Tuesday, December 29, 2009

There Was This Priest and This Rabbi

The fact that Sharon was Catholic and I was Jewish was never really an issue  ... until Nikki attended a Jewish preschool.

Don't get me wrong ... The school was great. We were both excited to find a preschool that had such a stellar reputation ... and Nikki was very happy there.  She didn't even mind the fact that there was a limited lunch selection. The preschool  had a Kosher kitchen so we could only give her peanut butter sandwiches every day. That was the only food that was allowed from the "outside".

Note: For those not familiar with Kosher kitchens, the simplified explanation is that meat and milk can never touch each other (apparently they had a nasty divorce a long time ago ... meat must have wandered outside the marriage). No other food from outside can come close to either one. Why peanut butter is allowed is a mystery. I guess it's not interested in a relationship with either meat or milk.
Anyway ... where was I? Oh yes ... The real dilemma was really not lunch ... it was religion.

We assumed Nikki enjoyed being Jewish and Catholic. She loved the holidays ... why not? She made out like a bandit. She left milk and cookies for Santa ... right before she tore into gifts under the tree. Some of them were actually hers.

She lit the candles and memorized the Hannukah blessings ... led the Seder at Passover ... then ran outside for the Easter egg hunt.

But ... Nikki became confused and unhappy ... as time went on she wanted to be one or the other ... NOT both. She was trying to figure out "what she was". "Both" didn't work any more. This prompted LOTS of CONVERSATION  ... there were Alissa and Josh ... both just babies ... what to do? We made the BIG decision as a family: We would be Jewish.

We decided to make it official ... we loaded the kids into the car and drove to New Orleans ... met with an Orthodox rabbi who was the only one I found that would actually convert the three kids "officially" into the Jewish religion. They swam a few laps in the "mikvah" conversion pool. The rabbi gave them three new Jewish names and three new certificates. Then we loaded up the three new Jews and came back to St. Pete.

At 12, Nikki studied for her Bat Mitzvah, worked hard and did an incredible job. She opened all her gifts, deposited her Bat Mitzvah money and proudly said ...

"Okay ... enough of that ... I'd like to be Catholic now!"

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Do YOU feed Your Babies?

When he was born, my father-in-law took one look and said to me,"Put a visor on this kid and give him a cigar and you've got a helluva blackjack dealer."

That was Josh.

His voice turned raspy at a young age ... so he always told stories just like he was an old man. Speaking of stories ... his would go on forever because he competed for "stage time" with his sisters. Alissa would tell her favorite story "The Wide Mouth Frog" (about a frog who met other animals and asked "What do you feed your babies?")

When his turn came around, he would combine details from every story he'd ever heard ... "Once upon a time there were three bears ... who asked Mrs Alligator, What do you feed your baby ... and then Goldilocks told the wolf that .... um ... there were  ... um ..."
Alissa ... "Josh ... that is not a real story ...."

Josh's room was a typical boy's room ... disaster area. There was a time when he was about two that his room was exceptionally nasty ... the smell would carry through the whole house. His mom cleaned his carpet every week but it still smelled awful. Our old dog Sammy had died that year ... so we couldn't blame him for the smell. We just couldn't figure it out.

One day I was walking by the room and happened to notice Josh standing on his top bunk bed with his pants down around his knees. There was a steady pee stream arching from Josh to the corner of his room.

His mother was not impressed ... but I have to say ... I was.

Mystery solved!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dress Up

Lissy loved to dress up in costumes.

It didn't have to be a special holiday for her to break out the Genie outfit or ballerina get-up or some funky combination of moccassins, socks, sweaters and wild looking pants. The Genie pants were the family favorite because Lissy wore the cartoon character underwear underneath. We eventually had to pry those pink plastic shoes off her feet.

I think Halloween started this tradition. Not so much for her sister Nikki. Nikki was glad when Halloween was over since her mother insisted on creating the costumes herself. They always consisted of three rolls of aluminum foil, black leotards, black and gold face paint, black socks and eye makeup.

We used to name Nikki's outfits.

The "Medusa" look was interesting ... leotard, makeup, scarves and the ever present aluminum foil crimped strategically around clumps of hair sticking straight out in different angles. I remember getting nasty phone calls from the neighbors that night as Alissa and Nikki went trick or treating. They claimed that their television reception was interrupted for hours.

Lissy's outfits ... on the other hand ... defied descriptions.

They were unique creations. I think her mother started her down this path but Alissa was perfectly capable of continuing the tradition for years to come.

One summer, Alissa insisted on wearing sweaters, wool pants and hats ... everywhere she went. I couldn't tear them off her body without her screaming and crying. Summers in St. Pete are FAIRLY uncomfortable. I remember bringing Alissa to work with me one day ... she insisted on waiting in the car ... when I came out, she had her sweaters back on and was sweating profusely.

My entire office lectured me on child abuse.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Perfect Child

Alissa arrived on September 19th and was immediately dubbed "the perfect child" by the relatives. This ... of course ... was NOT music to her sister's ears. Alissa had a calm disposition, slept through the night from the first day and had the kind of face that everyone had to kiss whenever they met her.

Nikki was really a great sister to her. She was her protector ... and she always spoke up for her. She spoke up for her SO MUCH that Alissa didn't speak for herself until she was about 4 (except for some cute sounds that might have been words).

A typical conversation between an adult and Alissa via Nikki (her translator) would be:

Adult: "So your name is Alissa?"
Alissa starts to nod her head ... Nikki pipes in: "Yes ... actually it's Alissa Michelle Momberg."
Adult: "What a pretty name ... I love your dress."
Nikki: "Our mom got matching dresses for us. I have one just like it."
Adult: "That's nice. How old are you Alissa?"
Nikki: "She's 2 years old."
Adult: "Well Nikki ... you sure take good care of your sister."
Nikki: "Thank you. It's hard work sometimes."

One of my favorite memories of the two sisters came early in my career at All Children's Hospital.

I was the PR Director when we got a call that the rapper Vanilla Ice was coming to visit the kids at the hospital. I mentioned that to the girls and they begged me to take them to meet him. I agreed on the condition that they needed to stay in the background ... after all ... he was there to see the patients. When he visited all the patients they could talk to him if he had time.

They both accepted the terms.

That night, they stood in the hallway, excitedly waiting for him to arrive. Nikki had her arm around Alissa. I heard her instruct her on behavior:

"Now remember Alissa ... don't move ... Daddy told us that he was coming to see the patients. So we're going to stand here okay?"
Alissa: "Uh huh."
Nikki: "Stand right by me, okay?"
Alissa: "Uh huh."
Nikki: "You remember his name? He's a rap star."
Alissa: "Ice Ice Baby."

He finally arrived with a huge entourage. Ice stopped right in front of Alissa and looked down. Alissa ... shocked ... turned to her sister: "NIKKI ... I THOUGHT YOU SAID HE WAS BLA ....."

Nikki slipped her hand right over Alissa's mouth before she could finish. She smiled.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sibling Training

There's a six year age difference between Nikki and her sister Alissa.

When Alissa's birth was imminent, we thought it was a good idea to get "professional sibling training".
We figured Nikki would instinctively know what to do with her sister .. like pull her hair, "borrow" her clothes, throw her under the bus (she was very literal) ... but it probably wouldn't hurt for her to hear the happier side of sibling rivalry as well.

So we enrolled her in the Bayfront Medical sibling program.

The classroom setup was a family affair. The future brothers and sisters were assembled on the floor of a small circular auditorium and the parents were seated above. It was kind of like watching a mini version of Spartacus ... there were even a few tiny gladiator fights that broke out spontaneously. Nikki ... to her credit ... sat attentively and even counselled some of the smaller children on the proper etiquette of sibling classroom behavior. She was about 3 years older than most of them.

Then the moment arrived when the "babies" were handed out to the restless crowd for hands-on training in diaper changing, burping, etc. The "babies" were, of course, life sized dolls that came in different sizes and colors. The dolls were handed out one at a time. Nikki was toward the back of the pack and was handed the last doll of the batch.

It was a black doll.

Nikki stood for a while with the doll in one hand ... the other hand on her hip (I knew what that stance meant and held my breath). She arched her eyebrows, looked at the nurse and at the doll a few times and then looked up at us. I motioned to her emphatically to sit down and listen to instructions.

There was a black family sitting next to me. The husband whispered ... "She must be yours."
I said ... "I'm not sure ... I'll tell you in a few minutes."

Nikki walked up to the nurse and pulled slightly on her sleeve. The doll was dangling in her hand. The nurse stopped in midsentence and my heart dropped to the floor.

Nurse ... "Yes dear is there something I can do for you?"
"Well you see ..." Nikki said, "this is a black baby."
"Yes it is."
"Well .... I am white and we are having a white baby. Can I trade?"

The family next to me roared ... so did the entire audience.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What Is Love?

I must have taken thousands of pictures of Nikki. First borns are always the ones with the fat photo albums ... and the ones who are talked about ad nauseum when they take their first poops or finish their first sentences.

Everything they do is unique ... no child in history has ever done it that way before and you expect your friends to share in your excitement.

Nikki had an incredible memory. She repeated jokes she heard verbatim. Unfortunately, some of those jokes my dad told her  ... and probably didn't understand himself. There was one about Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy that I'm still embarrassed to repeat today. Nikki retold it for weeks.

She was a natural performer. Usually it was a complex dance routine with costumes and ballet slippers ... in the middle of a party. Years later she "trained" her sister to perform with her ... well ... I should say she tried to train her. Alissa was content to do her "bobbing head" routine. No other part of her body moved. Will Ferrell and Chris Katan stole the routine (a few years after Alissa patented the move) when they did "What Is Love?" in Night at the Roxbury. 

Alissa could have probably sued them both.

Meals at restaurants were always interesting. Once we had a waitress that Nikki stared at the whole time she took our order. After a few minutes Nikki tapped me on the shoulder and asked me in a whisper that could be heard at the next table .... "Dad ... why does that waitress have a moustache?"

She was also "slightly" competitive. Playing any game like Go Fish usually required other participants to wear helmets and pads. Whenever she lost at a game ... her mother and I would leave town for a week. I remember even at Easter when the kids hunted for eggs ... Nikki did a full survey of the property to make sure she would maximize the number of eggs she could get. She was 21 at the time, I think.

But the day I will always remember was the day she decided to cut her eyelashes off. That's right ... chopped them right off. I remember her mother and I spent weeks researching whether eyelashes actually grew back. They do by the way .... but the hair on a father's head never does.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Saw a great movie yesterday ... Everybody's Fine with Robert DeNiro. It's very well written and very well acted. For those of you who have adult children, bring big boxes of kleenex. For those who have little children, bring big boxes of kleenex. Actually ... even if you have no kids or HATE the ones you have, bring big boxes of kleenex.

In the movie, DeNiro still dreams of his kids as youngsters ... even in adult situations.

I do the same thing. My oldest is in medical school and, at 31, is still only 4 years old in my dreams ... frozen forever. It's exactly the same with my middle daughter who is 26 and who lives and works in DC and my son, 23, who lives and works here in St. Pete.

Nikki, the oldest, was born while I was still teaching at Canterbury.

She started talking right away. I think she might have even told the doctor how she wanted to be delivered. First borns seem to be the most independent (until they need money later in life).

As a baby, Nikki was restless and didn't sleep much. I remember holding her constantly and walking her around the house until she fell asleep ... usually a half hour before I had to be at work. We had one of those swings in the house ... remember those? The one you wind up and it clicks back and forth for 12 hours. Nikki lived in it.

She loved to shake things up.

My favorite story about Nikki was when we visited the Smisthonian in DC. She was about 2 years old. Her mother and I were trying to maneuver through the crowds of museum visitors when Nikki let go of Sharon's hand ...

Sharon .... "Nikki. Take my hand. It's crowded in here ..."
Nikki .... "Excuse me? Are you talking to me?"
Sharon ... "Quit fooling around Nikki ... just take my hand."
Nikki crossed her arms and loudly proclaimed ... "My name is Nicole. I am French."
Sharon turned purple. I stifled a laugh. "This is not funny Nikki. TAKE MY HAND."
Nikki turned up her nose ... "Are you French? My mother is French and so am I."
Sharon scooped her up as she and I both started laughing hysterically.

Nikki was deposited on the steps outside as Sharon read her the riot act. "What do you have to say for yourself young lady?"
"My name is Nic ...."
I quickly covered her mouth so that she would live to see another day.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Esther Returns ... Once More

Esther stories apparently have reader appeal. Thank you for all the requests ... and thanks for the wonderful messages many of you have sent me over the last couple of weeks. Here's my personal favorite:

I mentioned that Esther and Sam had adjoining rooms at Menorah Manor ... separated by only a curtain. You also might remember that Sam is very hard of hearing ( deaf, by human standards) ... and over the last few months, Esther's voice was barely a whisper. It was a match made in heaven ... she couldn't speak and he couldn't hear.

About 6 months ago, I got a call from Sam.

"Your mother wants to talk to you about something, Joel."
"What is it?"
"I don't know ... she won't talk to me."
"Okay ... I'll come ...."
"Hold on ... here she is."
"Wait ... Dad ... "
Too late. He gave the phone to Esther.
There was barely a whisper on the phone.
"Mom. I can't hear you. Is Dad right there?"
More whispers.
"Mom ... I'll be over in an hour. I'll TALK TO YOU THEN."
For some stupid reason I was screaming as if that would help her talk better.

It was 6AM on Saturday. I got dressed, headed over to the nursing home and arrived in the room about 7:30. Sam was watching TV with the big headphones I bought him. I leaned over and pantomimed that I was going in to see mom. He nodded and screamed, "GO SEE HER."

Mom was lying in her bed and had the phone STILL resting on her shoulder next to her ear. Keep in mind that Esther had not been able to move her arms and legs for about a year ... much less hold an object like a phone. Dad had apparently missed that fact and decided to watch TV and just let it sit there.

I put the phone down and bent down as close as I could.
"Mom? I'm here. What did you want to ask me?"
She whispered ever so faintly but loud enough for me to hear.
"I want a divorce."
"You .... what?"
"I want to leave your father."
I stood up straight.
"Where would you go? Down the hall?"
She scowled.
"Mom ... why do you want a divorce?"
"I hate him."
"No you don't."
"Yes I do."
"Why do you hate him?"
"Because ... he's sleeping with the nurses."
"He's ... what?" Okay ... at this point I really almost lost it. I could hardly keep a straight face."He's sleeping with the nurses?"
"Yes ... that's right."

I leaned back and looked through the curtain at Sam. He was still on the chair with the headphones on, pants unzipped, no teeth, snoring and a line of drool was making it's way down his stubbled chin.
I looked back at Esther. "I really don't think so."
"Ask him."
"I will Mom ... "
"I want you to ask him ... now."

I stepped back into Sam's room, removed his headphones and woke him up.
He looked at me. "So? Did you find out what she wanted?"
"Yes." I tried to whisper."She thinks you are sleeping with the nurses."
"What? She wants her purses?"
"No." I was nose to nose with him whispering." She thinks you are sleeping with the nurses."
"She curses? Don't I know ... she is always ..."

Outside the door ... laughter broke out all the way down to the nursing station.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Salad Story

Okay ... one more Esther story. It's my wife's favorite.

When Debbie visited my parents in New Orleans early in our relationship, we met them at a great little place in Metairie called Foodies. Foodies carried all the best New Orleans restaurant dishes "to go" and had a wide selection of salads and meats and breads that you could eat right there. Food selection will be important later in the story.

We ordered our meals and took them out to the patio to eat. As we started our lunch, I noticed that Sam had a pretty big piece of lettuce sitting on the bridge of his nose UNDER his glasses. Of course, the logical question going through my mind was ... how the hell did he get a piece of lettuce under his glasses and on his nose ... AND how did he not see or feel it. But then I remembered that this was Sam ... and not an ordinary human. 

So I decided to mention the obvious ... "Dad, you've got a piece of lettuce on your nose."
Sam looked at me blankly and asked ... "What?"
"I said ... you have a piece of LETTUCE on YOUR  NOSE".
Sam was hard of hearing so I repeated it slowly and pointed to my own nose to help him understand.
He looked at Esther ... "What did he say, Esther?"
Esther replied, not bothering to look at Sam  ... "Don't answer him Sam."
I looked at Esther and looked at Debbie who was starting to spit up her food because she was trying not to break up laughing.
"Mom ... look at Dad's nose. There is a piece of lettuce UNDER his glasses."
Dad shook his head disgustedly and never missed a bite.
Esther looked at me and said ... "Joel don't make fun of your Father."
Debbie ... being the nice supportive person she is (so unlike my family) ... said, "Esther ... there really is a piece of lettuce under Sam's glasses."
Sam finally stopped eating, raised up his glasses and a piece of lettuce dropped on his plate ... "Hmmm, how did that get there?"  

Esther looked at everybody's food, crossed her arms and said ... "Well ... DEBBIE is apparently the only one having salad."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Couple of Esther Tales

Indulge me. I've been thinking this week about my two favorite Esther stories:

1. THE CLOSET. (Note: Those of you who have heard this ... about 357 of you ... feel free to skip to number two) Esther's closet was literally half the size of Esther's house on Melody Drive and was legendary in New Orleans.What made this even more interesting was that Esther was not wealthy (not even close) ... just a little crazy. The house was small ... but the closet .... was MASSIVE.  One year, I made a sizable income selling tickets to view THE CLOSET. It was every little girl's ... and big girl's dream. For starters, there were eight 30 foot racks of clothing all individually wrapped and hung by color, season and type. Many were duplicates and triplicates of the same item. (Remember Esther was "obsessive" and didn't want to ever run the risk of something going out of style). I think we once also counted more than 300 pairs of panty hose ... some never out of the package. There were two full sized closets top to bottom and four deep of boxes of shoes. That's right ... shoes. Imelda Marcos was a lighweight. And her acres of makeup were enshrined in a six drawer bureau with a Hollywood mirror surrounded by lights. Macy's wanted to use THE CLOSET as an outlet store. Sam ... On the other hand ... had one rack and a clothes hanger.

2. THE BUS RIDE. In later years ... Esther's fear of flying was bad enough that she and Sam once decided to take a Greyhound bus to visit my brother and me. If that's not a funny enough visual ... here's the conversation that Esther and I had on the phone when the bus hit Clearwater ...
"Joel ... I couldn't take it anymore."
"Mom? Where are you?"
"I'm in Clearwater ... they dropped me off."
" In Clearwater?"
"Yes ... I will take a taxi to the bus station and you can pick me up when your father arrives on the bus in St. Petersburg."
"Dad's still on the bus?"
"Yes. "
" What????"
" The people on the bus are horrible ... and I told them so. They don't bathe you know ..."
" Oh no ... you didn't ..."
" I've got to go .... my cab's here ..."
She hung up.
I picked her up about an hour later as the bus pulled into the station right behind her cab. As she walked to my car the whole busload of people pointed to her ... and booed. I have no idea what she could have done to make an entire busload of people boo her.

Just then Sam got off the bus and looked at mom. He said, "Esther ... Where have you been?"

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Preteen Blues (played in B)

Middle school years are the hardest ... the students feel disconnected from the "little kids" in elementary grades and unacceptable to the "big kids" in high school.

Interestingly enough, that was my favorite group of kids to teach. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because they were still young enough to enjoy cartoons and old enough to be a little more sophisticated intellectually. I related to that ... at 25 years old (okay, emotionally and mentally I was 13 years old). So ... we understood each other. Now that I have reached well beyond the AARP threshold ... I'm about at the senior high school level.

One thing I always remembered about being in school myself was that I continually questioned the relevance of what was taught. Why did I need to study about frog reflexes or isoceles triangles or Custer's Last Stand? Would I need the frog reflex fact or have to draw a triangle when I applied for a job? I don't think so. Now, the Custer thing ... that was okay at the time because the visual of Custer with hundreds of arrows in him was so cool.

Relevance was important ... so I decided to spend at least one hour a week teaching it. It was then that I came up with the idea of "Community". One day a week for one hour, the seventh graders would work and play in their own community. They had jobs, got paid, had real life problems and had to work together to figure it out. I might add ... this was before computer programs like The Sims Community and 10 years before Enterprise Village.  It was not nearly as smart and well put together ... pretty rudimentary ... but the kids loved it and related to it.

There were challenges.

For instance, the first time around, I let everyone choose a profession. There were 10 lawyers and 15 doctors. That didn't work ... so I limited the professions to one each (since we had a small town and we'd get into competition later in the year). I ran into trouble with our first lawyer. I told him to research his annual income and compare it to small towns in the Southeast US. He found a reasonable comparison and started getting "paid" each week. His father (a prominent attorney in St. Petersburg) called me at home to complain that his son was NOT making enough money and how dare I underpay him for his services. I KID YOU NOT.

Some professions were never picked so I would gather everyone for a Town Meeting run by our elected mayor and he would draw "problem" cards which I had created with challenges for the town to handle as a group. One was that the garbage had not been picked up for two months because there was no garbage collector. My student attorney offered to change professions and assumed this duty  ... being the community minded individual he was.

Big surprise: I got a call from his dad that night. 

I Love You Mom

I have tried to keep this blog light and funny .... not too heavy ... but enjoyable. I think all of us need to laugh at ourselves now and then. But today is different and I hope you'll forgive me for talking about a subject that is anything but humorous. Today I wanted to share some thoughts about my mom.

She passed away last night.

It was the end of a two year decline. She weighed only 70 pounds and barely had a pulse when she was transported to the hospital. Her systems were shutting down as I watched her try to breathe through the oxygen mask. It was hard to watch as I remembered how beautiful she was ... how bright and immacculate she kept herself over the years.

As fate would have it, my two daughters were visiting her earlier in the day at the nursing home when she started to crash. My son and my wife, Debbie met me at the hospital when the ER staff was trying to stabilize her.  I stepped out to speak to the doctor and left Josh, my son, with my mom for a few minutes.

When I came back into the room, she was gone. It was as if she waited to see everyone for the last time and then said goodbye.

For the past three years, Mom and Dad have been living at Menorah Manor, a wonderful nursing home in St. Petersburg. I brought them both here from New Orleans during the weekend of Katrina ... they were kicking and screaming ... but I got them here. My mom (if you've been following my blog) is anything but shy and retiring ... in fact I remember her hospitalization 20 years ago when she was diagnosed with "a heart attack complicated by drama queen disease".  The nurses had called me in St. Pete to come to New Orleans to help them calm her down. When I got there (true story) one of the nurses was straddled over her holding down her hands.

Mom was screaming ... "Joel ... These @#%$#@ are trying to KILL ME!"
The nurse was calmly telling her ... "Mrs. Momberg ... if we wanted to kill you we would have done it IN SURGERY!"

Okay ... you know me .... I just HAD to add a little humor.

I love you, Mom.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Truly Beautiful People

There are so many wonderful stories I could tell about my students at Canterbury ... also a few that I can't tell, either (those little angels!). Every now and then I run into one of my former students and find out all the wonderful things that they have done with their lives. At least two (that I know of) are regular readers of I Was Born Very Young ... Wendy and Ellie ... and I love hearing from them from time to time. I can't understand why they would want to read my stuff anymore ... I was sure they would have been tired of listening to me by now ... but I love them for it.

I'll share two other stories about my former students:

About ten years ago, I ran into Christina, who was touring All Children's Hospital (my subsequent employer) with the Junior League. I hadn't seen her in more than 20 years but recognized her immediately.

"Christina? Is that you?"
"Yes, Mr. Momberg. It's great to see you." She kept her eyes averted shyly.
"You don't have to call me Mr. Momberg anymore."
"Okay, Mr. Mom ... um ... "
"Call me Joel."
"Yes sir."
Well ... I gave up on the informalities and stuck with conversations about old times. I told her how proud I was of her accomplishments (she was in her medical residency). And bragged about how I knew at a young age she would be a success.
She started crying.
I said, "Christina, I didn't mean to upset you ..."
"No ... I ... I have to tell you something ... something terrible ... something that's been on my mind since sixth grade."
Oh no ... I braced myself. Did she have years of therapy after having me as a teacher? Did she need intense tutoring to relearn her basic academic skills?

She took a breath. "Do you remember the day that you accused Elizabeth and I of cheating on the science test?"
I just stared ... I didn't have a clue ...
" You took us both out of class and asked us if we were cheating. I told you I wasn't cheating and Elizabeth too."
" Christina ... I ..."
" I WAS cheating ... I WAS cheating and I lied to you and you believed me."
" Christina ... it was 20 years ago ... I don't even remember."
" Oh my God ... you don't? I worried all these years for no reason???"
Amazing what you hang on to.

A few years ago I went to a one woman art show and saw Allison ... another one of my beautiful, talented students who always had a penchant for the arts. Allison had survived a serious accident years earlier when her car burst into flames and she was trapped inside. She barely escaped with her life. She underwent countless painful surgical procedures and years of physical therapy. Her outlook on life and her beautiful smile remained unscarred and her artwork is incredible. She is a true success story.

To all my beautiful former students who may be reading this ... I am so proud of all of you please stay in touch.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Other Duties As Assigned

There's more to teaching at a small private school than most people realize. Lunch duty, detention, coffee breaks, baby sitting, countless hours talking trash about people in the teachers' lounge, coffee breaks, taking naps ( ... oh wait ... that was just Karl ...). There were "other duties as assigned". Mine were Yearbook Advisor, Soccer Coach, Editor of the newsletter and ... in later years ... Admissions Director.

The first Admissions Director was Bob Bradshaw. He came to Canterbury the year after I arrived. Bright guy ... the product of Northeast prep schools, graduated from Yale ... set to follow in his father's footsteps as a Philadelphia attorney ... but he headed south to St. Pete instead. Turned out he was much happier teaching school and coaching basketball for about $4000 a year. Go and figure. Bob was a voracious writer too ... his class notes were the size of a James Michener novel. I remember when he first came, I did a piece on him to introduce him to the school community. Bob's resume was so long that I had to just do the highlights: Eagle Scout merit award and ping pong champion of the 6th Grade. I am not kidding (probably cinched the job for him). Bob's a great guy and a great teacher. He still is teaching today ... but now pulls in about $15,000 a year (kidding, Bob ... if you are still talking to me after reading this).

Bob was a great basketball coach by the way. We had many winning seasons. On the other hand, I have to admit I was the worst soccer coach in the history of Canterbury sports. Fortunately I coached the JV team and not Varsity. I never played soccer in my life so coaching it presented some challenges. I carried a little soccer manual with me at all times. Just picture me in the middle of the practice field reading my book and lining up the team for one of the drills.

Needless to say we had a perfect season 0 and 10.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Who's Watching the Kids?

Looking back at my old Canterbury pictures, my hair was pretty long. Actually ... looking back ... I'm happy I HAD hair.

I wasn't alone. Alot of my fellow teachers had long hair: Sarah, Jan, Candy (well, my hair was longer than hers). Even some of the guys. There were always more female teachers than male teachers in the lower school. Karl was the rare exception as a kindergarten teacher. But then Karl was a rare exception in life.

Sarah Lonquist taught first grade. She has a southern accent right out of "Steel Magnolias". In fact, she could have starred in that movie. The students adored her ... so did the rest of us. Her name had 37 syllables: Sayyyyrraaahhhlooowwwiiinquiiiiissssst. Sarah's own kids had 37 syllables in each of their names, as well, and were always referred to as Carollonquist and Jimmylonquist ... as in ... "Well, I just had the nicest day shopping with my Carollonquist ... she just has such wonderful taste ... must take after her mother." or "That Jimmylonquist is just the brightest thing ... he takes after his mother." She looks the same today as she did 35 years ago and is still as energetic as ever.

Pat Murphy was the fourth grade teacher. She had cheerleader good looks and in fact was the cheerleader coach for years. She used to think I was hysterically funny ... but that only lasted a week. I'll save that story for later.

Kenny Beytin was the science teacher and football coach. He and I became great friends. Kenny was a grad of Princeton and played football for them. He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys but messed up his shoulder. When he came to Canterbury, he started the football program and had a winning season the first year. The team lost every game after that. I think that was because there was no team after that ... Kenny left after the first year to get his law degree at Stetson. He's a successful Tampa attorney practicing today.

Jan Fisher was the librarian. She was married to Greg Fisher. Candy, Jan, Greg and I used to hang out together when Candy and I dated. Things didn't work out for any of us ... Candy and I split up and Jan and Greg split up. I dated Pat Murphy for a week (remember her?). Candy started dating Art (the brother of the Head of the Upper School Paul) ... which didn't work out, so Art wound up dating (and eventually marrying ) Jan. Whew!

And what happened to Candy?

Well ... she is married to a woman in California. They adopted a little boy. I think they named him Joel Arthur.  

Thursday, November 19, 2009

God's Waiting Room

" How would you like to teach in St. Petersburg, Florida?" Candy asked me that at the end of the school year and the end of my contract with AIS in Vienna.
" St. Petersburg, Florida?" I asked.
" Yeah. I accepted the position of Lower School Head for The Canterbury School of Florida."
" There are actual children in St. Petersburg?"

Up until that point, I had heard that Florida was God's Waiting Room. Actually, in those days, St. Pete was known as the home of the newly wed and the nearly dead. I figured that once you gave birth, you were banished to Georgia or Alabama or had to go back to where you came from (New York mostly).

But I soon found out there were at least 15 sixth graders who lived there. They were my first honest to goodness class that I could call my own. I had taken Candy's offer and had become a sixth grade teacher in St. Pete ... living on St. Pete Beach and loving life.

Crazy Karl came too. He was the new Kindergarten teacher at Canterbury. He asked me to go on a shopping trip with him for some new Florida clothes. So, of course we went to his favorite store ... the Salvation Army. Yes ... that's right ... he always shopped there and tried on everything right there in the aisles. That day he found a school bag that he liked. It had a name inscribed on it: "E. Fried". The bag had to be 50 years old and to Karl it was love at first sight. In later years he searched for Mr. Fried to tell him how much he loved that bag ... found him too.

Karl and I had apartments close to one another. Candy had a place closer to school but we all managed to hang out together on weekends. Karl made friends easily ... especially with the beach residents. They found nothing unusual about his shopping habits at Salvation Army and weren't even shocked by one of Karl's most unusual habits ... eating left over food from strangers' plates at restaurants.

Karl had a series of girlfriends.

And I dated my boss ... which only got wierder.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Gotta Go Home

I was starting to worry that the United States was changing at the speed of light while I was living in Europe in 1973 and 1974. Here are a few of the things that I read ... from the pages of European newspapers:

- The Watergate Scandal ... you remember that? Nixon's criminal bunch CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President) caught breaking into the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel? Conspirators Mc Cord, Liddy, Haldeman, et al ... sounded like a disfunctional law firm.

- Nixon resigns. BIG surprise.

- Roe v Wade ... Supreme Court overturns the state bans on abortion. To this day ... it's one of the most controvertial split issues ever.

- Streaking ... naked guy running across the screen at the Academy Awards during David Niven's presentation. Following that ... streakers showed up everywhere there were cameras.

- Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner since 1948. He's a horse by the way for those of you that thought that it was an illegal election following a coup in South America.

- American Graffitti was filmed. That was the last time Ron Howard had hair.

- Ted Bundy started his murderous rampage.

- SLA kidnaps Patty Hearst, wealthy granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. Patty ultimately joined the SLA, robbed banks, got captured, married her bodyguard and had bit parts in low budget movies like (I'm serious) Cry-Baby.

- Henry "Hank" Aaron broke Babe Ruth's HR Record at 715. Some white guy came out of the stands to circle the bases with him which made everyone nervous including Hank Aaron ... thinking he was going to try to hurt him.

- Yom Kippur Wars .... OPEC Oil Embargo following the Yom Kippur Wars ...Stock Market Crash following the OPEC embargo. And you thought it was only bad today!

... but of course the most newsworthy of all in 1974 .... was Sacheen Littlerfeather who stood in for Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards to accept his award for The Godfather while talking about how bad it was for the Indians to trade beads for Manhattan (or something like that).

I knew then .... it was time to get back to the STATES before my home was gone for good.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Do You Get When You Mix a Sumo With a Strudel?

I called Candy. She was the lower school principal at AIS in Vienna who said ... "if you ever want a permanent position, call me." I needed a position ... any position. I guess I could have gone back to the states but I wanted to stay around Western Europe a little longer.

Candy lined up a job for me.

A week earlier, one of the high school history teachers was in a tragic automobile accident. There was suddenly a need for a substitute to teach her classes for the remaining school year. There was only one catch: the substitute had to teach Japanese history.

" Can you teach Japanese history?" the head of the history department asked me.
" Of course." I said without hesitation.
" Have you ever taught it?"
" Um ... no ... but I have a good knowlege base of ... what did you say it was again?"
" Japanese history."
" Yeah ... THAT."
" Okay ... it's yours."

He was obviously desperate. I didn't have a clue about Japanese history.  I figured ... nobody else did ... so maybe I could fake it. There was no internet back then ... so I had to look for everything I physically could get my hands on. Fortunately ... all the big embassies were in Vienna. Japan had a wonderful one and generously gave me pamphlets and literature on everything Japanese: the government, Sumo wrestling, cooking, art, royalty, geishas, paper making ... It was a gold mine.

Then came my REALLY BIG idea.

On my first day of class I introduced myself. We spent some time remembering their former teacher and sharing stories. I told them that I would try to continue teaching the course the best that I could but would never replace their beloved teacher.

I then passed out the embassy pamphlets to all the students. I wrote names on the board next to the corresponding pamphlet that ended up in their hands. Then ... I put random dates next to each name and gave them their instructions. Each student was to study the information they had and give a presentation to the class on the date that they were assigned. We'd all take notes (me included) on every presentation and at the end of the year I would give them a final exam on Japanese Culture and History based on their presentations.

It worked ... I learned alot that semester.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Roma Coma: The Final Chapter

Other than the nights on the Via Veneto, my life was not working out well. My money was running out, my boss at Readak was pressuring me to start the course and apparently everyone in Italy except for me wore the same size pants.

I loved the school ... Marymount International Academy. It was a very exclusive Catholic school, located on the outskirts of Rome ... on the Via di Villa Lauchli. (How I remember that street name is beyond me ... I can't even remember what I had for breakfast ... I must be a "useless fact savant"). I remember having regular meetings with the headmistress. She was a Dutch nun who "kicked the habit" years ago. Try as I might ... I couldn't salvage the course. And in the end I had to refund the money and apologize. My luggage was still missing more than a month after I arrived and I had no teaching materials (books, tests, equipment, etc).

My Readak days were over. We parted ways over this last experience. They didn't want me to refund the money and I didn't want to keep it ... so I refunded the money and they refunded me. Actually, I refunded them ... but who's counting.

I stayed in Rome for another two months. I was a free man! No responsibilities, no job, no money ... but wait ... there WAS light at the end of the tunnel. On one of my daily visits to the train station ... I was greeted by an official with good news. These were words I never thought I would hear again ...

They had found my bags.

Excitedly, I was escorted to what appeared to be a gigantic lost and found room filled with every size and shape of luggage. It was dusty and damp ... cobwebs hung on some of the bags ... dust settled on others. Out of the dark, a man carried two bags and placed them at my feet.

The official (in broken English) "These YOU bags?"
Me (looking carefully at both) " The one on the right is .... the other one doesn't look familiar."
Official " These NO YOU bags?"
Me "THIS one is."
The official told another man ... "TAKE BAGS AWAY."
Me  "NO. I mean this one is mine."
Official "I thought these NO YOUR bags".
Me " Well the other one isn't mine ..." (he starts to take them both away again)
Me "WAIT. You know what I just realized? These ARE my bags. I just didn't recognize this one right away. " (I take them from him ... I knew if I didn't take both, I would get neither.)

He ushered me past a table of at least 10 officials with their own rubber stamps who had to decorate my passport and paperwork with different colors, I assume, before I could go home.

Once I was in my hotel room, I opened the mysterious bag ... I felt so guilty about it. It was neatly packed with clothing, a camera and two train tickets to Munich .... dated November 10, 1952. That's right 1952. And there were slides packed beneath ... old style glass slides of pictures of heart surgeries. The bag belonged to a doctor from Walter Reed Hospital who had apparently had a similar missing bag experience more than 25 years earlier!

So ... I called Walter Reed Hospital and asked for the doctor ... hoping he might still be there. He answered! And he was thrilled to hear from me. A week later, two marines showed up at my door, thanked me, took the suitcase and gave me a check for one million dollars!

Okay ... I lied.

There was only one marine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Roma Coma Part 2

There I was in the middle of the train station in Rome. I had no luggage ... which meant no clothes and no classroom materials ... and was told by the "officials" that it could take weeks before they found my bags. I was due to start teaching classes in less than a week.

The more upset I got with the customs officers ... the more laid back and nonchalant they became.

Fortunately, I had not lost my traveler's cheques ... which I carried in my pocket. For those of you too young to remember ... travelers' cheques were critical travelling currency ...  as there were no ATMs in those days. American Express backed these if they were lost or stolen. Mine were neither, thank heaven.

I needed clothes so ...  I asked a taxi driver to take me to a nice clothing store. He took me to one located right off of the Via Veneto (at the time one of the most famous streets in the world ... filled with a unique blend of outdoor cafes and frequented by celebrities). I wasted no time picking out a few pair of pants and shirts ... not taking time to try them on, of course, because men don't do that ... only to find out later that everything ran MUCH smaller and tighter in Italy ... as my crotch can attest to.

That's also where I met Antonio.

Antonio was shopping in the same store and spoke a little broken English. He interceded for me when I struggled to get directions for hotels in the areas. He told me he could help me find a place and invited me to sit with him at a cafe and have a cup of coffee (which came out more like "sit in a coffee cup and drink one of the tables"). Anyway ... Antonio's family owned a pension (small residential hotel) just a few blocks from the Via Veneto. It was perfect. I moved in that afternoon.

Antonio became my one and only friend in Rome. He knew lots of people ... the right people ... and tried to help me find my luggage and get people to listen to me. I went to the "Dogana" every morning to see if there had been any progress ... Antonio would tag along from time to time and yell a few obcenities to get folks moving ... but nothing seemed to work. Every evening, we would watch American gangster movies dubbed into Italian on TV with his family and then walk down to the Via Veneto where we would drink and party all night long. I couldn't work (I delayed the course until I could get my classroom materials and equipment) so I figured I would be like the Italians and just let life "happen".

You know ... looking back ... I should have wondered how Antonio was making ends meet as I never saw him go to work during the day. But he was certainly popular with people ... especially with the ladies ... consequently, I was too. They would stop and talk to me when we were together and ... I have to say, I was feeling like quite the ladies' man myself with all these beautiful women.

Then I found out they all worked for Antonio ... he was their pimp.     

Ballad of the Big Prostate

Here’s a little country tune I wrote just yesterday to commemorate a dark day in my history. I don’t have a tune but realized you can use an...