Commuters Singing Badly

I like to sing.  A lot.  I’m also terrible at it.  Apparently, I’m in good company, which explains the plethora of awful karaoke out there.

I’ve cultivated my love of singing since childhood, where I had ample opportunity in my Orthodox Jewish yeshiva to learn a variety of niggunim, the traditional Hebrew melodies.  Later, I sang in the chorus in public school for six years or so, and then for one year in college before I finally gave it up to focus on other things (writing, mostly).

It’s wonderful that, at least back then, the schools allowed budding warblers to pretend that they might one day end up the next Billy Joel or Madonna (my New York bias is showing here).  These days, many school districts lack funding for anything but the bare basics and have had to cut music programs left and right.  Also, I don’t know what the equivalent of the general chorus or the concert choir would be in the age of rap.  (Do high school music teachers dare to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the 21st century?)

I think singing appeals to me so much because it is an act of sheer joy.  Warbling is visceral, inherited from the birds, enhanced with human language and stylized with poetry.  It is hard-wired into our genes.

One thing that’s great about singing in church or synagogue is that no one cares how good or bad you are.  It doesn’t matter if you harmonize perfectly, can barely hold on to the melody or sing completely out of tune.  It’s all about participation and community and you get an A for effort.

My singing voice has a catch in it that can be particularly grating to the ear when I start out by accurately hitting a note and then, inexplicably, screechingly launch off a tangent into the stratosphere.  It’s almost as if, even though I’m an old guy now, my voice is still changing like a twelve year old’s.

You can understand why I enjoy singing in relatively private spaces, where I can laugh at myself and not raise any eyebrows.  Outside of religious services, I am reluctant to sing in public for fear of being judged.  “He thinks he’s so good, but he’s terrible!”  I can read the amused or disgusted expressions on faces when my voice cracks, as it always does at some point.

So I start out every day by singing in the shower, while I’m getting dressed for work and in the car tooling down the freeway.  And if I’ve unwittingly allowed a note or two to escape when I have my headphones on at work and I’m really into the music, please don’t tell me about it.  I don’t want to know.

I have certain favorite tunes that I can never sing often enough, many of them Hebrew melodies from the days of my youth (such as “Oseh Shalom,” familiar stalwart of the Friday night synagogue service).  But if my iTunes library is pouring forth from my car speakers, there’s no telling what I might tackle, from Katy Perry to Toby Keith to John Lennon to Taylor Swift.  With my windows rolled up and either the heat or the AC on, depending on the season, I get to have my own private karaoke session, no mike required, all the way down Interstate 5 to downtown Sacramento.  James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” has nothing on me.

This works great most of the time, and it starts my workday on a cheerful note.  But, like any routine that you don’t pay too much attention to, it’s easy to make a mistake and fail to notice until it’s too late.  This happened on my way home from work a couple of weeks ago.

One recent evening, the weather was perfect.  Sunny and 75, just like in the Joe Nichols song.  I had my music on and the window down, as I enjoyed the warm breeze.  What I forgot, however, was that I was bound to have an audience.  Stopped at a traffic light next to a pickup truck, the passenger said “Not bad!,” nodded his head and gave me a thumbs up.  Busted!  Oh God, this was embarrassing.  It would have been bad enough if I had been singing George Strait or The Bee Gees or even Michael Jackson.  But no, he had to catch me while I was belting out an impassioned plea for love along with Linda Davis.  (It’s an oldie, so you’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of her.)

This was a long light, so the man decided to strike up a conversation with me.  He told me his name and asked me mine.  He told me that he does tattoos (not a surprise, as every visible inch of his skin was covered in ink) and asked if I knew anyone who wanted one.  “No, sorry,” I sheepishly responded.  “I just got one,” I lied, feeling stupid and trying to sound legit.  I didn’t bother to mention that the Jewish faith doesn’t approve of tattoos, or that asking an old guy in a corporate white shirt and tie who just got caught singing Linda Davis whether he knows anyone who wants a tattoo is probably barking up the wrong tree.

And from now on, I’ll make sure to keep the windows up while I’m driving.

 

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House Books, Car Books

I am reading (on my phone, in a hotel in a distant city, in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep even though I have to teach a class in the morning) New York Times article about how e-books have yet to supplant paper books, when I am struck by the illustrative photo.  Two stacks of books on a shelf, 16 tomes in all, at Common Grounds bookstore in DeKalb, Illinois.  Nothing too exciting about that, until I realize that I have actually read three of these books.  This surprises me because I routinely assume that most of the world would have no interest whatever in the books that tickle my fancy.

Indeed, I tend to think of my literary preferences as a bit off center.  For one thing, after years of reading novels, I have more or less left fiction behind, abandoned with the things of youth.  There is just too much knowledge out there awaiting my consumption (a word that conjures up images of both Mark Strand and Archibald Macleish) and application to, well, the meaning of life.  I’ll add this to the list of things that my father warned me about but that I blithely ignored until I was well into my fifth decade and finally began to see things his way.

As for my reading habits, I divide them into “house books” and “car books.”  We do a lot of long distance driving, and my wife spends most of the time behind the wheel.  So whenever I acquire a book that I believe may interest her, I save it to read aloud while she is driving.  Books that I believe she would find boring I read by myself at home.  There aren’t too many house books, for the practical reason that we live in a tiny house and I simply can’t concentrate with the TV always being on.  This may change as the weather warms up, as the other renters on the property have brought chairs and tables into the garage.  I may make that my private refuge when they’re not using it.

The photo in the Times reminded me of my wild and wooly novel-reading days.  The pictured books I have read are Jonathan Franzen’s creepily realistic The Corrections, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days and George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?  Fond memories of years gone by are associated with each of these, but I have no intention of going back there.  History, autobiography, memoirs and social science have my attention these days.

My current “house book” is Kory Stamper’s Word by Word:  The Secret Life of Dictionaries.  On deck is Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland:  Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.  After that, I plan to attack a doorstop-length biography of Harry S Truman that has been sitting in the bedroom jeering at me since I purchased it at the Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri a couple of years ago.

In the car, we are reading Lars Eighner’s homelessness memoir Travels with Lizbeth:  Three Years on the Road and on the Streets.  Before that, my wife and I read another memoir, I Will Always Write Back:  How One Letter Changed Two Lives (Ganda, Alifirenka and Welch).

I am encouraged by the inclusion of several memoirs in the Times bookstore photo, most notably George W. Bush’s Decision Points and Bill Clinton’s My Life.  Now, I’ve never thought highly of Bush the warmonger or Clinton the sex fiend, but curiosity got the better of me and, in my insomniac state, I took the opportunity to read the first few pages of the Bush memoir on amazon.com.  To Bush’s credit, he admits that he focuses on what he sees as the most critical points of his presidency rather than covering every detail of his life.  Still, he starts with a description of his childhood and high school years that he wraps up in about fifteen pages.  This makes me a bit sheepish about having written an entire book-length memoir of my childhood.

Then again, I’ve never been president.  Perhaps my childhood is the most interesting part of my otherwise bland life.

My favorite moment of Bush’s brief description of his childhood is the time he visited his wealthy grandparents in Greenwich, Connecticut, had to wear a coat and tie to dinner, and was disappointed to find a bowl of red soup with a glop of white in the middle at his place setting.  Bush found it awful, which he attributes to the fact that he was brought up on peanut butter and jelly, not borscht.

Among the most important elements of any book is the ability of the reader to relate to the protagonist.  I am certain that I’d be disappointed by Decision Points and I won’t waste my time reading it.  I simply lack the requisite empathy for oil and Wall Street wealth, and he who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  After all, I was raised on borscht, if only at Passover.  Also, lox, herring in cream sauce, chopped liver, gefilte fish and matzo balls.

Peanut butter and jelly I didn’t discover until high school, where a triple-decker version was a cafeteria standard.

 

 

High There

Winter, 1972.  My last year of junior high. I’m sitting in English class, listening to Mr. Kincaid drone on, paying more attention to the distraction of the show that Mother Nature is putting on for our benefit, just outside our second story window.  It’s the first snowstorm of the year, and the thick, heavy flakes are being flung diagonally from the heavens directly onto the lawn and evergreens flanking the school building.  All of the students sitting at desks in straight rows are thinking the same thing:  Will it stick?  Will the roads become too slick for the school buses?  Will we have early dismissal?

Suddenly, the classroom door bangs open and a missing classmate bursts into the room with a grand entrance.  “It’s snowing!” he yells.  His unrestrained exuberance brings grins to many of our faces.  The guy is high as a kite, and Mr. Kincaid promptly dispatches the pot-reeking fellow to the assistant principal’s office.

Throughout junior high, high school and college, I found myself constantly dodging the haze of marijuana smoke that seemed to surround me everywhere I went.  From the time I was 14, the pot culture trickled down from the older kids.  Woodstock had occurred just three years earlier, the Summer of Love just two years before that.  The fact that marijuana was highly illegal in New York State and the fact that we were minors didn’t mean a thing.  My mother, herself an assistant principal in another school district, taught me that marijuana smoke smelled like burning rope.  It didn’t take me long to verify that firsthand.  It wasn’t unusual for me to push open the door to the boys’ room and to turn right around and walk out, coughing.  I guess I didn’t have to pee that bad.  Ugh.

As a very conservative teenager with a religious upbringing, the drug culture of the late sixties and early seventies freaked me out.  I could not understand why people felt the need to attain altered states of consciousness.  The vast majority of my classmates came from upper middle class families; few were poor.  Most of us led a fine suburban life.  What exactly were we trying to escape?

We’d hear a lot of talk about “youthful experimentation.”  Then we’d be shown films featuring marijuana as a “gateway drug,” with a clear explanation that the gateway led to a wasted life, delirium tremens, death from overdose and suicide.  Most of us laughed it off as typical “square” adult reactionist propaganda.  If only our elders would try it, their eyes would be opened to what the kids already knew.  If only they weren’t so uptight.  The illegality of pot wasn’t a factor at all.  That the purchase and possession of marijuana violated the law was just another notch in the deepening generation gap.

Teenagers such as myself who stood with our parents against drugs were ridiculed and marginalized.  “You do what’s right and never mind what anyone else thinks,” my mother would tell me.  I agreed with her, but it still felt like an uphill battle, at least until the middle of my junior year of high school when we moved farther upstate.  Although I am Jewish, I fell in with a crowd of conservative students who shared my love of music and drama.  It didn’t take too long for me to realize that most of them were born-again Christians.  But they were so nice to me, and none of them used drugs or even smoked cigarettes.  Happiness!

College was another story entirely.  I attended the state university nearest my home.  I was familiar with the campus, as my parents had done their graduate work there while I was growing up.  What I didn’t fully appreciate at first is that it was a so-called party school.  Drugs of every kind were for sale up and down my dormitory corridor.  I was offered drugs at every turn, and quickly learned how to duck and dodge the smoke and pills that seemed to be everywhere.  I learned that those tall glass monstrosities were known as “bongs.”  I had read enough to know to politely decline the offer of a brownie.  The college administration buried their heads in the sand, ignoring what was going on under their very noses.  In my second year of college, I transferred to a larger state university farther upstate, but the drug culture was there, too.  I simply couldn’t run away from it.  I’d return to my dorm suite after class and find a thick haze of pot smoke awaiting me.  “When else will we get to do this if not while we’re young?” my suitemate would tell me.  I was totally disgusted and moved into a single room occupancy student hotel at my first opportunity.

Among the privileges of adulthood that I began to enjoy upon graduating from college was freedom from being surrounded by illegal drugs.  There was no pot smoke in the rest rooms at work, and I did not have to constantly justify my drug-free lifestyle.

And now, all these years later, it feels as if I am awaking from a pleasant dream, awaking into a nightmarish reality.  Throughout the month of December, our local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, featured a countdown (days, hours, minutes) on the front page of the online edition — a countdown to marijuana becoming legal for recreational use in California on January 1.  I started seeing electronic signs along the freeway, warning the public that “DUI doesn’t just mean booze” and “Check the label before you pop that pill.”  The hidden meaning seemed to be that pot may be legal, but driving under its influence is not.  Then the TV ads started.  “I really like it.  Yeah, I love it!  But I never drive under the influence.”

Marijuana dispensaries have begun opening all over the place.  The strict (and expensive) licensing requirements are more than offset by the lines of Californians ready to lay down their money for a natural cannabis high.  And I have to wonder whether, Cheech and Chong notwithstanding, California is truly going “up in smoke.”  Not that everyone smokes.  I’ve learned that there are “edibles,” marijuana in the form of candy, cookies and such.  You don’t need to light up to get silly and zone out.

I suggested to my wife that we buy stock in Nabisco and Frito-Lay, as they will undoubtedly be making more of a killing than they already do, this time off wasted Californians with the munchies.

It is difficult for me to express the depth of my disappointment in the legalization of marijuana in my home state.  What am I supposed to do, try to ignore what is all around me as I did in my college days?  As a manager, what will I do when I encounter a red-eyed employee whose clothes smell vaguely of pot smoke?  As long as the work is getting done, should I turn a blind eye?  Honestly, I don’t know which end is up anymore.

But what I find most disappointing of all is my state’s willingness to flout federal law, under which the purchase and possession of marijuana remains clearly unlawful.  Last I heard, the Golden State continued to be a member of the Union.  So now the feds appear to be engaging in a backlash against California’s legalization of pot.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently made it easier for federal prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states in which recreational use has been legalized.  The Bee has labeled Sessions as a hypocrite, in consideration of his past commitment to states’ rights.

The Founding Fathers must be turning over in their graves.  The great political battles over federalism in the eighteenth century continue alive and well today.  California has long been a bastion of liberalism, but I believe that there are limits.  I am beginning to understand the secessionist rumblings that hit the news in California from time to time.  It is said that, were California a nation, our economy would be the sixth largest worldwide.  Perhaps, should the feds begin raiding California pot dispensaries, our state will finally be pushed over the edge and will declare its independence from the United States.  The Second Civil War may well occur, not in the south, but in the west.  I haven’t yet heard a call from Governor Brown to raise a state militia, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s next.

Meanwhile, I’m told that my opposition to marijuana use is nothing short of ignorant.  I am reminded of its medical uses and its pain-killing power to alleviate suffering.  I am told that pot is not addictive in the way that Oxycontin and fentanyl are, and that legalization of marijuana could even have the effect of stemming the expansion of the deadly opioid epidemic.  I am told that if others want to drink or get high, that is their business, just as my decision to avoid those behaviors is my business.

To me, however, medical marijuana is one thing, while recreational use is quite another.  (Nevertheless, I have nothing but admiration for my wife’s dad, who suffered from terminal cancer in the days before medical marijuana was legal, and who passed up the opportunity to use pot in favor of painkillers that could be legally prescribed.)  It’s as if we haven’t learned anything from the families and lives that have been destroyed by alcohol.  Let’s make substance abuse easier to engage in, as it’s not our place to judge how others choose to live their lives.  What will be the cost of increased medical bills, increased deaths on the highways, and jobs and families lost to pot?

I’ve had a list of grievances against California that has grown throughout the 20 years I have spent in my adopted state.  With the legalization of marijuana, however, I believe that California has finally lost its mind.  Do we really want to live in a state in which every other person is high?  My prayer is that my personal fortunes and circumstances change such that I am able to move to a saner state in which recreational marijuana is, in accordance with federal law, not tolerated.  And I know that many of my fellow Californians will bid me good riddance, shouting through the pot smoke, “don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.”

 

 

The Tenth Man

I remember being four and five years old, walking down the hill with my grandfather on a Saturday morning from our Bronx apartment building to the little shtibl (one-room storefront synagogue) where he prayed regularly with a group of retired men.  Many of them would fuss over me, and I knew there’d be sweet treats (honey cake and grape juice) waiting for me if I could only hold out and not fidget too much until the end of the seemingly interminable service.  It was such a relief when I would hear the sweet strains of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu that meant that we were nearly done.

Around the middle of the service, one of the men would solemnly take the Torah out of its ark, raise it up while everyone sang, and then set it down on the podium.  The cloth covering would be removed, the string would be untied, and the Torah would be unrolled to the proper place for reading that week’s portion of the Pentateuch.

What everyone knew is that there’d be no Torah reading unless a minyan, a quorum of ten men, was present.  Being under bar mitzvah age, I didn’t count.  Neither did the few old ladies who would show up and sit behind the mekhitzah (curtain) in the back.  It seemed we always had enough in attendance to do a proper Torah reading.

But that was in New York City, half a century ago.  Today, in northern California, there is no guarantee of a minyan.  In the synagogue that my elderly parents attended for about 20 years (they stopped going about a year ago), whether there would be a minyan or not on Shabbat (or, sad to say, even on a holiday) was a decidedly hit-or-miss affair.  My father, who has a marked antipathy to religion of any type, would chauffeur my mother to synagogue with the intent of heading to the public library for a few hours.  Inevitably, the rabbi’s son would come running out of the sanctuary, tzitzit (prayer fringes) flying, to implore my father to stay and make the tenth man needed for the minyan.

Orthodox Jews tend to take the rule of ten very seriously.  I believe the origin of the tradition is that ten men are considered representative of the community as a whole.  The Jewish jokes about this are legendary.

Of course, it’s not just any ten men who must be present to read from the Torah.  They must be ten Jewish men.  (My personal preference tends toward the modern egalitarian practices of many Conservative congregations, where both women and men count toward the minyan.)  And just what constitutes a Jewish man?  Well, traditionally the answer to this question involves far more than faith and practice.  A man is considered Jewish if his mother was Jewish.  I suppose fathers don’t count because the child develops and comes forth from the womb of the mother.  But what if your mother had a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mom?  Then you’re not Jewish, at least according to Orthodox tradition.  So determining whether a minyan is or is not present may involve inquiries into the provenance of the tenth man’s grandparents.

I suppose the emphasis on pedigree arises from our heritage as the “children of Israel.”  Either you’re descended from the tribe or you’re not.  This has caused a lot of trouble for those of us who were born into other faiths, or into no faith, and later convert to Judaism.  It seems to me that those who wholeheartedly embrace our traditions should be counted as full members of our religious community.  In some places they do (many Reformed congregations, for instance), while in others, they don’t.  The disputes about converts that go on in some of the Conservative movement synagogues that I’ve attended remind me of the way many Christian churches tear themselves apart over whether to accept gays as full members of the congregation.

I started thinking about this topic earlier in the week when President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would (eventually) move our embassy there.  My first reaction was “it’s about time.”  But I had to laugh, as Jerusalem has been the capital off Israel for millennia.  Trump deciding that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is a bit like me declaring that Cheerios is a cereal.  It really doesn’t matter what we think.  Some things are just facts.

I’m sorry to see on the news that violence has broken out in Israel over the United States’ recognition of what has always been true.  Perhaps it is just another excuse to demonstrate ancient animosities among religious groups that are neighbors in the Middle East.  Yet I don’t see such garrulousness as an excuse to perpetuate a lie.  Tel-Aviv has never been the capital of Israel.  I heard a comment on TV that Tel-Aviv is “a lot more fun” than Jerusalem.  Perhaps Tel-Aviv is the industrial and technological hub of Israel, and perhaps its nightlife is better than Jerusalem’s.  But that doesn’t make Tel-Aviv any more the capital of Israel than it makes Portland the capital of Oregon or of Maine.

Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins this week.  Just as recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel has touched off partisan bickering in the Holy Land, so has it been in our own capital of Washington.  President Trump was in attendance at the annual White House Hanukkah party this week, to which Democrats and others opposing his policies were not invited.  Latkes (traditional fried potato pancakes) were served, of course, along with kosher lamb chops (apparently an annual White House tradition since 1996).  The party was held the day after Trump’s proclamation regarding Jerusalem.  There was an after-party at the Trump International Hotel (more latkes, more Republicans, salmon, caviar), at which the president received even more congratulations.

I had a good smirk when the New York Times article about Trump’s Hanukkah celebrations mentioned that the president’s grandchildren are Jewish.  Oh, really?  Not by Orthodox standards, certainly.  True, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is Jewish.  But Trump himself is Christian, and his daughter was raised as a Presbyterian.  Although Ivanka has converted to Orthodox Judaism and is far more observant than I, that won’t be enough for many congregations to recognize her kids as genuine members of the clan.

When it comes time to read the Torah, either son of Jared and Ivanka shouldn’t be too surprised if name dropping “my grandpa, the president” isn’t enough to make him the tenth man.  And that sort of clannish, non-inclusiveness seems rather sad to me.

We need to find more reasons to bring us together, not more reasons to drive artificial wedges between us.  I pray at this Hanukkah season that the people of Israel, and those who profess to be Jewish around the world, will find it in their hearts to renounce the evils of divisiveness and embrace the spirit of acceptance and love.

 

Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

The Dreams of Old Men

Bay Bridge

The elegant lines of the Bay Bridge, crossing from San Francisco to Oakland.

SAN FRANCISCO

As I have visited the famed City by the Bay only a handful of times over the years, it always seems new to me.  It’s a case of what Joseph Heller referred to as jamais vu — it’s as if I’ve never seen the place before.

I first encountered San Francisco in the 1980s, during a visit with my sister, who had recently married and moved across the country to Silicon Valley.  Guidebook in hand, I boarded a northbound Caltrain in San José, determined to hoof it around the city to all the famed tourist spots.  I visited Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium, took a cab ride down twisting Lombard Street, communed with the ghosts of poets at City Lights Bookstore and tasted the culinary delights of Chinatown.  I got on the plane back to New York with an avocado sandwich in my carry-on, singing “California Dreamin'” and vowing to return.

Two months later, I flew west again, this time with my parents.  I rode the cable cars (standing up and hanging on for dear life, trying my hardest not to lose my Fisherman’s Wharf lunch), stuffed myself into a chocolate coma at Ghirardelli’s and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito with my father.  Dad, a lifelong student of infamous American mobsters, could not pass up the excursion to Alcatraz.  I stayed behind, as I don’t much care for the turbulence of boat rides.

Ten years later, I moved to California.  And yet, I hadn’t been back to San Francisco since, unless you count passing through on the freeway or flying into SFO airport.  But this week, I found myself back in downtown SF, conducting two days of training classes.  To have seen me gawk, you’d think I’d never been there before.  Sunrise over the bay, the incredible geometry of the Bay Bridge, the late afternoon fog slowly rolling in from the ocean to slide a shroud over the high-rise buildings in the business district.

But before we headed up the peninsula to the Golden Gate, we spent the weekend with my parents down in California’s Central Valley.  We went out to dinner with my Mom and Dad twice, drove them down to our niece’s birthday party in the South Valley, and had some interesting (and mildly uncomfortable) conversations about the fact that they’re getting older and how they’ll handle their house and property.

The one conversation that moved me the most, however, occurred at sunset on Saturday night, while we were sitting on folding chairs, just the two of us, out in the driveway catching the evening breeze.  The sun slowly sunk behind the house across the street, but Dad, in his poetic way, informed me that the sun was setting over the ocean.  We watched the stars come out, and he pointed out the planet Venus, then the Big Dipper, Orion the hunter, and the W of Cassiopeia.  We were wowed by a shooting star that screamed across the sky.  I noted several light planes crawl across the heavens, red lights blinking.  “They’re very far away,” Dad told me, “at least five miles.”

And then he reminded me that he, too, once flew such planes.  He told me it’s been 40 years since he’s taken the pilot’s seat.  Flashback:  I am about 14 or 15 years old, summertime, out for a day with Dad.  We played handball on the courts at the school where he was a driver education teacher, got haircuts, and had lunch before he took me out to the airport and showed me a Cessna up close.  He wanted me to get in and go for a spin, but I was petrified and refused.  He was disgusted.  My mother had forbidden me to ever go up with my father, for fear we’d both be killed.  She was unhappy with his hobby and, eventually, forbid him from going up either.  I still remember how upset he was.  Unfortunately, it was not the only time that he agreed to give up dreams to satisfy her.

I thought this was all in the distant past.  Until Saturday night, when Dad confessed that he’d been surfing the web to look at planes for some time now, and that he’d like to purchase one.  He reminded me that pilot licenses never expire.  He might have to go up with an instructor once to show he still knows how to do it, he suggested.  And then he really got into it, explaining that planes, like cars, have fancy electronics now that didn’t exist back when he flew.  “GPS was science fiction,” he told me.  You had to plot out your route and map it out with a pencil on the chart.

My father is correct that many things have changed in 40 years, with technology not the least of it.  But one thing that undoubtedly has not changed is my mother’s attitude.  I was too cowardly to ask how he intends to get over that particular obstacle.  Could it be that he’s finally reached an age at which he’s daring enough to defy her fiery will?

“They say young men have dreams and old men have memories,” he said.  “I’ve got news for you.  Old men have dreams, too.”

Dip a wing when you fly over our house, Dad.  Just like you did when I was a kid.

I’ll be watching for you.

SF Bay Sunrise

Sunrise over San Francisco Bay

Triple Jeopardy

There are times when your dream doesn’t seem to be coming true no matter how much you work toward it and how hard you wish for it.  You can pray about it, and sometimes the answer is not a resounding rejection, but simply a “not now.”  It may not be the right time yet.  And everyone knows that good things are worth waiting for.

However, I find it much harder to deal with an answer to prayer that appears to be “too late.”  It’s  one thing to have to wait for years to achieve your goal, but it’s quite another to realize that your time has passed.  “Could have beens” are rather sad, which likely accounts for the popularity of YOLO and “no regrets.”  Indeed, it can be difficult to watch someone slogging away at something that might have been achieved years ago but no longer has any reasonable chance of coming to fruition.  Most painful of all is when the person whom you’re watching struggle in vain is none other than yourself.

Then there are those of us whose motto seems to be “never say die.”  Fool that I am, I count myself among them.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago I went merrily off to register to take a test to become a contestant on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!  Um, for the third time.  I told you, some people just don’t know when to quit.

A famous saying posits that taking the same unsuccessful action time and again and expecting a different result is indicative of insanity.  So call me crazy.  I am one of those suckers who appears undeterred by the statistical unlikelihood of winning the Power Ball, video poker in Reno and a place as a contestant on a well-known quiz show.

The first time that I took the Jeopardy! test was years ago, in person, at a road show event held at a giant car dealership in Placer County (coincidentally, the same place I recently went to deal with a recall on my car).  This was back when we lived in California’s Central Valley, involving a fairly lengthy drive on freeways with which I was then quite unfamiliar.  For my trouble, I had the privilege of standing on a long, snaking line in the hot sun until I reached a tent where I could sit at a picnic table and complete the test.  Fifty questions on an orange sheet of legal-sized paper, both sides.  I turned it in to one of the judges, whom I could tell had graded these papers a few thousand times.  The smirk on his face showed me that he knew perfectly well that I hadn’t a chance.  He went down the page with a pencil, making marks at each of my errors.  He shook his head as he handed me back the page.  Dejected, I began the long drive home.  I didn’t even come close.

I didn’t bother trying again for another decade or so.  By then, personal computers had become ubiquitous and I learned that the Jeopardy! test was given online each January.  I knew a few of the answers, but I remember calling out a number of the questions to my wife for assistance.  Between the two of us, we got nowhere.

At least when I took the test in person, I learned that I had failed immediately.  When one takes the test online, it’s a case of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  Of course, they don’t call you (because you did so poorly).  Months go by and you forget about it.  Until, after a few more years go by, you hear that it’s time for the online test again.  Except now it’s being offered at the end of May instead of in January.

What makes me think that I will do any better this time than I did last time?  I have no idea, other than to say that hope springs eternal and that there will always be fools like me.  Just call us “live bait,” as Frank Gilbreth did a century ago.  Or, in the immortal words of P.T. Barnum (even longer ago), “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

I actually think I improved a bit this time.  Not by much, and certainly not enough to make a difference, but a little.  So is it “third time’s a charm” or “three strikes, you’re out?”

Decidedly, the latter.  The problem, I soon realized, is that I am not as quick on the trigger as I once was (not that I ever was).  As much as I admire octogenarian and nonagenarian marathoners and ironmen, the fact remains that most of us eligible for the senior discount are a bit slower now than we were in days of yore.  Then there are some like myself who have always lagged a step or two behind.  Although I have amassed a great deal of knowledge in the course of my lifetime, I have never been accused of being the sharpest tool in the shed.  And now that I’ve strayed into AARP territory, I find myself playing the part a little too well by forgetting words at inconvenient times and wracking my brain to recall a name or fact that I know I know.  Dictionaries, both the online variety and the thick bound ones on my shelf, are my best friend.  Take it from me, the “senior moment” is a real thing.  So I suppose it’s kind of crazy for me to think that I’d have any chance at all in such a fast-paced competitive environment as Jeopardy!  Never mind trying to come with the questions to their answers, but how would I even press the signaling device fast enough?

Taking a trip down memory lane brings me back to my days as a senior in high school, when I competed against other schools as a member of our quiz bowl team.  Even at the tender age of 16, I was more of a liability than an asset.  As much as I was into trivia, I rarely knew the answer to the question asked.  And if I did, someone else would beat me to the buzzer almost every time.

You’d think I’d give it up by now, wouldn’t you?  Oh, no.  Knowledge of my limitations in no way dissuaded me from taking the test a third time.  I should probably pay attention to Alex Trebek himself, who (when not hawking life insurance) admits that, even after years of working with endless streams of facts, he’d have no chance against a sharp, young competitor.  I believe his words were “he would clean my clock.”

So as I log into the Jeopardy! test website after work on a Thursday evening, I remain hopeful even as I know quite well that I am on a fool’s errand.  I would estimate that I knew about half the answers, more or less guessed at another quarter, and came up entirely emptyhanded on the final quarter.  Inevitably, there were questions that I was sure I knew the answer to, but couldn’t come up with on short notice.  The senior moment again.

For example, the northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania.  Ah, geography, my strongest area!  A map of the Keystone State pops into my head.  Pittsburgh?  Altoona?  Uh, the Monongahela? Bloop!  The question disappears from the screen.  Time’s up!  Oh, well.

That night, I woke up suddenly from a dead sleep.  The Alleghenies!  Of course!  Duhhhh . . .

And then it happened again.  The next morning, in the shower.  I simply could not come up with the name of the director known for his work on Titanic.  But, sure enough, while shampooing my hair, it struck me like a lightning bolt.  “James Cameron!” I yelled.

The next day, of course, I again was unable to remember his name.  I had to Google it.  (Uncle Guacamole takes the walk of shame.)

Let’s put it this way:  I am not expecting a call from Sony any time soon.  Uh, or ever.

Clearly, I don’t know when to give up the things of younger people.  If I were truly committed to competing on Jeopardy!, shouldn’t I have done it years ago?  So why can’t I say “too late,” admit that my time has passed, and move on?

I guess I just can’t take no for an answer.

So what do you say, shall we go for number four?