Archives for category: Modern Society

THE GIG ECONOMY, LOVE IT OR LYFT IT

 

At first glance the chance to pay, for instance, $15 for a ride to the airport instead of $26, is a no-brainer. That’s pretty much the economic equation behind the decision to take Lyft or Uber rather than a conventional cab. But several other factors occasionally come into play, namely:  How much of a driver’s life story do you wish to hear?  Might there be a traffic issue better solvable by a “professional?” And, considering safety, is an old, dented and smelly Corolla the last vehicle you ever wish to travel in?

 

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Taxis are simple.  In a large city you can stand on a corner with reasonable certainty of hailing a ride in a reasonable amount of time.  The driver may be gruff in manner.  In fact, the possible physical and personality traits that would prevent you from wanting to live closely with him (taxi drivers are almost always male) are limitless.  However, taxi etiquette generally keeps you silent in the back seat, behind a partition. There, you ponder which obscure African or Middle Eastern nation he is from while watching the meter tick, tick, tick inexorably higher.  At the end of the trip you calculate his tip-worthiness, a decision made both instantly and intimately.

 

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Uber and Lyft are different.  You know the cost of the ride before you enter and, if you are old enough to remember taking standard taxis, you have an endorphin rush knowing roughly how much money you are saving.

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There is no partition, no meter and no tipping.  You will be free, after being dropped off, to “rate” your satisfaction on a 1-5 scale, and decide whether and how much to tip, in on-line anonymity.   The fact that you have “hailed” a ride via smartphone and the driver is identified by first-name makes ride sharing seem personal.  Sometimes, the driver’s baby pictures are on the dashboard for you to admire and ask the usual inanities, e.g., “How old is he?”  “What’s her name?” Or, if you are taking a ride at midnight you might feel compelled to ask:  “Who’s babysitting now?”  Resist this temptation.

Asking personal questions is human nature but can lead one down a rabbit hole.  Few people have aspired to become Lyft drivers.  There is often a dissertation not finished, a divorce, an unexpected corporate downsizing.  Sometimes, you learn you are a driver’s first or second ride.  You learn this because they are unable to operate the app or the GPS. When they ask you for directions, it’s a bad sign.

 

*****

 

One of my earliest memories is taxi-related.  Circa 1961, at age four, I traveled in a carpool to kindergarten in West Philadelphia.  Each day, a yellow “Checker” cab retrieved me and three other neighborhood kids from our mothers at the corner.  Could you imagine sending your child to school with a stranger nowadays?  No seatbelts, either.

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The cab featured an open area in front of its large back seat with a freestanding swivel-able stool we (inaccurately) called “the rumble seat.”  Each day we vied to be “the one” who sat on the stool.  Due to excessive strife, I’m sure the mothers eventually worked out a rotation, but the daily rumble seat controversy introduced to me the concept of dog-eat-dog competition.

The following year, I commenced being walked or driven to Gompers Elementary School.  Around the same time, my mother belatedly learned to drive.  Taxis thus became, for me, something to ride only on rare visits to New York City.  The children who’d joined me in the taxi, along with most of the residents of the neighborhood, disappeared like characters in a Chagall painting in a frenzy of “white flight.”  Due to some combination of inertia and, I hope, an all-too-rare lack of knee-jerk prejudice, my family didn’t move.  Yet, for better or worse or just different, the neighborhood changed  before one could even process the change.  I imagine that’s how taxi drivers feel about the arrival of Uber and Lyft.

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*****

 

Taxis are still desirable in several contexts.  For instance, when we were in London last fall and needed to travel to Charring Cross Station, the “app” foretold a wait of ten minutes.  Breathing fumes beside horrendous downtown traffic, ten became fifteen and, eventually, twenty.   We became increasingly stressed about missing our reserved train to Edinburgh. Finally, we gave up and flagged a taxi. This “cancellation” on our part resulted in a $5 penalty.  It doesn’t seem fair.  But who wants to spend an hour on the phone to reverse a $5 fee?

It turns out our cancellation was serendipitous.  A demonstration roiled city center, thus the worse-than-usual traffic, and all the GPS-recommended routes were blocked.  A London cabbie, whose license is granted only after he passes an exam worthy of a PhD in geography and cartography, wended his way through a maze to deposit us at the exact correct spot to enter the massive train station.

Conversely, in Boston, we were first-day customers of a new Lyft driver.  Fresh off a farm in New Hampshire she excelled in cuteness and vivacity.  But she entirely lacked every other driver-related credential.  Not only did she not know which bridge headed to Cambridge, she wasn’t sure her GPS worked. “It’s been sending me strange places all day,” she explained.  Apparently, she also wasn’t sure her mirrors worked since she turned backwards and swiveled her head each time she sought to change lanes.  While my wife, Katie, generously offered career and relationship advice throughout the harrowing ride, I developed a headache from cringing and would have happily paid some grumpy old guy an extra $20.

Unknown-1.jpeg    Other highlights of Boston Lyft rides included the out-of-work musician with the 1990’s-era Civic apparently retrieved from Demolition Derby that had “check engine,” “check tires” and “check brakes” sensors lit at once – like a Christmas display on the dashboard; the Brazilian driver who danced the samba in his seat throughout, and the seventeen-year-old “covering” for her boyfriend who asked if we’d mind if she vaped. “Yes,” we answered, and a sullenly silent ride ensued.

 

*****

 

One need only look at the taxi line at the airport to know the industry is never coming back.  Passengers rush past the “professionals” to reach the “app stand.”

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It’s simple economics for the customer, but sad to consider how many livelihoods, once deemed secure, have been ruined.  On the other hand, Lyft and Uber serve neighborhoods taxis will not.  They offer flexible hours for part-time workers. And if you are being picked up on a cold or rainy day, you need not stand outside to wait.

Time marches on.  Taxis were an industry ripe for disruption.  Consider it done.  (You can rate this story from 1-5 stars, 5 being the best.  Tips are optional).

 

 

 

 

 

 


THE SHARING ECONOMY

 

 

Use of Airbnb instead of a hotel is second nature to anyone under thirty but for the rest of us, it’s a brave new world. For the edification of my “mature” readers I will describe our experiences using the “sharing” economy while traveling, and offer what I hope are helpful suggestions.  Spoiler alert:  the perfect solution does not exist.

 

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Facing what seemed to be astronomically high hotel rates, my wife, Katie, was willing to take the time to scroll through numerous Airbnb listings before a trip to California’s wine country in 2016.

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That’s the first thing you must know:  unless one is reckless, this is a time-consuming process.  By that, I mean, failure to do extensive due diligence risks victimization by a number of potential hazards, such as:  pets to whom one may be allergic; sagging mattresses; talkative and/or omnipresent hosts; quirky access procedures; and, surprising additional fees.  One might also encounter problems one may not anticipate in a property let out to the public, such as:  insect infestation, mustiness, traffic noise and, non-functioning appliances.

To be clear, several of the pitfalls above could also be encountered in a hotel.  But if one encounters a bad mattress or smelly room in a hotel, there is generally recourse via the front desk.  One can move to another room or, failing that, one can proceed to a different hotel.

Recourse is not as easy with Airbnb. The owner may not be on site.  He or she may not be easily reachable by phone or email.  One has paid for the room in advance to a landlord who may not agree with a subjective determination of smell or noise, so a refund is refused.  Also, an Airbnb is often located in a residential neighborhood where other overnight options are not available.

 

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Our first Airbnb stay occurred in St. Anselmo, CA.  We attended a wedding and Katie found online a home surrounded by gardens walking distance from the wedding site.  Wonderful, until we arrived.  First, we couldn’t access the property because of what appeared to be a locked exterior gate.  Fortunately, we reached the on-site owner by phone to render assistance.  She’d thought we were coming the next day, so hadn’t left instructions about the balky door – it was actually unlocked, but required a level of strength like an NFL linebacker’s to overcome humidity-swollen wood.

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Following a long explanation of the garden and house and of her artistic career, our hostess showed us our room. It was lovely as advertised and contained a bowl of fruit and a kettle for tea. Wonderful, again, until we realized the host’s kitchen, living room and painting studio were separated from our quarters by only a floral sheet and she intended to be present throughout our stay. Any noise either party made, beyond a whisper, reached the other.  She showed us the small section of the refrigerator that was “ours.”  Each visit required an exchange of pleasantries.

Bottom line:  ultimately, our two-night stay was marginally satisfactory due to the pleasantness of our room, a good mattress, a great location for our particular need and a great price.  But there were hurdles as well as lots of whispering and tip-toing around!

Our next two nights in Wine Country were spent in what turned out to be a marginal neighborhood of tiny, ramshackle homes and trailers.  We were deeply concerned upon arrival, as we followed a skinny driveway to a detached garage behind a hovel. But the landlord’s instructions for entry were exact.  When we climbed the exterior stairs and entered the apartment we saw an incongruously pleasant space, open and airy with sleek furnishings over a hard wood floor.

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The rear view was a citrus orchard, and the owner had left muffins and fresh-picked fruit on the counter of a fully appointed, brand-new kitchen.  Per her written instructions, unless there was a crisis, she did not expect or desire to communicate with us.  We did not even know where she lived except that her instructions indicated she did NOT live at the premises.

We spent two terrific nights there and departed happily after re-depositing the key in its hidden spot. Now seems a good time to note an interesting tidbit about Airbnb’s.  While this apartment included welcoming muffins upon arrival,  that hospitable gesture was not repeated.  Despite what the name of the company implies, breakfast is not included.  There is no second “B” in an Airbnb.

 

*****

 

Our next adventure in Airbnb took place a year ago in Australia where our son, Sam, was conducting research. Since we were visiting for ten days it seemed a wonderful opportunity to settle in and experience real-life Sydney. Katie found a one-bedroom apartment in a modern high-rise walking distance to a subway.

The owner’s representative/friend met us, as promised, at the metro stop and escorted us to the building.  Though middle aged, he appeared to have been lost on the way to a Grateful Dead concert.

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Despite our determination to be understanding and “not judge a book by its cover” during the course of our three-minute walk we learned about his divorce, health issues and addictions.  Thus, we took to heart his admonition:  “I’m really not in any condition to handle stress.”  His hangdog expression reminded me of Droopy of the Seven Dwarfs.

Upon arrival at the apartment he oriented us and explained “just a few little nits,” namely: the clothes dryer, dishwasher, and coffee maker were not operational.  “I’ll be dealing with them one of these days, but not this week” he said.  Granted, these are first-world problems, as they say.  But we weren’t paying a pittance.  When he left, we declared: “no way we are going to call him for anything.”

As to our lodgings, our first two days were uneventful.  We enjoyed the sights of Sydney, its gardens and coffee culture.  We usually ate out but apparently accumulated a few breakfast crumbs and the like since we came home on day three to an infestation of ants in the kitchen like in a horror movie. The counters were crawling.  The appliances were teeming.  The floor flowed like a river.

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“We’re on the sixth floor,” I observed. I didn’t think such a thing was possible.

“Oh,” said, Sam, who’d lived in Sydney for several months.  “Australia may be the insect capital of the world.  There are no boundaries.”

If this had happened in a hotel, we would have moved.  But our only choices were to call Droopy or deal with it ourselves.  We cleaned and cleaned, as though we were preparing the property for sale.   After a couple of hours, the whole apartment was pristine.  But we spent the additional five days paranoid about eating anything.  And what we had seen in and on the stove sapped all enthusiasm for cooking. Ironically, this Airbnb had the largest “cleaning fee” we’d experienced.  Yes, that’s another distinction from a hotel – at an Airbnb you will often pay an additional fee for “cleaning,” detailed in the small print, on top of the advertised rental fee.

 

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Would I use Airbnb in the future? Considering the cost is about half a normal hotel rate in many situations, perhaps.  But one needs to spend time doing research, be willing to accept quirks rarely encountered in a hotel, and not be hung up on uniformity. Is the Airbnb experience more interesting?  Usually.  Can it be treacherous?  Yes.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.

 

 

 

 

 


SNOWPOCALYPSE

 

 

The world appeared it might be coming to an end last Friday when forecasts predicted a 6-8 inch snowfall for Durham, NC. I’d always heard about pre-storm panics and stores selling out of essentials, but I’d never personally experienced it until I went to the local hardware store that morning in need of a paint sample. The parking lot resembled Normandy Beach on D-Day. A line snaked out the door with people clutching numbers like life preservers. Though some customers planned to purchase sleds and saucers to enjoy the storm, most hoped to obtain portions of the store’s fast-dwindling supply of salt, sand and shovels. Not anxious to spend ninety minutes at the store, I retreated, paintless, to my new home, a townhouse half a mile away.

After lunch, I went to the public library to pick up a book. A sign on the door indicated the library had closed at noon “due to inclement weather.” Even the direst of forecasts did not call for precipitation before the evening!

 

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We moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill in 2009. Having heard tales of an ice storm in 1999 that had shut off electricity for ten days we were putty in our realtor’s hands when she showed us a house with an optional generator for $7,000 and a large basement. “That’s a small price to pay for peace of mind,” she said. “And you can host the whole neighborhood in your basement when their lights go out.”

As an introvert, the latter possibility sounded awful, but the idea of having electricity during the famed Carolina ice storms made sense. We bought the house and the generator and smugly signed up for its $350 yearly service and maintenance contract. We settled in and waited for the opportunity to be “the smartest people in the neighborhood.” There was no ice during our first winter, or the second.

The years went by. No ice. We began to hope for an ice storm or even a tree to take down a power line, anything to help us realize value from our generator. Increasingly, we doubted there’d ever really been an ice storm that rendered local life as primitive as the Stone Age, or more appropriately, I suppose, the Ice Age.  After seven years, we moved to a new home in Durham just one month ago. It has neither a basement nor a generator. “I’m not making that mistake again,” I declared.

 

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The forecast downplayed the risk of ice damage because unusual cold foretold a dry, puffy sort of snow. Instead, the predicted sleet/snow line moved thirty miles farther north than expected, and we woke on Saturday to little snow but two inches of accumulated sleet. The temperature then plunged to the teens and the region shut down like a congressional committee on ethics reform. Nothing moved, not cars nor people nor trucks. And that includes snow removal trucks because North Carolina communities hardly have any, and what they have is focused solely on major highways.

Today is the sixth day after the storm! To the amazement of anyone who’s ever lived as far north as New Jersey, schools and libraries are STILL closed even though temperatures have been above forty for three days. The local news refers to “stubborn areas of ice that are under trees and pose a grave danger.” The icy mix is now a muddy mess. Our electricity has stayed on, however, a fact for which I’m mostly grateful. To the extent I’m a writer, however, I’d sort of hoped for a dose of delicious irony.

 

 


RECENT IMPROVEMENTS

 

The election season shows the value and even the NECESSITY of such technological advances as the DVR and, in its absence, the humble mute button.

 

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Thanks to them I have not yet endured the entirety of a single political advertisement. I began to ponder what other developments in the last quarter century have improved my life.

 

The first two I thought of are in the realm of food, namely: seedless grapes and watermelons. I’ve found the latter may represent a sacrifice in terms of sweetness but, overall, still an improvement.

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GPS devices strike me as wonderful products, helpful without a downside. In a low-tech sort of way, “Post-it” notes are helpful.

 

Unknown-2.jpeg At the other end of the spectrum are personal computers. A related development that strikes me, at least, as ambivalent, is the smart phone. Do they make life better? Or is constant connectedness a scourge?   Doubtless they are convenient, but they are also intrusive and dangerous when viewed in the context of distracted drivers or pedestrians.

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I can’t think of a downside in caller I.D., unless one misses the frisson of suspense in picking up a telephone “unprotected.” For me, Facebook and its ilk are in the “mixed blessing” department. I recognize the joy of those who “stay in touch” with their thousand closest friends. I even succumb myself every week or two just for a peek. But at the risk of sounding like a hopeless curmudgeon, after five or ten minutes the vapidity sends my finger to the “X” button. Still, I admit it’s an easy way to KIT.

 

Doubtless there are thousands of other developments, big and small, that were barely imaginable when I was a child, that now improve my life. I’ve not even touched on the realms of medicine, science or transportation.   Some readers may view hover boards as modern miracles. How about mountain bikes? High-end tennis strings? Yoga pants?

 

I invite readers to weigh in on the most important developments they enjoy. But for the next two weeks, I’m satisfied to have my mute button and a DVR.

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DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN

 

My personal experience with anonymous correspondence is limited to one unhappy event.   Around 1990, several years after I opened my law office, the New Jersey Bar Association alleged that the sign posted on the street in front of my office was improper. In the sign I described myself as “Stuart Sanders, Real Estate Specialist.” To me, this represented the truth, since my practice consisted almost entirely of real estate closings.

The Ethics Committee of the Association viewed the matter differently. They wrote that they had received a letter from a fellow attorney who stated correctly, in their view, the word “Specialist” belongs only to those who earn certificates as “Civil” or “Criminal” trial attorneys. Their letter told me to remove or correct the sign within fifteen days. Outraged, I wrote back, asking rhetorically: “What is more unethical: to represent the true focus of my law practice to the public, or to file an anonymous complaint behind a colleague’s back?”Unknown.jpeg

During the next several days, while I awaited a response that never came, I hardly lived five minutes without wallowing in righteous indignation. I tortured my poor office staff and family with a barrage of braying, along the lines of: “I’ll sue them; I’ll assert my constitutional right to freedom of speech; how can they own a word?”

At night, I experienced more than a few sleepless hours with another question: “Who filed the complaint? How do I get revenge? Do I wish for a painful disease or mere bankruptcy to be visited upon my so-called colleague?”

Gradually, after a week or so, the sting of the situation subsided. I paid a sign company to replace the word “Specialist” with “Closings.” I decided that to argue with the Bar’s Ethics Committee would not be a brilliant career move. And I ceased evaluating every local attorney I dealt with to see if they were “the one.” “Don’t give whoever it is the satisfaction,” I instructed myself.

 

*****

 

Two years later, I’d nearly forgotten the incident when an elderly attorney from a neighboring town arrived for a closing. Although I’d met him years before, he wasn’t someone I saw often. He’d certainly never crossed my mind as a suspect when I’d laid awake imagining retribution. His colleagues knew him for two things, namely: alcoholism; and, related to that, having run over and killed a youngster with his town’s fire engine while driving to a July 4th celebration. As town attorney and its fire chief, he’d managed to squelch any personal responsibility for the tragedy, but the legal community knew the inside story.

After offering a wet-fish handshake, he said: “I see you’re not in violation anymore.”

“Hunh?” I said, not certain what he meant.

“Your sign,” he said, his rheumy eyes twinkling with mischief and triumph.

“You fixed it. My letter worked.”                                        images.png

I glared at him. Several verbal responses arose in my mind, all barbed with poison. But, as I considered his entire presence, from his tattered and stained sports jacket, to his erratically shaved jowls, to the vast belly that almost prevented him from reaching the closing table, I found myself unable to deliver one. Apparently, the awful things I’d wished for had occurred to him already. In fact, even worse than I could have dreamed.

“Yes,” I finally said. “And business has never been better.”

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*****

 

Fast forward twenty years: I’m nearly at the four-year anniversary of starting this blog and have posted 160 stories and essays. Most weeks, I have between 100 and 200 “views” and am often surprised by which posts are popular. Sometimes, the stories I think are best fall like stones in water. And posts I’ve belabored end up being relative successes.  Readers or “followers” need not be concerned that I monitor their individual reading habits. That level of detail is unavailable. But my hosting site does tell me in what country my readers access the blog.

The overwhelming majority of my “reads” take place in the United States. But many also occur in Canada and Costa Rica where I have friends and acquaintances. Occasionally, a dedicated reader travels to Europe or Asia and checks my blog as they go, leaving me with a tantalizing string of countries. When a friend spent several months in and around Vietnam last year I had my first “views” from Cambodia and Laos; during her honeymoon last year, my daughter delivered my first hits from Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

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*****

 

Last year I posted a story about my father’s unlikely friendship with former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo. It briefly went viral in a minor way when hundreds of readers accessed it over a two-day period. I never learned who they were. Presumably, one person happened upon the story and referred it to friends or co-workers. No one commented, however. How mysterious to not know with whom I’d struck a nerve, and why!

Other times I know exactly who has binged on my blog. There are several friends who do not read every post but, if they know I will be at a social event, might read eight or ten in the day or two before we meet. They discuss aspects of the posts with me in minute detail and often offer insights I hadn’t considered when I wrote. I appreciate their interest.

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In the past two months a tantalizing mystery has arisen with a reader I’ve come to think of as “The Brazilian.” “Reads” have occurred almost daily in Brazil. Usually, there is one, though several times, there have been two or three in a day. I cannot think of anyone I know who is living or traveling in Brazil. This person, whoever he or she is, has been remarkably dedicated. I’m flattered! Yet, they have never left a comment. Maybe they don’t realize they can comment or, perhaps, they prefer to remain anonymous.

Is my Brazil reader a student learning English? Is he or she somehow fascinated by the minutiae of my existence or by my views on current events? I can’t tell which stories they have read. They could be reading the most recent posts or they could be scrolling back several years to find stories of interest.

So now, like an actor breaking character and speaking directly to the audience, I’m herein communicating to my reader in Brazil. You know who you are! How did you become a reader? What are your favorite stories or story-types? How did you alight upon my blog in the first place? Are there subjects you particularly enjoy? Do you have any questions I could answer? My imagination runs wild! In my dreams, I wonder if you are a major movie producer who is just waiting for the right moment to offer me a “deal.”

If you’d rather not respond, that’s fine. One of the enjoyable aspects of writing stories (as opposed to editing and re-writing and occasionally abandoning stories that don’t work), is not knowing how they’ll be received after I push the ”publish” button. The mystery fascinates me. At least, having written this post, the “Brazil” questions are out there, I’m less likely to express puzzlement every day. Compared to some anonymous situations, this one is a pleasure.

 

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OFF THE TENURE TRACK

January 3, 2010, 10:23 a.m.: My heart skips with anticipation when my inbox includes mail from Dr. Hunt, the Dean at the University of North Carolina’s School of Business. “I’m delighted to confirm your appointment as adjunct professor for the undergraduate course: Residential Real Estate, Law and Finance. Please come tomorrow morning for orientation on classroom technology. Your first class will be next Tuesday, January 11.”
I sit for a moment before the screen and contemplate the serendipitous path that led to this point. We’d moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill just five months earlier. I’d retired from practicing law in New Jersey, but thought I might eventually do “something” in North Carolina.
Faster than I’d imagined, it all came together. Only several months after we arrived, my wife, Katie, met a woman playing tennis who indicated she taught a class at the business school. When Katie mentioned I’d been a real estate lawyer for twenty-six years, she suggested I fax my resume to the Dean.
“He just announced that he’d like to expand the real estate curriculum,” she said.
I completed and submitted a brief summary of my career in less than fifteen minutes. After all, I’d been my own boss for decades. There wasn’t much information to list. The home phone rang within an hour.
“Please come meet with me next week, “ said Dean Hunt, after we exchanged pleasantries.
He continued: “The basic course on house closings has been taught by a prominent local realtor for fifteen years, but he wants to retire. I’d like to add mortgage financing and legal issues to the mix, and your background is perfect.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. Faster than I could say “on-campus parking pass,” I was on the way to becoming a teacher at UNC and, thus, a full-fledged member of the semi-retired population of Chapel Hill. It’s a rare local person with an advanced degree, after all, who is not somehow affiliated with a university or two, as instructor, mentor or consultant.
*****
My initial meeting with Dr. Hunt, a fit man of about fifty, surprised me. I expected to explain how my law practice had evolved, what I thought I could teach the students, and how the subject matter could be presented. I expected him to list his expectations and ask a number of questions about whether I had teaching experience (I didn’t), whether I could relate to college-aged students, and whether my temperament was suited to the task. Worried I would be deemed unsuitable I spent time preparing responses with Katie, an educator with thirty years of experience.
Instead, as we sat down on opposite sides of his desk, he pointed to various pennants of European and South American soccer teams on his walls, and asked: “Are you a fan?”
“Yes,” I said. “I played soccer myself and coached all three of my children.”
“Wonderful!” he said, a broad smile spreading out from his brown-hued beard and mustache, his eyes twinkling. “You’ll be an asset to the faculty team.”
“Um,” I said, “Are there any particular things you’ll want me to cover in the course?”
“Oh,” he said, “There’s plenty of time for that. It doesn’t start until January. Tell me about your kids’ teams.”
And so it went for thirty minutes. The only information somewhat relevant to teaching at UNC concerned the summer classes the business school offered in England, China and Brazil.
“Great soccer there,” he said. With a wink, he added: “There’ll be plenty of opportunities for faculty to chaperone the trips, you know.”
When I sensed we’d exhausted the subject of soccer, the Dean said he was late for a meeting. As I stood up, I asked: “Are there any further steps I need to take?”
“Oh, it shouldn’t be a problem to list your course for the spring semester,” he said. “I’ll speak to the administration and confirm. In the meantime, let’s put together a curriculum. Why don’t you send me an outline?”
*****
After our meeting, per Dr. Hunt’s suggestion, I compiled a proposed syllabus. I expected he and I would work closely to make sure all the necessary aspects of the subject were covered. Instead, each time I forwarded a proposal, he took several weeks to respond. September gave way to October. October bled into November. The Dean neither rejected nor embraced my ideas specifically. He merely tinkered via e-mails with a concept here and there. “Perhaps you’ll have a guest speaker on house-flipping,” he wrote once. “Maybe the students will role-play as though they are realtors, mortgage brokers or clients,” he wrote another time.
Each week, I spent several hours working on the syllabus, sometimes more.
Changing the order of things and breaking down ninety-minute sessions into fifteen-minute segments, I felt like I was painting in the dark, adding a stroke here and there, but never certain how my final product would appear.
“You’re spending a lot of time on this,” said Katie one evening in November, while I pored through a collection of New Yorker cartoons in search of humorous but memorable representations of real estate topics. “You’re sure you’re hired to do this, right?”
“I’m starting to wonder myself,” I said. “But Dr. Hunt was confident. He should know, right?”
“I guess so,” said Katie. “But UNC’s pretty bureaucratic, from what I hear.”
“I’ll ask him again,” I said.
*****
The next morning, after my e-mail inquiry bounced back with an out-of-town notice I called Dr. Hunt’s office.
“He’s at a conference,” said the receptionist.
“Will he be in next week?” I asked.
“No, he’ll be at his beach house until after Thanksgiving,” said the receptionist.
“Okay,” I said. “Can I make an appointment to see him the following week?”
“One moment, please,” she said. “I’ll check his schedule.”
While I waited I pictured the life of the Dean. It seemed like a lot of meetings, interspersed with ballgames, conferences and the beach house. When did he get any work done?
The receptionist returned to the phone and said: “Dean Hunt is out until December 5. You can reach him after that.”
I decided to put the syllabus aside for a couple of weeks, but the course was never far from my mind. I tried not to boast to anyone outside my family before I received confirmation, but I couldn’t help being excited. Besides the parking pass, there would be tremendous discounts at the UNC golf course and sporting events. Plus, it’d be fun to say, with nonchalance, “I teach a course at the University.”
I did have concerns about the technological and psychological aspects of teaching. Teaching involves varied skills, involving power point presentations, grading papers and lecturing. Instead of knowing the situation of each of my clients from a position of strength and expertise, I would be offering a set of knowledge to twenty or thirty students whom I barely know.
And then there were practical considerations. For instance, do I wear a suit? A blazer over khakis? A shirt and tie? Will the students call me “Mister” or “Professor?” How often do adjuncts chaperone summer sumeer students abroad? Are these working vacations or mere boondoggles? Dean Hunt certainly implied the trips were fun. Will I have my pick of countries? Will the University pay for my wife to go, too?

*****

December 5 arrived and I still couldn’t get an appointment with Dr. Hunt. He was always in meetings or at conferences except for one time when he’d traveled to Syracuse to see UNC play a critical basketball game. In e-mails, he responded slowly and incompletely, offering almost no feedback. Still, he wrote just before the Christmas break: “I hope to have confirmation of your classroom and student roster any day now. Hang tight just a little longer.”
By this time, I’d nearly despaired of teaching the course, at least for the spring semester. Relieved I’d told so few people about the class, I could almost sleep through the night without lying awake obsessing about explaining mortgages to nineteen-year-olds or, worse, what would happen if I lost my train of thought in front the class. Then, finally, at 10:23 a.m. on January 3, I opened my e-mail and saw the long-awaited note. “I’m delighted to confirm your appointment….”
Home alone when my status as a University instructor, a shaper of young minds, a teacher, was confirmed, I hardly knew how to react.
“Unbelievable,” I said to myself. “I’m not just a professional; I’m a member of the intelligentsia.”
For a moment, I forgot how difficult it had been to pin down Dr. Hunt. I reveled in how smoothly the process had gone: Quit working, move to North Carolina, meet some people, and secure a teaching position at the eminent university.
“By tomorrow at this time,” I told myself, “you will know how to use a laser pointer.”
While still in my reverie about my new status, the computer indicated the arrival of another e-mail from Dr. Hunt. At 11:04, he wrote: “I’m so sorry. I’m so embarrassed. I’ve just been informed by the administration that, due to budget constraints, there is an indefinite moratorium on new course offerings. So sorry for the time and energy you’ve put in. Your course would have been an asset. All my best.”
I reread the e-mail three or four times. I parsed the words like a biblical scholar. My career as a professor had ended before it had begun. I expected to feel anger, outrage and disappointment. Instead, overwhelming relief welled up. I wouldn’t have the new “status.” I wouldn’t learn new skills. I wouldn’t have the inside track to see the Duke basketball game in person. But I also wouldn’t be tied down to a schedule and I wouldn’t have a dean or administration to answer to. I wouldn’t worry about whether my students “got it.”
When she arrived home, Katie and I discussed the turn of events. Our reactions ranged on a spectrum from cynical (“I wonder what relative of Dean Hunt is teaching the course instead.”) to positive (“I’ll ask him to consider me for future opportunities when the financial situation improves.”)
In the end, I chose to view the episode as a matter of fate. An opportunity that had fallen into my lap had fallen out. I didn’t “need” the job. If it came up again, I’d consider it at that time. I refrained from buying a Duke tee shirt, but just barely.


NEIGHBORS When we moved to our previous home in New Jersey, we were excited to meet our new neighbors. At the time, we had two young children and a third on the way. Four of the five neighboring homes housed children under six and parents similar to us. We envisioned the kids growing up together like a non-related Kennedy clan, with touch football and basketball in the cul-de-sac, book groups and mahjong for the moms, golf for the dads. We’d have carpools and birthday parties for kids and adults alike, barbecues and even occasional dips in a hot tub. All the foregoing came to be, at least for a while. After several years, most of the children drifted apart. The adults, too, found other friends and interests more compelling and our little street became a place of occasional, friendly chats and waves through the car windows. We’d developed lives beyond our street, but we knew if we needed a cup of sugar or our newspaper picked up, we had people we could call. ***** And then “they” arrived, ominously dressed in black, like crows. Yes, one day, my wife, Katie looked out our bedroom window and saw two people, dressed all in black, trampling through our side lawn that backed up to thick woods. Before that day, we’d never thought about what was on the other side of the woods; we knew an old, frame house stood adjacent to a driveway leading to the street in the opposite direction from our house. The large property was pizza-slice-shaped, its point touching our cul-de-sac but then spreading back fifty yards through thick woods to where it opened up to the house site. Home alone at the time, Katie went out to investigate. “May I help you?” she asked. The couple turned and faced her sullenly. They appeared to be sizing her up. After a moment, the thick-muscled man in his late twenties said: “We’re walking our boundaries.” “You got a problem with that?” added the overweight woman beside him. “Well, actually,” said Katie, struggling to remain composed, “you’re on our property right now.” “The hell we are,” said the man. “I can go in and get the survey, if you’d like to see it,” said Katie. “Shit, let’s go,” said the woman. They turned back to the woods and began to walk away, but not before the woman turned and spat on the grass. “What a bitch,” she said, as they receded. “We should kill her,” said the man, just loud enough for Katie to hear. Katie ran into our house and dialed 911. “A pair of trespassers were just on my property and one threatened to kill me.” “I’ll send a police car ASAP,” assured the dispatcher. When the cruiser arrived moments later Katie explained what had happened. The young officer, whose last name was DiMaria, listened intently. “I’ll take care of it, ma’am,” he said, but Katie thought she detected a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Will you let me know who they are when you know?” “Absolutely,” he said. Katie closed the door and called me at the office to tell me about the bizarre incident. While we were speaking, Officer DiMaria returned. Katie hung up, but related her conversation to me when I came home. “Nothing to fear,” he said. “What about the threat?” said Katie. “They’re your new neighbors, Vince and Carla Cucillo,” said the policeman. “I’ve known Vince a long time. He said he was just joking around. You must not have heard him clearly.” “I know exactly what I heard, and it was a threat,” she said. “And why were they all dressed in black?” “Oh,” said Officer DiMaria, smiling again. “Vince and Carla had a family funeral this morning. They’ll behave from now on. They’re not even moving in for a while. They just wanted to see where they come out on the cul-de-sac.” “They don’t come out on the cul-de-sac, according to our survey,” said Katie. “As to property lines, um, that’s up to the lawyers to figure out,” said the officer. “There’s nothing to figure out,” said Katie. “It’s clear, and that’s no way to meet neighbors. If they enter our property again, I’ll call the police again. You can tell your friends that.” Officer DiMaria shrugged. “Sure thing,” he said. ***** We didn’t encounter our new neighbors again for several months. Occasionally, unidentified cars drove slowly around our cul-de-sac and paused while their occupants appeared to stare at the woods. The limit of the Cucillos’ property had been marked with a pink ribbon in conjunction with their closing. None of our other neighbors had encountered the Cucillos and none seemed concerned. They didn’t take Katie’s story seriously. We tried to put the incident behind us but were still unsettled. Each time we drove into our driveway we faced the woods in their direction, saw the pink ribbon, and couldn’t help but think about who lived on the other side. One morning, we heard the sound of heavy machinery. When I drove by on the way to work, I saw the old house and garage on the Cucillo property being razed. By that evening, the lot on the other side of the woods was empty. “We still have a thick boundary of trees,” I said to Katie, seeking to reassure her as well as myself. “We’ll never have to deal with them.” “I hope not,” said Katie. Over the next several months, a frenzy of construction commenced and a massive red brick colonial emerged three stories high in our forested neighborhood of wood-framed contemporaries. “They don’t have taste,” we said, shaking our heads, along with most of the neighbors. “But they must have plenty of money.” Our next-door neighbor reportedly heard their family business was trash disposal. ***** As soon as the Cucillo family moved into their new home, activity increased in the woods between our properties. They had two sons who were about five and three. Our children were now seven, nine and fourteen. When they played in the cul-de-sac on their bikes, or shot baskets, the Cucillo boys watched through the woods. Occasionally, the boys tossed small stones or sticks and shouted something unintelligible. If anyone in the cul-de-sac moved in their direction, they scurried back towards their house. “I hate those kids,” said my youngest, Sam. “They’re so nasty,” said my daughter, Sarah. “The older one said he’s going to beat us up.” “Let him try. He’s like five years old,” scoffed Sam. “Their parents are awful, too,” I agreed. Considering their original greeting, their livelihood, and their unpleasant children, I occasionally referred to them as “the trash people.” I knew this was not enlightened parenting. Nonetheless, I found the term irresistible. When our kids repeated it, Katie and I both told them not to, but our discipline was somewhat half-hearted. ***** Incidents with the Cucillo children accumulated over the years. On Halloween, they vandalized our mailbox with eggs. Another time, they sprayed shaving cream on our cars. Frequently, we heard the boys screaming and fighting. Once, the older boy tied the younger one to a tree and left him wailing piteously for several hours. Another time they were jumping off tree limbs so high we were certain one would break his neck. We marveled that their parents didn’t come out to stop them. We thought it best to ignore the Cucillos and their children, and took comfort in the usual protection afforded by the thick line of trees. However, about three years after they’d arrived, the sound of tree removal awoke us one morning. It sounded as though we were in the midst of a logging operation. Several men with saws and grinders were assaulting our buffer. Knowing the town ordinance limited tree removal to six a year, Katie ran outside and towards the uproar. She waved her arms until a worker approached. “What are you doing?” she asked, noticing his tee shirt said “Cucillo Enterprises.” He shrugged: “Carla told us to cut ‘em down.” “You can’t just cut down the whole forest,” said Katie. “Carla’s afraid of trees,” he said. “What?” said Katie. “She thinks they’ve got monsters or something,” said the man. He laughed. Katie came back inside and called town hall, but it would be several hours before the building department answered their phone. By the time a local official arrived, only a thin line of trees marked the boundary between our properties. We learned that the Cucillos paid several hundred dollars in fines for their illegal cutting, but the harm was already done. Soon thereafter, Vince could be seen operating machinery in the now-treeless area. He used a backhoe to create several mounds for jumps and, by that afternoon, raced around the yard on an off-road vehicle along with several adult friends. The noise continued for hours. When the adults finally finished, the boys, now around eight and ten began racing on mopeds, their yelps and shrieks even louder than the roar of the engines. Again, Katie called town hall. “There’s nothing in the ordinance against it,” said a man in the building department. “You can file a noise complaint, if you want.” “What will that do?” asked Katie. “Well, if the officer comes around and hears too much noise, he’ll ask ‘em to stop,” said the official. “That’s it?” said Katie. “Yep. That’s about it,” said the man. As we feared, riding around the backyard on motorcycles and ATV’s became a weekend routine for the Cucillos. We complained several times to the town. Each time, the noise stopped for thirty minutes or an hour, and then resumed. We recognized they delighted in irritating us and there was nothing meaningful we could do. I found myself harboring awful thoughts, hoping someone would suffer a catastrophic injury. I’d like to think I would not actually be delighted if such a thing happened, but…. ***** We began to find places to go on weekends just to be away from the noise. We returned one day to see ladders beside one of the remaining tall trees. Cucillo Enterprises had constructed a massive tree house for the boys to play in. Fortunately, it was closer to our other neighbors’ driveway than to ours, but the boys would still loom over our cul-de-sac and threaten our privacy. Our next-door neighbors, Rich and his wife, Lucy, who had never found the Cucillos’ noise as bothersome as we did, went over to talk to them. They returned looking shell-shocked: “Those are the nastiest people I’ve ever met,” said Rich. “We’ve thought that for several years,” said Katie. “Vince says he can do whatever he wants,” said Rich. “Next, they’re going to build a pool,” said Liz. “Oh, no,” said Katie. “Imagine all their relatives and their kids hanging around all summer.” “Why can’t we ever anticipate the next disaster?” I said, sourly. When we went inside, Katie said: “We’ll never be able to sell this house if people see their house, their pool and their tree house when they enter our driveway.” Pondering that thought, I could only shake my head. ***** We hadn’t actually decided to move when we visited North Carolina for a long weekend away. But our children were nearly off to college and our house would seem empty without them. Between that and the Cucillos’ impending swimming pool, we were susceptible to falling in love with a warmer climate, a university town and a brand-new house. We contracted to buy on the spot. “How can you make a decision like that just on impulse?” asked a relative. “There’s more than just impulse behind it,” I assured her. Within six months, we had sold our house and arranged a move south. Our children readily agreed with our decision. ***** Now, we live in a gated community with an embarrassingly pretentious name, “The Governors Club.” There are rules and rules and rules. Motorcycles in the backyard? Laughable! A treehouse overlooking a neighbor’s home? Inconceivable. You can’t even plant a shrub without getting permission from the “Architectural Review Board.” Holiday lights can only be white. The color of our exterior paint is subject to approval. Such restrictions used to strike me as ludicrous and un-American. Our neighbor to the left is a widower who spends most of his time traveling. To our right are married university professors with whom we’ve exchanged words once, when the husband introduced himself to complain our lawn could not be cut after five o’clock. Across the street are three houses. On the left facing us resides a reclusive Chinese couple. Next to them are folks who spend most of their time at their second home in South Carolina. Finally, in the third house across from us, is an elderly pair we’ve never met, though they do occasionally wave when they trundle to their mailbox. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Well, after living so close to “the trash people,” we love it.


ART!

An attraction of life in a university town is the multitude of cultural opportunities. Recently, I drove twenty minutes from Chapel Hill to Duke’s Nasher Museum to see the opening of a Robert Rauschenberg exhibit. First, I attended the keynote address, delivered by a Duke professor, a Rauschenberg devotee.
“Bob would be so pleased you’ve all come out,” she said, to the audience of several hundred.
Apparently, her friend “Bob,” who died in 2008, would have enjoyed the evening on several levels, particularly the bar at the post-talk reception. “Bob,” sadly, struggled with dyslexia as a child and alcohol addiction throughout his adult life.
Late in life, though he had achieved professional and economic success beyond his wildest dreams, Rauschenberg was plagued with ill health. His struggles were often reflected in form-negating images. One renowned series of canvases, for instance, were all white. When he finished with that, Rauschenberg produced a series of compositions that were all black.
“I work in the area between art and life,” Rauschenberg is quoted as saying. “In the crack.” Indeed. Not a surprising self-image for an artist reportedly told by his father on his deathbed: “I never did like you, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Though Rauschenberg is known for his monochromatic canvases, among other thought-provoking (head-scratching?) creations, he also produced legions of humorous and whimsical works over a half-century career. Fire hydrants, for instance, are a recurring image, as Rauschenberg is said to have considered them sexually evocative. He’s correct, if one looks from a certain perspective, and ignores their actual function. In addition, experts contend that Rauschenberg is important because he “anticipated” several trends in modern art.
Generally, I’m receptive to abstraction. Miro is among my favorite artists. Our walls at home support a mixture of realistic and non-representational art. And, though I’m not certain I understand what the artists tried to convey, I enjoy the bizarre work of artists like Dali and Magritte. But I have difficulty appreciating the artistic value of a piece I saw at the Rauschenberg exhibit consisting of the photograph of newspaper in front of a Van Gogh masterpiece, or the one where he hung a piece of scrap metal on a wall.
According to the speaker, Rauschenberg admired the work of Willem DeKooning. He manifested this by requesting one of DeKooning’s canvases and erasing it. The negation was creativity itself, asserted Bob. Reluctantly, DeKooning had played along, though he had the good sense to hand over a lesser work, one deemed unlikely to find a buyer.

“One does not make art,” Rauschenberg said, in a televised interview, while his inquisitor looked on, her facial expression as though she were hearing the most meaningful pronouncement in world history. “One does art.” Oooooookay.

Clearly, I didn’t become a Rauschenberg fan during the course of the evening. I admit finding the refreshments table to have been the highlight. However, I am not ignorant of the ways of the world. If I were offered a Rauschenberg or two to put in my living room, I’d leap at the opportunity. Then, after a couple of months, I’d call Sotheby’s and see what they think.


DINING IN NORTH CAROLINA

It’s been five years since we moved to North Carolina from New Jersey and I’m still learning important new things about myself. This morning, I learned I don’t like cheese on my grits.
Most aspects of life here are easy to accept. Compared to New Jersey, the winters are warm, traffic is almost non-existent, and taxes are comically low. Food, however, is challenging. One of the best aspects of life in the land of the Soprano’s was availability of excellent Italian food. The only difficulty was determining WHICH restaurant to choose. In North Carolina, “Italian food” is largely confined to the defrosted fare found in mall-based chain restaurants.
Lately, after dining experiences ranging from dismal to mediocre that require a longer drive, we confine our Italian sorties to the place closest to our home with an authentic, old-world Italian name; we ignore the fact that it is actually run by two young, Brazilian sisters. As to pizza, we now make it ourselves.
Bagels also are better in New Jersey. Every town in the Garden State has at least one shop worthy of visiting on a sleepy Sunday morning. And you can count on a selection of whitefish salad and cheeses and cream cheese to go with the bagels. Not so in Dixie. Again, there’s a chain store in a shopping mall that stands in for a bagel shop; I wouldn’t want to be the first customer in a month to order a schmeer.
North Carolina is proud of its “barbecue.” Apparently, it competes with most other southern states for the designation as “the best.” Our local variety is vinegar-based, as opposed to the tomato-based type found in Texas and elsewhere. I’m not qualified to judge. I’ve eaten a couple of sandwiches. They were okay.
North Carolina cuisine also features something called “hush puppies,” which I’d grown up thinking were casual shoes worn by people with sore feet. Instead, hush puppies here are fried, finger-sized filets of dough, seasoned with varied amounts of sugar, sometimes including onions. Barbecue and seafood establishments are equally likely to place a plastic container of hush puppies on the table in lieu of the delicious Italian bread I crave. Though not inclined to “watch my weight,” I’ve never eaten a hush puppy without thinking: “What a waste of calories!”

Back to today: I awoke with an urge to go out for breakfast. In New Jersey, we would have debated which of several corner restaurants or diners fit the bill, all of which were within a five minute drive from our home. In Chapel Hill, our selection is between two places twenty minutes away: either the pancake place of esteemed reputation among the college crowd, or the elegant restaurant attached to “Southern Seasons,” the local gourmet shop.
Dismayed by the dry, indifferently-served pancakes in our last foray for pancakes, we opted for glamour. First, let me state clearly I intend no disrespect to Southern Seasons. The store is beautifully appointed and well stocked with every kitchen utensil and ingredient known to man; it’s a fine culinary establishment. Their restaurant, “The Weathervane,” is lovely inside and includes a flower-bedecked patio for outside dining. Because the inside air conditioning created a temperature akin to the South Pole to our just-back-from-Costa Rica bodies, we opted to sit outdoors.
The menu contained the usual selection of high-end breakfast fare, such as: eggs Benedict, smoked salmon and fruit and cheese selection du jour. Each ingredient’s organic and free trade bonafides are listed. As the one who suggested this treat instead of a bowl of cereal at home, I didn’t complain aloud about the prices, though the thought crossed my mind: “$12.95 for pancakes!? Are they made with truffles?” Hmmmm, possibly.
I ordered scrambled eggs with bacon, a biscuit and grits, a respectable southern meal. Grits, oddly, are the southern taste most readily enjoyed by me. Though derived from corn, they remind me of the cream of wheat my mother served when I was young. Compared to collard greens or black-eyed peas, for instance, I find grits to be the most accessible southern staple.
Our server was a local native, full of good cheer and “how y’all doin’ this mornin’?”
“Y’all want some cheese with those grits?” she asked. “Got pepper jack.”
Pepper in my grits sounded like a bridge too far, but I was persuaded by her good cheer to include aged Scottish cheddar. After all, The Weathervane is not the Waffle House, where grits require fake maple syrup for flavor.
“Are you sure you’ll like that?” asked my wife, Katie.
“How bad can it be?” I said. “I like grits, and I like cheddar cheese.”

Alas, when the plate arrived, I found the two tastes too divergent for my palate. The grits were bland and creamy; the cheese vibrant, salty and firm. “Yuck,” I said, after one bite.
Fortunately, the eggs were tasty, the bacon crisp and the biscuit fine. When the bill came, I learned that our server had succeeded in “up-selling” me a couple dollars on the cheese. I didn’t blame her; live and learn, y’all. Most of me is happy to have moved to North Carolina; only my stomach has some misgivings.


P. T. !!!

My wife, Katie, is diligently subjecting herself to variations of Medieval torture as part of post-shoulder surgery physical therapy. The house is outfitted with ropes, pulleys, weights and rubber bands a thousand times larger than the ones that hold a pony tail in place. Moans and groans intermittently form an auditory back-drop, and they don’t indicate satisfaction.
Increasingly, at social gatherings among middle-aged people, maladies and therapies dominate the conversation, and more medical information is exchanged than I wish to acquire. My personal accumulation of unwanted medical knowledge commenced twenty years ago, when I was thirty-seven, and awoke to find a burning arrow wedged in the lower section of my back. Not a literal burning arrow, of course, but it may as well have been. I had never felt anything like it as I tried to stand up. I fell to my knees and crawled, ashen, towards the bathroom.
“What is it?” asked Katie.
“I don’t know,” I said through clenched teeth. “But it’s, it’s, it’s amazingly painful.”
“What does it feel like?” she asked.
“Indescribable,” I said, honestly, for I could not find words to do justice to the distress calling from a part of my body I’d never contemplated.
“What caused it?” she asked.
“Um,” I said. “Maybe lifting the children yesterday? Maybe ice skating last week? Maybe playing soccer fifteen years ago? Does it matter?” I didn’t intend to be snippy, but my mood was darkened by agony.
After pulling myself up with the help of the sink I found that standing ramrod straight provided some relief. Laying flat on my stomach, too, merely yielded pain, several steps down from anguish. Any position in between was excruciating.
“I’ll drive you to see Keith,” said Katie, referring to a client of mine who was a chiropractor. “He’ll know what to do.”
“I’m not sure I can sit in the car,” I said.
“We’ll use the station wagon,” she said. “You can lie flat in the back.”
“Like luggage?” I asked.
“Like a pair of skies,” she said.
“Wonderful.” I grimaced.

Keith needed only to look at my facial expression to take me in ahead of a full waiting room. After he elicited several unnerving cracks from my lower back, he declared: “It’s a strain of your gluteus maximus, a large butt muscle. It’ll loosen up as the day goes on.”
“Well, I’m certainly skipping my tennis game tonight,” I said.
“No, you can play tonight; it’ll be good for it.”
I looked at Keith incredulously, but he appeared confident. “Call me tomorrow,” he said, “to let me know how you feel. Then, if you come three times a week for a month or so, we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
With his “adjustments” and several Tylenol I was able to work that day, standing. Katie drove me home in the rear of the car.
“Should I really play tennis tonight?” I asked.
“Keith seemed to think it would help,” she replied.
When we arrived home, I shook my head as I gingerly changed for my weekly doubles game.
“This seems crazy,” I said.
I drove myself to the courts holding my body straight like a plank to reach the pedals. I hobbled onto the court and took a few warm-up swings. Immediately, the pain erupted like a volcano. I could barely utter apologies to my playing partners before staggering back to the parking lot. The drive home was luckily without incident as I drove in a haze of pain. Once there, I brushed past Katie at the door and fell, clothed, onto my bed for a largely sleepless night.
Before I could call Keith in the morning, he called me, which made me wonder how confident he felt about his diagnosis.
“How’s your back?” he asked.
“I’m really suffering,” I croaked. “Tennis was NOT helpful.”
The line was silent for a moment. Perhaps, Keith was reviewing his malpractice insurance policy.
“Um, let’s schedule you for an MRI,” he said, finally.

My first lifetime MRI was memorable. I had no problem with claustrophobia, as some do. And the odd, metallic clunking noises didn’t bother me. But lying flat on my back meant I was directly on top of the pain source.
“I think I know what childbirth feels like,” I said afterward, recalling Katie’s facial expressions during those events. Having seen me crawl out of bed, she didn’t disagree.
The radiologist immediately declared my condition to be a herniation of the L-5 S-1 disk, for those keeping score. Newly familiar with such descriptive terms as “lumbar” and “thoracic,” I told Keith, and he said: “Come in for some adjustments and electrical stimulation. I’ve fixed many a herniated lumbar disc. It might just be a bulge.”
For nearly a month, I worked standing all day at my law practice and traveled prone in the back of Katie’s station wagon or in the back of accommodating realtors’ or clients’ cars. I avoided sitting, even at closings, though that made me the subject of intense curiosity, and subjected me to other peoples’ sore back stories which, to my surprise, nearly everyone had. Keith “manipulated” and “adjusted” and “stimulated” my lower back every other day. At a minimum, Keith’s efforts served to pay his mortgage that month.
“The difference between how a herniation presents and how a strained gluteus maximus presents is subtle,” he started to explain one day.
“Unh,” I grunted in unsympathetic skepticism.
“If it’s just a ‘bulging’ disk, it can recover,” he reassured. “You definitely don’t want surgery.”
He was right about not wanting surgery. However, at Katie’s insistence, we sought a second opinion from an orthopedist. “If it’s merely ‘bulging,’ the chiropractor is correct,” said Dr. Bellotti, after probing my lower back for a brief instant, sufficient to nearly make me scream. “But I think yours is fully ‘extruded.’”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know how when an egg breaks, you can’t put the yolk back in the shell?” said the doctor. “That’s fully extruded.”
Dr. Bellotti referred me to Dr. Quain, whom he described as “the best neurosurgeon around.” Katie drove her human cargo across the George Washington Bridge to his office at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital the next day. There, Dr. Quain, a bald, sixty-something man of imposing girth and booming voice, banged my kneecap for a reflex that elicited no response and declared, like in the movies: “you’re not going home tonight. We will operate at dawn.”
“But the chiropractor said…” I started
“Chiropractors are merely one evolutionary step above slime,” he said in a tone that allowed no disagreement. “Your extrusion is extreme. Your sciatic nerve is completely blocked, so we must remove the disk material. When there’s no reflex, effective use of your leg is at risk.”

Sciatic nerve? Worse and worse. I was learning additional new vocabulary, and now I was slated for emergency surgery. The situation had only one consolation: my room on the twelfth floor at Columbia Presbyterian had an unobstructed, priceless view of the George Washington Bridge. I gazed at it all evening from my unmoving position in bed while I awaited the excavation of my lower back. I recall being delighted the bridge’s lights danced like fireflies, but I’m sure painkillers had something to do with my enchanting vision.

I recall little from the day of surgery except that Katie told Dr. Quain sternly: “You’re going to perform the surgery, right? Not an intern.” In this instance, her tone of voice allowed for no disagreement. The doctor agreed.
When I awoke after surgery, I felt instant relief, as though the herniation had never occurred. Once painkillers wore off, I experienced spasms for several days while the sciatic nerve reverted back to its old route down the spine. (More acquired knowledge!) But the interesting part of the experience was that the doctor did not visit me the next day.
“Does the scar look okay to you?” he asked Katie on the phone.
“I guess,” she said.
“Then he’s okay for discharge,” said Dr. Quain. “Come see me in a month. Meanwhile, have him take it easy.”
“That’s it?” she asked.
“He’ll be fine,” said the doctor. “Good-bye.”

One month later, now totally pain-free, Katie and I visited Dr. Quain. He looked at his handiwork briefly, and concluded: “Looks good. Now, nothing but walking or swimming for you.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“For life,” he said.
“But I play tennis, and soccer,” I said. “I want to play with my children, too.”
The doctor shook his head.
“What about physical therapy?” asked Katie.
“Not necessary,” said Dr. Quain.
Katie was not convinced. “I’d like a physical therapy prescription, in case he feels up to it.”
The doctor shrugged and wrote out a sheet. “Twice a week, if you insist,” he said. “But not before six months. Just remember, I’m not in favor of strenuous activity.”

Taking the doctor’s words to heart, I treated my lower back like a Tiffany egg. I didn’t touch it. In accordance with suggestions from “bad back” magazine articles (practically an entire genre) I made sure to exit cars with both legs first, to never twist around to reach behind, to roll out of bed without abrupt movements. I warded off physical contact with the kids, and let my racquets gather dust in the closet with my golf clubs.
Exactly six months after surgery, Katie scheduled a physical therapy appointment for me.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But you’re going to try it. You can’t just give up all activities in your mid-thirties.”
She was right. I had to try, but how could a stranger touch my lower back? I barely ran my fingertips over the scar when I took a shower. I pictured it as a hot-spot of total disaster, like the button for a nuclear weapon.
When I arrived at the office for my appointment, I was relieved to see my randomly assigned therapist, Susan. She was a petite blonde, about five-foot-two, and clearly not capable of inflicting pain. I wondered if she worked with adults or only small children. Her hands looked too small for her profession.
“So, what have you got?” she asked.
I lifted my shirt to show her my small scar just above the belt-line.
“How does it feel?” she asked. “Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never touch it.”
“Never?” she said, “for six months?”
“Doctor Quain said to ‘take it easy,’” I said, sheepishly.
“Ah, Dr. Quain. He’s ‘old school.’ Doesn’t believe in therapy and, incidentally, he believes his ‘cure rate’ is better if his patients never move. Lie down and lift your shirt,” she said, with a smile in which I thought I detected a glint of sadism.
Apprehensive, I arranged myself carefully on the therapy table. “Are you going to touch…?”
Before I could finish my sentence, Susan plowed into my scar with her knuckles, as though she were kneading the toughest cookie dough in history. In my shock, I almost screamed in anticipation of the tsunami of pain waves that were rushing at me. Then I realized, I felt… nothing at all. My back was totally healed.

For two months, I visited Susan twice a week. She provided a regimen of stretches. I commenced performing them daily to keep my back in shape. It is fair to say that my lower back is now the strongest part of my body; it’s the only part that has been exercised at least 350 days a year for twenty years.
I resumed playing soccer with the children shortly after therapy ended, and I play vigorous tennis now. I am still careful to “bend my knees” when I lift something, to avoid excessive sitting, and to walk every day. I am a BELIEVER in physical therapy, which will doubtless be necessary again. Let’s see, occasionally clamoring for attention these days are the right elbow, the left knee, and the right wrist. Time does not go backwards.