Seasons in the sunset - A seventy (+3) year old looks ahead and back

Seasons in the sunset - A 80 year old
looks ahead and back

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

College: What is it Good for?

                          Why College?
Over the years, somewhere around age forty, it came to me that college would have been a wonderful opportunity to explore my interests and talents.

Who knew?

Certainly by the end of my high school years I knew little about either. My interests were sports, girls and friends. And, honestly, those were also my college goals. 

Yes, college was four years during which I could have researched areas of interest and vocation. So why not take advantage of this? Well, for starters, remember, I was forty, almost two decades removed from campus life, when I figured this out.

It was in later life that I got the bright idea that I would imbue this knowledge, about the purpose of college, to my offspring. The essence of my advice would be use your college years to, "explore everything," "find what you love" and "develop a skill to support yourself."

And what was my own college experience? In a word - great! - even better than I thought it would be. I made lifelong friends; I played on the football team, and the baseball team. I met girls. I laughed like I never laughed before. And those particulars – sports, friends, and girls - were the main reasons that I went to college. Find what you love? How about sports, friends and girls? Intellectual interest and vocation, not so much.

I actually voiced such opinions while enrolled, on the rare occasions when it seemed that the subject of interests was approached. When we registered for our next semester’s courses each mid-term, a dean assisted in the process (called advising) and often pointed out shortcomings (i.e. low grades, lack of direction). I had my excuse ready.

                Is College More than Academics?
“I’m getting more out of college than just grades,” I said to the Dean who seemed to be implying that I could do better. I doubt if my words had stumped him. He’d been around. He’d heard it before and likely knew that I was adamant and there was no sense wasting his breath. Getting a lot out of college – that was me.

Not really.

I was in college for ten years. I got three degrees – sadly the wrong ones. Maybe I shouldn't complain. My life has been blessed - good job, two wonderful daughters and a permanent feeling of gratitude that follows me always.

Still I think that I wasted much of my college years because I didn't explore - my self, my interests. I could say I didn't think, but that may be too harsh. The best thing I did was to deduce that if I didn’t know what I wanted, then I should keep going to school. Get more degrees. I forged ahead - blindly. It was better than nothing, but only barely. I got an another advanced degree in education to go with my Master’s in Teaching (Math) and undergraduate BA, (Education major, Math minor).

                 Rethink your High School Answers
So what did I do wrong? For starters, I plodded along with the recited goal that rose to the top during high school. At various times during my adolescence the question was asked: What do you want to do when you grow up? My answer was always the same:  teacher and coach. There - that was covered, now on with life - friends, girls and sports.

                 What's Your major Again?
Actually my chosen area of study, education with math minor, might have been a clue. If you’re studying to be a teacher then find a field that you want to major in, and do that. Don’t major in Education - a minor there is sufficient for certification. Plus, if you don't want to major in the field you'll be teaching (that was me - math) then it's the wrong field.

               What Do You Want to Do?
Here’s another issue. I ended up teaching for 27 years, and over the years have talked with countless 18, 19 year olds about their course of study. My first question was always, “What is it that you want to do?”
By far the most prevalent answer was, “I don’t know what I want to do.” I expected that, so my next question was, “What do you enjoy? What are your hobbies? What do you read? Do you draw, build things, decorate things? If you have a part-time job, what do you like best about the job? Do you know a seemingly happy parent or adult friend? What doe he or she do?”

They looked at me dumbfounded. Is this on the test?

The objective here is to find an interest and to study that. For young adults one may have to dig deep for this. There’s another objective and that is to develop a “skill,” one of some vocational value. A major in Education, communications, even sociology and psychology are not always good job skills unless they are truly your passion. Look for hints of your passions, i.e. what books are on your nightstand? As long as you’re in college for four years don't neglect vocation and future financial support. Try to come out with a skill that will contribute to your support.

           Really, I Don't Know What I Want to Do
So you say, “Hey, I seriously don’t know what I want to do so I’ll major in math and be a math teacher. I need a job. It’s better than nothing.” I would respond, “OK, that’s OK, but don’t give up your personal research project. Keep questioning if your choice is your passion. You have four years of college with a wealth of opportunities at your disposal. Trust me, if you don’t turn over every stone you will one day say to yourself – "gee, four years, why didn’t I do something? Learn a language, learn how to write better, play music, learn an actual skill etc."

Andy Rooney Didn't Want to be Culturally Deprived 
Andy Rooney said of his college experience, that he loved football, but didn’t want to “let the game dominate my life and become a culturally deprived jock, so I decided to take piano lessons.” That we should all have such maturity at age twenty. As for me, I was well aware of life’s priorities – there was football, baseball, girls,  laughing with friends, beer and sleep in that order. Cultural deprivation, whatever that was, I’d make up for it later, if necessary, which I doubted. But seriously, back then I would have thought that the hour on the piano stool was cultural deprivation. How dumb!

I'll keep trying to drive the message home, next with the grandchildren.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Always Smile at Old People

Yesterday I spoke to a woman I have known for many years. Not known really – seen or noticed for many years might be more appropriate.

She was a crossing guard at an intersection that I passed on my daily commute from Madison, NJ to Teaneck. That was close to forty years ago (the mid 1970s) and she was middle-aged back then.

She still looked as immaculate in appearance as she did decades ago and these days I see her from time to time at the YMCA where she rides the exercise bike. Her husband accompanies her as she is, today, obviously suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

I’d say she has been coming to the Y for a year or so now, but, not really knowing her, I never spoke to her.Yesterday as I waited in hallway for my grandson to finish his basketball class she came around the corner huddled over her walker, and we were face to face.
I decided to say hello, “You know I know you from many years ago. I used to pass you every morning as I drove to work. You were the crossing guard and I always thought that you looked so attractive and smartly dressed."
She looked up, her face brightened. “Yes I was the crossing guard,” she affirmed. Her voice was weak but there was a faint smile.
“Sometimes I’d see you going into your house, there on the corner, and I thought that, just like you, the house was so neat and well kept.”
“Thank you so much for saying all of that,” she said, smiling more now.
Her husband, standing within earshot, took a step toward us, “That was awfully nice of you,” he said.
“I see you exercising regularly now. Keep up the good work,” I said. She was still beaming.
Just then, grandson Johnny, age six, bounced down the hall toward me. I reached for his hand. “Nice to talk to you,” I said to the woman as John and I turned to go.
“Thank you so much,” she repeated.
Walking out, I thought for just a second, “Who was happier about our short exchange, her or me?”
That chance encounter and our brief words certainly made me feel awfully good.
Then, seemingly without reason, a thought sifted through my mind about my youth, my bedroom in the house where I grew up. There was a mirror on the wall where I logged many hours training my pompadour.Wedged between the frame and the glass there were always three or four index cards upon which my mother would write words of wisdom – reminders of life lessons.
I remember two:
“I might have been rich if I'd wanted the gold instead of the friendships I've made,” E. A. Guest, my mom’s favorite poet.
And this one, “Always smile and say hello to old people.” This I believe was her favorite. She even passed it on to my two daughters and they mention it from time to time, citing their grandma. 

Love Letters in the Sand

It’s early Monday morning, a June day, 2012, a little before eight. I'm in my driveway. 
I open the car and begin to clean things up so when granddaughter Emma, sixth grader, gets in a few minutes later she won’t wreck all my stuff.


Yesterday’s accumulated paraphernalia – a month old NY Times Book Review section, a library book – The Elements- Building Blocks of Our Universe (no comprendo), two baseball gloves, one “soft” vinyl covered baseball (always ready to play catch with the grand-kids), a white oxford long sleeve shirt (not sure why) , another book, French Dirt-The Story of a Garden in the South of France (someday I’ll get to …)and a very old umbrella that, untouched, has a tendency to randomly spring open (must discard).  I stash the stuff out of the way, on the dashboard,  filling the passenger side, which is, too often, how the car looks when I drive the kids to school – seats empty and clear, but dashboard cluttered with the prior day’s stuff. 
Here I pause.
Finally, I bite the bullet. I get out of the car, gather up the clutter from the dashboard and deposit it in the trunk. 
I feel better.

On this particular June Monday, I look up and notice a sprinkling of sand on the right side of the dashboard in front of the passenger seat. 

Huh? How did that get there I wonder?

Then I remember that on Saturday night, after a walk on the boardwalk we, A and I, jumped down onto a patch of sand heading back to the car, and A took her shoes off to walk through the sand. On the ride home her shoes were still in her hand and as we traveled on, she leaned back and put her feet up on the dashboard. 

Could that be it? I look at the sand again. Yes, had to be.

The sand – a thousand grains perhaps, concentrated toward a center, less so around the edges, a natural pattern, beautiful like fallen leaves under a tree. I look again, trying to see if there is anything like a footprint.  

Of course not. 

It is now Tuesday morning and the sand is still on the dash and – don’t know - but somehow, for some reason, seeing it there warms my heart. 

Grandapa on Thin Ice - Winter 2011

                                                                Grandpa on Thin Ice
                                        (Skating with grand kids at the Madison, NJ pond)
I am at the ice pond with grandson Eddie, age 6, and friend Steve, 8. Both are outfitted in official NHL caliber gear, full pads, hockey gloves, and helmet plus authentic NJ Devil jerseys. Needless to say, for my youthful hockey adventures at the village pond in Warwick, NY in the 1950s, we didn’t dress the part.

Ed and Steve find a free spot where they slide around, pushing the puck and intermittently slapping it toward a makeshift goal - two sneakers spaced some five feet apart. Presumably the sneakers’ owner is around somewhere, but wearing skates. No matter. The boys celebrate each score – between the sneakers – by looping back with raised sticks.

Eventually others drift into the fray - a boy and a girl, each with hockey sticks. No one asks anyone’s name or speaks even, but soon the newcomers blend in and the play continues. I kick the puck back with my skates whenever it drifts toward me. My better kicks are like passes, mostly to the girl so that she gets a shot. After several minutes I decide to call for a game - the girl and me, against the three boys. I feel quite confident that even without a stick we can hold our own. We’re talking seven year olds here, give or take a year.

I demand introductions to start. The girl’s name is Caroline. She’s in figure skates, un-helmeted, wearing a tasseled blue knit hat. Not a problem. The new boy is Jack, age seven. Everyone stands around submissive-like as I demand that all say hello. They comply - barely.

The game begins.

Caroline and I, manage quite well. I kick the puck to her and block football style for her dashes toward the goal. I also play effective defense using more football techniques, some holding (illegal) and body bumping (gentle). We are not winning, but we’re doing OK.

I’m able to barrel around cleverly enough that Caroline actually gets some shots and when one goes in, through, the two sneakers, I gush loud congratulations. Caroline seems pleased. We’re in mid-celebration when I hear someone shouting from the far side of the pond.  “Hold it,” I say.

 “Do you want a stick?” a voice asks.

I squint into the glare. “Do you have one?”

“I’m Caroline’s mother; I live across the street. I’ll go get you one.”

"Too far," I protest, but mom scoots up the bank and minutes later returns with a stick. She obviously has an interest in this game. I thank her and dart back to the action like a NHLer returning from the penalty box. 

Our team is much better now that I have a stick. I fly around with impressive speed for a seventy year-old - or so I think. I definitely turn it up a notch, given that we have an audience (Caroline's mom).

OK, presently I see the loose puck and I race after it. At 5’ 9” compared to my tallest opponent at 4’ 3’’, or thereabouts, I enjoy a considerable reach advantage, so if there is any stretching for the puck I win. I get it this time too and immediately envision a breakaway when I notice my teammate in my side vision. First I must speed-skate to a clear pass lane. I turn on the jet engines. Wait a minute! Suddenly I observe that my sight lines have changed. Instead of ice, the puck or other players there is bright blue sky and white scattered clouds. I recognize immediately that somehow my feet have gone out from under me, that I am horizontal, face up, in mid-air.

I land with a thud, smack on my back, half breaking the fall with my right wrist. Flat, like a flounder on ice, I notice the worried face of my grandson standing over me. 

“Papa?” he says. 

I hear concern in his voice and I attempt to respond, but without air in my lungs no sound comes out. A thought occurs: When was the last time I had the wind knocked out of me? I lay still for a good minute or two. The kids showing their concern, circle around me.

I hear a distant voice, a woman, “Are you OK?” Probably Caroline’s mom, I think. I raise my hand, wave weakly, without looking.  
Minutes pass.  

Finally I get up. I shuffle toward the sidelines and collapse onto a grassy bank.

“You guys play,” I say to the children. No one protests.

Everyone says I broke a rib, because each deep breath brings a sharp pain. Regardless, there's no treatment, I’m told by friends who know such things, plus it’ll take 5 weeks to heal. As for the effects: I cannot turn over in bed, cannot raise myself from a chair, cannot run (trot) after anything. In other words – I’m done for - plus a sprained wrist. 

Moments in a Life

There is a story – the title is Pitching to Shay - that has made the rounds of the forwarded email circuit and which came to me recently. The tale is about a baseball game and how a group of youngsters embraced a disabled child as a valued member of their team.

The storyteller, the child’s father, offered that the perfection that he longed to see in his imperfect child could be seen in the perfection of others reacting to him.

It brings to mind the biblical verse, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I am neither a biblical scholar nor a firm believer, but as a hopeful agnostic, I am struck by the many words in spiritual texts (i.e. Do onto others,  and As ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me.  etc.) that seem to be undeniably true when it comes to the question of how humans can live best.

For my money, this - kindness to others - is the closest we will come to the meaning of life. Opportunities like in the Pitching to Shay story, for people to extend gestures of full human kindness, come about infrequently. I’d like to think that they are “sent to us” by some divine eternal force but when I do think that way all I can see is an empty implausible universe. Still the feeling of living correctly, when embracing such an opportunity, is real.

I had a moment like that once:

I was living in Chatham, NJ. It was a Friday night. I started out the evening by venturing toward a party that after walking up to the door and peering through the window – swinging singles trying to act young – I opted out. I drove back home heading downtown to a restaurant named Charley’s Aunt with an intent to sit at the bar and brood.

Charley’s had a rule in those days – a jacket was required to get served. On the walk outside the bar were three African American men, about my age. I overheard their conversation about needing a jacket and offered my sympathy – “Dumb rule,” I said.

“We were just trying to buy a beer for the train ride home,” one said.
“You didn’t want to go in?” I said
“No, we just wanted a six-pack to take out.”

“Wait here,” I said, and walked across the street to my car, opened the trunk and pulled a six-pack from the cooler that I’d planned on bringing to the party.
It was Hacker-Pschorr, the premium official German Oktoberfest  beer that I first sampled in Washington, DC with some dear friends,  on one magical Fall evening during what I like to call, my eternal years, when I was 29.

I have loved the beer ever since.

At the swinging singles party that I backed away from, I intended to impress the guests with my taste for beer, and also knowledge about Oktoberfest - which was close to nothing - but I figured more than others. I would begin my Oktoberfest monologue as I opened a beer bottle with my new $5.95 Hacker-Pschorr bottle opener, with a hand painted wood handle sporting the bright H-S label. I was most proud of that. I had just purchased the opener earlier that afternoon.

When I returned to the trio waiting for the train I handed them the iced six-pack and the prized opener and said, “Enjoy.”

The men raced up to the station for the train, thanking me as they left. I went into Charley’s feeling a bit redeemed about the whole evening, and thanking the forces of the universe for the opportunity I was given.

A Job, not a Career - circa 1970

                    Move to New Jersey -
            My wife and year-old daughter had moved to New Jersey two weeks before I separated from the Army on March 1, 1970.  We rented a small house in Madison. I was slated to start work at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell and Co. (PMM&Co), the Co being, not Company, but Co-Partners.  I was just learning about the business world.  I was enthusiastic though a bit nervous because I ... well ... because my job title was consultant. 


             What did I know about anything? 

            Very little. 

                    The Commute
            I caught the 7:16 train on my first day. Commuting fascinated me. Mostly men in suits lined up waiting in clusters on the station platform at forty foot intervals. Aboard the train, jockeying for a seat, folding newspapers down to steno pad size, eyes straight ahead (no eye contact with those walking by lest someone think you're inviting them to take the open seat next to you), obsessing about being first off, then racing to be first to the next train (“the Tubes” which, so everyone thinks, may be pulling out any second), then racing again to the subway platform. Inside the subway car, lunging for seats, sitting, speechless, looking dazed.
                    The Office, 345 Park Avenue - Cool
            Eventually - miracle - I stepped up to the receptionist’s desk at nine on the dot, and asked for Frank Meyers, the personnel guy.  Standing with me, a pace or two back, was another newcomer, a rather stern fellow with neatly parted clipped hair. He was dressed in a finely pressed, navy pinstriped suit.  He wanted Meyers as well.  I immediately drew comparisons – the navy pinstripes versus mine, what we called Glen Plaid, suggested experience and accomplishment whereas mine I now judged a trifle on the flashy side for business – first day and all. Pin-striped opened his briefcase and jotted a note in a rather impressive large, and well worn leather covered appointment book. My appointment book was the size of a playing card. The cover was, not leather, but weak cardboard with the words “1970 - Pocket Pal” and rightfully, it was in my pants pocket.

                   By Comparison
            I surmised that the pin-striped guy had been a consultant for some years – evidence the appointment book.  I stole a glance into his briefcase and saw stacks of papers, no doubt the organized details of important facts related to his up and coming consulting assignments, for which he was hired. I had a briefcase, but it was not full. The one paper inside was today’s newspaper. I glanced at his face and tried to warm my heart. He was probably a nice guy really, a father, with children, who plays catch with them in the yard, wears flannel shirts and old jeans, and lets his hair go dry on weekends (wet heads were out, among youth, in 1970).

            “How ya doing?” I said, trying to summon warmth.  

            “Good morning,” he replied.  

             Not very businesslike - me. Hereafter “Good morning” would be my greeting of choice.

                    The Big Eight Conference
            PMM was what was called a Big Eight Accounting firm.  I knew it was not a football conference, but had no real idea who or what the Big Eight was. Still I put two and two together and surmised, correctly, that a Big Eight Accounting firm meant big deal.  As all large accounting firms, they had a consulting division or group as they called it.  I understood that the two vocations, accounting and consulting, went hand in hand, something like this: accountants looked over the books and when they found problems, they recommended consultants – very convenient that they had their own consultant group. 
Honestly, I felt apprehensive even calling myself a consultant.  This was at a time when consultant meant expert, unlike today where every freelancer – even the unemployed – is a consultant.  My business experience was limited to summer jobs.  I had two years Army experience where I pretended to be a computer programmer but, I had never actually written a computer program. My Army job title, called MOS (Military Occupation Specialty), was Systems Analyst, and it required no technical knowledge to speak of. 

               Not an Expert
             Before the Army I was a graduate assistant football coach. I suspected that Frank Meyers knew I was no expert and, most likely, so did the stern – nice guy - fellow in pin-stripes.  I could have looked like a young computer whiz-kid, except in those days kids of that ilk dressed more casual, being so smart that they could flaunt the dress code. Since I was far from that, I didn’t dare dress the part.

                 How's the House
            Just then Meyers showed up and greeted us both.  He knew my name at least. The pin-striper was Bill.  Meyers made more of a fuss about Bill.  “Did you find a house yet?” he asked Bill and Bill replied with a smile, that his wife was looking in Connecticut.  Meyers didn’t ask about my house hunt (we're renting, thanks, two bedroom cape, $250 / mo.).  He didn’t know my wife either, nor if I was married, nor that my wife was very smart and extremely attractive, in my opinion. I was wishing that I could have brought her along for my first day – would have been nice and I bet he would have made a bigger fuss about me/her. Obviously, Meyers knew little, and cared less, about me - unlike Bill. 
              Harold and Me  
            I was assigned to a cubicle with a guy named Harold. Harold went to Harvard, which I knew because Harold spent most of every day talking about squash or lunch, or both, and both were always at the Harvard Club. 

            I went to Lehigh. Good school, but no Lehigh Club in NY, that I knew of. 

            When Harold wasn't talking lunch or squash at The Club he was discussing a report that he was writing about the “cash and carry” business. I could see that this was Harold’s specialty – cash and carry. Wasn’t all business with products “cash and carry?” What was the alternative? Charge and carry - or ship maybe. See what I mean, when I say I didn’t know much about business? Well, it wouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to guess that “cash and carry” meant pay cash and physically carry it out. No backlog of charges. No shipping. Still the phrase paralyzed me the way receivables and payables disarmed me, to say nothing of those computer terms like link editor or core dump. OK, don’t ask. I couldn’t understand why a “cash and carry” business needed an expert consultant – but who was I to question what PMM was doing.
                  Two Phones at Once
            As I saw it, Harold’s greatest talent by far, was talking on two phones at once. Honestly, one in each ear, and sometimes, it seemed, about two different subjects. I suspected early on that the “cash and carry” business was somehow intertwined with the Harvard Club and the squash court, like business conducted on the golf course. Which was something I’d heard about. 

            Since I wasn't especially busy, I listened a lot to Harold’s phone conversations. One thing I picked up was that he never said “hello.”  When he answered a call, he said, “Harold Young,” and when he placed a call there was still no "hello." His first words when calling someone were invariably, “Is he there?”  That was it. I never managed to fully embrace business phone decorum but I guess it didn’t matter much because I didn’t make or receive that many calls.
            I adopted a call answering style modeled after one of the secretaries who seemed to be bucking the trend by answering her phone with a simple “hello.”  Honestly it sounded so much more friendly – wasn’t that the aim? - that I was taken by it and thus followed her lead. I was mildly fearful that I would receive a reprimand for this but as I received so few (close to none) legitimate calls I escaped rebuke. 
             Of course “bucking the trend” was not how to succeed in business. There were two factors related to my current view of the business world. 

            First: I had just finished reading “Up the Organization” and was presently half through “The Peter Principle.” These were not on the firm’s suggested reading list.  Each contained numerous examples of office absurdities and I delighted in spotting the many real-life examples at PMM.

             The second factor was that I met a new friend, a young man from the Bronx that shared my perceptions and whom I wanted to impress with my camaraderie and sense of humor. 
            I quickly learned that the aim of all PMM consultants was to be what was called chargeableChargeable meant that PMM was not paying your salary, but rather the client was.

            Despite my non-expert status I managed to be chargeable for most of my time at PMM. I functioned entirely as a worker bee. Other people, the real expert consultants, would meet with the executives of companies (clients) that wanted help and then these experts would call on me to do things. Nothing too complicated. The real consultants never told the company execs that I was not an expert. This worked best if the clients never saw me. 

            My first project was drawing diagrams, flowcharts they called them, that illustrated in pictures (boxes, circles, triangles and arrows), the various office procedures related to manufacturing. For example, I had to go around and ask people – not the execs but the worker bees like myself - in the office or the plant exactly what they did when someone called in an order. They weren’t especially courteous. They would say something like, “I get out an order form and fill it out,” followed by an implied, Duh! Often I felt I was asking stupid question but I had to be sure I documented every step. So I would take out my Official IBM flowcharting template and tracing a small rectangle on the top of the page and inside it write, “Complete the Order Form.”

“What happens next?” I would ask.

          The response was, “It goes to shipping.” Another Duh! I'd draw a line with an arrow on the end, then another rectangle. Inside I'd write “Shipping.” The tone of the office workers often hinting at disdain made me feel  uncomfortable but I plugged along. I knew how to draw boxes and arrows, and how to inquire, “What happens next?” but honestly I didn’t know much else about manufacturing other than it meant, to make things, which I think I learned in the fifth grade. “Bill of Materials,” a term I kept hearing, especially baffled me.

            Eventually I gained some comfort and what I felt was respect. People called the work I was doing, systems analysis.

                      Working in Midtown
So I survived, taking comfort in the fact that I was only thirty, that I was learning things and every day I dressed up in a suit, boarded the Erie Lackawanna train in Madison and rode to Hoboken where I caught the Path, to 33rd Street then the F Train to Queens, getting off at Park Avenue. That whole process impressed me immensely. My business address was 345 Park Avenue which I loved telling people, adding that it was in “midtown.” How cool was I?

Speaking of cool, I prided myself on being fashionable too. I got most of my clothes at Bloomingdales and if I went out after work in NYC for a beer or two, maybe to Brew’s on 34th Street or to the upper east side, I thought I was way more cool. The sound of the words “upper east side” was even better than “midtown” and made me feel as if I had come a long way from childhood. 

Did I ever actually go out for cocktails after work? 

            Maybe twice – or once.   

The princess has no sweatpants, circa 1985

           It is early on a school day morning at my home. Daughter, Brett (age 16) is in the upstairs bedroom, getting ready. Younger sister, Ashley (age14), is calling from across town, from mom’s home.       

 I reach for the phone. It's 6:30. Could be only one person. “Hello,” I say.    
 “Let me talk to Brett,” the voice says.
 “Brett, Ashley wants you,” I shout. 
             No response.
“I think she’s got the hairdryer on,” I say.
“Get her,” Ash says, “It’s important.”
I sit up in bed and let out a neighborhood-awakening screech, “Brett!”
She answers. “What?
“She says what?” I say to Ash.
“I need a pair of sweatpants. Tell Brett to give you a pair, bring them when you pick me up.”
I relay the message, “Brett, Ash wants a pair of sweatpants.”
“She has them all,” Brett hollers back.
I don’t have to relay this message. Ash hears it and yells into the phone her disbelief, “I have none!”
My relay to Brett, “She says she has none.”
I have none,” Brett counters.

OK, this makes me think of myself, and my sweatpants. I’m the one who has none. And yet I know I have purchased maybe a half dozen pairs of sweatpants in the recent years. Add to that the three or four pairs that I came home with from college and still had, fifteen years after graduation until they mysteriously vanished when my daughters approached their teens. So now I also have none. 

“Dad!” implores Ash, still on the phone.
“Yeah,” I say, then add, “When do you need these sweatpants?” Of course I know the answer to this.
“Today, I need them for gym,” Ash says.
“And if you don’t have them?” I ask.
“I flunk gym. Then I get kicked out of school and I’ll never be able to go to …”
“Ash, bag it ... I get the picture, I’ll find you some sweatpants.” I should be able to dig up one pair of sweatpants from somewhere, so I think.
“I don’t want any ones that are not normal,” Ash says.
“Don’t worry,” I say and we hang up.  In my mind I think, I won’t get you any of those "not normal" ones - because sweatpants are all the same - normal.

I approach Brett, just to see if any further clarification will surface now that Ash is off the phone, “Brett, why don’t you give Ash a pair of sweatpants?”
“Dad, she has all of my sweatpants,” Brett says emphatically.

I can see that this is going nowhere. It’s one of those special child-parent junctures that has been reached here at 6:45 AM.  So I pause for a small reflection. This is not a big deal, I know. I’m not uptight about this. “But just this small point please, if I may,” I think to myself; obviously I'm talking to God.  So I guess it is a big deal. 


OK, the facts are so: A half dozen pairs of sweatpants, purchased with family funds, have passed through the door of my house - on the way in. I know that. And it’s probably true that they were equally distributed, three to each daughter, and none to me.

 I know also, that my own three or four, original post-college pairs were not stolen directly from me, by an outside party - or person. In other words they were first claimed by one of my daughters and subsequently made their way out of the country (read family), glaumed by so-called friends.

Nothing against the friends. Clothes are "fair game" in the teen world of today.  

But to continue ... finally, I know now, one true thing: that today re. sweatpants, again, I have none.  I might add that I know one more final thing and that is that God himself knows the answer to all of this, i.e. where those sweatpants are, and I would so much appreciate Him sharing it with me.   But that will never happen, and I don’t blame Him, or Her.”  

            I do have a wish though. I wish the world were different. I wish I could somehow magically summon both children to appear before me now and I could ask them specifically about all of the sweatpants. I would look them both in the eye with a serious face and I think then, I could get to the bottom of this - the truth. That’s what I want.  That would be nice. Then we could move on.  No big deal.  Oh, and also, I’d like to be able to do this, for the purpose of this interrogation: I'd like to be able to change both girls back to six years old again so they won’t be so smart as to be able to wiggle out of every question.

OK, back to real life. I don’t have both parties in front of me, and neither daughter is six again, so let’s make do with what I have. “Brett,” I say in a tone befitting a world peace negotiator, “can’t you just give Ash one pair.”

“Dad, I have none!” she says. “Ashley has the white pair that we got at the shore, she also has the pair I use for cheerleading, she has the pair that Mary Anne gave me, she has …”

“OK, OK, I get the picture."  I knew this wouldn’t work, I need them both here and they both have to be six, maybe five.

It is now 6:55 AM. I am in the attic fishing around in my old army-clothes box. I am on my hands and knees wearing only pajama shorts. It is dark in the attic and I am aware that there are bees in this attic and also that there are special areas of the floor, spaces between the boards that are so arranged to catch crawling burglars by having them fall through the floor into upstairs bedrooms. I am aware that either of these traps (bees or weak floors) might snare me as I inch my way toward where I think my military clothes have been stashed since 1970. 

I crawl on. I locate a box, reach in. Suddenly … I can't believe it - a miracle. 

I actually find the Army clothes box but am almost immediately overwhelmed with the feeling of haplessness that comes from being certain that I am about to be foiled again by the gods. I have made it this far but I know that those wonderful tan sweatpants that I got when I was in the service, with the number of the platoon or squad or something at the top of the left leg, with the brown drawstring, … I know they won’t be in this Army box where they should be.  I know this because I am sure that the Gods have now moved them somewhere else. They will be gone like all other sweatpants and they would have been perfect, Ash would have loved them.

Imagine my surprise and gratitude to the Gods when I actually find the sweatpants just where I thought they would be, after fifteen years no less. I crawl backwards out of the attic, careful as an Army Private avoiding land mines in a battlefield.  I close the attic door and come downstairs and proudly display the sweatpants to Brett.

Brett looks at them.  “I guess,” she says.

            Not a good appraisal I know but I am not swayed. “They’re great,” I say. End of discussion.

            I take the sweatpants downstairs and set them on the arm of the couch and put my keys on top of them. This way I won’t forget them when I go out the door. Smart huh?

            Brett is riding to school with friends today so with sweatpants in tow I drive to Donna’s (ex-wife) alone to get Ash. 

            Minutes later Ash bounces out of the front door and into the front seat. 

            I hold up the pants to show Ash in a manner befitting a fine haberdasher. “Nice huh?” I say. 

            “I guess,” Ash says. Same as Brett, exactly.

            I’m just not in the mood to go into a major campaign here, so I don’t say much, and I don’t get hyper. I say only this, and calmly too, “So what’s the problem?” I don’t say anything about the Army. This is 1986 not 1970.

            “What’s that number?” Ash says. Ash doesn’t know what a platoon is and this is not the time for education about Army units and regardless, I forget that stuff myself, and besides, it could be that I made that up about the platoon number. Truthfully I don’t know what the number is.

            So I make up an answer, “It’s a locker number,” I say.  I don’t know why I say this.  Maybe I’ll say they’re from college if she inquires further. What does she know anyway?

            “Locker number?” Ash says, obviously suspicious.

            “Yeah, so? What difference does it make?”

            “Nothing,” Ash says.  I think she has likely rejected the sweatpants, but I’m not going to debate the issue. Anyway at least now I have a pair of sweatpants and I at least think they are cool.

             When we get to school Ash gets out of the car and says, “Thanks anyway Dad,” and she leaves the sweatpants on the front seat.

            “What about gym?” I say, calling after her..

            “Don’t worry about it,” she says turning back, with books gathered in her folded arms as she walks toward school.  As I watch her walk, I think how much I love her and then I look at the sweatpants and think, who cares anyway?  But I wonder - really - what it was?  Was it the number?  Or was it the color?  They look great to me. My thoughts go back again to all of the original sweatpants that I have owned. 

            Where are they all?  Really, where?  They are most probably still alive, still solid cloth material, not disintegrated into gas, certainly not liquids. They’re still here, on earth somewhere, but where? Have any of them made it out of the state I wonder, the country perhaps?  Any made it to Europe, Asia?  Oh well.  I start the car and head for work, wishing that I could visualize each pair of sweatpants that I have ever owned, with a detailed note about their whereabouts and the journey they took to get there.

While driving I think to myself, you know, fifteen pairs, that’s a lot of money, and it’s not only sweatpants. The same thing happens to other things, tee shirts and sweatshirts especially. That’s even more money. While I’m thinking I see that this is something that I should not think about because I cannot solve it. It’ll end soon enough and when it does I’ll wish that the old no-sweatpants days were back again. Forget it, I tell myself, be grateful for the blessings you have.  I put the thought of sweatpants out of my head and continue west on NJ Route 10, toward my work, feeling truly blessed.

Seven days later, Brett and I are at the breakfast table.  I’m eating oatmeal with rice milk, and Brett, to my dismay, is having Fruit Loops. I’m reading the paper and Brett says, “Tell Ash, when you pick her up (I’ll be picking up Ash in fifteen minutes, Brett is driving herself) that I want to borrow her sweatshirt, the one Marc gave her, so I can wear it in gym, else I’ll freeze.”

I recall quite well what happened just last week, with the sweatpants thing, but I don’t draw any comparisons. “OK,” I say.

“Tell her to leave it in her locker.” Apparently Brett has a key to Ash’s locker, or combination.

            “Yeah, OK,” I say.

            So I pick up Ash, and tell her immediately that Brett wants to borrow her sweatshirt, so go back in and get it.  Ash gives me a look like I just asked if Brett could borrow the shoes on her feet.  

            “What?” I say.

            “Dad!” Ash says.  “Brett has that sweatshirt.”

            I should have known.  I don’t want to get into this any further, but just to finish the thought I add at quick speed, “Brett needs it for gym, she says leave it in your locker.”  There. Done.

            Ash ignores me; she is looking under the seat for something. Now she stretches into the back seat and starts throwing things around.

            “What are you looking for?”

            “Nothing.”  She opens the glove compartment and looks around.

            “Tell me,” I say, “maybe I know where it is,”

            Apparently this convinces her, “I’m looking for the Genesis tape,” she says.

            “You left it here?”

            “No, Brett stole mine. I told her it was mine and that I left it there on the desk, right where she found it, but she insisted that it was hers and she took it.” 

            “Yeah, I know, big brother John used to do stuff like that with me,” I say, trying to show sympathy for my youngest daughter that some things cannot be controlled, that Brett, big sister, can dictate certain matters just because of age.

            For a thousand reasons, I want to hug Ashley. I don't because - well - she's fourteen and ... Instead I pat her knee. "You're the greatest," I say.

            Ashley says nothing, but I'm sure she gets my meaning. I keep looking at her.

            "Can we go," she says.