Showing posts with label Martin Tucker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martin Tucker. Show all posts

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mentoring and Remembering

I didn't think I'd get around to writing anything for a while, but I can't let this go by.  There is a remarkably beautifully written piece by Philip Roth -- In Memory of a Friend, Teacher and Mentor -- in yesterday's New York Times, which one can read on several levels.  It is a eulogy, a profound testament to the power of mentoring, insight into the fine line between literature and non-fiction, and a condemnation of "the scum in power" -- what one could call government at certain stages of American history.  Roth is referring to the McCarthy era when his former high school teacher, mentor and friend, Dr. Bob Lowenstein was "mauled in Congress’s anti-Communist crusade of the 1940s and 1950s."

The main character in Roth's I Married a Communist was shaped by his friend and Roth says "the book is, at bottom, education, tutelage, mentorship, in particular the education of an eager, earnest and impressionable adolescent in how to become — as well as how not to become — a bold and honorable and effective man."  But it is also about that era when his friend and mentor was branded as "political deviant" and lost his job as a teacher for six years: "I refer now not to a boy’s but to an adult’s education: in loss, grief and, that inescapable component of living, betrayal. Bob had iron in him and he resisted the outrage of the injustice with extraordinary courage and bravery, but he was a man, and he felt it as a man, and so he suffered too."

Being a teacher, Bob was in the position of being a mentor to many.  I had had thoughts of going into teaching instead of publishing (actually, I had no thoughts about the latter, I just needed to work when I got out of college -- I think of myself as an "accidental publisher").
Good teachers are mentors by design and I have been lucky enough to have two during my impressionable high school and college years, and remarkably we are still in touch and continue to be part of my life, my high school economics and political science teacher, Roger Brickner, and my college English teacher Martin Tucker.

But I've been a mentor too in my career (and have been mentored by others in the publishing world) and although I rarely see them, I am lucky enough to have an email relationship with several former colleagues, some of whom I've known almost from the beginning.  The last entry made an oblique reference to one who contacted me after 44 years, Mary.  Well, hat tip to her for passing on this brilliant piece of satire by Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker, which sort of ties everything up regarding this entry -- a new shameful era in our political history, the Senate having the "the courage and grit to stand up to the overwhelming wishes of the American people."

When President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, he said that the people of Newtown, Connecticut "deserve a vote" on gun control, little did he imagine that a watered down version that focuses mainly on background checks would fail -- a shameful example of NRA's control of our politicians  We got our vote.  Hopefully, all will remember when those Senators are up for reelection.

And to the city of Boston, great sighs of relief to the refrains of Sweet Caroline.....

And when I hurt,
Hurtin' runs off my shoulders

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Reflection Beyond His Telling

My friend, Martin Tucker, is retiring, again. I’ll let him explain this redundancy and the occasion itself in the essay he wrote, How Difficult It Is To Say Goodbye (see below), from the 107th issue of Confrontation, a literary magazine he helped to found more than 40 years ago and has edited since. How many literary magazines can boast such longevity? Martin got things done through the force of his unique personality, a scholar/poet with an easygoing persona and playful sense of humor. Simply put, he is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known, compassionate and understanding. I count him among my few, but dear, life-long friends.

He was my teacher in college and I was his enthusiastic student in the courses he taught on contemporary literature. When I graduated and began working for a publishing company in New York I asked him whether he would edit a reprint series on English Literature, selecting the titles, commissioning the introductions and soon we were no longer student/teacher, but colleagues, trying to resurrect some of the best, forgotten literature.

And, indeed, in Martin’s usual modest way explaining his own success, he gives full attribution to his contributors, the writers: “without the writer, there is no book, no theater to open its door, no newspaper to appear at a doorstep and even in an impersonal age of communication like the web of the Internet, no summary to spread wireless reverberation.” So our friendship was founded on a love of literature and over the years, we worked on a multitude of projects, including the publication of his unique reference work on expatriate writers, Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century: An Analysis and Biographical Dictionary.

I like stories of serendipity and I can tell you one involving Martin. When my first marriage was ending, I was staying with my friend Jim in his East Village pad. To put it in temporal perspective, Janis Joplin was playing at the Fillmore East. Jim had a motorcycle and we decided to go to Fire Island for an early summer weekend, hoping to find a place to stay, but prepared to deploy our sleeping bags, someplace, anyplace. I knew a young woman in my office who had a house-share there and asked whether she might be there that weekend, hoping to crash at her place. She said it was not her weekend, although she was planning to arrive on Sunday as she was staying the following week for vacation.

As it turned out, Jim and I slept on the beach on Saturday night. Before we left the next day, I walked the beach looking for that young woman, Ann, who would later become my wife. I could not find her, but I found Martin on the beach with the woman who would later become his wife! After I was remarried, we saw them frequently until, sadly, they too were divorced. But over the years Martin and I always found the time to get together, in NY, Westport, or on our boat, and finally, we both found ourselves living in Florida, he on the west coast and we on the east, with still the opportunity for occasional visits.

The tables turned when I retired, as I became a consultant for Confrontation’s book publication program. Now I worked for him! But while our relationship will no longer be one of colleagues, I look forward to years and years of continuing friendship.

Martin once wrote a poem about a student offering him a New York street pretzel while crossing the campus to a class. I’ve forgotten the words, but never the feeling of the poignant relationship between eager student and admired teacher. Poetry has its way of capturing such truths and Martin has more to write in the future. His most recent poem in Confrontation, selected by him for this, his last issue as Editor, says it all:

A Chip off a Block, by Martin Tucker

A piece of stone
I chip at
and find a face
that is my own
yet distant like an object
held in hand
at arm’s length
telling me
to look.
but I cannot see
till the shape
overtakes me
my hand
my arm
my face
and the thing becomes
not me
but a reflection
beyond my telling.
A stone
The meaning of
within the stone
and I the onlooker
like anyone else.

Copyright © 2010 by Long Island University


How Difficult It Is to Say Goodbye by Martin Tucker

FORTY-TWO YEARS IS a long time to say goodbye to. It's probably the reason I've put off writing my "farewell" till the last minute, or the last minute before the printing press gulps down my words. Of course it hasn't been forty-two years that I've been saying goodbye, maybe two at the most. Forty years at a helm is a signal to pull into port. That's what I thought two years ago.

It takes time to slow down. Even the machines in a fitness room have a "cool-down" warning. Perhaps then it is a fitness-occasion now to say farewell.

Confrontation began, as many of its readers know, in 1968, the year of several confrontations that rocked the country. The editorial board of this magazine chose the name because it wanted to be a part of the country's spirit - the word was zeitgeist then -and to be inside the whirl of activities illustrating it. Our mission was less to choose sides, announce a winner of a contest, than to show the pluralities of life's arguments. There are always plenty of life's arguments to take issue with (which we did in assigning whole issues of the magazine to one blazing issue of the moment). Perhaps there were more confrontations in that momentous year than in the present moment. Such arguments with time and about the times can rarely be settled by figures, even of personal and mammoth size, but such figures are the stuff around which time takes its shape. And so we took up this banner called Confrontation.

Yet from the beginning - from its founding editors' approach to its most recent stance-we were more concerned with a two-faced look, a presentation of at least two ways at looking at a blackbird (or Hartford or poetry or even life insurance, for that matter). I suggested the name Confrontation after wanting to call the magazine Prism –initially. I thought our magazine, though it had firebrands on the staff, should be prismatic rather than confrontational. Fortunately or unfortunately, there was already a magazine called Prism, and so we opted for a second-choice title.

The history of a magazine is determined by its editors, for they select the good (or bad) writing that will distinguish it. When the magazine started, it had editors from the then-three campuses of Long Island University -the Brooklyn Center, C.W. Post, and Southampton College. Robert Donald Spector and I were chosen from the Brooklyn campus (I came to L.I.U. as adjunct instructor in 1956 in the English Department at the Brooklyn Center and rose to Professor and Chair of the English Department before moving to the C.W. Post campus 23 years later). Eugene Arden and Dan Levin were the editors from the Post campus, and Robert Umphreys and Steve Levinson represented the Southampton campus. Leading all of us with her vision was the founding patron of the magazine, Winthrop Palmer. Winthrop, who made the magazine possible through her generous financial contributions, and later endowment, possessed vast enthusiasm for all the arts, but particularly literature. Often meetings were held in her elegant apartment in Manhattan or her grand mansion in Center Island on Long Island's North Shore, where she fed us with substantial dinners and talk about the power of culture. Sometimes we engaged as well in discussion of the culture of power, and the discussions led to one of the thematic issues of the magazine - the morality of prize giving.

Like Mr. Chips, I watched as the editors of the founding moved on. Winthrop died in 1988 at age 88; her death-day is a quartet of eights, a rare date for a rare person. Robert Donald Spector, an important force in the history of Long Island University, as an educator, a representative of faculty interest, a writer, and as Chairman of the George Polk Journalism Awards, died last year. Eugene Arden, Steve Levinson, Bob Umphreys all moved away. The only remaining member of the original board, Dan Levin, remains teaching at the Post campus; he is now in his ninth decade.

Winthrop endowed the magazine and made possible its continuation without concern for financial exigency. A generous patron, a published writer of several poetry books and one volume of dance criticism as well as journalism and dramatic work, and a dedicated educator, she became for me a guiding light and a close friend. In one way, I said goodbye to Winthrop in her Center Island home the day before she died; in another way, I am saying goodbye to her now with this recounting, for her spirit has animated the magazine and guided me in my role as editor.


IT IS DIFFICULT TO say goodbye to all the other editors, assistants, consultants, student interns, and the administrators of the university who have contributed to Confrontation along the years. The history of the magazine should recognize the aid of Mary Lai, Cathy Seringer, Peggy Riggs, Virginia De Francesco, and others who steered the wheel of bureaucratic reports no less lively than the editorial matter of the magazine. I would like to say goodbye to two late good friends, Jeanne Welcher Kleinfield and Edythe Cecil; they were ladies of distinction whose efforts for the magazine need to be heralded, as well as the continuing support of Winthrop's daughter, Rosalind Palmer Walter.


IF A MAGAZINE CANNOT survive without an editor and Editorial Board and a Business Staff (or harried volunteer individuals trying to master the subscription list and sales data and Receipts Accountable), it can only survive on the base of its writers. It is, I admit, a tautological error to talk of quantitative survival. No one survives partway; we are all equal in survival, unless we don't survive, no matter how different we are after survival. Still, there is meaning in talking about qualitative differences of survival. Without the writer, there is no book, no theater to open its door, no newspaper to appear at a doorstep and even in an impersonal age of communication like the web of the Internet, no summary to spread wireless reverberation. Confrontation has been fortunate in having the support of writers, many of them famous and prize-winning, many of them unknown at the time of their publication in our pages, and all of them willing to accept our modest fees. We paid our contributors for their work from our first issue; the recompense was moderate, it has remained moderate, and it appears it will be doing so for the foreseeable future (of course the future is not so seeable, so such statements of measure should be taken with a measure of uncertainty). Some of the writers who have appeared in our pages since 1968 include eight Nobel laureates, among them LB. Singer, Nadine Gordimer, John Steinbeck, W.H. Auden, and Derek Walcott; some have been Pulitzer Prize and other Award winners, among them Arthur Miller, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Jerzy Kosinski, Iris Murdoch, James Jones, William Styron, and Jean Stafford; and some have been aspiring high school and college students. All of them graciously accepted our fees and some of them either refused to be paid or returned the fees as gifts to the magazine.

It is hard to say goodbye to that kind of giving.

We did say a kind of goodbye a few years ago to a policy that downsized big names and capitalized on lesser-known ones. We decided to try to discover new or unknown talent and emphasize such work unfolding from their pens and computers. The well-known did not need us; it was a gamble to see how much we need them on our covers. The gamble has worked well enough- attention is still paid to the magazine as it has paid attention to lesser-known writers. Certainly, any magazine is graced with the likes of an Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joyce Carol Oates fiction or a Cynthia Ozick essay, and occasionally we still publish a work by a talent of that size and recognition, but it is equally gratifying to know we have played a part in the burgeoning of a career.

Like many magazines that have become old –and 40-plus is old age in the literary journal field - we sometimes indulge in the memory of our youthful forays. I've said "goodbye" to the “scoop” method. We have had our share of them - we were the first literary journal to suggest, if not fully weigh, claims against the mistreatment of his wife by T.S. Eliot. I knew Eliot's secretary long after she resigned from her job at Faber & Faber, where Eliot was a senior editor. She still harbored affection for the great poet. Nevertheless, she revealed (after much argument from me) that Eliot’s behavior toward his first wife might be construed as unkind, if not hurtful. Such knowledge, while peripheral, was important, I urged on her, for gaining the fullest picture of the dominant poet of the modern age in the English-speaking world. Her memoir printed in our pages ignited both anger and applause, exactly the kind of prismatic – and confrontational -- look we were bent on achieving.


IT WILL BE SOMEWHAT hard to say goodbye to those familiar faces over the years who have stared at me in wonder as I passed through faculty halls and the university cafeteria. "But you retired fourteen years ago," they have said. "We gave you a big party. Everybody came." They do not say, "What are you doing here?" but I hear the words in my inner ear. It is hard to explain that I've been here these past 14 years after my retirement as a professor; that I've been working with a loyal and active staff - a skeleton staff if measured by the enormous body of work it performs. Sometimes these wondering souls have recognized me by the shopping bags I carry in one or both hands, the bags containing manuscripts to be read or letters to be answered. Sometimes, we smile at each other and sometimes the quizzical look does not leave their bemused faces.

I will miss those looks - they are a sign of good regards in my way of thinking - but I will not miss the weight of the shopping bags.

I will miss too the support of the administration, which for 40 years has not interfered with the editorial content of the magazine. I want to thank the present administration, and particularly David Steinberg, for its firm support. Other administrators over the years come to mind: Jeffrey Kane, Mary Lai, Edward Cook, Gail Stevens, Katherine Hill-Miller. And I will miss the friendship and aid of our Executive Director of the Books Program, Robert Hagelstein, whose advice was essential for our modest Press operations. In addition to being a colleague, Bob was once my student at the Brooklyn Center of L.I. U. Later he became President of Greenwood Press, which he helped to make the largest scholarly reprint publishing company in the U.S. I will miss too the close working association with our compositor/ designer John Beck, and our printing company, Thomson-Shore, each demanding deadlines of me as I demanded deadlines of them.


I AM SAYING GOODBYE to an ordered life which of course is disordered some of the time, but has recognizable time tables and furniture of many designs to remind one of his obligations. What awaits may be a less ordered life, one where the touchstones are seen more in the desire to find them and in the knowledge that they are to be constructed by self-discipline. Or what may await may be just as tempting - a landscape against which memory moves its moods into a basket for plucking all the things it has been hard to say goodbye to.


AND NOW I WOULD like to say hello to the new editor, Jonna Semeiks, who will take the reins with the next issue. Jonna has served on the magazine for close to a decade and comes with a background of magazine experience and a rich knowledge of modern and contemporary literature. She will be assisted by the new Poetry Editor, Belinda Kremer, and a new resource for our Internet age, Terry Kattleman, who will serve as Director of Publicity and Technical Information. It is a wonderful team, one I don't have to say goodbye to, at least for a year. I'll be staying on as consultant for the coming year.
- Martin Tucker

P.S. In writing this, I realize - suddenly - this is the last time I will have the last word on something I write. I will have to say goodbye to that, too.

Copyright © 2010 by Long Island University

Sunday, June 1, 2008

College Years

As mentioned before in these pages, I was totally unprepared for college, having squandered most of my time in high school, and lacking the encouragement of my parents. They did not want to see me go out of state and so I was accepted on probation by Long Island University. To make matters worse, that first year I lived at home and had more than a one-hour subway commute to Brooklyn from Queens. (

But with my sophomore year I achieved my objective of living on campus, settling into my new life in the dormitory. I also switched my major from advertising/business to psychology rationalizing that motivational research is best learned from that perspective. I was persuaded to make the switch because Gustave Gilbert was then Chairman of the department and as a psychology major I would be able to take his popular course the The Psychology of Dictatorship. Later in my career I reprinted his book of the same title. Gilbert was the author of the Nuremberg Diary and was the American Military Chief Psychologist at the trials.

However, thanks to the influence of my friend, Bruce, I again switched my major to literature during my junior year ( This is where my heart took me. That same year I became a dormitory counselor, which provided free room and board, and at that time I met Carol, who was to become my first wife.

I think we were drawn together because we were both lost souls (although at the time I did not see that). She too came from an emotionally “broken” home. We adopted one another and my mother saw in her a “daughter,” whom she hoped to mold and influence. Before long, we were planning our marriage. We dove into that commitment without any doubts, especially me as I saw an opportunity to “teach” my parents how to have a marriage and it was a permanent ticket out of my home.

So, in June 1963 we were married in the Church in the Gardens in Forest Hills. Only a few people attended the wedding, my immediate family, my Uncle Phil, and my friends Bud and Ed. Even her mother did not go to the wedding.

That day started ominously. Carol was staying with my family in Queens and I was in our new apartment in Brooklyn. I decided to cook myself some bacon and eggs that morning before getting on the subway. We had one frying pan in which I first cooked the bacon and when that was finished I nonchalantly discarded the grease into a wax water cup that promptly melted around my thumb. The Brooklyn Hospital was across the street and I rushed there, trying to get someone’s attention in the emergency room. My story of having to make my own wedding in a few hours was met with, “Oh, yeah.” Finally, between a couple of gunshot wound victims I was seen, treated for 2rd degree burns and my right thumb was bandaged so it was twice it’s size. Nice “touch” for the wedding night I thought.

That summer we moved into the section of the dormitory for faculty and married students and we both worked full time. The following year we maintained part time jobs to support ourselves while we finished our senior years, me at the university library and she in a variety of jobs.

By this time I was taking mostly English courses and had several with Prof. Martin Tucker who is still my friend to this day. Martin was more than a teacher. He was a mentor who gave me confidence in my abilities. And, today, more than 40 years later, I work with him as executive director of Confrontation Press. He just turned 80 and is still going strong, as a poet, as a playwright, and as the Editor of the literary journal, Confrontation, that has just published its 100th issue. About twenty years ago he asked me to write a piece about my LIU student experience for a special issue of Confrontation, "Brooklyn and the World." This was intended to be more of an evocative portrayal than a history, and I include the essay below.

When the time came for graduation, I found I lacked the necessary credits, with too many credits from too many majors (Business, Psychology, English) and too many minors (Education and Music), but not enough required courses. So during the summer of 1964 I had to take those courses to graduate while Carol worked for Dell Publishing. Upon graduation, she became pregnant, thus changing my thought of going to graduate school, either to pursue teaching or library science.

So life had other plans for me and I began my working career, but that is another story.

L.I.U.-My World in the Early'60s

Downtown Brooklyn sandwiched between the placid decade of the 50s and the Vietnam War was not unlike other communities in having a sense of optimism about its future. A thriving commercial center for small merchants, it had major islands in the same sea: the New York Telephone Company headquarters, the Brooklyn Hospital, Abraham and Straus department store, the Fox and Paramount movie theatres, the Board of Education, Fort Greene Park, and Long Island University.

It was September 1960 when I emerged from the DeKalb Avenue subway stop and made my way for the first time to L.I.U. Standing at the comer of Flatbush Avenue Extension and DeKalb Avenue, waiting for the light to change, Junior's and the Dime Savings Bank behind me, I faced a drab office building rising above the ornate but faded Brooklyn Paramount movie palace.

Farther behind me was a middle-class Queens community, my universe until this moment: a community of hard-working people imbued with the conviction that all things were possible in this society if one tried hard enough; it was with this sense I was going to college to learn business. But this seeming past eternity of punch ball; the Bungalow Bar man; picture-card trading; piano and guitar lessons; grammar school report cards that included grades for penmanship, neatness and posture; the Bunny Hop, Elvis ("a-wop-bom-a-lu-bop ... "); Ike; and high school (" ... if you don't take Latin, you won't be able to get into college .. ") was possibly fading, for I stood on the border between two lives, two cultures: was my background going to be my future, could I emerge out of this bland and benign landscape into myself? Brooklyn would have much to do with the answer.

Sitting in my first class on the 8th floor, becoming a regular occupant of that same seat, I could see the digital clock on top of the Dime Savings Bank blinking at me. This and another clock on top of the Williamsburg Savings Bank farther up Flatbush Avenue became lighthouses in my Brooklyn experience. When, the following year, I lived in the dormitory, returning late in the evening from a night in Manhattan in a blinding snowstorm, I sensed these silent timepieces watching me scurrying home.

In later years I lived in downtown Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan for a publishing firm, and regularly flew to the mid-west. Coming into LaGuardia Airport, we would sweep over Brooklyn and see the downtown area reaching out to Prospect Park while the fingers of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges bound Brooklyn to Manhattan. Below was the beacon of the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock. Then, as now, I am drawn to that unique community I once called home.

I remember the student union on the ground floor of the small building adjacent to the Paramount building. Smoke hung in the stagnant air, bodies slumped on worn lounge chairs and elbows rested on Formica tables. Nixon versus Kennedy was the subject of heated discussion. These students, mostly from Brooklyn, seemed confident in their belief that politics could remake society. Eventually I found myself caught up in political causes as my apathy of the past waned.

With John F. Kennedy our new President-elect, the campus had a new vibrancy. A professor, delayed by listening to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony in his office, entered the classroom gesticulating those glorious rhythms. One professor challenged us to an exam: think of a question and answer it, the grade being as dependent on the nature of the question as on the answer. Another accepted a twisted pretzel from a student on the school quadrangle and published a poem on the experience.

Meanwhile I moved into the dormitory, severing remaining ties with a prior somnambulistic life. My room faced the front of the campus, with the monolithic slab of a factory that would become the shell of the architecturally renowned Humanities Building to be constructed a short time later. Behind the factory stood downtown Brooklyn, my microcosm of the real world.

The lack of classroom space mandated that the university rent space at Brooklyn Polytechnic, a neighboring institution where some of my classes were held. We made our way there along Myrtle Avenue, the elevator line rumbling over our heads, past furniture stores and shells of buildings. Decay was evident, but it was defiant decay: people stubbornly made their homes and pursued their lives here.

The return trip was frequently along Fulton Street, connecting the City Hall area with Flatbush Avenue and downtown Brooklyn. There, the cacophony of tiny record stores blurted out" ... baby, baby, baby, baby don't you leave me ... " merging with" ... be-bop-a-lu-la, she's my baby ... " The Chinese restaurant on the second floor beckoned, but I moved on toward the Dime Savings Bank, past shoe, appliance, fabric and other stores.

Across from the Dime Savings Bank was McCrory's, which embodied most of the merchant's downtown Brooklyn expectations. Here I was greeted at the door by the aroma of newly manufactured goods mixed with those of different foods cooking in various sections of the store. In the basement was a grocery where we bought food to supplement the fare in the dormitory. Shoppers would scrutinize the merchandise with almost-total seriousness as the IND subway loudspeaker announced, through corridors connecting to McCrory's, a train's arrival.

Opposite Junior's restaurant, then as now the neighborhood's most famous food emporium, was another restaurant, Soloway's, a luncheonette run by a Greek family. Hamburgers sizzled in grease while french fries were bathing in deep fat. Students gathered around most of the tables and at the counter while strains of "Run Around Sue" thumped from the jukebox.

Junior's itself was reserved for special occasions when only the most obscene dessert would suffice. Also, late at night, when we could study no more, some of us went across to Junior's bar to chat with Pete, the bartender, who offered a different education: would Maris hit 60 home runs? Mickey Mantle was the better ballplayer, Pete opined. Pete had a thick neck with a trim gray crew cut. He was a kindly father to us, probably not realizing the important role he played in our student lives.

Manhattan was a short shuttle over the Manhattan Bridge via the BMT, and occasionally we went there. Perhaps on a date, sitting at the back of St. Patrick's Cathedral until dawn to beat the curfew for female residents of the dorm; or to Greenwich Village for a Black Russian or to see a production at Cafe LaMama or on the second floor of Max's Kansas City restaurant, where the Theatre of the Absurd played; but Brooklyn seemed to be all the world we generally needed and that was where we usually stayed. We sat on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and took in the vista of the Brooklyn Bridge, downtown Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and further up, the spire of the Empire State.

During club hours we crowded into the auditorium to hear Malcolm X speak. Or we listened to local political candidates, heated debate overflowing the classroom after the speaker left.

The Cuban Missile crisis brought us back to days when, as schoolchildren, shades were lowered, lights turned out, and we were instructed to get down on our knees below our desks and cover our heads. Our mortality, and civilization's could be ended by design or by caprice. We frantically darted about the dormitory, discussing whether we might soon be drafted.

I remember other areas I did not know until those days in Brooklyn. Working as a receptionist at the Brooklyn Tuberculosis Center several evenings a week, I participated in a too-common side of Brooklyn life: poverty. Sick, helpless people came, seeking assistance. I processed forms and offered reassurance, but felt ineffectual.

As a dormitory counselor I sometime had to accompany students to the emergency room at the Brooklyn Hospital behind the university. I spent a week there myself, with pleurisy, in a ward. The squalor and the human tragedy I witnessed are echoed in the works of Theodore Dreiser which I read in the hospital for a term paper, seeing Frank Cowperwood's lobster and squid locked in deadly combat as symbolic of our struggle with life in this land of Brooklyn.

Next to the hospital was a prison. There, from the upper floors of the dormitory, the prisoners could be seen endlessly marching in circles. The prison was later destroyed to make room for a bigger hospital, the demolition ball pounding the 19th-century slabs into rubble, crushing the infinitely trodden steps in the courtyard.

Walking past the Admissions Office one Friday afternoon, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.

I had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV, Jack Ruby assassinated him.

With the advent of these acts, in particular as the Vietnam War encroached on all our lives, I knew the life I had known in Brooklyn could not remain the same. What changed, some years later, was often for the better for me. But whatever the benefits and the sad moments, I shall remember Brooklyn most as the place that allowed me to change into myself.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fifty, Going On…

Last April I sent a 50th birthday greeting to a friend I worked with, Pat. I had remembered her 40th birthday party at the office ten years before (or so I thought), festooned with black crepe paper and black balloons. Imagine my embarrassment when she told me I was one year early with my greeting. Well, like a broken clock I can confidently now say Happy 50th to Pat.

Coincidentally, my friend Martin is turning 80 (pictured here, playing Scrabble with Ann), so I am exactly midway between their ages, a triangulation that tripped a “growing old” electrode in my brain, conjuring those immortal lines on the topic I’ve carried around with me since I read them: Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I grow old … I grow old …I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and John Masefield’s poem I inexplicably memorized in its entirety when I was a teenager, perhaps for a moment such as this, On Growing Old: “Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying, Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.” It is perhaps the most eloquent poem on aging.

When I turned 50, I wrote Martin a letter, part of which covered the way I felt about that birthday at the time. Hopefully, Pat is more sanguine about the occasion than obviously was I:

Yes, I am watching middle age fade in the sunset as I approach my 50th birthday next month. I have never been sensitive to my age, perhaps because I have always been among the youngest of my peers -- in business particularly. Suddenly, as if someone flicked a switch of a grotesque neon light, I am caught in the glare of my own impending senior citizen status. No longer am I among the youngest. Even my boss is younger than I. Everyone calls me "sir" and I do not like it one bit.

I can't imagine how I am going to be able to adjust to this unwelcome shift in status. Originally, I thought it might be fun to gormandize my 50th head-on by giving a funky country music party -- ten-gallon hats and all.

Now, I've convinced Ann that it might be best if I just slip-away into the oblivion of seniority by doing nothing. Even though you are a few steps in front of me, you need not feel honor-bound to point out all of the wonderful reasons it is to be 50. The only one I can think of is not to be 70!
(Post Script: We had that party anyhow. Glad I did. Now, 70 doesn’t seem so onerous.)

But, my favorite 50th was Ann’s (pictured to the right just a "few" years earlier). It was special as it was a surprise party, and it was not the first time I had successfully pulled one off for her. For Ann’s 40th she thought she was going to a wedding. Friends of ours who had been living together had agreed to serve as the bait and we printed one wedding invitation, which was of course sent to us. So Ann was dressed to the nines and we had to drop off our young son at another friend’s house on the way for babysitting, thinking she was going to a big “wedding.” But at our friend’s house everyone from Ann’s past had gathered, including her mother and relatives from California. Her knees buckled when the door was opened.

So it was with much pleasure I was able to engineer another surprise party exactly ten years later. That afternoon we were out on our boat ‘Swept Away’ at our favorite Crow Island anchorage, the tiniest island in the Norwalk chain, where we literally lived during summer weekends, year in and year out. Many of our friends were there too on their boats but gradually they left and I had persuaded Ann to stay to enjoy the waning hours of the languid Sunday late afternoon. That should have been her first hint something was up, as I was the one who usually left first, to clean up the boat, and then return home to get ready for the workweek.

Unknown to her, our friends and many relatives were waiting at a restaurant at our marina where I had reserved a private room. Upon our return to the slip I suggested we go out for dinner, something I knew she would jump at after a weekend on the boat. I said I preferred the restaurant at the marina, that I was too tired to go off someplace else, and so she was ambushed by another surprise birthday celebration, this for her 50th.

Here is my toast to her at the gathering. While some specifics might make sense to those who have been close to Ann over the years, the gestalt paints a picture of a special person, without whom birthdays would be meaningless to me:

Welcome, friends and relatives, to Ann's 50th birthday celebration. Thank you all for helping to make this a special day for a special person and thank you to Patti, who was my co-conspirator in arranging this celebration.

The relationships one forms weave the fabric of one’s life; by this definition, our Annie has a real reason to celebrate on this special day. And those relationships are as much built around many small detailed moments as they are around life's more momentous occasions.

How many languid afternoons have there been -- on the 'Afternoon Delight' -- at our beloved Crow Island, with Annie, Betty, Tony, Cathy and John locked in mortal battle over a scrabble board, Ann suddenly exclaiming, "I can put all seven letters down and my word has a j,x, and z!" Publicly, I have contended that Ann cheats at Scrabble. (After all, she is always clutching that book that lists one million two-letter words and one billion three-letter words.) The truth be told, though, she has always been a fierce competitor and has a real love of reading and words.

Then, there were those times with Sue and Ray, their Donzi skimming over the Long Island Sound at nearly 60 miles an hour, Ray smiling demonically with his hat turned backwards, Sue employing Ray to slow down, and Annie in the rear seat screaming, "Raymond, Raymond, RAYMOND!" Be assured, Ray, she loved every minute of it, but not as much, perhaps, as those quiet, harbor cruises as the sun was setting at the Great Salt Pond, Block Island.

Potluck suppers on the 'Swept Away' and the 'Our Dream' (or, as Richard and I have sometimes referred to our boats as an "Eggaton") also stand out among these special moments. Watching Annie cook -- and as you all know she is a great cook -- is quite an experience. It gives new meaning to the word "hyperactive" and watching Marlene and Annie in tandem entitles us mere mortals to reach for the Valium.

Nancy and Betty-- in the New York arena, and Marge and Peter -- in London territory -- know of Annie's love of the theater, eating, and, let's not beat around the bush, fine, EXPENSIVE, things in general. And, as in other matters, going to a restaurant or the theater with Annie is an experience, ranging from her crying out "BRAVO, BRAVO, BRAVO!" at the end of a performance, to turning to a stranger in a restaurant to ask for a bite of his meal, or, even, his life history. Annie has no shame in a restaurant and even has been known to ask for large take out portions of the Fried Calamari from La Bernadine.

So, it is no wonder that Annie's friendship with Arlene began in a restaurant on 14th Street, La Bilbania, in 1964. Annie's love of travel was fostered by this friendship. Together they braved the vicissitudes of Montezuma's revenge in Mexico and left most of the men in Spain and Italy pining for their early return. Their antics at the Pensione in Spain have been written about in some of the world's most notable tabloids.

But being a friend of Ann's is not always like trying to follow a big brass band. Patti and Ann, while ostensibly taking their dogs for a walk, engage in secret "girl talk." In fact, if there is one single, attribute that makes Ann Ann, it is her capacity for intimacy, for understanding human nature, for giving and helping. She has touched many lives.

But with that great gift is also an innocence, even gullibility. Exactly 10 years ago we orchestrated a surprise 40th birthday party for her. She was easily convinced that our friends, Carole and Terry, were going to be married. One wedding invitation was printed and sent to us, and that is where she thought she was going when she arrived at her own party.

Of course, Annie is no different as a Mother, Aunt, or Cousin. Cousins Mimi and Sherman have watched her grow, since she left Atlanta, Georgia in 1959, for New York City, to find her life. When you think about it that was either an extraordinarily brave act or one borne out of naiveté. Annie was one of the original "women's libber" but did not even know it.

Mimi and Sherman were nurturing to Annie in her early New York years and, in fact, she ultimately inherited their rent-controlled apartment at 33 West 63rd Street. This became our first apartment.

As a young, single woman she made a career for herself, first as a receptionist and ultimately as a Customer Service Manager at the publishing organization where we met in 1965. In between, she dated men with simple names such as Takeshi, Schlomo, and the one I have the most difficult pronouncing, Jack. Favorite activities in New York were bicycling, exploring the Village and dancing the Mambo at the Palladium. Simply put, Annie was a beatnik, a bohemian who chose the path most of her Atlanta high school classmates could hardly imagine.

To her niece, Regina, and her Cousins, Suzanne and Michael, Aunt Ann has been an inspiration -- an accomplished career women, who has traveled around the world and, of course, let's not kid ourselves, she married well.

But that strong nurturing, zest-for-life instinct in Annie is never more evident than in her role as Mother to Chris and Jonathan. She stood by Chris while he went through some difficult transitional years. She was, and is, always there for him.

Her relationship with Jonathan is, as many of you can attest, a very complicated one. Perhaps that is because they are in many ways alike. Jonathan, I can think of no better compliment.

Finally, the most incredulous thing about Annie is that she puts up with me. That qualifies her for Sainthood! So to my best friend, I raise my glass to say, "Happy 50th Birthday, and here is to the next 50!"

Post Script: While posting this, I realized that today would have been my dad’s 92nd birthday. I included a piece about him at the conclusion of one of my first blog entries: