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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Mirage

It was a mirage, an image that never existed. We spoke of a post-racial nation on that November night in 2008, casting aside the realities of the moment.

In the years since, we have witnessed a land in which a frightening number of blacks have lost their liberty, where their ability to participate in our election process has been disintegrating piece by piece, where employment opportunities have been scarce and poverty has been declared a self fulfilling prophecy.

The promise of that November night  has only served to fuel the anger and the disappointment. And with the deaths of Trayvon Martin,  Eric Garner and Michael Brown the fires of resentment and betrayal threaten to burn out of control.

The mirage is no more and the images we now see inform us that we are in too many ways closer to 1963 then we dare to admit.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Semi- Appointed Round

I have spent most of my golf life in a perpetual state of near unhappiness. Never more than a moment's notice from casting myself as the unfortunate victim in some Shakespearean tragedy. Not today.

Steve and I arrived 10 minutes before our scheduled tee off. It was 7:50 on a Saturday morning in mid August. The place was deserted.

When was the last time the proprietor of the pro shop took your shoe, brought it over to a rack filled with galoshes, and fit it to your specifications?

Welcome to Haines Alaska

In 56 years of innumerable swings and questionable results I can't ever recall being bent over double in laughter. That statement no longer is true.

As I prepared for my first shot with my rental clubs, I clutched at my very tender left side. On a hike the day before I had  impaled myself on a small but extremely stubborn tree limb. But neither rain, sleet nor pain could keep me from this semi appointed round. Not that the weather was to be an impediment, as I peered out at the snow capped mountain seemingly no more than a good drive and five iron from where I readied myself.

We were advised to take a dozen golf balls between the two of us for our nine hole undertaking. The first of the 12 disappeared into the brush no more than 10 yards from where I took my very tentative swipe. The proprietor now also served as temporary guide, carefully explaining the particulars of the layout. Once both Steve and I had driven to places where our golf balls could possibly live to see another day, our host helped us in our search, before leaving us to make our own way in this very different world.

From the beginning, our day was concerned most of all with survival. Not in the golf sense of "that course was so difficult I barely survived" but in the dead versus alive kind of meaning. We were two boys from New York, hearing and seeing danger at every moment, the unmistakable bear droppings here, the wolf or coyote sighting there.

We were not counting strokes, both of us having long since abandoned any pretense that our endeavor had anything remotely to do with numbers on a page. We were part of something infinitely more interesting. It was the first time I had truly felt free while involved in this often futile exercise.

The sixth is the signature hole. As each of us teed off,  our partner snapped away furiously. Click, the river showed just to our left. Click, the mountain was framing our image. Click, we were peering out onto a world we had never seen before. Click, we were making certain a bear was not applauding, or more likely laughing in the background.

On several holes we played from the "whites" having gauged that danger lurked too close to the "blues". Too close to the trees, not because we could hook or slice a shot there, but fearing we could be hooked or sliced. The path from the eighth green to ninth tee was particularly unnerving, maybe 50 yards of narrow opening between two dense areas of trees and brush. I had never before complimented a partner on a good drive when referring to his capacity to handle the cart.

There was a shotgun tournament that morning (maybe shotgun wasn't the best way to describe this, given our surroundings). Steve and I were asked to participate but gently declined, as we were expected elsewhere in short order. But I would leave very reluctantly.

I have played at Pebble Beach and well recall the camera trying to capture the moment that had little to do with three putts, shanks and double bogeys. But as I stepped off the last of the artificial greens I felt that the past two hours had been the happiest and most satisfying I had ever spent chasing a little white ball from here to there. Actually not THERE, because I think I see something moving in the brush. Maybe just here in a kind of make believe universe where there are no marshals, no clubs being thrown and the warning is not "fore" but "whoa bear."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A bear, a moose and a priest

"So a bear, a moose and a priest walk into a bar." I then finished the joke for my friend Steve: "and the bear and the moose walk out.".

I am writing all this down while sitting on the toilet at 4 AM in the middle of a national park in a place whose name I can only recall as Gus Davis, Alaska. I am a little worried that a bear can smell the remnants of the apple cinnamon bar that lays in the wastepaper basket but a few feet from where I am busy cogitating. I think I should arise and shut the window. That's better. Sorry for the interruption.

I never take guided tours. Too pedestrian. Too slow. Too much for my lazy brain to handle. But yesterday, after checking in to this lodge, Steve, Judy, Jo and I found ourselves with a group of about 10, listening not so intently to a tale of a place that had been home to a glacier but a few nano seconds earlier in the time continuum.

"So what do you do if you spot a bear" (hopefully before it spots you, I was thinking). "Definitely DON'T RUN" was the first critical command.

Our leader, after giving a much fuller description of how to respond, then focused on the other significant inhabitant of the woods.

"If a moose is coming at you, RUN."

It was too big an opening for my feeble brain to hold back. "What do you do if a moose and a bear are running at you at the same time?" "Pray" was the response that seemed most suitable.

This is a place inhabited by the most rugged individuals. People who live off of the land, who rely on their own resources, who brook no nonsense, take no prisoners. And into this world I arrived, filled with almost unimaginable trepidation.

I had grown up, no strike that, I had lived my entire life surrounded by nothing more fearsome than the noise generated by two angry drivers fighting over one parking space.

There was a different mentality, a different ethos here. Here, other guests stripped down and jumped into 38 degree waters, for fun. Five minutes in those icy conditions might be enough to bring disaster. There was a better chance of my becoming President than sticking a toe into the frigid river.

We were told there was safety in numbers. So, after the lesson was over, it was my self imposed mandate that all four of us remain virtually tethered as we took a short walk on the path.

As we were advised that the sounds of the human voice tended to keep bears at bay, Steve began a non-stop crooning. For my part, I yelled if the distance between us grew large enough that a bear's tablecloth could fit in the open space.

Suddenly, just behind me and to my right, there was a rustling in the woods. I let out an involuntary high pitched sound, reaching a note I had not been able to find since puberty. I clutched Steve's sleeve so tightly I must have cut off the circulation in his arm.

In an instant, Jo and Judy turned to investigate. The porcupine scurried deeper into the brush, probably terrified by the awful sound that had just penetrated the early evening air.

I would look up the definition of emasculating if I thought it would do any good, but it wouldn't. If I were a groundhog, I would without a shadow of a doubt be headed back from whence I came as soon as I spotted an alter image of myself. I am surprised a permanent yellow streak is not located directly down my spine.

On the rest of the trail hike, I could see Jo and Judy alternating between giggling and guffawing as we jointly discussed in detail my act of bravery.

The lore of this piece of rugged terrain will no doubt be amended someday to recite the incredible tale of the porcupine and the almost unimaginable squeal.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Anniversary Card to My Wife

37 years. 37 years. 37 years.

Let me try to put that in perspective. No, on second thought that is impossible. You have to be there to understand what it means.

As my wife rests peacefully in the next room, she will soon awaken to the fact that she is beginning the 38th year of a life sentence. One simple "I do", two little words, three little letters (by the way, there is nothing smaller in the language than a complete sentence containing a noun and a verb and only three letters).

She has stirred and walked into the room where I now am writing this love note to her. When I repeat my first line, she replies that it sounds like fingers scratching across a chalkboard. She then exits stage left. She has made her point.

I wonder the universe she envisioned 37 years ago. Did it include a person like me, with all the fractures and foibles, bad puns and worse voice? Did she notice even at the beginning that my toenails were starting to turn strange colors, my hairline was making a retreat faster than an overwhelmed army and my sense of humor made sense only to me?

I know she tries her best to tolerate my eccentricities and embrace the different way that I stumble through each day. It is not easy having to put Humpty Dumpty back together again and again and again. It can become cumbersome.


With all due respect to Ryan O'Neill and Erich Segal (for the few of you old enough to remember those names) love often means having to say you are sorry. for the shortcomings, the disappointments, the visions that never became reality.

But marriage at least my marriage, is a very flexible, pliable being. It can absorb the worst of moments and come out unbowed, unbroken. It can find the morsels, the hidden gems, the little pieces that only she and I fully comprehend. Like the remark about the chalkboard. An inside joke, even though only two of us hear it.

It is 6:30 AM on the first day of the 38th year of our marriage. As I exercise my brain with my ramblings, and I know that my wife would dearly love if one morning, just one, I was the one who got up to do the laundry, she now puts in the second load of wash. Like I said, I am not perfect. We all have our strong suits, and our many weaknesses. I know what she is thinking if she is reading these words. And it is not particularly funny.

So how do I make this sound like the happy anniversary greeting that it is intended? How do I tell my wife that I love her and hope, as strange as she may think it is, that we have as many days together in front of us, and are now in our rearview mirror? Maybe I can start by getting out of this chair and helping her separate the whites from the darks.  Gotta go.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

James Brady

 AN EDITED VERSION OF THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE LETTERS SECTION OF THE NEW YORK TIMES ON  AUGUST 6, 2014

("Taking a Bullet, Gaining a Cause")

Every day for the last 33 years of his life, James Brady served as a stark reminder of  our failed attempts to bring reason to our gun control policy. Advocate as he might, the legislative victories gained by him through the years have seemingly all been blunted, while we recoil in horror from the mass tragedies that darken our horizon with such alarming frequency.

The shooting of Congressman Giffords, the Newtown massacre, the events that should shock any civilized society to respond, have been cast aside as we succumb to the incessant drumbeat to arm ourselves. We have not developed rational policy but rather a western frontier mentality where our holsters are no longer even left at the saloon door.

Mr. Brady's death once again brings into sharp focus the sad reality of how many lives we have allowed to be altered or ended by needless disaster.  We all mourn Mr. Brady's passing as well as the evident demise of the cause for which he battled.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Very Clever President and the Unsuspecting Public

("The Impeachment Game")

So we are supposed to understand:
this is all some kind of Machiavellian plot orchestrated by a diabolically clever President, assisted by dimwits masquerading as MSNBC talking heads, to allow governing by fiat by a dictatorial overlord;

that a Republican party which treats governing as a four letter word is somehow not the root cause of this disaster and

that it is not somehow a logical conclusion predicated on the unending drumbeat of character assassinations to which Mr. Obama has been subjected since his first day in office that impeachment is within the realm of possibility.

I am sorry to disappoint, but while this fairy tale might play well at Fox, which really is nothing more than a second home for Republican talking points, it does not ring true for those among us who have been paying attention.

How My Mother Ruined My Life

To the editors of  Chicken Soup for the Soul "Thanks to My Mom", 101 Stories of Gratitude, Love and Lessons":

Your solicitation will undoubtedly elicit thousands of heartwarming tales of the beauty, grace, elegance, charm, devotion and caring of the matriarchs who have guided and shaped our lives. This story is not one of them.

Upon reading the title for the forthcoming book, my wife and son, almost in unison, instructed me to start my piece by informing the readers that my mom had ruined my life. What a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad thing to say about a woman who, now almost 97, has been such a compellingly wonderful person and has shown nothing but unfettered warmth and attention towards me. Aye, there's the rub.

I was a spoiled 1950's and 1960's child, growing up in an idyllic setting, with a mom and dad right out of the television shows of that era. My sister and I knew a universe where the dad worked hard,  the mom stayed home and attended to our needs, and we were blessed with a housekeeper who assisted in making certain that life was pristine and easy.

My dad, a natural athlete and a completely involved parent, was not, as far as I can recall, one for whom work around the house was a calling. In the far recesses of my mind, I can see him performing some chores, but it was anything but second nature for him to pick up a hammer or perform other household tasks beyond cutting the grass. My dad was not lazy, he was merely placed in a role that required relatively little of him once he walked through the door after a day at work. I don't know that I ever saw my dad cook a meal.

Hawaiian chicken. If you really want to know my expectations in childhood, this would be a perfect example. I particularly liked this dish but it would take two days of preparation by my mom to meander through the various steps to present the finished product on the table. But, if I said I was in the mood for this dish, as certain as the sun sets in the west, it would be ready for consumption within 48 hours.

I know my friend Neal thought I was spoiled, and that his life, so like mine in so many ways, did not include the same kind of coddling. I never noticed the distinction and thought little of the irreparable damage my mother was inflicting.

I don't know that this can all be laid at the relatively small feet of my mom. There must have been some wires that were crossed in my head at birth which have prevented me from performing even the simplest of tasks to aid my beleaguered spouse. My son says that I hold a dish in my hand at the sink like a foreign object to be treated with fear and confusion. Loading a dishwasher, separating colors from lights at a washing machine, screwing in a light-bulb, folding shirts, lighting an oven, boiling water, even moving furniture, all remain mysteries far beyond my grasp. And for all of this, it is suggested that my mother's handiwork is almost entirely to blame.

We are all supposed to be examples to our children of the way things are intended. From the manner in which we treat strangers, to the attitude we present in our voice to our spouse when we are tired, irritated, drained or just bored, from what we do to make ourselves and others around us better to how we hold our forks and cut our meat, everything that happens around our children has consequence and meaning. And so, how much, or how little was demanded of us growing up, how much we were called upon to use our own resources instead of relying on others, how hard rather than how easy, how independent we are forced to be, it is in all these areas that my downfall was preordained by my mother's single minded focus on not allowing the bad and the difficult, or even the almost bad and the maybe difficult to penetrate into our domain.

For making love so easy to obtain, for giving approval with such ease, for not allowing hardship to darken my door or ruin my day,  for protecting me and making me feel warm and safe, adored and pampered, for being the absolute kindest and sweetest and most attentive mom she could be, my mom failed me miserably.

And worse, I fear I have been just as bad a parent to my children.

Damn you, I mean thank you, mom.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Impeach Me, Impeach Me, Why Don't You Teach Me

("None Dare Call it Impeachment")

It should be a play, a musical. Think "Guys and Dolls":

"Call a vote and impeach me, impeach me, why don't you teach me, I'd love it; Take a shot and just sue me, sue me, try to undo me, I'd love it.

You tell me I'm just a no goodnik, alright already, so sue, so sue. With subpoena, just serve me, serve me, try to unnerve me, I beg you."

Thank goodness Congress is going on vacation. My head hurts.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

French with a Jersey Accent

"Tres froid" I announced to everyone as I returned to my table outdoors, having walked through a very cold restaurant. My remark brought smiles to the faces of those assembled.

It has been almost 45 years since my last French class. I was a remarkably untalented student, convinced I had maneuvered my way into the honors class because the assistant golf coach had been my 10th grade French teacher and apparently taken a liking to me, if not my accent.

Once in the honors class, my harsh tones and total lack of proficiency were tres noticeable. Mr. Juka, the teacher saddled with my presence for my last two years of high school found any excuse not to call on me. I distinctly recall that he would go up and down the aisles, in order, seeking an answer to the question that lingered in the air. However, when it would be my turn to butcher a response, he would drop a pencil, or in some other manner become distracted, and would almost uniformly fake as if I had already completed my mangling of the language.The sound that emanated from me must have seemed to him like fingers scratching agonizingly slowly across a chalkboard. I am certain my shortcomings made his head hurt.

My classmates, Ozzie and Gene, were the unhappy recipients of many a phone call seeking not so much help and guidance with homework, but a bail out from whatever French woe had befallen me. Preparation for tests meant a nearly continuous stream of cries for help from mon amis.

And the worst part was that everything that came out of my mouth sounded like I was speaking a New Jersey form of French. The melody of that language was completely lost on me, and the words spewed forth without any soft or gentle breezes attached.

This week, my friends from California came to New York City to visit their nephew, niece and her husband. Marc was fluent in French, having gone to the same school as I growing up but somehow mastering the intricacies that fully escaped my grasp. Georgette (pronounced with the lightness of a small wave lapping against the shore) was a native speaker of the language. Her family were French through and through.

Over the last several decades my wife and I have journeyed often to the West Coast to spend time with our friends. Depending on the circumstance, Georgette moves seamlessly from English to French to Spanish,  with what appears to be unerring proficiency. Although, I do recall  on one occasion she recounted a tale of her car  burning up and reported that her "rear end was on fire". 

Pour moi,  I  make a point  on each visit to announce at every conceivable opportunity that we must "allez vitement" even if there is no place we need to be in any particular hurry. Throw in a "peut etre" or two along the way, even when the choice is manifest, and I feel as if I have matched the prowess of  our  hostess,  word for word (I wanted to write this phrase in French but I could not do so without cheating, and I was afraid if I left this page, my accumulated work might disappear into la nuit).

Good fortune has allowed me to visit Paris on more than one occasion. I am quite surprised that there was not a picture of me in every establishment, much like an FBI warning poster, advising tout la monde of my impending arrival, and warning that no ear is safe in my presence. If they had only known, I am certain that most places of public accommodation would have politely requested that I "fermez my bouche"  so as not to frighten other customers.

"Bon soir, comment allez vous" would be about the only full sentence I would be able to recall as we met Marc, Georgette and her family for dinner at a restaurant directly across from the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center (my  pronunciation put a distinct second "r" sound after the first "e"). I didn't think to ask "Ou est le bain?" when I was headed to the bathroom later in the evening (maybe because I knew where it was).

Most of the conversation at the table was in English. The husband of the niece was hesitant to speak, even as he clearly understood what was being said. Maybe he thought he was less than fluent in our tongue. Well, I would show him what less than fluent really is.

There were certain triggers that brought forth a stream of conversation that I could not follow. I tried to pick up a word, or maybe even a phrase, but my ear could not pierce through the night air to attach a meaning to anything that was being "parlezed en francais". I sometimes nodded my head "un peu" as if I were taking it all in. 

"No, merci", I intoned as I was offered some morsel of food which gave me ample opportunity to demonstrate my proficiency, so many years after my last B- in 12th grade.  I know this came out distinctly sounding like "no mercy". I find it telling that all these years later, I still have occasional nightmares about walking into a test, overwhelmed by my lack of knowledge.

Throughout the evening, there was a sprinkling of two or three word responses by me in jarringly bad French. My piece de resistance was my very short singing of  "la plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle" which was the only part of a verse I recalled from a tune I had learned a half century earlier. If there was anything worse than my speaking French badly, it was singing French badly.

In small doses, at least for one evening, I think this act amused those who were subjected to my annihilation of their native tongue. As dinner finished,  we bid "au revoir" and I walked into the "tres chaud" evening humming  "la plume de ma tante" and wondering why I never heard from Ozzie or Gene after high school ended.




Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Republican Party

("Up From Greenwich")

In 2008 there was a collapsing job market, a stock market in free fall and  two wars that stretched as far into the future as the mind's eye could see. The Republican party was not an easy fit for anyone, and there were considerations of its imminent demise.

So what brilliant strategy accounts for the reversal, six years later, of its declining fortunes? It is in the relentless attack on the most vulnerable.

Don't extend unemployment benefits, don't raise the minimum wage, don't support health care reforms to insure the basic welfare of the underclass. Rid our society of those who infiltrate from over the borders. These are the enemies.

It is in the negatives that this party has risen from the ashes. Mr. Douthat gives them far too much wholly undeserved support when concluding that they are somehow not the party of the rich.

The Republican party deserves enmity, not praise, for backing into a powerful position predicated on messages of hate, fear and survival of the fittest. If playing to our worst instincts is truly how to attract the middle class and the well to do, then this is very sad commentary on the state of our nation.