Friday, March 10, 2017


This past summer, the travel gods conspired so that I was driving to our Adirondacks house with 4 boys, and no adults. Our annual trip to the Adirondacks with the Jorgensens had taken an interesting detour.  Usually we are a caravan, 2 vehicles packed to the brim with 9 people, 3 dogs and the trappings of summer vacation. This past year I had a 6 hour ride ahead of me and no navigator as all the boys- Brian, Charlie, Dane and Holt-chose to sit in the rear of our SUV. Nobody wanted to ride with the old man up front.   I had the FM airwaves to myself and other than that, complete silence as the boys were streaming Youtube videos, perusing Instagram, or watching DVD’s on their laptops…each in their own electronic cocoon.

Considering it’s the better part of six hours, I actually like the ride. For the first hour you’re getting rural, quickly, winding north up Connecticut’s Route 8. Then, a short jaunt west on Route 20 to the Mass Pike and eventually you’re on Interstate 87 North around Albany.  The terrain gets more and more mountainous as you head north past Saratoga and Lake George. Finally, exit the Northway at Exit 30 and traverse west on Route 73 through the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. The trip is varied enough, and so picturesque, that it’s not mind numbing. Actually, the opposite happens, you find yourself, thinking.

 Somewhere around Schenectady, “Daniel” by Elton John comes on the radio and I’m singing along, “And I can see Daniel waving good-bye, God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes…” A melancholy feel overcomes me as scenes of long ago summers flutter through my brain.  I’m picturing a transistor radio tuned to WABC, AM, providing the soundtrack to our childhood: stickball with my buddies on East 4th Street, Bomb Pops from Morris our ice cream man, games of tag around the pool at Twin Willows Cabins on our family vacations to the Poconos.  Oh those budding adolescent boys looking longingly at the Billard sisters, Lisa and Lynn, as they sun themselves on the concrete structure, painted swimming-pool blue, that houses the pool’s machinery.  

I look over my right shoulder to Brian, he’s right behind the passenger seat, “THIS SONG CAME OUT WHEN I WAS ABOUT YOUR AGE.” Brian, startled, removes his ear buds and humors me for a few minutes before heading back into his electronics. Back on my own I’m thinking…Most people of my generation would have a similar response to Elton John’s, “Daniel.”  The guys and gals from my neighborhood, some who had the actual 45 (that’s a record for you youngsters), would have similar memories connected to the songs from the 70’s and 80’s. There are so many songs that I could play, Motown tunes like Diana Ross’s “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough” or AM Pop one-hit wonders like Pilot with “Magic” that would elicit a wealth of similar memories for all of us.  If I were to play Thin Lizzy’s, “The Boys are Back in Town” I can predict, with pretty good accuracy, the flashback images of my friends. We’d have a great conversation about hanging out on Brooklyn street corners, tossing the football or Frisbee around, busting each other’s chops, growing up fast…

Continuing past Lake George on my right, my thoughts meander to a recent rainy day; an unseasonably cold June day, more November than approaching summer, the perfect day for a movie.  I lobbied my kids and my wife throughout the day for a family movie.   It was like trying to catch night crawlers with a spoon. My three boys were playing X-Box, streaming Youtube videos  and my wife was binge-watching episodes of,  “Orange is the New Black.” Nobody was interested in watching a movie together.  I’m not usually the type to bemoan the loss of the old days, well maybe I am sometimes, but I do see that progress is usually a good thing. I can’t help in this instance, as we have moved away from ABC, NBC and CBS towards hundreds of channels and customized programming, but think that as we’ve gained choices we’re losing quite a bit as a family and as a society.

Human beings need to connect to each other. It makes us feel less alone, we find comfort in our commonalities . Meeting someone new, we always look for connections. Don’t we always play the name game when you meet someone new?

“Oh, you’re from, Huntington, you might know my buddy, Ira Goldstein? “

“I see you went to Indiana, maybe you know…”

 “My whole family read the Percy Jackson series, did you guys read it?”

And the possibilities for finding common ground are decreasing.  Today we are all secluded, zombie-like, just like Ray Bradbury warned us…we are disconnecting from the rest of the world and this isn’t a good thing.  So many of the posts we see on Facebook, in all of these, "I Grew Up in___________ in the 60's, 70's..." mention the feeling of community we had in our neighborhoods, in our towns, on our blocks...and we miss it and I think we need it back.

People of a certain age all know who The Fonz is, we recognize his signature phrase, “Ayyyy” and the thumbs-up. “Bang Zoom to the Moon” we all know is Ralph talking to Alice Kramden. Say things like, “NORM!” or “Yadda Yadda Yadda” and we will all know your reference. In a sense, we speak the same language, there’s a lexicon for people who grew up in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s…Future generations won’t have this, our  limitless choices are taking care of that. 

The best example of this was Roots. We all remember the mini-series about slavery and America’s history that captivated the entire country. It was on 6 or 7 nights in a row and it felt like EVERYONE was watching it. We talked about it at school, around the dinner table, at the office, on our stoops. Kunta Kinte was everywhere.  Current generations are living in their Ipod world, streaming their individual soundtracks and customizing their own viewing experiences.  Everyone is watching, something else. That Roots phenomenon will never happen again. Sure it felt like a lot of us were watching Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mad Men…but in comparison, the percentage of the population was not even close.

Think about any recent conversation you’ve had with someone about TV shows. Was it a meandering conversation about a bunch of shows that you loved and a bunch of shows that they loved but you had few in common?

“I’m watching, ‘Shameless’ have you seen that? It’s great.”

“No, but I’ve heard good things. You know what I’m watching? I’m watching ‘Homeland.’  Have you seen “Homeland?” 

“No, but you know what I did really love?”

More than likely you came away with recommendations for new shows to watch and not much of a connection. Satellite TV is giving us hundreds choices but it’s secluding us.

And it's happening in our fan affiliations too. In our neighborhood, everybody rooted for the local teams. You were a Met or a Yankee fan. In hoops, mostly Knicks. Hockey? Rangers or Islanders. Of course there were a few outliers but I can tell you, to this day, what teams my boyhood friends rooted for. As a matter of fact, whenever we catch up, that’s always a topic of conversation.  One of the first things you’ll hear is, “Mets look good.”

Yeh, if the pitching holds up.” When I talk to my sons today, their friends will just as easily be Portland Trail Blazer or St. Louis Cardinals fans.  It’s all so individualistic; when these guys catch up in 10 or 20 years it’ll be, “So you still a Trailblazers fan?”  “Yes.”  Zzzzz… When I catch up with Ronny Lopez, who was a huge Islander fan like me, we talk about games at the Nassau Coliseum, we talk about the four Stanley Cups, about Trottier, Bossy, Gillies…We talk about how the team looks today. With other friends we’ll talk about the Mets of today and the ’86 Mets, and the ticker tape parade, about Lenny Dykstra and Dwight Gooden…

And if this piece is about electronic cocoons, I have to mention video games. It’s such an isolative activity. Besides the fact that most games are ultra-violent, they keep kids indoors, not socializing, not getting fresh air, there’s something very wrong with this. Kids are happiest when they are outside, running around, together.  Sure you can say some of the recent games kids play together but it's just not the same thing. Not too long ago, I took a long bike ride with a couple of old friends from the neighborhood. We actually went from our old neighborhood in Brooklyn, out to Breezy Point and back, rolling through Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Midwood, Gravesend, Marine Park, Flatbush and back again. It was the perfect warm fall day, and in that 4 hour ride it was eerie, we didn’t see one touch football game, not one stickball game, no kids playing punch ball, nobody jumping rope. It was nothing like the Brooklyn we grew up in. This can’t be good. I can’t help but think that if Adam Lanza just got outside more, socialized more, people would have known him, maybe he would have had a few friends? Maybe he would have been happier? Or someone would have noticed he was in danger and gotten him the help he needed? Instead he was sequestered in his basement, with hefty bags covering the windows, playing Grand Theft Auto. In his, it turned out, very dangerous electronic dungeon.

Maybe, if we were finding it easier to connect these days, we wouldn’t be so polarized, politically? Maybe it would be easier for us to find common ground if we already had quite a bit? Instead of antagonizing and labeling maybe we would start with the realization that we have a lot more in common than we think? And starting from those commonalities, maybe polite discourse and compromise would be a possibility? 

Now I don’t know what the answer is, it’s just something I noticed and I thought maybe other people have noticed it too? I know we are not going to go “backward” but are there better ways for us to continue to connect to each other?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Montauk Memories

2016-We’re in Montauk again to celebrate. It’s late June so this time it’s my wife’s birthday and Father’s Day. We leave the Grice house on Franklin Drive, flip flops flapping, beach accoutrements jangling. It’s early in the season so most of the summer people are still not out yet. It’s quiet, except for the sound of a nail gun close by, someone’s putting the tiles on a new roof. We cross Old Montauk Highway, skirt the highway on the black sidewalk and continue to a sandy path. I catch my breath when I see the ocean for the first time since last summer as we come through the dunes, this always reminds me of seeing the grass of Shea Stadium for the first time. I know Kira, my wife of 22 years, will want a spot close to the water; we find something just above the high tide line. I ascertain the wind direction, dig a hole for the umbrella and angle it just so. We set up beach chairs, mine in the shade, Kira’s in the sun. Sitting there, book in hand, looking out at a lone gull hovering, gliding  over the blue ocean, I breathe deeply of the salt air-peace. This is my, this is OUR Happy Place.

Sitting there glancing at a fishing boat on the horizon, oddly enough, my thoughts turn to my father, Jimmy Spinner Sr. It’s odd because he passed away in 1985 and as far as I know, he had never been to Montauk. I can tell you this, my old man loved Brooklyn but he loved the ocean and fishing more. Had my father ever visited Montauk, I can tell you, he never would have left.

If Montauk is The End this story begins at The Beginning, in Brooklyn.

My father was a carpenter by trade but a fisherman in his heart. I used to joke with my friends, who all seemed to love fishing with my father, that my dad could enjoy fishing in a puddle. I never visit my father’s grave site in Greenwood Cemetery because that’s not where he is. I commune with my father whenever I’m near the ocean. All that I know about the ocean, the beginnings of my love for the sea, started with my Pops. He loved the ocean, was drawn to it, and he nurtured that love in me too.   In the early 70’s, my father purchased a working man’s fishing boat; wood, worn, small cabin underneath, inboard motor. Jimmy Spinner Sr. was happiest rocking to the waves, sunburnt forearms holding a fishing pole, his son at his side, a cooler full of Schaefer and C&C Cola within easy reach.

We docked our boat in a marina behind Floyd’s (now Toys ‘R’ Us) on Flatbush Avenue. It was there I learned about: the push and pull of the tides, the prehistoric looking horseshoe crab and the molar-like barnacles growing on the pylons of the piers. My handsome, weathered father knew about buoys, knots, lures and bait…I was hooked.

Summer 1975, Dad takes me to see "Jaws" and my love for the ocean deepens. I devour every book I can find about sharks at our local libraries. As 8th grade graduation from Immaculate Heart of Mary looms, my thoughts turn to studying the ocean. Glancing through the book of New York City High Schools I find that John Dewey offers Marine Biology. My fate is sealed. Freshman year I took Marine Biology with Lou Siegel and all of our science labs were at the beach. We’d take the train one stop to Stillwell Avenue and spend time measuring wave amplitudes and frequency, in Coney Island; or we’d examine the creatures in the tidal flats at Plumb Beach. By Advanced Marine Biology junior year, my knowledge, love and respect for the ocean swelled.

Senior year, 1981, I am at a keg party in Brighton Beach. We’re a large group of seniors sitting in a circle on the sand, waves crashing in the background, drinking beers when Steve Schiffman, a friend from homeroom walks over with a buddy. “Jim Spinner, meet Ian Grice, you guys will both be going to the University Buffalo in the fall."   Sometimes life comes down to a few moments. I mean, it’s not exactly Lennon meets McCartney but we became fast friends. And it’s the Grice family that introduces me to the Atlantic Ocean beyond Jamaica Bay…

Ian’s parents, Eddie and Maureen Grice, both teachers, rent a beach house every summer. By the time I was hanging with the Grices, they had narrowed in on the East End of Long Island. The Grice family loved to entertain, to eat and drink and talk with friends. Each summer we would learn about a new town and the local bars, restaurants and beaches of: East Hampton, South Hampton, Sag Harbor, Shelter Island. I loved them all. It was a fun, exciting, meandering journey but eventually the family  buys  a place in Montauk. Now I loved Shelter Island for its romance, the fact that everyone on SI made a special journey to get there, was romantic. Sag Harbor I loved for its Americana and the connection to John Steinbeck. I loved all the towns but when the Grices landed in Montauk, it was different. In the Hamptons, Sag Harbor, Shelter Island, I felt like a poseur in my Macy’s purchased madras shorts. Montauk felt like, home. I loved the working class feel of the town, bars like the Shagwong had real fisherman in them. I never liked the t-shirt slogan, “Montauk, A drinking town with a fishing problem.” It seemed crass to me but I understood right away Montauk’s real fisherman bona fides. One of the first things I thought was, my father would love this place. Sadly, right around the time I was graduating from college, my father passed. But Eddie and Maureen filled the void, continuing the work my father had started.

After college, Ian, my friends and I were a cliché, Wall Street nubes, taking the train out to the Hamptons for the weekend. Never did I laugh so much as we did in the bar car of the Montauk Cannonball, letting off steam after a long work week. I rarely drink Budweiser in a can but when I do it always reminds me of those weekend trips in the 80’s and 90’s.

Those days were golden, Jimmy Buffet providing the soundtrack as we were body-surfing, reading books on the beach, biking out to the lighthouse, taking an outdoor shower and dining on mussels marinara. What I remember most about those weekends was the conversation. The driving force was the matriarch, Ian’s Mom, Maureen Grice. Brooklyn Irish, (born Maureen Murphy) she was wise, educated, she taught me stuff about the East End, throughout our friendship,  I would go to her for answers to all of life’s questions. To this day I know the philosophy behind Occam’s Razor because of Maureen, she was my Google before Google.

Over the years, I got disillusioned with Wall Street, frustrated with my lack of personal fulfillment. One Saturday night, Coronas in hand, sitting on the dock overlooking Lake Montauk, Maureen says, “Jimmy, maybe you should teach? I think you would love it.”

The seed had been planted. With every walk along the beach, every hour sitting around a fire, every bike ride, I’m reflecting about my life. Eddie and Maureen keep watering the seed and I’m thinking, Maybe I should teach? Look at how happy Eddie and Maureen are. They’re both teachers and they can afford a summer rental every summer. So it was in Montauk that I found the answer to what I really wanted to do with my life.

Over the years, I had the good fortune to convince some beautiful, smart women to spend time with me. I always loved introducing these ladies to my second family, the Grices, and to the East End. Right around 1990, I’m dating a girl and it’s getting serious. I know in my heart that Kira is the one but... Sitting with Ian and Maureen on the deck, the sun beginning to set, I’m boasting, “Ah, we’re never getting married right Ian?” At which point Maureen holds court, “You know Jimmy” with the emphasis on Jimmy as she begins as if I am ridiculous, “if you are serious about this I’ll tell you something. At some point, you’ll cease to be interesting.” Hmmm, I took this two ways. First it was a compliment because Maureen, a tough judge of character, was admitting that I was in fact interesting. But if I lived the life of a bachelor, moving into my 30’s and beyond, that would cease to be the case. I thought about what I wanted out of life… once again, I found the answers, in Montauk. Kira and I got engaged on the beach. I knew she was the one when she “got” Montauk, when she loved it as much as I do.

So here I sit on a Montauk beach, Summer of 2016, my girl at my side, and I’m reflecting back on time spent on the East End. It’s so obvious that this is where I am supposed to be. Kira feels it too. My father taught me about the ocean.  A couple of teachers taught me about the East End of Long Island and it was in Montauk that I learned about what’s really important in life. I know that if my father had ever been to Montauk, he never would have left. My problem is, I have been there, and now I have to figure out a way to stay.

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…