Father’s Day has stopped me in my tracks. My dad was the best father one could ever ask for -  in my eyes at least – but he certainly wasn’t cool.

By the time my siblings and I were old enough to pass judgment, his hair was hopelessly outdated – short-back-and-sides and Brylcreemed flat, but I doubt if it ever looked stylish. His favorite outfits – and he defended them to the hilt – were pastel, polyester safari suits, with short pants. He stammered for a moment when he answered the phone, found most movies confusing, and detested virtually all music after Bing Crosby. He was so anti his daughters wearing mini-skirts, he tried telling us that the backs of women’s knees are ugly and we’d do ourselves a favor if we didn’t reveal them.  He might have had a point there, but he tried the same line with regard to waists, to stop us wearing bikinis.

But Sol Durbach was also the ultimate gentleman. Courtesy was so ingrained in him, even in his 80s he’d leap up to take any heavy bag out of a woman’s hands. He was a South African born and bred and conditioned by racism, but he still treated every person he encountered with fairness and kindness. And he was so honest, if he suffered a robbery, he’d claim the depreciated value from the insurance company rather than the replacement cost they offered. He wrote and complained to the Marmite company when they changed the flavor slightly. They sent him a carton of jars in appeasement, and he sent it right back, saying, “Why would I want what I’ve just criticized?” — even though he had carried right on eating it.

He had no sense of color, and so little ear for tone, his music teacher at school asked him to stay silent. To my mother’s regret, he couldn’t dance. But – and this is what she had the sense to recognize at 21 and value for all their five and half decades together – he was capable of total devotion. Right up until he died at 83, he saw her as a princess and himself as the luckiest man in the world. And when we, his kids, meet people who knew him, that one word always comes up: “Gentleman.”

It’s such an old-fashioned word. It went with his stuck-in-the-mud conservatism and dogmatic political views, and it often drove us nuts. But when I look at G at 18, going out into the buffeting larger world, that’s what I hope to see – that adherence to deep-seated values, even when it’s inconvenient, and possibly unprofitable, and probably uncool. Actually, come to think of it, what could possibly be cooler? [Photo: Dad on vacation in about 1958, a man with a clear conscience.]

Thank you, Dad.

This was decidedly cool: Last Saturday, we went with G  — him driving, us anxiously front- and back-seat supervising – to a skate boarding competition in the Palisades Park. He was too late to register, to my relief,  but we perched on the rock wall that lines the road, our feet on the bales of hay placed to spare any kids who went flying, our heads cooled by the trees and the breeze from the river below, and watched as the skaters swooped by at stomach-curdling speeds.

All had to wear helmets and knee and elbow protectors, and some – my favorites – were in head-to-toe leathers, but all had this marvelous air of utterly carefree confidence.  And they were so nice, even the ones with piercings and mohawks – open and friendly, eager to share information with G about boards and techniques, and nice to us ancients as well.

I know now for sure I will never ever do what they did, but for one glorious morning I was close enough to vicariously share their  freedom. And it makes me very, very happy that G, who from babyhood was so uncertain of his balance, has forged a bridge over his fear, and can glide and swoop and dip — and, most important, fall without any great distress.

A few people have asked about the pictures with these posts. They are all mine – collages done in Barbara Minch’s art class, and photos fueled by my endless obsession with trees, and that great line “Sunlight through tree leaves saves lives.”  It’s from a monograph I was shown in college, and I remember the poet’s name as something like John Cage… but I haven’t been able to confirm that. If anyone recognizes it, please let me know.  I’d love to thank him for it. Meanwhile, it’s so much fun being able to share my pictures instead of just clogging up computer space!

Which brings up something else incredibly cool: the way the Internet makes it possible to find out more about those distant demigods of culture who give one great delight, and sometimes to thank them.  I suppose it was always possible to do research in a library, and to write a note to a publishing company and hope they would pass it on. But that takes stick-to-itiveness, and given time to reconsider, I’d get embarrassed about being a gushy fan. The spontaneity of email spares me those second thoughts.  These days when I finish a really wonderful book and am left with that feeling of bereftness, wanting more, I head for my computer. You can usually find articles offering background or updates, and sometimes there’s a website and contact info.  I’ve had a couple of very nice responses and that’s exciting, but mainly I just want to get out that “Thank you!”

P.S. Talking of finding out more about great creators, we had the pleasure of hearing in person (at Words Bookstore in Maplewood) from Julie Burstein, who has brought out a book about the artists and writers and musicians she got to know as the producer of the PRI radio program Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen. It’s called Spark: how creativity works, and it’s a feast to read.

Aaargh – the horrors of technology! – Couldn’t remember how to write a new post this evening and panicked. It felt as if I’d locked myself out of my home with my babies inside. Now that the door is open and we’re back inside, let me introduce you to this week’s offspring: Age, and all the arguable strengths and weaknesses that come with it.

Age is central to this blog – not old age, just age, the stage one’s at. I’ve always found it ridiculous how we fuss about getting older, as if anyone were immune, or there were any alternative other than kicking the bucket.

One of my oldest friends – sorry, longest-known friends – has been lying about her age since she was 35, absolutely convinced that if anyone knew the truth they wouldn’t hire her, or date her, or trust her judgement. She blamed my cavalier attitude on the fact that I’m a year or two younger (we’ve evaded the subject for so many years now, I can’t remember which it is), but I’m almost 24 past that dreaded 35, and look, You still-beautiful woman: I’m making a song and dance – or at least a blog – about it!

I admit aging can slow one down till it feels as if the world is rushing ahead, passing us by, and leaving us choking in its dust and inhaling its exhaust fumes. I think that’s the simple physiological reason why so many older people declare that everything is getting worse – from politics to education, to movies, and friendship, and the beach. Objectively, you can make a case for pollution and overcrowding, but just about everything else has its ups and downs, and different sides. What makes them so much more jaded than the young, and so whiney about the degenerate/alienated/cheapened present, I think, is not so much rational observation as calcifying perception. And that’s what I’d like to counteract in myself.

I want to maintain hopefulness, and delight in what’s new, and curiosity. Like the brilliant Barrie Stavis, who was still writing new plays when he died at the age of 100. Or Betty Levin, Essex Ethical Culture’s most passionate promoter, starting new peace programs in her mid-80s.

Not that there aren’t changes to be welcomed in getting older. I like not having to wash my hair as often because it doesn’t get as oily, or shave my legs as often because  – well, no need to go into that – and I’m grateful to be long past adolescent angst where identity seemed to toggle wildly from day to day. I’m grateful for being past what came later – the torments about pregnancy and whether one would or wouldn’t have a child. I’m delighted to have accumulated friends, and delicious memories, and some treasured possessions. I can’t think of any skills I’ve acquired, but most people probably can. They know lots of recipes by heart, and can wield tools with almost automatic finesse, and maybe speak additional languages. But I can claim this: I have perspective I can share with the young when they care to listen – and even when they don’t.

But what I don’t want is to have that perspective set in stone, or my tastes, or my expectations.  Uncertainty is cool!

ImageP.S. G might be losing faith…His advice this morning: “I just read about a chair-yoga class, You should try it!” … It’s an excellent class, taught by a friend of ours, but shouldn’t I still be trying for chairless yoga at this point?

My original plan with this blog/project was to follow the Year-Of model – like A.J. Jacobs’  Year of Living Biblically, or Julie Powell’s conquest of Julia Childs’ recipes. With guidance from our resident Youth, in what could be his last year under our roof, I was going to tackle a new challenge each week in pursuit of Coolness.

When we discussed it, G was raring to go; he was going to get my hair updated and hopefully streaked purple; he’d revamp my wardrobe, introduce me to new music, and teach me to skateboard. Budget and brittle bones aside, that sounded like a tall order — but why else would anyone want to read about this pursuit? He and I shook hands on the deal.

Six weeks into my Year, this is the total sum of transformation activity thus far:

- One very wobbly attempt to balance on a skateboard, indoors, on carpet, clutching onto a chair back;

- Introduction to one new band, Fun and their song ” We are Young”;

- New bangs cut this morning, on impulse – but color still unadulterated gray;

- and … a lot of good intentions.

Not exactly chilling, let alone cool! – But what has happened is this: Having undertaken the effort this publicly, whenever a challenging situation arises, I find myself asking, “What would be the cool response?” It’s a bit like teaming up with a buddy to exercise or do a diet. The commitment boosts my courage level just that little bit. As I mentioned, it made me yell out to a friend where I would have stayed politely quiet. It made me don a silver shirt to attend a posh do where others were likely to be dressed with far more class. And a few days ago, it prompted me to respond to a publicist’s offer of a review copy of a book I’d probably not otherwise have investigated: Grandmothers Whisper, by Inette Miller.

The book arrived on Friday and I spent all of Saturday glued to it. It’s about a wildly unlikely and very difficult romance between a Jewish journalist and a half-Hawaiian former construction foreman and hot rod fanatic, and their efforts – guided by the spirit of his foremothers – to revive ancient Hawaiian values. It’s also about listening to the inner wisdom we all have access to if we really listen. Talk about cool! – Iokepa Hanalei Imaikalani is a combination of the guy Elizabeth Gilbert met at the end of Eat Pray Love – and the beer ad dude, a person with total trust in himself. I want them to come speak in Maplewood!

People have been very kind and reassuring about my coolness quotient, but I want suggestions: What can I do to break the bonds of age? – the I’ve-done-without-it-till-now/ been-this-way-this-long/ old-dog excuses not to get on board and into the flow with NOW? – Image

Opening my ears wider, trying to add music to my life, new pleasures have come. I heard Nora Jones on the radio this morning – listened and really heard her for the first time. She’s wonderful – as you probably knew way back. And last week her sister, Anoushka Shankar, was on NPR, playing her combination Indian and Spanish music. How incredibly cool, even to these limited ears, that someone like Ravi Shankar (and his wife) gave rise to two such different but equally inspired daughters.

Thinking of cool people, the ultimately UNcool Jerry Lewis came to mind – and drove home the point that it’s all about perception. To us in the US he’s the ultimate goofball, but to the French he’s a satirical genius. Huh? – Is it because they see him as slyly spoofing this nation they regard as annoyingly crude, where we just get irritated by him? – Would those Americans who love to hate the French adore anyone who lampooned them? Is this about revenge?!

Back to open ears; Walking in my neighborhood, the wind these past days has provided shushurring (yeah, Spellcheck, that’s what I mean) that rinses one’s aural canals. In the fall, you could hear the rustle of drying leaves; now there’s this moister sound of juicy new life overhead.

In their visual and auditory splendor, the trees seemed to demand more appreciation than I could give, but then I saw a suggestion online. The writer suggested that one greet the trees, actually say a silent hello. My husband and son, predictably, dismissed it as tree-huggy balminess, but it really works. Something happens when you say hello to an inanimate object, like when you fake a smile and it elicits a smile-ish feeling inside. The act of greeting seems to open one’s receptors.

The enormous birch tree up the street basked back at me in all its handsome bronze glory. I tried it with a scrawny, bare sapling planted last year to replace a great oak taken down by a storm. Back came nothing but the stillness of the spaces between its empty twigs; it was dead. On the other hand, the frothy, over-laden pink cherry blossom down the block veritably flirted back, as flouncy in its frilly prettiness as a whole troop of bridesmaids. It made me grin.

I tried it with G, my resident inanimate object, silently greeting him as he lounged on the couch, plugged in simultaneously to TV screen, lap top, and phone. I knew that greeting him aloud would elicit a grunt and that in turn would trigger an impatient demand from me, re laundry or homework or dirty dishes. Back came the dense hum of intense teenage stuff. I knew if I went over and told him I really enjoyed Nora Jones today, he’d light up for a moment and nod, and go back to his inner hum. That was enough.  I could wait. Hey, I was cool!Image

You know how we tend to steer in the direction we fix our gaze? – That’s why I’d rather be a passenger than a driver, so I can revel in the sights along the way and not plow into them… But philosophically speaking, that principle has come to the fore over and over this past week.

Being cool? – Only if I turn my eyes/mind in the right direction.

It started with the trees. In Maplewood, and probably many other towns, so many were damaged by the snow storm last October and have had to be felled – or have been taken down by spooked homeowners, all over town there are bright, exposed areas where there used to be shade and shadow. It feels as if this gorgeous place is losing its verdant character, until you wrench your vision from the bald spots back to the trees that are still standing – masses of them, gloriously resplendent in spring finery, fairly yelling out, “Hey, what about us?”

For all the dire problems that do confront us and surely do require urgent action, sometimes PLEASE can we turn out collective gaze at all the trees that are still thriving, the sky that is still blue, the injustices that have been addressed, and the blessings that abound in our lives even if they don’t in so many others? Isn’t this what makes it worth hanging in and trying?

Sorry. I’m waxing hot-under-the-collar instead of being cool. But isn’t part of being cool, in the jazz-greats/Dos Equis beer ad guy/Warrior-instead-of-worrier way, saying what demands to be said? – I’ve so often been scared to speak out, or too lazy, or simply too intent on staying in harmony, and I don’t want to be that way any more.

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So much to learn, and G, my guide to the 21st-Century is out skateboarding.  Big question – and it’s one that touches a totally uncool, sweaty-palmed question of wantedness:  How do I find out who would like to be informed of new posts?… A weekly heads-up could be a nuisance.  On the other hand, I like getting the easy short-cut email from friends who’re blogging.

Dear Readers, could you click the box on the lower rightenVisage corner if you do want that heads-up? – if it’s there…. If anyone knows how to do that, please tell me.

Wantedness…. It brings up a memory from a Saturday night 40-something years ago, of sitting on the window seat in my bedroom at Great Aunty Rose and Great Uncle Maurice’s house.  I could hear sounds of an apparently rollicking party from the very close house nextdoor, where there were two cute boys living, and there I was, caught between the reclusiveness of my room, trying to stay out of the way of my elderly relatives who’d so kindly taken me in, and excluded from the festivity on the other side of the hedge.  I felt like Hans Anderson’s orphaned little match girl.  It was nonsense, of course;  I didn’t know the boys well enough to be invited, and staying with Rose and Maurice was a really desirable alternative to living at school, trapped in the Dickensian misery of the boardinghouse. I’d lobbied hard for this,  but that didn’t ease my self-pity.

The night we moved into our apartment in the Ethical Culture building struck that same chord. There was a big party going on downstairs, honoring a longtime member, and we did our best to be unobtrusive, hauling our possessions up the side staircase.  There was no way we wanted to join in – we were absolutely exhausted – but I still got a shiver of Little Matchgirl-ism.  And when the question arose as to whether we should join the society, while Marshall tossed out the old Groucho line about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member, I knew I couldn’t live there unless I joined.

Cool people don’t worry about being wanted, do they? – They’re hosts of their own party, present right where they want to be, at the center of the action.   My older siblings thought I should feel that way.  I was fussed over and spoilt, they said – and spared all the tough discipline they faced.  That might be true, but I was also the unplanned third kid, the little sister neither of them wanted. I craved to be included, welcomed into the fascinating older-kid stuff they were doing. I worried about being in the way – and still do.

In South Africa, on this recent trip, as wonderfully warm and welcoming as everyone one was, I exhausted myself worrying about imposing on my hosts. Were they really happy to sit up late over a nightcap? or to see another face at the breakfast table? – or to drive me here, there and everywhere? — I don’t know that I’d have been so accomodating….

It’s such a waste of energy, this worry, but – at almost-60 -can one change?

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