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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Birthday Partners

Antonin Checkov

My birthday was January 17th and I happened to catch a short feature called "Today's Almanac" on KALW, the smaller NPR station in San Francisco. I don't remember ever hearing it before as I don't often tune to KALW. But I found out about some very cool people whose birthday I share....

Anton Checkov, the great Russian "slice of life" story and play writer;
James Earl Jones, the actor who played Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope;
Muhammed Ali, the Champ
Al Capone, Chicago gangster
Benjamin Franklin (of course I knew that already; his b'day is written on many calendars)
Betty White

I wish I could have attended some of their birthday parties.

P.S. Two major earthquakes and the patent for the San Francisco cable car happened on Jan 17. January is named for Janus (Ianuarius), the god of the doorway.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

birthday gift story

My dad turns 80 this April and last weekend I watched a videotaped interview I did with him ten years ago. My brothers want me to make a video for his birthday party. The party will be part of a full weekend which, of course, includes a Sabbath in an Orthodox setting. Family gatherings that fall on Jewish holidays, or even Sabbath, always cause me a lot of anxiety and apprehension - especially when Sally and my sons are coming too.

But the tape draws me in completely. I never watched it before. He talks about starting out in business with only a religious Jewish high school education, borrowing money to buy a kosher butcher shop in a little town he'd probably never been to - Peoria, Il, after working in the Chicago stockyards for three years. Marrying my mom as teen agers; paying $37 per month for a basement apartment as newlyweds; discovering that he could sell ad specialties with only catalogs in hand and starting "SelMor Advertising"; finding investors and buying a couple of machines to print ads on giveaway plastic items; ("The Graduate" with its immortal line about "plastics" had a special meaning for me.) Somehow, it's easy to see my dad as a young man braving a largely unknown world - just a few layers beneath the wrinkles and white hair of this later version. Stories pass by so quickly in retrospect, like the pages of a thick novel blown over to the final chapter outside in a sudden breeze.

It touches me deeply to hear of his early years. The story of a young man wanting to make a life....wanting "to become a man" as he says in the tape. A story so universal and far removed from our father-son dynamics.

Stories became nearly impossible to exchange across the chasm between my secular life and his orthodox life, a gulf that widened over 35 years as we traveled different trajectories. But this early chapter from an age- as young as my sons are now- is a time-warped-sort-of-bridge.

Tomorrow, I turn 55, and the connected, compassionate feelings that Ab's "young man stories" have imparted feel like a wonderful birthday gift one day early......or 35 years late depending which way the breeze is blowing.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year Resolve

Two years ago we received a holiday card from the Wolf family. The three of them were pictured on their front stoop in a wide shot that showed Lou's new prosthetic leg. The caption read, "We've got a leg up on the new year." Lou had his leg amputated months earlier following a sudden blood clot problem that occurred during a long flight from Southeast Asia back to the states. Lou is not the type to let major surgeries and life changes keep him down, and before long he was asked to mentor other amputees at Walter Reed Hospital and Army Medical Center in his hometown, D.C. (There is some irony there, since Lou was a conscientious objector in the early 60's and edited a magazine that, for decades, reported on CIA operations and "dirty business" throughout Latin America.)

Over Christmas and New Years 2007, the Wolf family joined us for a vacation at a small, eco-tourist resort 90 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, called Mar de Jade. Lou gave demonstrations of how his new computerized prosthetic could adjust itself for stair climbing etc. and Lou was determined to walk without assistance on the very uneven unpaved grounds, though he had to be caught a couple of times before hitting the ground. He asked my sons, Alex and Zac, if they might be willing to help him fulfill a dream of his. Could they help him swim in the ocean?

So, one morning, they hired a fisherman to take them out in his little boat. They helped Lou into the boat and then over the side and the three of them swam together for awhile, in what Lou described as a "peak experience." Lou was smiling ear to ear at lunchtime, while his wife wore an expression of tolerant relief.

With another new year upon us - a time for resolutions and wishes - I'm hoping to see a lot of Lou's optimism and uncomplicated resolve - in myself, my family, and friends - to take the steps toward what we see in our best dreams and hopes.