 3

Dear Michael and Caroline,

The Nabisco factory over on Route 208, where, on certain days, if the wind blew just right, you could smell the Oreos and other cookies being made.

The Town Hall with the police department where your father once took you because some yahoos driving by your house in a pickup truck as you shot hoops in the driveway saw fit to fire a slingshot with paper clips at you, leaving an imprint on your bicep.

The hill back behind the houses where on snowy winter days you took your Flexible Flyer and went sleigh-riding.

The stickball field, the basketball courts, the running track at the high school.

The houses where all the kids you knew lived, pals, girlfriends, one-night stands like Hannah Butensky, a rabbi’s daughter who kissed you so memorably, with such religious fervor, as you made out on that drunken New Year’s Eve.

The spot outside the junior high school where the Italian students, the so-called hoods or boppers, hung out, smoking cigarettes, leather jacket collars turned up, the object of your naïve envy.

The hill near the railroad tracks and the ambulance corps headquarters where you tried your first cigarette, coughing the whole time, unable to inhale with any degree of success.
You lived there, in that town, in that house, for 20 years (you actually spent two of those at college in Boston). You lived there at a time, a formative time, when everything that happened truly registered, left an impression, felt so very freighted with meaning and import. Everything mattered, every last detail. Everything seemed momentous, everything left a mark.

That town represented practically your whole world, that’s how you saw it then.

You went to school there.

You delivered newspapers there.

You went around shoveling snow for neighbors there.

You pretty much stayed put, except for the occasional foray to visit relatives in Manhattan or Long Island or East and West Orange.

You had the firehouse right across the street and your elementary school only a block away and the stores in town within a 10-minute walk.

Every house was a state unto itself, every block a nation, every neighborhood a continent.

But all that changed.

Now you go back to your hometown and, across all the decades, more than 30 years now, it’s all so different.

Everything that once seemed so far from everything else – the walk from your house into town – now seems to near.

Everything that felt so large – the Plaza Building, Memorial Pool, Fair Lawn High School – now feels so much smaller.

You recognize how skewed was your sense of size and proximity. You had no context then. All you understood was what lay right outside your door. Now you have context coming out of your ears.

That’s how you saw Fair Lawn then, as the universe itself, and this is how you see it now, as a small, simple town. Never in a million years would you have picked anywhere else to grow up.

Dear Kids: Thank You

This year I took a new approach to honoring my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. I enlisted seven parents to be guest columnists, inviting each to say, Hey, kids, here’s why I’m grateful for you.

Luckily enough, Lisa Belkin, senior columnist on life/work/family for the Huffington Post, and Janice D’Arcy, “On Parenting” columnist of The Washington Post, liked the concept – parents writing letters to say, Dear kids, thank you – enough to feature it:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/23/thank-you-letters_n_1110137.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-parenting/post/spending-thanksgiving-thanking-our-kids/2011/11/21/gIQAcn8jlN_blog.html

Here, then, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion – and humbly offered as what you might call post-Thanksgiving leftovers – is why I’m grateful for my own kids.

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Thank you, Michael, my son. You made me a father for the first time. Thank you for looking so beautiful as a baby, and then as a boy, and now as a man.

Thank you, too, for respecting and trusting and loving your mother, and for recognizing inescapably how much she means to you, and to us all.

And for playing the role of big brother with your little sister, the part of a lifetime, and for admiring her tenacity, and for being ready to do anything to protect her, no matter how minor the threat.

And for dealing so well with being just like me, bearing the blessing and the curse alike, because yes, it’s both, but which more than the other might be hard to say.

And for never speaking ill of any of your friends, even though you probably could have, and of your girlfriends, too.

Thank you, my boy, for so ably impersonating Christopher Walken and that weird cricket-like sound from the monster in the movie “Predator.”

And for your quicksilver wisecracks, especially that one time, when I asked you if you considered yourself short, and you said,“No, just undertall.”

And for how your face looked in the moonlight in Southhampton, when I carried you outside the cottage we rented, how your eyes beamed as you looked up at all the stars glittering in the sky, your mouth opening in awe at the canopy of the constellations above.

Thanks especially for so fondly remembering Grandma Nettie, who still counts so much now and forever, a source of light and warmth for all of us as strong as the sun, and for giving her so much joy.

Thank you, too, Caroline, my daughter. Michael showed me how deeply I could love someone new, and you’ve shown me I could love someone else new just as deeply. In a single stroke, you doubled everything.

Thanks, too, for crying so much as a baby, your cries insistently reminding us, as if we could ever forget, “I’m here, I’m here!”

And for being so hard on the outside, once as a two-year-old taking umbrage at me for daring to challenge you and stubbornly jutting out your jaw and saying, “You think you’re tough?”

But also for being so soft on the inside, talking to your dolls in your room, crying at all the classic Disney movies, growing your hair long so you could cut it and give it away to kids going through chemo.

Thank you, my girl, for climbing that boulder in Martha’s Vineyard at the age of eight to sing in front of our friends. You look so at home on stage and sing and dance with such conviction, always going for the right note, the right step, usually hitting it, too, but if you miss it, always trying again until you get it right. I’m grateful for how intent you get before auditions and shows, how zoned in.

Thank you for cranking out so many real push-ups and showing me yoga and Pilates and once giving me a facial, and for how you looked that day I held you in the pool at the beach club, your face gleaming with droplets of water so gloriously in the sun.

And for eating so nutritiously and for always carrying yourself like a lady, and for never complaining about having the smallest bedroom. And for being so beautiful with your ballerina neck and elegant jawline and perfect, pampered skin and those cherry-black eyes that can win me over or cut me to the quick, depending on your mood that day.

And for being so very alive, your nerves living so close to your skin.

Thank you especially for appreciating everything Mom and I have tried to give you, and for telling us so. And equally so for holding Grandma Nettie dear in your heart, always remembering her all-powerful love for you.

You both came into the world as if from nothing and nowhere. But we know you came from our love for each other and our faith in the future. You each gave me someone new to love, someone I could call my own, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, and also someone else who could love me back.

You are both rewards surpassing anything I might ever have imagined or, for that matter, ever felt I truly deserved.

There. I’ve said it. It’s now a matter of public record. I wish I could catalogue everything I’m grateful about when it comes to both of you, but for now this will, somehow, have to do.

Besides, nothing I could say will ever do justice to the gratitude I feel this and every Thanksgiving. One day I believe I love you both with all my heart, only to find the next day I love you even more. It never ends, and it never will. You are my butterflies, my rainbows, my miracles.

P.S. — Anyone else out there feel the same? If so, let me know.

Why I Wanted To Be Tony Gargano

Dear Michael and Caroline,

When I was 13 years old, I belonged to a clean-cut clique called the Rah-Rahs. In accordance with its dress code, I typically wore madras shirts, crew-neck sweaters, chinos with cuffs, white sweat socks and either penny loafers or, if really out to impress the girls, brown-and-white saddle shoes.

I followed the party line of the Rah-Rahs all through seventh grade. I steered clear of beer. I expressed my awakening sexuality only at officially sanctioned neighborhood makeout parties. We considered ourselves insiders, qualified as cool.

Secretly, though, I admired our opposite number, known as the Boppers or Hoods, especially one Tony Gargano. As far as I was concerned, Tony had the market on cool cornered.

If he slouched at his desk in class, the teacher would order him to sit up straight, but he would just roll his eyes. He had long, greased-up black hair combed straight back, except for a single curlique forelock that dangled strategically over his eyebrows.

For a while there I wanted to be Tony.

Back in 1966, after all, I had never quite cut it as the quintessence of cool. I wore thick black glasses and my hair frizzed in humidity. Besides that, I was shorter and skinnier than almost all of my male contemporaries. Plus, I seemed to feel too much. I would always let you see me sweat. Everything about me ran counter to cool.

Mr. Uncool.

I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror, trying, with a profound sense of futility, to torture my renegade curls into a facsimile of the same hairstyle.

So with shoes. Tony wore these pointy black suede lace-ups with two-inch heels. I went to a local shoe store to get a similar pair, only to discover, crestfallen, that my feet were still two sizes too small for that style.

I watched the Boppers hang loose at curbsides around town, Tony snorting cigarette smoke through his nostrils, flicking the played-out butts across the street without looking.

He went out with a girl who teased her hair and wore heavy eye-liner. I quietly yearned, with an ache in my chest, to defect from the Rah-Rahs to the Hoods.

I Once Played Drums In A Boy Band

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I’m playing my drums in a band in our basement. Bob Lawrence is on lead guitar and Bob Hernandez on bass. Three guys named Bob.

Maybe we’re practicing “Wipeout” by the Ventures or “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles. I’m pounding out some standard rock beat on my four-piece Ludwig drum set – snare drum, small and large tom-toms, bass, ride and crash cymbals, high-hat. The other Bobs are twanging away on all the right chords.

I’m feeling pretty cool behind my drums, the next Ringo Starr (he also played Ludwig). I’m probably tilting my head right and left once in a while as Ringo used to do. We’re all feeling pretty cool playing our instruments there in the basement, our music – if you can call it that – sounding all the louder for being contained in his underground space.

We’re musicians now, or at least wannabe musicians, and we’re trying to get the right sound down, and the right look, too. It’s largely a matter of mimicry, less so artistic inspiration.

Of course I do want to make music here. I’m doing my little rolls here and fills there, backing the guitars with my beat, giving the songs an accent now and then.

And oh, I’m in heaven. Playing the drums, getting behind all the equipment as if climbing into the cockpit of some fighter jet, is as cool as a job gets. Your whole body goes into it, your left hand flicking the snare, your right hand teasing the ride cymbal, your left foot tapping on the high hat and your right foot pressing the pedal to the bass drum. It’s a physical, athletic act, calling for masterly coordination and a precise sense of rhythm.

Of course I’m still picking up my skills here, still new to the drums. I have some raw ability, pretty good hand speed and a knack for tempo, but hardly anything approaching real technique. But hey, I’m 13 years old here. It’s 1965 and everyone is listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, and I’m in a band, and back then, with all the great music coming out, nothing could be cooler than to be in a band.

We’re absolutely of the moment, we are.

P.S. — See part 2 tomorrow.

I Once Played Drums In A Boy Band: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

And we’ve got the potential to be pretty decent. Bob and Bob are serious guitar players, trained guitarists, fresh from lessons and able to read music. They can play rock and pop and even a little blues.

Hernandez is particularly fluent. He would practice for hours a day, his blond hair dangling over his face as he watched his own fingers pluck at the frets. He would pretend to be Segovia on his acoustic, and pull off a pretty fair impersonation at that.

We were going to practice hard, our band. We were going to play all the popular songs. We were going to get gigs eventually, too, first locally, at weddings and bar mitzvahs, then at clubs in the city, the more grotto-like the better, and then we’d go national and international.

If the Beatles could do it, we could.

I’d break into a solo in the middle of some number, pumping my arms all over my drum set, and the spotlight would hit me, and the crowd would go nuts. That’s the dream you dream as you play drums with your band in the basement in 1965. You’re going to be cool at last! All the girls are going to like you! You’ll never have to worry about anything ever again!

Our first rehearsal as a band went well, all of us excited just to come together, our individual sounds joining to make a collective sound. We thought we sounded all right. We rehearsed again about a week later, and then again about a week after that. Some friends caught our rehearsals and told us we sounded good.

Step aside, Dave Clark Five! Here we come! Forget about the Kinks and the Animals. The Jersey suburbs were going to produce the latest music sensation. Down in our basement, as the three Bobs practiced, a phenomenon would soon emerge.

Except then we stopped.

We never rehearsed again.

Maybe one of us caught a cold, or we had creative differences, or we stopped believing in our genius, but whatever happened – maybe someday the reason will come back to me across the decades while I sleep – we were a band no more.

Disbanded.

But that’s cool, too. Yes, I would have liked to go on, to take it further, to see how far we could have gone, to really give it a good shot. We’ll never know how it might have turned out if we’d stuck with it.

Probably nothing.

Maybe something.

Who knows?

But at least we had our little moment. And sometimes those little moments are all any of us ever get.

My Top Five Resolutions As A Parent For 2012

Dear Michael and Caroline,

When it comes to being a parent, I would like to believe that my performance with both of you over the years has proven to be absolutely perfect.

Big mistake.

For however much I might prefer to regard myself as unfailingly attentive, infinitely patient, endlessly understanding and wise beyond measure – the father of all fathers, a future Hall of Famer – I’ve more than likely turned out to be selfish, distracted, temperamental and just plain dense.

And that’s on a good day.

As fathers go, in other words, I’m no dream. Then again, I’m probably no great nightmare either.

Take that time I yelled at both of you over nothing whatsoever.

No, not that time, the other time.

The upshot is this: I’ve practiced parenthood for 28 years now, and if practice makes perfect, maybe in 2012 I can finally get it right.

So here, in the interest of achieving the massive self-improvement needed, are my top five resolutions along those lines:

1. Pay closer attention. It’s widely rumored that I may once in a while miss certain key details in conversation – though in retrospect, I forget exactly what they are. So the claim may well be valid. I promise to tune in.

2. Give you some space. About 800 square feet should do the trick, I figure. So no more rapidfire cross-examinations about your latest activities, and definitely no more enhanced interrogation techniques to ascertain your career plans. You might find the extra elbow room, not to mention the extra breathing room, come in handy.

3. Stop interrupting. See “pay closer attention.”

4. Watch my tone. You often accuse me of coming off as sounding harsh and condescending. The only possible reasonable explanation for such a charge is that I probably do. So I’m going to take voice lessons. I may even practice scales. Come tomorrow, look for my new, much-improved B-flat.

5. Share less. By this point I suspect you both know as much about me – my background, my opinions, my philosophy – as you could ever possibly care to know, and possibly a good deal more. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m occasionally going to clam up.

I could go on, of course. But instead let’s conduct an audit a year from now to see how these resolutions pan out. And please remember: the difficult may be doable, but perfection might take some time.

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.

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?

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.

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: 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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

Lapped: My Running “Heroics” (part 3)

Dear Michael and Caroline,

He said no, sorry, quite decent and sympathetic about it and all, but no nonetheless.

“Please,” I said. “It’s my last chance.”

The coached looked down at the ground, as if my begging embarrassed him.

“Okay,” he said.

And now I’m in the race itself, sure enough, and falling farther behind everyone with each step. I’m losing and losing badly. I’m losing worse than anyone can lose.

Kids from the school are in the stands watching me fail miserably. I’m so far behind I’m losing sight of the runners in front of me. They’re 200 yards ahead of me, already around the curve as I approach the back stretch, then 250 yards, then 300.

We go into the last lap now. My lungs are screaming from the exertion, my breathing growing ragged, and I’m definitely losing steam. I hear footsteps behind me.

Oh, no. Can it be? Can the unthinkable happen here?

The answer, quite plainly, is yes. The runner in the lead passes me.

Lapped – that’s what I was in the only track meet the coach ever let me run in. Lapped by the winning runner. Lapped in an event that had only four laps in the first place. Lapped in public, right in front of the whole school.

Nobody is supposed to get lapped in the mile, and nobody ever does, but somehow I had proven an exception to the rule. The winner had completed four laps before I could even log three.

I forget now, all these years later, whether other runners lapped me that day, too. Maybe so, but I’ve chosen to block it from memory. Getting lapped by a single runner would be sorry enough.

Anyway, I finished the race, more than a full minute later, utterly humiliated. But at least I ran the mile in that meet, and only because I begged the coach to let me. I had wanted to see how I could do, and now I had seen it in the most unmistakably vivid terms possible.

P.S. – See part 4 tomorrow.

Lapped: My Running “Heroics” (part 4)

Dear Michael and Caroline,

But public humiliation has its value. It can be harnessed as incentive. Around that time, as I approached 18, I became serious about basketball.

And years later, as I stayed in shape, still running from time to time, I took to timing myself in the mile. On that Saturday afternoon in November of 1969, I had completed the mile in 5:56 minutes. For a while now I would go over to the running track at Forest Hills High School and time myself in the mile.

I wanted to go faster than 5:56, to run faster, as a man well into my 40s, than my skinny, 17-year-old, humiliated self had run. I felt certain I could do it, certain, too, that if I could, it might erase the hurt. Basketball had kept me quick on my feet, and I had developed respectable stamina, and I also had a more competitive spirit now. Besides, 5:56 was so mediocre a time that any number of highly fit men of my age could beat it.

The best I could manage was 6:21.

I tried sporadically in the years since, never doing much better than 6:35 or 6:40. I felt good about trying, but still disappointed in the results.

I needed to redeem myself, to wash away the shame of my defeat. I needed to prove that I could run faster in my 50s than I had as a teenager, an accomplishment far greater than winning a high school track meet. I had to keep striving to do better so I could feel like a winner, so I could prove something to myself.

So now let me tell you this. My legs still have plenty of miles left.

P.S. – What’s your worst teenage humiliation? Have you ever told your kids about it?

You Call Him Carmine, But To Me He’lI Always Be Cupid

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Carmine D’Intino lived on the floor below me with his girlfriend Diane. This was the fall of 1976, at 18 East 23rd Street, a three-story apartment building across from Madison Square Park.

Carmine was short, maybe five-foot-five, stocky, maybe 140 pounds, with thick, glossy hair that always landed just right, and he looked a lot like Al Pacino, especially because of his big brown, beagle-puppy eyes.

I got to know him soon after moving into my studio, the smallest in the city. We must have met in the hall or the laundry room or coming and going near the building entrance.

Whatever the case, we got to talking and liked each other. Soon we were taking walks and maybe we went to a bar for a few beers.

He talked a lot, usually clocking in at about a mile a minute, always improvisational and free-ranging and entertaining. He was largely self-taught, the result no doubt of voracious reading, and had ideas about everything, though none I can remember. A wild talker, jazzy, roaming across politics and philosophy, anything you can imagine.

I was then still new to living in New York City, all of 24 years old. Working my first job at a weekly community newspaper, all the hair still on my head.

What can I say about Carmine expect that he fascinated me? He was just about everything I would never be – a risk-taker, spontaneous, adventurous (much like my current pal Al Viletta).

So we became friends of a sort.

You might as well know a little about him, I figure, and you know why. Back then, more than 30 years ago, little did I suspect that he would soon become, at least for a while, the most important person in my life.

He came to my apartment on the third floor, my private estate spread out across roughly 200 square feet, to knock on my door on a Friday night in early October.
Come out with us tonight, Carmine said, me and my girlfriend and her girlfriend.

I’d just gotten up from a nap – Carmine might have awakened me – and was in no mood for anything social, much less meeting a new girl.

Nah, that’s okay, you go ahead, I said. I’m feeling kind of tired.
Come on, Carmine said. We’ll have fun.

And I had no reason to doubt him. He was loud and crazy and knew all about fun. So I changed my mind. Or, rather, he changed my mind. And out we all went.

And that’s how I met Elvira. And within just a few months I relegated Carmine to the status of only the second most important person in my life. And that’s because by then he’d already introduced me to the person who had quickly become (and remains) the first.

P.S. — Here’s the version that appeared today in Newsday: http://www.newsday.com/opinion/oped/expressway-cupid-lived-one-floor-below-me-1.3520829

Valentine’s Day Special: All The Time In The World

Dear Michael and Caroline,

She’s coming over to my apartment, this cute young woman from Brooklyn. I’m living on East 23rd Street, in the city’s smallest apartment, and it’s Saturday night.

She’s in my doorway now, looking cute, as she tends to do, and out we go. We go east toward Park Avenue South and hang a right on Third Avenue.

In those days, it seemed we would always be doing Third Avenue. It had the action, the restaurants, the bars, everyone out on Saturday night.

We might be holding hands now, her hand feeling so warm in mine.

We stop off at Nizza’s, a pizza place we liked, thin crust and all, maybe two slices each. We’re already quite fond of eating out. We’d spent our first New Year’s Eve at a place called Bar None, lingering for three hours over a five-course dinner complete with a cabaret singer on piano. We might even have already gone to Windows on the World in the World Trade Center.

We like to eat and talk a little, nothing more on our agenda. Maybe I’m telling her how I hated Hebrew school, or she’s letting me in on life with nuns at Catholic school, and maybe we imagine ourselves trading places.

She eats like a lady, no tomato sauce dripping onto her cheek, and it’s all so easy. She’s easy to be with, easy to talk to, easy to listen to. We each feel no temptation to be anything other than ourselves, and being ourselves seems to fit the bill all around.

It’s 1977, maybe late spring, and we just started going out six months earlier. We clicked right away, the second date soon after the first and so on. Jimmy Carter is president, Hugh Carey governor and Ed Koch the new mayor. The city is in lousy shape, crime high, the streets dirty, the economy struggling.

But that’s all a distant backdrop for us. We’re still busy discovering each other, feeling it all out, and it’s feeling right. It’s feeling comfortable. She’s cute and smart and funny. But she’s much more than merely entertaining. She’s steady, mature. She never raises her voice or gets hysterical.

Now we’re back out on Third Avenue, the streets growing thick with pedestrians as night comes on. We go down toward Union Square Park, but probably stay out of it, the better to avoid the drug dealers.

We head back uptown, past those tall, white apartment buildings. We go down the steps into a Bagel Nosh and pick up some tire-sized bagels, either for later that night or tomorrow morning. It’s all as easy as it gets, a guy from the Bronx and a girl from Brooklyn out on a Saturday night in Manhattan.

We’re doing the town on a shoestring. I’m at the Eastside Courier, earning about $9,000 a year, and she’s at Harvest Fabrics, probably pulling down about the same.

Everything is new. We’re new to each other. Our careers are still young. The city still seems, at least to us, to have a certain innocence (we’re still a few months away from the Big Blackout and the Summer of Sam). But I’m heavily vested in the moment, no plans on my mind beyond tonight.

We’re back on 23rd Street now, the sky dark, the street lights on, passing the massive Metropolitan Life Building. We take a bench in Madison Square Park, but only briefly, because the drug dealers are out here, too. The city is otherwise ours, though, because we’re young and everything is ahead of us, our pasts containing little more than our childhoods. She has such soft skin and such a sweet smile and she makes me laugh more than any girl I’ve known, and nothing else matters. I feel good around her, better, smarter, more successful. Neither of us quite suspects whether we have a future together. We’re still in suspense, making it all up as we go along, nothing by any means a given.

We’re back in my apartment now, settling in for the evening. Soon we’ll watch “Saturday Night Live,” back then still a major, looked-forward-to event. We’ll catch Chevy and Dan and Bill and John and Gilda and Jane and Loraine in the act, and we’ll laugh together. Life is good, still pretty carefree, light on obligations. All is promise and possibility. We have no idea what’s coming.

That November, of course, we’ll move into Forest Hills together, and the next June we’ll get engaged, and the following March, married. And then the rest of us will arrive, first you, Michael, and then you, Caroline, completing us forever.

But for now all that’s still ahead. It’s only the spring of 1977, on a Saturday night, and nobody’s in a hurry to get anywhere. We still have all the time in the world.

Just Call Me The Tabloid Kid

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My first real full-time job after college turned out to be just about the best imaginable. All I really wanted to do for a living after finishing college was go work as a reporter on a newspaper.
So I wrote letters and sent resumes to about 70 newspapers around the country, including, of course, New York City. Nothing – no interest, no interviews and still no job.

I’d looked for a job for about a year, though admittedly none too hard. And I’d gotten a few small freelance reporting assignments, mainly doing a three-part series about then newly developed Roosevelt Island for a weekly newspaper called The Manhattan East (my first article fetched me all of $15, then I got a raise to a princely $20).

I was living on East 7th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A, in a $150-a-month studio apartment, and the bar mitzvah savings I was living on were just about gone. I’d graduated from college a whole year earlier and still had yet to get any kind of career going, let alone a journalistic or literary one.

Then one day I saw a job ad in the paper and went in for an interview. It was a new weekly community newspaper, the Eastside Courier, that covered Manhattan’s East Side from 14th to 79th Streets. And I got the gig.

I remember one moment afterwards particularly well. I walked out of the building on Park Avenue South and 17th Street and a light snow was coming down, the streets thinly coated with white. I looked up at the sky, just to watch the flakes falling, and happened to turn my eyes straight into the glare of a street lamp. I was already excited about getting my first real job, an adult job, ecstatic about going to work at a real newspaper and making $175 a week being a reporter. I was looking forward to telling my family and friends and everyone being proud of me, all those doubts about whether I could even find a job finally laid to rest.

And because of my angle of vision at that moment, the light from the streetlamp refracted through the shower of snow, and I saw a kaleidoscope of colors, a whole rainbow. I squinted in disbelief at the spectacle, my eyelashes wet with snow, and the prism effect became exaggerated, the rainbow colors shooting out in bright spokes. It was quite a moment, full of fate, and I was giddy, just deliriously happy, about this important step, much needed, toward becoming a grown-up (though full membership in that organization was still probably about 10 years ahead).

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Just Call Me The Tabloid Kid: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

That Monday I started at my desk. The editor was Bill, who was mostly Irish but part Cherokee and had hair to his shoulders, maybe 10 years my senior, married to an Israeli woman and living in a hotel on Gramercy Park with a new baby. A good guy, Bill, with a sharp editorial eye and a sense of humor and appreciation of my reporting abilities. The publisher was Richard, only two years older than I, a former Daily News reporter, a rich suburban kid from Tenafly, New Jersey, who got the startup funds from his father. The other reporter there was Shelley, a gum-chewing, wise-cracking blond from Long Island who acted just like the Rosalind Russell character in “His Gal Friday,” all sharp elbows and crusty patter.

And so for the next year I was a big-city reporter on a small newspaper, and it felt like I got to do just about everything you can do on a newspaper.

Every week I went to the local police precinct to get the lowdown on the latest crimes in the neighborhood.

I went to local community board meetings to hear about efforts to put up new buildings and otherwise alter the cityscape.

I attended press conferences held by State Senators and City Council members and, once, a congressman named Ed Koch, whom I briefly met and who of course then went on to become Mayor New York City for 12 years.

I covered a murder in a union office suspected of being a mob hit, and fires and political feuds and all kinds of scandals and controversies.

I reviewed movies, plays, books and restaurants, and for a while there I even had my own column, called “Deadline,” that presumed to be humorous.

I wrote everything from articles to headlines and photo captions, edited pieces contributed by freelancers, and even did some layout and pasteup. Every week the paper came off the press and I held it in my hands with the kind of pride you feel only once in your life, right at the start of your career, a pride fresh and pure and free of precedent or taint. You know you’re finally getting going. I was covering the city and learning the city and loving the surprises that lurked around any corner, because on any newspaper you never know what the news is going to be the next day.

So what if it was a small paper, with only about 50,000 readers, and free. So what that I was making only $9,000 a year. To a kid who wanted nothing more than to be a reporter for a newspaper. It was everything I might have expected, and then some. It was home. It was heaven. It was the best background possible for everything that came after.

I’m so glad I got that job, so grateful, because it would turn out to be my only stint on staff at a newspaper. But I would go on to freelance for many newspapers for many years. In fact, within only five or six years of leaving The Eastside Courier, I was already seeing my pieces in The New York Times, The Daily News and Newsday. That first job meant the world to me. It’s yet further proof of the axiom that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart.

Job One is Doing the Job

Worker-with-hard-had-and-tools
Dear Michael and Caroline,

I never in my life really wanted to hold a job, much less the 15 or so that I’ve held. A job often meant doing what someone else wanted me to do rather than what I myself chose to do.Some of us prefer to preserve our independence, to think and act as we wish to think and act.

Then again, one also has to get real.

I’ve taken jobs because I needed to, because I had to make a living and support my family. A job also means you go in to an office to work and then you come home with money in your pocket. Your health insurance is covered and you have a pension plan. You get to take vacations and holidays.

A job has its advantages. If you’re lucky, your job is inherently rewarding. You’re assigned to cover a murder for a newspaper. You interview a police officer at a coffee shop about a union official found shot in the head at his desk, gangland-style. So you write an article that people read.

Your client comes to you needing attention for a new drug or a service or his CEO. You put together a plan and discuss the strategy and start calling the media. And then comes coverage in The Wall Street Journal.

You see, I have no issue with the work itself. I like the work. It’s the rest of it I could do without. The protocols, processes and procedure.

But that’s how it goes with a job. You deliver the newspapers, just as I did as a boy. You stack the papers into a basket on the handlebars of your bicycle and pedal around the neighborhood flinging the news onto front lawns. It could be cold out or rainy and you could be sleepy and maybe you would rather watch Popeye cartoons or play baseball. But you do it because it’s your job.

And let me tell you something important here. I’ve loved most of my jobs. I’ve learned something valuable from every job I’ve held.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Job One Is Doing The Job: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

One summer, when I was about 18, I worked in a warehouse. My father got me the job through a family connection. I loaded 50-pound sacks of flour onto railroad boxcars in 100-degree heat. I never labored physically so hard in my life, neither before nor since.

Every day that summer I came home exhausted, barely able to move. I had to blow my nose for five minutes just to eliminate all the accumulated gunk I inhaled in those boxcars. I came home so filthy, my hands smeared black, that I had to scrub myself with special industrial soap, scrub and scrub until the smell of the warehouse was gone.

I learned that that’s how some people work because that’s the only job they can get, and to appreciate the opportunity to go to college and get an education and work in an office where my fingernails would never get dirty. That job taught me a lesson I’ll never forget, a lesson well-learned.

I also delivered pizza in Hackensack one summer, driving around in our blue Chevelle with a hotbox in the back seat, trying to find the right houses and apartments, getting tipped 50 cents here and maybe a dollar there.

I put in some time at a Sam Goody store, too, at the Garden State Plaza, directing customers to the new Led Zeppelin albums and getting paid all of $1.60 an hour.
I worked briefly in a children’s clothing store, too, and for two whole days at a dry-cleaning establishment in Fort Lee (I was terrible at wrapping laundry).

I shoveled snow, too, sidewalks and driveways, for a few bucks here and there, more for the adventure than the money.

We always had money, but somehow my family impressed on me at an early age – my first newspaper route came at 12 – that I should hold a job. And that attitude carried into adulthood.

And again, I’ve benefitted from all my jobs. At my first adult job, at a weekly newspaper, I got to cover the news. Then, at a magazine for pharmacists, I covered the drugstore business. It was hardly the perfect job, but my editor, Stanley Siegelman, liked my writing and gave me free rein.

Years later, I would switch careers from journalism to public relations, and come under the tutelage of Morty Matz, in his cramped offices on lower Broadway, just two blocks north of City Hall, and then the masterly Howard Rubenstein.

And in those six years with those two men, I got to live a life few people ever see. I handled every kind of client from a socialite accused of assault to the world’s best known celebrity divorce attorney. I helped keep the famous famous and the rich rich. And in the process I discovered that I could practice a second profession as well as I had the first, maybe better, and certainly earn a better income.

I also came to recognize that I was capable of working harder and longer – and, yes, smarter, too – than I ever imagined possible. So let me bring this to a close and say that although I never really wanted to hold a job, it’s good I did, and do.

Say Hello To The Chirichellas: When Jews and Italians Marry

Jews_love_italians_3
Dear Michael and Caroline,

It’s a long time ago, probably 1976, before my adult life got going, and Elvira and I are taking a stroll around her neighborhood in Williamsburg. It’s drizzling out, but neither of us seem to mind much – it’s as if being together keeps us dry.

And then I hear Elvira call out, “Grandpa.” And I look over to where she called and there he is, her grandfather, Nicholas, or Nick, skinny as a stick, his face gaunt and shriveled, standing in a doorway in the rain.

He looks old, really old (I was only 24 then, so half the world came across as old), and as he says hello, I see he’s missing most of his teeth.

Elvira introduces us, we shake hands, and he seems pleasant enough. It’s my first time meeting anyone in Elvira’s family other than her mother, and it’s jarring. All I can think is that her grandfather is nothing like either of mine – nothing, even, that squares with my concept of a grandfather.

It had a lot to do with the teeth. Everyone in my family had a full mouth of teeth. I’d never before met anyone missing so many teeth. It also had to do with him standing in the doorway in the rain. I tried to imagine anyone in my family standing in a doorway in the rain, but no such image would come forth.

Oh, make no mistake: Nicholas Chirichella turned out to be a decent guy, and always treated me well. He was quiet, though with a colorful tongue, and a good grandfather and father as far as I knew.

It’s just that he was . . . different.

Different from my family – and different from my family as everyone in Elvira’s family was different from my family.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Say Hello To The Chirichellas: When Jew and Italian Marry: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

At one point we took your grandmother Nettie to visit my grandparents the Shefts in their Upper East Side apartment, maybe on Thanksgiving. If I recall right, Nettie was reluctant to go, feeling uncomfortable about it, even nervous, maybe worried about feeling out of place. Somehow we must have convinced her the visit would turn out fine.

And on the whole it did. She looked around my grandparents’ handsomely appointed apartment, with the thick carpeting and heavy drapes and gleaming old-wood furniture, and I imagined her thinking she had entered another universe. She spoke very little, quite uncharacteristic of her, and only when someone, my grandmother Gertrude or my Uncle Leonard, said something to her. And when she did speak, she spoke a little differently from the usual, her diction just a touch crisper.

Everyone got along well, but the room definitely was fraught with anxiety, both guest and hosts uneasy with each other, unsure what to say or ask.

Yes, deep down we’re all people, all presumably the same. But was my grandfather going to ask Nettie about her stock portfolio? Was Nettie going to ask him where he bought his mozzarella? I doubt it. A gulf loomed between our families, all but impossible to breach (though your mother and I managed to do it all right).

We were rich and she was poor.

We were educated and she was uneducated.

We were Jewish and she was Italian.

So this divide spanned class, money, culture and religion.

And so it went at our wedding.

Over here you had my Aunt Zelda from West Orange, elegant and beautiful, and over there Mom’s Aunt Carmela, earthy and volcanic and loud.

Over here you had my Uncle Mark, inheritor of an insurance company, and over there Elvira’s Uncle Nick, who once tried out for the New York Giants (the baseball team that once played at the Polo Grounds in the Bronx, before it moved to San Francisco) and fixed elevators for a living.

I could go on about this clash of cultures, about how seriously I took it at the time and how funny it seems in hindsight, but for now I’ll finish with your grandmother’s first visit with my family that night. I remember feeling protective of her, alive to any potential insult.

But most of all, I remember being proud of her, proud of how she carried herself, proud of how she represented her family, proud of how she demonstrated, to anyone willing to notice, that she was just as good as they – and maybe, just maybe, a whole lot better.

That Wail In The Elevator Came From My Grandfather

Hospital_elevator
Dear Michael and Caroline,

My Poppa lies in a bed at Mount Sinai Hospital, on Fifth Avenue at 105th Street. He’s gone pale, his head tilted to the side on the pillow, the IV in his arm. He has cancer of the throat and he’s dying.

I’m 29 years old and my grandfather Sheft means the world to me. He took me to Yankee Stadium in 1960, my first trip there. I slept in a bed with him during Christmas vacations as a kid. He took me to his office across from Grand Central Terminal.

How can he die?

He always called me “Bobby boy,” always cheerfully.

“Hello, Bobby boy!” he would boom.

He always seemed glad to see me. I could always count on his attention, depend on him to look me in the eye and lend me an ear. He saved me from my father, my absentee father, even became my father, my substitute father, doting on me, asking after me, worrying about me.

I would show him an article I wrote for a newspaper or a magazine and he might say, “Wow! Such a long article!” A long article always impressed him.

We would watch a basketball game and he might say, “They should be shooting better – that’s why the Knicks are losing.” To him, the game came down strictly to which team shot better.

He would come home from the office and call out hello and take off his suit jacket and loosen his tie and ease into his Eames chair with the evening news on TV and Nana would pour him a scotch on the rocks and he would take a sip and click his tongue and let out this long, deep sigh, exhaling all the tension from his day as an accountant keeping track of other people’s money.

“So how goes it, Bobby boy?” he might then be ready to say.

He would ask me about school or my search for a job. I had trouble finding my first job after college. My problem was that I was particular about the kind of job I wanted, plus the city had gone into a serious economic slum and jobs were hard to come by.

“I’d like to see you situated,” he would say, nodding his head with grave concern. He already understood something I learned only decades later: that a job was kind of everything. You had to make a living.

He would lean back in his chair, his legs opening and closing rapidly, a nervous habit of his, still charged up from his hours at the office. As he sipped his scotch – I noticed he always sipped it, gingerly, savoring it – his legs would be slower to open and close, meaning he was finally winding down.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

That Wail In The Elevator Came From My Grandfather: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

He’d gone to college in the 1920s, Baruch at CUNY on East 23rd Street, the first in his family to reach higher education, and then he got married in 1927, and soon the Great Depression hit, and he went around to businesses in the Bronx – dry cleaners, auto-repair shops, anything – offering to do the books.

He’d eventually done well, well enough to drive a Cadillac, belong to a country club in Westchester, travel to Europe and Asia with friends.

But he always wanted to do better and seemed occasionally disappointed in himself. One time he told me about a residential property he bought along with some partners in the 1950s. As it happens, it was the very apartment complex in Fair Lawn where my mother now lives.

“I sold it too soon,” he said. “I wanted fast money. If I had held onto it longer, I would be a millionaire now.”

So that’s how it went with my Poppa. He shared himself with me, his dreams, his life, his love. He gave me a glimpse of how a man should act, at the office, on the golf course, at home.

He also showed me, without ever saying as much, how much life could hurt you, how your wife could annoy you, how a client could cheat you. He took me to a deli for dinner once, and after we ate he lacked exact change at the cash register. “I’ll owe you the penny,” he said, but the cashier refused, and my grandfather, scowling, said, “I’ll remember that.”

He usually wore a frown, the result of a mouth that naturally turned down at the sides. He had a jaw like a bulldog – see our photos of him – and a chest thicker with hair than any you ever saw, and he could whack a golf ball 200 yards, and talked in a deep, gruff voice, and now he was dying of lung cancer and I’d never lost anyone I loved before.

One night I saw the frown erased from his face. My Uncle Leonard held a 65th birthday party for him, and my grandfather had more than a few drinks. His face grew red from all the scotch, and he laughed more than I ever saw him laugh and, surrounded mostly by friends but also family, he broke into song, “The Man On The Flying Trapeze.” The only lyric I caught was, “He flies through the air with his balls hanging bare.”

It had to be the happiest I ever saw him, and it made me happy to see him so happy, even if he had to get drunk to get there.

Weeks before he went into Mount Sinai, I visited him at home. The doctors had already diagnosed his cancer and I had no idea what would happen or how bad it might be.

“So did you hear about the Mets today?” I asked.

We had always talked baseball, he and I, which teams won and who hit a home run.
“Ah,” he said, and waved his hand dismissively, a clearcut signal of resignation, maybe even disgust. It was then that I knew he might be far gone. If he had given up on baseball, he had given up on living.

And now a nurse came into his hospital room to say he had to go for tests and my grandfather said why more tests. He rolled over onto a gurney as instructed and the nurse wheeled him into an elevator and I went with him.

My grandfather – whose father was an illiterate peasant but who himself had sent his son to Yale Law school and bought his daughter a $21,000 house in 1954 and who could whack a golf ball 200 yards – then let out a wail, a wail keening and high-pitched and piercing, wailing his guts out, raging against the dying of the light. He could see the end coming now, just as I had when he stopped caring about baseball. I’ll never forget how that wail sounded, and I never should.

And after he died, weeks or months later, I wrote him a poem, called “Letter to Poppa,” imagining a conversation with him in heaven. And now he lives on in my heart, and in my son, who carries his name, “Benjamin.”

Nobody we remember with love ever really dies.

My First Novel: What Happened And Why

Dear Michael and Caroline,

When I turned 30, I started to write my first novel. By then I’d wanted to write a novel for maybe 10 years, all the while knowing I was far from ready. But something about approaching the milestone of 30 decided me.

I stumbled through an early draft, then kept stumbling, and finally stopped. I picked up the project about four years later – by then I was a fulltime freelancer – and really buckled down.

The novel would be about a standup comedian, moderately successful, who suddenly finds himself no longer funny and suffers panic attacks, and then, in order to stage a comeback, tries to “scare himself brave,” mainly with risk sports such as rock climbing.

It would have some humor – hard to do a novel about a standup comedian without some humor – and it would depict the standup landscape, terrain I learned a little through interviews with comedians such as Jay Leno and visits to comedy clubs and articles I wrote for Playboy and Penthouse. It was more than a little autobiographical – I have a reputation for being funny on occasion – and it was called “Laughing Matters.”

For a year or two I worked on my novel, setting aside almost all other freelance assignments. My writing career was going pretty well at that point. I was publishing pieces in many major magazines, from Esquire and GQ to Glamour and Self and The New York Times, covering health and sports and business and family, in investigative articles and so-called service pieces and personal essays. I was even making a decent living, earning more than I had at the job I left. So I felt kind of full of myself, ready for the final frontier in literature, the novel.

So confident was I in my abilities – and in the likelihood of reserve funds from my family, particularly my grandmother, should I need any – that I all but stopped making money for at least a year, instead drawing heavily on our wedding money. I went through pretty much all of it – maybe $10,000 or $15,000, and this was back in the mid-1980s, when an annual income of $25,000 was respectable for a guy in his early 30s – because I saw it as a bet sure to pay off. Some big publisher would swoop in to snatch up my book and insist on giving me a chunk of change, plus a contract for a second novel, and all the reviews would hail the newcomer to the literary arena.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

My First Novel: What Happened And Why (Part 2)

Writer_at_work
Dear Michael and Caroline,

Well, none of that happened.

I sent the book around to maybe 10 or 12 editors at top book publishing houses. And back came the manuscript, with notes, one after another, all basically saying, No, sorry, good stuff, interesting, well-written, good try, close but no cigar, thanks for the look.

Ouch.

Worst disappointment ever.

High hopes dashed but good.

And my freelance career, because I all but stopped getting my stuff in magazines and newspapers, and lost touch with almost all the editors I’d come to know, pretty much fell apart in the process. And our savings were all but gone.

Double ouch.

So what do I make of this experience now, more than 20 years later? Well, first, I have no regrets about trying my hand at a novel. It was just something I needed to do, and eventually, no matter what, I was going to do it. Writing the book gave me the deepest pleasure, nothing less than ecstasy.

My only real regret was over how I went about doing it – meaning focusing on it to the exclusion of my money-making responsibilities, and in the process, blowing our savings.

Big mistake.

If I had it all to do over again, I would have gone at it differently. I would have done the novel on the side, as if it were a second job, instead of giving it center stage.

I’d suffered a bout of youthful arrogance, and paid a price. Within two years I took on a part-time job in New Jersey, and two years later I switched, for the first time in ten years, to a full-time job.

Lesson learned – a hard lesson, to be sure, but hard lessons are probably the best because those are the ones you never forget. And, believe me, you never do.

Daring, As A Dad, To Be Pretty OK

Fatherkissingchild
Dear Michael and Caroline,

From the start, first with Michael and then with you, Caroline, I wanted to be a perfect father. Whatever you needed from me, I promised myself you would get.

I had my reasons. You were both born perfect and deserved a perfect life, or at least as perfect as we could manage anyway. If I had to be perfect at anything, I figured, it might as well be as a father.

But here’s what it probably all came down to: I expected to do better than my own parents had done. Much better.

My mother frequently yelled at me, often hysterically, over nothing – and so I pledged to myself to be quiet and even-tempered with you.

She often slapped me, sometimes swatted my backside with a big spoon, and once even punched me in the stomach, leaving an imprint of her fist there – and so I privately vowed never to lay a foul finger on my children.

My father often left the house before anyone else woke up, returning only after we went to bed, and on weekends, he would rather nap or putter in the garage – anything, really – than ask us about our day at school or play catch with us. And so I swore never to deprive my children of time with me.

But early on, it dawned on me that, like my own father, I’m imperfect, and decidedly imperfect at that, despite all the best intentions. All too often, I’ve lost my patience and yelled at you for creating a commotion. On some weekend mornings I look to escape the entanglements of family, if only for an hour, with some coffee and a newspaper over at Starbucks.

The list of everything I planned never to do with my children but found myself doing anyway is long. Memories of my father prey on my anxieties even now.

You’re the same as he, goes the haunting refrain in my head. No better, no worse.
Then again, I’ve come to understand the struggles my father faced as a father. It took me years to appreciate the weight of the responsibility he must have felt, and the depth of his fatigue, too. I’d never sympathized in the least with him over his frequent absences or his degree of distraction in our company. But after working a long day, I feel as tired, as disoriented, as out to lunch, as he must have.

Now make no mistake here: as fathers go, he and I are more different than similar. It’s probably fair to say, and my father might well agree, that fatherhood remained a concept he never quite seemed to grasp. I tend to believe I’ve had at least some idea of what I’m doing here.

But then I got to wondering about this whole business of being perfect.

What if I were a perfect father?

What if I never cursed, blew my top or lost a job?

Maybe a perfect father, by definition, is imperfect after all. The impossible ideal is an illusion.

Maybe I should grant myself the right to flaws – to exercise my prerogative, in short, to be imperfect.

Maybe, if you see some of the chinks in my armor, that’s a better, truer example for me to set.

Maybe the more imperfect I am, the more lessons I have to offer you.

Maybe being pretty okay is actually more than good enough.

Maybe, in the end, my imperfections make me some kind of perfect.

I Worked The Vice Squad

Boy_smoking
Dear Michael and Caroline,

Sometimes nothing gets you going in the right direction better than quitting something.

I know. I speak as a longtime quitter. I’ve quit at least two major bad habits (though I still have several more to go).

Back in 1970, for example, away from home for the first time, in college in Boston, I started smoking cigarettes. A pack a day grew to two packs a day in short order. My life was designed around my smokes, or vice versa – hard to say which – with me smoking after every meal, smoking with a drink, and certainly smoking, always smoking, as I wrote, usually late into the night.

I loved it. Loved the whole routine, the ritual, the taste, the smell, but most of all the sight, the tendrils of smoke coiling under a reading light like some primordial fog. I went on like that for years, believing myself pretty cool, ever so much the writer, through college and into my first job. Knew it was bad for me, unhealthy, cancerous, yet I had no plans to quit.
Until I met Elvira. She hated my smoking. Hated it! She forbade me to smoke in her presence. After we moved in together, she banned my smoking in the apartment, banishing me to the terrace. She told me that kissing me was like licking the inside of an ashtray.

Ah, doomed romance!

Well, that was the deciding factor right there. If my kisses were going to disgust her, why would we keep living together?

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

I Worked The Vice Squad: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

So I quit. Oh, I tried a few times first. Once, I tried to quit by smoking nonstop, one cigarette right after another without interruption, in order to make the act so revolting I would stop out of protest. But I kept going back to my Salems.

Finally, on January, 1, 1977 – about 14 months after meeting Elvira, 18 months before getting engaged to her and 26 months before our wedding – I quit cigarettes for good.

Same with hard liquor.

Now, I was never as much a drinker as I was a smoker. But make no mistake: I liked to drink. It had nothing to do with the flavor and everything to do with getting high. Vodka, mostly, but also gin, and once in a while, at least early on, scotch, too.

It never looked like it would ever evolve into a problem, except eventually, at the age of 35, I realized someday it very well could be. So on August 6, 1987 – 8/6/87, as luck would have it – I quit hard liquor, too.

In both instances, it was really a matter of making the commitment, nothing more, no secret cure. Once I decided to quit, I quit, and never went back. No regrets.

In fact, I’m quite relieved. If I’d smoked over the last 31 years, how would I feel, what would I look like, how much different might our lives have turned out? Same with drinking. Almost certainly one vice or the other, or possibly the combination of the two, would have destroyed my health, or at least put a serious dent in it. And then maybe my career and our family.

But I stopped in time. Quitting gave me a fresh start. It’s funny how it works out. No sooner do you get addicted to something than you grow addicted to going without it.

Undesignated driver

Drunkdriving
Dear Michael and Caroline,

I’m driving drunk out of my skull along Route 4 in Northern New Jersey, heading home from my school, Fairleigh Dickinson University. I’m 20 years old, a junior in college, and really drunk, the most ever, the absolute drunkest, and driving a car, a blue 1968 Chevelle.

I’m so drunk I’m actually driving blind. I can hardly see the road in front of me, much less any other cars, and I’m squinting and blinking, squinting and blinking as if this act will somehow clear up my blurred vision.

And because I’m such a smart young man, so reliable and responsible, I’m doing something other than driving drunk here at 2 in the morning.

I’m also speeding.

Oh, yeah, I’m racing along at easily 65, 70 miles an hour, pretty much how fast you should always drive if you find yourself utterly unable to see. My logic for this folly was infallible. I figured that the faster I drove, the sooner I would get home – hence, less time on the road, lowering the odds of an accident.

Brilliant!

So I’m blazing along there, driving blind drunk, both scared out of my wits and believing I’ve got the situation under control.

How I got that drunk is this: I went to a party for the school newspaper, held in its office, a cinderblock basement affair. I’d just transferred to this school, from a junior college in Boston, and joined the paper, then called Tarrevir (“river rat” spelled backwards because the Teaneck campus lay on the Hackensack River), just as I had belonged to the paper in Boston. I think the party was to start the new school year, to celebrate it.

And I’m there knowing almost nobody. It seems everyone there knows almost everyone else except me. So I help myself to some punch in a bowl.

It tastes really sweet, obviously some fruit juice, maybe orange and pineapple and cranberry. And soon I feel this tickle ripple through my bloodstream and into my head, the onset of the condition known as tipsy.

I ladle out some more punch into my cup and keep sipping away until tipsy graduates to drunk. Now I know everyone there and everyone knows me. My loneliness is suddenly gone, replaced by a sense of warm fraternity.

And now I’m driving blind drunk from school to home, no more than six or seven miles, from Teaneck to Fair Lawn, passing the Bergen Mall and the Garden State Plaza, the drunkest ever, feeling as good as I’ve ever felt, invulnerable.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Undesignated Driver: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

The only real problem with this whole scenario, of course, is that I could easily have killed myself that night. All the right factors were in place for me to have cracked up the car and died in flames. I was young and stupid and going too fast, certain I would live forever. All that had to happen for me to die was to lose my focus for just a second or two, or turn the steering wheel an extra inch, or whatever, and I would be a goner, never to marry your mother and bring Michael and you to life. I would have missed out on a lot – the last 35 years, to be precise, and however much else lays ahead.

Luckily, I got home safe. You’ll please excuse me if I regard this outcome as a miracle, but I do. I can think of no good reason why I would survive, except maybe that I was a pretty good driver, my hand sure, my reflexes sharp, even when blind drunk.

Whatever the case, I got lucky. I lived to tell this tale.

So here’s what I’m trying to get across. I always liked to get a little high, and once in a while more than a little, either with or without a little help from my friends. I never got anywhere near that drunk again, so I must have learned my lesson, and in my whole life I’ve gotten drunk only a few times, including my first date with your mother (again struck with that familiar what-do-I-do-now panic!).

But I’ve always enjoyed the effect of alcohol. And for about 10 years of our marriage I drank either vodka or gin every night – just a drink or two, or maybe three, spread out over an evening, never rushed – but still every night with disciplined regularity. And soon I realized that year after year I was getting through a fifth of vodka faster and faster, first a week, then six days, now five.

And if I kept up that pace, I was probably going to be an alcoholic. It might take me some time to attain that official designation, maybe five or 10 or 15 years, but I was going to get there.

So I quit cold. No more hard liquor. No vodka (my favorite) or gin (my second favorite) or scotch (my former favorite) or anything that strong. August 6, 1987 – that’s the day I stopped. It’s an easy day to remember (8/6/87). And I’ve never touched any hard liquor since.

Why would I? Sometimes just living your life is like driving blind drunk late at night anyway.

My Really, Really Short Career As A Hero To My Wife And Kids

Superman-standing
Dear Michael and Caroline,

We’re all taking the ferry from Martha’s Vineyard to Cape Cod, the four of us, in late August of 1995. We’ve just spent most of the week staying in a rented house with our friends the Heymanns. Now we’re on the first leg of our trip home.

As soon as we leave the dock, though, a wave surges so high it splashes the front deck, the front of the ferry tipped upwards, the passengers crying out in alarm at the sudden spray striking without warning. We move away from the front, toward the middle.
We’re all taken by surprise by this show of oceanic force, even though we’ve just come through a summer of storms, one right after another, preventing us from swimming during our sojourn on the Vineyard.

We’re unaccustomed to riding a vessel that’s lurching to and fro, buffeted by waves on all sides. We’re all avowed landlubbers, no more nautical than your average New Yorker, and unsure what to expect, fearing the worst, namely drowning at sea.

At that moment I knew it was I who would have to be the steady hand at the wheel, I who would have to navigate my frightened family through this ordeal until we arrived safe at home. You look scared and Mom looks scared and some of the other passengers look scared, eyes all bugged out, and so someone is going to have to be the hero here, and so I decide no one is better equipped for the assignment than I.

After all, I’m the father.

There’s just one little hitch. I immediately start to feel nauseous.

The ferry plows along its path, listing left and right, the sea heaving all around us, the waves swelling and slapping the hull, and every few minutes, a surprised passenger lets out a yell.

And in this predicament, in this moment of need, I grow more nauseous still, the butterflies in my stomach transforming into caterpillars. Now I feel dizzy and faint, wobbly on my feet, no longer quite up to the task of herding my family to safety.

Whatever sea legs I might once have possessed have long since disappeared beneath me.
Nor should any of this nausea surprise me particularly. I’ve long suffered from motion sickness, whether on buses or airplanes or in the backs of cabs. I remember once actually getting dizzy on a seesaw with you, and swings proved no better.

And so I leave my family huddled together and go to the railing and lean over the side and start to puke my freaking guts out. Our family gets to behold this marvelous spectacle, the man of the family losing his breakfast in the wild Atlantic Ocean in the thick of a storm, Dad coming through in a pinch yet again.

Next time I feel like being a hero, I’ll try to remember to bring my Dramamine.

How My Daughter Saved Me From Laziness

Lazy_cartoon_image
Dear Michael and Caroline,

For most of my life I was hardly famous for working hard.

As a kid in school, I gave the least effort needed for me to get by, whether in class or in sports. In my first jobs, I never put in any extra energy unless I absolutely had to – neither came in early nor stayed late. When I freelanced at home, I would take breaks to shoot hoops or take a nap.

But then something happened that changed my work ethic for good, something momentous and marvelous.

You, Caroline. You were born.

It was 1988 and we had money problems. My income had shrunk because I’d decided, quite irresponsibly, to focus on writing my first novel. My family, especially my grandmother, until then usually ready to help support me, was growing disappointed with my professional pursuits.

And then you came along.You had such dark eyes and such animated features, always making faces, and we loved you so much, all three of us. And you made me want to do better.

Oh, make no mistake: I already had other incentives. But none inspired me as much as you. I would look at you in the crib, so small and needy and perfect, and I would think to myself, I really better get off my ass and start to make a decent living now.

Luckily, I landed a lucrative part-time job in New Jersey. I was doing the sort of work I never expected or wanted to do – editing and revising reports from management consultants to clients. Three days a week I drove an hour, put in about 10 hours, then drove more than an hour back, pulling down $50 an hour, for about $1,500 a week, much more than I’d ever earned. And my boss was picky to the point of psychotic.

But guess what? I never minded any of it. And you know why? Because I was finally doing what I needed to do. And that money in really handy just then, really pulled us out of a hole, and even though the gig lasted only about eight weeks, it was just the quick fix needed.

And within the next year, I took another part-time job, also in New Jersey, this one for two days a week. And from then on – from then until now really, the whole length of your life – I’ve finally worked hard, worked close to an average of six days a week. I discovered, at age 35, that you could go beyond the fatigue and make the extra effort and be rewarded.

And unless I’d run into financial trouble – and unless, most of all, you had come along – I question whether I would have made this leap. And this appetite for hard work has served me well over the years, especially the job at Ogilvy, and also with all the stuff I do on the side.

And I can trace that change directly back to you. It was you, little girl, who, more than anyone else – more than Mom or my parents or my grandparents – made me finally get serious about my responsibilities to my family and myself.

A Mom In Full

Dear Michael and Caroline,

She always knows.

Mom knew how to get us through your being in the hospital as a little girl. She knew how to deal with the teachers and the principals to pull you through school. She knew how to take care of all your stomachaches.

She knows how to take care of pretty much anything, even me.

She’s always cooked the food and cleaned the clothes for all of us. She’s kept the books and paid the bills. She even painted the walls of our bedroom, sponge-style, complete with perfect wallpaper trim.

She always knows what to do and how to do it. When we had troubles, she knew how to handle it. It made no difference what cropped up.

My grandparents the Shefts failed to disguise the displeasure they felt on hearing I was going to marry her. My father once gave me money, saying I had no obligation to repay him, only for my mother then to demand I pay it back. It bothered Mom, but she kept her cool.

She always knew how, almost as if she were born an adult. We had so many worries over the years, so many struggles, but she somehow kept herself together and took care of it, never complaining, never feeling sorry for herself, never making me feel anything toward her but pride.

And it’s all because she always knows – knows how to say what has to be said, how to do what has to be done. In that sense, she’s one in a million. In that sense, too, she’s almost my exact opposite.

I almost never know. I almost never knew before, and seldom know now, what to say, how to act, about anything really. Some people have the gift of common sense, an internal compass that guides decisions, leads to good judgment, and she has it in spades.

It’s among the reasons I’ve always respected her and trusted her and relied on her and certainly loved her.

Without her help, without her practicality and advice and loyalty, I shudder to imagine what might have become of me. It’s a tricky project, trying to express everything she means to me, this special woman, this soulmate, this angel from heaven, this Elvira. But let me try here and now. Let me get it all into one sentence.

I owe my life to her.

My Uncle, Leonard The Lion-Hearted

Lion
Dear Michael and Caroline,

So here are some bare facts about my Uncle Leonard. Probably born ticked off at everything, though maybe the cause was more nurture than nature.

Went to military school for a while, apparently because he acted unruly, though I’m unsure how so.

Went to Horace Mann prep school for a while, too, but got kicked out, and I wish I knew the specifics.

My grandmother had a photo of Leonard in his military uniform looking stern, practically glaring at the camera. I asked her why he looked like that, almost angry, and she replied, no doubt with understatement aforethought, “It’s possible he was unhappy.”

Went to Yale Law School – Old Blue, as he once mockingly called it; he always had a lot of mockery in him – and married a Frenchwoman named Monique while there.
Spent some time in the Army – had to be the early 1950s – and learned to drink himself under the table, or maybe just others.

He joined a so-called white-shoe law firm, and eventually struck out on his own.

He harnessed his anger in the service of argument, a trial lawyer so ferocious as he argued a case in court as to be downright feral.

“Know how I win in court?” he once asked me at a family dinner. “I cut the other guy’s balls off.”

Rather a vivid pointer, that, bordering on barbaric.

He kept lions all over his house – statues of lions, paintings of lions – no doubt because he fancied himself a lion, Leonard the Lion-Hearted.

He built his law firm, along with a partner, until he had 20, 30, 40 lawyers reporting to him. He mainly represented insurance companies, including the illustrious Lloyd’s of London.

Once over dinner he announced to the family, with no small pride, that he would now be affiliated with Lloyd’s as an agent. He told about how, once at a meeting with other Lloyd’s representatives, someone had said to him, “Sheft. Is that a Jewish name?”
Lloyd’s had allowed in few Jews, perhaps none ever from New York, and he had crashed the club, proudly so.

Oddly, he had long since joined the WASP precincts, talked like a WASP, openly admired WASPS, the old money, the snobbery, the social standards.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Leonard The Lion-Hearted: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I was always of two minds about my Uncle Leonard. On the one hand, he was a cool guy. Handsome, charming, successful, with cool cars, a cool French wife with red hair and a French accent, a cool house and a cool job. He could outsmart anyone, and probably had.

One time he came out with the most epigrammatic quip I had ever heard, delivered altogether spontaneously. In reference to our Uncle Morris, my grandmother’s oldest brother, who was rich enough to live on Fifth Avenue, but no doubt rich by dubious means, he said, “Morris, as a matter of principle, never does anything legitimately.”

Leonard could always cut right through the crap, cut right to the chase and, while at it, cut your heart out, too.

He played catch with me once on the front lawn of our house in Fair Lawn. I was probably nine or ten years old and already deeply in love with baseball and thrilled to be having a catch with a certifiable grownup because my father seldom if ever found the time.

Leonard threw the ball hard, smacking loudly into my glove, and my hand started to smart. I told him to throw softer because it hurt, but he kept throwing hard, maybe to teach me a lesson, to teach me life could be hard, life could hurt, you had to throw hard, live hard, too, so you better learn to catch a ball that came in fast.

He also told me something at my bar mitzvah party in 1965. My grandparents the Shefts funded the party at a place on Route 4 in Paramus called the Steak Pit, now a discount clothing outlet. Quite a shindig, with maybe 100 or 200 guests, a band, plenty of food and booze, the works. Family and friends came over to me bearing envelopes stuffed with either checks or cash or bonds. And Leonard saw me and came over to whisper in my ear, “Just so you know, nobody here really cares about you, Bobby – none of these people.”

I suspect he was drunk at the time, maybe even close to dead drunk. I hated him for saying that, it was pretty rude under the circumstances, especially with me only 13 years old and all, even downright mean, as if it bothered him to see me getting all the attention.

So now I’m going to give you the on-the-other-hand kind of stuff.

Leonard talked against his mother often, called her stupid and manipulative and ill-intentioned, and I resented that, too, disbelieving him. Why would he try to turn me against my own grandmother, who, as he knew full well, would do anything for me, and often would?

Again, to warn me, just as he had at my bar mitzvah. Warn me to watch out because little was ever as it seemed. The guests at my party had come to get dressed up, dance, eat, drink, pass out business cards, check out what people wore, compare cars and status – more so, no doubt, than to honor me. They pretended to be there for me, but really were just out for a good time.

My father once warned me about Leonard, my father who never badmouthed anyone. I forget the context of the conversation, but he told me something about how Leonard never really got along with anyone all too well. So it indeed seemed.

He got divorced.

He fell out with his son, Peter.

He squabbled constantly with his mother.

No doubt he worked his employees hard. Somehow, he must have had a hard time growing up.

My mother, his sister, is deaf, profoundly so, and that must have sucked up all of his parent’s attention. He grew up feeling neglected, a second-class citizen, passed over for his deaf sister, who could be temperamental in her own right.

Funny how life goes. Your views, or at least certain views, sometimes soften with time (while other views harden). You understand actions better, more sympathetically. Almost everything Uncle Leonard ever did with me that once seemed so wrong now feels just about right.

Cornered No More

Dear Michael and Caroline,

From time to time, when I was a boy, my mother would get a little physical with me. She would smack me on the behind if I did something she considered wrong.

One time I played after school in my good pants – I was supposed to have changed first – and tore a hole in the crotch. My mother smacked my ass but good.

Another time I punched my sister in the stomach, none too cool an accomplishment. My sister told my mother about this malfeasance – who could blame her? – and my mother, Solomon-like, decided to go tit for tat. She punched me in the stomach, too, only with adult force, hard enough to leave a bruise as a souvenir.

I’m pretty sure that was the last time I ever hit my sister (though it was never a habit of mine in the first place).

At one point my mother got the idea that physical punishment should be administered to me on a regular basis. She got it into her head somehow that we should follow a schedule. Every Sunday night, say, she would dish out something corporal for my cumulative transgressions during the previous week. So if I had torn my good pants or hit my sister, she would keep score.

For this purpose, she graduated to the use of a long, wide wooden spoon.

That first week, I dreaded the arrival of Sunday night. She called me into the bathroom across the hall from my bedroom. She showed me the sheet of paper on which she had recorded my acts of misconduct. Then she pulled out the wooden spoon.

She paddled my behind till I winced, squeezing out tears in silence. Then it was over, and for whatever reason, she never deployed the spoon again. Maybe she saw how much it had hurt and regretted it, or my father got wind of her new regimen and put a stop to it (the latter scenario unlikely because he typically gave my mother free rein).

But far and away the worst behavior from my mother involved intimidation. She would get upset at this or that – who knows why? maybe I spilled crumbs from a cookie onto the carpet – and slowly back me into a corner in my room, near my closet. She would hiss and fume, her face twisted in rage, as she came toward me and cornered me. She would raise her hands as if to strike me and see if I flinched.

In these moments I have no memory of her actually laying a hand on me. That never seemed to be the idea. It was done to scare me, and for years it worked. Those scenes seemed to go on forever, my mother like a volcano, first spewing smoke, then erupting. Step by step she would back me into the corner, her voice growing louder, more furious. I would cringe and cower. She would raise her hand to feign a swat and I would put my arms out in front of my face to shield a blow that never came.

One day I decided to try something different. My mother had me cornered, I was completely out of room, without means of escape, and finally, after all these years, I had had enough. By now I was maybe age 12, bigger and stronger than before, though still smaller than she. She went into her windup, pretending she was about to slap me. Only now, instead of pulling away and whimpering, I snatched both her hands by the wrist.

My mother looked startled.

This was something quite new.

I seized her wrists and pulled her arms down and squeezed with all my might. My mother pouted and sobbed.

“Stop,” she said. “You’re hurting me.”

But still I held her wrists tight, asserting my new authority.

She had taught me lessons for years and now I was going to teach her one, too. I had no real interest in hurting her, only in stopping her from hurting me. But I wanted to make sure she understood my gesture.

“You’ve done this to me for the last time,” I said.

And from then on she and I were on a different wavelength. She was going to have to find herself another scapegoat. All I knew was that it was no longer going to be me.

Connected By Blood Only

Dear Michael and Caroline,

We played a little game as kids, my sister Linda and I. Our parents would go out for the evening, leaving us with a babysitter. We would be sent to bed earlier than usual, certainly sooner than either of us wanted. So we would go upstairs, to our respective bedrooms, the babysitter down in the den, two levels below, watching TV. But rather than go to sleep, we would stay awake, together.

She would poke her head out from her bedroom door while crouching on the carpet, and I would do the same from the other end of the hall. Probably neither of us even had to say anything, so well did we know this drill. And then we would take a ball, maybe a Spaldeen, all pink and smooth, and roll it along the hall, back and forth, flicking and catching it, the ball spinning along silently on the carpet, the babysitter none the wiser.

It was how we staged a little rebellion, my sister and I, back when we were kids, maybe seven or eight or nine. We played this game many a Saturday night, all the while smiling and giggling at our secret fun.
But I remember so little else about her as a girl, so few other episodes. I do have a sense of her, of course, and what she was like. She was a girl, born after I was born, a year and nine months later, and that alone gave her a distinct quality of otherness.

Later, as adolescents and teenagers, we went in our own widely different directions. She hung out with her friends, I with mine. She had her boyfriends, I my girlfriends. She always tried hard in school, getting good grades, while I hardly tried at all, doing poorly. She always behaved well, never coming home late or acting fresh or getting into fights, and I had a talent, whether at school or home, for getting into trouble, for landing detention or tearing my pants playing baseball.

My mother never seemed frustrated with her, or angry, whereas her attitude toward me leaned toward the disappointed. I must have felt pretty jealous of her for a long time.

Now, of course, my sister and I are out of touch. It has to be 10 years since I’ve seen her, and we’ve spoken on the phone maybe three times, always the result of her calling me. We fell apart years earlier, though less dramatically, with me simply liking her less and less.

The breaking point came – no surprise here – over two consecutive financial entanglements.

So there you go.

Linda called me right after 9/11 to ask whether we were all right. I acted cordial, but no more, and told her I appreciated the call (true).

She called me a few months ago, too. She asked how we were all doing and I told her a little, reluctant to share much. She told me she was divorced now and lived alone in her house. She made a point of letting me know Barry had given her the house, as if I cared, as if I were going to ask. And that was kind of the problem right there. She always had to let us know how well off she was, and I hated her for that. And never forgave her, either.

She sounded sad on that last call – lost, really, and lonely – and I felt sorry for her. And I remembered how she and I rolled the Spaldeen back and forth in the hall as kids.

But however much I might have felt tempted to reconnect with her after all these years – after all, we have a shared history; she’s the only other person on the planet raised by my parents – I resisted. And then I realized it. We had never had much together, really. There was never a there there, a true warm spot. And now we had even less. Now we had something close to nothing.

P.S. – Linda and I have since reunited.

Family Money

Money
Dear Michael and Caroline,

With my family, so much of life came down to money. The giving and taking of money, promises about it and lies about it.

Money did us all some good, but it also caused plenty of harm. No one in my family ever seemed to have quite enough of the stuff. It seemed to be talked about all the time – worried about, bragged about, reflected over.

Money always felt like a character in the room, a character who begged many questions. How much money do I have? How much should I have? How should I spend it?

Okay, then. Let’s talk turkey now. I never wanted for money as a child growing up. Never felt the twinge of need for anything. Always had money in my pocket – enough for candy or a soda or a comic book and, later on, scotch and marijuana.

My allowance was maybe $5 a week when I was 10 or 12; we’re talking 1962 or 1964, when you could live well on $100 a week. My bar mitzvah in 1965 yielded me $5,000 – no small sum at the time. My grandmother was always slipping me money – a $10 bill here, a $20 bill there.

So I had no complaints.

And I believed everyone in the world lived the same.

Then, as I got older, I noticed certain goings-on, started to piece together the money puzzle. My Uncle Leonard seemed always to talk about money – his money and how much of it he had. At family gatherings, usually Passover and Thanksgiving, he would tell us how he now earned $1,500 a day as a lawyer, how he paid only $100 for a sweater in France.

One time – oh, this is a classic – his wife Monique got into the act. I had just gotten my first full-time job. It was 1977 and it was with a weekly community newspaper called The Eastside Courier. I was quite excited because now I was going to get to be a professional journalist, and looked forward to telling my whole family. And no sooner did I share my news at the dinner table than Monique asked me how much the job paid.

I told her $175 a week.

She looked around the table and said, “Is that even enough to buy toilet paper?”

She deflated my pride in an instant, and I never forgave her for that remark.

Then of course came all the promises about money, most later broken.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Family Money: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My grandmother was going to buy me a car. Never did (nor, by the way, had I ever asked her to).

My parents were going to help buy us a house. Never did (once again, it was offered rather than requested, much less expected).

My father was going to give us his inheritance from his mother. Never did.
So even though money – the having of it, the anticipation of it, the use of it – gave me pleasure, it also gave me (and Mom) some pain. We went through more than a few difficulties with my family over money.

So. Let us now ask a big question. Why this fixation with money?

Well, let me acknowledge this. Nobody in our family started off rich. My grandfather Benjamin came over from a small town in Russia at the age of two with nothing, went to college and managed to succeed as an accountant with his own firm. My great-grandfather Isidore was a tailor, and his daughter, Gertrude, grew up on Madison Street on the Lower East Side, sleeping in the same bed with her three younger brothers.

So yes, money was important to my family because originally nobody had much of it and money meant sheer survival.

What’s my point here? What am I trying to teach you? Is it that I’m bitter about these experiences?

No (though I’ll admit to being disappointed in my family). Rather, it’s that we have to watch out how we treat each other, how we see each other and ultimately how we judge each other. All I ever want for you is to be happy, no matter what form it takes or how much money it brings you.

Hooked On Motown: How Your Dad Once Got Funky

Motown_young_nerd_dancing_image_one

Dear Michael and Caroline,

On a Saturday night in May of 1970, my friends Larry and Eric and I, each of us then 17 years old, performed in the annual talent show of Fair Lawn High School in Bergen County, New Jersey. We chose to do an act that came naturally to us. We three upper-middle-class Jewish white boys, just months away from going off to college, impersonated the Temptations, the all-black Motown musical group, lip-syncing the lyrics in our rendition of the now-classic song “Cloud Nine.”

We had practiced our routine for weeks in my shag-carpeted bedroom, its walls then decorated with large posters of Raquel Welch, Sophia Loren, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Newman, in the post-WWII split-level colonial house that I shared, albeit grudgingly, with my parents and sister. We would play the album that contained “Cloud Nine” again and again on my Panasonic turntable as we choreographed our dance moves. Larry took the lead, deciding who would play which member of the Temps and how long we would rehearse and even the steps we would do. Eric and I, much his inferiors both athletically and academically and glad simply to be aboard for this ambitious musical enterprise, complied readily with his every command.

Though the three of us had markedly different personalities – Larry serious to the point of driven, Eric easygoing bordering on lax and I somewhere in between – we had in common something powerful, just a notch below our diehard habit of playing pickup basketball. What brought us together to practice in my bedroom for hours on end for our high school talent show was our love of soul music, and most particularly the soul music that came out of the justly fabled locale known as Motown.

Oh, we loved other kinds of music, too – the Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. But soul music came equipped with a unique agenda. For as much as we loved listening to it, singing along to it, even daydreaming to it, most of all, we loved dancing to it. And the soul music from Motown Records, rhythm and blues tinged with gospel, made us want to dance as nothing ever had before.

By then we’d already known about Motown for a few years, of course. We had bought all the records, seen its stars on “Ed Sullivan” and “American Bandstand,” danced to its tunes at all our school dances, and that special sound had long since seeped under our skin. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Isley Brothers, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, Marvin Gaye and his heavenly honeyed wail – it spoke to us on a level all but molecular. “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” “Dancing In The Street,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Love Child,” For Once In My Life,” “Never Can Say Goodbye” – such tunes from the Motown catalogue mainlined themselves into our bloodstreams.

But perched at the peak of the Motown hierarchy, hard as it was for us back then to pick favorites, were the mighty Temptations. The five young men from Detroit who made up the group debuted in 1962 and broke through in 1964 with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” Along came other hits – “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “Get Ready” and “My Girl.” Motown_images_the_temptations_one“Cloud Nine” had come out as a single in 1968, the Temps venturing away from romantic ballads and into what came to be called psychedelic soul, landing Motown its first Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Group performance. More than anything, we loved how the Temptations danced, how they shimmied and sashayed, perfecting a signature move known as “The Temptation Walk.” Eventually, over 25 years, with no fewer than 43 top 10 hits, the Temptations would evolve, despite some musical chairs among its members, into the most successful rhythm and blues group of all time.

P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.

Hooked On Motown: How Your Dad Once Got Funky: part 2

Motown_image_cloud_nine_record

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Out we bopped onto the stage in the auditorium of our high school for our big number, then, Larry and Eric and I, strutting out in front of the footlights and hundreds of spectators, our families, friends, neighbors and classmates out there in the dark beyond. And streaming over the public address system came the guitar riff with the wah-wah pedal that signaled the overture of “Cloud Nine.” And for the next three minutes and 27 seconds – that’s how long the song ran – with the curtains now parted and each of us at center stage with microphones in hand, Larry was lead singer David Ruffin, Eric baritone Paul Williams and I Eddie Kendricks, he of the creamy tenor falsetto.

We performed onstage that night just as we had practiced in my bedroom for weeks beforehand. We mouthed the words, our lips in sync to the lyrics of the first stanza – all about a guy raised in the slums, in a one-bedroom shack, along with ten other children, and hardly ever enough food to go around – hard times alien to our affluent suburban experience. To the thrumming bass line, the pounding congas and the blasting horns, we, too, shimmied and sashayed. As we fake-sang – all about the lazy father who “disrespected” his wife and treated his kids “like dirt” – we stepped lively, first forward, then back, then to the left and then to the right. We clapped and swayed our hips and twirled and sliced our hands through the air. We pranced and boogalooed and walked The Temptation Walk, a glide to our stride, always in unison.

Yes, we had the patented Temptations moves down cold, or at least lukewarm. And all along, even though our grasp of hardship in general and poverty in particular was highly suspect – we each occupied our own bedrooms, never lacked for food and had fathers gainfully employed who treated us and our mothers reasonably well – we each nonetheless strove to make like super-cool, bad-ass, dudes from the most hardcore slums. We bobbed our heads peacock-style and bit our lips, keeping it real for the rest of society, as if we somehow now embodied the very essence of Motown soul.

And then, about halfway through, I stepped out in front for my little solo as Eddie Kendricks, co-founder of the Temptations, who arranged most of the vocals. “And every man, every man, has to be free,” I “sang” in an ever-ascending falsetto, the word “free” elongated into four syllables, my hands flung aloft overhead, fingers fluttering, as if in holy-roller, glory-hallelujah prayer. And at that moment, the audience, to a person, exploded in laughter. About thirty seconds later, I stepped forward again to offer the refrain, “I wanna say I love the life I live/And I’m gonna live the life I love,” and laughter again erupted. That laughter, so sudden and so loud, stunned me with its tidal-wave force. I was unsure what to make of it.

Someone else won the talent show, though I forget who or why, perhaps conveniently so. No matter. Our routine had come off without a hitch. For those three minutes, we three performed with a sense of control, of owning the night, such as we’d never felt before. It was ours, that moment, all ours. Our appearance mimicking the legendary Temptations, the coolest of the cool, brought another bonus, too, and turned us briefly into the talk of the school. Classmates came over to us in the hallways to compliment us, at least for the next week or so.Do your solo again, some urged me. I had finally verified my longstanding suspicion, once and for all, that I, too, had soul.

P.S. – Please see part 3 tomorrow.

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Hooked On Motown: How Your Dad Once Got Funky: part 3

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Dear Michael and Caroline,

I love the music of Motown no less today than I did on that Saturday night 42 years ago. It still speaks to me, maybe more clearly than ever. I’ve never stopped listening to it, more the music than the lyrics, and have never, for that matter, stopped dancing to it. I own an eight-CD set with all the greatest hits, but play those tunes, as a rule, only if I’m already on my feet. I’ll put on the headset of my Sony Walkman, probably among the last people clinically alive who still listens to music on anything other than an IPod, and go onto the terrace of our apartment in Forest Hills, Queens, overlooking the fountain in our courtyard – it could be hottest summer or coldest winter; it makes no difference – and re-enact the same dance moves my friends and I attempted at the talent show.

The music we loved as teenagers tends to stay with us forever. Early enthusiasms seldom dim, certain melodies and rhythms carving a groove in our neural pathways. In that respect, Motown remains for me a kind of cloud nine. For the last 26 years now, I’ve relied on Motown to get me through my exercise routine during New York winters. I listen to Motown tunes as I repeatedly walk up and down the stairwell in our 22-story building, typically for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, my footfall tied to the tempos. I stop on the landings every 10 floors or so, sweating and panting, expressly to dance. On occasion, fellow tenants who are navigating the stairwell purely for transportation purposes will spot me doing my stuff and wonder what’s what and whether to call security. But hey, it’s just me, a harmless bald 60-year-old father of two still getting high on Motown.

P.S. – Please see part 4 tomorrow.

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Hooked On Motown: How Your Dad Once Got Funky: part 4

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Dear Michael and Caroline,

Only years later, as it turned out, would I come to understand certain underlying details about our performance as the Temptations on that night so long ago. For starters, back then we remained quite clueless about the meaning of the lyrics we mouthed to “Cloud Nine.” We had the idea that the song was basically about feeling good. Example: “I’m doing fine/Up here on cloud nine/Listen one more time/I’m doing fine/Up here on cloud nine.”

Eventually, though, someone pointed out to me in passing, and I immediately recognized its truth, that “Cloud Nine” was actually a strong dose of social commentary, a warning about drug addiction, presumably heroin in particular. After all, the song is about a man who left home looking for a job he never found and wound up “depressed and downhearted” and then “took” to cloud nine. That’s where he found himself, all but miraculously, without any responsibility to bear and “riding high” and “free as a bird” and “a million miles from reality,” in a “world of love and harmony.” The song we once naively considered so joyous and celebratory was actually profoundly sad, a cry of ecstatic anguish. And it was this anti-drug message we unwittingly delivered that night to a white suburban audience most likely as ignorant as we. Sometimes, I suppose, you just hear what you want to hear.

Only years later, too, would I see that talent show in any sort of real context. In 1970, race relations in America still qualified as incendiary. We performed our act only two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., only four years after the founding of the Black Panthers, and only five years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law, the riots in Watts and Newark likewise still fresh in memory. Angela Davis was arrested in 1970. Only that year would the Miss America pageant have its first black contestant. Our country was still right in the thick of the civil rights movement.

Our suburban town of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, 11 miles from the George Washington Bridge that connected us with New York City, was an altogether Caucasian enclave, increasingly made up of mostly of the children of European immigrants — Jews, Italians, Germans, Poles, Czechs – many of whom had migrated from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Virtually no blacks lived there, much less attended our high school. The only black person I knew as a child was a sweet woman named Marie Esposito, our maid, who came to our house once a week by bus from the predominantly black neighboring town of Paterson, just across the Passaic River, to scrub our floors, dust our furniture and babysit me and my sister.

Against this backdrop, then, Larry and Eric and I had performed in our high school talent show pretending to be black entertainers. Why is easy to explain. We three white upper-middle-class Jewish boys suffered then from what could readily be diagnosed as a mild to moderate form of black envy. To us, certain blacks had a certain kind of cool – talked cool, walked cool, acted cool, sang cool, danced cool. And we, too, wanted with all our hearts to be cool. And so dancing to the rhythm and blues of Motown was our humble attempt at cool. More, it was a symbolic act of support and solidarity – it was how we sought, at least within the safe suburban cocoon that we occupied, to get down with the brothers.

An iffy endeavor, to put it charitably, for we had little familiarity with tough times. We had never lived in a cardboard shack without running water in some backwater boondocks. Oh, granted, I occasionally got detention for flicking spitballs in class, and our front lawn might have experienced some crabgrass, and my SAT scores came in below average, and our basement often flooded in a heavy rain. But in terms of struggle, that was about it. We had clean streets and pretty much no crime and good schools and both our parents around for the long haul and fireworks at the municipal pool on the Fourth of July. My idea of The Man, against whom the oppressed back then invariably found themselves pitted, was the junior high school principal who once suspended me from class for a day for talking too much in homeroom.

And yet in retrospect, I realize that our enactment of this mimicry could easily be interpreted, at least on the face of it, as mockery. In that still-volatile racial atmosphere of May, 1970, it’s entirely conceivable that what we had intended as innocent tribute could perhaps be misunderstood as satire, and that certain extreme activists could have seen the stunt we pulled masquerading as The Temptations as downright insulting.

No, you could never have exactly characterized us as crusaders. But we had a general idea of what we were doing that night. We had a kind of case to make. We three white kids fancied ourselves, more or less, as honorary blacks – forerunners, if you will, of the generation of white boy wannabes who would come along about 30 years later, likewise afflicted with a strain of black envy, going all ghetto to propel the musical phenomena that are rap and hiphop.

And maybe that’s why the audience laughed so hard at my little solo turn. Maybe it was because the sight of a skinny white bespectacled upper-middle-class suburban Jewish teenager, complete with frizzy “Jewfro,” my face and dance moves so earnest, looking to channel the spirit of a broken-hearted young black man from the housing projects of the Detroit ghetto, trying so very hard to palm myself off as the most soulful dude the planet had ever known, all while lip-syncing a voice so flamboyantly falsetto, so flamingly, stratospherically castrato – well, maybe it somehow came off as inherently absurd. And yes, utterly laughable. At least that’s one theory anyway.

P.S. – Please see part 5 tomorrow.

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Hooked On Motown: How Your Dad Once Got Funky: part 5

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Dear Michael and Caroline,

In May of 1994, 24 years after the talent show, thanks to the kind of serendipity that might happen but once in a lifetime, an incident brought me full circle back to Motown. I was at Ellis Island, in the Great Hall, attending a dinner ceremony for the Ellis Island Medal Of Honor. An organization called the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, or NECO, originally formed to recognize and preserve diversity in America, sponsored the event to pay homage to the immigrant experience. Over the years, NECO had conferred its award on hundreds of Americans, including six U.S. presidents and numerous Pulitzer Prize winners, not to mention Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger and Frank Sinatra.

I was on duty there – in a black tux, no less – as a newly hired vice president of Howard J. Rubenstein Associates, the influential New York public relations firm. My job that night was essentially to escort Norman Brokaw, chairman of the William Morris Agency, a client who happened to be an honoree. Brokaw, who had started his career in the agency’s storied mailroom, wound up representing the likes of Marilyn Monroe, whom he reputedly discovered, as well as Barbara Stanwyck and Clint Eastwood.

I ate dinner in my usual anxious state over the vagaries of client satisfaction. My boss, the formidable public relations impresario Howard Rubenstein himself, was on hand making the rounds. Indeed, Howard kept glancing at a seating chart he clutched in his hand and making a beeline to buttonhole whichever bold-face name occupied a given table. It was as vivid a lesson in the art of high-powered networking as I had ever witnessed.

About halfway through dinner I took the liberty of leaving our table to reacquaint myself with the concept of personal freedom and catch a breather taking a stroll around the premises. I turned a corner to go down a long corridor and there, coming toward me, flanked by associates, was none other than Berry Gordy, Jr. I recognized him right away – the baby face that carried a hint of bulldog pugnacity. Now, I could have done what I often do when encountering the well-known by chance and followed the protocol most New Yorkers follow: acted as if he were in fact as mortal as everyone else and just let him be.

But no, no chance. This was Berry Gordy, Jr., a k a Mr. Motown. Berry Gordy, Jr. had founded Motown Records in 1959. Berry Gordy, Jr. had discovered Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Berry Gordy Jr. had gone on to sign Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and, yes, the mighty Temptations. He was the entrepreneur who had engineered Hitsville, USA, the mastermind behind the music that had kept me high from boyhood on. And now I was in a public place all of 10 feet away from him.

“Hello, Mr. Gordy,” I said with an upbeat lilt, putting my hand out with a smile. “Hello,” he replied, all business, and shook my hand. “You’re responsible for a lot of great music,” I said enthusiastically. “Thank you,” he responded. He, too, now smiled, even bowing his head slightly in courtly acknowledgment and appreciation, almost, I dare say, as if he were hearing such a compliment for the very first time in his life and, accordingly, delighted.

I could have said much more, of course. In fact, you can be sure I wanted to say more. I could have taken another minute to tell Berry Gordy, Jr. about our talent show at Fair Lawn High School back in 1970. And how Larry and Eric and I had, improbably enough, simulated The Temptations performing “Cloud Nine.” And how we had just wanted to be cool, and how I for one had never quite cracked the code for cool. And how it was a peak experience for us, and how we had meant it as a tribute, and how I was supposed to be Eddie Hendricks, by then dead only 18 months, stricken with lung cancer, 30 years of smoking forcing the removal of one of his lungs, that creamy tenor falsetto forever stilled. And how my little solo for some reason drew a big laugh.

I could have told him, too, how deeply I loved the music of Motown, all of it, how much soul music had meant to me and how much it spoke to me and how much I loved to listen to it and, most of all, dance to it, dancing out on our terrace in Forest Hills, Queens and while going up and down the stairwell in our apartment building, getting high on its fumes. I could have told Berry Gordy, Jr. all that.

But somewhere along the line, my infrequently deployed capacity for common sense kicked in, and I thought better of it. I had gotten a privileged opportunity to say my piece and pay my respects to Berry Gordy, Jr., and had therefore alighted briefly on my own version of cloud nine, and realized I should leave it at that. Why push my luck? What I had told him – that he was responsible for a lot of great music — he no doubt already knew. Then again, everything I left unsaid I suspect he somehow already knew, too.

P.S. — Here’s the version of this piece that appeared in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/the-motown-sound-revisited-my-five-minutes-as-a-temptation/266328/

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Dear Kids: Here’s Why You And I Are History

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In 44 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesman and philosopher, wrote an essay that took the form of a letter to his son. The father detailed how the son should live and behave honorably, and how best to fulfill his personal duties and civic obligations.

In composing letters to educate his child, Cicero had plenty of company among fathers over the centuries. Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate Army in the Civil War, wrote his son a letter offering practical advice to follow in life. Say what you mean to do and then do it, he wrote. If you have an issue with someone, tell him to his face.

Indeed, of 31 U.S. presidents who had daughters, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, 21 wrote letters to them. Most recently, President Obama wrote an open letter to his daughters, Sasha and Malia, soon after his election. “It is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself,” the new president wrote, “that you will realize your true potential.”

Yet fathers today are more likely to text a child than keep a journal or write a letter. As a result, all too many of our children, given a test, would flunk family history.

It’s tough for fathers to keep such intergenerational storytelling alive. Both parents may work, curbing conversation at the dinner table. Family members of multiple generations seldom live under the same roof and usually farther apart, rendering reunions rare. Computers, smartphones and social media cut into time otherwise available for extended storytelling.

But plenty of fathers are trying, whether in actual letters, journals or so-called “Daddy blogs,” to record personal family history to benefit the next generation. We’re living longer than ever, too, granting us more time for retrospective reflection. In some cases, we’re even outsourcing the work. Membership in the Association of Personal Historians, who help create personal histories in the form of books, DVDs, websites and audiotapes, has grown by more than 20 percent annually for the past five years.

Five years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to do something I had long intended to do –write a family history, deeply personal, for our children, Michael and Caroline, then 24 and 19. My father never wrote anything about his family history for me and my sister, nor has my mother. And now so much is lost. Unless we document our personal family history, it will go untold, possibly doomed to disappear.

That would never happen to me. I started to keep handwritten journals, one for each child. Every week for the next year I took an hour or so to capture a special memory– how my son, as an adolescent, quoted wisecracks from the movie“Ghostbusters,” how my daughter, at age eight, sang “Colors Of The Wind” in front of an audience in Martha’s Vineyard.I also put down vignettes about growing up with deaf parents, a lavishly doting maternal grandmother, and friends who, like me, wanted to play sports all day long. I recorded my difficulties in school, my first date with my wife, and how it felt to land my first real job.

I surprised my kids the following Christmas by presenting the journals as gifts. The following year I completed a second set of volumes, also given at Christmas.

Then, on Father’s Day, 2010, with an OK from both our children to do so, I set up a blog, letterstomykids.org, that took these private letters public. I urged other parents to follow suit and enlisted some to contribute guest columns.

If you’re a parent, you might ask yourself how much your kids know about your past. As it happens, I conducted an informal survey of 100 parents and grandparents to find out. More than three in four respondents said parents and grandparents “should” write personal family history for the younger generation. Yet four in 10 reported they planned to do it and never got around to it. Nearly half said they lack the time to dedicate to it.
Asked “Do children today know more about family history than previous generations knew?” 59 percent said “no.” Still, some parents may forge ahead. Asked “What would motivate you to write your personal family history?” 36 percent named a combination of three factors: “leaving a legacy,” “rediscovering great memories” and “the opportunity for self-expression.”

As we mark Father’s Day, we fathers are often tempted to review our pasts, and also wonder about our futures. Fathers take stock of themselves, measuring our accomplishments to date against our original ambitions. We ask ourselves what our lives have meant, whether they have mattered.

That’s why we should invest in our pasts. Telling stories out loud is fine, but conversation often evaporates without a trace. Getting it all in writing, messages to the future delivered with the advantages of contemplation, is something else again.

Just imagine what would happen if more fathers (and mothers) decided to get personal. In playing family historians, you would recount your origins, your struggles, your triumphs. You would discover new truths about yourselves and express once and for all how deeply you love your children. You’ll leave behind children a legacy more valuable than any insurance policy.

The record you leave behind just might last forever. As Father’s Day resolutions go, it’s hard to do better.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-brody/dear-kids-heres-why-you-and-i-are-history_b_3436782.html