Archives for category: Coming of Age

DOES SIZE MATTER?

Darryl Dawkins died last month at age 58. He’d debuted as a professional basketball player with the Philadelphia 76’ers in the late 1970’s. Darryl’s claim to fame concerned his ability to slam-dunk a basketball with sufficient force to explode the backboard. A cheery and smiling personality, his nickname was “Chocolate Thunder.”

My connection to Darryl Dawkins could not have been more tenuous. Yet, the basis for that connection proved hard to forget. During my senior year at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I worked part-time at the sports desk of the local newspaper, the Evening Sentinel, which everyone I knew called “The Senile.” (Cynicism was the norm in college, after all.)

I didn’t socialize much and didn’t mind spending Friday evenings alone in the newsroom, fielding telephone calls with results of local high school contests. On occasion, I attended games and wrote articles. Among the highlights were interviewing the stars of the Boiling Springs Bubblers softball team, Patsy Peach and April Showers. No, I didn’t make those names up.

Back to Darryl Dawkins: The sports photographer was named Tom. He was talented and, a recent Google search disclosed, destined to own his own studio and make a career of photojournalism. When I knew him, however, he was barely older than I and thrilled to have a press pass that allowed access to sporting events. “This is major!” he’d say, as he gathered his equipment and drove off in a rusted Toyota hatchback, as though he were a fireman who’d just heard an alarm.

In reality, the Senile didn’t confer access to “major” events, however enthusiastically Tom characterized them. Like me, he typically covered local high school sports or low-level college games such as the ones I played at Dickinson. But once, during the pre-season, the Philadelphia 76’ers played a “home game” at the Hershey Arena, just 20 minutes from Carlisle, and the local press credential conferred access.

Since our sports editor/reporter (one person filled both roles) didn’t want to cover “an exhibition game,” Tom volunteered not only to photograph the game from courtside, but also to try to conduct a post-game interview in the locker room. There, Tom witnessed Darryl Dawkins nude and reported (verbally, not in his article) that his “schlong” was the longest ever on a human being. Not prepared for such a sighting, and also not willing to risk being drowned in a whirlpool bath, Tom didn’t attempt to snap a picture.   But he obsessed for the rest of the year with obtaining a locker room pass to a regular-season game in Philadelphia in order to secretly capture this phenomenon.

To my knowledge (and I am NOT going to check with the Guinness people) the longest schlong is not an authenticated matter. That didn’t prevent Tom from bringing up the subject obsessively. His observation clouded every mention of Darryl Dawkins for me forevermore.

Though Tom did drive two hours to several 76’ers games with a credential that allowed courtside access, he never again gained access to the 76’ers’ locker room.  The NBA season ended in the spring of 1978 at the same time as I graduated and ended my career at the paper. The lesson I derived from this slice of life is, as follows: Some assertions can simply be trusted. Others warrant the phrase “Trust, but verify.” And some, like Tom’s contention about Darryl Dawkins, may best be forgotten, if possible.

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WEATHER

Mark Twain observed: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.” Well, I did something. I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, thus sparing myself what I found to be the disheartening, life-sucking, soul-crushing tedium of a relatively northern climate.

Now, I don’t experience the gloominess that afflicted me in late October, each year, when I began to count down the days until spring. Rather, I embrace the short, two month “winter” that provides my new home with 1-2 inches of snow, three or four days below freezing, and the glorious opportunity to see daffodils begin to flower in early February.

Yet, things are not perfect here. Yesterday marked the twelfth consecutive day of measurable rainfall, a record not seen here since record keeping began, in 1867. My solar panels recorded their twelfth consecutive day of near-zero production. And my lawn is no longer sod; it is sodden.

*****

I don’t remember complaining much about cold weather when I was a child. There were several glorious “snow days,” when sleds transplanted school. And I recall rooting for enough cold weather to freeze the skating pond across the street.

In our house the clanking of the radiators comforted me, along with their hissing. It made the house seem a living, breathing thing, though it probably only indicated a deficiency or over-abundance of air or water in the system. I recall my father fiddling with the furnace. He added water or subtracted water; I could never figure out which. I recall him making sounds like “Ecch” and “Unnh” and “Sehrgehadit” while he tramped around in the fetid furnace room.

I looked forward to the spring primarily so that I could play baseball outside and scan the major league box scores in the newspaper. But the cold didn’t prevent me from throwing a ball against the wall all winter in an effort to perfect my accuracy. Now that I think about it, most of my friends refused to join me for baseball activities in freezing weather. But more than a few times, I shoveled snow and ice off the driveway so I could more easily play by myself. No problem.

*****

My father detested snow. He disliked it for the usual adult reasons, like the difficulty of driving or the necessity of shoveling. But I wonder now if he’d had some awful childhood experience pertaining to snow. He saw no joy in it, no beauty, no redeeming characteristics at all. He didn’t ski, sled or build snowmen. For his men’s clothing store, a snowstorm meant dead, unprofitable days.

Cold weather, without precipitation, was different; it served a purpose for my father. It meant people needed gloves and sweaters as gift items and for themselves. It meant outdoor workers needed long underwear and sweatshirts. It meant frugal people who had hoped to get through winter with a light, short jacket, needed overcoats.

I vividly recall standing in front of Lou Sanders Men’s Shop one December 24 when the temperature soared to sixty-five. People walked around in tee shirts and shorts; the radio reported people strolling on the beach in Atlantic City. Once they accepted the impossibility of a White Christmas, the public mood was exultant. My father was crestfallen. He shook his head like a man regarding a disaster site, as he gazed at piles of winter inventory and lamented the ruin of his year.

*****

Once I reached adulthood, I found myself increasingly sharing my father’s viewpoint, though not to the same fervent degree. Like my father, I saw the problem with snow as an economic one. It made me shovel the walkways and required me to pay to have my driveway plowed, by the inch, no less! Imagine, a three-inch storm cost about $75, a seven-inch storm about $150. Snow prevented people from shopping for houses and, therefore, cost me some clients in my real estate law practice.

Unlike my father, I expressed appreciation for the majesty of a beautiful snowfall. Though skeptical, when I denied the accuracy of forecasted accumulations, it was with the hope that they were exaggerated. When my father heard “five to seven inches are likely,” and he declared: “It’s going to miss us completely,” his tone suggested he believed he could actually affect the outcome.

Now that I live in a warm climate, inclement weather, whether warm or cold, is viewed primarily as a temporary limit on outdoor activities. No longer one who throws balls against a wall, I rely upon tennis or walking to stay active. I accept that bad weather cannot be wished away. By moving south, something I don’t believe my father would have considered, I’ve vastly improved my chances to avoid weather-related misery. My entire outlook is better. If the forecast threatens a few days in the forties this winter in Chapel Hill, I’ll say, with bravado: “Bring it on!”


SPORTSMANSHIP

Sportsmanship evolves with society. We’d be shocked, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that was routine at professional sporting events one hundred years ago. Players tolerated and participated in behaviors we’d find abhorrent today. Yet, they also enforced a code of conduct that’s now violated on a constant basis. For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1964?   The only suspense might have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own.

A professional tennis player named Genie Bouchard recently ignited a kerfuffle when she refused to shake hands and wish her opponent good luck before a match. Her refusal represented a departure from tennis etiquette as old as tennis itself. Said Bouchard, in paraphrase: “I’m trying to beat her. I don’t wish for her to have good luck. Why should I fake it?” I find Bouchard’s honesty jarring. Yet, in a sense, it also makes sense.

My early encounters with sportsmanship issues varied. When I was about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a defeat in Scrabble. Without ambivalence, I knew that that behavior was unacceptable. I also knew of an opponent who’d hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so that she’d have it available in a crucial moment. That also was clearly wrong. (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

While I was an early and enthusiastic participant in word games, it was baseball that consumed most of my thoughts during my first decade. And it was through a baseball game that I first encountered the moral question that confronts people on a constant basis, on issues big and small: “Does the end justify the means?”   Then as now, the answer is often unclear.

*****

“We need a pitcher,” said my wife, Katie, as we prepared to host some friends for a casual dinner party, “for iced tea.”

This innocuous statement, at once true and mundane, dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred for nearly half-a-century. I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates. Since my neighborhood was devoid of athletic facilities, the team played in a league in the neighboring community of Overbrook Park.

Most of my teammates are lost to the haze of memory. But I do remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfying sounds: a baseball landing in a leather mitt or popping off a wooden bat.

Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed in 2015: “We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher.” This saying passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds in 1965. The fact that both teams used the same chant, in the same flat tones of voice, didn’t diminish its constancy.  The taunts continued even when the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate. (Picture Ted Cruz after the recent Supreme Court rulings).

*****

I lived for those games with the Pirates. Our coach was a middle-aged man named Mr. Greenfield. Almost unimaginably, in retrospect, he didn’t have a child on the team. I don’t know if he had children of his own. He simply volunteered his time to coach other people’s kids in Little League. Nowadays, sadly, I suspect we’d question his motives.

I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position. But during my time on the Pirates, we had a shortstop named Scott whose seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star. Still, I styled dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy. And when I batted, I held my bat at a jaunty angle, pointed down instead of up. Bashful and retiring in every other aspect of life, I craved attention on the baseball field.

Similarly, our team fashioned itself as front-runners. It was as though historical records were posted and the Pirates were always at the top of the Overbrook Park standings. Of course, that was not the case – to my knowledge, no one tracked historical records of local Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked ongoing standings in the league. Perhaps, drawing on his years of volunteer coaching, Mr. Greenfield imbued us with our sense of superiority. I can’t recall.

I know our bête noir, the rival we loved to hate, was the team sponsored by the local Italian church, St. Donato’s. In a world of Jewish kids, they represented the mysterious “other.” Since their players all attended parochial school and my teammates attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us. Objective facts may have fallen to stereotypes and the vagaries of memory, but my recollection is that they appeared bigger and tougher than my teammates. Their pitcher always inspired whispered speculation among my teammates: “How old do you think he really is?”

*****

Following my first two seasons under Mr. Greenfield’s direction, I aged out of the “minor league” and moved into the “major league” for ten and eleven-year-old players. Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I heard that if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband. I agonized over this possibility.

Into the breach, like a savior, came my older brother, David, home from college for the summer. Not only did he save the team, my own status rose: Brother of the Coach! To his credit, David didn’t practice nepotism. I was still the second baseman, subordinate to the vaunted Scott. But it was immensely satisfying to have David there; though the youngest coach in the league, by far, he had a firm grip on strategies and techniques. Practices were fun and we won most, if not all, of our games. Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to water ice after every win.

The season proceeded routinely as we whipped teams named after the Mets and the Cubs and a team sponsored by an undertaker. Boy, did that strike us funny! We had no trouble beating a poor team wearing tee shirts instead of real uniforms and trounced a team drawn from a local religious school – they made US look tough, by comparison. Looming for the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.

From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble. Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, was half a head taller than our biggest player, Scott. During warm-ups, we watched slack-jawed as he threw faster than anyone we’d ever seen. Though only ten, I could sense the smugness in the expression on St. Donato’s coaches (they had several) as they loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well. But we were totally cowed in the batter’s box. We sat silently on our bench between innings. We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant. From my first at-bat, I recall seeing him wind-up and then hearing a thump in the catcher’s mitt behind me. What had happened to the ball? How fast was this supposed eleven-year-old throwing? As the innings flew by we’d only surrendered two runs but our chance of scoring seemed nil. We couldn’t even get a base runner.

“Gather around,” said David, when we came in from the field before our last at-bat. “I have an idea.”

Following David’s instructions, our first batter sidled up to the plate barely concealing a smile. Though we were all right-handed, he took a spot on the LEFT side of the plate. He crowded into the space just inches from the plate. As a final touch, he crouched so tightly that his strike zone, the area between his knees and his chest, could not have been more than a few inches.

The pitcher looked confused. Left-handed batters were rarities. He threw his first pitch in the dirt. The next pitch flew over the catcher and bounced off the batting cage.

“Hey ump,” shouted St. Donato’s head coach. “That kid’s not left-handed!”

The umpire shrugged.

“How close to the plate can he get?” continued the coach.

“As close as he wants,” said the umpire, “so long as he’s in the batting box.”

Our first batter walked. Our second hitter took the same left-handed crouch and walked.

“Hey,” shouted the coach. “You gotta call some of these strikes! They’re bending over. This ain’t fair.”

The umpire turned to David, who shrugged innocently.   David said to us: “Hey, how ‘bout some life around here!”

We started our chant: “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” The pitcher regarded us with a combination of anger, despair and humiliation. He walked the next batter to load the bases and hit the next batter with a pitch to score a run. By this time, in the effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the plunked batter barely flinched.

St. Donato’s coach glared at David with contempt. He walked to the mound to calm his pitcher, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes. After a moment’s discussion, the coach walked off the field with the big pitcher, now sobbing, and replaced him. Scott was our next batter. He hit the reliever’s first, ordinary pitch for a double and we’d won the game.

*****

Was it the right thing to do? Was it good sportsmanship? Did the end justify the means? I do know this: we celebrated that day without any ambivalence whatsoever, the day our coach David helped us beat Goliath.


A POLITICAL FUTURE?

Last week, an older, self-described Socialist from Vermont declared he is running for president. His last name is Sanders and, therefore, the nation has an opportunity to ponder what I’ve often deemed an obvious solution to its problems, namely: “Sanders for President.” Unfortunately for America, the candidate is named Bernie. I have not thrown my hat in the ring.

*****

I’ve never run for office. However, that didn’t prevent me from once being elected. During my first week at Dickinson College, my fellow residents on the third floor of Adams Dorm voted for me, in absentia, to represent them on the student council. My roommate, Keith, informed me of this upon my return from the library. (Or was it the ping-pong room?) In any event, he explained:

“At the floor meeting you skipped, Mike (the resident advisor) told us we have to elect a delegate to the student council. We chose you.”

“Why?” I said, stricken.

“You said you were going to major in political science,” said Keith.

“So?” I asked.

“This is political,” he said.

I was less than gracious about my election. The next day, I learned from Mike that the Council held meetings once a month, and I would be expected to keep my floor-mates informed of developments.

“Great, “ I said, grumpily.

“It’ll be good for graduate school applications,” said Mike.

“That’s four years from now,” I said. “I hate meetings.”

“Yes, I noticed you weren’t there last night,” said Mike, smiling. “This is what you get.”

*****

After only a few weeks of classes, I already knew that political science was dismal, as majors go. For instance, one of my classes was State and Local Government, wherein I studied the distinction between towns run by mayors and towns run by managers. I learned that some towns hold partisan elections and others do not. Most critically, I learned that Nebraska has only one legislative house, not two, and therefore, is called “unicameral.” Future success in Trivial Pursuits and Jeopardy secured!

The other problem in political science at Dickinson was that the classes were full of hyper-competitive, grade-grubbing pre-law students. Though I eventually completed the course work in political science, I shifted my primary field of study to English Literature. The classes were enjoyable, less grade-oriented and, incidentally, overwhelmingly female in make-up. The atmosphere seemed collegial, academic, not mercenary.

*****

Despite my misgivings, I dutifully attended the initial student council meeting on behalf of my of Adams Dorm constituents. Held in the conference room of the 200-hundred-year-old “Old West,” the setting was, admittedly impressive. Stern portraits of past College presidents gazed down upon the assembled representatives. I took a place in the back row, as was my custom in such matters and waited for the action to begin.

At a table in front of the room, facing out towards the delegates, were the officers of the Student Council. These were seniors who took procedural rules seriously. I recognized several from seeing them roam the halls of the political science building where they sought face time with professors at every opportunity.

A gavel brought the meeting to order, motions were made and seconded, speakers were given “the floor,” and a lively debate ensued on a matter of absolutely no interest to me, namely: How many student delegates would attend the College Trustees meeting and, when they attended, should they sit among the Trustees at their conference table, or should they sit in chairs set back from the table as sort of “advisory” attendees?

And would the attendees actually be “advisory” or would they merely be “witnesses” to the goings-on? And, if they were “advisory,” what sort of advice would they give? And how should a consensus be arrived at to determine the student council’s position? And wouldn’t all these matters depend (almost entirely, duh…) on the preferences of the Board of Trustees, whose meeting it was?

Most of the delegates had passionate opinions on all these questions. The debate continued for an hour. By this time, I’d filled my note-pad with doodles, looked at the beautiful grandfather clock in the corner of the hall at least twenty times, and wondered if anyone would notice if I just sort of slipped out the side door. My reverie ended with a decisive bang of the gavel and the announcement that a task force would be established to submit recommendations to the officers who would take the matter under advisement and blah, blah, blah. I had no idea what to tell my dorm-mates.

*****

I never aspired to the presidency of the United States. From the earliest household mentions of Presidents Johnson and Nixon in my formative years, I heard only complaints from my parents, particularly my father.   Therefore, the office held no special allure. Congressmen, however (in 1964, or so, a Congresswoman was a rarity and a “Congressperson” did not yet exist as a concept) struck me as special. I still detected an aura around what I thought of as silver-tongued orators.

On an eighth grade trip to Washington, two classmates and I strode freely through the hallways of the Capitol building; the high ceilings and marble impressed me and, as a student of geography, I thrilled at the sight of each huge doorway marked by the name and state of a different legislator. As a special treat, Senator Dirksen, a famous old lion whom I recognized from television news, strode past us looking important. He nodded in our general direction, and the three of us told anyone who would listen that he’d personally welcomed us to the Capitol.

*****

Half a century later, Congress’s public approval rating is below fifteen percent. Personally, with the drip, drip, drip of revelations over time, I’ve come to view legislators as narcissists with a tendency towards larceny. Why would any sane person choose such a life except to financially enrich themselves and/or their families and friends? That is why it’s so bizarre and refreshing to see probably-not-a-cousin Bernie with his uncombed hair, rumpled suit and unfiltered spleen sputtering in vain about the depredations of big banks and corporations. As Andy Borowitz pointed out in The New Yorker, he’s probably disqualified from the race due to excessive integrity.

*****

Back to my political career: I returned after the student council meeting and found that none of my floor-mates cared one whit about what had happened. No one asked about the meeting. When I told my roommate, Keith, that I’d attended, he shrugged.

The following month, I skipped the council meeting. I skipped the month after that, too, and, in fact, the rest of the year. The third floor of Adams Dorm did not have the benefit of representation, and no one noticed. When it came time to complete law school applications several years later, most included a question about whether I’d held elective office. I’m pleased to report that I checked “No.” My maintenance of that shred of dignity is the sole positive to come out of the experience. I wonder how many politicians would have answered the question the same way.


THE GREATEST HITS OF 1720

We recently attended a harpsichord concert on campus at UNC. Two men played three-hundred-year-old music on a one-hundred-year-old instrument. The results were magical. One might wonder: “Who goes to such a concert?” The answer is: “Hardly anyone.” We were among eleven audience members marooned in a sea of ninety chairs in an otherwise charming, sun-splashed hall.

Later in the week, over 50,000 gathered several blocks away to watch UNC’s disgraced football team tackle a similar outfit from Florida State. Though a sports fan myself, I find the disparity disheartening. I won’t belabor the sad state of our culture. That’s a cliché’. Rather, I’ll focus on the harpsichord.

*****

In my formative years, during the 1960’s, my music resources were relatively meager. There was radio and there were vinyl records. I didn’t control the radio in our household. My father turned the dial to KYW, “News Radio 1060,” and my mother sometimes changed it to WFLN, “The Classical Station.” A child of limited imagination and even less rebellion, I never considered exploring alternatives. And, as a person of limited means — my weekly allowance of $.25 went towards baseball cards – I didn’t buy records.

Instead, I listened to whatever happened to be on. Thanks to KYW, compared to any other pre-teen in existence, I excelled at current events, traffic and weather. From WFLN, I formed distinct opinions about composers. I preferred orchestral pieces and piano concertos from the big guys, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I was less enthused about solo pieces, opera, or relatively dissonant classical music composed after 1900.

In the living room, a state-of-the-art stereo system built by my brother, Barry  (speakers hidden in an inactive fireplace!), played our limited variety of vinyl recordings. Several Herb Alpert albums whetted a taste for pop. Broadway shows, such as: Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story filled my consciousness, as well. Unbidden melodies and lyrics still pop into my head at any time via synapses first established in 1962. And two records featured my father’s favorite, the Yiddish ballads of Theodore Bikel.   To my recollection, my father never operated the stereo and I never volunteered to play his records for him. Even a teenager as compliant as me had a limit. (Never mind the issue of whether he was unable or unwilling to operate the stereo – that question never occurred to me – perhaps there are several potential stories there).

*****

I recall the first record that was “mine.” For approximately my tenth birthday, my mother combined my penchant for puns with my eighteenth-century sensibility and bought me a collection called “Go for Baroque.” It featured harpsichord pieces by J.S. Bach and Rameau, a comparatively unknown French composer. The tinkling of the harpsichord captivated me.

At the time, I “studied” piano with a teacher named Mr. Koffs, whom I called “Cootie Koffs.” Not that I deserved better, but he smacked my fingers for mistakes and generally contributed more to misery than to mastery. I craved the special baroque sound.

“Why can’t I play a harpsichord?” I asked. “I’d even practice.”

“No one plays a harpsichord,” said my mother, on the rare occasions my question elicited a response.

By the time I was eleven, piano lessons succumbed to my flood of complaints and my drought of practice. Thinking I’d have better luck channeling the Tijuana Brass, I requested trumpet lessons, instead. After three untalented years, during which I sapped the enthusiasm of my trumpet instructors and myself, I concluded my youthful career at the low end of mediocre on both instruments. Yet, I retained my eclectic tastes, more or less spanning from 17th-Century Europe to 20th-century faux-Mexico.

*****

As a shy, young lawyer alone in the suburbs in my late twenties, I had an abundance of free time. After all, Ridgewood, New Jersey wasn’t “hopping” like a big city and I wasn’t exactly a “player” myself. Happening to hear a harpsichord on the radio one day, it occurred to me I might arrange the lessons I’d always wanted. In an unusual burst of initiative, I looked through the musical instruments section of the Yellow Pages (for younger readers, a paper telephone directory, like a fossil version of Google) and, sure enough, a man in Northern Jersey advertised “Harpsichords, for Sale or Lease.”

I called Ed Brewer, who turned out to be renowned in obscure circles, and learned I could rent a small instrument for $63 a month.

“Does anyone give lessons?” I asked.

“There’s one fellow,” he said. “Do you know where Ridgewood is?”

“I live in Ridgewood,” I said, amazed.

“Well, then,” said Ed. “That’s good luck. Call Jack Rodland, the organist at West Side Church.”

I did. As the music director of the largest church in town, Jack tended to see things in spiritual terms, not luck. When I described on the phone why I’d called, he said: “I’ve been waiting for your call.”

“Did Ed Brewer tell you I’d be calling?” I asked, surprised.

“No, the Lord did,” he said.

“Hunh?” I said, or a similar sound.

Jack explained: “We have a beautiful, antique harpsichord moldering away in the basement. I want to cry whenever I see it. I recently asked the Church board for funds to restore and tune it, but was told I need at least one student. Your call is a blessing.”

To say the least, Jack and I viewed the world differently. Considering my skill level, connecting my musicality to the word “blessing” intimidated me to the point of near-paralysis. Still, how could I back out of a God-ordained activity?

We arranged to meet at the church two weeks later, by which time Jack was confident the church harpsichord would be tuned for him to give lessons. Meanwhile, Ed Brewer delivered a modest, recently constructed rental harpsichord to my home. It resembled a pine coffin more than a musical instrument. Still, it contained fifty-five brown and black keys (none of those black and white keys for me!) and made the tinkling sound I loved. For two weeks, leading up to my first lesson, I spent part of each evening alternately trying to recreate the background of “Scarborough Fair,” and the introduction to “The Addams Family.”

*****

It may surprise some readers, but playing the harpsichord did not immediately make me a girl magnet. I commenced weekly lessons at the Church with Jack – a patient and gentle teacher—and practiced diligently each evening after work. After six months of steady play, I’d become almost respectable. I mastered several minuets by Bach and also the Rameau variations I’d listened to years before. Jack became so enthused that he asked if I’d play before a church service.

“You mean, like, in front of people?” I asked, stricken.

“Yes,” he said. “It will be a treat.”

In my mind, I thought: “It will be a catastrophe.” But Jack was so earnest!

Again, the discrepancy between our worldviews became apparent. I managed to stall Jack’s urge for my public debut for several weeks but feared I couldn’t last forever. After all, my hobby intersected with Jack’s profession and he had a Board to impress. I dedicated a number of sleepless hours to the situation, namely: “How do I get out of this?”

One morning, at work, the phone rang. My deus ex machina came in the form of a phone call from a woman who asked me out on a blind date. We hit it off immediately and my practice time dwindled. For the first several dates, I didn’t disclose how I’d spent the preceding six months of evenings. Insecure to the utmost, I feared revealing myself to be steeped in the 1700’s. Her first visit to my home, however, brought my harpsichord habit to the fore. Instead of being turned off by it, it turned out my new girlfriend had been an All-State oboist in high school. We had baroque-era instruments in common! In short order, Katie and I were married, we sold our respective houses, we had a child, and music took a backseat. My harpsichord lessons dwindled to once a month then ceased. Life had moved on.

*****

Jack Rodland was completely supportive when I explained the reason for my change in focus.

“You’ve moved to a higher calling,” he said, speaking of my new love life.

Only months after I saw him for the last time, I heard that Jack, a man no older than fifty, had died. I felt devastated. Had he been ill? It occurred to me I knew nothing of Jack’s life outside of our lessons. My only small consolation was to recall his delight at having brought the harpsichord up from the basement. Also, having a student, even one of limited ability, had pleased him.

I’d deeply appreciated Jack’s gentle teaching and understanding. Due to its constant need for tuning and my lack of play, we returned my rented harpsichord and eventually acquired a piano in the unrewarded hope that our children might be interested. After we sold it several years ago, we bought an electronic keyboard for those rare, once-a-month urges that I have to play. When I do play, I always remember Jack for a moment. Though the keyboard can mimic hundreds of instruments, the harpsichord is usually my first choice.  And Katie and I still seek out those rare opportunities to hear live harpsichord music.


OPENING DAY

I failed to watch a baseball game today. I tried, but after two innings, I found the pace unbearable. As for viewing sports, I’ve become used to the excitement of basketball or the uninterrupted flow of soccer. My inability to sit and concentrate, as each pitch hits the catcher’s mitt and, in turn, is analyzed into submission with the high-tech tools of modern television coverage, disappoints me. I wonder if I’ve become unable to appreciate the slower-paced, nuanced aspects of life. I fear I’m no longer a person who can “stop to smell the roses.” Perhaps, I’ve “given in to the frenetic pace of modern life.” I wonder, am I a traitor to my younger self?

*****

Baseball played a huge part in my early existence.  I recall being exposed to basketball and to football, to hockey and to tennis. But only baseball captured my imagination. And when I say imagination, I mean it. My best, or, at least, most dependable friends in a neighborhood devoid of children, were named Sookie, Musselemy and Fireball Conky. Each loved baseball as much as I did and were available to play every day. They didn’t exist in a physical sense.

I’ve hesitated to mention my three friends in previous writing lest I reveal a major psychosis. But an hour of research has convinced me that, if not quite “normal,” having imaginary friends in the first decade of life is not unusual. And, no, they didn’t accompany me to high school. By the time I joined a little league team at nine with real, live teammates, my imaginary playmates were absent from my daily thoughts. I admit, however, that when I pitched side-armed, like Fireball Conky, or blasted a ball far, like Musselemy, their characteristics occasionally crossed my mind.

*****

Every fan remembers attending their first major league baseball game. At least, I expect they do. Mine was opening day, 1964. The Phillies played the Mets, and my mother took me to Connie Mack Stadium to see it.   I recall her paying a quarter to a street urchin straight out of Dickens to “watch our car” a few blocks from the stadium.

I couldn’t have been more excited and nervous, both about the game and the fate of the car, respectively. My fears about the car disappeared, however, when I stepped through the stadium concourse and beheld the shocking expanse of green grass before me, brilliant even in the early spring chill of North Philadelphia. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

As to the game, Roy Sievers was the Mets’ third baseman and Roy McMillan was their shortstop. Funny, I thought, to have two guys named Roy. The Phillies had a hotshot rookie third baseman named Richie Allen and a left fielder, Wes Covington, whose tongue lolled permanently outside his mouth. We sat behind third base, which might explain why I recall the players on that side of the field.

Only five years short of its overdue demolition, Connie Mack Stadium led the world in support poles – you had to crane your neck around them in order to follow occasional moments of action. I wore my baseball glove the entire game, of course, in the hopes of catching a foul ball. Even at age 7, I was aware of the remoteness of my chances. But, just as an atheist might wonder “what if I’m wrong?” I remained ready, just in case.

The final score was 5-3. I think the Phillies won though it was less important to me than simply being there. I now know the 1964 Phillies were to experience a disastrous, Titanic-like sinking six months later, when they lost ten games in a row and tumbled out of first place on the last weekend of the season. In April, with that particular iceberg still invisible, we soaked in optimism and the promise of warmer days.

*****

In that era, my passion for baseball lasted year-round, indoors and out. Sitting cross-legged on my bedroom carpet, I played “spinner baseball” for hours. The board game, which I’d received as a birthday present, consisted of a piece of round cardboard with a metal arrow in the middle. For each batter in a line-up of real or imaginary players, I smacked the “spinner” with my finger and it circled, like a tiny roulette wheel, until it stopped on a result, be it fly out, ground out, strikeout, single, double, triple, walk or home run. I drafted fantasy teams of real and imagined players and kept meticulous, hand-written records on pieces of cardboard obtained from my father’s dry-cleaned shirts. Little did I know I’d hit upon a concept that would, fifty years later, become a national obsession. This activity made me a savant at figuring batting averages in my head. Did that help my career thirty years later when I estimated mortgage payments? Absolutely.

Outdoors, winter didn’t stop my exertions. Unless it rained or snowed significantly, I threw a ball against a target on the back wall of our house every day. I threw even if I had to shovel two or three inches of snow to access my imagined pitching mound. As a result, by the time I reached high school, I had major league control. If only my pitches also had major league speed, movement and spin. In an effort to develop those side benefits of arm strength, I spent the winter of my senior year throwing a heavy softball against the wall. It weighed twice as much as a baseball. As I’d hoped, my velocity soared when I switched back to a baseball in the spring. Alas, my naïve and unprofessional training regimen also ruined the tendons in my elbow and, in short order, my baseball career.

*****

Even before my elbow woes had moved me from a pitcher to an underhand-throwing outfielder, my high school playing career was dispiriting. I was the MVP for two years at the Friends’ Academy, but that was an accomplishment so easily achieved as to be embarrassing. My teammates matched their lack of ability only with their lack of interest. The main benefit I derived was that the coach was also my math teacher, and he graded compassionately due to my crucial contributions to our rare victories.

When I headed to college, I considered myself a baseball player who also played soccer “to stay in shape.” After success on the soccer field in the fall and continued elbow woes in the spring, however, I reluctantly put away my mitt. Thereafter, several factors caused my childhood love of baseball to dissipate to no more than an occasional glance at the standings in a newspaper. Sixteen major league teams in my youth now totaled thirty.   Due primarily to free agency, players were hard to track. As an adult, with work, family and other interests, baseball no longer had room in my life. As a parent, I thought my children might share my childhood passion; all three pronounced baseball “boring.”

*****

Why is the game now so unwatchable for me? I thought back to my viewing habits in the 1960’s, from about age six to eleven. All week, during the spring and summer, I eagerly anticipated the once-a-week televised game. I awoke on Sunday with sweaty palms and pounding heart, excited for the 1:00 p.m. start. I’d set myself up on the lounge chair in the den in front of our rabbit-eared, sixteen-inch black-and-white. I’d carefully place a tall iced coffee beside me on a tray table for two hours of entertainment. I remember the jingle for Ballentine Beer played between every inning.

Byrum Saam and Richie Ashburn were the Phillies’ announcers. When they spoke, I felt I was sitting at the stadium with two patient and friendly men with inexhaustible knowledge to impart. Their conversations meandered from anecdote to anecdote and only occasionally focused on the game action that unfolded before them at a leisurely pace. They allowed me to listen to their conversation and secure for myself a place on a continuum that encompassed the past, the present and, I expected, the future. There were no exploding scoreboards in the early 60’s, no hi-tech analysis, and few replays. In the background noise, amidst sparsely filled stands, you heard vendors hawking popcorn.

*****

Besides the glitz, noise and technology of modern broadcasts, what’s changed?   Among many factors, batters adjust their gloves and elbow pads, accouterments that didn’t exist in 1963, between each pitch. They also repeatedly step away from the plate, though I read that baseball is trying to curtail that habit in order to lop a few minutes from the bloated, three-hour games. Pitchers dawdle and shake off signs from the catcher. Batters perceive more value in patience than in power, watching pitches, fouling them off. The cumulative effect is to lengthen the game. Add commercial breaks between innings that are now twice as long, and you have not so much a viewing opportunity as an ordeal.

In addition, there’s nothing special about seeing a game on television. Cable broadcasts all 162 games a season for every team. ESPN endlessly replays notable hits or catches.   Even the umpires’ calls are subject to review. Yes, it’s good to “get the call correct,” but some of the mystery and chance has been taken from baseball. There’s no reason to watch for three hours – the highlights will be viewable at the touch of a button.

To see a game in person, one pays more for a decent ticket than for a Broadway show. Most seats are filled with corporate guests, not a child and his parent. With few exceptions, the modern stadiums are filled with artificial noise and massive electronic scoreboards. Every possible statistic is provided to the fan. As in a modern bowling alley where the score is calculated electronically, there’s no reason to invest personal calculations to the experience.

The players are no longer the “everyman” of physical proportions they seemed to me in 1964. Now, they are millionaires enclosed in bodies sculpted by nutrition, science and sometimes more. How ironic that they appeared like gods to me when I was young. Now, they strike me as terribly human, whenever their public relations handlers let them down.

Based upon my analysis, I have decided to absolve myself of guilt. I’m not a traitor. Under worthy circumstances, I’m able to slow things down.   Mostly, it’s baseball that’s changed.


RELIGION COMES TO 50th STREET

I grew up in Wynnefield, a tree-lined section of West Philadelphia. Originally settled by William Penn’s physician, Thomas Wynne, it still consists of a variety of housing ranging from row homes to apartment buildings to large single-family homes. Most were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. My family lived on 50th Street, just one block from a row of mansions on Bryn Mawr Avenue. Like them, our house was clad in Pennsylvania fieldstone and surrounded by mature maple and sycamore trees. But its relatively modest three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths made it a comfortable home, not impressive. Its placement atop an incline made it appear larger than it was.

When I was born in 1956, Wynnefield’s population was as Jewish as any shtetl in pre-War Ukraine. A decade older than I, my siblings attended public school, socialized and suffered through religious education almost exclusively with Jews.  In 1963, however, the first house in the neighborhood sold outside “the community.” As though a race had been started by the crack of a pistol, nearly every other house in the neighborhood sported a “For Sale” sign within weeks. My first-grade class picture from 1962 at Gompers Elementary School, which showed three minority students in a class of 20 gave way to a sixth grade photo wherein I was one of five Caucasians.

“White flight” is a pejorative term. Justifiably. It represents the knee-jerk reaction of racists, or people who are not quite racist, but are still fearful of living amidst people of different appearances or backgrounds. The effects on property values, schools and the sense of community are usually negative. Our property value certainly declined. The new neighbors are vilified without even having a chance to offend. Also unsettled are those who don’t move.  My family, due to some combination of enlightened acceptance of others, or inertia (I prefer the former interpretation) stayed put.

*****

We shared our driveway with a family named Rosen who joined the exodus as though Moses himself were leading it. Almost uniquely, however, the family who bought their home was not from outside “the community.” Rather, my parents learned, the buyer was a young rabbi with a wife and two daughters. In terms of joining Wynnefield’s Jewish community, Harry and Esther Cohen were the last people to purchase tickets on the Titanic.

When I learned our new neighbor was a rabbi, I expected a stern, bookish sort of man. I anticipated having to curtail my endless ball playing in the driveway because he would require quiet. I thought he would wear a yarmulke, sport a beard and, perhaps, a long coat. Wrong, wrong and wrong. Harry was tall and slender, with a clean-shaven face and sandy-colored hair. He was young, affable, and a lover of baseball. He often stopped to talk to me while I played ball in our mutual driveway, but never about religion.   We discussed his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the two woebegone teams I followed, the Phillies and the Cubs.

The rabbi’s wife, however, though short in stature, was formidable.  Born in Israel, Esther had served in their army before emigrating. Often, people regard a petite veteran, and say: “Hard to imagine she was a soldier.” Once you’d met Esther, you’d be surprised to learn she hadn’t been the commander in charge. With her nasal, accented voice, she dominated her easygoing husband. “Harry, take out the garbage NOW,” she would say. “Harry, don’t forget to be home by six. I mean it.”

*****

My family was chauvinistically Jewish, never failing to tout our kinship to the range of luminaries from Albert Einstein to Leonard Bernstein to Sandy Koufax. Yet, we didn’t attend religious services. The view of organized religion most commonly espoused by my father approximated that of the author, Ambrose Bierce. To paraphrase, “organized religion is the use of fear and hope to explain the unknowable to the ignorant.” Owing mostly to my father’s viewpoint, I also knew that the word “orthodox,” which I understood had something to do with those who took religion seriously, was often connected with the word “lunatic.” Basically, our religious observance involved celebration of all the major food groups, from beef brisket to cheese blintzes to fruit compote, a practice my family sustains.

Still, I thought because our new neighbor was a rabbi, my father would at least be pleased.   It surprised me when he didn’t accord Rabbi Cohen much respect. Instead, he said the rabbi “talked too much.”  Initially, I assumed the lack of reverence derived from the cleric’s relative youth, his mild southern twang or the related unlikelihood that a man of religion could come from Texas.   The subject of religion confused my seven-year-old self. Nowadays, I simply have a somewhat more detailed incomprehension of how people form and sustain their beliefs. After a year or two, I recognized my father’s lack of respect for Rabbi Cohen was not due solely to his personal attributes so much as to the hitherto unknown (to me) distinction between “reformed” and “conservative.” From overhearing my parents talk, particularly my father, it appeared that somewhere beneath Orthodox Judaism (too much) and Conservative Judaism (about right) was “Reformed Judaism,” representing “too little.” Rabbi Cohen led Beth David, the local reformed congregation.

*****

Civility reigned in our little corner of 50th Street, but not warmth. While the Cohen’s shared the driveway and their kitchen door stood just fifteen feet from ours, we never socialized. Besides his stated distaste for his chattiness, my father’s take on Rabbi Cohen was that he was not a “real” rabbi. Beth David stood in the literal and figurative shadow of the Conservative temple, Har Zion. The latter’s massive building was the long-time anchor of Wynnefield’s Jewish community. My impression growing up was that only presumed beatniks or unserious people belonged to Beth David, housed in a modest, former single-family residence.

“What’s so bad about Beth David?” I asked several times over the years.

“It’s reformed,” said my father.

“So?” I said.

“That’s not a real synagogue,” he said.

We never got farther than that. My father’s antipathy towards Reformed Judaism ran deep and shallow at the same time. He felt strongly about it, but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate why. Though I was too young to press my father, his insistence for “authenticity” rang hollow. It was as though a person with absolutely no interest in baseball passionately hated the designated hitter rule.

*****

My only concerted exposure to our neighbors occurred during my last two years of high school. Their younger daughter enrolled in the Friends’ Academy, the same school I attended; thus, we carpooled every other week. Fortunately, no one paid attention to the arrival of cars at Friends’ Academy as they might have at the entrance to a large public school. As though it weren’t bad enough that my carpool partner was in third grade, Mrs. Cohen delivered me in a powder blue Corvair. I didn’t need Ralph Nadar to tell me that it was unsafe at any speed. It looked funny and smelled funny; I can only hope its fumes didn’t shorten my lifespan in a significant way.

I don’t recall specific discussions with Mrs. Cohen, but I think my parents’ indifference had taken its toll. She made no effort to interact and, being shy myself, the rides were awkward. I sat in the backseat while she tried to communicate with her daughter, an exceptionally silent little girl. After I left home for college, I rarely saw the Cohen’s again except to nod or wave to Esther across the driveway during occasional visits home. If I encountered Harry, we’d cheerfully discuss baseball, at least until his wife rushed him along to work or back inside the house.

*****

When I married at age thirty, we chose to have a rabbi perform the ceremony. I asked my father if I should ask Rabbi Cohen, since he was the only rabbi I knew. “Ecccchhh,” or a sound to that effect, replied my father.  The fact that he didn’t offer an explanation still puzzled me but certainly was consistent. As a result, we enlisted a “Rent-a-Rabbi” closer to where we lived. It’s purely speculation as to what Rabbi Cohen thought about my choice. Perhaps, he felt insulted. Perhaps, he didn’t think about it at all.

In any event, my parents remained neighbors with the Cohen’s for seven more years. By 1994, Har Zion had long since been converted to a Baptist Church and Beth David had become a daycare center. Rabbi Cohen was semi-retired. My father’s death occurred immediately upon moving. My mother asked Rabbi Cohen to lead the funeral service and deliver a eulogy. The rabbi’s performance was dignified and professional. Yet, it may not have been as heart-warming as the audience might have expected from a next-door neighbor of thirty years duration. In a sense, one could call the service “conservative.” In that way, the loquacious rabbi had the final word.