Archive for June, 2008

Forcing my way in

Keep out
The entrances to the Van Cortlandt Park track were gated this morning. Either the groundskeepers were on vacation or the city has imposed a cutback in services. The paddleball courts were open and in use and I wished for the dozenth time that I had a partner so I could play. Just about any competitive game is more exciting than walking and jogging, but you do what’s available to you.

It looked as if the track was not going to be available. I walked north alongside the bleachers to see if I could find an entrance. Much to my surprise, I saw the usual crowd taking their morning constitutional on the track itself: The young, fit Asian girl who always asks me what time it is; the moderately plump Hispanic blonde who looks trimmer with each passing week; the stocky Albanian bullet of a lady who takes her walk in her housecoat; the dozen or so black and Hispanic joggers who go the extra mile to lose their love handles. I wanted to be on the inside track, you might say, with them.

As I peered about for an entrance, I encountered an older Irish lady. “Are you trying to get inside?” she asked me.

I said yes and complained that the entrances were gated.

“Walk up ahead,” she said. “You’ll see an entrance with a chain-lock. Just give it a bit of a shove and you’ll get in.”

The woman’s fortuitous appearance and her advice struck me as something from out of a dream. Would that I encountered such useful help in so many other situations in my life!

I looked past her to the other entrances. “They’re all locked,” I said.

Like a biblical angel, she encouraged me to go on ahead to find a way in.

I came upon the entrance gated shut with a loose chain. I pushed and the gate opened wide enough for me to scooch down and steal into the park.

By my sixth walking lap around the track — at eight in the morning it was too humid to jog — I was congratulating myself that I had sufficient practical sense to work around the city’s bureaucratic sloth, or whatever it was that kept the track inaccessible to a population with few enough athletic resources. Soon, though, my sky-is-falling nature kicked in: If some criminal wanted to get his jollies, he could stand by that one haphazardly chained entrance, herd the Sunday morning joggers onto the track, lock us all in and hold us hostage.

“You really know how to enjoy a hot summer’s day,” I told myself.

If you think I’m a tad on the paranoid side, explain why one of the joggers, a young black guy, was jogging with a handgun in his hand. I hoped it might have been a hook; on my way to the park, I drove past a young man with a prosthetic right arm. This is the Bronx after all and the borough sends its fair share of young men off to Iraq and Afghanistan. Nope. It was a handgun. The fact that the guy was jogging alongside a young Indian woman was somewhat reassuring, if inexplicable. She looked as if she could have been a computer scientist. Maybe she was his parole officer and they were taking the handgun out for a run?

What if that sweet Irish lady was the Grim Reaper?

Who can say why the morning was just one more unremarkable Sunday instead of a 750-word story in The New York Times metropolitan section: “The gates were locked at the Van Cortlandt Park track, but 25 Sunday morning joggers who forced their way onto the field could not know that they had run the last lap of their lives.”

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A secret addiction

X-ray of broken finger 

You know how it is when you are waiting with your child to see his doctor. You look around at the other children in the waiting room and you thank God that your child’s ailments are relatively minor, all things considered.

That was the situation today while I was sitting with my son at Columbia-Presbyterian Babies Hospital. He had an appointment with an orthopedist to make sure that the bone of his left middle finger was healing properly. It wasn’t, but compared to the two adolescents with atrophied legs and the various infants with as-yet undisclosed orthopedic conditions, his problem is the type that, I hope, physical therapy or outpatient surgery can correct.

One of the physician assistants called out my son’s name and two other younger boys responded too. Suddenly, a freemasonry of sorts sprang up among the three mothers who had named their sons Max. One of the women in particular — the one not chasing after two stroller-aged children — began chatting with me. As is the wont of some women in hospital waiting rooms, we soon were talking about our domestic and working lives.

She wanted to know where I worked and for whom, where I lived and if Max was my only child. It didn’t take long for her to discover that I had begun raising Max alone when he was thirteen months old.

“I may be getting divorced soon too,” she said in a whisper. “Is your son close to his father?”

Very close, I said. I asked what her circumstances were.

She is married to a lovely guy, as sweet and kind as they come. She lifted an eyebrow and I thought she meant he was gay.

“He has a chronic addiction that makes it impossible for me to see a future with him,” she said.

When my son got up to see the doctor, the woman mentioned her husband’s addiction again.

“I can’t go into it because of him,” she said. She nodded in the direction of her four-and-a-half year old Max.

“Can you say what substance he’s abusing?” I asked.

“It’s not a substance,” she said.

“Does he gamble?”

“No.”

“Ah,” I said.

She nodded.

“He e-mails me off and on all day. He says he wants to because he’s always thinking about me. But then, from noon to twelve-thirty — he hires women.”

In case I didn’t understand, she said in a hushed voice, “For sex.”

“Can he get help?”

“I’m not sure he wants help,” she said. “Sometimes I think I’ll just adapt to the situation. Maybe if I take off this weight — ”

She made a sweeping motion with her hand toward her chubby waistline.

“You’d never believe that I studied acting in college,” she said. “I used to be thin.”

Somehow I don’t think the loss of thirty pounds is going to wean the guy off his erotic interlude.

One more hurried question: “Did you ever meet anyone?” she asked.

I told her I didn’t. I shared my scarcity theory with her.

“The man I might have married didn’t get born,” I said. “The children of my parents’ generation were killed, so the children that should have been born to them simply weren’t.” She looked despondent, so I said the demographics for women in her generation — late thirties — were better.

“He and my son are close too,” she said.

“You can get an apartment near his,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be acrimonious.”

While we were talking, the waiting room had begun to empty out. Now it began filling up again with parents and patients leaving their appointments with prescriptions and referrals in hand. The mothers, one Italian-American, the other from the islands, stood beside the adolescent boys with the atrophied legs and promised to stay in touch. A much younger and fiercer child, five or six at the most, wheeled himself like a Special Olympics athlete to the elevator bank before his mother could grab hold of his wheelchair. A ruddy faced man, who seemed at first to distance himself from a large, ungainly girl in a wheelchair, put his arms around her and kissed her. An Indian girl with braces on both legs somehow managed to leap like a sprite and wished everyone goodbye. The able-bodied all held onto the books and water bottles that their children couldn’t carry and ushered them back to lives where deformity is protected and cherished.

My nineteen-and-a-half year old Max shook the hand of the four-year-old Max. I couldn’t see anything wrong with either one of them.

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Blind dating: Triumph of hope over experience?

Studying computer science. Blind dating. Studying computer science. Blind dating.

I weigh the relative merits of each again and again and I am hard-pressed to decide which one is preferable to waterboarding.

The best I can say about studying algorithms is that it is behind me. I wish I could say the same about blind dating. If I hope to find a mate to grow old with, visiting sites such as — God help me — JDate, and then consenting to meet the anonymous and tattered exemplars of the aging Baby Boomer cohort is just about the only avenue open to me. It’s horrible. Horrible.

Let me begin by saying something nice about the gent I agreed to meet at Chennai Garden on 27th and Lex in the city. He was generous enough to suggest dinner. It’s true that at $7.95 an entree he wasn’t exactly a major league risk-taker, but dinner anywhere is still a step up from Starbucks. Definitely a plus, and I applaud you, sir.

Next let me say something nice about myself (I don’t always, you know). Despite my not being wowed by the guy when we spoke on the phone, I gave him a chance. That’s what my friends are always telling me to do. “Give the guy a chance. Nobody sounds great on the phone.”

As somebody who has interviewed hundreds of people on the phone over the past ten years, I know for a fact that that’s not true. People excited by a deal they closed or by the poker games they use to test game theory can sound thoroughly engaging over the phone. A dean of computer science in Scotland I interviewed last week — a total stranger — offered to send my son money when he lost his passport in Edinburgh. The man was willing to do that based on the rapport we had established while talking about the “challenges confronting a maturing workforce.”

Details, please
The guy — I’ll call him Philip — was already seated by the time I ventured into bad-hair-day Chelsea and then into the restaurant. Imagine my shock when he looked nothing like the kayaking outdoorsman portrayed in his online photo. Some women really like large protruding teeth. It may just be me, but I prefer somebody a bit more orthodontured.

Can you believe that people actually fudge their pictures on JDate? Thou shalt not lie! Of course my photo isn’t very recent either. And — the wonders of the Internet Age — I am five years younger than my actual age!

You must believe me when I say that if Philip had been rollicking good fun or seriously ministerial, I would have overlooked the less than handsome face. Some of the plainest mugs in all of creation have become dear to me when accompanied by wit or great intelligence. I used to fantasize being married to the corpulent and brilliant man who hired me into my current job. Blind dating is a drag, but love is blind.

Over the course of an hour and a half, I learned a lot about Philip’s three sons: Where they went to high school and college, what languages they speak, where they went traveling. But I don’t recall much Philip said about himself. I know he is an ABD in Jewish history, but I don’t know what period he was drawn to. I know he likes movies, but he didn’t say if he likes the Coen Brothers or Spielberg. Who knows if he reads anything other than the Times. He didn’t say.

I also discovered nothing about Philip’s life with his parents, both of them Holocaust survivors. The historical event that shaped his life and mine never came up in conversation. I guess there are other things to talk about, but those things didn’t seem to come up either, is what I’m saying.

He did mention that he had been hit by an SUV several years ago.

“You yourself were hit or the car you were driving was hit?” I asked.

“I choose my words carefully,” he said in what I think was a stern tone. “I myself was hit.”

By the end of our meal, I asked Philip if, in fact, he is divorced, and if his wife received a get (Jewish divorce) from him. Ah, now I hit upon a subject that sparked some moxie! He said the divorce from his wife, a lawyer, had been acrimonious, and he had made the get a critical part of the negotiations. This last Philip retailed with some pride, as if to say he had gone up against a lawyer and pulled out the one stop he knew would win him the victory he was looking for.

If he were smart, he would have said, “Of course I gave her a get right away. I would never compel another human being to stay in a marriage she wanted out of.” But his vanity revealed him to be petty and vindictive. Scary.

Ah, I got it. That was his ex-wife in the SUV.

When we walked out to the street, I watched to see if Philip limped. Maybe the only reason he told me about the SUV was so that I wouldn’t ask later why he limped. In other words, he revealed only what had to be revealed about himself: The obvious. In any case, I didn’t notice anything. And a limp wouldn’t have mattered much to me. I don’t expect to find a nice man to grow old with who dances salsa too.

The day after the date, Philip sent me a note saying that I was brainy and sexy — an allusion in my JDate profile to the qualities I desire in my former Summer of Love mate. I thanked him for saying so, but had to tell him I didn’t feel a connection with him, etc.

The best way to avoid blind dating is to get married young to the love of your life. Look for him wherever he might be: In a classroom, at a Met game, on a hike, in a hospital waiting room. Persevere. Keep your eyes open or you’ll end up going blind.

Incidentally, I’m not so sure he left thinking what a classy dame his date was. I took my leftover tamarind rice home with me. I guess we both got what we deserved!

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Always out of step with history

out of step

It’s said that the Jews are always out of step with history. When the masses take to the revolutionary ramparts, we are said to stay loyal to the counterrevolutionary status quo. Okay. There might be something to that. Think of the Iranian Jewish community’s relationship with Shah Reza Pahlavi, for example, or the debt that a thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany owed the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo when he permitted them to settle in a backwater called Sosua. It seems that history just doesn’t want us to be cool.

Of course this premise is wrong as many times as it’s right. Jews actually do what my mother says they ought not do: Zey krikhn vi m’darf nisht. They meddle where they shouldn’t. They are just as likely to be Emma Goldmans as Mort Zuckermans, Abby Hoffmanns as Joe Liebermans.

Certainly when it comes to American politics, Jews tend to throw their lot in with the leftish-liberal groups that promise to alleviate the burdens of the tired and poor, even if it means they themselves will have to pay higher taxes or yield to the prerogatives of multiculturalism. A lot of American Jews these days believe that we have so-called white-skin privilege, and if we ever did suffer discrimination, we should have long since overcome, forgiven and forgotten.

Nobody can say for sure where American Jews are going to come down in the general elections this November. The Jews I know at work hate George Bush for invading Iraq. They think of themselves as Americans first, I think, and aren’t that fixated on Israel or the historical fate of the Jews. No doubt they plan to vote for Obama. 

That’s not a criticism. I myself have been all over the political map, and I understand how the liberal point-of-view feels tolerant, objective, superior — even as it touts a philosophy as shrill as any of the radical Moslem sects’. True confession: If it’s a choice between liberalism and Talibanism, give me scantily clad girls on bus shelters, single-parent families and the right to mouth off about matters sublime and ridiculous any day. The culture that gives rise to all of these is awfully imperfect, but at least it allows for personal choice.

Now, the Jews I socialize with — my friends in Riverdale — are leaning toward McCain. It’s not that we are in thrall to him either, but by comparison with Obama, McCain strikes us as a realist, particularly when it comes to dealing with tyrants like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with the radical Moslems who believe there is only one way to pray, get educated and treat women. And even though both candidates have had the support of extreme preachers, Obama’s 20-year long mentorship by Jeremiah “God damn America” Wright is a lot more worrisome to Jews who care about Israel than a know-it-all like John Hagee who got the lowdown from God Himself as to why He visited the Holocaust upon the chosen people.

A headline on Yahoo! News —  Many historians see little chance for McCain — pretty much sums up the current media outlook about the outcome of the election. Several academics apparently see Barack Obama’s prospects “as the most promising for a Democrat since Roosevelt trounced Hoover in 1932.” Historian Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted the past six presidential popular vote winners, says, “This should be an overwhelming Democratic victory.” Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz observes, “It is one of the worst political environments for the party in power since World War II.”

I have a feeling that the Yahoo story is on target. As Abramowitz goes on to say, “It would be a pretty stunning upset if McCain won.”

Something really awful would have to happen for McCain to win this one. Something like Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons. (Although why Ahmadinejad would do that now instead of waiting to chat with President Obama about it first — strikes me as, well, jumping the gun.) But that’s about it, I think. Everything else — the price of gasoline per gallon, the endless war in Iraq, the low profile of the U.S. dollar, the subprime implosion, an economy that keeps tanking — everything else will pull voters in Obama’s direction.

My father, who rues the day he voted for Jimmy Carter, is philosophical about Obama. “He won’t do any harm,” he says.

“Do you plan to vote for him?” I ask.

“No.”

It would be so fly to be in step with the “mood of the country” and boot da bums out of office. But something tentative, something cautious inside my judgment is telling me to stay out of step with this historical moment. I don’t like the economic and geopolitical mess we’re in, but I worry that an untested, charismatic guy with the resume of a smart 30-year-old is going to be our Huey Long. And while we’ll be perceived as a “country of new beginnings,” as Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column, we’ll also become victim to the same old bad endings that have befallen every well-meaning conciliator. Moreover, we’ll be as easy to take advantage of as Israel is when it calls for cease-fires with Hezbollah or Hamas. We’ll be the country that just “wants to get along” while our adversaries strategize and re-arm.

What I wouldn’t give to feel as optimistic as the Obama-ites on the ramparts. But I can’t help but wonder: Will we look back to the days of the current administration and think, “By George! ‘W’ may have been a buffoon, but he wasn’t a complete idiot after all!”

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