In the Nature of Things

As he awakens, the Old Man glances out of the large window by his bed, noting the autumn leaves, already red and yellow, beginning their descent.  Even within the house, the air is cool and bracing.  Leaving his warm blankets seems forbidding and inviting at the same time.  Mostly inviting.

He pads around—a scouting mission of sorts, checking all the windows to see if there are any deer or coyotes walking by.  The pond, just a few yards away, is already noisy with the Canada Geese.

This morning, like the last, the Old Man is amazed at his good fortune.  There’s a wife he still loves, children and grandchildren too, books to read, friends to see, students to teach.  The granola has been tasting particularly good these days.

As he sips his coffee and reads the newspaper, sitting as always next to his wife, the Old Man yearns for the moment to last.  They talk about last night’s lovely dinner with friends and the wonderful documentary about Country music that they watched upon returning home—a guilty pleasure to watch TV late and not worry about getting up “early enough” the next morning.

Through the quiet morning, the Old Man is aware that he doesn’t just feel good or grateful or all those feelings he’s supposed to feel in circumstances like this.  In fact, he can’t shake off the feeling of being disappointed with his life.  There’s no particular target for the disappointment.  Sometimes, when he reviews his life, he checks off one experience after another, noting how, overall, even the bad times worked out well enough and the good times were more than he deserved.  But that soft blanket of disappointment continues its embrace.

Still, he looks forward to a meeting planned for the late morning.  He’s going to see an old client in the Cambridge office he has retained for the last few years in spite of his retirement.  It has become a sanctuary, now undiminished by the exchange of money.    He loves the shelves and shelves of books, the hundred little artifacts, collected over a lifetime, the paintings and wall hangings.  They keep him company, demanding nothing in return.

As the Old Man settles into his easy chair to take in the wisdom of Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant new book, Sapiens, the buzzer from the waiting room startles him, so engrossed had he become in his book.  The visitor is actually right on time and the Old Man buzzes him up.

The tall, stocky man, in shirt sleeves and suspenders, enters the Old Man’s study with an air of unease.  He is a gray, jangling presence.  Before he is fully seated, he begins to talk about all the things he’s doing and all the people he’s responsible for.  Yes, he has been successful in his business but since he turned 60, he has grown increasingly aware of an estrangement with his children.  He hadn’t had the time for them and he regrets it now.  The more he experiences the estrangement, the more obsessed he has become with their well being.  If he failed them in the past, what about the future?

He can see that they struggle with their finances.  Their marriages are just alright.  Their own children seem vulnerable in this terrible world beset by violence and massive climate-induced storms.  Is there something he can do to protect them?  He wants answers from the Old Man, who had once helped him to repair the fragile marriage of his middle years.  He talks and talks, his worries and pain crowding out the air of peaceful contemplation that, minutes before, had filled the room.

The Old Man is well aware that his visitor wants assurances, comfort, solutions to yet-to-arrive problems.  Miracles, really.  Guarantees of financial and marital security for his children and grandchildren, at least.  He listens intently, his face rapt and sober.  His visitor looks for clues: a knowing smile, a wise sense of comprehension and compassion.  There is none to be seen. The Old Man is quiet.  His face is impassive.  Unable to read or apparently influence the Old Man, the visitor finally stops.  The room is very still.

Eventually, after an uneasy silence, the Old man, begins, “Your grandfather died; your father died; you died; your son died; your grandson died.”

“What???”.  The visitor had come, asking for wisdom, and instead he is hearing nonsense at best, mockery or doom at worst. “What the hell does that mean?”,the visitor yelps, half screaming, half swallowing his words,.

The Old Man wonders if he should continue.  But he is comfortable enough with his visitor’s indignation and confusion, so he does.  He goes to his shelves, finds a treasured book of Zen stories, and reads the words of the Buddhist sage:  “No joke is intended,” says the sage who had responded to a wisdom-seeker, in his time)…”If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly.  If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken-hearted.  If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life.  I call this real prosperity.”

The visitor is confused.  Something in him knows that the story points him in the right direction, even if he can’t grasp it at the moment.  He’s still irritated but no longer angry.  As he walks off, you can’t tell if light will dawn on him.

So too the Old Man and his disappointment.  Yet there’s a small smile on his face, and he feels his entire body relax as he glances out the window to watch the falling leaves.

 

 

 

Our Adult Children: Celebrating the Arc of Their Lives

When my daughter was still a little girl, we would move through long periods of calm,  punctuated by cycles of comfort and struggle.  It’s hard to say what set off the struggles.  Some might say that Jessie was disobedient or that she disappointed me—by not trying hard in school, for instance, or refusing to do her chores.  Then I’d criticize and she’d push back.  Others might begin the sequence with “unnecessary” demands I’d make.  No matter where the tiffs began, the cycles of misbehavior and correction, rejection and recrimination followed with dull and disheartening regularity.

At a certain point, I realized that something else was at work.  Jessie didn’t seem to be growing up “exactly” as I wanted her to.  Eventually, I understood that I was interpreting her actions in terms of being-as-I-prescribed—being me—or not being me.  This is a very common form of parental narcissism that blots out the obvious: Often, she was just being herself.

When that realization dawned, I saw my daughter very differently, as a separate person, with a personality and trajectory of her own.  Not that she was in charge of everything.  I retained rules for her and I protected her, but I also grew curious: Who is this child of mine?  This whole little person?  Once my curiosity and respect were aroused, I grew less controlling, Jessie felt the freedom, and whatever fight we were having at the moment dissolved.  Distance yielded once again to closeness and love—and a protection, not of who I wanted her to be but of who she was.

Psychologists might say that we both matured through a form of differentiation.  For many years, I thought it was I who managed the process but I have come to think that Jessie and I did that together.  Her stubborn refusal to be another me—I don’t think she yet knew who a distinctive her would be—was as crucial as my realization and backing off.

My journey with my son brought that point home.  In adolescence, he wrenched himself free, touted his independence, insisted that he both knew what he was doing and, most tellingly, maintained that he was well.  He wanted to be the person who judged him well or ill.  We all know that 15-year-old boys don’t know everything—their brains aren’t fully formed, for god’s sake—and can’t be completely in charge of their lives.  We set limits, maintained rules even when they became mutually understood fictions, hoping that they would somehow guide him in the present and eventually be internalized.  But in a deep sense, Gabe may have been right.  He would set the direction of his life, figure out what was important and how he wanted to be.

He has been utterly persistent in this belief.  Franny and I eventually yielded to it.  And, since I surely love and respect the outcome—he’s 39 now and, like Jessie, now 47, a person whom I love and respect—I have to believe that his ability to define himself has been a good thing.

I consider the recognition of my children as distinct and independent people as one of the most important achievements of my life.

But there is a second theme that runs through our relationship that is equally important and, at this point in my life, maybe more so.  I have wanted to see the arc of their lives, who they are and who they are becoming over a long period of time. The differentiation continues through the years and I want to witness how my children keep evolving.

My father died at 50 when I was 26.  We never really knew one another as adults, man to man.  I was very much a work in progress and, while we were extremely close during my childhood and well into adolescence, we grew more distant after that.  I suppose I’m not just talking about knowing one another in the sense of having a close relationship, though.  I’m talking about being known, about feeling that an important person has born witness to my life, knows me as separate person—and affirms me.

To an extent, we internalize this feeling of being known.  Most of us can say, “My father would have liked that, disapproved of this, laughed, if he were around, at that episode.”  This sense of presence through the years is critical for our well being.  My father gave this to me and, I hope, I have given it to my children.

But bearing witness to the lives of our children over a long period of time, as they move well into adulthood and parenthood, and through professional achievements of their own—that is something else, something more concrete, an experience for parents and children almost as important as all that internalized parenting that we provide.

My mother knew me as an adult, as I knew her.  She died at 87, when I was 64.  We talked regularly, shared at deep levels, laughed together, vented about political triumphs and disappointments, even shared some friends.  This was one of the great pleasures in my life.  Even the uncomfortable times:  when she married again—without  my “approval.” And when she attended a lecture I gave in Washington, DC, and she embarrassed me by proclaiming, amidst a number of people who had admired my talk, “I didn’t know you were funny.”

My mother witnessed the person I had become, not just my early promise and her own hopes.  Often she resisted my successes because they somehow suggested that I had inherited more from her than she could acknowledge in herself.  “Don’t get a fat head, Barry,” she would say.  “You’re not that good.”  By which she mostly meant that she wasn’t that good.  We joked about this and I like to think that witnessing my life raised her own self-assessment at least a little. Most of all, we reached a point where we knew one another and, to the end of her life, could still discover things about one another.  Our relationship was never entirely dulled by the ritual knowing that many relationships fall into.  I believe that we continued to surprise one another.

Being known by her, being appreciated by her, have been invaluable to my sense of solidity in the world.  But I’m a father and it’s my father’s inability to bear witness on my adult life that I’ve missed.  And it’s my capacity to bear witness to my children’s life that means so much to me.  To have what he could not have, to give this to myself and to my children.  This is what I mean by seeing the arc of their lives.

I’m pretty sure my adult children know my love and respect—even though they no longer depend on it in concrete ways.  They live their own, very full lives.  Day to day, I am a footnote to their children, work, and even friends.  Certainly the current version of me is a footnote, not nearly as strong as the historical version that lives within them.  Nor, of course, do they figure as much into my day to day life.  Often enough but not nearly as often as when they were children, they move me in that primitive, powerful way that our children touch the deepest corners of our hearts.

We are close, my children and I.  We talk and laugh and share many values.  This, along with my marriage, is life’s greatest gift to me.  And my continuing ability to observe—and participate in—the arc of their lives continues to nourish me.

I’ve seen them, known them, for a long time, watched them move through stages in their own lives—childhood, youth, early adulthood, marriage, parenthood, professional development, owning their own homes, having and sustaining friendships.  With each new stage, their story seems more and more distinctive.  I’ve seen them struggle and I’ve seen them solve problems.  Just like I did.  Just like Franny and I did and do.  In other words, I see them as I see myself and my friends.  As whole people with complex lives of their own.

I watch them now with appreciation and curiosity, wondering what’s next. I watch their children, too, with so many years ahead of them.  The span of years, hundreds of years, from my grandparents through to my grandchildren, amazes me. It is almost too many to contemplate. But I do and I will.

The Tai Chi Master and the Old Man

I’m there almost every day when the weather is good, practicing the 24 form in the Yang style along the Charles River.  If that’s more than you want to know, let’s just say I was doing my regular half hour of tai chi practice.  I know that some people think I’m showing off out here but I like the fresh air and the space and the view of the river, and I don’t really care what other people think.

Because I practice on the lawn outside a Harvard House, you’d think I’m a student there but I’m not.  I just live and work nearby.  This is a convenient place for me and it doesn’t hurt that young ladies walk by thinking that I’m a Harvard Man.  At the very least, it’s a good conversation starter after they stop to watch.  Some of them are really turned on when I get into the Carrying the Cosmos moves or Wild Horse Separates Mane and White Crane Spreads Wings.  Can I help it?

Well, enough about me.  The reason I’m writing down this little story is because of the old man I met the other day.  He was walking along the river when, all of a sudden, he just fell down.  I couldn’t tell if he tripped or completely collapsed because he sure didn’t get up right away.  Maybe he had a heart attack or a stroke.  I don’t really know what happens to older people.  Don’t they break their hips all the time?  But I saw him fall.  It wouldn’t say much about the mindfulness I was trying to build through Tai Chi if I didn’t notice and didn’t go to see what had happened.

By the time I got there, the old man seemed to be—I don’t know—wriggling around on the ground or trying to get up.  I couldn’t tell.  He seemed to be breathing well enough, though I really don’t know what ’well enough’ is in old people.  But it made me think that it couldn’t be a heart attack or a stroke.  Or some other crazy thing that old people have.

“Are you alright,” I asked, as matter-of-factly as I could.  I didn’t want to make a big deal of it if it wasn’t justified.  I was pretty sure worrying him wouldn’t help.

He just looked at me like in a bewildered way.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“No, no.  I’m fine.  Just a fall.  Thanks for asking.”

I felt a little silly for making a big deal of his fall but I was glad that he seemed okay.

He was looking at me strangely, though.  OK, people in this country do.  My family is from Pakistan and my skin is pretty dark.  But I don’t have an accent and I was just trying to help.  So his look bothered me and I was getting ready for something unpleasant.

“I’m fine.  Really.  You’re a kind young man.”

I didn’t know whether to believe the Old Man—about being hurt or about thinking I was a kind young man.  It’s hard not to be suspicious these days and I was a little angry at him.  Maybe he was being condescending.  Nice little immigrant boy and all that.

“Maybe I could just help you up?”

“I’m fine,” he said again, a little exasperation coming into his voice.  “You can go back to your Tai Chi.  You do it beautifully.”

I was surprised that he noticed.  Maybe a little proud, too.  Maybe a little patronized.  Here he was on the ground and he was saying nice things about me.  Who does that?

To be honest, I was still worried for the old man and didn’t know what to do.  When a middle aged White woman walked by, I asked her to help.  She took a look at the scene and walked away—pretty quickly, too.  I noticed that the old man smiled.

“Why are you smiling,” I asked.

“Because she looked frightened.  Here we are, an old man and a gentle young man and she’s frightened.  It’s a terrible commentary on our society, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I agreed but I still wasn’t ready to join with the old man.  And he was still down on the ground.  “Why won’t you let me help you up?”

“That’s a good question young man—by the way, what’s your name?  I know I’m being silly but I’m an independent cuss.  I’m embarrassed that I fell, and I can’t believe that I’m having trouble with something as simple as standing up.”

In spite of myself, I was beginning to like the old guy.  With some effort, I asked him what I could do.  Maybe I was acting a little less condescending by this time.

“Okay,” I began. “You’re the boss.  Name it.  Is there something I can do or would you like me to leave you alone?”

“Now you’re talking,” he responded, with some brio.  “Give me a hand.  Then let’s go over to where you were working out, and you can show me some of your moves—the simpler kind.”

Now that surprised me.  I didn’t think he could perform any part of the Form but I loved his asking.  We worked at some moves for at least a half hour before he thanked me and continued his walk along the river.

 

 

A Reluctant Hero

The Old Man was walking the city streets when he came upon a fight between two toughs, flashing knives and sinister smiles.  His instinct was to cross the street and give a wide berth.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  He saw a few teenagers who were witnessing the fight from a safe distance, but there were no cops in sight.

So the Old Man yelled at the combatants.

“Hey, guys, what the hell are you doing?”

No one seemed to hear him, neither the toughs nor the gathering audience of passers by.  So he took a few steps forward—not too many; he wasn’t an idiot—and tried again.

“Guys, stop that shit!  You’re both going to get hurt.”

That got their attention.  And as they turned his way, they each took a step back from each other for safety’s sake.

“Fuck you,” said the one in the denim jacket.

“Maybe you wanna get hurt, yourself, old man” said the one with the navy blue watch cap.

“Wrong,” said the Old Man, now that his nerves were strangely beginning to settle.  “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  Why don’t you both go your own ways.”

The old man had acted instinctively, without any thought about how effective he might be or what they were fighting about.  In fact, he could care less about the content of the drama.  A moment later, though, he came to his senses and realized that he had done something stupid.  He couldn’t wait to get away from the growing crowd.

But now everyone was looking at him, waiting for his next move.  And some of the teenagers were taking pictures with their iphones.

The toughs were looking around at the gathering gawkers and seemed thoroughly confused.  They turned back to each other, trying to regain their fierceness but it had fled.  They looked like creased and deflated balloons.  The guy in the watch cap turned and ran down a nearby alley.  The other, like a stage actor, pulled himself together, smiled broadly and bowed.  Then he, too, left, but with a slow and defiant dignity.  The crowd, now about 30 people, applauded.  For a moment, he turned back, smiled and bowed again, then walked off.

This left the old man alone on the stage.  The audience remained ready for more action and ferociously snapped pictures to commemorate the event.  He looked around, waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He would have loved to take a bow just like the thug but the gesture was simply beyond him, and he walked off with as little fanfare as he could muster.

And that was the beginning of the Old Man’s 30 seconds of celebrity.  The photos taken by the teenagers quickly found their way to their Facebook pages, the video that one of them had managed went viral on YouTube.  That’s where the Old Man’s 15 year old grandson found it and sent it along to the family.  From the family, snapshots and video began their rounds to friends and relatives.  The “like” notices barreled onto the Old Man’s computer screen.  Comments, too.  Days and days of this drained his capacity for witty, ironic responses.

Just as the event seem to have run its course, an enterprising local TV producer who was having a slow day, or a slow week, decided to feature the video on Channel 21 in Boston.

He called the Old Man that evening.

“Is this Sam Hoffman?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“My name is Sean Keegan.  I work with WQTB—that’s Channel 21—and I’ve got a video of you calling out some punks with knives.  Do I have the right person?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I said: I have a video tape of you talking down some violent men.  Was that you?”

“I guess so, but why are you calling?”

“I’d like to interview you.  We don’t have enough people standing up for others in our city.”

“I wasn’t standing up for others.  As far as I knew I was alone.  I just saw some guys fighting and told them to stop.  And they stopped.”

The Old Man, who had, since the incident, grown a little proud of himself, was nevertheless determined to exhibit the same modesty that he had learned on the basketball court as a kid.  The cheerleaders might cheer—“Sammy, Sammy, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can!” — but his job, no matter how bursting he was with pride, was to scowl, as though no one should notice, and run as fast as he could back to the action and his teammates.

On the other hand, a very different experience had once made a big impression on him.  It was during his sophomore year in college.  A good friend and teammate on the track team invited him to come to a soccer game.  His friend was Nigerian and apparently not governed by American or WASPY rules of decorum.  During the second period, he rocketed the ball by the goal keeper—the miss may have saved his life.  Christian O’Bira was delighted and trotted off the field, chest out, clapping and smiling, smiling and clapping.  There was no arrogance in the gestures.  He didn’t even seem to be showing off.  He was just happy to have scored, happy for himself and happy for the team.  That delight became the standard to which the Old Man aspired during his entire life but with very little success.

Sean, the producer, brought the Old Man out of his reverie:  “Sure, just an ordinary thing to do.  Right Sam.  Just stop a couple of thugs in their tracks.  Just a random act of citizenship in a normal day’s work.  Come on, Sam.  I’d still like to interview you.”

The Old Man was stumped.  He wanted the admiration and he thought it was unseemly.  He was an old man.  Bragging or preening wouldn’t look good on him.  So his first tact was to resist.  He adapted a stance that he must have seen in an old, aw shucks, movie:

“Look, I was no hero and I wouldn’t try to be one.  What happened was an accident. Accidents happen. If I had thought about the situation, I would have avoided those guys.  They were terrifying.  And I’m not trying to be cute here.  I was walking along, lost in thought—no not thought, lost in a kind of reverie about a time when I was young—and don’t be smart.  The reverie had nothing to do with the incident.  I wasn’t remembering a time when I stood up to guys who were bigger than me.  I was just day dreaming.”

“That’s okay with me,” said Sean.  I’m happy to have you say that what you did was ordinary, instinctive and not courageous.”

Still in his resistant mode, the Old Man went on as if Sean hadn’t said anything.

“I’m an old man.  What would my action exemplify?  Stupidity?  Foolhardiness?  A lesson for helpless teachers, armed with guns they hate, when confronting a crazy person with an assault rifle?  Maybe you think I should take on the NRA or the US army?”  But as he went on, the Old Man realized how silly he was sounding, how intoxicated with his own rhetoric, and he stopped abruptly.

Sean saved him again: “For god’s sake, Sam. I won’t blow it out of proportion.  I just want to show the video and ask what was going through your head when you yelled at those guys.”

Now Sam could yield to the other side.  He really did want to be interviewed on television.  He might be old but he still wanted his day in the sun.  So he agreed to the interview;  but—and here he just couldn’t let go of his inhibitions—“Only if you promise not to make too big a deal of it.”

“Deal,” said Sean.

Inside, the Old Man was beginning to rehearse his Christian O’Bira-like stride to the sidelines.

What Delilah Didn’t Understand

This is the barbershop that the Old Man has been frequenting for the last 20 years.  It’s part of a chain, staffed by young women, who move briskly through their work while exchanging pleasantries and chatter with each other and sometimes with their customers.  The main attraction for the Old Man is that he doesn’t have to make an appointment—it’s not a doctor’s office, for god’s sake—and the service is cheap.

He can’t bring himself to call it a hair cutting salon or any of the fancy names people use these days.  The thought of spending $50 or $60 at a salon is repugnant to him.  He knows women who take their little children—like their hair “style” really matters—and bully their husbands into salon treatments.  Not his kind of people.

Since he began to noticeably age, the Old Man has been getting a buzz cut, which is a lot like the crew cuts he got as a boy.  Now he likes them because they are extremely easy to maintain, requiring no care at all, actually, and because they give him the tough look that he favors.  All through the years women have told him they like a softer look.  One even wanted him to put some pounds on his belly.  Talk about repugnant.  But now as then, the Old Man prefers the hard, jaw-and-cheek-bone-prominent look that is highlighted by the buzz cut.

No amount of insight and maturation can compete with the dictates of the old locker rooms, the gatherings of boys and young men that so colored his youth.  The boys were merciless with anyone, boy, girl, or grownup, who showed any accumulation of fat.  They cultivated a hard guy look—Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, John Wayne—those kind of men.  Even though the Old Man considered himself sensitive and, as a teenager, often hung out with girls, so they could talk about feelings and books—even though he honored his feelings, he preferred the hard look that betrayed none of them.

As Marci, the hair cutter, neared the end, trimming his eyebrows—“They’re a little bushy, don’t you think?”—and his ears—“That’s what older fellows need”—he makes some faces, alternately hardening and softening his expressions and, making sure the beginnings of a double chin are hidden, settles on one that is engaged but uncommitted.  In that state, a memory slipped into view.

The Old Man was ten.  He’d just finished a race against his friends Kevin and Angelo.  The three of them were the fastest kids in the class and often raced, mostly for the fun of it but partly to show off.  As he walked back from the finish line, he came upon one of the school toughs—his moniker was, in fact, Toughie Rizzuto—beating up on one of the smallest kids in the class.  Without thinking, the still-young Old Man—his name was Sam—jumped the tough and they fought it out.  That meant they pushed and shoved a bit, warning the other not to try anything too bad, and kept snarls on their faces.  There wasn’t a real punch thrown.

But that fight was one of the most important events of the Old Man’s life.  The school was divided equally among Irish, Jewish, and Italian kids, of whom the Italians were the toughest.  When they gathered, they gathered in gangs.  When the Irish and Jewish kids gathered, it was in groups.  The Irish kids lived south of the school.  The Jewish kids, north.  The Italian families lived across the creek, which served as a stern boundary.  No one was supposed to cross the stream into Italian territory.  Or else they’d be beaten up.

But Sam crossed it all the time.  He loved balancing on the trees, like a tightrope walker, that had fallen across the stream during the Hurricane of 1954.  He loved, even more, daring anyone on the dreaded other side to catch him.  Sam figured that he could outrun any of the Italian kids, even Angelo, if need be.  His friends warned him and warned him, but Sam kept crossing the stream into the Italian forest. Angelo knew.  It was a secret and a joke between them.  Maybe a bond between them.

In any case, Sam’s performance that fifth grade day formed and consolidated his reputation among the Italian gangs:  “Don’t mess with Sam.”  And it wasn’t just that Sam might hurt someone.  It was because his willingness to fight made him one of them.  An honorary Italian.

The membership bought him years and years of cover.  It didn’t matter if he talked with girls or that he was an egghead—that’s what kids who studied and went to the “advanced” classes were called.  They kidded him about that but what they were really saying was, “That’s just Sam.  What can you do?”  They didn’t even seem to mind that, even adopted him as their pet egghead, though, with the exception of Angelo, Sam didn’t spend his free time with them.  The adoption was symbolic.

By junior high school, they were together on the football and basketball teams.  No problem being teammates.  That was part of the code that guys lived by.  The teams were like another gang and in that place, Sam and the Italian boys were joined at the hip.

But looking back, Sam was pretty sure it was The Fight—way back in fifth grade—that  made his reputation.  He was OK.  He was tough.

For years, maybe decades, that agreement gave him a sense of security.  As an adult, he’d meander through tough city streets feeling safe.  He wasn’t a fighter and couldn’t really defend himself against street kids, who practiced the martial arts every day.  And outsiders might say that he wasn’t that strong, though Sam thought he was.  It wasn’t until he was about 45, when a friend who was a Tae Kwon Do expert told Sam that he wouldn’t stand a chance with a practiced fighter that Sam actually let that reality in.  But even then, he still felt protected somehow by the verdict of the Italian gang in 1954.

With college, Sam’s hair began a circuitous path, possibly in search of the strength he had known as a youth.  During college, it got longer—and longer still during graduate school.  That led to years of long and kinky hair, what was then called a jewfro.  The Jewfro, in particular, earned his wife’s resounding approval.  But even the jewfro eventually fell to shorter hair.  Middle age brought the type of cut that could be brushed and given a part.  That was an intermediary stage.  With each few years, Sam’s grew shorter and shorter until it culminated in its present day buzz cut, which was a short as it could be without making him bald.

When his haircut is complete, he glances at the mirror, squares his shoulders, and energetically walks out of the shop to his “muscle car,” a gray Toyota Camry.  .

 

The Old Man, the Young Boy and the Bomb in the Supermarket

If you look carefully, if you ignore that one is about 80 and the other 5, that one is almost 6 foot and the other not yet 4 foot tall, they look almost the same.  At least if you watch them from behind, holding hands, and walking across the parking lot.  There’s something about the slouch of their shoulders, their heads held high, and the easy way they walked.  You just knew that they were related.

That day, they were wandering the Whole Food aisles, currently checking the produce section, noting the bright reds and yellows of the peppers, smelling the garlic, and wondering about the names of the leafy greens.  “There isn’t much red in that red leaf lettuce,” five year old Isaac commented.  “I think they should find another name.”  The Old Man nodded his assent.  They marveled at the size of the melons.

“That one must be 50 pounds,” Isaac exulted.

“Could be,” said the Old Man.

Then they came to the coffee aisle.  From long experience, they knew that this would be the culmination of their journey.  One by one, they sniffed the various beans.  “What do you think about these Italian beans,” asked the Old Man?  “How about the Morning Blend?  The Costa Ricans seem a little weak to me.  What about you, Isaac?”  Isaac was excited by their test runs but he was also onto his grandpa.  He knew that the Old Man liked French Roast best.  So he carefully modulated his responses to the others, building to an exuberant affirmation.

“Grandpa, the French Roast is by far the best.”

“Are you sure?”

“Are you kidding, Grandpa.  No contest.”

“I think so, too,” said the Old Man, incongruously hoping that Isaac would someday grow into a French Roast devotee.

The Old Man had a long history with supermarkets.  For reasons he couldn’t fully explain, they made him happy.  He wasn’t a foodie, after all; far from it.  He didn’t cook, either.  He liked restaurants as a place for intimate conversation and hardly cared about the quality of the food, itself.  OK, he cared a little, but it was companionship, not food that drew him there.  Even when he was alone, he loved supermarkets.

As he and Isaac continued their meanderings through the produce section, he remembered those wonderful days with Nathan, his son and Isaac’s father.  As a young man, he so enjoyed lifting Nathan into the seat of the big shopping carts and zipping around the aisles.  Nathan would giggle uncontrollably as his dad let the cart go by itself and, just as it was about to crash into the cans of peas, catch him, save him.  Later, Nathan would smile that sheepish smile of his and wave at passers by.  They would wave back—“So cute,” they’d tell the young father—and then look admiringly at him.  It was 1972 and there weren’t lots of men wheeling shopping carts in those days.  Even fewer with little children.

Assuming he was reading the women’s eyes correctly, he knew he was seen as a hero—one of the few times in his life that he would ever achieve that exalted status. Those supermarket adventures were some of the happiest moments of his life.

By the time Nathan was four months old, his mother and the Old Man had divorced.  Since his mother was not interested in taking care of an infant—or anyone else—he had taken on the role of mother and father.  He certainly hadn’t planned it; nor had he prepared.  He couldn’t remember a single time when, as a boy, he had taken care of his baby sister.  That is, until she was about four or five and he ten.  Then they had played together and he felt responsible for her.

He felt responsible and profoundly attached to Nathan from the moment he was born.  Yes, he was a pretty traditional guy with expectations of freedom and support.  But Nathan was a fact.  He needed someone to hold him and feed him.  He did it.  There was nothing noble or even particularly generous about a young father stepping in.  That’s what he would tell people.  “It was just…  What else was there to do

————————————————————–

But let me get back to my story. The old man and his grandson had wandered back to the produce section where they were going to buy some baby cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers for this evening’s salad.  When they arrived, it seemed quieter than usual.  Without knowing why, the Old Man and Isaac found themselves whispering.  Then, as if on cue, there was a huge explosion at the other end of the store.  It was deafening and the billowing smoke made it hard to see.

A cascade of potatoes spilled onto the floor and tripped them up.  As they fell, the Old man said “Let’s stay down here.”

Isaac’s eyes were wide with wonder and fear.  “On the ground, Grandpa?”

“Yes.  Let’s hide under these shelves, just in case there is another explosion.”

“Was it a bomb, Grandpa”?

“I think so.”

“Will the bad people find us?” Isaac asked.

“I don’t think so, Isaac,” said the Old Man.  Not that he was so sure.  There could be crazy people with guns, with assault rifles, for all he knew.  Like everybody else in America, he’d seen enough slaughter on TV to know what was possible.  He knew that the random assassins that now roamed American streets cared nothing for young children or old men.  He could only hope that he and Isaac were hidden enough to be safe.

From their hideout, Isaac and the Old Man heard people screaming, shrill with anger and pain—and rage.  It seemed like everyone was mad at someone else.  Even from their hideout, you could hear that people were running for safety and sometimes shoving others out of their way.  But you could also hear people tending to the injured:  “Just stay down; I’ll get help.”  And “It’ll be alright.  Breathe.  That’s it, nice and slow.  We’ll get you out of here.”  Strangers helped and held one another.

Soon there were sirens outside and the sound of professional sounding men ordering others to walk slowly and to keep moving away from the store.  That’s when Isaac piped in, his voice no longer tremulous:

“I think we’re safe now, Grandpa.”

“I do, too, Isaac, but we’re going to stay here a little longer.  I want to make extra sure that there aren’t any more bombs or bad people out there.  We’ll know it’s time when policemen come and tell us so.”

As much as Isaac wanted to see what was going on, he remained still and quiet, folded into the Old Man’s arms.  And the Old Man, much as he yearned for the All Clear call from the rescue team, cherished the closeness of the moment.

For the eternity that turned out to be twenty minutes, they waited in their vegetable cave until policemen rushed through the store, ushering them out, and assuring them that there was no more danger.  During that entire time, Isaac never let go of the Old Man.  But his eyes seemed clear and he craned his neck to see as much as possible from their hiding place atop the potatoes and beneath the mushrooms.  You couldn’t tell if he was more frightened or excited.  This was an adventure they couldn’t have cooked up.  It was horrible but the Old Man was grateful to have seen it through with his boy.

After emerging from their hiding place, they followed the policemen’s instructions, not stopping to gawk or talk, and walked directly to their car.  Fearing that Isaac’s parents might have learned about the bomb on the internet or the radio, the Old Man called to reassure them that they had come through the horror without injury and without any obvious signs of trauma.

Fortunately, they hadn’t known where The Old Man had taken Isaac.  Every week, he and Isaac traipsed all over the city, exploring one new place after another and traveling the Red Line rails as much as possible.  So Isaac’s parents hadn’t worried at all.

Hearing the news, though, they wanted him home right away.  The Old man understood.  He would have wanted Isaac close, too.  He would have needed the reassurance.  They headed home.

The Old Man drove home slowly, while Isaac peppered him with question after question.

“Who did that, Grandpa?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we can find out on the news—when we get you home.”

“Did a lot of people get hurt?”  The Old Man had been able to shield Isaac from the medics and the stretchers that had filled the far side of the store.  So Isaac hadn’t seen the torn bodies, had barely heard the wailing families next to the ambulances.

Still, the Old Man felt the need to be honest.  So he said simply and without elaboration: “I think so, Isaac.”

“Why would anyone do that?”

“I don’t really know, but there are some people who are crazy and some people who are so angry that they want to hurt others.”

“I don’t feel that way.”

“I know you don’t, Isaac, and I’m proud of you for that.”

“I’m really mad at the bad guys, though.”

“Me too.”

Once home, Isaac couldn’t stop telling his parents, who had both gotten there before their wartime veterans, about the explosion, where they hid, and what they did.  They held him.  They cried a little.  They were grateful without words.

After a while, the Old Man decided the family needed their moment, needed their privacy, and he set out for home.  As he drove, he felt a profound sense of loneliness and loss.  Even though it was the right thing to leave.  Even though he was grateful to have survived the bomb and to protect his grandson.  Even so, he wasn’t ready to let Isaac go.  He began to shake a little.  He ached for Isaac’s presence.  And his tears slowly made their way from his eyes to his chin.

 

 

Playing God

It’s hard to know how well even the most intimate seeming friends and lovers know one another.  Here’s a story that is as idiosyncratic as they come but maybe there’s a part of it that you can identify with.

Years ago, friends invited me to a play.  Or that’s what they said.  I’m pretty sure they just wanted me to meet the woman who directed the play.  Let’s call her Sally.  Sally was very attractive.  Her work and her world seemed exotic.  It had been a while since I had ventured among artists.  And I took the bait.

The play, itself, had been written by Sally’s boyfriend, that is, her soon-to-be ex boyfriend.  We’ll call him Bob.  At the center of the play was a female robot.  She was very beautiful, winsome and willowy, with long blond hair, dressed in a cinch waist dress that emphasized all of her endowments.  Most important of all, this human-looking robot happily did whatever her “lover” ordered.  When he wanted her company she was there.  When he wanted to be alone, she almost magically disappeared—without a fuss.  She was sexual when he needed that, maidenly when it suited him, motherly when that was the order of the day.  Who could ask for anything more.

This was 1970 and, even then, I knew it was a thinly veiled feminist tale.  Not bad for a guy to write.  But Sally thought otherwise.  She told us that there was no satire here.  This was exactly what Bob wanted in a relationship.  Which was why she had to leave the relationship.  Pretty soon, I learned, or thought I learned, that I would be an alternative model, a man who wouldn’t order Sally around, a man who would take an interest in her, not just how she could serve me.  That fit my self image so well that, like a new actor on the stage, I simply accepted the role.

I don’t remember if Sally and I reached common ground on Bob’s intentions but we did see eye to eye on other things.  We began seeing one another, eventually became a couple, founded a little urban commune, and, after a year or two broke up.  The commune that we had formed was rapidly transformed by Sally.  She had become a player in one of the spiritual orders that had sprung up everywhere in Cambridge during the 70’s.   Soon young followers flocked to our doorsteps, some for short and others for indefinite stays.  They hadn’t exactly been invited but they somehow knew they were welcome.  Sally certainly welcomed them and I, known then as Daddy Ari, presided.  To put it more crudely, I paid the rent and handed out advice.  Before I knew it, we had become a spiritual commune.

Both of us had come off of rough marriages and the commune was meant to serve as a buffer between us, a way for us to be close but not too close.  The strategy worked all too well, and we split up within two years of the spiritual conquest at our commune.   I was relieved but also amazed.  I hadn’t realized that a spiritual practice was so central to her life.  I hadn’t taken that directions seriously enough.  When she had tried to convert me, which was often, I pushed away, first gently, then less so, and, eventually, with a harshness that surprised and upset me.  I used to say that the only way that Sally would accept the authenticity of our differences was for me to get mean, but I hated myself when that happened.

I should add that I had such an overweening belief in my own powers of reason and persuasion that I convinced myself that I would be able to convert her.  She would understand that differences were good.  A pluralistic universe was the world at its best.  I explained my own Existential philosophy and budding Buddhist beliefs.  All to no avail.  My failure didn’t really shake my belief in myself, though.  It just convinced me that her defenses were impregnable.  And, of course, it didn’t occur to me that mine were, too.

Our break up seemed amicable.  We were, after all, amicable people.  She according to her Sufi code and me according to my psychologically-based values.  We shared the sadness of it all, though neither of us was too sad.  Sally continued to nurture her community and I went off to another commune, this time filled with urban intellectuals who I imagined would be more simpatico.  They weren’t.  My four year old daughter summed up what eventually became our shared assessment this way: “They be’s mean to me.”  But that’s a story for another time.

A couple of years later, Sally invited me to a theatrical extravaganza, a “cosmic celebration,” that she had created and staged in Boston’s Armory.  At the center of the armory she had used scaffolding to build a multi-level structure.  At the first level, there were saints, at the next, angels, and so forth, though I can’t really remember all of the gradations, based on their nearness to divine realization.  There must have been a hundred players.  At the top, sat God.

Sally asked me if I would be willing to sit atop the structure, atop the moral and spiritual universe, and play God.  Since I didn’t believe in God—and Sally knew this very well—I was a little skeptical about the request and asked what lines I would have.  What would God say?  “Nothing,” said Sally.  “Your job would be to sit in divine silence.”  While there is something appealing about “divine silence,” I declined the role.  Still, I remembered how uncompromising I had been when we were together and worried that I was being a bad sport.

After some time and considerable reflection, it occurred to me that this silent, beatific role was the one she had wanted me to play all along.  Wise, mute, and endorsing.  She had listened to my psychological insights, my philosophical ramblings, my political rants, but she had probably only tolerated them, maybe enjoyed them once in a while.  I wanted communication, respect, maybe even to be known.  I wanted the power of my ideas to win the day.  But, again, I had missed the point.  Had I wanted her to be a robot?  God, I hope not.  But it’s hard to avoid the realization that I did want to mold her to a vision of what my good woman should be.  Or, at least, how the woman for me could be.

And I began to see what Sally wanted, too:  A strong, overarching presence, godlike and watching over her.  Who wouldn’t want that.  At the time, I didn’t understand, no less sympathize.  I just knew that the imagery that informed her man made me uneasy.  So I returned to my distance.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure that we never knew one another, never knew why we really came together, and certainly didn’t understand why we had broken up.