Archives for category: Reflections


I was born in 1956 to a household devoid of hero worship. We enjoyed movies and shows, but it wasn’t in our make-up to fawn over actors or entertainers; though my siblings and I were sports-minded, we didn’t collect autographs or have posters on the walls. There were baseball players we rooted for, but no one we loved. Perhaps, the futility of the Phillies in the early 1960’s had something to do with that. Still, even if they’d won more, I doubt I would have declared a personal “favorite.”
My father neither participated in nor was interested in sports. He may have had athletic genes, but they weren’t developed in a childhood spent selling cigarettes to the White and Red Russian soldiers who alternately took control of his neighborhood in Kiev. It fell upon my older brothers to teach me the rudiments of ball-playing and my mother to take me to such landmark events as “my first major league baseball game.” She also was the rare mother on the sidelines of my little league games.

The “athlete” in our extended family was my Uncle, Lou Fox, who’d married my mother’s sister and lived in Chicago. With prematurely white hair, he was called “The Silver Fox.” His sports were bowling and golf, and I grew up with the impression he was a professional. I avidly followed news of his tournament wins and looked forward to basking in his glow at some point.
With my father tethered to his clothing store seven-days-a-week, our family rarely traveled. Uncle Lou’s wife, Aunt Fran, returned to visit the family in Philadelphia fairly regularly. I don’t have any recollection of Uncle Lou visiting in my earliest years, though I’m sure he did.
What I recall with an odd mixture of vividness and haziness is my now-almost-fifty-years-ago visit to Chicago, in 1965, with my mother. As the trip approached, Uncle Lou had promised over the telephone to play ball with me, take me to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and also take me to his bowling alley. So excited was I at the prospect of all three activities, my first lifetime plane flight barely registered.
Upon arrival at my aunt and uncle’s low-slung brick bungalow, I made two observations: my aunt had plastic on all the sofas, so indoor ball-playing was unlikely, and there wasn’t much outdoor space, either. Still, Uncle Lou appeared immediately in the living room with a ball and two gloves and took me to the tiny rear yard to play catch. There he informed me that due to tragically bad timing, the Cubs were out-of-town the entire duration of our visit, so a visit to the iconic stadium would be impossible.
“Can we go to a White Sox game?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No one goes to the White Sox games. The neighborhood is too dangerous.”
I couldn’t imagine anywhere more dangerous than the area near Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, where I’d seen my mother pay a dollar to local street urchins to “watch our car.” I must have looked crestfallen.
“But there is a solution,” announced my uncle. “This weekend, we’ll drive to Milwaukee and see the Braves.”
Though the Braves lacked the magical aura of the Cubs, the notion that we would drive one hundred miles to a baseball game was immensely exciting. My family would never have considered such an adventure.
Though not the sort of kid to jump up and down and yell, “Yippee!” I’m certain I expressed excitement, since my uncle was showing me a whole different way of approaching life.

During the several days leading up to the trip to Milwaukee, Uncle Lou took me to “his” bowling alley. At the time, I thought he had an ownership interest, though I eventually learned he was just a very accomplished, regular bowler, who was acquainted with all the men behind the counter. He arranged for me to play “as long as I wanted” while he went off to work at his real job at a ceramics factory.
I recall the initial thrill of having a whole bowling alley practically to myself, since it was mid-morning on a weekday. I played game after game until I couldn’t lift my arm. When Uncle Lou returned to bring me home, he asked if I wanted to play again the next day. Considering the blisters on several fingers, I declined.
We drove home in my uncle’s brand-new Buick Electra 225. The car was massive, and it was the first time I’d ever seen power windows and air conditioning.
“This smells new,” I said admiringly.
“I get a new car every year,” said Uncle Lou.
“You do?” I said, trying to imagine such extravagance.
“Yep,” he said.
I gazed out the window awestruck.

When the day finally arrived for the trip to Milwaukee, my mother, Aunt Fran and I piled into the Buick.
“We’re eating at Frenchie’s before the game,” declared Uncle Lou.
“Will they have hamburgers?” I asked.
Everyone laughed. Hamburgers were all I ever ordered. That phase ended sometime in my twenties.
“You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s not a typical restaurant.”
Sure enough, Frenchie’s was a first for me. Apparently, in Milwaukee, it was an institution, “THE” downtown steakhouse with massive portions delivered by scantily-clad waitresses in fishnet stockings and high heels. I couldn’t find hamburgers on the menu, but Uncle Lou declared: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll like the food.”
He proceeded to order a Delmonico steak for me. In the re-telling over the years, the size of the steak has grown from ten to twelve to sixteen to, perhaps, twenty-four or thirty-two ounces. All I remember is that it was ENORMOUS and I ate the whole thing.
I also recall that Uncle Lou sat at the head of the table and commanded the room. With a sparkle in his eye, he was handsome and elegant. He joked boisterously with the waitresses and the other patrons. My mother, aunt and perhaps my cousins were present, too, but I only noticed my uncle. He was a force of nature, magnetic and charming.

The ballgame proved memorable, primarily for what was lacking. The Braves had declared their intention to move to Atlanta before the 1965 season, but the move was delayed by legal wrangling. With the impending move confirmed by the time of our visit, Milwaukee fans boycotted the games, so we found ourselves in a 50,000 seat stadium with fewer than 500 other people. It was dreary to watch a game amidst such emptiness, but if ever an eight-year-old had a good chance to retrieve a foul ball, this was it. Unfortunately, no luck. I recall the Cincinnati Reds, with a young player named Pete Rose, beat the Braves.
The drive home proved more memorable. A mid-western thunderstorm of epic proportions rolled in and multiple lightning strikes were visible simultaneously across the flat landscape. At first, I was scared of the noisy storm, but Uncle Lou approached driving through it like another exciting adventure, shouting “boom” with each burst of thunder. Eventually, I curled up on the vast, boat-like backseat of the Buick, and fell asleep amidst nature’s fireworks which were matched only by the dazzling good cheer of my uncle.
When we returned to Philadelphia, I suffered pangs of conscience because I wished my father were more like Uncle Lou. Though dependable and doting, my father lacked bravado and sportiness. He’d apparently used up all his sense of adventure finding his way to this country, via Poland and Cuba, back in the 1920’s. But time and attention shift quickly in the life of a child; after several weeks, I didn’t ponder Uncle Lou’s qualities again, and I appreciated my father’s unceasing, unquestionable devotion.

Just a few years after our visit, my Aunt Fran was diagnosed with cancer. She fought a hard and bitter fight and deserved every bit of sympathy for her misfortune and her struggle. However, she was not one of those cancer sufferers who appear on the last segment of the evening news for inspiring those around them with an amazing attitude. She was angry and she was depressed.
From a distance, it was my understanding Uncle Lou proved a steadfast partner. But after several years, his wife’s fight against the disease sapped his energy, too. When they visited Philadelphia together, he golfed one day with my brother, David, and me. By now, I was aware he was not a professional golfer. Probably, the eight-year-old me thought being a “club champion” conferred professional status that my twelve-year-old self understood did not. Still, he was an excellent player. The buoyancy in his personality was diminished, however.
At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps men in that era did not keep in touch as much as women. After Aunt Fran died, we rarely heard from Uncle Lou, and my only source of news about my uncle came from overhearing my mother’s discussions with my father. I learned he re-married fairly quickly to a long-time family friend whose husband had also died. He played lots of golf in Florida. As far as I could tell, no one in our family begrudged him his remarriage; he’d suffered enough.

I’m not sure my Uncle Lou was a “hero” to me. I didn’t know him well enough, or spend enough time with him to form a meaningful relationship. But for that one week in the summer of ’65, I couldn’t help but think the earth and sky crackled around him. And it wasn’t just because of the lightning.


I found myself at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus last night for a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. They are touring the United States this spring and fit in a date at our local university on their way from NY to Miami. What a thrill it turned out to be!
First, the people. Though I was born when Eisenhower was president, a symphony concert is still a place where I am, relatively-speaking, in the flush of youth. Much of the crowd appeared to have been bused in from retirement and assisted living facilities. Only a tiny contingent, perhaps three percent, were college students. And, judging by the amount of time they spent furtively playing video games and checking e-mail and Facebook during the concert, I suspect most of them were in attendance in order to score bonus points from their Music 101 professors.
My first glance at the program was concerning. There was a piece by Faure, followed by two by Ravel, and finally, Berlioz. While I like classical music, I admit to being somewhat of a meat and potatoes fan, with large doses of the big guys, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I prefer discernible melodies and rhythms. I know Ravel, in particular, to be full of atmospherics; his is the sort of music where you aren’t sure when to applaud.
My concern was somewhat confirmed when I noted the orchestra to contain not one, but two harps. More than one harp is rarely a good sign for fans of un-subtle symphonic music.
This being the Israel Philharmonic, in order to access the hall, I had to walk through a gauntlet of demonstrators. These misguided souls are under the impression, apparently, that violinists have a role in setting government policy. They are aggrieved that cultural exchanges are occurring between our country and Israel and feel that Muslim culture is short-changed.
Two things came to mind. First, a troupe of Muslim performers were at UNC last fall, called the Manganyar Seduction. I found their performance to be fabulous and interesting and none of the demonstrators outside were even aware that performance had taken place, much less attended it. Second, as I assured them, if Palestine or Iraq or even Abu Dhabi sent over a world class orchestra, I would be delighted to hear them. In fact, if the Gazans could manage a first-rate string quartet, I’d be willing to listen. In my opinion, to demonstrate against the appearance of the IPO was simply lunatic.
Back to the music: The Faure piece, Pelleas et Melisande, turned out to be familiar. The performance was splendid, subtle but beautiful. It was not dynamic enough to turn the students away from their mobile devices, however. The Ravel selections proved as atmospheric as feared, but still had lovely moments and some surprising risings and swellings of sound. Unfortunately, both pieces were divided into six or seven portions. After each section there was a pause. And during each pause, the audience felt compelled to let loose with a spasm of coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing that made me think I was at a nineteenth-century tuberculosis sanitarium, or in my usual situation on an airplane.
Listening to Ravel afforded me the chance to contemplate. I thought about the experience of attending a concert in Chapel Hill versus my previous home in the suburbs of New York. There, world class performances were always available. Unfortunately, accessing Lincoln Center from Ramsey, NJ sometimes required the logistics of the Normandy invasion, particularly if it was on a weeknight evening. Also, the cost was astronomical, and the crowd seemed jaded and unimpressed.
In Chapel Hill, we attend concerts for twenty percent of the cost, five percent of the hassle, and everyone is excited to be there, except for some of the students. When we go to hear the sixty-piece North Carolina Symphony we never fail to conclude: “Wow, they are really, really good. They are only 90-95 percent as polished as the New York Philharmonic, but for the price and convenience, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.”
But “really, really good” is not the same as phenomenal. Once in a while, it is necessary to be reminded of true greatness, of a full-throated ensemble of 105 off-the-charts-amazing musicians, working together as one to deliver a timeless performance. The second half of last night’s concert, featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was such an event.
From the first notes, the performance held the hall in rapt attention. The coughers were suddenly cured, the few students who had not escaped at intermission looked up from their smartphones. The music rolled, like waves, from section to section of the orchestra. Bells tolled, drums boomed, strings flowed in unison.
The familiar piece, so well-known as to seem dull to me on the radio, was thrilling to see in person. Who knew there was a timpani quartet in the middle of the final movement or that an improbably bearded, yalmulke-wearing orthodox percussionist could play a snare drum with such aplomb? When the last blasts from the brass section sounded like cannons it was as though we were transported to another dimension, where sound-waves vibrated every wall, every seat, right through to the bones.
When the final chords subsided, there was a pause before the audience realized they were still on this earth, at a concert, and it was time to applaud. The sound welled up quickly, with people shouting “bravo” and rising as one to provide the deserved standing ovation. The crowd refused to stop cheering until the conductor returned and led an encore.
“Wow, these people are starved for culture,” I imagine some of the musicians were thinking. But, no, Chapel Hill has a laudable amount of culture. We have many very, very good performances to enjoy. We just don’t often have a world class orchestra in front of us. And we didn’t want to let them go.


My high school was the farthest thing from “The Hood.” A Quaker-sponsored bastion of liberal sensitivity and pre-Ivy-league curriculum, it tailored its philosophy to a student body presumed unified in the pursuit of excellence, knowledge and tradition. Most of the fifty students in my graduating class of 1974 attended Friends’ Academy from kindergarten. My addition at the beginning of seventh grade, as a rare public elementary school product who lived “in the city,” was a nod towards diversity. Nearly everyone else lived in some degree of splendor on “the Main Line,” Philadelphia’s western suburbs of legendary opulence and distinction.
Our class was divided into three “sections.” Pre-selected before my arrival, the top group were kids most likely to gain scholarships to the likes of Yale, Princeton or Swarthmore, Not all of these students could walk and chew gum at the same time, but they were perfectly capable of memorizing Shakespearean sonnets or the Big Bang Theory or the time table of Munich, Germany’s subway system. I was placed in the middle group, the capable students who had not tested at Einsteinian levels, and were destined to end up at Muhlenberg, F & M or Dickinson. The third group contained the economic scholarship students on either the low end (Friends’ Academy was doing a good deed) or the high end (some really rich kids are not very bright). These students would eventually be inserted by the school’s high-powered placement office into state universities or other institutions known more for Heisman winners than Nobel winners.
The top group contained some personality or behavioral outliers, what might have been called “weird kids” by the politically insensitive, but I never questioned why they were there. Their out-sized intellects smoothed the way. The second and third groups also had students who did not fit in with the Friends’ Academy zeitgeist of earnest learning and social consciousness. Several students had prickly personalities; several others had gone “hippie” in a big way, to the extent that attending school in sandals had to be specifically forbidden by an otherwise tolerant administration. One out-of-the-mainstream student may even have come from a family of Republicans. But the oddest member of the Class of 1974 was its bully.
Donald Worley was known as “The Donald” before the tabloid media was blessed with Trump. Physically impressive, an unnaturally solid 170 pounds or so, he towered over my average 120. A mop of brown hair topped a broad, freckled face, broad shoulders, massive hands and thick thighs. If only we’d had a football team, our two-way lineman was already in place.
The Donald snarled with a deep, raspy voice, enhanced by the cigarettes he smoked at every opportunity from the first day he intruded into my consciousness. He flaunted the school’s prohibition on smoking by keeping his pack, with half-an-inch protruding, ostentatiously displayed in his shirt pocket. He treated every classmate with equal contempt. He called soccer players “sissies,” basketball players “dorks,” the artistically-minded “A-holes,” and punctuated every sentence with the “F” word and the “S” word when those words were still not generally spoken aloud (unlike today, when movies strive to include them).
The Donald kicked seats, farted aloud, talked back to teachers and entered classes late. Basically, he checked off every requirement of anti-social behavior and made me wonder, to myself and to others, “Why is he here?”
I never received a satisfactory answer to my question. To the students who’d been classmates of The Donald since they were five, he was simply part of their lives. He was a one-man catalogue of unacceptable behavior. He represented the prized category of “variety,” yet displayed not a single positive characteristic. Repulsed by him from my first awareness, I think he was able to sense my discomfort like a dog.
I managed to make it to the spring semester before I had my first one-on-one encounter with The Donald. All the members of my science class had to maintain small garden plots on the opposite side of the playing fields, about three hundred yards from the classroom buildings. We each planted whatever we chose and then charted its progress. I recall my plant was a gardenia bush. The class usually tended to the gardens as a group with the teacher but, one day, like a young wildebeest separated from the herd, I found myself walking back across the open field trailed only by The Donald.
“Hey, faggot,” he called from behind, using the all-purpose epithet of the 1970’s.
My heart raced with adrenaline as I considered my options. I could ignore The Donald and possibly infuriate him; after all, unless I was deaf, there was no way I did not hear him. I could turn towards The Donald and respond pleasantly, hoping to ingratiate myself in spite of the distaste that would have emanated from my expression. I could turn and confront The Donald, with as much likelihood of success as the average lamb has against the average lion.
“Hey, pussy,” he added, while I remained paralyzed in indecision. I heard his footsteps closing behind me at a jogging pace.
“You like your little garden?” he said, as he fell in beside me. Somehow, his tone alone conveyed a “garden” to be some combination of perverted, effeminate and useless. At the irresistible recognition that The Donald could insinuate so much with just one word, I imagined for just a moment that he could be a great actor. I smiled.
“You should be in the spring play,” I blurted, my tendency to sarcasm disastrously overruling my caution.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, warily.
“You are able to say a lot with just a little,” I said. “You have a way with words.”
The Donald regarded me for a moment, probably trying to decide if I were making fun of him or sincerely offering a compliment. Apparently, he decided, even if I meant a compliment, suggesting that he be in the spring play was not a desirable outcome.
“You think you’re pretty smart,” he said, finally. “But I think you’re an ass-hole.”
By now, I knew not to respond. I tried to quicken my pace, but we were still a hundred yards from a building. Everyone else had disappeared, alone as though we were in a remote desert.
“I hear you like baseball,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” I said, not certain about this turn of the conversation.
“You probably couldn’t play with a broken hand, could you?” he asked.
I tried to keep walking but felt him grab my right just below the elbow. I tried to run but The Donald held tight to my wrist. He started to squeeze my fingers.
“What do you want!?” I shouted.
He continued to twist until I went down to my knees and, essentially, wordlessly begged him to stop. We looked into each other’s eyes. He certainly saw fear and helplessness. I saw triumph and evil. He let go of my hand.
“Keep your fucking mouth shut,” he said, and departed, leaving me to get up, wipe some dirt off my pants, and flex my fingers, sore but still intact.

I managed to survive the next five years without again being one-on-one with The Donald, not an easy feat in a school so small. He tallied up a predictable set of depredations during his high school career. He was suspended for fighting several times; he was caught drinking in class; he ostentatiously drove a beaten-up truck onto campus as a sophomore, when only seniors were allowed to drive to school; his favorite smoking bathroom was referred to as “Donald’s house” by students and faculty alike; and, he was caught in several cheating incidents.
As the years went by, I was amazed to find my classmates idolizing The Donald for his nonconformity, his boldness. They thought he was “cool.” When our yearbook was intended to capture the essence of our class, no one appeared more prominently than The Donald. His grinning face adorned a two-page centerfold in the middle of the book, a cigarette jaunting from his lips as he sat, James Dean-style, on the hood of his truck, wearing a leather jacket. By that time, I was no longer surprised, just resigned. The messy, violent Donald had become a folk hero to kids otherwise disposed to sensitivity and order.

Nearly twenty years after graduation, I received an “In Memoriam” card from Friends’ Academy. The Donald had died in a car crash on his way home from work. The only member of our class who had not attended college, the notice described him as a prized member of the staff at the local A & P where he was assistant produce manager. It invited me to a “Celebration of Donald Worley,” and asked, if I could not attend, if I would send a written “remembrance,” to capture the “beauty” of Donald’s life.
I was ambivalent about The Donald’s demise. Though I’d wished some sort of misfortune upon him for a quarter century, death seemed out of proportion to what he had done to me. I pondered for a moment what had made The Donald the way he was. Were his parents abusive? Was his economic or social background difficult? Did he suffer from a mental deficit that caused a lack of impulse control or compassion? I concluded all those things were possible, but even if he was afflicted with any or all of them, they were rationales, not excuses. The nicest thing I could do for The Donald was to NOT express my remembrance of him. I threw the card away.


I find myself waiting around the stables of a ranch in semi-arid Guanacaste, Costa Rica while my wife and daughter take a two-hour horseback tour. The ranch is located just beyond the village of Porte Golpe, which is between Belen and Flamingo. If that clarification does not entirely enlighten the reader, geographically speaking, I apologize. But I’m not really sure where we are, either.
My most recent equestrian experience was on a pony at a birthday party during the Kennedy administration. Until Google invents one that drives automatically, I am not riding. As to today’s tour, I insisted to the girls that I’d be content to sit it out, as they say, and neither objected with enthusiasm.
I’m under a wooden picnic-pavilion sort of structure with the owner’s black pit bull sitting beside me. He is fearsome in appearance, basically a seventy-pound muscle. He sniffs at my hand and allows me to rub his forehead, his soft brown eyes appearing thankful for the attention. I’d always approached pit bulls with caution, aware of their popularity with drug dealers and the like. This dog, however, has absorbed the Costa Rican vacation vibe. He appears as relaxed as a yogi at a Yanni concert.
A continuous breeze keeps us relatively cool in the tropical heat while I look around at white, stucco-sided buildings that contain miscellaneous horse and cow-related equipment. I imagine John Wayne walking through the door, jodhpurs and holster jangling, and I feel transported in time. From here, my canine companion and I observe the ranch’s wranglers as they manipulate and jostle the cows, among several pens, perhaps with the purpose of grooming them or washing them or exercising them. I hope some good comes of it, given how many hits and slaps and kicks the men are delivering.
Why do the men appear so mean, their aggression jarring in the midst of an otherwise lovely tableau of nature? Are they bored with their jobs and prospects? Do they think the owner values the livestock more than them? Can they support their families on the menial pay they receive? All of these are possible explanations, but are they excuses? Offering the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if brute force is the only way to manage the animals.
The cattle appear stunningly powerful up-close, yet they display no aggression, even when their necks are jerked with ropes and their haunches slapped with twitches. Ah, yes, two men have wrestled one of the biggest cows under a hose across the dirt parking area from me, perhaps fifty feet away, where they tie her to a fence-post and deliver a less-than luxurious sponge bath. I think there are only cows here, not bulls, but I still wonder if it was shortsighted to have worn a bright red tee shirt. When they finish, one of the men caresses the cow gently on its side and speaks to it softly. People are so confusing.
My picnic table has some bugs walking around which are unfamiliar to me, but they appear harmless enough, without bright colors or threatening shapes. I wish I’d sprayed some of that bug repellant. I scoff at it as a placebo, but I wouldn’t turn it down right now if somebody offered.
Occasionally, the cows moo and the cocks crow. Birds chatter incessantly with a variety of calls, complaints, entreaties, threats, songs, etc. A horse periodically whinnies or snorts to complete the symphony and a troupe of howler monkeys just arrived to colonize a massive tree. Eight or nine jet-black athletes swing into place on individual limbs and look languidly down. Two males attempt to out-do each other with their deeply resonant “oo-oo-oo’s.” How does such a massive sound emanate from such a relatively small animal?
The cow that was being washed appears content now, cooling down, as steam rises from her body. She stares dully, still tethered by a rope to the rough wooden fencing. I wonder what she is thinking, if anything.
The men take refuge from the sun beneath a massive strangler fig tree and lay down to rest. I fear I have displaced them from their usual siesta location. A white and yellow cat saunters over to join the dog and me. She brushes affectionately against the pit-bull, who appears to be napping, though one of his eyes is half-open. She lays down a few feet in front of us; basically, we are three apparently purposeless participants in the animal ballet all around us. A resplendent black and orange rooster emerges from a doorway to strut towards us. Will he complete our varied menagerie under the pavilion? No, he turns back towards his harem of clucking chickens, barely contained in a loosely fenced pen.
The cat regards me unhurriedly, and decides I might be useful. She leaps upon the table. I offer some high-quality scratching behind the ears and she purrs. After several minutes, just as I fear she will never allow me to stop, she sprawls and commences grooming herself. The dog is completely asleep now, occasionally twitching with what might be dreams. The monkeys have subsided, too, settled throughout several trees, spread-eagled across the limbs. I notice a baby clinging adorably to its mother’s back. All seems right in the world.
I hear the clip-clop of the girls returning. Somehow, two hours have passed. Hearing the sound, the pit bull lifts his massive head and sniffs. He regards me for a moment and settles back down to sleep. I am not certain, but I doubt the pit bull will remember me. I’m just a taller- and paler-than-average human who hung out in his domain, and occasionally spoke to him in an unusual language. But I expect I will always remember him, and the couple of hours we shared.



I admit I was a bit of a slow starter.  I headed to law school in 1978 at the age of twenty-one with as much experience with the opposite sex as a typical thirteen-year-old.  Nowadays, the level of knowledge I had at that time might match that of an eleven-year-old.  While I could try to blame this situation on a variety of circumstances and other people, it was largely of my own making, owing to a mix of traits, interests and hang-ups that I did not understand at the time.  Still, an opportunity of sorts managed to arise.

Following college graduation, I found myself at home for one last summer.  My parents would have supported me, regardless, but I reluctantly agreed it was necessary to engage in some sort of employment, even though previous summers of misery had included alphabetizing in a library, typing for the U.S. Corps of Engineers (the “Corpse”) and umpiring adult softball (early lessons in the misery of humanity).  These experiences were so tedious and unpleasant that my expectations for meaningful and useful work were nil.  When a friend advised of an opening for an assistant to the manager at a nearby dinner theatre, I thought to myself:  “That might not be too bad; I can learn something about business and see some shows while I’m at it.”

After several phone calls, I scheduled an interview with a man named Robert, whose family owned the Suburban Dinner Theatre and a variety of businesses throughout the Philadelphia area.    Dressed as I was, in a blue blazer and tie over grey slacks, I was surprised to note that he was only a year or two older than I, and accessorized his all-jeans outfit with an earring and ponytail.  On his feet were clogs.  It was quite an ensemble.  We took the measure of each other, as follows:

“I manage this place and I can use you two or three days a week,” he said.  He spread out his arms expansively, indicating the theatre, the buffet and dining rooms, the offices and the vast lobby.  The décor was faux Roman, with hollow plaster gladiators glowering from every corner.

“Okay,” I replied, relieved not to work full-time.

“I don’t know what you’ll be doing, but my friggin’ brother at the theatre downtown has an assistant, so I’m gonna have one, too,” said Robert.

“Okay,” I said, feeling a bit more commoditized than I’d expected.

“I don’t understand why dad gives him the big theatre and I’m stuck out here,” he said, apparently talking to himself. “Can you drive?” he asked.


“Come in tomorrow at ten and I’ll figure out something.  I’ll pay you six dollars an hour and, ah, lose the jacket and tie.”

“Will I have anything to do with the shows?” I asked, hopeful.

“Nah,” he replied.  “This’ll just be daytime crap.”

Thus began my entry to the business world and to the concept of “make-work.”  I’d already learned from my summer of government employment that it is important to “look busy” while trudging through a pile of letters.  And I’d learned from the library that a low-intensity job sometimes affords the opportunity to read a magazine “on the clock,” while seeming to be involved in filing.  But the idea of completely making up things to do was new.   To his credit, Robert was initially resourceful at finding tasks for completion where none were readily apparent.

During the first morning on the job, I drove a van to three far-flung hardware stores in search of the components necessary to install a chain in front of a side entrance to prevent illegal parking.  One store had the proper gauge of chain, another the hue of silver paint that Robert deemed most visible,  another the piece of metal on which I would write “No Entry” and the type of marker that could write permanently upon a piece of painted metal.

The afternoon project involved vacuuming ceiling vents in the dining room deemed too difficult to access by the janitorial staff.  Only in retrospect did I realize how dangerous it was for me, inexperienced and unprotected by any safety measures whatsoever, to be reaching to the ceiling with a dust-buster from the top of a rickety ladder.

“Here’s a good project for you,” Robert announced on my second day.  “We need some additional feathers for the Showboat production.  See where you can find six ostrich feathers, four eagle feathers and eight striped feathers.  I don’t care what kind of bird.”

I looked at him and determined he was serious.

“You can use that phone,” he said, pointing across his office to an empty desk, and handing me a thick book called “The Yellow Pages.”  It may be difficult for a youthful current-day reader to believe, but “The Yellow Pages” and a telephone were the go-to research tools in the late 1970’s.

While I pored over “theatrical costumes” and “decorator’s accessories” sections, Robert resumed his phone conversation:

“Yeah, I’m sorta working this afternoon…. Haha, I have an assistant now, what a riot….  Okay, baby, I’ll pick you up later.  Love ya.”  Turning his attention back to me, Robert said:

“Man, my lady-friends are driving me crazy.  I have to juggle several; it’s stressful.  I have to go get a massage to relax.   Anyway, after you get the feathers, leave ‘em in my office and call it a day.  See ya.”

I located the requisite feathers after an hour of calling.  Before I left his office, I noticed that Robert’s desk was filled with photographs of himself with a variety of attractive women.   Driving the van downtown to gather the feathers, I pondered unhappily how cavalierly virtuosic Robert was with the vagaries of social life while I, confident of superior intellect and eventual professional prospects, was essentially learning disabled.   It was as though he were winning a race while I was still at the starting line.

Robert greeted me the next workday with a broad smile.  I should have been suspicious.  “I’m running out of important projects for daytime work, but I’ve found you a position in show biz,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said, “it’s an evening position, during the show.  You can do what my dad had me do as my first job outta college.  You’ll be the liquor checker.”

I doubtless looked perplexed while he continued:  “We have a service bar that makes the drinks for the audience.  We suspect the bartender and some of the girls are rippin’ us off by providing some drinks on the side.  So you just gotta match up the drinks on their tray with the drinks listed on the check.  If the table buys six drinks, make sure there ain’t eight going out.  And if the bill says it’s a standard cocktail, make sure the glass isn’t filled with ‘top shelf.’”

“How do you tell the difference?” I asked.

“’Top shelf’ is the good stuff.  Customers gotta pay extra for it.”

“Doesn’t it look the same in the glass?” I asked.

“That doesn’t matter.  You just have to act like you know the difference,” he said, delivering to me an important real-life lesson.  So many times in my eventual career as a lawyer, it was at least as necessary to project knowledge, as it was to actually have knowledge.

Robert walked with me to the liquor bar located adjacent to the buffet.  He explained the routine: patrons arrived before the show for a buffet dinner.  During dinner and intermission, they could obtain soft drinks for no additional charge, but alcoholic drinks were ordered from the waitresses who circulated through the dining room during the show.  On a good night, there were two to three hundred patrons spread around twenty to thirty tables of ten.  The staff consisted of eight-twelve women, depending on the anticipated size of the crowd, and one or two bartenders.

There were three double-edged “perks” of employment in the service bar.  Foremost on employees’ minds were that, after intermission, we were effectively “done” for the evening and were free to attack the buffet.  Unfortunately, the menu never changed, so one gorged on the same rolls, chicken cordon bleu, rice pilaf and salad every night, topped off with Sarah Lee cheesecake.

The second “perk” was that one could hear the music from the show.  However, since the show for the entire summer was Showboat, one’s enthusiasm quickly flagged on a nightly diet of “Captain Andy, Captain Andy, he makes the world seem like a bowl of candy.”

The third perk, for me, at least, was the concentrated opportunity to study female anatomy.  The set-up of the service bar was that the waitresses entered through a swinging door at the far end of the room, obtained their drinks from the bartender there, presented payment to a cashier in the middle of the room, and passed out a swinging door directly in front of me after I perused the contents of their trays.

Like an adolescent boy, my evaluation of female beauty had been based almost entirely on faces up to that point, with only an emerging interest in parts below.  This job, however, promoted appreciation not only of the front, but also legs and rears.  The staff did not have a fixed uniform, just a black and white color scheme.  Most of the women found it profitable, tip-wise, and perhaps, more comfortable in the bustle of work, to wear the shortest of shorts and the skimpiest of tee-shirts.  All of the women were in their early twenties except for one middle-aged woman named Trudy, who was trim, but chose to wear slacks.

The drawbacks of the job were also clear.  First, most of my co-workers smoked.  And the nightly race to sell drinks and earn tips, with contests and bonuses among them, created a casino-type atmosphere of tension that encouraged their habit.  Not only did they light up constantly, but they left their butts smoldering in ash trays while they circulated through the dining room.   The resulting stench in the service bar was akin to Dante’s most hellish levels.  Second, and impossible to overcome, was that my position was to act as management’s spy.   The honest waitresses hated my snooping and the dishonest simply hated me.

The middle-aged bartenders, both of whom looked indistinguishable from Tony Orlando, complete with smarmy moustaches, regarded me with supreme disinterest.

“So kid,” one said shortly after I began there, “you think you’re gonna get laid this summer?”

“Um, I hadn’t really planned one way or the other,” I said, trying to convey that I had a choice in the matter.

“It’s like shootin’ ducks in a barrel,” he said.  “For me, at least.”

Luckily, the summer passed quickly.   My mind was preoccupied with starting law school and the job did not require deep concentration.   Either there was less corruption than Robert thought, or I was really bad at uncovering it, but I never had to “rat out” one of the girls.  Gradually, a rapport developed with several so that conversations were, at least, civil.  While some never spoke to me beyond what was necessary, most accepted that I was “simply doing my job,” and had not chosen to treat them like criminals for fun.  I recognized most of them were headed towards lives of lower-middle-class struggle while I was in a position to achieve upper-middle-class comfort, and I made certain never to gloat.

Even among the waitresses who spoke to me without an edge, there was absolutely no flirtation.  Though they were more aware than anyone that my eyes would doubtless be following their movement, particularly after the drinks were counted, when they passed out the door in front of me, they rarely established eye contact.  Their manner of speech, laced with profanity and “dems” and “dozes,” combined with tawdry hairdos and tattoos, (before tattoos somehow became fashionable) indicated a huge gulf in our respective backgrounds.  One or two attended community college or beauty school, but they flaunted their bodies as their main assets.

It was as though these women/girls were saying:  “We know you have an education and will have a nice car and a nice house and probably there’s a prissy little school teacher out there for you somewhere, but what you can’t have is this – our bodies are great and you’ll never touch anything as good.”  At the time, I would have completely agreed with that assessment.  In fact, I would have been relieved to know the little teacher was out there somewhere for me.

Every Saturday night, after the show, the staff went to a local bar for drinks.  I was never invited to join them and, for that, I was relieved.   I had no interest in socializing with them, breathing more of their smoke, and staying out past midnight discussing soap opera plots or their real-life awful boyfriends.  But in honor of my last night of employment, one of the girls graciously said: “for a company dick, you ain’t so bad,” and invited me to join them after work.  “We’ll treat,” she said.

We went to the Muddy Duck, a hole-in-the-wall bar near the St. Joseph’s College campus.  At first, the evening proceeded as I’d expected.  I nursed a beer as slowly as possible while my surrounding co-workers drank themselves silly.  Any landscaper or gas station attendant who walked in thought I was the luckiest man alive.  We all sat at a large, oval table.  I was next to Trudy, who alternately talked about living with her cancer-stricken mother, chain-smoked, and consumed pints.  Compared to all the twenty-two-year-olds in hot pants, Trudy had never caught my attention.  When a man is twenty-one, women over forty who are not relatives, rarely enter consciousness.

So it was particularly surprising when I turned towards Trudy at one point and found her open mouth bearing down upon mine.  I sensed an uproar of laughter and cheers around me as Trudy landed upon me on the bench and surrounded me with a noxious cocktail of cheap perfume, nicotine and beer.

“I’ll take you to the restroom and give you a real treat,” she rasped over the commotion.  “You should have something to remember from the summer.”

I felt embarrassment and panic that nearly made me faint.  My mind internally ran through a litany of jumbled moral babble:  “We are not dating; we are not even friends; this will be immediately regretted by both of us; somewhere my future wife will be cheated, etc.”   I must admit, I doubt if any of these objections would have overcome an offer from one of the younger girls.

“I can’t,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  I mean, I’d like to….”

Trudy leaned back and regarded me with deep hurt in her eyes.  I felt terrible.   She may not have been sober enough to fully consider the ramifications, but she was offering something that would have constituted a landmark in my life.  Fortunately, most of the girls around the table had turned their attention away from us, but I was still reeling.

“I understand,” said Trudy, after a moment.  “It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated.

It wasn’t long before the gathering began to break up.  Everyone wished me “good luck,” and I was free to go.  I remember taking a deep breath in the parking lot before entering my car.  Nearly all the memories of that summer submerged instantaneously and completely; now that they have bubbled back to the surface for examination, I believe I made the right decision.


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.


Jimmy was our teenaged neighbor when we were freshly married and living in northern New Jersey.  Unlike the typical high school students in our high-achieving town, Jimmy was not fixated on attending an Ivy League college and in obtaining the BMW that was certain to follow.  Rather, he was interested in auto maintenance and handyman tasks.  This desire was useful, since his parents’ collection of aged hatchbacks required the former, and our semi-renovated Victorian house required the latter.

When Jimmy was not peering under the hood of a car whose color was unknown to nature, he was in our house destroying old plaster walls and discovering new sources of seepage.  He worked deliberately but charged so little that it never occurred to me to complain.  Jimmy was a quiet perfectionist.

Jimmy’s parents were devout church-goers but his Dad truly sought salvation in the performance of his favorite football team.  His mother found excitement and happiness in her garden.   Besides odd jobs, surprisingly, Jimmy’s passionate interest was in fundamentalist Catholic theology.  To that end, for a couple of years after graduating from high school, he sported hair and a beard like Jesus’s.   He saved his earnings from repair jobs and a part-time position at an auto body shop to visit sites in Europe where minor miracles (as opposed to the big splashy ones, like the parting of the Red Sea) had taken place.

Jimmy’s eyes misted over when he described a shack in Poland or Romania where thorns had reportedly turned to flowers or water had turned to wine, or some similar cause for skepticism on my part.  Each place was named for an obscure saint with a previously unheard of name.  Jimmy’s absolute sincerity precluded overt ridicule; one had to respect his fervor.

When my office required construction of a wall, we called Jimmy.  When our basement needed painting, we called Jimmy.  Even though he finally entered Rutgers on what was to become a leisurely, seven year journey, Jimmy remained available to complete an assortment of household projects.

The primary personal characteristic of Jimmy, who, around age twenty-seven, became known as “Jim,” was a sense of indecisive acceptance.  “Yeah, well, you know.…” he would say regarding almost anything.  Faced with disagreement, he would say:  “Yeah, sure, I guess.”  Responding to a question, he would answer, “Well, maybe, I suppose.”  Despite his extreme passivity, we sensed there to be acute intelligence somewhere deep inside.  Jim was unfailingly patient and kind; he designed and built a soaring tree house for our children with leftover wood, and then refused payment for the work.

After he graduated from Rutgers, Jim found work as a mechanic for a trucking firm and moved to an apartment closer to work.   One day, I saw him arrive to visit his parents and I rushed to greet him before he went inside.

“How’s the job?” I asked.

“Well, you know,” he replied.

“Is it interesting?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You should consider design school or architecture,” I stated, with conviction.  “That tree house is amazing.  You have a special talent.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Never really thought about it,” he replied.

“Great to see you,” I said.

Jim took a moment to reply.  He seemed to be pondering what I had said earlier.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, trailing off, more distracted than usual.  Then he brightened, and his voice caught with emotion:  “I’m going to Bulgaria next week to see where Saint (Unpronounceable) prevented a flood by reversing a river.”

“That’s great, Jim,” I said, trying hard to sound sincere.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to be a saint?” he asked.

I shook my head.  “I definitely cannot.”

I was gratified, several months later, when Jim’s mother told me he was starting architecture school.  I thought I might have made an impact.  Shortly thereafter, we moved to a different town and lost touch with Jim and his family, except for annual holiday cards.

Several years later, we were having a vacation house constructed in Costa Rica.  Our builder was confident that he could obtain all the necessary permits with the plans he drew up himself, but he was surprised to find out he needed a sealed and certified architect’s plan for the complicated roof line.

“It’s urgent,” he said.  “I’m so sorry for this short notice.  I’m afraid that if I do not have an official plan to present when the inspector comes out next week, he will not be in the region again for months.  The whole project will be held up.  Do you know any architects?”

We did not know any architects, we thought, at first, then remembered Jim.  Sure enough, his parents told us that, at age thirty-five, he had recently become a fully licensed architect.  He worked at a small firm in south Jersey and, they were sure he would be delighted to supplement his meager income with a moonlighting assignment.

“After all,” said his dad, “a roof system for a whole house is more exciting than the baseboards and mantel pieces they have him working on now.”

“Do you have an e-mail address for him?” I asked.

“He hasn’t gotten around to that, yet,” said his mother.  “But here is his phone number.”

Like his dad, I thought Jim would be excited to create drawings for a vacation home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  I was surprised it required several messages before he called back.

“Hi, yeah, I heard about the house,” he said.  “I guess I could draw up something.”

“Jim, the floor plan is already done,” I explained.  “We need a roof system drawn up, but we only have a few days.  Can you do it?  You can be creative, like with the tree house.”

“Okay, I guess…. I suppose,” he said.

Jim agreed to come up and meet with us the next day.  We spread out the floor plan on the dining room table and provided photographs of the mountainside lot and its views of the Pacific Ocean.  We waited in vain for some reaction as Jim stared impassively.  He started to speak and stopped several times:  “…this room, uhhhh… hmmmmm, yeah, okay, hmmmmm….”

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, after a long pause.  “I guess, ummm, this will work out.”

After another hour of similar hemming and hawing, Jim said he would produce a plan in a day or two.  He asked if he could charge $50 an hour and said he could finish in just six or seven hours.

“Jim,” I said.  “This would have cost us a minimum fee of $5,000 with an architectural firm.  I won’t pay you less than $1,000, no matter what.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

I could not resist asking Jim a question before he left:  “Do you enjoy being an architect?”

“I suppose,” he said.

“Do you remember when I suggested you consider it?”

He looked perplexed.

“Hunh?” he replied.

I dropped the subject.   Jim justified our faith by producing a series of precise and interesting drawings and calculations in just two days.  We e-mailed them to our builder who pronounced them excellent.  Our architectural crisis was averted.   Jim needed weeks of prodding but he finally forwarded an invoice, his #001, for $1,000.

We forwarded early photographs of the construction to Jim since we thought he would find them exciting or, at least, interesting.  We did not hear from him.  When the roof finally went on and his job #001 was actualized, we mailed him color photographs and a note thanking him for his help.  Again, we did not hear from him.  Afraid that we did not have the right mailing address, we called Jim.

“Did you receive the pictures?”

“Oh, yeah, I got them.  Thanks,” he said.

“The house looks stunning, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess.  It looks pretty good, I suppose.”

We hung up feeling vaguely unfulfilled.  Perhaps, we wanted to pierce his wall of seeming indifference.  Perhaps, we wanted to hear an architect enthuse about our house.  Perhaps, we wanted Jim to express just one iota of wonder at his own, earthly accomplishment.

Upon reflection, we had to conclude that Jim’s outlook and behavior is not ours to change.  It is hard enough to influence immediate family members; how could we presume to influence what excites a mere friendly acquaintance?  Finally, who knows?   If consistency is a sacred virtue, Jim might well be a saint someday.


When I was nine we had a cat named Impy.  He was a formidable Maine Coon cat with a bushy tail trailing a sturdy, striped body.  Impy lived up to his name, lording over the neighborhood like a lion and terrorizing birds and mice.  Often, he stayed out all night.  He must have had some tender moments at home; why else did we keep him?  But all I recall of life with Impy was that my arms were crisscrossed with scratches.

One particularly cold evening, Impy ignored our calls and evaded our flashlight search.  The temperatures dropped to the teens and still, he did not surrender his nocturnal patrol.  The next morning, we were concerned but not quite worried.  Impy, we were confident, was a sturdy and resourceful fellow.

“He’s probably curled up next to someone’s furnace vent,” said my mother.

“I bet he crawled into a squirrel’s nest,” I said.

“Yes, after he evicted the squirrels,” said my older brother, Barry.

We all laughed.  The three of us agreed to walk around the house for a few minutes before breakfast to see if we could locate our mischievous pet.  I went around the front of our own house while my mother and brother searched around the neighbors’.  Almost immediately, I saw Impy sprawled in the front garden.

“He’s sleeping!” I yelled, delighted to have been the one to find him, like the winner of a scavenger hunt.  I realized almost immediately, however, that Impy’s evident stiffness indicated a condition more permanent than sleep.

My mother and brother arrived to find me staring at the frozen corpse.  I recall more horror than grief.  Impy presented a problem that did not have an apparent solution.

“Should we try mouth-to-mouth?” asked Barry.

We looked at each other.  No one moved forward.   Eventually, we resolved to bury Impy where several previous pets were interred, behind the garage.  It became immediately apparent, however, that the frozen ground was impossible to dig.

“I have an idea,” said Barry.  “Burial at sea would be dignified.”

“Which sea did you have in mind?” asked my mother.  “We’re hours from the ocean.”

“We could drop him off a bridge into a river,” said Barry.  “That’d be almost the same thing.”

“Yes.  We can wrap him in his blanket,” I suggested, thinking of a pad on which Impy sometimes slept.

“Good idea,” said my mother.

We gathered Impy’s body up into his blanket-cum-shroud and piled into the car.  As the youngest and smallest member of this expedition, I sat in the backseat beside my pet’s stiff body.  I recall feeling sad for Impy but also a sense of excitement about our mission.  Life with Impy, after all, had been a mixed blessing.  And there was something almost spiritual about his restless, impetuous body being at peace.  Already, we were thinking about how our next pet might be better.

“It should be female,” said my mother.

Barry added:  “Perhaps a dog or cat that will curl up in your lap or in front of the fire.”

I looked down at the back of my hands and sighed:  “I won’t miss getting scratched.”

We were silent as we arrived at the Fairmount Park Bridge over the Schuylkill River.  Barry carried the bundle to the middle of the span as my mother and I followed a step behind.  We were a self-conscious triumvirate, summoning what felt like proper solemnity to the situation.

“This feels sort of Mayan,” I observed, thinking of rituals we had just talked about in school.

“I guess,” said Barry.

“Do you want to say something?” asked my mother, looking at me.

“I can’t really think of anything,” I said.

“Well,” said Barry, taking on a grave tone.  “Impy, we hope that you are in a peaceful place, um, with lots of good food, um, and plenty of mice to catch.”

I looked up to make sure he was finished.

“Amen,” I said.

“Amen,” said my mother.

With that, after looking both ways to be sure no one was watching, Barry flung the deceased into the air.  We all raced to the railing to watch the anticipated splash.  To our horror, we realized that the river was completely frozen.  Our search for dignity ended with a thud.

We were speechless for most of the ride home.

“It will melt, eventually,” Barry finally offered.


When one’s age is equal to a prominent speed limit it’s gratifying to continue to compete in tennis against significantly younger players.  Gratification, however, does not make it easier.  I am on a USTA 4.0-level team.  That equates roughly to golfing with a handicap of 8 or batting about .305 in baseball.  It’s solid without being extraordinary.

My teammates are all at least fifteen years younger than I, but when we play doubles, age is not an issue.  “Craftiness” and “experience” and “calmness under pressure” are my attributes.  What I lack in power or running speed is offset by the assignment of a complementary partner who hits hard and leaps high.  My results rank me as one of the better players.

Singles, however, is a different sport.  One is all alone.  My team, called the “Bulldogs” (something about Durham) has qualified to compete in the State Championships.  To that end, my teammates have been playing each other in “challenge” matches in order to establish our pecking order.  The better one does against one’s own team, the higher court they will play at the tournament.

I played teammates against whom I have had a lot of success in my first two challenge matches.  Both also made the error of agreeing to play at my community’s clay courts, a slow surface.  I sliced and spun my way to comfortable victories and then soaked up their admiration.  After all, if my exploits are attributed to super-human qualities, their defeat at the hands of “the old guy” is less painful for them to accept.

The third match, however, was against our star.  Dave is a twenty-three-year-old so recently graduated from college that he still talks avidly about the challenges of taking early-morning classes and studying through the night.  His racquet bag still has the insignia of his college tennis club and his strings and shirts are in college colors.  Dave may be young, but he parried my offer to play on clay, cogently pointing out that the tournament was going to be played on hard courts.   Damn.  I guess they do teach them something in school these days.

I arrived several minutes early at our chosen facility, a Durham park near Dave’s office.  I noticed people hanging out around the jungle gym and the basketball courts.  The tennis court was empty except for numerous twigs and bottles.  I used the extra time to clean up while trying to ignore a teenager intently trying to remove a bicycle from a nearby rack by unorthodox means.  I convinced myself he’d forgotten the combination to the lock.

While I waited, a couple of ten-year-olds took turns crashing their bicycles into the fence surrounding the court.  Each cheered the other’s resulting fall as though this were a new event for the X-Games.  Perhaps it is.  I also noticed an older couple making out noisily beneath some bleachers.  I was relieved when they disappeared into the concrete block restrooms adjacent to the parking lot.  Finally, Dave arrived.  I had never been so happy to see an opponent.

We exchanged greetings and warmed up.  I noticed Dave’s arm was really “live.”  When he struck the ball, it had tremendous spin and hopped off the court.  I devised a strategy that was something along the lines of:  “Keep it away from him.”   I then noticed that he covered space with long, effortless strides so was only two long lopes from basically anywhere on the court.

My next strategy was I might hit “moon” balls that he might have trouble corralling.  Well, considering that Dave is six-foot-four, the high bounces didn’t faze him.  And when he came close to the net, the challenge of getting something over him and having it still land inside the court became clear.  Finally, we took several practice serves, and I realized he hit his “second” serve faster than I hit my first serve.  Not good.

My goal as we started was I wanted to avoid the dreaded “bagel.”  I considered how I would start the e-mail to our captain:  “Dave needed an ego boost.”  The first game was a revelation, however.  When I served a slow ball out wide, Dave tried to crush it so hard his shot sailed long.  After this happened several times, he became frustrated and hit balls ever farther out.  He muttered profanities as I recognized a wonderful thing:  “He really is young.”  The more slowly I hit my shots, the more wildly he hit his.


The score was 3-0 for me when the music began.  An ice cream truck arrived repeating notes from a Bach Minuet.  I couldn’t resist providing this bit of information to the now-disconsolate Dave who looked at me as though I had set a new standard for nerdiness.  I suppose I had.  The music initially struck me as funny for being so out-of-place.  After it repeated nearly one hundred times the charm had worn off.  The simple tune stuck in my head.

I fought off several difficult serves to take a 4-0 lead and then served my spin-balls to make it 5-0.  As we changed sides Dave barely looked at me.  “I haven’t lost a bagel since I was ten,” he said.  I felt badly for him, though not enough to let him win a game; only enough to contain my giddiness and not say anything obnoxious.  As it turned out, I didn’t have to make a moral choice.  Dave served a succession of double faults and the first set was mine.


When we started the second set, the ice cream truck finally departed.  A new distraction replaced it, namely: the lights came on as darkness descended.  They buzzed, like a nest of hornets, if hornets were the size of cruise missiles.  Like the music, I thought the buzz would abate after a “warming up” period, but I was wrong.  The only benefit of the buzz was that we couldn’t hear the teenagers at the jungle gym who were engaging in a melee.  Perhaps, they were having fun.  I didn’t hear any gun shots.

Dave began to find his range in the second set.  He slowed down and recognized he would benefit from lengthening the rallies.  After all, I’m physically incapable of hitting the ball past him.  Therefore, if we just kept hitting back and forth, eventually I would either make a mistake, or I would hit a ball short enough for him to clobber with a large margin for error.  The score went back and forth and the games seemed interminable; Dave emerged with a 6-4 win.  We had to play a third and deciding set.  Dave smiled confidently as we drank water.  I could tell he was appraising our respective chances:  he was thirty years younger, taller, faster and fitter.  How could he lose?

My thoughts were simpler and more diabolical, albeit not with any actual basis in tennis scoring.  I pointed out that if I could win just three games in the third set, I would win the aggregate score.  Dave regarded me for a moment, not sure if I was joking.  I decided to go for reverse psychology:  “I’m just happy to give you a workout,” I said, with a degree of insincere modesty that even I found nauseating.


Early summer in North Carolina is a sweaty affair.  By the time it was 2-2 in the third set, we were both low on water.  We had to decide whether to risk botulism by filling our water bottles at the water fountain attached to the bathrooms or just to drink smaller and smaller portions.  I decided to sip more slowly.  Dave risked the fountain.  I digress.

We proceeded to hold our serves.  Mine were slow and bedeviling.  His were fast and powerful.  I benefited from the fact that the balls were worn and less lively.  Dave’s accuracy had improved, but his kick much weaker. Still, I couldn’t win a game on his serve.  3-3, 4-4, 5-5.  I finally cracked in my next service game and contributed my first double fault of the evening.  Dave pounced and took a 6-5 lead.  He served to within a point of victory but I broke back to force a tie-break.  Dave let out one final scream of frustration, but I sensed that he appreciated the challenge.

In one special point, for instance, he raced in to retrieve a drop shot, raced back to return a lob, came in for another drop, and scrambled back for another lob.  Just as I prepared to graciously tell him “good try,” he returned the ball with a ‘tweener.”  Caught between amazement and annoyance,  I hit a third drop shot to win the point.  There is little place for sentiment in a tie-breaker!

Justice might have been served if we had called the match a “tie.”  But as competitive males, that was not a viable option.  Also, our captain needed a result for the team placement.  We went back-and-forth for several points.  Finally, Dave pulled ahead.  When he hit the last winner, I didn’t begrudge him the win.  He’s the better player and should play on the first court at the tournament.  I’m satisfied to have prepared him for what he’ll encounter from a wily, older opponent.

I am pleased to have competed so long and so well.  Now, if I could just get Bach’s Minuet out of my head….



After twenty-five years of marriage we were recently reduced to a date at the doctor’s office to obtain medicine for our respective illnesses.  This unprecedented display of efficiency, with back-to-back appointments and only one car ride, was somehow less satisfying due to the dismal nature of our mission.

It was not always thus.  Our first dinner date was thrilling.  We talked for hours and lingered over drinks to prolong the evening.  We moved in together in a matter of weeks with engagement and marriage soon following.  We have had a terrific quarter-century by most measures and foresee continuing in that vein for a like period.

Illness has not been a major factor in our lives.  That is a good thing, or the longevity noted above would have been threatened.  There is no use in equivocating; I am not good at illness.  I am an impatient and exasperated nurse and an angry and disconsolate patient.  I rage against sickness.  I hate it.  I despise it, even when I know I have no one, and no place, to blame.  Is it just my impression, or are women usually better at dealing with illness?

My Achilles Heel, figuratively-speaking, are my sinuses.  I cannot recall an illness since childhood that did not involve the proverbial elephant on the bridge of the nose.  The inevitable course is, as follows:  a chill, then a sore throat, then a stuffed nose, then a clogged head that Roto-Rooter could not penetrate.  The resulting sleeplessness, peculiarly baritone voice echoing in my head, and runny nose render my life miserable.

As anyone who has been ill lately is aware, the present preference among doctors is to avoid prescribing antibiotics.  Many illnesses appear to run their course regardless.  Therefore, one spends several days using a dizzying array of over-the-counter sprays, washes, and emollients.

In New Jersey, pharmacists had distinct favorites.  The patient would describe their symptoms and the pharmacist would imperiously dispense several boxes without hesitation.  It was as though they embodied the authority of God and Nature.  In North Carolina, the pharmacists are friendly and approachable but less confident.  They come out from behind the counter to read the backs of packages aloud to the patient until, with eyes glazed over, the patient finally says:  “That one sounds good.”  A patient will do anything to escape hearing another list of ingredients.

Sickness in our household is primarily an issue of territory.  The sick spouse claims a bed or a couch and effectively bars the other from being there with an array of sniffs, snorts, wheezes, coughs, etc.  When both of us are sick at the same time, by virtue of there being only so many negative emotions that a person can harbor, my impatience, anger and disgust are diluted.  We move around the house like two planets in opposing orbits with powerful magnetic shields preventing proximity.  The only drama concerns which spouse can outlast the other during the night-time struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep.  Eventually, the less determined of us grabs a pillow and a sheet and heads for the living room couch or spare bedroom.  The evicted person always makes certain to create enough of a disturbance so that the spouse remaining in bed is aware of their victory but, unfortunately, gains that knowledge by being awakened.

When one is sick, it seems that illness is “the new normal,” to borrow a recently popular phrase.  Eventually, however, whether due to medicine or the mere passage of time, the symptoms slip away and health reappears.  At that point, one can hardly remember what the sickness was like, unless a sympathetic listener makes a catastrophic error, and asks.  At that point, the former patient can recount the struggle in miraculous detail.  The now formerly sympathetic listener looks longingly for an exit.