OPENING DAY

I failed to watch a baseball game today. I tried, but after two innings, I found the pace unbearable. As for viewing sports, I’ve become used to the excitement of basketball or the uninterrupted flow of soccer. My inability to sit and concentrate, as each pitch hits the catcher’s mitt and, in turn, is analyzed into submission with the high-tech tools of modern television coverage, disappoints me. I wonder if I’ve become unable to appreciate the slower-paced, nuanced aspects of life. I fear I’m no longer a person who can “stop to smell the roses.” Perhaps, I’ve “given in to the frenetic pace of modern life.” I wonder, am I a traitor to my younger self?

*****

Baseball played a huge part in my early existence.  I recall being exposed to basketball and to football, to hockey and to tennis. But only baseball captured my imagination. And when I say imagination, I mean it. My best, or, at least, most dependable friends in a neighborhood devoid of children, were named Sookie, Musselemy and Fireball Conky. Each loved baseball as much as I did and were available to play every day. They didn’t exist in a physical sense.

I’ve hesitated to mention my three friends in previous writing lest I reveal a major psychosis. But an hour of research has convinced me that, if not quite “normal,” having imaginary friends in the first decade of life is not unusual. And, no, they didn’t accompany me to high school. By the time I joined a little league team at nine with real, live teammates, my imaginary playmates were absent from my daily thoughts. I admit, however, that when I pitched side-armed, like Fireball Conky, or blasted a ball far, like Musselemy, their characteristics occasionally crossed my mind.

*****

Every fan remembers attending their first major league baseball game. At least, I expect they do. Mine was opening day, 1964. The Phillies played the Mets, and my mother took me to Connie Mack Stadium to see it.   I recall her paying a quarter to a street urchin straight out of Dickens to “watch our car” a few blocks from the stadium.

I couldn’t have been more excited and nervous, both about the game and the fate of the car, respectively. My fears about the car disappeared, however, when I stepped through the stadium concourse and beheld the shocking expanse of green grass before me, brilliant even in the early spring chill of North Philadelphia. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

As to the game, Roy Sievers was the Mets’ third baseman and Roy McMillan was their shortstop. Funny, I thought, to have two guys named Roy. The Phillies had a hotshot rookie third baseman named Richie Allen and a left fielder, Wes Covington, whose tongue lolled permanently outside his mouth. We sat behind third base, which might explain why I recall the players on that side of the field.

Only five years short of its overdue demolition, Connie Mack Stadium led the world in support poles – you had to crane your neck around them in order to follow occasional moments of action. I wore my baseball glove the entire game, of course, in the hopes of catching a foul ball. Even at age 7, I was aware of the remoteness of my chances. But, just as an atheist might wonder “what if I’m wrong?” I remained ready, just in case.

The final score was 5-3. I think the Phillies won though it was less important to me than simply being there. I now know the 1964 Phillies were to experience a disastrous, Titanic-like sinking six months later, when they lost ten games in a row and tumbled out of first place on the last weekend of the season. In April, with that particular iceberg still invisible, we soaked in optimism and the promise of warmer days.

*****

In that era, my passion for baseball lasted year-round, indoors and out. Sitting cross-legged on my bedroom carpet, I played “spinner baseball” for hours. The board game, which I’d received as a birthday present, consisted of a piece of round cardboard with a metal arrow in the middle. For each batter in a line-up of real or imaginary players, I smacked the “spinner” with my finger and it circled, like a tiny roulette wheel, until it stopped on a result, be it fly out, ground out, strikeout, single, double, triple, walk or home run. I drafted fantasy teams of real and imagined players and kept meticulous, hand-written records on pieces of cardboard obtained from my father’s dry-cleaned shirts. Little did I know I’d hit upon a concept that would, fifty years later, become a national obsession. This activity made me a savant at figuring batting averages in my head. Did that help my career thirty years later when I estimated mortgage payments? Absolutely.

Outdoors, winter didn’t stop my exertions. Unless it rained or snowed significantly, I threw a ball against a target on the back wall of our house every day. I threw even if I had to shovel two or three inches of snow to access my imagined pitching mound. As a result, by the time I reached high school, I had major league control. If only my pitches also had major league speed, movement and spin. In an effort to develop those side benefits of arm strength, I spent the winter of my senior year throwing a heavy softball against the wall. It weighed twice as much as a baseball. As I’d hoped, my velocity soared when I switched back to a baseball in the spring. Alas, my naïve and unprofessional training regimen also ruined the tendons in my elbow and, in short order, my baseball career.

*****

Even before my elbow woes had moved me from a pitcher to an underhand-throwing outfielder, my high school playing career was dispiriting. I was the MVP for two years at the Friends’ Academy, but that was an accomplishment so easily achieved as to be embarrassing. My teammates matched their lack of ability only with their lack of interest. The main benefit I derived was that the coach was also my math teacher, and he graded compassionately due to my crucial contributions to our rare victories.

When I headed to college, I considered myself a baseball player who also played soccer “to stay in shape.” After success on the soccer field in the fall and continued elbow woes in the spring, however, I reluctantly put away my mitt. Thereafter, several factors caused my childhood love of baseball to dissipate to no more than an occasional glance at the standings in a newspaper. Sixteen major league teams in my youth now totaled thirty.   Due primarily to free agency, players were hard to track. As an adult, with work, family and other interests, baseball no longer had room in my life. As a parent, I thought my children might share my childhood passion; all three pronounced baseball “boring.”

*****

Why is the game now so unwatchable for me? I thought back to my viewing habits in the 1960’s, from about age six to eleven. All week, during the spring and summer, I eagerly anticipated the once-a-week televised game. I awoke on Sunday with sweaty palms and pounding heart, excited for the 1:00 p.m. start. I’d set myself up on the lounge chair in the den in front of our rabbit-eared, sixteen-inch black-and-white. I’d carefully place a tall iced coffee beside me on a tray table for two hours of entertainment. I remember the jingle for Ballentine Beer played between every inning.

Byrum Saam and Richie Ashburn were the Phillies’ announcers. When they spoke, I felt I was sitting at the stadium with two patient and friendly men with inexhaustible knowledge to impart. Their conversations meandered from anecdote to anecdote and only occasionally focused on the game action that unfolded before them at a leisurely pace. They allowed me to listen to their conversation and secure for myself a place on a continuum that encompassed the past, the present and, I expected, the future. There were no exploding scoreboards in the early 60’s, no hi-tech analysis, and few replays. In the background noise, amidst sparsely filled stands, you heard vendors hawking popcorn.

*****

Besides the glitz, noise and technology of modern broadcasts, what’s changed?   Among many factors, batters adjust their gloves and elbow pads, accouterments that didn’t exist in 1963, between each pitch. They also repeatedly step away from the plate, though I read that baseball is trying to curtail that habit in order to lop a few minutes from the bloated, three-hour games. Pitchers dawdle and shake off signs from the catcher. Batters perceive more value in patience than in power, watching pitches, fouling them off. The cumulative effect is to lengthen the game. Add commercial breaks between innings that are now twice as long, and you have not so much a viewing opportunity as an ordeal.

In addition, there’s nothing special about seeing a game on television. Cable broadcasts all 162 games a season for every team. ESPN endlessly replays notable hits or catches.   Even the umpires’ calls are subject to review. Yes, it’s good to “get the call correct,” but some of the mystery and chance has been taken from baseball. There’s no reason to watch for three hours – the highlights will be viewable at the touch of a button.

To see a game in person, one pays more for a decent ticket than for a Broadway show. Most seats are filled with corporate guests, not a child and his parent. With few exceptions, the modern stadiums are filled with artificial noise and massive electronic scoreboards. Every possible statistic is provided to the fan. As in a modern bowling alley where the score is calculated electronically, there’s no reason to invest personal calculations to the experience.

The players are no longer the “everyman” of physical proportions they seemed to me in 1964. Now, they are millionaires enclosed in bodies sculpted by nutrition, science and sometimes more. How ironic that they appeared like gods to me when I was young. Now, they strike me as terribly human, whenever their public relations handlers let them down.

Based upon my analysis, I have decided to absolve myself of guilt. I’m not a traitor. Under worthy circumstances, I’m able to slow things down.   Mostly, it’s baseball that’s changed.


COUNTRY CLUB POLITICS

We live in a community constructed around the contours of a golf course.   The topography is beautiful and it’s a nice place to live, regardless of one’s feelings about golf. Since I’ve quit the sport for life due to extreme frustration, we’re not “members” of the club. Still, we occasionally join members at the clubhouse for dinner. Most are impressive and accomplished people, enjoyable to be around. We discuss children, sports and the weather. We compare restaurants, travel and traffic. We do NOT discuss politics.

Recently, my wife, Katie and I were invited to dinner at the clubhouse with three other couples. When we arrived, however, three of the eight seats at our table were empty. We learned that two husbands and one wife were elsewhere in the building attending a fund-raiser for a Republican congressional candidate. The wife sitting to my right at the table, Amanda, told the rest of us she doesn’t agree with her husband’s politics, so she didn’t attend, but she expected them shortly. In accordance with the local etiquette, we stated we wouldn’t discuss the fund-raiser when the three attendees arrived.

*****

To our surprise, however, when Tom, Mary and Amanda’s husband, Harry arrived, they burst with missionary zeal. Not only did they wish to discuss politics, they appeared to have been enlisted to do so, to bring enlightenment to the apathetic or, worse, progressive-leaning in their midst.

“No one could be happy with the way America is going,” declared Harry, the most excited of the trio, as he sat down to my left. “Don’t you think it’s time we got this country turned around? We’re under siege!”

I had a sinking feeling my loose tongue would not obey my cautious brain.   “I don’t see the pitchforks,” I said, gesturing out the window to the sun-splashed golf course, just as a blue heron took flight over a lake in the foreground.

“You know what I mean,” said Harry. “The country is going down the tubes.   We’re not where we want to be.”

I realized he was repeating parts of the presentation he’d just heard, but I couldn’t resist responding literally. “We’re sitting here at dinner in a lovely setting. All of us are retired or semi-retired, without financial worry. Isn’t this exactly where we want to be?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“No, I definitely do not,” I admitted.

*****

For the past couple of years, while the national political scene has become increasingly polarized, I’ve tried without success to comprehend the Republican mindset. I miss the old days, about twenty years ago, when the difference in parties often hinged on nothing more than disagreement about spending and taxation policy. Now, there’s a disconnection with reality on the Republican side. For sure, the Democratic point of view is also full of inconsistencies. But I’m familiar with those from growing up in a Democratic household and attending a Quaker school. I don’t condone Democratic inconsistencies, but I do understand them.

For instance, my father, who died in 1994, was nearly a socialist in terms of economic sympathies. Yet, as a victim of numerous robberies and burglaries at his clothing store in Philadelphia, he rabidly supported a “tough-on-crime”, right-wing mayor. In addition, while he hated the Vietnam War as much as Abby Hoffman did, his personal sense of fastidiousness caused him outrage whenever he saw longhaired or even sloppily dressed men.   In the 1960’s and 70’s, in particular, he was appalled on a regular basis. I didn’t always agree with his hard-to-reconcile positions, but I comprehended them. They sprung rationally from his experience or personality.

But modern-day Republicans? As Harry asserted, I don’t get it. I wonder about it. I shake my head about it. I can’t figure it out. In my prosperous suburban milieu, I can’t find a Republican who admits to supporting the stated positions of their chosen representatives. Lovely people to share dinner with, their preferred politicians seem so hard-hearted and willfully ignorant.  How can that be? In Harry, Mary and Tom, I saw the opportunity to gain an understanding.

“Let me play the devil’s advocate,” I said, as innocently as possible.

“Sure, bring it on,” said Harry, spoiling for a debate.

Mary and Tom, sitting across from me, regarded me sympathetically, like a poor student in need of assistance.

I thought I’d tread carefully to begin, with something easy. “Do you believe a woman is equal to a man and should be paid the same?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Harry.

“Sure,” said Mary, as though my question were the most naïve she’d ever heard.

Tom nodded.

“Should a woman have control over her own medical decisions?” I asked.

“I know what you’re getting at,” Mary jumped in. “I know it’s not part of my religion, since I’m Catholic, but I completely believe a woman should be able to make her own decisions about abortion.”

“Wow, you get double points for that,” I said, smiling.

“We have daughters and grand-daughters,” said Tom. “Of course we think they’re entitled to equal pay and to make their own decisions.”

“What about gay people?” I asked. “Are they equal, too?”

“Of course,” said Mary. “Even if you don’t actively support gay marriage, why would you actively oppose it?”

“Good question,” I said. “I can’t figure that out either.”

*****

I became aware the rest of the table had paused to listen. Katie, to my far right, made a facial expression I took to mean: “Are you sure you want to do this?” Intrigued, or reckless, I plunged further: “Do you think there should be reasonable background checks to prevent domestic abusers, mental patients and ex-felons from obtaining guns?”

“Absolutely,” said Harry.

“That’s just common sense,” added Tom.

“What about fracking?” I asked.

“I’m all for it,” said Tom.

“It’s for the economy,” said Harry. “And energy independence. Are you against it?” he asked me.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate in North Carolina,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

“Because we have a large population, a tourist economy, sandy soil conducive to leakage, and only a minimal amount of oil or gas,“ I said.

“Well, is it EVER acceptable in your view?” asked Harry, warming to posing the questions.

“It might be appropriate in North Dakota,” I said, “since there’s tons of oil there, almost no people, no tourists and the soil isn’t sandy and permeable. Still, even there, the chemicals should be disclosed.”

“Agreed,” said Tom.  “You know, we Republicans do care about the environment. You can’t just roll back all the protections.”

“We breathe the air and drink the water, too, you know,” said Mary.

“See,” said Harry, beaming, gesturing warmly to the entire table. “We can have a serious, political conversation here. We can reach reasonable conclusions. We can respect each other.”

“Absolutely,” I said, wondering when they would veer off to major disagreement.  “On to another subject.”

Harry’s wife, Amanda, patted my right arm. “You go get ‘em,” she said. “I have to go through this every day at home.” Everyone laughed.

I turned back to my three-person panel. “What about the concept of ‘clean coal’ and the alleged ‘war on coal’ that Republicans blame on Obama?”

“Haha,” said Tom. “No one’s stupid enough to think coal can ever be clean.”

“But why do Republican candidates claim it’s wonderful?” I asked. “So they get elected,” said Harry. “They have to say that stuff.”

“And the war on coal?” I asked.

“Same thing,” said Tom. “You gotta get the votes. The birthers and the crazies love that stuff.”

“Would you agree cheap natural gas has more to do with the plight of the coal industry than Obama?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Mary. “But we do have to protect the people in the coal states. Their economies are bad.”

“That’s right,” said Harry. “What are those poor people in Kentucky and West Virginia going to do without coal mining?”

“I suppose their economies have done fabulously in the past 150 years WITH coal-mining?” I said.

“Oh, there you go,” said Tom. “Getting a little sarcastic.”

“Well?” I asked. “What do you suggest those people do for a living?” said Harry.

“Perhaps,” I said, “instead of strip-mining the tops of their mountains, companies could develop wind turbines or solar panels and construct the necessary grid connections. Those projects would create thousands of jobs, without spills and without explosions. Did you know there are now more solar workers in America than coal workers?”

All three of them looked at me wordlessly. Finally, Tom asked: “Are you serious?”

I nodded, but before I could say: “You can look it up,” Mary began to explain her motivations for supporting the GOP.   “There are two main things: securing our border and education.”

“And don’t forget welfare fraud,” said Harry.

“And the need for more military spending,” said Tom.

“Whoa, one at a time,” I said, smiling. “Let’s discuss the border.”

“We have to know who’s coming in,” said Harry. “Anyone could be pouring across the Mexican border. Democrats don’t take that seriously.”

“You do know Obama’s presided over more deportations than any other president?” I said.

“I’ve heard that,” said Tom. “But he sets the wrong tone, with the amnesty and all.”

“Terrorists are crossing over every day,” said Harry.

I had to ask: “How many of the 9-11 terrorists were from Mexico?”

“Oh, you’re good,” said Harry, admiringly. “Very good. But if we had a wall at the border, we’d worry a lot less about bombers.”

“You mean like the Tim McVeigh?” I asked. “I doubt he chose tacos as his final meal.”

“Very funny,” said Tom. “We have to know who’s in the country. We have to fingerprint them.”

“I guess that would be helpful,” I said. “But the FBI knew about the Boston Marathon guys. They ‘checked them out.’ It didn’t prevent the bombing.”

“Security will never be perfect,” said Harry. “I still think the first step is to secure the border.”

“And who’s going to build the wall?” I asked. “When it’s finished, will the laborers be asked to finish painting on the Mexican side and stay there? Who will pick our fruit? Who will mow our lawns? Who will clean our houses?”

“Those are problems,” said Mary. “Would you deport all those people?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Tom. “We need some way to legalize them.”

“Did the candidate say that in his presentation?” I asked.

“He can’t SAY that,” said Harry. “Everyone understands that.” He gestured to the rest of the dining room, filled with cheerful, prosperous diners.

“After all,” said Mary. “We’re a nation of immigrants.”

*****

My hamburger had grown cold. My sweet potato fries had long ago been stolen by my table-mates. I took a deep breath and plunged in again.

“What’s the Republican solution to education? I read that forty-six states approved of the Common Core standards. And now most Republican-led states are balking. I don’t begin to understand the specific issues, but why did they agree, and now they don’t agree?”

“It has something to do with testing and parent choice,” said Mary.

“Okay. What about them?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure, either,” said Harry. “But we have to put teachers in a position to do a better job. They need to be respected like professionals.”

“You sound like a Democrat,” I said. “Would you support raising their pay?”

“Not with raising taxes,” said Mary. “Nothing can be solved with taxes. As the candidate said, we need to cut waste and fraud.”

“Ah, that’s a good phrase,” I said. “Sounds like the candidate has studied the Fox television talking points.”

“Don’t make fun of Fox,” said Harry. “MSNBC is just as bad.   There’s a lot of waste and fraud in government.”

“Especially welfare fraud,” said Mary.

“And food stamp fraud,” added Tom.

“I don’t condone welfare fraud,” I said.

“And it costs money we could otherwise spend on our military,” said Mary.

“Is that why the GOP proposes to raise military spending while lowering social spending?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said Harry. “We need a strong defense and there’s plenty of money available on the social side.”

“I agree we need an effective military,” I said. “But I suspect fraud and waste in military spending far exceeds welfare fraud in real dollars.”

“Aha, an MSNBC talking point, no doubt,” said Tom.

“Actually,” I said, “no less a hawk than John McCain pointed out that there are billions, with a B, dollars of waste and overruns in our weapons programs. Welfare fraud is measured in thousands and millions.”

“So you think Boeing and Halliburton executives are worse than welfare queens?” said Harry.

“They can be,” I said. “It’s just that when those executives are crooked, we aren’t as interested because they look like us and we’d enjoy dinner or golf with them.”

“That’s very cynical,” said Tom.

“Still true,” I said.

“How do they get away with that?” asked Mary. “Why don’t we hear about that?”

“Could it be because defense contractors make huge political contributions? I don’t think the same could be said of welfare recipients,” I said.

The table quieted for a moment as we concentrated on the dessert menu. The rest of the table had tired of our debate and resumed chatting with each other. I wondered if I’d ever be invited to the club again. Still, I figured I’d gone so far already, I might as well finish the conversation.

“So tell me,” I began, addressing Harry, Mary and Tom. “Your positions deviate from the stated Republican positions on guns, gays, women, fracking and a path towards legal status for undocumented immigrants. Once you verify that military spending is at least as wasteful as welfare spending, you’ll look at that differently, too. None of you profess to be against environmental regulations. How do you support candidates who don’t express any of your relatively progressive positions?”

“Like I said before,” said Tom. “They have to get elected.”

“So what voters are they talking to?” I asked.

“Those people out there,” said Harry, gesturing to the windows. “The people out west, and in the deep south. The ones who like Palin and Cruz, the nut-jobs.”

“So you feel the Republican candidates don’t actually believe what they’re saying,” I said. “They’re just speaking buzzwords to get the votes of the low-information, low-education voters and then, basically, winking at the high-end Republicans like you?”

“Bingo!” said Tom. “That’s what they have to do.”

“So you have no problem with the disconnect between the stated positions of the candidates you support and what you believe to be their real beliefs?” I asked. All three nodded. I found myself where I began. I STILL don’t get it. If there are not rational, real-life explanations for why these intelligent, kind people vote the way they do, are there irrational explanations? What factors might come into play? I hesitate to ponder too deeply lest I dislike my own conclusions. Readers are welcome to weigh in.


RELIGION COMES TO 50th STREET

I grew up in Wynnefield, a tree-lined section of West Philadelphia. Originally settled by William Penn’s physician, Thomas Wynne, it still consists of a variety of housing ranging from row homes to apartment buildings to large single-family homes. Most were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. My family lived on 50th Street, just one block from a row of mansions on Bryn Mawr Avenue. Like them, our house was clad in Pennsylvania fieldstone and surrounded by mature maple and sycamore trees. But its relatively modest three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths made it a comfortable home, not impressive. Its placement atop an incline made it appear larger than it was.

When I was born in 1956, Wynnefield’s population was as Jewish as any shtetl in pre-War Ukraine. A decade older than I, my siblings attended public school, socialized and suffered through religious education almost exclusively with Jews.  In 1963, however, the first house in the neighborhood sold outside “the community.” As though a race had been started by the crack of a pistol, nearly every other house in the neighborhood sported a “For Sale” sign within weeks. My first-grade class picture from 1962 at Gompers Elementary School, which showed three minority students in a class of 20 gave way to a sixth grade photo wherein I was one of five Caucasians.

“White flight” is a pejorative term. Justifiably. It represents the knee-jerk reaction of racists, or people who are not quite racist, but are still fearful of living amidst people of different appearances or backgrounds. The effects on property values, schools and the sense of community are usually negative. Our property value certainly declined. The new neighbors are vilified without even having a chance to offend. Also unsettled are those who don’t move.  My family, due to some combination of enlightened acceptance of others, or inertia (I prefer the former interpretation) stayed put.

*****

We shared our driveway with a family named Rosen who joined the exodus as though Moses himself were leading it. Almost uniquely, however, the family who bought their home was not from outside “the community.” Rather, my parents learned, the buyer was a young rabbi with a wife and two daughters. In terms of joining Wynnefield’s Jewish community, Harry and Esther Cohen were the last people to purchase tickets on the Titanic.

When I learned our new neighbor was a rabbi, I expected a stern, bookish sort of man. I anticipated having to curtail my endless ball playing in the driveway because he would require quiet. I thought he would wear a yarmulke, sport a beard and, perhaps, a long coat. Wrong, wrong and wrong. Harry was tall and slender, with a clean-shaven face and sandy-colored hair. He was young, affable, and a lover of baseball. He often stopped to talk to me while I played ball in our mutual driveway, but never about religion.   We discussed his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the two woebegone teams I followed, the Phillies and the Cubs.

The rabbi’s wife, however, though short in stature, was formidable.  Born in Israel, Esther had served in their army before emigrating. Often, people regard a petite veteran, and say: “Hard to imagine she was a soldier.” Once you’d met Esther, you’d be surprised to learn she hadn’t been the commander in charge. With her nasal, accented voice, she dominated her easygoing husband. “Harry, take out the garbage NOW,” she would say. “Harry, don’t forget to be home by six. I mean it.”

*****

My family was chauvinistically Jewish, never failing to tout our kinship to the range of luminaries from Albert Einstein to Leonard Bernstein to Sandy Koufax. Yet, we didn’t attend religious services. The view of organized religion most commonly espoused by my father approximated that of the author, Ambrose Bierce. To paraphrase, “organized religion is the use of fear and hope to explain the unknowable to the ignorant.” Owing mostly to my father’s viewpoint, I also knew that the word “orthodox,” which I understood had something to do with those who took religion seriously, was often connected with the word “lunatic.” Basically, our religious observance involved celebration of all the major food groups, from beef brisket to cheese blintzes to fruit compote, a practice my family sustains.

Still, I thought because our new neighbor was a rabbi, my father would at least be pleased.   It surprised me when he didn’t accord Rabbi Cohen much respect. Instead, he said the rabbi “talked too much.”  Initially, I assumed the lack of reverence derived from the cleric’s relative youth, his mild southern twang or the related unlikelihood that a man of religion could come from Texas.   The subject of religion confused my seven-year-old self. Nowadays, I simply have a somewhat more detailed incomprehension of how people form and sustain their beliefs. After a year or two, I recognized my father’s lack of respect for Rabbi Cohen was not due solely to his personal attributes so much as to the hitherto unknown (to me) distinction between “reformed” and “conservative.” From overhearing my parents talk, particularly my father, it appeared that somewhere beneath Orthodox Judaism (too much) and Conservative Judaism (about right) was “Reformed Judaism,” representing “too little.” Rabbi Cohen led Beth David, the local reformed congregation.

*****

Civility reigned in our little corner of 50th Street, but not warmth. While the Cohen’s shared the driveway and their kitchen door stood just fifteen feet from ours, we never socialized. Besides his stated distaste for his chattiness, my father’s take on Rabbi Cohen was that he was not a “real” rabbi. Beth David stood in the literal and figurative shadow of the Conservative temple, Har Zion. The latter’s massive building was the long-time anchor of Wynnefield’s Jewish community. My impression growing up was that only presumed beatniks or unserious people belonged to Beth David, housed in a modest, former single-family residence.

“What’s so bad about Beth David?” I asked several times over the years.

“It’s reformed,” said my father.

“So?” I said.

“That’s not a real synagogue,” he said.

We never got farther than that. My father’s antipathy towards Reformed Judaism ran deep and shallow at the same time. He felt strongly about it, but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate why. Though I was too young to press my father, his insistence for “authenticity” rang hollow. It was as though a person with absolutely no interest in baseball passionately hated the designated hitter rule.

*****

My only concerted exposure to our neighbors occurred during my last two years of high school. Their younger daughter enrolled in the Friends’ Academy, the same school I attended; thus, we carpooled every other week. Fortunately, no one paid attention to the arrival of cars at Friends’ Academy as they might have at the entrance to a large public school. As though it weren’t bad enough that my carpool partner was in third grade, Mrs. Cohen delivered me in a powder blue Corvair. I didn’t need Ralph Nadar to tell me that it was unsafe at any speed. It looked funny and smelled funny; I can only hope its fumes didn’t shorten my lifespan in a significant way.

I don’t recall specific discussions with Mrs. Cohen, but I think my parents’ indifference had taken its toll. She made no effort to interact and, being shy myself, the rides were awkward. I sat in the backseat while she tried to communicate with her daughter, an exceptionally silent little girl. After I left home for college, I rarely saw the Cohen’s again except to nod or wave to Esther across the driveway during occasional visits home. If I encountered Harry, we’d cheerfully discuss baseball, at least until his wife rushed him along to work or back inside the house.

*****

When I married at age thirty, we chose to have a rabbi perform the ceremony. I asked my father if I should ask Rabbi Cohen, since he was the only rabbi I knew. “Ecccchhh,” or a sound to that effect, replied my father.  The fact that he didn’t offer an explanation still puzzled me but certainly was consistent. As a result, we enlisted a “Rent-a-Rabbi” closer to where we lived. It’s purely speculation as to what Rabbi Cohen thought about my choice. Perhaps, he felt insulted. Perhaps, he didn’t think about it at all.

In any event, my parents remained neighbors with the Cohen’s for seven more years. By 1994, Har Zion had long since been converted to a Baptist Church and Beth David had become a daycare center. Rabbi Cohen was semi-retired. My father’s death occurred immediately upon moving. My mother asked Rabbi Cohen to lead the funeral service and deliver a eulogy. The rabbi’s performance was dignified and professional. Yet, it may not have been as heart-warming as the audience might have expected from a next-door neighbor of thirty years duration. In a sense, one could call the service “conservative.” In that way, the loquacious rabbi had the final word.


Rabble Rousing

I attended college four or five years too late to participate in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. And had I been at a hotbed of unrest, like Wisconsin or Columbia, it’s unlikely I would have led a sit-in at a dean’s office or stared down the National Guard. Still, in one college era controversy, I overcame my reticence to bear witness to epic events.
*****

Midway through my comfortable first year living in a leafy coed dorm at Dickinson College I learned, to my dismay, that sophomore men had to live in one of the ten houses comprising the fraternity quadrangle, whether or not they belonged to a fraternity. This system had developed in an era when near-unanimous fraternity membership prevailed. By 1975, however, things had changed. Dickinson’s male population split evenly between “Greeks” and independents.
Hostility festered between the two camps like an open wound. Greeks openly referred to independents as “geeks,” a term suggesting a circus freak. Independents showed their disdain for the inanities of “brotherhood” with imitations of secret handshakes and lingo. Fraternity members, for instance, scored life’s experiences on a spectrum from nega-dece (not decent) to dece (okay) to gungabo-dece (the best) and every sort of dece in between. To mock fraternity members was not even a challenge to my friends and me. We described everything, from classes to dinner vegetables, as somewhere on the dece scale. We called our fake fraternity Kappa Wu.
An undercurrent of tension permeated the College cafeteria where factions self-segregated at their unofficial, but unchanging tables, the locations handed down by generations of students. Similarly, in some classrooms, “brothers” sat among brothers and “independents” among independents. Segregation was pervasive, like at schools in the Jim Crow south, albeit without serious national significance. (For that matter, most of the few African-American students at Dickinson also sat at “their” tables in the cafeteria and self-segregated in classrooms, too.)
*****

I played on the soccer team. One fraternity, Phi Psi, dominated the program. Though I hadn’t participated in any social interactions to attract a bid, midway through my freshman year, Phi Psi invited me to join. Certainly, my receipt of a handwritten invitation occurred solely due to the likelihood I would be the goaltender for the next three years.
Fraternity life held no appeal to me. I had two real, biological brothers and found the concept of referring to near-strangers as my brothers to be silly. Also, I perceived no value to the fraternity system except as a cost-effective way to enjoy binge drinking.
A minimal drinker myself, I didn’t take the membership offer seriously. Plus, none of my quirky, socially awkward freshman friends had sought or received fraternity bids. Still, the night I failed to show up at midnight at the center circle of the soccer field to commence “pledging” passed with a realization: “This may become a struggle. Fraternity membership isn’t something I desire, but non-membership is a significant choice.”
*****

There were no immediate consequences to my decision. The spring, non-soccer semester proceeded peacefully. I hung out with my nerdy friends, and the fraternity guys were too busy indoctrinating their new members to pay attention to us. But my friends and I began to worry about where we would live as sophomores. We expected to be randomly assigned to whichever of the ten fraternity houses had empty bedrooms.
Later in the school year, after not establishing eye contact with me for several months, since my non-attendance at the initiation ceremony, the president of Phi Psi approached me in the hallway outside the cafeteria.
“Hey, Stu, how you doing?” said Neil S, friendly as could be.
“Okay,” I said. I thought I should explain. “Sorry about not accepting the bid, but my friends…”
“No need to explain, Stu. No problem at all. Let me offer you a proposition,” said Neil.
“Okay,” I said, wary.
Neil proceeded to explain that his “house” had seven empty “doubles” available for the next school year and “he’d be happy” if my friends and I would move in as a group.
“But why?” I asked.
“It’ll be like your own little fraternity,” he concluded, with a big smile. “And I’d rather have the gee… ah, guys I know rather than some random bunch of independents. You know, I’m sure you won’t be troublemakers.”
“Sounds interesting,” I said. “I’ll let you know.”
When I discussed it with them, my eight or ten friends jumped at the chance to cluster in one location. Several additional independents begged in, and I approached Neil a week later with a full roster of fourteen.
“That’s gungabo-dece,” said Neil.
*****
The following September, our group moved onto the second floor at Phi Psi. Like all the fraternity houses at Dickinson, Phi Psi had three floors. The bottom floor was the common space, including a “social” floor, a large bar and a television room. Neil assigned my group to the second floor, and fraternity members lived on the third floor.
For a week or two, the arrangement worked fine. The bedrooms were no worse than any other dorm. We watched television downstairs, if we chose, without overt hostility from the “brothers.” And the smell of spilled beer that pervaded the building seemed an authentic part of the college experience.
That all changed on October 1 when fraternity rush commenced, the intense period of partying when members indulged their addictions and recruited new members. Each weekend, loosely defined as Thursday through Sunday, a beer-soaked, music-blared bacchanalia took place just beneath our rooms. We weren’t welcome to attend the bashes but participated nonetheless by way of vibrating walls and floors. Our bathroom also was more convenient than the one on the third floor when partygoers needed emergency relief.
For several weeks, my friends groggily congregated in the hallway to lament the situation. We learned from other independents that the pattern was similar throughout the quadrangle. Most aggravating was that fraternity members who wanted to sleep or, God forbid, study, could do so in the relative, non-throbbing quiet of the third floor. Our floor served as their buffer.
“It’s horrible,” we concurred. “But at least it’s not personal or violent.”
That changed quickly during the spring. The new fraternity recruits, called “pledges,” began their indoctrinations. Among the tasks apparently assigned included rampaging through the second floor after midnight hooting, hollering and banging on doors.
Complaints lodged at the office of the Dean of Housing yielded no more than sympathetic nods and the sentiments: “Boys will be boys,” or “It’ll be over in just a few weeks.”
One night, when the door banging took place with metal baseball bats and several drunken pledges regurgitated on the hallway carpet, we finally acted. Ten independents, including myself, marched half a mile to the home of Sam Banks, the college president, coincidentally a proud Phi Psi alumnus. Declaring: “if we’re up, he’s going to be up,” we banged on his door. No one answered.
We did this the next couple of nights, too, with additional independents from other houses, now numbering over twenty. We wondered, with increasing frustration: “How do we get his attention?”
Two members of our group, CLW and MP, decided upon an inspired action I wouldn’t do myself, though I admit to having been sympathetic. When no one answered the door on the fourth night, they unzipped their pants and urinated into the college president’s mail-slot. The next night, they did the same. On the third such night, following their customary loud knocking and leaning on the doorbell, lights finally came on in the house. Bustling down the inside steps, while fastening the tie on his silk bathrobe, was Sam Banks, the President.
“Come in, come in,” he said, peering into the darkness.
Dr. Banks, a large man of about fifty, stood to the side with a look of amazement as our group, which had grown to nearly thirty students, entered. We stepped over the conspicuous, discolored floor in the foyer, and gathered in his living room.
“What can I do for you?” he said, as we stood awkwardly.
Several of my friends explained why we were there and indicated it was our intention to wake him each night we were awakened after midnight. To his credit, Dr. Banks listened with equanimity and nodded that he understood. No one mentioned the mail slot, of course. When the story concluded, he appeared downcast, but thoughtful:
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said. “The situation is unacceptable. We’ll figure something out. I’ll speak to the Dean of Housing first thing tomorrow.”
Our uncivil disobedience had apparently succeeded spectacularly, since news circulated through the cafeteria the next day that the College had established an “Emergency Task Force on Housing.” As a further indication that something was afoot, Phi Psi brothers glared at us with more hostile silence than usual. Relative quiet also prevailed on our floor from that night forward. When I passed Neil on the walkway to the house later that week, he shook his head.
“Why didn’t you talk to me first?” he said.
“Would it have helped?” I asked.
He paused for a moment.
“Probably not,” he said.
I waited for a moment, thinking he might offer some apology. He resumed walking.
*****

I attended several meetings of the housing task force on behalf of my friends. It consisted of faculty, administrators and student council members who represented the Greek system and independents, respectively. Impressive in their diligence, they produced a report before the end of the school year. They recommended an ingenious solution to the problem, namely: instead of having independents assigned to fraternity housing pay the college for their rooms, like every other student, the fraternities were required to pay for all their rooms and then seek reimbursement from individual residents. Therefore, if a fraternity with an empty bed could not entice an independent to occupy it, the fraternity absorbed the cost. A fraternity known to be hostile to independents would be unable to survive economically.
As a result, sophomore independents in subsequent years were pampered, relatively-speaking. The fraternities offered them third floor rooms, away from the noise, and also refrained from disturbing their sleep. Anecdotally, I heard that fraternity officers apologized if inebriated pledges became too rambunctious or belligerent. The entire balance of the relationship had changed for the better.
*****

Looking back on the experience, I’m pleased I participated in a cause that brought positive change. It benefitted the College, whose reputation has vastly improved, and also benefitted the individuals who spent their sophomore years in civilized circumstances, at least by college standards. I even think it benefitted fraternity members who learned to rein in their baser instincts. Instead of merely rolling over when pissed off, I’m happy I took action along with my friends, though I refrained from being an active, mail-slot pisser.


THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

We went retro on a recent southern sojourn. We took an old-fashioned driving trip, without a detailed plan, waking up in a different roadside motel almost every day, and seeing “the country.” It’s my understanding people used to do this sort of thing on a regular basis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But my family never took such a trip when I was young and when my wife and I had children of our own, nothing could have sounded worse than piling into the car and driving for hours each day.
Now, unencumbered by jobs or small children, spurred by cheap gas and relatively cold temperatures, and chastened by the hassle of air travel, my wife, Katie and I opted to allot ten-twelve days to see the south. Of course, we didn’t leave everything to chance. Our first stop was Charleston, always a dependable spot for great food and sights. And our final destination was Savannah, also a guaranteed source of interesting and delicious things to enjoy. In between, however, we traveled the back roads of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And we got together with friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. As Robert Frost concluded, “And that made all the difference.”
*****
Several improvements have been made to car travel since the heyday of “the road trip.” First of all, our car is not a station wagon or van, but a BMW with heated seats and cruise control. Second, there’s no struggle to find something to listen to in out-of-the-way places; we have Sirius satellite radio, books on tape and CD’s. Finally, there’s no dealing with maps or asking for directions from strangers. Rather, our smart phone and a GPS combined to save us time and anxiety.
*****
Our first destination after Charleston was Aiken, South Carolina. A college friend, Scott, settled there thirty years ago and invites everyone on our mutual e-mail list to visit when they are in the vicinity. Given that Aiken is the definition of “off the beaten track” in the southwestern quarter of the state, I believe we were the first in decades to take him up on the offer.
Aiken, I learned, is the home of “The Bomb Factory.” It’s where the United States produced much of its nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Now, the same facility is the repository of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from that effort and Scott, a nuclear chemist, is in charge of devising methods for its safe disposal. While he indicates he is making progress, at the present rate, his employment is assured for several centuries.
Scott cooked a fabulous crock of chicken tortilla soup for lunch; it would have suited Charleston’s finest establishments. He introduced his wife, Deb and his son, Mark, who is a recreational food-eating contestant. I’m not sure if I could describe Mark as “accomplished” or “aspiring” in this particular avocation, but his You-tube account shows numerous triumphs in such disciplines as pizza and hot dog inhalation.
A third college friend drove down from Atlanta to join us for the day. Scott and I felt honored since Dan’s been visible only via Facebook and e-mail for the past three decades. Sure to stump any “What’s my Line” competition, Dan is an itinerant pediatrician, traveling the country on short-term assignments. He offers an amusing and insightful perspective on our healthcare system, parenting, and the difficulty of landing a fulltime position for a person determined to speak the truth.
Neither Scott nor Dan is defined by their careers or by having graduated from Dickinson College in the late 1970’s. Scott is a leading expert on the Three Stooges. He is published on the subject and owns a collection of memorabilia, correspondence and memories that would be the envy of any nine-year-old boy in the country. Women, not so much. In addition, Scott has the unique talent to make his shoulder blades speak and several less couth skills, if you can imagine.
Dan is renowned for having memorized the home address of every person in our entering class as of 1974. “Why?” one might ask. Some questions defy answers. The three of us had a great afternoon reminiscing while Katie and Deb endured. We communicated as easily as if we were back at our table in the rear of the cafeteria during the Carter administration. How could so many years have passed?
The visit stretched into dinner at a restaurant where I thought Mark might order twenty servings, given his eating skills, but he refrained. The next morning, Scott made blueberry pancakes, and we covered more meaningless but enjoyable trivia. As one might imagine of someone who can recite 400 home addresses after so long, Dr. Dan was particularly good at making one shake one’s head and say: “Oh, yeah, I had completely forgotten that.”
*****
After breakfast, Katie and I resumed our trip with Valdosta, GA as the day’s destination. Picked randomly as a place five hours due south, it sits just above the border with Florida. I can conclude the following about western South Carolina and central and southern Georgia: there’s not much there. Still, the ride was traffic free and the scenery pretty. To see it one time was interesting; if I had to take that drive on a regular basis, oy vey.
The weather was unseasonably warm, in the mid-70’s, and it seemed a shame to spend the entire afternoon in the car. Accordingly, in the town of Tifton, one hour north of Valdosta, we stopped at what a billboard proclaimed “The Third-Best Golf Course in Georgia.” The opportunity to knock off one of Katie’s least significant bucket list items was at hand. While I flailed my way around the course, which may not have even been the third best in Tifton, she drove the golf cart. She did a fine job driving and following the location of my shots. Her only serious breach of etiquette occurred in front of a large lake. As I stood over the ball, she said: “Don’t think about the water.” Do I need to complete this paragraph?
Also in Tifton, anchoring Main Street is “The Big Store,” owned by the family of a friend. It was Sunday, so the store was closed, but the exterior reminded me of my father’s store in Philadelphia. If he’d somehow settled in southern Georgia or the like, how different my life would have been.
*****
Following a planned two-day visit to Katie’s step-mom in Sarasota, we resumed our unplanned road-trip. Encouraged by the visit with Scott and Dan I e-mailed another college friend, Dave, whom I knew lives in Jacksonville, FL. Dave is like the three-toed sloth of our group of friends. We know he exists but is hard to see. Rare to weigh in on our email communications, I doubted Dave would be accessible for an impromptu visit.
An email elicited no response, and neither did an initial phone message left at his work number. But two hours into our drive, Katie texted Dave and he responded immediately. He agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. My mind filled with recollections. Not only had Dave attended college with me, he had also attended the same high school and had shared my Washington apartment during my first year of law school. Yet, we’d hardly communicated in the interim.
The temperature fell from 79 in Sarasota to 54 when we arrived in Jacksonville during a fierce rainstorm. The billboard-dominated ride northeast featured orange groves and small towns dominated by trailer parks. We stopped to buy oranges and grapefruits but didn’t see other attractions unless one is a passionate about seeing baby alligators in cages. We aren’t.
Dave waited in the foyer when we arrived at PF Chang’s. An associate athletic director at Jacksonville University for eighteen years, he looked the same as I remembered except greyer. The same could be said of me. We enjoyed reviewing our shared history for several hours and vowed not to let thirty-five years intervene again. As to his lack of communication, Dave didn’t explain. Offering many memories but fewer insights, I accept that Dave is simply on the more private end of the human spectrum.
Jacksonville was a revelation to me. For no particular reason, I’d always assumed Jacksonville to be a sleepy backwater, surrounded by swamps and filled with trailers. Instead, it’s a vibrant city with over a million people. When the weather cleared the next day, we saw an impressive skyline, a river walk, beaches and museums.
*****
When we finally arrived home after two days in Savannah, Katie and I agreed it had been a good trip, different and interesting. Would we do it again? I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. Driving hours each day is tedious. But if we can catch up with old friends in new places again, you never know.


THE PANTRY

Mankind’s fervent desire for new and interesting experiences is reflected in the contents of the pantry. Alas, that is also where that desire crashes on the shoals of reality. For the pantry is where forgotten packages of couscous, cellophane noodles and pearled barley await their expiration dates. Oh, did I forget to mention the grits, lentils and ultra-grain quinoa penne?

The main course for dinner in our household is often chicken or fish. The accompanying dish is usually from the worlds of pasta, potatoes or rice. When we dine out, however, especially if it’s at an ethnic restaurant, we see greater variety. Our enjoyment of exotica invariably leads us to purchase “something different” for use at home. Yet, when “push comes to shove,” due to the familiarity of taste and preparation, we almost always opt for one of our basics. After several rejections, the “different” recedes into the dark corners of the closet where it is forgotten, out of sight and out of mind.

*****

I am responsible for several household tasks including, but not limited to, the following: unloading the dishwasher, taking out the trash, and mowing the lawn. Every few months, I voluntarily venture into the food pantry.

Sometimes, my goal is to organize and sometimes to alphabetize. And sometimes, like a lemming jumping off a cliff, my goal is to find packages that have fallen behind others into obscurity. When I locate one, I tend to announce to my wife, Katie: “We’d better eat some spinach channa tonight, whatever that is. The box says it’s about to expire.”

Sometimes, the discovery is within the tastes and preparation parameters of the planned meal. More often, unfortunately, there is a reason the product hasn’t seen the light of day. “Long grain, slow-cooking brown rice” is, as the label notes, slowly cooked. Forty-five minutes for a side dish is rarely acceptable. And “rice fettuccine noodles without gluten?” Does that sound appealing to a person who isn’t on a gluten-free diet?

*****

The other evening, in a fit of masochistic efficiency, I took out everything in our pantry that didn’t fall into the category of “normal.” I determined to make a meal of several of the products. “Kasha,” I announced, “is something my mother used to make. I haven’t had it in forty years, but tonight’s the night.”

“I don’t like kasha,” said Katie.

“Then why did we get this?” I asked, brandishing a small, plastic package.

“I think it came in a gift box,” said Katie.

“Someone gifted us kasha?” I asked, incredulous. “They must not like us very much.”

“Well, it’s supposed to be healthy. You know, it’s buckwheat,” Katie said.

“I didn’t know. I’m impressed. How does that differ from plain wheat?” I asked.

“Now you’re pushing it,” said Katie. “Maybe the groats are shaped differently.”

“Groats?” I said.

*****

Anyway, I recalled from childhood that kasha often surrounded bow-tie pasta. We didn’t have any bowties but I found a package of green and red Christmas tree shaped pasta purchased in a fit of holiday enthusiasm. Suspecting kasha might benefit from some flavor other than buckwheat, I also grabbed a small bag of dried currants that was surely destined for disposal. In my view, currants are to raisins what harpsichords are to pianos or typewriters are to computers –- obsolete. Still, they could play a role in my meal of obscurity.

The directions on the package of kasha were basic. Add a cup of water to a cup of groats, boil them for fifteen minutes, let them sit for ten minutes, then, eat. When the kasha began to thicken, I added the currants and threw in some almond slices, for texture. I also had the idea that a can of cannellini beans that had held down a corner of the pantry for nearly three years might be helpful. I threw them in, too.

Within half an hour, I had a massive pot of dark brown paste along with a second pot of colorful trees. The kasha gave off a fairly unpleasant fragrance.

“I feel like we’re in a gulag,” I said.

“This was your idea,” said Katie.

“Well, how bad can it be?” I asked.

No response.

*****

After only two or three bites, Katie went to the refrigerator and found herself some leftovers from the previous night’s restaurant meal. Left to consume my medley on my own I determined to finish. I added salt, then pepper, then more salt. I drowned a portion of my kasha in blue cheese dressing. There was no way I would admit it was inedible.

After the meal, Katie turned to me and asked if I’d like to go out for dessert. Like a person throwing a life preserver to someone who’s drowning, she added: “Let’s go to the place next door to the pizza shop.”

*****

Later that evening, on the phone, I told my mother what I’d made for dinner.

“Oh, I love kasha,” she said.

“You do?” I asked, incredulous. “It hardly had any taste. And the smell…”

“How did you prepare it?” asked my mother.

I told her the details and she laughed.

“There are different kinds of kasha,” she said. “Yours sounds like the type you just add for texture, like bread crumbs, not to eat as a meal.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was like eating little pieces of buck-shot, not buckwheat.”

“You made the wrong kind. There’s a type of kasha that’s fluffy and delicious.”

“Hard to imagine,” I said.

After this experience, I’ll avoid the pantry for at least a month. Then again, there’s a jar of peach-mango chutney that might be just perfect with Fat-free Organic Thai Rice Noodles.

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