Archives for category: social life

We used to live in a community constructed around a golf course.   The topography is beautiful and it’s a nice place to live, regardless of one’s feelings about golf.  Since I’ve quit the sport for life several times, we were not “members” of the club. Still, we occasionally joined members at the clubhouse for dinner.  Most are impressive and accomplished people, enjoyable to be around.  We typically discussed children, sports and the weather.  We compared restaurants, travel and traffic. We did NOT discuss politics.

Once, when my wife, Katie and I arrived for a dinner with three other couples, three of the eight seats at our table were empty.  We learned two husbands and one wife were elsewhere in the building attending a fund-raiser for a Republican congressional candidate.  Amanda, whose husband was at the meeting, told the rest of us she doesn’t agree with her husband’s politics, so she didn’t attend, but she expected them shortly.  The five of us agreed emphatically we wouldn’t discuss the fund-raiser when the three attendees arrived.

 

*****

To our surprise, however, when Tom, Mary and Amanda’s husband, Harry arrived, they burst with missionary zeal. Not only did they wish to discuss politics, they appeared to have been enlisted to do so, to bring enlightenment to the apathetic or, worse, progressive-leaning in their midst.

“No one could be happy with the way America is going,” declared Harry, the most excited of the trio, as he sat down to my left.  “Don’t you think it’s time we got this country turned around?  We’re under siege!”

I had a sinking feeling my tongue would not obey my brain.   “I don’t see the pitchforks,” I said, gesturing out the window to the sun-splashed golf course, just as a blue heron took flight over a lake in the foreground.

“You know what I mean,” said Harry. “The country is going down the tubes.  We’re not where we want to be.”

I suspected he was repeating parts of the presentation he’d just heard, but I couldn’t resist responding literally. “We’re sitting here at dinner in a lovely setting.  All of us are retired or semi-retired, without financial worry.  Isn’t this exactly where we want to be?”

Harry rolled his eyes.  “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“No, I definitely do not,” I admitted.

*****

For the past couple of years, while the national political scene has become increasingly polarized, I’ve tried without success to comprehend the Republican mindset.  For sure, Democrats can also be inconsistent.  I’m familiar with those from growing up in a Democratic household and attending a Quaker school.  I don’t condone Democratic inconsistencies, but I understand them.

For instance, my father, who died in 1994, was nearly socialist in terms of economic policy.  Yet, as a victim of numerous robberies and burglaries at his downtown business, he rabidly supported a “tough-on-crime” mayor.  In addition, while he railed against the Vietnam War like a draft dodger, his personal fastidiousness caused him outrage when he saw longhaired or sloppily dressed men.   In the 1960’s and 70’s, in particular, he was appalled on a daily basis.   I didn’t always agree with his hard-to-reconcile positions, but I comprehended them.  They sprung rationally from his experience or personality.

But modern-day Republicans?  As Harry asserted, I don’t get it.  I wonder about it.  I shake my head about it.  I can’t figure it out.  In the prosperous country club milieu, I couldn’t find any Republican who admits supporting the stated positions of their preferred candidates.  In Harry, Mary and Tom, I saw the opportunity to gain an understanding.

“Let me play the devil’s advocate,” I said, as innocently as possible.

“Sure, bring it on,” said Harry, spoiling for a debate.

Mary and Tom, sitting across from me, regarded me sympathetically, like a poor student in need of enlightenment.

“Do you believe a woman is equal to a man and should be paid the same?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Harry.

“Sure,” said Mary, as though my question were the most naïve she’d ever heard.

Tom nodded.

“Should a woman have control over her own medical decisions?” I asked.

“I know what you’re getting at,” Mary jumped in.  “I know it’s not part of my religion, since I’m Catholic, but I completely believe a woman should make her own decisions about abortion.”

“Wow,” I said.

“We have daughters and grand-daughters,” said Tom.  “Of course we think they’re entitled to equal pay and to control their own bodies.”

“What about gay people?” I asked. “Are they equal, too?”

“Of course,” said Mary.  “Even if you don’t actively support equal rights or gay marriage, why would you actively oppose it?”

“Good question,” I said.  “I can’t figure that out either.”

I became aware the rest of the table had paused to listen.  Katie, to my far right, made a facial expression I took to mean:  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Intrigued, or reckless, I plunged further: “Do you think there should be reasonable background checks to prevent domestic abusers, mental patients and ex-felons from obtaining guns?”

“Absolutely,” said Harry.

“That’s just common sense,” added Tom.

“What about fracking?” I asked.

“I’m all for it,” said Tom.

“It’s for the economy,” added Harry. “And energy independence.  Are you against it?” he asked me.

“It’s not appropriate in North Carolina,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

“Because we have a large population, a tourist economy, sandy soil conducive to leakage, and only minimal oil or gas,“ I said.

“Well, is it EVER acceptable in your view?” asked Harry, warming to posing the questions.

“It might be appropriate in North Dakota,” I said, “since there’s tons of oil there, almost no people, no tourists and the soil isn’t sandy and permeable.  Still, even there, the chemicals should be disclosed.”

“Agreed,” said Tom.  “You know, we may be Republicans but we do care about the environment.”

“Absolutely,” said Mary.  “We breathe the air and drink the water, too, you know.”

“See,” said Harry, beaming, gesturing warmly to the entire table.  “We can have a serious, political conversation here.  We can reach reasonable conclusions.  We can respect each other.”

“Absolutely,” I said.  “On to another subject.”

Harry’s wife, Amanda, patted my right arm.  “You go get ‘em,” she said.  “I have to go through this every day at home.”

Everyone laughed.  I turned back to my three-person panel.

“What about the concept of ‘clean coal’ and the alleged ‘war on coal’ that Republicans blamed on Obama?”

“Haha,” said Tom.  “No one’s stupid enough to think coal can ever be clean.”

“But why do Republican candidates claim it’s wonderful?” I asked.

“You gotta get the votes,” said Tony.  “The birthers and the crazies love that stuff.”

“So you agree that the low price of natural gas has more to do with the plight of the coal industry than Obama?” I asked.

“We know that,” said Mary.  “But we do have to protect the people in the coal states.  Their economies are bad.”

“That’s right,” said Harry.  “What can those poor people in Kentucky and West Virginia do without coal mining?”

“I suppose their economies did fabulously in the past 150 years WITH coal-mining?” I said.

“Oh, there you go,” said Tom.  “Getting sarcastic.”

“Well?” I asked.

“What do you suggest those people do for a living?” said Harry.

“Perhaps,” I said, “instead of strip-mining the tops of their mountains, companies could develop wind turbines or solar panels and construct the necessary grid connections.  Those projects would create thousands of jobs, without spills and without explosions. Did you know there are now more solar workers in America than coal workers?”

All three of them looked at me wordlessly.  Finally, Tom asked:  “Are you serious?”

I nodded, but before I could say: “Look it up,” Mary began to explain her motivations for supporting the GOP.   “There are two main things:  securing our border and education.”

“And don’t forget welfare fraud,” said Harry.

“And the need for more military spending,” said Tom.

“Whoa, one at a time,” I said. “Let’s discuss the border.”

“We have to know who’s coming in,” said Harry.  “Anyone could be pouring across the Mexican border.  Democrats don’t take it seriously.”

“You do know Obama presided over more deportations than any other president?” I said.

“I heard that,” said Tom.  “But he set the wrong tone, with the amnesty and all.”

“Terrorists are crossing over every day,” said Harry.

I had to ask:  “How many of the 9-11 terrorists were from Mexico?”

“Oh, you’re good,” said Harry.  “Very good. But if we had a wall at the border, we’d worry a lot less about bombers.”

“You mean like the Tim McVeigh?” I asked.  “Did he choose tacos for his final meal?”

“Very funny,” said Tom.  “We have to know who’s in the country.  We have to fingerprint them.  We have to know who’s around.”

“I agree that would be ideal,” I said. “But the FBI knew about the Boston Marathon guys.  They ‘checked them out.’  It didn’t prevent the bombing.”

“Security will never be perfect,” said Harry.  “I still think the first step is to secure the border.”

“And who’s going to build the wall?” I asked.  “When it’s finished, will the laborers be asked to finish painting on the Mexican side and stay there?  Who picks the fruit, mows the lawns and cleans the houses?”

“Those are problems,” said Mary.

“Would you deport all those people?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Tom.  “We need some way to legalize them.”

“Did the candidate say that in his presentation?” I asked.

“He can’t SAY that,” said Harry.  “Everyone understands that.”  He gestured to the rest of the dining room, filled with cheerful, prosperous diners.

“After all,” said Mary.  “We’re a nation of immigrants.”

*****

My hamburger had grown cold.  My sweet potato fries had long ago been stolen by my tablemates.  I took a deep breath and plunged back in.

“What’s the Republican solution to education?”

“It has something to do with testing and parent choice,” said Mary.

“Okay.  What about them?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure,” said Harry. “But we also have to make teachers do a better job.  They need to be professionals.”

I asked:  “Would you support raising their pay?”

“Not with raising taxes,” said Mary.  “Nothing can be solved with taxes.  As the candidate said, we need to cut waste and fraud.”

“Ah, that’s a good phrase,” I said. “Sounds like Fox t.v.”

“Don’t make fun of Fox,” said Harry. “MSNBC is just as bad.   There’s a lot of waste and fraud in government.”

“Especially welfare fraud,” said Mary.

“And food stamp fraud,” added Tom.

“I don’t condone fraud,” I said.

“And it costs money we could otherwise spend on our military,” said Mary.

“Is that why the GOP proposes to raise military spending while lowering social spending?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said Harry.  “We need strong defense and there’s plenty of money available on the social side.”

“I agree we need an effective military,” I said.  “But I suspect fraud and waste in military spending far exceeds welfare fraud in real dollars.  No less a hawk than John McCain pointed out that there are billions, with a B, dollars of waste and overruns in our weapons programs.  Welfare fraud is measured in thousands and millions.”

“So you think Boeing and Halliburton executives are worse than welfare queens?” said Harry.

“They can be,” I said.  “It’s just that when those executives are crooked, we aren’t as interested because they look like us and we’d enjoy dinner or golf with them.”

“That’s very cynical,” said Tom.

“Still true,” I said.

“How do they get away with that?” asked Mary.  “Why don’t we hear about that?”

“Could it be because defense contractors make huge political contributions?  I don’t think many welfare recipients do,” I said.

The table quieted for a moment as we concentrated on the dessert menu.  The rest of the table had tired of our debate and resumed chatting with each other.  I wondered if I’d ever be invited to the club again.  Still, I figured I’d gone so far already, I might as well finish the conversation.

“So tell me,” I began, addressing Harry, Mary and Tom.  “Your positions deviate from the stated Republican positions on, among other things, guns, gay marriage, women and a path towards legal status for undocumented immigrants.  Once you verify that military spending is at least as wasteful as welfare spending, you’ll look at that differently, too.  None of you profess to be against environmental regulations.  How do you support candidates who don’t express any of your relatively reasonable positions?”

“Like I said before,” said Tom.  “They have to get elected.”

“So what voters are they talking to?” I asked.

“Those people out there,” said Harry, gesturing to the windows.  “The people out west, and in the deep south, the ones who liked Sarah Palin.  You know, the nut-jobs.”

“So you feel the Republican candidates don’t actually believe what they’re saying,” I said.  “They’re just speaking buzzwords to get the votes of the low-information, low-education voters and then, basically, winking at the high-end Republicans like you?”

“Bingo!” said Harry.  “That’s what they have to do.”

“So you have no problem with the disconnect between the stated positions of the candidates you support and what you believe to be their real beliefs?” I asked.

All three nodded.  I found myself where I’d begun.  (And this discussion took place BEFORE Trump)  I STILL don’t get it.  If there is not a rational, real-life explanation for why these intelligent, kind people vote the way they do, is there an irrational explanation? What factors influence them? I hesitate to ponder too deeply lest I dislike my own conclusions.  Readers are encouraged to weigh in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TO THE BEACH!
Although healthy and involved in various athletic activities, try as I might, it’s delusional to think of myself as still in my thirties. That ship sailed several decades ago. My thoughts are wistful as I stand like a statue in the surf at Carolina Beach watching my friend Mike, a decade older than I, frolicking amidst the crashing waves like a porpoise.  He whoops with joy. He leaps. He splashes.

“Why can’t I enjoy the beach like that?” I wonder, as I inch in up to my knees.

“Oh yeah,” I remind myself, “I didn’t even like going ‘down the shore’ (what Philadelphians call ‘to the beach’) when I was little.”

 

 

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*****

 

In large part I blame the ancient wooden building where we stayed. Mrs. Bernstein’s rooming house in Atlantic City could not have been scarier to me if it were haunted. My grandparents started going there well before my birth and, for reasons incomprehensible to me, my parents continued to visit there as late as the early 1960’s. One of my earliest recollections took place in front of Mrs. Bernstein’s, a struggle, from my perspective, as significant as Gandhi’s. I sat outside on the sidewalk and refused to go in.

“It’s going to fall down,” I said (or words to that effect). “I’m not staying in that dump.”

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My protests were in vain. Once inside the bastion of faded wallpaper and threadbare, musty carpets, an additional early childhood memory involved lying on my stomach on a lumpy bed, groaning because of a sunburned back. Finally, I recall the kitchen or common area on the ground floor populated exclusively by large-bodied, loud-mouthed, chain-smoking Quebecois, shouting, cursing and singing in their strange language. There may only have been four or five men but, in my recollection, I perceived there to be a hundred.

Travel between Mrs. Bernstein’s and the beach also spawned doleful memories. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t the easiest-going little kid). My parents and I lugged mismatched beach chairs, towels and an umbrella. Though only two or three blocks long, the trudge seemed endless to my five-year-old self. The air hung hot and humid. Little planes buzzed above advertising local restaurants or shows, none of which were relevant to me. Once we arrived at the boardwalk, constructed like a wall in front of the beach, I remember splinters sticking up from the planks, litter everywhere and hordes of clamoring people. Then, as now, there were stores selling junk, tee shirts and more junk.

My mother purchased my cooperation in the schlepping operation with the promise of a visit to the one redeeming aspect of Atlantic City: the fudge shop. No dummy, she held this inducement over my head as something we would obtain on the walk home, after the beach, “so long as everything went well.”

 

*****

 

Related to the development of my poor attitude about the beach was the subject of swimming. When I was about eight, I recall attending Sesame Day Camp. Many people recall their summer camps as special places of growth, discovery and the development of lifelong friends. I hated every minute.   I ONLY wanted to play baseball with other kids who also ONLY wanted to play baseball. I didn’t want to shoot arrows, row boats, sing songs, look at someone holding a frog, or make ashtrays.

 

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At the end of each day, after the typical regimen above, my fellow campers and I arrived at the pool, where I experienced abject failure for the first time. Though the sixteen-year-old counselors offered their finest tips, for reasons unclear to me, nothing stuck. Easily the best ballplayer in my group (a skill neither prized nor acknowledged by the others) my swimming aptitude predicted a career as an anchor.

I couldn’t master breathing, and I couldn’t master kicking. I disliked water in my mouth, nose, ears or any other orifice. It didn’t take long before they moved me from general instruction to remedial work in the shallow end with the other losers, the kids who could barely walk on land, let alone swim in water. By summer’s end, I could splash around and tread water with my head held as far above the water as possible. If my stroke had a name, it was the “reverse ostrich.”

 

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*****

 

Mike asks if I like to swim in the ocean.

“Do you mean, like with my head and eyes under salt water?” I ask.

“Well, yes,” he says, kind enough not to add: “Is there another way to do it?”

“No, I’m really happy about up to here,” I respond, indicating my mid-section. “I’m barely competent swimming in a pool, so the ocean….”

I’m relieved that Mike’s already leapt into the next wave before I can complete my explanation. After he emerges from another session of body surfing, Mike is exultant. But he’s a gracious host and understands I’m out of my element. He gestures with his arms: “Well, at least you can enjoy the beautiful beach.”

He’s right about that. Carolina Beach is broad and clean, the sand fine and white. A few other visitors walk along holding hands, relaxing or picking up pretty shells. Every few hundred feet, an individual or family has set up a colorful umbrella and chairs. Sand plovers skitter delicately back and forth with the tide. Even the seagulls are relaxed, in stark contrast to the ones in my New Jersey memories.

In my recollection the beach in Atlantic City resembled Normandy on D-Day.  Large shells with jagged edges threatened my feet.   Families placed chairs, blankets and umbrellas practically on top of each other. Massive seagulls dive-bombed for food, screeching maniacally, like pterodactyls.

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Once my family settled into our spot in the sand, I didn’t lack ambition. With my plastic shovel and bucket in hand, I aimed to dig to China. Discarded popsicle sticks shored up the hole as I dug. My parents offered to accompany me into the surf, but I had little interest in anything but digging. Alas, I never reached China. Though frustrated, I didn’t ask to leave the beach. Perhaps, that was the value of Mrs. Bernstein’s; once I got out I wanted to stay away as long as possible.

 

*****

 

A storm approaches to cut our visit several hours short. We’d enjoyed two nights at Mike and Sue’s. We’d had terrific food and conversation and a mediocre four-way game of Scrabble. (Mike won). I’m happy to have happy beach memories to overlay my old ones. Who knows? If I can find goggles large enough to cover my entire head and more secure than Fort Knox against leakage, maybe next time I’ll brave one wave. It’s never too late to start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


WHACK-A-MOLE

We attended a season-opening “Newcomers Alumni” event last week. The group’s name requires some explanation. Chapel Hill has a “Newcomers Club” that helps recent arrivals meet each other through a broad array of activities. After three years in Newcomers, however, members are gently evicted to make room for new arrivals. Those who wish to continue join the “Alumni” club. Its schedule is less extensive, but occasional get-togethers allow members to stay in touch with a broad array of friends and acquaintances.

Walking amidst groups of people at these events I reliably hear details of illnesses, surgeries and recoveries. The concept of TMI (Too Much Information) rarely makes an appearance. Sometimes, at a dinner or cocktail hour, I pay attention to how long it takes the guests to broach such subjects. Rarely is it longer than fifteen minutes. Knees, backs, eyes, joints, hands, you name it, and folks at these social events can discuss them ad infinitum.

Though the Club is not limited by age, most of its members are self-described experts on the inner-workings of Medicare. For a few more years, I’ll continue to be at the younger end of the spectrum. Accordingly, I don’t share many of the maladies that afflict members as a mere consequence of age. However, primarily due to playing tennis, if I choose, I can participate in the litany of complaints with the most infirm of them.

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I haven’t had a surgery for nearly a decade (left knee) and I haven’t had a BIG surgery for twenty years (herniated disk) but I do deal with a seemingly never-ending skein of minor irritants. As soon as one disappears and I experience a week or two of pain-free tennis play, it seems something else pops up (or out). For instance, in the last two years, I’ve successively had a sore right wrist, plantar fasciitis to the left foot, a tender right ankle, a quirky left knee, and a tweak to the right hamstring. For the sake of continuity, perhaps, throughout most of the last thirty years, the tendon in my right elbow has been sore to the touch – the dreaded condition known as “tennis elbow.”

Not all of the news is bleak. Following surgery to my wife, Katie’s rotator cuff last year, she undertook physical therapy. Among her exercises was an arm and shoulder stretch conducted with a thick rubber band. “Why not?” I said to myself, and I started to do the stretch every day. Not only does my shoulder now feel stronger than ever, my elbow is finally pain-free, and so is hers!

I considered what other activities I might do to forestall injuries. For instance, I now work with a hand-strengthening ball; I continue to stretch my back; I walk daily. But there is not time enough in the day to anticipate and correct for every possible twinge and tweak.

Sometimes I wonder, or am asked: “Why continue to play tennis if it is so difficult on the body?” My response is that tennis keeps me relatively thin and fit and keeps my competitive juices flowing. It also affords me social contacts across a wide spectrum of ages and backgrounds. Most importantly, I enjoy the physical challenge of hitting balls back over the net. I enjoy the mental challenge of adjusting to speeds and spins and competing with a like-minded opponent.

Still, I’m aware there appears to be a price for that enjoyment and my best days of gazelle-like running and lion-like leaping are behind me. Accordingly, my next home, wherever and whenever that is, will have to be close to a facility with a ping pong program, just in case….