Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Category: Life with My Parents (page 1 of 11)

Family Genes

Of all the sports available to us during my grade school years, I most enjoyed playing basketball. I wasn’t good at it, but I had a tall and lanky body, so I was useful as the center. Some team captains even picked me first during the tense boyhood ritual of “choosing sides.” It boosted my ego.

My job as center was simple – wave my gawky arms in the face of the opposition until someone fouled me. Then I would strut up to the foul line, dribble once or twice, and throw the ball into the basket for a point. It sounded easier than it was to do.

One afternoon, I stood at the foul line, bouncing the ball, sweat soaking through my knee-high white crew socks, readying the shot, when I couldn’t fully extend the fingers of my right hand. My hand opened only to a 75% angle, so when I tossed the ball upwards, it spun like a planet flying out of gravitational orbit.

When I showed this to my parents, they assumed I had sprained my hand. I received the typical lecture about “being careful” when playing rough sports, as if my participation in my Hebrew School’s basketball team was the same as playing left tackle with the Dallas Cowboys.

When my hand didn’t heal, I heard whispering in my parents’ room at night. One afternoon, my parents took me from school early and we traveled to Long Island Jewish Hospital by bus. I found myself flat on a neurology department table while a gray-haired doctor put electrodes on my head and stuck me with thin, electrically charged needles. He said I should tighten my muscles, then he twisted the needles in a circular motion into my body, as if searching for hidden treasure in the sand. Next to me stood an aquamarine metal box that reminded me of a Geiger counter I had seen in an episode of the Twilight Zone. It screamed with noisy static depending on the angle of the needle. The pain shot through my body, but I stopped myself from crying. After the test, my parents took me to Baskin-Robbins for Rocky Road ice cream.

My father was a funny and compassionate man, but born to that stoic generation of fathers that did their duty, expressed their love, but never shared their personal lives with their children. I knew nothing about my father’s childhood, his time during the Korean War, or even his job as a physical therapist. He didn’t imagine it would interest me.

Twenty-five years earlier, my grandmother brought my father to a neurologist in Brooklyn to take the same painful tests. His weakness affected his neck and chin rather than his hand. The doctors were baffled by it. It didn’t match any neurological diseases known at the time, such as muscular dystrophy. My grandmother, not wanting him to take any more tests, told him to just “live with it and forget it.” My father, the oldest of three sons, and close to his mother, took her advice. He then ignored his disorder for decades, not even telling my mother about the condition before they were married.

While eating our Rocky Road at Baskin-Robbins that day, my father filled me in with vague information about the “small” muscle condition that affected both of us in different ways. I had an unknown weakness in my hand; he had one in his neck and chin.

“Live with it, and forget it,” he said, repeating the advice of his mother. “It’s better than getting prodded with those needles all your life.”

I wasn’t going to argue with that.

Even at that age, I knew my father avoided reality. By ignoring his ailment, he believed no one would notice it. Everyone did. As the years flew by, his muscle weakness got worse. When my father grew  tired, he would put his fist under his chin to hold up his neck. Friends asked questions which I avoided, wanting everything to appear “normal.” Two bullies teased me about my father, saying he looked like he had a perpetual toothache. When a doctor suggested that my father wear a neck brace, he was too proud to wear it in public, certain no one noticed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth.

I’m ashamed to write this publicly, but I became embarrassed by my father’s mysterious muscle condition, and angry that he deluded himself about it. Why didn’t he try to fix it? More troubling was the inevitable conclusion – this was going to be ME when I’m his age. I imagined my hand getting weaker and my neck collapsing, and by adulthood, I would look like the Elephant Man. I attempted to follow the path of “live with it and forget about it,” but I was never able to forget about it. I exerted years of energy into hiding my shame from others. I wouldn’t let anyone see me weak or abnormal.

In high school, I taught myself to type by pointing and pecking. In college, I used chopsticks with my left hand. When a woman thought I was gay because I held a wine glass effeminately, I never held my wine glass in that hand again. Most people never noticed or cared much, but I always feared it. If they did, men would find me weak and exploit me. Women would find me monstrous and reject me. Employers wouldn’t hire me, especially for production jobs in Hollywood. Even when thriving at school and work, I worried how people would respond if they discovered the truth.

If there is a hero in this story, it’s my ex-wife, Sophia. After dating for two months, I told her about my weakness. She wasn’t surprised or scared by it, but confused by my lack of knowledge. She made it her personal project to get to the bottom of the mystery.

After extensive amount of research and calling, she found two specialists who dealt with obscure neurological diseases. My case was so unusual, two hospitals, the Mayo Clinic and UC Davis, started a bidding war for me as their research subject. Free airfare, hotel, and breakfast buffet! One doctor in Minnesota, Dr. Engels, had identified a disorder that fit my weakness. Sophia dragged me to take another of those needle tests, now known as an Electromyography (EMG). Sophia lovingly held my foot as they poked my body with needles. I had a biopsy that confirmed the diagnosis. My condition was slow-channel congenital myasthenic syndrome (CMS), an inherited neuromuscular disorder caused by a defect at the neuromuscular junction.

Slow-channel myasthenic syndrome is rare, about 800 cases of it in the country, all inherited through family, many of them either Eastern European Jews or French Canadians. The “slow” in slow-channel describes the closing speed of the nerve junction. In a normal action, the nerves send pulses through the body, and then the junctions close. With a myasthenic syndrome, the nerve junctions close too slowly, and chemicals leak into the muscles, causing atrophy. The severity is different for each individual. My weakness was in the extension of my right fingers.

Sophia also wanted to understand the family component to the disorder, so she pushed my father to get tested again, much to his dismay. She didn’t stop there. Sophia contacted my two uncles and a male cousin, questioning them like Sherlock Holmes. She discovered that each male member of my immediate family had a muscle weakness somewhere on the body, in the leg, neck, back, or toes. We had a common inherited syndrome, but no one knew it because no one confided in one another. We were the type of family that kept secrets. It took an outsider, Sophia, to bring us together to deal with our health. My grandmother’s advice to “live with it and forget it” created an atmosphere of silence and avoidance for three generations. Sophia prompted every male family member to get tested. We discovered that we inherited this syndrome from my grandmother herself. The doctors at Mayo Clinic and UC Davis wrote a paper about us.

There was some good news. Dr. Engels found a common prescription drug that stopped, or at least slowed, the leakage into the muscles by speeding up the closing at the junction. It was Prozac. For the last fifteen years, I have been taking 40-60mg of Prozac every day, not for depression or anxiety, but for the slow-channel disorder. My hand hasn’t gotten better, but nothing has gotten worse. Little has changed since childhood. Luckily, I have a mild case.

Of the thousands of people I’ve met over the last fifteen years, I’ve only told four of you about the slow-channel disorder. I’ve lied rather than be honest. I’ve come up with stories to explain why I hold the camera like a precious doll or text with my thumb. When I go on dates, I never order spaghetti because I never mastered eating it with my left hand. Whenever I’m asked why I don’t have children, it’s easier to portray myself as a selfish Hollywood type busy with his career than say the truth. Sophia and I feared having kids. Doctors told us that a child would have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the syndrome. Would our child’s ailment be mild, like mine, or more severe, like my father’s? We didn’t know the answers, so we just avoided the question of children until it was too late.

This mild ailment has plagued me my entire life. The anxiety was mostly self-made, intensified by a family that didn’t communicate. I’m sure my father felt guilty for passing the disorder to me, which became a barrier between us, and the reason he avoided telling me about his past.

I recently visited my neurologist in New York. He suggested I take a genetic test. Ten years ago, it would cost $10,000. Nowadays, you spit into a tube at home, and send it to the clinic via the post office. I now have a chart mapping my genes, showing the irregularities. It’s cool what science can do. It’s also a reminder of the importance of health insurance (hint, message to the Trump administration).

One of my favorite sayings goes something like this, with some paraphrasing, “When you are twenty years old, you worry about what others think about you. When you are thirty, you try not to care what others think, but you still worry. By fifty, you realize others were always too busy with their own sh*t to think about you at all.”

Why write about this subject today after these years of silence? I chatted with a friend last week who admired the honesty of my writing. I’ve always tried to be authentic on my blog, writing about my father’s passing in 2006, my separation with Sophia, and the ups and downs of my dating life. But I’ve hidden this important truth from everyone, the result of a family tradition of avoidance.

And it’s time to break the pattern of shame.

How I Explained Black Lives Matter to My Mother’s Mahjong Group

blacklivesmatter

“Liberals” are sometimes stereotyped in the media as elitists. I wonder if there is an element of truth to this. We say we want to discuss issues with our friends and relatives, but then use abstract language more suitable for a Yale graduate school seminar.   If your conservative Uncle Joe on Facebook is willing to agree with you that there is too much police brutality against African-Americans, does it really matter at this point if he “accepts” the concept of white supremacy on your latest post?

I understand this tendency to sound elitist because I can be that person myself. I’m the type of guy who came home from my first semester of college to scold my mother to stop reading her “stupid Sue Grafton mystery novels” and pick up Plato’s Republic instead.

“Do you want to live your entire life in the shadows?” I told her after my freshman year.  “How can you live without ever getting a strong foundation in Greek philosophy?”

Yeah. That type of guy.

Who would have guessed that one day I would be back living in the same apartment with my mother, reading her Sue Grafton novels?

Twice a week, my mother sets up a bridge table in the living room and plays mahjong with her friends.   Her friends are smart, compassionate women, feminists at heart, open to neighborhoods of diversity, but born of another generation.   Each woman is over eighty years of age,  the children of immigrant parents, and have worked since an early age.  None of them had the opportunity to attend college.   It would be haughty of me to lecture these amazing women based on my advanced education, right? But sometimes I just can’t help myself.

I remember a few months ago, the mahjong group was taking a break from the game, having coffee and cake, and gossiping about their neighbors in the building. I entered the kitchen to grab a piece of the cake myself when I overheard one of them mention the cute children of the “Oriental” neighbor in apartment 3D.

“You probably shouldn’t say that,” I said. “She’s Chinese, not Oriental.”

“What’s so bad about Oriental? I’ve always said Oriental. Like someone from the Orient. Like Oriental salad!”

My mother and her friends teamed up against me.

“Yeah, Neil, what’s so wrong with Oriental?” asked my own mother.

I explained the different of Oriental and Occidental, and how the term Oriental comes from a European perspective and gives off the aura of “the other” and exoticism.

No one understood what the hell I was talking about.

“Just don’t say it! They don’t like it!” I shouted, giving up.

A few days ago, I came back from this rally in Union Square. The women were playing mahjong. I showed them a few of the photos I took, including one of a protester holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter.”

“I don’t get what this means — Black Lives Matter? Don’t ALL lives matter?”

I went to the kitchen and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in order to give me time to think about my answer. What was the best way to talk to a group of eighty-year-old Jewish women about this subject?

I had an idea.  I returned to the living room.

“Remember when you were kids, everyone said “Merry Christmas” to each other?”

I figured this was a good way to draw them in, with an analogy.

“We didn’t say Merry Christmas to each other,” said Louise, my mother’s friend.

“Yes, that’s because you’re Jewish,” I replied.   “But the average American said Merry Christmas. People felt like it was a Christian country, so they just said Merry Christmas. This is the equivalant of saying White Lives Matter, but it’s more like Christmas Matters. Or Christian Holidays Matter.”

Now, everyone just looked confused.

“Hear me out. But as time went by, Americans wanted to include everyone in the holiday spirit, particuilarly their Jewish friends, so they started saying Happy Holidays. This is like saying All Holidays Matters — Christmas, Hanukkah, whatever.

“And what’s so wrong about that? Saying Happy Holidays?” said my mother. “You just made the argument for saying All Lives Matter.”

“Well, yes, but we all know that deep in our hearts, All Holidays Matter is really about Christmas, with Hanukkah and the other holidays sitting in the back row. It’s still Christian Holidays Matters in disguise. So someone who really celebrates Hanukkah might not want to be a mere appendage, but wants Hanukkah to be celebrated as worthy of it’s own meaning. So someone might say, “I never liked when you just said Merry Christmas, because it excluded me, and I did appreciate that you started to say Happy Holidays, but we both know that I was never an equal part under that All Holidays Flag, so now I just want to hear Happy Hanukkah so you are acknowledging that my holiday has meaning in itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with saying Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays, but sometimes you just want to hear Happy Hannukah. And it is the same with saying Black Lives Matter. It’s a matter of giving respect.”

And I think I won them over. Either that or they just wanted to go back to their game.

Re-Remembering the “Juice” Story

I was watching a documentary on Helen of Troy last night, and the narrator reminded the viewer that much of what we know about the famous beauty comes from Homer’s Illiad, even though he wrote it four hundred years after her death.   By then, many of the details were forgotten, or changed with the morality of the time.

During the Bronze Age of the Trojan War, warriors fought in chariots, but by Homer’s era, it was considered unmanly.  Hand to hand combat was the norm, so the heroes of the Illiad fight on foot. The famous vivid battles in Homer’s Illiad are from a Trojan War re-imagined for a later time, much like Hollywood dressed up Charlton Heston as a twentieth century Moses.  We are always changing our visions of our heroes according to our needs.   Look at the many portrayals of Jesus throughout the ages – from wordly to godly, from emaciated to a long-haired hippy, from a black man to a white one.

Our personal memories are our own stories, and like Homer, we are just as eager to revise, edit, and mythologize as we grow older.   In order to live happy lives, we often emphasize the positive moments of our lives and forget the painful.

I recently found a box with some cassette tapes from my childhood. I had no idea they existed.  One cassette tape was particularly intriguing. It is from my first year at sleepaway camp. I am about seven or eight. It is visiting day, halfway through the summer in the Catskills, and my over-the-top father is interviewing me on his cassette recorder, as if he is Edward R. Murrow interviewing Eisenhower on the field of battle.

The cassette tape is very surreal, so I won’t play it all for you, but there is one section that shook me up, and I’d like to share it with you.

First, some background.

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the TueNight site titled, “Hey, it’s Juice! How My Camp Nickname Gave Me Confidence.” It’s about how I received a camp nickname that lasted for many years.   I always considered it a special part of my identity because it made me unique, and gave me confidence when I was young.  I even thought it gave me some sort of superpower.  The story of how I got my nickname “Juice” is one that I have told often throughout my life.

Here is the full post, originally published on TueNight on April 23, 2015.

When I was eight years old, I attended my first year of Camp Kinder-Ring, a sleepaway camp in upstate New York. Our first breakfast of the summer was served in a wood-framed dining room, where bunkmates sat together at large oval tables. The waiters, 16-year-old campers, served us soggy scrabbled eggs and individual boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, my favorite being Sugar Pops. In the center of each table was an aqua blue plastic pitcher which held the watered-down orange juice.

“Can you pass the juith?” I asked another bunk member.

“The juith?” he asked, and the rest of the table laughed at my slight lisp. “Do you mean the JUICE?”

Now I know some of you are already gripping your easy chair, preparing for an unsettling Lord of the Flies-type essay about mean boys and the bullying of the weak, but that is not the story here. I was lucky that the story veered off course into one of empowerment. Within a week of the incident, no one remembered WHY I was called Juice; it was just my nickname. When I returned the following summer, the lisp gone, I was still “Juice,” and for the next eight summers that I attended this camp, even when I finally became one of the waiters who served soggy scramble eggs to the other campers, the name remained.

The nickname gave me a special identity, despite its origins. It was my first experience of having an alias, much like Clark Kent had his Superman. During the winter, I was a goody-two-shoes, Citizen of the Month, grade-A student named Neil, but in the summer, I put on my shorts and tube socks, and became Juice. Yes, my mother still sewed my real name into a label attached to my underwear, but during the summer, I was only known by my camp name.

In many traditions, the naming of the child is an important statement, because tradition believes that it molds the child’s personality. My parents named me Neil. It was an OK name, but uninspiring. For every Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, there was a Neil Sedaka or Neil Diamond singing sappy pop songs about love. To me, Neil was a nice Jewish boy who listens to his parents and teachers, and doesn’t smoke pot or drink beer.

But during the summer, I became Juice.

Juice, to me, meant energy, a spark, like currents of electricity. On paper, my personality didn’t change much from winter to summer. I was still a goody-two-shoes who was awful at sports, but my nickname transformed the perception of myself. Neil wouldn’t play football, go sailing, or build a tent, but Juice would. Neil wouldn’t take chances, but Juice might try pot or kiss a girl. Neil inhibited me, bounding me to responsibility of city life, while Juice freed me to be as wild as nature (within limits, of course). At school, I was invisible. At camp, everyone knew my name. Gradually, I learned to integrate some of this “Juice” into my “Neil” world, and learned that our personalities can be fluid. My nickname was my introduction into adulthood, and the complexities of identity.

I was lucky. My nickname, based on a lisp, transformed me in a positive way. Some children are not as lucky. A name like “Fatty” or “Freckles” can torment a person for a lifetime. Whether for good or bad, names ARE always powerful.

I use my full name “Neil Kramer” on my blog and in social media. I have friends who only use aliases, which helps them express their hidden personalities, away from their families and workmates. The anonymity of the internet is a problem culturally, because it tends to lead to abuse and bullying, but for many, an alias allows someone who is normally a Clark Kent to find their Superman.

Last summer, I traveled to upstate New York to attend a reunion of friends from my sleepaway camp. I was nervous while driving up the Taconic because I hadn’t seen some of these people in 30 years!

I rang the doorbell.

“Hey, it’s Juice!” said one of my long-lost bunkmates.

Neil is the name my parents gave me at birth, but ever since that breakfast in that camp dining room when I asked to “pass the juith,” I have also been Juice. I have two names, and I wouldn’t be the same today without both of them.

You can imagine my shock when, a few months after writing this post, I hear my father ask me about my new nickname.   My mouth flew open.   I was confronting my own personal history.  The “Juice” story was coming alive.   At the time of the recording, the nickname was brand new, and now here  was my voice, reappearing — dozens of years later – – like a surprise witness at my own court case, about to corroborate the story I had just published!

But the truly shocking part is the sound of my voice. It wavers. It creaks. This is not a child who feels like a superhero, confident with a brash new nickname.  He sounds like an insecure kid about to cry.

What happened to the story that I have been telling forever, where I was instantly energized by my new name?  Was the nickname hurtful at first, and I never acknowledged it ?

In the retelling of my tale, why do I always distinguish my cool nickname from those like “Fatty” or “Four Eyes?”   Yes, my camp nickname eventually became a positive one,  but how long did it take?  At what point did I  rewrite my own narrative, erasing the discomfort of the beginning?  And would I have gone to my last days believing every detail of this story if I didn’t stumble onto this cassette tape?

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” – Marcel Proust

small excerpt of audio —

Mom, Are You a Feminist?

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I’m eating some chicken soup my mother made (yes, true!) while reading an article online, when I decide to ask my mother the big question that will finally decide the course of Western history.

Me:  Mom, are you a feminist?

Mom:  Uh, what do you mean?

Me:   Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Mom:    Well, I always worked as a woman.

Me:   That doesn’t mean you are a feminist. Do you believe in equal pay for men and women?

Mom:    Yes.

Me:   And do you believe that both a man and a woman can be the boss?

Mom:    Of course. I was an office manager.

Me:   Will you vote for a woman president?

Mom:    Sure. Like Hillary Clinton. But it’s not like I’m going to vote for that Kardashian woman just because she’s a woman.

Me:  Do you think a feminist should look a certain way?  Like not wear lipstick or shave her legs?

Mom:  She could do what she wants.   I mean, eventually, she’ll probably have to shave her legs at least once.  If she wants to date.  Or before her wedding.

Me:   And what do you think about the different roles of mothers and fathers?

Mom:    Well, I do believe that a parent should stay at home with a young child.

Me:   Aha!  Gotcha!  So, you think a mother should stay at home?

Mom:    No, it could be the father.

Me:  Interesting.   So it doesn’t matter?

Mom:  I think women tend to have a better touch with young kids, but if the woman makes more money than her husband, what’s the difference?  As long as one of them stays home.

Me:   Hmm… so, isn’t it a bit hypocritical considering that you didn’t follow your own rule.  You and dad both worked.  You weren’t always home for me.   Is this why I’m in therapy?

Mom:    No, you’re in therapy because you’re crazy. I DID stayed at home until you went to first grade. Don’t you remember?

Me:   Not really.

Mom:  And then when I worked in the city, you always had your Grandma Annette to go to after school in case I had to work late.

Me:   Still sounds like I was a latch-key child without a home.   I’m blaming feminism for giving me social anxiety.

Mom:    Maybe, but remember this, with both of us working, at least we were able to afford to send you to an expensive college.  Where you ended up studying poetry.

Me:   OK, well, thank you for that.   And talking about college.  Here’s a big issue today.  Do you think both men and women are equipped to study in fields such as math, science, and engineering?

Mom:    I wish YOU had studied in math, science, and engineering rather than being an English major who spends time taking photos on his iPhone.  Maybe that’s why you’re in therapy!

Me:   So you believe women belong in technology?

Mom:   Mrs. Kubota’s daughter, Grace, works in Silicon Valley and sends her mother on a cruise every year. So, yes, women can work in match, science, and engineering.

My mother goes into the kitchen.

Mom:  Would you like some more soup?

Me:   No, thanks.

Mom:    Are you sure? There’s only a little left.

Me:   Mom, we are talking feminism here.

Mom:    So, you can’t be a Jewish mother and a feminist?

Me:   OK, I’ll have some more soup.

My mother pours me some more soup.

Me:  And while we’re at it, let’s discuss cooking at home? Do you think that is more a job for a wife than a husband?

Mom:   Ha Ha, no.

Me:   So why didn’t Dad ever cook? You did all the cooking. That wasn’t fair.

Mom:    Well, that’s me marrying wrong. Or the fault of Grandma Annette for never showing your father how to make anything other than a peanut butter sandwich. That’s how it was back then. But today, men love to cook. When you watch Top Chef, half of the best chefs are men, so I sure hope they are also making dinner at home for their wives.  In fact, this weekend, I’m showing you how to make a brisket.

Me:   What about cleaning? Why do women do more of the cleaning at home? That’s also not fair.

Mom:    Now THAT has to change. The biggest scam ever created.  By men.

Me:   So you ARE a feminist?

Mom:    Yes. And I think cleaning the house equally should be the top priority.

Case Closed.   My mother is a feminist.

Glass Half-Full

Here is a video of the piece I read at the “Listen to Your Mother” show at Symphony Space in NYC in May.   I met so many wonderful people because of that experience.    You can also see the other videos from the show on the same YouTube page.

Paris Journal – Prologue #1

I approach the beginning of this Paris travel journal in a fog of self-doubt. After all, on my Facebook stream today, there are FIVE other online friends visiting Paris right now.  How can I approach MY trip as “special” when international travel is as common today as a bunch of high school kids from New Jersey driving into “the city” to party on a Saturday night.

Is there anything new that I can offer to you, the reader? A fresh vision of an ancient city? Probably not.  My instagram feed will be filled with the usual shots of cute-looking cafes and cliched views of the Eiffel Tower.

Who am I  to write about a city that has already been glorified and praised by countless poets, artists, and philosophers?  I’m a nobody.   This week’s top box office movie, Warner Brother’s Prisoners, grossed $11,270,000.   My blog’s first month profits from the banner ad in my sidebar — $2.16.

But what I lack in self-confident, I gain in self-delusion. Reality holds little sway in my universe.  I don’t need to worry about the Paris of Hemingway, Voltaire, or my online friends already there on holiday.   I can only tell the story that I can see, and in my tale, the city of Paris is already the least interesting character.

Paris will be beautiful, exhausting, fun, frustrating, and disappointing.  But Paris is only a backdrop.   It could just as easily be Boise.   First and foremost, a story needs characters.  That’s what is interesting to me.

And so we begin.   The flight is Friday.   Tomorrow I will start to pack.  The plot — three characters, unlikely travel mates, each hurting emotionally and spiritually, looking for answers, but don’t yet know the questions.

French Lesson One

After reading in a tour book that waiters in Paris spit in your food if you don’t know at least a few French phrases, I decided to sit down with my mother and practice the basics of the language together, such as hello, good-bye, please, thank you, etc.    We found a French YouTube video tutorial that taught us the proper protocol when meeting friends in a cafe, even showing us the mandatory French method of kissing of the cheeks.

After we nailed the first lesson, I had an idea for the most gimmicky blog post ever created — what if WE made our own YouTube video teaching French to the other mothers and sons out there visiting Paris together?

The only problem was my mother refused to be in my video.

Neil:  “C’mon, Mom, it will be fun!”

Neil’s Mom:  “No.  If you want to embarrass yourself online, that’s your business.”

Neil:  “Didn’t you once tell me you always want to be an actress?”

Neil’s Mom:  “Yes, but in a Hollywood movie with a young Paul Newman.  Not in some movie you’re shooting with your iPhone.”

That’s cold, right?   Can you see why I have anxiety issues?  But just like I did as an only child growing up with a working mother, I found a way to have fun on my own.

By using a lamp as my co-star.

Life with Mother

The best lesson that I can teach you, after eight successful years in blogging and social media, is the supreme importance of communicating the positive message of your personal brand. Unfortunately, today is not the day for this lesson.

Today I want to remind you that I live with my mother.

Last night, I wrote this status update on Facebook —

“In October, my mother is having a big birthday and she was thinking of celebrating by going with her friend, another woman in her 70s, on some dull cruise, something they already did twice before.

“Forget the cruise,” I said. “Why don’t you go somewhere that you always wanted to go but never had a chance, and go there NOW, while you’re still healthy enough to travel?”

So, for ten days in October, I’ll be accompanying my mother and her friend — to — yes, Paris.

My mother is so excited. But she’s worried now that I won’t find us a place to stay and we’ll be wandering the streets. So, if anyone knows of a good apartment to rent in October for three adults, maybe two bedrooms, please tell me.”

People were very generous, sending me all sorts of links to apartment rental agencies and friends with apartments in France. But later that night, I thought to myself —

“I must be perceived as a very weird guy. I’m always talking about my mother. I am going to Paris with my mother. I am living with my mother in New York. When I think of men who live with their mothers, even on a temporary basis, I immediately think of Norman Bates in Psycho. I must really appear f*cked up. You know, maybe I am f*cked up.”

Now, some of you I have successfully fooled, especially those who follow me on Instagram. I post so many glamorous photos of New Yorkers on Fifth Avenue, that you’d think I spend my nights at parties with Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting.

No, I’m in Queens, with my mother.

If you met me, you would think I was fairly normal. Not completely normal, but mostly normal. At least, I don’t think I would scare you.

Here’s how it goes. I come and go from my mother’s apartment when I want. My mother has her life. I have mine. We treat each other like two adults. We’ve even watched R-rated movies on HBO together, and no one blinked an eye!

Of course, both my mother and I know that this arrangement is not healthy in the long run. She can’t wait until I leave and start a normal life again. And I can’t wait until I have a place of my own, living a normal life again. As much as we try to be “roommates” over the last few months, a mother and son will always be a mother and son.

If I am in Manhattan at midnight, I still call her up to say that I am not dead on the 14th Street subway platform, the same thing I would do at age thirteen, except back then, it was on a pay phone, not an iPhone. There are also some mornings where I wake up to discover an umbrella hanging on my doorknob, a reminder from my mother that Al Roker said it was going to rain today.

I know it’s all a little weird. I’m here to own it. I can’t be a personal blogger if I don’t talk about my personal life.

I’m an only son, and I’ve always been close to my mother, particularly after my father passed away. But I’ve never considered myself a typical momma’s boy, or my mother the type of overbearing Jewish mother you would see in sitcoms (even if I sometimes portray her that way on my blog).

The instability of my marriage with Sophia took a toll on me. Like a ping-pong ball, I went back and forth from Los Angeles to New York for the last two years, depending on the current state of our marital relationship. All this turmoil also had me wasting a lot of money, flying back and forth, and putting stuff into storage. And since I couldn’t afford two apartments in two cities, I stayed in my mother’s place, my childhood home, when I was in New York. It worked out well because during the winter, the apartment was empty while my mother rented a place in Boca Raton, Florida. She went to Florida. I stayed here.

In many ways, the experience of spending more time with my mother in New York has been an enriching one. Not many of you get to experience a truly honest and adult relationship with the woman who brought you into the world.

But there is also a darker side to this. I have been plagued with doubt and anxiety over the last few years, which makes it difficult for me to make a decision of where I want to go next. It’s not as if I don’t have confidence in what I do. I have strong writing and work experience, but most of my contacts are in Los Angeles, not New York. And I just feel happier in New York. But my bank account is getting in trouble, and it time to take action.

And then — the biggest question of them all — what about the beautiful, intelligent woman that I met in — of all places — New Zealand?

I am at a crossroads between divorce, starting over, career change, and the need for more money. I’m not even sure freelance writing is a sustainable job for me anymore. My health insurance alone is costing me $800 a month, and I’m thinking of taking on a paying job, with health insurance, just another one of my poorly timed decisions — looking for work during a terrible economy, while thousands of younger and cheaper recent graduates hit the streets. So, I sit here and think. And worry. Less about how you perceive me, than how I perceive myself.

I have a vague feeling that someone is going to hold me in disdain after reading this post. Or one of my old trolls will return, the one who usually reappears only when I seem vulnerable.

“Talk about first world problems,” she will say. “Who cares about your petty life when Turkish students are fighting for their democratic rights?!”

We tend to have sympathy for underdogs, except for when the villain is the main character’s own brain. And almost all of my issues are based on my own decision, action, or inaction.

Why did I move to Los Angeles and pursue the entertainment business if I didn’t intend to stick it out living in Los Angeles?

Why did I stay in such a a unsatisfying marriage for so long?

Why don’t I just shut up, get a normal paying job and move into your own apartment like a normal person?

Don’t you realize how much privilege you are squandering as a straight white male who has the world at his feet?

Why don’t I just get off Facebook and write a novel and sell it rather than talking about writing so much?

Why did I connect with Juli in New Zealand to only leave her stranded with your indecision?

Who goes to Paris with their mother?

Believe me, I ask these questions of myself. I’m hard on myself. But I’m OK with living in a world where my mind is in flux. I’ve been living with myself for a long time, so I know how I work. I’m living this life as best as I can. Eventually, I’ll figure it out. Even if it makes me seem a little weird. I am a little weird. I can’t change that. Better you know the real me than a fake one. I know, I know. Fake it Until you Make It. But not on my blog.

As I started saying in the beginning, I understand how “branding” works. I am suppose to appeal to your aspirations. To be influential. My aim is to make you want to “be” me — to inspire you! “Look at me. I’m having lunch with some popular person at a fancy restaurant!”

The internet is all about promoting success. I look forward to the day that I can write the tweet announcing the million dollar screenplay sale. I hope to wow you with more sexy stories about my adventures with Juli in New Zealand. I can’t wait to make you jealous with my Instagram photos of the party I attended at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Gwenyth Paltrow and Sting. I know you want that for me. But right now, I can’t. This is how it is, right now, in June 2013.

Hang on while I try to figure out the next step. I’m sorry I can’t give you any more “added value” than I currently have.

But one thing I do know — and I say this with more pride than shame — in October, I will have photos of Paris with my mother.

The Dark Side of the Pill


Popular wisdom says a blog must have a niche, or a focused theme, and today I found it — anxiety.  I walked into Walgreen’s, headed straight for the pretty Vietnamese pharmacist with the sour face, and without hesitation or shame, handed her a presciption for Buspar.

“It’s a mild anti-anxiety medication,” I said.

“I know what Buspar is.  I’m a pharmacist,” she replied, sourly.

I know my mother is going to call me in ten minutes and tell me NOT to take this pill.  She is so fearful of pills that she would be booted out of BlogHer today for being a bad mother to me when I was a child. When I had the flu, she would give me less than the suggested dose of any medication.  If it was a fever, she would cut the aspirin and give me half.  If I was coughing endlessly, she would give me a teaspoon of cough medicine.

“Mom, Robitussin says to give me a TABLESPOON, not a TEASPOON. Cough Cough Cough.”

I was an avid reader at an early age, and was fond of reading cereal boxes and cough medicine bottles.

“You don’t need a full tablespoon. You can get HOOKED on this and then you will be in the street, drinking cough syrup.”

“Yuch.  It’s too sweet. It’s like the Manischevitz wine at Passover that no one likes.  Who is going to get hooked on cough syrup?”

“That’s what they ALL say before it starts to become a problem.   Just drink more tea and honey.  That will make you better.”

My mother was like a Jewish version of a Jehovah’s Witness/Scientologist, who didn’t believe in modern pills.  It was always tea and honey.  And chicken soup, the cure-all.  I’m lucky I never broke a leg.

“Here, put some chicken soup on your leg.”

Her anxiety over medications became my anxiety over medications.

And drugs.

Remember when everyone laughed at Bill Clinton when he said he smoked pot, but never inhaled?  I never laughed.  I did that ALL the time when I was thirteen years old, hanging out with Scott and Phillip in Phillip’s room after school, when his mother was still at work.  Phillip would take out his nickel bag hat he bought from his older sister and then crank up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on his expensive, wood-grained Sherwood stereo that he saved up for by working at his father’s store.

“This album is the fucking best!” announced Scott.

He always said that, just as “Money” started to play.  And yes, Pink Floyd nuts, I realize that “Money” is the first song on the B-side, but Phillip always played the second side first.  That’s how we rolled in Flushing, Queens.

I like Pink Floyd now.  But I didn’t like them at all when I was thirteen.  I found “The Dark Side of the Moon,” one of the best-selling albums ever,  slow and depressing. I secretly listened to the more upbeat, funkier, Commodores back at home, but never mentioned it to anyone else.

“Pink Floyd rocks!” I would say as Phillip would turn the bass up so high that it distorted the sound.

Note:  I made up that last quote where I say, “Pink Floyd rocks!”  Recently, there was a scandal where a blogger was caught making up details about his life, and I feel the need to kowtow to the pressure to be authentic.  I don’t really remember what I said in Phillip’s  during those good ol’ days, but I am positive that peer pressure had an even bigger effect on me back then, which would have forced me to say that I liked this album more than I did. (Albums, ha ha! How quaint! One day, I will talk about how important it was to have the right speakers and stereo system. We used to talk about it like kids talk about smartphones today.)

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay
And your O.K.

Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands
And make a stash

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money get back
I’m all right Jack
Keep your hands off my stack

Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that
Do goody good bullshit

I’m in the hi-fidelity
First class traveling set
And I think I need a Lear jet

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly
But don’t take a slice of my pie

Having just recalled the lyrics to “Money,” it doesn’t surprise me at all that my pot smoking friend ended up working on WALL STREET, rolling in the dough,  while I’m still lulling away the hours, fantasizing about the woman extolled by the Commodores in — (take it Lionel Richie)

She’s a brick—-house
Mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out
She’s a brick—-house
The lady’s stacked and that’s a fact,
ain’t holding nothing back.

If you are a parent, watch what your children listen to when they are thirteen years old. It will determine their future more than what fancy school they attend.

Back to the pot.  I loved the smell of pot.  But I was my mother’s son.  I was afraid of getting lung cancer at age thirteen.  Why risk it just to get high?

“You can’t get lung cancer from pot,” said Phillip.

I researched this in the library, and Phillip was right.  But again, why take the chance?

I was not anti-marijuana.   I laughed when they had that school assembly where they brought in that former drug addict who told us that pot was his “gateway drug” to heroin. The “potheads” that I knew in school seemed way too lazy to go out and buy a needle.

I faked smoking pot with Phillip and Scott.   Of course, sometimes the smoke would get into my lungs.  It took some skill to fake smoking pot, because you were supposed to hold it in for what seemed like ten minutes to get the “full effect.”  At one point, Scott bought a bong, which always seemed to me like a Mr. Coffee for potheads.

Phillip and Scott would get high, grooving to Pink Floyd.  I never could understand how his parents never figured out what we were doing after school.  The entire room smelled of pot.  Perhaps they smoked pot themselves?

It was never much fun being the one friend who wasn’t high.    Phillip and Scott found everything funny, and there is nothing less funny than people who think they are funny.

Phillip: “If you reflect a magnifying glass just right, you can get this rainbow effect like on the album cover.”

Scott: “I love this album cover.”

Phillip: “You going to get the new Kiss album?”

Scott: “Kiss is for faggots.”

Phillip: “Yeah.  Ha Ha Ha.”

Scott: “Imagine kissing Shari Diamond.”

Phillip: “Oh yeah!

Scott: “Call her. Tell her to come over.”

Phillip: “Look at the wall! It’s like vibrating.”

Scott: “Fuck.”

I know I might seem like a wallflower, but I wasn’t.  I would participate in the conversation, too.

Neil: “Do you think the social studies test is going to be hard on Friday?”

Phillip: “What are you talking about, Neil?”

Scott: “Mellow out, Neil. Look at the wall.”

Neil:  “OK.”

Phillip:  “You see it?”

Neil:  “Yeah.  Cool.  (to self) Morons.”

2012, many years later.  Scott is on Facebook.   Phillip is missing.  My musical taste has not improved (see Kelly Clarkson?!)  And sadly, my anxiety remains.  Lately, I haven’t been myself.  I’ve been having trouble dealing with work and money and divorce and whether or not to make new business cards for BlogHer.

“Why don’t you take some Buspar?” said Dr. Fish, my primary care doctor who I went to because I had a pain in my shoulder.  Diagnosis: Tendonitis.

“I don’t need it.”

“Sophia said it might be good for you?”

“Sophia?!”

I remembered that we had the same doctor and Sophia had just gone to Dr. Fish two days earlier for her yearly checkup.  I felt like I was being pushed into something I didn’t want to do.

“I don’t like pills.”

“It’s not a big deal. You take it.  If you don’t like it, you stop.”

“I’m not sure I have “real” anxiety.  It’s just a temporary thing.  I’m not afraid of people.”

“Not all anxieties are the same.”

“Well, come to think of it, I AM afraid of most people.  But I’m not crazy or anything.”

Silence.

Mom, are you calling me now?

“Don’t take it, Neil.” I can hear her saying.   “Don’t take pills.   Finish this divorce already, and you will be OK.”

But I am an adult.  I need to stop listening to Sophia, Dr. Fish, AND my mother, and do what is best for my mental health.

The package of Buspar is sitting on the desk, next to the computer.  I’m still a little scared of taking one. Will I become a Stepford zombie? Will my penis shrink?

Maybe I should download some Pink Floyd on iTunes so I can create the right mood.

The Board Meeting in Queens

On Friday, I learned that one of my blog posts has been chosen to be part of the keynote Voices of the Year reading at BlogHer ’12 in New York.  I am delighted to be included with so many talented writers.

The announcement couldn’t happen at a better time.  After all my fretting over my lack of niche and tribe, the choice has been made for me.  My category is humor, and my tribe is… women.

I take all ceremony with a grain of salt.  It is part of being a humor writer.  I know that in August, a whole bunch of new people will discover my blog for the first time, read it once, then say to themselves, “Jesus, this guy isn’t that funny,” and never come return.

I look forward to the experience.

The honor is most meaningful in that it is nice to feel accepted, especially by a group where I don’t quite fit in for a number or reasons.   I’m not a woman or even a daddy blogger.   I’m just a guy , a straight man, who — for various reasons that need to be discussed in therapy some day — has a sensibility that connects him with female writers.

I know for a fact that some women don’t appreciate the presence of men (the marketers excepted) at the BlogHer conference.  I’m sorry for that.   If you can’t see the feminism of men befriending women, learning from women, and discussing writing with women, with no clear business agenda other than friendship and creative inspiration, than it is YOUR problem.

For better or worse, the annual Blogher conference has collided with real events in my life, connecting with me on a personal level, like a secular Yom Kippur.

In 2009, in Chicago, I met so many bloggers for the first time.  I cried with joy when I finally met Schmutzie.  I introduced myself to Kate Inglis.   Amy Turn Sharp and I did a session on writing, which went on to influence a whole writing track.  A woman hit on me at bar, which was both flattering and scary.

In 2010, I attended BlogHer ’10 in New York.  It was a traumatic time for me.  Sophia’s parents had just passed away, one after another.  On Saturday night, I walked around the city all night, by myself, in a daze.

In 2011, Sophia and I handed in our divorce papers and then I drove to San Diego to attend BlogHer ’11.

It’s now 2012.  Time for some positive energy.

Being honored by BlogHer has had another unexpected result — a brand new writing gig!  Yesterday, my mother called me with the news.   Here’s the story —

One of the apartments in my mother’s apartment building in Queens was vandalized recently.  After much hand-wringing, a “Board of Directors” meeting was called, to be held in the board room (the former laundry room).   All residents were invited to discuss the matter.  The topic at hand:  too many strangers were coming in and out of the building.

The residents of my mother’s building are a polite group, and therein lies the problem.   They hold the door open for everyone approaching the front door.  There is no doorman, so the tenants are the only security system.

The meeting started with a stern announcement from the Board of Directors:  tenants shouldn’t hold the front door open for strangers.  If a person doesn’t have a key to the front door in the lobby,  the visitor should be required to ring the tenant on the intercom system.

Simple enough, right?  But if you know anything about the residents of a Queens apartment building, you know that they LOVE to argue, the more mundane the subject the better.

Two camps formed that at the meeting.  One was the “law and order” group.  They were gung-ho about protecting the tenants from the outsiders.  The progressives, including my mother, were more concerned about hurting the feelings of the strangers.

“How can we just close the door on people?” she asked. “We will look so impolite.”

David Feingold, the President of the Board, rubbed his beard like a Talmudic rabbi.  He was the building’s King Solomon and came up with a compromise.   The Board of Directors would tape a note to the front door, informing outsiders that the residents of the building were not trying to be impolite by closing the door on them.  The residents were just trying to be safe.

Betty Langer, a retired school teacher, and former civil rights advocate, brought up the elephant in the room, the racial overtones of the problem.

“I don’t believe that this will be treated fairly!” she said.  “Wouldn’t you all pick and choose who you let in?  Wouldn’t you refuse entry to the black boy in the hoodie, but hold the door open for the elderly white woman with a walker?”

The progressive tenants held their head down in shame.  No one likes to be confronted by their own racism.   But the members of the Board of Directors were adamant about taking action.   Something had to be done.

“Let’s get a doorman!” yelled Lillian Vanelli from the back row, who always felt inferior to her sister, who married well and now lives in an exclusive building on the Upper East Side, with a doorman.

“Oh yeah? And who’s going to pay for it?” said Russell Ross, the cheapskate tax attorney on the third floor, who was once caught stealing the Sunday New York Times from the front door of a neighbor, rather than paying for it himself.

A vote was taken and it was agreed that a note would be placed on the door.   But who would write it?   Who dare undertake such a dangerous task?

Most of the residents of my mother’s building are hard-working men and women, but inexperienced in the creative art of persuasion.

“I know who can write it for us!” said my mother. “My son is a writer!”

“What kind of writer is he?” sneared Lillian Vanelli.  “He’s been in Los Angeles for years? When is THAT movie coming out anyway?”

“Hey, Charles Dickens was rejected a 100 times before they published “A Tale of Two Cities.”

My mother, who worked in publishing for forty years, knew this wasn’t true, but is quick-witted, and knew that Lillian was clueless about literature.

There had been tension between my mother and Lillian for years, ever since Lillian was booted out of my mother’s mah jongg group for playing too slow.

“And besides,” added my mother.  “Neil  is going to one of the keynote speakers at BlogHer this year, along with other talented women.”

“Ha, ha.  I always knew Neil was gay,” replied Lillian, chuckling.

“He may be gay, but I love him no matter WHAT he is!” said my mother.

(note: my mother didn’t really say that, but I wanted to add a positive pro-gay message to this post in case I want to submit this post to BlogHer next year.  They LOVE THAT STUFF!)

After the Board of Directors meeting concluded, my mother called me up on the iPhone I bought her that she still doesn’t know how to use.

“Neil, I have a writing assigment for you,” she said. “There is no pay, but it will be seen by a lot of people.  In fact, everyone who walks into our apartment building.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“We need a note that says something like this, but written in your own unique style  — “I am sorry that I am slamming the door in your face, whether you are a black boy with a hoodie or an old white lady with a cane.  It doesn’t matter.  I slam the door on everyone who is a stranger.   This does not mean I am impolite.  I like you.   Maybe one day, you will live here, and I will hold the door for you.  But right now, I am closing the door on you, for your own protection.  But have a nice day.”

Yes!  Thank you BlogHer.   Can’t wait for the conference.  I feel this is going to be MY YEAR!

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