Private Lives: Personal essays on the news of the world and the news of our lives.
I was the envy of my 30-something friends in Palo Alto, Calif. I had my own law office right on California Avenue. People charged with crimes handed me cash, in advance, over a big oak desk. Occasionally, I’d make a couple of grand in an afternoon.
But soon, my body started giving out one part at a time. First a shoulder, then my lower back, knee cartilage, neck vertebrae. Two groin hernia surgeries later, at 33 years old, I could not lift a bag of groceries, or sit without an orthopedic pillow. After 10 years as a law student and lawyer, working in a profession I didn’t like was taking its toll.
I sold my practice and fled to San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. My widowed Jewish mother in Mamaroneck, N.Y., took out a missing person ad on Mexican television to find me. No joke. I had told Mom that I was headed to Mexico, but after 10 days without word from me, she paid for the ad. A strange man poked my fanned-out map on a San Miguel street corner and said, “I saw you on TV last night.”
Mom and Dad had both been teachers, children of Russian and Polish immigrants, and they celebrated law as a step up. But my mother wasn’t the one keeping me in an ill-fitting career. She just wanted to know I was alive.
After two years in San Miguel de Allende, bored and broke, I returned to the Bay Area looking for work, but couldn’t land a job in anything but law. Finally I took a civil attorney position in Oakland.
Fighting depression, I volunteered at a Sunday school. It couldn’t hurt to see a few kids on the weekend. On a bright morning, I organized an outdoor game of Duck Duck Goose. “I’m wearing new white stockings to visit Grandma this afternoon,” a 6-year-old girl told me. She had blond curls and big brown eyes. Chasing a boy around the circle, she slipped on some dirt, and fell hard, tearing the stockings. Before I knew it, she leapt up into my arms. My heart exploded with the joy of being needed. Next morning, I called my mother, and told her I was coming home.
“Mom,” I said, “I may be here for a while. Not weeks — months.”
My mother arched her brow as we walked together through her Westchester neighborhood. New knees allowed her to keep up, as we circled the block.
“Are you finished with law?” Mom asked. Pressure rose in my chest and throat, and I coughed.
“Yes, I’m done.”
“So what are you going to do? You’re 37 years old.”
She scanned my face as if taking the measure of a stranger.
“I’m going to take time to decide,” I said.
“You know,” she stopped walking, “you’re ruining your life.”
Studying want ads one evening, the one that got my blood moving promised to train me as a party clown, and send me out at $25 per show. Years earlier, I’d dreamed of becoming so weightless that I bounced off the ceiling. I could see myself in a billowy clown suit. After a free training session, I purchased the starter kit for $59 and waited for them to call.
Within a week, the company dispatched me to a party for a 7-year-old at a Ground Round restaurant in Yonkers. I applied colorful makeup, donned oversize shoes, orange wig, bag of tricks. It took a minute to decide on “Bobo” as my name. I silly-walked up to a table of children in the party room. By the end of the performance, the birthday boy said to me, “Bobo, I love you.” In the car later, I rested my head on the steering wheel. An unexpected feeling surfaced: happiness.
It turned out that I thrived in a sphere of creativity and spontaneity. The clown gig was short-lived: I donated the costume to Goodwill, picked up my old Martin guitar, and played the fool with music, writing songs like “Bossanova Boo-boo.”
Pottery Barn Kids hired me for shows up and down the East Coast, at $450 an appearance, a step up from my first $25 gigs. The school, library and party shows kept coming. I wasn’t making a lawyer’s salary, but I was doing O.K. It was fun, and my body felt better. Toddlers were better company than felons.
I’ve been entertaining children now for almost two decades as a musician. No longer do I flash power-of-attorney to withdraw my $10,000 retainer from a jailed client’s bank account. I wear jeans, and don’t frequent Nordstrom. But most of the time, I like waking up in the morning.
SEND IN THE CLOWN
When I decided I no longer wanted to be a lawyer, I moved back in with my mother who promptly took me to see her shrink
In 1994, when I was 37, I traded in my lawyer suit-and-tie for colorful clown gear, and returned to my Jewish mother’s attic bedroom in the suburbs. Within a couple of months, she hauled me to her therapist.
As Mom and I drove up Old White Plains Road to her Scarsdale psychotherapist, she singled out every field of law that she could identify in hope that one would resonate and bring me back to my senses. But I had come home 3,000 miles from California to seek work that didn’t make me cry in the morning. I told my mother that I wanted to be an entertainer.
“Over my dead body,” she replied.
We entered a seven-gabled Tudor building in Scarsdale where Mom’s analyst had his office. Ten minutes later, he fetched us from the waiting room.
The doctor’s office was a reassuring blend of mahogany woodwork and a classic Persian rug. He was a slight, bespectacled man with thinning dark hair and a beard. Although he shook hands with me and smiled, I felt edgy, as if meeting my mother’s collaborator. A diploma on the wall showed that he was a Columbia PhD, and I recognized the name as Jewish.
“Doctor,” my 63 year-old mother said before we even sat down, “This is Robert. I’m afraid that he would be on the street if it wasn’t for me.” She slipped him a folded check.
I wondered if Mom would be so agitated about my career change if Dad were still alive. He had died suddenly from a stroke on the town tennis courts eight years before. Mom held onto her job teaching remedial reading for the full pension.
The doctor smiled and shook my hand. He motioned for us to sit. “Your mother believes that if she did not let you live at her house, you would be forced to support yourself.”
“He would have to get a job if he didn’t live with me,” my mother said.
Her analyst steepled his fingers. “Is that true?”
Forcing myself to remain seated, my temples grew uncomfortably hot. I felt embarrassed in front of the doctor, who, I was certain, invited his mom to a fancy brunch on Mother’s Day and whisked her off to Belize with his family on Spring Break. Indeed, his forehead was tanned.
“I want to love my work,” I said, almost inaudibly.
“What do you think that might be?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “So far, working as a clown at parties.”
“He’s very convincing,” my mother said, as if this were part of my disease. She turned to me. “A wife and a baby would make you figure it out.” Mom looked expectantly at the doctor.
“I wouldn’t recommend marriage and children as a way to resolve a life crisis,” he said, nervously rotating his gold wedding ring. My mother had told me in the car that she consulted him only in times of crisis, not weekly, which went against his psychoanalytic training. He didn’t appear much older than me.
“So you think Robert is having a life crisis?” Mom said, her eyes widening.
The doctor grimaced. Just when he thought that he’d settled one issue, my mother had opened another, using his phrase.
He glanced at me. “I suppose so,” he said, “but it’s not my place to diagnose your son, Mrs. Markowitz.”
“So you think I was foolish to bring him in?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But it puts you in a difficult situation,” she said.
Now the analyst was the beleaguered party. He slouched forward. “Mrs. Markowitz,” he said, “are you truly asking your son to move out?”
“No, I would never do that!” She thought a moment. “Maybe never is too strong.”
“So what is it that you really want?” Mom’s therapist asked her.
“I want my son to be happy being a lawyer.”
“Your choice is limited to whether you let him stay in your house,” he said.
Blood flowed to my face along with a shot of victory adrenalin. My mother’s shoulders shrunk and her face narrowed. Did only I notice her chair growing bigger around a pinched and frail body?
There was no pleasure in defeating her. But it was important for me to stand my ground. I had been the second child out of her womb. Mom blamed herself for my older brother’s death from Riley-Day, a congenital disease, and her self-contempt surfaced in stressful moments. For me, leaving law was a step out from that shadow of shame. I was done with compensating for it.
When we left the doctor’s office, we both knew that things had changed between us, even if I would still live under her roof and eat her food for months to come. I needed to get my bearings before I could move on and eventually build a career playing music for children– doing what makes me happy.
West Side Spirit
An Act of Mercy
PUBLISHED AUG 24, 2016
Having fled my lawyer job several years back, I was not provider material. At 38, the only job I really wanted was playing music for children, and few gigs were coming my way. The last thing I bargained for was for a stunning woman to tell me on a first date that she was looking for a man to support her as a stay-at-home mom. But after a Sunday service at Unity Church on the West Side themed “What you want may not come the way you think,” a woman jostled past me, her satchel slamming against my knee.
“Ouch!” I cried, a potent pick-up line if there ever was one. She had blue eyes and long blonde curls, was clad in jeans, a lace top. Silver bracelets dangled on one wrist. I stood, looking down at her from 6 feet, 5 inches, wearing my rust-colored hair longer than in my lawyer days.
“Are you OK?” she asked, stopping.
“With a few weeks of physical therapy I’ll be fine.”
Smile lines surfaced on one side of her mouth, an engaging, crooked grin. We started talking, and I told her how I had left law for teaching kids but was no happier in that profession. She had a diagnosis ready.
“Law killed your creativity. This teaching job sounds worse. In your world, is it possible to make money and be creative at the same time?”
I made a show of bending my head forward, cradling my face in mock dejection. But her repartee made it clear that she was really listening, and I liked that.“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching out for my hand. Her fingers were warm and soft. “So you want to be a teacher but this job isn’t for you?”
“Yes,” I said, flustered. I was about to tell the truth but stopped myself. If I let on that I wanted to be a children’s musician, she would see the true extent of my confusion, and peg me as broke.
“It’s important to know what you want,” she said after a silence, echoing the theme of the sermon. But her thin tone gave away that she smelled a rat. It was crummy to lie to sympathetic eyes. But I didn’t want to disqualify myself by showing how strapped I was teaching at a second-rate private school.
“Hey,” I said, noticing that the crowd was thinning out, “why don’t we take a walk in Central Park?”
“Sure, I’d like that,” she said. I offered to carry her satchel and she let me.
We entered the park at Tavern On The Green and peeked in on couples dining al fresco. There was a celebration, balloon centerpieces, waiters in yellow shirts and black trousers serving patrons in the warm fall weather.
As we strolled on, her eye caught an artist sketching the portrait of a little girl. “If you had a child, wouldn’t you love to get her picture drawn in Central Park?” she asked.
From the passion in her voice, I took in that the portrait would be a symbol of how much she would love her future daughter. “That would be special,” I said.
After that we strolled in silence for a while, our paces matching nicely. When we got to Strawberry Fields there were some cut flowers scattered around the psychedelic tiled circle with the word “Imagine” in the center. Orange leaves littered the blacktop.
“Wanna get a bite to eat? I’m hungry,” I said.
“Sure,” she said, “I know a place.”
We exited the park and she pointed out a small bistro. Before we sat down, I asked for a menu, and looked at the prices. It was going to be an $80 lunch. Was this a test? If I flinched, would I fail? I really liked this woman. But I was no longer an attorney, and I suspected she sensed the truth about my state of affairs. What was the point of pretending otherwise?
“A little rich for my blood,” I confessed. “Can we go Dutch?”
She looked at her cell phone. “You know what? I’m late,” she said, taking back her satchel.
“Wait,” I said, “what’s going on?”
“Do you really want to know?” she asked, keeping up her forward pace.
“Yeah,” I said, following her out the door, “I can see that you’re leaving my life in about eight seconds. Tell me.”
“Well, you asked.” She stopped grudgingly.
“I’m 37. I’m looking for a guy who wants to settle down and support me while we have a family. You seem nice, but you’re not him. Remember the sermon at Unity? It’s fine to know what you want.” She smiled, spun the corner north, and was gone.
She had been easy to talk to, and beautiful. I kicked myself for balking at the price of the restaurant. Then, standing on the street corner, I hastened through a mini five stages of grief. Denial — No big deal let her go. Anger — What woman of this generation is looking for a cash cow? Bargaining — God, bring her back and I’ll spring for it. Depression — I’m a failure! Acceptance — I didn’t quite make it to acceptance.
As I walked home, I was still angry. When days went by, and the anger didn’t abate, I began to suspect the real reason for my lasting burn. She was acting on her clear goals and I had ceased taking steps towards being a children’s musician. How dare she go for what she wanted while I wallowed in defeatism? And frankly, she had scared me with that talk about a fantasy daughter posing for a street artist in Central Park. I balked more from the terror of fatherhood than the $80 lunch. She read me from across the table. Abandoning me on that street corner was an act of mercy. It pointed the way for me as clearly as a street sign. If she were prepared to find a man who would court her, marry her and support her, before her biological clock ticked down, and I was betting she could, then why shouldn’t I be able to launch my music career?
A musician who lived a couple of hours north of the city had offered to show me how to land gigs. It had seemed like a long drive up there to consult him, but that weekend, I got up early, loaded my guitar into my Impala wagon, and set off for the Catskills.
Kveller.com GROWING UP
I’m Not Sure Bribing My Daughter Was the Best Call
We were half-way to the indoor soccer facility when my 7-year-old daughter started begging me to turn the car back. “A girl punched me,” Kate moaned from the back seat. “They say I’m not good enough.”
These travel soccer girls weren’t messing around. Their teddy bears wore soccer jerseys. As we drew closer, Kate’s pleas grew more desperate: “I’m not going. You can’t make me!”
I pulled into the parking lot and watched tears dampen her red, splotchy face in the rear view mirror.
“Please don’t force me,” she wailed.
“Katie,” I said, “All of us are scared sometimes.”
I myself had been near tears earlier in the morning. A career change to teaching had landed me at a public school in the Bronx, and I was not performing well according to my last two evaluations.
“What are you scared of, Daddy?”
“The same things you are,” I said. “People saying I’m not good enough.”
“At work?” Kate asked. She was a smart little girl.
I opened the door, got out, and reached for her hand.
“Don’t make me,” she shouted.
“I’m not,” I said. What was I going to do? Carry her onto the indoor field, crying, in front of her peers? That was when a bribe occurred to me.
This was not new. I’d been sweetening the pot for a long time. She was a picky eater, so I’d encourage her to sample new foods: avocado, asparagus, pinto beans. Dollar bills did the trick. If I were in a pickle and needed help with chores pronto, a bag of silly bands might influence her to put all the dishes in the dishwasher. As a musician, I often needed her to accompany me on gigs. By age 4, she’d seen too many and refused. In exchange for long car rides and sitting out the show in the front row where I could see her, I offered monster dolls. It seemed eminently reasonable to entice her—an easy way to get her to do what needed to be done.
But gone were the days when a bag of Skittles would clinch the deal. She had graduated to asking for things called “iPad” and “iTouch.”
“What if I bought you an iPod?” I asked. If Kate could face up to her fears now, it might become part of her repertoire.
“No!” she howled.
“Katie,” my tone softened, “if you can’t face these girls now, it will be harder to do later.”
I could see her thinking about it, trying to dig beneath her hysteria.
“Are you still offering the iPod?” she asked.
She gave me her hand. “I’ll do it.”
Watching Kate join her team, I wondered if it would be that easy to bribe myself to go to work tomorrow. I had made my living, happily, as a children’s musician, but switched to teaching for paid vacations, benefits, and a pension. I was floundering at a difficult job that I didn’t enjoy.
Pursuing a pay-off had led me down the wrong path. I wanted Kate to overcome her fears, but not at the expense of valuing things over her best instincts. I started searching on my smart phone to see what this iPod was going to cost me.
It’s embarrassing, but sometimes Kate knows better than I do. I remember once when she was 3, I barked at her because I was pressed for time and she wouldn’t walk. Carrying her back to the Chevy Malibu, I harnessed her into the car seat.
“Why did you yell at me?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t like to yell. I’m not perfect. I try to be a good daddy.”
“What if,” Kate said thoughtfully, “you’re trying to be perfect, and you are perfect?”
My daughter, the guru.
Two years later, a 5-year-old Kate perched on my lap as I clicked on the email congratulations from NYC Teaching Fellows, the select recruiting arm of the City that admitted un-licensed individuals like myself to teach in the public schools. I was thrilled that in my need, and at age 51, they chose me. But Kate cried in my arms as if I’d just scored a seat on the Hindenburg. Right again.
Now, Kate and I are dealing with a concussion she suffered in a soccer game. I don’t know why the symptoms linger. I don’t know when the low-grade headaches will end. On a bad morning, Kate asked me if she should stay home from school. I admitted that I didn’t know. A friend of mine says “don’t know” is her favorite position. Kate suggested that she stay home that day, and I agreed. I can’t say when she’ll be able to play soccer again.
Why is this happening? When will it end? Time will tell. I’m no longer dead sure I’m right. I realize that I just don’t know.
While some of the content of the essays above may appear in my novel, this NY Times piece suggests a more humorous tone that I’d like to incorporate.
Raven, one of DC Comics’ Teen Titans, the statuesque daughter of a demon, killed her father in order to purge herself of evil. My own 5-foot-8 teenager, Kate, showed me this vintage issue in mid-December. Raven’s dad was red-hued with horns and fangs, but he went down hard after she blasted him with white light.
Kate’s point was that as badly as she had hurt me the previous week, it could have been worse.
It happened when I was sitting down to watch TV. All 120 pounds of her leapt into my lap, causing me four days of back spasms. When I recovered, she slam-bumped me as we walked arm-in-arm to the school bus, again realigning my spine.
I admit, I started it. My father loved to wrestle with me and my brother as kids in Westchester in the 1960s. I didn’t mean to pass on the tradition. It evolved gradually from the days when I twirled Baby Kate through the air. As she aged, acrobatics advanced into hand-to-hand combat. Getting me in a headlock was her way of dragging me from my den and forcing me to notice her. To let off steam, we wrestled.
For my wife, who grew up with a younger sister and two immigrant Irish parents, there was no brawling among kids, no lamps crashing in her Bronx living room. This was the way I bonded with Kate. Yes, we talked. I manned the sideline flag for her soccer games, and packed her ravioli lunches. But our tussles cut through our age discrepancy and gender gap. And if we didn’t spar I feared that we wouldn’t be as close.
Recently I explained to her that clipping me in my soft belly by surprise was not O.K. Wrestling was one thing; a sudden jab at dinner was another. I knew that in order to develop a discrete identity, girls had to metaphorically kill off their dads. So, we boxed once in a while when she needed to cut loose. Since turning 13 last June, she sometimes flew at me with fists flailing. I didn’t know whether this was therapeutic or aberrant. Kate’s adolescence arrived with my 60th year, and the girl had a mean left jab.
“Kate,” I interrupted her one evening as she sat in the kitchen, texting rapidly with her thumbs. “What if we didn’t fight anymore? I keep getting injured.”
Her eyes glinted hurt. “No way!”
We were entering a phase of Kate’s development when dads and daughters often phased out horseplay. But a musician friend had confided to me that, 40 years back, when she got her period at 12, everything changed with her dad — no scraps, touchdown passes, chases or hugs — and she’d grieved it. Kate was sprouting curves but was still largely the same tomboy. As long as I avoided punching her in the chest, I didn’t see any reason to treat her differently. Other than quelling my back spasms.
I was never the parent who made Kate feel safe by handling every little detail. That was her mom, a psychotherapist. She researched summer camps and chauffeured visits to Lululemon. My parenting style mirrored what I do in my work as a kids’ musician: show up, burn brightly, then high-tail out. Yet hobbling through a Wednesday work day, my torso skewing to the right, I wondered if our roughhousing was my way of clinging to youth, a denial of aging. I hated meeting other parents who were young enough to be my offspring.
I told my wife that Kate seemed wounded when I suggested that we stop brawling.
“Kate finds it hard to get your attention,” she said sharply. “We both do.”
I looked at my shoes, chastened by her tone.
“Maybe,” she said, softening into a professional timbre, “you could find some middle ground.”
I didn’t know what that might look like. Graceful aging didn’t run in my family. The last year of my father’s life, when he was 62 and I was 27, we’d set out on bicycles from Rye, N.Y., to the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, a trip of more than 200 miles. Dad bailed in New Haven. Three months later he died on his town’s indoor tennis courts. I needed to create my own legacy and take a new tack with Kate.
On a family vacation to Puerto Rico in December, I changed my approach. The first day I played a swimming-pool dunking game with my daughter and her cousin, Max, also 13. I negotiated a reprieve after each douse. When Kate cannonballed onto my shoulders from the side of the pool, I begged out. To the kids, I was being stubborn. I was proud of my happy compromise between belly whop and rocking chair.
The next day, Max tried to swipe the hat off my head as I accelerated up a sand bank. I collapsed in a heap with a pulled calf muscle. A barrel-chested tourist from Minnesota helped me to my chair, as I explained that my legs no longer react fluidly to stress.
By the time my muscle healed, it was mid-January. Kate reminded me of the annual foot race we’d run since she was 5. She wanted a rematch. At 10, she’d already been at my heels. Back then, I’d staked out a distance that was far enough for my 35-inch-inseam legs to overcome her quick start, and close enough that I wouldn’t get winded. Last year, at 12, Kate had tied me. I felt her coming, and maneuvered in front to avoid defeat. Now her legs were longer.
We walked to the park, reviewed the course and lined up even with an elm tree.
“On your mark, get set, go,” I cried. She shot ahead of me, and though I churned for all I was worth, I never got close.
“I hate losing!” I howled, staggering crookedly toward her, pain shooting from my side. Kate put her arm around my shoulder.
“Oh Dad,” she said, “you’re much more lovable when you’re pathetic.”
Just the same, I’m looking for noncompetitive activities we can share. I’m hoping we can see the new “Teen Titans” movie that came out this month and leave the fighting to Raven and her dad.