Tonya and I

Years ago, when I was still somewhat new in New York City, and I still saw worlds of opportunities (and looking for work), I went to the NBC building in Rockefeller Plaza to make sure my application to the NBC Page program got to the right place. Being from Ohio and used to some Winter storms, I wasn’t deterred by the storm that was starting. Once I had arrived, it was clear it was starting to get more severe, and the NBC building was emptier than usual.

After I had found the place to turn in my resume, I was riding down the elevator with a young woman. She smiled and what I thought she said was, “Should I be on Donahue?”

For the younger readers, Donahue was a talk show that had started in the 70s. The revolutionary idea was for the host, Phil Donahue, to get the audience heavily involved with questions and comments to the guests. At one point, many saw it as the most important show in the country. Although I define myself as a liberal, Phil Donahue often represented to me that branch of liberalism I disagreed with, that I thought was BS. I remember seeing part of one show where they were saying we’re all being brainwashed to take on gender roles by society. I didn’t see any evidence to back that up. I had always believed that is something we inherit, though some girls may inherit more male tendencies and some guys may inherit more female tendencies. It seems more recent news items have suggested my disagreement there correct. But I didn’t always watch the show, so maybe it wasn’t always like that.

In response to the woman on the elevator, I said, “I don’t know. Sure. Be on Donahue.” Then she said, “I said, do you want to be on Donahue?”

I thought for a moment and then said, “ok.” I figured I wasn’t doing anything else. Maybe it would be fun. Apparently, many of the people who were supposed to be in the audience that day hadn’t been able to show up because of the weather.

She escorted me to the studio and I was added to the list. Before taking a seat in the audience, I had to use the men’s room. As I was peeing, I told a guy, about my age, peeing next to me, that I was just there by accident. I said, “my sister really loves this show. I call him Dil Phonahue.” Then we both laughed.

After I sat in the audience, it seemed clear that Phil Donahue was a really nice guy. He didn’t seem preoccupied with himself before the cameras went on. He looked at us and said that he loved the “youthful energy from this audience.” I felt a little bad about what I had said in the men’s room, and hoped he hadn’t heard me–probably not.

Our topic that day was the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan affair. It was on the eve of the 1994 Winter Olympics. A guy came to where the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was practicing and whacked her on the knee. Some believed that her rival, Tonya Harding, had something to do with it.

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Tonya Harding’s coach, Diane Rawlinson

Today’s guest on the show was Diane Rawlinson, Tonya Harding’s coach, who had taught her how to perform the triple axel jump.

As the show started, Phil talked about the incident with the suspicion that Tonya Harding had something to do with this. As usual, he took questions and comments from the audience.

It looked like fun, so on a whim, I decided to say something that I had been aware of from my studies in cinema, the Kuleshov Effect.

I raised my hand and Phil said “yes, you,” to me. I said, “It’s easy to see anything that she says as incriminating.”

Then Tonya Harding’s coach responded, “Yes, Tonya has a tendency to talk too much.” That double-edged sword I had just handed to her, it could only have been my subconscious at work, if it was by any design. But there it was, and then she reacted as if she had said too much herself.

After the show, I had a chance to talk to the coach, who was still seated. She told me she hadn’t liked Tonya’s new boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, that they “hadn’t seen eye to eye.” Another guy stood next to me. He suggested that they might have to have worry about a similar incident at the Olympics. She started saying how it would be so tight there it would be impossible, but as she spoke, she looked more and more nervous, until she virtually ran out of the studio.

After the show was over, I went downstairs to ground level, where I found a nice bar to have a drink. I sat there and in walked this woman with this guy who looked a lot like Brooke Shields. She had the same eyebrows. I laughed. What a day I’m having, I thought. She was with a man in a suit who had a shaved head–must be her bodyguard, I thought.

As they stood next to me, I said, “You look a lot like Brooke Shields.” She said she wasn’t, but that her job was to sell wine to different stores and restaurants. The guy said he had to use the restroom.

“Oh, I said, well, I remember all the fuss about Brooke Shields in the 80s with the Calvin Klein Jeans commercials.” Then I proceeded to imitate Brooke Shields. “The only thing I let get between me and my Calvins is nothing.” I laughed and recalled all those angry mothers. I said, “my mother wasn’t so offended, but she said you could get a rash.”

When the guy came back, he said, “you’re not still talking about Brooke Shields, are you?” I told him we moved past that.

This woman I was talking to seemed intelligent and charming and a little flirty. Her hair hung down past her shoulders in curls.

I told her I was just on the Donahue Show.

“What did you say?”

Smiling, I told her, “It’s easy for people to see anything she says as incriminating,” my magic sentence.

“Do you think she’s guilty?”

“I’ll say what my father, who’s a lawyer, will often say. I don’t know enough about the case to have an opinion,” I said, being careful.

The Michael Jackson controversy was going on at the same time. I did have an opinion on that, however. I had just finished Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground, which reminded me of something a film teacher in college told us about. I said, “I heard there’s a story, I think by Dostoevsky, where a man thinks of the most awful thing he could do and rapes a child, in an attempt to hear God scream at him. I think that might be what happened with Michael Jackson.”

She laughed and said she thought it was funny the way I had said “Dostoevsky.” Maybe it was my Ohio accent. I smiled.

She made the situation sound Kafkaesque, that the police were after him. I laughed and suggested that was silly. Was this Brooke Shields?

The conversation shifted, and I spoke about coming from Ohio. There was an African American executive at NBC. He heard me and said that I should go back to Ohio and add to my resume there before coming to New York. That was unbearable for me to hear. I didn’t often feel that I fit in in Ohio, and when I had left, no one was offering me any real opportunities.

I said that I studied Philosophy with a minor in Cinema, to this woman–we’ll call her Brooke. I said maybe I should have studied something more practical, like being a wine seller like she was, but I didn’t know why I didn’t. It had been unbearable to me at the time in college to study something more ‘practical.’

She smiled.

As we had been speaking, I had two drinks and a salad with chicken–this was before I became a vegetarian. When it came time to pay, I gave the man at the bar my credit card. He came back and said it was declined. I laughed, thinking, my card is getting declined in front of Brooke Shields. I gave him another card that went through.

Brooke and the guy in the suit with the shaved head had to go. They had both been really nice and interesting to talk to. They said, “good to meet you.” He shook my hand. I said “good to meet you two, too.”

Some time later, I recognized the guy from pictures. That was Andre Agassi. I don’t watch as much sports as most guys. Anyway, the last picture I knew of him he had hair.

This is the funny part. I must have been thinking too much about Brooke Shields at that point. Or I don’t know why, but somehow, I forgot to tell anyone in my family that I was on Donahue.

My sister in Columbus, Ohio was watching TV the next morning with her husband when she saw me answering a question. “That’s Michael! Turn it up!” she shouted. Her husband accidentally turned off the TV with the remote, instead of turning it up. By the time they got the TV back on, my question was over. Luckily, my parents in Toledo could watch the show when it came on at a later time. So they videotaped it.

When I saw myself, I was a little surprised. That’s me? I thought maybe I could lose some weight. I wasn’t sure if I liked the sweater I was wearing. This is from the pre-Facebook days. So it was strange, because everyone you ever knew your entire life might see and recognize you when you’re on TV. It turned out that a kid I hardly knew in grade school, who knew my sister better, said he saw me on TV.

Shortly after the show aired, Tonya Harding could be seen with a shirt that read “No Comment” as the members of the news media followed her.

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Tony Harding: No Comment

At this point, it was too late for her. The FBI had people locate, from the city trash dump, the torn pieces of paper she had written on at McDonald’s where they planned the whole thing. Her notes mentioned how they could disable Nancy Kerrigan.

Sometimes I fantasize that my question helped, since I like to catch bad guys. I could see some special FBI agents.

Agent One: Have you seen this? Take a look at this.

(Both agents are watching a video taped show of Donahue. I ask my question and Diane responds.)

Agent Two: I think we’ve got something here. Looks like she’s trying to protect Tonya.

A couple of years after I was on the Donahue show, other talk shows, like Oprah, surpassed Donahue in ratings, even though Oprah’s show owed a lot to Donahue in the audience involvement that he pioneered. And the Phil Donahue show went off the air.







How I Moved to New York

When I was just finishing college in Columbus, Ohio in the early 90s, my life was contrasts. One evening I was covering a story on a forum between former statesmen Oscar Arias, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Henry Kissinger for my internship at a public radio station and the next day I was shoveling human-feces-based fertilizer for an apartment landscape. However, I could find no long-term career options, as I was finishing a degree in Philosophy with a minor in Cinema.

Coming back from one failed job interview, I heard The Call’s “I Still Believe” on the car radio, and I knew I must make a change for something better. I had wanted to work in movies or TV, but I knew enough about LA that I didn’t like. I thought New York City—a place I had visited when I was fourteen to perform, a soloist for my older sister’s high school choir—was smarter and might be a good place for non-conformists like me.


In the Summer, I made what I called a scouting trip to New York City. My sister gave me a ride to the the Columbus airport and told me I was going to get mugged. Waiting for the flight, I saw a woman waiting who appeared to be in her mid forties. She had a tough, yet sophisticated look, that I attributed to New Yorkers. “Excuse me. Do you live in New York?” I suddenly asked her. She told me she was a podiatrist in New York, coming back from a visit to a boyfriend in Columbus. I asked her if she liked New York. She said she had complaints, but that she wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. She gave me her business card and told me about the 92nd Street Y, that she said would be a good place for me to stay, which is where I did end up staying, instead of the Youth Hostel up on Amsterdam Avenue that I had been planning to go to.


The buildings on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side reminded me of Sesame Street. I went to the corner, to a place called The Bagelry, and in one bite, I knew I had been lied to my whole life. No bagel I had ever tasted in Ohio compared to that.

I made a trip to the Guggenheim Museum, to see some of the world’s best art, but then I also happened to notice the visitors, some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.


I walked to Central Park to the first time, and I was struck by its landscaped beauty, but also its energy, with all the people running around the reservoir. It made me feel like running. I hadn’t seen such energy from so many people where I lived.


I scoped out some job prospects through ads in the Village Voice, and ended up meeting a few people involved in low budget film production. I also took a walk to Washington Square Park—there was a group of young people sitting under some trees and one of the women was topless—I have to move here, I thought.


My last evening before I had to leave, I called my parents and my father said he was watching TV let me know that Pavarotti was currently singing in Central Park. I walked up the street to the park where I heard the music and saw the scene of people camped out on the Great Lawn on blankets with small picnics and wine bottles, which surprised me. I asked someone about it and he told me that people are allowed to drink wine in the park. Again, I thought, I had to move to New York, no matter how difficult it might seem.


When I returned to Ohio, I told people of my plans to move, but few people believed me. After all, many people I encountered in Columbus would say that they were going to move and get into big things.


The radio station manager, with whom I had become friendly, told me he knew I would never leave. A girlfriend of a friend I knew from the alternative people’s bars said if I moved to New York I’d either end up “on the street, dead or in a mental institution.”


I was more determined to move successfully, as I made my plan and I gathered a budget together by selling my car and scraping together some money from my various part-time work, such as delivering pizza, offering samples in the supermarkets and telemarketing for Time-Warner Cable.


The morning I left from the house where I grew up, in Toledo, was the saddest part. I had been through many arguments with my parents from my teens and twenties, and I was determined to live a life very different from theirs, but they were always there for me, even when I wanted them to go away, and so with all the fights we had gone through, saying goodbye was still hard.


Although my father had told me he was against my going and that it was foolish, he insisted on buying my airplane ticket. From the Detroit airport, an hour’s drive away, for the flight to New York City, they put us on a turboprop plane, that didn’t seem to be flying as high as jets. I could easily see Lake Erie on my left and Cleveland down below.


I flew into the city looking down over the Bronx projects before landing into LaGuardia, then taking a shuttle to Grand Central. I remember a woman staring at me with my giant suitcase. “Yes, I’m new here,” I thought and smile.


The cab driver I ended up with was an older gentleman, who sounded like he might have grown up in the Bronx or Brooklyn. When he saw my bag, he said “What do you have in there—a body?”


My bar friend back in Columbus knew someone who was looking for a room-mate, so I read out the directions I had written down. “First stop in Williamsburg,” I remember. We drove near the M train into Williamsburg. At that time, to a kid from the suburbs, it appeared seedy and a little scary. A woman in her early 30s crossed the street in front of our cab and I noticed a long scar near her neck. “Did someone give that to her?” I wondered.


The driver asked me, “Who told you about this place?”


“My friend,” I said.


“The next time you see your friend, kick him in the balls!”


If the cab driver also thought the area looked bad, that couldn’t be a good sign.


We left the area and I went to another place I was told about: Hotel Riverview. On my way to my room, people in hallways looked strung out.


When I left the hotel the next morning, a tall man in a suit with a Haitian accent helped me with my bags. “He’s being nice to someone!” his friend said surprised. It made me wonder whom he had killed.


That was over twenty years ago. Now I’ve built a stable life here with friends and family. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.



How I Got in a Michael Jackson Video

The last blog entry was about meeting Martha Graham, who, I think, was part of a wave that made the post-war U.S. a cultural force for the rest of the world. I can almost hear the yawns.

Today’s post is how I got to be in a music video with another modern dancer, and a well-known singer, ‘King of Pop,’ Michael Jackson. If I mention this bit of history from my life (or should I type “HIStory?”) to people, they can’t seem to get enough –“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough!” Right?

Before you too get all star-struck on me, my part was mostly just showing up. And I almost didn’t do that. Still, I do think I have a good story.

Here’s some background.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Michael Jackson’s music. I know there are his fans out there who would have killed to go in my place. But from the mid-80s, I couldn’t stand the non-stop airplay of all the songs from the Thriller album on the radio and MTV. The last Michael Jackson song I liked was “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” In college, bands like The Cure, early U2, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunny Men and the later Beatles music reached me a lot more.

Then there were the child molestation charges. To me, it seemed strange that he had all these little boys coming to his home and ‘sleeping over.’ And I couldn’t understand, or at least appreciate, how any parents would have allowed that for their kids. It looked to me like Michael Jackson was trying to use his wealth and fame to get away with something terrible.

It repulsed me beyond belief hearing people take his defense when I think the same people would probably say his behavior with little boys sounded a little strange if it were anyone else.

In the nineties, I had been doing some extra work and auditioning for small parts and commercials in New York. Stanley, my agent, had all kinds of people coming into his office and all sorts of people’s headshots on his walls, absolutely desperate people and people who were getting casted in big parts on TV or in movies. I talked to people on the West Coast who said they heard of him, and maybe a lot of people knew him. Over the phone he sounded intimidating. He would answer with a firm voice “Stanley.” I might say, “Michael Chabler, checking in.” And he might say, “Call me later,” unless he had a job that might fit, where he would ask me questions, such as “Do you have a police uniform?” In person, he was a big guy with with horn rimmed glasses and scraggly hair and the kindest person you could talk to.

Some days before he sent me to the Michael Jackson video, I was over at Stanley’s office/apartment. His son, who was around eleven, had spent the day dancing in a video shoot with Michael Jackson and he asked for him to come back the next day. I think Stanley heard me express my wariness of the situation.

So when a week or so passed and I asked whether there were any jobs, he told me there was a “Spike Lee video,” and I showed up for the shoot, along with a couple hundred other extras, at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where I found out I was going to be in a Michael Jackson video, that Spike Lee was directing. Maybe we weren’t supposed to know until we showed up or maybe Stanley tricked me or maybe he just called it a Spike Lee video because he was the director–I’ll never know. I needed the money at that point and I couldn’t just walk off and expect that Stanley would ever book me again if I did such a thing.

And I guess I thought this was going to be interesting.

Being an extra is sometimes a little like being in the army, at least because you’re often part of a large group, and they’ll tell you where to go and where not to go, how and where to stand or where to sit and what to do while sitting. If you’re an extra, you’re the background colors on someone’s canvas.

After organizing us and briefing us on what would be happening, the choreographer came out to go through the movements. She was a slightly petite, attractive, fit and shapely, African American with hair like Beyonce´’s.

She went over the clapping, turning our heads and raising our arms we were supposed to do during certain words from the song’s chorus:

All I really want to say
Is they don’t really care
About us!

As she went through it with us again, she said, “This is some deep shit Michael’s saying.”

A little later, a few people laughed about that, repeating, “deep shit.” This was, of course, from Michael Jackson’s HIStory album, in response to the child sex abuse allegations that he had just finished going through.

Soon Spike Lee and others were sitting in front of us, watching us rehearse. One guy, an African American, started saying “Uh-huh” and “Hey-haw” the way Michael Jackson sang with his high pitch while moving his buttocks away from the rest of the body, then saying with his right arm and fist moving up and down in the air, “everybody,” clearly mocking Michael Jackson.

Mr. Spike Lee was watching everything and clearly not amused, with an expression of anger, apparently thinking, “Who’s this clown?”

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Jackson and Lee on set

Then a large, muscular African American guy said, “Ok, we’re all going to all have fun and respect each other. But if we hear any ‘hey-haws’ from anyone they’re going home. Do you understand?”

We all said “yes,” and that was the end of Michael Jackson impersonations.


They took us to a changing room where the wardrobe people fit us into prison clothing and then checked in our personal items. Then they took us to the large room that was supposed to be the prison mess hall. We sat at metal tables where we each had shiny metal trays. We continued to rehearse.

Then they brought in the stand-in for the rehearsal, an African-American guy that they splashed a bunch of white makeup onto. We all thought it was a strange site and quietly talked about it to each other at my table.

I made some jokes about being one of the token white guys with the other people at my table and had them laughing.

Then some people came around with the “food” for our trays, that we were to leave alone until shooting started. I think I made some jokes about our delicious dinner, but I also worried. “Would there be meat on the tray — would I have to eat it?” I wondered. I had already been a vegetarian for a few years and was committed to not swallowing any meat. Sure enough they had something with gravy and some kind of meat.

Meanwhile, they started preparing us for Michael’s entrance.  The stand-in went away and Spike walked next to Michael with his arm around him protectively. When Michael walked on his own, there seemed to be a nervousness. We were watching him and he was like the shy, new kid in class.

His face was pale and his nose was thinner than a pencil. I later, perhaps cruelly, joked privately to a friend that Michael went to the same plastic surgeon as The Joker.

During the shoot, I directed my jokes toward the people’s reaction. We went through some run-throughs and Michael got on top of the table in front of mine to do a little dance. There was a guy at the table whose face turned to stone, as if God had just danced there. We had to stop and God (or Michael) went through the dance moves a few times again.

I said, “Look at him,” pointing out the stone-faced guy. People at my table started laughing, but they tried to do it in a controlled way. The guy next to me said, “Oh Lord help me!” as he continued to laugh as quietly as he possibly could.

When the shooting started, we had to eat our “food.” They told us that we’re supposed to be really hungry. I thought, “Ok, I’m not that prisoner. I’m a little disturbed and rebellious and I hate the food, and I’m a little like an animal.” So when I shoved anything with meat into my mouth, I spit it back out rapidly, in a cannon blast. I noticed that one of the cameras was near me. I hoped that was going to be ok.

Later in the shoot, we were supposed to get up. Michael was on top of one of the tables right near me. I could see a look in his eyes, as if he thought he was a messiah leading all of us. Our eyes met. I looked at him thinking, “you’re not a messiah–you’re totally delusional and nuts!”

Later we were dismissed and went to dinner. I remember the food being very good with a lot of variety, some things probably a little expensive. It was catered from some service in the area. They picked some people to do another scene and dance with Michael, but I wasn’t one of them. Then the people who were doing the additional scene joined the rest of us for dinner.

After the shoot, I didn’t hear much about this video for while. I heard that they shot something down in Brazil for this song. I started to worry — did I screw this up? I could just see Spike in the editing room looking at footage. “Look at that guy. Do you see that? We can’t use that footage,” he could have said. ”

I found out later that there were two videos for this song, one they shot in Brazil and one they shot in Queens, where I was. I hope that had nothing to do with me!

Years later, I was working a teleprompter operator. One of the guys I worked with told me he did a job with Michael Jackson. He said that he had a whole bunch of toys and board games in his dressing room, like a kid might have. Then before the shoot, Michael asked a group of people how he looked. They all went gushy and told him he looked “fabulous.”

It was clear that he was surrounded by people who always flattered him. It sounded almost sad. But I wondered what anyone could have said. Who could tell him there was something wrong with the way he looked?

When I heard he had died, I strongly suspected he had a doctor who wouldn’t say “no” to him, even when he should. And I told people I thought that, before his doctor faced charges.

I had disliked Michael because I thought he molested children and for his bizarre behavior that followed the video shoot, when he dangled his son from a Berlin hotel balcony.

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Michael Jackson dangles his son from a Berlin hotel balcony in 2002

But after he died I wondered if he didn’t have the same understanding of reality as the rest of us. That doesn’t excuse what he did, or make it a good idea.

I remembered that before I had lost my virginity, I thought it was no big deal to sleep in the same bed with a few female friends I had, where nothing sexual would happen. I wondered if Michael Jackson was a virgin when he died. A few others have wondered the same thing.

A few years ago Rabbi Boteach appeared on news shows with his recordings of telephone conversations with Michael. He shared a lot of personal information with this friend. You

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Michael with Rabbi Boteach

can hear him talking about all the abusive memories with his father. Did his father screw him up and did his fame and wealth enable his staying or being more screwed up?

Did his father’s abuse turn him into a child molester? Or was he stuck in childhood with a distorted view of reality, where his relations with little boys were more innocent? Maybe that’s a naive thought, but we might never know.

As I told someone, “it’s one thing to hear about someone you never met who’s died. But if you stood in front them, as close as I am to you, and looked them in the eyes, you can’t help from feeling a little sad.”

His death probably leaves many of us with conflicting feelings and judgements about him and the public when he was alive.

Note about Stanley: He had an office near the World Trade Center. He’s been out of contact. Last I’ve heard is that he’s been sick.





Meeting Martha Graham (and what the famous owe us)

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 8.34.38 AMAs best I can remember, it was probably December 1989 when I found out that Martha Graham’s dance company would be coming to my university, Ohio State, in Columbus, Ohio, to perform in the new Wexner Arts Center.


The Wexner Center at Ohio State University

The school was proud of this collage of brick and white metal beams that criss-crossed at angles. It was supposed to be a piece of avant garde architecture to put Columbus, Ohio on the cultural map. Les Wexner, owner of The Limited stores, had donated a huge sum to the school to make it possible.

I had a position on the university paper as a photographer and spoke to someone who was organizing the event over the phone. I met him in person and he provided me with two tickets to the show and a press pass for the afterward events.

He asked me to comply with one condition: no pictures of Martha without her permission. He said she had this Egyptian image that she wished to maintain. “It’s all fake–just an image?” I thought. As part of the deal, I gave him my word.

I was in love with that picture of her with her palm just above her forehead. I wanted to make my own updated portrait.

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“Letter to the World”

I knew she was in her nineties, and this would be my chance to make something for the world to see, much like the photograph that Edward Steichen made of Alfred Stieglitz a few years before he died.

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Alfred Stieglitz, by Edward Steichen

I took a date with me to see the dance performance. My date had to leave when it was over. With my press pass, I was invited to a celebratory dinner. I went backstage and down the escalator.

Columbus, Ohio’s elite were dressed in their finest as wine and appetizers were being served. The same guy who gave me the press pass accompanied and assisted Martha Graham. I knew she was extremely old, but I hadn’t been ready, since I still had the image from “Letter to the World” in my mind. Her lower jaw stuck out in an exaggerated underbite and her dark makeup emphasized her bony features. I was twenty-one years old, and to me she looked like she was sitting up from her coffin half-dead. I was so used to staring at the picture of her, where she couldn’t look back. She glared back at me to show she didn’t appreciate the way I was looking at her. Oops!

Columbus, Ohio, at least back then, was like a small town, though it has around a million people. And like any small town, it had its village characters. There was a line of well wishers there to chat with her, and I spotted a woman who was well-known on campus. Talking to her immediately showed her intelligence. She had a PhD in cinema. But she also suffered from schizophrenia, so her intelligent conversation could suddenly turn to talk about extra-terrestrials watching us. She was saying something to Martha in her ear. It was clear from her body language that she meant well and came to her as a friend, but the look on Martha’s face also showed exhaustion–it was clear that whatever this woman was telling her had turned into something absolutely crazy. I felt bad for her to have to meet some of our crazy locals.

Then she said something to all of us there, thanking everyone. There were other press photographers standing next to me taking pictures.

“I promised not to take pictures, unless I get permission from her,” I said to a guy standing next to me.

“I’m taking pictures now. Looks like that’s going to have to be ok,” he said.

I wanted to make sure my word was worth something. And I was going to make my portrait that would be better than the current setting. Instead, I turned around and snapped pictures of the crowd, that included the elite from Columbus, press members and company dancers.

Then I sat and had dinner with some of the dancers.

“I’m just discovering that photographers are the scum of the Earth,” I said to one woman sitting at the table.

“A lot of them,” she replied.

When Martha Graham was leaving the room, I went with her and the guy who gave me tickets. The three of us were in the elevator.

“I’d like to make a picture of her,” I said to him, in front of her.

“She’s old!” he said.

I looked at her as if to tell her she looks ok. She looked back. I left the elevator and the two of them went on their way.

Back at the dinner table with the dancers, I told one of them how I would like to make a portrait of Martha. She said I should talk to her, and she might like that. I said that I would.

As they were all leaving, I remember a guy from my table taking a last swig of red wine before turning in. I snapped a picture of him and got his name, which I can no longer remember.

I also had a pass for a performance the next morning. I would get my picture then.

In the morning, before I left for the performance, my father called me from the suburb of Toledo where I grew up, two and a half hours away, to tell me my mother was in the intensive care ward of the hospital with pneumonia, that she came close to dying during the night and that I should come quickly to see her.

I was ready to start driving, but I went to the performance to get a picture before I left, since I knew my mom would be so proud and so happy that it would help her recover.

I went backstage and spoke with a guy who was probably only a little older than I was and I told him with a smile that I was with my school paper and wanted to make a really nice picture of Martha Graham. He said that she wasn’t there yet but would be there soon. Then he would ask for me.

He said I could have a seat and watch the performance while I waited. I wasn’t sure if I could do that–I kept trying to balance the waiting time versus seeing my mom. But I figured I could wait a little.

When she was due to be there, the guy came to me and told me she was on her way but had trouble in traffic, and he gave me a revised time estimate. I said “ok,” hoping it wouldn’t be much longer.

Again, when it was about time for her to be there, he told me she was still running late. I had to gauge whether I could still wait and said “ok.” I wasn’t sure whether I should leave. I wasn’t sure if I would see my mom again, but I also hoped getting this picture might help save her.

Finally, the assistant came to me and told me that her answer was “no.”

After waiting for so long and risking never seeing my mother again, I was furious. I went to the payphone backstage and made a call to the paper before leaving. As I stood on the phone, Martha was walking by.

In that moment, I was full of rage and looked straight at her, thinking, “It should be you instead of my mother!” She looked afraid of me. Then I tried to calm down and just looked at her thinking, “you’re a pathetic, old woman,” starting to feel sorry for her at the same time.

Then I made the two and half hour drive to the hospital where my mom was. She was recovering. I stuck to telling all the amazing stories I had to tell and about the evening I had before. I left the part about not getting the picture out.

Some months later, after my Mom had fully recovered, I told her the full story, and she asked me why I didn’t leave right away. She was a bit upset with me when I told her I tried to get the picture before leaving, that I thought it would make her proud and help her recovery.

Over time I changed how I viewed what happened with Martha Graham. Are famous people obligated to cure the sick or raise the dead? Do we put too much on them, simply because we like something they do? I remembered one of the essays from my Ethics class about a famous violinist and abortion, but I turned it around and thought about whether we are expecting too much from the violinist.

After a little more than a year, I saw in the New York times that Martha Graham had died, of pneumonia, after traveling with her company China. I said “I killed her,” to someone I knew and she laughed, assuring me I was absurd, but I couldn’t help from feeling guilty for the way I looked at her and what I was thinking and when she walked past me. Although, if I had been given a chance to sit and chat with her, I would have told her not to go to China–my grandma had trouble with pneumonia and her doctors had told her not to travel to China because of the dust.

As far as famous people and what people expect from them, I think we live in a time where people are extremely preoccupied with fame. People can be famous for being extremely stupid, and that is not the sort of fame I would ever want.

Many people do something, such as performing, and when they perform, they belong to us. They share a part of themselves with us. That is one of the beautiful parts of the aesthetic experience. However, I think there have to be limits from both sides. Sometimes famous people expect too many perks and sometimes people infringe on famous people, virtually, if not literally, ripping at their clothes, when they are no longer performing for us.

Living in New York, I’ve seen and spoken with a few famous people. What I’ve noticed is that some of them, unfortunately, suffer from social anxiety and awkwardness, perhaps from being deprived so long from “normal” social interaction. A lot of “normal” people want to be famous, but a lot of the famous people and their families crave normalcy, even if they want to enjoy some their perks.

Some time after my experience with Martha Graham, I became aware how complicit most of the news media are in perpetuating the myths of famous people, on behalf of their their surrounding organizations. I had hoped the Internet would be the great equalizer, in clearing through some of the misinformation we receive, sometimes about crucial issues, but I see unchecked misinformation circulating more efficiently through the Internet. And I’ve seen how people have been able to threaten people or hack into their privacy–it’s become a revolution I want no part of. But that’s another story.

As to why she said “no,” maybe the way I stared at her didn’t help make her feel comfortable with that idea. Maybe she didn’t want people to remember her the way she looked at that age. Maybe she preferred people to remember her by “Letter to the World.”



(first published Summer 2012–updated 6/25/2014)

Last night I was looking up into the sky (something very easy to do in Brooklyn), into the flowing clouds, and thinking about my wife and our four year-old son Ben. It seemed like a simple trip through that sky to the other side of the ocean, that same sky they’re looking into, from the city of London, where they are both visiting. (My wife’s job as a teacher allows her more vacation time.) Lying down and looking up, I could almost swim up into that sky and coast over–I thought of Charles Lindbergh, that exhausting night alone, where he had to fly close to the water to save fuel.

Earlier in the day, I told my mom over the phone how Ben’s mom, my wife, bought him an English bobby hat. She was carrying him when two real English bobbies talked to him about the night’s shift that he and they would have to work until 10 pm and about giving directions to tourists.

“I better take this off or people will think I’m a real policeman,” Ben said.

My mom laughed

“That kid’s been all over!”

“He has!” I responded.

After all, here is where my son has stepped foot on: London, England; Berlin, Germany (many times–passing through to Poland); Western Poland (many times); Zurich, Switzerland (airport only); Columbus, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; Rural Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; parts of Long Island; and he lives in New York City.

My first time in Europe was when I was 16, traveling with my high school choir for an international competition. Some families there volunteered to house us.

It was probably on the morning of April 23, 1984, the Monday after Easter. The mother, who spoke Flemish and only bits of English kept repeating the same phrase.


We were all meeting up to go on tour to nearby Holland and Amsterdam.


If the bus “leuvens” at nine-thirty, I thought, I will miss the trip! I was struggling to understand the language with any slight hints of any similarities to English. I knew what “leuven” had to mean.

I insisted that we go to the stop before the bus leaves. I insisted that we rush into the car. On our way, the mother tried to calm me down: “Leuven–nine-thirty.” We have to make it before nine-thirty, I thought.

We just made it, and then we waited for the bus to arrive at the city center of Aarschott, in Belgium. I recognized some of my classmates already on the bus. Apparently, they were staying in a nearby town: Leuven.

I think of that story every time I see Stella Artois advertised, or if I happen to be drinking it. “Leuven” it proudly proclaims on the package.

The first night’s stay, we had to make a trip to Leuven. It had beautiful medieval architecture: stone buildings with stained glass and winding streets. I should have made a note of the town’s name.

On my first night in another country, besides Canada, I was exhausted with jet lag. I had a strange dream, about Europe. I was a tank in World War I. I was moving across battlefields destroying the land. Those poor people in Europe!

There was a family. They lived in a house in the middle of all this carnage. They tried to go about their lives as much as possible. They spoke very loudly about something very important, in an incomprehensible language. They struggled with me and took me down the stairs of their house.

I was in a car. Suddenly, I realized the part where I was going down the stairs was not just in my dream. I asked where we were going, and our school’s nurse who was traveling with us and spoke English and sitting in the front seat explained to me what was happening.

They were taking me to the hospital. I was so excited the day I left for the trip that when my mom picked me up from school and I was running to the car and suddenly stopped, I twisted I bent my leg sideways against my ankle that started to swell up, but we decided I was still ok to go.

Now the family I was staying with and our school nurse had decided they better have a doctor look at it.

At the hospital they determined it was just a sprain. Afterwards they took me to a restaurant in that town called The Oxford Tavern. I had something that tasted like it was a mix of cheese and mashed potatoes and then deep fried.

Soon my ankle was better. I went from being waited on to, when my ankle was better, being asked to help mow their lawn, but then they rewarded me with cake.

It was fun tasting the food, biking into the town sometimes by myself, hearing different music and seeing the young women.

Many of the women had asymmetrical haircuts, one side hanging down. And their hair seemed to be wet. I liked this. It was the early 80s, and those asymmetrical haircuts along with the moose and gel would appear in Ohio in the later 80s.

A lot of  New Wave songs made their way to Ohio at least some months to a year later.

When it was closer to the competition, we stayed in campgrounds in Neerpelt. The Belgium government gave us all lunch on our first day there, as they did with the rest of our meals during the competition. Different groups went into the dining hall at different times.

Sitting at a table at the other side of the room was a gorgeous young woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She smiled at me–her hair was so nice and long and her face! She kept staring at me and I stared back–we couldn’t stop staring at each other. I couldn’t believe she was looking at me.

Where was she from? I saw her later as we all marched in a rehearsal for a parade carrying our countries’ flags and singing Ode to Joy. Her school’s flag had a white strip on top and then a red stripe: Poland–those poor people, in that oppressive country.

Hanging around the campground, I met a group of guys slightly older than I who told me they were a motorcycle gang in the area. They didn’t look like Hell’s Angels. They were dressed more like serious students. As I talked with these guys, I saw the same woman walk by. I tried to say something to her and the other guys tried to say something too. She became nervous and walked away quickly.

Later that evening, from what became clear was the Polish side of the campground, I saw another young woman with sandy hair, who was crying. I didn’t know why she was crying, but knowing she was from Poland, I thought she might be in some sort of trouble. I came to her and held my hand to her indicating that she should wait. I ran back to my cabin and grabbed my passport, to show her I was from the U.S., so that maybe I could help her and take her to the U.S. Then she ran back to her cabin and back and showed me her passport. I could see that she was from Poland.

We started communicating to each other by drawing pictures with a pen and paper. She gave me some information about her life and I gave her some about mine.

On the day of the parade, we all marched through the main street of Neerpelt, before my school marched, I first saw the girl who ran away the night before and she waived at me. Then I saw the girl I had been communicating with, and she waived at me too.

Then it was our school’s turn to march. We went through the main street and then into an auditorium where we sang the Ode to Joy.

Our school received average marks in the competition–I always thought some of the less serious kids made it harder for our choir to have more productive practice sessions–and in the evening our director was rumored to be drunk. I met the same girl I had been communicating with that night, in the same spot. Then I gestured to her to ask if I should kiss her. Then our director started screaming that we should all turn in for the night in our cabins and began counting to ten–so, I rushed away, without kissing her, before I was in trouble. However, we had exchanged addresses.

We wrote each other as pen pals for a while. Her letters to me always arrived opened. My mom knew some nuns she taught with at a Catholic school, though we weren’t Catholic, who spoke Polish. They translated for us. She insisted she was happy and loved her town where she lived and that she loved to laugh, sometimes getting one of those spells where she can’t stop. Over time, our exchange of letters became less frequent until they stopped.

But years later, on January 1, 2001, in a world with fewer barriers, I rode a train next to the most beautiful woman I had ever seen with the most beautiful eyes. We started talking and I asked where she was from. She said she was from Poland. I gave her my card, just before she left the train. She emailed me and we started dating. She would become my wife and the mother of our son, Ben.


Adventures in Parenthood–Teach Your Children Well (first posted 8/3/2010)

Special note: This posting got more hits than all the others.


There’s a topic that I haven’t always been sure to directly address from this blog that also never ceases to grab headlines, in direct and indirect ways. This topic is, of course, as old as the human species, the topic of people’s prejudices.


As a proud Brooklyn parent, I have the chance to expose my son Ben to much more diversity than I ever saw as a child. I think this is a very good thing. In our Brooklyn neighborhood, Ben encounters kids who are Spanish (or latinos and latinas), African-American, Asian, Polish, Russian, Middle-Eastern and mixed. Of course, at such a young age, they are just kids to each other, and I have observed that most of their differences from the toddler to teen years seem to be about age.


When Ben, who is now just two, encounters kids around five or six years-old, he might, for example, fill in their hole that they are digging in the sand box or want to play with their essential tools. The dialog sometimes goes like “baby, stop!” At their stage, they seem to have forgotten the toddler’s perspective, and they often have little patience for those who are younger and fail to respect the seriousness of their play.


However, these could be kids who are from all different ethnic backgrounds. I haven’t seen them dividing themselves among ethnic groups the way grownups sometimes do. Instead, it’s the older kids versus the younger and vice-versa.


If these kids were growing up in different places, it might turn out differently. However, New York City is different from my childhood suburbs. At my high school, I believe there were fewer than ten African-Americans, out of around 2500 or so students, grades nine through twelve. There were slightly more Asian kids. The good thing is that these kids were forced to mingle with the general student body, and most of us quickly forgot about thinking of these kids as being one of the “black” or “chinese” kids and thought of them instead by their names.


From the suburbs in Northwest Ohio, this sometimes produced funny results. You could sometimes hear kids making comments about the “black people downtown” but then say so and so, from our school, is alright. Stereotypes persisted, but at least we could acknowledge that the kids we knew at our school were people with individual identities, not stereotypes.


When I went to college, the story changed. I had room-mates from diverse backgrounds, one was African-American, actually part Haitian, but born and raised in the suburbs of the U.S., with a long French name. I had another room-mate who was half African-American and half caucasian. Neither of these people were stereotypes.


Of course, there is a thing we all grow up with, called “culture,” that influences us in different ways. We may choose to reject certain things from our culture, but it’s still what we grow up with. For example, few would argue with the claim that the French are raised in an environment of heavy cheese and red wine consumption. Furthermore, and even more generally, they grow up in an environment where people speak “French.” Probably, this generalization is not unfair. Beyond that, we can separate the individual from society, so while we can safely state that people growing up in France speak French, there are probably some people in France who despise red wine and cheese. We can, however, safely state that people growing up in France grow up in an environment where there is a predominance of red wine and cheese consumption. Upon meeting someone from France, it isn’t necessarily required to pull out a bottle of red wine and cheese–we may find some who could even say “Oh, I hate that stuff. My whole life, I could never get away from that.”


Or here’s another way to look at this. All of us, from being human beings, come from some sort of group. We may reject some things and take on other things from our upbringing. But none of us like to be put in a box. We all want to be judged on the basis of our individual actions. As a Jew, I acknowledge that some people are, as the stereotype, cheap. However, I would be strongly offended to be put in such a box–my wife often wishes I followed that stereotype more and controlled my spending better, and often tells me I worry too much about whether I have left enough for a tip. Now I know who I am and what I do, and can’t stand the ignorance when I’ve been told basically Jew = cheap.


For example, I was telling someone a few years ago that I didn’t own a TV (back when I didn’t own a TV), and I would only watch it if I were at someone else’s place. Her response was “That is so Jewish,” apparently implying that my goal was to save money. However, as someone who grew up in the suburbs, I saw the TV as something that becomes addictive, that stops people from talking with each other, that could take over one’s life into utter meaningless after sitting in front of that box, becoming a-social and watching shows about other people doing things in the world. I had a professor, from what had been Czechoslovakia, who put it this way: “Ladies and gentleman, if you spend your life in front of the TV, it’s the same as when you swallow a rubber ball. It passes through and out.” So my point was that at least at someone else’s place I was being social–it wasn’t a “Jewish” compulsion to save money.


However, on another occasion, someone saw me drawing in a bar–this was up in Connecticut. I was known in this neighborhood as the local artist, as I often went to practice by drawing people, after an art teacher told me I should be practicing all the time. This guy said something like “A Jew, drawing?” His girlfriend reprimanded him. But, while there are some well-known Jewish painters, it is a culture that favors the abstract, and imagery has sometimes been shunned. This seems to be passed down among generations. I grew up with a father who was a lawyer and a mother who was a teacher. Neither of them seemed to be passionate about doing things with their hands. In fact, it became a rule that I couldn’t ask for anything that my dad would have to put together, since he seemed to have trouble with these items. Thus, my response to this comment  was, “Yes, he’s right. Not many of us do things with our hands. I’m a rebel.”


It can be hard when we are burned by discrimination. I’ve felt it. It’s hard not to be bitter. When I lived in Ohio, I was working at a restaurant where I made a favorable impression on the manager who decided to train me to be a bartender. Then one evening a waitress who had worked there for several years brought her boyfriend there for some drinks. “What’s your ethnicity?!” he asked me, and I told him. The next day the manager told me this waitress worked for him for a long time and, per her request, I was being demoted to bus boy. After that, I ate pickles and olives in front of the customers–we were allowed to eat these items that we also gave to the customers, but just not in front of them. I hit the keys on the piano. And I acted like a general buffoon in an effort to embarrass the restaurant, until the manager finally got rid of me. I’m not sure I’m completely proud of the way I acted back then, but I’m not sure I was completely out of line, when considering the reason for my demotion.


Again, about a year ago, I had a job where one of the persons there spent a lot of time yelling at me, often for no apparent reason. It seemed that everything I did around this person was perceived as a slight. My emails to this person had be exactly a certain way, with the subject a certain way and the body only a certain number of words–otherwise I would get screamed at. I tried hard to ease things–I thought maybe since her job involved a lot of pressure handling money and accounts, that made her a little volatile. I tried to empathize. However, when the company hired someone with a last name that seemed to match this person’s ethnicity, he was called “honey” and when he made a mistake I could never see myself even daring to make, she said very sweetly “Ok, now just to let you guys know, you need to be careful and not…” What was going on? (I’ll never know for sure what went on inside this person’s mind.) Then when they fired me from this company, it seemed like she was almost dancing. She packed my stuff and I thanked her–that was so nice I thought. But then she said “You need to go!” One of the persons who was in charge of firing me said I didn’t “fit in with the culture” there–I guess I should take that as a compliment.


It’s hard not to build up resentments over these events. I was wondering how I was going to provide for myself and my family (suddenly being out of work in today’s economy), and this person was almost dancing. But then, if I resented everyone from this person’s ethnic group, wouldn’t that make me as ignorant as this person? It’s sort of like the vampire movies where different people get bitten by vampires, and then they become vampires too. No, I wouldn’t want to be so ignorant. However, I reserve the right to have issues with ignorant people.


When I was in college, in the community outside the college, as there were many African-Americans and caucasians who seemed to live mostly separate lives, there seemed to be more ‘Balkanization.’ So when I was walking alone one night, I passed a crowd of people who were all African-Americans. Two guys started following me and one said “What’s up?” Then he punched me in the nose and blood exploded from my face. The crowd cheered. The other guy kicked me in the groin. I managed to get away. I saw a doctor in the emergency room, and I had to have another visit. The doctor who heard my story did not like what he heard. Again, it’s hard for resentments not to build up.


However, I didn’t want to hate all African-Americans. I felt like I was going to. Any time I saw someone walking down the street who was African-American, I found myself thinking, is this guy going to start something too?


I knew this was a bad instinct. I had to do something about this. As an aspiring singer, I finally had the opportunity to audition for an African-American church choir. They liked my voice and accepted me. There were people there who taught me singing technique. There was a guy who was very funny and very talented, as an actor and singer. He came from a rich family and he lived in beautiful house that he invited us to for a party–his lover who lived with him was a guy of Italian-American background. Throughout my time with this choir, it involved hard work, but also times where we made each other laugh. There were people of all different ages. One was a mother who was telling a story where her son was beaten up–“and all because he was black!”


The problem was ignorant people on both sides. Although, it seems when people live separate lives, these hatreds build up on both sides. Then it’s sometimes dangerous when people from either side wander off to the other side, since it only takes a few people (or just one person, from either side) to make a problem for the “outsider.”


Here’s another experience. I felt a strong need when I was in my twenties to see get away from my limited world and see the rest of the world. I wanted to study in France and found myself struggling in Paris. This was the eighties, before the internet was released to the general public. I had the wrong information–I had trouble getting papers and someone from France told me to just go on a tourist visa, but then I ran into problems with that when I was there. I was trying to do things under the table and was running out of money. I discovered I could use my college ID to eat at the student restaurants, that were cheaper. I was looking for cheaper living accommodations, and this is when I met Yusef, a student from Algeria.


There we were, room-mates, Arab and Jew. Both struggling in Paris, in a tiny one room apartment. If I were making a movie, the perfect shot was when the two of us were hauling heavy bags and boxes of cheap groceries under the very huge billboard of Jean Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National with the stated goal of kicking out all the Arabs (Of course, this politician didn’t seem to have a love of my people either.) When I was completely broke and had no money to buy food, my room-mate gave me some money to get some bread, to pay back when I had the money–I hadn’t asked him,  but he saw what was happening and gave me the money.


Of course, ask him about America, and he had a lot of issues, and he always ended with “et c’est couru par Juifs!” (and its run by Jews!). I brought up that Algeria is run by Muslims, which made him laugh. And I also reminded him of my ethnicity, which he always seemed to conveniently forget. At the same time, he seemed to love America. He said he wanted to go there. He loved the movies, and the commercials with the Levi’s Jeans.


Finally, I decided I wasn’t getting anywhere staying in France with the wrong papers. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t go to school, which I had wanted to do. I decided to go back to the U.S. and I received some money from my parents for a plane ticket back, and they sent me some money to survive until my flight home. Living with my room-mate meant evening prayers during dinner time–I stopped from eating one time, out of respect, and he asked me what I was doing, and told me to just eat. It also meant finding out about certain recipes, especially during Ramadan. One was with a thin bread, with mashed potatoes inside and some mint leaves and deep fried.


I bought the supplies for this dish, but I forgot how to make it. He said he would show me how to make it if I gave him one. I said “OK.” As it turned out, following his instructions exactly, and the measurements exactly, there was more than either of us thought. Apparently, there was enough to make four instead of two. Having just starved in the recent past, I wasn’t willing to give him more than what we had already agreed to. There we sat arguing, passionately about this pastry. Finally, out of  frustration, he simply threw the extra one back on my plate, causing everything to fall.


I said every vulgar insult I knew to him. He simply stared at me, sort of smiling sometimes. I walked out of the room. He came and got me and told me to come back. It turned out that the pastry hadn’t been so damaged and everything was salvageable. But he laughed and imitated me “ba, baah, ba-bah.” I had become so angry that I cursed him out in English, but since he didn’t know English (and we spoke to each other in French), he had no idea what I said, which is a good thing.


Now when I think about that episode, it seems to me to be a parable of what is happening in the Middle East. Each side on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels it’s right. Each side is forgetting the humanity of the other. Each side is fighting over a small chunk of land, in this case, so they can survive. It’s too bad there is not enough understanding on each side of the other.


One more story. I once had a job as an in-store detective. I was not very good at catching people, and I stuck out. I think the thieves, who came into this bookstore, were always on to me. They seemed to have diverse backgrounds. There was one group of people who seemed to be up to something, apparently well-organized, apparently some students from Germany. We were trained to watch certain behavior signs (such as lots of bags, not making eye contact with store employees…). One of my bosses, who was African-American, and very much into catching people, told me to watch a guy whose behavior set off some alarms. This person I was to watch happened to be African-American. Being not very good, it seemed he was onto me, and he seemed to resent my watching him. Well, I couldn’t blow my cover, but if I could, I wanted to tell him “hey, it’s your behavior that’s set us off on you, and, anyway, the boss who told me to go watch you–he’s African-American.” This guy I was supposed to watch started talking to me as we were both looking at books, and he was talking about racism that starts with children. I told him I disagreed with his point “as black and white kids grow up with each other more, and more, there will be less racism.”


That can start with me and the raising of my son. I can leave all my baggage behind. I can tell him, yes, there will be some un-fairness toward him and toward others. The point is not to turn this into something where he becomes unfair to others. However, he’s going to the park and playing with all sorts of kids, and they’re playing with all sorts of kids. While headlines continue to scream about resentments that have exploded in violence here, or been the source of wars or ethnic fighting around the world, I can see hope here. It has made me so happy that tears have come to my eyes to see Ben and a young “African-American” toddler with their arms around each other. Ben kicking a soccer ball with a Spanish kid. Ben with his cousin, who’s half-German and half-Polish, while Ben is half Jewish-American and half Polish. But they are all kids, playing, having fun, sometimes crying over things that have always upset kids, like having to go to bed when they still want to play. Admittedly, it’s much easier for him to be normal about this and these kids won’t be a Spanish kid or a German kid or an Arab kid. Instead, they will be Jesus or Emil or Mohammed.


Hopefully, we can be good examples for our children. Hopefully, we might be able to learn something too when we watch our kids.


Adventures in Parenthood: Great-Grandma’s Wisdom (first posted 4/27/2010)

The Friday before last, I received the sad, but not unexpected news, of my grandmother’s death. I loved her so much, farther than the whole universe, I once told her when I was a little boy. She had been extremely healthy into her old age until very recently. In her last weeks, she became less responsive, and she died in her sleep, at the age of 96.

The first thing I did when I heard the news was look at Ben. I had known she was probably going to die soon, but now it was confirmed that Ben wouldn’t have the same opportunity to get to know her. She held him a few times, but he won’t remember, but I was glad she got to meet him. Near the end she spoke a lot about him and how cute he is, and she asked a lot about him.

My grandmother was born more than 94 years before our son Ben, in 1914. I think back a lot about being in the hospital room and watching Ben emerging into this strange world, that must have seemed too bright in its first moments, and the contrast with the world my grandma and grandpa, who was born in 1910, came into.

And the day my grandma died (though not truly a believer in the afterlife, I couldn’t say for sure), I could see her watching me. I thought about the possibility that she could see everything. I was giving Ben a bath and he wanted to play with his toothbrush. I gave it to him, but then took it back, since I’m concerned about plastics–I’ll have to write about that in another blog. So then I gave him a rubber implement that fits on an adult’s finger to brush a baby’s teeth. The only problem is that it fits so easily into a baby’s mouth that if they are unsupervised, they can choke.

“Take that away from him!” I could hear her saying to me.

“Grandma, I just want to give him something to keep him from getting upset,” I said to her, in my mind.

“Who’s the adult here, him or you? You’re going to let a little baby be the boss? You’re here to protect him, and you can’t let him get his way with something like that. He’ll choke!”

“Ok,” I said in my mind, and I grabbed it away from Ben. I managed to give him something else and assured him things would be ok.

My grandma was quite an assertive lady–that and her sense of humor are probably what helped her live so long. When Ben was just a few months old we took him to Ohio, where the rest of my immediate family lives. My grandma and the rest of my family were all leaving a restaurant. It was starting to get dark and cold out. She looked at me while I was pushing the stroller and yelled “put his hat on!”

“But I don’t have him,” I asserted.

My wife was carrying Ben back to the car in her arms, while I pushed the stroller that had some of our things, like our diaper bag, in the chair. Finally, I could show I hadn’t done anything wrong, and we all had a good laugh about this, including, I believe, my Grandma.

But my grandma, as it turned out, had been right about a lot of things.

When I was in my twenties, she used to always tell me to cut my hair. Now when I look at old photographs of me, with my longer and wild hair (since my hair never grows straight down, but instead grows out like a lion’s mane), I can’t help from saying out loud “what was I thinking?!”

Also, she used to tell me to hold the door open for the ladies. I thought I knew better at the time. I thought holding open the door for the opposite gender was an old-fashioned attitude. Women wanted to be treated the same way as men. Holding the door open for them meant I was treating them differently, so that holding the door open for women is sexist, so I had thought. Well, I probably lost a few chances from first dates when I tried not to be sexist. I had to learn years later that there are some gender differences short-term trends or notions can never erase.

Still, some things from past generations fade. I do understand how hard it could be to forget all the past  attitudes that surrounded her when she was young. Maybe one of the benefits of successive generations is that some memories, such as ethnic conflicts fade. After all, at this point, we don’t hear about any conflict between the Normands and the Saxons, in the land the used to be known as “Angle Land.”

But I appreciate how much sharper the divisions among ethnic groups were from her generation. Read Ernest Hemmingway– in The Sun Also Rises, there is a mention of  a “N_____” playing in the band. Presumably, Hemmingway wanted to evoke the atmosphere in a smokey tavern at that time, rather than his own attitude. Another thing: the novel’s heroine dates a Jew, a strong irritant to the other characters.

The Great Gatsby also clearly shows one of its characters concerns:

“’Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?’”

“The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

Do these novels reflect the attitudes of their time? The Sun Also Rises was published when my grandma was 12 (1926) and The Great Gatsby when she was 11 (1925).

Most of us are familiar with ‘that generation,’ the generation that didn’t have the same sensitivities as ours. Many viewers could easily recognize these attitudes with the father in the movie Monster’s Ball.


My grandma heard about anti-semitism in Europe from her parents who emigrated to the United States. Later, she would hear about the worse events in Europe. So it was no surprise when she warned me about anti-semitism. However, while acknowledging that this does exist, I see successive generations and modernity wearing away at much of this, bringing us to our son Ben, product of a union from an American of Eastern-European Jewish descent–that’s me–and my smart, beautiful, sensitive and loving wife, from Poland.

It isn’t exactly that my grandma had anything against my wife, whom she welcomed into our family and treated affectionately. Instead, it seemed to be  a general wariness of much of Europe or European society.

I remember telling her, before I met my wife, about getting friendly with a few au pairs, one from Germany, one from Austria and one from Poland, three countries on the bad list, at least historically. Of course, part of the retirement that my grandparents enjoyed included many trips to many European countries, including Austria.

While I still have my differences with her whole generation, I do feel her presence, especially when I’m with my son. After all, having kids at an older age doesn’t take away the feeling I am still a kid myself, a kid with a kid. Somehow, having a son at forty didn’t made me feel more like an adult who was ready to be a parent. Rather, my childhood had been extended.

But like a great Jungian voice in some part of my conscious, I hear grandma in my thoughts. I have a sense of what her advice would be. There seems to be an evolutionary purpose, first in having grandparents around–I remember the New York Times’ science section had a big article about this a few years ago. But now I hear her advice very strongly when I am lacking resolve. I might hesitate to keep Ben from something that isn’t exactly good for him, but then I ask myself “What would Grandma say?”

She’s there in some way when I’m still not sure I can get up, ‘footsteps in the sand’ one might say, or like the father’s hand in  Smoke Signals


I still have trouble believing and accepting that she’s no longer around. I knew my grandmother for over 42 years, my whole life, of course. But I think she would tell me to cherish her memory close to my heart. And while I might not have always agreed with every opinion she held, I do appreciate what her many years taught her. She and my grandfather raised my mother and uncle, watched seven grandchildren grow up and four great-grandchildren mature into teenagers. For most of her life, except close to the very end, she had a strong mind, often with strong, but evolving, opinions, about family life and about politics. She probably deserves some credibility where it comes to child raising.

I know she would have gotten a kick out of this article.


Adventures in Parenthood: You Can’t Always Get What You Want (first posted 4/6/2010)

When I was around five years old, our country club, basically a glorified suburban swimming pool club, had its annual Fourth of July celebration and kids’ activities. The memory is hazy, but I remember that day was hazy too, and there was one activity called the “Peanut Hunt,” where we kids were invited to find and take as many peanuts as we possibly could hidden among the grassy lawn.

A bunch of us, kids and adults, then huddled underneath a large tent, since it had started to rain. I found out that I had missed the “Peanut Hunt,” which had ended once the rain started going. It seems that for most kids, five years-old or under, missing something is a tragedy. There was a kid who said, as he munched on all his prize peanuts, that he was at the “Peanut Hunt” and had picked up plenty of peanuts. Even more upset and enraged, I grabbed his neck with both my hands and started strangling him. Some adults had to pull me away and tell me to calm down.

I’m still not proud of this event. However, someone I told this story to said I shouldn’t feel so ashamed with myself for my behavior on that day. After all, I was only five-years old.

However, I still understand and remember the feelings I had, even if I would not conduct myself in the same way. When Ben, our son who is 20 months old, cries about another kid’s toy he wants to have or something he can’t do, or has to stop doing, I can empathize–I can see myself in him, and at the same time feel sad for him when I see and hear that sad cry come, or sometimes burst out.

As a parent, I now have to sometimes be the bad guy. As someone who spent many times rebelling and fighting with every ounce against my own parents, it’s, some people would say, the karma coming back to me as I now have to be in the same position my parents stood in. I don’t like saying “no” to Ben, but I know I sometimes have to. Easy “no”s are things like “Noo!” when he is about to grab something sharp–I try to humor him at the same time, but make sure he doesn’t get whatever he’s grabbing.

The dilemmas, lately and most often, come with the playground where he finds other kids’ toys. Quite often, the parents are happy to share with us. Also, it seems that the kids who own whatever toys we discover are only marginally interested in the toy at this point. Still, when I, for example, push Ben in one of those plastic cars with the push stick for the parent or guardian, there is a point where we have to give the toy back.

The last time this happened was this past weekend. Ben spotted the car very quickly, when I was just beginning to catch a glance. The child sat in the car, but the mother, who seemed to think Ben was cute, asked her daughter to share it and let my child try it out. That was not a big deal to this girl, who went on to the monkey bars. Although, I was concerned that it might be hard to get Ben out of this car when one of us had to go home. Also, I wanted Ben to run around and keep developing his motor skills.

But it was hard to turn Ben down. He looked so happy once he stepped into this car. I almost felt that it was too much and I should not accept such a favor from a stranger. But then I reminded myself that is was more about Ben. As I pushed the car past this mother, she looked at Ben and said “Hi, handsome!”

After I told Ben “One more time around,” I stopped the ride and encouraged Ben to do something else. He rocked his body back and forth in a way to tell me I had to keep pushing. Then he somehow managed to strap the plastic safety belt I had just un-done–I had never seen him manage something like that before. I gave in and went around one more time. Then I stopped. I held him and spoke to him gently, then I finally pulled him out, and he was kicking and screaming. Still, I managed to quickly get him to the slide and after being upset for a few moments, he calmed down.

I actually had an event a few months prior, where things did not go as well. When I told him he had to share with another kid who was waiting to go for a ride, he lost control. He moved his head all over the place, and I had to struggle to strap him in his stroller, since I was afraid he would hit his head against the pavement. I had to start going home, give him his pacifier and something to snack on as we made our way back, to help calm him down.

As parents, we find ourselves as the ones who are deciding what they can or can’t have. From Ancient Greece to Judeo-Christian practices and laws to Buddhism to Dr. Freud, and beyond, they all have something to say about our desires, how to deal with them, whether to resist them, curb them, free ourselves from them or enjoy them, the way we were truly meant to. This very issue is what we find ourselves dealing with as parents.

Give your kid everything he or she desires and the results, as I have observed, aren’t pretty. You end up with an adult with no self-control, susceptible to addictions, self indulgent and un-happy. Deny your child, and you deny your child from the banquet that is life–your child grows up unhappy, missing out on life, lacking confidence in the world. We are forced to find the balance that Aristotle talked about.

We find ourselves staring at these philosophical, and very big issues, being forced to make decisions, sometimes very quickly, in our jobs as parents. My approach is to try to humor Ben when I can. I try to let him know that I understand the pain of not getting what you want, and I try to explain why it’s important that he can’t have something–at his age, he might not understand what I’m saying, and maybe, at this point, it’s just my tone of voice that assures him.

Plato said the just life is better, and that sensual pleasures keep us from being just. Freud talked about the harm people were doing to themselves by pretending they didn’t have animal desires that needed to be fulfilled. I hope I can help my son find a balance between these two, the Apollonian and Dionysian worlds Nietszche spoke of. I believe happiness comes when these two forces are in balance with each other.

Not always getting what you want is better than getting everything you think you want and still finding yourself  looking for happiness.


Adventures in Parenthood–Start with Animals (first posted 4/1/2010)

Yesterday, we took our son Ben to the Bronx Zoo. The highlight was when we went to the Congo section and saw the gorillas. They are behind glass partitions and they seem to have a lot of trees and forest to move around. I hope they’re happy there–they don’t seem hostile or agitated, and they move around in the back where the trees are or sometimes come up to see the crowds.

Ben seemed a little unsure about this, but he observed other people enjoying this and started to relax. My wife took him to the front, and luckily one of the larger, and possibly older, gorillas came right to the glass. He looked at us and the crowd looked at him. Ben did not smile, but he did not seem to be afraid either. He seemed fascinated, and I was glad he could have this experience of looking at this gorilla close up, where they could both stare into each other’s eyes.

This theme of animals also corresponds with Ben’s room, where we have photographs we purchased at Ikea. Each photo has two animals (two little raccoons, two tiger cubs and two monkeys), peering out together, chewing on a stick together or with their arms around each other. We bought these pictures before Ben was born. We liked the way they looked, but we also hoped that he could start sharing our love for animals.

Ben has also had a chance to interact a lot with our cat Marcel (pronounced Mar’ tzel). It’s natural for Ben to try to grab Marcel. Fortunately, Marcel is patient with Ben, though he may show his displeasure by moving away. Most importantly, we always pay careful attention when Ben is with Marcel–before Ben was born, we heard horror stories about cats scratching toddlers’ eyes out.

Besides helping Ben’s immune system develop by being exposed to a little dirt, that Marcel always seems to carry on him, we think we are teaching Ben sensitivity. Through his interactions with our cat, Ben has had to learn that the cat can feel pain, just like he does. I strongly believe you can find out a lot about people by observing how they treat animals. Likewise, for someone new in the world, it seems possible to give them their first lessons on compassion, sensitivity, understanding and empathy with an animal, such as a pet dog or cat, in our case.

As toddlers, they may not at first understand that other people, or other creatures, can feel different emotions. I think of his experience with Marcel, and other animals, as training wheels for social development, to empathize and understand people. Of course, we also value his appreciation of animals.

For anyone who has a cat and a toddler, I strongly advise extreme caution, as a cat can get startled or feel trapped, when your toddler wants to grab or hug your cat. Also, each cat is different–some are better at adapting to children. However, if you can manage your cat and teach him/her how to react and keep your toddler from getting too rough, there could be a payoff for your child’s development.

But if you can’t have a pet, I strongly recommend more than one trip to the zoo, especially where your child or children can see animals close up and meet eye to eye.


Adventures in Parenthood (first posted 4/2/2010)

When my wife was pregnant and I told some people at work about it, one of the lead software programmers, a slightly older (than I) Russian woman, asked me which operating system we were running. I was startled at first and then realized what she meant and said “it’s going to be a boy.”

At the time, the comparison sounded a little creepy to me–maybe it was just her accent. However, now I do sometimes feel as if our little boy, Ben, now 20 months, is going through a sort of installation, as he develops. The difference is that I think of language development as his operating system. From my wife and me he’s getting two operating systems: English, from me, and Polish, from my wife.

Of course there are many ways his thinking is developing. When I give him a bath in the evening, and I see him investigating how the water interacts with his toys and his fingers are probing every tile, I know his mind is developing a feeling for the physical laws of the new world he inhabits. Sometimes he seems to have gained a new insight that he wants to tell me about, but whatever he is trying to tell me is incomprehensible babble to me, even if this is truly meaningful to him. My guess is that, as important as perceptions are, his language development will have a lot to do with everything else–it will relay what he perceives and often affect what he perceives.

For some who emphasize environment in development, I only have to point to our cat. Our cat Marcel (pronounced Mar’  tzel) has spent many years with us, before Ben was born. However, while he is aware of certain concepts and commands, his communication to us consists mostly of his high pitch squeeks, that show little variation. I get a sense of what he wants or what he is feeling mainly from the expression in his eyes. Also, I have noticed no more increased complexity in his understandings from us.

If what I suspect is right, our cat has not become fluent in English, nor in Polish, despite years of living with us. There seems to be something babies have come pre-installed with, a sort of BIOS (in computer terminology) to assist the initial boot and installation of the operating system, part of which seems to reside in the hardware, or rather our baby boy.

My intuitions have a little assistance, such as from philosophers like Noam Chomsky. It’s not exactly my original observation that something internal is happening. Still I am amazed to watch this little seed of instructions so heavily engaged with the outside world to grow in a very orderly, largely pre-instructed manner.

And while I don’t want to rush the time I’m enjoying, I can’t wait to tell my son what things were like when I was little, and to hear his ideas about his new world.