Friday, January 25, 2008

What money can't buy

A little over two weeks ago, I learned, in the span of three hours, that a 15year-old friend of my son's had died of cancer the previous spring and that the father of a dear childhood friend of mine had passed away the day before. I hadn't seen my son's friend in quite some time. I knew he was being treated for cancer up at Johns Hopkins, learning that only after bumping into his dad at the grocery store. He and my son, Max, became friends when they met at summer camp about four or five years ago. Zing (not his real name) was born with several birth defects, and had been confined to a wheelchair since birth. Max took a liking to him, invited him to his birthday parties and would always find time to swim with him at the pool during the summers. Zing's parents were and are incredibly lovely people, the kind of people I admire for their optimism, generosity and integrity. Moreover, I have always been amazed at their patience and perspective on life, and secretly wonder if I could devote myself so unselfishly to the needs of another person. I honestly don't know how to answer that question.

I bumped into Zing's mom outside the Jewish Community Center and, me being me, called out to her across the front lawn to stop so I could catch up and say hello. Zing's mom is absurdly funny and charming, and has a radiant smile that beckons you from 50 miles away. We talked for a bit, and, after she had asked about my family and I obliged her, I turned the questioning back to her. How are you? Everybody else? . . . afraid to ask the question I wanted, which was "How was Zing?" Finally, after an awkward moment, she told me he died several months ago, at home, under hospice care. And why was Zing's mom at the JCC? To work on getting certified to provide hospice care for families in need.

Her 15 year-old son died after a lifetime of struggles, and her next step was to figure out a way to help other families. After we finished talking, I walked to my car, wondering why shit like this has to happen to the coolest people around. I got in my car, sat there for a minute and then started crying. And crying. And crying. Fortunately, I had to pull myself together so I could get over to my daughter's school in time to share birthday brownies with Mr. Higgins' 3rd grade class. I didn't exceed the speed limit getting there, but I can't remember wanting to get somewhere so fast. I sat in the lunchroom, amid the chaos, just grateful . . . so grateful that my daughter was healthy, vibrant and beautiful . . . and as full of piss and vinegar as she is.

An hour after I got home, my cell phone rang, showing a number from Ohio I didn't recognize. I almost didn't answer it, but I picked up wondering who the hell I might know from Ohio, and why that person would be calling me. As it turned out, it was my friend Robert Goldschmidt, who I have known and remained friends with -- the usual hiatuses due to family, work, life changes, etc., excepted -- since I was 10. Growing up, his house was a second home to me. I would say I ate as much there as I did in my own house, but there was never anything good to eat there, allegedly because the Goldschmidts were always watching their calories. The real reason was that Robert's dad, Freddie, was too cheap to buy anything other than bread, crackers, maybe some spaghetti and the occasional box of Oreos, except they were usually the "Chocolate Sandwich Cookie" that Kroger offered under its generic brand. Apples, though, were always available. Sometimes even bananas.

"The perfect snack," extolled Fred in praise of apples. "Everything you need."

A good snack, not perfect. But cheap. Very cheap. Cheap, to Freddie Goldschmidt, made it good.

Oh, yes. That was Freddie Goldschmidt, the man who walked around his house in sweaters and long pants in July -- in Atlanta -- because the house was so "goddamn cold." Really? Cold? The house was a sauna. Actually, hotter than a sauna. Had he put hot rocks and some water in the living room, every Jew within 20 miles would have been sitting there kvetching about their wives and their investments. Winter was even worse. Freddie was programmed to wake up at 3 a.m. to turn down the heat. "This house is an oven!" he say. "How can you breath in here?"

An oven? No-no. Walk into the house on a February morning and it looked like Mr. Freeze's headquarters. Freddie's wife, Joanie, whose normal decibel level in any conversation was about 115 db (that's Led Zeppelin-in-its-prime loud), would be hunched over the stove, trying to stay warm while the children huddled under a blanket near the heating vent, hoping and praying that some warm air might come out. And where was Freddie? Walking around shirtless, wearing only tennis shorts and socks, eye-balling the thermostat to make sure it wasn't above 50 or 40 or whatever the lowest number was -- assuming it was even on. It was always a sad sight. The other Goldschmidts too often resembled a family waiting to flee the Cossacks.

I hadn't seen Freddie in probably 8 or 9 years when Robert called me. Robert told me his parents had retired to the promised land of the Jews of that generation -- Florida. His dad developed cancer fairly quickly and it took him after a short battle. He died with his family around him. Robert told me that Freddie asked about me towards the end, pleased that his prediction that I would end up doing something that "let him talk all the goddamn time" came true. He always thought I should be a criminal lawyer, but then had misgivings when he realized I couldn't represent myself.

Funny, funny guy, that Freddie Goldschmidt. Ha-ha.


I just hope someone remembered to turn off the light after he smiled his last smile and passed on.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thinking about these two marvelous people has helped me answer questions I often get from people who know me only so well. Why do I play music in restaurants, bars, senior homes, receptions, bar mitzvahs . . . wherever . . . when I am an "established" professional in a "respectable" field? Do I ever worry that I will get "embarrassed" that someone I know will see me playing with my band? Do I actually get paid? Why do I play hockey at midnight twice a week? Why do I teach college when I could, as someone trying not to be offensive said to me a couple of weeks ago, be "doing so much more with [my]self." Why do I coach my son's hockey and baseball teams when I could relax more? Why do leave my office early to watch my daughter dance? Why don't I do this or that?

The answers are easy. I do the things I do because I have to. Unless you've experienced the thrill of playing the music you love live with talented musicians and seeing someone nod in approval or groove a little bit to the beat, you can't understand what it means to get lost in art. Until you've skated down the ice and drilled a twenty-foot slap shot over the goalie's stick-side to win your team's game, you can't appreciate how great a sport hockey is to play, even at 46 years old. The reason I teach? It's when I see a student "get" what you're trying to do, or understand that you're not in there giving notes, or getting an out-of-the blue letter from a student 10, 15 or 20 years ago "thanking" you for helping them move forward in their lives when the thanks is due to the student for inspiring me to think harder and teach better. Getting an email from a grandmother's son you didn't know telling you that the last thing she read before she died was a piece she stumbled across on the web about obnoxious people in Starbucks and laughed so hard she cried isn't why I write -- I write because I have to, just like some people have to dance, sing or act -- but the feeling it gives me is nice nonetheless.

Not everything we choose to do is about money, fame or impressing other people. My friends Zing and Freddie weren't rich or famous -- although Freddie wasn't so poor that he couldn't have sprung for some A/C during those rough Atlanta summers. They were, though, people who brought joy and happiness to the people around them. I learned from Freddie early on and by Zing's example later in life that devoting part of ourselves to something bigger than just our immediate gratification is part of a life well-spent. I teach because I have no choice. Ask me thirty years ago if I imagined becoming a college teacher and I would said, "Oh, yes, of course . . . right after I complete my residency in neurosurgery at Harvard." Hell, no, I didn't imagine teaching in college. I didn't listen to much of what my teachers told me until I got to college. By then, I had some serious ground to make up. Now, though, I couldn't imagine doing anything else -- money be damned. Would I do something else if offered twice what I earn now? Nope. Three times? Nope. Four? Nope. Five. Nope. Six? Maybe, but probably not. Why would I? I have everything I could ever need or want, and everyone I love is all around me. What does money have to do with that?

Same with music. A hockey buddy asked me recently if my band was on the state fair circuit yet. No, I replied, but with some luck I hope I have some better news to report to him by the summer. He started laughing. I wasn't kidding. When he realized that, his look turned to horror.

"Why would you do that?" he asked.

"Because I get to play 'Impressions'" I said. "That's why."

"What's that?"

"Impressions" is a great John Coltrane tune that just lets a band rip. Hell, yeah, I'd play that song at a state fair, in a department store . . . anywhere. Of course I'd play it for free. I usually don't have to, but I would.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I thought that we chose our future, our work, our mate . . . all the elements that make up a life. As I get older, and more deeply connected to my work and my other pursuits, I think that sometimes our passion makes our decisions about what we do and why we do it for us. Being lucky enough to meet the right people along the way doesn't hurt either.

Like Zing and Freddie Goldschmidt.

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