Archives for category: childhood anxieties

FLORENCE UNFOLDS

 

Hurricane Florence visited last week and dropped enough rain to warrant a tsunami of cable television coverage. The forecasts were dire for our Durham, North Carolina residence.  A late shift took the worst of the wind and rain two hours south and left us with, essentially, a tenacious but otherwise unremarkable four-day rainstorm.  Some localized flooding occurred but our community missed the much-hyped direct hit.  Of course, I’m delighted the storm didn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, the impulse to disregard future warnings might be stronger as a result.

 

*****

 

Skepticism about the meteorologist/media combination is not new to me.  When I was little, my family listened to KYW News radio every morning during breakfast.  At the slightest hint a snowstorm might approach I took a rooting interest as fervent as I felt for any sports team.  “Maybe school will be closed,” I cheered/prayed/hoped.  My mother, a public school librarian, added her hopes, too, though with less enthusiasm.  Perhaps, having lived longer, she knew the unlikelihood of a large-impact storm in far-sub-Arctic Philadelphia.

I’m not sure why I rooted so hard for a day off.  School was not onerous for me and my at-home activities would not have been so fabulous.  Truthfully, I didn’t like cold weather and had limited enthusiasm for sledding, fort building and snowballing due to the resulting cold fingers and toes.  In addition, I would have been expected to shovel our front walk and might even have been guilted into clearing several of the neighbors’.  Two doors down, in particular, lived an ancient widow (I now realize she was probably in her 60’s.)  Somehow, a no-cash economy prevailed on 50thStreet circa 1962; she paid me with one or two old golf balls she had saved for decades or, perhaps, a tennis ball that no longer bounced.

Perhaps, I cheered on snow forecasts for the same reason I cheered for Nixon during the Kennedy debate or for the Cubs against the Phillies.  I wanted to get a rise out of my father who calmly, confidently, and almost always correctly intoned:  “They’re wrong.  It’s not going to snow.”

When it didn’t snow, my father never bragged.  In a way, his silence was even more infuriating than if he’d danced a jig in celebration. “Implacable” is a word that comes to mind.  “Smug” is another.  Oh, how I wanted it to snow.

 

*****

 

My early working life featured a couple of notable storms.   In Summit, NJ, in 1982, I was a first-month lawyer when the forecast called for some flurries, and it improbably snowed ten inches in the middle of April.  The storm disappointed doubly since I’d been counting the days to springtime, and it occurred on a Saturday.  I didn’t even get a day off!  Several years later, around 1985, a much-ballyhooed hurricane called Gloria aimed at northern New Jersey.  The forecast was so dire that the law firm I worked for allowed us to go home at the first gust of drizzly wind.  My co-workers and I gleefully anticipated several days off.  With sincere apologies to anyone who lost their home to Gloria elsewhere nothing stronger than steady rain ever reached Ridgewood.  We shuffled into the office the next morning shaking heads and complaining, as usual:  “Weathermen are idiots.”

 

*****

 

Moving forward twenty years my attitude towards predicted storms had inevitably become my father’s.  I assured my disappointed children as he’d assured me: “It’s not going to happen,” every time the television and radio foretold a weather apocalypse.  Also like my father, I was always right… until a storm named Floyd.

It was 2005, and we lived in Ramsey, NJ in a contemporary-style cedar shake house as leaky of air as a sieve.  The builder seemingly built it as a contribution to the utility industry.  Still, I loved the look of our house and, in particular, the fact that the garage was not visible from the street.  I reveled in not being part of the car culture dominating suburban America architecture.  Landscaping hid a driveway that curled down from the street to a below ground entrance.

Floyd approached like numerous events before it, as a weeklong media extravaganza. Reliably, the storms ran aground at the coast an hour southeast of us.  Alternatively, some storms came from the west but ran out of steam over Pennsylvania.  For whatever meteorological or topographical reason, in my prior twenty-three years of life in northern New Jersey, we never bore the full brunt of a hurricane despite almost annual predictions.

What I remember about Floyd is not so much the wind as the frenzy of the rain.  It fell sideways, splatting against the thin walls like hail.  The gutters gurgled in harmony.  And it wouldn’t stop.  For three days the rain continued.  As always, water rolled down our driveway and followed a stone path to the right of the garage doors through the backyard where it disappeared into the woods.  The first unusual thing I noticed during Floyd was that our back yard eventually began to retain a few water puddles of water.

Slowly, and then more quickly, these puddles resembled little ponds and then formed a lake.  My teenaged children gleefully raced out to enjoy floating in our backyard on a neighbor’s rowboat.  “Fun” I thought, at first, until I realized the water in the yard was approaching the garage from one direction and rain was still rolling down the driveway from the other.

“I think it might reach the garage,” I said, in unconcerned understatement.  I knew we had a sump pump in the basement for just such an event.

“Glug, glug,” went the sump pump continually from its subterranean hole in a corner.  Never having considered the matter before, I imagined the sump pump discharged somewhere distant.  Only during Floyd did I realize it discharged through a pipe onto our front lawn and, from there, the water eventually found its way back to our driveway.  But the discharge was only a tiny piece of the crisis; the first significant problem arose when the pump’s plastic discharge pipe, which ran up the corner of my wife’s office just off the recreation room in the basement, failed.  A spray of water shot through the air soaking, among other things, my beloved ping pong table, my wife’s collection of educational consulting books, family photographs, the kids’ astro-turfed indoor soccer area (didn’t everyone have one?) and a large carpet.  We turned off the pump and ran around frantically with towels.  “Nothing could be worse than this!” I declared.

Still, the waters around the house seemed to hold back despite a continuing deluge; the backyard continued to fill and would do so indefinitely, I imagined, for a few more ridiculously naïve minutes, while we struggled to deal with the sump pump calamity.  And then, as though one water molecule communicated a signal to a trillion others, the water at the garage entrance began to creep towards the house.  It was like a scene from a horror movie.  Even a perfectly functioning sump pump would have been overwhelmed.  The situation had become much, much worse.  In about ten minutes, the entire garage and surrounding office and recreation area succumbed to ten inches of water.

 

*****

Though I’m still to the skeptical side of the spectrum about meteorologists and media hype, Floyd showed how wrong I could be.  There may be more misses than hits, but having experienced what a monster storm can do, I learned a few things, namely:  the disasters that arise may not all be ones you anticipate; the media goes overboard but they are not ALWAYS wrong; and, it’s best to view natural disasters on television, from a distance.  I wish for a quick and safe recovery to all who have found Florence to be more of a hit than a miss.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


PLANE TRUTH

 

 

It’s not news to report that air travel today isn’t a pleasure. It’s my impression the experience is becoming increasingly miserable. I suspect the positive excitement of air travel began to wane when the late-60’s hijackings to Cuba inspired the first metal detectors. It’s become even more joyless due to depredations by terrorists in the intervening decades. It’s hard to believe now that one of my earliest memories is of my grandfather taking me to the Philadelphia Airport to WATCH planes take off and land. Around 1961 you could just walk into the terminal, go to the windows, and watch.

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

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Personally, I never loved air travel. My first flight EVER, from Philadelphia to Chicago circa 1964, resulted in the use of the barf bag. Though illness doesn’t produce that effect in me, motion sometimes does – I’ve even become queasy on the Circle Line boat ride around Manhattan. The plane event inspired 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 be an astronaut.

The only aspect of air travel that is better than “the good old days” is the smoking ban. I flew from San Francisco to Newark on the day it went into effect in 1991. I remember it clearly because a television reporter asked for my opinion in the waiting area. I said something like: “What idiot ever allowed it in the first place?” I doubt my intemperate clip made it to the small screen. But, as they say now, “Seriously?” Well within my lifetime, people smoked inside confined, flying compartments as though the already-fetid, germ-filled air wasn’t disgusting enough!

And what about the food? Arguably, the fact that most domestic flights now offer none is a positive development considering airline cuisine. But shouldn’t they provide something edible? The situation became so bleak by the beginning of this millennium Jet Blue gained 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 mini pretzels and peanuts.

 

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*****

 

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 I counted down the weeks until the baseball season. During college, I wished away exam weeks. My law school years were basically one long countdown of 1,051 days.

Now that I’m older, I  try to avoid such thinking. 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 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 at the destination.   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 to amuse myself. 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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INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT

For the first decade of my life, my haircuts took place at a local barbershop called “Dom’s.” Dom wore thick glasses though the ironic possibilities of his poor eyesight didn’t occur to me at the time. Early on, trying to avoid visits to Dom provoked ridiculous tantrums on my part. I professed to hate the itchiness of newly cut hair on my shoulders and neck. And I was uncomfortable due to Dom’s repeated complaints about the difficulty of cutting my hair.

“He’s got two holes in his head.   It’s hard to work around,” said Dom.

“You mean cowlicks?” asked my mother.

“Yes, I call them holes,” said Dom.

I didn’t realize the “holes” were two places in the back and top of my head where whorls circled. Most people have one such area, which is centered; when little, I had two and, because of Dom, I feared I had actual holes in my skull.

Dom was busy and did not accept appointments so I always had to wait. Therefore, I endured the fact that nearly all the adults in the waiting area smoked and the place reeked with an eye and nose-stinging stench. Adding to my discomfort, Dom’s selection of magazines featured racy covers, which embarrassed me at six or seven, sitting beside my mother. I literally couldn’t imagine what sorts of pictures were inside. By my teenage years, when I’d go to Dom’s alone, I could at least imagine the pictures, and I was curious, but I still couldn’t make myself look inside amidst a bunch of strangers.

*****

By the time I went away to college, in the mid-1970’s, hair cutting had given way to hair “styling.”   Salons for men, and coed establishments were common. Vidal Sassoon, a hairstylist, for instance, was a household name and ubiquitous on television and in print. When I returned home on break and learned that Dom had retired, to my amazement, I missed the familiarity of his shop and the predictable results.

At my older siblings’ urgings, I reluctantly accompanied my brother, David, to several different stylists over the years. Unlike Dom, in his white smock, these stylists wore huge jewelry, purple or blue hair and bizarre outfits. Getting a haircut was like visiting a fashion show, but not one to my liking.

Although, by the standards of the day, my hair wasn’t long it still topped out several inches above my skull. Inevitably, these stylists urged me to have “STYLE.” They dismissed the cut I’d been wearing since childhood, which included a part on the left side, and hair trimmed around, not over, my ears. Some wanted it to be longer; some wanted bangs and longer sideburns. All wanted to do away with the part.

“Your waves are special,” said one female stylist. “People would pay to have waves like these.”

“I guess I’m lucky,” I said, unimpressed.

“Can I tease them out?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure what “teasing out” involved, but my answer was “No.”

Never knowing what the end result would be, I always tensed in a stylist’s chair, and my taciturn tone stifled most discussions. While my hair length shifted modestly through the decades, my cut never changed. Effectively, the only difference between Dom’s cuts in the 60’s and stylists’ cuts in the 70’s and early 80’s was the price, by several magnitudes. Luckily, as long as I was in college or law school, I enjoyed an almost total parental subsidy.

*****

I’d absentmindedly failed to get a haircut in the weeks leading up to our recent trip to Costa Rica. I knew that before we returned home, we were slated to attend a wedding in San Francisco. To describe conditions as humid in Playa de Coco would be understatement and the messiness of my hair was obvious. Accordingly, I agreed that a haircut in Costa Rica was in order – my wife, Katie, thought this was a simple matter. She didn’t know my hair-related history housed some anxieties.

Once I’d agreed to have my hair cut in Costa Rica, the issue became “where?” The barbershop in the small downtown area sits between several bodegas and a restaurant. When I passed by the first several times, thinking I might just pop in for ten minutes and get it over with, there were crowds of men hanging out. The television showed soccer games and the men sat around drinking beer and cheering. Worse even than cigarettes, the smell of cigars wafted through the air. I just couldn’t make myself walk in.

The days passed and Katie kept reminding me of my need for a haircut, even though seeing the mirror should have been sufficient. One day, we ran into a local friend, Lupita. She mentioned taking her son to get a haircut.

“Where does he go?” asked Katie.

“To a wonderful woman,” said Lupita.

“Where’s her shop?” asked Katie.

“In her house,” said Lupita.

“Would she do Stuart’s?” asked Katie.

“Why not?” said Lupita. “We’ll see if she’ll give him an appointment. She’s VERY busy. I’ll call her. She’s an artista.”

“Um,” I say, nervous like in the old days about an appointments-only “artist.”

“Can she just do a simple trim?” I wanted to ask, but Lupita was already on her phone.

*****

The day arrives. I take a taxi to the appointed intersection where pavement ends a gravel path takes over. I look at the map Lupita drew for me. It’s 7:00 a.m., and my appointment is at 7:15, the only time Teresa has available. In fact, as a courtesy to Lupita, she’s fitting me in before the usual starting time.

I walk two blocks on the gravel until it gives way to dirt. After I turn left onto a “side street,” which is really just an alleyway, the dirt is rutted. The yards I pass vary – some are neat and resplendent with lilies and hibiscus. Others are overgrown and appear abandoned. Small houses on both sides vary from neat and finished to tumbledown and half-finished, with rusty rebar sticking out from cinder block foundations. Every property is fenced-in.

Roosters crow. Cows moo. Cicadas scream. With almost no people stirring so early, it’s like walking through a 1930’s movie set for an abandoned Mexican village. I can’t help but wonder: “Will the place be clean?” “I hope I haven’t taken a wrong turn.” “Costa Rica’s not known for kidnappings, right?”

I reach the end of the alley and look left. There, a small wooden sign hanging from a tree limb reads “Teresa” and includes an etching in the shape of a scissors. I approach the gate. A pack of dogs in every size and shape materializes in the yard to welcome me. One has only three legs, but that doesn’t curb his barking.

After a moment, a slight dark-haired woman I judge to be about thirty years old emerges from the cinder-block house, shushes the dogs, and opens the gate. Teresa is pretty but I’m mostly looking at the dogs. She motions for me to follow. In turn, each canine takes a whiff of my legs and regards me suspiciously, looking at me as though thinking: “She saved you this time, but just wait…”

I follow Teresa past rusted car parts, a semi-diapered baby in an older child’s lap, and several chickens to a tiny closet-like opening in the rear. In the small space are a chair, a small sink, a mirror and walls covered with pictures of women with various elaborate hair-dos.

“Sietate,” (sit) says Teresa, smiling shyly.

“Gracias,” I say.

“Habla espanol?” (Do you speak Spanish?), she asks.

“Un poco” (A little), I say. “Muy despacio.” (Very slowly)

Teresa looks at my frizzy head, combs it out to gauge its length and motions with her finger that she sees where I part it on the left. I indicate the length I want around the ears.

*****

Working slowly and carefully, unlike the slam-bam eight-minute cuts I receive in North Carolina at “Clips are Us,” Teresa washes my hair in the tiny basin and massages my entire scalp.  She appears not to believe in electric razors. She trims every hair by hand.   Teresa examines my hair like a jeweler regards a fine diamond.

I’m aware of the passage of time, ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes. A baby cries outside, the rooster crows again, and the dogs greet/scare the next customer. Teresa does not rush.

In labored Spanglish I learn Teresa has five children. They range in age from nineteen to one. I calculate, therefore, that she’s older than my original estimate, but maybe not by much. Her oldest is in college to become a teacher. Teresa has run her shop for five years; each year becomes “mas ocupado.” (busier) She’s proud; she’s confident; she excels at her profession.

After fifty minutes, she finally wields a small mirror and shows me the final product. It’s neat and even and layered just right.   I’ve never been so pleased with a haircut. I won’t need another for months.

When I reach into my pocket, Teresa says: “Tres mil.” (Less than six dollars).

My expression must have conveyed surprise. Teresa appears worried she’s offended me, that the charge is too high. “Menos?” she asks. (Less?)

“No,” I say. “Mas.” (More)

She smiles warmly. “Tres mil,” she repeats.

I give her ten dollars. She appears pleased with the large gratuity in a country where tipping is not assumed. She walks me out safely past the dogs, and I’m delighted with my first international haircut.