INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT

For the first decade of my life, my haircuts took place at a local barbershop called “Dom’s.” Dom wore thick glasses though the ironic possibilities of his poor eyesight didn’t occur to me at the time. Early on, trying to avoid visits to Dom provoked ridiculous tantrums on my part. I professed to hate the itchiness of newly cut hair on my shoulders and neck. And I was uncomfortable due to Dom’s repeated complaints about the difficulty of cutting my hair.

“He’s got two holes in his head.   It’s hard to work around,” said Dom.

“You mean cowlicks?” asked my mother.

“Yes, I call them holes,” said Dom.

I didn’t realize the “holes” were two places in the back and top of my head where whorls circled. Most people have one such area, which is centered; when little, I had two and, because of Dom, I feared I had actual holes in my skull.

Dom was busy and did not accept appointments so I always had to wait. Therefore, I endured the fact that nearly all the adults in the waiting area smoked and the place reeked with an eye and nose-stinging stench. Adding to my discomfort, Dom’s selection of magazines featured racy covers, which embarrassed me at six or seven, sitting beside my mother. I literally couldn’t imagine what sorts of pictures were inside. By my teenage years, when I’d go to Dom’s alone, I could at least imagine the pictures, and I was curious, but I still couldn’t make myself look inside amidst a bunch of strangers.

*****

By the time I went away to college, in the mid-1970’s, hair cutting had given way to hair “styling.”   Salons for men, and coed establishments were common. Vidal Sassoon, a hairstylist, for instance, was a household name and ubiquitous on television and in print. When I returned home on break and learned that Dom had retired, to my amazement, I missed the familiarity of his shop and the predictable results.

At my older siblings’ urgings, I reluctantly accompanied my brother, David, to several different stylists over the years. Unlike Dom, in his white smock, these stylists wore huge jewelry, purple or blue hair and bizarre outfits. Getting a haircut was like visiting a fashion show, but not one to my liking.

Although, by the standards of the day, my hair wasn’t long it still topped out several inches above my skull. Inevitably, these stylists urged me to have “STYLE.” They dismissed the cut I’d been wearing since childhood, which included a part on the left side, and hair trimmed around, not over, my ears. Some wanted it to be longer; some wanted bangs and longer sideburns. All wanted to do away with the part.

“Your waves are special,” said one female stylist. “People would pay to have waves like these.”

“I guess I’m lucky,” I said, unimpressed.

“Can I tease them out?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure what “teasing out” involved, but my answer was “No.”

Never knowing what the end result would be, I always tensed in a stylist’s chair, and my taciturn tone stifled most discussions. While my hair length shifted modestly through the decades, my cut never changed. Effectively, the only difference between Dom’s cuts in the 60’s and stylists’ cuts in the 70’s and early 80’s was the price, by several magnitudes. Luckily, as long as I was in college or law school, I enjoyed an almost total parental subsidy.

*****

I’d absentmindedly failed to get a haircut in the weeks leading up to our recent trip to Costa Rica. I knew that before we returned home, we were slated to attend a wedding in San Francisco. To describe conditions as humid in Playa de Coco would be understatement and the messiness of my hair was obvious. Accordingly, I agreed that a haircut in Costa Rica was in order – my wife, Katie, thought this was a simple matter. She didn’t know my hair-related history housed some anxieties.

Once I’d agreed to have my hair cut in Costa Rica, the issue became “where?” The barbershop in the small downtown area sits between several bodegas and a restaurant. When I passed by the first several times, thinking I might just pop in for ten minutes and get it over with, there were crowds of men hanging out. The television showed soccer games and the men sat around drinking beer and cheering. Worse even than cigarettes, the smell of cigars wafted through the air. I just couldn’t make myself walk in.

The days passed and Katie kept reminding me of my need for a haircut, even though seeing the mirror should have been sufficient. One day, we ran into a local friend, Lupita. She mentioned taking her son to get a haircut.

“Where does he go?” asked Katie.

“To a wonderful woman,” said Lupita.

“Where’s her shop?” asked Katie.

“In her house,” said Lupita.

“Would she do Stuart’s?” asked Katie.

“Why not?” said Lupita. “We’ll see if she’ll give him an appointment. She’s VERY busy. I’ll call her. She’s an artista.”

“Um,” I say, nervous like in the old days about an appointments-only “artist.”

“Can she just do a simple trim?” I wanted to ask, but Lupita was already on her phone.

*****

The day arrives. I take a taxi to the appointed intersection where pavement ends a gravel path takes over. I look at the map Lupita drew for me. It’s 7:00 a.m., and my appointment is at 7:15, the only time Teresa has available. In fact, as a courtesy to Lupita, she’s fitting me in before the usual starting time.

I walk two blocks on the gravel until it gives way to dirt. After I turn left onto a “side street,” which is really just an alleyway, the dirt is rutted. The yards I pass vary – some are neat and resplendent with lilies and hibiscus. Others are overgrown and appear abandoned. Small houses on both sides vary from neat and finished to tumbledown and half-finished, with rusty rebar sticking out from cinder block foundations. Every property is fenced-in.

Roosters crow. Cows moo. Cicadas scream. With almost no people stirring so early, it’s like walking through a 1930’s movie set for an abandoned Mexican village. I can’t help but wonder: “Will the place be clean?” “I hope I haven’t taken a wrong turn.” “Costa Rica’s not known for kidnappings, right?”

I reach the end of the alley and look left. There, a small wooden sign hanging from a tree limb reads “Teresa” and includes an etching in the shape of a scissors. I approach the gate. A pack of dogs in every size and shape materializes in the yard to welcome me. One has only three legs, but that doesn’t curb his barking.

After a moment, a slight dark-haired woman I judge to be about thirty years old emerges from the cinder-block house, shushes the dogs, and opens the gate. Teresa is pretty but I’m mostly looking at the dogs. She motions for me to follow. In turn, each canine takes a whiff of my legs and regards me suspiciously, looking at me as though thinking: “She saved you this time, but just wait…”

I follow Teresa past rusted car parts, a semi-diapered baby in an older child’s lap, and several chickens to a tiny closet-like opening in the rear. In the small space are a chair, a small sink, a mirror and walls covered with pictures of women with various elaborate hair-dos.

“Sietate,” (sit) says Teresa, smiling shyly.

“Gracias,” I say.

“Habla espanol?” (Do you speak Spanish?), she asks.

“Un poco” (A little), I say. “Muy despacio.” (Very slowly)

Teresa looks at my frizzy head, combs it out to gauge its length and motions with her finger that she sees where I part it on the left. I indicate the length I want around the ears.

*****

Working slowly and carefully, unlike the slam-bam eight-minute cuts I receive in North Carolina at “Clips are Us,” Teresa washes my hair in the tiny basin and massages my entire scalp.  She appears not to believe in electric razors. She trims every hair by hand.   Teresa examines my hair like a jeweler regards a fine diamond.

I’m aware of the passage of time, ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes. A baby cries outside, the rooster crows again, and the dogs greet/scare the next customer. Teresa does not rush.

In labored Spanglish I learn Teresa has five children. They range in age from nineteen to one. I calculate, therefore, that she’s older than my original estimate, but maybe not by much. Her oldest is in college to become a teacher. Teresa has run her shop for five years; each year becomes “mas ocupado.” (busier) She’s proud; she’s confident; she excels at her profession.

After fifty minutes, she finally wields a small mirror and shows me the final product. It’s neat and even and layered just right.   I’ve never been so pleased with a haircut. I won’t need another for months.

When I reach into my pocket, Teresa says: “Tres mil.” (Less than six dollars).

My expression must have conveyed surprise. Teresa appears worried she’s offended me, that the charge is too high. “Menos?” she asks. (Less?)

“No,” I say. “Mas.” (More)

She smiles warmly. “Tres mil,” she repeats.

I give her ten dollars. She appears pleased with the large gratuity in a country where tipping is not assumed. She walks me out safely past the dogs, and I’m delighted with my first international haircut.


REPORT FROM THE COAST

I grew up in the “Go Down the Shore” city of Philadelphia and now live in the “Go to the Beach” state of North Carolina. Last week, we visited the “Drive up the Coast” state of California. It all amounts to the same thing, in one sense; an escape to sand and surf. But in my imagination, each implies very different things, namely: The Jersey Shore is people-dominated, rough and tumble, the stuff of reality television, with boardwalks, tattoos, fudge and criminality just around the corner, real or implied.

North Carolina is mellow, with soft sunshine beating down on vast white sand, gentle waves, with coeds seeking boys and retirees seeking shells. Fishing boats bob in the near distance, patiently gathering the next meal to be eaten off paper plates beachside, in a wooden establishment inevitably called “Fish Shack” or “Shrimp Shack.” The implication is that the nearby water, as warm as bath water in the Carolinas, is a harmless neighbor, hurricanes notwithstanding.

In contrast, California’s coast, with waves crashing upon its craggy rocks, is dramatic.   We may delude ourselves into thinking we control the Atlantic Ocean, with dunes and jetties, but the Pacific shows the futility of even trying. It’s epic. It’s massive. It’s awesome.

*****

A wedding enticed us to San Francisco last week. We decided to extend our stay beyond the event and drove north, first to Fairfax, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg in the wine country, then “up the coast” to Point Reyes. After a day there, we traveled the famous Route 1 North two more hours to Mendocino.

I’d approached the trip with several misconceptions. First, I thought all B & B’s implied bed AND breakfast. But I soon learned, in three out of four instances, we had B-Bed, but no B-Breakfast. We survived, and it allowed us to see several additional establishments, but seriously? B & B’s without the second B? I digress.

Mendocino, in particular, is a town I pictured (admittedly without any basis whatsoever) as sparkling, pristine and pretty. For better or worse, I imagined the wealth of Newport, Rhode Island fused with the brilliant sunshine and modern architecture of South Beach, Miami. I imagined BMW’s, Mercedes’s and an occasional Tesla pulling up to valet parkers in uniforms astride wine bars clothed in earthquake proof glass. What I got was gravel roads, old wooden structures and a whole lot of aging hippies.

I’m told the weekend crowd is closer to what I pictured, escaping from the city for fresh air and open spaces. But during a Tuesday-Thursday visit, our humble rented Chevy fit right in. Some shops sparkle with hints of opulence but much of Mendocino falls several levels below “hippie chic.” One speculates endlessly about which grey-ponytailed painters and potters are “real artists” and which just subsist on family trust funds.   Coffee and sandwich shops abound, and shelter employees and customers who live in the world’s largest remaining collection of psychedelically painted Volkswagen buses.

*****

I have nothing against the hippie culture. Though too young to have experienced the bulk of “The Sixties” and disinclined to partake of the remnants, my sympathies for the era are bona fide. “Hair” is among my favorite musicals.   Eugene McCarthy was my first political hero. And I’m happier listening to “Whiter Shade of Pale” than almost anything written since, though I STILL have no idea what the lyrics mean. Did the singer?

I’ve concluded that the beauty of Mendocino has little to do with its people. It’s about nature. The thrilling drive through redwood forests gives way to the Pacific Ocean. It alternately glistens or is bathed in fog. Wind howls as though a storm is coming, then switches to perfect calm.  My eyes are drawn to the ocean and I can’t pull them away.

*****

Another misconception of mine concerns cattle. Before our visit, if I took a word association test that said “milk,” I’d respond “Wisconsin” or “Iowa.” How many people know that California leads national milk production? If that same test included “ranches,” I’d respond “Oklahoma” or “Texas.” California is actually fourth in beef production, and second in total cows. To my surprise, there are cows on hills and cows on mountains. There are cows throughout wine country, looking as comfortable as connoisseurs, though presumably not partaking. In Point Reyes, there were cows on the beach! Seriously, how many readers knew of California’s bovine bounty?

In conclusion, I enjoyed seeing a part of the country I’d never seen before. If given the chance, everyone should see the northern California coast. Perhaps, someday, I’ll learn to either do more research before a trip, or squelch the tendency to reach conclusions without any basis. And, as concerns Airbnb, I’ll check the fine print.


WHY COSTA RICA?

When we mention our second home in Costa Rica, people often ask: “Why did you pick Costa Rica?” I answer, honestly, “It all began with my fifth grade project.” More decades ago than I care to acknowledge, Mrs. Moore randomly assigned me Costa Rica as the Latin American country I had to “report on” to my classmates. After reading several encyclopedia entries, even at age ten, it struck me as remarkable that this little country had health care for all its citizens, traditions of literacy and democracy that rivaled our own, and no military. Not only that, but with a population only one percent of America’s, they often beat us in soccer.

My knowledge of Costa Rica remained dormant, like a cicada underneath the ground, for thirty-five years. By then, I’d become a father of children aged twelve, fourteen and nineteen, and we sought a family spot that combined beaches, adventure and wildlife. All three children played for soccer clubs in New Jersey that had trainers from Central America. We’d befriended several of them off the field and recognized something interesting. The trainers from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico were unnaturally thrilled to be in New Jersey. The Costa Rican trainers, however, though satisfied to work with our kids, aimed to make enough money to return as soon as possible to what they described as “paradise.” Combined with my earlier fascination, it made sense for us to consider traveling to Costa Rica.

*****

It’s August 2003. I’m stuck in my law office, overwhelmed with too many house closings to leave, as my family travels to Costa Rica without me. I know they’re visiting San Jose and then somewhere on the Pacific Coast called Playa Hermosa. In those days before smart-phones and I-pads, it’s several days before I hear from them other than hurriedly written e-mails from internet cafes where half the letters don’t work and punctuation marks are random#@%&.

I answer the phone one afternoon and hear my wife’s excited voice on a scratchy cell-phone connection. “We’re looking (unintelligible) Pacific Ocean,” says Katie. “Building lots (unintelligible). You wouldn’t believe (unintelligible) $90,000 and…”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” I say. “What are you talking about? Can you speak more slowly?”

“Sorry,” she says, and continues, clearly: “We’re at a town called Playa Hermosa, and I asked the driver to stop at a real estate development overlooking the ocean. There are three lots that look great. Halfway up the mountain is an acre for $90,000 and on the TOP of the mountain are two acres for $170,000. The third one is at the bottom. No view, but only $25,000. This place is special. The views are amazing. It’s indescribable.”

I’m not sure what impulse controlled my usually cautious brain. Perhaps, it was the exhilaration in Katie’s voice. Perhaps, it was the realization that life has to offer more thrills than talking on the telephone to nervous people buying and selling homes in New Jersey. Whatever the motivation, I said immediately: “Buy the top two.”

“What?” she said, stunned. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do it.” It felt right.

*****

Over the next several days, Katie and the children met with a local, Spanish-speaking lawyer and contracted to purchase the two lots. Several friends and relatives thought we had lost our minds. I had some doubts myself.  Before the closings, Katie and I scheduled a visit to see the lots together and plan how to proceed. We flew to the capital, San Jose, since the airport just twenty minutes from Hermosa was not easily reachable from the United States (there were only three flights a week at the time – now there are over sixty).

We toured San Jose for several days before traveling four hours by bus to the Pacific Coast. I found every aspect of Costa Rica fascinating, from the people, to the diverse topography, to the excellent food and fruit. My mind raced; some details are forgotten in the haze. But I will never forget the thrill of taking a turn in the road and overlooking the brilliant blue ocean at Playa Hermosa for the first time.

A guide Katie had befriended on her earlier visit drove us to our lots. Katie was concerned I might not agree we’d made a good decision. However, the moment I saw the “million dollar” views we’d purchased for a fraction of the cost of a fixer-upper in New Jersey, I was delighted. After deliberation, we chose to build on the lower lot and hold off on the upper lot. While the latter featured a 270-degree view of the Pacific and the Bay of Culebra, the semi-paved road to the top of the mountain was daunting, and I doubted I’d enjoy an adventure every time we needed a carton of milk.

We arranged to meet several builders. The first two went by the company names of “Sun Bum Building” and “Frat Boy Construction.” Neither inspired confidence. The third was a local woman disinclined to return phone calls. Finally, we met a former Californian who had been building in Costa Rica for a decade and whose wife assisted with design, furnishing and landscaping.

A new, only-in-Costa Rica outlook of “try anything” affected me. This philosophy manifested during our visit in my willingness to zip-line over a gorge, dive off a cliff into rushing water, drive an ATV, and communicate with an iguana – hissing, mostly. We encouraged the builder’s wife to design a house with numerous features she’d always wanted to try, but clients rarely agreed to, including: several interior gardens; a waterfall in the dining room; and, a cashew-shaped infinity pool.

Once we returned home and communicated with the builder’s wife exclusively via fax and e-mail, we were shocked to learn her husband had cleared the lot and begun laying the foundation before we’d closed.

“Can they do that?” Katie asked, after our home fax machine revealed a photograph of the construction site.

“Not in New Jersey,” I said.

Not in Costa Rica, either, but…. We closed on both lots shortly thereafter and chose to re-sell the top lot for enough profit to pay for the construction on the lower lot. In two months, we’d doubled our money, much to the shock of some nay-saying friends and relatives. We immensely enjoyed the building process throughout 2004, running to the fax machine to see pictures every few weeks and visiting the site several times. The house was finished on time and on budget by early 2005, and we used it just as we’d envisioned, visiting several times as a family, and with friends.

We learned something important, however. When you see a house worthy of Architectural Digest, it doesn’t guarantee the plumbing and electricity work well. Also, putting live gardens and a waterfall inside a house in a humid climate may work under certain circumstances, but not for owners who are rarely present. Finally, repeated visits with three teen-aged children, plus friends, busted the budget.

I would like to claim I’m the genius who foresaw the downturn in global financial and real estate markets. I didn’t. It was the factors listed above that convinced us to list the house for sale in October 2006. A local legend of the real estate world named Mike Simon found a buyer and we doubled our investment once again. (It must be emphasized that the period from 2003-2006 was uniquely rewarding. The role of luck in real estate investing cannot be overstated).

*****

Though we were happy with our memories, photo albums and profits, we felt sad after selling our home in Costa Rica. Katie and I thought of it often and the children spoke of it longingly, even as their high school and college schedules would have prevented them from going there together. As a real estate attorney, however, I was acutely aware prices were falling. When people asked if we missed our house in Costa Rica, my answer from 2007 until 2012 often started out: “Yes, but considering the state of the market….”

In 2013, however, history repeated itself. Our youngest child, Sam, had just graduated from college, thus ending our tuition obligations FOREVER. As a gift, we offered him a weeklong trip to the destination of his choice, and he picked Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the only week he could travel before the start of graduate school was while I was at a conference. Katie took him to a resort in Playa Hermosa. We didn’t exactly plan it, but it was tacitly understood she would spend an afternoon with Mike. Well, anyone who knows her or Mike can guess what happened.

Katie and Sam walked into the real estate office in Hermosa. “Hey, babe, I’ve got something for you,” Mike rasped, having just recovered from pneumonia. Although he should have been resting in bed, Mike insisted on taking them to see a condominium development called Pacifico in the neighboring town of Playa de Coco. “You’ll love it,” he whispered, showing the sales literature where three-bedroom units were now listed, newly finished, at a price forty percent below 2007 levels.

When Katie saw Coco, which she remembered from seven years earlier as somewhat shabby, she couldn’t believe the transformation. A winding road, surrounded by tropical flowers, brings visitors past a modern commercial center into the residential area. There, the sun-splashed pools and plantings are a veritable Shangri-la. Mike urged a particularly private and spacious unit and helped negotiate terms with the developer. We became homeowners in Costa Rica again.

Now, a twelve years after our initial visit, all three children are capable of visiting on their own. Though some might prefer a single family home, we deem the loss of an ocean view a reasonable sacrifice for having a team of professionals responsible for managing, among other things, multiple pools, landscaping, irrigation, weeding and security. Pacifico provides that along with an elegant beach club and the priceless ability to WALK into an increasingly vibrant town with restaurants, shopping and the beach. For sunsets, it’s a five-minute walk or ride up the hill. We brought our then-24-year-old daughter down last year and asked her what she thought. She answered with the same word the soccer trainers had used so many years before: “Paradise.”


REPAIRS, ETC.

An amiable fellow named Seth is painting our front door today. Nothing notable about that except that he’s here for the fourth time. In my humble opinion, his tendency to run his brushstrokes in various directions prevents the job from being acceptable. He feels otherwise, of course.

The first time, he blamed the fiberglass composition of the door.   He said the grain was uneven. The second time, he blamed excessive humidity. The third time, it was the quality of the paint. “This stuff’s too good,” he said, of the quart we’d provided. “I’m not used to it.” Today, he’s come armed with his “usual” brand. I sure hope the result is satisfactory.

Seth is not unique in our experience. Five years ago, the previous painter of this same door chose to spray it without taking it off its hinges. He diligently taped around the hardware and placed drop cloths on the floors. But he didn’t take into account the gap between the door and the door jam. Like mist from a water cannon, flying paint speckled the interior foyer wall. He spent significantly longer re-painting that wall than he would have spent simply removing the door from its hinges.

Repairpersons, certified and self-styled, have similarly flailed in missions around our home. Our refrigerator icemaker no longer works because we refuse to pay hundreds of dollars for a THIRD time to have it repaired. And when the dryer made excessive clunking noises and we obtained a visit from the only official, Bosch-certified technician in the local area, he sat on the floor in front of the disassembled machine and read the manual to figure out how to put it together again. After four hours, punctuated by wholesome oaths, such as: “Good golly,” “I’ll be darned,” and “Well, how ‘bout that?” he finished. To our surprise and relief, the dryer still worked. The clunk, however, remained. We live with it to this day.

*****

As one singularly unable to do repairs more complex than changing a light bulb, my critiques are rightly subject to skepticism. In New Jersey, however, our repairman, George, a former soccer player from Poland, was completely competent. He pondered projects before he started. He thought through what parts and tools he would need. He strategized. In matters of drainage or deck supports, he devised solutions. George was one of my favorite people; I believe we created a need for some projects just to have an opportunity to call George and take comfort in watching him work.

Besides George, we also used a free-lance landscaper named Omar. I mowed the lawn and planted flowers myself, but the annual leaf removal from our tree-covered acre, as well as mulching and wall-building projects, were Omar’s province. A Mexican immigrant himself, Omar assembled a crew of workers from the Central American diaspora for each project. If we needed workers of no particular skill for mulch spreading, he brought youngsters. If a decorative wall with indigenous stones was to be built, he brought true artisans who conceived of and executed stone works of art without mortar. Our wall was so impressive Omar ended up completing walls throughout the neighborhood.

*****

What to make of our recent spate of poor repair jobs? My original theory was that North Carolina is deficient compared to northeastern states.   I settled on that idea last year, when a “plumber” from a prominent local plumbing firm arrived to fix a leaky outdoor faucet and, instead, destroyed it. When the next plumber chosen from the phone book arrived to correct the job, he explained that he came from Massachusetts, where his training included a minimum of two years as a union apprentice. In North Carolina, he explained, our original “plumber” might have obtained his license from a six-week certification class.

There’s more to it than mere geography, however. My brother in New Jersey just told me on the telephone that he is waiting for the “technician” from the cable company. When he or she arrives (it’s already an hour past the end of the service arrival “window,”) he or she will be the third company representative to attempt the replacement of a ten-year-old DVR box. The job is not one I could personally complete, but it doesn’t seem like it should be difficult for a person employed as a cable television technician.

It’s not just an American problem. In Costa Rica, when the air conditioner in our condo required service, a neighbor recommended a repairman named “Three-times Victor.”

“How did he get that name?” I asked.

“He always has to come out at least three times to get it right,” explained our neighbor.

“Why would I want a repairman like that?” I asked.

“Well, at least he shows up,” said my neighbor.

Is modern society, with some exceptions, adrift in a sea of incompetence?

*****

Seth finished a couple hours ago. The door is drying and the major blotches and missed spots are now evenly covered, more or less. I believe the job will finally be considered satisfactory. Honestly, we weren’t expecting work worthy of the Sistine Chapel. But four visits for a door? Now, we have a dilemma with humanitarian, economic and aesthetic ramifications. When we hired Seth to paint the door, we’d told him the entire exterior of our house would need to be painted this fall. He just e-mailed his estimate. Price-wise, it’s reasonable. And, as he notes at the bottom: “I didn’t make any money on the door. So, I hope to have the chance to do the whole house.”

What should we do?


SPORTSMANSHIP

Sportsmanship evolves with society. We’d be shocked, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that was routine at professional sporting events one hundred years ago. Players tolerated and participated in behaviors we’d find abhorrent today. Yet, they also enforced a code of conduct that’s now violated on a constant basis. For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1964?   The only suspense might have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own.

A professional tennis player named Genie Bouchard recently ignited a kerfuffle when she refused to shake hands and wish her opponent good luck before a match. Her refusal represented a departure from tennis etiquette as old as tennis itself. Said Bouchard, in paraphrase: “I’m trying to beat her. I don’t wish for her to have good luck. Why should I fake it?” I find Bouchard’s honesty jarring. Yet, in a sense, it also makes sense.

My early encounters with sportsmanship issues varied. When I was about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a defeat in Scrabble. Without ambivalence, I knew that that behavior was unacceptable. I also knew of an opponent who’d hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so that she’d have it available in a crucial moment. That also was clearly wrong. (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

While I was an early and enthusiastic participant in word games, it was baseball that consumed most of my thoughts during my first decade. And it was through a baseball game that I first encountered the moral question that confronts people on a constant basis, on issues big and small: “Does the end justify the means?”   Then as now, the answer is often unclear.

*****

“We need a pitcher,” said my wife, Katie, as we prepared to host some friends for a casual dinner party, “for iced tea.”

This innocuous statement, at once true and mundane, dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred for nearly half-a-century. I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates. Since my neighborhood was devoid of athletic facilities, the team played in a league in the neighboring community of Overbrook Park.

Most of my teammates are lost to the haze of memory. But I do remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfying sounds: a baseball landing in a leather mitt or popping off a wooden bat.

Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed in 2015: “We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher.” This saying passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds in 1965. The fact that both teams used the same chant, in the same flat tones of voice, didn’t diminish its constancy.  The taunts continued even when the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate. (Picture Ted Cruz after the recent Supreme Court rulings).

*****

I lived for those games with the Pirates. Our coach was a middle-aged man named Mr. Greenfield. Almost unimaginably, in retrospect, he didn’t have a child on the team. I don’t know if he had children of his own. He simply volunteered his time to coach other people’s kids in Little League. Nowadays, sadly, I suspect we’d question his motives.

I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position. But during my time on the Pirates, we had a shortstop named Scott whose seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star. Still, I styled dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy. And when I batted, I held my bat at a jaunty angle, pointed down instead of up. Bashful and retiring in every other aspect of life, I craved attention on the baseball field.

Similarly, our team fashioned itself as front-runners. It was as though historical records were posted and the Pirates were always at the top of the Overbrook Park standings. Of course, that was not the case – to my knowledge, no one tracked historical records of local Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked ongoing standings in the league. Perhaps, drawing on his years of volunteer coaching, Mr. Greenfield imbued us with our sense of superiority. I can’t recall.

I know our bête noir, the rival we loved to hate, was the team sponsored by the local Italian church, St. Donato’s. In a world of Jewish kids, they represented the mysterious “other.” Since their players all attended parochial school and my teammates attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us. Objective facts may have fallen to stereotypes and the vagaries of memory, but my recollection is that they appeared bigger and tougher than my teammates. Their pitcher always inspired whispered speculation among my teammates: “How old do you think he really is?”

*****

Following my first two seasons under Mr. Greenfield’s direction, I aged out of the “minor league” and moved into the “major league” for ten and eleven-year-old players. Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I heard that if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband. I agonized over this possibility.

Into the breach, like a savior, came my older brother, David, home from college for the summer. Not only did he save the team, my own status rose: Brother of the Coach! To his credit, David didn’t practice nepotism. I was still the second baseman, subordinate to the vaunted Scott. But it was immensely satisfying to have David there; though the youngest coach in the league, by far, he had a firm grip on strategies and techniques. Practices were fun and we won most, if not all, of our games. Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to water ice after every win.

The season proceeded routinely as we whipped teams named after the Mets and the Cubs and a team sponsored by an undertaker. Boy, did that strike us funny! We had no trouble beating a poor team wearing tee shirts instead of real uniforms and trounced a team drawn from a local religious school – they made US look tough, by comparison. Looming for the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.

From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble. Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, was half a head taller than our biggest player, Scott. During warm-ups, we watched slack-jawed as he threw faster than anyone we’d ever seen. Though only ten, I could sense the smugness in the expression on St. Donato’s coaches (they had several) as they loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well. But we were totally cowed in the batter’s box. We sat silently on our bench between innings. We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant. From my first at-bat, I recall seeing him wind-up and then hearing a thump in the catcher’s mitt behind me. What had happened to the ball? How fast was this supposed eleven-year-old throwing? As the innings flew by we’d only surrendered two runs but our chance of scoring seemed nil. We couldn’t even get a base runner.

“Gather around,” said David, when we came in from the field before our last at-bat. “I have an idea.”

Following David’s instructions, our first batter sidled up to the plate barely concealing a smile. Though we were all right-handed, he took a spot on the LEFT side of the plate. He crowded into the space just inches from the plate. As a final touch, he crouched so tightly that his strike zone, the area between his knees and his chest, could not have been more than a few inches.

The pitcher looked confused. Left-handed batters were rarities. He threw his first pitch in the dirt. The next pitch flew over the catcher and bounced off the batting cage.

“Hey ump,” shouted St. Donato’s head coach. “That kid’s not left-handed!”

The umpire shrugged.

“How close to the plate can he get?” continued the coach.

“As close as he wants,” said the umpire, “so long as he’s in the batting box.”

Our first batter walked. Our second hitter took the same left-handed crouch and walked.

“Hey,” shouted the coach. “You gotta call some of these strikes! They’re bending over. This ain’t fair.”

The umpire turned to David, who shrugged innocently.   David said to us: “Hey, how ‘bout some life around here!”

We started our chant: “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” The pitcher regarded us with a combination of anger, despair and humiliation. He walked the next batter to load the bases and hit the next batter with a pitch to score a run. By this time, in the effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the plunked batter barely flinched.

St. Donato’s coach glared at David with contempt. He walked to the mound to calm his pitcher, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes. After a moment’s discussion, the coach walked off the field with the big pitcher, now sobbing, and replaced him. Scott was our next batter. He hit the reliever’s first, ordinary pitch for a double and we’d won the game.

*****

Was it the right thing to do? Was it good sportsmanship? Did the end justify the means? I do know this: we celebrated that day without any ambivalence whatsoever, the day our coach David helped us beat Goliath.


A POLITICAL FUTURE?

Last week, an older, self-described Socialist from Vermont declared he is running for president. His last name is Sanders and, therefore, the nation has an opportunity to ponder what I’ve often deemed an obvious solution to its problems, namely: “Sanders for President.” Unfortunately for America, the candidate is named Bernie. I have not thrown my hat in the ring.

*****

I’ve never run for office. However, that didn’t prevent me from once being elected. During my first week at Dickinson College, my fellow residents on the third floor of Adams Dorm voted for me, in absentia, to represent them on the student council. My roommate, Keith, informed me of this upon my return from the library. (Or was it the ping-pong room?) In any event, he explained:

“At the floor meeting you skipped, Mike (the resident advisor) told us we have to elect a delegate to the student council. We chose you.”

“Why?” I said, stricken.

“You said you were going to major in political science,” said Keith.

“So?” I asked.

“This is political,” he said.

I was less than gracious about my election. The next day, I learned from Mike that the Council held meetings once a month, and I would be expected to keep my floor-mates informed of developments.

“Great, “ I said, grumpily.

“It’ll be good for graduate school applications,” said Mike.

“That’s four years from now,” I said. “I hate meetings.”

“Yes, I noticed you weren’t there last night,” said Mike, smiling. “This is what you get.”

*****

After only a few weeks of classes, I already knew that political science was dismal, as majors go. For instance, one of my classes was State and Local Government, wherein I studied the distinction between towns run by mayors and towns run by managers. I learned that some towns hold partisan elections and others do not. Most critically, I learned that Nebraska has only one legislative house, not two, and therefore, is called “unicameral.” Future success in Trivial Pursuits and Jeopardy secured!

The other problem in political science at Dickinson was that the classes were full of hyper-competitive, grade-grubbing pre-law students. Though I eventually completed the course work in political science, I shifted my primary field of study to English Literature. The classes were enjoyable, less grade-oriented and, incidentally, overwhelmingly female in make-up. The atmosphere seemed collegial, academic, not mercenary.

*****

Despite my misgivings, I dutifully attended the initial student council meeting on behalf of my of Adams Dorm constituents. Held in the conference room of the 200-hundred-year-old “Old West,” the setting was, admittedly impressive. Stern portraits of past College presidents gazed down upon the assembled representatives. I took a place in the back row, as was my custom in such matters and waited for the action to begin.

At a table in front of the room, facing out towards the delegates, were the officers of the Student Council. These were seniors who took procedural rules seriously. I recognized several from seeing them roam the halls of the political science building where they sought face time with professors at every opportunity.

A gavel brought the meeting to order, motions were made and seconded, speakers were given “the floor,” and a lively debate ensued on a matter of absolutely no interest to me, namely: How many student delegates would attend the College Trustees meeting and, when they attended, should they sit among the Trustees at their conference table, or should they sit in chairs set back from the table as sort of “advisory” attendees?

And would the attendees actually be “advisory” or would they merely be “witnesses” to the goings-on? And, if they were “advisory,” what sort of advice would they give? And how should a consensus be arrived at to determine the student council’s position? And wouldn’t all these matters depend (almost entirely, duh…) on the preferences of the Board of Trustees, whose meeting it was?

Most of the delegates had passionate opinions on all these questions. The debate continued for an hour. By this time, I’d filled my note-pad with doodles, looked at the beautiful grandfather clock in the corner of the hall at least twenty times, and wondered if anyone would notice if I just sort of slipped out the side door. My reverie ended with a decisive bang of the gavel and the announcement that a task force would be established to submit recommendations to the officers who would take the matter under advisement and blah, blah, blah. I had no idea what to tell my dorm-mates.

*****

I never aspired to the presidency of the United States. From the earliest household mentions of Presidents Johnson and Nixon in my formative years, I heard only complaints from my parents, particularly my father.   Therefore, the office held no special allure. Congressmen, however (in 1964, or so, a Congresswoman was a rarity and a “Congressperson” did not yet exist as a concept) struck me as special. I still detected an aura around what I thought of as silver-tongued orators.

On an eighth grade trip to Washington, two classmates and I strode freely through the hallways of the Capitol building; the high ceilings and marble impressed me and, as a student of geography, I thrilled at the sight of each huge doorway marked by the name and state of a different legislator. As a special treat, Senator Dirksen, a famous old lion whom I recognized from television news, strode past us looking important. He nodded in our general direction, and the three of us told anyone who would listen that he’d personally welcomed us to the Capitol.

*****

Half a century later, Congress’s public approval rating is below fifteen percent. Personally, with the drip, drip, drip of revelations over time, I’ve come to view legislators as narcissists with a tendency towards larceny. Why would any sane person choose such a life except to financially enrich themselves and/or their families and friends? That is why it’s so bizarre and refreshing to see probably-not-a-cousin Bernie with his uncombed hair, rumpled suit and unfiltered spleen sputtering in vain about the depredations of big banks and corporations. As Andy Borowitz pointed out in The New Yorker, he’s probably disqualified from the race due to excessive integrity.

*****

Back to my political career: I returned after the student council meeting and found that none of my floor-mates cared one whit about what had happened. No one asked about the meeting. When I told my roommate, Keith, that I’d attended, he shrugged.

The following month, I skipped the council meeting. I skipped the month after that, too, and, in fact, the rest of the year. The third floor of Adams Dorm did not have the benefit of representation, and no one noticed. When it came time to complete law school applications several years later, most included a question about whether I’d held elective office. I’m pleased to report that I checked “No.” My maintenance of that shred of dignity is the sole positive to come out of the experience. I wonder how many politicians would have answered the question the same way.


MYSTERY FAMILY

When I was little, there were no photographs of my father’s relatives in our house. My mother’s “side” was the only one that existed. My three siblings, all more than a decade older than I, had experienced limited contact with my father’s family in the period that preceded me, but the flames of kinship were almost extinguished by my early childhood.   This pullback occurred even though my father’s family contained just as many aunts and uncles as my mother’s, and a full set of cousins, most of whose names I never learned.

To my recollection, my father, who died in 1994, never uttered a word about the subject. When I was four or six or eight-years-old, I took relationships for granted. I didn’t ponder the absence of my father’s family. From occasional remarks, the unanimous impression I gleaned from the rest of my immediate family was that I wasn’t missing anything by not meeting the other half of my relatives.

To my knowledge, my father and his siblings rarely spoke. I recently considered this subject, after five decades, when a wedding provoked the question of how the couple would divide holidays between their respective families. We’d never had that issue.

My father absolutely had a right to privacy. He may have had perfectly valid reasons for his silence. But I’m still entitled to wonder, at least: “What happened?”

*****

I knew this from overhearing conversations as a child: my father had been fond of his older brother, Nathan, who lived in New York City until his multi-pack-a-day smoking habit hastened his death. The habit persisted after a cancer diagnosis. My father was neutral about a younger brother, Harry, who lived above his own corner store in a rundown section of Philadelphia. And my father disliked a younger sister who lived in New York City. My mother sometimes referred to her as “Shitty Shelley.” This made an impression; my parents never swore.

I didn’t know many details about my New York cousins. But Uncle Harry’s daughter in Philadelphia had the unfortunate name of Rhea, a source of hilarity at every mention by my siblings, who couldn’t resist adding “Dia.” He also had a son who fled his non-religious upbringing to become an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Israel, where he fathered fourteen children. Unable to support his brood, for years he begged my father, his uncle, for money. I never saw the letters, nor did I know my father’s response to them. From time to time, I’d hear him tell my mother, “I got another letter from the lunatic in Israel.”

*****

On a culturally historic evening, the night when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles on his variety show, I accompanied my parents on my only visit to Uncle Harry’s home. I would have been six or seven. After parking the car on a dark, dismal street, my father pounded on a door in an alley. I heard footsteps descend inside and the door creaked open. A bald man appeared who was so slight that my five-foot-seven father looked huge by comparison. Harry led us upstairs where we sat in a dim, cramped living room on plastic lawn furniture, and watched a tiny black-and-white television. I don’t recall what we ate but Uncle Harry and his wife, Celia, bustled around to try to make us comfortable. My father and uncle agreed the Beatles were “animals” and represented a threat to western society.

After the show, Celia took me downstairs to their store and handed me a pack of baseball cards from behind the counter. I opened them immediately. I couldn’t believe my luck. The first one was my favorite player, Ernie Banks. This act of generosity impressed me so much I recall it fifty years later, but I recall absolutely nothing else about my aunt, who I never saw again. My cousins were not present that evening.

*****

Then there was Aunt Shelley. One day, when I was a teenager, we received a family tree in the mail from a distant, unknown relative, with a request that my father complete our branch. My mother noticed that Shelley had listed 1911 as her year of birth.

“How can that be?” she asked my father when he came home. “You and Shelley aren’t twins, and you always said you were born in 1911?”

My father declined to respond, except to sigh: “Eccch, a business with Shelley.”

My mother dialed Shelley’s number for the first time in decades.

“Why did you say you were born in 1911?” she asked. “Aren’t you younger than Lou?”

Shelley rasped, with all the charm that may have inspired her nickname: “He’s a liar. He’s older than he told you.” With that, she hung up.

Confronted with this information, my father said: “1911, 1907, what difference does it make?”

*****

When my parents married in 1941, my father was likely over thirty and my mother had just turned nineteen. My mother didn’t learn for seven years that my father’s father was still alive and living nearby in Philadelphia. After she discovered this, my mother, who didn’t drive at the time, tracked him down and took my two oldest siblings, who were around three and five at the time, on a bus to visit. A grey-haired, brilliantly blue-eyed man opened the door then rushed to a closet in his tiny apartment and returned with a piece of candy for each grandchild.

My mother was shocked by her father-in-law’s terrible cough. Concerned the children had been exposed to tuberculosis, she insisted on taking him, by bus, to be checked at a hospital where they admitted him. He remained hospitalized for three weeks before dying from what the doctors concluded was a fungus, not TB. My father showed no emotion at the news.

*****

My father demonstrably loved his grandchildren and burst with pride at his own children’s accomplishments. He warmly welcomed a step-grandchild into the family. Friends and business associates found him engaging. So what happened with his family?

I can only speculate. The most plausible theory is that a rupture occurred when my father’s father came to America from Kiev before World War I. The plan was that he would quickly send the means for the rest of the family to follow.

Instead, nearly a decade passed before my father’s mother and the four children arrived. After several years in Cuba awaiting visas, they reached Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. My grandmother chose to live separately from her husband. My father lived with her until her death in the mid-1930s. Harry apparently lived with his father when he first arrived. Nathan and Shelley, in their late-teens or early twenties, settled in New York City.

Had my father’s father failed to provide as promised? If he did fail, was it his fault, or did World War I and the Russian revolution make it impossible? Did the siblings divide over their parents’ split?  Asked to explain, both before my time and in my presence, my father always declined. “It’s not important,” he said.

In the late 1960s, my father made a tape describing his emigration from Kiev. In it, he relates with gusto the time he slept in a safe house somewhere in Poland. Several ultra-Orthodox smugglers had charged a vast sum to shepherd my father’s family through the area. Feeling overcharged, my father awoke in the middle of the night, found a scissors, and cut off the forelocks of the sleeping men before fleeing. What priceless passive-aggression! I listened to the tape several times, smiling each time at the thought of the smugglers’ fury; he never mentions the roles of his other family members, though they must have taken part in the adventure. Why not?

I’ve fundamentally failed to solve the mystery.   When my son was born, it seemed natural to make “Nathan” his middle name, after my father’s favorite brother. Characteristically, when I told my father on the telephone, he didn’t react. I choose to believe he was pleased.

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