Saturday, May 25, 2013

First Day on the Job

I have a new project: watching episodes of “Scrubs” on Netflix, starting with Season 1. It’s hard to miss “Scrubs” if you have cable, and I have seen random episodes over the years. But I didn’t follow the show from its beginning, so I missed something important. Watching the first episodes from the first season, I have been experiencing not only humor and zaniness but also fear and anxiety—the characters’ and my own. Just why is watching a sit-com about young doctors in a crazy but somehow functional hospital making me anxious? There must be an explanation.

Season 1 of Scrub blends
humor and anxiety for me
One part of the explanation may involve just how I am viewing the show. I started watching the first episodes on my iPad while lying in bed late at night. Picture me shading the light of the iPad from Audrey under the covers, like I used to read books with a flashlight when I was a kid. This is not as easy to do as you might think. I have a double problem to deal with: I am trying not to shake the bed with giggles, and I am trying not to fall asleep before the closing credits. I got through the first two episodes the other night before conking out. So I got to see J.D., Elliot, and Turk first enter that hospital and be thrown headlong into a state of “new job anxiety,” a world that most professionals and maybe most jobholders of any kind face on the first day on the job. In the state of new job anxiety, you sense that almost everyone around you knows what to do better than you do.

That’s what I was feeling oh so many years ago on my first day of teaching at Central High School, an inner city school in Providence, RI. I was 22-years-old and decided to wear a tie, so I wouldn’t be asked by a veteran teacher to show my hall pass when I walked down a corridor. On Day 1 of my new career, I stood in front of 30 assorted students, taking roll and handling administrative details for an extended home-room period. The kids were checking me out. In the tried-and-true method of teachers everywhere, I had written my name in large chalk letters on the board: “Mr. Goodman.” Up until that day, “Mr. Goodman” had always referred to my father.

"Buehler! Buehler! Buehler!" This could have been me.

Everything went fine for the first 10 minutes. Then, a large and fairly intimidating student burst into the room with no explanation for his lateness or embarrassment at disrupting the class. Before taking his seat, he asked, “Who are you?” I pointed a somewhat shaky finger at the board where my father’s name was printed. “Mr. Good Guy,” the student proclaimed. “Do you take drugs?” I shook my head no. “Do you drink booze?” “Not much,” I replied. “Fool around with the women?” “Nope,” I answered. Then, giving me a slight shove, he announced, “What kind of good guy are you; you don’t do nothing!”

I somehow overcame my fear, and the student, whose name I discovered was Larry Davis, finally took his seat, though not before offering to sell me some jewelry he had in his pocket to give to my girlfriend or mother.

I had an open period following home room and headed to the English Department office. “Boy, Larry Davis put me through the ringer,” I announced. “Larry Davis,” a colleague replied. “Is he out of jail already?” It seems that Larry had gotten into a violent fight with another student the previous year in which some knife-play occurred. Larry usually reserved his anger for fellow students and not teachers, I was told. I was only somewhat relieved. I got more relief when Larry never made another appearance in my classroom. Within a few weeks I was told to remove him from my roster; he had decided to drop out. Was I being a bad teacher when I made no effort to convince him to change his mind?

So that’s my Day 1 story. I have another to share, which involves a lawyer friend named Joe. When he was a rookie defense counsel involved in his first trial, Joe began his first jury summation this way: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please remember that in our legal system, a person is presumed guilty until proven innocent.” Mrs. Rabinowitz, a middle-aged Jewish woman on the panel to whom Joe felt a kinship, gave him a slight shake of her head. He quickly reversed his statement. “Excuse me, I meant that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.” Mrs. Rabinowitz responded with a slight nod this time. No matter, the damage was done. Mrs. R. and the other jurors soon agreed, without presumption, that Joe’s client was indeed guilty.

Joe too survived his Day 1 disaster and has had a long and successful legal career.

And, of course, the young doctors in “Scrubs” also overcome their Day 1 anxieties. They get beaten down. They get back up. They find entertaining methods to help them conquer the fear and the craziness, sort of. And we laugh. Or in my case, I try to laugh inside without shaking too much.

I got through the first two episodes, and then shut off the iPad and closed my eyes. But I didn’t exactly escape into sleep. I fell into a strange dream. In it, I was a new doctor trying to keep up. At some point, I was instructed to carry a young patient in my arms into another part of the hospital where I picked up some supplies and then returned to my floor. The task tired out both me and the patient. We sat down together in a large chair and fell asleep. When I woke up a few minutes (or more) later, I was still in the chair, but in my lap was not the young patient but a middle-aged midget (or little person, if you prefer). Hospital veterans had made a switch on me during my nap. And they were now laughing hysterically. The midget was laughing too. Luckily, he looked nothing like Larry Davis.

I plan to continue watching Season 1 episodes, nightmares or no nightmares. And maybe I’ll head to Season 2 after that. I’m taking a risk, I know, but that’s what you have to do to survive in the world of situation comedy reruns.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Must Reading for Sixty-Somethings

I have often marked decade birthdays by gifting copies of one of Judith Viorst’s clever poetry collections. These started with When Did I Get to Be Twenty and Other Injustices and went on to It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty, How Did I Get to Be 40 and Other Atrocities, Forever Fifty, Suddenly Sixty, I’m Too Young to Be Seventy, and the latest, Unexpectedly Eighty.

The Sixties book features a poem called “The New Alphabet,” which begins this way:

A's for arthritis.
B's for bad back.
C is for chest pains. Corned beef? Cardiac?
D is for dental decay and decline.
E is for eyesight -- can't read that top line.
F is for fissures and fluid retention.
G is for gas (which I'd rather not mention). . .

The poem is clever and full of the truth. And, like most of the other poems in the collection, it’s mostly light-hearted. I would have little reluctance sharing it with anyone reaching 60. Because—let’s face it—all of us need to inject some humor into in our “aging” joints, along with the occasional cortisone shot.

That said, I have a new gift idea in mind for friends entering their seventh decade—an electronic download of The Deadline, the new e-book novel by my friend and former colleague Steven Jay Griffel. Steven’s book presents an even truer vision of what it’s like to face your sixties in the 2010s. A carnival barker might shout, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shudder, you’ll sigh.” In other words, the book will make you chuckle and worry at the same time. What else would you expect to happen when you are reading about a Jewish male character whose main goal is to be happy? As my brother used to taunt when he would give me noogies as a child, “Are you laughing or crying?”
Luckily there are no pictures of my brother
giving me noogies during our childhood together.
Steven’s happiness seeker, David Grossman, is facing lots of the angst of a 60-something American male in 2013—he has lost his job and feels a strange reluctance to look for a replacement; he has an aging parent, who may not be around much longer; his wife is a mixture of angel and taskmaster, supporting his dreams but giving him a hard dose of reality at the same time; his closest friend is building a new love relationship and starting a new business, and David, as befits his personality, offers advice and even helps secure a loan from some unsavory characters, who may, alas, have evil in their hearts. And, believe it or not, this is a comic novel! (“Are you laughing or crying?”)

The central idea in the novel, and I believe the driving force of all of us 60-somethings, is that David wants to follow his passion. Of course, some of us don’t know what our passion is or how to find it. And, if we do find it, how to exploit it. David does. He wants to write a book, a good book, a successful book. A book good enough and successful enough that he can devote his time to being a writer full-time. Imagine, being passionate all of the time! David has struck a bargain with his wife: he has one year to be guiltlessly passionate, to write his novel. After that, if he is not a financial success as a novelist, he will be required to become a “responsible adult” once again.

David writes and frets and advises and shares both wisdom and worries with his mother, wife, sister, and friends as the clock ticks toward his deadline. The writing goes well in the novel itself and in the novel inside the novel. But will it be done on time and be good enough? Readers get caught up in the drive toward the deadline. But it can be a bumpy ride.

So, I suggest giving The Deadline to someone reaching sixty-something. People, who, like David Grossman, are young enough to start over but starting to feel their age. People who are filled with passion and hope and a touch of guilt. Happily, or sadly, the book speaks to me. Then, of course, so does Judith Viorst’s poem with its painful reminders of arthritis, fading eyesight, and (you’ll pardon me) gas. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Positive Signs of Age

A few days ago, I sent a belated birthday wish to my long-time friend Charles via Facebook. In my comment, I noted that he had reached a “magic” age for Baby Boomers—64. Why is that significant?  Ask the Beatles.

The song “When I’m 64” was on every Boomers’ lips after the “Sgt. Pepper” album came out in 1967. And one of Charles’s and my mutual friends from Charleston came down the aisle at his wedding in the early 1970s to someone’s singing, “Will you still need me. . .will you still feed me. . .when I’m 64?” The song was just a lark when we were in our twenties. Now it’s relevant! To paraphrase Pogo, “We have heard about 64, and [soon or now] it is us.”

I’ve been struck by how many recent happenings in our lives have seemed Baby Boomer relevant. For example, in a two-week period a few months ago, Audrey and I joined in three events that really define “Boomer-dom.”

First, there was the first bris we’ve attended for the grandchild of close friends and contemporaries. Baby Max was welcomed into the world by a cheering crowd of dozens of his new admirers, armed with iPhones or other video devices. There were lots of photo ops at the bris, though Max may not have felt he was at his photogenic best during the occasion. No male in the room could blame him for being a little testy at the events that took place. Notably, it was mostly women who took pictures of Max’s brief trauma. Here are a few that Audrey captured:

Max with his mom Lauren

We’re going to be closely watching Max and any of his future siblings grow as we grow older. But reaching grandparent age is a definite Boomer milestone.

Just a few days later, another contemporary couple walked their daughter down the aisle. Now that’s not necessarily a Boomer moment, but our friends, like us, didn’t become parents until they were in their 30s. So a wedding in their 60s was logical. Neither of our children is ready for marriage any time soon, so we may be aging Boomers before we dance at their weddings.

The third event was a little more unusual. It was a restaurant/lounge performance that featured a friend and her associates defying time by rocking hard through two raucous music sets. Here are a few seconds of evidence:

We knew we were in for something out of the usual when the band opened its first set with a cover of Camper van Beethoven’s “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” I can’t say that I could join in with the song, which begins this way—

Every day, I get up and pray to Jah
And he decreases the number of clocks by exactly one
Everybody's comin' home for lunch these days
Last night there were skinheads on my lawn
Take the skinheads bowling
Take them bowling
Take the skinheads bowling
Take them bowling

But I quickly got into the beat and the spirit as Elissa and several Boomer cohorts, performing as HipAnonymous, churned out tunes that alternated between melodic, hard-driving, and outrageous. Didn’t we all dream of being rockers at one time? These were Boomers living out the dream when many of us are just happy to take naps. Unlike many in the audience, the band members’ knees didn’t seem to creak and they had no trouble remembering all of the lyrics of their songs. We loved rocking with them, and some of us even grabbed blocks or other percussion devices and joined in. Audrey tried out the video function of her iPhone with mixed results, as you could see above. In 60’s-speak, it was “a happening.” But I’m dating myself.
 So, Audrey and I spent two weeks embracing a diverse and exciting range of events that made us feel both older and younger at the same time. We snapped pictures, danced the hora, and sang about skinheads. If this is what it’s all about, bring on 64!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Dads and Grads

After an exhaustive search this morning, I unearthed a poem that I wrote more than 45 years ago—on the day I graduated from high school. Stating the obvious, I entitled it “A Poem Written on My Graduation Day.” Not surprisingly, it is a bit pretentious. The middle stanza, reflecting on how my life will be changing after graduation, goes like this:

It is so rare
            to spend a day in search of faces once seen
And never found again;
            Like a glass of wine once tasted and lost
                        or a dream that fades in the morning world.

It is hard to imagine me using a wine image, considering that my experience at the time was pretty much limited to Manischewitz Concord Grape, a taste that few people mind losing touch with. But I was feeling a little bittersweet that day, finishing one phase of my life and about to embark on the next.

Posing before my high school graduation.
I was always somewhat left of center.
I am thinking about this because my daughter Amanda will be graduating this weekend from business school at Emory in Atlanta. We’ll be there cheering her on and consoling her in her sadness at ending a great experience at Emory. She’s going to suck it up by traveling for two months with her B-School buddies to parts of Southeast Asia that I remember hoping to avoid with all my passion in the early 1970s.

Amanda’s upcoming graduation brings to mind a number of graduation days from my past—my own, my brother’s, and my children’s.

My graduations blur a little bit. For my high school one, I had to play “Pomp and Circumstance” endlessly on my saxophone as part of the band while more than 750 sweating students (it was Savannah in late May, remember) marched into the stadium. Then I had to run to find my place with the other graduates. I think Frank Barragan made a speech, or maybe Marcia Hancock, who I believe was valedictorian. (I sometimes read their names in those constant e-mails I get from classmates.com, which I joined at the free level but have never paid to be elevated to "gold membership," which would permit me to actually read the names of the people who may have inquired about me in some way.) I also remember having a big smile on my face after the ceremony because I was more than ready to leave Savannah for the “more exciting” —or at least different—North.

By the time I graduated from college up north in 1971, my politics had changed somewhat, and the country’s had changed dramatically. In a protest action, most of us rejected wearing a cap and gown that year, proposing to give the money that we would have paid for graduation attire to support some anti-war cause. I suspect most of us just enjoyed feeling like hard-asses and simply kept the money in our pockets. Actually, being anti-war was foremost on my mind at the time. I had been declared 1-A by the draft board two months before graduation and had a lottery number of 11. Draft counseling showed me a possible way to avoid the draft, and I barraged the draft board with doctors’ letters. They worked. Two weeks before graduation, I was given 4-F status, and I began packing for graduate school to get my teaching degree. (That’s how I missed seeing the sights and sites in Southeast Asia that Amanda will experience on her trip after graduation.)

A year later, I had met Audrey at graduate school, and together we decided not even to attend graduation, opting to receive our master’s degrees in the mail. How un-memorable!

So much for me. 

I remember two things about my brother’s graduations from college and medical school. The night before his college graduation at Emory, I slept on the top bunk in his fraternity room. We needed to be up by 9 or so, so he set the alarm for 6:30 or 7 and kept pushing the snooze button every 10 minutes. I spent most of the time counting seconds until the radio blared back on. He slept between wake-ups. By the time we finally got up to go to the ceremony, I was ready to tear my hair out.

His medical school ceremony was in 95-degree heat in the Bronx. I mostly remember a woman sitting behind us, speaking in a pure New York accent and saying, “Maw-tin Luther King said ‘Oy have a dream.’ This was moy dream, moy son de dok-tah.”

For my children’s college graduations, we could have used some of that Bronx heat. Brett’s Hampshire ceremonies may have been held in May, but the weather felt like early March—cold and drizzly with the potential for snowflakes. The two proud grandmothers huddled inside their raincoats, shivering while they cheered. It’s what you could expect from Hampshire—something a little lopsided.


 Amanda and Brett pose with the happy (and shivering) rain-coated
grandmothers at their respective graduations.
It was only slightly warmer at Amanda’s Union graduation in Schenectady (I love trying to spell that name and wondering whether the t comes before the d or vice versa.)  Luckily, the sun made an appearance. Union wanted to prove it was more conventional than Hampshire, I guess.

Brett's first-ever graduation from kindergarten. He earned a gold star
there for "excellence in nap" but later developed many other talents.
But we loved all of those ceremonies, and we’re looking forward to the one this weekend. We’ll probably hear someone point out once again that commencement can be defined as both the end of something and the beginning of something, especially a journey. And Audrey and I will think how impossibly young all of the graduates look. And we’ll take pictures—this time with a phone, of all things. And Amanda will probably be laughing and crying at almost the same time, and we’ll join in with her. And I might try to write a new graduation poem. But the wine this time will be more vintage and better aged—just like me.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Gone Fishin’

Yeah, I'm gonna go fishing, that's what I'll do
Think about nothing, not even you
Catch a real big one, a big speckled trout
Snapping in the water, I'll pull him on out

Sweet talking liar, spin me a yarn
Tell me a story, big as a barn
Don't stop listening, I won't hear you out
I'm gonna go fishing and catch me a trout

              —Dr. John

Our house in Savannah was filled with hundreds of family photos, some framed, some in albums, and many tacked onto a bulletin board in the kitchen. One of my favorites shows my father holding up a fish he had just caught that must have weighed close to 20 pounds. The smile on my father’s face is brighter than in almost any other picture of him you could find in the house. I’m not really sure where that picture is now, but it is clear in my mind. For my dad, that was a fish that he didn’t have to spin a yarn about to describe. But then my father seldom told bragging stories about his fishing exploits or about anything else he did. I do think he would occasionally brag about my brother or me but never directly in our earshot. That wasn’t his way.

The one other fishing picture I recall involves my dad and our son Brett near Savannah Beach when Brett was five. They didn’t catch anything that day, but I’m sure they both had lots of fun together.

Brett and Abe, the fishing buddies

I am thinking about my father the fisherman because of something that happened a few weeks ago when Audrey and I visited our daughter Amanda in Atlanta (where she’s soon completing an MBA program at Emory). While Amanda was in class, Audrey and I decided to go to the World of Coca-Cola museum. We arrived early and followed the directions of an older man waving a red flag to park our car in the lot he was manning. We were the first in the lot, and he was happy to have someone to talk to at the beginning of his work day.

As he skillfully did some magic with the wiring of the parking ticket machine, which had inconveniently gone on the blink, he told us about his past, present, and future. The past was spent in Detroit, where he had been an electrician for more than 40 years. The present was living in Atlanta, where he had moved to be near his son and to see his family grow with the addition soon of a new daughter-in-law. (In a burst that I would describe as a “too-much-information moment” he proudly exclaimed that the young couple had been dating for a number of years but would be married as virgins.) The future would involve retiring, getting together with new friends he had made in Atlanta, and devoting a lot of time to his newest pastime—fishing.

“I didn’t have the time or the right weather to fish in Detroit,” he said. “Now I’m gonna slow down and sit back and enjoy being retired.”

Of course, I then shared how my father had spent nearly every free moment he could spare going fishing, both before and after he retired. Many Sunday mornings, he would be out of the door before sunrise. He used to say that you had to get your line in the water before the fish were fully awake. Fishing was his true love. And. while occasionally he would take my brother or me with him, he didn’t really like to share. Those fishing ventures were his personal time away from his everyday life.

Sometimes I regret that I have few memories of my father and me fishing together. But the ones I do recall are pretty unusual. Like the time I caught a cat. No, that’s not a typo; I didn’t mean catfish. We were standing on a dock, and my father was showing me how to cast my line. I reached the pole back over my head and prepared to move my arm forward when I heard an ear-piercing screech. The hook had embedded in the tail of a cat standing about 10 feet behind us. I don’t know who was more surprised, the cat or I, but I do know who was more indignant. The cat gave a snarl as we approached to remove the hook. Once free, it raced as far away from us as possible.

Or the time I hooked a hammerhead shark. Luckily, it was just a baby shark, but it gave me a grown-up fright. I had thought I was pulling in a small whale by the amount of weight I felt on my line. When I proudly brought my catch to the surface, we noticed its distinctively shaped head. I give myself some credit for not screaming “Shark!!!” and scaring all of the other fish away from my father’s favorite marshy inlet--though they were already staying away from the shark and his buddies. My father was calm, as he always was when he was fishing, and cut the line to let the shark escape.

This baby hammerhead seems unafraid of hooks like mine.
Given those two incidents, it probably isn’t surprising that my father seldom invited me to come along. As a result, I don’t have many of those great father-child bonding-while-holding-fishing-poles moments to recall. Nothing like the wonderful Trace Adkins song shown in this video. (Sure it’s sentimental, but I’m a sucker for father-daughter fishing songs.)


I don’t blame only my father for our limited fishing experiences. I was usually too busy to come along when I became a teenager and probably didn’t feel that the trips were very cool anyway. So shame on me too!

I hope the Detroit man transplanted in Atlanta finds as much joy in fishing as my father did. And I hope he gets to share that joy with his son, daughter-in-law, and future grandchildren. And I hope they each catch a fish almost as big as the one my father is holding in that picture in my mind.