Archives for category: Parenting

A WEEKEND TO REMEMBER
Jeffrey Levin wanted pants. This unremarkable fact propelled a forgettable soccer weekend into the annals of awful parenting experiences.
It all began innocently. My son, Sam, was invited to join a North Jersey-based 12-year-old soccer team. Most of the players and their families were originally from Central America and lived in and around Newark. They approached soccer with intensity far beyond what Sam had seen in our suburban community. We were delighted he would have the opportunity to experience such a level and, incidentally, be exposed to different cultures.
Though the regular season would not begin until April, the coach entered the team in a tournament in Richmond, Virginia in early March. He acknowledged the distance might present a hardship for some families and said a new player could commence playing after the tournament. However, Sam wanted to get started, and I was anxious to spend time outdoors after the long winter, so I cheerfully offered to chaperone. I expected Richmond’s early-March weather to be mild.
A week before the trip, the father of the only other non-Hispanic player called and asked if we would join them for the ride. “After all,” Steve Levin explained, “my wife and I have a large van, and it’ll be great to enjoy adult conversation. Our son, Jeffrey, will share the ‘way-back’ with your son.”
“That’ll be great,” I said, thinking Sam would be pleased to have someone besides me to talk to, and I would be able to share the driving.
“Good,” said Steve. “Jeffrey loves to make new friends. If you come at mid-day on Friday, we can get an early start. Considering the traffic, we’ll let Jeffrey skip his afternoon classes.”
“Sam will love that idea,” I said.
When we arrived, as scheduled, at one o’clock, Linda, Jeffrey’s petite, Asian mom, met us at the door with three pieces of news, delivered matter-of-factly: 1. Steve was still at work; 2. Jeffrey did not want to miss his afternoon classes; and, 3. their van was in the shop, so we would be traveling by car.
“If you want to go on ahead,” she said, “we’ll understand.”
I was disappointed, but decided to stay the course. After all, we had driven to their house in a two-seater that was not comfortable on long trips and Sam would have been disappointed, I thought, to travel without his peer. Surely, the Levin family car was large, or Linda would have appeared upset. Linda ushered us into their den and showed us how to operate their small television. Ominously, she requested that we turn it off just before Jeffrey’s anticipated arrival. “Jeffrey is not allowed to watch television except for public television programs that we have pre-approved,” she explained.
At 3:30, Steve and Jeffrey arrived home together in what appeared to be a Toyota Corolla. It was hard to tell, because the front hood was held shut by a rope that blocked the manufacturer’s logo. The color was formerly either silver or blue but had been degraded by age into a blotchy, grey-like hue.
Steve, a tall, thin journalist with salt and pepper hair, tried to address what must have been a stricken expression on my face: “It’s surprisingly roomy, once you get in.”
Jeffrey was built like his dad, with his mom’s dark hair. He appeared mature for a twelve-year-old, gravely offering Sam a handshake while his parents looked on.
“Jeffrey,” said Steve, “Gather your math and science books for the trip. There will be a lot of learning time this weekend.”
Sam gave me a “what have you gotten me into?” look.
We squeezed our luggage into the Corolla’s trunk and I was offered the front passenger seat.
“You’re tall,” said Linda. “I’ll sit in back between the boys.”
“Between?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “so they can concentrate on their books.”
“I’m afraid Sam hasn’t brought any books,” I said, feeling like a cretin. “He takes it a little lighter on soccer weekends.”
“On any weekend,” said Sam.
I glanced at him, wide-eyed.
Steve and Linda paused for a moment, before Steve said: “That’s okay. Jeffrey will share.”
“Dad!” said Jeffrey, upset.
“Jeffrey,” Steve said, sternly, “Sam is a new friend. You need to share.”
Jeffrey rolled his eyes and plopped angrily into the back seat. I tried to imagine what Jeffrey was like when he was not trying to make a new friend.
Finally underway, we entered the Garden State Parkway in its typical Friday afternoon parking-lot mode. Steve described his parenting plan while I focused on the bouncing hood and wondered how much jostling the rope could withstand. Once, I looked back over my shoulder at Sam, who had an algebra textbook open in his lap, but his withering return stare discouraged me from doing so again.
“Jeffrey is an only child, of course,” said Steve. “We feel proper parenting can only be done with the focus that one child allows. Sam is your only one, right?”
“Well, actually, he’s the third,” I said.
“Oh,” said Steve. “That’s too bad. Jeffrey plays on this team so that he can supplement his Spanish lessons. Also, being able to play soccer at a top level should be attractive to the Ivies.”
“You’re already looking at colleges?” I asked.
“It’s never too early,” said Linda. “Harvard and Yale have top-flight soccer programs. If they are not ascendant when Jeffrey is ready to attend, his bassoon should also be attractive.”
“Jeffrey plays the bassoon?” I asked.
“And the oboe,” said Steve, “just for fun.”
Sam’s foot collided with my resting elbow.
“Oops,” he said, unconvincingly.
Afternoon turned to evening and finally to night as we crawled south. The Baltimore-Washington corridor of congestion segued into the Washington-Richmond region of construction. Steve chose to do all the driving while Linda doled out occasional portions of “healthy snacks.” My lifetime intake of baby carrots was tripled.
Steve’s voice wafted over me with explanations of Jeffrey’s interests and needs. I nodded or occasionally said “un-hunh” when it seemed appropriate, but I’m sure such social niceties were unnecessary. Steve would have told me about “vocabulary enrichment” and “biology boot-camp” regardless.
I felt electrical charges emanating from my nearly paralyzed lower back as the hours passed. It was well after midnight when we arrived at the suburban Wayfarer Inn where the coach had reserved a block of rooms. By then, the boys had fallen asleep, having hardly exchanged a word. We ushered them zombie-like into our respective rooms.
The next morning, the team met, as suggested by the coach, Giovanni, at a local restaurant several steps from the motel. Its sign promised: “Hot Dogs and Other Fine Foods.” The boys and their families were happily attacking the breakfast buffet when we arrived, and Giovanni introduced Sam around the room. I hadn’t slept well, still feeling as though I was in motion after the endless car ride. But I was proud of Sam for mixing immediately with his teammates, even though they were strangers who spoke primarily in Spanish. Sam established an easy camaraderie with them. I noticed that Jeffrey and his parents were sitting at a table by themselves, and I felt their eyes on my back, so I joined them.
After a few moments, Giovanni rose to speak, first in rapid-fire Spanish, then in halting English, for the benefit of us and the Levin’s. “We have two games today and, if we win both, the semi-final and final games tomorrow. These teams are very good, from Pittsburgh and from Boston. Juan Carlos,” he said, addressing directly one of the boys who appeared to have adult-sized musculature, “you will have to play smart.”
I looked at Steve for an explanation.
“Juan Carlos is not disciplined,” he whispered. “It sometimes becomes a problem.”
“How old is Juan Carlos?” I asked.
Steve shrugged. “His birth certificate says he is twelve. His puberty may be a little advanced.”
After breakfast, Sam and I joined the Levin’s for the short ride to the field. I was bundled in layers to protect against a chilly drizzle, the hoped-for warmth still weeks away, apparently. Jeffrey did not speak during the ride and appeared catatonic; Linda noticed me look quizzically at him: “He’s visualizing,” she explained. “It’s a technique he utilizes for exams and recitals, also.”
At the field, events proceeded as usual. The teams warmed up on their respective sides and the parents clumped together in anxious knots. Several of our team’s parents graciously greeted me, but nearly everyone was pre-occupied with what I had come to believe were the main parental concerns of youth sports, namely: what position will my child play, will he start, and how many minutes will he play?
Sam started on the bench, which was normal, given his newness to the team. After several minutes, however, he was substituted in on defense, taking the place of Jeffrey, awkwardly enough. I could not avoid noticing that both Steve and Linda were keeping track of such developments with stop-watches.
“Six-twelve,” said Steve, shaking his head.
“I’ve got six-eighteen,” said Linda, looking grim.
I edged a few steps further from them and was vastly relieved when Sam performed satisfactorily. Our team prevailed, 3-1, against the team from Boston, as Juan Carlos led the way. The Levin’s marked each entrance and exit of Jeffrey in a notepad (hand-written in those days) and conferred throughout as though they were observing a delicate operation.
The afternoon game against the Pittsburgh team was different. Their players were not supervised during warm-ups and lobbed hostile looks and remarks towards our team. Several pointed at Juan Carlos, conspicuous by his size, and were obviously taunting him. Only moments after the game began, Pittsburgh players fouled Juan Carlos and they continued to do so with dubious degrees of legality at every opportunity.
“Ref! Make it a whistle!” shouted Giovanni, calling for a penalty. Whether he was understood or not was unclear, but the referee, thin-legged and red-faced, in a striped shirt stretched over an ample belly, was disinclined to take action.
I was happy that Sam was playing a peripheral position as the mid-field action became heated. Eventually, Juan Carlos kicked at one of his tormentors, who shoved back, and shouted: “Get off of me, you stupid Mexican!”
A melee ensued, with punches delivered frantically, with Juan Carlos in the middle. “I’m not Mexican!” he shouted above the fray. “I’m from El Salvador!”
The coaches and referee ran to separate the boys. Descended from generations of Russian Jews who had observed competing bands of Cossacks, Sam was gingerly edging farther and farther from the scrum. If the fight had continued much longer, he might have been found in the parking lot. Once a degree of calm was restored, and the teams returned to their respective sides of the field, the referee pulled a red card from his pocket, and waved it in front of Juan Carlos, throwing him out of the game.
“Dios mio!” shouted Giovanni. “Eso es ridiculo!”
“I don’t know what that means,” said the referee, “but you’re outta here, too. Game’s over. You forfeit.”
He flashed a red card at Giovanni, who threw his clipboard to the ground and had to be restrained from attacking. The referee strode off the field leaving angry and bewildered parents to gather their sons.
I looked at Steve and Linda who were standing protectively around Jeffrey.
“We’re going home immediately,” Steve said. “We will not stand for this sort of exhibition. With the coach red-carded, the team can’t win the tournament, in any event.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“What else could go wrong?” I asked myself, thinking of the ride down, the poor sleep, Jeffrey’s unfriendliness, Juan Carlos’s torment, the fight and the forfeit.
As we walked towards the Corolla to pile in for the long ride home, Sam asked quietly: “Do we have to go to more of these tournaments?”
“No way,” I told him. “We’ll have a one hour driving limit.”
“Good,” he said.
All three Levin’s were silently seething about Jeffrey’s playing time, or the fight, or the result, or all of the above. I didn’t want to ask.
Just one hour into the eight-hour ride (if we were lucky) I was enjoying the fact that no one felt like talking. Sam settled into his seat for a nap, Steve stared straight ahead at the road, and I tried to relax, when Jeffrey’s voice piped up from behind, like a small bird deep inside a well: “I want to get some pants.”
“What, honey?” asked Linda.
“I want some pants,” he repeated.
Steve looked at him through the rear view mirror. “What kind of pants?” he asked.
“School pants,” said Jeffrey.
I thought this discussion was amusing. What twelve-year-old boy wants to buy pants? Surely, Linda would assure him they could go to the store at home sometime during the week.
“Well,” said Steve. “We’ll have to find a mall.”
I was horrorstruck. We were going to actually exit the highway near the start of a four hundred mile drive so that Jeffrey could go shopping.
“Ummmm,” I protested, unable to form a coherent sentence.
“It’s important to honor this sort of personal need,” said Steve. “I’m sure it won’t take long.”
Two malls and two hours later, we were back on I-95 headed north. Jeffrey held a bag with two pairs of khakis and speculated with his mother which shirts would go well with them. I wondered how much stomach acid it took to create an ulcer. When we finally arrived at the Levin’s home that night, Sam and I mumbled insincere thanks and stumbled towards our car.
“What do you say, Jeffrey?” asked Steve.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jeffrey. “I hope you’ll come to my bassoon concert next weekend.”
Sam looked at me aghast. “We’ll have to see if we’re available,” I said.
In the safety of our car, with the only alternative being to cry, Sam and I began to laugh.
“We’re not going to his concert, right?” said Sam.
“I promise,” I said.
Pondering whether this was one of my worst experiences as a parent or one of my strangest, I placed it in the top ten in both categories.


SMOKING

I took my first puff when I was about eight. It was also my last puff. I was in the breakfast room when my mother gave me a cigarette and I still remember the resulting coughing fit. How she devised this anti-smoking strategy, I never knew, but it certainly was effective.
My disdain for all things tobacco prevailed throughout my youth as I helped to badger my father into limiting his habit to the outdoors and, eventually, to forswear it altogether. As a young adult, I despised the smell on my clothing and did not hold back expressing my feelings to co-workers. My family happened to be traveling in 1991 on the first day smoking was banned on airline flights in America and I was interviewed by a local television station at the San Francisco Airport. I’m sure I said something pithy about my relief that the scourge of smoking on airplanes was finally over. Think about it; it has only been twenty-two years since fellow passengers could light up in an airplane under the ridiculous fiction that their odious odors were confined to the rear.
We were clear on the issue of smoking in raising our children. When they were little, they were not allowed to refer to any other person as “stupid,” but an exception was made with my wife Katie’s somewhat reluctant assent. If we passed a smoker on the street or were in line at a store when someone purchased cigarettes, our young children were encouraged (by me, at least) to declare aloud, “they’re stupid.” Their synapses were, thus, effectively wired. In restaurants, I was apt to wave a napkin conspicuously in the direction of puffers. Fortunately, that is rarely necessary anymore.
I’d always maintained I would never date a smoker or even an ex-smoker. Besides the fact of the smell and filth of the habit, I felt it evidenced a serious character flaw. A smoker was idiotic, and/or unable to resist peer pressure, and/or suicidal. My determination lasted until I met a Greek airline attendant during an otherwise bleak vacation in Paris (well, we weren’t technically “dating”) and, several years later, further gave way when I learned that Katie had, in fact, smoked while she was in college, a decade before we were married. Yes, I can be flexible.
Barry Goldwater once stated: “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” I adapt his thinking to the issue of smoking, namely: “Intolerance in distaste for the indefensible is no vice.” Rarely exposed to indoor smoke for decades, imagine my shock during a recent drive through South Carolina. I stopped for breakfast at a luxurious Waffle House and, in what seemed almost choreographed, all the surrounding patrons lit up around me just as my pecan waffle arrived. Apparently, the ban that adheres in Charleston’s lovely establishments does not extend state-wide.
Now that they have taken us back to 1963 in so many ways, I hope the nuts in our North Carolina legislature don’t get any new ideas.


SUMMER CAMP

Adults are often teary-eyed remembering the joys of their childhood summer camps.  They recall campfires and marshmallows, frogging and fishing, crafts and friends.  The singing, the swimming, the painting and ashtray-making all float out of the mists of memory to rekindle pleasure.  They were young and carefree, happy as though those days would last forever.  I was an exception.

To me, Sesame Day Camp represented unmitigated tedium and stress.  There were long waits in gnat-infested grass for mere seconds on the noisy and smoky go-carts.  There was pointless shooting of BB guns and arrows.  There were fruitless swim lessons and long rides to and from camp in counselors’ cars where I was subjected to the moronic music choices of my fellow travelers.  Or, if the radio was not sufficient torture, they sang about beer bottles on the wall.

All I wanted to do in the summer was play ball.  Not tether-ball or the special version of volleyball for the physically delayed called newcomb (one tries to catch the ball and throw it back instead of hitting it).  I wanted to play baseball.  And I wanted to do it with others who were passionate about the sport and capable of performing above a minimum level of skill.  At Sesame, we never played baseball.

One legacy from my time at day camp sets me apart from most of society.   Apparently, despite a level of coordination that was admired in athletics, I missed the developmental milestone that would have rendered me able to tie my shoes prior to camp.  Thus, I was subjected to remedial instruction; I still remember a large, wooden practice shoe.   The method they finally taught me involved double-looping, a technique I have never shaken.   Whenever someone notices how I tie my shoes they shake their head in disbelief.

Another memory from Sesame Day Camp was “bug” juice.  If it was not made with bugs, why did they call it that?  Although I recall heat and humidity worthy of the tropics, I never overcame my literal interpretation to partake in the thrice-daily refreshment ritual.   My fellow campers liked me best when I gave away my drinks.

While one could have the impression from the foregoing that I was a forlorn camper, there were actually several co-sufferers worse off than I.  One was a sickly slip of a boy who everyone called “Powerhouse.”  Teased mercilessly, he sniffed and sniveled and carried himself as though he were invertebrate.  He was even miserable during crafts hour, when I would have expected him to thrive.  He probably ended up as a body-builder.

Another victim of juvenile insensitivity was an overweight boy named Tom Divver.  “Moon River” was a popular song at the time and everyone serenaded him “Tom Divver, wider than a mile, his clothes are out of style….”  No one ever thought of a second line, so they just repeated that over and over and over.

Singing was somehow important at Sesame.  The counselors taught us a ditty that I still remember.  On reflection, nearly five decades later, I think the words were intended to be: “Hi-yike-e-yike-us, nobody’s like us, we are the boys of Sesame!”  But we all sang:  “Hi-yike-e-yike-us, nobody likes us….”  I’m still not sure.

My camping career ended when I was about ten, after three summers of abject complaining finally wore down my mother.  I was allowed to stay at home and throw a ball incessantly against a wall and was infinitely happier.  I was confident the camping experience was put to rest forever.  Twenty years later, however, I married into a family that believed firmly in the value of summer camps.  In spite of my scoffing or, perhaps, because of it, my oldest daughter adored summer camp and upgraded from local day camp to six weeks of stunningly expensive overnight camp, as soon as possible.

“Isn’t it muddy and buggy?” I would ask.

“We have so much fun,” Kelly would reply, not actually answering the question.

“Isn’t the food awful?” I would ask.

“I love my counselors,” she would reply.

It was as though we were speaking different languages or acting in a modernist play by Samuel Beckett.

My second daughter, Sarah, was more reticent and attended local day camps for several summers, with minimal enthusiasm.  She was not fond of mucking horse stalls and eating hot dogs for every other meal.  She was not hankering to stay up all night giggling with bunkmates.  Still, when she was ten, encouraged by her sister and mother, she signed up for a summer of overnight camp where Kelly had graduated to being a senior counselor.

Bearing in mind Sarah’s need for sleep and her love of comfortable circumstances, I fretted:    “Are you sure she’s up for this?”

“She will be fine,” said my wife.

“What if she hates living in a cabin?  What if the girls are not nice?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, Kelly will be there,” she said.

I tried to contain my skepticism and I waved good-bye with a fake smile when my wife drove off to deliver the girls to the camp only slightly less distant than Siberia.  The campers were not allowed to call home during the first three weeks and that made me uncomfortable.  I wanted Sarah to have a good time but I still harbored a strong aversion to summer camp.  Imagine my cognitive dissonance several days later when the camp director called my wife to say Sarah was “having a hard time.”

“I’ll go get her,” I volunteered immediately.

“She will be fine,” said my wife.  “It is important for her to work through this.”

“Did you remind the guy to let her have access to Kelly?” I asked.

“Of course, and I’m sure that will calm her down.  She just has to get used to it.”

Several days later, the first letter arrived from Sarah.  In block letters, she wrote:  “This place is awful.  I can’t sleep.  There are mice in the walls, and spider webs.  I want to come home.”

“I will go get her,” I offered again.

“The letter was written five days ago.  By now, I’m sure she is adjusting.  We will see her at parent visitation after the first three weeks.  I have no doubt it will be okay,” said my wife.

The next day, the phone rang again and the caller i.d. indicated it was the camp.  I raced to the phone.  It was Kelly, calling from the director’s office.

“Sarah’s driving me nuts,” said Kelly.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“She only wants to hang by my side.  And I have forty other girls to take care of.”

“Can’t the director help out?” I asked.

“They’ve tried,” said Kelly, sounding more discouraged than I had ever heard her.

“Is there any hope?” I asked, trying to sound sincerely hopeful.

“Doesn’t look like it,” said Kelly.  “She’s miserable.  I think you will have to take her home at visitation day.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound disheartened, while squelching the urge to pump my fist.  “I’ll tell mom.”

A week later, on the long ride to visitation my wife was hopeful Sarah would change her mind.  Her optimism was dashed, however, when we arrived, to find Sarah happily greeting us in the parking lot with her bags packed.

“Don’t you want to show us your bunk?” asked my wife.

“No,” said Sarah.

“Are there any friends you need to say ‘good-bye’ to?” I asked.

“Did it already,” said Sarah.  “Let’s go.”

“We want to spend some time with Kelly,” said my wife.

“Okay,” said Sarah, impatiently.

We found Kelly after a few minutes.   She was “in her element,” happily and effectively handling the needs of her forty other campers and their parents.  We gave her some favorite candy and fresh T-shirts and hurriedly said “good-bye.”  Kelly hugged Sarah tightly, but her relief to see her sister go was clear.

I tried, but probably failed, to tamp down my smugness on the ride home.   We were both relieved to have Sarah happy again.  We agreed it would not make sense to argue our views on summer camp again.  We concluded, finally:  “Different strokes for different folks.”


HOME REPAIR and MR. BROWN

Observing my father shaped my attitude towards people, business, politics and religion.  He inculcated me with disdain for hypocrisy and those who project a “holier-than thou” attitude.  He taught me to be skeptical and to delve deeper than what appears on the surface.  I appreciate those lessons, whether intended or accidental; however, he taught me absolutely nothing about home repair.

When I was young, changing a light bulb represented the pinnacle of expertise in repairs.  Words like “gasket” and “connection” are recognized as mundane to society at large; in our household, they were mysterious and scary.

The tradition of helplessness in the realm of repairs continued into my adult life.  Regretting my ignorance, and hoping to ingratiate myself with a particular girl, I once enrolled in an adult class in lamp wiring.  I learned enough to know that I never want to wire a lamp.  There was something about “black goes with black” and “green with green,” etc., but the message I received had everything to do with “shocks.”

When I married, my wife brought a varied collection of garageanalia (a newly developed word) including:  a mallet, a sander, a power saw and a vice.  I initially believed this dowry conferred at least a modest level of expertise, but I eventually learned (as the rust and spider webs on the objects hinted), these tools were not so much mastered, as inherited, by her.  We share an inability to fix things though, admittedly, she is more knowledgeable.  If this situation were analogized to height, she would be on the second floor of the Empire State Building and I would be in the basement.

I freely admit my lack of ability in this realm is unfortunate.  The amount of money wasted and opportunities lost as a result are incalculable.  When I once invested in a fixer-upper to rent out, it was maddening to be consigned to pulling weeds outside, while an expensive electrician or plumber ran up bills inside.  I painted several times, but was asked by co-owners, tenants and spouse alike, to desist, lest the subject rooms be ruined forever.

My father’s solution to the money pit of home repair and maintenance was twofold:  first, ignore the situation and hope that no one will notice or care enough to require action; and, second, when finally hiring someone to do the work, negotiate so hard that the person who is willing to take the job is desperate and/or incompetent.  These strategies combined to prevent satisfactory solutions to almost any problem.

Mr. Brown was the usual bête noir in my father’s maintenance struggles.  Whether it was a driveway that needed paving, a toilet that needed sealing, or a patio that needed pointing, Mr. Brown eventually got the call.  He arrived in an ancient truck, a slight, light-skinned African-American man, wearing a pair of paint-spattered overalls.  He walked around the house with my father, like an always-hopeful bird awaiting crumbs from an extraordinarily fastidious diner.  At each project, he would estimate the cost, and listen patiently to my father’s howls of indignation and disbelief.

Because my father and Mr. Brown could not always reach a deal, some projects, like our basement bathroom, were never completed; the room remained in a state of “rough” plumbing without fixtures for fifty years.  Other large projects, like the re-covering of our sun-deck, were completed in such a manner that we never used the area again.  The materials used (concrete!), and the low level of workmanship, suggested strongly that walking on the deck would result in the collapse of the entire structure.

Generally, Mr. Brown was willing to work within my father’s fiscal constraints and was resourceful enough to handle most small jobs with a passable degree of success.  One day, while I watched a ballgame on television in the adjacent room, Mr. Brown labored in a bathroom trying to fix a faucet leak that was staining the kitchen ceiling below.

“Mr. Sanders,” he called to my father downstairs.  “I know what the problem is.  The spigot was installed wrong and it’s dripping backwards inside the wall.”

“Can it be fixed?” asked my father from the bottom of the stairs.

“Well,” said Mr. Brown.  “I’m afraid I’ll have to open up the wall to get at it, but it shouldn’t be too bad to patch up.”

“Accchhh,” said my father, possibly skeptical of the diagnosis and/or simplicity of the cure, but absolutely wary of the cost. “Will it take long?”

“Not more than an hour or so,” said Mr. Brown.  “And I’ve got wall cement in the truck so I won’t even charge you for materials.”

My father grumbled assent and returned to reading his newspaper.

From my vantage point I could see Mr. Brown as he worked.  Though I was only about ten, and nearly as ignorant in the ways of adults as of repairs, I sensed he was not as certain as he’d indicated to my father.  There was something about the shrug of his shoulders, the furrow of his brow, and the sighs that only I could hear.

While chipping away at the wall with a chisel, Mr. Brown was accumulating an impressive pile of dust and debris.  Eventually, he exposed the pipes and commenced manipulating them with a wrench.

“Hmmmm,” he said.

“Ummmm,” he added.

“Well, well, well,” he concluded.

I went over to watch; after all, the project seemed more interesting than another Phillies’ defeat.  Mr. Brown did not address me directly.  In fact, we never shared any words during the decade or so that I was acquainted with Mr. Brown.  After a final twist, he put down the wrench and declared aloud:  “That should do it.  I’m going to patch up the hole.”

When he returned with cement and spackling tools I wondered if he was going to turn on the water before restoring the wall.  It appeared not.  I wordlessly willed him to do so.  Instead, he applied himself to enclosing the plumbing with wallboard and caulk and spent an hour sanding and spackling.  I had never seen Mr. Brown work so carefully, like Michaelangelo at the Sistine Chapel.  Finally, he called downstairs:  “Mr. Sanders.  All finished up here.”

My father bounded up and immediately turned on the faucet.

“It’s flooding down here!” shouted my mother from the kitchen.  “Turn it off!”

My father glowered at Mr. Brown.

“Didn’t you test it?” he demanded.

I knew that Mr. Brown had not, and Mr. Brown knew that I knew.  Our eyes met, just for a moment.  I felt loyal to my father but also a tug of sympathy for Mr. Brown.

“Of course,” he finally said to my father, his eyes downcast.  I felt a pit in my stomach.

“He did,” I blurted spontaneously.  “I heard the water.”

My father looked doubtful.  An awkward silence ensued.

“I’ll open it up again,” interjected Mr. Brown, anxiously.  “I’ll adjust it until I get it right.  I won’t charge for any more time.”

“All right,” said my father, satisfied, before returning downstairs.

Mr. Brown and I exchanged one more glance.  I returned to my ballgame, and he resumed working on the faucet.   After several hours of re-configuring and much testing, the leak appeared fixed.  At least, it was several months before the kitchen ceiling resumed dripping.

I derived two lessons from that day.  As to plumbing, my original intuition was correct:  never enclose the repair without verifying its effectiveness; and, as to life:  lying to one’s father is hard for a kid to justify, but in some rare circumstances where no one is hurt, perhaps it is okay to extend a lifeline to a fellow human being.


EYES

Until he backed the Oldsmobile into a tree outside a restaurant, we did not know the extent of my father’s inability to see.  According to my mother, it was still twilight when he failed to notice the sycamore, and the tree trunk was enormous.  The car was only mildly dented, but my father had banged his head on the steering wheel.

“Did he have too much to drink?” I asked my mother the next morning, with a mixture of doubt (he rarely drank to excess) and, ironically, hope (it was a possible explanation).

“No,” she whispered.  “He just didn’t see it.”

We heard his footsteps in the hallway, and my mother put her finger to her lips.

“Good morning,” said my father, without conviction, as he entered the kitchen.  He held an ice pack against the side of his head where an ugly lump protruded.

“Does it hurt?” I asked, feeling stupid immediately.  Obviously, it must have hurt.  My question revealed my discomfort with the situation.

“It doesn’t feel good,” he replied.

I did not want to stare at the purple and blue bruise, but I could hardly keep my eyes away.  I had never seen my father look so vulnerable.

My father was seventy-seven but rarely wore his glasses.  He insisted that he did not need them, except to read.  The family had referred to him as “Magoo” for years, but never within his hearing.  Along with his hair darkening and comb-over, it was clear his appearance was vitally important to him.

“Lou,” said my mother.  “I made you an appointment at the eye doctor this afternoon.”

“Why?” he asked, appalled.  His response struck me as funny, though not in a “ha-ha” sort of way.

“You might have done some real damage to your eye.  A doctor has to see it,” she said.

“Accchhh, doctors don’t know anything,” he scoffed, repeating a line I had heard all my life.

“You can’t just ignore it,” she stated.  Looking at me, she said:  “You should come along.  It will be good for you to get out of the house.”

She was right about that.  Since returning home after college graduation, I had spent hours each day in my childhood bedroom studying for the bar exam.  However, accompanying them on a trip to the eye doctor was not exactly an excursion.  The mission potentially teemed with tension.  I would act as a combination chauffeur and kidnapper.  Most importantly, perhaps, I would be nearby when the doctor brought up the sensitive issue of my father’s continued driving.

I drove the three of us in my father’s Oldsmobile to Wills’ Eye Institute in Philadelphia.  It is a prestigious institution located in a massive stone building.  When we arrived, I let my parents out of the car at the entrance while I parked.  I planned to meet them in the waiting room.  When I arrived, my parents were engaged in an animated discussion, whispering loudly to be heard over a television talk show ironically featuring a collection of bickering spouses.

“I am going in with you,” said my mother.

“Not necessary,” said my father, his tone angry.  “I am not a child.”

She persisted.  “It will do some good if one of us asks some questions.  And you never do.”

“I’ve come here for decades and handled this myself,” he said.

“That’s the problem!” she proclaimed.

The debate would have continued if the nurse had not interrupted, addressing my father:  “The doctor is ready for you.  He’d like your wife to come in, too.”

My father startled as my mother rose and strode in ahead of him.  I noticed for the first time that there were other patients in the waiting room.  They looked at me sympathetically, like I was one of the participants in the talk show.  I tried to distract myself with a People magazine.

My parents re-emerged after thirty minutes which seemed like hours.  Both appeared stone-faced.  My mother simply whispered to me:  “I’ll tell you later.”   We traveled home in suspenseful near-silence with my father in the front passenger seat and my mother in the back.

Once home, I hovered near my mother in the kitchen as my father went silently upstairs.  He acted deflated.

“Well?” I asked.

My mother seemed to be choosing her words carefully.  “He’s basically blind in his left eye,” she said.  “And he’s not so good in the right eye.”

“He blinded his eye bumping his head?” I asked, shocked.

“No, the bump is not the problem,” she said.

“What do you mean it’s ‘not the problem?’”

“The doctor said he’s been blind in that eye for forty years.”

“Hunh?”

“The doctor said he has been blind in the left eye for forty years, and now he has a cataract in the right eye.  Basically, he has about twenty percent vision in one eye.”

The reality dawned that my father had concealed his poor vision his entire adult life, from his wife, from his family, and from any official at the DMV, if any ever checked.  Surely, he had learned to compensate in earlier years so that he could function with only one eye.

My mother concluded:  “The doctor said he told him years ago to stop driving, certainly at night, but he never shared that information at home.”

It was hard to process all the thoughts and memories that went through my mind.  My father was loving and devoted.  However, he had knowingly driven me and other family members, day and night, countless times over the years.  I thought of our harrowing trips ten years earlier to my trumpet lessons along the winding Wissahickon Drive, a challenge even for able-sighted drivers.  I was so tense during the rides that it is not surprising I was so tense when I played!

After the cataract was removed and my father’s right eye returned to normal vision for a seventy-seven-year-old man, he refrained from driving after dark.  He never expressed appreciation for my mother’s ability and willingness to drive, but he did accept his place was in the passenger’s seat.  He still insisted he was able to drive during the day, however.  No one would be his passenger, but he occasionally drove himself to a haircut or lunch with a friend.  He never told any of his friends that it would be better if they picked him up.

As my father passed eighty, my mother wrestled with how to end his driving.  We all knew it would be difficult.  Sometimes, he just sat in his car in the driveway.  What was he thinking?

The dilemma was surprisingly solved one day.  My mother told me matter-of-factly on the telephone his car had disappeared.

“Was it stolen?” I asked.

“Seems like it,” she replied, cryptically.

“Who would steal a sixteen-year-old powder blue Oldsmobile Cutlass?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, unconvincingly.  “I really don’t know.”

“Did you call the police?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “There’s no point.”

“Insurance?”

“Not worth it,” she said.

“That’s it?” I asked.  “That’s the whole story?”

“That’s the end of the story.”


 

VACATION REVIEWS

Magazines and websites frequently tout lists of “Five Best Vacation Experiences” or “Ten Great Getaways” or “Seven Sights You Have to See.”  Under-represented in the literature are “Worst Vacations” or “Most Horrific Weekends.”  I aim to address this deficiency.  Sadly, the five tales recounted below were pulled from an Olympic-sized pool; if it does not make me too depressed, this post may be the first in a series!

1.  CAPE COD

If my children were asked to blurt their first thought upon hearing the words “bad vacation,” I am confident they would say “the nasty house.”  Unlike today, when one selects a vacation home from the internet after slavishly examining hundreds of photos and reviews (or, preferably, having one’s spouse do so) in the early 1990’s we relied upon an unknown realtor to find us a rental in Cape Cod.

We dutifully loaded up the mini-van and drove the nation’s most horrendous traffic corridor from New Jersey to alight upon a dwelling developed by Edgar Allen Poe.  A gravel driveway disappeared among untamed shrubs and led to a large white house with peeling paint.  Several dark window shutters were missing and those that remained swayed and banged against the side of the house as a result of constant wind.  Clouds skittered above hinting of the churning sea just a few hundred yards away.

Our hopes for a Normal Rockwell interior were dashed immediately when our footsteps left prints on the dusty floors.  Several of the light-bulbs in the kitchen were burned out.  The furniture was stained and mismatched (what a realtor might call “eclectic”) and the window panes were smeared.  Chill belied the mid-August date on the calendar.   My wife’s first call was to the realtor to demand a change, but he insisted the entire island was full.   He unapologetically offered neither a cleaner nor a refund.

As a confirmed believer in the philosophy of “If at first you do not succeed, quit,” I offered to drive back down to New Jersey immediately.  My wife, however, is admirably stout in the realm of persistence and took the “let’s make the best of it” track.  The children, too, were of a mind to enjoy a special week at the beach.

Unfortunately, after a night of fitful and highly allergic sleep, we awoke to discover that the house was actually the least of our worries.  If eskimoes have 240 words for snow, people who live on the Cape need a similar number to express rain.   It drizzled, it poured, it fell windblown and it fell straight.  For seven days and seven nights it never stopped.  Trying to find a positive in all the precipitation, I recall that it prevented several attempts at miniature golf that could only have led to family discord.  The trip to Cape Cod is remembered in family lore as the worst ever, until….

2.  THE POCONOS

Is it redundant to have a “worst vacation” story include the Poconos?  Only a few years after the Cape Cod calamity we chose to rent a house there; the theory was that it was close enough for me to work during the week and join the family for a long weekend.  Once again, however, the weather and an unseen realtor conspired against us.

Our first house in the Poconos was a typical cedar-shake A-frame.  In spite of my wife’s specific instruction to the realtor that several family members were allergic and could not stay in a rental that had harbored cats, the house featured a cheerful “Beware of Cat” sign in the driveway.  The front porch contained various cat-shaped carvings and the carpeting contained cat-created stains.   Sneezing started before we could finish unloading our luggage.

The immediate dress-down of the realtor resulted in movement to another house.  “It has never had a pet,” he guaranteed, but had also, apparently, never had a broom.  Once again, we were beset with dust and cobwebs, darkness and gloom.

The house was several unpaved streets from the nearest community pool.  On the one day that it did not rain, the children gathered up their toys and floats and headed over.  Though the pool area was nearly empty, the acne-pocked attendant refused access since our passes were for the community’s “other” pool.  He “helpfully” suggested a shortcut through the woods.  Besides mud, this walk also featured the mainstay of the Poconos, poison ivy.  I would like to say that the family grew closer as a result of shared suffering, but alas….

3.  SEA GIRT

With the earlier lack of success in mind, we thought hard about our summer vacation options.  We concluded that we had been too frugal.  Surely, if we threw more money at the problem, a fun and memorable (for the right reasons) vacation could be achieved.  This brought us to the part of the Jersey shore known as the Gold Coast.  The town of Sea Girt has stately mansions, beautiful gardens and a pristine beach.  Reality television had not yet been invented in the late 1990’s but, if it had, Snooki would not have been allowed in Sea Girt.  It was a town of paisley ties, dark green Bermuda shorts and dock-siders without socks.

We rented a week in a beautiful beach-block house for multiple thousands of dollars.  When we arrived, we were delighted to see that it was well-appointed and professionally decorated, clean and large, bright and airy.  You could hear the surf from the deck.  A couple waved at us from the carriage house at the end of the driveway as we finished unpacking the car.  Our realtor, named Babs or Mibs or Muffy, told us:  “Oh, that’s just Mr. and Mrs. McCormick.  They are the owners.  I’m sure you will not see them during the week.”

Less accurate words were never spoken.  Mr. and Mrs. McCormick apparently took shifts to monitor our every move.  At least one was watching each time we ventured outside.  We were certain that they entered the house when we were gone to see if we were misbehaving.  We also discovered, during week-days, that the State Police training center was only a block away, and that training camp for new recruits coincided with our week of vacation.  In addition to the surf, we could hear men counting calisthenics each afternoon, as well as the sound of constant target practice.  Their shooting would have been useful, perhaps, if it scared away the black flies that rendered the beautiful beach uninhabitable.  Apparently, when the wind is from a particular direction, the scourge of biting insects does not discriminate between the splendor of Sea Girt and the relative squalor of Seaside Heights.

What we really remember from Sea Girt, however, is that we learned that our youngest child is allergic to seafood.  Amidst great enthusiasm, we prepared a meal of local shrimp and then watched, horrified, as our five-year-old turned beet red from head to toe.  This started another family vacation tradition known as “the trip to the emergency room.”  The same child required such visits due to sand in the eye and stitches in the forehead on separate Florida vacations.  Menopause, a herniated disc and an injured elbow brought other family members to emergency rooms in such locales as South Carolina and Central America.

It was with relief that we left the McCormicks’ mansion.  Ironically, although their constant presence intimidated us into more cleaning than we did at home, they became the only lessors in our lives who withheld money from our security deposit, claiming that we had broken a mirror that we thought was already defective.

4.  CAMPING

It has always been my considered opinion that people are meant to sleep under something constructed of wood or cement.  The other members of my family, however, feel that canvas or nylon can also form a suitable cover.  For years, I curmudgeonly found excuses not to attend the semi-annual weekend in the woods of western New Jersey.  One year, however, I relented.  The children, not having their mother’s knowledge of my detestation of all things camping, thought it might be fun if I came.

They were wrong.  Within moments of my arrival I noticed a dark object in the creek adjacent to our tent.

“That’s a snake,” I said.

“No way,” everyone scoffed.  “We’ve never seen a snake in these woods.  That’s a stick.”

Moments later, as the “stick” slithered into a hole in the bank, I had the dubious thrill of vindication.  For dinner, everyone looked forward to cooking over a flame.  We heated baked beans as though we were in a John Wayne movie (or Blazing Saddles, I thought) and prepared burgers and hot dogs.  We skewered marshmallows for dessert.  But I did wish someone had told me to remove the plastic from my hot dog before I roasted it.  It still tasted surprisingly good, but I’m sure my error was not healthy.

At night, although I was assured that sleeping bags would be comfortable, that did not take into account their placement over tree roots.  Also, there was no stopping the drunken singing emanating from the occupants of the neighboring campsite.  Between the roots, the noise, the beans and plastic in my stomach, and the contemplation of our serpentine neighbor, sleep was impossible.  I withdrew to a Hotel 6 the next morning and the rest of the family was relieved.

5.  THE CRUISE

We were not doing very well on land so, in 2003, we tried our first cruise.  By then, the children ranged in age  from high school to post-college.  We flew to New Orleans, bringing a deluge with us, and slogged onto an impressively large boat.  We were to cruise for ten days with stops in Mexico, Guatamala, Belize and Honduras.

Moments after we were underway, the Norwegian Line advised that one of the four engines was not functioning properly.  Accordingly, the ship would be moving more slowly than usual and the Guatamala stop would be scrubbed.  They offered a $250 refund from the $10,000 total cost.

“How does $250 correspond to missing one fourth of the stops?  Aren’t you missing a digit?” asked my wife.  Though her campaign was waged throughout the cruise and through letter-writing upon return, no more equitable offer was ever made.

Within four or five hours, the novelty of unbridled gluttony had already worn off, and all three children were asking:  “What else is there to do?”  At that time, I was completing my thirtieth lap of the top deck walking path and wondering the same thing.  In our room that evening, which we instantly referred to as the “cubby-hole,” I could not help asking what crime I had committed to be sentenced to so small a space.

Cozumel, Mexico was the first stop.  Unfortunately, they had recently suffered an intense storm and there was no sand on the beach.  That allowed for an afternoon of browsing hundreds of shops with identical tee-shirts, shot glasses and mugs.

After two more days of tag-team eating and bingo and a ping pong tournament where my family members were the only participants, we alighted upon Roatan Island, Honduras.  We knew we were there because the local equivalent of a Mariachi band commenced playing music at seven in the morning.  One had to walk through the performers and their tip jar on the way to the town which turned out to be a terrifying place.

“Do not leave the main street,” warned the ship’s representatives.  “Do not lose track of your camera and wallet.  Do not get into a taxi.  Do not drink the water.  Do not eat anything sold on the street,” etc.

“Marijuana?  Viagara?” offered a group of young men stationed on each corner.  The children wanted to return to the boat immediately and we agreed.  I obtained a replica Honduras soccer jersey as a souvenir and was happy to return early to one more several-thousand-calorie buffet lunch.

Our last stop was Belize.  The day there was interesting in that it was totally un-commercial.  As our bus tour guide noted, there are only three working stop-lights in the entire country; not much is happening there.  I am aware that there are beautiful lodges and rain forests in Belize, but we were part of a one-day cruise visit and that only allowed time to visit an iguana zoo, a few Mayan ruins and the National Park.  There, we learned that the former British Honduras contributed thirteen unfortunate souls to the Second World War.  They are memorialized in a statue that had fallen over due to a foundation undermined by rodents.  We were assured that the statue would be repaired within the next decade.

Following our return to New Orleans, where it was raining just as it had been ten days earlier, we flew home and nearly kissed the ground at Newark Airport.  Through the most elaborate and expensive family vacation up to that point, we had gained a greater love of New Jersey.  Now that is an unintended consequence.

In sum, when literature includes tales like the above, after the initial disappointment, there is usually improvement and an eventual, if grudging, fondness for the experience.  In our case, endurance only confirmed initial bad impressions and, in each instance, things remained the same or became worse.  In any event, I have shared enough misery for one posting.  If another installment is desired, however, I will doubtless start with our visit to the Hasidic Dude Ranch.


VICARIOUS APPLICATIONS

A long train of parenting milestones has reached its caboose.  The “baby” is applying to graduate school and we may never again live vicariously through the application process.  While we are asked for opinions and impressions and our input is sometimes considered even when it has not been requested, our preferences are not critical.  It is bittersweet to recognize our youngest child is an adult and will ultimately make the final choice himself.

It seems only months ago that we were hanging on his college choices.  The eight schools to which Sam applied, and their responses, could easily be dredged from my memory cells.  At that time, he was still under our roof, sharing our meals.  Correspondence arrived by mail and, thus, we were usually ahead of him when news was imminent.   We could place the envelope on the dinner table and watch as he opened it.  Or, on occasion, we would obtain his permission to open the envelope before he arrived.  Now, four years later, the process is handled exclusively by him on-line.  If a physical piece of mail does arrive, it is only to confirm or repeat what he has already learned and told us several days before.

The one constant in the application process is that I pay.  When I whined to my wife that I’d probably spent $500 on graduate school applications, I thought I was picking a number so high as to be ridiculous.  I expected her to say:  “Don’t be silly, they only cost $300.”  Instead, she said:  “It was more like $1,200.”

Once you get into a good PhD program in chemistry, however, it’s free.  I did not learn this wonderful fact until Sam was well into his third year of undergraduate studies.   A friend who is a chemist explained that the schools provide education and living expenses in exchange for the student’s work as an indentured servant/researcher for approximately five years.   It’s almost like enlisting in the army except without the fresh air and bullets.

I also learned that graduate schools are ranked as though they were basketball teams.  Lists inform if a school is “top ten” or “top twenty” or even “top-half.”  Unlike a basketball team, however, the metrics for these rankings do not shed light on the young participants.  Instead, placement is derived from some combination of reputation, facilities, publishing history, and all-around money-making prowess of the faculty and the institution.  The players remain anonymous while the managers and administrators soak up the glory.

The first time we vicariously applied to college was twelve years ago.  At that time, my wife and I were both working full-time, had two younger, parent-intensive (meaning, a lot of driving) children at home, and the subject child, our oldest daughter, was consumed with soccer.  We did not focus as much on the academic merits of a school as on the soccer coach and facilities.   For a few weeks, she was inclined towards a school where the coach appeared interested in her.  When she visited, however, she detected a distinct chill.  Though she still had several options, the spring-of-senior-year weeks flew quickly, and anxiety arose accordingly.  Thus, when Binghamton University’s coach expressed interest, and was heartily endorsed by her soccer club trainer, the quest was over.

The next child was singularly uninterested in the process.  While I expressed enthusiasm and acquired tee shirts from each school she was forced to visit, we sometimes were unable to get her out of the car.  There was no fun, no anticipation, just the drudgery of heavily editing insincere essays.  Though she was not of a scientific bent, she nearly agreed to attend a six-year pharmacy program just to end the search.  Fortunately, a glance at a chemistry text-book and the recognition that most of the coursework was in that realm made her agree that finding a suitable school required some share of her attention.  When we alighted upon the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the chance to tell her classmates that it was only five minutes from the beach, a happy ending was at hand.

In Sam, a confluence of factors made his college search more meaningful for those of us who were sharing it.  First, he was our only child at home for his senior year, so there was plenty of focus.  Second, he was an excellent student with stunning SAT scores, so the schools on his list were exciting.  Finally, he was relatively interested in his college choice.  By that, I mean that he was willing to look at several of the schools that he applied to and he was willing to write his own essays.  Yet, he was not interested in following up.  Much to our frustration, he was not willing to contact a professor, or meet with an alumnus, or engage in speculation.  Rather, he submitted his applications like one threw darts at a dart-board, and hoped for the best.  As a vicarious experience, it was not satisfying; though Sam was happy to enter UNC, we had a nagging feeling that he had left some chips on the table.

What a difference four years makes!  Vindicated by his stellar performance and the excellence of the UNC chemistry department, neither of which was certain four years earlier, Sam could apply to the top tier of graduate programs.  This circumstance provided no end of speculative enjoyment to us.  After all, any of the eight schools to which he applied would allow for an excellent sticker on the back window of the car.  In addition, if anything, Sam’s desire to consider, discuss, wonder, ponder, contemplate, etc. the pros and cons of each school on his list became almost excessive.   Though I admit to also having the schools and their characteristics memorized and prioritized in accord with Sam’s daily assessments, his mother has been enjoying a virtual full-time avocation.

The important thing, of course, is that he makes the right choice and is happy with it.  Yet, there is an undeniable parental thrill with each acceptance; we add another notch to our belts, another tribute to our parenting.  As January dawned, the month of responses, first one came in, then two more.  There were three the next week, and one the following week.  Seven acceptances out of eight schools with only one more to go!

Does he want to be near or far?  How important is the weather?  Is the program large or small?  How much is the stipend?  What is the housing situation?  All of these questions were weighed daily.  How could he choose between three schools all ranked number one?  (Don’t blame me; I don’t create the lists).  The considerations became all-consuming.

The excitement of seven acceptances overhung everything else, as did a crucial question; to which parent could it be attributed?   In the end, we decided it must be a mysterious combination.   After all, even though I do not have one molecule of chemistry aptitude, I know he was not adopted.   Pride grew each day as the acceptances were disseminated to friends and relatives across phone lines and cyberspace.  Probably, several people are refusing to accept Facebook posts anymore.   Finally, we looked at each other and concluded, as we should, the accomplishment is really all Sam’s.  We are just overly interested bystanders, who need to let it go.  Let him make his choice.

When MIT ultimately provided the only rejection, we tried to respond with equanimity.  “It’s just as well,” we said.  “He doesn’t need another place to visit.”  “All of the schools are excellent.”  “It would have been too much for his ego if he had been accepted everywhere.”

Do we believe that?  Hmmmmmmm.     When I’m sitting in the audience to vicariously accept Sam’s Nobel Prize, his speech will definitely include the line I will insert:  “MIT should rue the day they rejected me, and my parents!”


DROP-OUT

It is neither a source of pride nor shame, but I was a Hebrew school drop-out.  Well, okay, I admit, it’s mostly a source of pride.

Born ten years after my closest sibling, I missed the comparatively devout stage of my family’s life, when they “belonged” to Har Zion Temple in our West Philadelphia neighborhood of Wynnefield.  It is my understanding that membership did not require religious devotion but did require enrollment and sporadic attendance by my brothers at classes.  It also required appearances at services by the entire family on “High Holy Days,” the annual weeklong paroxysm of piety, when even the least observant  self-consciously communed with the righteous.

By the time I was old enough to commence Hebrew school, which is essentially a five year training program leading to a Bar Mitzvah at thirteen, Har Zion was already reincarnated as a Baptist Church.  Hence, I was enrolled in the “Suburban Jewish School,” a casual institution based in an old house on the other side of City Line Avenue from West Philadelphia.   The teachers were from a branch of Judaism so reformed that it may have approached Presbyterianism.

The faculty was among the first adults in my experience who insisted on being called by their first names.  Instruction focused on culture, food and folk singing more than on theology.  In language class, much was made of the fact that they taught Yiddish instead of formal Hebrew.  The emphasis on learning the spoken language of Eastern Europe did not bother me, determined as I was to learn as little as possible of either language; however, it did occur to my nine-year-old self that Yiddish would not prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah which was, I thought, the raison d’etre of this entire project.

I could not express my perceived need for Hebrew instruction explicitly, I realized, without possibly causing my parents to remove me from the School and place me, instead, into a “real” Hebrew school.  In terms of torture, that would be leaving the frying pan for the fire.  Instead, I chose a course of civil disobedience.  I was supposed to walk straight from elementary school to the School one afternoon a week, for instance, but I was not required to go if it was raining.  (No Abraham Lincoln was I).  Several times, I walked through lawn sprinklers in order to present myself at home, soaked, on perfectly sunny days.   Sunday mornings, predictably, saw more than their share of exceedingly sore throats of sudden provenance.   I am certain my mother was neither convinced nor amused.

My classmates struck me as inexplicably complicit in the cause of the School.  They sang songs with gusto.  They decorated flags and played games; they competed to parse the meaning of bible stories, as though they were already the lawyers that many would doubtless become.  “Doesn’t anyone just want to go out and play ball?” I marveled to myself.

There are certainly studies analyzing whether a later child can get away with more than earlier siblings might have.  My personal experience as a fourth child argues this theory is true, because it did not take long before my mother (I do not recall my father having a role in this arena) gave in to my obstinacy.  At age eleven, I was offered terms for parole, namely:  if I would prepare for my Bar Mitzvah privately, I could cease attending religious school.  I agreed readily.  After all, how could one hour a week with a tutor be worse than three hours a week in class?  Plus, from a pragmatic standpoint, the School’s focus on Yiddish instruction would have required the addition of a Hebrew tutor anyway.  I was ahead of the game!

Enter Mr. Schichtman, my instructor.   Mr. Schictman appeared to have come directly from the set of Yentl.  He wore a full-length black coat, a grey beard, ear-locks and a fur hat.  He spoke English as though he had arrived from Poland that morning, though I suspect he had been in Philadelphia since shortly after World War II.

With the benefit of four decades of hindsight, I can only picture with horror the depredations Mr. Schictman experienced in Europe.  How awful to add the burden of trying to press his centuries-old knowledge and wisdom into a vessel as leaky as myself.   Yet, he presented himself with patience and good cheer.  In describing his bearing and dignity now, it is clear that Mr. Schictman was, in a word, a “mensch.”

At the time, however, I was twelve, and the word that describes what I thought of Mr. Schictman then, is “halitosis.”  Mr. Schichtman’s breath smelled like milk that had been left out for two weeks.  A Bar Mitzvah involves speaking (mortification) and singing (mortification multiplied exponentially) in a foreign language, solo, in front of one’s closest friends and relatives.  Since I could not read or understand Hebrew, Mr. Schictman had to help me memorize my hour-long presentation.

It was challenging to remember so much material, particularly when I tried to do so without breathing.  He leaned in close so that I could hear the nuances of pronunciation.  He insisted that I watch his mouth carefully so that I could mimic his words.  Oy vey.

The morning of the event, I rode with my brother to pick up Mr. Schictman.  I sat in the back seat on the way to the Community Center stifling laughter as Barry’s expression turned to horror when Mr. Schictman sat beside him.  He opened his window several times even though it was a frigid January day, each time saying something about “how nice and fresh the winter air was.”  Mr. Schictman did not seem to notice.

Once we arrived and I took the podium, the Bar Mitzvah seemed anti-climactic.  After the ordeal of preparation, it was easy.  Collecting cash-filled envelopes from the guests was also easy.  At the reception, everyone focused on eating and drinking and my performance, the culmination of so much stress, was instantly forgotten.  I never saw Mr. Schictman again, but I hope he had students more satisfying than I.


YOUTHFUL EMPLOYMENT

A common predictor of success in the business world is early industriousness.  For instance, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP MORGAN, worked at three jobs as a teenager.  Michael Bloomberg delivered papers.  Bill Gates pulled all-nighters to assist professors at the University of Washington with programming issues.  I was at the other end of the spectrum.

Until my senior year of high school, summer occupation for me consisted of watching re-runs on television, throwing or hitting tennis balls against the garage wall, and practicing golf putts in the living room.  It is surprising my putting is so terrible now, considering how much of my youth was consumed with that activity.

My parents did not seem inclined to upset this leisurely routine.  Perhaps, their lack of vigilance was due to my lack of acquisitiveness.  I did not crave a car; I did not seek a social life; I was not interested in purchasing clothes or records, or any of the usual drivers of teen employment.  In sum, I did not call attention to my lassitude and, so, for nearly all of my teen years, I was able to stay aboard a low-key gravy train.

The halcyon days ended abruptly when my aunt, the secretary (now called an “administrative assistant”) to the director of the Lower Merion library system, told my mother that the system needed a “page” for the summer (now called an “intern.”)   Such a position involved floating among several of the system’s six branches doing odd jobs, such as:  a little cataloguing; a little organizing; and, a little filling-in-at-the-front-desk-while-the-real-employee-is-on-vacation.  Inevitably, I inquired if a “page” could be promoted to “chapter,” or even “book.”  The answer was “no.”

The good news was that the position was paid, if one considered $1.75/hour payment.  Among the bad news were that the shifts would be irregular – two or three hours one day, a full day the next, and the commute to several of the sites could be as long as an hour.  As a money-making enterprise, this job stank, as I pointed out to my mother with modest understatement:  “This will ruin my life.”

“It is appropriate for someone your age to experience a job,” she responded.

“Isn’t the point of a job to make real money?” I asked.

“If you have a better idea, you are free to pursue it.  You could work at Dad’s store for no pay,” she added.  Suddenly, libraries seemed tolerable.

My first project was at the Ardmore Library, an edifice dating to the 1890’s with vintage lighting and furniture.   I was to work from 6-9 in the evening for two weeks “organizing” the magazine collection.  A generic (I must have known her name and face at the time) middle-aged woman directed me up dimly-lit stairs to a mezzanine in the decrepit building where magazines had been accumulating for, seemingly, several centuries.  These magazines were obtained via library subscriptions, and also donations from patrons who emptied their attics and basements.  She asked me to sort each title chronologically and alphabetically.  She did not suggest how I deal with the dust, cobwebs, and insects that enveloped the moldering piles of reading material.

Suffice it to say that I did not find the task stimulating.  In two weeks, not a single patron inquired about the periodicals.  Occasionally, an article in a ten-year-old magazine caught my interest.  Reading was difficult, however, because the light was dim in the mezzanine and, theoretically, at least, I was supposed to be “working.”  In reality, the librarian who remained downstairs was so uninterested in what I was doing that I feared she would forget about me.  My suspicions were confirmed one evening at closing time when she turned off all the lights while I was still working.  I shouted un-libraryistically and her reaction was barely audible, “Oh, sorry about that.”

The “magazines in the mezzanine” project was rendered particularly unsatisfying by my absolute certainty that no one would ever choose to peruse the fruits of my labor.  There were no learned journals that a scholar might consult.  Rather, the fare trended towards “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Boy’s Life.”  When the two weeks ended, and I was to move to my next assignment, the project was incomplete.

I spent the next several weeks at the Gladwyne Library manning the front desk and shelving returned books.  My knowledge of the alphabet again proved critical.  Farther out Philadelphia’s “Main Line,” Gladwyne is wealthier than Ardmore, and considerably younger.  The library, accordingly, lacked the same fossilized vibe.  Actual patrons came to read and borrow books and there was a lively children’s program.  The staff was pleasant.  My only grievance was the commute.  My mother’s car was not available for all-day borrowing and I had to take a bus from West Philadelphia.  I joined a contingent of domestic workers at the stop each morning; my lack of a lovely Jamaican accent distinguished me, among other things.

The third and final assignment of my summer as a page was at the Belmont Hills branch.  It was a tiny outpost in the war against illiteracy, more a kiosk than a real library.  The librarian worked alone.  My role was to learn all the necessary procedures with her for a day or two, then cover the next two weeks, while she vacationed.

My main memory of the Belmont Hills library is that there were hardly any books.  Somehow, besides a collection of older classics, the “library” could borrow newer, popular books from the “real” branches in the system and lend them to local patrons who had ordered them.  “Looking for Mrs. Goodbar” was the low-brow hit of that summer, I recall, and there was a list of over twenty women waiting their turn.  Besides spending ten minutes each morning re-stacking the trickle of returned books from the previous day, my job involved calling people to tell them when a reserved book came in, and answering the telephone inquiries to advise Mrs. Jones, for instance, if she were number twelve or number fifteen on the waiting list.

My main memory of the Belmont Hills library is completely unrelated to the job itself.  My older brother, David, took a several-weeks-long camping trip with friends that summer.  He graciously insisted that I consider his Volkswagen Beetle mine while he was away.  The problem was that the car had a manual shift, something I had never driven.  David provided fifteen minutes of tutelage and pronounced me competent.  His instruction took place on flat terrain, however, and, well, Belmont Hills came by its name honestly.

The experience of rolling backwards, repeatedly, on the way to my first day at the Belmont Hills library was traumatic.  I am not generally a believer in miracles, but I am willing to consider the possibility, given that I did not crash.  I hunched over the steering wheel, praying for green lights.  I rolled through every “Stop” sign, and finally coasted into the parking lot at the library trembling.   While I did develop a grudging semi-competence with the clutch by the end of the second week, I am forever a believer in automatic transmissions, as a result of my work at the Belmont Hills library.

In sum, my summer as a page did not launch an entrepreneurial career.  It did not inspire me to value work.  It did not inspire me, Carnegie-like, to value libraries.  In fact, I was so unimpressed with the “value” of summer employment as an end in itself, that I never prodded my children to seek summer jobs.  They all chose, on their own, to earn spending money, but not because their father insisted.  I may have a moral failing in this regard, but that is a defect I am willing to concede.  I approached my first job without enthusiasm, and I remained a page who never turned.


FIRST CAR

 

I grew up in a family with no interest in cars beyond basic transportation.  We also lacked knowledge of their mechanics except for the location of the ignition, gas pedal and brake.   My earliest family car memory is of a black and white Buick LeSabre.  It represented, in the early 1960’s, the last of a long line of Buicks for my father.  He embarked thereafter on a twenty year string of Oldsmobiles.  One such car, a gray, hearse-like “Delmont 88,” may have been the only one ever sold.

The experience of driving cars was anti-climactic in our household compared to the trauma of purchasing them.  My father spent seven days a week running his clothing store.  Perhaps, the once-every-several-year car negotiation was his opportunity to avenge the occasional customer who asked for a discount.  Or, since my father never played chess or tennis or any competitive sport, this was his chance to engage in combat.  Whatever his motivation, he viewed the process like war, full of intricate strategy, momentum shifts and, ultimately, his victory.

In the present world of $40,000 vehicles, it is hard to imagine that a weeklong struggle could be waged over $75.  But once, when I was six, that is exactly what happened.  I recall returning to a dealership with my parents for the third or fourth evening in a week and cowering between cars while my father engaged in a shouting match with a salesman several feet away.  I feared they would come to blows.  I was mystified moments later when they went outside to share a cigarette break, while the car in question was prepared for us to drive home.

I never had a personal stake in these efforts until I was twenty-one.  In honor of my college graduation, my parents were buying me my first car.  The three of us traveled to a Toyota dealership where my mother and I seized upon a perky, red Corolla as the car for me.  A toupee-topped salesman sidled over and pointed out that the sticker price was just under $7,000, but “he was sure he could do something for us.”  We could hardly contain our enthusiasm.  I sensed my father’s disapproval, however, as he was skilled in conveying his feelings wordlessly, with just a facial expression.  His eyes shouted:  “Don’t make this game easy for the insignificant and ignorant salesman.”

The salesman led us to seats in front of a small desk.

“Can I get you some coffee?” he asked.

“No,” said my father.

“A glass of water?” he asked

“Let’s get down to business,” said my father, indicating that he was through with the preliminaries.

The salesman took out a form and began to write numbers.  He asked what additional features we might like to have installed on the car.   My father did all of our talking, rejecting with a curt “no” each proposed add-on, such as: rust-proofing, extended warranty, moon roof, power windows, and the like.

“How about a pinstripe?” asked the salesman, finally, without much hope.

“Yes,” interjected my mother.

My father glared icily.

“What do we need that for?” he asked my mother.

“Because the car is for a young man, not an old man, and it needs a touch of youthfulness,” said my mother, determined.

I looked at my father with some apprehension, but he nodded agreeably enough, as though he realized this was not a skirmish worth fighting.

“Yes,” he said, to the salesman.  “Add a pinstripe.”

I took a deep breath.  Everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly now, without a hint of doubt.  I began to picture myself behind the wheel.  In accordance with my up-bringing, before this moment, owning a car had never been a major aspiration.  Still, the freedom the red Corolla represented was growing in my mind.  I sensed this was an important milestone in life, an affirmation of newfound adulthood.

The salesman finished scribbling and passed the paper with pricing across the desk to my father.  Apparently, the fellow was lulled along with me into complacency, and he offered me an obsequious smile.  My father studied the paper for a moment. and then shot out of his chair like the eruption of a long-dormant volcano.

“Let’s get out of here!” he said.  I do not remember my mother’s reaction, but I felt my stomach flip violently.  I began to sweat.  Little did I suspect this was just an essential part of a larger campaign.  The salesman bolted up just as fast and blurted something about “getting the manager.”  We paused at the door as my father told him: “be quick about it.”  He scurried off down a hallway.  After a minute, during which we could see the salesman gesticulating to someone in an office, a round little man emerged with his chest thrust forward like a rooster.  This situation was not going to be enjoyable.

With the benefit of decades of experience, my mother suggested that we wait outside.  In spite of the maturity and autonomy I was just beginning to feel moments before, I agreed.   I did not enjoy any part of the process that my father so clearly relished.  However, we did watch intently through the window as an animated battle raged between my father and the manager, replete with hand gestures and foot stomps.

The salesman stood off to the side with a shell-shocked expression on his face.  I doubtless missed some priceless dialogue, but I saw the discussion conclude happily when my father offered a handshake to the manager and lobbed a triumphant smile towards the salesman, my mother and me.  The salesman smiled back tentatively and the manager’s chest now looked concave.  In the end, the price was several hundred dollars below where it began, and my topsy-turvy stomach was calm.  A Toyota Corolla was mine.