Tuesday, February 23, 2010

After the storms

It's been an especially long winter this year. About this time of year, my dad would pine for warmth, and during his last weeks he longed for summer and time on the porch. The New York Times, sunshine, and a faithful dog...he never really asked for more.

Here's a piece he wrote about his and mom's late life adventures down south.

To quote some neglected poet, “Its funny how things work out. Or don’t work out.” Sometimes, they’re both true.

It was the Florida hurricane season this year that triggered some thoughts.

He remembered how tough it had been a dozen years ago for them to make the decision to retire early. Like everyone making that decision after a life in the workplace, he and his wife had needed to spend considerable time weighing what looked to be the biggest decision of their lives, although maybe that’s making too big a deal of it..

Naturally enough, the financial outlook was the biggest hole in the road. He was working for IBM, a blue chip kind of employer who had paid and treated him well over the years but wasn’t a sugar daddy when it came to retirement. They wouldn’t be guaranteeing him and his wife a life of endless bliss over the next hundred or so years he expected the two of them to live.

But they did have other things going for them that prodded him into looking hard at the possibilities. His wife had been a major contributor to the family’s financial well being over the years, particularly in the yeoman years when they were putting three sons through college. She’d been a very successful professional and manager with the New York Botanical Gardens and was a director of a major program in the Bronx when the retirement possibilities began washing through their house.

Suppose she were to retire, too, hmmm…She would also have some pension dollars although neither would that be enough to kick them over the to. But it was one more arrow in the quiver and stitched together to the other pieces it could make retirement more than pillow talk.

They had a pretty good life plan worked out for their retirement years. For several years they’d rented a villa or a condo on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, one of the smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles a place where they had vacationed for several years. It wasn’t a fancy island but it had a good solid native middle class and of course that wonderful Caribbean climate.

So they worked out this ideal retirement life that would put them in the Caribbean for six months and Connecticut for six months. Still, no matter how much time they spent with a yellow pad and calculator they couldn’t figure a way to swing any more than the month of February there each year.

They had made good friends with a couple in the condo complex where they stayed on vacations and they were being urged to buy. Buy now while it’s still affordable. Good idea, they thought, but still too big a stretch for their pocketbook,

Their friends kept putting forward all the good reasons to buy and they kept resisting.

And then IBM put a pot of money on the table to induce early retirements. He grabbed his share and left. It gave them the wherewithal to purchase a town house they’d had their eye on in the complex where their friends lived. They managed to buy it although it cost them a little more than they’d hoped to pay. Meanwhile, the couple who had been so keen on their buying a place were ecstatic.

His wife went to the condo for a month in the fall, hired local contractors to gut the condo and then refurbished it to their taste from top to bottom. When she was done they had a real Caribbean gem.

Five months later a volcano that had been dormant since Christopher Columbus was plying his trade suddenly blew its top and devastated their end of the island.

So much for the condo .The Caribbean insurance company was settling with the condo association for pennies on the dollar. The trickle down to owners was tiny.

Retirement was starting slowly.

Meantime their friends had moved on and before you could spell pyroclastic flow, they’d bought a condo in Florida. “No volcanoes here” was their cry and this was the gist of their message last year urging them to get with it and buy a condo in their neighborhood near the water in sunny Florida “Get in while it’s still affordable.”.

They turned that one down on the basis of slow recovery from their earlier financial and emotional traumas.

Meanwhile they were waiting to hear from them their friends about the big differences, if any, between hurricanes and volcanoes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

No stealing allowed

The other day my son Harlan committed his first brazen act of larceny. He asked for a piece of gum, which I allowed, then he proceeded to shield the pack from me while he slid 2 pieces out. This was not a mistake, but an act of pre-meditation, the proof of which was the fast rising blush that filled his face when I called him on it. We had a brief chat about such things, and went about our business.

It reminded me of this story by my dad:

My sister Mary was a couple of years older than me, and as a nice looking gal, she always attracted a bunch of male admirers who were also, of course, older than I . In my memory, they stand out as a lively bunch who were good to me because, I’m sure, of my proximity to the “queen bee”. I still remember with fondness some of their names and even their strong points since I learned a great deal from them.

Huck Woodgate taught me a great batting stance that I used to good advantage wending my way through the baseball sandlot leagues. Sandy Phelps showed me how to go to my left effectively on the basketball court. Tom Jordan talked to me about poetry so beautifully that to this day I have a deep love for that medium and can spout whole reams of the poetry I learned then.

But they weren’t angels either and I picked up some tricks from them that brought me problems with my father who was a no-nonsense kind of a guy with a hard edge to him, picked up over the years in running construction projects and having to deal with some rough types. He was also a black and white disciplinarian and you either played by his rules or you felt the consequences. Not that he was mean, just tough, and hardened maybe by the fact that he was only 5’-7”and, like a lot of small men, felt a need to show he was no pushover.

So I guess it shouldn’t have come as any surprise to me when I ran afoul of one of his black and white judgments and set myself up for his handling of the situation one gentle spring day in Albany where we were living at the time .

I had come home from Kelley’s Pharmacy with the copy of Life Magazine he had given me a dime to buy. When I went to hand him the magazines a couple of comic books fell on the floor. I had of course stuck them inside the Life Magazine and paid Mr. Kelly, who always stood at the cash register, just the 10 cents for the Life Magazine. I’d been doing that regularly since learning the trick from Huck Woodgate who used to boast that this was a trick you could use to get away with anything in places like Kelley’s and even the five and dime on the corner of Main and Manning Boulevard .

“Where’d you get these?” my father was asking. “I don’t remember giving you any extra change.” It was 1941, I was 8 years old and in the third grade , the economy was still reeling from the depression, there was no money for frivolities, and the war was waiting in the wings.

“No sir,” I blurted, “I traded these with Georgie Crystal. We always trade.” I could feel my face burning up, the way it always did when I told a lie. There was no Georgie Chrystal and I could immediately feel the walls start to close in on me.

“Fine,” My dad was saying, “let’s go to George’s house. It must be a grand place he lives in if he can give up these brand new comic books. Let’s go,” and he took my hand.

We must have walked for an hour, my father asking if we were there yet, me stammering out that we were close and I’d know the place once I saw it. I don’t think I have ever been as scared as I was right then, the options all disappearing with the endless blocks we walked, my fear driven by the absolute certainty not only of the physical licking I was sure to get but also by the branding of liar that would be stamped on me forever.

Finally I blurted out the truth; there was no Georgie Crystal. I admitted I had snuck the comic books out without paying for them. I was sorry. And indeed I was and I didn’t even know the half of it.

My father took me by the hand and started dragging me back to Kelly’s Pharmacy. Mr. Kelly was a nice old guy, always willing to give you a little extra ice cream in your cream soda at the fountain. He was a tall, angular character with glasses and white hair. He’d always liked me. He seemed surprised when my father dragged me up to the cash register and said to him, “My boy’s got something to tell you, Mr. Kelly.”

I remember as clearly as though it were yesterday the trouble I had in getting out my tawdry confession to Mr. Kelly and I can still see the look in his eyes as he looked first at my father who was standing behind me and then at me, a sobbing wretch in front of the cash register.

He was equal to the task. He leaned down until his eyes were on a level with my own and recited the list of punishments he could hand out for such an egregious offense from calling the cops with all the implications for a long and lonely prison term that this implied to banishment from the store forever. He went on and on and I can remember my relief and gratitude when his final sentencing edict was for me to instruct all my friends who visited his store that should they ever do anything so dastardly as I had done he would bring the full weight of the law down upon their heads

. I remember the feeling of real relief I had as my father dragged me out of the store, even knowing that I was going home to really get it. I was right on that score; I really got it, the first and only time I ever got a couple of licks from his belt across my bare bottom. Nobody in the house would even look at me, let alone talk to me for the next week—not my parents or my two sisters. I had brought shame on the household.

It took me along time to come to the conclusion that I wasn’t really a scoundrel and over time I came to view the incident as an over reaction on my father’s part. Well, maybe. On the other hand, I can say that I never in my long life so much as stole a sheet of paper or a penny pencil.

Let alone a comic book.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Eulogy for my dad

Not something I ever thought about doing, for sure, eulogizing my own father...

My brothers spoke beautifully at the wake, and I said these words at the funeral. Tough to capture in a few minutes what he meant--means--to me, but I gave it a shot. I had a vivid dream about him last night, and I don't recall my dreams often. He was in his forties, I think, and he was coming up the hill talking to me. I was present-day, and I knew he was dead, but there he was. I chased my younger brother up the back stairs; I called over and over "Did you see him?" I didn't get an answer...

Here's the eulogy.

I’m sure you know the Mark Twain quip: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." And you might know the Jesuit expression: “Show me the child at seven, and I’ll show you the man.”

Well, if I showed you my father in the last month of his nearly seventy-seven year life, you’d know the man very well, and you’d be astonished by how much he knew.

I talked with my father nearly every day over the last twenty years. Sometimes these would be five-minute conversations about the state of the world as I dropped off the mail. Sometimes I’d have some new hare brained conspiracy theory to run by him. Amazingly, he never once insinuated that I was nuts; he was always extremely interested, and oftentimes I’d return later in the week to find he’d done his own research on the topic. From his end, it was always apparent he was looking for some unified theory of the universe.

These conversations intensified in the months and weeks leading up to his death. Two weeks before he died, we talked about Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” piece from “As You Like It”, where the seven stages of life are outlined, and he quoted from memory the last lines: “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” He lay back and said, “Wow. How did I get here?” And then we began talking about the various ways life ends.

Later, I had downloaded some stories by a Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod, for him to listen to on his computer as he lay in bed. One week before he died, I came in to find him listening to these beautiful stories, and he flung his fist into the air and said “I’ve got to play these to my class and say this, THIS is how you write!”

On Monday, two days before he died, with his voice reduced to a whisper, I, an avowed agnostic, told him, an ever more skeptical believer, if there were indeed some afterlife, to somehow show me a sign from beyond. He smiled and whispered a few lines from a poem I didn’t know and squeezed my hand. Later, I traced those lines to an obscure Ohio poet named Paul Dunbar, and the verse goes:

“What dreams we have and how they fly

Like rosy clouds across the sky;

Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,

Of love that comes to cheer and bless;

And how they whither, how they fade,

The waning wealth, the jilting jade —
The fame that for a moment gleams,

Then flies forever, — dreams, ah — dreams!”

That same day, my father said “Put it up, the poem, put it up on the blog”, referring to a piece he’s written this past summer. I’d read it back to him a few days before…he’d spent some of his precious remaining time self-editing in his whirling mind and found it suitable for public consumption. It goes like this:

The poet said,

“I think I shall never see

a poem so lovely as a tree,

For poems are made by fools like me

But only God can make a tree.”

I thought that strange and prob’ly wrong;

Raised in town, I wasn’t strong

On Maples or on Chestnut trees.

But poems I knew and I could breeze

From A.A. Milne through Chaucer’s best.

But know I’m old, and trees it seems

Have changed a lot (Or maybe not),

And this I know, there’s a promise here,

That year by year the Winter’s sere

Turns with help to Summer’s green

And we’re no less than all those trees.

So maybe there is hope for us

That you and I will green again,

A second coming, as it were,

For each and every one of us.

Next to my dad’s desk in a filing cabinet is a folder marked “Story Ledes”. In it are articles about the Islamic Revolution of 1979, metaphysics in a time of terrorism, a sky watch map of the stars for the week of June 28th, an examination of the geologic time scale, an article entitled “Is God a Scientist?, an email from my brother Matt containing a Bobby Kennedy speech on the menace of violence, several articles about the mysterious death of Micky Thompson, a race car driver he knew, a chart explaining the difference between Sunni and Shiite, a magazine containing a series of photos of covered bridges taken by his own father, and an article discussing the teaching of poetry to West Point Cadets. In his last two weeks, he played over and over a mind-blowing six minute history of the universe I downloaded onto his computer.

Unified theory, indeed.

My father was my father, my coach, my banker, my editor, my fan, my hero, my best friend, a man who cared nothing about fame, fashion, or fortune, and above all, my teacher. To the very end.

For in those final two days, when he could not speak a word, I knew his brain was still working feverishly to decode the mystery of it all. The body had failed, but you could almost see the mind racing. And that is his final lesson to us, his three sons, now half-way through our own lives: keep thinking, keep trying, keep wondering, keep searching, keep reading, keep writing, keep questioning, keep hoping; tomorrow’s another day in which to excel.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Hard Fall

In the week before he died, my Dad had a dream where everyone he knew was gathered around him on a mountain top. He seemed mystified by it...

As he seems mystified by the dream he writes about here:

A Hard Fall

He’d had this nasty fall the week before so it probably shouldn’t have come as any surprise when he woke one night in the midst of a wild dream about falling. But it was such a blindingly real dream, so bizarre that he had to get out of bed, turn on the lights and sit on the edge of the bed to try and get some recovery time.

In the dream, he was using his walking stick to help himself through a meadow of high grasses, the dog at his side. It was early spring and the landscape had just begun to green. It had been a long tough winter and the sunshine this day was lifting his spirits as high as the endless sky. He was whistling one of those catchy tunes from the Sesame Street songs that had been filling the house as background noise for the grandkids who were in the house for the weekend.

In his dream he had stumbled on a mound of dirt that was piled up around a hole about the size and shape of a manhole. He had tried frantically to check himself but there was nothing to grab and he found himself pitching headlong into the hole. He’d gone tumbling down what he soon saw was a long tunnel, the sides smooth with a sheen to them like a glaze on a piece of pottery. For some reason, he felt no sense of panic and as he tumbled he found himself counting off the seconds that he was in freefall. “A thousand one, a thousand two,” he counted, and reached the count of fourteen before he landed in what felt to him like a deep snow pile.

He lay there for a while to catch his breath. He looked around, already trying to figure out how he was going to get himself out of this mess. The soft stuff he’d tumbled into felt like a cross between a dense fog and a fistful of cotton. It had some substance but also an ethereal quality that made him think of mists around the lake where he used to run early in the morning.

When he poked his head out of the pile he saw that the soft fluffy material was a long string of clouds that were part of a highway stretching toward the horizon as far as he could see. What had looked to him like stick figures were actually people lined up along the sides of the highway and they were looking toward him as though they’d been expecting him.. He got to his feet and managed to take a few steps toward them. He was puzzled to see that they cast no shadows across the road although the sun was behind the group to his left.

As he got closer the stick figures began to have some substance and faces began to emerge. He recognized the first figure as Tony Kedzior, one of his former roommates in college who had been a quarterback on the football team, a great guy but he’d never lived up to his potential. He’d left he Naval Academy just to come and get the chance to start as a quarterback but had been upstaged by a transfer from Notre Dame who turned out to have a bazooka for an arm.. He thought it odd that Tony was here; he was certain he’d heard that Tony had died unexpectedly with some bizarre disease or another

Even stranger, next to him was George McKeever, another of the four of them who had roomed together in the dormitory in their sophomore year. And next to him was George Dalton, the basketball ace who he’d played with for four years. Even stranger was when he saw Big John in the queue. Big John had been his best friend in both high school and college. He’d stayed in touch with John on and off over the years and one thing he was sure of was that John had died of cancer a year ago.

He wasn’t terribly surprised when Big John stepped out into the middle of the road and began to do an old comedy bit the two of them used to perform after a half dozen beers. “We’re a couple of song and dance men,” Big John was singing , all the while doing a soft shoe shuffle much the way he’d always done it. A low murmur of approval rose from the stick figures along the line.

Tony Kedzior had moved a few steps back from the line and he was rifling a football to George McKeever who was running downfield flat out. Tony’s long spiral landed softly in George’s hands. A perfect pass.

George Dalton was shooting one handed foul shots at a hoop that had appeared out of nowhere. Each shot was all net. George had always been a great foul shooter and when he was practicing you knew he’d hit nine out of every 10.

This is really weird, he thought, these guys had all died in the past couple of years and here they are screwing around in my dream; What in the world are they doing here? He began to feel a little nervous. Big John had walked to the edge of the highway and was looking at him funny but then started to wave him away.

John was laughing and saying something that sounded like “come back when you’re ready.” And all of a sudden he was headfirst in the tunnel and tumbling down until he landed in the soft green meadow he’d been walking in before. The sky was bluer than ever, the green on the trees so delicious looking he wanted to chomp on the leaves, the sun was a welcoming hot plate high above.

He made his way home. He felt giddy and then he started to sob. He didn’t know why; they had all looked so happy. His wife looked at him as though he was from some distant planet. He told her the story.

“That’s the last time you eat Chinese before bed,” she said. “The last time you thought you were playing Carnegie Hall and the middle C key got stuck. It took you a week to get over it. Remember?”

He did remember. In fact he’d talked to the owner of the restaurant and told him to take it easy on the MSG. He must have forgotten.