Archives for category: Parenting

GRANDPARENTHOOD

 

My next job description in life’s journey appears to be that of “grandparent.” In a matter of months I expect the title along with the attendant salary. Oh, there is none? Well, I’m not surprised. In order to succeed, I will rely upon my experience as a parent and also as a sort of grandparent to three dogs. I’m reasonably confident I would get good references from my three children, and I’m absolutely confident in the canine corps.

 

*****

 

I’ve not reflected upon being a grandparent prior to learning “it’s happening.” This approach is consistent with my attitude towards parenthood, to marriage and to my former career. Some say this is “not normal.” Apparently, I have a natural tendency to conserve brain cells. Yet, when the bell has rung, I’m proud to say each endeavor has been successful. The kids are healthy, happy and “off the payroll;” the marriage is nearly thirty years old; and, the career didn’t need to extend past my 40’s.

How did I do it? I cite adherence to three basic tenets, namely: the best action is often inaction; if at first you do not succeed, quit; and, no good deed goes unpunished.

My wife, Katie, an ultra-diligent sort of person, has often taken issue with all three pillars of my philosophy.   Probably in conjunction with her admirable example, we raised successful kids. In addition, as I’ve always admitted with regard to my career path, I had a lot of LUCK.

 

*****

 

Grandparenthood looms with a tinge of bittersweet. When I became a parent, in my thirties, mortality never crossed my mind. Cinematically speaking, if I’d considered my expected view of my children’s lives, (which I did not) I would have realized I might not make it to the final credits, but most of the good parts would be seen. To become a grandparent in one’s sixties is different. Realistically, I hope to be functioning well enough to enjoy some high school graduations and, perhaps, see a college graduation or two. Weddings? If I’m there, I may be wielding a walker and brandishing a bib.

How to process this? Clearly, I will have to focus on enjoying the time I do have with the grandchildren. Some grandparents emphasize their favorite aspect to be: “At the end of the visit or activity, you give them back.” But there must be more to it than that – a second opportunity, perhaps, to enjoy youth sports with less heart-pounding seriousness; or a chance to see new sites and activities that didn’t appeal to my own children.

Another mental hurdle is my sense that grandchildren cannot possibly be as enjoyable as grand-dogs.   My mortality is not in play with regard to the dogs, due to their shorter life spans and presumed obliviousness to mine, and they always seem thrilled to see me. The dogs are unfailingly cheerful and undemanding in circumstances that human offspring are not. True, they need to be taken outside in any weather to relieve themselves, but changing a soiled baby diaper is not exactly a pleasure.

 

*****

 

If I accept that I have aptitude to be a successful grandparent, I must also wonder how much of that aptitude will be tapped. When it came to parenthood Katie and I operated on the basis of “all hands on deck.” If assistance was available, we availed. Grandparents’ involvement, however, is measured by a critical intermediary layer. Will our input be valued by our children and/or their spouses?

We have experience and they do not. Yet, there is a tendency for every young parent to believe they know what’s best in every situation. A lot has changed since Katie and I felt certain we made all the right choices. Now there are movie screens in cars, I-pads and computers everywhere, smart-phones. My interests will skew more analog — a walk in the woods, a simple game of catch. Delicate negotiations with the parents may be necessary. A bitten tongue may be essential.

 

*****

 

Katie and our daughter, Sarah, were recently slated to enjoy a mother-daughter day at a Disney musical production of Beauty and the Beast. The animated version was a staple of Sarah’s childhood circa 1993-1996, ages four-seven. Sarah didn’t feel well so I filled in and found myself nearly the only male in attendance not describable as a father, grandfather, or supremely unhappy little brother.

Pouring into the theatre were excited little girls in gowns and tiaras. Several sported gossamer wings. The production was splendid and, I must admit, I enjoyed seeing the inevitable happy ending. It didn’t hurt that the Beast’s ultimate triumph was to throw the bad guy, Gaston, over the wall of the castle. Gaston reminded me of someone much in the news, preening in front of his mirror, flexing his muscles and abusing even his own sycophantic henchmen.

Most important for me, I had a chance to savor the show as seen through the eyes of hundreds of enthralled little girls. When Sarah watched the tape three or four times a week back in the day, I doubt I was enthused. I hope she never noticed me roll my eyes when she asked to see the tape again. From a young parent’s busy perspective, those hours and years seem like they will never end.

Unexpectedly seeing the show offered me the opportunity for a healthy perspective to approaching grandparenthood. Embrace the moments you NOW know are not forever.

 

 

 

 

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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.”


NOT MY FATHER’S VACATION

On our vacation in Costa Rica I feel my father’s presence. Since it’s twenty years since his death, his entry into my consciousness surprises me. In general, I’m not what one would call a “deeply spiritual” person. In fact, I’m pretty far to the other end of the spectrum. Yet, in separate reveries, there he was at the pool this morning, chatting amiably with the pool man. There he was last night at the restaurant, laughing with the waiters. There he was at a clothing store, turning over “the goods,” assessing the quality, checking the prices.
*****
My knowledge of my parents’ vacations is mostly secondhand or from photographs since I didn’t exist until my father was in his fifties. But to get him out of his beloved store, Lou Sanders Men’s Shop, required extreme patience on the part of my mother. Not only did my father protest how much “critical business” he would miss at the store and how much it would cost, but he also manifested his discomfort physically.
In anticipation of departing, his sciatic nerve often plagued his leg until he could barely walk. One time, arriving at the airport distressed, preoccupied with missing the action at the store , he slammed a car door on his own fingers. A nerves-induced case of Bell’s palsy collapsed half his face just before another trip, rendering my mother’s companion similar in appearance to “The Elephant Man.”
From my childhood years, I recall almost no loud disputes between my parents. This is not to say they didn’t disagree. It’s just that my father worked seven-days-a-week, and I rarely saw them interact except during dinner and an hour or two in front of the television in the evenings. In addition, my father’s argument style, which I’m told I’ve inherited, was not to engage verbally. He chose a more infuriating, passive-aggressive technique involving glances and grunts, subtle shifts of facial expressions, and seeming disinterest.
My impression is that my parents resolved things quietly, or not at all. The only exception in my memory is when my mother couldn’t get him to respond when she pressed for his availability for a long-overdue week away. While the ten-year-old me sat tensely on a couch in the living room, pretending to read, my mother raged louder and louder in the breakfast room until a slammed kitchen door, followed by silence and a quickly departing car, indicated she’d walked out.
Moments later, my father arrived in the room where I sat, picked up the newspaper, sat in the chair opposite me, and read. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was concerned I might never see my mother again. After several hours, she returned, and their trip was planned the next day as though nothing had happened.
Always, when my parents returned from their travels, whether to California, or Mexico, or Spain, my mother produced photographs and stories showing what a good time they had had. A picture of my smiling father, sitting in his buttoned–down white shirt atop a camel in Egypt, still highlights a wall in my mother’s home.
*****
Besides one or two day trips to Atlantic City that emerge without detail from the earliest fog of my memory, I traveled only twice with my father. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say he traveled only twice with me. The first trip, when I was about eight, was ninety minutes away to a Pocono resort called the Union House for a weekend. Upon reflection, “resort” may overstate the case. Little more than a rustic camp, the lodgings were more log cabin than hotel.
Still, at my age, I thought we were really “on vacation.” Though my father hated to GO on vacation, that’s different from BEING on vacation. Once there, he had fun. He shocked me by interacting with the strangers at our table during meals. He smiled. He flirted with young waitresses. He told jokes. Why, I wondered, had my mother had to plead so hard to make him come?
The Union House, now long defunct, grew out of a liberal political movement. I think most of the other guests were members of humble, low-wage labor unions. My mother had doubtless convinced my father to go due to its low room rates. The main hall, where all meals were taken, featured murals on the walls by Diego Rivera. Even as a child, I was aware of the “heroic working man” vibe. I’ve never forgotten the vibrant, larger-than-life depression-era art.
One evening at the Union House, after dinner, my father took me to see the food-related staff play basketball against the room cleaning-related staff. Though it was only a friendly game between summer-job employees, my young self viewed the players like NBA all-stars. I delighted to find myself beside my smiling father who’d never previously watched a minute of an athletic event with me without complaint.
*****
My second and final vacation with both my parents was in commemoration of my Bar Mitzvah in 1970. By definition, I had just turned thirteen. Not from a religious family, I broke my tutor’s heart when I said we were taking a trip after the ceremony.
“To the Holy Land?” asked Rabbi Schichtman, with anticipation.
“No, Puerto Rico,” I said.
From that trip, I recall that the flight was delayed on the tarmac in Philadelphia for an hour before take-off. Indicative of a long-ago era of air travel, the stewardesses (as they were then called) bestowed free drinks on adult passengers to make up for the disappointment. My father was in a jovial mood, polishing off two tiny bottles of vodka in front of my disbelieving eyes before noon.
Once we arrived in San Juan, my father was our hero. Having lived in Cuba for several years in the 1920’s, he spoke fluent Spanish. He handled every interaction with taxis, waiters, the hotel, vendors, and tour-guides. My mother and I didn’t always know what the conversations were about, but we saw a man in his element, glowing with bonhomie, relaxed.
Our last meal as a trio in Puerto Rico took place at a restaurant called “Sword and Sirloin.” I remember this otherwise tiny detail because its decor was medieval knights, a fascination of mine at the time. In each corner stood a suit of armor, emptily glowering at the seated patrons. We had a young waitress, incongruously dressed as a fourteenth-century wench in spite of her Puerto Rican heritage. My father, then in his mid-sixties, MY FATHER, had her laughing in stitches. It was unbelievable. When did he become so funny? When he interacted with strangers at the store, amusement rarely rose to the fore.
The only sad thing about that trip is that that dinner, on our fourth day, marked the end of the vacation “week” for my father. He just “had” to be back at the store for the upcoming weekend, even though a slower, bleaker time of year for a retail business than late January couldn’t be imagined. My mother and I completed the last three days of the vacation alone. We had a great time, and I have distinct memories of the time with her, but it wasn’t the same without our charming, Spanish-speaking expert and fixer.
*****
I can’t help but feel badly for what I perceived as my father’s excessive devotion to his store. Yes, he provided for us, but in his single-mindedness, he also deprived himself of joy and deprived his family of the chance to see him at his best.
Meanwhile, he’s a spirit hovering over the proceedings in Coco Beach. I’d love to have him here to talk to the taxi drivers. I’d love to have him here to haggle when we visit a souvenir shop. I’d love to have him walk outside with me and greet the pool men and landscapers. They are friendly, but our conversations don’t progress much beyond “Com estas?” (How are you?”) “Bien, gracias.” (Fine, thanks.) My father would have shocked and delighted them – no ordinary visitor, he’d be an easygoing man of the people – a role he played too rarely.


DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?

Sportscaster Al Michaels posed that question when the US ice hockey team defeated the vaunted Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On their way to the gold medal, a mixture of US college and minor league players came together to shock the sports world and provide an explosion of patriotic fervor during a low period of Cold War relations. The now ubiquitous chant “USA! USA!” was hatched during the course of that contest.
The game, which inspired a movie and propelled the head coach and several players to successful professional careers, brought ice hockey to the forefront of American sports consciousness for weeks; perhaps, as many as ten percent of the nation was excited.
By fortunate coincidence, I’m in Costa Rica this week and have watched the national soccer team advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup by remaining undefeated against the traditional juggernauts from Uruguay, Italy, England and Greece. Whether or not this performance qualifies as miraculous (some proud Costa Ricans claim it is not even surprising), the reaction of the country’s population is beyond comprehension for an American.
Yes, if UNC wins a national championship in basketball, several thousand people congregate, celebrate, and even make a bonfire. If a professional sports team wins a championship, their home city reliably hosts a “parade,” attended by thousands. Tee shirts and caps are sold to commemorate the event, but there isn’t a national swelling of pride. For instance, when the Yankees win a championship, their accomplishment is greeted by indifference by a vast majority of the nation and is more resented than cheered by the fans of the other twenty-nine teams.
Boy, is it different here! Following the win over Greece, spontaneous celebrations exploded across Costa Rica; people cruised hanging out of windows and perched on top of cars on city streets and highways with flags flying and horns blaring. People cried from joy, and President Solis spontaneously strolled from his home in the capital to personally lead the celebration. A poll before the tournament revealed fifty percent of the inhabitants of Costa Rica believed the performance of their national soccer team to be important or very important. This week, the number is over eighty percent. Since the win over Greece, people are uniformly dressed in team colors smile, and nod to strangers, and everyone understands.
In a world where news is filled with terrorism, drought, war and poverty, where politics has become toxic and culture increasingly profane, it is delightful to bask in a contagious haze of happiness. I recall having previously basked in several weeks of personal “do you believe in miracles” wonderment that also concerned soccer. But the story began several years earlier.

When our daughter, Kelly, started ninth grade at Ramsey High School, we encouraged her to try out for the girls’ soccer program. Her performance on the field prior to high school was best described as “energetic.” Soccer offered her an outlet for a variety of positive personality traits, including: fearlessness, persistence and positivity. But we’d rarely detected several other attributes of successful soccer players, namely: nuance, control and skill. If someone asked: “What position does she play?” there was no one-word answer. Kelly was “all over the place.”
Accordingly, we anticipated Kelly would be assigned to the freshman team. Perhaps, if the junior varsity was short players one day, she might assist. We were stunned when she burst through the door, and declared: “I made varsity!”
“You made what?” I asked.
“Varsity,” she said.
“That’s amazing,” I said. But I have to admit my thoughts were, in no particular order: “Is Ramsey really weak this year?” “Did a whole raft of freshmen make the team, since several of Kelly’s classmates had always outshone her in youth soccer?” and: “Will she be sitting on the end of the bench and, perhaps, be better off on the junior varsity?”
“I’m the only freshman,” she added.
“Julia and Joanie didn’t make it?” I said, incredulous, thinking of two highly skilled freshmen who thought highly of themselves, as did their parents.
“No,” said Kelly. “They were kind of upset. They were crying. They wouldn’t even talk to me after practice.”
“Oh, boy,” I thought, feeling a combination of dread about how several angry fifteen-year-old girls were going to treat Kelly moving forward, along with a guilty thrill of satisfaction and triumph.
“Are you worried about that?” I asked.
“No,” said Kelly, shrugging.
Fearlessness can be helpful in life as well as in soccer.

I knew George Wright, the only coach the Ramsey Girls’ varsity had ever had, since he was also a real estate lawyer. I called him the next day to find out what he was thinking. I hoped Kelly hadn’t misunderstood. Her triumph was so unexpected.
“George,” I said. “I’m thrilled, of course, and I promise I’m not one of those parents who’ll question your choices in the future, but do you see something I’ve missed?”
“Yes,” he said. “Kelly has an energy level we need that has nothing to do with ball skills or positioning. She’s going to be our designated ‘marker.’”
I’d played soccer, and was familiar with the term for playing tight defense, but I’d never seen Kelly focus on marking. I was concerned.
George continued: “In tryouts this week, in a good way, Kelly was disruptive and annoying to the other girls on the field.”
I was skeptical. “You think Kelly will be a critical part of your defense?”
George laughed. “Many of the teams we play have a dominant player in the middle of the field who makes the offense run. Kelly can mess that up. I think she’s inexperienced and oblivious enough to not be intimidated by All-County players.”
George explained: “My plan is this: Kelly’s going to go wherever they go. If they go up, she’ll go up. If they go back, she’ll go back. If they go to the bench for water, she’ll stand and wait for them to come back on the field. Her job is to be within one step of whichever girl I tell her to mark, to make her miserable.”
I was relieved to know George had a specific plan.
“But you have a job, too,” he added.
“Hunh?” I said.
“In the event Kelly needs to kick the ball, it would be nice if her skills were a little better. Can you work with her?”
“Sure,” I said readily; however, I was actually apprehensive. Though we kicked the ball around occasionally, Kelly was hard to pin down for consistent practice.

I’m certain we celebrated Kelly’s elevation to varsity suitably. But what I really remember was the rush of pride I felt. I’m Kelly’s stepfather, and we are temperamentally opposites. In brief, she is an extrovert and I am an introvert, with all the huge differences that implies. Accordingly, while we “got along” at home, we lacked a full range of common interests, and reacted to situations differently. Finally, here was a connection we could share.
During Kelly’s first two years of high school soccer, I never missed a minute of her games. At home, we practiced together once or twice a week, and I drove her to club soccer games. I enjoyed our one-on-one time together more than ever before. On the field, she fulfilled George’s expectations perfectly. She was so good, in fact, at frustrating the opposition’s best player, that one was expelled by the referee for swinging an elbow at Kelly’s head, and declaring: “I’m gonna pull your f…ing braces out!”
A defensive specialist, Kelly scored only one goal each year and the team was mediocre, but Kelly always played as hard as she could; I certainly wouldn’t have expected more. With her seventeenth birthday looming midway through the junior year, Kelly had other things on her mind besides soccer, including: social life, driving, social life, saving baby-sitting money for a used car, and social life.
In a fit of playful encouragement, I said to her one summer day: “If you score twenty goals this coming season, I’ll buy you a BRAND NEW car.”
Kelly’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Absolutely,” I said.
“Twenty goals,” she repeated. “We play twenty games, so one goal a game.”
“Or two goals every other game,” I said, laughing.
Kelly ran out of the room shouting: “Mom! Mom! Guess what?!”

“You promised her a new car?” asked my wife, Katie, incredulously, while we waited for Kelly to come to the dinner table.
“Only if she scores twenty goals,” I said. “She’s scored one a year, so far, so it’s not exactly realistic.”
“You’re bribing her, with the promise of spoiling her,” she said. “Do you think that’s good parenting?”
“I prefer to call it ‘incentivizing,’” I said. “Anyway, if she were somehow to score twenty goals, she’d get a soccer scholarship to college and I’d make money on the deal. It’d be a win-win. But, you know, twenty goals is impossible.”
Kelly arrived at the table. “We’re gonna practice in the basement every night.”
“We?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ll serve me the balls and supervise. What do you think of the Honda Civic?”

Initially, I was skeptical. For several weeks, however, Kelly practiced without fail and made me a believer. We devised a routine where she preceded me to the basement to work alone for fifteen minutes on dribbling skills, then I came down to toss balls to her: left foot, right foot, left thigh, right thigh, chest, head, EVERYWHERE. In the final five minutes each evening, I would revive goaltending skills not used for twenty years, and catch shot after shot. Kelly’s improvement was so remarkable that she quickly outstripped my knowledge of technique, and we arranged additional private lessons with Minor del Rio, a former professional player, coincidentally, from Costa Rica.
Once the season began, Kelly emerged as the junior star on a senior-dominated team. Her style wasn’t subtle; she careened around the field like a bowling ball going through pins. I modified her incentive so three assists would count as a goal, too, since it would be bad if she shot when a pass would be preferable. Thus, fifteen goals and fifteen assists would also earn the car.
When the season reached its climax at the 2000 New Jersey State Championship game against Delran, Kelly was already choosing upholstery. The Honda was hers, with eighteen goals and twelve assists. For the final game only, George put her back in her old role as the marker of Delran’s star, Carli Lloyd. Not only was Carli All-County and All-State, she was All-AMERICAN, on her way to becoming the center-midfielder for the US Womens’ World Cup team. Kelly delivered several strong shoulders (and, perhaps, a bit of an elbow) during the first five minutes of the game, and Carli was never a factor. Ramsey won, 2-1.
A reader would be forgiven for thinking this was the end of the story. The girl got her car, the team won the championship, and the father was delighted. But more was to come. On the strength of her stellar junior season, Kelly was invited to play on an elite club team for the winter and spring instead of the local team on which she’d previously played. Compared to the smooth and silky players the coach was used to, with their multiple college scholarship offers, Kelly was still “a diamond in the rough.”
As usual, Kelly wasn’t intimidated. She pin-balled her way into a starting position and was unapologetic that no one mistook her style for ballet. She insisted we continue our practice routine, IN ADDITION to all her other practices, and assured me I was still helpful, even while I was certain she was beyond me.
Kelly’s senior season started sluggishly; she failed to score in the first eight games and the entire team seemed to be suffering post-Championship apathy. Still, she revived at mid-season and produced fifteen goals in the final seven regular season games, all wins. When the playoffs began, Kelly was in her element as the senior leader, the center-mid-fielder, and the captain. She scored one goal in the first round victory, all three goals in the second round, the game winner in overtime of the semi-finals, and we traveled down to Trenton again for the State Championship game against Freehold.
This time, it was Kelly whose reputation and press-clippings preceded her. The opponents kept her bottled up for most of the game, and what I recall, primarily, is that it was freezing cold. When the clock wound down with the score 0-0 and Freehold controlling play, no one on our side of the field would have been upset with a co-championship. Unable to stand the continuing cold and stress, Katie decamped for the restroom with about five minutes left in overtime.
When Katie emerged to meet us in the parking lot, she glanced up just in time to see Kelly burst through three Freehold defenders to deliver a thunderous finish that nearly broke the net. The sudden-death goal provided a second consecutive State Championship for Ramsey, made a local hero of Kelly, and allowed all of us to stumble through the next several weeks with a sense of “do you believe in miracles?” Accolades along the lines of “All-County” and “All-State” poured in and upgraded Kelly’s choice from a so-so college with a Division-3 soccer program to an excellent university with a Division-1 soccer team and scholarship money.
As the Bergen Record newspaper noted in a feature on Kelly the following week, I had once written a novel-length manuscript about a young soccer player that was a fictional composite of my three children. In the story, the protagonist takes a final shot at goal in the final minute of her final game and hits the goalpost. I explained to the reporter I didn’t think anyone would have found the story believable if the ball had gone in. Apparently, real life is stranger than fiction.
All in all, for a few weeks, our family lived in its own private Costa Rica, where we nodded and smiled to each other and didn’t need words to express our happiness. As for Kelly and me, it was bittersweet when she left for college. After several improbable years of soccer, I’d lost my practice partner. But at the same time, my stepdaughter had become my daughter.


WAITING FOR FATHERHOOD

Nine months is a long time to wait for a child; good thing we weren’t elephants, whose pregnancies last two years. Nearly twenty-five Father’s Days ago, I was soon to become a father, and I still had plenty of time to think about it.
I did not “hate kids,” as some intimates maintained when I was in my twenties. They based that opinion on my frequent use of the term “piss-pots” to refer to small children. However, I’d simply adopted that expression after hearing George Burns use it in the movie “Going in Style.” No, what I really felt was not distaste, but the absence of clear-cut thoughts concerning children. I’d simply never contemplated what it would be like to interact with them or raise them.
How did this happen? My three siblings were significantly older so, in many ways, I was raised as an only child. During my childhood, our neighborhood had no other young children, let alone babies. A demographic shift had occurred, and I was left marooned in an all-adult world.
When I approached twenty years of age, my now-married and geographically distant brothers begat my six nieces and nephews like a tag-team, in alternating years. I uttered the appropriate “oohs” and “aahs” over photographs and stories about their babies from afar, as though they were great athletes or movie stars. When our family convened for holidays, and I actually encountered the babies, my main impression was of bodily discharges, crying and fussing.
In short, while I was pleased my brothers appeared pleased, I was mystified, and certainly did not envy them or see myself in their positions. Fatherhood was not something I craved.
I married at thirty. While I was a willing participant in the conception process, I didn’t ponder what having a child would mean until my wife, Katie, revealed she was pregnant. My reaction was fear. I thought: “What if I don’t feel anything special, only a sense of duty?” I was confident I could “hang in there” and “perform” the role of a father, but I feared my time, finances and relationship with my new wife would suffer.
During the early stages of Katie’s pregnancy, lacking a positive emotional surge, I assured Katie I “would do what I have to do.” She was not sufficiently comforted and, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand why.
“I need more support,” she said.
I looked at her without comprehension.
“And I want you to show more anticipation.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It would be nice if you rubbed my belly, or talked to it,” she said.
I nodded, skeptically, and attempted a few awkward strokes. I was determined to avoid discussing the subject, lest I reveal too many of my doubts.
Pregnancy is a challenging process, to say the least, for a woman. (Can’t Mother Nature come up with something better?) It’s not so great for a husband, either, if he struggles to summon empathy from a seemingly empty supply.
Each morning, I ran to the kitchen hoping to deliver dry cereal to Katie before she might begin to retch over a toilet. We were both stressed out. While she was not a complainer, she was always exhausted, her back was sore, and her appetite was bizarre. She craved sweet potatoes or yams on a regular basis. Meals often featured crackers and plain pasta.
My doubts were constantly in the back of my mind. How could a child who I spawned come into the world without a father’s wholehearted love and affection? But I was prone to denial and good at compartmentalizing. I focused on work and such things as gardening, tennis and reading; anything to avoid considering the imminent change; I was soon to be a FATHER.
Three months in, Katie had an ultrasound exam. For the first time, I saw a tiny heart beating and learned my child would be a daughter. I tried to picture pink clothing, ribbons and the like. That wasn’t too bad. Then I pictured boyfriends. Not good. I realized I hadn’t formulated a preference for a son or a daughter. At least I wasn’t an old-style chauvinist who preferred a boy. The photo image they printed and handed me showed a stark reality: I was not prepared.
At five months, Katie signed us up for a Bradley birthing class. She explained it was a progressive sort of Lamaze, which I believed vaguely to be a sort of breathing exercise program, not that that meant anything to me. We paid to visit a woman’s dismal little apartment, where we sat on the floor with four other couples, and performed exercises and stretches with cushions that were somehow meant to assist childbirth. My thoughts were mostly consumed with not dirtying my clothes on the filthy carpet. I struggled not to laugh or detectably roll my eyes at the New Age pronouncements of the leader, such as: “You are vessels of creation. Life springs eternal from within, etc.” Such celebrations of pregnancy are designed, I imagine, to bring joy and anticipation to the birth event. But, for me, with my lack of enthusiasm so clear, it only made waiting worse.
After the sixth month, Katie’s morning sickness began to subside but her appearance continued to transform. “Who is this woman?” I asked myself. Formerly trim and athletic, a small bump in her mid-section had progressed from the size of a softball to that of a volleyball, and was heading to a basketball. I struggled to not resent the pregnancy every day. Katie’s energy was less, her back was worse, and I was becoming increasingly nervous. No longer in the back of my mind, I was worrying all the time, “What if I feel nothing for this child?”
“Are you excited?” people would ask.
“Yes, sort of, pretty much” I would say, trying to muster a smile.
Katie knew better than to ask. She didn’t want to hear my mantra about “Doing what I have to do” anymore. The waiting and uncertainty were agonizing for her, too.
When the eighth month arrived, and we chose wallpaper and a crib for the baby’s room, the wait was almost over. On a trip to buy curtains for the baby’s room, we discussed possible names.
“Valerie?” I said. “No,” said Katie. “What about an ’S’ name?”
“Susie?” I said. “Sharon?”
Katie shook her head.
“Definitely not Sandy,” I said.
I felt uncomfortable shifting the concept of “the baby” to a specific individual. I feared my ambivalence was a betrayal. In my anxiety, I offered a joke with regard to my last name, Sanders: “How about Orbital?” I suggested. Katie was not particularly amused.
I’d once told Katie that, according to family lore, I was supposed to have been named after my grandmother, Sarah, but I’d ruined the plan by being male. Desperately trying to foster a connection, Katie suggested we name our daughter “Sarah.”
I liked the sound of “Sarah Sanders” and appreciated the gracious nod to my family. Yet, waiting for this newly-named member of the human race, my progeny, was now even more nerve-wracking. “If I don’t feel anything special,” I thought, “it’ll be horrible. How will I live with myself, an emotional stranger to someone named after my own grandmother?”

The waiting was nearly over when the ninth month dawned, and we planned the trip to the hospital. I knew who to call at the midwife’s office and what route to take. I made sure the car always had plenty of gas. In short, I was doing all the things “I had to do,” but was still waiting with nagging discomfort.
The due date of October 23 came and went, prolonging the marathon. By the seventh day, we were discussing the process of inducing birth or, worse, the possibility of a Caesarian section. In efforts to start labor naturally, we took long hikes, ate spicy food, and even had Katie ingest castor oil. Something worked, and labor began the evening of October 30. We arrived at the hospital after midnight, and Katie spent a torturous night pushing and sweating and, generally, suffering. I sat beside the bed in the birthing center, held her hand, avoided saying anything stupid or insensitive when progress slowed, and finally suggested to the preoccupied midwife: “Why doesn’t Katie get up and take a shower?” That was a trick I’d heard about, ironically, at the long-ago Bradley class.
“That’s a good idea,” said the professional.
The shower seemed to work. After standing under the water for just a few minutes, Katie returned to the bed, grabbed my hand for a climactic squeeze, and pushed out the final product, at 8:12 a.m. on Halloween. Having never actually seen a live birth (I’d averted my eyes even when my cat gave birth), I was stunned to see a fully-black-haired head emerge from the birth canal and slide into the mid-wife’s hands. I cut the umbilical cord as instructed, and beheld my daughter, Sarah, for the first time.
The wait was over. What did I feel? How did this end? With extraordinary and spectacular relief, I found the welling up of love and affection for that little black-haired baby to be instantaneous and complete. It was love at first sight. Yes, I thought my daughter was beautiful, but that wasn’t why I loved her. My stomach flipped with excitement, my veins pulsed with continuous shots of adrenaline, my heart pounded like a jackhammer, my hands sweated and I couldn’t stop beaming. Katie, too, was elated. She was done with labor. She had a healthy daughter. And she could see, finally, I was delighted.
I hope to never experience that sort of long-term, high-stakes uncertainty and dread again, but it was worth the wait.


INSTRUMENT OF TORTURE

That Sam would play the oboe seemed inevitable. Someone had to.  He was the youngest of three children, after all, and his two older sisters had both failed at the piano and refused to play the oboe, respectively. With my wife, Katie’s professional-quality, hand-crafted instrument consigned to the back of a closet for decades, he represented the last chance one of our children would carry on her legacy as the one-time second chair of the Connecticut State Youth Orchestra.
“You can take piano lessons, if you prefer,” we offered, knowing he had long-refused to consider the beautiful instrument anchoring our living room, by then reduced to a silent piece of furniture.
“Why do I have to take anything?” Sam protested.
“Because musical training is important, your sisters suffered through it, and it will be good for you,” we answered, more or less. We probably also suggested: “it will enhance your college applications, provide an extracurricular activity in high school, and develop whichever side of the brain might otherwise be neglected.” We figured if we threw enough half-baked rationales against the wall, one might stick.
Sam was in fifth grade when this ambush took place. He had just entered middle school where there was an extensive music program. Each participant received a weekly lesson from the band director. Some students took private lessons, too, but the instrumental program at the school was renowned for developing beginners. Eventually, the talented and/or devoted would feed the award-winning high school band, an institution in our town whose fervent following rivaled that of the sports program. In fact, at Ramsey High School, the home football crowd was known to swell just before halftime and diminish precipitously after the band finished performing.
Nearly all the boys who began lessons in fifth grade chose to play the drums or something brass. We’d bought Sam a drum, at his insistence, when he was five. But he abandoned it after just a few days of sporadic pounding. Nearly all the girls chose the flute or clarinet. Not since the eighteenth century, perhaps, had a ten-year-old clamored to play the oboe. When the band director learned that our household held a prospective oboist, she nearly leapt with excitement.
“Does he already play?” asked Ms. Latronica (“rhymes with harmonica,” she always told the students on the first day of school).
“No,” we explained, “but Katie can teach him the basics, and he’s agreed to practice at least fifteen minutes a day.” We didn’t think it necessary to reveal the arguments and bribes involved in gaining the latter assurance. Suffice it to say, Sam’s ice cream and video games were secure for the balance of fifth grade.
“This is so exciting!” enthused the twenty-something Ms. Latronica. “We’ve never had an oboe before. Sousa wrote some great oboe parts!”
We nodded and smiled, but thought back to our daughters’ failed musical careers.
“I fear,” I whispered to Katie afterwards, “that she is headed for some disappointment.”

*****

Fortunately for me, I was at work when Sam commenced his initial oboe practices after school. One day, I arrived home earlier than usual and heard a braying sound emanating from the living room piano bench, where he sat.
“Do we have geese?” I asked.
“That’s Sam practicing,” said Katie.
“Wow,” I said. “Does it always sound like that?”
“Sometimes worse,” she said. “But he’ll get better, eventually.”
“What if he doesn’t?” I asked.
“He’s already made a lot of progress,” Katie assured me. “He can play a scale.”
“In three weeks, that’s all he’s learned?” I said.
“If he took the French horn, he might not be able to hit a note for a year,” she pointed out.
I nodded in agreement, recalling the unfortunate French horn player in my high school orchestra.
“But, at least a French horn sounds mellow. This sound is irritating; it’s hard to take,” I said quietly, cringing, as several additional honks bounced off the walls.

Over the next several months, Sam did make progress. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for instance, became recognizable. But he clearly lacked a gift. Since Katie had been an excellent oboist decades earlier and I’m one of those people blessed/plagued with music running through my head at all times, I couldn’t understand our progeny’s lack of musicality.
“They’re all good students,” I said. “And they’re great at soccer. Why do they lack musical talent? We’ve provided nature AND nurture, and received nothing in return,” I continued sourly.
Katie shrugged. “Let’s hope he’ll be happy he tried, someday. There won’t be much pressure. He’s playing third-oboe in the holiday concert.”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted. “How can he play ‘third’ when there’s no first or second?” I asked.
“Actually,” said Katie, “the third part is what Ms. Latronica thinks Sam can handle. Remember, he’s just a beginner.”
“Fair enough,” I said, apprehensive.
On the night of the concert, we were stunned and impressed to see the middle school band file into the gymnasium before us. Over eighty players made it larger than all but the most august of professional orchestras. Several of the hundreds of parents and grandparents rushed forward to hand flowers to their children. Others stood brandishing video cameras. We remained quietly in our seats, heeding Sam’s request that we “not do anything embarrassing.” Still, we were proud to see Sam amidst the ensemble, though his sheepish posture revealed his desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.
Ms. Latronica, glowing with excitement, took the podium in a form-fitting outfit guaranteed to command the attention of students and audience alike. The band performed a selection of Christmas carols with a Thanksgiving-themed song and a Hannukkah piece mixed in. The skill level was impressive; many of the students played with enthusiasm.
“I can’t hear the oboe at all,” I whispered at one point, though Sam appeared to be blowing.
“That’s probably a good thing,” whispered Katie. “The third part shouldn’t stand out.”
After the concert, while waiting in a long line at Baskin-Robbins (we weren’t the only bribers in town, apparently) we congratulated Sam for his efforts.
“I didn’t play a single wrong note,” he said, smiling suspiciously broadly.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, warily.
“I was just blowing,” he said, “but not hard enough to make sound.”
“Sam,” said Katie. “Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t want to mess up,” he said.
I considered expressing anger or, at least, canceling ice cream. But the latter was difficult because I wanted ice cream, too, and the former would have been hypocritical because I’d done the same thing decades earlier at a high school holiday concert. In fact, what I’d done was worse, since I was the first trumpet, and responsible to carry the melody!

We didn’t let Sam quit the oboe mid-year, despite his requests, but we did move his practice location to the basement. Several closed doors would insulate the rest of the house from the noise.
“He’ll probably be watching television while he practices,” I said.
“Probably,” said Katie.
“Do we care?” I asked.
“Probably not,” she said.
I pondered the situation for a moment. “What kind of parents practically invite their son to goof off when he practices?”
“Realistic,” said Katie. “He’s not gifted and he’s not excited to play. We can’t force it.”
The school year ended with a spring concert. We attended and applauded and didn’t even ask Sam if his instrument was contributing to the sound. And he didn’t volunteer the information. When we arrived home, the oboe reassumed its place in the closet.
As the years proceeded, Sam developed a healthy enjoyment of music. Now that he is in graduate school, on the rare occasions the subject of playing musical instruments arises, I note that my son expertly plays the I-pod and Pandora, and he’s perfectly satisfied with that. Therefore, I suppose, so am I.


IT’S IN THE JEANS

“Blue jeans are for farmers,” said my father.
I heard that pronouncement throughout childhood, first directed to my older brothers and, eventually, to me.
Lou Sanders’ Menswear in Philadelphia stocked Wranglers and Levi’s for customers but never for home consumption. There were few things my father, who had been born to a poor family in Ukraine, felt so strongly. He had no objection to selling work clothes to laborers, but his children were not to appear like proletarians. This belief was ironic, given that my father was far more sympathetic to the politics of the Red Army than to the White Army when the two alternately over-ran his childhood neighborhood.
I never managed to understand my father’s fickle political philosophy. I recall him reading the Socialist Workers’ newspaper when I was little. He was so sympathetic to Communist ideals I wondered, sometimes, why he ever left Russia in the first place. I understood, on some level, that it was a matter of economic opportunity and freedom from religious persecution, but he would not express distaste for the Soviet Union even in the face of Stalin’s obvious depredations. Perhaps, he held an idealized memory of his childhood there. But considering his family chose to flee the country, how ideal could it have been?
On the domestic front, my father disliked Johnson and despised Nixon, but he complained bitterly about those who demonstrated against them, too. He was equally dismissive of politicians on the liberal side, such as Humphrey or McGovern.
The picture painted above is more negative than I mean to depict. When my father skewered someone or something, it was, fortunately, usually leavened with wit and insight. A listener might wince at first, but a nod or smile often followed.
In race relations, he appeared colorblind in his dealings with customers. He found something negative to say about whites, blacks and hispanics, without discrimination. He derided members of all the world’s religions, including his own, without distinction. In fact, the more devout a person, the more harshly they would be criticized for their presumed hypocrisy. Somewhere, in his rarely-discussed formative years, my father developed deep skepticism of human motivations.
None of my father’s commentary prevented him from being an effective salesman, however. Anyone who shopped at his store was treated like a prince, at least until they were out of ear-shot. Thus, it was difficult to know exactly where he was coming from. His positions were strongly-held, even if they were completely contradictory. “Consistency? Ech, who needs it?” he would say, if confronted.
The subject of blue jeans bridged the gap between my father’s two realms, the store and home. Of course, he supplied his sons’ clothes. When he was young, my oldest brother, Barry, was indifferent to his wardrobe. Whatever my father brought home was okay with him. But David, two years younger, fashioned himself a rebel, relatively-speaking. In most families, he probably would have been “normal.” If my father would not bring home jeans, David earned his own money to buy them. This teenage flashpoint presaged subsequent battles over car choices (my father preferred a staid Buick; David a red Camaro), facial hair (David grew a full beard during a college-era camping trip which my father made him shave as a condition to re-entering our home), and girls. My father conveyed his disapproval wordlessly in that area, with just a withering stare. But that’s a different story.
I observed the fashion and other disputes from the advantageous position of being ten years younger. Some suspected and others declared my conception had been a “mistake.” Nowadays, the euphemism is “unplanned.” According to family lore, my father, who was fifty at the time, fretted during my mother’s pregnancy that I would be born with grey hair. Once I was born, however, he was dutifully positive and loving towards me, if rarely home. He worked, after all, seven days-a-week.
I grew up lacking rebellious impulses. I figured if my father worked everyday to feed, educate and clothe me, why should I aggravate him? Thus, my warm-weather pants were khaki and my cold-weather pants were corduroy. This wardrobe never struck me odd as a child but, as I reached my teen years and, especially during college, I realized I was unique. This fact appealed to me — initially self-conscious about my “squareness,” it gradually occurred to me I was the true non-conformist among my classmates, thanks to my over-arching conformity. (If the reader is confused, I understand. Any psychologists out there are welcome to weigh in).
In my twenties, several female friends took note of my lack of “style.” They bought me “designer jeans,” as gifts, with elaborate stitching and buttons. Depending on what I judged my prospects with a particular girl, these were either returned immediately to the store or placed in an obscure corner of my closet, just in case a desire for continued romance in the future made my stubbornness expendable. But the necessity of wearing jeans never became clear and, by the time I reached thirty, it appeared I would lead a jean-less life.
My father sold the store a few years before he died. Many things had bothered him, including: politicians; stale rye bread; cold coffee; and, rock-and-roll. Several things about me had also bothered him, such as: my lack of interest in the store; my lack of enthusiasm about practicing law; my choice to attend a college other than Penn, which he called “The Greatest University in the World.” But my wearing blue jeans was never one of them.