Sunday, August 24, 2014

Father of the Bride

At year's end, more than one friend observed that 2014 would be a big year for Deb and me. We looked forward to the birth of our first grandchild and to the wedding of our daughter. Theodore Irving arrived on May 16th. Yesterday, I walked my princess down the aisle after we were delivered to the ceremonial site by horse drawn carriage. 

As predicted by Rabbi Norman Cohen during the service, I will blog more about the experience once I've had the opportunity to let the emotions of my daughter's wedding settle a bit. As was the case with the birth of my children and my grandson, no discussion or contemplation prepared me for the waves of joyous emotion that washed over me all weekend long.

In the meantime, by request, I'm publishing my Father of the Bride speech and a few snaps taken by friends George Dow and Ron Levitus. Talk to you soon.

Welcome to Meadow Breeze Farm. So many of you have traveled great distances to share this celebration and Deb and I are thrilled to have you join us at our home. Ellie wanted a meaningful venue for her once in a lifetime ceremony and, as usual, her sense of style, and her determination, were unstoppable. 

I’ve often thought, during years of traveling to Arizona, that I’m lucky enough to experience and appreciate the beauty of both the desert southwest and the majesty of Minnesota’s lushness. I hope that our visitors this weekend have had the opportunity to appreciate the magnificence of our northern greenery as well as the moderate summer temperatures. Minnesotans call this “hotter than Hell”, but, if you ask Garrison Keillor, he’ll tell you we never go there to actually compare.
Before I address Matthew and Ellie, I need to thank my bride, Deb, for all of her hard work creating our wedding site. Thank you, too, from the bottom of our hearts to EVERYONE who contributed so much. Chupah building, flower arranging, garden watering, barn painting, DVD burning. It was a labor of love to honor Matt and Ellie by so many. Thank you.
Ellie, this is the hardest speech I’ve ever had to write and deliver. Fortunately, it’s the last one I’ll ever need to deliver. After the bar and bat mitzvahs and the weddings, no one needs to hear from the Papa. Even if I end up writing another political speech someday, someone else will do the talking. I’ve always been a staff guy.
Because it’s the last, I wanted it to be perfect, somehow discernable between my sobs. Because you’re my precious daughter, I want it to be perfect as I tell all your friends and expanded family how much I love you, how proud I am of you and how happy I am that you and Matthew have found one another.

You are named, in part, after my grandmother, my beloved Nana. You share her beauty, intelligence, independence, drive, passion, love of style and spunk. Watching you grow up, it’s always seemed like a do-over for your namesake. She would be so proud of you and the loving and adventurous young lady, with an appreciation for beauty, that you’ve become. I am so thankful that you have grown up to bestow the honor on your namesake that I intended. While I never met Mom’s grandmother, Bertha Elizabeth, from whom you take your first name, I’ve heard enough stories about her loving and caring soul and devotion to family to know that you’ve honored her has well.

Matthew, welcome to the family. I hope I’ve already given you some sense of how thrilled I am to have you as my son-in-law. They say that girls grow up to pick a husband that reminds them of their daddy. Imagine my delight that Ellie thinks I’m a tall, thin, handsome, conservative, sports fan with a full head of hair.
I have no secrets for the two of you as you start your married life together. All the advice is out of the bag, on the Internet, broadcast by Dr. Phil, and in print for inquiring minds. Love and respect one another. Understand that you are each unique and nurture the personalities in one another that attracted you to your mate in the first place. You respect one another enough to commit to spending the rest of your lives together. Build on that respect and lean on one another when challenges arise.  Neither of you can be expected to behave in perfect lockstep with the ideal imagined by the other. That’s okay. NEITHER of you will behave ideally all the time. Cut some slack to be given slack.

Your parents have more than 70 years of marriage between them. We’ll tell you that it’s not all horse-drawn carriages and 30-year-old Scotch. And we’ll tell you not to drive one after drinking the other. But, personally, I can tell you that there is no greater joy in life than being in a relationship where the goal of your partner’s complete happiness serves as your guide. It requires sacrifice on both your parts, honoring the commitment implicit in your vows. Sometimes you have to muck a few stalls. Every morning. But the payoff is priceless. Being part of your loved one’s dream come true is as good as it gets, better than a 10% ROI or a new necklace from Tiffany’s. Work on it and enjoy.
Finally, this wasn’t so bad. So, if in about 15 years I’m still around, I’m willing to give a speech at a bar or bat mitzvah celebration, probably after dictating it into my iPad 17.
Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and family. Let’s raise our glasses in a toast to the newlyweds: Elizabeth Pearl was a gift from God and I will always be grateful to have been given the honor of being her father. May God continue to bless her and Matthew, God’s gift to RenĂ©e and Ed, and grant them safety, love, health and happiness all the days of their lives. L’Chaim!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Before the Second Amendment, There's the First. Use It.

This afternoon I came across a post by Michael Moore, the documentary film-maker who is either a god or Satan incarnate depending on your politics. Apparently, Mr. Moore was asked to comment on the senseless tragedy that unfolded near the University of Santa Barbara a few days ago. A disturbed young white male from an upper middle class background used guns and knives to murder six people before taking his own life.

Here is what Michael Moore had to say in the form of a Facebook status that I decided to share on my Facebook page out of a common sense of rage and frustration:

With due respect to those who are asking me to comment on last night's tragic mass shooting at UCSB in Isla Vista, CA -- I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life. Everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago: We are a people easily manipulated by fear which causes us to arm ourselves with a quarter BILLION guns in our homes that are often easily accessible to young people, burglars, the mentally ill and anyone who momentarily snaps. We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) "interests." The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol. While other countries have more violent pasts (Germany, Japan), more guns per capita in their homes (Canada [mostly hunting guns]), and the kids in most other countries watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games that our kids play, no one even comes close to killing as many of its own citizens on a daily basis as we do -- and yet we don't seem to want to ask ourselves this simple question: "Why us? What is it about US?" Nearly all of our mass shootings are by angry or disturbed white males. None of them are committed by the majority gender, women. Hmmm, why is that? Even when 90% of the American public calls for stronger gun laws, Congress refuses -- and then we the people refuse to remove them from office. So the onus is on us, all of us. We won't pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won't consider why this happens here all the time. When the NRA says, "Guns don't kill people -- people kill people," they've got it half-right. Except I would amend it to this: "Guns don't kill people -- Americans kill people." Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon.

Shortly after my post, I received an email from a good friend whose opinion I greatly respect. Unlike some of the folks I expect to hear from after I post this blog, my friend is a thoughtful and intelligent and well-regarded by me and our mutual colleagues. Here is the email received in response to my sharing of Michael Moore's post:

A few thoughts......
First - know that I am truly saddened by the event at UC Santa Barbara - it was and it is truly horrific....
Second - I'm a bit surprised that you would share Michael Moore's post - it easily leads one to believe that all of this tragedy was done with the use of a gun when 3 of those killed were killed with a knife - could it be that mentioning that a knife was used for 3 of the killings would take away  most / all of the credibility for the rest of his statement?  Seems to me that providing half truths to support a position is not worthy a repost....
Third - although he doesn't want to write it, it seems what Mr Moore is saying is that we have individuals with mental health issues that need to be addressed, yet he somehow draws the conclusion that if we take away guns all will be good (except maybe for those 3 housemates who were killed with a knife....).  He apparently isn't aware of root cause analysis.
Fourth - might you still be one of the folks who has a gun in their house that is easily accessible to those who shouldn't have access to it?  (I hope not, if so, we need to talk....)

I enjoy reading your posts & blogs - this one just didn't feel right...

I'm posting these because I shot off a response that I wanted to share. It feels right to me and I believe that it's incumbent on those of us who share Michael Moore's frustration, including me, to speak out. We may never achieve any success, but I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and know that I made some effort.

Here is my response to my friend's comments:

Thanks, J.

Actually, I took Moore's condemnation to be more of a general venting of frustration 12 years after he came out with Bowling for Columbine because nothing has changed. He wasn't focused on this individual tragedy, which is why he starts out by saying he's done talking. 

No matter what we do, there will continue to be murders and assaults using knives, cars, poison, abuse and guns. I'm not willing to give up addressing the problem of the proliferation of firearms because of an inability to achieve a perfect solution and harmonious society.

I was just thinking about something the other day, before the latest tragedy. When I worked in D.C., I was dating an aide to a Senator from Nebraska. She was active in the anti-gun lobby because her brother had been killed by someone with a handgun. She talked about the statistics, variations on Moore's cites from a 1977 perspective. She acknowledged the challenges in dealing with the NRA because of its constant warning about the government taking away guns and stomping on Second Amendment rights. That's what struck me. Ever since Robert Kennedy's assassination, I can remember hearing about the government wanting to take away everyone's guns. And it works up the pro-gun crowd time and time again. However, since 1968, there's never been a serious attempt by anyone in elected office to confiscate guns. While there was an assault weapons ban in place for awhile, it was pretty limited and allowed to expire. Handguns, shotguns, hunting rifles have never been subject to any confiscatory legislation. 

So, if the government isn't taking anything away, what's wrong with some regulations that take a step in assuring a more safe use. Again, it won't be a perfect solution, but how many lives does it have to save to justify implementation? One, a hundred, a thousand, my grandson, your daughter?

Read "Glock", the history of the manufacturer. Fascinating story about the success of the gun, its rise to prominence among law enforcement worldwide, the marketing that was used to achieve that result and the financial pressures exerted on and by the gun lobby to make sure that nothing changes in Americans' access to guns. 

I'm ignoring the Fourth point. I'm still bad ALTHOUGH it's not loaded or near ammunition, it's hidden away, it's out of reach for anyone too young to get to it and I really intend to get a trigger lock for it.

Thanks again.

If you feel passionately about the issue, don't tell me. Tell your Congressman and Senator. There's nothing more that I can do besides what I'm already doing. People that agree with me and Michael Moore have to make themselves heard directly, not merely as poll respondents. People who don't agree with me are entitled to their opinion. All I ask is that they take the time to have an informed opinion, not one based on scare tactics and imaginary government conspiracies that have been erroneously prophesied for more than 50 years.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Dear Grandson (Part 2)

Dearest Beloved Grandson, 

I am writing this while awaiting word of your arrival from your parents. After waiting at home all day and timing contractions, your father sent me a text at 4:32 p.m. confirming that they were with you at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul. 

I am at my office and I have work to do but I am having a hard time concentrating on anything but the desktop on my iPhone. I am trying to will it to light up with a phone call or text from your father, telling me that you and your mother are healthy and, finally, sharing your name with me and my 1,300 Facebook friends. I thought if I shot something off to you, it would make time pass.

You should know that this world is full of strange coincidences. Your parents told Grandma and me eight months ago to the day that you were expected. So, for eight months, I had been meaning to share some advice with your father. I kept forgetting, even though we believed that you would join us last week.

This morning, at 9:26 a.m., I sent your father the following text:

"Time for me to tell you what someone told me before you were born. It doesn't matter how much you've read or how much you have discussed the birth of your child. You have never felt anything like the way you are going to feel when your son is born. Enjoy the experience and each and every moment that follows thereafter. Don't wish away any part of his growing up. It passes all too soon."

Thirty-seven minutes later, your father called me to tell me that your mother had gone into labor. While I realize that the going away festivities started for you last night, it struck me that you waited until I gave your father a last piece of guidance before you felt he was ready to say "hello".

Thank you for having so much confidence in me. I will try to be a wonderful Papa for you. 

I will teach you patience and respect for the wishes of others. I will start by not posting this letter until given permission by your parents as it will, in effect, serve as a birth announcement for the dozens of friends who will want to be called Uncle or Aunt. 

I will be honest with you. In eight days, we will celebrate at your bris. I'm not going to lie; it's going to hurt. You won't walk for a year.

Lastly, for now, I will not spare you from stupid jokes. See above.

With all my love and tear-filled eyes,


Molly, Teddy and Phillip
May 4, 2014

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dear Grandson (Part 1)

Dearest Beloved Grandson,

Although you are still in utero, I thought it might be a good time to start sharing life lessons for you to use as guidance in the years to come. A few months ago, your mother urged me to recommence writing Prairie Pondering after I mentioned that a friend, Charlie Leck, blogged regularly for several years in order to give his grandchildren a sense of who he was. Neither Charlie nor I will be around forever and we are using this vehicle to try to leave a legacy.

Lesson 1. Read. Learn to read. Love to read. I'm going to be up past my bedtime writing this tonight. If you are going to ignore Lesson 1, there's no point in my bothering. Your Papa (me) started reading voraciously at a very young age. As a result, I was able to travel through time and space from the comfort of my home. My vocabulary developed without having to resort to flashcards. My imagination flourished and I developed a moral compass from the stories I devoured rather than from sustaining a lot of negative reinforcement after blindly straying.

As a side benefit, if we think you're precocious, we'll give you extra attention. I spent hours playing Scrabble with your great-grandmother Pearl from the age of 8 or so on. I'll never forget the joy she expressed when I was able to beat her. I look forward to experiencing the same joy sitting across the table from you.

You may be thinking that these benefits are too deferred. After all, I had to pore through some World Books, the Wikipedia of my day, to develop that vocabulary. Here's a more immediate benefit. We'll leave you alone while you're reading and exercising your mind.

Beginning at 7 or 8 years old, I spent several weeks every summer with your great-grandmother Pearl and her husband, my Papa. My Papa was also an attorney. The brass lion on my desk I'll show you someday is from his office in Chicago. He would take me to his office on LaSalle Street in the Loop to spend the day. After awhile I would get bored in the office and would go on walks in downtown Chicago. I would count blocks from to Papa's office building so I could find my way back. I explored book stores. I would find a paperback of interest, return to the office and read. (Things have changed a bit so we probably won't let you wander around downtown Chicago by yourself when you're 8.)

One of the paperbacks I bought during one Chicago adventure was a series of short stories by Ian Fleming. It was called The Spy Who Loved Me. It told the story of a British secret agent, Bond. James Bond. Since this was two years before the first James Bond movie was released, neither my parents nor grandparents had any idea what I was reading. I have vivid memories of sitting in Chernins on Roosevelt Road while the family was buying shoes. I was engrossed in a James Bond novel, reading about women, cars, guns, the concept of tailoring slacks to allow for packing on one side or another, cocktails and spycraft. I overheard my mother commenting on what a good kid I was and how much I loved to read. I remember thinking, "if she only knew". They thought I was precocious and they left me alone. My choice of books was giving me immediate gratification without the tedium of flashcards.

By the time Dr. No was released in 1962, when I was 10, I had read all of Fleming's James Bond novels. I knew of the sparkling bays of Jamaica and the volcanoes of Japan. I had skied in the Alps and swum the coral reefs in the Caribbean. I developed an understanding of dialects on the streets of Harlem (as heard and conveyed by a mid-20th century British novelist) and explored the tunnels underneath Istanbul. I began to understand the importance of friendship and sacrifice and honor. Reading primed my curiosity pump and prepared me to want to explore the world. Follow Lesson 1 and you're in for a lifetime of wonder.

In case you're concerned, you won't need to go to Chicago to recreate my experience. I've been rereading the Fleming novels, downloading them one at a time chronologically onto my iPad. In a couple of years, when Mom and Dad take a night off and you're with Papa, I'll read them to you.

Lesson 2. Read the Torah. Your Papa was smart enough not to rely solely on Ian Fleming to teach him right from wrong. As part of my Bar Mitzvah training, I was required to read the Five Books of Moses and give a report on each chapter to my rabbi. The exercise paid dividends in its lessons about faith, ethics, being good, being bad, consequences, perseverance, rituals and self-reliance. You will learn that you control your own fate; no one died for your sins.

Don't ignore the subtle lessons as you develop your mind reading the Torah. It's not all burning bushes, escapes from Egypt and fights with Caananites . The chapters detailing the census can be viewed either akin to watching paint dry or as a window on how life was lived thousands of years ago. Start to understand how societies formed and how everyone had something to contribute to make a whole. It's no different today and you ARE your brother's keeper.

If you behave yourself and treat people with respect, you will be thought of as a mensch and will live a happier life. There are lots of rules to live by. Some you may choose to ignore and join me in San Francisco one day for Scoma's spicy cioppino on Fisherman's Wharf. Others, if you pay attention to the lessons of your forefathers, will guide you throughout life and make your Papa proud.

Lesson 3. Live Beneath Your Means. This is the first of many "do as I say, not as I do" lessons. But you might as well learn from my mistakes. That is as much the point of this exercise as exhorting you to follow in my footsteps. cf. Lessons 1 and 2. You need to be smarter than the marketing wonks who devise increasingly clever schemes to convince you to buy what they're selling. Remember the lesson of my favorite Garfield cartoon:

Put money aside on a regular basis and forget about it. Just decide to live on 95% of what you're taking in and you won't miss the funds as you save them. The independence and peace of mind you'll enjoy from not having to worry about not being in extraordinary debt is priceless. Your parents are good role models in this regard. Follow their lead and avoid pursuing shiny objects. To the best of my ability, I'll take care of your shiny objects.

Lesson 4. Google. As I thought about writing this, Lesson 4 was not anything I dwelled much on. But being able to illustrate Lesson 3 made me realize how important it is to know how to research and expand your knowledge base. The cartoon is one I regularly refer to in conversation. As I was writing, it occurred to me that I might be able to track it down. I typed "Garfield comic amazing what some people would rather have than money" and the exact 25 year-old comic strip I remembered appeared in a fraction of a second. Be curious; seek answers. And remember, if Google returns 35 million relevant hits in response to an inquiry, best to dig deeper to fully comprehend the matter at hand.

Lesson 5. Treat Everyone with Respect. When you were born, you shared the world with slightly more than 7 billion people. Initially, they all had moms; most had dads. Many had their own Papas and Grandmas. Each of them arrived to universal prayer, joy, hope and expectation of the best life possible. It makes absolutely no difference what color their skin is, who they choose to love or whether they can pee standing up without soiling their pants. (Actually, I'm getting to the age where that's not so much of a distinction.) You are incredibly lucky to have been born into a loving family able to provide shelter and food in abundance and to assure your education and preparation for life's challenges. "Lucky" is the operative word in that sentence and you do not have, and will never have, the right to judge as inferior anyone merely because they started out in different circumstances than you.

You need to educate yourself and live your life in a way that you can be confident and proud of your beliefs and intellect. cf. Lessons 1 and 2. Once you do, there's no need to agree with everyone or anyone else. But remember to be respectful to those you disagree with. Either they have come to disagree with you after their own thoughtful process, or they are to be pitied for not having availed themselves of the opportunity to be informed. Either way you'll often have to deal with them and understanding how to do so, and acting on it, will make life a lot easier.

Lesson 6. Don't be a Chump. Notwithstanding Lesson 5, you are going to meet a lot of people who, in addition to being pitied, are to be avoided. Not everyone is respectful of the rights of others; not everyone acts in a moral and ethical manner. Your Papa gives people the opportunity to behave in an appropriate fashion. But I don't eat apples or associate with people with rotten cores. As you grow older, you'll develop a sense of which fights to pick and which to avoid. It's okay to associate with the putz who eats his fish with his salad fork. It's not okay to maintain a relationship with the thief who pockets the fork. Ignoring rotten core behavior just sets you up to be a victim when convenient for the bad actor. Ignoring the warning signs until victimized makes you a chump.

Kunta Kinte (ask your mom), I have many more lessons to impart. We will discuss the significance of the Rat Pack, splitting aces and eights, friendship, family and Broadway musicals. When I'm done, you will not eat corned beef on white bread nor bet on the Vikings. We aren't scheduled to meet for another six weeks or so. I'll keep generating these missives for you between now and then and, likely, thereafter. Papa has to go to sleep so he can get up and muck horse stalls, the result of a mid-life paradigm shift undertaken to assure your grandmother's happiness. That's Lesson 10. 

Later, Squirt.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Flying Into Los Angeleez

In a few days I'll be eligible for Social Security. I won't file for it. My retirement plan consists of passing away and supporting Deb with my life insurance proceeds. There's a major flaw in the plan, which is why I'm bound and determined to enjoy myself as much as possible for as long as possible while continuing to get paid for my advice.

The last few weeks have underscored how capable I am of enjoying myself. On Saturday evening, I returned from a week in Los Angeles. Typically, I have only a weekend to spend and have to severely limit my visits to friends and family. Even a 5-day week was insufficient to do everything I wanted, especially since I was attending a conference for 2-1/2 days, but:

  • I was able to join my roommates from my senior year in college for dinner in Long Beach;
  • I attended a gala benefiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum honoring Sir Ben Kingsley;
  • I ate at chi SPACCA, a Hollywood hotspot, at the insistence of a Minneapolis friend who took my phone to make an Open Table reservation 10 days in advance;
  • I enjoyed Shabbat dinner with Bruce and Marilyn Mandel's family, marveling at Marilyn's 96 year old mother's apparent rejuvenation since being bed-ridden during my last visit in December;
  • I spent hours on Friday afternoon walking the beach at Malibu and photographing surfers;
  • I grabbed lunch in Manhattan Beach with an old friend from my days representing Minneapolis' Rogue Bar;
  • I drove a Tesla down Sunset Boulevard and up Mandeville Canyon (I want a Tesla); and
  • I spent a lot of quality time with my blood-brother, Bruce Mandel, who also turns 62 on my birthday and who has been an integral part of my life since we met at age 3.

I am not writing to draw unnecessary attention to my love of food. I did that with all the photographic evidence posted on Facebook. This is another observation about the importance of relationships and of making the most out of life.

Let me elaborate.

In 1973, I transferred to UCLA. Bruce, who rarely takes "no" for an answer, persuaded the school to admit me as a senior. After driving my Datsun 610 across the country, so loaded down the wheels buckled, I answered an ad in the school newspaper and found living quarters in West L.A. with Donald Johnson and Franz Miller, third year law students. We had a magical year, sharing a balcony with Peter Strauss immediately before his Rich Man, Poor Man role made him famous. We frequented greasy spoons and Annie's Doughnuts after Johnny Carson signed off. We all
Donald Johnson & Hon. Franz Miller
shot pilots for Jack Barry quiz shows and I spent three days as a contestant on The Joker's Wild. We spent weekends in Palm Springs at my grandparents' home, flying across the desert in Franz' TR-6 convertible. We graduated but stayed connected. In Long Beach last week, we realized it had been 40 years since we left the apartment on Armacost. Donald is a retired prosecutor; Franz is a judge in Orange County. I'm honored and appreciative to have been allowed to share their lives 40 years ago and more than a little touched that, 40 years later, they would both drive for hours to meet to reminisce.

Attending the benefit for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at the table Bruce purchased was like a homecoming.
Sir Ben Kingsley contemplating the six
candles lit in memory of the 6 million Jews
who perished in the Holocaust
In 1978, while working as Legislative Counsel to U.S. Senator Wendell R. Anderson, I was tasked with developing and introducing legislation to establish a national Holocaust memorial in Washington, D.C. I pursued the project passionately in honor of Bruce's parents, both survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Bruce's mom, Ella, is like a mother to me, especially since my mother died when I was 18. One day, I received a call from the White House, asking that I withdraw my legislation because President Carter wished to pursue the establishment of the memorial museum as an accomplishment of his administration. I acquiesced, a street-smart 26 year-old who already understood there was but one response to a Presidential request. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but feel some pride as I watched survivors and supporters and Hollywood elite gather to celebrate the incredible success of the Museum and the important role it plays in preserving the lessons of the Holocaust.

The meal at chi SPACCA was a three hour experience that seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. Bruce and I sampled many of the cured meats the restaurant is famous for.
We shared wonderfully spicy calamari and mouth-watering short ribs. It was our first night together and we caught up on one another's life as brothers do. As we left the restaurant to walk to our car a block away, we noticed a group of men standing outside Mozza, the restaurant connected to chi SPACCA. Bruce thought they were part of a convention, uncharacteristically dressed up on the corner of Melrose and Highland. For me, the street-smarts kicked in. Taking in the scene - everyone dressed alike, short hair, lapel mikes, positioned along the sidewalk, black SUVs parked in front of the restaurant - I immediately had them pegged as a security detail. When, as we walked by we heard them speaking Hebrew, it was confirmed. Later we learned Prime Minister Netanyahu was in town and my guess is he was dining at Mozza. Welcome to L.A.

When I visited L.A. for a weekend last December to pay condolences to Bruce and Ella on the November passing of Stefan Mandel, father and husband, I made it a point to visit Marilyn's parents, the Pilbergs, at their winter apartment near Beverly Hills. Mrs. Pilberg was being attended to around the clock by Marilyn and her sisters and did not emerge from the bedroom. She is struggling with a cancer diagnosis and it was important to me to pay my respects to her and to her husband as I've known them for nearly 30 years. I was shocked, happily so, when we had dinner on Friday night.

Besides being touched by the beautiful Sabbath table set as part of a weekly ritual, and its corresponding emotional and spiritual connection to my Jewish heritage, I was amazed at the improvement in Mrs. Pilberg's condition and attitude. She lovingly recalled Deb and my visit to Los Angeles 27 years ago with my four year old son in tow. She could not believe that Phillip is nearly 31 and about to become a father.

Mr. and Mrs. Pilberg rejoiced in the presence of Alyssa, Bruce and Marilyn's daughter, and clearly consider the mutual love and respect shared with their granddaughter as one of life's great blessings.

Friday's time on the beach generated a wide variety of memories and contemplation. When I lived in L.A., if I was feeling down, I'd drive to the water in the evening and sit on the sand watching the waves pound the shore, mesmerized by the phosphorescent displays that never ended.

I recall visits after I'd graduated from UCLA in which Bruce's father would love spending hours just lying on a blanket soaking in the sun on a Saturday afternoon. And I'm always amazed at my great fortune at having had the opportunities to travel so widely when I meet someone who has never seen the ocean. All of that was going through my head on Friday as Bruce, in the footsteps of his father, took the time to decompress and enjoy the simple pleasures of walking along the beach.
Not atypically, I had a camera with me. Rather than one of my larger DSLR's, I limited my camera gear this trip to a relatively inexpensive Nikon point & shoot, albeit one that allowed creative interaction. I challenged myself to capture images worthy of sharing to see if I could do so without the use of my fancier equipment. I think I succeeded and earned accolades from my blood-brother, who marveled at the results.

Lunch with Dante Gaudio was an unexpected treat. Thanks to Facebook, I became aware that he was also scheduled to be in L.A. last week. I reached out and we were able to find time and space to catch up before I drove him to the airport for his trip home to Connecticut. When we were last together, I was representing the Rogue, Minneapolis' hottest nightclub, restaurant and bar. Dante had been a bouncer and, at the end, was managing the business with as much skill as anyone I'd worked with. We faced incredible challenges together as the owner relapsed and eventually overdosed on cocaine. My first and only intervention was experienced with Dante and, if there's another, I'm betting there won't be a shotgun involved as necessary protection. Dante and I had a pact. If I ever won the Powerball, he'd be my first hire, serving as my Kato or the guy on Valentine's Day (to my Anthony Franciosa). Eighteen years later, Dante is an executive with a successful electronic publishing company serving the medical community, has four beautiful children and, truth be told, I'll probably end up driving for him.

Los Angeles is a car-lover's paradise. The weather lends itself to enjoying beautiful machinery without concern for snow, ice, salted roadways or lengthy impediments to lowering your convertible's top. I gawk at the abundance of SL's, Aston Martins, Bentleys, Ferraris and Porsches. But since December, when Bruce acquired his Tesla, I feel pity for the owners of these masterpieces. They are doomed to tether to the gas station. Driving by a gas station in the all-electric Tesla fills me with the same sense of sadness that strikes me driving by a building downtown and seeing smokers congregating outside the doorways. If only both sets of poor souls could break free from the needless clutches of gasoline and nicotine, respectively.
While in the Tesla, you immediately appreciate the all-encompassing superiority of the driving experience when compared to more traditional gas burners. As I pulled away from the curb after dinner on Friday, I felt like I was maneuvering a very large electric golf cart. There was no noise and no sense of shifting. However, once I pressed on the accelerator, I recognized it was unlike any golf cart I'd ever driven. In fact, I told Bruce that I had not had that much fun driving since my monthly trips to L.A in the mid-80's to tool around in a friend's Ferrari Testarossa for the weekend. Bruce's car seemed faster and more agile. In the mid-80's I was in my 30's. Last week, I was not and I ignored Bruce's encouragement to drive more aggressively, forcing him to take the rare "no" for an answer.

I'm not going to elaborate any more on my quality time with Bruce, except to share his wife's observation: "I've never seen
Bruce happier than he is when he's with you." Given the 59 years of love I have for my blood-brother, a relationship created by our fathers in about 1956 by pricking our fingers and mixing our blood, Marilyn's observation fills me with incredible joy.

I know my respect for relationships is a recurring theme in my writing. But the gratification realized from enjoying the fruits of inter-personal development nurtured over the years bears regular acknowledgment. Writing about the breadth of my experiences and friendships gives me the opportunity to pause and appreciate what a lucky S.O.B. I am while generating dividends of wonderful memories and thankfulness for other's acceptance and even respect. Happy Birthday to me (and Bruce).

Monday, February 24, 2014

My Reading Buddy

Charlie Leck made a point last week about our collective lack of outrage over the widening achievement gap between white students and students of color. In the process, he referred to efforts I make to even the playing field, one student at a time.

It took me a few days to sit down and write this because the attention embarrassed me. I have a very public persona when it comes to some things but I like to keep it low key when giving of myself to those in need. I subscribe to the wisdom of the Jewish rabbi and philosopher Maimonides whose 8 Levels of Giving opined that anonymous charitable giving with no expectation of recognition is among the most commendable. 

Nonetheless, Charlie threw down a gauntlet and I think it requires both public acknowledgment and advocacy on my part. A good basic education is the building block to everything else in life. If we turn our backs on whatever shortcomings exist in our educational system, we ("Royal 'we'") damn ourselves to creating a society in which more and more citizens cannot function independently and productively. The investment, now, in the education of our children, pays dividends for generations.

Here's how I know that to be true. One of my few vivid memories as a kindergarden and elementary school student is the recurring lecture I received from my father about the need to complete my homework in order to get a good education. Dad likened my early education to the laying the foundation of a wall that I would rely on all through my life. Because "New Math" was using brick imagery to teach us about base-10 arithmetic, the lectures hit home and have stayed with me. My young mind accepted that, unless I made the effort to learn while young and build on that, I was going to go through life with a crumbling wall built on a weak foundation.

For the last four school years, I've been volunteering once a week during the school year to work with second graders to firm up their bricks. "Everybody Wins", a reading mentoring program formerly affiliated with the Hennepin County Bar Association, attracts about 80 attorneys, judges, clerks  and court personnel each week to a school in North Minneapolis to help second grade students develop reading skills. The attorney who initially invited me to join the program explained that statistics show the need to develop reading proficiency by the end of second grade to avoid a subsequent lack of academic achievement and disaffection with the learning process. I haven't bothered to verify the studies. Based on four years of personal observation, the theory seems to make sense.

Which brings me to Darnell. As noted by Charlie in his blog, I have developed a close relationship with Darnell since we were "reading buddies" four years ago. When I started volunteering about three weeks into the school year, I kept bouncing around among various students, covering for volunteers who were absent that week. In about the fourth week of my participation, I was paired with Darnell. He protested, saying he wanted to stay with another volunteer. Darnell's teacher told me that the other volunteer had begged off working with Darnell, deciding that he was too needy and troubled.

I remember how, when the protest was lost, Darnell still hustled me into getting out of reading by feigning a stomach ache. I took him to the school nurse and watched him squirm while trying to keep a straight face when explaining why he was there. The next week I returned to Darnell's classroom and sat down with him, explaining that I was his only choice. I asked for a chance. I might have bribed him with candy. I can't remember when that started. 

Darnell read better than some of his peers, not as well as others. His biggest problem was a lack of interest. He read everything in a monotone and I would regularly reread passages aloud to him to show the importance of inflections in conveying the sense of story. It never seemed to matter and I felt like I was not making a lot of headway with my reluctant second-grader.

Then something remarkable happened. We were reading a book about a boy whose mother died. The child was referred to as an "orphan". I told Darnell that I was learning something new because I thought both parents had to pass on before someone was an "orphan". We looked it up and found that the book's use of the term was accurate. The book gave us the opportunity to talk about death. Darnell's protests and his lack of interest were manifestations of the 7 year-old's inability to deal with the death of his mother 8 months earlier, when he was a first grader. It gave me the opportunity to tell Darnell how much we had in common. We both had mothers who were from Chicago who had died from cancer when they were young. We were both orphans. He could not believe that someone else shared his experience.

From that moment on, we bonded. He looked forward to our Wednesday sessions (probably as much for the candy as anything). We would read and we would talk. He became more enthusiastic about learning and, by Spring, when I wrote a short story for him about the farm animals and Deb's horse Oliver, he was hooked. 

The reading program prohibits outside contact with the students, but I worked with the school and the aunt who was raising Darnell to get permission to maintain our relationship after the school year. I received a meaningful education in the difference volunteers make in the lives of the students when, a year after we met, out and about on one of our "Darnell Days", an elderly woman in a restaurant asked Darnell how he and I had met. 

"We both had mothers from Chicago who died when they were young. We're both orphans."

His aunt, a saint, mixes love and discipline as she raises her sister's children with her own. Darnell has gone on to become an "Academic All Star". He gets A's and B's on his report cards.  He is on the Student Council in Vadnais Heights Elementary, a great athlete, polite and funny. 

Last year, after he was grounded for participating in some minor shenanigans with his older cousins, we had a talk about making good choices. He knew that he had done wrong, but didn't know how to say "no" to his cousins. Referring to the WWJD bracelets that had become popular, I told him that in the future he should stop and ask himself "what would Sam do?" WWSD became our code. 

This weekend, I asked him if he had needed to rely on WWSD. In fact, he had. Faced with a tough problem in math, he realized he could use the calculator on his phone to arrive at an answer. But he told me he asked himself "what would Sam do" and worked it out on paper instead.

Darnell's foundation is strong; his brick wall is getting higher and higher. He now wants to be a lawyer rather than a football player when he grows up. Obviously, there's improvements yet to be made.

The pride I take in Darnell's maturing sustains me as I drive to Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School every Wednesday and take on another year of challenge. After my time with Darnell, I had a year with three students, another year with one and this year with two. 

Everybody Wins is no longer subsidized by the Bar Association. The volunteers chip in to cover school bus transportation costs for the weekly round trip from the Hennepin County Government Center. Judge Allan Oleisky, who administers the program, covers the shortfall out of his own pocket. I'm in the process of setting up a formal 501(c)(3) in order to be able to solicit a few thousand dollars from local foundations that support educational endeavors. 

We have no choice but to keep the program going. There are a lot of Darnells out there. Reaching 150 students at one school for a year, through the efforts of one group of volunteers once a week, stands as a strong declaration that we are not going to allow a collapse of our public school system as it strives to serve populations of color.

Charlie was right. It is up to all of us to make, and act upon, a similar declaration. There are a number of reading mentoring programs in our community. Search online for "Minneapolis Reading Mentoring Programs" and Google will provide you with 1,370,000 results in 0.39 seconds. Your mentoring may never give you the pride and satisfaction I enjoy as I watch Darnell mature from a troubled, challenged second-grader to a Student Council officer and Academic All Star, but, more importantly, it might.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Joan of Art and Long Goodbyes

I am not much of a philosopher but weekends like this one demand some big picture reflection. It occurs to me that I've entered  a sector in the Circle of Life that is going to involve acknowledging mortality and saying a lot of goodbyes. I am fairly certain that I will have more enthusiastically enjoyed the education, courtship, marriage, and nascent family sectors of the Circle. Since, however, being upright and in a position to face the emotional challenges of the end-of-life sector is better than the alternative, I need to find, and share, a coping mechanism to serve me and minimize the pain of loss.

On Saturday, I attended the funeral of Joan Mondale, our former Second Lady. I did not know her well, other than from her public persona. But one meeting in particular amounted to more than exchanging pleasantries at mutually attended political functions and I wanted to demonstrate the depth of my appreciation by paying my respects through my attendance at the funeral.

The meeting of significance occurred in 1978. Mrs. Mondale hosted a tea at the Vice President's Residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. I was given the opportunity to claim the invitation extended to our U.S. Senate office where I was Legislative Counsel. I don't recall the "why", other than to speculate that it would allow me to escort my recently widowed grandmother, who was visiting from Palm Springs. Escort Nana I did. Mrs. Mondale was a gracious hostess, giving her guests a tour of the Residence and discussing the art she had on display. 

It was a highlight of Nana's well-lived life. Nana had been to Monaco during Princess Grace's wedding. She'd brought back a llama skin from Machu Pichu in the 50's. She visited the pyramids in Giza before the Six Day War. She bought me my first transistor radio in Hong Kong in 1960. But she had never been accompanied by her attorney grandson to meet the wife of the Vice President of the United States. The pure joy experienced by my grandmother as a result of the kindness of Joan Mondale has stayed with me for the past 36 years. On Saturday, I had a chance to say "thank-you."

I was not alone. There were hundreds of attendees, all there to express their own thank-you. As I listened to the remembrances by Joan of Art's family and invited dignitaries, I thought about the idea that those who have left us live on in the memories of the goodness they shared during life. All the more reason to engage in some self-examination. Whatever your concept of an afterlife, nothing will matter more to your survivors than the depth of your compassion for others and the efforts made to enhance the lives of those whose path you've crossed.

It was clear from the love and admiration showered on Joan Mondale on Saturday that the memories she created, her passion for expanding awareness of the arts among all walks of life, and her ability to bond with disparate communities to promote peace and friendship will assure her a place in our hearts for a very long time. To paraphrase President Jimmy Carter's eulogy, she lived her life as a work of art.

While a mitzvah, saying "goodbye" at a funeral does not represent the most challenging aspect of the end-of-life Circle sector. The other thought provoking event of the weekend provided a greater challenge.

A week ago, a lifelong friend, closer than family, collapsed and was taken to a nursing home. I've known him for 59 of my nearly 62 years. He financed my college education by hiring me to drive his trucks during the summer for Teamsters' wages of $7.00 an hour. $10.50 an hour after 8 in a day (Yesterday he reminded me I wasn't worth it). We celebrate all Jewish Holidays together. He loves my chopped liver. He insisted I learn to play golf and included me in his foursome every week until I could nearly break 100. His wife is my surrogate mother. I have vivid memories of him coming on the scene and chasing away an overly friendly adult male who approached me as I wandered from a family picnic when I was five. He's 92 (93 on Wednesday) and his Circle is nearly complete.

I hope, pray and expect that he will survive his latest health setback. He's in good hands as he's guided through rehabilitation designed to return a modicum of strength to a troubled heart. Nonetheless, as we sat together and talked and laughed on Saturday, we both knew, without the need to say so, that most of our time together was already etched in memory. 

I chastised him for not giving up his car. He gave me credit for being right but protested his loss of freedom if dependent on others or Metro Mobility. He described being bathed while naked by two female attendants, which I then described as an example of things at 92 that are better than driving.

As I was leaving, his grandson's family, including his two great-grandsons, arrived for a visit. The youngest, a month old, is his namesake. My friend had been beaming a half hour earlier when telling me that fact. The oldest great-grandson, nearly three, reveled in pushing great-grandpa in his wheelchair. Until he reads this a few years from now, the toddler will never understand how proud great-grandpa was of the photograph I had taken of him with his son, grandson and great-grandson that serves as the wallpaper on his iPad.

Driving to the celebration of Joan Mondale's life from the nursing home, I hit upon my coping mechanism. While devastated at the prospect of what's to come, I am determined to treat each remaining encounter as a blessing, to create new memories and to let the object of my concern know how much he is loved and respected. I intend to contribute as  much as possible to  his peace of mind and appreciation for life and to his recognition of all the goodness he has created in the work of art that is his life.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Living Near Mars

I've had the good fortune to live in a lot of different parts of the country without being confined to an Army base. Everywhere else was south of St. Louis Park, where I grew up (although Northfield was merely 40 miles south).

Whether living elsewhere, or visiting, I regularly field the question "How do you survive the winters in Minnesota?" My pat response is to describe Venus as being too hot to be habitable, Mars as being too cold and Minnesotans as residing just this side of Mars' survival zone. I may need new material.

Reports from Northern Minnesota this winter suggest that air temperatures are lower than the temperature on the surface on Mars. While there's been some quibbling about the accuracy of the claims, let's not sweat the small stuff. It is miserably cold out.

Here's how cold. I'm getting calls from all over asking if we're okay, typically from friends and family experiencing a 100 degree temperature differential.

My brother Jordan, who lives in Connecticut, called me at 6:50 a.m. this morning from the Bahamas. He'd seen the weather reports and wanted to check in. His timing resulted from assuming that I'd be up early on a Saturday morning tending to the horses. It didn't occur to him that, were that true, I probably would not have removed and/or rummaged through insulated coveralls, a sweatshirt, a long sleeve shirt, insulated jeans, flannel pajama pants, two pairs of socks, insulated boots, insulated gloves (worn inside mittens), a neck warmer and a ski mask to answer the phone and take his FaceTime call.

My blood-brother Bruce called several times from Los Angeles last night, concerned about the cold and that he couldn't reach me. Bruce hasn't lived in Minnesota since 1964 or so. His first assumption when he can't reach me is that I'm frozen mid-step between the office and the parking ramp. He inadvertently taunts me, as if the impatience is one-sided, by telling me that he can't wait to see me in March when I travel to L.A. for a national credit union directors' conference.

My father, who, thankfully, mailed me his no longer needed insulated jeans last fall, called from Yuma when he saw the weather reports. Normally, I describe Yuma as some Godforsaken good-for-nothing middle-of-nowhere senior holding pond. However, after observing the horses' breath float through the air in the barn this morning, it occurred to me that God forsakes no one and that there's a reason Dad no longer needs the insulated jeans.

We'll survive. I'm too old now to be one of those "Look at me! I'm riding a fat tired bike on the frozen lake!" guys. Or, at least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Those cyclists are nuts. I'm inside, pondering, enjoying our new Keurig coffee maker, enjoying the quiet calm of the Independence countryside, disturbed only by Deb's proficiency with the snow-blower.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Beware of Politicians Bearing Bromides

We are about to start a ten month sprint to our next national election. Control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives is at stake. The results of the election will determine the direction the country takes, or stalemates, in matters of immigration, gun control, climate change, economics, taxation, health care, foreign policy and gender equality.

These issues are big; they are serious. We are all impacted by the outcome of the elections. The positions of competing candidates demand serious consideration. A vote in support for one candidate over another should be cast after a careful weighing of the qualifications and fitness for office of each of the competitors. 

I had planned to write generally about my frustration with the mindless name calling and fear-mongering that passes for electioneering these days. The appeals to our viscera shortcut the ability and willingness to look in depth at the merits of each candidate seeking our support. My need to deal in generalities fell by the wayside when I received a solicitation from Minnesota Eighth Congressional District candidate Stewart Mills.

I have known Stewart Mills for about 20 years. We have mutual friends in the Gull Lake area and have socialized together. He has proven to be a valuable executive with the the Mills family businesses, negating jealous assumptions of nepotistic promotion.  Mr. Mills has been a generous benefactor to local charities, providing support when asked to numerous fundraising ventures. I expect him to be formidable, well-funded candidate as he seeks to wrest the Eighth District seat from Congressman RickNolan and the DFL in November.

It would have been nice to have received campaign literature from Mr. Mills that signaled his intent to run a campaign on legitimate issues. It would have been refreshing to see this newcomer to politics renounce relying on soundbites and half truths to garner support. It would have been nice to see a display of courage evidenced by a discussion of substantive differences in approaches to addressing our nation's ills. Instead, yesterday's opening gambit from the would-be congressman was little more than mindless name calling and fear-mongering.

Consider the claims in Mr. Mills' literature. President Obama is 
  • hostile to small business owners (underlined and in boldfaced)
  • contemptuous of spending restraint
  • obsessed with raising taxes, and
  • hell-bent on a government takeover of health care.
As to Congressman Nolan, the picture is just as frightening and just as short on substance. Congressman Nolan is

  • to the left of President Barack Obama! (underlined and boldfaced)
  • an unapologetic liberal
  • recipient of an F (underlined and boldfaced) rating from the National Rifle Association
  • convinced that President Obama's health care takeover doesn't go far enough, and
  • an advocate of more Big Government stimulus spending despite the fact that the first round was a trillion dollars down the drain.
Congressman Nolan's call for campaign finance reform is referred to as "welfare for politicians!" (underlined and boldfaced). According to Mr. Mills' literature, Congressman Nolan's "biggest gripe" is that "President Obama doesn't go far enough in his Far Left policies!"

You get the idea. The solicitation consists of a four page letter, devoid of substance, but full of references to Reagan Republicans (good), Big Government (bad), repealing Obamacare (good), Nolan's liberalism (bad), Mills' business experience (good), Nolan's business experience (just kidding; not mentioned). Drop me a line and I'll send you the entire diatribe.

As I've said, I've known Stewart Mills for 20 years. But I've known Rick Nolan for nearly 37 years. We were acquaintances when I worked on Capitol Hill in the '70's (he had the better job). We became close friends when we both returned to Minnesota. I've had the honor of offering counsel to him, when asked, in his capacity as a Congressman, as a private citizen and most recently as a candidate. Rick Nolan is one of the most thoughtful, dedicated public servants I have had the pleasure to know. 

He has strived to make good on his 2012 promise to promote the civility in Congress he enjoyed during his first tenure in D.C. His stand on campaign finance, for example, is not a plea for "welfare for politicians". It is the result of his recognition of the very real damage sustained by us all when our elected representatives are expected to spend 36 hours a week fundraising just to meet the threshold of modern day campaign costs. Similarly, he takes President Obama to task for not pushing for a single payer system of health care first proposed by Republican politicians and generally acknowledged as the only way to successfully assure universal coverage. Recognizing that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, he spends his time trying to fix its ills, not waste time on meaningless repeal votes.

 My point here is not to argue for Congressman Nolan's views over Mr. Mills. That will likely come later. My point is that we should strive to be an educated electorate and demand that our candidates, Republican AND Democrat, rely on more than a series of inflammatory one-liners to earn our support.

Unflattering pictures of a bearded Rick Nolan from the '70's or attacks on his age are no more relevant to the issues in this campaign than complaints about the length of Stewart Mills' hair or his social exploits. When you see a campaign relying on such tactics, or on the scare tactics of Mr. Mills' campaign literature, it is time to stop and ask whether the proponent is so lacking in actual justification for his election that baseless pandering is the central theme of his or her effort.

No differently than any other job interview, a campaign should clearly identify the substance of the office-seeker and why he or she is the best person to fill the position. Few of us would seek employment by merely describing ourselves in platitudes to the interviewer and promising illusory solutions to the challenges posed by the job. A political candidate seeking our support should be held to the same standard we impose upon ourselves.

As we sprint toward November 4, let's take the time to consider the actual merits of each candidate and refuse to accept easy answers and slick campaign promises as substitutes for thoughtful resolve to make a difference in public service.