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.
I have a friend who is involved with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Group, which was started in 1966 by the iconic musician and activist Pete Seeger in response to his despair over the pollution of the Hudson River. Today, the organization is still thriving, and during the spring and summer, the schooner Clearwater sails down the Hudson, bringing the message of activism to thousands. On Saturday, my friend was going for a meetup with other crew members of the replica 19th Century sloop, and I was lucky enough to tag along. There was a pot-luck dinner, great conversation, and some old-fashioned folk-singing. I found myself feeling very comfortable, even when events turned hippyish. Who can resist the beat of Native American drumming?
Many at the meetup were preparing to attend the big march in Washington D.C. protesting Trump’s inauguration. A few said that they would be unable to go to Washington for various reasons, but Clearwater cleverly found a way for everyone to show their support. A large protest banner was laid out on a table, and those who knew they couldn’t attend created a handprint by pressing their ink-painted hand onto the cloth.
This isn’t slacktivism; it’s symbolism. These individuals will be present in Washington, their hand raised high for all to see, even if they aren’t physically marching in the street. Not everyone has the ability to march. Everyone does their part in the way they can.
I’ll be marching in New York. But I know many of you will be marching in Washington and Los Angeles and Chicago and Raleigh and Miami. When I go on Facebook next week ready to go into Manhattan to march, feel free to post a photo of YOUR HAND in my Facebook comment section, and I will know you are there with me. I will be doing the exact same thing with you, our hands together in friendship, love, vulnerability, and strength. Let’s watch out for and support each other.
So far, in 2017, I’ve been losing things
I lost the close relationship of a woman.
I lost the comfort of looking up to a President who beamed with decency and intelligence, as a new administration takes shape, in the likeness of a serpent.
Three days ago, I lost my umbrella, leaving it on a bus.
Two days ago, I lost my hat, leaving it on a train.
Yesterday, I lost my identity, or at least my wallet, pickpocketed in the Times Square subway station. In my wallet were my credit cards, my library card, my insurance card, and my driver’s license.
Today, I took a break to see a matinée of the award-winning film, Moonlight.
Later, I discovered that I lost my second hat of the week, this time leaving it in the movie theater. When I called the theater’s lost and found office, they said it was gone. Was I losing my mind?
“There is nothing wrong with me,” I told myself. “I am distracted. Between the personal and the political, I feel lost. I’m not ready for the new year yet, and my mind is rebelling against its existence.
I grabbed a strong cup of coffee, then went to the New York Public Library to get a replacement library card. I glanced around at all the books on the shelves. Thousands of books stood silently, lined up like Napoleon’s soldiers waiting for action. From Knitting for Dummies to A Guide to Authoritarian Governments to the Kama Sutra. So much to learn, so much to do, so much to fight against, so much to love and protect.
The librarian handed me my new library card. My name was written on it. It was my first new proof of my identity in 2017 since my wallet was stolen.
I was now ready for the new year. I had no choice. With only my library card and twenty bucks in my pocket, I stepped outside into the winter cold to buy a new hat and umbrella.
At the end of sixth grade, we all received an autograph album so we can sign our goodbyes to our classmates before we headed off to the great dark and dangerous unknown — junior high. I found my “autograph album” yesterday in my closet, and it was fun reading again, especially the page where I listed my favorites.
I can only imagine my sixth grade mind’s thoughts as I scribbled in my answers.
My Favorite Author: Agatha Christie
“I don’t read children’s books like the other kids. I read adult books like my mom. I read Agatha Christie. She is an adult writer. I am an adult reader.”
My Favorite Book: Murder on the Orient Express
“My favorite book is “Murder on the Orient Express.” Of course it is. I love trains. I have a train set, and when I am on the subway, I imagine myself on some really fancy train, like the Orient Express. The Orient Express is as fancy as they come. You can sleep on the train and they serve you steak and lobster, like at that fancy restaurant in Long Island where the waitresses dress as pilgrims. The Orient Express goes from Egypt to Europe, and all types of fancy people go on it, Dukes and Duchesses, and millionaires. Hercule Poirot is also on the train. He is a famous detective. He is way smarter than even Columbo. This is his hardest case ever! But he watches, and listens, and puts two plus two together, and he figures it all out. You will never guess whodunit. If you’ve ever played Clue, this is a book you HAVE to read.
The novel is also educational. It teaches us an important life lesson that I will remember forever. If you think logically, using your little grey cells in your brain like a detective, you will be able to figure out anything. Nothing is too complicated for the human brain to understand if you think hard enough. Life is like math, 2+2=4. I will always remember that. Think hard enough and you can figure out the answer, so everything will always be perfect.”
My Favorite College: Harvard
I have never seen Harvard in real life because I have never been to Boston. I have only seen Harvard in that movie that my mom likes where the college students fall in love. But I know that I must attend Harvard for college. It is the best. Even though I am only in sixth grade now, I must prepare myself to get into Harvard now, no matter if I have no fun until then. Because once you get into Harvard, you have everything. The rest of your life is pure happiness. You sit on the lawn and read books with smart guys in glasses and play Frisbee with pretty girls with long hair. If you go to Harvard, your parents are so proud that they tell all their friends, “My son is in Harvard.” Over and over again. And when I come back from Harvard to Queens and go back to my sixth grade class, Sharon will want to be my partner in the dance festival. “Oh, Neil, you are back from Harvard!” she will say. “I would love it if you will be my partner for the dance festival this year. I wish I knew you were going to Harvard in sixth grade, I would have become your partner and we would be married by now. But now we can get married because you went to Harvard.”
My Favorite Profession: Lawyer or Author
I would like to be a lawyer and fight for civil rights and against those who try to ban books and say there is no evolution. I’m always in social studies coming up with a question where the teacher goes, “Good question, Neil.” I can do that in court. I will be logical as a lawyer, like Hercule Poirot as a detective. I will say, “You say blacks and whites should not go to the same schools, but WHY do you believe that? Do you have any proof why it is bad? Aren’t all children just children? Do you know the words of Martin Luther King? Don’t we all bleed and laugh and cry and learn? Why shouldn’t we go to the same schools?” And everyone will stand and cheer.
Maybe I’d rather be an author instead of a lawyer. My uncle is a lawyer and is divorced, and my dad says he drinks too much. I’m not sure I would want to go to court everyday or wear a suit. I don’t want to get divorced or drink too much. An author may be better because he sits at home all day and writes stories, like Agatha Christie, and everyone just loves you all the time. And as an author, you can make A LOT OF MONEY!! Girls will want to be with me because I will have so much money.
My favorite motto: Do Onto Others as You Want Others To Do To You
This is my favorite saying. A famous rabbi once said that the entire Torah can be summarized by this saying. You don’t like being beaten up or mugged, so you shouldn’t do it to someone else. If someone is sick, bring them the homework. That is exactly what you want, right? If everyone follows this plan, then everyone is nice and happy. Of course, just to be logical, I might not want to beat you up because I follow my motto, but you might still beat me up, because you don’t follow the motto. Then, I’m not sure what to do. That screws up everything. But I think eventually, as society advances, we all will be good to each other. It is the way of history, like landing on the moon — progress!
Democracy requires compromise. We cannot survive in a world where ideological splits, gender politics, and vicious accusations of corruption are the daily norm. The 2016 Campaign has brought out the worst in everyone, and I’m not talking about the primary season, but the Board of Directors election in my apartment building in Queens.
There are two political camps in my building — Team Murray and Team Sylvia, which I’ve named in honor of their leaders. Each team has differing views on hot issues such as the efficiency of the new dryers in the laundry room, the wisdom of hiring a new management company, and the acceptable amount of electricity used in the yearly Christmas/Hanukkah decorations. Five new members of the Board are elected each year, and each side want to stack the Board with those loyal to their agenda.
This year’s trouble began a few weeks ago when tenants started to receive homemade “campaign” fliers slid under their door. At first, they were innocent enough — typical campaign promises of more parking spots — but the situation quickly deteriorated as more and more fliers showed up, usually at 3AM, unsigned and with vague accusations of corruption and abuse of power.
Team Murray and Team Sylvia went to war.
“Is there anything lower than sending around anonymous letters accusing good people of profiting from the new laundry machines?” screamed a new notice received under the door, written in a size 15 font.
“Only cowards write anonymously!” the person continued on, anonymously.
The day of the big election quickly arrived. I remembered that Jana was flying in from Atlanta that same night.
“Have any exciting plans for us?” she asked me on the phone on the night before her arrival.
“Very exciting plans,” I said. “I’m taking you to my apartment building’s Board of Director’s election night. This will be more dramatic than any Broadway show.”
The General Election was held in the apartment building’s large wood-grained “community room,” located near the lobby. The room, with a full kitchen and a full set of tables and chairs, has been home to countless meetings for the tenants, sweet sixteen parties and retirement dinners. It was in this room where, many years ago, I had my bris, the traditional Jewish circumcision ceremony. Can we get any more symbolic than that?
But tonight the room was a shelter for Democracy in Action. The candidates sat at the dais in the front, nervously fidgeting as the tenants placed their filled-out ballets into the makeshift cardboard ballot box, then sat down at one of the rows of chairs set up for the general meeting before the vote counting. My mother came early with her friends to get “good seats” up front. I arrived late with Jana since she had just arrived from La Guardia Airport. We found two open seats in the back, directly behind a group of supporters of Team Murray, including Murray himself. Whispers were passing between them; there was a last minute plot afoot.
The meeting started off peacefully. As we waited for late-comers to show up and vote, the President of the Board convened an open meeting to discuss some minor issues involving the building. And that’s when the shit hit the fan. One female tenant stood up to publicly accuse some long time resident on the fifth floor as the mysterious “anonymous letter writer.” The accused fought back, insinuating that she was cheating on her husband, and stealing The New York Times from other tenants. Things only go worse.
Much has been made of the lack of decorum on the internet, with all the insults, hate, and trolls being a product of modern-day forums such as Twitter and Reddit. This makes the assumption that in the days before the Internet, the human race was kind and respectful, lovingly listening to the needs of the others. I can guarantee that Jana and I were the only ones in this room who have ever used Twitter, and there was enough “shaming” going on in this room to fill ten timelines. Humans have been hitting each over the head with clubs since we were cavemen
After much loud drama, a tenant shouted everyone down, suggesting that we keep our personal issues saved for another day, and focus on the purpose of the evening — the election. All the ballots were now sitting in the box and it was time for the count. But first, as required by “the bylaws,” the President of the Board, a plumber by profession, had to read some legal document written back in 1960 to validate the legitimacy election. It was a ritual done in every Board Election since then.
The tenants of the building half-listened to the legalese until he reached the President reached the last paragraph of the bylaws, which went, “According to the bylaws, as written in June of the year 1960, if anyone so chooses to be included on the ballot as a write-in candidate, now is the last moment to do so, or else forfeit your chance. Would anyone else like to be added to the list of candidates?”
This was read without emotion, much in the same way that a pastor might ask those attending a wedding if anyone present has a reason to oppose the marriage. No one is supposed to yell out, “Yes,” except maybe a character in a romantic comedy from the 1990s.
But here is where Team Murray executed their shock and awe plot. They earlier had convinced Rashida, a friend of Murray’s wife, Allison, to add her name as a last-minute write-in candidate, hoping to stack the Board with supporters of the Team Murray agenda.
“I’d like to add my name,” said the woman, a middle school teacher named Rashida.
“Uh, OK…” said the Board President, unsure of the next move. In the fifty years of Board Elections, no one had ever added their name on the night of the election.
“You have to add her,” said Murray. “It’s in the bylaws.”
“I suppose it is. We’ll have to add her,” he said, facing the crowd, showing his first true sign of leadership during his five years as Board president. “So now if anyone wants to vote for Rashida, you can vote for her.”
Rose, one of the members of my mother’s weekly mahjongg group, stood up with an objection. Although now frail, the eighty-five year old Rose once worked at a large advertising firm and was considered intelligent and street savvy by the other tenants.
“I think we might have a little problem with this plan,” she said.
“What’s that?” asked the Board President/Plumber.
“We voted all already and our ballots are in the box.”
Pandemonium broke out, and even King Solomon himself couldn’t find a compromise between Team Murray and team Sulvia, a precursor of what is going to happen when Bernie Sanders makes a play for Hillary Clinton’s super-delegates at the Democratic Convention this summer. Politics is an ugly business
The Board President consulted with a tenant from the fifth floor who used to work as a court stenographer, and a decision was reached
“We will take all the ballots out of the box and return them to you, and then you can cross out someone and add Rashida instead.”
It was a mess. Many tenants never signed their name to the ballot the first time, so no one was quite sure which ballot belonged to which person, except if they used a special colored marker
Rashida, fearful of utter chaos, made the announcement that she was pulling out of the election, much to the dismay of Team Murray. She realized that it was just too complicated, and also wanted to go home before nine o’clock to watch some TV show. The ballots were returned to the box, and a trio of supposedly unbiased tenants from the building, an accountant, a retired NYPD officer, and a stay-at-home mom, took the box behind closed doors into the “kitchen area” to count the ballots by hand.
As the rest of us waited for the “results,” calmness fell over the room, and tenants socialized with each other, asking each other about their health and families. My mother took Jana over to meet her friends, introducing her as my “girlfriend.” Not that I minded my mother saying it, but it did feel weird hearing her say it, especially since I never described her as such. But women know these things.
Jana meeting the neighbors.
The cocktail party atmosphere faded as the kitchen door swung open, and the election committee returned with results. The crowd returned to their seats. It was time. Call Wolf Blitzer.
The election results were a surprise. Despite the maneuvering of the Machiavellian Team Murray, it was a clean sweep by Team Sylvia. All five of the Team Sylvia candidates were elected to the Board.
Murray himself stood up and announced the entire election a fraud.
“It’s an illegal election.”
“Why’s that?” asked the Board President, who was re-elected for a second term.
“Because the ballot box was opened, making it null and void!”
“But we only did that because your own candidate decided to run at the last moment before she changed her mind!”
“I demand a new election.”
“We’re not having a new election!”
“Then I’ll take this entire apartment building and the Board of Directors to court!”
Insults were flung. Someone’s wife was called a whore. Arguing was heard for hours as most of the tenants shrugged, and went upstairs to their apartments. Rashida went home to watch her TV show.
“So what did you think?” I asked Jana as we took the elevator upstairs.
“That was the best time I’ve ever had in New York.”
A week later, all parties agreed to accept the results, as long as it goes down in the history books with an asterisk, much like the contested election of George W. Bush.
Politics as usual.