Tag Archives: Aging

A New Chapter…Still in Limbo

4 Jul

Lifestyle choices.

My wife just joined the “gig economy.”  She is driving for one of those services that connect driver and passenger through a cell phone app (in light of their vast reach and rather spotty record of employee relations, I will refrain from mentioning them by name). She has given up her regular and not insignificant paycheck, her employer subsidized health insurance, and regular contributions to her 403b (like a 401k for the non-profit world) in exchange for a greater sense of freedom and a workplace that consists of just herself and whoever happens to be sitting in the passenger seat at any given moment.

This is a new thing for her…a very new thing.  For almost two decades my wife was a cog in the vast machine that is organized Jewish life in Los Angeles. To be clear, my use of the term “cog” is not meant to disparage my wife or her contribution to Jewish Los Angeles.  Indeed, I would argue that over the past two decades she has played a critical role in a number of organizations—they literally could not have functioned without her or someone like her.  Rather, I think the term reflects how, over time, she came to see herself and the way that she, and perhaps countless others, became a kind of a large, faceless bureaucracy that made organized Jewish life possible in the third largest Jewish community in America.

I bet I know what you’re thinking. My non-Jewish readers are likely struggling to understand the concept of organized Jewish life, while my Jewish readers are certain that there is nothing organized about any Jewish institution—and they may be right.  Nevertheless, the Jewish community of Los Angeles is made up of a host of synagogues, schools, community centers, Israel programs, social justice organizations, philanthropic endeavors, and one vast, centralized collection, or federation if you will, that attempts (and fails) to oversee, or at least assist, them all in their diverse and important work.  Again, because of their vast reach and spotty history of employee relations, I dare not mention that last organization by name, but those in the know can guess the institution that I refer to.

For a number of years, Amy was one of the many employees who made these organizations run. She managed the comings and goings of a small synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, followed by a number of years as an administrative assistant in Jewish educational and philanthropic organizations.  Ultimately, she served as a Human Resources professional at one of the largest Jewish organizations in town (no, not the Council of the Worldwide Zionist Conspiracy—though their benefits package is quite good).  And for a while, her work and her consistent move up the ranks—which she accomplished while being a wonderful, supportive mother, the primary earner in our home at times, and while completing a long-delayed BA degree—seemed to be tolerable to her, if not always satisfying.  She got the Jewish holidays off. She helped a range of people address their personal and professional needs, and as a family we spent a fair amount of time invested in the broader Jewish community (which included my studies in American Jewish history, my daughter’s attendance at a large Jewish summer camp nearby, and a host of other professional and personal connections to Jewish LA). There were certainly very good moments in her professional life and very bad moments too, but they seemed to be no better or worse than any other average Jane’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their workplace.

But eventually, things changed.  Over approximately two years, Amy’s sense of professional satisfaction and above all her health and well-being deteriorated—sometimes gradually and sometimes with shocking rapidity.  Those who have read my work before know that over two years ago Amy suffered a brutal, devastating bout of pancreatitis that laid her up for much of the summer of 2015.  In some ways, she never recovered fully from that illness.  At the very least, the few communal, local, state, and national systems in place to support her recovery failed, and my wife—who by the time all was said and done experienced terrible mental anguish and physical suffering—was forced back into the workforce well before she had the strength or physical and mental wherewithal to engage with it.  On her return, she found a work environment, and perhaps a national culture of work, that had little patience, and even far less sympathy, for her condition and constitution.  The hardheartedness of her workplace and utter lack of sympathy for her health and well-being ultimately led to another, terrible physical deterioration, a lengthy and desperately needed enrollment in our state’s disability system, and, finally, a change in the way she earned money.

I think that I would like to rededicate my blog, which has become rather moribund over the past year, to contemplating and exploring how Amy’s life changes came to be, and how the changing health (both physical and mental) of one or more of family members can shake the family unit’s sense of calm, happiness, and stability to its core.  We are undertaking a new path—Amy, Emma, and me.  And I don’t know where it will lead or if it is sustainable.  If there is one thing that I have learned since my cancer scare, which took place almost four years ago, is that I cannot predict the future at all.  We do our best.  We plan for what we allow ourselves to believe the future might bring. We budget our money best as we can, visit our doctors, try to maintain robust physical and mental health, invest in school, or retirement, or some other such thing, but we simply cannot predict where our hopes, and dreams, and plans will lead.  We do, however, know something about the past.  Indeed, that is the primary reason that I became an historian, not because I wanted to use the past to predict or prevent the future, or even to make sense of the present, but because I have found that the past is the only moment in time that we have the vision and the leisure to review, reflect upon, and, to some extent understand.  So, now that my family seems to be shifting our future direction, I think that I would like to look to the past a little bit to understand how that came to be.  I would like to see what lessons I can learn about our systems of work, finance, and healthcare, the often inexplicable way that family binds us in good times and bad, and, above all, the very tenuous nature of human health and well-being.

A few logistical notes before I sign off.  I think that I will still call this blog Limbo.  It just feels right.  I think that as long as we live we are always between states (e.g., health and sickness, wealth and poverty, mental stability and instability, etc.) and in many ways, I have found great satisfaction in using the written word to contemplate that sense of in-betweenness.  So Limbo it is!  Also, I am not going to make a big deal about this blog. I am not going to post it on Facebook or talk about it a lot, like I used to.  Those who are already connected to my blog will likely get some kind of update from WordPress.  Those who are not connected, that’s fine.  In some sense, I am writing just to hear myself think (I know how contradictory that statement is, but it feels true).  I appreciate an audience (a lot, actually) but I do not require one, and I actually feel a little sleazy about the way that I used to promote my blog to the public. If people want to read my blog, great.  If they want to share it…that is their choice and not the result of me hawking the latest edition. If it just sits there in the ether unread, well…at least I said my piece. Also, I have no idea how often I can update my posts….so likely better to just keep this to myself and see who shows up for the party.  Finally, I encourage those who do read this blog to respond to it.  I have always hoped that the great promise of blogging would be the way that it can facilitate an exchange between the author and the reader.  Sadly, I have not been able to create fully the kind of exchange that I seek (at least not with any consistency) but maybe things will be different this time.  So please respond.  Just don’t be mean.  Life is too short for such nonsense.

As always….stay tuned!


She’s Leaving Home

7 May

About a month ago, Amy and I took our daughter to the airport for her first solo trip across the continent.  For a little more than a week, Emma exchanged one set of crazy family members on the West Coast for a set of equally crazy family members in the New York Tri State area.  No big deal, right?  She’s 18, perfectly capable of getting around on her own, and she was in good hands with our family back East—at the very least she was in no worse hands than if she were right here at home with her meshuganah  parents.   But as we walked her to the security line at LAX (an airport I despise almost as much as I hate the wildly inconvenient JFK in New York), I became a little melancholy, a little clingy, and even a little weepy.  To be clear, I didn’t have a full blown meltdown—nothing like it.  Instead, I found myself balancing on that emotional razor’s edge between the great joy and pride I feel for the young woman my daughter has become, and the great melancholy I feel for the loss of our little girl who has, seemingly in the blink of an eye, disappeared from view. 

For a few years, now, it seems that my entire relationship with Emma is a balancing act, a joyous, frustrating, reassuring, and unsettling effort to figure out the shifting borders of parental and filial authority, accountability, knowledge, expertise, and wisdom, while simultaneously reassuring each other of our mutual love.  She is a bright, confident young woman with an impressive range of interests, tastes, and passions, and I am a somewhat overly sensitive, frequently anxious, and excessively self-reflective middle aged man who, up until recently, was accustomed to being her teacher, mentor, and (in conjunction with my wife, of course)  undisputed authority on expectations concerning her conduct and behavior.  Perhaps I am fooling myself on that last part, but at least Amy and I had the power to reward and punish into Emma’s mid-teens. 

Today our roles are fluid.  Frequently, Emma is my teacher.  She has introduced me to the joys of spoken word poetry, Buzzfeed, and Dr. Who.  She has opened my eyes to the difficulties and indignities suffered by young women, and she has helped me better understand the range of social-sexual categories claimed by a generation of young women and men who refuse to be pigeon-holed into society’s expectations of hetero and homo sexuality.  I am continually impressed by the depth of her intellect and emotional intelligence.  That is not to say that I have nothing to offer in return.  I do.  Emma still has much to learn about deli, pizza, and, of course, cookies.  Like my father before me, I have introduced her to the joys of classical music and opera.  I struggle mightily to turn her into a proper New York Giants fan, but, sadly, to no avail. Since, at different times, I have been a very bad and a very good student, and a teacher, I have many lessons to offer about the right and wrong ways to get through college, about communicating with her professors, proper study habits, doing research, critically assessing sources, and developing a more sophisticated “written voice.”  And, most significantly, Amy and I spend a fair amount of time teaching Emma to develop a greater sense of personal responsibility and self-direction, while sharing with her the difficult ironies and sometimes harsh realities of life.

Precisely how we share these lessons with Emma, and how much credence she is willing to give to our words of wisdom, has become a source of uncertainty and contention.  For several years, now, our parental authority has diminished, as Emma develops her own insights into and opinions on what is appropriate, right, and fair.  She is an Angeleno, and like so many born and raised in this city, her sense of time and punctuality are at odds with mine (native Angelenos are routinely late).  We frequently bicker over what time she should leave the house in order to get somewhere on time. We differ over the relative urgency of a range of issues from the cleanliness of her car and room, to the appropriate amount of time it takes to respond to e-mails.   And when our opinions differ, we clash—emotions run high, arguments ensue, and feelings get hurt (sometimes hers and sometimes mine).   Moments of anger and frustration are soon followed by moments of deep sadness and regret (at least on my end…I can’t speak for Emma).  And while Emma continues to give every indication that she will be an extraordinary adult, something inside me continually worries about how she will make her way in the world.  Those worries lead to criticisms, which I know annoy her.  But for God’s sake, I’m her father, how can I hold my tongue?  I am sure that Emma, and probably Amy, would tell me that it’s quite easy and that I should just shut my big mouth every once in a while.

Added to all of these fears, frustrations, and anxieties is the reality that Emma will leave us soon. Her trip to New York was the first in what will be a series of departures.  This August she will leave for a nine month gap year program in Israel.  Her return to Los Angeles, and to our home, will be a temporary respite from her ongoing journey, as she will no doubt leave us for college, work, and, someday, to start her own family.  That knowledge fills each exchange, each laugh, each hug, each argument, each tear, each moment with a sense of urgency and importance that both frightens and excites me.   My daughter is entering a new phase in her life, a phase that has diminished, and will continue to diminish, my ability to influence, inform, and (of greatest significance) protect her.  As we continue down our respective paths, any relationship we have will be driven far more by mutual choice than mutual obligation.

Naturally, I have been on the other side of that relationship dynamic.  Like all parents and children, my folks and I went through a fairly tumultuous transition period, one that didn’t really get sorted out until my mid-thirties.  I was pretty obnoxious to them, and in some ways my continued residence in LA well after it became clear that I stood almost no chance of succeeding in the entertainment business was a way for me to avoid them.  Today, of course, I live here because of all the personal and professional networks we’ve established in the City of Angels, but I feel and regret the great physical distance that separates me from my East Coast family quite keenly.  This was particularly true when my dad was dying, but the feeling continues to trouble me as I watch my mother and I, both, get older.  I really wish that I had come around sooner, that I had come to see one of the most important facts about the relationship between parents and children, namely that our time together is a great gift and is limited by forces well beyond our control.  I have tried to convey this and other important lessons to Emma, and I think she gets it.  Nevertheless, as I watch her begin her journey into adulthood, I begin to wonder if she will want to spend time with me as I age and decline. 

When I share these thoughts with the parents of grown children, they remind me that our job as parents is to prepare our children for a world without us.  One memorable discussion with the parent of two kids in their late twenties directed me to the insights of the great poet Khalil Gibran.  In his epic poem, The Prophet, Gibran tells us the following about the relationship between parents and children.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

I suspect I could have just shared these verses at the beginning of this essay and been done with my post.  While I cannot say for certain that the words are true, they somehow say so much about the great paradox of parenting, a riddle that gets more confusing every day.

As always….stay tuned.

In Memoriam

19 Jan


About two months ago—just before Thanksgiving—one of my closest and dearest colleagues died after a lengthy battle with cancer.   For a number of reasons I have not written about her untimely demise on my blog—until now of course.  First, there was my own medical condition and my new PET scan to discuss, which came up shortly after her passing.  Lazily, or selfishly, I figured that since the original purpose of this blog was to share my ongoing health saga with all of you, that topic took precedence over sharing my feelings on the loss of this extraordinary woman.  Perhaps of greater importance, though, until now I wasn’t quite sure what to say about her passing.  I have found so little comfort in my own encounters with loss, and while my religious tradition’s communal response to death provides a wonderful network of support, I find very little in Judaism that directly addresses how individuals can or should process the loss of loved ones. At the very least, those kinds of prophetic and rabbinic insights seem inaccessible to an interested, though undereducated, layperson.  Ultimately, the single most insightful commentary I have heard on loss in the past few months comes not from a rabbi or other sage, but instead from a recent viewing of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  In that musical’s finale, Sondheim reminds us that “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.”  That’s it.  No mystical or holistic reasons for loss, no majestic communion with the Almighty, no useful instructions on how to cope with the passing of a loved one, just a factual assertion that loss exists.

And yet I cannot shake the phrase from my head.  Day after day I sing the passage to myself, partly because of the beauty of Sondheim’s melody, of course, but also because I am beginning to believe there is great wisdom in this simple assertion—sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.  And while this may seem cold, though it is certainly not meant to be, I have come to see that any statement about a person’s passing is inescapably banal. Death is the one act we will all undertake someday.  To be sure, it can be a terrible and frightening thing to consider (it sure messes with my head), but it is also one of the most common events among living things, something we share with every being on the planet.  Plants die. Earthworms die. Dogs, lions, great blue whales…they die. And humans…we die, too.  What matters more, I think, is how we lived, and what that life has meant to those who surround us (I know, trite…but invariably true).  And so while I was first inclined to write about the great nobility and strength my friend demonstrated in her battle with cancer (and believe me, she was incredibly brave), I have come to see that any fitting tribute should recognize what a glorious and blessed coincidence it was that I should meet her in the first place and how, together, we did some really wonderful and meaningful things—actions and projects that have and will continue to have a positive influence on countless young people in Los Angeles and beyond.

While this may seem somewhat Pollyannaish, I can honestly say that it was a miracle my friend and I ever met—one of those everyday miracles we take for granted too often.  Had each of us followed the career paths we had envisioned for ourselves in our young adulthood, there was really no reason my friend and I should ever have met.  She came from a line of successful advertising executives and made a career for herself in that field.   I began my professional life (such as it was) as a singer and actor and had the kind of middling success that enables one to continue to perform for a little bit of money and still less recognition.  Had she continued in advertising, and had I achieved greater success on stage and screen, we never would have met.  But that’s not where life took us.  One day while working on the original ad campaign for the McRib (that’s right…McRib…I shit you not) my friend met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband.  It was love at first sight, he has told me, and apparently she must have felt the same way because the group dinner where they first realized their feelings for each other was arranged by my friend as a way to spend more time with her future husband (something she confessed to later in life).  After a year of long-distance romance—her in Chicago and him in LA—my friend moved to Los Angeles and within a few years was married.  I wound up in Los Angeles in the fall of 1990. My future wife and I came to the city after spending several years working in regional theater in the South.  She found work almost immediately as a scenic artist, and within a few months I had a long-running gig at Universal Studios.

So we were both in LA. Still, our career paths (those of my friend and I) were different and divergent. But parenthood changes everything.  As my friend’s children grew, she took an interest in arts education and developed an extremely successful arts program in her children’s school district. And fatherhood altered my career path, as well.  Over a few years I weaned myself off of show business and studied history, planning to teach the subject in high school.  After a series of twists and turns we both wound up at the Autry National Center, though initially at different times and in different departments  In 2009, though, when I was offered my current position, my soon to be colleague was already one of the most valued employees in our department, and I was about to be her boss.  Kismet!

And yet, as with all great buddy films, we really did not like each other at first.  My colleague was extremely driven, often to the point of being defensive and inflexible, and I, as I so often can be, was very full of myself and what I knew (or thought I knew) about how to run my department.  But within a few weeks, after I had observed her in action, I came to realize that I was fortunate enough to be partnered with a force of nature, an extraordinary educator, a caring and formidable mother, and over time a good, good friend.  As one coworker recently observed, no one who met this person could ever forget her.  She was a small, compact woman bursting with energy.  She had a missionary zeal for creating engaging and educational experiences for students of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. We both believed in the power of education to transform.  We both believed that children rise to the level of content and the expectations placed in front of them.  We both believed in the power of second chances, and we both believed that talented teachers were excited to find new ways to approach tried and true subjects.

My friend took a nascent partnership with eighth grade students at a local magnet school and provided the kind of forethought and scaffolding it required to become one of our more successful and respected programs–an award winning, living history program in which we trained our eighth grade charges to teach younger students (fourth-graders) about the life, labor, class, and gender issues on a 19th century Mexican rancho.  The program was popular, engaging, intellectually rigorous, and of greatest importance convinced students of the importance and excitement of research and teaching. Indeed, oftentimes our program was the only reason some of the poorest performing students bothered to come to school.  The structure and novelty of the project certainly played a role in the students’ love of the program, but I have no doubt that one of the most rewarding parts of their experience was the time they spent with my friend and colleague. She made those kids feel special, important, valuable, competent, and intelligent.  Indeed she made everyone she came into contact with feel that way.

Over our almost five years together, my friend and I took on new projects for the museum.  We partnered with an organization in LA that offers arts education to at risk youth, and my friend played an important role in training their teaching artists and providing support for their classroom teachers.  Together we hired an extraordinary staff of bright young people, many of whom continue to change the lives of the 50,000 or so students we see every year.  And though she had no previous experience in the field, my friend soon became the education lead on all exhibitions relating to the cultures and histories of Native Americans.  I assigned the task to her because I knew that she would immerse herself in the topic with extraordinary depth and passion.  Indeed, after my friend’s passing, I had to notify several members of the local Native community because she had worked so closely with them for so long.

And now she’s gone.  She left us halfway through the wood, with so many things to do and projects to oversee.  I know that she desperately wanted to stick around, and I know, as well, that she would give me a very hard time for the sentimentality (and length) of this post.  And so I will just close by saying that I miss my friend very much, and I hope that, over the coming years, my work will be a positive legacy to her memory.  And I hope, as well, that I will stumble into some new friend on this side of the wood and that we come out the other side together.

As always…stay tuned.

The Opera, My Father, and Me

31 Oct

About two months ago, I went to the opening night of the Los Angeles Opera, Verdi’s La Traviata, set in 1920s Paris.  To be clear, I’m not trying to brag, here.  I am not the kind of person who has the money or the inclination to purchase tickets for such grand and glamorous events.  I just lucked out. My colleagues at the opera offered me free tickets.  As I often tell my wife, every now and again there are perks to knowing me…and this was one of those rare occasions.  Truth is I haven’t been to the opera in years.  At one time, though, the opera was an integral part of my everyday life.  For many years, my parents were subscribers to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.  As well, some of you likely know that in my youth I studied voice at some of the nation’s most renowned conservatories (I failed out of those conservatories, too, but that’s a story for another time).  And so, sitting there at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, my mind was filled with countless memories about the opera, my on again off again love affair with musical performance, and, of greatest importance, my family.

Watching opening night of La Traviata, a powerful current of memory almost overwhelmed me, as I thought about uncomfortable childhood nights sitting in ill-fitting suits at the Met, watching productions that seemed overly dramatic and insanely long…at least that’s how they seemed to my nine-year old brain at the time.  I recalled my adolescence and my growing appreciation of the opera, of my interest in specific composers, singers, conductors, and directors.  I remembered, too, my brief and ill-fated career as a student of classical vocal repertoire and how uncomfortable I felt among the many talented hopefuls in New York’s classical music scene.  And, above all else, I remembered my father, the man who deserves much of the credit for my love and study of music.

My dad was an opera fanatic.  His passion for the art was remarkable and one of the more distinct and memorable features of his persona.  No doubt some of my childhood friends, as well as the friends of my two sisters, will remember my dad blaring the Met’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts as he whined along (he surely couldn’t sing) and conducted with his own baton, a birthday present from my sisters and me. In all likelihood, dad had been to the Met the previous Tuesday evening, and so there’s a good chance that he had already heard and seen the operas that blared throughout the halls of 56 Sterling Rd on any given Saturday.  Had he lived a different life, had he delayed marriage and family, I suspect that my dad would have found some way into opera research, production, or management.  He was just that passionate and knowledgeable.  Indeed, one of my fondest memories of my dad concerns a backstage tour we took of the Met many years ago.  In one of the scene shops (which used to be onsite in those days) we came across a sketched out backdrop of a colonial Boston street scene.  Everyone in the room scratched their heads as they tried to figure out what obscure work in the classical repertoire was set in Boston.  Indeed, even our guide was utterly befuddled. Then my dad observed that in the 19th century, European productions of Verdi’s Un Ballo en Maschera, a work that depicts the assassination attempt of a Swedish monarch, would often be set in colonial Boston.  Apparently depicting the assassination of a monarch was unacceptable in mid to late 19th century European productions, but the assassination of a colonial governor was just fine.  That was my dad.  He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the opera and an oversized love and admiration for the art form and its practitioners.

I, on the other hand, was less enamored of the opera.  Over time I came to enjoy it, of course, but I lacked dad’s all consuming passion for the art form.  And without that passion one really can’t succeed as a classical musician.  The careful study of scores, the daily practice, the intense care one must dedicate to protecting one’s voice, it was just too much for me, and there were others who were far more passionate, disciplined, and in truth, more talented than I was.  And so by my early twenties, I had stopped studying voice, taken up the study of acting, and, over time, the opera ceased to be a part of my life. Still, opera lives inside me.  I know the plot lines to most of the standard works in the classical repertoire, I can recognize countless arias after having heard just a few notes, and I still get a chill listening to Puccini’s La Boheme (Puccini was and continues to be my favorite opera composer).  My appreciation of the opera is a portion of my patrimony, a legacy forcefully and passionately bequeathed to me by my father. And so when offered the chance to attend the opera this fall, I went.

It was a great night.  It was nice to be at such a grand event with my wife and daughter. I saw numerous friends and colleagues.  The production was fun, and the music is still as beautiful and powerful as I remembered it.  Most rewarding of all, while sitting in that vast music hall enjoying the sometimes glorious, sometimes awkward, always exciting merger of grand music and grand theater I thought about the opera, my father, and me and the way in which the art form played such an important role in our relationship as father and son. Lost in that reverie, for a brief moment, I saw my father’s soul.

This last claim, my maudlin assertion that I could see my father’s soul, likely requires some explanation.  My father died in 2008, after a lengthy battle with melanoma.  Over the past six years, I have had a hard time recalling my father in any context other than his rapid decline in the two or so months that preceded his death.  To be sure, we all have wonderful stories about my dad, about his peculiarities, his temper, his sense of humor, his love of dogs and little kids, and, of course, I have photos of my father to remind me of what he looked like at different stages in his life.  But what is absent from my mind, is a recollection of the kinetic totality of my dad, of the way that words, and movement, and thought, and emotion, and other ineffable qualities combined to form his unique being, his essence, his soul. I have some vague memories of his bearing during his illness, of his labored breathing, his terrible frustration with his physical deterioration, and of his dips in and out of conscious thought.  But for years now I seem unable to capture in my mind some fuller sense of my father in his younger, healthier days…until I went to the opera.

As the lights fell and the overture began, a vision came to my mind’s eye, a vision of my dad sitting in a similarly darkened theater, his attention riveted on the stage, his occasional look over to me to confirm that I was still awake.  I recalled strolling across the large and beautiful plaza at Lincoln Center with its signature fountains.  I could see and hear snippets of my dad telling me the synopsis of this or that work—an experience that, as a child, I often found far more entertaining than the actual performance. And most specifically, I remembered meeting my dad for a pre-opera dinner one night on New York’s Upper West Side.  I was 23, living in Memphis Tennessee, and had just come into town for Christmas.  When I arrived at the restaurant my dad looked at me and smiled this big, genuine and loving smile.  Just writing about it makes me tear up a little bit. I saw all this and more, that night.  Throughout the evening I caught glimpses of dad as a young and healthy person deeply engaged in the one hobby he embraced more passionately than New York Giants’ football.  The whole experience was fulfilling and quite moving.

I had no idea that the opera had meant that much to me, that it had become an ethereal link between my earthly life and my father’s soul.  It has, though, and so I suspect it is time for me to return to it….not as a singer, of course, that’s just nuts.  No, I suspect it is time for me to embrace my father’s legacy.  To listen to more works of opera, to whine along with the arias I know and love, to conduct an invisible orchestra, and to close my eyes for just a minute and see my father.

As always…stay tuned.

On the Loss of Old Friends

12 Jul



Throughout my recent cancer scare, I have, quite naturally, been confronted by the idea of my untimely death.  Let’s face it, when you’re talking about cancer, people speak to you about survival averages, and those averages account for those who live through and those who die from the disease.  To be clear, though, pondering my premature passing was not some newly discovered habit of mine.  Indeed, it is a deeply entrenched, longstanding practice (some may call it a personality flaw).  Worrying is one of my most notable habits of mind, and to a professional worrier like me, premature death has always been a major cause for concern.  I wouldn’t say the thought of dying keeps me up at night, but it certainly finds ways to seep into my thinking throughout the day.  Recently, even before the current war with Gaza, I was confronted with news that would, to some extent, shake me out of my foolishness and remind me that while I navel gaze and contemplate my imaginary death, real people are dying every day.  And what is worse, some of those real people are friends and colleagues.  Worse still, some are the very same age as me, making their passing extraordinarily untimely, unexpected, and unfair.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew that the folks I went to high school with, those who graduated from, say, 1980-1985 would begin to die, but I assumed that process would begin later, as we entered our 70s or 80s.  Sadly, though, the process began just a few years after our graduation, and has continued sporadically over the past thirty-plus years.

Quite recently this cruel eventuality —the premature deaths of my schoolmates—once more became a painful reality when I learned of the sudden death of a onetime friend.  He was a nice guy.  He was one of a few neighborhood kids I hung out with in the 7th and 8th grades.  In high school we kind of went our separate ways, but he was always around and was always a nice person.  About two months ago he reached out to me on Facebook and I was delighted to see that he had a rich fulfilling life and a wonderful family.  All of that came to a screeching halt when he and his wife were involved in a terrible car accident, a crash that took his young life (he had just turned fifty a week or so before) and left his widow in ICU.  Although I had not spoken to him in years, and had not been close with him since our brief stint in a youth soccer league back in the late 1970s, I have found that his death has had an unexpected emotional impact on me.  I mean, sure, one can feel bad about this sudden and cruel loss of life, but for some reason I spent the weekend after his passing utterly devastated by the news.  My heart breaks over his death and for the loss and pain his family will have to endure.

Sadly, this old friend was not the first of my former classmates to die.  Nor is the loss of Harrison Huskies from the 1980s a recent phenomenon.  Their passing began within just a few years of our graduation.  The recent loss of my old friend, and my upcoming birthday, I will turn 50 very soon (God willing), have got me thinking about those who have passed over the decades, and I feel compelled to write about them here in this public forum as some kind of memorial to them.  I realize that any words I can offer are insignificant, and that even my interest in sharing their stories is evidence of my colossal hubris, as if somehow my little blog is capable of providing a worthy memorial for the passing of these young men and women.  It can’t.  Still, they were good kids, good people who, to my knowledge, went on to be good (and possibly great) human beings.  The world is diminished for their passing, and we are all likely better for being reminded of them and their lives.  I suspect that others from my class have passed of whom I am not aware, and I may have even forgot some names (my memory is not what it used to be), but to my knowledge, below is a list of my former classmates (or the spouses of classmates) who have passed away over the past 30 some odd years.

The first classmates’ deaths I can recall came just a few years after graduation. One night two friends were driving home from a bar and were in a terrible car accident.  He was an eccentric, former military school student with a charismatic personality and a shock of dark hair. He smoked Phillip Morris unfiltered cigarettes and spoke like George C. Scott in his role as General Patton.  He was a hoot, and I liked him very much.  She was a lovely and talented young woman who sang in the chorus (we were good friends in 9th grade).  She married young and was taken from us young.  The other driver was apparently under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and as is so often the case, he lived while my classmates died.  I wish I could say that I still think about them all the time, but I don’t.  My brain is too filled with other memories (happy and sad) to recall too much from my childhood.  Still, I do think about them from time to time, and it breaks my heart to know that their lives and potential were cut so short.

I think the next person we lost too soon was the wife of a close friend.  Forced to deal with incredible physical pain, she took her own life.  My friend, her husband, has somehow carried on and has become a regional leader in the fight against suicide.  I cannot even imagine the magnitude of his loss, and I continue to marvel at his strength and conviction.  But, then, I always thought he was the bravest of all of my close friends.  He proved it too!  He served on numerous police forces across the country (as did his wife) before switching careers (another incredibly brave act). As for his wife, she was beautiful, loving, a wonderful mother, and from what I understand a damn fine cop.  Her family and the rest of the world are diminished by her passing.

Then there was the little red-haired girl who I sometimes sat next to in ninth grade humanities class.  Apparently she grew into a beautiful and brave red-haired woman who gracefully fought and with equal grace succumbed to lymphoma—the same disease doctors originally believed that I had.  Her passing gives the lie to so many physicians who told me that, “If you must have cancer, this is the cancer to have.  The tumors just melt away in chemotherapy.”  Apparently not.  Her friends and family have created a charitable foundation in her honor.

Then there was my close friend who died of AIDS. His is an unimaginably sad story.  Orphaned by the age of 15, he was raised by relatives (including his barely legal brothers) until he reached his majority.  Fortunately he was also cared for by a number of very fine and decent parents in town, including my own.  Indeed, my dad helped him with his college applications.  He was accepted to school out here in LA, and pretty much left without much of a trace.  In LA he came out of the closet and, regrettably, found himself part of the generation of gay men who became ill with AIDS long before people knew much about the disease or how to treat it.  And yet, he somehow survived for a decade with the disease.  About a year after I moved to LA, we got back in touch and became very close. My wife and I, and he and his partner (a wonderful, caring, older man who deserves a great deal of credit for his care and support) became good friends—spending time in each other’s homes, enjoying the holidays together, etc. Eventually, though, the good times came to an end, as my friend began to be squeezed between the symptoms of his disease and the side effects of the drugs used to treat him—this was just before the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs.  The night before he died we said goodbye and promised to come back in the morning, but before we could make it there, he was already gone.  Dead at 31.  I still miss him very much.

I know that these are not the only people in the world to have died these past thirty-plus years.  I know that others have suffered greatly.  I know that there is a war in Gaza right now that has and will claim hundreds of people’s lives, many of them very young.  I know that my sense of loss may seem selfish.  But the loss of average, everyday people, people not caught up in war or some other kind of violence…their deaths matter, too.  And whether the sentiment is selfish or not, I miss these people, and am both saddened and angered by their premature departure from this world.  And above all, I hope that those of you who read this (including me, I guess) will stick around for a long time.


As always, stay tuned.

Stuck in the Middle

9 Jun

Scarecrow Both Ways


After weeks waiting for my doctor’s referral to be approved,  I finally made my appointment for my June Petscan, Thursday, June 12th first thing in the morning.  Also in June I will see a rheumatologist, make a second visit to a pulmonologist, likely see my oncologist (who referred me for the scan), and make weekly visits to a physical therapist (to help ease the effects of some pinched nerves in my neck).  It seems that as I approach my 50th birthday, I have become a regular consumer of the health care system.  I have become one of those people who likely costs the insurance company so much money that I require younger, healthier Americans to sign up for insurance to bring some financial stability to the system (that’s how insurance works, folks, no matter how you feel about Obamacare).  I am not sure what to make of this phenomenon.  I have always associated having numerous medical professionals on speed dial with old people, but I am surely not old.  Am I?  As I noted above, I have not even hit 50, yet.  My birthday is July 14th (yes, Bastille Day for all of my Francophile friends).  I haven’t even taken the somewhat obligatory step of joining the AARP.  And yet my life is filled with regularly scheduled doctors’ visits, with minor aches and pains, with a sense of nostalgia for 1980s and 1990s, with numerous regrets about roads not taken, and everywhere I go, people call me sir. No, I’m not old….yet, but I think that I have hit middle age.

It’s an odd term, yes, middle age?  At the very least our use of the term, which we generally employ to describe men and women in their fifties and sixties, is either wildly inaccurate or incredibly optimistic.  If I am, as Dante wrote, “midway along the journey of our life,” then I should be about 100 years old at journey’s end.  I’m not sure anyone reading this blog believes that I will hit the century mark.  I don’t really feel like I’m in the middle of anything, except maybe my career.

Instead, I feel very much like I’ve come to the end of numerous life circumstances and the beginning of others. Two years removed from my hooding ceremony, I am no longer a graduate student, and what is worse, most of the young historians I met in grad school have also received their Ph.D.s. And so even my younger friends have come to the end of one road and started down new paths.  On the other hand, this year I have been on television a bunch of times as a, so-called, professional historian. In fact, just this past week I taped two episodes of a new show, and so perhaps I am on the cusp of becoming one of those talking heads we see when the history channel actually chooses to broadcast shows about history.  Who knows?  I feel as if I am coming to the end of my time as a football fan.  While I love the game, I am not sure I can continue to watch young men destroy their brain function for the sake of my entertainment.  I have tried to take a look at other sports and see if I possess a shred of the passion that I have for the NFL in general and the New York Giants in particular.  Truth is, though, that I am not drawn to any other sport in the way that I’ve been drawn to football for the past 45, or so, years.  Perhaps I will dedicate my Sundays to something less competitive.  And, of course, as Emma enters her senior year, Amy and I are fast approaching the end of our time with a child at home, and will soon begin our lives as “empty-nesters.”  Thankfully we have been preparing for this development for years.  While Emma’s time in summer camp may have been a kind of preparation for adulthood, it was also an opportunity for Amy and I to see how we got along as a couple, and I am happy to say that most of the time I don’t annoy her too much.  

Indeed, much of the past year, which I count from the death of my father-in-law last May through Emma’s completion of 11th grade, has been a year of endings and beginnings. As I just noted, last May we lost my father-in-law.  This past fall my mother sold her house in Harrison, New York—once the center of all social and family life for countless friends and relatives.  Just recently my sister has ended her lengthy employ with a well-known department store chain.  Yet another niece has finished high school and is on to college (USC, no less….the horror). And Amy has taken the bold, but very attractive, step of abandoning dyes and embracing her gray hair.  Endings and beginnings seem to hit me wherever I turn. 

Perhaps that’s the real meaning of middle age, not that we’ve reached our chronological midpoint, but rather that we’ve reached a turning point, a moment when one a set of circumstances that have come to define our adult lives come to an end, and yet we have not fully embarked on, or embraced, our new paths.  We’re like Dorothy, standing in front of the scarecrow, asking for directions.  And as those of you familiar with the movie already know, his assistance is none too clear….”Some go this way, some go that way, and of course some go both ways!” Very helpful.  Nevertheless, that’s how I feel these days, stuck in the middle of massive change, but uncertain which way to go, which path to follow, and with absolutely zero sense of where any one path may lead.  That must surely be the definition of middle age. And by the time I get it all figured out, I’ll be an old man, which is a lot better than the alternatives, I guess, but it’s still frustrating.

Well, maybe the AARP will be able to explain all this stuff to me when I join, next month.  Who knows?  What I do know is that Wednesday I eliminate all carbs from my diet, Thursday morning I drive over to the scanning place—a place I’ve been to so many times that they actually remember me—then I take my radioactive sugar, get undressed, climb on a gurney, and let some big electronic doughnut scan my body.  Great fun!  Once I know the results I will, of course share them with all of you.  Until then, I hope that all is well for my many friends, family, and casual readers of this blog. 

Thanks for reading, and, as always….stay tuned.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.

13 May



About eighteen years ago I quit smoking, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.  To be clear, I didn’t quit cold turkey.  The whole process took about three years…three difficult, challenging years.  I quit.  I started again. I tried hypnosis.  I cut back to smoking one or two a day.  Over time I replaced my addiction to cigarettes with other addictions (gum, cookies, etc.,) and finally I quit altogether…sort of….  It still took about six more months after quitting the actual act of smoking to give up my dependence on nicotine gum—which gave me all the pleasure of a nicotine rush while still allowing me enough wind to walk up a flight of stairs.  Still, eventually I did quit, and I haven’t had a cigarette or any nicotine products for some eighteen years.  I say all of this not to brag about my non-smoker status, but rather as a reminder to myself that Rome was not built in a day—nor was any other large metropolitan area for that matter—and that the act of personal reformation takes time…to say nothing of urban infrastructure development in South Central Italy.

We are fast approaching the nine month mark since I was first told that I did not have cancer (which as you know was then followed by claims that I did have cancer, only to be disproved sometime later by exploratory surgery).  As those of you who read this blog may recall, shortly after I learned the good news, I posted a piece in which I dedicated myself to trying to reform my life—to eat better, exercise more, be more calm, and to regularly pray with meaning.  And for a good three months after that I was unstoppable.  I eliminated red meat and processed sugar from my diet.  I exercised four times a week and went to Tai Chi class once a week.  I meditated twice daily, and was, generally speaking, feeling great.  Then came the questioning of my previous diagnosis, the call for exploratory surgery, and a weeks-long downward spiral into self-pity and fear, all of which were accompanied by a brutal cold.  I exercised less, meditated less, ate a little less good, and felt a whole lot crappier.

 Since that time I have tried to get my efforts at reformation back up to speed.  I’ve been at the gym for about a month now.  I got back into Tai Chi class as quickly as possible.  And perhaps 50% of the time I’ve gotten back on my anti-inflammatory diet (no red meat or soda for me, but cookies and other sugary treats have exerted a powerful pull on my psyche….and my stomach).  But things haven’t been easy.  I have found that since surgery, my recovery time after exercise has grown considerably.  I get achier. I’ve come down with a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome, which at times can really hurt, and I seem unable to walk past a tray of baked goods (which are frequently present in my workplace) without grabbing something.  Friends have told me that surgery, no matter where in your body, can have a lengthy systemic effect with aches and pains that last long after the actual event and can happen anywhere in your body.  They tell me I shouldn’t worry so much and that things will be fine.  Also, over a beer the other day, a colleague of mine, a pretty fit guy, confessed that he too suffers aches and pains and that we are all growing older.  In short, everyone has told me to relax (which is more difficult than it used to be, too), that what I’m going through is normal, typical really, and that everything will be alright. As always I appreciate everyone’s good thoughts and advice, and yet I still can’t help but feel that I am backsliding.  That I’ve become complacent, and that I’ll never get back to the discipline I had in November and December of last year.  If nothing else, I am stalled, stuck in some kind of mental mud, my wheels hopelessly spinning and getting me nowhere. 

It’s at times like this, though, that I need to remind myself of my experience quitting smoking.  It took me three years to quit smoking.  Nothing about that process was quick, easy, or direct.  It was a lengthy and circuitous course filled with great advances, disheartening failures, ridiculous justifications about my inability to succeed, and powerful denial about the problems I faced.  Ultimately, though, I succeeded.  I did so because it mattered to me greatly, because my health and life depended upon it.   Now, too, I believe that my life and health depend a great deal on my ability to sustain an exercise and meditation regimen, to maintain a healthier diet, and to learn to relax a little bit.  And so I suspect that over time, I will succeed.  The process won’t be quick or easy, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get it done.  Still, the backsliding can be terribly frustrating, and so I need to remember what the urban historians tell us, that Rome wasn’t built in a day…Naples, perhaps, but Rome….never.  

As always…stay tuned.