Archives for category: Retirement

OFF THE TENURE TRACK

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

*****

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

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AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

Frank Rizzo was mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During that time, he distinguished himself for brutish bravado. Describing how mercilessly he intended to disembowel opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I could not initially understand, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father was enamored of this man.
Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. Not surprisingly, his reign was dominated by charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for a big-city police commissioner. There were potentially violent protests from radical students as well as from such organizations as the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with holding a lid on potentially riotous situations that could have spiraled into deadly chaos. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of the nightsticks.
Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner and expressions were so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained a supporter.
My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a meaningful organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street was a bustling shopping area with over one hundred stores, but a sad joke by the late 1960’s. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a scene reminiscent of a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only store owner willing to act as “president” and, accordingly, his name landed on the new mayor’s mailing list. Each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”
“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”
“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.
“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.
A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard, green card. I remained silent.
Certainly, I thought, my father, a noted skeptic in his own right, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were doubtless sent to every club, organization and entity in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.
“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards here?”
“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.
“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.
“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little moved.
The annual receipt of the holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in earshot of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards we had received. After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow was perfectly capable of handling at the store, but seemingly unable to do at home.
“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?’” he would ask, each year.
We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”
“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.
As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which was barely surviving, became increasingly forlorn. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to stay open. After he was pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what could he do with the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one would buy it. It was in a worthless location.
“Someone offered $2,000 today,” he reported one day, dejectedly, as we sat down to lunch, “for the bricks.”
“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term is ending in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyal friendship.”
It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.
“Do you have the number?” he asked.
Home for the holiday break from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother retrieved the number for the Mayor’s office from the directory and wrote it down for him. My father went into the kitchen where there was a phone and, before he shut the door behind him, I heard him prounounce:
“This is Lou Sanders of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”
My father’s discussion continued for several minutes.
“Who could he be talking to?” I asked.
“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor’s office has employees.”
“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.
“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.
I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.
“Well?” said my mother.
“Who were you talking to?” I asked.
“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”
“And what did he say?” asked my mother.
“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”
“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” he repeated.
Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later. I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”
She nodded in agreement.
Imagine our surprise on December 31 when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.” The letter was signed by an unknown official. But a handwritten postscript was added at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”


TIME SHARE DESPAIR

 

Not including a visit to a dentist’s office, is there a worse way to spend an hour than to attend a time- share presentation?  Two experiences in early adulthood caused me to pledge to never again endure such an ordeal.  On a recent visit to Charleston, however, when a torrentially rainy Tuesday morning held scant prospect of more enjoyable activities, an opportunity “too good to be true” proved irresistible.  Directly across the street from our hotel, a sodden man held a sign offering $150 cash, guaranteed, to any qualified couple who would spend an hour in the office building behind him, the local branch of “Vacation Inspirations.”

“How bad can one hour be?” I asked.

“$150 will pay for lunch, a museum and a covered carriage ride,” noted my wife.

“Sit there for an hour, have a donut and coffee, and then it will be over,” I agreed.

We crossed the street, entered the building, and approached a cheerful receptionist.

“Are y’all here for the presentation?” she chirped.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, y’all are in luck!” she enthused, as though the sales pitches did not take place every hour on the hour all day long.  “We’ll get started in about five minutes.  I just need you to fill out a couple of forms, to make sure y’all are qualified.”

“You’re running a background check, in South Carolina?” I asked, feigning shock.  “Isn’t that against some constitutional right?”

“Behave,” warned my wife.

The girl indulged me with an angelic smile.  I took a pencil and began to provide basic information.   As always, in similar situations that held potential for follow-up harassment, I provided a long-expired e-mail address.  I checked boxes for income and assets that I imagined were sufficient to “qualify” us, but not high enough to excite special attention from the company.  When I finished, I handed the card back.

The girl thanked me and advised:  “When the presentation is over, and y’all come back down again, your envelope of cash will be waiting right here on the desk, with your name on it.”   I registered that crucial information, just in case.   She directed us towards a stairway.

Once upstairs, we joined three other couples in a conference room.   We nodded greetings and I wondered if any were serious prospects or if all of us were motivated solely by the cash payment.  There were eight tables available but we all gravitated to the rear, as far from the lectern as possible.  Everyone was trying to limit their engagement with the presentation, I imagined.    After another moment, an improbably bright and enthusiastic young man bounded into the room.  With slicked-back hair, a lavender polo shirt and stylish glasses, he looked every bit like a fraternity rush captain at a large southern university.  He greeted us warmly:

“How y’all doin’ today?   I hope Charleston is to your likin’.  My name is Rhett, just like the fella in Gone With the Wind,  and mah family’s lived he-ah for ten generations.   Hey, folks, I don’t bite!  Since we don’t have a full room at this early hour, how ‘bout y’all come sit closer.”

“We’re okay back here,” said one man, indicating himself and his wife.  The rest of us nodded.

“I’d really appreciate it if you would all take the closer seats,” said Rhett, the folksy accent and affability draining from his still well-lit smile.  “Please move up for my sake, so that I do not have to shout.  I’d also appreciate it,” he continued, “if you will turn off your smart-phones.   I’ll review these while you get re-arranged,” he said, brandishing our qualification sheets.

He paused to scan the room.  “I’ll wait a moment for y’all to get comfortable.”

We collectively recognized that we had to play by house rules.  Our envelopes might be hanging in the balance.  All four couples moved closer and the sound of phones shutting down reverberated.  Satisfied, our presenter, now sounding completely like a speed-talking native of New York or New Jersey, began:

“The first thing I am going to stress is that this is not a time-share.  This is different; this is unique!  We are an exclusive vacation club, and we are inviting you to be members of our club.  We pay wholesale for weeks at wonderful resorts around the world and club members reserve four weeks each year from our selection at deeply discounted prices.”

“Isn’t that like a time share?” asked a woman.  I nodded, since I was also failing to understand much of a distinction, though I had not listened carefully up to that point.

“That’s an excellent question,” said Rhett.  “We buy weeks in bulk so we get the best price and you buy the weeks from us for no mark-up whatsoever.”

This last statement succeeded in gaining my attention.  “How do you make money?” I asked.

“That’s an excellent question,” said Rhett.  “You just pay one, incredibly low, up-front payment.”

“How low is low?” drawled a man.  “Where ah come from, in Mississippi, we like to know what we are gettin’ into.”

“We will get to that,” said Rhett.  “First, I’d like to show you some of the properties.”

He dimmed the lights and a slide show dazzled us with impossibly beautiful young couples frolicking in front of pools, beaches, ski slopes, boats and sunsets.  I surveyed the other couples in the room and could not fail to notice that my wife and I were the youngest by ten years, and we were at least double the age of the people pictured.

“Didn’t that look awesome?” asked Rhett, as he turned back on the lights.

“What’s it cost?” persisted the Mississippian.

“Well, that is something that can vary,” said Rhett calmly.  Sensing  rising discomfort in the room, however, he added:   “Normally, it would cost $8,800…”

A man whistled.

“…but if you sign up today,” Rhett hastened to add, “the cost will be just $4,400.”

“And that’s all?” asked a woman.

“Just some small monthly dues, maybe $150,” said Rhett.  “But I’ll speak to the bosses if you buy today and there could be some discount.”

“So,” I said.  “There’s $4,400 up front, and monthly dues, and… that’s it?”

“Just some maintenance,” said Rhett, “maybe five hundred a year or seven hundred a year, depending on when and where you take your weeks.”

One couple was taking notes feverishly.

“Are there discounts for hurricane season?” asked the woman.

“That’s an excellent question,” said Rhett, possibly relieved to not be listing further costs.

I leaned over to my wife.  “What kind of a question would he not consider ‘excellent’?”

A man next to us raised his hand.  “What about availability?  For instance, if I wanted to switch out a week from a resort in North Dakota to one in Paris, would it be easy?”

“That question might not be ‘excellent,’” I whispered.

“Folks, folks,” said Rhett.  “Let me explain it this way. You are paying for vacation insurance.  You will know each year that you will take four weeks of vacation.  Not only will you have access to world class accommodations, but you will get a psychological benefit for free.  Think about it.”

I thought about it.  Not only was I not tempted by Rhett’s presentation, but I was appalled that something so sketchy could be taking place.  It was clear the requirement of turned-off smart-phones was not to promote silence, like at the movies.  If someone could search Vacation Inspirations for just a few minutes on-line, the word “scam” would almost certainly appear.   I was tempted to speak up, lest one of the other couples was tempted.

My wife sensed my rising discomfort and touched my arm. “Don’t stress,” she whispered.  “Just hang on for twenty more minutes, and collect $150.”  I resolved to remain silent.

At that point, Rhett launched into his next talking point:   “And the best thing about belonging to the club is that your ownership is perpetual.  For an extra fee of just $2,000, it can even last for a lifetime.”

“Oh, my” I thought.  I could not contain myself from speaking:  “Isn’t that what perpetual means?  Why would you have to pay more money?”

“Well,” said Rhett, “that depends on your definition of ‘perpetual.’”

“That is my definition of ‘perpetual,’” I said.

Everyone murmured.  Rhett looked frustrated.  “I’m going to call a supervisor.  He can explain it to you.  Just wait a minute.  I will be right back.”

Rhett walked out of the room.

“Shall we run for it?” I asked.

“Let’s go,” said my wife.

We rose from our table, waved at our somewhat bewildered fellow inmates, and hastened down the steps.  On the way, we saw Rhett on a cellphone, agitated.  He looked up just as we passed.  “Hey!” he shouted.

We kept going to the bottom of the stairs and saw four envelopes on the reception desk.  They were not of the same importance as the ring was to Frodo, but they still looked special to us.  We grabbed the one marked “Sanders” and exited to the street.  At that moment, as though to confirm we made the right decision, the sun shined through the overcast.  We counted $150 at the corner and looked forward to enjoying the rest of the day.


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.”


KEEPING UP

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….


WANT ADS

Having been a real estate attorney in stressful New Jersey, I was generally satisfied with retirement in North Carolina. But after two years of having me at home, my wife was looking for something for me to do.
“Look at this,” she would say, while perusing the want ads in the paper. “Are you interested in a career as a car salesman?”
“No,” I would reply, trying to be cheerful but clear.
“Here’s a good one…” she continued, “…mortgage officer at a bank. You know all about mortgages.”
I recalled the harried and desperate mortgage officers I’d known in New Jersey. “I’d be more comfortable trying to sell cars,” I replied.
A version of this routine took place about every two weeks. Our banter was not clothed in seriousness. However, in the way a put-down can be defended as “just a joke,” some shred of earnestness was doubtless below the surface.
One morning, I was playing tennis against a thirty-ish fellow named Tom whom I’d been matched with through a computer. We had played close games several times, but we rarely spoke beyond standard greetings and match-related comments. We barely knew each other, so I was surprised during a water break when he felt a need to explain to why, this particular morning, he was having such a hard time winning any points. I had hoped it was because of the depth and precision of my shots.
“I’m crushed at my store,” he said, downcast.
“Really?” I asked, feigning concern.
He sat down on the white plastic bench and sighed.
“Yes. We have several high school kids on staff, and they don’t always show up. And one just quit altogether, and I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“What kind of a store is it?” I asked, starting to subtly back-pedal towards the court to hint that the water break had been long enough. I failed miserably, as Tom leaned back even further on the bench and put down his racquet beside him.
“I’m assistant manager at Delta Sports,” he explained. “We just can’t get dependable help.”
He looked so dejected that I considered going easier on him, that is, if we ever resumed playing.
Tom continued: “If I just knew someone dependable, someone who knows something about sports, someone who would just show up two or three mornings a week…. That would really help me out.”
A thought flitted through my mind. I was dependable. I knew about sports. And if I were out of the house for a couple mornings a week, my wife and I could end our charade. I took a deep breath and declared: “I might be interested.”
Tom perked up: “Would you really?” He brightened with excitement, but then paused. “You realize it’s just a minimum wage job, right? I mean, I might be able to get them to pay you $9.00 an hour since you’re so, um, experienced.”
“I understand,” I said. “I wouldn’t be doing it for the money. I’d really like to help you out,” I added, feeling magnanimous.
“Wow! That’s great,” he enthused. “I’ll set you up for an interview.”
“Interview?” I said, surprised.
“Oh, it’s just a formality,” he said. “The manager would need to meet you. I’m sure she’ll be delighted to have a mature individual on the staff.”
Several days later I entered Delta Sports and asked for Tom. He emerged from amidst the sweat-socks and greeted me like his dearest friend.
“Come on back and meet Debbie,” he said, “the manager.”
Tom ushered me towards a cinderblock office tucked between displays of running shoes and ping-pong tables. Awaiting me behind a paper-strewn card table was a twenty-three-year-old woman of nondescript appearance but an impressively domineering attitude, given the circumstances. I moved some shoeboxes and sat down on a folding chair across from her. Tom stood off to the side.
Debbie started abruptly: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Uhhhh,” I stumbled. “Since I’m over fifty, I’m not really looking to make this a career. I just thought it’d be fun, and I would help Tom out.”
She looked unsatisfied.
“What do you bring to the company?”
“I’ve ahhh, coached my kids’ teams and I played soccer….”
She broke in: “I don’t really need your history. I want to hear you speak in the future tense.”
I looked over at Tom. He averted his eyes. I tried to think of a way to convey that I had owned my own successful and lucrative law practice for twenty-five years and that I had grown up around my father’s retail business without talking in the past tense.
“Well, I’ll always show up when I’m scheduled and….”
Debbie interrupted again: “How do you feel about working with younger people? Can you relate?”
“I have three college-aged children who still talk to me.” I offered a smile.
Debbie remained stone-faced.
“Have you ever had a female boss?”
“Well, I’m married, heh-heh.”
Debbie did not laugh.
“This position requires a lot of energy and concentration,” she said. “It’s not a joke.”
I looked over to where Tom had been standing, but he had retreated and was intently folding a pile of T-shirts.
Finally, after an awkward silence, Debbie stood up and said: “We’ll be in touch.”
On the way home, I pondered what it meant to have failed in an interview for a part-time, minimum-wage position. I was torn between resentment at blatant age discrimination and relief at not having to work. I did derive some benefit from relating the experience to my wife. It took several months before she looked up from the paper, and asked: “How would you feel about driving an airport shuttle bus?”


Dear Subscribers:

The story below grew out of a writing group session.  The prompt was that we closed our hands and were given a sprig of something.  All the women recognized it to be rosemary and wrote about cooking and herbs and Simon & Garfunkel.  I thought it was wheat so thought of my gardening class.  This continues an apparent theme of placing myself as a naif in a self-deprecating manner.  The leader suggested a whole collection of “fish out of water” experiences.  But I’m not certain that I want that to be my legacy…

As a new arrival to NC and a recent refugee from a career, I was seeking a new and interesting experience.  An organic farming program at the Central Carolina Community College seemed just right.  I figured I would learn some new planting techniques and pest control measures and experience, for three hours a week, the lifestyle of a real working farmer. Little did I suspect that organic gardening is one part gardening for about nine parts chemistry and soil analysis along with liberal doses of incomprehensible terms like “pH.”

The course began with the usual introductions of the participants.  Several were already professional farmers in search of information and techniques in the “organic” realm.  Several others were considering career changes into full-time farming though they tended to have degrees or experience in such related fields as botany or forestry.  One classmate had just inherited 27 acres and was seeking inspiration —  organic farm or housing development?

A surprisingly large contingent of the students, or at least surprising to
me, were women intent upon establishing a lesbian commune.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, as they say.  And then there was me, the old English major, in over my head once again.

The farmer/professor was Doug Jones, whose back story, if I knew it, would probably make a better story than this.  Doug is a Harvard graduate circa 1975 who somehow missed the memo about investment banking.  He has the stringy body of a man who has been doing back-breaking, painstaking physical labor for 40 years.  Just as stringy is the obligatory grey ponytail that falls down the middle of his back.  I am certain that Doug’s jeans and boots and flannel shirts all started out everyday clean; however, by the 5 p.m. start of our class, they were caked in strata of North Carolina soil that Doug could analyze in intense, fascinated detail, for several hours.  To me, they just looked muddy.

And THAT summarizes the course for me in a nutshell.  Yes, I learned how to lay a tomato plant sideways in its hole.  I learned to squeeze a seedling with proper tenderness when transplanting.  I learned how to construct a raised bed and how to make a temporary greenhouse.  I learned that one should not refer to the class as orgasmic gardening in front of a large contingent of classmates who somehow lost their senses of humor.

But I also learned that being a farmer is extraordinarily hard work and
being an ORGANIC farmer multiplies the difficulty exponentially.  There is weather to contend with, and bugs and bacteria and heat and drought and unpredictable prices and shortages of supplies and floods and hail. Yes, hail in North Carolina.

Farming is seven days a week, 365 days a year, and if the farmer is LUCKY, there will be a tiny profit at the end.  So, though I was exposed to the farmer’s life and I am happy to apply the lessons I learned to my 5 X 10 foot plot at home, there is no new career in it for me.  But I am a lot less likely to complain about the price differential of organic produce at the market.