Sunday, August 31, 2008

Eavesdropped wisdom

It seems that some of the smartest things I ever hear are from homeless and/or crazy people. (see here, for example...)

This week was no exception.

I was in the Barns and Noble on 86th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, just walking around the part of the store with art books, foreign language instruction, and music books. I glanced down one isle to see a man gesturing and speaking aloud.

He was clearly having a conversation -- leaving room for the answer, making gestures and whatnot, all while flipping through a book. I wasn't sure if he was rehearsing a play, having a conversation via bluetooth headset, or if he was, well, nuts.

Turns out the latter was the truth. (Nobody reads a dictionary page-by-page for that long...I should have known from that alone!)

I decided I had to hear what he was saying, so I went and looked at French-English dictionaries...for much longer than any human ever needs to.

I wasn't disappointed. The two things he said that I wrote down were:
"Life without love, what kind of life is that? ... You could give me a million dollars, but what's that without love?"

He then went off about happiness and faith. I took a small break listening to answer a question in a side-conversation about the store's hours as well as something else in the neighborhood.

I continued to listen.

"Thank god for god. I know that even if I don't believe in him, he could (as he gestured to his sides and front), you could, or even she could. And if that keeps just one person happy, that's good enough for me. Thank GOD for god."

Perhaps the thing most fitting about these tidbits is how I documented them.

I had been looking in the store for gifts and had a memo opened on my blackberry entitled "Gifts". The Gifts memo now contains 2 book titles (and their authors), and these two quotations.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Where everybody knows your name

I've always wanted to be a regular. I've always wanted to walk in and have everyone know my name and -- in the event of a restaurant -- know my order.

I've had 4 "regular"-type experiences in my life. The first was when I was a lifeguard at a resort one summer of high school. I frequented the restaurant in the resort when I had meal breaks. Since my schedule was regular, as was the hostess's, she knew me and my order...and my employee discount. That barely counts because, in my mind, we were co-workers.

The second was a small hole-in-the-wall cafe I walked by to get to class freshman year. Three days a week, I got myself a Snapple. With little exception, I paid in exact change. He knew mine name and I knew his, and one day when I only had a $20-bill, he looked at me and said, "I can't change this this early in the day. Pay me tomorrow."

The year I was an RA, I was at the local market every night at 1 in the morning to get a plain bagel, toasted with butter. (And, usually, a can of coke for my then girlfriend...)

This summer I had a "regular" experience, but not food-service. It was my bank. There's something to be said for small-town banking, when the only ATMs are drive-through and they know exactly what time everyone comes in every Friday to deposit their paychecks.

But tonight, I watched the experience I've always wanted.

I was at a diner for dinner and I was the only person in the entire restaurant whose name was unknown. The old woman to my left and the slightly less old man to my right knew each other, knew the bus-boy, knew the hostess to the point that she came and said goodbye to them as she left for the shift-change, knew the booth across the aisle and participated in their conversations...

You get my point.

It was a strange experience. I felt out of place in a dinner I've eaten at a dozen times.

I want that one day.

But for now, I guess I'll just stick with being a regular in my own kitchen. I could do worse.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Omit Needless Words"

There are a couple books that are sacred to me. One might call them my bibles. Neither of them is the bible.

The first is Henry Mancini's arranging and orchestration book. The second is Strunk and Whites The Elements of Style, about which I'm going to write tonight.

This was required reading in my 11th Grade AP Journalism class. Well, four of the five chapters were. This book helped shape me as a writer. Much like the real bible, I do not follow every rule in it -- such as "avoid passive voice" (Okay, it's actually "Use the active voice", but I like the passive-esque of the way I put it.) and "omit needless words" -- and also like the bible, I go back and re-read it on what feels like an annual basis.

I'm amazed, more than anything, at how dead-on my underlining skills were. I picked the right passages to pay attention to -- and also (again like some religious folks with the bible) -- have have managed to take certain sections to mean what I want them to mean and have made the most out of them, selfishly and self-satisfactorily.

Rule 12: Choose a suitable design and hold to it. I underlined: "Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer... In some cases, the best design is no design..."

Rule 14: Use the Active Voice In the entire 2 page thing, I underlined what I thought was the most important thing: "brevity is a by-product of vigor." Or likely in this case, skimming...

Rule 17: Omit needless words "Vigorous writing is concise" and that not every sentence must be short, but that "every word must tell [something that other words do not]." My corollary to this is Brevity is a gift; I traded mine in for a new discman.

Of course, back to using this book for my needs...

Rule 18: Avoid a succession of loose sentence or as I chose to underline, "A writer may err by making sentences too compact..."

The most valuable section, to me, at least, is the final chapter of the book, "An Approach to Style."

Such great tidbits justify my own writing as part of my voice -- which I'm told can be heard in my writing, and vice versa -- starting with "[style] is a expression of self..." Or better yet, write in a way that comes naturally. (Say, my stream-of-conscious style that I have somehow made work academically, too.)

In the rule Be Clear, they say "When you say something, make sure you have said it." Sounds obvious. And yet, how many things do I read (or write, unintentionally) that don't follow this?

The one thing in the entire book I have highlighted -- whereas everything else is bracketed or underlined in blue pen -- is "If you are deeply troubled and are composing a letter appealing for mercy or for love, you had best not attempt to organize your emotions..."

That's right, my bible tells me that emotions are messy.

Does yours?

Oh, how I love "religion."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Encounter

I wrote this story as a therapeutic tool in May. I ran into her this past week but it was nothing like this story. In fact, no words were exchanged at all. Just eye contact...

But here is the fictionalized account from May. Be kind.


I was looking down, slowly deciding whether to set my life's soundtrack to Oscar Peterson or Henry Mancini. Mancini spoke to the mood I was in – nostalgic, secluded, and wanting to take in the beautiful scenery of the city only in slow motion. Oscar spoke to the mood I wanted to be in – that of a black-and-white movie in which the protagonist has the confidence to conquer the fast-paced city around him.

Either choice left me in my own bubble not conscious of the faces around me and only their existence.

She must have seen me coming. She was stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, standing still, waiting for me to literally bump into her on 37th street – an area that not near school, home, or work for either one of us.

“Hi.” Not my most eloquent of openings, but I was impressed that I could even open my mouth to say anything.

“You look good.” This was a small victory for me. I had joined a gym not more than a year ago and I secretly hoped to run into her so she could realize just by looking how great my life was, that I had a healthy glow, and that I was happy without her.

“Thanks. I've been taking care of myself.” I couldn't bring myself to say how good she looked. She did look good, but if I had said it aloud, it would have been an admission of defeat that she has been doing well without me.

We were high school sweethearts. I fell in love with her the day I met her, and while it took me a year and a half to let the words roll off my tongue to tell her, we both knew it within minutes. We had both been section editors of the newspaper, yet we never actually spoke since my section was already turned in before her's was even started. We were named co-managing editors, and in our first meeting together, the connection was tangible to everyone in the room. She pretended to care about a state law relevant to an article she was writing only to hear me talk. She asked me to email her the law just to have an excuse to get my email address and start a conversation.

I made excuses, too. The first time I spoke to her on the phone was while baking a cake for my mother's birthday. I needed a frosting recipe and figured maybe she'd have one. We spoke for two hours, and the cake never got frosted – but I didn't care; I just wanted to talk to her and needed the right opening.

For the following two years, we were inseparable. When she left for college, thousands of miles away, we were hopeless romantics, planning our lives to become what bad chick-flicks are made of. The distance proved too much and, after a year, we broke up. We were together for over three years and in love for even longer.

We had been apart for as long as we had been together, and it still was unreal to me that she was now engaged. “Congratulations. When's the wedding?”

“We're not sure, yet. His mother always wanted a winter wedding. You know I never cared, and my mother transferred all her dreams to my sister years ago.” I, of course, knew this from the days when we stopped taking it one day at a time and started realizing what we had.

I made note of the ring. I was pleasantly surprised at how simple it was. The woman living on the Upper East Side – on the rich side of 3rd Avenue – seemed to have kept the ideals of the girl she had been, looking forward to inheriting her mother's fake diamonds and wearing them proudly as a symbol of her modesty.

“Well, if you need a band...”

She cut me off, thinking I was going to offer my own service. “I don't know if that would be a good idea.”

“No – that would be too awkward. But here's my card; I just started managing a couple of bands and I could get you a good rate.”

She thanked me, but I could tell it was empty. I couldn't help but think she was going to throw the business card away as soon as my back was turned, throwing me out of her life yet again. I wondered if she would tell him she saw me.

“Well, I should be...”

I cut her off. “I tried to call you when I found out, but I couldn't bring myself to press send.”

“It's okay; I don't have that phone number anymore. But I'm glad you didn't email me. You really should just st...”

“I miss you.”


“I still think about you.”

“I know. I miss you, too, but I don't think about it anymore. I can't. But I really need to go. And you need to stop thinking.”

“Just tell me you're in love with him and I'll stop. Tell me you love him for everything he is and not for everything I'm not. Tell me you're truly happy and don't ever wonder what could be – not even what could have been but what could actually be now that we're in the same place again – and I'll leave. I'll just get out of your life forever. I'll never run into you again.”

Maybe she couldn't answer those questions because she wasn't sure of the answers. Maybe she was as shocked as I was that those words came out of my mouth. Maybe she didn't because she knew it was an empty promise, and that living only 3 streets apart – no matter how many avenues away – and going to school with only 5th Avenue between us made never running into her a promise I had no authority to make. Maybe she still believed we'd fall in love again if given the chance and that she would just never give us the chance.

I didn't hug her and hold her close as I'd always imagined I would; she didn't give me the chance. She just smiled as she turned and walked away, whispering only, “goodbye.”

Monday, August 25, 2008

10 PM nature sounds

Nature sounds different here versus Cape Cod. No crickets. No gusts of wind against the leaves that make me say, "is it raining?" No more june bugs against my window screen. (No more window screen, for that matter.)

But there is something oddly comforting about Manhattan "nature" sounds.

There's something that makes me smile about the groups of children playing in the street (the one with no cars allowed...) and laughing at 10 at night -- a sound that will likely stop when school starts. There's something oddly comforting about sirens going by as I eat dinner. The routine of the bus beeps as it is kneeled for the elderly that calms my nerves. And the hum of the air conditioners is the perfect white-noise backdrop to an 11 PM walk.

(Did I mention that I love being able to walk at 11 PM, not be alone, and not need a flashlight?)

Sure it's a different kind of nature, but it's beautiful to me all the same.

Just for reference, my night route. It's a very safe route for after dark (by 24-hour stores and door-man buildings galore). It's less than half a block under 2 I call it two miles, because it's over 2 miles after my 5th floor walkup and walk-down...)

Welcoming the newbies

The new New School class has now shown up, and for the 5th time, I was there for it. One as a newbie myself, one as an Orientation Leader, one as an RA, and now two as staff.

This is probably the hardest I've worked in all of them, and the most fun, too.

But every year, I've watched the parents and their children. There are the kinds of parents who -- even when you ask a question and make eye contact with the student -- answer the question, the kinds of parents who push their kid forward to talk, and the kinds of parents who run away -- or are pushed away, but either way, make themselves scarce.

There were those students whose parents would not leave them until after check-in was done, even if they did not speak, and there were those parents who left when told there was a separate parent check-in, prompting sighs of relief from their offspring.

That was me. With my parents around, I did not (and still barely do) talk. I shift into the mode of dependence -- not because I am dependent, but because it's easier than saying "get off my back." And when they're gone, I'm fine. I mean, I approached complete strangers this summer to talk about baseball. I can handle myself, obviously.

So what kind of parent is not always an indication of the student...

Though as one of the camp board-of-directors members said to me, "Meet the parents and it explains the child."

So true...

Good thing my parents aren't too nuts!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Back home

I came back to New York City yesterday.

I missed it.

I was greeted (after a call of my own saying 'I'm Back!') with a voicemail saying "Welcome Home", but hesitant, perhaps wondering if it is presumptuous to call New York City my home.

It is.

While I have adopted the motto the "Home is where the Teddy Bear is...", and the teddy bear tends to travel with me, home is here for right now, even if my teddy bear isn't.

After 3 month, I didn't miss a beat. I was still the first off the curb. I still managed to talk my way into the school building without my ID. I still had to clean the bathroom the second I walked in. It was exactly as it had been before.

It's good to be back.

It's good to be home.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

That's all she wrote

It's been 5 days. I have had so much to say about my last day of camp, herein: 'retirement', that I have had nothing concrete to say.

Overall, I'm both sad and relieved. I'm sad because it's hard to say goodbye to a 17 year career. I'm relieved because I said it was going to be my best summer, and it took until the last camper left for me to be 100% sure that it was and that I ended in the exact way I wanted to.

Even though I have 17 years of memories, that last day is still one of what will stick out in my mind.

After the 7:30am work detail and campers finally arrived, I started the day the same way I started the other 34 -- energetic and excited to see campers. (Okay -- 33 of the 34...Monday of week 4 was the only day I had to fake it -- but I did it well...) I dreaded the color wars, honestly, though. I have not been an active participant in 6 years. When I was a JC4, I helped the then head of riflery put away the archery stuff (the archery head had been fired mid-season and the new folks had not been there for some reason...), and then my first 4 years as a counselor, I was the photographer. (Except the year I wasn't there for RA training...) This year I was scheduled to be the photographer again until the head of what would be the purple team came down with a condition that made her a tap on the head away from a detached retina and thus, blindness. So she took over as me and I as her.

It was actually pretty awesome. I don't know if I could have done it the past few years, too, but this year was fun as an isolated incident.

I took back my photographer role after lunch in time for the parade we do.

The final ceremony is where the real emotion hit. The director started by having me hold the flag while another counselor sang the national anthem in recognition of my 17-years-of service. He announced my retirement for me. (At which point, I couldn't help but make Brett Favre jokes saying that if I decided to come back, they'd have to trade me to the camp down the street for conditional draft picks.)

When it was all over and I was hugging my JCs -- whom I've watched grow up -- about 10 parents camp up to me separately and said, "Good luck. Thank you. Our kids adore you." It felt great. I wished I'd heard these things the past few years, but this was amazing and made everything worth it -- as if it hadn't already been.

I'd never cried at the end of summer until this year. When everyone was finally gone, I stood there and let myself go for about 2 minutes -- never taking off my sunglasses so not to show it. And then it was time to get back to work finishing up putting the place to bed.

I ended the way I started -- all business, and having fun doing it.

I'll miss it. But it's nice to be on my way to growing up for real.

Friday, August 8, 2008

And then there were five

One period of the penultimate Friday in and one of my Junior Counselors looks at me and says, "You have just over five-and-a-half days. What can possibly be going through your mind right now?"

I looked at him and said, "It doesn't matter. I'm here for the kids. I have to make it the best five-and-a-half days of their lives and whatever I'm dealing with has to wait and frankly doesn't even matter."

The weird thing is that I hadn't thought about it one bit all day -- save the passing comment of "Six more!" to one of the directors at the start of the day -- but as I walked away from the archery range, I slowed my pace and actually had to hold back some tears.

Truth is, I'm sad. It's hard not to be. I knew I would be, but I was never entirely sure how I would react.

My entry from earlier this week prompted a few comments to me privately including that camp is not merely a hat I wear, but it is part of me. It is not a place I go or a thing I do, it is me. And this comment is dead on.

So I'm not moving on from a phase of my life or something I've done -- a lot, but I'm moving on from me.

If everything I've done in life is a chapter in the book of me, camp is part of the glue that holds the binding together and the cover on. This is not a chapter I'm closing, for it will always be with me. I'm just sad that the glue is starting to set.

But I only have two days to think about it, because come Monday, it's back to giving these kids the best 5 days of their lives. One of these kids next week will look back at it in 8, 10, 12, 15 years and mark it as when they decided that camp would become part of them, and the best way for me to make that happen is just to do what I do and be the best counselor I can be.

And I will be.

I always am.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Changing Hats

At camp, when the registrar leaves, I wear his hat -- literally and figuratively.

(His actual hat is pictured here:)

I get made fun of for wearing his hat, but it serves a simple purpose that has nothing to do with power or envy or the simple desire to emulate him -- it has to do with the fact that when people see me in that hat, they know -- without asking or thinking -- that he isn't here and all inquiries should go to me.

So yeah -- I wear a lot of hats at camp.

(Incidentally, when asked why I replace him, I always answer: "They needed another short Jew with clipboards." Truth is, I've just done it before and I'm good at it and it's easier to replace me elsewhere than train someone new for this...same reason they didn't make me a unit head and kept me as the archery head...but that's another story.)

At the beginning of the year, Otis, the director, gave us his speech about us being a team. He is a huge Patriots fan and equated himself to Bill Belichick, the head coach and perhaps the greatest modern mind in football. He said some people are defensive folk, some offensive folk, and together, we compliment one another and make the perfect team. That nobody should be what they aren't, and that's what makes us great.

I immediately looked at my friend and said, "I think I'm Troy Brown." Troy Brown, for those non-football fans, was with the Patriots for 15 years. He has been a receiver, a defender, a punt-return and kick-return man, and been the designated man to sit out to allow others to play. Essentially, he's done it all, never once complaining. (He was even once put down in the depth chart as the emergency quarterback.)

Fridays are the hardest day to change roles -- not because I have problems with it, but because everyone's role because more difficult -- and in the case of the registrars, it becomes the most stressful job at camp. Any lost camper at the end of the day is the fault and responsibility of the registrar. And with the hecticness that is Friday, there is infinite opportunity to lose someone. (In my 6 years of being his backup, I have not lost anyone...though last year we had to have a camp director drive a kid home because I sent the buses home -- with direction from a higher-up -- before he got on the bus.)

But I love it. I like feeling valuable. And while my regular job is valued and I am quite good at it, there's something about changing it up and being able to move one -- or more -- step(s) in a different direction in order to make sure the camp as a whole runs without fault.

The strange thing -- while I've done three or four jobs this week alone -- is that I realized this week that they all pale in comparison to my most important job at camp: friend.

As much as I love being professional support to a staff of 70, willing to take over whenever anything needs to be done, I love even more being able to be emotional support to a group of one -- a sole soul (sorry, I had to) who needs someone to talk to or someone to hug.

And with all the jobs I do at camp and all the things I can put on a resume, that -- the one that won't get me in the door to interview for a future job, the one that doesn't add a bonus to my paycheck (even though the others don't, either...), the one that doesn't come with limelight of the whole staff and parents and campers seeing -- that is the one I'm most proud of.

It's the one I'll miss the most when I'm gone.

And it doesn't even come with a straw hat.