RELATIVELY SPEAKING

 

 

The recent killings in Orlando, Dallas and elsewhere thrust madmen into our consciousness. Their insanity follows a string of similar outrages.   Despite wall-to-wall media coverage few of us can begin to fathom the mindsets of these murderers. The simpleminded among us, including a candidate for president, ascribe killings solely to religion. Like most religions, Islam can be interpreted to support murderous behavior. So can Christianity. Remember the Crusades? The solution, if there is one, continues to elude mankind. Yet, to focus on faith ignores the fact that Tim McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was not a Muslim. Neither was Lanza (Sandy Hook), Holmes (Aurora), the perpetrators of the “original” Columbine massacre, or the killer in Charleston, Dylan Roof.

 

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In America, the combination of easily obtained guns and twisted minds is closer to the common denominator. Many of our politicians flail in the face of NRA pressure. A sizable portion of the population finds the simple explanation for mindless slaughter (radical Islam) appealing. They buy guns in the hopes of keeping themselves safe, ignoring the FACT that they thus render themselves and their families more likely to experience suicide, manslaughter or murder as a result.

 

*****

 

I’m not aware of ever having interacted with a murderer. Studies indicate one in 1,360 Americans will participate in a murder, with higher concentrations in urban areas and lower in rural. (Google “How many Americans are murderers?” to review the literature). Statistically speaking, it’s likely I pass one or two every time I drive on the highway. Murderers don’t murder every moment. While this in no way excuses them, for most, their crime is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Whether their act reflects uncontrollable passion or requires months of preparation, it’s only a tiny portion of the totality of their lives. Criminals they may be, but they still stop at traffic signals, still purchase and eat food, still root for their local teams. At the other end of the spectrum are mass murderers and, on a larger scale, masterminds of ethnic cleansings, genocides, holocausts.

 

*****

 

In an NCIS episode I recently viewed, Tony, the goofiest of the agents, brags that an “Ancestry.com” search disclosed his “long lost relative, the 17th Earl of Trent,” a nineteenth century English nobleman. Tony declares to his co-workers:   “Not only was the Earl rich, but also a painting shows he was handsome.” Tony affects an English accent. Initially, Tony’s co-workers refer to him as “M’lord,” and he struts with characteristic pomposity.  Days later, however, Tony’s further research reveals that the Earl became a criminal. He died shamed and penniless after being linked to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial murderer. Needless to say, Tony loses interest in genealogy.

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“Imagine if you had such a relative,” said my wife, Katie, after the program ended.

“Well,” I said, and paused for effect. “I can top that.”

“You can?” she said.

 

*****

 

Lazar Kaganovich was my father’s cousin, the son of his mother’s first cousin. The name may be unfamiliar to most readers, but cousin Lazar was Stalin’s right-hand man throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. More than any other Soviet official, he shaped the agricultural policies that effectively caused famine throughout Ukraine and neighboring Soviet republics. Tens of millions died as a result. Kaganovich clothed his intentions in virtuous language but extensive literature shows little doubt he intended to cull the population.

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Kaganovich was sufficiently cunning to survive the countless purges for whch Stalin was famous. In fact, Cousin Lazar lived well into his nineties, just months shy of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout his life, Kaganovich remained an unapologetic champion of Stalin and his policies. While still a powerful member of the government after Stalin’s 1953 death, he engaged in shouting matches with Premier Khrushchev whom he thought too liberal. Just months before his death, he decried the weakness of Gorbachev and complained the Soviet Union lacked the will to crush dissenters.

How do I feel about my tenuous relation to a man who deserved to join Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the pantheon of twentieth century agents of death? Not good. It’s disturbing. I suspect my father felt that way, too, because he never mentioned his connection to Kaganovich in my presence. After my father’s death, I found a trove of newspaper articles he’d saved and confirmed the connection with older relatives who also had never spoken of it.

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*****

What would cousin Lazar think of modern suicide bombers? All evidence indicates he was a tough SOB, belligerent and merciless. But he definitely was not suicidal. His will to survive was his salient feature. Killers who see death as their own salvation would probably have disgusted him. Long-term programs, not spontaneous shooting, were Kaganovich’s specialty. The phrase: “Five Year Plan” was his contribution to twentieth-century history. Though the results of his collectivization schemes were disastrous (“Famine” is the word most connected to Lazar Kaganovich) his emphasis on central planning shaped all of Soviet history and still influences the ruling party in China.

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*****

 

I’m not concerned I contain an “inner Lazar” who is going to emerge. I confine maniacal ruthlessness to the tennis court. And my agricultural plans don’t extend beyond a modest backyard garden.

In case I haven’t been clear enough, NONE of Kaganovich’s horrors are excusable or laudable. But he is somehow easier to relate to, and not just because he is actually a relative of mine. He had a purpose. He persisted. He achieved a lot, all terrible.

My cousin raises huge questions. Was Kaganovich outside the realm of “normal” human experience or were his superhuman powers of perseverance and determination merely at the far end of a continuum? Was he insane in his tolerance of mass suffering or merely a master of organization gone awry? Are his descendants in any way implicated in his actions? Perhaps, if I had a PhD in psychology or sociology I could delve deeper into these questions, but I still would not find a definitive answer. The issue is too complex. As an obvious example, the debate on the issue of guilt among Germans, as individuals and as a society, continues seventy years after the end of the Nazi era.

To conclude, I can state that Kaganovich was a significant historical figure; he left an imprint on human history.  The modern mass killers, domestic and foreign, share the characteristic of being no-bodies – insignificant, contemptible scabs on the human experience.   There’s no honor in being related to Lazar Kaganovich. I merely observe that his evil has stood the test of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

TO THE BEACH!
Although healthy and involved in various athletic activities, try as I might, it’s delusional to think of myself as still in my thirties. That ship sailed several decades ago. My thoughts are wistful as I stand like a statue in the surf at Carolina Beach watching my friend Mike, a decade older than I, frolicking amidst the crashing waves like a porpoise.  He whoops with joy. He leaps. He splashes.

“Why can’t I enjoy the beach like that?” I wonder, as I inch in up to my knees.

“Oh yeah,” I remind myself, “I didn’t even like going ‘down the shore’ (what Philadelphians call ‘to the beach’) when I was little.”

 

 

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*****

 

In large part I blame the ancient wooden building where we stayed. Mrs. Bernstein’s rooming house in Atlantic City could not have been scarier to me if it were haunted. My grandparents started going there well before my birth and, for reasons incomprehensible to me, my parents continued to visit there as late as the early 1960’s. One of my earliest recollections took place in front of Mrs. Bernstein’s, a struggle, from my perspective, as significant as Gandhi’s. I sat outside on the sidewalk and refused to go in.

“It’s going to fall down,” I said (or words to that effect). “I’m not staying in that dump.”

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My protests were in vain. Once inside the bastion of faded wallpaper and threadbare, musty carpets, an additional early childhood memory involved lying on my stomach on a lumpy bed, groaning because of a sunburned back. Finally, I recall the kitchen or common area on the ground floor populated exclusively by large-bodied, loud-mouthed, chain-smoking Quebecois, shouting, cursing and singing in their strange language. There may only have been four or five men but, in my recollection, I perceived there to be a hundred.

Travel between Mrs. Bernstein’s and the beach also spawned doleful memories. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t the easiest-going little kid). My parents and I lugged mismatched beach chairs, towels and an umbrella. Though only two or three blocks long, the trudge seemed endless to my five-year-old self. The air hung hot and humid. Little planes buzzed above advertising local restaurants or shows, none of which were relevant to me. Once we arrived at the boardwalk, constructed like a wall in front of the beach, I remember splinters sticking up from the planks, litter everywhere and hordes of clamoring people. Then, as now, there were stores selling junk, tee shirts and more junk.

My mother purchased my cooperation in the schlepping operation with the promise of a visit to the one redeeming aspect of Atlantic City: the fudge shop. No dummy, she held this inducement over my head as something we would obtain on the walk home, after the beach, “so long as everything went well.”

 

*****

 

Related to the development of my poor attitude about the beach was the subject of swimming. When I was about eight, I recall attending Sesame Day Camp. Many people recall their summer camps as special places of growth, discovery and the development of lifelong friends. I hated every minute.   I ONLY wanted to play baseball with other kids who also ONLY wanted to play baseball. I didn’t want to shoot arrows, row boats, sing songs, look at someone holding a frog, or make ashtrays.

 

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At the end of each day, after the typical regimen above, my fellow campers and I arrived at the pool, where I experienced abject failure for the first time. Though the sixteen-year-old counselors offered their finest tips, for reasons unclear to me, nothing stuck. Easily the best ballplayer in my group (a skill neither prized nor acknowledged by the others) my swimming aptitude predicted a career as an anchor.

I couldn’t master breathing, and I couldn’t master kicking. I disliked water in my mouth, nose, ears or any other orifice. It didn’t take long before they moved me from general instruction to remedial work in the shallow end with the other losers, the kids who could barely walk on land, let alone swim in water. By summer’s end, I could splash around and tread water with my head held as far above the water as possible. If my stroke had a name, it was the “reverse ostrich.”

 

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*****

 

Mike asks if I like to swim in the ocean.

“Do you mean, like with my head and eyes under salt water?” I ask.

“Well, yes,” he says, kind enough not to add: “Is there another way to do it?”

“No, I’m really happy about up to here,” I respond, indicating my mid-section. “I’m barely competent swimming in a pool, so the ocean….”

I’m relieved that Mike’s already leapt into the next wave before I can complete my explanation. After he emerges from another session of body surfing, Mike is exultant. But he’s a gracious host and understands I’m out of my element. He gestures with his arms: “Well, at least you can enjoy the beautiful beach.”

He’s right about that. Carolina Beach is broad and clean, the sand fine and white. A few other visitors walk along holding hands, relaxing or picking up pretty shells. Every few hundred feet, an individual or family has set up a colorful umbrella and chairs. Sand plovers skitter delicately back and forth with the tide. Even the seagulls are relaxed, in stark contrast to the ones in my New Jersey memories.

In my recollection the beach in Atlantic City resembled Normandy on D-Day.  Large shells with jagged edges threatened my feet.   Families placed chairs, blankets and umbrellas practically on top of each other. Massive seagulls dive-bombed for food, screeching maniacally, like pterodactyls.

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Once my family settled into our spot in the sand, I didn’t lack ambition. With my plastic shovel and bucket in hand, I aimed to dig to China. Discarded popsicle sticks shored up the hole as I dug. My parents offered to accompany me into the surf, but I had little interest in anything but digging. Alas, I never reached China. Though frustrated, I didn’t ask to leave the beach. Perhaps, that was the value of Mrs. Bernstein’s; once I got out I wanted to stay away as long as possible.

 

*****

 

A storm approaches to cut our visit several hours short. We’d enjoyed two nights at Mike and Sue’s. We’d had terrific food and conversation and a mediocre four-way game of Scrabble. (Mike won). I’m happy to have happy beach memories to overlay my old ones. Who knows? If I can find goggles large enough to cover my entire head and more secure than Fort Knox against leakage, maybe next time I’ll brave one wave. It’s never too late to start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


                 SWEATSHOP SUFFERING

 

Okay, I didn’t really “suffer,” but I did spend an afternoon completing menial tasks in a Brooklyn-based industrial work space. My daughter, Kelly, owns a start-up company manufacturing menswear-inspired clothing for women. When we visited several weeks ago, my wife, Katie, and I were given the “opportunity” to help out in the sort of “all hands on deck” efforts that are the hallmark of a hungry, new company.

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Along with a potential for carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand, I gained appreciation for an oft-overlooked or taken-for-granted object, namely: the extra button that is included with new shirts. Would you believe attaching such a button, when done manually (Ralph Lauren and the like doubtless use machines), can be an eleven-step process?

 

*****

 

Some background is necessary. Kelly and her wife/business partner, Laura, are necessarily detail-oriented.   They shaped, tested, modeled, designed and discussed every aspect of their line of shirts for nearly a year before the first thread hit the first sewing machine. They aspire to provide their customers nothing less than the highest quality, sustainable, and affordable (but not too affordable) garment possible. In that way, they aim to build a following that will endure and grow.

The buttons I attached to 150 shirts, or so, were, therefore, not ordinary buttons. Sourced from the nut of a tagua tree harvested in Equador, and milled elsewhere in Latin America, they are delivered to Brooklyn in recyclable packages. Each of the company’s three styles of shirts sport a different button, naturally, selected specially for their particular color. While an undiscerning eye such as my own could not easily distinguish between buttons, I learned that buttons are to be taken seriously.

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Here’s the process: (which Kelly promises will be streamlined in the future)

  1. Take an appropriate (as designated on a computer printout referencing each shirt) button from the bag after figuring out which are “ivory” which are “bone” and which are “plain old white.” (In doing so, I felt I nearly understood, after forty years of wondering, what Procol Harem meant by “whiter shade of pale.”)
  2. Take a two-inch by one-inch paper envelope from a box of such envelopes and apply the company name, Kirrin Finch, using an ink stamp, making sure the writing appears dead-center in the front of the envelope;
  3. Place the button inside the envelope;
  4. Punch a tiny hole in the top of the envelope using a small hole-puncher;
  5. Place an adhesive tag dead-center on the back of said envelope promising: “A button and a smile from Kirrin Finch”;
  6. Disentangle a four-inch thread from a pile of such threads, akin to separating one piece of spaghetti from a plateful;
  7. Thread the thread through the little hole in the envelope;
  8. Open the second button from the top of the shirt;
  9. Trim any extra thread from the opened buttonhole with miniature scissors;
  10. Pull the string through the buttonhole, tie a knot to secure the baby envelope, and re-button the button to secure the string.
  11. Breathe a sigh of relief and… repeat.

Note that several entries combine functions. I didn’t want to list fifteen or sixteen steps, but I could have.   Please forgive me, but I couldn’t help thinking that if there WERE a task appropriate for child labor to complete, this is it.

 

*****

 

In the interest of family comity and all-around “good guy” behavior, I completed my extra button task with sufficient efficiency to be offered another task. Thus, confirmation of the axiom: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Job number two involved separating groups of buttons into plastic sandwich bags in groups of ten. These would be used for the eventual manufacture of future shirts. Again, I had to separate the now-familiar piles of stunningly similar-looking buttons and count to ten, like a pharmacist counts pills. Unlike a pharmacist, however, my efforts would not be “life and death.” Or so I thought…

After I’d completed ten bags, Kelly chose to double-check my counting. How this happened, I don’t know, but the first two bags she checked had twelve and eight buttons, respectively. This calamity represented the low-point of my career as a no-wage worker.

“If the seamstress gets a shirt order with the wrong number of buttons attached,” said Kelly, distraught, “the whole process stops.”

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I pictured myself with Lucy and Ethel stuffing my face with chocolates as the assembly line sped up. Though the rest of the bags contained the correct number of buttons my fate was sealed. “You’re fired from this task,” she said.

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I shook my head with sincere regret and embarrassment, but at the same time, my mind drifted towards retirement from clothing manufacturing. I pictured the delicious Italian dinner that approached in just a few hours like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Kelly interrupted my reverie, however: “I have something you can’t possibly screw up.”

“Oh, good,” I said, sincerity draining away.

“You’re tall, and these shirts have to be put up away,” she said, indicating several piles of shirts and several empty cubbyholes high up in a wall unit behind a table.

“I can do that,” I said, with enthusiasm. I recalled the task my father often assigned me in his clothing store, fifty years earlier, to break down empty boxes. What satisfaction can be gleaned from a simple-minded activity that cannot easily be messed up!

I distributed the shirts by size to their appropriate spots and chastened from the button experience, double-checked my own work. After fifteen minutes, all of the shirts were put away and Kelly finally called it quits for the day.

“You’ve shown yourself semi-competent with buttons,” she said. “The next time you visit, maybe we’ll try you out on collar stays.”

Oy.

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As of this week, we are homeless.  This is not in the desperate sense that we are living in a box under an overpass, but we no longer own a home.  We sold it several days ago and are living in a room at a friend’s inn for the next several months while our new townhome is constructed.  We chose to live at the inn because it allows us the total flexibility we need in terms of moving out.

 

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This wrinkle on the American Dream appeals to me.  Essentially, in the highway of modern life, we are parked temporarily on the shoulder.  My wife, Katie, is skeptical, but I strive to point out the myriad ways in which this brief break from responsibility is refreshing.  Much of the enjoyment, for me, is due to the absence of bills, including, but not limited to, the following:  water, sewer, electric, gas, trash, maintenance, landscaping, mortgage, taxes, insurance and homeowner’s association.

Selling this concept to Katie took a positive turn when she looked around our graciously appointed temporary home, and noted:  “If this bedroom were in Manhattan, we’d be paying thousands of additional dollars each month.”  Indeed, big city dwellers would look at our present situation as the lap of luxury.  Still, I admit, in many ways, it isn’t easy to give up that big, high-ceilinged slice of suburbia.

 

*****

 

We’d bought our house in Chapel Hill in early 2007.  Coming from New Jersey, North Carolina real estate appeared to be half-priced.  The prevailing mentality at the time was: “the more house you buy, the more money you’ll make whenever you choose to sell.”  While that may still (or once again) apply in locations like Manhattan or San Francisco, one is ill advised in much of the country to invest in a single family home with an eye towards making a hefty profit.  At present, a house is a place to live, not a gushing oil well.

 

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Marketing our home turned out to be challenging.  While the local market is “hot,” the golf community containing our former home is decidedly cool.  Whether or not related, demographics, the economy, and the decline of Tiger Woods have curtailed the cohort of buyers clamoring to hear the thwack of clubs in close proximity.

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Also, as the sensation of the reality show, “Tiny Homes,” attests, enthusiasm for six bedroom homes is in decline.

th-2.jpeg   We gradually changed our listing from six to five to four (!) bedrooms to garner more traffic.  Two of our bedrooms became “Flex study” and “Flex bonus room,” respectively.

The biggest factor in selling a home, as every real estate agent repeats, is price.  Following an exhaustive study of the local market our Realtor originally established a price that made complete sense – about ten years ago.  After only a month, and virtually no showings, we agreed to lower the price substantially.  After another month, we lowered it again and, as noted above, began to lower our bedroom count.  We could not affect the square footage and other attributes, however.  One prospective buyer noted, in what may be a first in real estate history:  “House has too many bathrooms.”

 

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*****

 

When our agent suggested a third, major price reduction, we balked.  It’s not (entirely) about the money (really, it’s not); we just felt if no one looked at our house, no one could possibly fall in love with it.  We needed traffic and some way to distinguish our house from the hundred other homes on the market in our community.  Thinking back to a tried and true New Jersey tactic, I suggested the following to our Realtor:  “Instead of lowering the price, let’s offer the selling agent a $5,000 bonus.”

“Oh, I can’t do that,” said our agent.  “It just feels icky.  Agents might show the house for the wrong reason.”

The reader can insert the most profane response imaginable to cover my thoughts at that moment.  Still, it being North Carolina, I responded politely:  “Well, I’d appreciate if y’all would just give it a little try for a week or two.  Let’s see if some folks’ll actually come out and see the house.”

 

*****

 

During the next two weeks, our house had eight showings, double the number from the two previous MONTHS combined.  Two couples came back for second showings and then fell over each other to schedule third showings on the same day to make offers.

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The passive-aggressive in me could not resist asking our agent:  “Do you think the bonus has had an effect?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “I think the price reductions have just finally sunk in.”

Whatever.  Readers can draw their own conclusion.  We contracted to sell to a couple who, I’m informed, prefer our community’s golf course to the one where they presently live.  Also, the gentleman is a toy train buff who will enjoy the 2,680 square foot basement for a major installation.  And what of the $5,000 bonus?  The buyer’s agent chose not to take it due to the “awkwardness.”   Instead, she suggested we use the money to bridge the gap between her customer’s offer and our counter-offer.  I LOVE these classy, unsullied southern real estate agents!

*****

I’ve assured Katie I won’t want to live in a furnished room forever.  After a few months, I’m sure I’ll be ready to ease back into the traffic jam of residential real estate.  But following thirty consecutive years of homeownership, and the recent stresses of selling, I’m happy to take a break.


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WALK-THROUGH SURPRISE

 

“Jeff Sherman’s calling from the walk-through,” said my assistant, transferring the call into my office.

“Great,” I said, rolling my eyes, “that’s just what I need this morning.”

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During my career as a real estate closing attorney, receiving calls from clients at their final inspections was among my least favorite tasks. No one ever called to say: “The house is beautiful; the seller left it spotless.” Rather, I expected a recitation of some or all of the following common complaints:

  1. The seller isn’t finished moving;
  2. There’s a carpet/floor/wall stain we never saw before;
  3. The seller mistakenly took the washer/dryer/chandelier;
  4. The leaves have not been cleared.

There are hundreds of such gripes; over the years, I thought I’d heard them all. Each such item required me to spend time and bile arguing with the seller’s lawyer at the closing for no additional pay. Sometimes, the problems were resolved relatively amicably and sometimes not. In either case, I roused righteous indignation on behalf of my clients, regardless of my personal feelings, which usually involved a mixture of “why are they making a big deal out of this?” and “how much arguing do I need to do to make it look like I really care?”

 

*****

 

Jeff Sherman and his wife, Wendy, were first-time buyers of a modest home in Waldwick, NJ. They were moving to the suburbs from an apartment in the Bronx and presented themselves unexceptionally. When I’d met them six weeks earlier to review the contract, they made no effort to ingratiate themselves. They barely smiled at me and didn’t hold eye contact. Wendy, a freckle-faced blonde and Jeff, a paunchy redhead of medium height, offered identical limp handshakes.

“This meeting isn’t adding to our fee, is it?” was Jeff’s first question.

“We only owe seven-fifty, right?” added Wendy. “There won’t be add-ons, will there?”

“Just $750 to me,” I said, fighting against a fairly common surge of suspicion. Lawyers, I understood, are not always the most popular service providers. “I’ll also collect from you to pay the surveyor, title insurance, county clerk, etc. It’s all detailed in writing.”

 

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I handed each of them a letter I’d prepared for all my clients explaining the procedures and likely costs of a closing.

Sitting across the desk from me, Jeff peered at the paper through thick glasses. Like many a husband in this circumstance, he felt compelled to ask several questions. I answered as cheerily as possible, hoping to put the young couple at ease, but was unable to elicit a smile from either of the Sherman’s. Still, after our meeting, the transaction proceeded as usual. Wendy called with occasional inquiries. They lined up their loan, and the closing was scheduled without notable stress. Despite my initial concern, though the Sherman’s were not among my favorite clients, neither were they exceptionally difficult. They simply were no “fun,” and I could live with that. From representing several hundred clients a year, if nothing else, I knew “everyone is different.”

*****

“Good morning, Jeff,” I said into the receiver, with as much hearty good cheer as I could muster. I had a pen and notebook ready to jot down what I assumed would be complaints. First-time homebuyers were particularly picky, in my experience. The slightest thing could make them angry. I was only half-heartedly listening while standing and gazing out my second floor office window.

Without any pleasantries, Jeff said: “There’s a body in the bathtub.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, coming to full attention.

“The seller, Mr. Brown. He stabbed himself in the main bathtub. I think he’s dead,” said Jeff.

My thoughts exploded in several directions at once, like the finale of a fireworks display. “Is he joking?” I wondered for an instant. “No way, Jeff Sherman is not a man who jokes.” I proceeded to: “This is a disaster. Who is there with Jeff? The police? The seller’s wife? Will the Sherman’s cancel the deal? Is this the basis for cancellation? Who can I ask? They need a lawyer. Wait a minute, I’m their lawyer.”

All I could think to say aloud, however, was: “Uhhhhhhhh.”

Thankfully, Jeff filled in several of the blanks: “We arrived ten minutes ago and were walking through the house with Mrs. Brown, but when we got to the main bathroom, she gasped and shut the shower curtain. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me not to look.”

 

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“So, like, this just happened?” I asked.

“Yeah, she said her husband didn’t want to sell the house, so he killed himself,” said Jeff.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “So he stabbed himself during your walk-through?”

“Appears that way,” said Jeff. “I think the police and an ambulance are on the way.”

“Um, is Mrs. Brown able to function?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jeff. “She seems sort of okay about it, actually.”

I was trying to process this situation. For sure, I imagined, Jeff and Wendy would want their money back, or a credit for the trauma, or a new bathroom, at a minimum. For a moment, I tried to picture the degree of agony that had led Mr. Brown to stab himself. Awful.

But then I turned to my own relatively minor agony. I realized my entire day would be dominated by this situation. Perhaps my entire week. Also, I thought, even though Mrs. Brown may be calm right now, she’s going to be overcome by shock at some point. Perhaps, she won’t be willing or able to negotiate a settlement. She’ll be too upset to proceed.

“What do you want to do about this?” I ventured, tentatively.

“We want to close today,” said Jeff.

“You do?” I said, feeling a mixture of bewilderment and relief. “What about the   body? What about Mrs. Brown?”

“She said she’d have the body taken away as soon as the police check it out,” said Jeff, sounding as calm as though a lamp or a couch had to be removed.

“And that’s okay with you?” I asked.

“Wendy just wants to make sure there are no stains,” said Jeff.

 

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“That’s certainly reasonable,” I heard myself say, then shook my head in amazement.

*****

 

Two hours later, Jeff and Wendy arrived at my office to close, as scheduled. In the meantime, the police had arrived at the house, concluded Mr. Brown had, indeed, stabbed himself in the chest with a kitchen knife, and committed suicide. The coroner had removed the body and Mrs. Brown had scrubbed the bathroom.

“Is everything else okay at the house?” I asked Jeff.

“Yeah,” he shrugged, as though he experienced something like this every day.

“Will Mrs. Brown come to sign her paperwork?” I asked.

“She said she’d follow in about ten minutes,” said Wendy. “She just had to gather a couple of things.”

“You know, nothing like this has ever happened before,” I said.

“Pretty unusual, I guess,” said Jeff. He turned his attention to the pile of mortgage-related papers on the conference table and indicated they were ready to sign.

While we were reviewing documents the new widow arrived. She was a thin, athletic-looking woman of about forty. She wore a sweatshirt over jeans, standard moving attire, and acted as though she were under no stress at all.

“Sorry I didn’t dress up,” she said. “It’s been a busy morning, and I have a long ride this afternoon.”

“I’m so sorry about your loss,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. “It’s for the best.”

I’m not sure what I expected Mrs. Brown to say, but “it’s for the best” was not among the choices. I nodded as though I fully understood what she was thinking, but I was confused.

She continued: “I told my husband last night I wouldn’t live with him anymore, and I wanted a divorce. I’m moving back near my family in Canada. He obviously didn’t take it too well,” she added.

We sat in awkward silence for a moment, taking in the truth of her last comment. She broke into a smile, and added: “But this way, I’ll save a ton of time, not to mention the legal fees and stuff.”

There was nothing to do but nod again in agreement. Before this transaction, I considered myself nearly infallible at predicting human behavior and reactions in the realm of real estate closings. Wrong!

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TABLE TENNIS TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

 

 

I arrive early and the place is empty except for two middle-aged Chinese men sitting on a bench chatting in English.   I ask if either would like to hit, but both shake their heads “no.” In Chinese, they call over a younger man who has just entered the Triangle Table Tennis Center, a 30,000 square foot facility near the Raleigh Airport.   With forty tables, ball machines, a pro shop and coaching staff, it’s the largest such center in the nation. The men converse with him for a moment, then motion to me.

 

 

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“He will hit with you,” says one, a mischievous smile crinkling his eyes.

The pained expression on the face of my hitting partner indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Basically, he’s been dragooned by the older men and thinks he has to waste his time for their amusement. Without speaking, he takes his spot across the table and serves a ball. Initially, I confirm his worst fears. My first three practice shots fly long. Each time, he trudges six or eight steps back to retrieve the ball as though he is walking through quicksand carrying a boulder.   I over-compensate and hit the next several shots into the net.

“You don’t hold the racquet right,” are his first words.

“No?” I say.

He shakes his head.

“You must have just started to play,” he says, miserably.

“Not really,” I say. “I’ve been playing for over fifty years.”

“Over fifty years holding it like that?” he says. He looks disgusted.

He serves a ball and, thank goodness, I return it onto the table and begin to sustain a rally. After half a century of play, I’m categorized as an “advanced beginner;” although a star against the general population, I’m but chopped liver against “serious” players.

 

 

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*****

 

If my game lacks proper technique, the fault lies with my older brothers, Barry and David. They taught me to play in our cramped basement sometime during the Kennedy administration. Any missed shot found it’s way behind lawn furniture or plumbing like a hide-and-seek professional. Spiders lurked in the corners amidst award-winning webs.   I suppose you could say there was a strong incentive not to miss. Owing to the fact I was about a decade younger than both of them, I never won. It all sounds miserable. Yet, I was thrilled when one of them agreed to play even though they repeatedly sent me into those awful corners chasing errant shots.

 

 

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Barry had a particularly annoying style. He played with a sandpaper paddle that made an unpleasant thwack with each shot. All of his serves went down the side of the table to my backhand so near the table edge that the ball often glanced off it, untouchable. Even knowing exactly where his shots would go, I couldn’t return them. David played with a conventional, rubberized paddle and clobbered me more conventionally.

By the time I was eight they were both away at college, and I practiced alone against the wooden wall of the closet adjacent to the table. Unfortunately, the top of the closet was open for a foot at ceiling height and high shots often disappeared into it. Once inside, they nestled amidst ancient household items that NEVER ONCE emerged, such as canvas awnings for the exterior of the house. There were also paint cans that had been fresh when the house was constructed thirty years earlier, dust and, presumably, more spiders. I rarely had enough courage to open the closet and retrieve the balls. Instead, I expended some of my miniscule baseball card budget at Woolworth’s for new balls. If only I’d thought to block the opening with cardboard. My father, who NEVER played ping pong, had an expression for such a lack of initiative: “Smart, smart, smart and then stupid.”

 

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*****

 

My opponent, who still does not tell me his name, suggests we play a match consisting of best-of-five games up to eleven points. After beating me, he will then be free to play with worthier opponents. He wins the first game 11-3, and appears relieved to be so near the end of his involuntary good-deed-of-the-day.

 

*****

 

Shortly after I learned about the Center last winter, I began to attend regularly. I play one or two mornings a week against opponents of similar ability. I played in a “beginners” league one night a week and did quite well. My strange, outdated grip and one-side-of-the-paddle style flummoxes fellow bottom feeders. I enjoy playing so much I break from my usual tendency to spend no money on myself and resolve to take lessons from a pro.

 

*****

 

A J is twenty-eight-years-old. His body is lean and sinewy. He’s made for speed and precision more than brute strength. Among the highest ranked of American-born players he makes his living as a table tennis coach. How often does the IRS see THAT on a tax form? First, he examines the paddle I’d been playing with for several years. As he holds it, his facial expression suggests he’s swallowed sour milk.

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“What is this?” he asks.

“My paddle?” I say, unsure.

“What rubber is it?” he asks.

“Um, the kind they put on at the factory, I guess,” I say, trying to be respectful but wondering about how to answer such a question.

“You can’t play with this,” he says.

“It’s illegal?” I ask.

“It’s just, you know, dead,” he says.

My silence indicates to him that I don’t “know” what “dead” means.

“We’ll get you fixed up with a real racquet,” he says. “Let’s just hit a few balls so I can figure out what you need.”

As a sports participant and fan, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of improvement via equipment. If a golfer, for instance, buys a newfangled, over-sized driver and, as a result, can hit thirty yards longer, is he a better golfer? If a tennis player buys space-age string that increases the spin or speed of his shots by twenty percent, is he a better player?

Due in part to my moral ambivalence and also to my frugality, I’ve never focused on equipment. Unlike my buddies who dissect the relative merits of one tennis string versus another ad nauseum, I’m proud to adjust to even a borrowed racquet after just a few swings. My racquets are usually bought on-line and arrive, already strung with basic material, via UPS.

But ping pong is different, according to A J: “You can keep your weird grip,” he says, as we gently rally. “It might even be an advantage against people who have never seen it before. But your skins will have to be better, as well as your blade.”

Skins? Blade? Yes, skins are what real players call the black and red rubber surfaces on opposite sides of their paddles. Before I arrived at the Center, I didn’t know that the two sides could be different. Naturally, real players don’t call a paddle a paddle but, rather, a “racquet.” And they don’t call a handle a handle but, rather, a “blade.” And when they refer to skins, they don’t mean the pimply rubber surfaces that come in a set from Walmart but, rather, highly specialized, customized surfaces that range from $50-$200 a skin. By the way, these “skins” must be replaced every several months for optimal performance.

 

 

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After hitting with A J for a few minutes, it occurs to me he never misses. Whatever random shot I hit, he calmly returns at the same pace and location. It’s uncanny. It’s impressive. I think to myself: “I’d like to be A J – still in his twenties and terrific at what he does.” At that moment, he says: “It must be great to be retired and have time to do whatever you want. I’m jealous.”

I suppose the grass is always greener….

 

*****

 

In the second game I realize my opponent’s backhand, whatever his name is, is much weaker than his forehand. Also, the new “anti-spin” skin that A J had recommended for my red side is ruining his timing, just as A J promised it would. When I remember to use it, the livelier skin on my black side creates enough spin to frustrate him. When he swings and misses for the second point in a row, I’ve won 11-9. I repeat the result in the third game. My opponent is now sweating profusely. He curses in Chinese. His friends say something to him and laugh. He is stone-faced.

 

*****

 

Ping pong actually figures in family history prior to my brothers and me. I’m told the school nurse circa 1935 thought my mother had a weak heart. As a result, she couldn’t partake in strenuous activities and spent gym classes playing ping pong. I rallied with her in my basement five years ago. She hit pretty well! And she’s still alive and well – you do the math – the nurse was wrong.

 

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*****

 

I lose the fourth game. My mind is cluttered with doubt that I can win the match against such a strong opponent. I certainly have his full attention now. “It’d still be a moral victory,” I think, as the fifth and deciding game begins. “Forget that,” I correct myself. “Don’t settle for a moral victory. Do what A J would do. Batter his backhand. Stay calm. Concentrate. Don’t concentrate too hard. Relax. Don’t relax too much. Move your feet. Follow through, etc.” The mind can harbor a lot of thoughts, some contradictory, at the same time.

 

*****

 

In an early lesson, except for my grip, A J criticized every aspect of my game. It turns out I’d been improvising every shot I’d ever hit. “You have to have a consistent swing,” he said. “Don’t worry about the result,” he continued. “Do it properly.” He’s retraining me against numerous long-developed bad habits and several habits that are good, if only I were playing tennis. It surprises me to realize that the two sports, though similar on the surface, require distinctly different swings.

At one point during my first lesson, I recall, I said to A J: “There are twenty things I have to remember on each shot. This is almost as bad as golf.” At the time, he didn’t respond. During this morning’s lesson, A J told me what I can expect after several more months of lessons and, in so doing, used the terms “hook” and “slice.” A cold shiver ran down my spine.

*****

 

The fifth game goes back and forth. I’m ahead 4-3, then behind 7-6. A late string of good luck treats me to a Hollywood ending, albeit low budget. I win 11-9. I expect my opponent to be angry. Instead, he puts down his racquet and comes to me with sweaty hand out-stretched. “Good game,” he says. “My name is James. Let’s play again now.”

I’m honored. I’ve passed a test. I can’t wait to tell A J.

 

 

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THE PLANE TRUTH

 

 

It’s not news to report that air travel today isn’t the pleasure it used to be. Throughout my adult life it’s been my impression the experience is becoming increasingly miserable. I suspect the positive excitement of air travel began to seep away when the spate of late-60’s hijackings to Cuba introduced the first metal detectors. It’s become more joyless at an exponential pace with the depredations wrought by terrorists in the intervening decades. It’s hard for me to believe that in one of my earliest memories, my grandfather took me to the Philadelphia Airport to WATCH planes take off and land. You could do that around 1961 – just walk into the terminal, go to the windows, and watch.

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Along with terrorists, the experience has been shaped, and not in a good way, by accountants. Airlines strive to squeeze revenue from each seat and I do mean squeeze. Being tall is advantageous when visiting a crowded museum or movie theatre, but whenever I fly I wish I were the size of a jockey. And it’s probably just my imagination, but it seems whoever sits around me in a plane is afflicted by one or several of the following: extra girth; bad breath; a tubercular-like cough; a pneumonia-like cold; restless leg syndrome; and, perhaps worst of all, logorrhea.

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Personally, air travel has never been fantastic. My first flight EVER, from Philadelphia to Chicago circa 1964, resulted in the use of the barf bag. Though illness does not produce that effect in me, motion sometimes does – I’ve even become queasy on the Circle Line Tour around Manhattan. The plane event inspired anxiety and the acquisition of Dramamine for every subsequent flight until the last decade or so, at which point I simply decided “enough, I’m over it.” Needless to say, I never aspired to become a pilot or an astronaut.

The only aspect of air travel that is better than “the good old days” is the smoking ban. I happen to have been traveling from California on the day it went into effect in 1991. I remember it clearly because a San Francisco television reporter asked for my opinion in the waiting area. I said something along the lines of: “What idiot ever allowed it in the first place?” I doubt my intemperate clip made it to the small screen. But, as they say nowadays, “Seriously?” Well within my lifetime, smoking was allowed inside confined, flying compartments as though the already-fetid, germ-filled air would not travel from the rear of the plane.

And what about the food? Arguably, the fact that most domestic flights now offer none is a positive development considering the doleful reputation of airline cuisine. But shouldn’t they be able to provide something edible? The situation became so bleak by the beginning of this millennium Jet Blue managed to gain positive press by providing blue potato chips. Now, with airlines making more money than they can spend I note that “snacks” are making a comeback. If only one could make a meal of tiny pretzels and peanuts.

 

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While the major health improvement of the smoking ban is undeniable, the industry has backslid in several other aspects of hygiene. Notably, there are no longer headrest covers to protect passengers from the previous occupier’s grease or dandruff or, for that matter, lice. (Sorry for the graphic image – I should have warned the reader). And the greater level of crowdedness doubtless creates less healthy air.

 

*****

 

Flying presents a philosophical dilemma with regard to how I approach life. When I was young I wished away a lot of time. For instance, during the winters when I was under twelve or so I counted down the weeks until the baseball season. During college, I wished away exam weeks. My law school years were basically a countdown until the drudgery ended. I specifically recall calculating during the first week that there were 1,051 days until graduation. Some classmates were not amused.

Now that I’m older, I strive to banish such negativity. Upon entering middle age, I largely limited my “count-downs” to the cold weather months, and in recent years living in the south, even winter is totally tolerable. In sum, as time seems to pass faster, I’m philosophically opposed to wishing it away.

Flying is an exception.   I wish away every second of time spent on airplanes. I try to be the last to enter (unless carry-on luggage requires me to join the scrum for limited storage space) and I’m the first to jump up when the destination is reached.   Once or twice during a flight, I silently count the seconds from zero to sixty and then backwards again to zero so I know the minutes pass. After I complete a count in English I do it in Spanish or German in order to credit myself with a pathetic sort of intellectual satisfaction. My wife thinks I’m nuts. Perhaps. Am I the only one who does this?

 

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*****

 

I’m afraid Mark Twain would reach the same conclusion about air travel as he reached about the weather: “Everyone complains, but no one does anything about it.” There’s simply no other practical way to reach many places one wants to visit. That’s the reality; that’s the plane truth.

 

 

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