Saturday, February 25, 2023

Take Your Father to Work Day


One afternoon ten years ago we were living in London and on my way back from a lunch meeting I found myself near my daughter's school. I thought it was my opportunity to catch my kid in action, to see her life up close, but from a distance. I knocked on the school's front door they escorted me to a hallway outside her classroom where I watched her, just for a moment in her natural habitat. 

Maybe it was her age, or mine, but I had been lamenting all the experiences, all this life, she was having that I was no longer privy to.

Once the kids start school we see them briefly in the morning before the action of their day and then in the exhausted after. Once they go off to college we only get holidays and weekends. Post-college it's whenever they can fit us in.

Peering through that glass slice of her sixth grade classroom door I watched them raise their hands, speak out of turn, make mistakes, laugh. Until one of the students spotted me, the pointing began, the gig was up. My daughter march to the door, her face the color of fresh tomatoes.

"What are you dooooingggg?"

She was 12, I was 45. 

Cluelessly I thought we would make a memory. In the midst of a regular day there would be that time I showed up to her class and made it special.

But later than evening I learned what I had done. Talking with her older brother and sister she explained the day from her vantage: 

"Everyone saw this guy looking in the window...and it was dad!!" she said.

My other daughter confirmed, "He's so weird."

"They all asked if it was my dad," she said. 

"And what did you say?" my son asked.

"I told them no."

So this is the backdrop of our interactions, this is the lens through which I calculate how to connect with our third child who doesn't like surprises and is private about the things she wants kept quiet.

Last week I found myself in her city, it was my birthday, we are now 56 and 22. I thought enough time had passed. 

No I didn't surprise her at work, Instead I asked if she wouldn't mind if I joined her on her commute. Door-to-door or whatever, through the New York City subway systems and into Queens, just to be a fly on the wall for one of her days.

To my surprise, she texted me back, "sure."

My birthday morning is usually a time for leisure, but this day was hectic. I wanted to be at the subway before her, I needed coffee, my phone failed to charge overnight.

I kept looking down the subway steps...did I miss her, did she forget?

And then like a movie star she made her entrance onto the sidewalk where I looked like either a paparazzo or a pervert. But I was just an adoring dad.

She was smiling, and now so was I.

Down into the bowels.

A crowded sweaty subway.

Through to Grand Central, then over ground.


And then a 20-minute walk through the neighborhoods until we reached the building. 

"Thanks," I said, ready to leave.

"Do you want to see the office?" she asked.

"I don't want to embarrass you I just wanted to see part of your day."

"Nobody is here yet, so you can come up," she said without irony.

I was reminded of a time last year when I bumped into my other daughter at a New York City WeWork. Her boss asked if I wanted to come see the rest of their space. My daughter intervened..."It's not take your father to work day."

So when I got the green light I pressed the accelerator, I climbed the stairs to a bustling office and then to a small well-lit space with a series of desks. She sat down, logged on and began to work. She told me how to let myself out. I left the office with wings on my feet, perhaps that's why I boarded the wrong subway and ended up in Forest Hills before switching trains.

I figured it out and long hauled it back to Soho where the rest of my birthday commenced. 

I remember when they were babies wondering if I would view them differently when they grew up. I'd never experienced someone's entire arc. Would I remember their babyface, their voice, their cry? But you forget. An old picture or video reminds you, but it's like seeing another person. That's not them any more.

You cannot remember the baby when you see the adult. I cannot hear the laugh of that child in this full-grown human. And it will happen again, the photos from today will fade and she will shed this life for another, and so will I.

Michael Gerson wrote in his famous essay on children heading off to college, that parenthood is ultimately a lesson in humility: "The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else's story. And it is enough."

I don't need more than this anymore. It's her life. I can't show up and watch her through a sliver of window anymore. So when she let's me in, the rest of the world can go away.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Long Live the Queen

On the Tube in London there are poems slated across the trains alongside adverts for indigestion meds and insurance. One that caught my eye thirty-five years ago, and I still have on my office wall, goes like this:

  • I imagine the earth when I am no more:
  • Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant...
I was drawn back to that line as I was sitting in a pub yesterday when they announced the Queen had died.

It was after six in the evening and a somber-looking BBC announcer came on the screen wearing a black tie and repeated the Buckingham Palace announcement. 

At that moment not much changed: The patrons kept talking, the bar men continued pulling pints, some grabbed their phones, no doubt at the buzzing the announcement caused.

Outside a garbage man continued collecting the trash, tourists asked for directions to the M&M store, and buskers in the middle of the Leicester Square continued their act.

I walked away from the noise of the square down Piccadilly and when I looked back this rainbow popped out as if to say, "Hey, look up from your phones...".

Late last night I headed to Buckingham Palace. As I left the hotel I heard singing coming from the kitchen. I peaked in a window through the swinging door where the cooks and staff were singing "God Save the Queen" at the top of their lungs.

On the way to the Palace the cabbie told me they were already beginning to print new money with King Charles' picture on it. He said when Elizabeth's father King George died they shut down theatres and other parts of daily life. The Queen made it clear she did not want another Bank Holiday.

"They wouldn't stand for that today," he said. 

At theatre earlier in the evening there was a two-minute moment of silence before the play began.

Operation London Bridge, the codename for the Queen's funeral plan, seemed to start quickly and quietly. They closed the Mall which leads to the Palace so I had to hoof it all the way down from Trafalgar Square, but I was joined by hundreds of people walking with beers, flowers, bottles of wine. It was past 11 and the pubs were closed but the people weren't done.


The media lined the lawn just outside the Palace in a long row of well-lit tents. They looked like invaders ready to storm the gates. But they spoke in muted tones about how almost everyone alive had only known one Monarch, how many Presidents she had met, her work ethic, how she'd welcomed the new Prime Minister just three days ago. 


The Palace looked empty, as it was, most of the inside lights were out, the flag was down.

Well after midnight another cabbie told me how his six-year old granddaughter had cried when she heard the Queen had died. 

”I knew why I was crying," he said, "but she didn’t. She’d just heard someone had died and knew it was sad.”

He continued: “It's not like a relative died, but it feels like a relative. You know what I mean?"

While Charles became King upon her death the country is not quite ready to move on. There will be 10 days of pomp and mourning, papers are sold out, a gun salute rang through the sky today, they postponed the weekend soccer matches, and many recognized that there will likely not be a Queen again in our lifetime with a string of men set to take the throne. So the British people will hold onto this Queen for a bit longer. Operation London Bridge is far from over. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Still Going Back to School

I thought my relationship with the phrase “Back to School” had ended.

With the youngest child graduating from college the “Back to School” noise is just that and for the first time in almost 22 years we are going back to nothing.

No marketing phrase travels as far in the psyche of the American consumer as “Back to School.”

As a child it means new school supplies, re-setting the alarm clock, the pull of homework, uncomfortable clothes, and even more uncomfortable social situations. As you age antipathy rises as you come to realize it’s all marketing: “It’s not back to school, it’s the end of summer!”

Going off to college shifts the mind again, “Back to School” means the return to everything good in life: From friends and football to the disbelief that you only have 3 years, 2 years, 1 year left.

Then you walk off campus for the last time.

That first year out of college the wave of “Back to School” sales reach out from every media orifice, and you shrink from the shriek of marketing. Life and work and independence take on new meaning and rather than feeling left out, you realize you’ve escaped.

It turns out the first day back to school is just a Tuesday for you and most of the world.

When you have children of your own “Back to School” rises again. You look forward to that first day, meeting their teachers, navigating the halls and lockers. By the time your children reach their teens your heart leaps at the phrase, you mark your calendar for the day they leave your house and return to the school’s guardianship. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

And then they leave for college, and you undergo the familial earthquake, the push and pull of love, the emptying of the nest. As you approach the end of their four-year run it’s all about counting down the payments until that final one clears the bank.

And then it’s over.

Like the seasons of the year our perspectives bloom and fade. We may have hated the fall when we were kids because it meant the end of summer, but we learned to love it later in life when it meant cooler weather. Summer turned from the most important season of the year into a hot mess. Winter, beloved for those magical snow days turns into a season to avoid slipping on the ice.

And so it shifts again, but the noise still comes. No one told the marketers that I’m no longer their target. It now acts as a madeleine calling me back. I am transported to late August days, early mornings, the smell of pencil shavings, the spring in the seats of the yellow school bus, small chairs in small classrooms.

There is no back to school for this family. But it still calls me back.

Monday, May 30, 2022

3 Years, 3 Graduations, 3 Different Worlds


As a parent, college graduation comes with moments of pride paired with angst.

Pride in their big picture accomplishments, angst over the logistics.

Pride over this rite of passage, angst over making sure "everyone is happy.”

Leading up to graduation the student is finishing senior week, long days and nights of papers and parties, worries about packing up, sadness about leaving school, fraught about their next move, already missing their friends, unsure what to make of the fact that everyone keeps telling them these are the best days of their lives.

Eons ago in 2019 we went to Philadelphia with the usual graduation weekend challenges: finding a centrally located hotel, landing dinner reservations at the sought-after restaurants, transportation for the grandparents.

In 2020 we were spared the pleasure and the pain when it was canceled due to the emergence of Covid. A letter from the Dean stated in stark terms that they are canceling graduation and will “celebrate these seniors at a later date.” This was a gut punch at the time, it improved with age.

Our 2022 graduation felt normal with a hint of Covid sprinkled in. Worried about the logistics but the coronavirus still hung in the air like the remnants of a bad sneeze. Does the restaurant have outdoor seating, should the kids get near the grandparents, is Tipitinas really a good idea? 

It was on our minds, just not top of it. Maybe that’s why many of us returned from New Orleans with head-cold cases of the virus, typical of this vintage.

This year also brought a make-up graduation for the cancelled 2020 version, in what they appropriately called the “Comeback Commencement.” It felt a lot like a timely graduation with all the caps and gowns, pomp and circumstances of the original, but it was different. It was better...for the graduates.

The Comeback Commencement was equal parts reunion and victory lap. It was more comeback than prepare to check out.

There was still the need to land hotel rooms and dinner reservations, but the campus was emptier and more manageable. The kids were happy to be there, not stressed about leaving. They hadn’t spent the previous week staying up all night partying, they’d spent it working at their jobs, collecting a paycheck, making their own transportation plans.

At the make-up graduation they were enjoying this moment that had been taken away, made better by the distance and the delayed gratification. The comeback graduates better understood the need to enjoy the moment because on the other side of Sunday their adult lives were waiting, with projects to finish and emails to return.

The difference in perspective was laid bare by the calls and texts leading up to the two commencements. I heard excitement from one daughter and dread from the other. One felt like a commencement, the other like a termination:

“I’m so excited to see my friends” vs. “I’m so sad to say goodbye to everyone.”

“I can’t wait to get a Zingermans sandwich” vs. “I can’t believe it’s the last time I’ll have pizza at the Boot”

“I'm gonna walk through the Diag without having to go to the library” vs. “I just had my last walk in Audubon Park.”

In two years our daughter went from graduation apprehension to carefree commencement.

A suggestion: Let Seniors leave campus after final exams, get on with their lives and then bring them back for graduation. Let their lives commence before commencement.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile you could miss it." F. Bueller

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Writing in the Q, Finding Inspiration in a Pandemic

Is this anything?

It’s the title of Jerry Seinfeld’s book in which he chronicles the jokes he’s written since the 1970s. It’s the question he asks himself, and fellow comics, when he comes up with a bit.

He writes that upon first seeing a comedian when he was in his teens he wondered: "How did the comedian know that what they said would get such huge laughs from a crowd of total strangers?”

Writing is of course a solitary endeavor. Writers are full of doubt wondering if what they are trying to say will ever come together, will anyone ever read it, will they like it, does it matter?

During the pandemic writing was particularly hard for two reasons: First, so many ideas come being where the action is, whether the action is a coffee shop or a football game, a grocery checkout line or sitting next to a stranger on an airplane. And during the past two years there was very little action.

The second thing that made it difficult was the lack of feedback. Ideas come and go, but how do you know, “Is this anything?”

I am a romantic at heart. I like to think writing at a cabin in the woods or a pub in London or with an espresso on the table helps stir the imagination so words fall to the page. But as I complete another trip around the sun it’s clearer to me that it’s often not about the inspiration, but the perspiration.

In the new Beatles documentary Get Back, the bandmates are tasked with writing and recording 14 songs in a few weeks to perform as a televised concert. Spoiler Alert, they don’t get all the songs completed, but it shows how the work is done, they need to get their butts in their seats and play and write and rhyme until something appears. And it’s damn hard work.

When they are working on the song Something John tells George just to make up words until it works. And so the line, “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other lover” started out as “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like a cauliflower.”

I remember a train ride to New York a few years back when I found myself across from poet Calvin Trillin. On the table between us was a pad of paper, a pen and, wait for it, a rhyming dictionary.

And I thought to myself, isn’t that cheating?

But when Stephen Sondheim, the great Broadway composer and lyricist, died in November a slew of interviews re-appeared where he said one of his best tools is a rhyming dictionary and a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus.

“There are only so many possible rhymes” he said.

Seinfeld said he's afraid to stop writing every day, fearful he will somehow lose the ability. He puts up a big wall calendar and then marks an X for each day he writes and then after a while his goal is to just not break the chain. He said it’s not about being efficient, the “right way is the hard way.”

Paul Simon in his new audio book Miracle and Wonder, talks about where his songs come from. While there is discussion of the hits, he also discusses the misses. Like the time he heard Viola da Gamba and then wondered what it would be like to record with a Theorbo. So he found someone who played it, he flew to Paris to record with them only to realize after a few days that he, “got nothing, nothing that I wanted." No magic, no song, no tune, no rhythm.

“It’s all trial and error and there’s no reason to be upset about the errors,” he said.

I wanted to name my book, "At least one person besides me, liked these stories," because it is filled with stories that were published by someone besides me. When you are alone in a room writing it is very gratifying to have an editor somewhere on this planet read them, tell you they are worth publishing and sharing them with others.

This book represents thousands of hours of work and at this point more than 300 rejections over the course of the pandemic. But still we search for a sentence that works. A phase that means somethings. A connection with another person. As Hemingway said, "One true sentence."

Robert Frost said poetry should begin in "delight" and end in "wisdom". 

I think short stories are the same. 

I hope you find delight, if not wisdom, in these pages. 

Buy it at Politics & Prose or a paperback or Kindle version on Amazon.



Thursday, May 20, 2021

Returning Bugs

The cicadas are coming back on time, but the kids aren't.

Seventeen years ago I wanted to be that guy who took the photo and then re-created it when the kids were older.  The one with the foresight that one day things would be different, but I would insert something to make it rhyme.

And so when the cicadas arrived on our windshields in May 2004 I had our fearless daughter (Jessie) pick up the fat bugs, calm her siblings down and pose with them.  And then I imagined that in 17 years I would take the picture with bigger people and smaller-looking bugs. 

We forget about these things until something jolts us and we realize that it's been 17 years and the bugs are returning and the singing starts anew.

Without notice I slipped into our room where we keep the dusty photo albums and prayed with outsized strength that I would find the evidence with old pictures stuck behind the laminate. 

And then I found the year on the spine and turned the pages until I spotted the three shiny photos.  I touched them and made that motion one makes nowadays on photos to make it bigger, clearer, as if it were a mobile device.  But I couldn't get any closer to the photos, just as I can't get any closer to those kids who later that night probably took baths and got into their pajamas and were tucked into a bed in our house under one roof, with a book and a stuffed animal.

"The cicadas are coming" I told them all in a family group chat.

Seventeen years ago our family group chat was the kitchen table.

"They will be here in May," I wrote with excitement.  "Here are the photos from 17 years ago, can't wait to replicate..."

But what I failed to grasp 17 years ago when they were ages 4, 6, and 8 is the same misguidance I'm experiencing now.  At 21, 23 and 25 they aren't around for a picture.  During the month of May they are at work and away at school.  They aren't in the same city or even the same time zone, let alone the same house, bedroom or bath.

Cicadas are grouped into geographic broods.  This year's brood will emerge when the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees.  

My brood’s return is less clear.

And so trillions will soon rise from the ground clicking and chirping to a screeching pitch as they buzz, annoy and procreate.   

I could not have imagined 17 years ago that the cicadas would arrive just as we are emerging from our own cocoon. 

And so as the song in the backyard begins and I feel the power of nature's rhythm, I am reminded how ours has been disrupted.

If there is one thing we've learned from 2020 it's that making plans is a dangerous game.

I can hear their song in the distance.

A song seventeen years in the making.

But my photo will come.

Maybe not on my schedule.  But it will come.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Picture's Worth

What's a picture worth in 2020?

1,000 words?  10,000?

One of these pictures was taken at the end of 2019 looking forward to the Start of 2020.

The other was taken this week, looking forward to the End of 2020.

Ah, so little has changed.  Same smiles.  Same head tilt.  Different order.

At the end of 2020 a picture isn't worth much.

The crises lie out of view.

We are changed in ways the picture can't capture.

So when we ask the kids what lessons they've gleaned from 2020 and they can't answer.  I think I understand.

It's still open, the wound too fresh, and most importantly it's not over.  Years end on December 31st, not viruses.  

But it will come.

We often don’t feel the impact of big things until much later.  

Even something physical like a punch to the gut, a bop on the head.  There is some immediate pain, but the real damage can take years.
What will last longer?  The grandparent cancelling all they look forward to, the parent trying to balance work and homeschooling from the same kitchen table, the lost years of childhood socialization, the lost school year, the single adult who lived for months without physical contact, the student who missed prom/graduation/freshman year, the business owner who was shut down through no fault or mismanagement, the career put on hold.  The adult "children" who again slept under the covers of their childhood binky.

And how about all the sandwiched adults worrying about their business, their aging parents, their aging adult children.

Asked to rank 2020 in terms of Work, Family and Personal a group of middle-age business leaders said:

Family ranked highest, with moments of sunshine through the clouds, an unexpected filled nest.

Even those most tormented by Work admitted to unifying moments:  The extra mile by the quiet employee, the appreciated company-funded healthcare, the government loan that built a bridge.

And here was the kicker.  No matter how good the balm of family moments or how rich the business pivot, their Personal well-being ranked far behind.

The business might have survived or thrived, the extra time with the adult kids might have brought new understanding, but deep down they are just are trying to hold it together because the maxim that "it's all gonna be fine" just didn't sound as believable in 2020. 

The nice thing about New Years is our mind change along with the calendar.

We talk about next year, not last year.  And that is the reason for the smiles which makes them believable and worth a lot.

Happy New Year.