Monthly Archives: June 2006

Uncle Otto and Nicola the Greek

At an art opening last weekend, friends and I were studying the bio of one of the artists, Otto Neumann, a 20th century German expressionist, whose father was a famous professor and friend to famous intellectuals. Otto himself studied with noted artists, and married a pianist and weaver named Hilde Rothschild who. according to the bio,  “became a major force in his artistic and personal life.”

Well, yes, marriage does tend to influence one’s personal life, and marriage to a Rothschild would surely have an impact on your art, because you wouldn’t have to sell any of it to pay the bills.

So when Otto finished a painting, he would stick it the attic and move on. And when he was tempted to destroy his early work, Hilde would dissuade him, which is a good thing.  Thirty years after his death, Uncle Otto, as he was known in the family, is just now being discovered, and some of his work, to my untutored eyes, is quite good. In fact, if I’d had a spare twelve or fifteen grand, I’d have taken a couple home with me.

Neumann had studied ancient Greek vases, and his most compelling works were deceptively simple line drawings of the human figure in the Greek style. Some looked like primitive fertility symbols, but the more interesting pieces were more two dimensional and incorporated spare, seemingly random lines that added a curious tension.

Toward the end of his life, he dispensed with the figures altogether and drew gatherings of lines, an artistic shorthand that suggests the abstractions of old age. They must have had deep significance to him, but they struck me as soulless and dull.

But what I admired most about Uncle Otto was the drive, the passion to create when another might have been tempted to sink back and fish loose change from between those well-stuffed Rothschild cushions.

Our next stop, was Nicola’s, a Greek restaurant with the words “Belly Dancing Studio” painted on the plate glass window. I’d never been there, but it was getting late and we were hungry, and there were only a few cars in the parking lot.

It wasn’t much of a place: white formica tables, black steel chairs with brown padded seats, worn brown carpeting, dim lighting and the certainty that Martha Stewart wasn’t spoken here. There were five of us, and collectively we double-clutched while waiting to be seated, the unspoken sentiment being “Oh, well, I can deal with this.”

Did I mention the raucous, skirling Greek music that sounded like cats fighting in the middle of a polka band? It died down as we studied the menu, and the waiter was immediately likable: a man of middle age, gray at the temples, black hair swept back, full of good humor, not in the least deferential and determined to be himself. He joked with the ladies, made recommendations, brought sliced cucumber to go with the hummus, didn’t charge for the falafel and generally acted out the expansive Mediterranean personality.

Then the belly dancers arrived, three of them in gaudy outfits, accompanied by boisterous Greek music pumped through a sound system. We ignored it as long as we could, but eventually had to turn and watch. The dancers were joined by a small, jolly man wearing a plaid shirt, pants gathered at the ankles in the Greek style, and an apron.

This was Nicola. He stuffed dollar bills in the dancers’ girdles, threw money at them, clapped, shouted, laughed and performed some of the dances himself, careening about the room with a speed and agility I wouldn’t have dreamed possible.

Then he pushed tables aside and turned to the guests – only four or five tables were occupied – and beckoned to them to join him. No, he demanded that we join him. And since it would have been bad form to do otherwise, we mustered more of our “I can deal with this” resignation and joined him in a circle in the center of the room.

He clapped. We clapped. He gestured, we gestured. He stuck one foot into the circle and then the other, and we followed. He pulled a belly dancer into the center and danced with her, then pulled one couple after another into the circle, and it didn’t matter if they were husband and wife. This was about having a good time, we were his guests, and Nicola’s mission was to share his passion with us.

It worked. When the music finally ended I tried to give Nicola a high-five, but he grabbed my hand and kissed it.

One of my friends said, “You made us so happy!”

“No,” he said, wiping sweat from his face, brown eyes alight “you made me so happy.”

Later, after we’d hugged Nicola and said good-bye, carrying the baklava he’d given us, I thought about how I’d stood in the circle, clapping  with all the dancing and laughter swirling around me, and how I had quite forgotten myself and my fitful pre-occupations.

And I thought to myself, “I need to deal with this more often.”


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The Kindness of Golfers

Last Sunday, I played golf with my friend Dave and his 21-year-old son, Kevin. It was Father’s day, and Dave is one of the best fathers I know.

It was a pleasure to watch him patiently instruct Kevin, praising him for the good shots, encouraging him when they were errant. And on the drive back, to listen to Dave reminisce about vacations he’d taken with Kevin and his older brother, Ryan, while Kevin nodded agreeably.

Dave has done everything with his sons from lifting weights and tennis to rock-climbing and camping. My wish, as I listened, was that I might some day share my own love of golf, that oddly civilized form of masochism and hope, as Dave has with his sons.

This is just my second year at the game, and I was somewhat prepared for jokes such as, “Why do they call it ‘golf’? Because all the other four-letter words are taken.” What I was not prepared for was the kindness and affectionate regard with which good golfers readily offer alms to the halt, the lame and the ugly.

My first set of clubs came from a good-hearted friend, and it may have been his first set. The bag was drab and discolored, the shafts were steel, the woods small and persimmon, the grips desiccated and worn. I soldiered on with them until another friend, a very good player, acted as if he were going to helicopter my 7-iron into a nearby river.

“These aren’t even good enough to be bad,” he said. “Get rid of them.”

Replacing them did not put an end to the hooks and slices, the pushed drives and topped shots, the overpowered chips and feeble putts. But I love it nonetheless, and I have been abetted in my passion by the generosity of strangers and friends alike.

And no one more so than Dave, who loaned me his Harvey Pennick book and his David Leadbetter swing device, and who took the latter back without complaint about the new scratch on it. He also gave me a homemade driver, coached me through innumerable rounds, took me to a driving range in hopes of curing my frustration and offered comfort and encouragement that was downright, well, fatherly.

But there have been others. One day Dave and I were chipping at a practice green. Nearby was an old man in plaid shirt, khakis and suspenders. He had an extra-long putter with a pink shaft and a cup on the handle that allowed him to pick up balls without bending over. He couldn’t have been an hour less than 80.

The old man watched me for awhile,  a frown furrowing his forehead, and finally said, “Your arms are too tight! You’ve got to relax your arms!”

He was right. So was Chris Ahn, a quiet, self-effacing builder who joined our threesome one hot Sunday afternoon and sent booming drives down the fairways with his new TaylorMade RX7.  When he realized I was a beginner and open to correction, Chris overcame his reticence and became almost effusive as he coached me to my best round ever

And just a few weeks ago, I spoke with Phil Reed, the consumer advice editor for while working on a  story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He said, “Are you a golfer.”

“Oh, no,” I said, “is it that obvious?”

Phil is an ardent golfer and has written a wonderful book about a larger-than-life character named Mike Austin who still holds the record for the longest drive ever hit in a PGA event: 515 yards. A record, by the way, set in 1974 with old-fashioned equipment when Austin was 64.

Not only did Phil send a copy of the book (“In Search of the Greatest Golf Swing”), he also has sent several emails encouraging my pathology.

“Learning golf is a mysterious journey, just like life,” he wrote, sounding like a cross between Yoda and a fortune cookie. “I envy the fact that you are just setting out. You have a lot to learn and will make rapid progress.”

He also introduced me to John Marshall, an Atlantan and the current senior Long Drive Champion who teaches the Austin swing.

The timing could not have been better. My game was so horrible that I’d been refusing all invitations to play, and I felt as if my oxygen supply was slowly being choked off. My lesson with John went well beyond the hour I paid for, reviving both my game and my outlook on life.

Golfers reading this would no doubt shake their heads and say, “Poor fool,” but they would also understand. After all, they’re the ones who’ve encouraged me all along. When my grandchildren are older, if they show any interest at all, I will happily introduce them to this genteel and hopelessly romantic cult.


It was somewhere between the Blacksburg/Earl exit in South Carolina and King’s Mountain, North Carolina, that I heard it the first time.

I was on my way to Charlotte to see my daughter, grandson and son-in-law. It was Saturday afternoon, sunny and bright, and I’d finally broken free of the traffic that had clotted I-85 since the Atlanta suburbs. The radio was on, and I heard “Hey, 19” and the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” (the only version, in my opinion) as I worked the SEEK button right to left.

Then it landed on a song I didn’t know:

When I am down, and oh my soul, so weary
When troubles come and my heart burdened be
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence
Until You come and sit awhile with me.

Nice melody, good production, impassioned vocals and a soaring chorus:

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up—to more than I can be.

I realize I’m listening to a Christian station, and the cool sophisticate in me is thinking Les McCann and Eddie Harris doing “Listen Here.” But I hear it out, and minutes later I hear it again on another station, and an odd thing happens. I choke up.

I am on my way to Charlotte for an audition, but far more than that.

My older daughter lives there, and just a few days ago i received an angry email from her. It caught me off-guard, because nothing I could think of had happened to cause an outburst. But it wasn’t the first time it’s happened. A year before, I’d received one from her and I was so filled with anger and righteous indignation it took six days before I could calm down and write a calm, reasoned reply.

She had good cause to be angry, though. She was six when her mother and I parted, and I was, for the most part, an absentee father with little involvement in her life. When I realized what a fool I’d been, I offered to participate in rehabilitating our relationship in any way I could, and it included attending a session with her and her therapist.

But with the second letter, I knew I could neither engage at the level of conflict, nor write another reasonable reply. First, I had to overcome my own anger at being attacked, and then I had to transcend all my default settings and respond in a way I never had before.

Without quite knowing what it was I wanted, I was asking to be forgiving and loving, to manifest something I’d never manifested before that would bring healing to our relationship. It’s called grace, and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.

So I did some praying – quite a lot of praying, actually. Not once or twice, but several times a day. And within a few days, I got the call from my agent asking if I would go to Charlotte.

Even were I to believe that the call was a random occurrence in an uncaring universe, the calm and unflinching attitude that settled upon me as I drove to Charlotte was not. I felt peaceful, almost happy. I had asked for help, and something had shifted in me. Suddenly, improbably, I had an opportunity to do exactly what I prayed for.

It felt as if I had aligned myself with a force, an energy, a plan, that was already in motion. All I had to do was get aboard. And this, I decided, must be grace, and I was going to roll with it.

I went to the audition when I got to Charlotte that morning, then had lunch and meditated in a park. Shortly before my daughter’s office re-opened — she’s a chiropractor — I bought a dozen pink roses, and pulled into her parking lot just as she was getting out of her car.

Again, that I had that that the timing was perfect, as if I were being led.

She glanced over the back of her car, and said, “My God, it’s Dad!”

We hugged and I gave her the roses. Inside she introduced me to her staff, and we chatted for a bit. Then she adjusted me, asked me to stay the night and gave me the key to her condo.

We had dinner that night with her husband and talked for hours – but never a word about the letter. Not then, not ever.

I drove back to Atlanta the next morning euphoric. It was my birthday.

The following week my agent called again. Would I go back to Charlotte for a second audition? I did and spent another night with my daughter and her husband. Over dinner that evening, I gazed around at the plates, the glasses of wine, the candles, my daughter and her husband, and a warm feeling of love and connection washed over me.

This, I thought, is family.

I never did get that part I auditioned for, but it didn’t matter. I got the role I wanted most.

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Anger Management

It is 11 p.m. You’re exhausted and you have to get up at 4. You lie down on the bed, close your eyes and begin the languorous descent into sleep. A few minutes later, your significant other comes into the room and falls heavily onto the bed next to you.

Just a few days before, the two of you had put the bed together by tightening the bolts at each end. You did the foot, she did the head. And now, as the frame and headboard separate and the mattress and box springs slam to the floor, you discover that she didn’t really tighten those bolts after all.

You are up in a flash, raging at her for not tightening the bolts properly, raging that you are tired and need sleep and don’t have time to fix the bed, raging that nevertheless you have to fix the bed, goddammit, because she didn’t tighten the goddamn bolts.

In fact, you are not just ranting, you are throwing the mattress around and shouting and letting rage escalate to the point where without even trying you detonate a small and decidedly non-tactical nuclear device at the epicenter of your relationship.

Does this ring a bell? It does for me. I used to live in that dark and unstable no-man’s land – and no-woman’s land – myself, and not that long ago.

This time it happened to someone else. But hearing about it is like hearing an old song that brings back echoes of an old, bad time that gets no better in the re-telling.

I’ve spent years trying to clean out my anger. I never got into mattress-tossing, but I broke some things, hurt some feelings and busted a couple of relationships, too.

The bed episode happened to a friend of mine who had already begun getting help with his anger, but not soon enough. And if he doesn’t get it under control, it will continue to control him.

His anger is so uncontrollable that after he mouthed off to a passenger on an airplane, the guy followed him into a restroom in the terminal and slapped him around. As for his girlfriend, she is, as he puts it, “on hiatus.”

In other words, she’s packing.

I’d be rooting for him even if he were not a friend, but maybe not as strongly if I hadn’t gone through so much of it myself. I know there’s healthy anger, but so much of what I see — and so uch of what I experienced — was ugly and toxic.

Just a few weeks ago, a woman raged at me for breaking a confidence.  I didn’t break the confidence, someone else did, and she knew it. But I was involved, and she was determined to blame me, and her anger was in full, apocalyptic bloom. It felt like a heavy, poison-tipped spear ripping into my stomach.

My initial reaction was to be defensive and angry myself,  emotions that while understandable, did nothing to defuse the situation. And her reaction to my response was worse than the first, an email full of cold, implacable fury.

I walked around for days drafting and re-drafting in my mind my next reply. I was in a fever to find the perfect words that would establish my innocence while punishing her for what was not only unfair, but insulting as well.

This is not the first time something like this has happened, and the question is always this: “Do I respond in kind or do I elevate my game?”

The former is tempting, because then I get to be “right,” which feeds my ego. But the latter is the path to peace.

So I waited a full week, giving me time to let the flames time to die down and to craft an answer that was fair and balanced. I acknowledged her pain and discomfort, said I was sorry the incident had taken place, and firmly stated my case. I didn’t back down on the guilt issue,  but I didn’t throw lighter fluid on the fire, either.

Her reply, complete and unedited: “Thank you.”

She neither apologized for attacking me, nor admitted that she was wrong, so she didn’t exactly cover herself with glory. On the other hand, I should have known better than to respond to anger with anger in the first place. It’s like throwing the mattress around the room.

The best strategy I’ve heard comes from another friend, a contractor, who recently had to deal with a call from a raging realtor. When she finished her harangue, he said, “Let me get this straight, you’re upset about” and then listed her complaints.

The realtor, incredulous that he hadn’t defended himself and amazed that he not only heard her, but had actually listened, said in a deflated voice, “Yeah.”

They resolved the issues peacably and she has since sent him four more referrals. That’s what I call anger management.

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