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.


AND THE MEN WORE SKIRTS

I recently attended a same-sex wedding for the first time. Other than the fact that a number of the women wore suits and several of the men, being from Scotland, wore skirts, the event was indistinguishable from any other wedding. Food was plentiful, music loud, and loving sentiments wafted through the air like the fragrance of a thousand flowers.

That I was one of the fathers of one of the brides (how modern!) provided me with intimate knowledge of its planning, background and inner-workings. This was my first go-around as a wedding parent, but I believe the issues and anxieties leading up to the non-traditional wedding weekend were as traditional as they could be.

*****

My daughter, Kelly, announced her engagement to Laura at a family gathering in August, 2012. “Have you set a date?” was the natural question. The girls (I know they are “women” but please allow a father’s indulgence) seemed disinclined to respond.

“No rush,” Kelly replied. “In a couple of years.”

During the next few weeks, in the absence of a date, my wife, Katie, and I speculated on which iconic site would be the location of the wedding. Since the girls live in Brooklyn, off the top of our heads, we named the Botanical Garden, the Library, the Naval Yard and Prospect Park. Just across the river, in Manhattan, there were Central Park, the Battery, and Tavern on the Green, among hundreds.

In an early telephone conversation, Katie said: “We once attended a beautiful wedding at the Chelsea Piers.”

Kelly said decisively: “We’re not doing it in the city.”

Thinking she was eliminating only Manhattan, Katie plunged deeper: “You’re close to the Botanical Gardens, aren’t you? And I heard the Naval Yard has an amazing facility.”

“We want to marry at a farm,” said Laura on the other line, in her Scottish lilt, sounding non-negotiable.

“We will figure out which one,” added Kelly.

I’m sure we are not the first parents to encounter the “kids’” desire to choose the location of their own wedding with some degree of alarm. We accepted that the girls were entitled to their choice. Still, after a lifetime of dispensing guidance, Katie and I felt it’s our duty to point out issues Kelly and Laura might not have considered, such as: travel; accommodations; and, footing for older guests.

“And don’t second guess our choice,” added Kelly, as though she could see our dubious facial expressions over the phone. “We know what we’re doing.”

*****

The role of parents in wedding planning is a curious one. Society has provided some traditional guidelines, namely: the bride’s parents pay for the wedding; the groom’s parents pay for the rehearsal dinner, the bride wears a white dress; the bride’s mother, with her wisdom and experience, is assumed to have huge influence, etc. All this is unclear, however, when there are two brides and no groom, suits and no dress, and two thirty-somethings with resources and opinions of their own.

What’s a father to do? As a general matter, first, keep your mouth shut. Second, keep your mouth shut. Third, keep reminding yourself and your spouse, “It’s THEIR wedding.”

*****

Kelly holds masters’ degrees in education and library science and continues to hold down the midfield on several adult soccer teams.   Laura comes from Scotland. She holds a PhD in neuroscience, and an undergraduate degree from UCLA, where she was the star of the golf team. Neither, in other words, is a shrinking violet.

Throughout 2013, parental inquiries about wedding plans, whether posed by Laura’s parents in Scotland or by us in North Carolina, were parried away by the girls like weak shots against a World Cup goaltender. Still, Katie just couldn’t resist. She asked more than once: “How are the plans coming?”

“Fine,” Kelly would say.

“Have you decided on a venue?” Katie would ask.

“You’ll be among the first to know, Mom,” Kelly would answer.

One day in October, however, Kelly volunteered:   “We’ve chosen a date.”

Katie and I held our respective phones in wide-eyed suspense.

“July 26, 2014,” Kelly continued. We felt as though we’d received classified information from the CIA.

“That’s wonderful,” said Katie, happy to have information. “Can we tell everyone?” she asked.

“Yes, Mom,” said Kelly. It wasn’t easy, but Katie finally seemed to have the necessary tone and rhythm. Though it frustrated her mightily, she’d learned not to bring up the wedding unless Kelly did first. As always, I remained silent. After several additional months, refraining from asking questions paid off. In January, Kelly asked:

“Don’t you want to know about the farms we’ve visited?”

“Sure,” said Katie on the phone. She grinned from ear to ear, but strained to keep her tone of voice neutral. We learned from Kelly about a cross-section of New England’s barns, meadows and rustic inns, and listened to the girls’ impressions of each.

*****

Gradually, by spring, the girls shared the chosen farm’s website address. As a bonus, Kelly requested that Katie organize the gift bags. When the farm staff sent the guests a note that began: “The Bride and Groom ask you to mark the date…” the girls enlisted Katie to “go New Jersey” and add a parental voice to the brides’ howls of indignation.

The staff apologized and no similar fumbles occurred. The other pre-event issues in which we participated to some extent concerned the guest list, seating chart and wedding party participants. Again, Kelly and Laura handled nearly everything with minor consultations. A few deep breaths arose from parents and brides alike, but none proved insurmountable.

*****

Wedding weekend finally arrived and 125 guests arrived in Pittsfield, Vermont. For us, this involved flying from Raleigh to Burlington via Newark and driving ninety minutes south in a rental car. Upon arrival, we checked into a scenic inn perched atop a stone out-cropping, surrounded by wildflower gardens. I observed that the massive wooden beams and the stone foundation reminded me of the Flintstones.

“Don’t say that to Kelly,” said Katie.

“I know, I understand,” I said, though I wasn’t really sure I did.

The map included with the invitations implied that the various lodgings, barns and fields at the venue were all within walking distance. In fact, a system of golf carts and shuttle buses were necessary. One hotel that housed forty guests was four miles from the site. I think even the girls were surprised; when they’d visited the site in January, perhaps their perception was blinded by heavy snow.

A bus hired by Laura’s parents brought twenty guests from Scotland via Manhattan. They emerged at the inn looking groggy. Traffic was worse than anticipated. When I considered their itinerary, I could hardly complain about my own. All the Scots were wonderful people, but initial conversations concerned road repairs, airport delays and traffic.

Some confusion also reigned, at first, about where people were sleeping and how they would move from site to site. Quickly, however, the guests settled in, assisted by wine, beer and, no surprise, Scotch. The rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, which featured fresh local fish and pasta, proceeded seamlessly in an elegant refurbished barn. The Scots blended with the Yanks, the young mixed with the not so young, and the gays mingled with the straights.

*****

Saturday morning’s schedule included a group hike up a mountain, a soccer match between Team Kelly and Team Laura, and casual lunch at an authentic Vermont general store. Afterwards, everyone relaxed, shared conversation, and prepared for the main event that afternoon.

The Scotsmen planned to dress in kilts, and the twelve women in the wedding party brought lavender dresses. For several who preferred to wear suits, there were lavender vests. Though offered the chance to wear a kilt, an experience that would have provided my family a lifetime of laughs, I wore a tuxedo with a bowtie in the pattern of Laura’s family tartan. All these details had been painstakingly labored over by the girls in advance.

*****

At the appointed hour, the guests assembled in chairs set in the middle of a sun-splashed expanse of grass. The wedding party excitedly lined up in an adjacent building in the order chosen by the girls. I tried to take a moment to ponder the momentousness of the event — the first of my children was getting married. But there was so much excitement and energy, it was difficult to focus!

At the signal, the wedding party emerged one-by-one about ten strides apart, led by a four-year-old flower girl, for a forty-yard walk to where the guests sat.  Following twelve bridesmaids and several ushers, I focused on maintaining an even pace and smile. So dazzled was I at the splendor of the setting and the day, my recollection is hazy. Behind me, Kelly walked with Katie and Laura walked with her father. The ceremony was officiated by Lo, a friend of both girls’. Though she described herself afterwards as “petrified,” her performance impressed everyone. She touched on important points about love and commitment and life. I’d be more specific, but the wash of emotions and thoughts crowded out my short-term memory at the time.

Immediately after Kelly crushed a glass with her foot to signify the end of the rare Humanist-Judeo-Scottish ceremony, the girls walked arm-in-arm as a married couple to the sound of a bagpipe and cheers. The guests reassembled under an adjacent tent for heavy hors d’oeuvres, including chicken sate’ and stuffed mushrooms, and drinks. Dinner, dancing and the wedding celebration followed in another reconstituted barn, just a hundred yards, or one golf cart ride away.

Besides an open bar that featured maple syrup mojitos, the festivities included an arcade-like photography booth, a seven-piece band, a choice of steak, fish and gnocchi, more dancing, fireworks, toasts and, finally, more dancing. In the end, the ecstatic brides ran through a gauntlet of handheld sparklers and everyone cheered. A large group of revelers retired to a nearby tavern to continue the party for much of the night. For story-writing purposes, I should have gone, too, but collapsed in bed instead.

*****

By Sunday morning, the wedding could only be declared a total success.  The weekend had been interesting, memorable and fun.

Following a final gut-busting brunch in yet another rustic banquet hall, while a too-late-to-ruin-anything rainstorm raged outside, the guests gathered their Vermont maple syrup souvenirs and wished each other, and the brides, all the best. As Frank Sinatra might have said, the girls had done it “their way.” Indeed, the girls had DONE it, it was great and, after two years and just a wee bit of anxiety, it’s now a wonderful memory.


A PET LOVE STORY?

Herewith a stray cat tale, as related by a friend:

I arrive from work one evening and see an unfamiliar cat staring up at me from beneath the kitchen table.

“Hey, who’s the cat?” I ask.
My wife, Lisa, responds: “That’s Lexi,” she says. “She used to be a stray.”
“And now?” I ask.
“Now she lives here, temporarily” says Lisa.

I’m not shocked. We’ve had visitors before. Lisa volunteers at the local animal shelter and, at least once a year, an animal pulls her heartstrings strongly enough to cross our threshold. Typically, we pay to have the cat or dog neutered, if necessary, and to have minor medical problems addressed. A clean bill of health is usually enough to help an animal get permanently adopted by a family.

“Her teeth are good,” says Lisa.
“That’s great,” I say.
“And she’s only two or three years old,” says Lisa.
“Okay,” I say, suspicious. “So what’s her problem?”
“Who says there’s a problem?” says Lisa.

I exchange looks with Lisa for a moment, long enough to allow each of us to recall the past several guests: the beagle with dry skin; the tabby with food allergies; and, the spaniel with only one ear.

“Well, Lexi has a bad leg,” admits Lisa.
I look at the cat, still staring up at me with green eyes. She blinks once, slowly.
“How bad?” I ask.
“She got hit by a car, a Lexus,” says Lisa. “That’s how she got her name.”
“Oh,” I say, “sorry to hear that.”
“Anyway, someone left her at the shelter with a note about the injury,” says Lisa. “We just have to get her leg fixed up.”

Lexi continues to gaze at me. She seems to think I have some say in her fate. But I know better. To refuse my kind-hearted wife would be as effective as refusing beach entry to a tsunami.

“I’m taking her to the vet first thing tomorrow before I leave for the yoga retreat,” says Lisa. “Is it okay if I give your cellphone number in case they need to call?”
“Sure,” I say. “What will they be doing to her leg?”
“I don’t know,” says Lisa. “Maybe a splint or something. But it shouldn’t be too bad.”

We spend the rest of the evening having dinner and reading, me from a computer, Lisa from a magazine. Lexi emerges from beneath the table several times, to eat some dry cat food and to drink some water. Her front left leg is crooked and causes her to limp, but she appears functional. At one point, she sidles over and rubs her tail against my leg. She’s pretty, with medium length orange fur. I’m pleased to do a good deed for her; she seems appreciative in some intuitive way.

I don’t think much about Lexi the next morning when I hug Lisa good-bye and wish her an enjoyable retreat. My mind’s more focused on work. I have an important meeting scheduled for the morning with out-of-state investors. If it goes well, it could continue all day.
“I’ll see you tonight,” she says. “No phone contact up on the mountain.”
“Wow, that’s serious,” I say, with a smile. “I’ll handle the home front.”
“And you’ll probably hear about Lexi,” says Lisa. “It might be a couple hundred dollars.”
“No problem,” I say. “It’s a good cause.”

Several hours later, during the first recess from the meeting, I check my cell-phone. The caller i.d. indicates the veterinarian has left a message:
“We’re calling about Lexi,” says a kind female voice. “She’s stabilized now. We think we can save the leg.”
“Hunh?” I think. “This sounds expensive.” But I don’t have time to call back before returning to the conference room.
Two hours later, I have another message: “She’s rejecting the screws. We may have to amputate.”
Alarmed, I try to call back. The answering machine says: “We are closed for lunch. Please call again after 1 p.m. You may leave a message.”
“Um, this is Mr. Smith,” I say. “Lexi is a stray cat, I mean, she’s our cat, but she’s not REALLY ours, but she’s having her leg….”
A beep ends the message before I can ask for more details and a cost estimate. My assistant waves for me to return to the meeting. Two hours later, when we break again, I have another message from the animal hospital:
“The amputation went well; we’ll attempt a reconstruction this afternoon. If she lives through the night, there’s a chance she’ll survive. The amputation will be around $3,000 when all the medication is taken into account. The mold for the reconstruction is about $1,200, so long as there are no complications. Room and board during recovery will be additional.”

“What’s wrong?” asks my business partner, Alan.
“It’s unbelievable,” I say, the blood draining from my face. We’re standing outside the conference room where the negotiations are proceeding nicely.
“What is? Is your family okay?” says Alan.
“Yes,” I say, “except for our financial well-being. The bill will be around $5,000 for Lexi’s leg.”
“Who’s Lexi?” Alan asks.
“A cat,” I say.
“Wow,” says Alan. “You must really love your pet.”
“She’s not our pet,” I say, peevish.
Alan looks confused.
“She’s a stray,” I add.
“You’re spending $5,000 for a stray cat’s leg?” says Alan. “That’d be $20,000 for all four!” Alan laughs.
“That’s not helpful,” I say, miserable.

The vet leaves a message on our home phone regarding Lexi’s status. “We’re pulling out all the stops with painkillers and antibiotics. It’ll take a week or two to know if she’ll survive. I’d give it fifty-fifty. We didn’t realize she had a little pneumonia until we got inside. Once she’s strong enough her other leg may need replacement, too,” she concludes. When Lisa calls from her car that evening I relate what I know about Lexi.
“We’ll have to pray for her,” she says.
“Oh, I’m praying,” I say. “I’m definitely praying.”


FOREIGN LANGUAGES

“Hola,” I say.

“Hola,” says the short man with what appears to be a genuine, warm smile. He wears a baseball cap and holds a leaf blower.

I’m taking my daily walk around the neighborhood. I feel it’s appropriate and respectful to greet landscapers in their own language when I can. Often, the response I get appears to me to be a combination of surprise and delight. But some disagree. My wife, Katie, for instance, thinks the workers may feel insulted when I speak to them in Spanish. Readers are welcome to share their opinions. My children cringe whenever I utter a word of Spanish in ANY context. Granted, I’m not a linguist.

*****

When I was little, I had an excellent opportunity to learn other languages. My father’s clothing store was in a section of North Philadelphia that contained a mixture of Puerto Rican and eastern European immigrants. Though I didn’t spend a huge amount of time there, whenever I was in the store, I witnessed my father navigate fluently between English, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. He could also speak passable Polish and German.

My father passionately wanted his children to learn Russian. Only one of his four children inherited his gift and interest, however. My sister not only learned Russian but she achieved college-level proficiency at Spanish and chose to take graduate-level courses in French, Italian and Romanian! The extent of my knowledge of Romanian begins and ends with “blintz.”

I remained oblivious to the babble around me at the store. And my father was not the sort of parent to impose his linguistic hopes on me. My first exposure to foreign language study did not occur until seventh grade when I entered a private school, Friends’ Academy. Most of the students there had commenced studying French in third grade.

To my continuing regret, Friends’ Academy did not offer Spanish at any level because it was deemed “too easy.” Before I could commence French or German or Russian, however, they felt it necessary for me to obtain a foundational understanding of western languages, and it doesn’t get any more foundational than Beginning Latin. For an entire school year such terms as “dative” and “ablative” bounced off me like hail hitting a metal roof. All that stuck with me were: “puer spectat puela,” meaning “boy looks at girl;” and “stultus asinus,” meaning “stupid ass.” The latter characterizes my level of my accomplishment in the subject.

Despite my evident lack of aptitude, Friends’ Academy required continued foreign language study. Recognizing I was too far behind my classmates in French, and that Russian would be impossible (a different alphabet!) they placed me in Beginning German in eighth grade.

To my shock and dismay, I learned a language could have ten or twelve or fifteen ways of saying “the.” Also, nouns can be feminine or masculine.

“Why?” I asked in despair, “is it necessary to complicate simple things?”

Frau Herta Springer was not sympathetic. At the time, I thought of her as an elderly woman though I now realize she was only around fifty. Peering at me through thick glasses, she said, in a clipped Austrian accent: “Deutsch is a precise language. It is not sloppy. And it is not supposed to be easy.”

*****

Frau Springer and I had an awkward relationship for the next five years. She couldn’t understand why I found grammar impenetrable. I couldn’t understand why she thought it was so important. But what she really didn’t understand is why the weakest of her eleven students crushed her in Scrabble when we played in class every other Friday. (It had only taken a couple of weeks for me to graduate from playing my fellow students to taking on Frau Springer).

My secret weapon was a lifetime of play with my mother and aunt. I found words easily, so long as I didn’t have to know what they meant or how to place them in a sentence. Scrabble in German is the same as in English, except that the letter distribution features more S’s, C’s and H’s. She simply could not reconcile my relative genius at the game with my non-comprehension of everything else.

“Was ist los mit dir?” (What is wrong with you?) she asked each time she returned a quiz.

“Ich weis nicht,” (I don’t know) I answered, not quite sure if the ending of “weis” was missing a letter or two.

I never explained to Frau Springer how I came to dominate her. My proficiency at Scrabble was critical when it came to the subjective part of her grading and I didn’t want to risk that by resolving her confusion. At the end of each semester, with my average hovering in the low C’s or worse, she gave me a B.

*****

On the home front, my father found an alternate route to Russian language enthusiasm. This came about through Robert, a classmate of mine who had taken an interest in all things Russian. Starting in ninth grade, he made it known that he read Tolstoy for fun. (Private schools have kids like that. Our German exchange student spent his lunch hours memorizing train schedules). Robert also wore a Russian hat to school each day, its fur flaps protecting his ears even when the temperature topped eighty.

When Robert found out that my father had been born in Russia (Kiev then, as Putin would have it, considered to be part of Russia) he requested the chance to visit our house on Sunday afternoons to engage in Russian conversation. My father was ecstatic. Over the course of about eighteen months, I recall sitting upstairs awkwardly watching football or baseball on television while my father laughed and soaked up the company of Robert in the breakfast room below.

Whatever psychological damage this did to me was rectified, or at least evened out, when we learned that Robert’s father was an ice hockey fanatic with front row tickets to the Flyers’ games. Robert had no interest in sharing his father’s passion for something he thought so ridiculous as sports, so I attended eight or ten hockey games with his delighted dad over the same period.

When Robert’s interest in Russian petered out in favor of a new passion for painting Victorian train stations, (what can I say?) my father was clearly disappointed. Still, I couldn’t work up any interest in learning Russian. And I didn’t foresee how useful and valuable Spanish might be. In the early 1970’s, no one had yet calculated that it could be the majority language in the country by 2030.

*****

As an adult, I’ve had more opportunities to learn Spanish than I ever imagined. First, the kids played soccer under a series of Latin American trainers. Then we bought property in Costa Rica and began to visit there regularly. In addition, my children studied Spanish in school. They tell me they are proficient though I’ve rarely heard them speak.

Accordingly,taking a scattershot approach, I’ve obtained several books and tapes and I sometimes watch Spanish television with English subtitles. Once again or, perhaps, still, my ability to memorize vocabulary words outstrips my limited capacity to place the words in proper order and tense.

Like German, Spanish features a host of ways to say “the” and divides its nouns into masculine and feminine, with all the same grammatical booby-traps. But Spanish has two things going for it: there are tons of cognates. In other words, hospital in Spanish equals hospital in English. Doctor is doctor. Goal is gol, etc.; and, Spanish-speaking people, at least those I’ve encountered through soccer or visiting Costa Rica, are not hung up on precision. When I try to express myself in Spanish, if they can understand from my vocabulary and body language what I’m trying to say, they smile and say: “Su espanol es muy bueno.” (Your Spanish is very good).

I know they are exaggerating. I also know I’d benefit if they were less kind and more rigorous in teaching me. But, at least on some basic level, I’m able to converse in a foreign language. And that’s more than Frau Springer, my father, or I would ever have expected.

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