Lite-Brite

Naturally, I thought I was the smart one. Naturally. I pretty much know my way around Kerrville roads by now. Generally speaking. In almost any setting, I have an intuitive sense of how to get from here to there using shortcuts and a sense of traffic flow that even Google would pay me to consult on. You know: blue, yellow and red areas to tell you where the slow-downs are. I wouldn’t give Apple Maps the time of day. And Waze is too proletarian.

Yesterday ended my traffic flow consulting practice even before my first client signed on the dotted line. But the consolation was that not even Google would have known that the Loop 534 bridge was closed due to the Kerrville Triathlon.

“Wait,” you command (you did use the imperative tense, so I must write it that way). “Didn’t you see those electronic signs? You know. The ones with the digital orange letters on the black background? They were as clear as the Lite-Brite games we had as kids. Are you trying to tell me that your ambition to consult Google made you forget your childhood?!”

Certainly not.

For starters, as a game, Lite-Brite sucked.

There were plenty of other games of its era that were better and more worth the time we spent not on Pong. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, to name just one. To press those right and left-hand jab buttons and finally hear the satisfying grind of your adversary’s ridged and anodized metal neck popping his head upward gave young boys a sense of impending manhood. It was the MMA of 1970s bedroom carpets.

And look at this photo of Lite-Brite. I’m not exactly sure what it’s supposed to be, but my guess would be an outerspace unicorn that just let loose a rainbow fart. That’s way too big to be a wing. But you decide.

Does its low resolution compare with the high-res and creative freedom found in an Etch-A-Sketch? And what about hand-eye concentration? Someone adept at Operation would scoff at those who with limited artistic ability stick colored pegs in a black background any which-a-way — do you see the parallel here? With Lite-Brite, you can call anything “art.” (And, as many of you know, I have to tread lightly on this topic…) But even with Play-Doh: it was great for sculpting and even better as a late afternoon appetizer. It was only after several budding artist-wannabees tried using the colored pegs as tapas that they printed “Choking Hazard” on the box. They should have printed: Only For The Feeble-Minded.

Second, consulting Google would come with lifetime free 100GB storage. So there’s that.

But back to my story.

I went to Daily Donuts yesterday to do the right thing and get donuts and kolaches for the boys. It had little to do with the extra jelly donut I purchased, and you will be hard pressed to find a witness to say otherwise. My boys were sleeping when I returned. So: no loose ends.

Let’s get back to the “return” home part, which for a while seemed to be in doubt and then most assuredly was in doubt.

On the way to Daily Donuts, I took Bandera Highway down to Medina Highway.

“Did you see not only the signs but that the loop bridge was closed?” you ask.

Well, sure! What do you think?! Do you think that a Google consultant with 100GB of free storage and who can compare the bridge-closed sign to Lite-Brite would be so feeble-minded to have missed that? So: yes. But being who I am, I figured coming back would be different. You know: the ol’ doing the same thing thinking the outcome would be different That kind of head-spinning mental agility.

Besides, turning onto S. Sidney Baker from Bandera was a hassle. Like, it took three minutes instead of thirty seconds.

After I got two large kolaches, one with cheese and jalapeño, and six donuts, including two jelly donuts, one which I was actively eschewing, I got back on Main Street. Just so you know, getting on Sidney Baker from Daily Donuts is quicker through the broken concrete parking lot in front of the auto loan place. Google doesn’t show that short cut. You learned it here.

I decided that I’d try my luck with the Loop 534 bridge from that side of the river. On the off-chance. I mean, what if those who live at the VA want to go to Brew Dawgz? Are they expected to drive all the way down to Sidney Baker and then Bandera before they can get a burger with onion rings? Seems a bit much, if you ask me. And what of ordering Papa Johns? Should the driver go to Sidney Baker to deliver to third-shift workers at the hospital? And, getting cold pizza, do you tip? Or do you stiff the guy and contribute to a lowered living wage all because a person in tights riding a $2,000 bike is blocking your delivery guy’s 2005 Honda Civic from getting through? Or if you wanted to go to Gravity Check down Bandera Highway at 9:00am and wait till Noon for it to open?

Truly I say to bikers: Share the road.

Getting from Daily Donuts to home is normally a 5.1-mile and 10-minute proposition. That’s according to Google Maps. And, more importantly, according to me.

On my way home, I approach the Loop and, lo and behold, it’s closed. I slow down and kind of glance at the police officer standing at the intersection as if to say, Seriously?! I just came from downtown and am more than a little surprised, Officer. This is actually the best way home, and my vehicle contains a jelly donut that I eschew but will not eschew in approximately 7 minutes.

Turns out, he ignored my look.

At this point, I made a strategic decision within a millisecond. One must do this while driving. I could go back to Sidney Baker and home the way I came, swallowing my pride, putting my Google contract in jeopardy and adding on the 7-10 minutes that I lost, or I could continue south on Highway 27 and use another crossing.

I continued.

Pointless of course to turn through the gravel company because it would have led me to Riverside, as would of course the turn onto Riverside itself a bit further down toward Center Point.

Remember those words: Center Point. It’s the key to this whole story. As is the phrase Damn, I spent way too much time eschewing that jelly donut. That, too, is key.

The trick now became how to cross the Guadalupe since they stopped using the wooden ferry 175 years ago. Even then, it’d be unrealistic to expect a ferry made of cedar trees to support a 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe.

I knew for a fact I could cross at the Center Point River Road in a few minutes. I mean, what if I lived right there? Even if they had it closed, could they stop me from bringing donuts and kolaches to my children before heading out to the swimming hole?! No, they could not. (In my mind at least.)

But they could. And they did. And the police officer, hiding his authoritative amusement behind dark glasses, easily ignored my plaintive look.

I continued on.

When I hit Sutherland Lane, a final way to cross over via Center Point River Road, and saw that it too was closed, I admitted defeat and decided it would be a nice drive to go through Center Point itself. I hadn’t been down to San Antonio Street in a while, and I can’t recall when I’ve ever driven from Center Point to Bandera Highway via San Antonio Street itself. (And isn’t it odd that farther north I could have crossed the Guadalupe on foot much more easily and quickly than in car? I’d simply have carried my plastic bag of donuts and kolaches and listened to Joe Rogan on Spotify along the way. This is what the early settlers did, minus the plastic bag.)

To summarize, pride and a desire to have free Google storage space turned into a trip that was four times the miles and three times the minutes it would have taken going home the way I came to town.

But like I said, Lite-Brite sucked then, and it sucks now.

Give me Janis Joplin between the sheets

Birds have always “anchored” me. From the time I was three or four, birds have not only reminded me where I am when I wake up and hear them, but also their descendants remind me where I’ve been. Their morning song pin-pricks me and lets me know I’m indeed awake. They are objective and unsubtle; they wake me when they want to. They anchor me in the present and let me know my past is real.

Karen turned our patio behind our 349 West 84th Street apartment in Manhattan into a little “café,” as she liked to call it. Appropriately so. At one of two metal tables covered by canvas umbrella, I’d drink coffee and listen to myriad birds in the morning. Robins, sparrows, cardinals, jays, even red-tailed hawks and crows or ravens — I’d like to think they were ravens, since the two-block stretch of 84th Street that included our building was called “Edgar Allan Poe Street;” he was rumored to have written the poem on Broadway and 84th — sounded like a symphony orchestra warming up. Toward the end of our time there, the people two buildings down started to keep chickens out back. I found their sound dissonant and, therefore, unwanted. Theirs were the sounds of a banjo and fiddle, not an oboe and first violin.

But it was at the café that I’d hear the song of the towhee, which Mom helped me remember as “DRINK-your-TEA!” I can’t hear their call without thinking of Mom. In that respect, the bird anchors me to her as much as to my place.

The towhee was the bird that let me know I had woken up in Point O’ Woods on Fire Island. Mom and I stood on the small concrete front porch of what I later learned was the smallest house in the community and probably the only one my parents could afford to rent. We looked south, over a thin stand of trees and past the “truck road” — with very few exceptions, only utility and emergency vehicles are allowed to drive on Fire Island, and they use one-lane sand roads — past the tennis courts, which usually start hopping at 7:00 AM during summer hours, and ultimately toward the beach and ocean, from which the sun rose.

We’d face that direction and Mom, with Virginia Slim cigarette and teacup in the same hand, would look down and smile at me and use that phrase — “DRINK your TEA!” — to help me remember I was awake. She’d smile with purple smoke curling around her twinkling eyes and then turn back to take a drag. A noisy sip. And more quiet there between us. Listening. Sun rising. Tennis balls hitting rackets. Feet shuffling on clay. Laughter.

Our 84th Street café reminded me between 2007 and 2017 that I had awakened years before when I was four. That the past was not a debatable premise, as YouTube and Spotify podcast philosophers like to muse indulgently to hundreds of thousands of viewers and listeners who are online and hoping to get as rich as those philosophers by monetizing their own accounts. Because if you can’t make a killing from your streaming video gameplay on Twitch or lingerie activity on OnlyFans, perhaps you can spout outrageous ideas like that hearing towhees is actually an illusion, a sound file that’s activated in real-time to keep me unaware of the Matrix-like “simulation” they believe I’m living in. These opportunists who think they’re so smart are blind to the irony that Descartes would tersely remind them of with his five famous words. Spouting these things in Descartes’s era might even have got you tarred and feathered with the same coating worn by those beautiful beasts you said weren’t real.

In Texas, the bird that most reminds me I’ve awakened here is the turkey vulture. Overhead, it looks like a hawk or even majestic eagle. On the ground, its ugly red head — “ugly” to me; I’m not being judge-y here, but I think most people would agree with me if they’re really honest with themselves; I mean, seriously, would you actually put a couple of them in a cage in your sunroom and call them “Skittles” and “Coco”? No, you would not — and its hopping around roadkill remind me not only that I live here but also that I drive everywhere. (Does that mean that I don’t really wake up until I turn onto Bandera Highway? Scary thought. But then again, I live in a simulation, so fuck it.) The circling overhead of multiple vultures is somehow beautiful to me, like a dance, and to see them on the roadside comforts me to know that a needless killing at night is converted to deer tartar.

Yet, vultures don’t have a song. And that bothers me, because it’s sight rather than sound that tries to keep me anchored, yet it is sound that has gone largely unchanged because the source has been largely unchanged. It is sound that is imposed on me rather than me on it. But with sight, I am the source. And I have changed quite a bit over the years, or so I’ve heard, and cannot by nature anchor myself. That’d be like a ship telling itself to stay close to shore “or else it’s gonna get an ass-whoopin’.”

The other bird I associate with my place now is the purple martin, whose swallow tail is more distinctive to me than any song which, if it has one, I’m unaware of it. The Guadalupe has herons, elegant birds whose front and back yards I am privileged to paddleboard through. They, too, sing only now and then when I get too close.

But we live on a golf course, where song birds are not so numerous as elsewhere. Golf courses don’t honor nature so much as manicure it to the point of looking like a Desperate Housewife instead of the Janis Joplin that nature really is.

And frankly, I’d rather wake up next to Janis.

My peach ice cream and a black man’s spoon in it

Memories often are formed around food or meals. Like when you tried your first bite of cheesecake or tiramisù — can you guess my bias for which course I like the most? — or like that disastrous dinner when you drove from Denver Airport at 5,000 feet above sea level to your buddy’s house another 3,500 feet higher, had an amazing steak dinner lovingly prepared by his wife and then, with sudden altitude sickness, puked it up?

That puking steak thing has happened to all of us at some time or another, or at least it should, because then I wouldn’t feel so naked right now. Please comment below what your most embarrassing food story is. Or actually your most embarrassing story, period. Like, things that have traumatized you to this day. Only five people regularly read this blog, so your secret is safe.

I digress.

Food and meals aren’t always funny or facile tropes in TV shows, like the “look who decided to come home for Thanksgiving dinner” episode.

How about the meal memories that reveal a true weakness? One that leaves you much more naked than admitting to puking up a steak.

“He’s a prince from Ghana.”

Yeah, right, I thought, in whatever the six-year-old, first-grader equivalent was. I was a NYC-savvy grade school cynic.

Dad had taken me to lunch with one of his work colleagues. They worked for a company called Transportation Displays Incorporated, “TDI.” In second grade, our teacher Mrs. Ricciardi asked each of us to stand up at our desk and state aloud what our fathers did for work. An innocent and honest mistake, I said my dad “worked for the FBI” (rather than “TDI”). I got major street cred for that, until moments later when I had to confess that it was in fact “TDI,” a company that sold advertising space. Specifically, they sold “out-of-the-home” advertising space to companies like Time, Inc. and advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam.

Needless to say, this new status reduced my cred. Like, to zero.

One of the benefits of having a dad who worked for TDI and not the FBI is that Dad would bring home commuter rail posters from a completed ad campaign, like the Cutty Sark one shown here. Dad told me that commuters would remove these stiff posters — probably 1/8-inch thick — from their metal frames and would use the horizontal surface to play cards on them during their hour-long ride into or out of the City.

Dad amassed these and other posters in our apartment’s second bathroom, a half-bath which he’d converted into tool shed and curio cabinet, and which was thoroughly cleaned out only after my father died in 1998. Dad was a pack rat but an organized one. Advertising posters were stacked neatly alongside baby food jars holding different sizes of nails and screws, and scraps of plywood, and jars of paint which might have only an inch of gooey Navajo White at the bottom but which could be salvaged with a little thinner, because that’s what you did when you were born in 1921 and saw hungry men show up at your backdoor looking for a meal and your family let them in — total strangers, yes, but strangers whose only likely crime might be to steal a random parsnip.

Dad brought home things like that just because. And also because it was easier to bring home commuter rail posters than bank robbers.

(We need another subhead to say, “He’s a prince from Ghana.”)

Have to continue my thought above. So I met a lot of people in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. People who were famous, eccentric or exotic. Or exotic, eccentric and maybe famous, like a woman named “Lady Enid P__” (last name intentionally omitted) who was a tall and sultry friend of Dad’s from Australia and used to give my brother and me dollar bills and let us wrestle with her. I mean, tell me that isn’t practically the sexiest thing for an 8-year-old kid struggling to understand anatomy. She was from Australia.

Still not getting to Ghana, are we.

I’m delaying the shame is why.

Dad took his non-FBI colleague John Okawa and me to lunch one day. At the end of the meal, we ordered dessert. (Of course we did. What lame person would not allow their kid to order dessert at the end of a restaurant meal. I mean, please correct me, but that’s just something that should not be tolerated in America. Let your kids order freaking dessert. Like, every time. Kids are dealing with enough already, like wrestling with sultry Australian gentry for pay.)

So we’re ordering dessert and I order peach ice cream. And I am STOKED to get this peach ice cream. Stoked. It’s served, and I take a bite. Maybe two at most. Mmm. Cool. Tasty. Peachy. An amazing restaurant-quality, all-American ice cream experience that had not been denied me.

Then Mr. Okawa, a very dark-skinned man who Dad had described as a prince from Ghana — yeah, right, an African prince is here in New York selling 2×3-foot spaces on the Long Island railroad to whiskey-drunk bond traders — turned to me and asked very kindly, “May I have a bite?”

I was genuinely caught off guard.

Now, you must know, Dear Reader, that as a kid I had a serious Germ Phobia anyway. Like, that was already there. Anyone who knew me would tell you this. But this moment was qualitatively different. Because Mr. Okawa’s request for a bite of my ice cream, even with his own spoon, didn’t just introduce germs, but they were especially germy germs. And I feel it’s important to say this in the context of “race relations” in 2021: this was in 1969 in New York City, and anyone who wasn’t alive then but looking back now and thinks they know what racism is and isn’t should instead worry about what people one hundred years hence will think about their strong belief that avocados are the “good kind of fat.” In 100 years, they will probably say that avocados scream when you tear their flesh from their beautiful, if rough, exterior. They will say to those reprobates then, “Hey, you avocado-eater, don’t ‘rough-rind-shame.'”

Mr. Okawa’s request added a layer of germiness in my mind. He was a dark-skinned man, and I was a very white kid who candidly didn’t have any known dislike of black people. I simply didn’t know many black people — which is probably why Dad had me meet him in the first place — and to have a black man want to dip his spoon, which he may or may not have used on his own dessert already, was a bridge too far.

I hesitated, which was answer enough. I still remember that moment, that hesitation, the millisecond of indecision between “yes” and “no,” and it was in that millisecond that I exposed the brokenness between people who are different in skin color and can’t escape the fact. And, yes, a six-year-old’s actions and words can exacerbate brokenness, or they can heal it. Six-year-olds wield that kind of terrible power.

Of course I said, “Yes.” Yes, he could have a bite. Was a 6-year-old going to say no to an authority figure over something like that and embarrass his father?

But after Mr. Okawa, the Ghanaian prince and ad salesman, took a bite, I said I was not hungry for my dessert anymore. To this day, I feel the shame as I recall sensing my dad’s embarrassment and Mr. Okawa’s… what: pity? anger? frustration? empathy? powerlessness? sadness? at my decision that his Black Person Spoon contaminated my dessert. I avoided eye contact with both men.

That was 52 years ago.

2020 sucked but shone light on us all, and that’s a good thing

I think what brought this to mind was that yesterday I had a long, and I thought helpful, talk with an old and very dear friend about Election 2020 and my support of President Trump. My friend and I had disagreed intensely during the election season, and he sincerely wanted to know now what compelled me not just to vote the way I did but how it was that Trump was disqualified in my mind, particularly because of his racist statements.

I felt, and I hope he did, our conversation yesterday was in the context of love. Much of what my friend brought up were things I couldn’t defend. Some of them were indefensible because my friend was right, and others I chose not to attempt to defend because I thought it would lead down rabbit holes and be unhelpful to explain my vote. But he was surprised — and refreshingly candid about his surprise — to hear that the “fine people” statement surrounding Charlottesville, which President Biden used to launch his candidacy, was once and for all debunked for the nth time during the Senate trial in the second impeachment. At that time, Trump’s lawyers played for everyone present or watching TV Trump’s full statement at the press conference where he was reputed to call white supremacists “fine people,” which he absolutely did not do. (This, of course, introduces the whole media bias thing, which is a rabbit hole and a dead-end hole at that.)

I’m no longer defending Trump — it’s not helpful to anyone — even though I defend my having voted the way I did in 2016 and 2020, because I made what I thought were selfless and patriotic decisions both times and even if I’m proven wrong by history. I told my friend, “I may have voted for P.T. Barnum, but I also feel like he enlarged the tent” of those who felt forgotten or wanted a voice. And yes, Nazis found a voice through Trump. But so did lots of blacks, Latinos and others. Look at the data.

I’m also defending the fearless search for honesty, candor and forgiveness. Humility. Placing relationships before “the Truth.” For who among us knows “the truth”? The truth is a vapor. As soon as you see it, it disappears. It’s more helpful to know that Truth exists “up there,” like clouds, than to try to bottle it up and show it to a friend. Avocados will likely always be good for us and will not be found to scream. But there are avocado equivalents now that will be vociferously denounced a hundred years hence. Will my descendants decide I’m no longer worth remembering because I decided that a black man’s spoon contaminated my peach ice cream? Or because I voted for Trump? Twice?

And the real question for me to answer is: if I knew that in one hundred years my descendants would disown me, would I disown them first?


[photo credit: Justin Shockley]

Tea and cinnamon toast at midnight

We’re about two to three hours past the time that, as a young boy, I’d often find Mom and have a “midnight snack.” “Midnight snack” is a general term, not anchored to 12 a.m. The phrase has a bit of elasticity, like saying “block party” can be anything from a little get-together among adjacent Manhattan buildings to all of the East Village erupting after the Rodney King verdict in April 1992.

That last comparison didn’t really flow, I’ll admit, but as it’s 3:48 a.m. as I write, long past the “midnight snack” range when I might have had a little get-together, I’m rapidly approaching the riot stage of insomnia.

As a kid, I often couldn’t sleep. This hasn’t changed much. Nowadays, naps are often more successful for rejuvenation, especially when I have a 90-pound labrador retriever sleeping next to me. Having Leo as my nap buddy is like taking half a bottle of Benadryl without the life-threatening part.

When I couldn’t sleep then — and “then” means between the age of about 5 until the age I became a blackout drinker, so maybe by second grade (again, kidding/exaggerating, ok? Brain fog.) — I’d either find Mom in bed and rouse her, or I’d find her already in the kitchen.

If I found her in bed, I’d tiptoe past Dad’s side and over to hers and whisper close to her ear, “Can we have a midnight snack?”

As a parent now myself, and as a father who’s much less nurturing than a mother would be — even on a wide-awake Sunday afternoon; I mean, NFL…right? — this sweet little whisper up close at the side of my head while I try to sleep might as well be someone tickling my eardrum with a toothpick.

Nevertheless, I have no recollection of Mom ever saying, “Go back to bed.”

On the contrary, even though Dad never watched the NFL and was very nurturing as far as men go, he too found a way to get me back to bed with minimal disruption in his own sleep, which was to tell me that if I slept on my back, I’d have nightmares. Which really meant, “I know you are only in second grade, but you snore when you come home drunk.” Like I said, practical but loving.

I haven’t told you what the “snack” consisted of. In short:

  • Tea
  • Cinnamon toast

I may have had milk, but I also may have had tea. Kids of American/Anglophile mothers also drink tea. (When speaking directly to her, we’d use the English “Mummy,” not the lazy “Mom” or “Mommy,” and certainly not the more southern, “Mama” or “Momma” — although one cannot distinguish between homonyms at 12:30 a.m.; I don’t know if you knew that. Of course, if the emphasis of “Mama” is on the second syllable, that might become acceptable.)

As for the “cinnamon,” Mom and Dad had mixed that and sugar in a small glass jar that probably had rosemary in it until recently, before my brother and I experimented in the kitchen. We buttered the toast and then sprinkled the cinnamon-sugar mix on it.

Knowing what I know about that midnight snack and its soporific effect, if you tickled my eardrum with a toothpick these days, I’d thank you.

But don’t come over now and try. It’s four hours past snack time and I need to go find Leo.

Toddler. Kitchen step-ladder. Open flame.

Custom countertops and Nazi butt-kicking

My family’s kitchen on East 96th Street in Manhattan was perhaps ten feet wide by fifteen long. But, of course, the countertops took up enough space to make the kitchen more of an L-shaped space that opened at the kitchen entrance — Dad had fashioned swinging doors with louvers, like an Old West barroom — turned right toward the fridge with expandable countertop to the left (Dad made), and took a sharp left toward the window with a copious runway of four or five feet until you reached the stove on the left, double sink on the right. (Window in the middle, looking out over 96th Street.) To the right of the runway, before you got to the sink, was a custom countertop (again, by Dad) with a built-in raised cutting board (Dad) surrounded by inlaid tiles bought in Spanish Harlem (Dad…and me, age 7. Maybe younger brother Jim was there also, but as I am the owner of this blog and therefore seeking glory only for myself, I will avoid any uncertainty about the participants.).

Yes, Dad created this kitchen infrastructure like the architect he always wanted to be. That is, until his father died and he had to drop out of college at age 20 to support a stepmother and three younger half-siblings. That was 1941. Dad was a 4F, which perhaps was fortuitous, because were he not, he’d likely have had to serve or would be faced with the task of deciding whether to stay or go. His poor health made that decision for him.

Going into advertising sales was not his “passion.” Nor was doing so following his “dream.” But it provided for four other people at a time when — having had its ass kicked in the ’30s — America was about to kick some Nazi ass in the ’40s. It also provided for us growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. His valor was demonstrated in flying home from a client in California and then flying off to Chicago two days later. They don’t give out medals for that, just new fiscal year goals.

I remember oregano. Oregano and lots of rosemary.

The kitchen wasn’t all about Dad’s incredible handiwork. (It was indeed incredible what that man could do.) It was also about Mom’s cooking. Mom made great meals for kids and adults alike and, because of that, she required a lot of herbs and spices to be on hand. They sat on four shelves that were easily accessible to any child who crawled onto the countertop and then kneeled. That would get you to the good stuff on the top as well as to the bronze mortar and pestle, weighing as much as a small wood-burning fireplace.

As kids in the 5- to 8-year-old range, we were fascinated by the smells of everything coming from that kitchen. Herbs. Spices. So we would take it upon ourselves to use Mom’s herbs liberally — she had no saffron that I recall — and stir them into a pot of water that we would already have simmering. On a gas stove.

Did I mention that we were too young to reach the stove without using a step ladder? I can’t recall whether we stood on the top step, but any manufacturer warnings about that — if even invented by 1970 — must surely have been printed on the underside. And who stopped for directions when making spice soup?!

Fear not

This is not a story that ends badly, like me with clove-shaped scars on my right cheek or daring my brother to eat a tablespoon of crushed chili flakes. (Well. That might have happened.) It’s not even a story.

Rather it’s a memory of a small kitchen, a family of four, lots of meals, and no devices of any kind.

Mom and Dad never owned a microwave.

Point O’ Woods, Fire Island: Flotsam & Jetsam (sink or swim)

“You’ll swim and swim and swim,” he told us at the beginning. “And then you’ll swim some more.” That was Art Hawkins describing the legendary “Flotsam & Jetsam” 1-mile ocean swimming race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island.

In case you’re not familiar with Point O’ Woods, a private community — a legal corporation, actually — then you are also not familiar with the “Flotsam & Jetsam” race. Usually not found as separate words, like “Did you see that flotsam coming from the wreck of the S.S. Minnow?” or “We don’t need that chum; it’s soon to be jetsam,” flotsam and jetsam are basically the crap you see floating in the ocean, which could be the floating remnants of a sunk vessel or jettisoned rubbish, like styrofoam cups, which both float after a shipwreck and also form really effective jetsam. (In fact, white styrofoam cups are such effective flotsam AND jetsam that there should be an international campaign to replace all current flotsam and jetsam with white styrofoam cups. Preferably the white styrofoam cups that contained nasty coffee and had a brown plastic stir straw that was unintentionally and inevitably hit, knocking over said white styrofoam cup and spilling coffee onto table and splashing over “Jake,” the 250-pound boatswain who is likely to make you into flotsam and jetsam. (Again, please note: words used together, not separately.)

History of the Flotsam + Jetsam race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island

I switched here to the use of the “+” between the two words, because the early logo contained a plus sign, signifying safety (like the red cross).

In fact, that was what the race was originally designed for: promoting ocean safety. I won’t go into too many details about its history, because an essay in a book on Point O’ Woods’ 100th anniversary describes it better. It describes it better, because its author was me after researching it extensively. I’m not that “me” anymore.

Over the years, men and women have competed to have their names engraved on the silver trophy. Top man, top woman and now, I assume “Top ___” (however one identifies). I am considering going back this summer and tell them I now identify as “The Flotsam + Jetsam Winner.”

Everyone else can go play tennis.

After the win

I won the race the first or second time I entered.

Of course, it wasn’t really a fair fight, since I was in my 20s and doing triathlons regularly. I was competing against, mostly Wall Street bond salesmen whose generous torsos made them ideal flotsam. (Shoot! There I go… I used one of the words by itself.)

The year I won, my main competitor was my mate, Dave. He had done more triathlons, was in better shape, and pretty much could beat me in any physical sport. The one thing I had on him was underhandedness.

When you swim, you can employ same- or alternate-side breathing. Same-side swimmers usually breathe on the fourth stroke. Alternate-side swimmers do so on the third stroke. This does a couple things: gives us more oxygen per four strokes and also helps us “steer” better in long distances where one doesn’t have the benefit of pool markings to look down at. Breaths every third stroke balance out our trajectory, but in either case you have to occasionally breathe and look directly ahead to confirm your bearings.

It also helps in one other manner. And this manner is also where underhandedness comes in.

Dave breathed on his right side only. I was an alternate-side breather.

So I allowed myself to trail just behind him, letting him set the pace and perhaps wear himself out. About 100 yards from the finish (as far as I could tell in an ocean setting and half-looking at Mr. Hawkins at the shore’s edge with an air horn to blow for the winner), I pulled up to Dave’s left side. His blind side. I was between Dave and the shore.

He may have looked over at me a bit later, but at that point, I’d pulled far enough ahead on his blind side that I crossed the finish line comfortably and heard the air horn.

For participating and completing the race, everyone got a cloth patch to sew onto one’s bathing suit: An “F+J” patch that, I must say, was quite an honor. It wasn’t one of today’s “everyone who plays tee ball gets a trophy.” It was “everyone who started and who I see coming out of the ocean after a mile–Congratulations for making it, here’s your patch.”

Deviled eggs and martinis

Up until perhaps the late 1970s, Point O’ Woods had a post-race tradition of all swimmers going back to the Main Beach and leisurely heading out to the sand bar — a little offshore and somewhat shallow at the time — and enjoying deviled eggs and martinis.

You read right.

Someone would bring a thermos or five of martinis, and someone else would bring some deviled eggs into the ocean to enjoy while standing on a sand bar.

This practice was ended some time before I became F+J club president in 1990. It didn’t end because I was sober (that happened only in 1994). Nor did it end because most Americans over the age of Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex not only didn’t eat deviled eggs but didn’t even know what deviled eggs were. It ended, my guess, due to a combination of other things.

It ended because the ocean bottom changed. The sandbar was largely eliminated, so that deviled egg eaters would have to place a half-egg with paprika into mouth, chew, breathe through nose and risk choking and drowning. People of the Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex generation certainly didn’t mind dying, of course. But they’d have rather died by a Kraut bullet at the Battle of the Bulge than a cooked egg white filled with mustard and mayonnaise. Cause of death? “Choked on soggy hors d’oeuvre.”

It ended also because younger people joining didn’t like martinis — this dislike, however, went through a renaissance in the 2000s, but by that time, young people no longer took swim lessons, so martinis were forever de-coupled from the Flotsam + Jetsam race — nor did they like deviled eggs, nor cigarettes-after-sex, which for some reason were considered harmful carcinogens. (Battle of the Bulge bullet is more harmful.) They had no idea who Cary Grant was.

Death by device

It ended because analog life was replaced by digital life.

Swimming is inherently analog: You can’t have a device with you while swimming, the exceptions being a cocktail glass, toothpick for olive, and two fingers to grab the egg, and that’s only after the formal swimming part. Swimming is inherently analog: You do it with friends; you swim on their blind side for the win and then the shoreline hug, when you hear: “You sly dog, you!” A tired but intimate smile.

You do it and focus on nothing but breathing and good technique.

You don’t even think about winning.

You don’t even think about martinis and deviled eggs.

You think, if you think at all, about swimming and swimming and swimming. And swimming some more.

“Untitled” – Conclusion [Part 8 of 8]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning, after you exit the interstate.

If you’ve been riding along with me since Part 1, congratulations and thank you! Thank you for sticking with this and for reading about this aspect of my story, which is neither less nor more exciting than your story or that of the person next to you.

Each of us has an eternity inside daily. We just need to give it oxygen.

If you haven’t been riding along, here’s your chance to begin at the beginning:

Read Part 1 HERE. 2 HERE.HERE. 4 HERE. 5 HERE. 6 HERE. And 7 HERE.

And as I confessed yesterday: I know I told you it was going to be nine parts. I screwed up the sections. It will be eight. Today’s it. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to talking about tomatillos.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

The other day, I was reflecting on what COVID has most clearly prevented Barbara and me from doing: creating memories together.

We have no shared in-person experiences together except for a 3-hour lunch one day and a two-hour brunch the next. To be clear: both wonderful. Days I wouldn’t trade for anything. But in mid-March when I was to see her again and go on a hike not far from her home, instead of discovering new things together along the trail we would have walked, we called off the visit, agreeing that the health risks outweighed the possible benefits, especially since her husband is older than she.

Since then we’ve been relegated to talking about family background, sharing photos, and the like. If there’s a silver lining to having to FaceTime only, it’s that we’ve been able to spend a lot of time literally face to face talking and laughing rather than doing activities that might be distracting. At least I rationalize it that way during a time when everyone has been going through the same thing.

I’ve come to know my biological father, his wife, my mother and her husband (my “stepfather”). Each is a thoroughly enjoyable person, and I’m proud to be associated with each. Between the two families, I have four half-siblings and have met one of them. (Of course, I am the oldest child on both biological sides, which gives me an honor shared by few and known by fewer.)

I’ve talked with Bob’s sister a number of times and have corresponded with Lindsey, my biological half-cousin on Bob’s side. Through Bob and Barbara and the genealogies they send me, my family tree on Ancestry.com is growing almost as many branches as my adopted family tree has, which I had traced back to the early 17th Century.

So: is the search worth the cost?

What of all of this? Does it always turn out the way my story has (so far)? Is it always advisable to search at all, and is it wise to search for more than fifty years, as I did?

If the end justifies the means, then in my case the answer is an unqualified yes. All the agonizing hours lying in bed wondering what she was like; the dreams of her that were more like nightmares upon waking; the conventional routes I pursued and crazy schemes I devised to find her (thankful I didn’t have to dress in brown UPS shorts); all the attempts and heartbreaking failures – those became mere vapor when I met my mother.

But what did this journey cost my wife, Karen? For nearly 25 years, she’d heard me complain about my fruitless attempts and watched me endlessly ponder what to do next. What time and attention did I divert from her to focus on a fantasy that may have remained so were it not for $59 and the internet?

What did this journey cost the two siblings who learned about me and have so far chosen not to meet me? What will it cost the other sibling who still doesn’t know about me? Or Barbara who, because of COVID, hasn’t been able to see her daughter to share the news in an appropriately safe and personal setting?

Something my adoption search and reunions have made undeniably clear is that my actions have profound consequences in others’ lives. And from what I hear from other adoptees, the outcome of my search has been ideal. Sometimes the newly established parent-child relationship is tense or even adversarial. Or the search concludes only for the adoptee to learn that the parent has passed away, leaving a blank avatar on the Ancestry family tree. In almost every case, reality doesn’t exceed expectations. In my case, which I have reason to believe is the exception, it did.

My advice to the adoptee who wants to search is this: don’t have expectations about the future, have gratitude for now. Don’t press forward so much; let go. Take each step intentionally, and balance your desire with responsibility toward others.

But ultimately: do it.

The truth is always better than any alternative.


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“Untitled” [Part 7 of 8]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start with Part 1. If you start here with Part 7, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

And read Part 1 HERE. 2 HERE.HERE. 4 HERE. 5 HERE. And 6 HERE.

And… I know I told you it was going to be nine parts. I screwed up the sections. It will be eight. Final piece tomorrow!

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

[For now, my mother wishes to remain anonymous for family reasons.]

I met Barbara and Jim, her husband of 45 years, twice over the weekend of February 8-9, 2020. COVID prevented us from meeting a third time in mid-March when I was in their city again for work, and since then we’ve had only emails, phone calls and FaceTime.

We scheduled our first meeting by email. I hadn’t heard her voice before our lunch on February 8. I arrived at a golf course restaurant a half hour early to make sure I wasn’t late. As a career nonprofit fundraiser, I’ve had probably a thousand meetings at a restaurant, office or Starbucks, and I always arrive a little early, so that I don’t offend a potential donor. In more than two decades, I have never arrived a full 30 minutes early, even for the atypical handful of billionaires I’ve met. This wasn’t so much out of concern that I’d offend her, though that was true. It was more that I believed I might miss her if I was even five minutes late. Like she’d vanish.

Therefore I was the first to arrive and agreed for the hostess to go ahead and seat me at our table.

It was on a patio on a warm day. I looked around to take in all the details that I knew, correctly, I’d remember later. As I write this, I recall the putting green behind me, the warm touch of the sun, the chatter at adjacent tables on this Saturday. A standing propane heater repelled what little late winter breeze there was.

Before long, a blonde lady in a black blouse followed by a tall man in a sport coat – both of them quite distinguished-looking — emerged from the main building about forty feet away and started walking toward the table.

I can’t remember the very first words she and I spoke, if there were any, but after a hug, she stood back, twirled in place and said, “Well, now you’ve seen all of me!” And she laughed. If there’s one thing we can’t imagine about a stranger nor do we expect its rightful centrality, it’s their laugh. We imagine their look, their personality, their political or religious views, even how their voice might sound, but we never consider what it’s like when they laugh. At least I didn’t. Her laugh, which I enjoy as much during FaceTime calls now as I did in person, was the thing that perhaps made her more real than anything, even more real than how she looked, which had been the thing I’d been most curious about until that moment. Our laugh is a public declaration of how comfortable we feel in our body.

It’s not a stretch to wonder, though it’s bandied about so casually, “How might God sound when laughing?” Perhaps this is the deep mystery we all long to have answered. One we cannot solve ourselves.

As we ate lunch, she elaborated on her initial email to me. It had said that she was young, just starting college, had met a “very nice boy,” and got pregnant at a time when “society looked askance” on a single “girl” in this situation. With the support of her loving parents, she had written, and everyone in agreement that this was best, especially for the baby, she went to a home for unwed mothers. Jim had known from the beginning of their marriage about her secret. Over lunch, I now heard how hard it was when she learned she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell anyone. But she had a friend who’d been through this not long before, and this friend came alongside her and supported her during those early days. Even the more intimate parts of the adoption agency’s document I’d received in my 20’s had no real dimension to what she was describing about her life. I was getting to know her.

During the course of that first meal, we of course discussed how the internet connected us. She had intentionally avoided using one of the handful of DNA testing services because, she said not looking directly at me but with a somewhat quiet laugh, “I was worried you’d find me.” She didn’t need to explain. I immediately knew why she had had that concern and how it wasn’t her fault nor mine. American society in the ‘60’s and often even now shames unwed mothers. The same society not only doesn’t shame the man involved, but it often puts a feather in his cap. Her admission only made me more empathic. She was becoming more real by the minute.

As she recounted the months leading up to my birth, the day of my birth (when she corrected that important mistake in my agency document about being held by her), and her emotions in May 1963, her sapphire blue eyes grew misty and her voice shook. She found it hard to continue. Jim leaned over and gently touched her forearm. “Next time,” he said, “next time.”

In her first email to me, she had written, “When I received your letter with your loving message, it was like opening a door that I have kept closed for 56 years.” Jim had encouraged her to “keep the door open” about meeting me. Our lunch carried different emotional tones for each of us. She had felt shame at becoming pregnant; I had felt empty at being adopted. She had closed a door; I kept trying to open it. Meeting me required her to confront her secret; meeting her was a realization of my frequent and most significant life’s dream.

When it was time to say goodbye, we hugged. Jim and I hugged. Later that afternoon, she called and invited me to brunch the next day. I went to their home, a short walk from the Pacific Ocean. A few blocks away, in fact, was “where I began” in the summer of 1962.

Conclusion tomorrow…

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“Untitled” [Part 6 of 9]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start from the beginning. If you start here, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

Read Part 1 HERE. Part 2 HERE. Part 3 HERE. Part 4 HERE. And Part 5 HERE.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

I was able to locate an address that was connected to her name, though online information is often dated. Still, I sat on that information for a couple weeks. I knew how to contact her with a letter, but I didn’t know if I should contact her at all. Or, if I should, how would I write it in order to respect her privacy? Perhaps a husband or other family member, not knowing about me, would open the letter and this would cause a huge rift on her end. I spoke with a trusted friend, then prayed for three days, then decided that even if I never heard back from her, knowing she existed would be enough. The calm in knowing I could take a proactive step to reach her was enough. Nothing more was needed.

From that place of calm and peace I wrote to her, knowing that anything in return would be icing on the cake. There was a certain undeniable selfishness in my decision to write, of course, because anyone would be a little curious about meeting one’s birth mother, but the disruption on the other end would be completely unknowable.

After addressing her as Mrs. ___ (her married name, which I learned from the newspaper article), I wrote “My name is Howard Freeman, and the following information is confidential, so I hope you are in a place where you can have privacy.” I wanted her to be able to react privately to the contents. I outlined how I had first connected with my biological father, who offered to vouch for me if she had doubts about my intentions. With Bob’s permission, I included his phone and email.

Then I wrote, “If you are indeed my biological mother, I want to say first how grateful I am to you, how much I have always wanted to meet you, and how much I admire what you did in 1962-1963 to bring me into the world. You have been a ‘hero’ of mine, and that’s no exaggeration.” If she were to read this letter and not be able to or not want to meet, I wanted her to know that what she did was the “right” thing for me. I figured that she must have made peace with her decision in order to move on with her life, but if there was any remaining doubt, I wanted to dispel it. I was later to learn how shameful it was for an unmarried girl (she was 18) in the early ‘60s and from her social circle to go through what she did. I was her “secret,” which her immediate family never spoke about again.

After some brief family history and current family details, I gave her my contact information including my email address and opened the door for her to be in touch.

I concluded my letter with, “If you are not the right person, I want to sincerely apologize for what must come across as a bizarre intrusion. I am truly sorry.” Again, I wanted to protect her privacy if someone else read the letter. You never know someone’s situation. “Please know that I respect your decision either way, and if you are my biological mother and this is my only contact with you, please know that I have had nothing but love for you — always have, always will.”

I signed it “With deep affection, Howard Freeman.” I had wanted to say, “Love, Howard,” but that seemed miles away from where we were in a relationship that was both real yet unrealized. I put a stamp on the letter, wrote “Private and Confidential” in the lower left corner, and mailed it. When the letter left my fingertips on December 11, 2019 — an act within my control — I knew that the next step was out of my control. She’d get the letter or she wouldn’t. She’d read it or she wouldn’t. She’d respond or she wouldn’t. While these outcomes were out of my control, it was a different feeling than what I experienced as a child having no control whatever. These now were intentional moves. Surrendering to the unknown consequences of a well-considered action is different than the self-imposed powerlessness of obsession. I felt strangely peaceful.

I counted the days it must have taken for my letter to arrive on her end. I allowed for a few days for her to react, perhaps some more time for her to consider or discuss with family, and then on December 18, a Wednesday shortly after Noon, I was checking my personal email and saw a message that had the subject header “Life” and which had this first sentence: “Dear Howard, Yes, I am your birth mother.”

The feeling upon reading, “Yes, I am your birth mother” can be described only with words we reserve for music we hear that transports us, or a sunset that makes us pause with awe and wonder, or seeing one’s first-born child come into the world, especially looking into the eyes of my first son in 1999, since he was the only blood relative I’d ever met. Reading those opening words was sublime, ineffable. Yet, strangely, they were also normal. They made sense. They grounded me while also freeing me. Yet as extraordinary as those words were, they’d be eclipsed soon by meeting her.

Continued HERE

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“Untitled” [Part 5 of 9]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start from the beginning. If you start here, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

Read Part 1 HERE. Part 2 HERE. Part 3 HERE. And Part 4 HERE.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

Thirty minutes later, I got a call. The name Bob Lewis appeared over the number I had added to my Contacts list. I let it ring perhaps four times, petrified, and then let it go to voice mail. Don’t ask me why; perhaps more fear about theory becoming reality. I immediately listened to the message, which started out, “Well, Howard,” and he laughed — it sounded winsomely conspiratorial — “be careful of what you wish for…” and he left a light-hearted but respectful voice mail. As I’ve pleasantly come to know, he laughs easily and also has a serious, intense side. Intensity, I’ve learned, is genetic.

I walked from our house to a pond nearby. It was a warm morning for November, and I paced a few times before taking a deep breath. (It’s true what they say about taking a deep breath before doing something difficult.) I tapped on his number and heard the ringing on his end.

He answered and, knowing my number and that it was me, said something like, “Hey, hey, Howard!” While I can’t recall the exact words, I remember that the tone between us was warm, even intimate, and easy-going. The connection was instant. While I hadn’t really considered him as much over the years as I had my mother – I had no ill will toward him at all; I merely didn’t have the same mystical or physical connection with him as I had with her; I have since learned that mothers and sons, in particular, have a very special bond — he immediately took on height, width and depth when before he was but a shadow.

We found ourselves laughing, sharing information back and forth, finding commonalities and generally just enjoying each other not only as blood relatives but also as two men who had more in common now than an hour earlier.

Toward the end of the hour, I said, “Oh, Bob. I almost forgot to mention, I know my name at birth. It was ‘Robert Doyle Macey’.” He paused and then exclaimed, “Bingo!” That word, bingo, opened up the path to meeting my mother.

Bob had been reluctant to share even one of the very few details about her that he remembered from decades ago, and while the remaining part of our morning conversation is murky in my memory, I was able finally to find her through an internet search. Her maiden name was Barbara Doyle Macey. I had Robert Lewis’s first name, and her middle and family name.

When I saw the first photo of her, from 2015 in an article in her town’s local newspaper, I sat back in my chair. I had been able to answer the question, the superficial yet all-important one, that had been foremost on my mind since I was five. “What does she look like?” She was indeed beautiful, as I’d been told. More than that, though, this was my mother.

As much as I knew over the years that out there somewhere was a woman who had carried me nine months and given me life, a woman who had felt unable to care for me yet wanted me to have a good upbringing, a woman who might or might not still be alive or, if alive, might not want to see me, this was documented proof that she existed. I knew of course that I had a mother – I hear it’s rare that one doesn’t have one – but it didn’t become real until I saw her photo.

I wept.

I had built and fortified years of emotional walls and barriers. With that photo, those all came crashing down.

Continued here…

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