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  • The Summer of Watergate

    In the summer of 1973, I split my time between my parents' house in Texas City and my grandparents' home in Longview. Most of that time was spent with my beloved grandmother, who sat glued to the television every day.

    These were the days before cable/satellite/streaming, so daytime viewing options were largely limited to soap operas, game shows, and reruns of old black and white sitcoms and Westerns on the UHF channels. My grandparents' Zenith TV was noteworthy because it had a remote control, so you didn't have to get up and down to turn the channel, although the unreliable antenna meant you sometimes had to stand on one leg and hold your arm at a certain angle to watch a show.

    Instead of the ubiquitous "I Love Lucy," "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Little Rascals" reruns, my 8-year-old self was decidedly bored watching a bunch of men in suits speaking into microphones. I asked my grandmother a bunch of questions about the presidents, which had become a fascination for me because my elementary school was named after not one, but two of our country's former leaders (FDR and Woodrow Wilson). She patiently answered and said we always have to respect the office, no matter whether we respect the person occupying the top seat at the time.

    As my interest grew in the presidents, I took a minute to write a letter that summer to the White House. Normally I don't write fan letters, and my timing likely could not have been worse. But hey, I was 8 after all.

    Soon after, I received a form letter and a black and white photograph of the White House. Not surprisingly, a photo of our then-president was not enclosed.

    I thought about those summer days again this morning and wondered whether it's a case of history repeating itself. One thing is for sure, there will be no fan letters sent from my address anytime soon.

  • Is Listening A Lost Art?

    I distinctly remember the first time I heard the “F” word. We were driving from Texas City to Longview on the dreaded U.S. 59 in my mom’s white, two-door Oldsmobile Cutlass. I was 9, maybe 10. My dad, his head on the 90-degree turn thanks to dysplasia/spasmodic tordicollis, was in the passenger seat and mom was driving. These were the days when the speed limit had just been lowered and mom, never wanting to break the law, kept the needle neatly positioned between the 5 and the 5.

    As frequently happens on long trips on divided four-lane highways, we played a slight game of tag with another car. We passed it, it passed us, and so on. I’m sure the driver in the other car had to be a little freaked out by the fact that, every time we passed, my dad was staring at him — involuntarily — through the passenger side window.

    Suddenly and without warning, I heard my dad explode with a resounding “F-U too, buddy!”

    I asked my mom what the “f” word meant, and she said it was a word that only adults use, and even then only infrequently. (Little did she know...) Giving my dad the stare down while somehow simultaneously looking at the road and in the rearview mirror, she proceeded to explain that it was a word I shouldn’t ever choose, especially in anger.

    “We’ve taught you to have a better vocabulary than that.”

    The lesson I took from this experience was that the word itself is not what’s important, but the tone of your voice is what really matters. What I didn’t understand at the time, but do today, was that my dad was hurt and lashed out. The other driver had no idea the kind of pain that he was in, no idea how embarrassed/emasculated he might have felt thanks to an insidious disease that would affect him for the rest of his life.

    Over the years, since becoming a writer/editor in my own right, I’ve learned to love and respect the power words have. But more important, I’ve tried to dissect and learned to appreciate the tone my voice has when I choose to use words in a certain way.

    Now, if I’m truly angry, I don’t use profanity. I don’t want people to get hung up on a particular word choice and use that as an excuse to not listen to what I have to say. Deep in my heart, I wish that others would choose words as carefully and listen when others with dissenting opinions are talking. My fear is that listening is becoming a lost art.

  • Goodbye, 200 W. 54th Street

    So, after two and a half years, we finally moved out of our apartment on West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan. It really made no sense to keep it with Ben on the road and Ginno going with him to be his guardian.

    That said, we will miss that place more than you can imagine. Great memories were made there as our family embarked on adventures we never thought possible.

    A number of bucket list items were crossed off thanks to that place.

    But one more adventure was still to be had: Driving a U-haul through the streets of Manhattan. And surprisingly, I managed just fine, even though it was a rough ride. Once we got everything loaded, I took off down the New Jersey Turnpike, which felt like riding a mechanical bull for two hours without stopping.

    Fortunately, the traffic gods were kind for once, and I managed to get home safely. We’re now merging the apartment furniture into our house, moving most of it into the basement and Ginno’s boxes into our garage. Who knows when we’ll be back into the city that we’ve come to love.

    And that, folks, is what I define as a melancholy realization.

  • Robin Williams: A Class Act

    Robin Williams is dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.

    A great actor and comedian with one of the most brilliant minds we've ever seen, he also was a tortured soul who was forthcoming about the demons he faced. Anyone who has ever dealt with depression or seen a family member suffer from mental illness knows how life can be a minute-by-minute battle against hopelessness.

    I'm so sorry hopelessness won.

    I remember watching him outside "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which was in the theatre next to "Billy Elliot," talking to people and signing autographs. In fact, I won tickets to the lottery on the opening night of previews, meaning I had a front row seat to his Broadway debut.

    One night during the run, Jacob Clemente and Ben went to see the show and tried to get a picture afterward. Security said no, but he yelled out, "Hey, the Billy boys!" and insisted that they come over.

    A class act. Too sad. Too soon.

  • The Day I Kidnapped My Grandmother

    Note: Sunday marks a year since Ben’s Broadway debut in “Ragtime.” This week, Ben’s grandmother saw him in “Billy Elliot,” which made me wonder again how my beloved grandmother would have reacted to the craziness of our lives. This is a true story, with more than a little irony.

    My grandmother sat in the dark auditorium and dozed to the ragtime music.

    I ate my popcorn and glanced at her. Occasionally she would wake and look at the screen.

    The movie was long, so she had a good long doze. She didn’t drink the Coke I had bought her with money she had given me earlier in the day, so the ice melted and left it flat.

    I wished I knew what she was thinking.

    Maybe it was relief. Maybe it was sorrow. Maybe grief. I really wasn’t sure. After all, he had been her husband for more than 50 years, the last five in and out of hospitals. They argued and fought. They kissed and made up. He was cantankerous, a do-it-my-way man’s man who really wasn’t.

    She was an independent sort, a flapper in Louisiana who told stories — true ones at that — of getting rides to work with Huey Long. She was married eight years before her first child was born. Her second, my father, came two years later. She listened to music and cooked in the kitchen. She would slice raw tomatoes she bought from the nigra woman with the big garden down the street.

    The lights came up. Now she would have to go back and visit the mourners.

    “Thanks,” she said, as we walked to the parking lot. I drove, back then it was an adventure because I was only 16 and they had a big Buick that was almost impossible to park. As we walked out of the theatre she squeezed my hand, nearly cutting me with her wedding band. I knew her thank you was genuine.

    I also knew no one would understand what I had done. Kidnapping my grandmother, to anyone on the outside, was not a great idea. Taking her to a movie I wanted to see was a selfish act.

    We held hands as we went out to the parking lot on that drizzly December day. I steeled myself for the drive home and hoped I could back out of the parking lot in the big silver Buick without hitting someone. It was a 50-50 shot at best.

    Grandmama had never driven a car. She was 76 now and not about to start, so asking her was out of the question. But as she looked at me with her eyes so tired, a washed out look that took me back to the first time my grandfather was in the hospital, she smiled and squeezed my hand again.

    The wipers streaked the windshield; they hadn’t been changed. All I could be was critical, because I didn’t know how to change them. Still wouldn’t, if forced. I’m not mechanical.

    She didn’t care. I was her only grandson, and she knew how to spoil me. It was the same technique she had used with my father and it worked. She came from an era that “respected” men for being “men,” even if it meant muttering the word “bastard” under her breath.

    We drove in absolute silence for a mile, which was odd because we were both talkers. Some say I got it from her; my mom has got it, too, even though the two weren’t blood. Grandmama was one of the ones I could talk to about anything and not be scared.

    The wipers muddied the windshield. They weren’t much help at all. We drove across town, probably too fast if my mom had been in the car. But my grandmother didn’t care.

    “It was a good movie,” she said.

    We got home and the family was there. No one said a word. They didn’t know what to say. My aunt (dad’s sister) and uncle scowled at me and shook their heads. I knew I would get a talking to later.

    Soon I could smell the food. My grandmother was doing what she did best, cooking for the family. It was December, so there were no tomatoes this time. She served a thin flank steak, deep fried and battered. Coffee from that morning remained on the stove.

    She didn’t talk much that week or next. It was the Christmas season 1981, and she didn’t think it was appropriate to ruin the holiday season for others. She didn’t cry, at least not in front of me. The only time I saw her do that was when she missed me leading a youth prayer at church because she got there too late.

    I got my talking to from the people who didn’t understand my motive behind the kidnapping. They didn’t really care what I thought.

    Over the passing months, as she dwindled in size and moved slowly toward the plot next to her husband, my grandmother never brought up that day. Six years later, in the middle of the night, I sat on the floor next to her as she lay on the couch. My father was calling for an ambulance.

    I held her hand again. The wedding ring cut into it some more.

    “Do you remember ‘Ragtime’?” I asked.

    She nodded. I could barely see her in the dim light.

    “Yes, it was a good movie.”

  • Reflections: 9/11

    For the past couple of weeks, as the coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has moved into full 24/7 media frenzy, I’ve thought about addressing it here. And I don’t know how.

    Memories that I thought had receded have rushed back like the floodwaters that hit Northern Virginia earlier this week. But my perspective is personal, not societal, and my memories by comparison are nothing next to the feelings that others must be experiencing today.

    I remember it like it was yesterday, just like you do. I know what I was doing when the first call came in, just like I remember vividly seeing the Challenger explode in the sky 15 years earlier, or where we were when the levees broke in New Orleans four summers after my generation’s Pearl Harbor.

    I remember frantically trying to call my family — I was in Pennsylvania writing a story, Jill was in Virginia, my parents were in Texas. I remember the eerie silence when I returned home the next evening, and how it lingered until planes were allowed to fly again from National Airport.

    I remember the pledges of cooperation among our political leaders, and the vows to track down the people who had done this. And how that spirit of cooperation — that feeling that we all are in this together — didn’t last, at least among our members of Congress.

    I remember riding my bike to the Pentagon and to Arlington Cemetery at 7:30 a.m. on the first anniversary of 9/11, pulled there by something but silent even then.

    I remember the first time we took our kids to the World Trade Center site, reading the names of the missing and dead on a cold winter day two years after it happened. I remember how my stomach sank as we scanned the list, just as it did when I walked through the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the first time at age 18.

    I remember reading about and watching — with a mixture of insatiable curiosity and morbid fascination — the first season of “Rescue Me,” the show about the brave but damaged firefighters suffering from survivor’s guilt after making it through 9/11.

    I remember revisiting the story I was writing on 9/11/01 for the fifth anniversary, determined to do it justice even as I was taking on a new job.

    I remember the death of my second “mom” — Fran — on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, just six weeks after my dad’s death.

    I remember sitting in the assistant principal’s office at Ben’s new school two years ago, having just moved him to New York, and listening as the administrators debated the exact times to have moments of silent reflection. I remember leaving the school and walking to a memorial service honoring those killed from the Engine 54 station down the street.

    I remember the little boy standing quietly, dressed in his FDNY dress blues and hat, not saying a word. I remember how his mom held the boy — who likely was a baby when 9/11 occurred — tightly to her and how he turned to give her a hug when the ceremony ended.

    Leave the commentary to the pundits. Watch what you will — or don’t. I saw what I needed to see when that boy hugged his mom.

    On a day like this, these moments of self reflection — realizing just how fortunate I am to be where I am and to have the family and friends that I do, thanks to the selfless sacrifice of others — are enough.

    I don’t know what else to say…