Archive for August, 2012

Close Call

August 22, 2012

The call came just before noon. The upset in my father-in-law’s voice was obvious even before he said, “There may be a crisis.”

That’s exactly the sentence you brace yourself against when the phone rings at an unusual hour, from parents who are in their upper eighties, and live far away. Earlier this summer, wildfires forced David’s folks to evacuate their condo. They hadn’t been home three weeks when his mom was having an emergency appendectomy.

But this bad news was about my son.

“It seems like Sam may have run a red light,” Roger said, choosing his words carefully. “He said something about losing his phone. He was a little hard to understand. He was calling from the hospital.”

Why didn’t he call me? I wondered, wounded. “Is he okay?”

“He says he has a broken nose and two black eyes. And he’s been charged with reckless driving.”

My stomach turned. The scenario was all too plausible. Sam lives a few hundred miles away from us, and has a history of losing stuff – his wallet, his camera, his iPod, a pair of glasses when he jumped into the river for a moonlight swim. Last year I got a call from a woman who’d found his phone on a country road, where it had fallen from the roof of his truck. He has also had his share of medical mishaps – cuts and scrapes from skateboarding, a hurt knee from Frisbee. Last month, he disturbed a wasps’ nest while clearing brush, and landed in the emergency room. But criminal charges? That would be a first.

“Was anyone else involved?” I asked, trying not to imagine what I was imagining.

“There was a car full of people from Honduras,” my father-in-law answered. “They were on their way to the airport to fly home. They were hurt, but they were still able to make it to their plane. I talked to his Legal Aid lawyer, or someone who said that’s what he was, anyway, and he said that they would be willing drop the charges if I wired them $2000 right away.”

Maybe you’ve heard about the “grandparents scam.” Google “grandma scam” (or “grandpa scam”), and you’ll get more than a million hits. According to the AARP, last year 25,500 older Americans fell for it, to the tune of $110 million. There are variations on the theme, but it basically works like this.

The caller identifies himself as the mark’s grandson. He might start by saying, “Grandpa?” and when Grandpa answers, “Is that you, Sam?” the hook is set. Other times, the caller knows the grandson’s name. My father-in-law can’t remember how his call started – only that it was confusing and upsetting, which is why the scam succeeds. When you’re upset, it’s harder to think clearly. And what could be more upsetting than finding out that your beloved grandson is in trouble?

The caller says he’s in a foreign country – usually Mexico, although the calls actually usually originate in Canada. And of course, the actual grandchild is probably at home in the U.S. In our case, the caller didn’t use this ploy. But the part about the airport-bound foreigners seems related. When Roger mentioned those Hondurans to me, I got suspicious. And started feeling a little better.

The caller claims to have an emergency. He’s been arrested. Or robbed. Or gotten hurt. And he needs money. Now. At this point, before Grandpa can start asking a lot of questions, the caller hands the phone over to a third party, someone claiming to be a policeman or a doctor or a lawyer. In our case, this is when my father-in-law started having his doubts.

If Sam really needed a lawyer, wouldn’t he be from the Public Defender’s Office, rather than Legal Aid? And how had a lawyer managed to show up at his bedside so quickly? Roger was still willing to believe that Sam had run a red light. But if this was true, it seemed like some sort of sleaze had interjected himself into the crisis.

When he got his instructions for wiring the money – in this scam, the money always needs to be wired – Roger sensibly asked for the phone number of the Legal Aid office. And when the so-called lawyer couldn’t oblige, my father-in-law ended the call.

“What kind of lawyer doesn’t know the phone number of his own office?” he asked when he told me the story. In the background, I could hear my mother-in-law shouting, “It’s fishy!”

But Roger still wasn’t sure about the whole thing. What if Sam really was in trouble? And what if he’d just made the situation worse? That’s when he called me.

“Did you try calling Sam?” I asked.

Well, no. He said he’d lost his phone.

After we hung up, I dialed Sam’s cell. He answered right away, as buoyant as ever. He was happily eating his lunch. After he’d reached his grandparents and reassured them, he called me back. We laughed about the scam artist’s far-fetched claim. Then we chatted about Sam’s job, his weekend, and the excellent sandwich he’d just enjoyed.

“I’m glad Sam’s not lying in some hospital with a broken nose,” I told my father-in-law when we talked, later.

“I’m glad I didn’t send that $2000,” he said.

For sure.

It’s hard enough when loved ones live far away, and the specter of the awful phone call looms. It’s worse when you have to wonder whether you’re hearing the truth, and to worry about the danger of being trapped by a lie.

Sound Track

August 17, 2012

First Car

Across the aisle and one row ahead of me the other day, on the Long Island Railroad from Manhasset to Penn Station: a forty-something woman and her teenage daughter. Heavy Long Island accents. Voices loud enough to carry from one end of the car to the other. Mom is complaining at length about Grandma, who’d bought a train ticket she didn’t have to buy, or something.

Mom: Am I right? Or do you think I’m being unfair?

Daughter: No, you’re right. Grandma’s always doing stuff like that.

They go on to list the various similar crimes Grandma has committed, corroborating each other’s evidence, egging each other on, their voices getting louder and louder, until they run out of anti-Grandma venom, and turn their attention to Grandpa. Daughter can’t believe he called her to ask which station she was getting off at.

Daughter: Why would he do that? He wasn’t even going to be the one picking us up.

Mom: I know. It would be different if he was picking you up. But he wasn’t. I don’t know why he always has to butt in like that.

Next up: Uncle Phil, who sits on the couch all day, watching TV. He doesn’t go to school or have a job, and plus, he smells.

Mom: Did you see where he hung his underwear to dry?

Daughter: I know, right?

Mom: Six people to one bathroom does not work.

Daughter: I don’t know why they can’t go to a motel, or something.

Last on the list, Daughter’s sister Juliana.

Daughter: She is such a brat. She always embarrasses me in front of my friends.

Mom: I know. What did she do this time?

Between Cars

Sitting opposite me in the Amtrak waiting area at Penn Station: Grandma and Granddaughter, who is maybe 6 years old. They’re giggling and whispering happily, until Grandma notices that the child, who has curled up in her seat, resting her cheek against her pink backpack, has made herself more comfortable by unbuttoning the top of her pants.

Grandma: What did you do that for? Put those right this minute. You don’t do that here. That is not a necessary activity. That is not a necessary activity. That is not necessary here.

Granddaughter, chagrined, struggles to do her pants.

Grandma: See? You made it all funny. Go on and put it right.

At last the girl succeeds, and she and Grandma resume their whispering and giggling.

Second Car

Across the aisle and one row behind me on the Amtrak from Penn Station to Providence: woman I can’t see, but can hear all too well. She’s talking on her phone in a voice loud enough to fill the entire car, in which she’s the only person speaking. She has a heavy Boston accent and the husky voice of a smoker. Within the first half hour of the trip, she talks first to her husband, and then to her friend about her husband, and then to her husband again. Anyone who cares to listen learns:

— that she and her husband have been apart for four days, although they got married about a week ago. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. But he gave her a diamond. “I got the diamond, and that’s what I wanted,” she tells her friend.

— that she has a daughter, whose name she has to repeat to her husband three times before he gets who she means.

— That there’s another man in the picture, but her husband shouldn’t worry, because she has a restraining order out on him.

— that when she gets to South Station, she’s going to get some fries and some wings.

— that she wants her husband to meet her at the station, and he doesn’t understand why.

She says:

Because I want to feel the love.

I need to feel the love, baby.

I’m not feeling it, baby.

I need to feel it.

I don’t feel it. I don’t think I’ll even go back home. Why should I?

I said, I don’t think I’ll go home. This isn’t working.

I said, this isn’t working.

Don’t be like that.

Stop it.

Stop it, Greg.

Stop it.

I said, stop it.

Stop it now.

Don’t do that.

Don’t do that, Greg.

Stop it.

Just calm down already.

Would you calm down?

Calm down, Greg.

I said, calm down.

Can’t you calm down already? It’s okay.

I said it’s okay.

I want you to say it.

Say it.

I don’t want to read it.

I got your text, but I don’t want to read it.

Because I want to hear it.

Because I want to hear it, Greg.

I want to hear it.

Just say it.

Say it, Greg.

Say it.

Can’t you say it?

You can’t say it.

Then say it.

Say it, Greg.

Say it.

Third Car

Directly in front of me, in the car I move to when I can’t stand listening to Greg’s bride any longer: two teenage girls, who are swiping through the 1000+ pictures on one of the girls’ phones.

Girl one: My hair looks bad there.

Girl one: Oh my God, my hair!

Girl two: You look so cute there.

Girl one: Look at my hair!

Rinse and repeat.

Fictitious Afflictions

August 10, 2012

The other day I sat down with a friend who’s a healthcare professional, and picked her brain about various medical conditions I might inflict on a character. I knew how the event needed to play out in my plot. Certain types of symptoms were preferable to others, and it needed to take a specific amount of time for them to develope. The ensuing crisis should require a specific level of intervention. There were certain types of medical procedures I wanted to come into play. And I needed to leave my character in limbo for a specific amount of time.

As my friend ticked through different possibilities, I thought about how well each scenario would meet my fictional needs.

“There could be abdominal pain,” she said.

“Good.” I wrote it down.

“Nausea or vomiting.”


“Spotty vision.”


Anyone listening in from a nearby table would have found the whole thing pretty strange. I know I did.

“This is exactly what I was looking for!” I told my friend when we had gotten it figured out. All sorts of pieces were coming together. The story I had been hoping for seemed real and possible. I was so happy and grateful.

“I’m glad this is going to happen to a fictional character, and not one of my real patients,” my friend said with a smile.

I readily agreed. But her comment got me thinking.

At this point in the project, I have a pretty good grip on the logistics of my plot. I know how the medical scenario I’ve been imagining will affect my main character. And I’m beginning to understand how the imaginary crisis will play into my book’s broader themes. But beyond the basic facts my friend helped me figure out, I haven’t considered the situation from the point of view of my poor, afflicted character. I don’t even feel especially bad for her.

Why? For starters, she isn’t really real to me yet. More importantly – at this point, I don’t even especially like her.

This isn’t some random reaction. Most of the characters in this story aren’t really real to me yet. I have barely started writing it. But I like the other characters just fine. I even have a soft spot for the one I know has acted really badly. And I know that another character, whom my main character can’t stand, is actually a perfectly decent human being, even though I understand completely what my main character has against her. And I really, really love my main character, even though she has all sorts of bad qualities.

If I don’t love my characters, how can I write well about them? And if I don’t care about a character’s suffering, how can I expect readers to care? I’m pretty sure that once I really start writing about this one holdout character, the one I don’t like, she’ll start to flesh out for me. But first I need a point of entry. And I need to remove what’s standing in my way. So what is that? As I sat there with my friend, I figured it out.

The original kernel of this story occurred to me a while back, at a time when I was feeling hurt and angry. A certain someone needed to be punished, and I was going to do just that, through fiction. By now I have gotten (mostly) over being pissed off in real life. And the make-believe world of my story has grown and developed far beyond the real-life situation that spawned it. But my original associations with the character who set the whole thing off have persisted.

When I confessed this to my friend (who, besides working in healthcare, has also done some writing, herself), she very sensibly suggested that I pick someone I do like, and keep that person in mind as I write about the character in question.

So that’s my next task. I’ll be scouting around, holding a sort of secret casting call, considering real-world characters to graft onto the one I already have in mind. The result should be a richer, more complex character. One I can think — and write — about more sympathetically. One the reader can better identify with. Or at least better understand.

And who knows what might happen if I were to imagine the worst-case scenario I would inflict on my enemy afflicting my friend? Besides making better fiction, it might turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.


August 2, 2012

My doorstop-sized Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines ephemera as “a genus of mayfly with shining transparent wings and strong functional legs.” But ephemera also refers to transitory printed material not intended to be preserved. Would letters from teachers to their students’ parents fall under that definition? Not in my family.

I recently came across my old report cards. They were inside an envelope that was inside a shopping bag, one of the two shopping bags I carried back to Vermont 13 years ago, when my siblings and I sorted the contents of our childhood home. The bags were stuffed with old letters and children’s drawings and marked-up drafts of documents and other papers I’d gleaned from my parents’ desks — as well as a crumbling cardboard folder I’d found in my parents’ attic, filled with the brittle, yellowed drafts of newspaper columns, funny poems and song lyrics my mother had rescued 40 years earlier from the desk in my grandfather’s dental office.

But about those report cards. They run from kindergarten through high school, 1962-1975, and come from three different school systems – the public schools in Montclair, New Jersey; the Hebrew School at Temple Shomrei Emunah; and the UNESCO-run Ecole Active Bilingue in Paris, where we lived from 1964 to 1966. That’s a lot of different teachers weighing in on my past. Their judgments are notably consistent.

I was a good student, but not great. Not surprisingly, I did best in reading and writing – although my spelling and handwriting were reliably terrible. I don’t remember Miss Wadman giving me that failing grade in Health Ed in the fall of 7th grade, and that’s a pity, because it probably makes a good story.

One story that does come through loud and clear, so to speak, is my behavior.

“Talkative in class!” my English teacher in France comments in October, 1965.

“A very pleasant student but still very talkative,” she notes one month later.

That same month, my main classroom teacher warns, “Attention aux bavardages!” – pay attention to chit-chat.

Back in the States, under “habits and attitudes,” I get top marks for things like good posture and working well with others. But I fall down on “practices self-control.”

“Although Ruth is doing highly satisfactory work at this time, I feel she should be more attentive and practice better self-control,” writes Mr. Chartofillis, my 5th-grade teacher at Nishuane School.

“Ruth is a bright girl who could easily be an outstanding student. It is regrettable that she doesn’t apply her abilities to her studies,” writes Mr. Schwartzmer, my 6th-grade Hebrew School teacher. He lists four actions my parents should take to bring me up to snuff, including, “Encourage to behave better in class – not to talk too much. Particularly not to talk back to teacher.” 

“Ruth would do well to avoid sitting next to anyone she feels she may want to talk with,” writes my 7th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Plavin.

Oh, what a pain I must have been! I was so much more excited about so many things besides what was happening at the blackboard.

But it wasn’t all bad. In the early elementary school years, the word “imaginative” comes up a lot. My 4th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Bordowitz, actually says that my “genial personality and sense of humor add to the pleasure of teaching” me. Thank you, Mr. Bordowitz! I think I loved you.

But the comments that make me happiest, all these years later, are from my 5th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Asekoff. First he says how smart and creative I am (what’s not to love there?), and he mentions my progress in Hebrew and history. Then he says this:

She participates quite actively in classroom discussions, quite often making important and insightful remarks. She is interested in the material dealt with, and often makes provocative remarks that influence both the other students and me.

What makes these comments different from all other comments? This is Hebrew School, remember. We’re discussing the Bible. And here is a teacher who obviously encourages discussion. Questioning. Exactly the sort of active engagement that brought me back to Judaism as an adult – the same attitude I tried to foster when I taught Torah at my shul in Vermont, when my own kids were well past the 5th grade. I had long forgotten Mr. Asekoff. But what I learned in his classroom must have stayed with me.

So who is this teacher? His note is signed with his full name: Stanley L. Asekoff. Most of our teachers at Shomrei Emunah were rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Guessing that he was from this group, I googled “Rabbi Stanley Asekoff.” And there he was – as of last year, the emeritus rabbi at B’nai Shalom, a “contemporary conservative” synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey. A few clicks later, I had his email address, and within a few minutes I had sent him a message.

Were you my Hebrew School teacher? I wrote in the subject line. Then I explained who I was, and quoted from the comments on that report card. I concluded, I want to thank the person who wrote this. I have mostly bad memories of Hebrew School, but have gone on to be active in my congregations in Vermont, and now in Providence. I can only think that someone who encouraged me to question and discuss religious matters when I was a kid must have planted the seed for my loving engagement with Judaism today.

I received a very gracious reply. Although he doesn’t remember me any better than I remember him, I had found the right person, and he appreciated my note, and was touched to learn that some of the seeds he had planted, taking it on faith that one day they would lead to good results, had had that result.

What do I take from all this? That one person’s ephemera may be someone else’s permanent archive. So choose your words with care. And that even a creature as transient as a mayfly may have shining wings and strong functional legs.