Labor Trouble

Dear Michael,

You took your time coming out. I think Mom was in labor for 36 hours.

Why you took so long I have no idea, nor do I figure you had any control over it. Maybe you really liked it in there – who could blame you? – and felt reluctant to leave. As we know, Mom is an excellent host.

Just the same, she probably found you an excellent house guest. And so we waited. After waiting, we then waited some more.

A nurse told us were going to have a girl, and for whatever reason, Mom and I both doubted her with all our hearts.

A pregnant woman came in and had her baby within an hour. Mom and I felt like complaining to the nurses, Hey, we got here first, how come she gets to cut in line.

I went out for breakfast at the Georgia diner, assured I had time. As I ate my eggs, I knew my life – our lives – would soon change for good. Only I had no idea how, really, much less how much. No idea, either, how much I could love someone else, a child of my own, a son.

And let me tell you, Mom really had her work cut out delivering you. She huffed and she puffed, grunting and groaning, her brow shiny with sweat, all of us urging her on, Come on, Elvira, you can do it, keep pushing, push harder. I know she just wanted all of us to shut the fuck up.

But no, you were having none of it. In there you stayed, in your little amniotic domicile, probably watching a smackdown DVD or something.

It was tough. Mom tried the breathing exercises, but still she gasped, Finally, she asked to be medicated. It was enough already. You were running late. Mom was exhausted.

I wish I could remember it all better than I do. I should have captured it in a chronicle right then, rather than all these years later. But that much I remember. That, and the sense of something new coming, of discoveries and rewards in the offing.

And then, of course, now ready at last, out you came. And I saw it all, first the head, then the rest, as you emerged, bloody, crying, beautiful, absolutely perfect.

Welcome, Michael, I thought. Stay awhile.

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The Kids Stay in the Picture

Dear Michael,

That’s you in the photo right there. You might be a month old, maybe two. You’re asleep. You’re in a portable bassinet. You’re floating about five feet in the air. I’m holding the bassinet with both arms. Mom is there, too, leaning toward you. We’re both smiling. We have our own kid, and that kid is you.

I’m bearing you aloft, as if to say, Behold! See what we have wrought! We have created new beauty in the world!

You’re in the next photo, too. You’re cradled in Mom’s arms, once again sleeping. Your face is round, pale, your mouth moist, your nose just a button. Your hands touch each each other. The view is from over Mom’s shoulder. You can see only that her head is turned to look at you, your face barely visible. Her palm is flat on your belly. You’re wearing those soft, fuzzy, eggshell-blue pajamas I always liked. You’re so very asleep, as asleep as only a baby can be, safe in your mother’s arms.

Now comes a treasure of a photo. Here you are with Grandma. Look at the two of you. You’re looking at each other. Of course she’s looking at you. That’s totally to be expected. She’s at our dining room table, wearing a sleeveless white dress with polka dots – red, blue, yellow and green – and her hair is still brown. She’s leaning to her right, her whole torso shifted, with her head turned to the side, positioning herself precisely for a single purpose: to take in the sight of you. She’s holding you gingerly, as if you are a prize, a trophy just bestowed on her. Her right hand cups your little behind, a warm, firm seat, her left arm supporting you from behind. She is in profile, her face cast in shadow, but even from this angle you can make out her smile.

That alone would make this picture special. But now look at you. You’re the other end of this equation (and equation it is, for Nettie equaled Michael – and Michael, Nettie). You’re looking straight at your Grandma, right into her eyes. You’re perched in her arms, in your diaper and bare feet, your skin so pink and pure, and your head is turned to look at her, too. And your mouth is open.

It’s as if you’re saying, Oh.

It’s as if you’re saying, Wow.

Grandma is marveling at you and you’re marveling at her. Some serious mutual marveling is going on here. Maybe here’s where all that started between you two.

It’s all quite . . . marvelous.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear later this week.

The Kids Stay in the Picture: Part 2

Dear Michael,

Now we click the slide show to you and me in the bathtub. You might be 18 months old, maybe two years. I’m seated in the tub, my head forward, my hands holding your waist. We’re both wet all over. Our faces are about two inches apart and we’re looking directly into each other’s eyes. I’m looking up at you and you’re looking down at me. You’re smiling, a spontaneous smile, perhaps the first hint of a laugh. Do you know why?

I’ll tell you why.

My mouth is pressed right against your wet belly. I’m probably kissing it, kissing your belly really hard, with all the suction my mouth and lips can muster, and I’ll bet anything the sensation really tickled. You probably cracked up so much I had to stop. Some shot, that one. Dad kissing your belly in the bathtub.

Now let’s go for one more photo here. As it happens, you’re in the bathtub again. You’re up to your chest in bubbles, white, foamy bubbles. You’re smiling widely, your mouth open, your tongue halfway out. Is it because of the bubbles surrounding you, all popping so fragrantly?

No.

It’s because once again you have some company in the tub. Caroline. She’s in there, too, almost up to her neck in bubbles. She’s smiling, too, more of a grin, really.

Hey, your smile says, I’m taking a bubble bath with my little sister!

Hey, her grin says, I’m taking a bubble bath with my big brother! She’s maybe a year old, moon-faced, so happy you’re there with her.

You stare at the photo and you ask yourself, Were a brother and sister ever happier than in this moment?

You ask yourself, Is greater happiness than this even imaginable?

Hey, you tell me.

P.S. – So what do you think? I’d love to hear from you.

Your Link to John Lennon

Dear Michael,

It came out only three years before you were born, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” but every time I hear it I think of you. So here it is:

Close your eyes
Have no fear
The monster’s gone
He’s on the run and your Daddy’s here
Beautiful
Beautiful beautiful
Beautiful boy
Before you go to sleep
Say a little prayer
Every day in every way
It’s getting better and better
Beautiful
Beautiful beautiful
Beautiful boy
Out on the ocean sailing away
I can hardly wait
To see you come of age
But I guess we’ll both
Just have to be patient
It’s a long way to go
A hard row to hoe
Yes, it’s a long way to go
But in the meantime
Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you
While you’re busy
Making other plans
Beautiful
Beautiful beautiful
Beautiful boy
Darling
Darling Sean (Michael)

Losing My Grip On You

Dear Michael,

I miss holding you as a baby.

In those first days and weeks and months of your life, I kept you in my arms day and night. Your skin felt so smooth. I would bring your face toward mine and you would look me right in the eyes.

Hey, little guy, I would say.

Who are you? you probably thought. Are you who I think you are?

Your head was so round, your arms and legs so rubbery. You felt like a living doll. I would press my cheek to your cheek. You would burble and gurgle and squirm, your head bobbling, your lips so shiny, your eyes so wide, seeing the world for the first time.

I miss all that. I miss how much you needed me. No one in my life had ever needed me that much before. You needed to be fed and dressed and cleaned and laid into your crib and comforted. I felt so important.

I would give you a bath in our kitchen sink. I filled the sink with warm water made sudsy with soap, little bubbles forming here and there and popping. I’d dip you in up to your waist.

Wait, your face said. What’s this? A new sensation, methinks.

You would slop at the water, splashing and giggling. Your skin gleamed with the moisture, and you felt as sleek and slippery to the touch as a seal.

I miss all that, too. I miss being so important to you, representing so much of your life. It’s selfish of me. I know that now. It was what you might call the selfishness of selflessness.

In those moments with you, I could think of nothing but you. In those first days, holding you and caring for your every need took me out of myself. Just as I was all-important to you, so were you to me. Your dependence on me as I held you was so absolute, so non-negotiable.

I fed you or you starved.

I cleaned you or you stayed dirty.

I dressed you or you went naked.

We shared the most intimate connection, tender beyond belief, all sense of sight and sound and texture and touch heightened to the point of a hyper-reality that bordered on hallucination.

If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get to do it all again someday. Maybe I’ll get the opportunity to hold another baby I can call my own.

Sleeping Around

Dear Michael,

As a toddler, you came into our bedroom at night to sleep on the carpet, always on the side near Mom. It was really cute. You never knocked on the door or asked to come in.

I would get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and there you would be, sprawled on the carpet next to our bed, eyes closed, head on a pillow, all tucked under your blanket.

Obviously you wanted to be near us – or, rather, Mom – for a sense of security.

The system had its flaws, though. I know for sure I almost tripped on you, catching your foot or something.

It lent our sleep an aura of mystery, your habit of silently slipping in to join us. I remember waking up and wondering, Is he here yet?

You probably made your entrance at all different times, whenever you felt the need, rather than according to any regular schedule. I’m sure Mom felt flattered by your wish for such proximity to her round the clock, though she never said so.

Who could blame you, really? I mean, there you are – what, two, three years old? – alone in your room, thinking, Hey, man, it’s dark in here, what the fuck.

And then I can imagine your just deciding, Look, enough of this alone-in-the-dark crap, I’m heading Momward.

And so night after night in you came, our reliable little visitor, bundled in your baby-blue pajamas, the three of us sleeping together in the late, still quiet.

Of course, once you got to be about three years old, I started to wonder how much longer you planned to be our nocturnal roommate. I started to question whether maybe you were getting a little old for that kind of dependency on our company. And of course, the older you grew, the larger a sleeping object on our floor you became, and so more of a – how to say? – interference. In short, it was now easier to step on you and trip over you.

So we had something of a safety issue there.

P.S. — Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Sleeping Around: Part 2

Dear Michael,

Now, please understand. I loved having our little guy there. I would kneel down next to you in the shadows and look at your beautiful face, watching you breathe. But I had my concerns. I expressed those concerns to Mom.

“Maybe,” I said, “Michael should sleep the night through in his room from now on. We’ve got to decide on a cutoff point.” I wanted only what was best for you. How long should we let you do your Ninja night routine? At a certain point you would need to learn to sleep by yourself, just as everyone does, and maybe the sooner the better.

I’d like to believe I raised those points with your mother calmly, logically, matter-of-factly.

But I’d probably be mistaken in such a belief. I probably got all indignant and maybe even snide about it. Sorry about that, kiddo.

Anyways, as you can well imagine, Mom would have none of it. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s no big deal. He’ll stop coming in when he’s ready to stop coming in.”

And of course, given my imagination, I foresaw you sleeping with us in our bedroom at the age of 10, at 20, at 30, Mom all along saying, It’s fine, it’s no big deal, he’ll stop soon. You’d graduate from college, start a job, get married, even have kids, but still there you’d be, sleeping on our floor.

But one night you stopped your stealthy invasions, and the next night, too, you were nowhere to be seen. And I went to your bedroom to check on you and there you were, tucked in, secure enough alone at last.

And so you’ve slept all these years since, probably never even missing your former routine. Now that I’m older and maybe more understanding – and maybe even wishing once in a while to turn back the clock – let me offer you a reassurance straight from the heart.

You can sleep on our floor any time.

Why Barfing is No Fun for Anyone

Dear Michael,

You often protested being put in your crib as a baby to go to sleep at night. No sooner would Mom lay you down, in your eggshell-blue pajamas, than you might start to cry. We would retreat to our bedroom and cross our fingers that you might soon cry yourself to sleep.

But instead you would cry and cry, louder and louder, expressing your deep dissatisfaction with your parents and the general injustices of the universe. We would lay in bed with our eyes wide, wincing at every wail.

Then you might start coughing, a hacking cough, that would turn into gagging, and we would hear you retch, once, twice, three times. Oh, you had done it again. You had pulled that cute stunt you liked to pull.

You had vomited.

Many a night you carried out this little trick, crying so hard, upsetting yourself so much, that finally you would throw up. We would know as soon as we heard the gagging that you might do it again, and the retching usually told us that you already had. We would come in as the clean-up crew.

It would really stink. Often Mom had to give you a bath and change the sheets.

Now, nobody is saying you vomited on purpose just to stay up and get our attention. Clearly something was bothering you a lot. But what? Was it having two parents and a grandmother who adored your very being? Was it our spacious apartment? Was it our financial security? Give me a clue here. We never even came close to figuring it out.

And I have to level with you. All that puking was a drag. But let me tell you this: if Mom ever complained – about changing the sheets, about the extra laundry, about your protesting and your seemingly willful vomiting – I missed it.

But then, that’s your mother for you. In all the years I’ve known her – it’s 33 now – she’s never done anything less than exactly what she’s needed to do. As for your nocturnal upchucking, eventually you stopped, and it came as no small relief to us both. You had learned to go to sleep without making a fight out of it. You had discovered that maybe going to sleep surrounded by love and security was really none too hard after all.

A Little Boy, On Camera, Playing Roles

Dear Michael,

There you are again in a photo. You’re at my typewriter, my Smith-Corona Selectric, unsheathed from its plastic cover. It’s the typewriter my parents gave me as a present for high school graduation.

You’re seated at my white Formica desk, in Apartment 6U in Building One, with your left hand on the keyboard and your right hand pointed toward the camera, palm down, fingers straight out, as if to mime the act of typing.

Look at me, you might be saying here. I’m a writer, too, just like Daddy.

The photo is a foretelling. You’re smiling here, pretty proud of yourself there at the desk. Had you already known yourself to be a writer, even then, or maybe suspected as much?

It’s one of those it-was-meant-to-be kind of photos. Your first moments at the keyboard. You’re all of two-and-a-half years old, your cheeks still round, your biceps soft.

In retrospect, it seems, an early indication of intent. But who knows? Maybe you were just a kid playing grownup.

Now we see you in a photo on the phone – or, rather, holding a phone to your face, probably no one on the line. Again, you’re playing grownup, making like you’re carrying on a big-person conversation. You’re wearing a white shirt — it’s riding up high enough on your shoulders to expose your belly – and sneakers with white socks.

But look now at how you’re sitting. You’re reclining, almost lying down, a grin on your face, the phone in your right hand held just under your chin, but for some reason that defies logic, your bare legs are thrust in the air, bent at the knee, your left hand tucked under your sneaker.

Again, maybe this position represented your early concept of how people talked on the phone: legs up in the air. It flouts propriety bigtime. Ah, well, you’re only about three here, and obviously tickled to be on camera pulling this little stunt.

Look at me! I’m on the phone! With my legs up in the air!

P.S. — Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Little Boy Playing Roles: Part 2

On through the photos we go, each sharing a clue or two. The photos show you trying on different identities.

Here you’re on your tricycle with red handlebar grips. You look somehow adventurous, as if you’re ready to pedal really fast and take turns tight and maybe pop a wheelie. You’re ready to be the next Evel Knievel, ready to go all Vin Diesel.

There you’re dressed as – holy crap! – Batman himself. Maybe it was Halloween. You’re all in black – black pants, black shirt, black cape, black mask with eyeholes. Your shirt bears the Batman ensignia, the bat silhouetted against a yellow backdrop.

But look now: you appear to be signaling toward us. You’re crouched forward, your head turned to the side, one eye visible and looking right at us, your left hand raised with palm out traffic-cop style. Maybe you’re ready to spring into action and save Gotham. Maybe you’ve already arrived on the scene for your big rooftop showdown with the Joker.

Whatever the case, you’re playing the hero here. And looking fully up to the job.

In that same vein, another photo shows you, all of maybe four years old, flexing your torso. You arms are out at your sides, bent at the elbow, your chest bare. Your face is a game face, all business.

I am the mightiest of the mighty, you seem to be saying here. Mess with me at your peril!

You look pretty fit here, your chest solid and your belly tight, but you’re still a few years away from being Hercules. Still, a child must dream, must fantasize, must flex the imagination along with the biceps, and here you’re doing just that. You’re all set to be larger than life.

In another photo, maybe a year or so later – you’re taller, more angular now – you’re again captured in a solo posedown. You stand before the camera, right arm upraised, left arm across your chest, your hands clenched into fists. I’m seated at the dining room table just behind you, acting agog at this display of raw testosterone.

I’ll close now with just one more photo. It shows you in a yet another role you loved to play: grandson. Grandma stands behind you, bending forward, almost cheek to cheek with you. Your head is tilted to the left to accommodate hers, her hand over your shoulder. Your eyes appear half-closed, as if you’re in a state of joy – the joy of safety and security and affection. Grandson was an identity you wore well, and wear to this day.

But wait! What’s this? The photo has another person in it. You’re gripping a shopping cart bearing a small child. It’s your sister Caroline. She’s there, too, maybe a year old. The photo says so much. Here’s Grandma behind you, just as she always would be. But here, too, as a bonus, is you behind Caroline, and you’re all ready to try on yet another identity. Big brother.

You, Looking Out for Her

Dear Michael,

You originally wanted to take your sister back to the hospital. That’s what you told us after we brought Caroline home.

Mom said OK and started to wheel Caroline out the door.

“Where are you going?” you asked.

“I’m taking your sister back, just as you said you wanted,” Mom said. “But I’ll have to stay with her there.”

You looked at Mom, puzzled. “You’ll have to stay with her?” you asked.

“Oh, yes,” Mom said. “Of course. She’s too little to take care of herself.”

You gave this concept – of your mother leaving you, a five-year-old, to care for your sibling rival – some deep thought.

“Oh, OK,” you said. “She can stay.”

And that was that. Mom was just pretending there, of course. But you were serious.

Other than that incident, though, you’ve always looked out for Caroline. One time you three went to the McDonald’s on Metropolitan Avenue. Caroline went on the ride in the playground that had a long, steep tube to slide down. She climbed into the tube and we awaited her emergence, and then Mom waited some more, wondering whether she was trapped. Finally, you went into the tube to rescue her. Turns out she had just decided to hang out in there without informing anyone. But you coaxed her down, the heroic big brother.

Another time (at band camp), Caroline was little and kicking you in the legs for no apparent reason other than random sisterly malice. You could easily have kicked her back, but you refused. She kicked and kicked, but you kept the peace, declining to retaliate.

Pretty cool.

And so it is with you. You’re always ready to step in for Caroline. No matter what happens, it’s good to know you’ll always be her big brother, watching over her, keeping her safe.

Getting An Earful

Dear Michael,

From your earliest days, while still a baby, you sometimes cried inconsolably. One day we took you to the physician and he looked down your throat and into your ears and found out why. You had an ear infection.

Or, more accurately, a middle-ear infection. Or, as we learned after some study, otitis media. Oh-tie-tus-mee-dya.

Dr. Neumann, your first pediatrician, whom I actually knew from his stint as a columnist with American Druggist, then prescribed amoxicillin for you. We went to the drug store and picked up a bottle of pink liquid that looked like a strawberry milk shake.

You cried the whole time, your mouth open wide, your lips quivering, letting loose your wail. Your ear hurt. And just as you hurt, we hurt, too. Seeing you cry, hearing you cry, left Mom and me feeling painfully helpless.

As soon as we got home, we poured the pink medicine onto a spoon and fed you your dose. You winced at the taste, sticking out your tongue in disgust, but down your throat and into your belly the medicine went.

And the effort proved worth it. Within an hour you stopped crying. It happened just like that. You were so exhausted from your exertions – crying nonstop takes energy – that you dropped straight off to sleep.

Mom and I watched you sleep now, your features still, your crying silenced, your little chest heaving, safe and properly medicated in your crib. We felt so relieved your pain was gone. We also felt we had carried out our duties. Problem solved.

For years afterward you came down with these ear infections regularly. Every time it happened we went through the same routine. Crying, doctor visit, medication given, relief all around.

It got to the point where we could pretty much diagnose the issue ourselves. No sooner would you break out crying than Mom and I would look at each other, nod and say, “Ear infection again.”

The doctor never made a big deal out of these recurrences, but I worried. After all, my mother is profoundly deaf, the result of spinal meningitis contracted at age one, and my father was severely hard-of-hearing from birth.

Could you, by any chance, be genetically predisposed toward hearing loss? I asked the doctor. Did otitis media pose any threat to your hearing?

No, it turned out. As Dr. Neumann explained, you were susceptible to the infection because of the configuration of your internal ears.

Eventually, the infections stopped. No more crying, no more pain, no more visits or medicine or worry. And your hearing stayed intact. And in the end that’s all that counts.

Clash With a Clueless Coach

Dear Michael,

When you were little, I took you out to play. I always had to ask you. A little basketball? I might ask. We would go around the corner to the courts.

You always had this one move you liked to make. You would start maybe 30 feet from the basket and rush forward, dribbling fast, then veer to the right, around your defender, and flip the ball up at the basket.

Pretty good move. What always struck me was its elaborate detail, how early you always started, all the different steps, so choreographed. Still, you tended to score with it.

We tried some baseball, too, or at least wiffle ball. We would go out on the sand in front of our cabana at the beach club in Silver Point. You always took a strong cut at the wiffle ball, smacked it pretty far, too, a pull hitter, just like me.

For a while there, I suspected you might take a liking to baseball, more so than basketball. I saw some talent there and hoped you might recognize it, too, even relish it, exploit it, develop it.

And then we took a crack at tennis. We played at Cunningham Park, both indoors and outdoors, and at the beach club, too. Tennis, for whatever reason, left you uninspired. You never tried very hard, so we let it go.

Hey, it’s all good. You never really wanted to play sports. It’s a shame only because it’s something we could have done together. It’s a shame because I would have loved to see you discover yourself, your abilities and even your personality and character, as I have, through sports. We could have played anything anywhere anytime. But I’m proud I never pressured you or made you feel bad about it.

I’m right about that, yes?

One time I took a walk by myself around Cunningham Park. And near the baseball field on the Union Turnpike side, I came across a man and a boy playing baseball.

The man had a bat in his hand and was tapping out grounders. The boy, maybe all of 10 years old, had on a glove and fielded the grounders. The kid was having a tricky time of it and missing or bobbling the grounders.

“No,” the man would say. “That’s wrong. Get your glove down. Get it down low.”

And the man would hit the ball again, and again the boy would flub the grounder.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” the man said. “Do as I showed you. Listen.”

I had stopped my walk to watch all this. Clearly the man and boy were father and son.

At first I thought, How nice the father brought his son out here to this park to teach him to play baseball. My father had never done that, though I had a catch with my Uncle Leonard once, on our front lawn, him throwing the ball so hard it hurt my hand.

But as I watched this particular father and son, I realized something was terribly wrong here.

Maybe I should say something, I thought.

Then again, maybe I should mind my own business and keep my mouth shut. So I watched a few minutes more, giving the scene a chance to go right.

But the same dynamic repeated itself, in a pattern that came to appear inevitable. The father criticizing his son, belittling his performance, expressing his disappointment and frustration louder and louder. And the son, trying to apply the lessons delivered, but to little avail, looking stricken with shame and embarrassment.

And more and more I felt the urge to say something. (Oddly, I suspected that the father, aware of my presence, believed I was admiring him – might actually admire him for administering such needed discipline.)

Finally, I could take it no more.

“You’re the one doing it all wrong,” I said to the father.

“What?” the father said. He was maybe 10 years younger and 30 pounds heavier than I.

“All you’re doing is running him down, making him feel bad.”

The father looked at me in what I imagined had to be disbelief.

“Who asked you?” he said. “Mind your own business.”

“I’m making it my business,” I said.

He took a few steps toward me. He looked like he could be a fireman or a plumber, burly, broad in the shoulders, with meaty hands.

“Look,” I said as he came closer, “you’re ruining it for him. You’re ruining baseball for your own son.”

I said it more as a plea than out of outrage or anger. I wanted to reason with him, get him to understand.

“But you know what?” I said. “You’re right. It’s none of my business. It’s yours.”

And I turned to walk away. And as I left, I caught sight of the kid looking at me. And I swear he had a little smile.

So all I’m saying is this, I never was going to be that guy, that kind of father. And that’s why, whenever you and I played together – and I’m so grateful we did – I always encouraged you, no matter what. If you missed a shot, I said you would get the next one.

“Good, Michael,” I always said, whether it was baseball, basketball or tennis. “You’re getting good. You’re only going to get better.”

Question of the day: Ever play sports with your kids? How did it go?

Punch Lines

Dear Michael,

And now, pulled direct from my notebooks, here are some lines intended to amuse:

· When duty calls, I usually let my answering machine get it.

· I’ve tried to curb my tongue, but it turns out the leash is too short.

· Can you get surgery for having your head up your ass? If so, I might be a candidate.

· I’ve always heard about people reading someone the riot act. I’ve never seen it, though. Could someone please send me a copy?

· I wish I had some fitting last words for you. But I can only think of two.

· I know now why people sometimes say I sound condescending. It’s because I think I’m better than they are.

· Imagine someone so desperate for attention that every time he sends an e-mail he blind-copies himself.

· I wanted people to able to say I had my heart in the right place. So I went to a cardiac surgeon. He agreed to relocate it.

· When anyone calls me contrary, I tend to disagree.
P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Punch Lines: Part 2

Dear Michael,

Here, pulled from my notebooks, are some more lines intended to amuse you:

· I love everyone equally, just some more than others

· If you have nothing nice to say, you might as well say it anyway

· Flying by the seat of my pants – that’s my favorite airline

· I happen to speak fluent tongue-in-cheek

· Here’s the message I’d like you to send all our shareholders. Fuck you. Now you’re the writer. So please feel free to wordsmith it.

· Sometimes I think about suicide. But it’s always someone else’s.

· Most people talk too much – it’s as if they get a volume discount.

· If he ever took an IQ test, he would probably fail

· Working out with weights really gets your blood circulating. All your muscles grow engorged. It’s as if your whole body has a hard-on.

· I could barely make out a word he said. Only person I ever knew who needed subtitles.

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

· She drank alcohol only on special occasions. Like daylight.

· When in doubt, you probably should be.

Question of the day: Is your family funny? How so?

The Two of You, Brother and Sister, Together Forever

Dear Michael,

Back we now go to those photos, handy triggers to memory.

Here you are, in a bathtub foamy with bubbles, your mouth open and jubilant, with a nearby companion: Caroline. You might be six years old, she only about one, and she’s looking pretty tickled, too.

Now you’re alongside her crib, Caroline standing inside, and you’re leaning in with a smile, your hands on the railing, her hands on yours.

Look, you seem to be saying. I have a sister.

Now you’re both seated in a restaurant, the two of you maybe eight and three years old. Your right arm is curled around her shoulder, bringing her close to you. She’s pressing her forehead against your cheek, jutting her jaw out with sisterly pride.

We’re brother and sister, you both appear to be saying. And nobody can ever take that away from us.

In photo after photo, this is unmistakably how it is with you and Caroline.
You’re standing by our old black bookshelf in your powder-blue pajamas, both hands clutching your sister. You’re looking laid back, the stalwart defender, and she’s practically hanging on you, smiling impishly.

You’re both in Mystic now, maybe at Abbott’s, the bay in the background. You’re behind her, your chest to her back, and you’re holding her, your left arm around her waist. Once again you smile but faintly, an impression of contentment. Caroline, though, smiles harder, feeling safe and privileged and lucky in this embrace.

Now you’re both in a restaurant again, with Caroline evidently on your lap. You’re hugging her from behind, your arms wrapped around her shoulders, your face right next to hers. Again, she’s showing teeth and you none, but the image clearly indicates intent. You’re there for Caroline and she’s thrilled you are, and it makes you feel pretty good, too.

Jump ahead five years, 10 years, 15 years, and the story stays largely the same. Your arm is around her and she’s the little sister, you’re both playing your roles, hitting your marks, knowing your lines.

But it’s more than that, much more. It’s the connection by blood. In these photos I see how very much you mean to each other, how very much you belong to each other.

I come away from these photos feeling greatly rewarded. As to why, just do the math. Mom and I created you. Then we created Caroline. But now you both have created something else: brother and sister together.

And that means something important to me. You’ll take care of each other. You’ll always have each other to count on.

No Holds Barred: Grappling With My Son

Dear Michael,

You’ve warned me – you, at age eight, weighing in at all of 48 pounds – that you intend to kick my butt. Now the time has come.

It’s Sunday, we’re here at the gym, on a gray mat. I’ve dropped to my knees to approximate your height, and we’re wrestling.

You charge at me, scowling and growling, and put all your moves on me. The clothesline. The pile driver. The suplex. You know plenty of moves.

Still, I slip one arm around your neck, the other between your thighs, and hoist you over my head for a full body slam.

Our match is make-believe, of course. Neither of us intends to hurt the other – we’re just pretending to. I pull my punches, but still you go reeling. You attack me with a bogus face rake, and I snap my head back, yowling in feigned pain.

As we grapple, I ask myself, Should I let him win?

You had gotten interested in pro wrestling about a year earlier. You watched matches on TV, absorbed in the antics of Earthquake, Typhoon and the Nasty Boys. We bought you plastic models of your favorite figures, Hulk Hogan, The Macho Man, the Million Dollar Man. You subscribed to a monthly wrestling magazine, dipping deep into your allowance of $3 a week.

You begged us to take you to a tournament at Madison Square Garden. So we did. There, wrestlers with fire hydrant necks and arms like suspension-bridge cables strutted around the ring glowering. They leaped off the ropes and flung each other around with impunity, all in a carefully choreographed charade of combat.

But if the bout was a circus, the audience was a sideshow. Tattoos and biker jackets, cheering and jeering, nose rings, Goth makeup – the arena had more testosterone than a prison riot.

We took you to other tournaments, and your preoccupation grew into a full-fledged fixation. You collected wrestling cards. With your plastic action figures you enacted imaginary clashes between Ric Flair and Sid Justice. You scanned your wrestling magazine for news about the Undertaker and the Legion of Doom. Three nights a week you watched matches on TV, maybe between the Big Boss Man and the Ultimate Warrior.

Soon you knew all about every wrestler, right down to height, weight, age, ring record and best moves, and at the dinner table spared us no detail. All you ever wanted to talk about – any time, any place, with anyone – was wrestling. Our conversations addressed such pressing issues as,

Who was better, Rowdy Roddy Piper or the Warlord?

OK, I figured, no harm, no foul. Pro wrestling gave you heroes to root for and villains to boo at. You could thrive on the imaginary inflicting of pain, on fantasies of dominance and submission. Wrestling would school you in the wages of conflict and competition, in the lessons of fair play and cheating, of right versus wrong.

Oh, make no mistake: I had my concerns. Pro wrestling sends certain unfortunate messages to its audience. If you’re frustrated and angry, for example, your best bet is to bash someone in the kisser, or worse. The sport promotes a win-at-all-costs aggression. Of all the forms of cultural enrichment available, pro wrestling – with contestants who bring folding chairs into the ring to leverage as bludgeons – was never quite what your mother and I envisioned for you.

So now we’re wrestling, you and I, and I have all of this on my mind.

Should I let you win?

You’re all spindly limbs flailing. You rush me for a clothesline – right arm outstretched, the better to knock my head off. You fold your arms and ram me, and I spill backwards onto the mat. Your spunk surprises me. You clamber on top of me, your chest athwart mine, your palms pressed to the floor. I squirm under you, barely lifting my shoulder blades off the mat, as if unable to escape.

With your breath warm on my face, I lie still and let you pin me. For my money, you earned your victory.

P.S. — Question of the day: Would you let your child win? Why yes or no?

Mr. Too Cool for School

Dear Michael,

You’re seven years old, in second grade, and you’ve put on your standard outfit. You wear pointy black cowboy boots, a brown leather aviator jacket and faded blue jeans, each knee with a rip of your own making. You have on black sunglasses and a black-and-white bandana wrapped expertly, by your own hand, around your brow. To top it off, dangling from your right ear, left over from a Halloween costume, is a gold-plated, clip-on hoop earring.

You’re a four-foot tall, 45-pounder decked out like a rock star on a cross-country tour. Thus do you board the yellow bus for your daily trip to elementary school.

So it went with you then.

You would hang out in front of the bathroom mirror, combing your thick, wavy brown hair to mimic the styles you caught on MTV. You’ve begged us to let you grow your hair longer so you can sport a ponytail.

You’re barely an adolescent, yet you’ve already mastered a second language: fluent backtalk. If I joke with you too freely or somehow upset you, you might tell me to give you a break or take a hike. You will propose, with growing frequency, that I either get out of town, get real, get a job or, more simply, get a life. Your mouth strikes me as a prematurely, precociously adult instrument.

Oh, you’re the complete package all right: the funky uniform, the hipper-than-thou attitude, the up-to-the-minute idiom. Your purpose is clear. You want more than anything on the planet to be cool.

As you strut through our apartment, you lip sync to M.C. Hammer, fingering an air guitar. You now carry a comb to school and chase girls around the playground. You bop along with us on family outings – bandana, earrings and all – and draw gasps and surprised glances from passersby.

One time we all go out for pizza and the teenagers at the next table are so taken with your look that you’re invited over for a cameo appearance.

You’re Mr. Cool. Mr. Too Cool For School.

P.S. – Question of the Day: What do you say to your kids about the concept of cool?

Mr. Tool Cool for School Redefines Cool

Dear Michael,

Just in case, just as a precaution, I had to stop you from turning into a kid I know in junior high school named Tony. Tony had acted as if he had seen it all and done it all and nothing much mattered to him anymore.

You seemed at risk of becoming likewise indifferent. If you stopped caring, nothing would touch you, dulling your impulses for sympathy, compassion, love. If you acted like this at age seven – you seldom missed an opportunity, especially with an audience handy, to jut out your little jaw and tell me to cut you some slack – how might you then act at age 17?

So over the following weeks I tried to redefine cool for you. Now, cool, by overwhelming consensus, is based on your look, your image. But it seemed to me that your concept of cool should extend beyond mere aesthetics. So I took every opportunity to share my personal code for cool – to cooperate, to care and, better still, to be kind.

Well, something must have clicked. One day you went to school minus bandana and earrings. That afternoon you sat next to your sister on the living-room floor and, unbidden, read nursery rhymes to her.

The following weekend, when two boys traded punches in the schoolyard around the corner, you yelled so loud and for so long for the fight to stop that the kids felt too embarrassed to keep duking it out.

Then you went yourself one better. You watched a TV news segment showing how political upheaval somewhere, maybe Sarajevo, had left thousands of children orphaned and hungry. You turned to me to suggest we send some money.

Now that’s cool, I thought.

P.S. – Question of the day: how do you define cool?

A Father Imperfect

Dear Michael,

You’re eight years old and scooping cold cereal from a bowl. You’re watching early morning cartoons, so engrossed you let milk dribble onto the living-room coffee table.

Eat over your bowl, I tell you. How many times have I told you that?

You look at me warily. Then you cough, but you forget to cover your mouth.

Cover your mouth when you cough, I say. I must’ve told you that a thousand times. I’m tired of reminding you to follow these simple procedures. I wish that, at least for once, you would absorb my advice.

Now you’re taking your time with the cereal and the cartoons.

Get dressed, Michael, I say. But 10 minutes later, you’re still in your bathrobe, dawdling, a puddle of milk spreading on the coffee table. Get dressed! I boom. Now!

You gobble the last of your cereal and move toward your clothes. As you do, I smack you lightly on the behind.

Do this. Do that. Do it right. Do it now.

Why? I ask myself. So what if you spill some milk? So what if you cough without covering your mouth? Why must I play the drill sergeant, coming down so hard on my son?

I should let you off the hook, I think. Once in a while, I realize, I should just let the small stuff slide. If I accept you as you are, I might come closer to accepting myself, too.

P.S. – Three guest blogs will appear next week in honor of my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving.

The Day We Argued About Movies

Dear Michael,

You and I went for a walk one day and the whole time talked movies. You were maybe 16 or so. It was never planned that we would talk movies. I invited you to take a walk around the neighborhood and that’s just what wound up happening. Nobody planned a symposium or anything.

I was just glad you accepted my invitation in the first place. Even back then, it was pretty rare for you to do so.

Anyway, we probably talked about all the movies you always liked (and I did, too, mostly). As we crossed Queens Boulevard, you probably said something about the great stunts in “Diehard” – about, say, Bruce Willis being dragged out the window of that skyscraper or the flames shooting up the elevator shaft at him. And I probably said something about how much I liked the script – about its rich texture, say, and the believable backstory about marriage and kids.

We must have talked about all kinds of other movies, too, from “Ghostbusters” and “Superman” to “Predator” and “The Last Action Hero.” And I probably said something about my favorite movies too – “The Godfather,” “Double Indemnity,” “On The Waterfront,” “It Happened One Night.” We’ve always joked about how for you movie history extends back only about as far as “Jaws,” and I’ve tried to give you an appreciation of what went before.

And so, as we made our rounds near Forest Hills High School, near 108th Street – it was one of our longest walks together, at least an hour, maybe two – we went back and forth, scholars of cinema making our points about style and substance. And here’s what I remember most about that walk and that talk that day.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

The Day We Argued About Movies: Part 2

Dear Michael,

How much we argued. That’s what I remember most about our walk and talk that day. The whole walk wound up being one long disagreement.

If I thought a scene in “Poltergeist” was funny, you might say you found it serious.

If you thought Arnold gave a good performance in “Terminator II,” I might saw he was better in the original.

It was as if we had actually agreed to disagree on everything.

And I had to ask myself, why must you always be so contrary. I would have loved for us to see eye to eye at least once in a while. And I grew quite frustrated – pissed off, really – and I’m pretty sure by the time we got home, the feeling was altogether mutual, and the walk turned out to be something less than an overwhelming success.

But now I realize that that day might have marked some kind of a turning point for you, and maybe, to a lesser degree, for me, too. Through the whole conversation, as you insisted on your point of view as valid – that, for example, “Superman 3” never got its due at the box office or Uma Thurmon was well cast in whichever “Batman” sequel she showed up in – you were actually making a clearcut, profound statement to me.

I am my own man, you were saying.

You can say what you want to me, you were saying, but by the same token, I can say what I want to you.

I’m establishing my identity here, whether you like it or not.

My ideas and thoughts are my own, no matter how much you disagree.

I stand independent of you, you were saying.

And now, all these years later, I can finally respect you for that freedom of spirit. I know its origins well, having long felt it myself. I have no doubt that your streak of stubbornness, harnessed right, will take you far.

The Boy Who Chased Me

Dear Michael,

Ever since you could run, we’ve raced each other. I always gave you a headstart and pretended to keep it close but then of course I always won. I saw little point in ever letting you win because

I wanted you to have an incentive to try harder.

We would race wherever we went, whether parks or playgrounds or backyards or the beach. I gave you as much of a headstart as I felt sure I could make up, maybe 10 yards or 20 or more.
The only satisfaction I got from these races was the idea that I might be fueling you with a competitive spirit. At no point did I ever expect you to feel shamed or belittled.

And to your credit, you always agreed to race me, even though you knew you would always lose, and tried your best, too.

Then, of course, you got older. You went from being eight, when I could literally run circles around you, to, say, 12 or 13 or 14. You were taller and stronger and faster. I gave you less of a headstart now, and had to run a little harder, and our finishes kept getting closer.

We kept racing all over, at least a few times a year, and I kept beating you, even as you hit 15 and 16 and 17, and I reached 50. All that time, even though I took some pride in being pretty fast for my age, I was rooting for you to win.

It was getting to be that time.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

The Boy Who Chased Me: Part 2

Dear Michael,

And then one summer morning we went to Long Beach and raced again. It was already warm and the sand was just starting to get hot and Mom and Caroline had settled into chairs to relax, listen to music and admire the surf. Naturally I invited you to a sprinting contest and you accepted.

Now, maybe it’s just my imagination operating in retrospect, but I recall a different look on your face. Your face suggested you knew something nobody else knew.

The time for headstarts was long gone by now. The starting line was the same for both of us. We agreed on a finish line maybe 100 yards down the beach, near the breakers, where some rope lay. And as Mom and Caroline watched, I called the start and off we went.
We were neck and neck right away, and I tried to kick into a higher gear, but then you slowly pulled away, a foot ahead now, then two feet, then more. You beat me and beat me clean.

I looked at you with a smile and you smiled back and I hugged you. It was one of my happiest moments ever. Nature had taken its course, the younger generation eclipsing the older, the son surpassing the father, just as it should be, just as it’s meant to be. You were now the stronger and faster.

And it meant so much more than just running fast. It made me think you could do better than I in other respects, too. You would be smarter, too, and happier, and make more money, and be more fulfilled.

Of course we kept racing each other after that, even though the whole dynamic, our expectations, had changed. You were going to win now. We both knew that.  And it made it more fun for both of us. And every year you beat me by a wider margin, more – I’m happy to say—because you got so much faster than because I got slower.

But even now I’m pretty fast and still you kill me out there. It’s never even close and I have no prayer of ever winning again.  And that’s exactly as it should be. You’re off and running, leaving me in the dust.

Question of the day: Do you ever compete against your kids?

Boy, Hooked on Movies

Dear Michael,

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

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

I just wish I knew that moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I loved seeing you love movies, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Cinemablend.com:

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

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

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

The Prince of Pushups

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

The Prince of Pushups: Part 2

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Generation Goes to the Office

Dear Michael,

You worked as an intern at Discover magazine for a few months some years back (http://discovermagazine.com/). You culled through the freelance manuscripts submitted, the so-called slush pile of unsolicited materials, among other chores. Quite a responsibility, that – passing judgment on what writers sent in.

You were – what? – all of 21 maybe.

Still, a cool job, better than working the aisles at Sam Goody, more stimulating, I would think. You also fact-checked articles, as I recall, researching, for example, the “20 Things” column. And you also contributed an item or two about a contributor or two.

I know you must have had other responsibilities at the magazine. You probably attended some editorial meetings. Somehow you must have picked up, in those three months or so, some sense of how a magazine is put together month after month. Either I forgot the details you shared with me about the job or you never told me very many; either could be equally true.

It makes no difference. What counts most, I think, is you told me you liked it there, liked your role, liked the people, and found yourself well-liked, too. Does anything else much matter? It seemed, all in all, a rewarding experience for you.

For me, too. I came down one day to see you there. I forget the exact circumstances, but I think we planned to go somewhere afterwards, maybe a movie premier. I was definitely coming down to pick you up to go somewhere. But I do remember approaching the receptionist that day and asking for you.

Obviously the receptionist recognized your name, and right away that made me feel so good. Here I was, in an office building on lower Fifth Avenue, where a major monthly magazine of no small repute was being put together, and there you were, too, my own son.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow…

The Next Generation Goes to the Office: Part 2

Dear Michael,

My grandfather, Benjamin Sheft, had worked in Manhattan, too, in the accounting office he shared with his partner on East 42nd Street, right across from Grand Central Terminal.
My Uncle Leonard had worked in Manhattan, too, most recently on Third Avenue and 55th Street, at a law firm he shared with his partner.

Why, even my great-grandfather, my grandmother Sheft’s father, Isidore, had worked in Manhattan, as a tailor at Saks Fifth Avenue, on Fifth and 50th.
And of course I, too, had long worked in Manhattan. My first job, in 1976, was only a few blocks away, at a weekly community newspaper – also journalism! – on Park Avenue South and 17th Street.

I’ve also held jobs on 57th Street and Seven, and Sixth and 50th, and Lower Broadway near City Hall, and Third Avenue and 55th, and Eighth Avenue and 49th.
And now the receptionist here at Discover magazine (http://discovermagazine.com/) knew your name. Someone came out from the back to lead me toward you. We passed offices and cubicles, all the editors and artists in front of computers, tweaking text and adjusting images for the magazine. We went down one aisle, then turned down another, until finally we approached the library.

And there you were at your desk. You looked up and smiled, proud and sheepish at the same time. Your smile said to me both that yes, this was a pretty big deal, but also no, this was no big deal at all.

I certainly saw it as a big deal, and I always will. You were the latest in the line of generations of family I knew working at a job in Manhattan (as Mom had, too, by the way, at several jobs, all within the Garment District, right around Seventh Avenue and 40th Street, from about 1970 to 1990).

There you sat, looking so smart and professional, so proud and sheepish, the library behind you, working on the magazine’s next issue. You said how the library was the only place with any room left for you. And I said, Hey, all you need is a desk and a computer and you’re good to go.
It was a glorious moment, a favorite moment for me, a proud moment. You were getting going out there in the world and I was lucky enough to be there to see it.

Out Into The Night You Went

Dear Michael,

You sure did love the night life. Out the door you would go, at 8 or 9 or 10 p.m., headed to the Lower East Side, to some bar, or to Brooklyn, to some other bar. You certainly got to know the bar scene.

Sometimes, of course, we had no idea where you were going, and that was because neither did you. You would be with friends and your plan was to hang out.

So out the door you would go, your t-shirt tucked in just so, your hair done just so, leaving a scent of cologne in your wake (too much, Caroline would say, just between us).

You would definitely be looking good and feeling fine and anything could happen.
Maybe that night would be the the night. You would see her and right away you would know and then something good would happen. Or maybe you’d just have a drink of some kind and make Mike crack up with some wiseass remark and feel pretty loose.

What time you might get home, of course, was anyone’s guess. You would come back today or tomorrow, but most likely tomorrow. It might be 3 in the morning, but then again it could be more like 4, but come to think of it, it might be around 5, but on second thought my best bet is closer to 6, or you might just sleep over some place after all and call it a night and be back maybe around noon.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Out Into The Night You Went: Part 2

Dear Michael,

And what was wrong with that? Going out late at night, I mean. You were younger, maybe 18 or 20 or 22, and you loved the night life and so did your friends. Everything you might want and dream about could be out there in the night.

Her, for example.

And so out the door you would go, in pursuit of a promise, a prayer yet unanswered. Or maybe you were just looking for a little buzz and a few laughs. Maybe for those hours you were out there in that bar with the music going and the Saturday night crowd milling around, you would be glad just to forget about the rest of your life, or at least get it in better perspective.

School, for example.

And while you were out there, I was rooting for you to discover something in that long, dark night. True, we were both wondering where you were and with whom, and we were worried about when you would get home and what might happen on the “F” train as you rode along at 6 in the morning.

But I understood why you did it, why you ventured forth into the unknown, because I once did it, too, a long time ago, and even though I often found nothing at all, I’m still glad I did it, because that’s how I met Elvira.

The Boy Goes Maverick

Dear Michael,

Let me come right out and say it: You’ve always kept to yourself.

Even as a little boy coming home from school, you never volunteered much of anything about what happened in class that day.

Along the same lines, you’ve shared very little, at least with me, about anything else personal, your friends and your ambitions, unless I’ve asked.

For a long time I found this tendency toward privacy and secretiveness more than a little frustrating. I’ve always believed that only if I know how and what you’re doing can I really be of any use to you. If you’re troubled about something but refuse to let me know, I’m pretty much handcuffed from doing anything about it. And so your long, frequent silences have puzzled me and left me feeling largely helpless.

But lately I’ve come to feel differently about your reluctance to let me in on your life, and even to understand and accept it.

For starters, this is how you’ve always acted, staying to yourself, keeping your own counsel, confiding little of any depth or intimacy about your education or your girlfriends, doing so no matter how I reacted, whether well or poorly. And so clearly this is your personality, this is how you’re always going to act, it comes naturally to you rather than by design, and no one, perhaps least of all me, is going to change it.

I’ve also come to recognize, at first only dimly but lately unmistakably, how much your guardedness, especially toward me, resembles mine toward certain others. You’ve held yourself back from me because of your concern about what I might say in exchange, questions I might ask, concerns I might raise. I do the same, even now, especially with anyone who has any power or authority over me, because I prize nothing quite so much as my independence.
So it goes, I suspect, with you. You, too, prize independence, and independence breeds a certain distrust, maybe even paranoia.

So I’m in no position to fault you for your reluctance to confide in me, because I’ve felt the same reluctance, whether toward certain family members or my employers.

Finally, I guess it all has much to do with fathers and sons, perhaps most particularly with fathers. We fathers often take a backseat to mothers when it comes to our children, and rightly so. You’re going to tell Mom stuff you might never tell me because you feel more comfortable with her and, yes, trust her more.

We fathers are often regarded as a sorry second option for such confidences. For all I know, we might even be seen as The Other Parent.

No matter. After having you as my son for almost 25 years now, almost half my life, I accept your wish for silence, for privacy, for independence, particularly in relation to me.

The fact is, I have no choice.

But if you know nothing else about me, know this. I’ll always be ready to lend an ear. You may dislike what I say, even disagree with it and resent it, but I’m always ready to listen.

P.S. – Two-part question of the day: Have your kids ever gone maverick? If so, what do you do?

Your Eyes Wide Shut

Dear Michael,

I know you must dream at night. I think you probably dream during the day, too.

That’s good. I’m a big believer in dreams – in having dreams in the first place, in pursuing your dreams, in keeping your dreams alive. A life without dreams is hardly a life at all. A dream is a message, a touchstone, a compass.

I’ve seen you sleep at night all these years, as a baby and as a boy and now as a young man, and all along I’ve wondered, What are you dreaming about?

Maybe you’re dreaming about girls, or a particular girl, a girl already met or a girl as yet unmet, and how she looks and sounds and smells and feels.

Then again, maybe you’re dreaming about your next screenplay, about all the dialogue coming out just right, pitch-perfect, and then the movie that results, and everyone going to see it and like it.

Whatever it is you dream about – a woman, professional success, a cool apartment, loyal friends, – just make sure you dream your dream, my son, my beautiful boy. Never stop.

If you’re going to write, then write well and truly, as only you can write. Write the truth as you know it because it’s the only truth you’ll ever really know.

Dream on.

Tilt at windmills.

Roll that boulder up the hill.

Dare – by all means dare! – to fly too close to the sun.

P.S. — Question of the day: what do your kids dream about?

The April Fool’s Day Kid

Dear Michael,

Out it comes from your mouth, quicker than anyone could anticipate, taking the world by surprise.

A wisecrack.

No sooner does it happen than faces nearby break into smiles, stomachs are clutched and a sound is heard.

Laughter.

So it has gone with you over all these years.

“Did it just get fat in here?” you once asked as Caroline entered the living room.
Another time I bid you hello and you asked me to explain what I meant by that.
And on and on, wisecracks about me and figures in the news and the world at large, everything fair game, ready prey for your snake-flick of a tongue.

Exactly when your wisecracking prowess made its official debut is hard to say, but you definitely started young, a prodigy of the quip and the comeback.

It’s really something special, this miraculous ability to turn out funny remarks. It takes a certain view of the world as essentially absurd, a sense of the ridiculous, and you’re equipped with that mindset.

One time, many years ago, maybe 30 years or longer, I went to a party and, in the middle of conversations, reeled off one wisecrack after another. Whether any were funny I have no idea. But this guy turned to me at one point and said something like, “You really like to get in there with your little comments, eh?” He said it with a smile, and all I could say in reply was something like, “Yeah, now that you mention it, I guess I do.”

Same with you. You’re a conversational trespasser. You pick up on what others are saying and play off it, giving it your own twist, branding it with the Michael brand, zapping out your zingers.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

P.S.S. – Are your kids funny? Funny, how? Like, clown funny?

The April Fool’s Day Kid: Part 2

Dear Michael,

So let me just offer this advice. Make the most of it. It’s a one-in-a-million gift, and you really should take advantage.

Write those wisecracks down, or else they’ll evaporate into the ether, forgotten and irretrievable. Written down, they may someday come in handy, ready to be organized, marshaled, deployed.

Consider it an obligation almost holy: if you can make people laugh, you should.
But let me also put this out there. Beware the wisecrack. It can get you into trouble. As much as I urge you to cut loose and feel free to improvise your ass off, exploiting your talent to the maximum extent allowable by law, it’s incumbent on me to deliver a word of caution.

Years ago, around 1994, my former boss Howard Rubenstein took me to meet with a new client, Anna Strasberg, the acting coach and Lee Strasberg’s widow. We watched some actors rehearse first and then Howard introduced me to her. I thought we hit it off pretty well, only to learn a day or two later that I was grossly mistaken. Howard called me into his office – he never came into yours – to let me know I was off the account.

“You’re too much of a wise guy,” he said, and then explained. Apparently Anna Strasberg had made a remark to me about all the actors being in costumes. I, feeling clever, then said something about how I was there in my PR costume. I know: a groaner, hardly clever. I had figured – wrongly, it turned out – that there in that theater, in the spirit of the setting, an attempt at impromptu humor, however pathetic, might be welcome.

Au contraire. Evidently Ms. Strasberg questioned my seriousness.

And that’s exactly the sort of misperception that you could risk encountering yourself. Wisecrack once too often, to the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong place, and it could come back to bite you. You could find yourself accused of lacking seriousness.

The wisecrack can be either blessing or curse, escape or trap, and only you will be in a position to try to figure out which is which.

My Son The G-Man

Dear Michael,

Over the years, without realizing it, maybe even without suspecting it, you’ve turned into one. It’s as important as anything else you might be. It’s something I’ve always tried to be and wanted you to be, too.

A gentleman.

Now, I know what that must sound like to you. Some old-fashioned idea about a guy in a tuxedo with pomaded hair who bows before young ladies and tosses off bon mots with ease.

No.

By gentleman I mean something unrelated to class or wealth or breeding, something beyond stereotype and caricature, something eternal.

Let’s start with the concept of decency. To me the most essential mark of a gentleman is decency. And I consider you to be decent, a key characteristic in my book.

Decency means you carry yourself with respect and loyalty and integrity and honor. It means you tell the truth and consider the welfare of others and try to do right. And you do so less for personal advancement than because it comes naturally to you.

Decency is treating everyone equally, whether CEO or doorman, and lending a hand to others, whether colleagues or the homeless, and appreciating the hand you’ve drawn in life, whatever it might be, and making your best effort, either in the classroom or the karaoke bar, and trying, however hard it seems, to think well of others and speak well of others.

I know. It sounds like basic Boy Scout pablum. It might as well come out of some chapter in the Old Testament.

But that’s what I’ve come to believe about being a gentleman. In my heart of hearts, because I’ve known you now for 25 years, I see you as one yourself. And it makes me as proud of you as anything else. And bodes well for you, too.

Because here’s something else I’ve come to believe. Once a gentleman, always a gentleman.

What I Love About My Boy

Dear Michael,

I wish I could say I love absolutely everything about you, but it’s almost everything, and that’s good enough.

I love how you made me a father for the first time, and how beautiful you looked as a baby, and then as a boy, and now as a man, all your features perfect.

I love how you played that scene in the play about Iraq where you’re angry at your father, how true it felt, maybe because little or no acting was involved after all.

I loved how you made your favorite move to the basket, dribbling straight at me, then going right and flinging up a shot.

I love how you never spoke ill of any of your friends, neither Gio nor John nor Lacey nor Roman nor Kevin nor Mike, even though you probably could have; and the same went for your girlfriends, too, even though you must certainly should have.

I love how much joy you gave Grandma Nettie (and she you), and how much you heard from her, how many words you must have picked up, because the woman never, ever, stopped talking.

I love how you looked in your bar mitzvah suit, almost like Tom Hanks at the end of “Big,” even though the suit fit you just fine.

And how you write, how well you shape your ideas in your movie reviews, your essays, your screenplay, your birthday poem for Mom.

And how strong you are, doing all those pushups – was your record an unbelievable 183? – and how fast, finally outsprinting me with those long, loping, slashing strides at age 17 or 18, leaving me in the dust.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

What I Love Most About My Boy: Part 2

Dear Michael,

And I love how intent you are when you watch a movie, how very studious, because you, like me, believe with all your being in movies, in the stories being told, just as you do with wrestling.

And how you looked after we gave you the pink medicine for all your earaches, so relieved with the pain gone and no more need to cry.

And how well you deal with being just like me, or at least so much like me, bearing the blessing and the curse alike, because yes, I believe it’s a bit of both, but which more than the other might be hard to say, and believe me, I would know because I’ve lived as me longer than you have as you, more than twice as long.

And how you slept on the floor in our bedroom for so long, there on the carpet until maybe age three, close to Mom, and who could blame you.

And how you respect and trust your mother, how much you love her and recognize inescapably how much she means to you, and to us all.

And how you still believe in women, in romance, in love, in all the promise and possibility, as well you should.

And how you love your sister, how you admire her tenacity and ambition, and would do anything for her, how you would protect her against any threat no matter how small.

And how loyal you are to Mike, and how well that Newsday piece of yours turned out, and how taken you are with action heroes and superheroes, how these characters animate your imagination and excite your creativity and fuel your aspirations.

And how you you’ve turned out to be such a gentleman, always polite with the Vilettas and the Dreyfusses and acquaintances we might chance to encounter on Queens Boulevard, and how well you’ve treated your girlfriends, even those undeserving.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

What I Love Most About My Boy: Part 3

Dear Michael,

And I love how you’ve kept your own counsel, nursed your secrets, savored your solitude, maintained your long silences, because you’re entitled to your privacy and your personal business is yours alone.

And how you’ve steered clear of weed and drink only a little even when everyone around you had to be doing otherwise.

And how you impersonate Christopher Walken and crack wise and mock and spoof, ever quick to play with an idea that dances into your head, to riff it into a routine right on the spot, taking over the party.

And how once, asked if you ever considered yourself short, you referred to yourself, instead, as “undertall.”

And how hard you make me laugh, how you’re the funniest person I know, the proof being the ribs I’ve almost cracked laughing at your lines.

And how smart you are, how fast you pick up on facts, how deftly you can assemble your knowledge into something new, a true sign of intelligence, I believe, because what’s really important is less what you know or how much you know than what you make of what you know.

I love so much about you, almost everything, how you smile and how you laugh. I love how much you have in front of you, because you’re so talented, so singular, such a complete package, how many great accomplishments lay ahead, and of course all the happiness in the world, too.

P.S. – Tomorrow will bring “What I Love Most About My Girl.”

Saying the Unsaid, Finally, To My Son

Dear Michael,

I’ve skipped so much here in these “letters,” even though I have more to tell you. I’ve left out everything I want to say but would never dare.

So let me make amends and give it a shot now.

For starters, I urge you to eat more vegetables. You’ll never regret it. What’s the big deal anyway? There. I said it.

You should also go easier on the cologne. You’ve heard that suggestion before, too. You’ll smell just as good with less.

You should vary your exercise routine – a little of this, a little of that. Take it beyond pushups and crunches. But you knew that.

The floor in your bathroom I’ll leave unmentioned. It speaks for itself.

Okay, so much for the lighter stuff. Now let me get a little serious.

You should get out more (I know, I should, too). I know the writing has to get done mostly at the computer. But still, getting out and about more will refresh you.

You should give nature a chance, too, while you’re at it — develop an appreciation of it. I know, I sound like an old hippie. Well, maybe I am. Still, admire the sky, the trees, the rivers, if for no reason than because it might bring you a moment of peace and wonder.

Read more widely – newspapers, magazines, books. Read, particularly the writers, including movie critics, you like best, writers you might want to follow. You’ll find heroes and inspiration.
Be more opportunistic. You’ve heard us say this, of course. Take advantage of certain situations that pop up – people you should know, stuff you should do – because it might be your only chance.

Be more curious, too. Maybe I’m being predictable and unimaginative here, but the whole world is a classroom. We can all learn so much more if we open our minds. Even a stranger on the street can be a teacher.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Saying the Unsaid, Finally, To My Son: Part 2

Dear Michael,

Expect more from yourself, too. That’s really important. You must if you are to accomplish anything much. Discover how to unleash the genius inside you. I know that sounds like self-help bullshit. But trust me. You should awaken your talent, let it loose.

While you’re at it, go for the funny. Humor is a special gift, and should be exploited.

I could go on here, about how you should learn to drive a car, and how you should make every moment count (remember, I say this knowing no one you know has wasted more time than I), but I should stop soon. In a sense, you already understand what you should be doing (though it never hurts any of us to be reminded now and then).

But as long as I’m telling you some stuff I would never dare tell you, let me say just a little more. You should forgive me for any wrongs I have committed, whether against you or your mother or anyone else. I intended no harm. I wish we had more of a family surrounding us, some uncles and cousins at least. I would have liked to keep more family in our lives, at least theoretically, so you could be even more loved, by more people.

By the same token, I wish we could bring more friends around, too, more guests in our home, to make us feel less insulated (even though a certain degree of insulation can be good for you).
We are who we are, of course, and as Dads go, I suppose I’ll do.

But back to you now. Love yourself. Let the small stuff slide. Take nothing for granted (except for me and Mom and Caroline).

And if you remember nothing else, please remember this: Grandma would be proud of you. So keep it up. Honor her memory.

What I Love Most About My Son: The Sequel

Dear Michael,

We might as well start with the quicksilver wisecracks, the sarcasm that spurts forth without warning.

And with how quickly you’ve once again dropped all that weight and pulled yourself into shape, relying on protein and pushups, please hold the carbs.

And how you took right away to the concept of your own blog about movies and are now bringing it all the creativity at your command.

We’re talking once again here about what I love about you. It’s hard to get it into words, as hard as anything I’ll ever do, but I’m going to give it a try, realizing I’ll never capture it all, probably nowhere near, but maybe just a few highlights. So here goes.

I love how you love your bacon, you primate you, you ravenous carnivore.

I love how you’re playing the role of big brother, the part of a lifetime, giving it your all.

I love how you’re controlling your temper better now, the eruptions growing fewer and milder.

Shall I go on?

Remember, by no means will this tally ever prove comprehensive. But let me give it a go and bring you your due. After all, I love you so much and also love so much about you that to take a crack at cataloguing it is worth venturing. So what else then?

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

What I Love Most About My Son: The Sequel (Part 2)

Dear Michael,

Well, how you felt as a baby, putty in my hands – I loved that.

And how you look in more recent photos, with that too-cool-for-school expression still on your face – love that, too.

Oh, and how you’re now keeping regular business hours, syncing up with the world around you – love that as well.

Nothing I put down here is going to do justice to the love I feel, it’s true depth. An act doomed to futility! Still, how can I in good conscience let it go without trying? No chance. So let me bring this little book home. And tell you what I love most about you.

How your face looked in the moonlight in Southhampton, back around 1986, as I carried you outside the cottage we rented, how your eyes beamed as you looked up at all the stars glittering in the sky that night, the constellations a canopy as your mouth opened in awe. I loved that, and to this day love it still.

How you took your lumps with that girlfriend of yours, really sustained some serious bruises, injuries to internal organs, too, but then you came back, ever the romantic, your belief in love unflagging, and picked yourself a winner. Love it.

How your attitude toward me has changed, how your respect for my professional opinions has suddenly grown, and how it’s as if you’re finally able to see me for who I am for the first time after all these years. Love that, too.

Oh, so much more to say here – about how you act around others, so gentlemanly and how well you write, how your appreciation of movies is evolving into true discernment and sophistication, and how you’re trying to make a career for yourself and get yourself going, none of it easy as I well know.

I love all that, and also, most important, how well you remember the one no longer here, who still counts so much now and forever, a source of light and warmth for all of us as strong as the sun.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

What I Love Most About My Son: The Sequel (Part 3)

Dear Michael,

But now let me tell you what might well top the list, the number-one reason I love you. And if I fumble in the attempt, forgive me. But I might as well go out swinging. So here it is.

I love how you came you came into the world as if from nothing and nowhere, but how you really came from us, from our love for each other, from our faith in the future.

I love how you gave me someone new to love, someone I could call my own, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, and also how you in turn love me.

I regard you and Caroline and Mom as my greatest accomplishments in life by far, as rewards surpassing anything I might ever have imagined.

I love, too, how absolutely bottomless my love for you is, how, just as I might one day believe I love you with all my heart, the next day finds me loving you even more. I love that, love how my love for you grows and grows, limitless, into infinity.

There. I’ve said it. And you can take it to the bank.

P.S. — What do you love most about your kids?

Poppa Comes To Visit Us

Dear Michael,

My grandfather Benjamin, from whom you get your middle name, came to our house in Fair Lawn every Friday afternoon for many years. Those visits, as I recall, always made me very happy.

He would always be in a good mood. He liked to clown around with me, my sister and our poodle Sparky.

For example, he would make believe he was chasing us around the first floor of our house. Our kitchen had entrances on two sides, one leading to the dining room, the other to our front entrance and the living room. So we had kind of a circuit and could literally run around in circles.

Sometimes my grandfather pursued me and sometimes, as I watched from the kitchen, my sister. I could see him materialize here and then disappear over there, my sister giggling and screeching all the while.
He had this funny move I loved. He would raise his hands near his face, bent at the elbow, like the mice in “The Nutcracker — maybe that’s where he got the idea – and prance along, lifting his knees high, in short stutter steps. He really cracked me up.

Why he visited every Friday was at least threefold. First, he had a standing appointment, as an accountant, with a client in nearby Paterson, a 200-store chain named Spotless Cleaners. Two, he always sat talking with my mother at some length at the kitchen table, probably about her life and her worries and woes, offering his reassurances and, equally important, slipping her some cash, maybe 50 bucks, a lot of money in the 1950s and 1960s. Three, he got to see us.

My grandfather really got a kick out of kids. I saw that when he was with my cousins Peter and Danielle, too. He never quite left behind his own sense of boyishness. So we looked forward to those visits from Poppa, as we called him. We would look out the window from our den and he would pull into our driveway in his Cadillac (fact: year in and year out, he never drove anything but a Caddy) and my sister and I would shriek and jump up and down with excitement.

Those visits made such a difference to all of us. Here came this man, then in his late 40s and early 50s, with his broad shoulders and manly stride, a man with an office and a secretary in Manhattan and money in his pocket, and he arrived as kind of a savior.

I know he was a lifeline for my mother, and more than financially. I’m sure he told her what she most needed to hear – that no matter what happened, he would always take care of her.

And he gave something special, in those visits, to me and Linda, too. He gave us his attention. He shared his joy at life – his joy at having grandchildren who adored him, at being able to help his deaf daughter in distress, at seeing his clients in Paterson and finishing his workweek at our house. He gave us those moments of joy, many such moments, and they meant so much to me, no less now than then.

That’s one reason we keep his photo out in the living room.

That’s why your middle name is his. He meant so much to me and maybe he can also mean at least a little something to you.