Jonathan Schwartz is Back (And So is Sanity on Sunday Afternoons)

For me and plenty of other people who love decent music, sanity has returned to our Sunday afternoons. Jonathan Schwartz is back on the radio. Internet radio this time – – but no one really cares. After a long winter and spring with Jonathan absent from the airwaves, we’re just happy to have him back.

Jonathan’s new Sunday show debuted on Father’s Day, and the occasion was fitting. For more than 50 years, wherever he wandered on the dial, from WNEW-FM to WNEW-AM to WQEW-AM to Sirius and finally to WNYC, Jonathan had served as our idiosyncratic master teacher in The Great American Songbook, created by people like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, and his own father, Arthur Schwartz.

On a personal level, he was an almost palpable part of my existence, an angel on my shoulder with unusually good taste. In the late 1970s, as a homesick college freshman with hall-mates who favored Donna Summer and “Le Freak,” I discovered one night that if I opened my window, held my boom box in the air and tilted it at a 90-degree angle, I could hear Jonathan’s voice on WNEW-AM, 150 miles away from my Providence dorm. I could hear Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald too, but it was Jonathan’s voice that mattered the most to me. Still does.

Later, back in New York, I would listen to Jonathan pontificate about his beloved Boston Red Sox and Philip Roth as I wrote speeches and press releases at work. When the kids were little, I drowned out the “Barney” theme song that perennially emanated from my living room by keeping Jonathan at top volume in my kitchen. (The super-sized mimosas I hid in red Solo cups also helped.) Much later, it was Jonathan, and the little packages of graham crackers in my oncologist’s waiting room, that helped sustain me through six months of chemo.

In mid-December, a #MeToo frenzy exploded at WNYC and Jonathan was removed (along with fellow on-air host Leonard Lopate). The station’s paltry attempts at justification only made it apparent that the dismissals were without cause, which made the situation especially heartbreaking. Jonathan issued no public statement. Listeners, including me, promptly cancelled our WNYC sustaining memberships. Many of us congregated on the internet, gravitating to the Facebook group The American Songbook with Jonathan Schwartz – which was not formally affiliated with Jonathan — to express our anger and sadness.

On the Facebook page, listeners, both men and women, pointed to the lack of due process in Jonathan’s removal. Age-ism seemed the likely culprit. (Jonathan was 79 at the time of his removal; Lopate was 77.) It occurred to me, in the current un-nuanced climate, that if Sinatra himself had suddenly materialized and serenaded his female coworkers with a song like Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine” – “Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?” – well, he probably would’ve been fired too.

People joined the Facebook group from as far away as Dubai, and a community took shape around Jonathan’s absence. We mourned. We reminisced. We had a lone malcontent banned from the group. And we did our best to recreate what we’d lost, posting songs that Jonathan would play and even attempting our own “Salute to Baseball” like the one he hosted every Super Bowl weekend. We wondered if we’d ever hear Jonathan on the radio again.

In early April, after searching the internet regularly for news on Jonathan, I spotted a logo on Twitter for a new entity called The Jonathan Station. Shortly after that, the station launched a 24-hour music stream featuring the American Songbook. Finally, on Father’s Day, Jonathan went live for the first time in six months. There’s a photo of him, smiling, on the Facebook page, taken right before the inaugural show. He looks like he’s precisely where he’s supposed to be. One member of the Facebook group said that when she heard Jonathan’s voice, she cried.

There’s something to be said for loyalty, for continuity, for well-deserved resurrections, and for those memorable voices that make your heart sing. I’m not just talking about musicians here.

“Oh! So there you are,” Jonathan began his first show. “It’s become June.” As though he’d never been away.



October Song

It was the fall of 1982. I’d been back in Brooklyn since graduation, living with my parents and trying to figure out what to do next. I had a bundle of clips from Seventeen magazine and The Brown Daily Herald and no game plan to speak of. My friends were all in med school or law school, which left me with no one to talk to all day except the dog. No, that’s not exactly true. Sometimes I talked to the mailman when he delivered the rejection letters I got from small newspapers in towns I didn’t want to live in. But still. By the time September came along, depression had set in. I needed to make a few bucks until I got a real job. I walked into a local chain pharmacy, filled out an application (“What the hell are you doing here?” the manager asked after seeing where I’d gone to school) and shortly thereafter found myself behind a cash register, wearing an ugly jacket with the word “Rockbottom” written on it. It seemed appropriate.

Desperation may have made me a cashier, but it didn’t make me a good one. I bagged two-liter soda bottles on top of Marshmallow Peeps. I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing and made wrong change. (I majored in Latin and Ancient Greek, in case you’re wondering.) Once, I yelled “How small is small?” across the store when a surly customer had a question about proper condom fit. The latter transgression ended my Rockbottom career before my training period ended.

Then it was October. I answered an ad and got a job as a features reporter for Courier-Life Publications, a weekly newspaper chain headquartered in a windowless building in Sheepshead Bay. About a week later, the editors got fired. Since I was the last one hired, I figured I was next out the door. That wasn’t what happened. From my days at the college paper I knew how to edit, assign stories and write headlines. As long as the pay was more than I was getting — which was nothing — I was good to go. So it happened that by the end of October I’d managed to climb from Rockbottom to a job as managing editor of what was, at the time, the largest chain of weekly newspapers in Brooklyn. (Courier-Life was swallowed up by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. a few years ago.)

Years later I married someone I met that same October. He was the guy I shared an office with, the editor-in-chief. On one of our first dates he took me for a late-night spin on the Staten Island Ferry. Cars were still allowed on the ferry then — paranoia wouldn’t descend on the city for another nine years — and he brought along a couple of cassette tapes to serenade us. Whenever I think of that roller-coaster October, the month of romance, Rockbottom and, finally, my rebirth as an honest-to-goodness employed person, what comes to mind is a song I heard for the very first time that night on the ferry: “Penthouse Serenade (When You’re Alone)” by Tony Bennett.

Just picture a penthouse way up in the sky
With hinges on chimneys for stars to go by
A sweet slice of Heaven for just you and I
When we’re alone.
From all of society we’ll stay aloof
And live in propriety there on the roof.
Two heavenly hermits we will be in truth
When we’re alone.
We’ll see life’s mad pattern
As we view old Manhattan
Then we can thank our lucky stars
That we’re living as we are.
In our little penthouse we’ll always contrive
To keep love and romance forever alive
In view of the Hudson just over the drive,
When we’re alone.
We can thank our lucky stars
That we’re living as we are.
In our little penthouse we’ll always contrive
To keep love and romance forever alive
In view of the Hudson just over the drive,
When we’re alone.

(Penthouse Serenade (When We’re Alone) lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, LEIBER & STOLLER MUSIC PUBL, CARLIN AMERICA INC.)

There are plenty of eponymous songs for September, a handful for October, even fewer for November, and then you hear nothing but holiday music until January because no one really wants to hear songs about a month that signifies The End. I attribute the October drop, creatively speaking, to emotional overload. After all the bittersweet regrets (“September Song,” especially Jimmy Durante’s version), the pain of lost love (“September in the Rain”), and the realization that youth is long gone (“September of My Years”), you reach the point when you say enough already. You’re wiser than you were before, maybe a bit battered, but you come to the conclusion that you just need to let it be for a while. Stop worrying. Eat chocolate. Enjoy the music without wondering when it’ll end. That, folks, is October. “Penthouse Serenade” isn’t an October song, but it should be.

When you hit Rockbottom — or rock bottom — eventually you figure out that there’s nowhere to go but up. I’ve remembered that long-ago October lesson on many occasions.

When I left the newspaper in 1988, I started a new job that October. Six years later, there was yet another job. I started that one in October, too — October 8, 1994, to be exact. I expected it to be a transitional move, the kind of job I’d keep until the kids were old enough to manage without a twice-daily chauffeur. Of course I stayed — for 18 years. I loved my job. Several of us raised our kids there, and we figured we’d retire there as well. But on a late-December day it became evident that our clock, already ticking insistently, was about to stop for good. Some of us felt the pain more keenly than others. I went into mourning, not just for the impending loss of a great job but for the imminent absence of an employer I’d grown to consider a friend.

Our office closed on March 20, 2012. For the first time since graduation 30 years earlier, I had nowhere to go during the day. I began staying in my pajamas later and later and eating too many Oreos. I answered a bunch of ads for writing/editing positions and learned that the job application process had changed considerably since I last needed it. This time around I didn’t get any rejection letters. My resume simply ended up in the black hole of cyberspace. (I hear this from anyone over 50 who’s job-hunting, by the way, and there are too many of us to write it off as coincidence. Note to potential employers, who are probably younger than the people they’re not hiring: Get some manners. Quickly.) I dreaded the arrival of September. I stopped eating Oreos and switched to Mallomars after they arrived in the stores.

Finally, October came to the rescue. So did a new employer (not through a job ad), and I am most grateful for the opportunity as well as a compelling reason to get out of my pajamas. I have two new employers, actually: When times are tough you have to be flexible and hope for the best. So that’s what I’m doing. The work is fun, and, unexpectedly, I’m learning something new. I’m not worrying about how long it will last, or what I’ll do when it ends. I’m trying, anyway. Jobs end. Friends leave. If you’re lucky, they come back. Sometimes you need to let things be. Just enjoy the music.

It seems fitting to end with “When October Goes,” written by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow, and recorded here by Nancy Wilson.

Words, Music and the Art of Staying (Moderately) Sane

I deal in words. I start off the day with the New York Times crossword puzzle, read the New York dailies online, and browse Facebook, Twitter and my email. That’s all before 7 a.m. I write and edit for a living, and then most nights I spend a few hours on my laptop, working and chatting. For fun, I read. (At the moment I’m still trying to get through the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and “Passage of Power,” Robert Caro’s third volume on the life of Lyndon Johnson.) I fall asleep playing “Words With Friends” on the iPad. Then it starts again the next morning.

Invariably, at some point during the day my head starts to hurt. First I thought I needed new glasses, but that wasn’t the case. After ruling out several other possible but unlikely causes, ranging from having three children to having a brain tumor, I concluded that it was word overload. It made sense. Imagine words swirling around you all day like mosquitoes. Eventually, the buzzing starts infiltrating your brain until you can’t hear yourself think. That’s where Yo-Yo Ma (pictured above) comes in.

Today is Yo-Yo Ma’s 57th birthday, so this morning I started searching on YouTube for videos to post in his honor. I love Yo-Yo Ma — he has his own playlist on my iPhone — so I took my time looking for just the right ones. I ended up getting lost in the music the same way I get lost in words, but without the accompanying headache.

The selection shown above, which is different from the two others I posted on Facebook, happens to be my all-time favorite Yo-Yo Ma performance. It’s from his 2003 CD “Obrigado Brazil,” and the song is “Doce de Coco” by Brazilian composer Jacob do Bandolim. I invite you to stop reading and take a listen. If it’s at all possible, make sure the room is quiet. Pour yourself something soothing to drink. Even if the room isn’t quiet and you’re not drinking something soothing, the rhythm and sensuality of “Doce de Coco” will transport you. I dare you. Try it.

For me, at least, that’s the thing about “Doce de Coco” and Yo-Yo Ma. If words are my swarms of mosquitoes, Yo-Yo Ma is the bug spray that silences my inner noise. Works every time.

It’s not just Yo-Yo Ma. The same goes for jazz, standards, cabaret, the timeless and intelligent stuff of the “American Songbook” that Jonathan Schwartz plays on Sirius XM (and before that on WNYC, preceded by WQEW and WNEW. Believe me, I know — I’ve been listening to Jonathan Schwartz since I’m 14.)

I blocked out the disco era of my teens and never had much of an affinity for pop or ear-splitting guitar riffs. But give me “Autumn in New York” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong — anything by Ella and Louis, separately and together — and that’s something else entirely. Or “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Laurindo Almeida, “Wave” by Sinatra, “Penthouse Serenade” by Tony Bennett, or “Two for the Road” by Nancy LaMott. Give me Stacey Kent, Julie London, Rosemary Clooney, Eva Cassidy, Kenny Rankin and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Many others, too.

Many high-strung people resort to Xanax, but music is my preferred drug. The sad or bittersweet songs work better than the happy ones. I’m really not sure why. I start breathing easier almost immediately. The stress begins to fall away.

When I work at home, music is always on in the background, very softly. It’s greatly minimized the physiological effects of word overload, and for that I am grateful. I can’t explain my response to music. The wonderful thing is that I don’t have to. It just is.

I’ll end with the impossibly beautiful rendition of “Simple Gifts” that Yo-Yo Ma recorded with Alison Krauss.

The Next 18 Years Can Kill You. Love Every Moment.

You’ll have to indulge me my sappy moment. I took my firstborn, the guinea-pig child, up to college last week. I helped her unpack, her father plugged in the printer and mini-fridge, and we had lunch at a tin-can diner a few miles away from campus. When I dropped her off afterward, we shared a quick hug. I reminded her to call or text me every day, and that was that. It wasn’t exactly the teary goodbye a lot of parents describe when they unload their child at college for the first time, but for me it seemed a fitting way to mark the end of her childhood. We were never much for the usual rules, anyway.

When Emily was about four, she asked me why she looked orange in some of her old baby pictures. “Too many jars of stewed carrots,” I told her. “You were my guinea-pig child.” It was my blanket apology for the multitude of screw-ups I hoped to avoid with the two kids that followed.

I spent too much time at Baby Gap in those days, and Emily’s wardrobe consisted mainly of pretty little dresses, all with matching hats. After a couple of years of this, I wondered why her hair wasn’t growing. “Take the hat off,” my mother’s friend, Marge, said. So I did, and at age six, Emily got her first haircut.

When she was ten, I cut most of her hair off because she came down with lice after an overnight school trip. The whole class got it. I panicked. Later I found out about an Orthodox woman in Flatbush who uses conditioner and a fine-toothed comb to get rid of the nasty critters. Oops. “That’s what happens when you’re the guinea pig child,” I told Emily.

I avoided these particular screw-ups again, but I made plenty of others. I yelled too much about trivial things. I laughed at Emily’s inventiveness when her second-grade teacher told me that my seven-year-old had forged my signature on a test paper. I didn’t send any of my kids for violin lessons. There was no good reason for that one, except I couldn’t stand the noise.

My biggest mistake, though, was a deceptively simple one: I forgot that nothing lasts forever. No one warns you that the more unpleasant and stress-inducing aspects of parenting, like yelling at the kids to get ready for school and spending a night in the ER because a hookah bar employee gave your 15-year-old free vodka shots, are still preferable to what I’m doing now — which is looking at the empty space on the couch where Emily sat glued to the laptop for so many years that the springs broke. The “What to Expect” books in the pregnancy section should come with a “Warning” label in big pink and blue letters: “The Next 18 Years Can Kill You. Love Every Moment.”

My denial of time’s forward motion set me up for potential disaster, I know. It also created a massively cluttered home where the paraphernalia of childhood came in but never left. My house is a black hole that contains thousands of children’s books I can’t bear to get rid of. The strollers, all three of them, are still in the basement along with the Exersaucer, car seats, American Girl accessories, unopened Easy Bake Oven (I was afraid it would burst into flames) and about a hundred garbage bags filled with stuffed animals. I won’t hold a yard sale. The thought of watching strangers pick through my memories is unpalatable. I believe in holding on to what you can. The kids may leave, but a basement overflowing with stuff is evidence that once they were young and that the hopeful business of raising them occupied every inch of your existence.

When Emily was 10 days old, I dumped her at my parents’ house for a week. I was tired, cranky and, at 34, not ready for the deal I’d signed on for. I wanted my old job, where I felt productive, not this one, where I spent hours each day looking at a screaming lump in a carriage and wondering where the heck my former life went. Then I remembered that cancer and infertility have a way of making you suddenly long for things you might not ever be able to have. I was blessed. Sleep-deprived, but blessed.

A few months went by. Emily became more human and I went back to work part-time. I played Ella Fitzgerald CDs for her as she sat in her baby swing, hoping good taste would somehow sink in by osmosis. I had another baby when Emily was a year and a half old. This is not something I would recommend unless you are a truly gifted parent, which I am not. It is fortunate that my son was a low-maintenance baby.

Every night I’d read Emily bedtime stories and pile books in her bed before she went to sleep. “What’s this word?” she’d ask, and then she’d spell it. “Sound it out!” I’d yell from the living room. She did. At age two, she’d taught herself to read with zero help from me. I had another baby, a girl, and Emily moved on to chapter books. She started preschool and people began to compliment me on raising a genius kid. “Thank you,” I’d answer, offering a silent blessing that the genetic crap shoot had given Emily a stellar hand. And then, at last, I became enchanted with my daughter. For some parents it’s the first smile that gets them. For me, Emily’s ability to read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at age four sealed the deal. Better late than never.

In March, when Emily got the college acceptance she was hoping for, I bought her a Carvel cake with the word “Bard” written on it. After starting out way ahead of the pack in school, she turned into a lazy and unmotivated student who spoke little in class and seldom did her homework, but got near-perfect test scores. In AP English, she ignored the required books and sat in class reading Dorothy Parker instead. I suspect that it was this teacher’s recommendation, along with an impressive SAT score, which got Emily into Bard.

First minutes at Bard: Emily (r.) and her roommate, Marna.

A few months ago, Emily and I were talking about whether I was a good parent. She said she couldn’t really answer that because I was different from the other mothers she knew.

Other mothers taught their kids to ride a bike. I tried, I reminded her, but it became clear that she’d inherited my excessive caution, my fear of imminent doom. Other mothers encouraged their children to play in the snow rather than bringing it inside and dumping it on newspaper. (“Why stand outside and freeze?”) Other mothers didn’t wait until people were coming over to vacuum. (“You never got sick,” I reminded her.)

Other mothers encouraged decent work habits in their kids, Emily said. So did I — but when shouting and threats didn’t get me anywhere, I decided it would be best to let her find her own way, in her own time. (If it doesn’t happen quickly, she knows her career at an expensive college will be short-lived.)

When I dropped Emily off at Bard last week, she announced she’d like to ride a bike, finally, so she could get a job in the neighboring town. Don’t do it, I told her. The country roads here are dark at night. It’s too dangerous. She agreed quickly.

I’m thankful that our hyper-awareness of peril is one of the things that unites us. It’s as powerful a shared trait as our nearsightedness and our love of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. (The jazz-by-osmosis theory worked!) I wasn’t an award-winning parent, but I managed to pass along the gene for self-protection — and when you’re striking out on your own, that’s a good one to have.

I take comfort in this thought as I look across the room now and remember that my firstborn isn’t here. One minute she’s in the baby swing. The next minute you turn around and she’s gone.

Low Pay is Fine, as Long as You Walk Like a Model….

I was sorry to see that Senator Marty Golden cancelled his upcoming “charm school” event. Really.

For those not from New York, Golden is a former police officer and ex-catering hall owner (his brother and wife now run the business) who until recently was the only Republican representing Brooklyn in the State Senate. His base is in Bay Ridge, which is also home to two other elected GOPs, Rep. Michael Grimm and Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, and Marine Park, where the barometer has moved to the right due largely to the influx of Orthodox Jewish residents.

If you don’t know what he looks like, Golden is a white-haired fellow of Irish descent who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at Tammany Hall.  He sponsors community events like free summer concerts and a hugely popular Halloween Walk in Marine Park. My kids still talk about the Halloween Walk, not because of the blood-dripping ghouls that popped out at them but because it was the day Marty Golden gave them each a Hershey’s Bar. Yep, it’s gonna be tough to get their vote.

On Monday, at the height of the etiquette class furor, Marty Golden presented a proclamation at MCU Field in Coney Island honoring Gary Carter, the late Mets legend (see photo below). Wearing a dapper suit and smiling as he posed with Cyclones mascots Sammy and PeeWee,  he wasn’t breaking a sweat — not from the 90-degree heat or from the criticism from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and just about everybody else that he was showing his true colors an out-of-touch throwback, and a wolfish one, at that. I wouldn’t want to show up at Golden’s door for a job interview.

According to the taxpayer-funded mailer his office sent out, Golden’s July 24 seminar at the family-owned Bay Ridge Manor was supposed to teach women “what’s new in the 21st Century as it relates to business etiquette and social protocol.” The curriculum included lessons on “posture, deportment and the feminine presence,” such as how to shake hands, navigate stairs and — my favorite — “walk like a model.” (I guess Golden has been watching Liz Krueger in the Senate Chamber for too long.)

Full disclosure: I spent 18 years writing newsletters for another Brooklyn state senator. We had a few unintended gaffes over the years, like the prostate screening newsletter with the relevant anatomical illustration that offended some sensibilities in Borough Park. (A text-only “shlong mailer” went out the following year.) From experience, I can tell you that newsletters are usually created not by one person but by several. Ideas are bounced around among the elected official and staff. Once these things are written and a proof comes back from the graphics department in Albany, they’re proofread for errors. There’s always time to re-do something that looks funny or doesn’t read right. I’ll say one thing. If “walk like a model” passed muster with Golden and his staff, I can only imagine the other mail that’s gone out to the public. There’s a good chance I’ve been missing out on some entertaining stuff.

The woman scheduled to preside over Golden’s so-called career development event was Phillipa Morrish, wife of longtime Bay Ridge community activist Larry Morrish, who was billed as a “Certified Protocol Consultant” — the capitalization isn’t mine — and president of a business called Etiquette Training International. Morrish’s business website ( contains information about her finishing school and online classes, along with testimonials that are all from people in Guyana. The course module is rather eclectic. If “creating a positive first impression” and “wardrobe chic” aren’t enough for you, you might choose to explore something called “techno-etiquette.” What is that, exactly?  Learning not to say “f–k” whenever you hit the wrong key? I really don’t want to know what “Gift Giving Home and Abroad” is, either, or what sort of gifts she thinks women professionals ought to be giving.

Today’s City & State has the top ten Tweets about the cancelled class ( Rita Meade ‏@ScrewyDecimal, who’s #6 on the list, says: “This is my neighborhood. This is my (current) state senator. THIS is why we have to vote, ladies. Get him outta here.”

Actually, I think Golden’s opposition to a minimum wage increase and his continuing belief that women should get paid less than men are more than enough reason to get him outta here. The etiquette class, while quaint, is offensive only because it’s gender specific. When my 18-year-old daughter was little, she attended a day-long etiquette class for both girls and boys at the Plaza Hotel. She and her friend Emily learned to eat french fries with a knife and fork. I thought it was a cute idea, and one with some potential usefulness in the real world. Maybe Marty Golden hasn’t spent enough time sitting next to men picking their teeth at lunch. Or maybe, as I suspect, he’s just an old-fashioned guy with old-fashioned ideas. And in his old-fashioned way, he was trying to help.

There’s a song from the early 1960s that I’ve been thinking about ever since the “feminine deportment” fiasco. The song is “Wives and Lovers,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It was a big hit by Jack Jones, and it goes like this:

Hey, little girl,
Comb your hair, fix your make-up.
Soon he will open the door.
Don’t think because
There’s a ring on your finger,
You needn’t try any more

For wives should always be lovers, too.
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you.
I’m warning you.

Day after day,
There are girls at the office,
And men will always be men.
Don’t send him off
With your hair still in curlers.
You may not see him again.

For wives should always be lovers, too.
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you.
He’s almost here.

Hey, little girl
Better wear something pretty,
something you’d wear to go to the city.
And dim all the lights,
Pour the wine, start the music.
Time to get ready for love.

Dim all the lights,
Pour the wine,start the music.
Time to get ready for love.
Time to get ready,time to get ready for love.
Time to get ready,time to get ready for love.

You Can’t Stop the Wheels From Turning….

Children and wheels: It seems so easy, but I missed the boat on that one.

First you buy the kid a tricycle, then a bicycle, and if you’re a little crazy and/or don’t mind ER visits, a unicycle. (I used to see a kid commuting to Edward R. Murrow H.S. on one. Amazing.) You might throw in a scooter, skateboard and roller blades. (I can’t watch anyone zip through traffic on roller blades. Death by pothole is not a good way to go.) Finally you reach the point, usually at 16, where the kid wants to stray farther and farther from home, and go faster and faster, in preparation for leaving home for good. That’s the real goal here even if we don’t want to admit it. And that’s when driver’s ed becomes a part of your life.

Not my life. My daughter Emily, who’s 18 and leaving for college next month, doesn’t drive. I thought she was in a very small minority, but it turns out she’s on the cutting edge of a trend where young people are relying increasingly on mass transit or, in non-urban areas, Greyhound or Amtrak, to get anywhere. They’re just fine with that, too. Yahoo News ran a story from Reuters on Sunday and reported that more than a quarter of  people in the 16 – 34 age group — the article gave this demographic the annoying nickname Millennials — lacked a driver’s license in 2010, up 5 percentage points from 2000.–sector.html) The story also indicated that many young adults are turning to virtual media as a replacement for the open road. That’s just weird.

Until I read the Yahoo article, I was feeling a bit guilty about Emily’s lack of driving ambition. (The pun is intentional, but I’ll save that for another post.) I come from sedentary, slow-moving stock. In a wolf pack, I’d be the one invariably left with the innards. According to family myth, I didn’t walk until I was two and my mother, frustrated at having to shlep me around, dangled an Entenmann’s donut about a foot in front of me. It worked.

I probably should have done something to fend off genetic inertia in my kids, like encouraging them to take tennis lessons. But that involved more movement than I’m accustomed to. I’m also overly cautious by nature. The less you move, the less chance there is to break an arm or leg. People ski into trees. They drown in riptides. The world is full of peril. Better to stay safe.

I didn’t deny my kids’ need for speed entirely. They had one of those Big Wheel things — a three-wheeled vehicle that rides at ground level so there’s nowhere to fall. When Emily was six, she asked for roller blades. I  got them for her, along with the requisite knee and elbow pads, and we went into the driveway to practice. For the next hour, she clung to the gate and screamed whenever one of her feet began to roll. I still have the photos. She never put the roller blades on again.

Eventually I got brave enough to buy both girls bikes. I got myself one too so I could demonstrate. We walked to the local schoolyard to try them out. I rode around and around in a big circle for a while, impressing Emily and Kate with my long-forgotten prowess. I was feeling pretty good about myself, still going around and around the track, until I remembered that I never learned how to make a 90-degree turn. Riding in circles was the height of my ability, a metaphor for my career as an outdoorsy mom. Kate grew to like her Strawberry Shortcake bike, but the training wheels never came off. Emily fared about as well on her new bike as she did on the roller blades. Teaching the girls to ride was not within the realm of possibility for me. Way too scary. The bikes are still in our shed, collecting cobwebs.

Kate says she always felt deprived that I never bought her the only wheeled item that she really wanted. It was a motorized kiddie car, one of those overpriced pink monstrosities with a picture of Barbie on the side. It wasn’t fear that stopped me, but good taste.

Emily is leaving for Bard in a month and nine days. She’s counting, I know. So am I, but in a different way. I’ve done my best to put the brakes on her childhood, to stop the wheels from turning and time from rolling on. Despite my best efforts, I’m proud to say I’ve failed. Emily is growing up despite my craziness.

On August 11, I’ll be the instrument of her departure, driving the car that takes her 130 miles from home to a place where adventure, and, yes, peril, await. I’ll just have to hope for the best. She’s been mentioning lately that she’d like to learn to ride a bike since the buildings on campus are so far apart. But I know my kid. I make a mental note to buy her rainboots. She’ll be spending a lot of time slogging on foot through the mud.

In Praise of Busy

Are you crazy busy? Not because you have to be, but by choice? I read Tim Kreider’s “Opinionator” piece, “The Busy Trap,” online in the Times ( see above link) right after I did the morning prayers — my daily wake-up call — and right before I launched into my other usual early-morning activity, playing on Facebook.

It stopped me in my tracks.

Kreider’s piece talks about the maniacal need many people have to overschedule their lives, and often their children’s lives, as a conscious effort to avoid idleness, which is synonymous with sloth. If we’re busy, even it’s with work we don’t really need or activities that don’t enrich our lives, we’re able to maintain the delusion that that our lives have more value than they actually do. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider writes.

A few thoughts here.

It’s important to note that the population he’s addressing has become increasingly small thanks to the lousy economy. I don’t know what kind of circles the author travels in, but most people I know work as much as they can because it’s a better alternative than, say, starving to death or living in your car. A week home with the flu is the closest many people get to idleness.

When I spent two days in the hospital after the birth of each of my kids, I joked that this was my idea of a vacation. Certainly it was the longest I spent in front of a television during my entire adult life, except to watch “Thirtysomething” in my twenties and, later, to feed my addiction to “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” I was a busy person — busy not to avoid doing nothing, but busy because I genuinely liked to work. Still do, in fact. I enjoy the mental aerobics of work. I enjoy creating something from nothing. I like the discipline that work, in this case writing, gives my life. I’d feel like a complete sloth if I didn’t spend some time each day putting words on the screen in front of me.

When I’m not working or tending to responsibilities at home or chatting with friends, I tend to occupy my time with activities that give the brain a workout. I suppose Tim Kreider would still consider me busy, and this is correct, up to a point. I do the Times crossword (except on Saturday, when it’s impossible for any normal human). I run through books of logic puzzles. I read a lot. I go on Facebook or check out the media outlets on  Twitter. But here’s the thing. These “busy” activities usually have a multitasking component that encompasses a degree of slothfulness. I’ll generally be listening to music or have the TV on in the background. (My daughter Kate finds it amazing that I know just about every episode of “The Nanny” by heart without knowing what a single character looks like, except of course Fran Drescher.)

Somewhere in the middle of reading or doing some non-work-related mental activity, I’ll invariably start daydreaming. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep for a few minutes. But then I’ll return to whatever activity or activities I was doing before, including the mind-wandering part. For me, this constitutes idleness, because the activities I choose to fill my day leave plenty of gaps for rumination. Some really good ideas have come to me while I’m doing the crossword. So contrary to what Tim Kreider contends, keeping busy and letting your mind roam free are not always mutually exclusive. You can be busy, according to my definition, and idle, according to his, at the same time.

I cannot imagine sitting around and doing nothing — I mean, really nothing. I’d go nuts and, frankly, I don’t think one’s anxiety level benefits if the brain is kept uncaged too long. Depending on the particular monsters you have in your closet, too much idleness can be a scary thing. Keeping busy is therapeutic, a way of maintaining one’s sanity and keeping at bay the stuff that’s messy or painful to confront. Denial, you say? Well, maybe. Okay, yes. But there are times in all our lives when reality is acceptable only in bite-sized pieces.

For some, like the author of the “Opinionator” piece, idle time is a friend and a joy that too many cast aside as worthless. For others, it’s more complicated.  We all need our escapes.

D’var Torah: Chukat…..Disappointment and Moving On

As most of you know, the writer Nora Ephron passed away this week. In addition to being a huge fan of her essays, I loved the movies she wrote and directed. They make me laugh and they focus on themes that most people can relate to. How we deal with love when disappointment follows, for instance. Or how we put one foot in front of the other when all hope appears to be lost.

In “Sleepless in Seattle,” a man with a young son is torn apart by the death of his wife. Somehow, in spite of the odds, he manages to find new love three thousand miles away. Death is followed by healing. My all-time favorite Nora Ephron movie, the one I can watch again and again, is “When Harry Met Sally.” Throughout the movie, couples who have been married for a hundred years talk about how they met — usually the wife does all the talking – while a couple that’s obviously in love, played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, has a hard time connecting in the way they should. At the end of the movie they do connect, of course, but there’s a fair amount of unhappiness and heartache for both parties in between.

I thought of Nora Ephron when I read this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. Three terrible events take place, not coincidentally, on the last three stops of the Israelites’ journey. First we have the death of Miriam. Her passing receives greater mention in the Torah than most women receive. We know her time of death, on the first new moon, and her place of burial, in Kadesh. We know she is a woman of great importance, and that she’s worthy of the ritual of purification that’s explained just prior to her death. Miriam’s death is followed by the death of her brother, Aaron. It’s not clear why the so-called crime he committed is severe enough to warrant God sending him up to Mount Hor to die, but that’s the punishment he receives nonetheless.

Then finally, we learn that Miriam and Aaron’s brother, Moses, will never get to enter the Promised Land. His leadership will end in profound personal disappointment. Another leader will get to take the Israelites on the final step of their journey toward freedom.

Despite all the heartbreak, it becomes clear that the Torah portion is ultimately a hopeful one. After a long period of bad luck, the Israelites enjoy victories on the battlefield and their fortune begins to change. The despair they felt about spending the rest of their lives in the desert, and the whining and complaining that caused Moses to lose his patience with them and led to his own punishment from God – this eventually turns into songs of gratitude and victory. Moses and Aaron have paid a very steep price, but the Israelites just keep marching on toward the Promised Land.

So here, too, we witness death followed by healing. We see how terrible disappointment can be followed by hope and possibility. In our own lives, we can all point to occasions where those same themes have held true.

After a loved one dies, we enter a period of mourning. We know how long the official mourning period lasts, but in reality we mourn for much longer than that. Slowly, however, we open our eyes and begin to take baby steps to look beyond our grief. At the beginning of the process we may view the world through the eyes of our lost loved one. We imagine how he or she would react to a situation. We hold conversations with our loved one, often out loud. Then we take a deep breath and we start to see the world anew through our loved one’s eyes and our own eyes. We start to live again, with the memory of our loved one stowed away safely in our heart. The healing process is underway. What we thought was impossible has become possible.

Near the end of any journey we reflect on how that journey went for us. In the case of a literal journey, we tend to reflect not just on the places we saw on vacation but the places we perhaps didn’t have time to see. This is true for our larger journeys, too, the metaphorical ones. For most of us, anyway, we don’t always get what we want. We end up in a different career than we imagined, or we end up out of work at one time or another. Our children don’t turn out exactly as we planned. We get sick. We learn quickly that marriage is a lot harder than it looks on television, or even in Nora Ephron’s movies.

Our lives take unexpected turns, and what we choose to do about it and how we deal with it is up to us. When God told Moses he would never fulfill his mission of bringing the Israelites to freedom, what did he do? Did he despair? Well, he probably did. Who wouldn’t? But did he give up, out of anger or despair? No, he didn’t. He put one foot in front of the other and went forward. The victories in battle must’ve been bittersweet for Moses at that point. But they were still victories. Moses continued on – moving ahead — in spite of a crushing disappointment. He redefined what he hoped to achieve and decided that, maybe, it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes you who you are. He saw that his destiny was to become a teacher as well as a leader – someone who could pass the mantle of leadership to the next generation. For Moses, the journey, while it didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped, remained both meaningful and worthwhile.

There is much for all of us to learn from our own journeys, and it’s the unexpected twists, turns and detours that tend to drive the lessons home. That’s why we’re all drawn to stories of people who manage to overcome overwhelming obstacles – the homeless girl who ends up at Harvard. The young woman with the flesh-eating bacteria, whose incredible will has kept her alive.

This week I said goodbye to a friend, a wonderful and devoted friend, who in a brief time went from being a successful and well-respected elected official to one who has been publicly disgraced and vilified. What the headlines didn’t say is that he is a man of uncommon decency and compassion, and a man whose advice typically is right on the money. Certainly his own journey has been derailed, and in a major way. The night before he left, we sat in his car and talked. I found it hard to say goodbye, but he looked ahead with complete and utter determination. “I’m going to walk in there,” he said, “and, God willing, one day I’m going to walk out.”

 Let us all take stock, then, of our own journey. Instead of tormenting ourselves with doubts and regrets, let us all appreciate the journey no matter what the destination might be. Finally, let us all have the courage and fortitude to withstand the unexpected and difficult detours that life presents us with.

 I’ll end with a quote from Nora Ephron. “Above all,” she said, “be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.