WHY COSTA RICA?

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

“Do it.” It felt right.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not in New Jersey,” I said.

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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


REPAIRS, ETC.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

“How did he get that name?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

What should we do?


SPORTSMANSHIP

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The umpire shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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


A POLITICAL FUTURE?

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

*****

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

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

“Why?” I said, stricken.

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

“So?” I asked.

“This is political,” he said.

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

“Great, “ I said, grumpily.

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

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


MYSTERY FAMILY

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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


FIT-BIT TO BE TIED

My children were kind (?) enough to give me a Fit-Bit as an early Father’s Day gift. For those who don’t know, a Fit-Bit is an electronic bracelet that monitors how many steps one takes throughout a day. It can reflect the total on your computer screen along with numerous other tidbits of information if one chooses to enter them, such as: water consumption; caloric intake; and, how deeply one has slept.

For now, counting steps is sufficient to maintain my interest; I take off the Fit-Bit before I go to sleep. A typical target number for daily steps is 10,000. Boosted by a tennis match in the morning I managed 20,000 my first day. I’m also a Fit-Bit “friend” with my daughter and wife, so I can compare my performance with theirs throughout the day or week or month.   Time will tell if intra-family, friendly competition is desirable.

*****

Though not a social scientist, and without statistics to support my contentions, I believe the middle-aged recognize there is less physicality in life than there was a century ago. We believe our efforts to reintroduce movement and strength conditioning positively impact our health, appearance and quality of life. To that end, we PAY MONEY to join gyms, hire trainers, participate in yoga, and, yes, wear equipment that encourages these virtuous tasks.   I smile, after all, when my wristband buzzes to mark my ten thousandth step each day. It “syncs” with my computer to greet me with an image of a golden sneaker when I sit down at the end of a walk. How different from when I attended college!

*****

In the mid-1970’s, I played soccer goaltender for the glory of Dickinson College. During my first two seasons, team conditioning was sporadic. At practice, while I fielded light shots from an assistant coach and chatted with passersby, my teammates jogged a little, scrimmaged a little, and kicked the ball around in drills that lacked clear purpose or connection. It was as though our coach, Bill Nickels, a former football player, had simply copied a list of possible activities from a book. (In fact, he had).

The highlight of each day was shooting practice, where my teammates lined up to take a crack at the goal defended alternately by me and my back-up, a person without athletic skill, who had joined the team in order to recruit freshman for his fraternity. Never mind that shooting on goal is a skill rarely undertaken in a game by most defenders and mid-fielders. Twenty people stood in two anaerobic lines to await their turn to blast a ball in my general direction. Through no great skill on my part, their efforts were rarely rewarded; balls that did not go directly into my hands usually sailed over the goal or squibbed sadly to the side like popped balloons.

Our won-lost record during my first two seasons was nearly even. Apparently, in the 1970’s, other small college soccer teams also had coaches who had never played the sport, and consisted of players who were more hobbyists than dedicated athletes.

It was shocking, therefore, to arrive for my junior season and find Coach Nickles a changed man. He still looked the same, with his substantial mustache and dark glasses above a barrel chest in a too-tight tee shirt. But he had attended a seminar over the summer and resolved to mold our squad into a well-conditioned athletic machine.

“This season is going to be different,” he announced to the throng lounging on the grass in front of him. “First of all, there will be no more standing around between drills.”

Several of us looked up with mild interest.

“Second of all,” he continued, “only the forwards and halfbacks will take shooting practice. Fullbacks will work on their long kicking and heading.”

A few players raised eyebrows in surprise. A fullback groaned in disappointment.

“Finally,” he declared, “you’re going to get in shape. Two days a week, half of practice will be spent on ‘brutality drills,’ a combination of running and weight-lifting that will set us apart from the other teams.”

Now the coach had everyone’s attention.

“Weight-lifting?” said several players, surprised.

“That’s right,” said Coach Nickels, pointing to the entrance to the weight room adjacent to the locker room, an environment as unknown to Dickinson soccer players as the moon. “And the running begins right now.”

*****

True to his word, Coach Nickels cajoled the team to do wind sprints of varying lengths. Next up were calisthenics. Then an introduction to the various weights and machines from the trainer who we’d thought worked exclusively for the football team. Then more sprints, then a water break. Then, amidst looks of disbelief, he lined us up for more running.

“When are we going to use the balls?” asked one player, in a plaintive tone.

“When I’m satisfied there’s been a good enough effort in the running,” said Coach Nickels.

A group of 18-20-year-olds looked at each other like contestants at the end of a dance marathon. Lucky for me, as a goaltender, the coach sent me off with the assistant to field some shots; even under the new regime, field-long wind sprints were not deemed essential for me. From my vantage point in goal, I watched my teammates continue to run and strained to suppress my amusement.

While most of us complained bitterly and loafed whenever possible, particularly in the weight room, after several weeks, practices seemed more purposeful. And when we played our first game, the difference was clear. We knew from past seasons that Lebanon Valley College had a terrible soccer team; we looked forward to an easy game to start the season. But the anticipated 3-0 win became a 9-0 blowout. My teammates ran circles around the opponents while I stood, bored and inactive, in front of the goal.

Nonetheless, at practice, the complaints continued. Several players, who usually sat on the bench, quit the team. Soccer for them was meant to be a social experience, not a struggle. A few others begged off some of the running due to minor injuries or allergies.

We won two more relatively easy games and then lost to our only D-1 opponent, Bucknell, by a respectable score of 1-0. (The goal went in off the post; I still remember it like it was yesterday). We were a winning team. We felt strong. Yet, on ‘brutality’ practice days, we dragged ourselves to the field like prisoners approaching the gallows. To my knowledge, no one ever congratulated Coach Nickels for his initiative. No one acknowledged aloud that they could run farther without heavy breathing or that they could lift increasing amounts of weight. All we did was complain, even while compiling a record of 9 wins and 4 losses instead of the usual six wins, six losses and a tie.

*****

The following season, to my surprise, Coach Nickels returned to the drowsy routines of my first two years. Had someone complained to the administration? Were ‘brutality’ drills undignified? Un-Dickinsonian? The concept of coach/player communication had not been invented in the 1970’s. Whatever the reason, most of my teammates breathed a sigh of relief. I admit I was among them. We vaguely realized our regression to a record of 7-6 stemmed from the demise of serious conditioning. However, in our lazy, young minds, we were happy not to have to run those extra sprints, not to enter the weight room on a regular basis.

*****

Fast forward thirty or forty years. We pay to belong to a gym. We pay to belong to a tennis club. We purchase a collection of weights, bands and balls for home use on days we can’t get to the gym. We schedule walks or runs.   We own Fit-Bits to monitor our every step. All of this was free, available (not the Fit-Bit) and AVOIDED LIKE THE PLAGUE when we were young. It is said: “youth is wasted on the young.” I’m not always an adherent of that conclusion. In this instance, however, it may be true. I’m going to take a long walk and think about it.


HOMEWORK HELPER, A MOTHER’S DAY STORY

Our son, Sam, is an excellent student. He’s now in a PhD program at an illustrious university. However, when he was young, his intellectual ability rarely extended to artistic creation. Although we happily hang a Halloween-themed painting by him in our garage gallery, there are more bad memories than good from the era when he produced “projects” for school. By the time he was in fifth or sixth grade, we couldn’t stand to see him suffer. My wife, Katie, and I abandoned the traditional viewpoint that a student is responsible for all his own work; Sam received as much parental or sibling assistance as necessary to survive what we concluded was a silly, system-wide preoccupation with paper, scissors and glue.

Katie, an educator, and a person without a scintilla of chicanery in her arsenal, initially struggled with the decision to relieve Sam’s burden.

“Isn’t this cheating?” she asked. “Will it ruin his sense of responsibility?”

“I don’t think he’ll be ruined,” I said. “He still does all his other work. He’s learning disabled in arts and crafts. Wouldn’t it be wrong to deny him assistance?”

“So you don’t have a problem with this?” she asked, seeking confirmation, as she colored in the background in a workbook Sam had to illustrate.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

After all, in truth, I’d once received a little parental assistance myself.

*****

When I took mid-level (not for the brainiacs) biology in ninth grade at Friends’ Academy, the teacher was legendary; he’d single-handedly comprised the biology department for over thirty years. Mr. Farrington, white-haired and elfin, was a stern and serious academician. Accordingly, besides biology teacher, his position was Dean of Students. In that capacity, he handled matters of discipline and played a large role in determining where students applied to college. No, Mr. Farrington was not a man to mess with.

I’m not proud to admit that, in my teenage years, I resisted knowledge in subjects outside my core interests of English, history and music. I still apply some degree of willful ignorance, like a Republican presidential candidate, to a wealth of subjects. Biology, along with anything mathematical, was way out in my mental periphery.

Under Mr. Farrington’s steely gaze, the dissection of worms and frogs alarmed me without interesting me. And genetics? Forget it. He shook his head with incomprehension when my undistinguished classmates or I failed to “get it.” His classroom and walls were festooned with posters and projects produced by his more elite students, the “Section One” people, whom he delightedly steered towards his Ivy League contacts.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Farrington lectured, my mind usually drifted to the baseball field. He caught me flat-footed and spluttering the several times he called on me. I hunkered down in the hopes of avoiding his notice. An impressive student of the sciences I was not.

*****

The culmination of the year, and a third of our grade, depended upon the creation of an individual herbarium by each student, a miniature replica of a wild scene of flora and fauna, set inside glass, usually fish-tank-sized. I stressed over the project for several weeks, unsure where to even begin. Though I rarely involved my parents in the details of my schoolwork, I must have expressed my fears effectively because all I remember, to my immense relief, is that my mother took on the project as though her life depended on it.

After several visits to the hardware and plant stores, and hours spent around the dining room table, during which I handed my mother pieces like a nurse assisting a doctor, she’d created a display worthy of a natural history museum. Having seen similar quality on Mr. Farrington’s shelf, it didn’t occur to me this might present a problem. Vaguely aware there might be moral implications surrounding this matter, I chose to ignore them. I felt that I was not a “bad” person and I knew my mother was not a “bad” person, and I was unconcerned about this becoming a habit. I delivered the herbarium with a sigh of relief and then forgot about it. A passing grade in biology was assured, I thought, and that had been my only concern.

*****

I was taken aback several days later when my mother told me she’d been called by Mr. Farrington’s office to accompany me to a meeting with Mr. Farrington. I hoped, somehow, that his intention was to congratulate me for a job well done, but I wasn’t so naïve as to not feel nervous.

“What will we say,” I asked her, “if Mr. Farrington asks who made the herbarium?”

“I’m not going to lie,” said my mother. “But I’ll tell him you played a large role.”

“I’m not sure handing you stuff qualifies as a ‘large role,’” I said.

“We’ll just have to see,” she said. “You might have to re-do the whole thing and accept the consequences.”

My dread rose as we arrived at Mr. Farrington’s office and saw a sour expression on his usually impassive face. “My” herbarium sat on his desk between us.

“Mrs. Sanders,” he began, addressing my mother as though I weren’t present. “I’m afraid your son has violated a vital aspect of the honor system at Friends’ Academy.”

I turned pale, but my mother remained cool, merely raising an eyebrow to allow Mr. Farrington to continue.

“It is clear to me that Stuart PURCHASED this herbarium from a store,” he said.

“He ABSOLUTELY did not PURCHASE it,” said my mother firmly. “I would never allow such a thing.”

Mr. Farrington turned his gaze to me. “Well,” he said, “it’s just that this herbarium is professional in quality, worthy of a top Section One student, and Stuart has not previously shown such abilities.”

“Perhaps he was inspired,” interjected my mother, never a fan of the caste system at the school.

I lowered my eyes to look at the floor. I feared my mother might have gone too far. I certainly didn’t want Mr. Farrington to expect “inspired” work from me on a regular basis. Mr. Farrington remained silent for a long moment. Perhaps, the actual explanation occurred to him –- he was a smart man — and he weighed how much of a confrontation he deemed worthwhile.

My heart beat hard in my chest as several seconds seemed to last several hours. Finally, he merely shook his head, thanked us for coming in, and congratulated me on my excellent work. He addressed my mother, in a neutral tone: “You should be very proud.”

*****

“Phew,” I whispered, when we’d closed the office door behind us and hustled down the hallway.

“There’s a lesson to be learned from this,” said my mother.

“To always do your own work?” I asked.

“To not do too good a job when you do your kids’ work,” she said.

“What kind of a lesson is that to give to your child?” I asked, amazed, but also amused.

“A practical lesson,” she said.

As a parent, I’ve heeded that lesson several times over the years, sparingly, when somewhat, arguably, possibly appropriate.

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