Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Category: Life in General (page 1 of 45)

The Election

board meeting

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.

Veronica’s Letters


Most people don’t know they are crazy until they sit down for an intervention with themselves.

My friend, Veronica is a artsy-craftsy woman. She creates gorgeous birthday cards using ink and collage. On Facebook, she is a member of a group named, “Save the Post Office,” which advocates for old-school letter writing by hand. For those who might not know what that means, it includes licking stamps, sticking them on store-bought envelopes, then sending the letter, non-electronically, person to person, like Ben Franklin might have once done, through the United States Post Office, something many of us haven’t done since 1992.

Veronica and I met in 2005, during the early days of personal blogging. She stopped writing her blog a few years ago, but recently she said that she missed sharing her personal stories. Social media just didn’t do it for her. She had an idea. She would write personal letters to her friends, scribed by hand, as if she was sent back in a time machine to her teenage years. One of those friends turned out to be me.

I did not know Veronica had included me in this experiment, but I certainly wasn’t surprised when I received her letter in the mail. She enjoys pushing herself creatively, someone who will take the time to write you a personal letter rather than take the easy route of pushing a button on Facebook Messenger.

I opened the mailbox that day at noon. Inside the box were the usual suspects — bills, a New Yorker magazine, and a coupon from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Stuck in between the pages of the magazine was Veronica’s letter, my name hand-written on the envelope in a non-perfect cursive; it made me smile. I had a phone call to make, so I decided to open the letter in the evening, when I could give it my attention.

At 8PM I went to my desk and picked up the letter. It was time to read it. But when I tried to open it, I froze. Something was preventing me from opening the envelope, by why? What was there to fear? To avoid the discomfort, I opened Facebook on my laptop, but when I saw the glowing green light of Veronica in Messenger, I worried that she would ask me about the letter, so I shut off the computer. I grabbed the envelope and took it with me to bed, but when I started to tear it open, my mind filled with movie images from the past.

There was the Army messenger handing over the grim letter to the young woman, now a widow, at her front door. The lover awakening to a goodbye letter on the bed, signifying the end of a relationship. The suburban man’s suicide letter left after being fired from the company, being too ashamed to face his family.

Why did these melodramatic scenes pop into my head? Did I know they bore no connection to Veronica’s letter? Of course I did.

I waited until the next morning to open the envelope, when I had a renewed sense of reality. Veronica’s letter was personal, but contained nothing she couldn’t write publicly about on Facebook. She said her kids were growing up, getting married and going to college, and this was creating changes in her life as well. Nothing scandalous or scary.

That day, another letter arrived. Veronica’s letter-writing experiment was going to continue all week.

I found it easier to open the second handwritten letter. When I unfolded it, I immediately noticed that Veronica did some editing, crossing out a sentence with her pen, then scribbling her new thought sideways, in the margin. This raised the stakes in her letter-writing. The imperfections of the second letter was reminiscent of the notes you might pass in homeroom during elementary school. And again, I froze, for a different reason that the day before. Seeing Veronica’s edits, and touching the same paper that she once held in her hand was too visceral, like I could feel her pen still vibrating on the page. It felt too intimate, like I had walked into the bathroom while she was there, and I froze in a combination of curiosity and shame.

Yes. I know what you are thinking. Crazy. I was beginning to think so myself.

My letter reading improved as the week went on, until I received the seventh and last letter, which I couldn’t open for another four days.

Let me make sure you understand all this. None of these letters were intense or extremely personal. These letter were not sent to torment me, but as a creative exercise for herself. I know this because after reading the last letter, I finally called her on the phone.

“Veronica, I want to talk to you. It’s a little weird and personal….” I said, telling her my tale of the five handwritten letters. And as I proceeded, I gained the ability to step away and analyze my craziness. Maybe this is the true power of storytelling. You begin to understand yourself.

My hangup was about intimacy. Intimacy and anxiety in the digital age. For eleven years, a large bulk of my socializing has been mediated through electronic means — laptops, tablets, and phones, blogging, Facebook, instagram — to the point where I never hold a hand-written letter in my hands or speak to a friend on the telephone. My conversations are on IM or email, outlets without physical contact. Even Skype is a two-dimensional representation of reality. Since my divorce, I’ve had two romantic relationships, both based online, but the major background to our romantic tales doesn’t primarily take place in romantic cities like New York or Paris, but behind the lighted screens of our laptops, hundreds and thousands of miles apart.

Yes, I meet friends and lovers in person, but I wonder if my online existence has become so habitual that I have grown uncomfortable with the intimacy of something as innocent as a handwritten letter. I have grown so comfortable chatting with a thousand people at a time on social media, that sitting with a personal letter written just for me freaks me out. That is crazy. The truth is I felt myself unable to handle the intimacy of reading the letters, the lack of control. Would I have to write back? What if I connect too deeply? What if I don’t know what to say, or she says something that makes me cry? What if she is telling me that she is getting a divorce or has some mysterious disease? Can I just press the like button? Have I forgotten what it’s like to have a real friend? And what does this say about my relationships with others? Romantic ones.

“Maybe I shouldn’t write you again,” she said at the end of our conversation, laughing. “I didn’t realize it would affect you so much!”

But I hope she does. Or even better — maybe I should write back.

Walt Disney World: World of Laughter and Tears

Walt Disney World
Main Street

Every man should visit a Disney park five times during his lifetime.

The first time is when he is a child, so he can appreciate the magic of this amazing fantasy world through the eyes of a young person.

It's a Small World
It’s a Small World

The second trip is years later, with high school or college buddies, done as a lark during spring break. This is a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood because what once caught your imagination now becomes an object of sarcasm and scorn. Everything Disney must be ridiculed and mocked as childish and commercial. The only reason for being there is to score some over-priced beers at the Germany pavilion at Epcot and then vomiting behind the PeopleMover as a sign of a triumph over your childhood.


The third excursion is after graduation, now as a male adult, his youth behind him, holding hands with a date, a lover, or girlfriend. This is his attempt to transform the Disney experience, once a symbol of childhood and teenage angst, into one of maturity and romance.  More on this later.

Italy Epcot
Italy, Epcot

The fourth visit is mid-life, with your wife and kids, hoping to see the joy in the bright faces of your children, so as to remember your own  sense of awe at first stepping into the Magic Kingdom. Of course, now as an adult, you will also other thoughts, such as how this family trip, with travel, hotel, food, park admission, and food on the Disney property, is costing you more than a down payment on a new Prius, but once you overcome this urge to worry, this visit can be the most beautiful, depending on the behavior and brat-level of your offspring.

Epcot Morocco
Morocco, Epcot

The fifth and final trip should be in old age, during the twilight years, preferably on your own. While standing in the middle of Disney’s old-fashioned, Norman-Rockwell type Main Street, you thank God for allowing you to visit a Disney property five times in your lifetime. Many come to Disney as a last wish as sick children, and never get to see it again. You were one of the lucky ones who got to experience Disney through all five stages of life.

Electrical Parade
Electrical Parade

And then, after counting your blessings, and with the Main Street trolley clanging by, as it does so efficiently ever few minutes, you should curse Walt Disney for every myth that he planted in your weak brain.  It was Walt Disney who ruined your life.  Your Prince or Princess never did come, did he? You never met a sexy mermaid or a talking lion, true?   And the only time you saw a real mouse, he wasn’t cute with big ears, but a disease-ridden pest, and you smashed it dead with a golf club on the linoleum of your kitchen. No, Mr. Disney, during your entire life, all you peddled was fakery, like the Morocco’s cheap façade at Epcot, and you profited from it. And now, after counting your blessing and cursing the memory of Disney, there is nothing left for you to do on Earth but to die,  facing Cinderella’s Castle, right in front of Goofy’s Souvenir Shop, and as you fall to the ground and take your last breath, you realize that even in death, you were conned by Walt Disney, who has cleverly frozen himself in a secret room in Burbank, California, so one day, in a true Tomorrowland, he will return to life, the richest man on Earth, laughing at your for his ultimate con job, a prank that even a Cruella Deville couldn’t imagine.

Japan Epcot
Japan, Epcot

But, anyway, back to my recent trip to Walt Disney World with Jana. It was my “third category trip” to a Disney property, the “romantic trip.” While I had been to Disneyland while living in Los Angeles, it was my first time back at Walt Disney World since I went there in the late 1970s with my parents, before Epcot had not even been built!

Walt Disney World 70s
Walt Disney World, late 1970s

I know the question you are asking yourself. Can romance be found at a Disney theme park, a location crowded with crying children, stressed out parents, and senior citizens aggressively driving their rent-a-scooters like the extras in a Mad Max film?

Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World, today

It’s not easy, especially if you are running around to go on rides you haven’t been on in decades, catching the buses back and forth to your hotel, and running races at 5AM (Jana was involved in a charity race).

Disney World
Princess Race Finish Line Bleachers, Walt Disney World

Surely, by nightfall,  even under the fake romantic moon in the Disney sky, most couples are less “Lady and the Tramp” slurping pasta together at a Italian bistro than Sleepy and Grumpy, wanting to hit the sack.  That is mostly true.   But yes, romance CAN be found at a Disney property, in small doses, but only if you go with the right woman who can magically turn the most cynical of men into believing in fairydust.

Walt Disney World
Jana, Adventureland

So, thumbs up, Walt Disney World.   I prefer Disneyland in California, it being smaller and more a part of the the actual city of Anaheim, but I had a good time. And I didn’t expect to enjoy it.  Next time I need to come with kids.   Anyone’s kids.

And please, don’t ever tear down the corny Country Bear Jamboree, no matter how few people still visit it.

Disney World
Walt Disney World, Main Street

Top Twelve Things I Did in Atlanta This Weekend

I hear that writing one of these lists is an easy way to write a post.  So, here it goes — Top Twelve Things I Did in Atlanta This Weekend!

1)  Going with Jana to meet Miranda, her co-producer/co-director of Atlanta’s Listen to Your Mother show.

2)  Going with Jana to meet her friend, Karen, in a local TraderJoe’s,  which was a surprisingly good idea because we were able to taste the gnocchi from the guy in the chef’s hat who was giving away free samples.

3)  Going with Jana to eat BBQ ribs with Dadcation and his family, and getting sauce all over my beard.


4)  Going with Jana to a party at a bowling alley where I participated in my first game of laser-tag.   Considering I am a man of non-violence and pro-gun control,  I was pretty good at the game.  My biggest man-to-man combat was with this eleven year old boy.  He was quick with his trigger, but he lacked my intelligence.  Using cognitive therapy techniques that I picked up over the years, I was able to trick him into trusting me as an ally, when I promptly shot him in the back.

5) Sleeping with Loretta, Jana’s dog.   I loved this dog.   For some reason, Jana became petty and jealous when I asked her to sleep in the living room couch so I could snuggle with Loretta in her bed.   What’s the big deal?  I’ll never “get” women.


6) Going to Ikea with Jana and her son, Henry.  By the way, just in case you were wondering, Atlanta’s IKEA looks EXACTLY like your IKEA.



7) Forcing Jana to watch 4 hours of Gone with the Wind.  Can you believe she grew up in Georgia and NEVER saw the movie?!  This has to be rectified.  After the marathon screening, she said she wasn’t impressed.  “Scarlet is a selfish bitch,” she said.  Confused by her reaction, I brought in the big guns to explain to her why she was wrong. (thank you,  certified GWTW expert Danny on Facebook).

8) Driving on a country road somewhere in Northern Georgia and yelling, “Stop here for a photo!” every five minutes.


9) Touring the quaint town of Madison, which we learned from the tourism office was spared the flames of Sherman’s March because:

a) Sherman had a West Point buddy who lived in town.
b) or Sherman had a mistress in town.
c) or a combination of both.


10) Going on a tour of a pre-Civil War mansion.  Jana and I were the only guests, and our tour guide was a junior in high school. After the tour, Jana tried to fix him up with her niece in Florida. I took a lot of photos of the lighting fixtures and creepy dolls in the children’s room.





11) Walking over a covered bridge, another first for me!




12)  Just hanging out with Jana.


What Do You Have to Lose?

A few years ago, when I went to New Zealand to meet Juli, it caused a stir amongst my online friends. It was as romantic and exotic a scenario as any romance novel. The green beauty of the Kiwi location added a Hollywood sheen to my adventure. I posted photos of Juli and I against the backdrops of lush woods, rocky beaches, and Maori villages built on volcanic ash. It was a wonderful trip. Strangers would send me private messages, a few of them like this:

“When I was a junior in college, I spent a year in Sweden. While there, I met Sven. He was the most beautiful man I ever met, and the best lover. For a year, I was in heaven; it was the greatest romance of my life. But after the year, I became practical and returned to my studies at Carnegie-Mellon, where I met my husband. I’m married now, with three children. And I’m very happy living in Pittsburgh. Let me emphasize that. I love my husband dearly and my children are the greatest gift. But sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed in Sweden. I will never know, but you have the opportunity to live life to the fullest. Stay in New Zealand with Juli. Don’t come back to the States! Live! Live like I could never live with Sven!”

There was much disappointment when my relationship with Juli fizzled out, a casualty of the great distance between us. It was a Hollywood movie with a shitty ending. It was also my first taste of the fickleness of an audience. All the new readers and followers who were once begging me for a new chapter to my great romantic saga had abandoned my story to the remainders table of the internet.

One person remained true, carrying as much about my aftermath as my travels. It was Jana, a blogging friend from Atlanta. She was one of my first online friends who pushed me to go to New Zealand when I was reluctant to take a risk.

“What do you have to lose?” she asked.

She was still there after hearts were broken.

Now she asked a new question, “How are you doing?”

We bonded after that, becoming confidantes.

Last January, I decided it was time to start dating again. Always up for a trend, I signed up for Tinder. It was terrifying for me, but Jana was there again with good advice.

“What do you have to lose?” she asked.

Jana became my dating coach during my twelve online dates that I had in the winter and spring of 2015. Before the date, I would send her a photo of what I was going to wear. After the date, I would give her the play by play. There was one woman  I liked a lot, but there was a problem — her name was exactly the same as my ex-wife, first and last name. It was the weirdest coincidence in dating history.

“Should I tell her about my ex-wife’s name NOW or LATER?”

“You better tell her now because she’s going to be freaked out.”

And yes, she was freaked out, and I never heard from this woman again.

During this time, I also became a confidant to Jana’s issues, one of them being her separation with her husband. This made me nervous because I was worried that our conversations had triggered her marital problems. She assured me that they hadn’t; they had been growing apart.

One weekend, Jana came to New York City with her niece who was checking out colleges to attend in the fall. She was interested in Columbia, where I had attended school. I accompanied them on a tour and then we went out for pizza at a local college hangout. That night, Jana and I went to their hotel bar, where she introduced me to a drink called the Sidecar. We both became a little tipsy and kissed. It was awkward, because while Jana and her husband were now separated, they were not yet divorced. We let some time pass until the divorce came through. I visited Jana in Atlanta and she visited me in New York. Something was going on with us, but we weren’t sure how to define it. We weren’t even sure it we should change our Facebook relationship status as of yet. No one ever teaches you about dating after divorce. The whole concept of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” sounds so high school.

After a wonderful weekend in New York, I freaked out and called off our budding relationship. Jana didn’t understand. I explained that I had already been involved in a long distance relationship before. Juli and I were also friends before we became romantic, and once you go too far, it is impossible to go back. After the distance proved insurmountable, our friendship never recovered. We rarely speak to each other anymore, even on social media. I didn’t want the same to happen to us. It was more important to me that we remain friends than start a relationship that was bound to have obstacles.

“What do you have to lose?” she asked.

“You,” I said.

That night, I thought about it some more. I had grown very close to Jana. We have fun together and I like her, like the kids say. So, my resolution for 2016 is to stop worrying so much and see where things lead. So, I am writing this as I take a flight to Atlanta to see Jana. Nothing to lose, only to gain. As for changing our Facebook relationship statuses, we’re taking it slow.



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 —

Dating Advice


Female friend on dating:

“Think about her. What can you offer her? If she is a single mother, her children will come first. Can you be a good father figure? A role model? Can she look up to you as a man? Can you be patient and understanding, and appreciate her for her true self, and forgive her for any of her bad moods? Can you look into her eyes, and without words, tell her that she has someone she can always count on? Do you cuddle?”

Male friend on dating:

“Take your age, divide it in half, and add two. That’s who you should date. Not anyone your own age. Look at Mick Jagger. No one with children. Women with children have lost their sense of humor and if one of her kids gets a bad report card, she won’t be in the mood for sex. No one crazy. No one with a brother or father in the police force. Black women, Jewish women, Latina women all OK. No Italian women. From personal experience. Never use the word ‘cuddle.'”

Three Days on Tinder







1  Neil Kramer














2014 Online Recap


In January, I visited my friend, Veronica, in Virginia.


I wrote the first of many 2014 posts about my favorite topic, going to therapy.

Defense Mechanism,



In February, a freeze came over New York City and much of the East Coast.


It felt like an big accomplishment to sweep aside my fear of self-promotion to expand my photo “store.”



In March, I increased my productivity by working in the library, which worked very well until I realized the library had internet service.


I wrote about a breakthrough in therapy that happened when I needed to ask for the wifi password at a coffee shop.

The Password

On my birthday, there is a near-accident while trying to take a nude photo of myself with my iPhone.

The Story of the Birthday Selfie



In April I attended the 50th Anniversary celebration of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park.


I wrote about life in my apartment building in Queens, including this “scary” tale of apartment living.

Doorbell at 3AM

April brought an unexpected viral hit, a collaborative parody of a now obscure independent film titled “American Blogger.”



On Mother’s Day, I participated in Listen to Your Mother at Symphony Space, NYC. It was a wonderful working with so many other talented storytellers.


The Kindergarten Show

I also posted a video of my piece, titled “Glass Half-Full.”



In June, I attended a fun 1920’s era garden party on Governor’s Island.


I struggled with the fact that my special relationship I had with Juli in New Zealand had come to an end.

Three Months Later

I tried shopping therapy to cheer myself up, crowdsourcing on Facebook for weeks about which jeans I should buy.

Which Levis Jeans Makes My Ass Look the Best?



July brought the big 10th anniversary conference of Blogher in San Jose. I was honored to c0-present a Pathfinder session on Visual Storytelling. I also got to hang out with my friend JC Little in Los Angeles.


Blogher ’14



I had a wonderful time at BlogHer, but I didn’t hear much that was inspirational about blogging. The excitement has moved to other venues — social media and more traditional outlets, where there was a better chance to been seen, heard, and read. I had seem my own traffic take a dive. So, I decided to change things up, and started to write short fictional pieces based on New York City photos.


Fictional Characters of New York #1



In September, I traveled to Nova Scotia to attend Kate Inglis’ Shed Photography Workshop. I had the best time there. I learned so much about photography from Kate and the other participants.  I also got to spend quality time with some of my favorite online friends from Canada.


Kate’s Shed Photography Workshop



In October, I toured the Ford Foundation and other interesting NYC buildings during the Open House New York Weekend.


By now, my readers were familiar with my therapy-oriented posts.

M or N



In November, I socialized way more frequently.  Jana from Georgia came to visit, and I attended  an art gallery opening with two visiting friends from Canada.


By the end of the year, there was one undisputed fact about my writing — readers were much more interested in hearing about my mother than myself.

Mom, are you a Feminist?



In December, most of my energy online went to “producing” the Blogger Christmahanukwanzaakah Online Holiday Concert, which mostly involved reminding others over and over again on the deadline! Despite several who have never learned to read instructions, it was a huge success.


The Ninth Annual Blogger Christmahanukwanzaakah Online Holiday Concert

It was a pretty good year.    Thank you for your friendship.   Happy New Year.

“Hang Out in Another Neighborhood” Day


I was the opening speaker at the graduation of my Queens elementary school, P.S. 154. I still remember most of the speech. It was a sixth grader’s riff on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.”  He was a hero to everyone, including me.

There were three portraits on the wall of my classroom that year– George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King.  We were a mixed school of different religions and races, and it was as clear as anything that society was changing fast — and that this was the future. We were heading towards a color-blind society where no one would care about the color of your skin, only about how many baseball cards you had in your pocket.

My father was about as liberal as you can get, donating his time and money to numerous causes, but I would cringe when he would mention the word “Negro” or “Oriental,” but eventually I understood that he was extremely good-hearted, just using words from another generation.

I’m now the person from another generation, with outdated language and ideas.   It’s taken me longer than some of my other friends to understand that being color-blind is racist.  I still grumble about the concept of male privilege.   I still catch myself being sexist.   I never was taught about these structural issues in school. We were more about equal rights under the law. Even Martin Luther King, with his mainstream views on integration and non-violence, seems old-school today.

I bring this all up because I had this weird idea this morning, and it won’t make any sense without first giving it some context. I’ve been reading a lot about Ferguson, racism, and the inequality of our society, but much of it doesn’t inspire me in the way that Dr. King once did.   Sure, we can boycott Black Friday or unfriend racist friends, but so what? I know this might sound overly-sentimental, but I’d love to find a way to fight injustice by creating some goodwill between communities, getting people to learn about each other, much as we did back in P.S. 154, when we went over to each other’s houses to do our homework, and experienced neighborhoods different than our own.   Anger at the America is important, and we should be angry, but we also need to feel as if there is hope.

It seems as if America’s biggest problem is that we remain segregated, sometimes even more than I remember in the past. White and Asian people are irrationally afraid of black and Latino areas because of the fear of crime. Black and Latinos feel uncomfortable in white areas in fear of ethnic stereotyping.

Solution — we need a way to start sabotaging this fear.

We’re always creating days online, “Talk Like a Pirate Day” to “Buy a Donut Day,” so why not create a “Hang Out in Another Neighborhood Day,” where Americans purposely go out of their comfort zone to connect with those who live in other neighborhoods, particularly those where the residents are different than themselves?

Imagine if hundreds of white folk and their families went into Ferguson for the day — buying burgers at the local McDonald’s, going to the local church, visiting the park, and getting to know how the other half lives. At the same time, black folks and their families, who are intimidated from entering certain well-off white neighborhoods, are invited WITH OPEN ARMS into these neighborhoods to have lattes at some upscale coffee ship or to do some shopping at the local stores.   Even if it is just for one day, it will make everyone less afraid of each other, because we would all cross the invisible red line.

And it is all perfectly legal.   And it might even been fun.  At least it would help demystify each other.

New Yorkers — “Hang Out in Another Neighborhood Day” — Upper East Siders — go have brunch in the South Bronx. Walk around. Support the stores there. Those who live in South Jamaica — have you ever been to Tiffany’s in Manhattan? Come in and take a look. Even if you can’t afford it now, at least realize that you are free to browse freely at any time.

Los Angeles — Beverly Hills folk — go have a BBQ sandwich in Compton, and then go to some of the small businesses in the area. Folk in Compton — have you ever seen the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel?   Why not?

Some people are going to hate this idea, because it doesn’t really deal with the systematic racism in our society.   That the white people get to go back to their fancy neighborhoods while the others are stuck in a police state.   It is an idea that isn’t angry enough.   Structural inequality will not be solved by gimmicks.    I get it.   But since I am old school, still inspired by my elementary school speech promising Dr. King to further his hopes of a less segregated society, I present this corny but radical little idea to you for your perusal.

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