Archives for category: family relationships

 

AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 


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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


                 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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CHEF SANDERS

 

We’ve been invited to a dinner party this evening, and I’ve been asked to make my famous cheese pie for dessert. Technically, it’s a “sour cream cheesecake” and derives from pages 611-612 of the 1948 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.   Few of my fans know that. They believe (or claim to believe) that I’ve created the recipe through decades of trial and error. Or, perhaps, they believe it comes from a long line of family pastry recipes. Uncomfortable living a lie, but not so uncomfortable that I would tell them directly, I write this post to blow my own cover.

 

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*****

The culinary arts are not a field in which I’ve excelled. Though pretty solid in breakfast options, e.g., French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, my greatest skill in the estimation of my children is the ability to spread butter and jelly evenly on a piece of toast. All three lauded my expertise when they lived at home. Did they simply feign enthusiasm to extract additional before-bed snacks? Is that a cynical question? No, I believe I truly am gifted at spreading. Still, their flattery highlighted the lack of other tasty arrows in my quiver. EXCEPT for the cheese pie.

Somehow, to the apparent joy and relief of my wife, Katie, every time we are invited to a dinner or party my cheese pie is requested as our contribution. Accordingly, we keep a supply of pie-crusts in the pantry. And I know where to find Breakstone sour cream and Philadelphia cream cheese in the local supermarket. (Only name brands suffice).  Has Katie created this demand with subtle hints to our hosts? Am I being cynical again?

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*****

 

My lack of development in the kitchen can probably be attributed to the model established by my father. Note that I did not say: “blamed.” He was, after all, a normal man of his era in the sense that he did not consider the kitchen to be his domain.   Plus, a child shouldn’t blame every shortfall on his parents any more than he should claim a child’s triumphs. Heaven knows I’m not implicated in my son’s gift for chemistry. Like me, my father had one specialty, namely: fresh-squeezed orange juice.

In my childhood recollection, my father used an ancient, hand-powered metal machine that looked like a combination of a water pump and an oil derrick to make delicious juice 365 days a year. More likely, there were times when oranges were not available, or we ran out. But memory sometimes gilds reality to the point of improbability. For this story, I’ll just go with it.

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Each morning, I arrived in the breakfast room to the sound of KYW News Radio in the background. Several steps away, in the kitchen, my father would be slicing four or five oranges in half and crushing them into juice. He would place the empty rinds in the previous day’s newspaper and fastidiously discard them in the trashcan. He then placed three glasses with bright orange nectar on the round breakfast table for me, my mother and himself.

We rarely spoke during this ritual except for him to express disgust at the odors that our cats, Farah and Cubbie, had produced in their litter boxes in the adjoining powder room. This communication by my father was non-verbal, along the lines of “Feh, eccch, phew.” My job was to empty the messes before sitting down to eat. My mother would typically be preparing eggs or toast or pancakes or assembling bowls of cereal.

 

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The 1960’s were a simpler time in many ways. Orange juice, for instance, was known as a pure pleasure. I enjoyed it; I expected it; I hadn’t yet learned to say: “But it has so much sugar,” as we do today. “Real” orange juice also didn’t yet come in a package; Minute Maid was only available in concentrated form and tasted far inferior. Dare I say I took my father’s efforts for granted?

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     When I returned home from college or law school a decade later, packaged orange juice had improved markedly. I noted that my father’s juice machine had migrated to the back of a drawer; he usually poured juice from a box by then. We all remarked at how “real” it tasted. Only now, four decades later, do I recognize we’d lost something special.

 

*****

 

Not all my cream cheese pies have been successful. Once, I forgot to add sugar. Another time, I absent-mindedly doubled the recipe and couldn’t figure out why the pie erupted volcanically all over the oven. Worst of all, I once mistook the cinnamon container (an ingenious ingredient I add between the cream cheese and sour cream layers) for a curry powder container. They look alike! Really, they do! The taste was… not so good.

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I’m still producing cream cheese pies even though we’ve deduced in recent years that I am lactose intolerant. This malady has caused my personal consumption to decline, though not to disappear.  After all, the chef must make sure his product is decent, right? But I’m less inclined to eat half a pie over a two-day period as I might have in the past.

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Today’s pie has turned out successfully. Per usual, I regret not having made a little mini-pie to enjoy at home tomorrow. Thinking of the thin legacy of Sanders men in the kitchen, I think I’ll go down the basement now and see if I can locate a box that holds the antique juicer. Damn the sugar. It’s time we experienced something delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


WHY COSTA RICA?

When we mention our second home in Costa Rica, people often ask: “Why did you pick Costa Rica?” I answer, honestly, “It all began with my fifth grade project.” More decades ago than I care to acknowledge, Mrs. Moore randomly assigned me Costa Rica as the Latin American country I had to “report on” to my classmates. After reading several encyclopedia entries, even at age ten, it struck me as remarkable that this little country had health care for all its citizens, traditions of literacy and democracy that rivaled our own, and no military. Not only that, but with a population only one percent of America’s, they often beat us in soccer.

My knowledge of Costa Rica remained dormant, like a cicada underneath the ground, for thirty-five years. By then, I’d become a father of children aged twelve, fourteen and nineteen, and we sought a family spot that combined beaches, adventure and wildlife. All three children played for soccer clubs in New Jersey that had trainers from Central America. We’d befriended several of them off the field and recognized something interesting. The trainers from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico were unnaturally thrilled to be in New Jersey. The Costa Rican trainers, however, though satisfied to work with our kids, aimed to make enough money to return as soon as possible to what they described as “paradise.” Combined with my earlier fascination, it made sense for us to consider traveling to Costa Rica.

*****

It’s August 2003. I’m stuck in my law office, overwhelmed with too many house closings to leave, as my family travels to Costa Rica without me. I know they’re visiting San Jose and then somewhere on the Pacific Coast called Playa Hermosa. In those days before smart-phones and I-pads, it’s several days before I hear from them other than hurriedly written e-mails from internet cafes where half the letters don’t work and punctuation marks are random#@%&.

I answer the phone one afternoon and hear my wife’s excited voice on a scratchy cell-phone connection. “We’re looking (unintelligible) Pacific Ocean,” says Katie. “Building lots (unintelligible). You wouldn’t believe (unintelligible) $90,000 and…”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” I say. “What are you talking about? Can you speak more slowly?”

“Sorry,” she says, and continues, clearly: “We’re at a town called Playa Hermosa, and I asked the driver to stop at a real estate development overlooking the ocean. There are three lots that look great. Halfway up the mountain is an acre for $90,000 and on the TOP of the mountain are two acres for $170,000. The third one is at the bottom. No view, but only $25,000. This place is special. The views are amazing. It’s indescribable.”

I’m not sure what impulse controlled my usually cautious brain. Perhaps, it was the exhilaration in Katie’s voice. Perhaps, it was the realization that life has to offer more thrills than talking on the telephone to nervous people buying and selling homes in New Jersey. Whatever the motivation, I said immediately: “Buy the top two.”

“What?” she said, stunned. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do it.” It felt right.

*****

Over the next several days, Katie and the children met with a local, Spanish-speaking lawyer and contracted to purchase the two lots. Several friends and relatives thought we had lost our minds. I had some doubts myself.  Before the closings, Katie and I scheduled a visit to see the lots together and plan how to proceed. We flew to the capital, San Jose, since the airport just twenty minutes from Hermosa was not easily reachable from the United States (there were only three flights a week at the time – now there are over sixty).

We toured San Jose for several days before traveling four hours by bus to the Pacific Coast. I found every aspect of Costa Rica fascinating, from the people, to the diverse topography, to the excellent food and fruit. My mind raced; some details are forgotten in the haze. But I will never forget the thrill of taking a turn in the road and overlooking the brilliant blue ocean at Playa Hermosa for the first time.

A guide Katie had befriended on her earlier visit drove us to our lots. Katie was concerned I might not agree we’d made a good decision. However, the moment I saw the “million dollar” views we’d purchased for a fraction of the cost of a fixer-upper in New Jersey, I was delighted. After deliberation, we chose to build on the lower lot and hold off on the upper lot. While the latter featured a 270-degree view of the Pacific and the Bay of Culebra, the semi-paved road to the top of the mountain was daunting, and I doubted I’d enjoy an adventure every time we needed a carton of milk.

We arranged to meet several builders. The first two went by the company names of “Sun Bum Building” and “Frat Boy Construction.” Neither inspired confidence. The third was a local woman disinclined to return phone calls. Finally, we met a former Californian who had been building in Costa Rica for a decade and whose wife assisted with design, furnishing and landscaping.

A new, only-in-Costa Rica outlook of “try anything” affected me. This philosophy manifested during our visit in my willingness to zip-line over a gorge, dive off a cliff into rushing water, drive an ATV, and communicate with an iguana – hissing, mostly. We encouraged the builder’s wife to design a house with numerous features she’d always wanted to try, but clients rarely agreed to, including: several interior gardens; a waterfall in the dining room; and, a cashew-shaped infinity pool.

Once we returned home and communicated with the builder’s wife exclusively via fax and e-mail, we were shocked to learn her husband had cleared the lot and begun laying the foundation before we’d closed.

“Can they do that?” Katie asked, after our home fax machine revealed a photograph of the construction site.

“Not in New Jersey,” I said.

Not in Costa Rica, either, but…. We closed on both lots shortly thereafter and chose to re-sell the top lot for enough profit to pay for the construction on the lower lot. In two months, we’d doubled our money, much to the shock of some nay-saying friends and relatives. We immensely enjoyed the building process throughout 2004, running to the fax machine to see pictures every few weeks and visiting the site several times. The house was finished on time and on budget by early 2005, and we used it just as we’d envisioned, visiting several times as a family, and with friends.

We learned something important, however. When you see a house worthy of Architectural Digest, it doesn’t guarantee the plumbing and electricity work well. Also, putting live gardens and a waterfall inside a house in a humid climate may work under certain circumstances, but not for owners who are rarely present. Finally, repeated visits with three teen-aged children, plus friends, busted the budget.

I would like to claim I’m the genius who foresaw the downturn in global financial and real estate markets. I didn’t. It was the factors listed above that convinced us to list the house for sale in October 2006. A local legend of the real estate world named Mike Simon found a buyer and we doubled our investment once again. (It must be emphasized that the period from 2003-2006 was uniquely rewarding. The role of luck in real estate investing cannot be overstated).

*****

Though we were happy with our memories, photo albums and profits, we felt sad after selling our home in Costa Rica. Katie and I thought of it often and the children spoke of it longingly, even as their high school and college schedules would have prevented them from going there together. As a real estate attorney, however, I was acutely aware prices were falling. When people asked if we missed our house in Costa Rica, my answer from 2007 until 2012 often started out: “Yes, but considering the state of the market….”

In 2013, however, history repeated itself. Our youngest child, Sam, had just graduated from college, thus ending our tuition obligations FOREVER. As a gift, we offered him a weeklong trip to the destination of his choice, and he picked Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the only week he could travel before the start of graduate school was while I was at a conference. Katie took him to a resort in Playa Hermosa. We didn’t exactly plan it, but it was tacitly understood she would spend an afternoon with Mike. Well, anyone who knows her or Mike can guess what happened.

Katie and Sam walked into the real estate office in Hermosa. “Hey, babe, I’ve got something for you,” Mike rasped, having just recovered from pneumonia. Although he should have been resting in bed, Mike insisted on taking them to see a condominium development called Pacifico in the neighboring town of Playa de Coco. “You’ll love it,” he whispered, showing the sales literature where three-bedroom units were now listed, newly finished, at a price forty percent below 2007 levels.

When Katie saw Coco, which she remembered from seven years earlier as somewhat shabby, she couldn’t believe the transformation. A winding road, surrounded by tropical flowers, brings visitors past a modern commercial center into the residential area. There, the sun-splashed pools and plantings are a veritable Shangri-la. Mike urged a particularly private and spacious unit and helped negotiate terms with the developer. We became homeowners in Costa Rica again.

Now, a twelve years after our initial visit, all three children are capable of visiting on their own. Though some might prefer a single family home, we deem the loss of an ocean view a reasonable sacrifice for having a team of professionals responsible for managing, among other things, multiple pools, landscaping, irrigation, weeding and security. Pacifico provides that along with an elegant beach club and the priceless ability to WALK into an increasingly vibrant town with restaurants, shopping and the beach. For sunsets, it’s a five-minute walk or ride up the hill. We brought our then-24-year-old daughter down last year and asked her what she thought. She answered with the same word the soccer trainers had used so many years before: “Paradise.”


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.


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.