Friday, July 1, 2016

Meeting Ambivalence

It’s late Monday afternoon, our students have scampered noisily to the exits and the Woodbury Middle School teachers are cuing, zombie-like, or some of us frenetically, to our faculty meeting. The looming meeting, the first Monday of every month, makes these Mondays even harder, if that’s possible. Planning my school week as I take my reflective Sunday walk, the realization of, Oh we have a faculty meeting tomorrow weighs heavily on me as it does most of my colleagues I’m sure.  While walking I think about what we did at our last few meetings and think about how long the day will be and I think that we might be learning something interesting in the next meeting, and I get kind of excited.  Maybe the meeting will be interesting and make us better teachers. 

I am observer and participant at these meetings. I feel like I should hate meetings because they’re boring, too long, often pointless….but the truth is, I kind of like them.  I find myself dreading our meetings and looking forward to them.

In teaching, and in the corporate world, we are often insular, working alone, or in our small teams, so that when the whole staff gets together, it’s an exciting change in the routine. At these meetings, we see colleagues we used to work with who are now teaching other grade levels, or working on other teams. Maybe those colleagues transferred to another department? So in that way, each meeting is a reunion. Which is nice.

At a recent meeting I went to sit where I always sit, a very desirable seat for me, back of the room towards the window. As I put my stuff down, one of my colleagues says, “You can’t sit there, Elaine is sitting there.”  I glance theatrically at the seat, cheekily I say, “I don’t see Elaine here.” I plop my laptop bag down.  “Oh, she asked me to save her a seat.”  I cackle, “What are we in high school Lee? Saving seats?”  Now Lee and I are friends or I probably would have given up the seat. Lee says, “Okay. But you’re going to have to deal with Elaine.”  That doesn’t scare me enough to move my seat, besides, there are a number of open seats right around us.

Waiting for the meeting to start, my exchange with Lee has me thinking…of how we are creatures of habit. Have you noticed your colleagues all tend to sit in the same spots? It’s a lot like a classroom… you have your front of the room teacher-pleasers, middle of the room participants who might fly under the radar and the back of the room slouchers and cut-ups.   As you can probably figure, I’m a back of the room guy but I do participate, I’m not a slacker and I don’t work on all manner of other things. At this point, I probably should be moving towards the front of the room as I am becoming “more mature”  (and my family would say hard of hearing) but it doesn’t feel right. Old habits die hard, right?

As I’ve said, something in me is observer and participant. We hear our principal kick off the meeting: always organized, with an agenda, following whatever protocols the research says make for good meetings. We’re told what our challenge is for the day, given clear directions, told to reconnect with the whole staff at a fixed time in the future. After a few questions we break up into groups, sometimes by grade level or subject areas, sometimes at random.

Working in groups (that’s all the rage in teaching now so that’s what we seem to do at every meeting) I watch to see who will take a leadership role in our group and in the other groups. Sometimes I will grab the reins, other times I watch and see how everything plays out. For some reason now, I don’t want to appear too pushy and always take the lead; if it’s something I feel strongly about or a subject I don’t really care about or have any expertise in, I will adjust my role. Maybe one of my colleagues would be better suited to lead this particular group? Because teachers are autonomous in their classrooms, most teachers have no problem playing a leadership role. The dynamics of the group are fun to watch.  Most people are active participants.  Usually the content and the task are fairly benign so we hardly ever get emotional, rarely will we see people getting stubborn and sticking to their point of view. Finally, task completed, we’ve had a pleasant time and head back to meet with the entire staff. We know that eventually we will have to share our work with the whole group, so we hope we have something that is focused, intelligent and I am sure we are kind of looking to impress our peers a bit and please the boss too.

Back in the whole group setting, I think of other things I've noticed about meetings to like:
There’s always the person that asks a question they already know the answer to because they think it makes them look smart when it actually does the opposite. Often, this person will summarize aloud to show that they get it. “So what you’re saying is, we have to get the kids to sign out each and every time they leave the room, as a security measure?”  Yes, that’s exactly what I said, why did you feel the need to repeat it? 

Then there are the people who become just like the students they were ( I suppose that’s what I’m doing by sitting in the back and casting out the occasional wise crack) some give up easily, some are shy, some become ultra-serious type-A teacher pleasers. To them I feel like saying, take it easy, nobody’s going to grade this, the goal is for us to actually LEARN something here. 

There are also the people who are working on all manner of other things, just like our students. These slicksters think the person giving the presentation doesn’t know they are uploading grades to Powerschool or setting up their Fantasy team for the coming week. Not only are these people being disrespectful to the speaker, they are belittling the whole process. They are basically saying, I have better things to do, or I can give this meeting 31% of my brain, while the rest of you pay rapt attention, and that should be enough. At the end of the day, they’re really doing everything half-assed and being disrespectful in the process. I should add a disclaimer: I’m the biggest hypocrite because it’s okay if I’m off task;-) If  I’m bored at a meeting, if the discussion turns to a student I don’t have, or pertains to something that does not concern me, I might do exactly the off-task things I just mentioned. I know, I’m an awful person.
Every meeting has to have its class clowns. There’s a percentage of us, as soon as we find a captive audience, become Bill Murray-like.  I myself descend, or maybe ascend, to class-clown mode. My real goal for a staff meeting, is to find that one comment that will have them rolling in the aisles. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal.  I want my other cut-up colleagues, the other class clowns in the room, to look at me with envy, their eyes saying, “Good one Spinner, I wish I had thought of that!” 

We have our stay under the radar people. People who come to every meeting and don’t participate at all, biding their time until the meeting is over.  Luckily we don’t have many of these. God, meetings must be really interminable for these people! Similarly, we have our day-dreamers, people who are tired and zoning out, but at the end of the day, we all need a little break. In a two hour meeting, we all zone out, we think about all manner of other things. I often see my colleagues looking off into the distance and wonder: What are they thinking about?  I have to admit it, I do daydream, it’s hard to pay attention for that long.  I have my go-to “games” to entertain myself.  The game I play the most is, If I was single, would I date…her?  I can’t help myself, I was doing the same thing in church and in school all those years ago. It’s kind of a fun game, you should try it some time. Or maybe you already play it?

Finally, you have the person at the meeting, when there’s two minutes left and everyone is packing up, stowing away pens, shutting down lap tops, wondering if they have time to stop at the supermarket, and this person decides (and it’s always  the same person) to ask ONE MORE QUESTION. I’m not a violent guy but I would think tarring and feathering might end this quest for attention.  I mean really? Don’t you see your colleagues are shot and ready to head out the door? Can’t you just wait and suck up to the teacher on your own time and not inconvenience the whole group? 

Alright, gotta go, looks like this meeting is wrapping up. Can’t wait until the next meeting. Or can I?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Especially in the Quietest Moments

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Are you ever driving in your car or perusing the aisles of your local supermarket and this seemingly random, benign, memory pops up? Oddly, while you’re looking at the hundreds of kinds of orange juice available to you, your brain flashes to a time when you were sick and stayed home from school? That day, your mom brought home some Pine Brothers cough drops and a package of multi-colored modeling clay and you spent the day under a blanket, chewing candy-cough drops and crafting wee animals out of clay.  Maybe you’re driving in your car and you think of being on a family vacation in Pennsylvania. You recall a summer day when your group of friends are sitting on the field at Twin Willows Cabins in Beach Lake with a group of teenage girls. Some of the boys are tearing at the grass and one of the teenage girls says, "Don't do that, grass has feelings you know?"  So? Why do we remember these? I always wonder, because some memories that pop up are obvious as to why. You hear a song on the radio and it takes you back to a specific moment. A date makes you think of the birth of your son, or your little brother. Maybe a smell makes you think of Grandma’s spaghetti sauce? These moments, these memory connections are obvious but this piece is about those seemingly random moments. This piece is about memories that seem so simple, not turbo-charged, yet they keep nosing their heads to the surface. 

One of the best days I ever had at my old summer camp, YMCA Silver Lake, I spent mostly by myself.   That’s odd, because like so many of my friends at this bucolic place, camp was really about the people. YMCA Silver Lake memories are filled with Rec Hall dances, Dining Hall renditions of “Little Rabbit Fu-Fu,” staff nights out at Jolly’s Pizza and the Sparta Inn, counselor hunts, opening and closing campfires, trail rides up at ranch camp….But my first week at Silver Lake I spent quite a bit of time alone. 

Now for a city kid, raised on asphalt and concrete, the fields, trees, trails, lakes, streams and open skies of northern New Jersey had breath-taking appeal. What a relief to get out of the suffocating heat of the city. For years, the invitations of my friend Glenn Gruder, who was a lifelong Silver Lake devotee, fell on deaf ears.  I hesitated going to camp, fearing I would miss hanging out with my friends on my block. Once I got into the country, I never looked back. To this day, I avoid the
city in the summer at all costs. Unless I can guarantee it’s 80 degrees or less, I won’t go anywhere south of the GW bridge.  

I was never a camper at YMCA Silver Lake, for me, this was a summer job. So these memories are from my first Staff Week. Staff week: a week we work together to ready the camp for the arrival of the campers and a highlight of every summer. The entire staff bunked, males on one side, females on the other, in Lindell Lodge, right on the main field.  Lindell, during the high summer was lodging for the CIT’s. This was a symmetrical log cabin right out of the camp text book; creaky screen doors, sandy wood floors and matching stone fireplaces on both sides. Glen and I usually arrived early, he’s a punctual fellow, and by my first summer, 1980, Glen was a Senior Staff member. As each car pulls up the dirt road, we watch excitedly like puppies in the window: Who might this be? Will it be an old friend? Is it a new counselor? Check out the license plates, tell-tale signs on the car? 

We spend every staff week getting reacquainted with old friends, kindling new friendships, scoping out potential romantic interests and of course working on projects. What I would give to do another staff week! Projects were fun and rewarding, in that we were working together for a worthy cause. The Silver Lake staff, most of us, took pride in the place, we wanted the cabins and fences and waterfront to look nice for the campers and their parents.  Staff week was also about team building, so the Senior Staff would change the detail up and rotate groups of staff members to work on different projects throughout the first seven days.  This way we got to know everyone on the staff, we didn’t stay in our cliques or comfort zones of friends all week, a great idea. 

Occasionally, the powers that be, would give us underlings time to relax during staff week. We’d play softball, touch-football, basketball and one of my favorites, a full-camp circle on the field for Duck-Duck-Goose. Towards the end of the week, if we were in good shape, the Senior Staff would give us a few hours of free time to swim, boat or do whatever we wanted to do.  Usually, I’m a very social guy, usually. Sometimes I like to, my wife might say I need to, be by myself.  Considering how fond I am of these memories, how much they stand out from all of my early camp memories, Kira might have a point.

In the middle of that first staff week, the senior staff decided we were all working so hard, and the camp was in such good shape, that we could knock off from 2 o’clock until dinner. Figure there was about sixty to sixty five staff members all hootin’ and hollerin’ about having the afternoon off. Some people went out to eat, some headed out to do laundry, I put my bathing suit on and headed down to the water front with some new friends. After a quick dip to cool off, I decided that a bit of boating might be fun. Choices of boats were limited, we had row boats, row boats and more row boats. Off to the side we had maybe 2 or 3 of these little kayaks. The kayaks were small, plastic and red. I grabbed one of these “playaks” and headed out onto Silver Lake. Like a dog following a variety of scents, I just went, slowly, taking in the sights. I’d pick a spot, and head out to say, Snake Island. I loved how the kayak would cover some pretty good ground with each stroke. Even my 17 year old, Pink Panther arms, could really propel that little plastic boat. 

Now this was ALL new to me, I was exploring, discovering things, a great feeling. I skirted around the island, slowly, languidly; the only sounds the birds chirping, the wind rustling the leaves and my paddle cutting the water every few seconds. Stopping paddling, I’m glancing at the small wake I’m leaving, I’m looking, devouring, savoring. During that kayak ride I saw submerged rocks and logs, fish, turtles, birds. I loved being a part of nature, Tom Sawyer-like, as a dragon fly would light on the bow of the kayak, check me out for a few seconds, and deciding I was not all that interesting, take flight. From Snake Island I crossed over to what I now know is Winnebago Rock. From there I skimmed the side of the lake out to Director’s Cabin, continuing around the side and up towards the Ranch Tents, eventually making it out to this lily pad infested cove where again I
“discovered” this little wooden bridge.  It’s a day I cherish, a memory that keeps nosing to the surface. 

My water excursion was bookended with some discovery on foot, when we got another few hours off later in the week. On my second voyage, I headed off behind the lower Kybo (bathroom & shower building for you non-camp people) through the woods to another road and a riding ring for horseback riding. The one thing I knew I had to do different while I was gamboling on foot, was to keep track of where I had come from. As a 17 year old city kid, I had a reasonable fear of getting lost in the woods;  so I always made mental notes of landmarks and turns made.  As I headed up towards what I now know is Ranch Camp and the Upper Kybo via that back road, I’m taking little tangential hikes on the various paths and trails I see. At one point, and my Ranch friends will know this rock; I spied a huge rectangular rock on the left side of the trail, kind of like that big black spinning cube around St. Mark’s Place. This rock was calling me, Come my little city friend, test your wiles, see if you can climb to the top of me. Off the trail I go, picking my way through the brush for 35 yards. Walking around this RV-sized rock, with a nice flat platform up top, I was crunching through leaves and sticks, searching for the series of ledges, crevices and hand-holds I could use to get to the top. My brain lighted on a route, so off I go, hand-hold to hand-hold, foot by foot, grabbing, pushing, exerting to eventually reach the top of this ultra cool rock. Exhileration!  We never got to do that kind of stuff in the city. I stood on top of that rock, raised my hands in the air like Rocky, for no one in particular to see and basked in my accomplishment. For my remaining years at Silver Lake, every time I passed that rock with my campers in tow, each time I rode down the back road on a horse or drove up there in the camp station wagon, I glanced at that rock and was reminded of my day of exploring when I “discovered” that rock.  

So I’m thirty some odd years removed from that summer. Yet those memories keep popping up? Now that I live in Middlebury, CT and we spend a good deal of our time in the woods, on the trail, at the lake, I realize that this was always a part of me, it was always in my DNA. What other reason for those two memories to stand out so strongly from all the other memories I have? These trips of discovery, into the woods and fresh air, were all about discovering a love for nature. 

The whole trip was about discovery, about exploring, something I love to do to this day. That’s the best part about going to a new city, a new vacation spot, taking out the local map and looking for adventures. So of course now I have to ask, do you have tales of discovery from Silver Lake or another place? Or some seemingly simple memories that keep asking for your attention?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Portal Authority

Remember those stories, where the author asks us to take a leap of faith with them, to suspend reality as we go through a hole, maybe a trap door in a closet, or sit in a tree house that can travel through time to get the main characters (and through them the reader) to a magical place where there are dragons and elves or princes and princesses, or other flights of fancy?

You know the stories like:Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Magic Tree House series, The Chronicles of Narniaprobably come to mind.

Due to the scattershot workings of my mind, I was recently thinking about the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. My thoughts turned to going to our camp reunions in the days before I had a license or a car and I thought of how I would get there. I thought the similarity of the words port/portal  was apropos as that bus terminal was our trap door in a closet, our Magic Tree House to the special worlds of trees and grass, lakes and rivers, mountains and valleys…outside the city.

City kids of a certain age, those of us who grew up in Gotham before Guiliani& Bloomberg cleaned it up, will tremble a bit at the thought of this portal, our trap door to travel to the leafier confines outside the five boroughs. ThePort Authority?Dun DunDun.Holy shit! Talk about a crucible, a labyrinth. Man that place made even street-wise kids put their wallets in their front pockets. It was a metal and concrete behemoth just west of Times Square, I don’t know how many stories high, a hulking mass of bus fumes, street walking hookers, con men, homeless vets, punks, litter and the suburban rubes who had to travel in and out of the city every day to the greener pastures of Upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond!

Oh to be one of those rubes, gulp. We were warned, by our peers, street smart guys from the neighborhood, wizened adults and of course our parents about taking the bus from Port Authority.

Don’t ask anyone questions! These people sense fear.

Act like you know exactly where you’re going!

Do NOT trust anyone. Most people are on the make.

Are you sure you can’t get a ride?

The thought of heading into the Port Authority to exit the Big Apple could make your knees knock. Before the first trip, there was a genuinefear that if you engaged in a conversation with the wrong dude, you might never be found again. The possibility of getting gutted by a knife in the bathroom seemed like something that I should protect against, as if someone might drag me into the bathroom by force because there was NO WAY I would use a public restroom in the subway, let alone the Port Authority. Stories circulated in our neighborhood of people who went to Port Authority and didn’t come out the same person, urban legends like…Johnny T took some acid he bought at the Port Authority and now look at him? His mom breaks out into tears every time she sees him. Last I heard he thought he was a can opener, he’s living on the streets in Hells Kitchen…he’s practically homeless.

From our neighborhood, there were many reasons a young adult, a teenagermight have to go through the Port Authority.  Most often it was my trips to camp reunions or I might be visiting a girlfriend or maybe a group of us would organize a camping trip up to Harriman State Park. If I couldn’t get a ride(man it was nice to have friends with cars) Port Authority was the last option. Eventually, a necessary evil, one that might be worth the risk if those special places outside the city were really calling you.

From our neighborhood you’d take the F train, switch to the A at Jay Street and then exit the A at 42nd Street. From there you wind up meandering the dank, graffiti-covered tunnels, reading the billboards, following the signs, keeping up with the crowds, to emerge “inside” the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

And here it comes…

Spare some change?

Pssst, Sense, Sense, Sensimillion?

Thai Stick?

As I walk, the advice of friends echoing in my head…Keep walking. Don’t make eye contact and whatever you do, don’t ask anyone a question! Act like you know where you’re going. As a last resort, if you’re not sure , your head is starting to spin, find a suburbanite, look for Regular-Joe Commuter, they are there…and grab onto them like a life preserver.

It’s an interesting performance, to act like you know where you’re going when the maze seems limitless and fraught with danger.  You hear the voices and there’s the fear that a decision of yours might result in you losing your wallet, getting stabbed, or even worse….To act cocky while we have no clue, that’s the city-kid recipe for survival… That’s how we make it through life…

I always chuckle and think that I should get a piece of cheese at the end after successfully wending my way up the twists and turns of the subway and Port Authority tunnels, considering the subway’s reputation for rats and all.

Mind is racing as you go…Follow the signs, we’re cool, we know what we’re doing. Find the right bus company…damn, look at all the choices. Why didn’t somebody tell me the name of the bus company? Hey this isn’t so bad, seems like quite a few normal people around. She’s kind of cute. But hey, I’m going to visit my girlfriend. 
Where’s the bus company that serves…Rockland County? He’s clearly a father, a business man, he’s not going to rob me, I could ask him…

“Excuse me, do you know…

And of course it works out. There are plenty of helpful people around. Mr. Commuter is someone’s father, smiles at your anxiety and gives you foolproof directions.  If he’s going to the same bus as you, might even say, “I’m heading that way, bus is in 11 minutes, buy your ticket and you can follow me.”

Once on the bus, we double-check, “Excuse me, is this the bus to Spring Valley and Nanuet?” 

Whew, made it, now just relax, open my book and watch the scenery. 

The bus gets more and more crowded. Try to make myself intrusive, large, so nobody sits next to me. Veteran commuters come in, stow their briefcases and duffel bags overhead, put their headphones on (Walkman headphones not earbuds) open their books, most nod off to sleep.  When the bus is just about full, we begin to drive. Big noises, squeaking brakes, lurching buses, horns beeping, traffic…exiting the Port Authority on the bus, is similar to getting into the Port Authority…twists and turns and dark tunnels. Eventually some of the ramps are outdoors, we can orient ourselves…there’s the West Side Highway over there, Empire State Building...It seemed that most buses, no matter where I was heading, would take the Lincoln Tunnel and then head West, North or South after that.  After many stops at various odd places for bus stops, hotels, smaller bus terminals…I would be excited to exit the bus, finally into the welcoming embrace of a friend…

Coming back…After a two or three day breather, a scrubbing off of the city grime  if you will, with Fresh Air, sunshine, greenery, we had to get back on the same bus, and reverse the trip. Ugh, what a sad trip that always was, watching my girlfriend get smaller and smaller in the bus window as I prepare to retrace my steps, to reenter the city through the same maze was a shock to the system. I love the city, always have but it was at those moments of reentry, after being cleansed of the city’s grit, that New York seemed so much dirtier, the litter, the graffiti, the rats, were depressing. The city felt even dirtier than before being juxtaposed with the places I had left. Those were the rare moments when I could see why someone would say, “How do you live in the city?”  But it was always a fleeting thought, after the initial shock to the system, instinct and survival mode would take over.

Once you made the trip once, the turns, the bus companies that service each area, the windows where you buy your tickets became familiar. The labyrinth becomes less intimidating every time you cruise through Port Authority like a crafty veteran. Head down, hold your belongings close, get your ticket, follow the crowd to your bus, grab a seat and open your book, you’re home free, so to speak. Enjoy the ride. And like many things that once seemed so scary, not so much anymore. I’m still thankful that I have a car, and I don’t think I’ve been inside the Port Authority since Reagan was in the White House. Happy Trails.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Breath of Fresh Air

Fate is a powerful thing. Especially when you have the wherewithal to recognize fateful moments as they are occurring. On the Middlebury Town Green a few years ago, during the ceremonial lighting of our town’s Christmas Tree, Kira and I made the acquaintance of one Heather Roy. Heather was sitting with our neighbors, the Jorgensens, and we were introduced. We exchanged pleasantries and most of our attention was on her Newfoundland puppy.

Bending down to tousle the pup I asked, “What’s his name?”
“Leo,” Heather replied.
I looked sorrowfully at the dog and said,  “Oh that’s a horrible name. How could you do that to that dog? He’s going to live the rest of his life as Leo?”
“I know….”

As we walked away, Kira, my wife, scolded me, “You know sometimes people don’t get your sense of humor.”  “She thought it was funny. Come on, she knew I was kidding.”
That night, Heather reached out to me on Facebook. We chatted a bit and I reminded her of my comment about her dog’s name. I mentioned that Kira thought she might have been insulted, I can be sensitive like that. I blamed it on the Brooklyn wise-ass in me.  She assured me that she had a thick skin and a biting wit herself.

Fast forward to the summer. Heather’s family was hosting a Fresh Air Fund boy, Mekhi, who was  living on St. John’s place a short bike ride from where I grew up. Heather recalling my Brooklyn roots, reached out, “You have to meet our Fresh Air Fund kid, he’s from Brooklyn.”  I knew all about the Fresh Air Fund from my city days and from my days as a camp counselor. I thought, Hmmm, what about us hosting a city kid at our place in “the country?” Not only was Heather hosting but she’s the coordinator for our area. I knew I had to get my wife and boys on board…

At our town beach on Lake Quassapaug, on Mekhi’s first day in Middlebury, Heather introduces us. We chat for a bit about his neighborhood, about his school and the good pizzerias near his house…then he flits off to play basketball. I continued to talk to Heather about Fresh Air Fund. I knew it was something I wanted to be involved with. Eventually she says, “I’m having a barbeque at my house for all of the host families, you guys should come by.”

Sitting with Kira, side-by-side in our beach chairs, I broach the subject of the BBQ at Heather’s “Heather’s hosting a barbeque for the Fresh Air Fund families tonight at her house. She said we should stop by.” Kira is unsure, “That might be weird, we’ll be attending but everyone else there will be hosting a kid.”
“I know, Heather said it would be cool. We won’t have to cook dinner! I bet the food’ll be good.”  Eventually, she caved.  My plan was working.

The barbeque was a success, my boys had a blast playing Manhunt with a mix of local kids and our new visitors. I spent some time chatting up the city kids about their experiences with the Fresh Air Fund and was even more convinced that we should host a child. In the car on the way home…my boys took up the cry…”We should host a kid. We should do this next summer. It will be fun. Come on? Can we do it? “
Kira balked,  “I don’t know, it’s just going to be more work for me. More cooking, more cleaning, more laundry.”

So that was her objection? Easy to parry that, “Honey, I hear what you are saying but I’m a teacher, I’m home all summer. I think we should do this.”  She continued to deflect, the boys pestered, eventually, we let it lie. Sporadically,  throughout that summer, the boys and I applied pressure, reminding Kira that we should become a host family.

As we progressed into the cold months of another New England winter, I kept stoking the “hosting” fire, selling Kira on the benefits, I would bring it up when we were in the car so she was captive. Eventually, Kira relented, “Alright. But this is on YOU.” At some point we had to fill out paper work and submit to a background check. Yes we passed.  In the Spinner household, Friday night is Pizza Night, those Brooklyn-Catholic roots have some staying power. Rather than just fill out the paper work, I invited Heather and her family over to enjoy pizza night/happy hour with the Spinners and our neighbors the Jorgensens, who were also contemplating hosting a boy.  Usually an energetic host, Kira’s arms were still folded, her mantra of, This is on you holding firm. I shopped for the beer and wine, I cleaned the house and coordinated picking up the pizza.

As our guests arrive, Kira softens, she moves into hostess mode. After dinner, we sit in the living room, a roaring fire and some cold winter lagers in our hands and Heather begins to pepper us with questions for the required paperwork. I’m thinking, This is happening. After a night of laughs, good food and drink, our guests leave and we clean-up. The boys begin to ask questions:
“So, are we going to get one?” As if the Fresh Air Fund boy is a commodity.
“How old will he be?”
I give them as much info as I can…“We requested a boy from Brooklyn who is about 10 who likes sports, is comfortable around dogs and knows how to swim.”

With visions of an ABC After School Movie Special running in my head, the Fresh Air Fund was placed on the back burner. During the spring months…we would get the occasional email about the Fresh Air Fund and it would move to the front burner. More questions from the boys. What will he be like? What if he’s not fun? What if he doesn’t like it here? What if we don’t like him? Summer’s approaching and I begin to plan out our week: hiking, biking, boating, trips to the town beach, a Red Sox game, a tour of ESPN, trips to a Rhode Island beach? Still from the Ice Queen I was getting, This is on You.  I was surprised. I really thought she would be whole-heartedly behind it, especially as summer approached.
Finally we are connected to Chris Robinson. The name sounds literary to me, like something out of a Mark Twain novel. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Joe Harper and Chris Robinson heading down to the swimming hole to swing off the rope swing. Or is it because it’s close to Winnie the Pooh’s friend, Christopher Robin that I’m thinking literary character? I just know that this is our guy.

About a week before Chris is to take the bus from Port Authority, with the 37 other city kids coming to our area of Connecticut, I reach out and chat with his grandmother, Delka. She gives me information about Chris, explains that he has done Fresh Air Fund before, out in the Hamptons the previous summer (gulp how can we compete with that?) and that he likes dogs etc…I get a little family history, Chris’s mother passed away a few years before at an early age. The word she keeps working into our conversation is, sweet. “Chris is a really sweet boy. You guys will really like Chris. We will miss him around here, he’s such a sweet kid. In school, he won an award, he was student of the month for his whole district!”

Then the day: The bus leaves Port Authority on a Monday morning and will be to our neck of the woods a few hours later. The boys craft a sign of welcome with some artwork about the upcoming week on it, The Spinners Welcome Chris Robinson! There’s a picture of Fenway Park, a Red Sox B, the ESPN logo…We put together a little care package: Sour Patch Kids, M&M’s,  a Nerf Football and of course a book. I chose My Side of the Mountain, I thought it was appropriate. If you don’t know it, it’s a classic survival story about a city kid who runs away to the Catskill Mountains and survives on his own.  We are early to the pick-up spot, (a Jim Spinner rarity so it shows how excited I am )a McDonald’s parking lot off of I84 in Waterbury. Some of the other host families are milling about in the parking lot. Nervous, I ask questions of the more experienced host families.  I make small talk with the Millers who I know from our town, this is their first year hosting too. Eventually, we sit in our car with the air conditioning on getting text updates on the progress of the bus—they left the city at 11, they just passed Danbury, they passed exit 15….and then the bus pulls in.

For many of the kids and host families, it’s a reunion, there are shrieks of joy and welcome. For others, there’s the shy introductions, the anxious hand shake, the overly welcoming voice. One by one boys and girls  emerge from the air conditioned bus, with each one we are excited… Is this him? Is that Chris? It’s painfully slow and I’m feeling bad for the kids who have been on the bus for hours.  We can see into the bus, through the tinted windows, Chris is one of the last boys off the bus. As the Fresh Air Fund administrator calls out the Spinner name,  I notice that he’s wearing jeans and a pretty heavy jacket, and he’s pulling the jacket up over much of his face.  We approach each other, go through the friendly handshake, formally, I look Chris in the eye, “Chris, I’m Mr. Spinner, this is my wife Kira, this is Nicholas, Brian & Charlie…we are SO HAPPY you will be joining our family for this week…” Hand shakes all around, nice to meet you, nice to meet you…We get into the SUV, and all of the cars leave the parking lot.

As we drive toward Middlebury, I am glancing in the rear view mirror, Chris is still hiding inside his jacket. I play the Brooklyn card, “Where do you go to school Chris?” “IS 88” I know the school so I talk about where it is and we chat about the neighborhood…Chris continues to keep his jacket over his mouth and I’m thinking, I hope he’s not too scared. I hope he’s not really weird. What if he acts like this all week? Kira will kill me, after all, this is on me.

I needn’t have worried. The boys give Chris his care package and as we’re heading west on I84, the car fills with conversation, with questions, with possibilities for the coming week. We tried to do a mix of special activities and give Christopher a little taste of everyday life in Middlebury. We offered Chris his own bedroom, thinking he might like that because he shares a room with his siblings at home. Chris said he would prefer to sleep on the floor in Brian & Charlie’s room. We moved a mattress in there, below the bunk beds, in front of the Xbox, and that’s where it remained for the whole week. The first night, we took Chris to Rich’s Farm for some special ice cream.

Chris brings out the best in my boys…they easily share their toys, their rooms and they are on their best behavior for pretty much the whole week. It was heart-warming on so many levels. Kira and I treat Chris as one of the family, giving him chores to do just like the other Spinner boys. My boys do their jobs with a little less grousing, which is nice.

By the second night, it feels like one long sleep-over, it really couldn’t be going any better. Chris is a great kid and meshes nicely with my boys. It’s intriguing to watch my boys seeing our lives through a different lens. I could see my boys looking at Kira and I (who were also on our best behavior mind you) and thinking, my parents are actually pretty cool, maybe. That Tuesday, we headed up to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, my friend Tom Hennessy hooked us up with a tour of the facilities. That was the highlight of the week. We got some history and a behind the scenes look at how things are done at the world’s leader in sports broadcasting.  By the end of that second night, I’m sitting on the couch reading, I’ve got a ballgame on in the background, the boys are upstairs having a blast when they all come clumpity clump  down the stairs until they are standing in front of me. I know I’m being ambushed for a favor.
”Dad? We were thinking we really want Chris to come back next year.”
“Yeh Dad, he fits right in with us, things are going great, let’s have Chris come back again next year.”
I put the paper to the side and let out a heavy sigh, “Listen fellas, I know it’s going great but it’s only been two days. It’s a long week. As far as I’m concerned Chris, actually all of you, are still on probation. Let’s see how the rest of the week plays out, we don’t have to make that decision right now.”   My boys, knowing my sense of humor, look for Chris’s reaction, kid doesn’t miss a beat, “Oh, Mr. Spinner, you’re just messing with us.”

Every night, we go through the routine, teeth brushing, pj’s on, last trip to the bathroom and I still give my boys a hug and kiss good night. Of course, Chris gets a good night hug and kiss too. I head back down to the living room. I can hear the boys horsing around, talking and laughing, and a bit later, Brian comes down to get a drink of water and he says to me, “Dad, Chris just said to us that he feels like he’s a part of the family.” Hah, it’s all working according to plan heh heh heh….

Sometimes there are happy endings. The one fly in the ointment, the one thing I didn’t think about was, we’d have to give Chris back to his own loving family. The final two days or so, the inevitable good-bye is hovering there for all of us. By Saturday and Sunday, we begin talking about Chris’s leaving, “Don’t worry, he lives in Brooklyn, we go to the city all the time, we’ll visit. Hey, we’ll take him to Grimaldi’s Pizza….” but there’s that little lump in the throat. Monday, after a thoroughly amazing week, we drive Chris back to the McDonald’s parking lot. My wife, after all the arm-folding, and all the deflections, is a blubbering mess.  When we get back home we’re both wandering aimlessly around the house and Kira says,  “Why did you make me do this? I don’t like to feel this way, I hate you for making me do this. I miss him so much.”  Gloating with self-satisfaction, secure in the knowledge that for ONCE, things turned out exactly as planned, I resist the urge to say, I told you so, because after all, This was on me:-}
P.S. If you want to contact our local Fresh Air Fund Rep, let me know:-)

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Game of Love

In the preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain says, in speaking to the reader about why he wrote the book, “…for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”  If I can use a quote from one of America’s iconic literary figures to say, “That’s my goal for this piece as I/we take a stroll down memory lane in something I call, “The Game of Love.” 

I wasn’t always smooth with the ladies. I know that’s hard to believe. But I always liked them, at times I pined for them, I was always aware of girls in my universe. Early on, playing imaginary games of baseball as I pitch a Spaldeen off the wood steps of 434 East 4th Street, I’m wondering if Rose Yannonne is watching from her second floor porch across the street?  Is she impressed with these amazing catches I’m making? In the early grades at school I was a bit of a class clown, my antics designed to make my friends laugh and I suppose, to entertain the girls; depending on the grade, it might be one girl in particular. Thinking of those crushes, those relationships, that feeling of longing is still there, the desire for acceptance, for someone’s seal of approval is still strong.  
And now? I’m a married father of three boys and that game is over for me. And I miss it. It’s funny, my wife worries about my three boys entering the dating universe, she’s worried one of them will fall really hard for a girl and then get his heart broken. But isn’t that all part of the game? How else do love songs mean so much? You can’t listen to Elton John’s, “Your Song” without thinking about….that’s what the game is all about isn’t it? Perhaps Kira’s worried that they won’t do well with the ladies? I suppose she’s worried that they will do well?  I laugh, I’m envious. Isn’t that all part of the process? You often hear people bemoan the dating scene, they look back on it as a burden, something that produced pain and anxiety. I never saw it that way, dating was fun, those early courtships priceless.  They don’t call it the game of love for nothing. I loved playing it, pretty much all of the time.  Even those initial awkward years…

My first crush, somewhere in first or second grade, was a girl named Susan. This “relationship” was very important to me. I say to ME because looking back now, I’m sure she was unaware of my attentions.  We went to our neighborhood catholic school, Immaculate Heart of Mary, on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Windsor Terrace.  You can picture it, hundreds of uniformed girls and boys cuing into this 4 story, tan, brick, rectangle of a school every day. Our neighborhood in the mid-70’s, still felt like it had one foot in the 50’s…the girls wore maroon plaid skirts, a white blouse and a vest. The boys went to school every day in our white shirts, navy blue ties, navy blue pants, black belt and shoes. Out of all the girls in our class, in the first grade, identical in their uniforms, I quickly picked Susan. I don’t know what it was about Susan but thinking of her now I can still remember what it felt like to pine for her. Maybe it was her brains, she was a good student; I mean she wore horn-rimmed glasses! Could have been her pert nose, little-girl cuteness that had me head-over-heels? Sadly, after three years of having Susan on my radar, of noticing her in the classroom, and showing off for her in the school yard, she moved to Long Island or New Jersey.  Her house was right across from our church, on East 4th Street, and for years, I thought about her every time I walked down that block.  Isn’t it odd that I still remember this and I’m 51? Or maybe it’s not? I joked, at our rehearsal dinner the night before Kira and I were to get married, that if Susan walked through those French doors (a girl I hadn’t seen since 3rd grade) all bets were off.  

Of course, there were other girls I liked along the way.  Around 6th grade, when we headed out into our fenced in, rectangular schoolyard on Caton Avenue for recess, the boys usually flipped baseball cards or we played a game of tag that we called Fence. The girls usually jumped rope or played hopscotch? Winter of 6th grade, we are heading outside for recess, to burn off that early adolescent energy. I am guessing at who was the first, as it’s 35 years ago, but I know that some of the cute girls in our class, Kathy Kavanaugh, Caroline Desimone, Donna Tracey had red hats. These were your basic knit hat that you roll up on itself. In order to get their attention, a few of the boys began stealing the girls’ hats to make them run after us. This was fun for us, breathless and running away, the girls squealing in excitement…the early stages of courtship; I am pretty sure it was fun for the girls too. Timmy Boyle or Mark Bowen, maybe Matty Milbauer nicknamed these red-hatted girls the Red Hat Magoolies. And on successive days that winter, the boys “tortured” the Red Hat Magoolies. It was the highlight of our day, it’s what got me excited to go to school. The best part was, the number of girls wearing these non-descript red hats kept increasing. First there were three girls with red hats; then four, five, six...  I can imagine the conversations around the dinner tables in our neighborhood. “Why do you need a red hat Jean Ann?  We just bought you a winter hat that matches your jacket?” How would a 6th grade girl explain that to her parents? “Um, you see, I really want the red hat because Caroline Desimone and Kathy Kavanaugh have red hats and the boys steal their hats and make them run after them. You see Mom? Other girls are getting red hats and now the boys steal their hats too.  So I really need a red hat.”  

As much as I enjoyed the contest, the adventure, the adrenaline rush of the chase, my first “real” girlfriend was thrust upon me, pretty much. As we entered 8th grade, my buddies and I were suddenly “cool.” At least we thought we wereJ  We started misbehaving (more) in school and a few of us started nosing around the girls more seriously. Right around this time, we were free to roam the neighborhood, away from the watchful eye of the moms and nosy neighbors on our block. Large groups of adolescents, boys and girls, started to gather in East 5th Street Park or maybe one of the local school yards, like P.S. 130. You can see now, that it was puberty, hormones, driving our activity.  As my friends were starting to pair off with girls, I stayed on the bench pretty much. I was too scared, clueless or not interested enough to make a move. The one girl I really liked in 8th grade was Carolyn Leaver. But for the most part, I didn’t really know what to do, if she was to become my girlfriend. In retrospect, I liked the idea of a girlfriend more than I liked the real-life, girlfriend. Suddenly, I had no choice. With John Tracey and Jimmy Quinlan, two of my closest friends, paired up with girls (and making out like their ship was going down every chance they got) my fate was sealed. I flew under the radar initially but eventually, they started to put pressure on me. This was the time of Spin-the-Bottle games whenever we could find an empty basement or if one of the girls we hung out with was babysitting.  If only Mr. and Mrs. Munoz knew what we were doing in their house while Sandra was babysitting her little brother Eddie…

Now the wild card in all of this was my sister Julie. Julie, 15 months younger than me, was in 7th grade while I was in 8th. As a guy, and a budding adolescent, it’s really good to have a sister one grade below you. Those 7th grade girls thought my friends and I were actually cool, go figure. And the girls were aggressive.  I didn’t have to do anything. That fear of failure, thankfully, hardly weighed into it for me. One day, my sister came home from school, and she actually seemed pleased when she  said, “Jayne thinks you’re cute.”  Stuffing a Yankee Doodle in my mouth as I raced out the door to play roller hockey, I placed that with the other information that wasn’t about the Mets. I could kind of recall who she was, which wasn’t a good sign.  The one girl in my sister’s class I liked, was Cathy, who awkwardly enough lived on the same block as Jayne. Now Jayne was very nice and all, and had all of the qualities prized by the superficial young male, but I couldn’t say I was particularly interested in Jayne, or Cathy for that matter. That romantic chemistry thing is very funny. 

Winter of 8th grade, my sister’s friends and my friends are hanging out. Once my friends, specifically John Tracey and Jimmy Quinlan, got wind of the fact that Jayne liked me, the full-court press was on.  What made matters worse, at least according to them, was that John and Jimmy were already making their way around some of the proverbial “bases” with their girls and I was still in the batter’s box.

Quinlan: “Don’t you like her? You’re in. Your sister says you’re in. What are you waiting for?” 
Me: “Uh, I don’t know, I’m not really sure that I like Jayne, I mean she’s nice and all but…”
John: “Have you ever even kissed a girl Spinner?”
Me: (Now I had no choice but to tell the truth here because I spent almost every minute with John and Jimmy, they already knew the answer) “No.” 
Quinlan: “So go with Jane. This is your chance to kiss a girl. Unless you’re scared?”
Me: “Well……I don’t really know what to do.” With your close friends, you can admit this stuff. And my boys were actually tender, understanding, they coached me…
John: “You can just let her lead, she’s probably kissed a few guys already (not really a selling point) so let her take the lead.”
Quinlan: “You just kind of stick your tongue in there and wiggle it around a little bit.  I bet she knows what she’s doing so just follow along. It’s easy.”
How could I go wrong with expert advice like that? 
Hide & Seek

Hanging around. We did a lot of that in those days. For the most part we spent time in people’s basements, on street corners, in the park. What to do? Some couples would pair off in a secluded spot and make out. Some would lean against a parked car, in front of everyone, and wrestle each other. I was a little too self-conscious to do that. At some point, my sister’s friends, and my friends, are hanging on my front porch.  We’re busting chops, kidding around when someone says, “We should play Hide & Seek!” This seems odd to me, I’m thinking, why would we play this kid’s game? I mean we’re teenagers now. A little slow on the uptake, Quinlan and Tracey pull me into the hallway of my house: “We’re not really playing Hide & Seek, you are going to run and hide with Jayne. Tweety’s going to go with Risa, I’m going with Cathy and then we’ll get to make-out.” Gulp, what do I do now? My knees are knocking, my palms are sweaty and Jimmy and John can see that... “Just let her lead Spinner, you’ll be fine.”  

We gather on my front steps, a place where I’ve played so many real games of Hide & Seek, but now our game is a ruse to allow us to be alone with our “girlfiends.” The irony, the symbolism of the moment does not escape me. Someone is chosen as “It” and begins to count, “1, 2, 3…” we scatter. Jayne and I run across the street, up the alley between two houses and hide in the hedges on the left side. We are in close quarters, out of breath, on top of each other. Jayne has been chasing me for about three weeks now, letting everyone know that she digs me. I’ve been flitting around her, like a drunken butterfly and now finally, I’ll be forced to land. We giggle, suppressed laughter, I glance up the alley, it’s instinct, I continue playing the game. I’m listening to the counting, “22, 23, 24” and I realize I can’t put it off any longer, if I come out of this without kissing Jayne, I’m done for. My first kiss is happening. We move closer together. I can still see her denim jacket, the feathered black hair, the expectant smile. We look awkwardly at each other, we move towards each other and then we go for it. I tilt my head to the right, she tilts hers to the left, and just like my buddies said, she leads. There’s a lot of tongue waggling, I’m not sure what to do. In and out? Around? Up and down? I am overwhelmed by the taste of Bubble Yum bubble gum. We kiss for a little while. I’m thinking, I’m not sure what the big deal is. We stop. I look up the alley to see if anyone is coming. A brief respite and I think, alright, I can do this. We look at each other, shrug and then go for it again. Then, I think, I kissed a girl! I’m all proud of myself for passing this milestone. Eventually, we come out. I suggest, acting like I know what I’m doing, “Next time, maybe you should take your gum out.”  What a jerk right? Of course I would act cocky rather than admit I had no clue. 

The game ends, night is falling, dinner is coming and the girls have a long walk home.  Jimmy Quinlan and I decide to walk the girls home. As we are walking the streets of our neighborhood, there’s awkward silence. Like a nervous parrot, I begin filling the space with questions. “Do you have brothers and sisters? Where does your family go on vacation? How do you get along with your parents?” The others begin to chime in, Cathy talks. Jimmy pipes in. We meander through our neighborhood. We pass our school and I’m wondering how we’ll react to each other the next time we see each other at school. Are we now boyfriend and girlfriend?  Eventually, we get to their block. We say good-bye. None of us risks a kiss because the girls’ parents might be watching. 
As Jimmy and I begin the trek back towards our neck of the woods, Jimmy looks back, makes sure the girls are gone, then he gives me a verbal biff off the head. “What are you doing asking her all those stupid questions? Nobody wants to talk about that stuff!” Jimmy could always make you feel totally uncool. 
“What do you mean? I’m trying to get to know her.” 
“How many brothers and sisters do you have? Where do you go on vacation? What kind of questions are those?” 
“Why wouldn’t I ask about her brothers and sisters? I wanted to know where she goes on vacation? Maybe it’s near where we go and then we’d have something in common.” 
“No, that’s just not cool. That’s not the kind of stuff girls want to talk about.”  
Oh crap I’m thinking, I really have no idea what I’m doing…………………………………………………………………….

And that’s a lesson on cool from Jimmy I did not learn, I did not cotton to.  Throughout my dating life, with each new girl, friend, I continued to ask about her family, where she grew up, what kinds of books she reads, favorite movies… If you looked at the women I’ve dated, and personally I thought I always picked higher off the tree than I deserved, somehow I did okay for myself.   I’ve been lucky enough to somehow convince some very nice girls to spend some quality time with me. Luckily for me I didn’t follow Jimmy’s advice on how to be cool.  I would think among my friends I have a reputation for having a “decent rap.” But I never considered it a rap, or I never considered “using lines.”  Sure I’d try to make a girl laugh but my real goal, in high school, college, at work, in a bar even, and it all started in 8th grade, was to get to know the girl.

And I think in the end, that made a world of difference for those relationships. Maybe it was because I treated it like a game, like a competition, that made it fun? Because we actually got to know each other, some of those friendships still exist, independent of the initial romance. What do we like about the game? The uncertainty? The flirtation? The give-and-take?  The planning? The response? The analysis of what she said? And then what I said? Those, If you go out with a girl on Saturday night, don’t call too soon, maybe Wednesday kind of rules were fun. Love as a game of strategy. We started with passing notes. Some point we went to email. Now kids are texting and instagram but in the end it’s all fun, I think. 

And now I no longer play the game. Well that’s not true, I suppose I play the Game of Love with only one person, my wife Kira. I do still find myself flirting occasionally, Kira says I like the attention. I guess I’ll agree with that.  People talk of past relationships as “baggage” with a negative connotation but I don’t see it that way. I think of our experiences in the Game, prior to meeting each other as our history, there are layers to each of us, going back over past relationships, courtships, break-ups, good behaviors, bad behaviors that make us who we are today, as a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife. I know that some people, while in a relationship, really don’t want to hear about past boyfriends and girlfriends. I’ve never been like that because it’s a window into the person you are with now. 
As I said in the beginning, my goal was to remind you of your experiences as you began playing the Game of Love. I certainly hope I succeeded. Let’s hear about a few…

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Getting Boys to Read

“No matter what I do Mr. Spinner, I can’t get my son to read. He hates it, he will do everything but read. And I’ve tried everything!” Of course I hear from the boys themselves… “ I hate reading Mr. Spinner. You can’t make me read. I’d much rather be: playing X-Box, shooting hoops, sticking needles in my eyes." After 17 years in the middle school classroom, I am sure I’ve heard them all and I can honestly say, it’s bunk. Boy will read, they do read, they crave stories, they want heroes and heroines, boys have a desire for action and even, romance. Let me start with the worst case-scenario.

Circa June 2003

My classroom looks strange to me as it is dark outside. Maybe twice a year I’m in my room when it’s dark outside.  I’m moving the piles around, mindlessly prepping for summer. Sweat is drying on my shirt as I’m enjoying  the melancholy after-glow of our graduation ceremony. I hear footsteps coming down the second floor hallway. Must be the janitor or one of my 8th grade colleagues, I think. I look up to see the father of a student standing in the doorway, arms folded across his chest. Uh oh, what does he want?  I think. “I NEVER do this kind of thing, “ he bellows into my quiet classroom. I’m trying to place whose father he is and more importantly to deduce what I might have done wrong. “I have to come in and shake your hand Mr. Spinner.” (Phew, it’s one of those meetings.) “I don’t know what you did to my son but my wife and I have been begging and pleading for years to get him to read. We’ve tried everything, and somehow you got him to read. I can’t tell you how happy we are. Everywhere we go, his face is in a book. You awoke something in him, and we are so grateful. I felt compelled to tell you that in person.”  I deflect.  “It was nothing really (Inside I’m beaming, I love this part of the job). All I did was get to know your son. I learned a little bit about who he was and what made him tick and we took it from there. I knew about his interest in the military because we had been chatting about shows on The History Channel and the rest, as they say, is history.”

In that story is, for the most part, the recipe for getting your boys, or any reluctant reader, to read:

Follow their Passion…allow boys to choose books about things they like. Just like us, they will be energetic and enthusiastic in researching/reading about something that interests them. No DuhJ How many of you avoid your book club books because you didn’t choose it? How about procrastinating on those periodicals you have to read for work? That’s all very normal. You know your boys, think about their hobbies, concentrate on their interests and then take them to the library or the bookstore. Nudge them in the right direction. For me, and a lot of boys, the entrée was biographies of sports heroes. I was a Met fan but the first books I really remember were about Yankee greats Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. I mean the Mets were a young team when I was growing up so…

Choice…this might be the most important part. You have to allow them to choose their own books, it’s paramount. The sense of empowerment they derive is crucial. Remember our boys live in a world where they have to ask for money, or a ride to the park. Let’s not forget, our kids live in a world where they are told when to go to bed…they love to make their own choices. Readers will naturally go to where their passions lie. You might have to rein in your desire to put a classic or a “real” book in their hands, at least at first. Those books might come over time.  Over the years, how many of us were turned off of reading because we HAD to read Dickens or Shakespeare? In 10th grade Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton almost did me in but luckily the Reading Bug already had a good hold on me by that age. It’s been my experience, in the Reader’s Workshop, that this is the MOST important thing, letting readers choose their own books.

Be Lenient: Turn a blind eye to some of the books they might choose. Allow them to read something inappropriate (within reason).  Adolescents are naturally rebellious, we can all remember being  that age. Why do you think Rock & Roll and Punk Rock and Rap are so popular among that age group? If boys think they are pushing the envelope, if they are quietly snickering and sharing excerpts with their friends about masturbation or violence or criminal activity…who cares? By hook or by crook I say. Get them hooked and they’ll stay hooked. They’ll think it’s really cool that they are doing something slightly inappropriate and you might score some points as a cool parent. Lord knows we can all use a few of those points right? 

Start Small: With some of our really reluctant readers, a graphic novel might have to suffice at first. Get them in the habit of sitting down, of turning pages, of sharing excerpts with friends and family…even if it’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, baby steps. As Lau Tsu said, A thousand mile journey begins with one step. 

Read:  Now I don’t want to get preachy here but I chuckle at the frustrated parents who tell me they can’t get their kids to read but when I ask,  “What are you reading now?” I get a blank stare. You have to model, nothing worse for a teenager than the Do as I say, not as I do school of parenting. Read a book, go to the library with him, maybe even read the same book so you can connect around the literature. Then go see the movie when it comes out. All of these things will help him as a reader and I’m sure as a person.

Goals and incentives: Although altruistically, I think reading is its own reward, some boys might need an additional incentive. Buy them books. Don’t you remember the first hard cover book you owned? My aunt bought me a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, complete with the shiny foil seal because it was a Caldecott Award Winner. I loved that book. What better way to show your boys that reading is important than to spend your hard earned money on books?  Or try other incentives besides books?  Show them you value it, that you think it’s that important by telling them you’ll get them that Lego Star Wars Tie-Fighter or that Madden 2015 game if they read  3 books in 3 months. To get them into a pattern of setting goals and reaping rewards can be a life-long lesson.

Life Long Goals: Connect reading to all of the things they want out of life. I want to go to Harvard? Duke? Michigan? SUNY Buffalo (my alma mater)…then you should read. It’s the readers in the world who succeed. I want a beach house. I want to start my own company. I want to be a veterinarian. I want  a townhouse on the Upper West Side. I want to be a writer….again, reading is one of the keys to success.

Use your resources:  Your local library probably runs some type of Summer Reading incentive program. Kids will often get a bag filled with treats and directions on how to participate. They’ll not only be reading but they might win some Itunes cards or gift cards to a bookstore or other prizes. Your local librarians, particularly the YA or Teen librarian will help you choose the right book for your child. This is what they do, it’s their job and they are always up on the current titles. Our local YA librarians have been an invaluable resource to me and my students.

Make it social: Talk about reading and books with friends. Start a Book Club or join some groups at your local library. See what they offer at school. We often think of reading as a solitary endeavor but it’s really very social when done right.

Correct Level Text: Make sure the books are the right level. Readers will get really frustrated, and not want to read, if they can’t understand the book. You can ask the teachers for their reading level. A simple rule we teach our students is the Five Finger Rule: If there are five words on any given page that are too difficult for you, then that book is probably too hard for you. It’s tricky because as they move through the grades, reluctant readers fall further behind and often times become self-conscious of the level of text they are reading relative to their peers.  If a book is tough but they still want to try it, to stretch themselves, reinforce for them the strategies they learned at school for deciphering difficult text: Read slowly/closely, reread, use context clues, read the next few sentences, look things up, ask someone. 

To close I’ll go back to my classroom and the gracious father: his son…after leaving the Woodbury Middle School as an avid reader, graduated towards the top of his class at the local high school. Went to Marist College where he majored in History, something he was passionate about. Now that once reluctant reader is applying to grad schools that revolve around his passion of military history. This was possible, in part, because we were able to kindle his love of reading in my 8th grade classroom. I hope this helps your boys find some good books and hopefully, sparks a love of reading that will lead to so many life-affirming benefits.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Of Course Of Course

Barnes & Noble is closing its flagship store on 5th Avenue and 18th Street. The economies of the book business and the real estate market are colliding; and we are losing this iconic store.  The vestiges of my youth are disappearing. News of the store’s closing caused a slight shift in the tectonic plates of my psyche. That store has always been there; a mooring place in a city that’s changing at the speed of a New York Minute. Since the early 80’s, when I worked there during high school and college, I could count on the store being there. Walking around Manhattan over the past 30 years, I occasionally head into the store, finding comfort in the familiar: the aisles, the signs, the smells, the set-up.  Sporadically during my college years, I was a messenger in Manhattan, delivering packages to banks and law firms; and I always oriented myself by the bookstore. Barnes and Noble as anchor point,  5th Avenue and 18th street, the dividing line between East and West and downtown and midtown.

Senior year in high school, 1980…
Glen Gruder, part of our East 4th Street crew, is three years older than me. Glen’s  a junior at NYU during my senior at John Dewey High School. Late in his sophomore year at NYU, Glen got a job at Barnes & Noble. Back in our neighborhood, hanging out on Ronny Lopez’s stoop, Glen regaled us with stories of Greenwich Village, of college courses, and of some of the characters he was meeting at the bookstore. Towards the end of August Glen says, “Spinner, you should come into the store, they always need guys.” Glen is not one to dole out praise, so I always appreciated that he thought enough of me to recommend me for any number of jobs, Barnes & Noble, Silver Lake, jobs that changed my life.

Talk about a kid in a candy store.  An avid reader early on, I devoured books through grammar school and into high school. I would  not only be working in A bookstore but THE bookstore, the main branch of Barnes & Noble; on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. According to the 1980 Guinness Book of World Records, it’s the largest bookstore in world. And I’m getting a job there!  While most of my friends toil in our neighborhood pizzerias, pharmacies and butcher shops, I’ll be working in The City.

It’s an early September day of my senior year and my Barnes & Noble interview keeps popping up in my thoughts. I leave John Dewey High School around noon, catch the B train at Bay 50th Street and settle in for the hour or so ride into Manhattan. After 3 years of commuting to Dewey I’m a jaded straphanger. Book in hand, I veg out and read, maybe I even sleep. About 40 minutes into the ride I am shocked, like walking out of a movie theater in the daytime, by sunlight. To get into Manhattan on the B, you cross the East River via the Manhattan Bridge.  There it is before me, The City, the stuff of movies, picture Dorothy and company seeing Oz for the first time. To the left the Brooklyn Bridge, the canyons of Wall Street, the Twin Towers. As we clatter across, I’m a frenetic puppy, on the right side of the train I see Chinatown, the Bowery, the FDR drive ribbons the river towards the UN and the Citicorp Center. I don’t know how many times I’ve taken the B train across the bridge but that view never gets old. Every day I commute to the city, I put my book down and become a tourist.
Off the B train at Union Square. Now those of you who remember Union Square in the early 80’s before Giuliani and Bloomberg cleaned up the city, know Union Square was a scary place. Littered with newspapers, a cast of seedy characters lurking around, everything engulfed by gray hulking buildings, dirty squirrels skitter to lifeless trees.  I’d  heard the term Needle Park in movies and had seen it in books, and from that day forward, I assumed Needle Park referred to Union Square.  Immediately, my city sense told me to avoid Union Square, even in the daytime.

I make my way to the store, a wide-eyed boy among the tall buildings, too spellbound to even act cool. On the corner of 5th Avenue and 18th Street I look up, Barnes & Noble in gold letters across the front, two revolving doors, fancy. Emerging from the revolving door, I am hit with new book smell. The store is designed for movement, for volume. You enter to the right of where the cash registers are, there are enough registers for 8 or so lines.  I meander through the store, past all of the displays, new Lawrence Sanders and Robert Ludlum hardcovers, past the different sections, Fiction, Classic, Self-Help, Biography…fighting the urge to browse….I find my way to textbooks for my interview with R.J. Odle.  R.J.’s a good old boy from Arkansas. If I was 18, he was probably late 30’s. He was funny but odd. He’d lob inappropriate jokes about pretty girls to show you that he was a regular guy. R.J. was a touchy guy, he’d tap your knee, or rub your shoulder as he walked by, an attempt to make you feel comfortable that sometimes did the opposite.  It really wasn’t much of an interview, just a rubber stamp. R.J. was an adult, probably spent a life in the book business and now he’s managing the text book department of Barnes & Noble. In the early 80’s, when everyone was still shopping in person and a lot of people shopped at B&N, he managed about 150 employees, mostly college-age guys, and a few women.  In most of the jobs I had had in the past, like at The Not-So-Kosher Deli, there were only a handful of employees, never enough to move beyond the interpersonal to the political. At Barnes & Noble I learned about work-place politics, mentors and protégés.  RJ doled out the work schedule, he could give out the cushy jobs, like going to the warehouse to sort books. R.J.  dictated what aisle you worked in, which could decide your fate in the store. He was my boss but it went beyond that, looking back now I can see that it was good if a guy like R.J. liked you.
I finally have a job that’s on the books, so I fill out a W-2 and other payroll information. This is real. Then R.J. takes me to pick out my “uniform.” Everyone at B&N wears what amounts to a light jacket. It’s tan, single-breasted with two big pockets for storing the accoutrements of the job (pens, markers, highlighters, stickers. You pin your name tag above your heart and you are on your way.  Most guys I worked with didn’t like our uniforms, something to be avoided, to be taken off immediately. I heard people referring  to it as a smock. I didn’t see it as a smock, I saw it as something akin to a prep school blazer. Putting on that jacket made me feel important, it confirmed for me that the job was serious. I worked for years in a neighborhood deli wearing white, mustard-stained aprons. Now I commute to Manhattan on the subway and I have on a blazer. I look at all of the other guys and gals, sophisticates, learned people who know books, people like Franco in Sociology who knows the difference between sociology and psychology. People like Mitch Paluscek who knew that George Eliot was a woman and Somserset Maugham was a guy.…I aspired to be one of them.

R.J.  puts me in Aisle 2, Psychology. I know a little about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung from Mr. Ronaldson’s Psychology of Literature class.  There are 8 aisles in textbooks and each is a fiefdom. The aisles take on the personality of the aisle boss and the personnel under them. Guys were proud of their aisles. They liked to razz each other. And of course with all that testosterone, things were competitive. There was an underlying competition about a lot of things, mostly related to knowledge and speed. Who knows more books? Who knows where things are? Who can help customers the fastest?  Who has been working at the store the longest? Who knows the lore?  I loved it.  

Geoff Waters was the Aisle Chief of Aisle 2, an adult Boy Scout, the kind of guy who would grow a beard, smoke a pipe and collect comic books.  I knew early on that I wanted to be good at the job. I respected guys that were confident, that knew their stuff. Customer walks in with a syllabus from their class, especially if it’s a pretty girl, guys would rush over,  a guy like Peter Pabon, my former baseball coach and another mentor from my neighborhood, knew his stuff… “Let me see what you need here? Oh, you’re taking Professor Johnson’s class…you need Economics by Samuelson and you’ll need, Hey Jimmy, grab me a copy of….” This stuff impressed me.
Because I was one of a handful of younger guys, there was only a few of us still in high school, we were a novelty. In addition to Glen and Pete Pabon, there were other veteran guys that were nice to me, that took me under their wing. Like a rookie in a major league dugout, there were veteran guys to show you how to do the job. Joe Peluso, Geoff’s second in command,  Richie “horse legs” Dave took it upon themselves to show me the ropes. And a long-haired dude, I thought he looked like a native American from a movie, a drummer in a rock band, Doug Montijo gave me tips on how to edge a book, how to find a book in the basement, how to use a pricing gun. I always appreciated that.

Maybe it’s because I was a novelty? I was small, even for a high school senior, I might have been 120 pounds? But so many people were really nice to me early on, veteran guys that really could have hazed me, could have given me crap but I escaped all but the most benign razzing. I’m sure guys could see an earnest kid, a newbie I suppose but underneath a street-wise kid. They see themselves in me, remembered someone who had looked out for them,  and offered a helping hand when they first started. For the first time in my life I think, I tiptoe into the social pool. I’m intimidated, these people are older, they’re sharp, there was a hierarchy and I knew enough to keep my mouth shut, initially.   Along with me, the other high school guys: Jimmy Pisianello, Richie Galtieri, Vinny Gione gravitated to each other.  Somebody, I’m going to guess John Carli, saw us hanging together and dubbed us the Kindergarten Krew. A moniker we liked, we took to calling ourselves, the Kindergarten Krew.

With all of this mental stimulation, the barrage of new information, new subway stations, bookstore terminology, New York City lore, it’s no wonder that I gravitate to the familiar. I could be expanding my horizons, hanging out with new people. For the first time in my life, I’m meeting openly gay guys, Rodney from Special Orders, among others. I’m meeting people from other countries, Nadia from South Africa with a great body and that accent. I am meeting people from all over the city, interesting people, and what do I gravitate to? Brooklyn guys, high school guys, just like me.

I learn stuff, not all connected to the bookstore like: what train line to take to get to the Garden, how to scalp a ticket to the Ranger game, where to switch to other train lines to get to the West Side or the East Side.  Guys knew about neighborhoods, about ethnicities and back then we talked about it openly: Pollacks from Greenpoint, Woodside Irish, Puerto Ricans from East Harlem…
I raced to work every day. By senior year, in order to graduate John Dewey High School, I only needed English and Gym. I already had enough credits in Science, Social Studies, Math but everyone has to sign up for a full slate of classes.  I would sign up for multiple English and Gym classes as well as a sprinkling of Math and Social Studies. In order to work a long day at the store, I needed my English and Gym classes early in the morning.  If I wind up with English period J or something, I’m hosed, I’d spend the whole day at school, waiting for English class so I sign up for multiple classes and just drop the classes that meet in the afternoon.

The store had its own vocabulary, a lexicon. Some of the words were particular to the store, to the book business but the words that I remember, that stayed with me were different.  Manny Ortega worked in Sociology/Law, which was part of text books but it was in the big room right before the “official” text books department. The guys in Sociology and Law became point men, they would see the customers coming in before anyone in text books.
“Hammer. Hammer.  Aisle 2.” 

I keep hearing this, “Hammer. Hammer Aisle 4.”
“Hammer. Hammer at Special Orders.”

It doesn’t take long for brains and testosterone to deduce that Hammer is B&N code for an attractive girl. It was ingenious. You could say it anywhere, yell it as loud as you wanted and the customers, especially the Hammer, were oblivious. Of course as young men in B&N jackets come from all over the textbooks department, any sharp, pretty girl would realize Hammer was code.
Some of our terms were not as cleverly disguised. Most of the guys I hung out with were regular guys. We played roller hockey and softball and drank beers and talked about New York sports.. This was the early 80’s, and the store was just north of the Village, so we’d see some “characters.”  Every once in a while, we’d have a punk rocker with a purple Mohawk,  leather jacket with safety pins  and you’d hear Jimmy Angotta yell, “NORMAL.” He’s yelling it right near the guy as he busies himself with some books. Billy Idol would  be shopping for text books, going from aisle to aisle and every once in a while some clerk from Brooklyn or Queens, like Billy Goozner is yelling, “NORMAL” right in the guy’s ear. I’m surprised one of us didn’t get punched.

This was the first job I had that paid me through lunch. Paid to eat lunch, what a concept. If it was nice out, we’d probably loiter in front of the store, grab a hot dog from a street vendor, maybe we’d walk over to Paragon Sporting goods to look for a t-shirt or a new hockey jersey. Most of the time, we’d find a little comfort in the break room; a decent sized rectangle of a room that held a few couches and a handful of cafeteria type rectangular tables. Guys would hold court in there. It was a riot, constant jokes and verbal barbs. I was fastidious in my 15 minutes or half hour, watching the clock like a stop watch. I remember some of the veterans, like John Carli, Manny, Joe Rizzo, they didn’t care, they knew it wasn’t a real job for them in the long run. And besides, what self-respecting aisle chief is going to mess with any of the elder statesman of the text book dept? The reigning king of the break room was Don Cilia.  
Don was an oversized guy with a big laugh and an even larger personality. He seemed to be the longest serving B&N employee, one of the fonts of B&N lore, and politically, he had pull. He could take a lot longer than a 15 minute break and nobody would say anything to him. It helped that Don really knew his stuff, when the store was really busy, a guy like Don would shine. I loved the break room, it was a whole new learning annex. One time, Don is sitting right by the vending machine with the chips and candy in it and some deliberate employee has plied his quarters into the machine and is taking just a little too long in choosing. We are all sitting there chatting and subconsciously watching this guy torture himself with Hershey Bar or Milky Way. He’s looking and holding his chin, moving to make the choice, but no, hand back on chin, eventually, it’s too much for Don. “Fuck it” he reaches up and pulls a random lever and walks away. To this day, one of the funniest things I have ever seen. “What the fuck Don! I didn’t want Fritos.” 

Early on in my B&N career we’re sitting in the break room and Don says, “Who’s up for a game a Liars?”  I had no idea what he was talking about. But I quickly learned about Liar’s Poker…
It was an interesting game of intrigue, feints, bidding, guessing, outsmarting, it was perfect for a boatload of wise-asses from Brooklyn and Queens. The game rewards aggression and passivity. In each game there’s really one big winner or one big loser and everyone else wins or loses the dollar they played with. Everyone has a dollar bill and the combination of all of the serial numbers on all of the bills, comprises a poker hand. The idea is to bid the highest possible hand, to stretch the limits until everyone else decides they can’t outbid you. If you have the right bid, you win everyone’s dollar, a potential killer payday if 12 or 14 guys are playing. If you bid too high, everyone challenges you and you lose, you have to pay everyone in the game, a dollar. The early bids are interesting because you know nobody is going to challenge 3 deuces or 3 8’s so these bids can be, and often times are, lies. You don’t want to tip your hand early but as you get to the point where bids are getting higher, that it’s risky to top a bid, you have to have some 2’s or 8’s in your bill/hand. In a big group of guys you have the guys that are really in it to just risk the dollar, to try and win or lose just that dollar. And then you have the guys who are looking for the big score. As you play, you get to know each other’s tendencies, like real poker, you might learn a tic or a tell. The game got really funky the more we played because people started searching out good bills. Guys would bid phenomenal amounts and you’d think, there’s no way there’s 15 7’s out there but Harry Rivera’s been pushing 7’s and so has Barone. I don’t have anything that can top that but I have 3 7’s. Eventually, there is a perfect bid, there’s a bid that if you get called, you’ll win. If you push too far, you’ll crash and burn. The best part was the banter, the reactions of guys when they win or lose. The long-standing memory is of a guy winning, and everyone tossing their money at him, be it Don Cilia or Gruder or Mike Infurna…”Oh, bullshit! You got a bill with 7 9’s on it you sand bagging prick?”  And you’d watch and learn about behavior….Guy loses two or three hands, is he cool? Is he flustered? Does he play scared the next time or try to win his money back. God it was fun.

Sometimes for lunch we’d venture out to the local restaurants. I loved this, any chance to learn the city, my new city. One day we are talking about where to go to lunch, and like a lot of New Yorkers, particularly New Yorkers on a budget, our talk turned to pizza.

Mike Rizzo poses, “You guys want to go down to Ray’s Pizza?” 
“Oh, I don’t know, it’s a walk, and there’s always a line at Ray’s.”

“It’s a Saturday, how long will the line be?”
A pizzeria with a long line? I’m intrigued… “What’s the big deal about this pizzeria? Why will there be a line?”

And that clinches it, Rizzo says, “HO, HO, Spinner’s never been to Ray’s. You’ve NEVER been to Ray’s? That settles it, we’re going to Ray’s”

I loved learning new stuff about the city, particularly the Village, there was something cool about 8th Street, Bleecker Street, McDougal Street. To be carousing the same streets as the Beat Poets, as so many striving musicians like Bob Dylan, like Springsteen had before, was heady stuff for a Brooklyn kid. Often times, after we got out at 6:45 (isn’t it funny that 30 years later, I still remember what time the store closed?) I would walk along 5th Avenue, towards Washington Square Park. Rather than grab the F at 14th Street, I extended the walk, sometimes all the way down to Broadway-Lafayette, wanting to learn more.  I loved being a commuter, I felt so adult, to be part of the city’s social fabric. I read so many books during my time at B&N, because of access to books and time on the subway. At that time, everyone was reading thrillers by Robert Ludlum or mass market paperback fiction books like Lawrence Sanders’ First Deadly Sin, or the epic Irish saga, Trinity by Leon Uris, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I wasn't in college yet, but you could say I started my education at Barnes & Noble University.
I would love to implore you to please purchase books at your local booksellers. If you enjoy browsing in a bookstore, perusing random shelves for that serendipitous reading adventure, you HAVE to purchase some books at the store once in a while. Even if it’s cheaper on Amazon, we have to support our brick & mortar bookstores or those days of lazily enjoying a few hours of picking up random titles and following a book scent like a bloodhound will be gone.