A Christmas Day Way

In the third grade in 1972, our class at Trinity School was all boys.  We, along with the younger boys and the fourth grade above us, formed ourselves in single file – “Chapel Line” we called it; shortest to tallest – as we marched down the length of the sanctuary in the Upper School building on West 91st and Columbus Avenue.

 

122308plamen-stoevAs we walked, we carried three-inch candles with rounded cardboard quillions to protect our pink hands from the melting wax.  One eye made sure our flames didn’t either burn us or ignite the blue blazer of the boy in front and the other eye watched for the steps and stage ahead, and we made our way down the aisle, sandwiched by parents and grandparents smiling at us like a wedding procession, as we sung:

 

Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child…

 

A touching Christmas scene (at the school and in the hymn), as seemingly innocuous as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

 

Yet, two days before Christmas, I read of an account in the Bible that includes royal David, two at-war sons, incestual rape, and a mysterious wise-woman with a parable.  It is not a Christmas tale so much as a Christmas declaration.

 

The short version of the story is that King David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar.  Absalom, Tamar’s brother, avenges her and kills Amnon.  Absalom flees and doesn’t see David for three years.  David longs for his son, because he has dealt with Amnon’s death, yet he does nothing to reconcile himself to Absalom.  An advisor to David secretly arranges for a “wise woman from Tekoa,” whose name we never learn, to go to the king and tell him a parable.  We have seen before – with Nathan confronting David about his plot to murder Uriah so he could Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his own – that a parable usually disarms the man.  In the end, the wise woman and the advisor convince David to recall his son Absalom to Jerusalem.  Yet it is still some time that the two men see each other and reconcile.  The men reconcile briefly, but then – after his plot to usurp the throne – Absalom is killed by the government’s men.  David is inconsolable over his death.

 

In the interview she has with David to challenge him to reconcile with Absalom, the wise woman says, “God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.”

 

This is the Christmas declaration, in a sentence, from a woman with no name, buried in 2 Samuel 14:14.

 

You and I were “banished persons,” kept apart from the King because of our sin.  We were the King’s enemies, murdering, raping and stealing from our siblings with our thoughts.  And yet, the King devised a way so that we – the banished – would not remain estranged from him.

 

He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.

 

And though Absalom was ultimately killed for his rebellion, we were saved despite our own and reconciled with the King.  It was Jesus, instead of us, who was killed by the government’s men for our rebellion.

 

When Jesus was born into the world, God stormed the beaches at Normandy.  It was a “devised way” with the strength of a million D-Days yet the fragility of an orchid.  Through the love, single-mindedness, and agreement of the Trinity – the Father sending, the Son obeying, the Spirit counseling – a plan was sprung on Christmas morning in a “lowly cattle shed” that allowed us to become children of the King through the work on the Cross some thirty years later.

 

And it was a declaration:  we are heirs of the kingdom.

 

No longer enemies.

 

Reconciled.

 

 

photo:  Plamen Stoev

a heart of darkness

When I was 13, my mother told me that my father was xenophobic, which I would not have understood until I became an English major in college, for my earlier years were spent looking at photos in surfing magazines, had she not added for my benefit, “He’s scared of foreigners.”

 

This struck me as odd, years later, for I recall having lunch near my dad’s office when I was six, me in my Trinity School blazer and khakis, my father and I joined by a man named John Okawa, who was reputedly a prince from Ghana.  He was darker than anyone I’d ever met, and his smile beamed from across the table as he asked to have a bite of my peach ice cream.  I let him, not wanting to seem rude, but after he did, oddly using my spoon, I told my dining partners that I was not hungry for any more dessert.  It could have been I was afraid of black people, or foreigners, or that I was deathly worried about catching germs.

 

The germs thing was real.  I mean, it was such a part of our family conversation that I remember my parents – particularly my dad – making fun of me about my fear of germs, that I refused to eat or come into contact with any comestible had it been handled by human skin without benefit of the utmost sanitary conditions.  Or made by anyone other than mom.

 

For instance, we were vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Warwick, Rhode Island, and we had the misfortune – or so my ten-year-old mind reasoned – to be invited to breakfast across the street at the very nice home of a very old lady.  She must have been about a hundred and fifty.  She made scrambled eggs, and while I am sure 35 years later looking back that these were from legitimate chickens who lived long before the avian bird flu, they must surely have contained at the time some form of Rapidly Acting Irreversible Germ Poison which, if ingested, would cause me to faint or to puke, were I to even get the eggs past my lips on a fork that itself had not been sanitized in 220-degree water.

 

So when I sat across the table looking at John – Mr. Okawa – I looked then at my dad and said I was full.  And then I looked at John and I noticed – even then, I discerned at age six – an emotional wince in his eyes, as though he had detected a small note of disapproval in me, a slight, Aryan child, at receiving a utensil that had touched the lips of a man from Africa whose surface was as dark as my nightmares on East 96th Street.  He looked into me and saw my adolescence and teenage years.  My twenties.  Even my thirties and forties when, ostensibly “enlightened,” I might not be aware of the depth of my reaction to those whose surface was so visibly different.  It might not be peach ice cream now that is shared.  It might be dreams.  Hopes.  Values.  Pain.  I may still not want the spoon returned.  It’s soiled.  Or am I soiled?

 

As I consider now what my dad might have thought as he watched me look at – or avert my gaze from – John, I think about how I would feel were it one of my three sons.  Wouldn’t I feel that indeed I myself were rejecting the ice cream from the stranger?  That my son voiced my prejudices, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, by virtue that he lived under my house and under my teaching?  How much original thought does a six-year-old have?

 

I wonder whether dad and John ever mentioned it when they got back to the office, after my traumatic bowl of peach ice cream that I probably forgot about as quickly as I saw my Hot Wheels tracks at home and the race I needed to do with Jim to see whose cars were the fastest – winner take all.  Did dad laugh it off as his son’s germ obsession?  Did he make apologies?  Did he ignore it, leaving John to wonder how dad himself felt about Africans?

 

It was, after all, only 1969, and one didn’t need an excuse.

 

 

photo:  turkairo

Cushie

My internship at the Museum of Broadcasting when I was 17, a senior at Trinity School, consisted mainly of viewing Jamie Farr’s personal collection of M*A*S*H shows on VCR tapes to make sure the entire episodes were there.  Occasionally, toward the end of an show, the channel would cut to a Yankees game, and we’d have to mark the tape “unusable.”

 

There was no financial remuneration for this 6-week long position.  I had a choice at Trinity of either doing a senior thesis or a senior “project.”  As I was headed to North Carolina State University, and not Harvard or even Haverford, and therefore not closely monitored by the Administration Authorities Who Care How The Ivy Leaguers Are Doing, I was not really noticed as I slipped through the cracks that last year and into a role in midtown which allowed me to watch TV all afternoon.

 

True, I did have to work at points:  I catalogued old episodes of “Cavalcade of America,” a show first on radio in the 1930s and then on TV from 1952 to 1957.  This work involved kneeling and bending and lifting and writing:  activities all somewhat in dissonance with assuming the likeness of a potato on a couch.

 

The woman who had scored me the job was the museum’s curator – can you picture the teenage mind imagining what it must be like to curate a mass collection of television shows…?  That’s like mainlining Twinkies for a sugar addict – a woman my father had worked with years before at CBS.  She had an apartment in the UN Plaza overlooking the United Nations.  I became her friend during those weeks, and we remained friends long after then, even after my parents died.  She would take me, and then the Lovely K and me, to lunch and dinner at the Metropolitan Club on 60th Street between Park and Lexington, around the corner from where I took dance lessons as a 6th grader.  There I learned to box waltz, a dance that no girl ever asked me to replicate later in life, and a step I would not volunteer at a bar under threat of life or limb.  Nor will it ever be caught on YouTube.

 

After my Museum of Broadcasting gig was up, I returned to Trinity for the last few days of class, in early June 1981.  Finals were in a few days and, fortunately, were not to be boring ones, since one of my classmates, generally thought to be Steve _____, called in a fake bomb threat, clearing out our Calculus test for at least two hours.

 

 

 

 

photo:  dhammza

Reading Anne Lamott

When I can’t think of what to write, I sometimes write about writing.

Math teacher Mr. Mirobito – named “Bito Bug” by my fellow sixth graders at Trinity School in Manhattan in 1975 – would punish his student transgressors (Loud Talkers, The Disobedient, Homework Shirkers) by requiring them to write a 500-word essay about the inside of a ping pong ball.  This was supposed to be excruciating, but there were some, of course, who found it quite fanciful.

032431craigpj.jpgNow, looking back, I think it could potentially be an interesting exercise, not that I would want to go against Bito Bug and incur his wrath with this assignment.  Bito Bug, by the way, was also the name we gave to the creations we made of plastic drink cups at lunch, tearing up their lips and bending the slats frontwards and backwards, making fascinating looking insects that crawled across the 8-foot folding tables of the lunchroom.  As a further aside, when you Google “Bito Bug,” you’ll find only the pedigree for a thoroughbred with this moniker in his name.

But, back to the subject, which you perhaps so innocently happened upon when you came to this blog, surfing tags on pearl snap shirts, Phoebe Cates, All Souls Unitarian Church, Point O’ Woods, or Puglia Restaurant’s very own – and quite awesome – Jorge Buccio.  I am quite intrigued by the inside of the ping pong ball proposition.  Only as a momentary mental exercise, mind you.  Lest you think that I will launch into an expose on same, I will remind you that I went to Trinity with soon-to-become professional wordsmiths who went on to write jokes for Arsenio Hall and movies for Pixar.  For these luminaries, the punishment became Golden Globe-winning screenplays.  I’ll leave the task to them.

OK.

Here’s a writing topic:  J.K. Rowling.  The first billionaire author, and one of five self-made female billionaires.  That’s a lot more interesting than the inside of a ping pong ball.  Carter wants me to start reading the Harry Potter series so we can discuss them, and I will of course acquiesce, because anything to encourage his literary interests, I will do.  But I can’t say that this series is top of my list.

I am finishing Anne Lamott’s “Grace (Eventually),” which I am enjoying very much, though I do not agree at turns with her politics or stances on social issues, and though I find her snipes occasionally to be gratuitous.  But I saw her at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago as part of her tour for the book’s release in paperback.  It was pouring rain, the kind of rain that takes out the crease from your newly pressed grey slacks in the course of one street crossing and makes you pi#*ed off that you don’t travel door to door by car anymore as the more civilized if less-well-read suburbanites do.  And I barely got a seat with three hundred of my closest friends on the fourth floor of B&N’s Union Square store.  But there mounted the stage Anne Lamott, my hero (“heroine”?) – my writing hero, anyway – who proceeded to be as candid and funny and winsome and inviting as I have heard a speaker before.  As I stood in the line waiting for a quick hello and signature, I watched the couple in front of me gripe at Ann Coulter‘s book to their right, stacked five wide in the Current Events section.  The woman fingered the title, “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republicans,” and tsk‘ed at her lover.  Can you believe this crap? she practically screamed at her boyfriend, whose eyes lingered at the book’s cover.  And yet, she had no rejoinder to the blonde in the slinky black dress, silently taunting them from eye level.

Of course, I didn’t buy Lamott’s new book that night.  I am too cheap, and I had brought with me the copy that Karen gave me for Valentine’s Day.  But I wished I had brought also my copy of “Bird by Bird,” which the Lovely K had bought for me two summers ago.  I wanted to thank her more.  I wanted to encourage her more, which I hope I did, by saying, “I hope you keep on writing and writing.”  What I really wanted to say was, “Keep on telling the truth.”

For even when her politics tick me off, even when Ann Coulter has the hair thing going on and Anne Lamott does not, I am grateful that Lamott is telling the truth:  about her perspective, about her struggles, about her joy, about her faith.

photo:  CraigPJ

Mrs. Spaghetti

Susie Scott was my pre-school girlfriend.  Except in the 1960s it was called “nursery school.”

This is her real name, since there is nothing in this post but admiration for her and because there are many Susie Scotts out there:  I Googled her, and – believe me – her anonymity is secure.

Susie and I attended Park Avenue Christian.  I had graduated at age 3 from Miss Brown’s school, which was on 95th Street between Madison and Fifth, and where I recall singing songs and wetting my pants.  Park Avenue Christian was a full 12 032108anissat2.jpgblocks south of us, at 84th and Park, and most mornings Dad used to walk me and Stuyvie Wainwright, who lived across the street.  Stuyvie’s dad would walk us other mornings.  Sometimes I walked alone with Dad, my two steps and skips trying to keep up with every one of his strides.  I am also using Stuyvie’s real name because, one, it’s a pretty darn cool Upper East Side name – short for Stuyvesant – and he is most likely related to some serious old world celebrities (check out his ancestor’s wikipedia page) and, two, I owe Stuyvie an apology.

In 8th grade, I wrestled him when he was at Buckley and I was at Trinity.  I think I beat him in the end, but I used some unnecessary roughness at one point and made him cry.  Or so I remember it that way.  His dad saw the match and was probably not featuring me.   In any event, Stuyvie, I’m sorry.  I beat you fair and square, but I probably inflicted more pain than needed.  There, my conscience can rest, and I have done my Ninth Step with you, in an e-sort of way.

There’s a picture my parents had of Susie and me sitting on a rock in Central Park, not far – perhaps 50 yards or so – from where I used to make mud pies with glass in them for the Jewish men who sat on park benches and fed the pigeons bread crumbs.  We are holding hands:  I on her left.  Her black hair is pulled back around her ears, and she is smiling like Annette Funicello.

Our teacher was Mrs. Pascetti, whom we all called Mrs. “Spaghetti” since that was either easier to say or a whole lot more fun.  Each afternoon we’d take our naps on our “blankets,” which were usually small pieces of shag carpet.  Mine was yellow with blue trim.

My mom kept it for a few years after nursery school ended.

photo:  anissat

Whiffenpoofs on TV

In order to stay up past bedtime, the Lovely K and her sisters would entreat her mother to expound on family history.

“Oh, mom…” they would bleat, “was Aunt Sarah the sister of Charles or of Melvin?”  They cared not for the correct answer, but it gave them an extra ten minutes of playtime while listening to it.  In this way, we learned how to play cricket in religion class in sixth grade.

030608gofish343.jpg

Father Donald Best was from Britain, and his ruddy, round face was always smiling as he greeted us 12-year-olds at Trinity.  If we could avoid listening to the higher critical theory on the authorship of the Penteteuch – the J and P writers, etc. – and listen instead to his stories aobut balls sailing through lead-paned windows of estates that neighbored to cricket games, then we sat raptured by his every word.I Googled another of my teachers, our choir director, who is now happily planted in Delray Beach as director of music at the local Episcopal church.  He has bright white hair, and his bio talks of his love of sailing and travel, and how his wife and he enjoy watching the boats pass through the intracoastal channel.   Dr. Garrett was my choir teacher during 5th through 7th grades, before my voice changed, when I sang with the Trinity boy’s choir.  There were probably 20 of us in the choir, and to my recollection, he found a way to weed out those who voices did not…contribute…to the sound which he was trying to produce.   This was when excellence was not frowned on, when mediocrity was not championed under the guise of inclusiveness and when aesthetics counted for something.  All I know is that Garrett was able to get us gigs at Avery Fischer Hall, Carnegie Hall and others, performing works by Mahler and George Crumb, and being conducted by Pierre Boulez and James Levine.

OK.  So I just dropped a bunch of names, and you’re supposed to be impressed…

But it was great fun.  I recall making friends with the lead trombone player in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, behind whom I sat.  He was thin, almost completely bald and very friendly.  I also remember – as one of the only unpleasant times – having to stand for like 15 minutes silently during the first thousand or so bars of Mahler’s 8th, or so it seemed.  I remember Boulez shooting us piercing glances when we missed our cue.   I remember that we each got $25 for our performances.  We were pros.

My classmate JM was much better than I and so was my friend Geoff, who went on to college at Yale and sang with the Whiffenpoofs.  I saw him on TV once when I was visiting my grandparents.  My grandfather had tuned in to William Buckley’s “Firing Line,” and as a closing segment, Buckley had the Whiffenpoofs perform a couple songs.  They were impeccable, ineffable.  I saw Geoff on the street a few years later.  Third Avenue and 40th, in front of my office at Wiley.  He had been to Paris and tried to make it as a singer but it was a non-starter.

Somewhere along the line I went from Mahler to Johnny Cash, trombones to steel guitar, black choir robe to pearl snap shirt.

photo:  gofish343

Herkies for the basketball players

My high school, Trinity, on West 91st Street, didn’t have a football team, but we did offer fencing.

Litigious parents made sure that our mascot, The Trinity Tiger, never appeared next to a gridiron after about 1972, but come 1976 or so these same parents – effete and urbane – made sure their kids participated in a sport designed to help them excel socially in 17th century France.

122907doortenj.jpgI remember seeing my classmates – usually the intellectuals – wearing their croissards and plastrons heading off to fencing class while some of us went off to wrestling.  We thought wrestling was cool.  The girls thought it was disgusting.  They were off watching the cool basketball players – Miles (now a successful lawyer), Phil (a Hollywood comedy writer), and Alec (co-wrote a hit animated movie), their real names because, after all, these guys were the cool clique.  A clique of which I was not a part, because I stuck my wannabee-cool nose in other guys’ sweaty armpits for my after-school sport.

I remember one time we wrestled against Yeshiva High School.  On paper, it was a win before we even got on the mat.  Their team, apparently, had been established that year, and they had had next to no live practice.  It was a favor our coach was doing for theirs.  But, after all, they were God’s chosen people.  That counted for something.

I pinned my opponent late in the first period, but I felt remorse afterwards.  I don’t know why.

Wrestling was the closest thing I had to being a tough guy.  Being 5’8″ and 120 pounds in high school, I had been in but few fights, usually on the business end of a loss.  One time, though, I fought Michael, a black kid I had previously been friends with, and then to whom apparently I had made a rude comment about something – could have been race, could have been something else, can’t remember – which led to a Fight Appointment one afternoon at 4 p.m. by the book lockers behind the chapel.  (This was an historically Episcopal School and, yet, as a late 20th century Episcopal institution its chapel was used less as a place of worship as it was a vacant spot whose outer hallway contained our lockers and had multiple unsupervised locations for drug deals, gossip, and settling disputes the old fashioned way.)

Michael and I squared off, and I quipped with a smile, “So, how do we start this thing?”

He took a swing and caught me on the chin.  “How’s this?!”

We fought for 15 minutes, with a crowd of our peers gathering and cheering on one or the other, or both, so that the fight would continue and keep us all from getting on to more mundane matters like American History or Geometry.  I finally took a desperate swipe at his face with a hooking left and caught him squarely on the jaw.

He backed away and looked straight at me.  He smiled.  “Wow.  What a hit!”

He laughed, and so did I.

photo:  doortenJ