Monday, July 21, 2008


Our younger son, Jonathan, is a traveler, while our older son’s avocation is that of a writer (see Chris’ Why am I a Writer at the end of

It is hard to believe Jonathan is now 31 and Chris is 43 as it seems like mere moments have passed between these two photographs, the first Jonathan looking up in admiration of his older brother in the early 1980’s and the other of me flanked by them just this last Xmas holiday.

This summer, between jobs in private equity, Jonathan decided to take a trip he's always dreamed about. Last week he flew to Brussels and then was on his way to Egypt, Giza and the Pyramids, Cairo, Jordan, Petra, Lebanon, Syria (Damascus), through Israel, Bulgaria, Turkey, onto Greece where he is boarding a boat for a cruise of the Greek Islands, then to India, Delhi, to Kathmandu in Nepal, and two weeks traveling by boat, bus, jeep, and yak all throughout the northern cities of India, Agra, etc., ultimately hiking through the Himalayas. Whew! Most of his travel is being done with frequent flyer miles, a backpack and, except for parts of India, on his own. Talk about Wanderlust!

I suppose this is indeed the time to undertake such an ambitious trip before the responsibilities of a new job and perhaps marriage and family intercede. I never had those options, although my work entailed a number of international trips and contacts. In fact, on some of those trips I would bring my wife, Ann, and Jonathan. One I think he found especially impressionable was a trip to Japan when he was only twelve. The Japanese library market sought our professional and scholarly books and so my travels occasionally brought me there and I became close to the Japanese booksellers, particularly our distributor. My Japanese host and the head of the distribution company, Mitsuo, admired Jonathan’s inquisitiveness and took him under his wing. We travelled with Mitsuo and his wife to a spa hotel northwest of Tokyo where Naruhito, the Crown Prince of Japan, had stayed. There on the eve of the 1990 New Year, we were treated to a special weekend where we were the only Westerners, sleeping on handcrafted tatami mats, eating traditional Japanese food. My host challenged me to guess the identity of the dinner appetizer – something that tasted like steak tartar to me. He laughed when he told me it was raw horsemeat, a delicacy in the region. Luckily, I had sufficient Sake to wash it down. Not so at breakfast that consisted of seafood, rice, and fermented foods. Jonathan ate adventurously.

The high point of the weekend was the spa. First indoors we had to bathe sitting on a small stool, using a bucket with water, soaking and scrubbing ourselves until clean. Then, with nothing but a bathrobe, we walked outside into the cold night air, with snow on the ground, disrobed, and plunged ourselves in the hot springs. A bamboo curtain separated the ladies from the men. We could talk to our wives but not peek. Jonathan took to this so naturally while I had to be coaxed into the hot pool, simply because the temperature difference was so great.

In fact in two short weeks, Jonathan was beginning to find himself around Tokyo with little difficulty, using public transportation, and we let him explore a little. Ann and I remember sitting in our hotel room at the New Otani Tokyo, after he had left to go to the Ginza to see the latest electronics, watching him from our 30th floor window, a little speck on the street, crossing a bridge to the underground. Amazing we thought (perhaps as much surprised by our permissiveness as by his courage).

So it is no wonder that as a student at Bates College, Jonathan choose to spend his junior year abroad, living in Kyoto with a host family, attending Doshisha University, immersing himself in Japanese. We visited him there and were favorably impressed by his rapidly developing language skills as he took us to Temples and local restaurants. Today he has a good working knowledge of the Japanese language and of course the culture. Immediately after college he again returned to Japan, initially with the thought of job searching there, but, having mastered Japanese, Jonathan was intent on learning more about Asia, particularly China, so he choose to teach English in Guanjo, China and in so doing, developed conversational abilities in Mandarin. Several years later he returned to China to complete his MBA, finishing his last semester at Beijing University. By this time, his Mandarin was as fluent as his Japanese.

While working at a major financial firm for several years, he planned his vacations for other points in the Far East, including Viet Nam and Cambodia, always choosing the more challenging trips to the leisurely ones. So it is no wonder that given this new two month window, he has planned a demanding itinerary.

A little more than ten years ago he turned 21. At that time I wrote him a letter which I still stand by today. It almost sounds prophetic.

Dear Jonathan,

Today you are 21. There were other watershed years, your 13th, your 18th, but, for some reason, this is the really big one -- at least from my perspective. Why? Maybe, symbolically, it marks the true demarcation between dependency and non-dependency and, therefore, has as much meaning to Mom and me as it does to you -- as you move away from our lives and into your own. In other words, your 21st is also a reflection on us and the roles we have played while you were growing up.

I feel a deep sense of sadness in one respect. I could have been a better parent, maybe had a better relationship with you. In my defense, though, the time, which I thought, was so timeless, suddenly disappeared and here we are at this moment. In my next life, maybe, I will be more conscious of time and how fleetingly, even suddenly, it passes. I held you in my arms one minute and the next we touch mostly in cyberspace.

But, enough about my perspective as the best thing about turning 21 is something you might not think about much: the future. In many respects I wish I could skip ahead for one moment and see your life when you are my age. The possibilities, the possibilities.... And, it's all about choices -- you'll have many more than we had but, still, you have to make the choices. These relate to not only career tracks but also ethical, behavioral, and life style choices. I am not going to sit here and say anything about what you should do but I will note that these choices are being made every day by you whether you are aware of them or not. The Gestalt of those choices is the person you will become and the life you will lead. May it be a happy and productive one.

It is only fitting, I think, that you are going off to Japan in a few days. What a start to becoming 21. Leaving the cocoon of your childhood and going out into the world. But, your Mom and I will always be there for you -- even after we are not there. May you always feel that love. I gave you a poem, once, by Robert Mazzacco. No doubt you read it quickly and it became one of those victims of the moment. I'll close this note quoting that poem. I could never say it any better and I admire the ability to say something so profound is such small space:

Family voices; you still can hear them,
ever so dimly, there in your own voice:
your father's voice, even your mother's voice.

The older we get
the more you'll hear them,
though no one else does.
Just as you still can see them, all over
your body, though, of course, no one else must:
family scars and family kisses.

- Robert Mazzacco