Tag Archives: family

The Pursuit of Happiness/Georgia On My Mind

Because I live in New Jersey, my idea of a happy life has mostly been to get the hell out and live somewhere less vapid, brutish, and rampantly assaholic.  In fact, we’ve spent five years “interviewing” more likely locations.  (Our current favorites are Savannah during the teaching year and Martha’s Vineyard over the summers).  If only we’d known that modern technology could have saved us all that travel.  Take this ten-question quiz, and the good folks at TIME Magazine will automatically match you up with the state that most suits you.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Remarkably, when we took the test, each of us came up Georgia.  Guess I’d better start developing a taste for mint juleps.

But, look.  I know that happiness doesn’t come at the butt end of a moving van, even if that van is headed away from Jersey.  To quote Confucius by way of Buckaroo Banzai, no matter where you go, that’s where you are.  And, even more to the point:  No matter where I go, when I get there I’ll be retired, displaced, and staring into the face of the pursuit of happiness.

So, after 56 years, what exactly do I know about my own happiness?

My first thought is, not much.  When I look back at my life so far, it seems to me that instead of pursuing happiness, I’ve been content with avoiding unhappiness.  Not to cue the violins, but I’m an abandoned kid.  Inevitably, an abandoned kid grows into an adult who is convinced that he is unlovable, undeserving of happiness, and baffled by the ways that other people seem to slide easily and contentedly through the world.  So, I’ve never had a nose for joy.  Mostly, “joy” for me has been the cold relief of avoiding a constant toxic feeling of wrongness and shame.

But, that’s not really fair.  True, I haven’t spent my life chasing pleasure.  There’ve been no sports cars, five-star restaurants, or beachfront resorts.  I cringe at the idea of getting a massage or other “pampering.”  Heck, I’ve never even tasted coffee or tried a cigarette.  My life has been much smaller:  Holding down a workaday job, being a husband and father, a few hobbies mostly in the homely worlds of folk music and community theater.  Nevertheless, like the great majority of Americans, I would say I’m happy.  I mean, it’s not like I am clueless when asked to choose between Red Lobster and Le Bernardin.  I have some instinct for joy.  So, what is it that makes me happy?

Thoreau, by way of LL Cool J, said:  “Do what you love.”  (Thoreau continued, “Know your own bone,” advice that seems directly related to his famed love for solitude).  That would make a nice motto on some poster with a playful kitten, but really, it’s not very helpful.  “Do what you love” means, happiness is doing things that make you happy.  Sort of begs the question, no?

If pursuing happiness were as easy as “doing what you love,” then we’d all be blissed-out pleasure zombies, rather than thin-lipped, rueful, and rudderless.  Yes, we all have hobbies, interests, diversions, sometimes even passions.  But, despite all those pastimes, we no more know what makes us happy than we know how our cells accomplish mitosis.

Just consider the groaning shelf of “what to do when you retire” books at your local bookstore.  The audience for those books are folks who fear that, without a job to fill our waking hours, we’ll fill them instead with reality television, outlet-mall shopping, and Bud Light swilled from cans.   If people believed that “doing what you love,” whether golf, ballroom dancing, or building model ships in bottles, would actually produce happiness, we’d never see “what to do when you retire” books.

And yet, somehow, we are happy.  We stumble through life, doing what we do rather than “doing what we love.”  And, doing what we do makes us happy.  How does the one lead to the other?  Let’s see.

  • For me, most of my waking hours are spent practicing law.  Most lawyers, and especially trial lawyers like me, hate their jobs.  But, I get real happiness from mine.  I enjoy the problem-solving, the Dutch-uncle schmoozing, the gathering teetering piles of facts and law into a solid structure.   However misguidedly, those parts of being a lawyer make me feel competent, clear-thinking, and effective.  And, that makes me happy.
  • The next largest block of my time is spent being a husband.  My marriage has an unusually strong balance of yin and yang.  Barbara’s awesome strengths are in creating visual beauty, giving love loyally, and intuiting emotional truths.   In the hollow of that womanly curve, she allows me, and confidently expects me, to try to be a good man, which means for example accepting and cherishing her love, being confident, respectful, and reliable, and knowing when to advise and when to hold my peace.  When I can live up to that role, it feels like being forty feet tall.  And, that makes me happy.
  • And yes, I do have hobbies.  They’ve always been creative hobbies:  Writing, teaching, acting, singing, songwriting, and most recently creating a concert series.  I’m an awful actor, mediocre professor, and made a fair botch of my short career as a singer/songwriter.  And yet, creating my classes, writing my songs or articles or reviews, taking a concert series from a little hole in the wall to a pulsing community with thousands of participants, all made me feel creative and engaged.  And, that’s made me feel happy.

I do what I do.  And, at their best, the things I do make me feel competent, creative, and nurturing.  There, I think, is the secret of my future happiness.  Doing what I love is not about playing ultimate Frisbee or reading the classics or learning the piano.  Doing what I love is putting myself in a position to be creative, build community, nurture others, be a good man.  Whether that means teaching at community college, leading walking tours, or volunteering to give advice at small claims court, this has to be the goal.  As long as there are mint juleps waiting.

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November 5, 2013 · 6:32 am

My Old Man

Father’s Day is set appropriately in mid-June, that tail end of Spring lousy with baseball, beer, and boozy screen-porch sentimentality.  Everyone, it seemed, was jostling last month to deliver an encomium to his Dear Old Dad.  I, though, am a wallflower at that orgy.  I have nothing at all to say about the wonders of growing up with a Pop, or even about the sadness of losing one.  My father, y’see, chose to go 1500 miles away and to pretend that I don’t exist.

If you listen to Steve Goodman’s brilliant song “My Old Man” or read this week’s Richard Ford essay “The Song Of The Suburbs,” you’ll get the impression that growing up with a father produces a lifetime of stories.  Not true for me.  Because my dad left when I was seven, I have barely a cocktail-party anecdote.

I remember him mostly as a self-invented “character”:  A jocular, impenetrable, and always larger-than-life fellow who cultivated a drily-amused plummy voice, a jazz hipster wardrobe, and an inventory of scripted “bits” that spared him from any sort of authentic connection to other people.  I’m sure that women (and apparently there were several during his marriage to my mom) saw him as charming, dangerous within acceptable limits, and maddeningly aloof.  My impression is that he lived his life as though rules did not apply to him, which (as we know from “Mad Men”) can be irresistible.

There is no way that my parents’ marriage was ever going to last.  She married him for the exact reasons that he was not marriage material:  He was rakish, unpredictable, and spontaneous.  She was ostentatious, self-absorbed, and brittle.  Their marriage must have felt like the closing act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, or hell, anything starring Elizabeth Taylor after National Velvet).  For as long as they could live the edgy life, taking daring cross-country drives chasing nonexistent jobs or mingling in the nightclub culture of Batista-era Miami Beach or working as a bandleader at the Borscht-Belt Catskills hotels, there was enough bubbly high octane in their marriage to keep it going.  But, by the time Fidel took power, they had two babies and a suburban apartment in New Jersey.  The party was over.  After a series of false starts, my old man left for good.

There is nothing remarkable about parents getting divorced.  The unusual part of this story is that my father left and never looked back.  He didn’t simply disappear, as fathers sometimes do.  He moved in with and married his girlfriend, left for Oklahoma and, for almost fifty years, has simply chosen not to acknowledge my existence.

I’ve always known my dad’s address and his telephone number, and he’s always known mine.   Perhaps five times in those fifty years, I’ve been in the Oklahoma area and have gone to visit him.  Every time, he’s been studiously polite and thoughtful, the way you’d be if a business associate came calling.  He takes me to dinner, introduces me to his wife’s family, gives me little gifts to take away with me.  And, every time, after he drops me at the airport and promises to stay in touch, he forgets that I ever existed.

I thought of my dad on the day George Carlin died, June 2008.  George’s  on-stage voice, with its carefully-cultivated tone of knowing bemusement (“Why is it that someone going slower than you is an idiot, but someone going faster than you is a maniac?”),  reminded me of my father’s way of talking.   So, after maybe five years of silence, I called him.  I told him my latest news, which produced no reaction at all.  I asked him about his life, which elicited one-word responses.  After a short and awkward call, we hung up and he promised to send me his email address.  He never did.  He has not contacted me in the five years since then.

My old man is 83 next month.  I don’t expect I’ll ever speak to him again.  So, what have I learned from a lifetime of fatherlessness?

It would be too easy to talk about how I never learned how to be a man because I never had a father.  I do suspect that boys watch their dads closely, and adopt or reject their fathers’ values and manner.  So, it’s true that I never watched my Dad avoid a brawl, or copied my Dad’s way of shaking hands, or had anyone to teach me how to tie a Windsor knot.  But, if that is the only effect of fatherlessness, it’s awfully easy to overcome.  We parentless kids know full well that we haven’t learned the ways of the world.  We become as intensely observant as someone who’s lost his sight or hearing.  And, we learn.  It’s not as though I’ve gone through life with my neckties untied.

No, the lasting effect of my fatherlessness is the same as the lasting effect of my motherlessness.  When a parent chooses not to be a parent (or is an alcoholic, or mentally ill), the only way that the child can hold his world together is to excuse the parent and blame himself.  To blame the parent means accepting that the parent can’t be relied on; that the child is completely on his own; and that all that is left is anger and despair.  I found it far easier to believe that my parents were blameless, and that they chose not to parent me because I was so unlovable as to be not worth parenting.

Over a half-century, I’ve learned how to shake hands and tie a Windsor knot.  I’ve mostly gotten over my lifelong conviction that I must be unworthy of love (and of the parentless kid’s constant sense of cluelessness in social situations).  But, most of all, after many decades, I’ve given up on contacting my old man and believing that I can convince him to be my parent.  And that is the most important Father’s Day gift of all.

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July 12, 2013 · 5:14 pm

Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson 2

I was born in 1957, in the Eisenhower age of contented suburban families and pots full of chickens; but it was not until I was in my forties that I discovered the value of family.  Because I had to learn in middle age what most people are able to intuit starting in their earliest childhood, and because I had to stumble my way through most of my life without that knowledge, I think my angle on the value of family is worth exploring.

The streetcorner sociologists say that we Jews, like all Mediterranean societies, hold our families close.  I think immediately of the opening scene of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” where the members of an extended Jewish family crowd around a dinner table and argue whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the greater ocean.  Every bell curve, though, has its tails; and our family was certainly one of the most non-prehensile of those.  Put simply, our Jewish family were so politely distant from one another that we may as well have been from another tribe altogether.

First, there were very few of us.  My father’s family had nothing more to do with us once my parents were divorced; I never knew them.  My mother’s family had only nine members: my grandmother, her two daughters, and each daughter’s two-child nuclear family. If those nine of us had any aunts, uncles, nieces, or fourth cousins once removed, I never knew any of them, and they certainly were never part of our lives.  Neither did we have any of the sorts of close family friends who drop by of a Sunday morning with a cheese strudel and some mischievous stories to tell.

Second, we behaved (and still behave) like vaguely friendly acquaintances. Other than at holiday gatherings, the only time I remember spending any time with my aunt’s family was the one out-of-the-blue occasion when my uncle took my brother and me to see the Harlem Globetrotters play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never know what inspired this outing, but the inspiration to spend time with us, to go with us to a movie or to offer to throw a ball around, never struck again. My two cousins, then and now, forged their own very separate lives. They have never demonstrated any desire to be close to me or, indeed, to one another.  In what may very well be a common modern suburban development, we lived our parallel but separate lives and rarely thought of one another.

The notion of a “nuclear” family brings to mind the old foam-balls-and-toothpicks model of the atom, with the nucleus (parents) in the center and the electron (Buffy) and proton (Little Billy) in close orbit.  Of course, the actual distances within an atom are not close:  the distance between an atom’s nucleus and (what we used to think of as) its orbiting particles is in roughly the same ratio as the Sun is to Pluto, multiplied by about 140.  In that sense, my family is indeed “nuclear.”  Even after we four cousins all were done with college and were back in the same area, we family members rarely saw each other, almost never called each other, and by and large left birthdays and holidays uncommemorated.

This is not a commentary on our own separate families.  I came to parenting, at barely age twenty, with no experience of being parented or of being a part of an intact household.  Nevertheless, my children and I wove a family on our own terms, picking our way along that path as we went.  In that sense, I certainly experienced the rich value of being part of a family, as I’m sure my aunt and uncle, brother and cousins, did as well in their separate households.  But, that inevitable bond of parents and children who share one roof is not the “family” that I’m talking about here.

The “family” that I’m talking about here – the loving community of relatives and friends – was unknown to me until years after my own nest was empty.  I discovered it in a country farmhouse in the Brandywine Valley area of Pennsylvania, nigh to Christmas, about a dozen years ago.  I was invited there with the Dublin-born woman I was dating, to spend a snowy holiday dinner with her Irish-born relatives.

My entry into this Irish family was not easy.  My girlfriend was reluctant to tell her Catholic parents back in Dublin that she was dating a Jew.  When, finally, she confessed to her Dad, there was a long silence, followed by the Yoda-like pronouncement, “A Jew, is he?  Fierce intelligent race, they are.”

Just so, when I arrived at this Christmas-season dinner, I saw how very different my tribe was from theirs.  Gathered around a fireplace (!!) groaning with decorations and stockings were a dozen chattering relatives, each teasing the other mercilessly about some silly foible, and each giving back in kind.  Presents were exchanged, one more thoughtful and truly welcomed than the next.  They bantered with delight, the way old friends do when they truly cherish each other’s company.  Well, you get the picture; cue Norman O’Rockwell.

I was in my early 40’s then, and I had never in my life witnessed such a thing.  It was transformative.   For the first time in my life, I wanted that same family connection, that same warm community of others.

I wish that I could say that I was able to carry this life lesson into my own family.  I did try.  I gathered the dates of my relatives’ birthdays and anniversaries, startled to find that no one in the family had such a list.  Although I began to send cards and gifts to family members for birthdays and holidays, no one ever reciprocated (though my aunt continued her kind lifelong practice of sending me a birthday card).  I began to host elaborate family dinners.  These, however, were often tense (at one, I asked for some help to move furniture after the dinner, and my relatives stormed out in anger, demanding an apology afterward); and, once I married Barbara, for some reason we stopped being invited to family dinners (though we continue to invite the whole mischpucha to family gatherings at our house).  As for this generation (me, my brother, my cousins and their families), the long careless telephone droughts can last for months.

Nevertheless, the lesson of that Christmas dinner (and the many big-hearted lessons of family and community that Barbara delivers effortlessly) have changed my life.  No longer the autocrat of my own island, I now am happily surrounded by friends and deeply involved in my own and Barbara’s extended families, as well as the enormous community that I’ve created among the thousands of regular patrons and the dozen volunteer staffers at my concert series.

Tolstoy (whose family life at Yasnaya Polyana was certainly no model) of course said that happy families are all alike; and this lesson shows that is true.  Happy families seem to live for one another’s company, and for the joy of delighting one another, comforting one another, and huddling together in a loving conspiracy of family.  I continue to aspire to live that lesson, for yea as we learn from The Godfather:  ” A man who does not spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

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Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson I

Every time I receive an interoffice envelope, I am convinced that it must be a pink slip.  This is not an idle notion; I have been more or less fired from every job I’ve ever held.  However, in fact my assumption comes from something deeper inside me:  A conviction that I am out of step, unworthy, and in constant peril of being found out.

I suspect that I’m not alone in having these feelings.  For example, when my freshfaced colleagues and I were shown to our first offices in what I now call my “starter law firm,” several remarked that they felt like seventh-graders playing dress-up, who would be unmasked at any moment.

It seems to me, however, that this syndrome has affected me more than most; at least it has been so vivid to me that I’ve noticed it, questioned it, and teased out some unexpected life lessons from it.

But, to understand these lessons (and the other lessons in this five-part blog post) requires some autobiography.  Mine, I’d say, is somewhere between the sympathy-for-the-devil tell-all of Keith Richards on the one hand, and the no doubt insipid rehash that’s about to be ghost-written for Monica Lewinsky, on the other.  (Chapter One:  Where I Bought The Blue Dress).

The unusual aspect of my school years is that I grew up essentially without parents.  My father, a charismatic but self-centered school administrator and dance-band leader, left the family when I was about six.  After a very brief period of visiting us for a weekly outing to a nearby diner, he moved to Oklahoma and broke off all contact with us.  My mother, a drably coquettish combination of Scarlett O’Hara and the Elizabeth Taylor character in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” then turned full-time to the search for a new male companion (though, as a song later put it, she seemed to look exclusively in all the wrong places).  She mostly disappeared from my and my brother’s lives, spending evenings and nights elsewhere, and flitting in and out of child-rearing seemingly as an afterthought.  As a result, we largely raised ourselves, and relied on our grandmother, who lived in another apartment in our Newark apartment building, for meals and a daily fresh set of clothes for school.

My brother and I differ about the benefits of a parentless childhood.  He, the younger and more carefree of us, remembers a Peter Pan life without overseers or rules.  (And, I do remember some of this, including frequent evening gatherings where we and our preteen friends would trash the apartment, without consequence).  But, I was the older child.  Not to be too Freudian, but I remember very distinctly feeling that I was the head of this Lord of The Flies household, responsible to hold it together and, most poignantly, to win my mother back to us and away from her parade of (other) men.  Of course, I failed at this, and that failure left me feeling toxic, impotent, and unloveable.

At the risk of inspiring the strains of violin music, the story actually gets worse.  In a development that would make Tommy Smothers (“Mom always liked you best!”) blanch, my brother eventually found my mother’s affections and was treated like a prince during our adolescent years, while I was shunned.  It was dramatic, and inexplicable.  While I slogged through the barbed-wire, strike-shortened Newark public schools (skipped through the grades repeatedly by administrators who had no idea what to make of me), winding up as a freshman at the Newark campus of Rutgers at the premature age 15, my brother inexplicably was sent to a first-class private high school and then on to Hampshire College, at that time one of America’s most expensive private colleges.

Much later, I learned that in fact we are the sons of different fathers.  I, dark-haired and fat, am the child of the man who left us when I was six.  My brother, blonde and lithe, is the child of one of my mother’s lost loves.  Apparently, this fellow financed my brother’s tuitions, promised (idly) that he would leave his entire estate to my mother, and was curiously invited to my brother’s wedding at my mother’s request.  All I knew as a child and young adult, of course, was that some shameful quality of mine (it was easiest to blame the fat, and to keep the fat on my bones as an easy scapegoat) made me unloveable and disfavored.

Suffice to say that I led the next couple of decades as an emotional cripple – socially awkward, unkempt, abrasive, and clueless.  I had the sense that everyone else had grown up learning a set of social rules that I had never learned; and more, that everyone could sense immediately that I was out of step with them.  What frightens me to this day is that I had no idea that I was any of those things.  This is frightening because, to invoke the philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, I can’t help but believe that there are still things about myself even today that make me unloveable, but are unknown unknowns and therefore irremediable.

So, to the pink slip.

The interoffice envelope is not the only sort of pink slip that I assume is coming.  I expect that at cocktail parties I’ll wind up in the corner.  I expect that when friends don’t call, I’ve lost their affections (and even that, when Barbara stops getting invitations from her friends, it’s because I’ve become part of the marital package).  I expect that at the office I am considered the odd man out, not welcome when everyone else pals around.

So, to the lesson.

Although I still expect all of these pink slips, I’ve learned over time that my expectation (though I’ve never overcome it) is nonsense.

First, I’m now convinced that every one of us to some extent expects these pink slips.  Few of us feel loveable; no one feels he knows the social rules; all of us twist and contort to shield ourselves from our own feelings of coming short.  In fact, however, we don’t live in a world in which we’re constantly judged and found wanting.  We live in a world in which we’re mostly considered with indifference.  Friends don’t call because their own lives overwhelm them.  Invitations don’t come because people (certainly in their 50’s, as we are) don’t get out much.

Second, this pink-slip spectre can be blown away with one strong puff of breath.  Each of us, in our overprogrammed, isolated, insecure cocoons,  welcomes the attentions of others.  If I feel isolated in my office, I sit down on a colleague’s comfy desk chair and ask about his kids.  If I want my friends around me, I throw a party.

Third, because this pink-slip expectation is nonsense, the cosmos tend to contradict it regularly.  For example, a couple of years back I was suddenly rotated off of a panel of judges for a music industry showcase competition.  I assumed that I’d gotten this pink slip because I’d been too outspoken with the other judges, hadn’t been schmoozing enough at the conference, didn’t have the sunny can-do disposition of the lead judge.  Then, last week, I was called by the same organization to come back as a judge, explaining that they wanted me back because they were always so happy with my work.   Similarly, over the past couple of years I’ve stopped getting assignments from a music magazine to write CD reviews.  I assumed that my writing was not to snuff.  Then, in the last few days, I was told that I am considered one of their best writers, and the issue is purely internal housekeeping.  And finally, at work I was asked yet again last week whether I wanted to be made a partner (I don’t…give that honor to one of the young kids whose careers depend on it).

Jonathan Livingston Seagull of course said, “Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your  true  self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.  It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is.”  I haven’t a freaking clue what that means.  So, here is the First Lesson that has changed my life:  We’ve all had rough childhoods; we all doubt ourselves; and that doubt is bull hockey.

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