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).