Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Too Early Spring

For the past three days, my car’s trunk and back seat have been filled with large bags stuffed with wilted grasses, stems, and branches. And the car is starting to smell a little like dried vegetation. I planned on unloading the bags at the town Compost Center when it is customarily open on either Tuesdays or Thursdays and then getting the car aired out and washed. But each time I have driven by the compost area, the gates have been locked. No sign is posted, but I did see a small-print notation on the town calendar stating that the Compost Center is open for only limited hours before April 1. None of those hours were during the past three days, obviously. But, luckily, April 1 is tomorrow. No foolin’!
My car is loaded with compost-ables
Now, ordinarily, April 1 would be plenty early enough to dump my wilted winter waste, but this has not been a normal winter or early spring for that matter. The ground is already warm enough to clean up the mess and begin planting flowers. That’s why I have those bags of vegetation to compost, if only the gates were open. The calendar says March, but the ground says late April, and the town is going strictly by the calendar.

At our vacation place in Vermont, spring conditions hit in late February this year to everyone’s chagrin there. No snow has fallen in southern Vermont since mid-February, making skiing pretty problematic. We did go up the first week in March, hoping to enjoy what ski resorts call “spring skiing”—soft snow, moderate temperatures, and light crowds. What we found were icy trails with occasional brown spots and an ice storm one morning followed by rains and heavy winds the next. We spent a lot of time either in our home there or walking the dog. And she spent a great deal of time sniffing every inch of snow-free soil.
Tess gives the snow-free Vermont soil a sniff test
Growing up in Georgia, I never knew that spring soil has a special smell. When the ground lays under snow for several months and then emerges, it gives forth a rich, loamy aroma. Northerners take this aroma for granted, but Southerners are surprised by it. And my northern dog enjoys taking it all in. In New Jersey, we have had so little snow this year, that the spring smell has never really been in the air.

Politicians may be debating whether there is climate change going on, but not me. When we visited Savannah Beach in late December, the mix of warm air and chilled ground left the beach cloaked in fog and looking like some kind of moonscape. An apple tree in our neighborhood gave up all of its leaves by December 1 but was still bearing apples from its branches on January 1. I’m not sure how to explain all of his. Global warming, perhaps? Definitely, in our small part of the globe.
Moonscape at Tybee
Apples in January
Politicians and meteorologists can do their debating and analyzing. I’m just hoping that the Compost Center gates will be open tomorrow, so I can get my car back.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Basketball Junkie

Going into the last week of this year’s NCAA basketball “March Madness,” I am currently standing in second place in the Glen Rock Jewish Center brackets. That may sound impressive, however I will certainly topple in the standings over the weekend and fall out of the money because my predicted champion has already been eliminated. All of which means that what once was a potential profitable “investment” (up to half of $540) will become merely a small donation to the synagogue. That’s certainly nothing new. I have been making similar donations via March Madness events nearly every year for as long as I can remember. I did come in second one year, but after I made an expected donation to the synagogue from my winnings, my bank account did not experience a big boost. Oh well.

I have a long and checkered career with basketball—as a player, writer, and very small-time gambler. My playing years began in the youth rec leagues in Savannah, where I was a guard on various community center teams. We young Jews took on young Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants. The South is big on churches and church youth groups. I remember playing games in a huge cement block building called the Tiger Gym. The place was poorly heated by a large pot belly stove located somewhere near midcourt on the sidelines. When you crossed midcourt, you sweated through a blast of hot air, while when you headed to either end, you could freeze your balls off! The floor might also get icy and slippery in the chilly regions far from the stove, making play a little tricky. But it was basketball, and I loved it! I developed a special move on the court. I would drive one way and then send a “no-look” pass toward a teammate. Unfortunately, my teammates were seldom looking for my passes, since I wasn’t looking at them while passing, and the passes often went awry anyway because I wasn’t looking either. Is it any wonder that I spent much time on the bench?

I did play one year for Wilder Junior High’s undefeated city champions in Savannah. I didn’t rack up a lot of minutes on the court or points scored, playing behind Tommy Bonds, who would go on to become a high school star, but I vividly remember heading to the foul line in one game while the cheerleaders chanted “Goodman, Goodman, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can.” I also remember making both foul shots that time. Never underestimate the power of cheerleaders.

Wilder's champs. Tommy Bonds and I are next to each other in the front row.
 Only one of us will become a star.
During my high school and college years, I moved from the court to the stands, and dreamed of a time I might be invited to sit in a press box. I covered nearly every one of Savannah High’s basketball games for the Blue and White. One year, I convinced school administrators to grant me a free press pass that saved me from having to pay for admission to games. No one had ever asked for such a thing before. When it came to basketball, I could be assertive.

Once in college, I became the intrepid basketball reporter for the Yale Daily NEWS. This is not as impressive as it sounds. This year, the Yale team made it to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1962, that’s 54 years without winning an Ivy League title. I covered some pretty terrific players during my college years, but very few of them played for Yale. The New York Times never offered me a job as a stringer because we just weren’t that interesting.
Yale Ivy Champ shirt. A true collector's item.
Then I got a new ambition. During one college game, I tried my best to make the bridge between print and broadcast. My close friend Bob Shapiro, who was heading the broadcast team for the Yale radio station, interviewed me at halftime of a game between Yale and Columbia in New York. We had a lively discussion, and I offered some insightful comments that I was sure would impress both students in New Haven and broadcast scouts around the world. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the microphones must have malfunctioned during the interview. People back in New Haven were treated to dead air instead of my brilliant analysis. So it goes.

After college, I filled my basketball fix with occasional pickup games at Y’s in New Jersey and even when on visits back to Savannah. Sadly, my jump shot, never very impressive (my feet seldom got very far off the floor) began to desert me, and my no-look passes didn’t become any more accurate. So I finally retired from the courts and drifted toward an even more depressing basketball avocation—rooting for the hapless New York Knicks. How sad is that!

And every year, I still get back in the game during March Madness. I fill out a bracket, watch lots of games, and pay special attention the cheerleaders. Deep inside, I imagine they’re cheering for me.


Thursday, March 24, 2016


Going Up in Smoke

A couple of years after he retired, my father joined the Kibitzers Club at the JEA, the Jewish community center in Savannah. My dictionary of Yiddish slang defines kibitzer as a “meddlesome spectator.” That seems a little unkind. The Savannah kibitzers were older Jewish men who gathered to discuss matters of local or world interest, to share stories of their families, or just to reminisce. My father was not a big joiner, but he seemed to enjoy kibitzing with his contemporaries.

My longtime friend Charles, who fittingly has lived in Charleston, South Carolina, all his life tells me that his synagogue has recently established an “Alter Kockers” club for kibitzers in his city. Now alter kocker, which loosely means “old crapper,” seems even more unkind a name than kibitzers. And, remarkably, the Charleston club includes both men and women. Why is that remarkable? In my experience, older Jewish men are not reluctant to label themselves as “old crappers,” but doesn't hold true for women. I am not even going to suggest a more suitable feminine appellation, but it would have to promise better smells and fewer references to aging.
In our younger days; I'm the bridegroom in the middle,
 and Charles is at the far right.
Recently I find myself as part of a small group of men in their mid to late 60s who meet every Tuesday morning for breakfast at a local diner/restaurant. There are 4 to 5 of us, depending on the week, and we have our own table set aside for us by the restaurant’s management. The staff doesn’t even need to provide us with menus since each of us almost always orders the same thing week after week. For a while I ordered an item impressively called “The Executive,” but now I’ve become more commonplace, getting by on two scrambled eggs, dry wheat toast, and well-done home fries, which I try to merely sample. (The Executive included a glass of orange juice and coffee or tea, but I don’t think I should have the caffeine or the sugar from the juice. Did I mention that I’m aging?) Our “founding member,” Gary, refers to us as the ROMEOs. I wish that meant we were known for our amorous capabilities, at least at one time, but it’s an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out. The name is not entirely correct. Most of us are retired lite. We no longer work full time but stay busy on a range of part-time projects. We’re usually free early on Tuesday morning, though, for “deep” discussions.

What do we talk about? Families, of course, including grandchildren for three of us. (I’m still waiting.) And politics. And the local synagogue to which each of us currently or at one time belonged. And medical conditions or tests. (I did mention that we’re aging.) Last week’s topic was a little unusual; it blended health and nostalgia. Bruce and I talked longingly about our years as pipe smokers, and Martin described how much he had formerly enjoyed cigars. Now, I know some amateur psychologists see pipes or cigars as phallic symbols, but we see them as symbols of intellectualism or former glory or coolness. We all realize that it’s no longer cool and was never healthful to smoke tobacco (and I say with a tinge of embarrassment that I never smoked anything but tobacco in even my “wayward” days and then only a pipe and not cigarettes), but there was a time when sitting at the typewriter or keyboard with a clouds of pipe smoke circling over my head felt intellectually stimulating. There is a satisfying ritual to pipe smoking that transcends the smoke or the mess. And I can still remember registering my own personal blend of tobacco in the small store in Ridgewood. That seems a little cool, doesn’t it?
Here I am looking young and intellectual.
Note the presence of much hair and a pipe.
We all stopped smoking many years ago, most likely for the same reasons, and I have no intention of ever going back. But I still have one of my old favorite pipes around, stored in a secret place in my house. I found it the other day, brought it out for a quick memory flash, and then put it back. It really doesn’t fit in my life any more. Somehow, I have become old enough to be a kibitzer or an alter kocker or a ROMEO but too old to be a pipe smoker. How did this happen?  

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Remembering Across Time and Distance

Last Friday night, memorial plaques for my mother were lit in both Glen Rock, New Jersey, and Savannah, Georgia. It was the second anniversary of my mother’s death, based on the Hebrew calendar. Both my brother and I stood to say special prayers to honor our mother’s memory in synagogues 800 miles apart. The fact that there are memorial plaques for my mother in both locations speaks both to the geographical spreading of our small family and to our desire to stay connected in memory across long distances and long periods of time. After all, those plaques are presumably going to be lit every year at this time even after my brother and I are no longer there to see.
Memorial lights are illuminated on the anniversary of relatives' deaths.
The way people come together from various locales to form families and then move apart or expand in the next generations is an important part of every family’s history. My father left Arkansas and went to Savannah, where he met and wed my mother. They had two children, one of whom stayed in Savannah while the other moved to New Jersey. My brother’s kids live in Atlanta and New York. Mine live in different parts of New York now but could relocate in the future to anywhere. My wife’s family fled from Germany after Hitler rose to power there and spread to places such as China and Brazil, as well as New York and California. Audrey’s parents came from towns in Germany only a few miles apart but didn’t meet until they were in New York, more than 3,000 miles from their original homes. It’s not a new story, but the geography does get complex.

How do we deal with all of this movement and flux? How do we try to keep our families together across time and distance? Sometimes we put up memorial plaques and light them to keep our memories alive. Sometimes we go exploring back in time.

Here is an example. For a week in May, Audrey and I and our kids are going to travel to Germany. This is not a long-planned vacation, but it is an important trip and one touched a little by mystery. We have been invited by an academic organization whose mission is to restore meaningful family books left behind by Jews who escaped the Holocaust. How did they find Audrey? The chairperson of the group had read a blog I posted two years ago in which I described how my mother-in-law had helped her family get out of Germany following Kristallnacht. I mentioned my mother-in-law’s maiden name, and the group had some religious books, published in the late 1800s, that belonged to that family. The books are not rare, but they are all that tangibly remains of Audrey’s family inside Germany, as far as we know. So we are going to northern Germany to receive and retrieve the books. Then we are driving as a family to southern Germany to find the towns where Audrey’s parents and grandparents (my children’s grandparents and great-grandparents) were born and lived. We’ll visit cemeteries, and we’ll drive by former homes and businesses, which now belong to other people. We’ll try to visualize what those places were like when Audrey’s family lived there, which it did for many generations.

As if to anticipate this trip, Audrey and I recently added another memorial plaque to the walls of our synagogue in Glen Rock. The plaque is for Audrey’s grandmother, whose yahrzeit (the Hebrew word for the anniversary of one’s death) we will honor tonight. The lights will be lit on both sides of her plaque tonight and for the next seven days. We don’t need the plaque to remember Oomi, but turning on those lights and saying a prayer to honor her memory will help us keep our family together for another year.
Oomi never came to Glen Rock but she is well remembered there.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Dads and Dings

My father was a pretty quiet man. He enjoyed being behind the scenes, listening more than speaking. And I can remember his writing me only 2-3 letters over the years. (One of which, I should note, was written soon after Audrey and I got engaged to tell me how happy he was with my bringing her into the family.)  
My father in his early 20s
During my phone calls home from college or in later years, my father said very little, but I could usually hear him breathing in the background. Now, part of his silence may have been a result of my mother’s ability to dominate any conversation. And part of it was his natural reticence. But there may also have been a cultural connection.

Calvin Trillin, discussing his dad in the book Messages from My Father, describes a similar man. He also tells a story that rings true for many fathers I know, maybe even me. Young Calvin gets cast in a play at Yale and calls home to tell his parents the good news. “What part are you playing?” his father asks. “The Jewish father,” Calvin replies. “Oh no,” his dad bemoans. “Tell them that you want a part that has lines.”

I am thinking of fathers and communications because of what happened in our family before 7 a.m. this morning. I was brought to attention in our den by a dinging cell phone with a text message from my daughter, who was getting ready to start her workday in Findlay, Ohio, of all places. She texted an article that related to Scottish terriers, our dog of choice. I quickly responded with a short comment and almost immediately heard a second ding coming from our bedroom. My wife had received both my daughter’s and my messages. She replied seconds later, and more dinging ensued. Within a few minutes, another ding. A reply had come in from our son in Astoria, Queens. More dinging followed. The whole family had had an entire conversation, in 21st century style, before 7:30 a.m. It might have been finger-to-finger instead of face-to-face, but it was a good and clear connection. Email wasn’t an option for my father, and I’m not sure that having email would have changed his communication style, but I’m happy it is there for me. I’m glad that I can touch my children so quickly, and get a response, even before our separate lives get underway so early in the morning.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Editor’s Curse

In an early episode of “Monk,” police captain Leland Stottlemeyer describes a case in which the quirky, OCD detective first revealed his ability to see details that others missed or chose to overlook.
Stottlemeyer is impressed by Monk’s astute detecting skill but is also annoyed by the detective’s inability to shut it off. Monk seems to agree when he says, “It’s a blessing . . . and a curse.”

This political year, be afraid, be very afraid!
I know the feeling. I consider myself a pretty good editor. I can usually find a way to improve a manuscript I am editing by making it more direct as well as more correct. The correctness side is where the blessing and curse comes in. I have a good eye for spotting typos, grammatical mistakes, or writing inconsistencies. But I have a lot of trouble shutting off my editor’s eye and ear or reading without a red pencil in hand. I may tell myself, “Let it go” [cue Idina Menzel here], but all too often I just can’t.
Here is just one recent example. The other night, Audrey and I watched several political candidates and analysts discuss the current political campaigns. One analyst noted that Ted Cruz has a “tough road to hoe” to catch up with Donald Trump in their battle for the Republican presidential nomination. Only moments later, Bernie Sanders explained his campaign strategy and added that he too had a “tough road to hoe” in the coming days


I suspect that neither of these gentlemen had ever wielded a hoe. If they had it would certainly not have been to help them travel along a road. On the other hand, if they were trying to plant seeds (of success) in hard soil, they might have encountered a “tough row to hoe.” No big deal, you say, but it drove me crazy. And I drove Audrey a little crazy when I pointed it out—several times.
Where to turn when language mistakes drive you to drink

Now this idiom slip up is clearly not the biggest idiocy of this year’s political campaigning. And most people would probably point out far worse things that both the candidates and pundits have said and are saying every day. But those of us with the “editor’s curse” often get so stuck in the mire of language snafus. And the road ahead this year seems like it’s going to be both a muddy and bumpy one.  
Where is an editor when you need one?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The "Joys" of Person-ness

I like to think that our Scottie Tess is the nicest person I know. She is loving, forgiving, almost always upbeat, and pretty adaptable. How many people do you know who meet all of those requirements for “nicest person”?

Of course, Tess has an advantage over most people—she’s a dog. Being upbeat and adaptable fit her job description. On the other hand, Tess’s nearest neighbor, a yappy designer mutt named Reese, is also a dog but doesn’t seem to know anything about being loving or forgiving. She is small and feisty and scares the crap out of both Tess and me. No nicest person is she!

Tess has a much better dogality than Reese. (I used to think that I had coined that word but have since found several uses of the term cited on the Internet, including a dog assistance group in Kansas City called dogality.net. I don’t begrudge them the use of my word.)

Most times, Tess enjoys her personhood as a member of our tight family. But today was not one of those times. We woke up to a thin layer of snow and ice on the ground. The slick covering caused me some concern, but Tess was undeterred. The morning walk means three things to her—a chance to sniff and explore much the same turf she has sniffed and explored many times before, a time to get rid of wastes (that for reasons that she cannot comprehend I usually choose to save in a small bag and bring home), and an activity that is always followed by breakfast.

Then I introduced a people wrinkle into this morning’s walk. I decided that the chill and the moisture called for enclosing her in a bright red coat. Tess is not a big fan of her coat. I think she believes the other dogs will make fun of her if they see her in it.
For some reason, Tess always seems"sheepish" in her coat.
Coats are clearly a people invention; we like being bundled up in the cold, and so bundle up our dogs. When she sees me lift the coat from its place on the shelf, she often moves to a corner of the room and goes into her “funk” look. She lets me strap her into it but provides little help and no enthusiasm. Once I open the door and we set out, however, she is back to being upbeat and adaptable, and I feel forgiven.
Our steps in the snow. My prints are the larger ones.