Friday, June 14, 2013

Fathers and Sons

Sunday will be the first Father's Day in which Chuck plays the roles of both a father and a son. I suppose it would be appropriate for me to impart some paternal wisdom that has been handed down from generation to generation, but, in fact, I don't recall that my father and I ever had a conversation about what fatherhood was about.

My father's father came to the United States from Greece in 1911.  Mostly, I've been told, he sold flowers on the street corner. However else he managed to eke out a living, he was able to provide for his family.

Though he was illiterate, my grandfather would carry a newspaper with him every day so that people would not know. As a kid, my father thought that his father was stupid and a fool for pretending he could read. Years later, it occurred to him that his father's deception was an object lesson in the importance of education; he got respect because people thought he could read and write. So it must have made him proud that all four of his children graduated high school.

Growing up, I often resented the fact that my father was not home much. In addition to being a New York City firefighter, working alternating day and night shifts that changed on a weekly basis, he had side businesses as an insurance broker and a tax preparer. As a result, it seemed that he was always working a lot more than he was home; certainly he was not like the fathers of my friends, who were home for dinner every night. That he missed a number of plays, football games, and other school events that I was in seemed to me a sign that he didn't care.

And yet, somewhere along the way, he taught me how to throw and catch. He took me to ball games at Yankee Stadium and to the very first Jets game ever played at Shea Stadium. He took my brothers and me to Palisades Amusement Park every summer. He even took me to the firehouse where he worked and let me climb on the fire truck. (He never let me slide down the pole, though!)

More importantly, there was food on the table, clothes on our backs, and a roof over our heads. While we never lived extravagantly, there was also never any question that all the bills would be paid and any emergencies could be dealt with. It was not until years later, when I was on my own and married, that I realized this was because my father was working so much.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this, it is that sons do not always understand why their fathers do what they do. That said, there is probably something I did when Chuck was growing up that he has or will come to see in a different light. And someday he will explain it to Alex...

The Mother of Invention

The saying goes that "Necessity is the mother of invention," but, is it really? I would argue that laziness is a stronger reason for it.

Let's go back to that very first invention, the wheel. Up until the time he invented it, Oog the caveman carried everything he needed in his arms or on his back. There had to be a point when he said, "I'm really tired of lugging all this stuff. There has to be a better way to move it!" It wasn't necessary, but it sure would make his life easier.

So it is with all the advancements of civilization...
"I'm tired of telling the same story over and over" and so we invent written language.
"I'm tired of copying these books by hand" and so we invent printing.
"I'm tired of making a fire to cook" and so we invent stoves and ovens.
"I'm tired of walking and I'm tired of taking care of the horses" and so we invent trains and planes and automobiles.

Think about all the improvements that are made in everything we use. They're all designed to make our lives easier. And why do we want things easier? Because we are lazy!

Of course, there are some inventions that don't fit that category, ones that appear to have been created on a whim. As my son Chuck has pointed out, the flamethrower seems to have sprung from someone saying, "I'd really like to set fire to that guy over there!" Then again, it could just be that the inventor was too lazy to walk over with a torch.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Twenty Years From Then

  In just a couple of weeks, I will begin my twentieth summer teaching the Writing & Imagination class in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth program.

  One of the assignments I have been using since the very first class is to have the students write me a letter from twenty years in the future, telling me what has happened to them since they were in the class. After a couple of them tried to take a shortcut ("I was killed when the meteor hit the Earth three days after CTY ended." "My parents bought me a lottery ticket on our drive home and I won a billion dollars!"), I added a few rules about what couldn't happen.

  Some of the students take a very practical approach, while others live out their wildest dreams. But the results are always entertaining, a variety of stories about high school and college careers, jobs, marriages and families. I write a letter as well, to them, usually beginning with, "Yes, I am still teaching at CTY..."

  When we were doing the assignment last summer, it occurred to me that the very first class, back in 1993, wrote their letters from 2013. Wouldn't it be an interesting to try to get real letters from them? Easier said than done, because the filing cabinet containing my CTY files only went back as far as 1998, and I remembered the names of only a few of the students.

  Preliminary web searches of those names I remembered proved fruitless and I was resigned to letting the idea go. Then one afternoon not long ago, I was cleaning out a closet and came across a folder filled with papers from the first five CTY summers, including a list of the 1993 class! All twelve names, plus addresses, albeit twenty year old addresses.

  Armed with their then-addresses, I was able to refine my searches and track down some likely candidates. I've sent snail mail letters to the remaining addresses, though I expect most will come back undeliverable, the families long ago having moved. But you never know...

  And just in case any of the members of that class decide to Google themselves and are led here, I want to hear from you: Joe Arias, Andrew Bostrom, Brandon Brown, Peter Chi, Matt Dana, Monica Elkinton, Billy Flook, Nathan Hribar, Ariel Lambe, Summer Loehr, Heejung Kim, and Derek Thiess, what's happened in the twenty years since you were in my class?