Here is a contradiction:

I am twenty-five pounds over what I want to be. The reasons aren’t relevant; here I am. I can make excuses as is customary in situations like this. I have had one of the most stressful years of my life; circumstances with obligations kept me from my routine, I was pretty sick for a while, and my son constantly makes delicious bread. Whatever—here I am.

At the same time, I was a highly trained and practicing expert in exercise and weight loss. I ran a club for one of the most celebrated and accomplished exercise gurus in America, and I went through months of training, eight hours a day, five days a week, to learn about how to properly work every muscle in the body, how to eat, how to lose weight and keep it off. I helped work out everyone from college football teams to excessively obese women. Granted, that was more than thirty years ago, but I still remember the process.

I know, for instance, age has little to do with it. DNA plays a part, of course, but in most situations, adjustments can be made as we grow older. The metabolism slows making it more difficult to shed pounds as you age, most of the gain or lack of loss is environmental, and there are compensations readily available to make up for that. Schedules are another oft-referenced excuse, but the exercise aspect doesn’t take long and the eating, well, if you’re doing it right, takes less time than you think.

No, we simply don’t bother doing what is necessary because of lack of will power, bad habits, pressure from loved ones, bad associations, and a slew of other contestable dissents.

I am not trying to go back to being twenty-five-years old, though how cool would that be? No, I’m going to apply the knowledge of then-me to the increasingly discouraged now-me. This has nothing to do with how I look; it is about how I feel. I used to tell all people who came to the club that it is not about the scale, it is not about how it weighs on your mind. It is about how you feel about yourself. Friends say I don’t look like I need to lose that much; but it isn’t about what they think. 

Since every other aspect of my existence is rebooting, I figured this was a good time for a complete renaissance. So here are a few guidelines I plan to follow to help me lose twenty-five pounds by Labor Day. I used these at the club, and they helped some members lose upwards of one hundred and fifty pounds:

1. It’s an old axiom but it is true: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.
2. Cut back the carbs, cut out the sugar, cut out the salt.
3. Plan the day’s food the night before and stick to the plan.
4. Drink a lot of water; often we aren’t hungry we’re dehydrated.
5. Cardio ten to fifteen minutes a day through swift walking or climbing stairs.
6. Get on the floor and do simple sit-ups, leg lifts, and a few others you can learn by Googling “lower body exercises” to work the waists and thighs fifteen minutes a day. And move slowly; speed during exercise is counterproductive.
7. Abdominal work 8 minutes every other day.
8. Arm isometrics for five minutes every day.

And the small things:

1. Park far away from anywhere I’m going (not too far).
2. Wear comfortable shoes.
3. Carry water.
4. Stop thinking about food, talking about food, and watching shows with food.

And the quirky things:

1. Brush your teeth when you start to feel hungry. No one ever enjoys following teeth-brushing with chocolate or sugars. That’s disgusting.
2. Eat food with natural sugars like oranges and apples, which are healthy and curb the desire for junk.
3. Leave your money at home. Empty the wallet except for what you need for gas. Carry no change and convince yourself that charging fast food is just pathetic.
4. Keep the list with you of what you’re going  to eat for the day.
5. Avoid dairy; it screws with the digestive system.
6. Until you reach your goal don’t agree to go to the normal places with family or friends where you always end up getting something to eat.
7. Wear tight clothes. Everyone feels thin in sweatpants.
8. Choose one day (and it must be the same day—Sunday works for me) that you’ll allow yourself to not worry about what you eat (still worry about how much you eat, keeping the calories below 2000). This gives you something to look forward to instead of constant denial, which inevitably results in binge eating.
9. Set up a plan to cut back on bad habits. To cut out completely is always a mistake, just like with alcohol or heroin, there will be some serious withdrawal problems resulting in falling off the wagon. So if you’re doing ten snickers bars a day like someone I knew at the club was doing, go down to eight, then six, then four, in subsequent weeks until you’re only having one on one day a week.
10. Don’t check the scale. Stop worrying about how much you are losing; you’re going to go up and down for quite some time until the body adjusts and then will finally find the slope back down to what you are working toward. If you must must must must check the scale, do it once a week and laugh at the lack of results when they happen. If you have a deadline for losing weight, count on no more than two pounds a week, ever. If you do more, that’s great, but losing just two pounds a week insures you are seventy percent more likely to keep it off
11. Stop going to grocery stores; send someone else. Tell your son to stop making bread.
12. Stop STOP STOP!! Eating out!! The sodium alone in processed foods will keep the weight on and cause unwanted heart problems.

Do. Not. Quit. After three weeks if you stick to this, you’ll more naturally start to accept this way of doing things, and it will work. I’m using the second person here but really that is mostly so when I read this again I will talk to myself (which is more normal for me than you might think). I’m not trying to lose twenty-five pounds; I’m trying to lose five pounds in two or three weeks. At that point I’ll think about what’s next. Eventually it will be the twenty-five. Think about it: We are adamant about what type gas we put in our car but not what food we put in our body. That’s insane.

One more trick, and I am not trying to be mean. Find two pictures of yourself: one when you thought you were at your best, and one when you were at your worst, and keep them somewhere visible. If you don’t have any, find a picture of some poor slob eating a box of Krispy Kremes, and find another of some buff person. In both sets of examples, ask yourself which direction you’d prefer to go and are you doing anything to get there. Two picture; two ideas; two dreams of the once-would-be-now you waiting to emerge, and shelf any notion that starting over is more difficult. I won’t list examples from the club or from the world at large of people who made up their minds to see it through. In the end, though, it only worked when they did it for themselves. Just for themselves. 

The first time I ever heard my boss at the club offer advice I was sitting right next to him and I not only never forgot it, I used it many times both at the club and in classes at the college:

Too often we do things because we are bored or depressed or because we aren’t getting along with someone we love or something isn’t going right at work, and we do something self-defeating because it is something we can control, such as eating. We can eat what we want and no one can stop us and it makes us feel good and empowered. The immediate satisfaction is worth the price of any long term problems. Sometimes when we eat it is the only time we feel alive. But you always have two choices. Always. You can do what brings you toward your goal or do what takes you further from your goal.

For me? Well, let’s just say I once again feel entitled to pursue my goals. 




I stood in the gates of the small fortress next to the Terezin Ghetto north of Prague. I traveled there with my colleague Arnost Lustig, who had been interned there with his family from when he was about fourteen to seventeen, shortly before being sent to Auschwitz, and a few years before he wrote himself into literary history with more than a dozen bestsellers, some made into movies. I’ve written about the burly author before for Ilanot Journal in the work, “I Knew Two Men.”

This isn’t about him; it’s about a friend of his.

On that particular day in 2000 Arnost needed to talk to his good friend Milos Forman, who wanted to make a movie based upon Arnost’s book The Unloved. Milos, who just passed away last week, made beautiful movies like One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest, Man on the Moon, Heartburn, and others including my favorite, Amadeus.
At some point on that cool afternoon between conversations about the horrific ghetto museum of Terezin and the prison for anti-Nazi protesters, the Small Fortress, I ended up having a conversation with Milos about adaptation. He discovered that subject matter to be the focus of my lectures at the university.

“So we agree then,” he said to me. He was much younger than Arnost with the same controlling conversational style.
“Yes,” I said, “Of course. It is always frustrating when people say how much more they like the book, or do any form of comparison at all. They are completely separate art forms.”
“Exactly!” he said, gesturing with his fist. “I can’t film all of a book!”
We talked further about our common concern on the subject of movies based upon a novel or play, and we reiterated the inability of people to see movies and books they are based upon as separate. Yet we also agreed on the difficult task of expecting anything else of the average person at a movie on a Saturday afternoon.

Eventually, of course, the talk turned to his work.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve taught both “Cockoo’s Nest” as well as Amadeus, and I did read Kesey’s book as well as Shaffer’s play, which I first saw when I was in college.”
“Both times you nailed it. From Kesey’s novel you kept the major themes which worked and consolidated what needed to be. In Amadeus you made music the central theme of the movie instead of the ridiculous “mystery” between Mozart and Salieri. I still enjoy watching both films and teaching them. Oh, and Amadeus has the BEST cut in movies, when Mozart is in bed and Salieri finally hands him the completed “Requiem,” and Mozart says, “Okay, from the beginning,” and we hear an entire orchestra for the first time as his wife’s horse and carriage come into view. Love that scene.”
Milos indicated it was hard to miss with such material and brilliant film editors, but I appealed. He was a great director.

Then he mentioned Ragtime.

When I was young my father bought me E.L Doctorow’s book. I loved it and read if several times. I loved how it swept across decades and included some major historical figures such as Houdini. But I never could picture it as a movie; even if one could save the major themes, it simply is too complicated to pull off as a traditional narrative with the proper conflicts clarified.

Then I saw the movie and I didn’t like it all that much. I even watched it again after I learned a few things about adaptation at Penn State, and it still, for me, didn’t work. I even left behind my memory of the book and focused solely on the new art form, trying the best I could to not include the literature in my analysis.
“What about Ragtime,” Milos said.
I thought about saying, That was really some casting they did for “Cockoo’s Nest,” wasn’t it? But I could tell he was enjoying our conversation. I looked at his Czech copy of The Unloved in his hands. It was bookmarked and folded and noted in dozens of places. He clearly learned the book as if it were his own, like his films each became his own, not Kesey’s or Shaffer’s and definitely not Doctorow’s. 

“It seemed too complicated to capture,” I said. 
“Yes,” he agreed, reflectively. “It never did convey the themes well. Or at least the way I wanted to.”
“It seemed more of a vehicle for Cagney seeing as it was his last film.” I was feeling ballsy now in the conversation.
“You’re probably right. He got more attention than the film. Will you discuss these films tomorrow in your class?”
“No. I’m moving on to Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains. He smiled. Milos was a fan and friend of Hrabal’s. The Prague art community is not very big.

I told him I was going to talk about how adaptation of one art form into another involves both deciding what essential elements must make the transition and which ones very specifically needed to be left behind.

Arnost returned, always sharp, always ready for what’s next. I stared at this man’s eyes and thought about how much he went through. The Nazi’s disrupted his life, caged him for three years as a workhorse, forced him to build a railroad from Terezin to the mainline on the way to Auschwitz, killed his family, and still he escaped. And still he went on to not only live his life, but live it fully as a writer. He knew what to take with him after the war and he knew what he need not address ever again.

It is not easy, adapting, saving the best of what exists, our strengths, and leaving behind the weaknesses, the parts we wish we could do over given the chance.

And this week I found my copies of Arnost’s work when I packed up my office and brought everything home. I sat in the small room at the college scouring stacks of books I’d collected in nearly three decades. I decided which ones to leave on a table somewhere for students to take, which ones to give to certain people, and which ones to bring home to pull out from time to time as I make my transition into a new way of life. Arnost’s work is a keeper; he is as strong a writer as he is a person. I also found my notes and thesis from Penn State. I flipped through my work about adaptation; meanwhile, on the radio the news anchor announced Milos’ death.

And I left the college. I didn’t throw a water fountain through some bars and escape across a field, and I didn’t end up in an asylum as the Patron Saint of Mediocrity. No, I simply packed my belongings and brought them home, and hopefully I’ve kept the basic theme of my life alive. Now I must try to set it to new music.

RIP Milos. Ragtime was fine. But I liked the book better.


A Piece of Fertile Ground



I planted four varieties of tomatoes and four kinds of peppers, including hot and spicy. Cucumbers run along a small green fence and several blueberry plants hold tight to the lattice behind the shed. Along the path to the new garden area are peas and beans in pots and just at the entrance to the new sitting area inside the garden are several pots of container-size lettuce, which looks a lot like romaine.

I’m craving salad right now. I might put a small refrigerator out there stocked with various Newman’s Own Salad Dressings.

In the new area are the ground/vine varieties, such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and squash, as well as more cucumbers and a few large pots for cherry tomatoes. I’m also about to hang several containers of various sweet pepper plants on shepherd’s hooks along the way.

I have always had some vegetables running alongside the shed, behind it under the window, and on various tables and garden stands. But this year I decided to finally cut through a fallen tree in the woods and open up the clearing inside what used to be a fort, a young boys play area. There were planks of wood and two by fours, a hand-made box buried in the ground for storage, long vines and sticks intertwined like lattice for fences, and although most had fallen over, they still held together just fine. Michael read about how to make them in WW1 books and survival books by Bear Grylls. He was only eight or nine at the time (Michael, not Bear).

I took two chairs from another sitting area and moved them to the new clearing, and I rested thinking about what to grow. It is the hardest part, knowing what will take and what won’t, what will need a lot of nuturing and what can make it on its own. I have rain barrels scattered about so watering will be easier during dry periods, but I finally learned that for the best pollination there should be several plants of the same kind near each other. Even plants need companionship. I got tired of year after year having amazing beautiful yellow flowers on the squash vines but no squash growing. Now it should be fine.

When Michael was very young the garden was on the other side of the house and I worked in it until he would find me, ask if I wanted to see what he did in his fort, and then I’d stand right about where the cucumbers are now and he’d explain the changes, why he made them based upon the best fortification on the No-Mans-Land side of the fort (the woods to the south), and what his plans were when he had a chance to “pick up more materials.” Then he’d asked if I wanted to explore with him, and we would, walking through the woods for hours checking out osprey and eagles nests above us, fox dens at the end of long-fallen oaks, and animal tracks including raccoon, deer, opossum, and more.

Like it was yesterday I recall standing on a fallen tree as I noticed how fast he was growing. I always stood on the same spot when he showed me his progress, so I was able to measure him against a thin dogwood to the rear of the fort. One day I noticed for the first time how high up the trunk he had grown despite the fact the tree had also sprouted. He spent the vast majority of his youth and young adult years outside, much of it in the fort, and I believe he is healthier both physically as well as mentally as a result. He has never had trouble finding peace of mind. He grew well here.

Where there is now a slate patio with wrought iron furniture, was once a stack of tree trunks—dozens and dozens of them. When I had the area for the house and driveway cleared, they placed the trunks in a pile in that area so that I could use the wood later for the fireplace or other projects. I cut up several dozen cords before I made the slightest dent, so over the course of several years it became overgrown with weeds—and lizards. All sorts of lizards, fence swifts, salamanders, and more. Michael would grab his net and stand there, carefully climbing, looking for more reptiles to add to his aquarium on the table behind the fort where I now do my replanting. On a nice summer day he might have hunted lizards for hours, catch them, feed them, and then a few days later let them go. He left berries for them, of course, just in case they had already “acclimated to domesticity” as he once conveyed to me.

I sat at the slate patio where those logs used to be and thought about how long ago those years were; almost two decades. I looked at the house we built and remembered how when this was all woods I came out and taped off the area to be cleared. Then my dad and I came up here and he helped me stake out where I wanted the footings to go for the foundation. We measured it out together and talked about how centrally located the place is—not too far from DC, from Richmond, from Virginia Beach. We talked about the soil and I said how I had hoped things would grow well there; I was worried that being so close to the river and the bay made the ground a bit sandy and the nutrients might be questionable.

But as it turns out, things grow just fine here; they always have.


Now. And Again.



So this woke me up the other night:

I stood at the urinal about 9:30. I was the only one left in the building, when the door opened. I couldn’t see who it was from my angle, and whoever it was didn’t step more than a few feet in the bathroom, so naturally I thought, This is how it ends, isn’t it? This dude’s going to shoot me in the back and some midnight maintenance guy is going to find my body laying here unzipped on the floor.

It sounded like he/she just stood there. I didn’t hear a move toward a sink, a stall, nothing.

Sometimes I think the more we realize that death is totally random and can occur at the most inappropriate time in the most ironic of situations, the more we appreciate the very nature of life. Like the guy in Buffalo who stayed home from a family vacation because he didn’t like to fly and then died when a plane crashed into his house. Or the student who just after complaining on the phone to a friend that the person in front of him shouldn’t be texting and driving because he keeps swerving, hit a barrier and died. I’m superstitious enough to think about these things. Like when my at-the-time-young son and I were walking once in a parking garage, and there was a rumble and he looked nervous, so I told him it was just some truck nearby. I said that garages don’t crash in on people, but was actually thinking, Shit, I hope this isn’t it. I can see the headline: “Professor dies in freak accident in parking garage.”

I don’t go through the day thinking like this. I’m not paranoid, I’m not a hypochondriac, and I’m generally not afraid of most situations. In fact, I welcome them in a strange sort of way. They remind me I am still here, I am still engaged in the persistent miracle of life, and I have not yet started to coast along.

In fact, when I do feel the ground move beneath me, it usually wakes me up and places me firmly in the moment. Like the time I fell through the ice on a frozen lake in northern Norway. It was two in the morning, twenty below, and I followed two friends across the snowy ice toward a road on the other side. I heard the ice crack and I stood still, a green band of aurora borealis bent just above us, and I stood still like Wile E. Coyote—suspended for just a moment listening to the ice crack—and thought, “oh, wow, shit,” and went through.

I landed just about ten inches below the surface on another ice shelf. I stood just deep enough for frigid water to cover and fill my boots about calf-high. I waited for the next crack when my friend Joe turned and we froze in fear of us both plunging into the lake. Usually for me a walk on thin ice was metaphorical, but there I stood with icy feet; my heart pounded in my chest ready to plunge into my stomach when nothing happened. It turned out to be a layer of day-melt I fell through to the six-feet-thick layer of ice beneath. I sloshed to shore, took off my socks, and stood at the end of a fjord when across a field six moose walked by. To the north lay nothing but wilderness for a thousand miles; the Arctic Circle sat a hundred miles south. I was soaked in below zero temperatures, green bands of borealis bent above my head, and I never felt so awake, like sleep wasn’t part of the Human idea, like caffeine was a tranquilizer. Awake.

That moment, right then, will never go away.

I’ve been lucky to have had many such moments of being blatantly alive—some good and some scary, and none with regrets. None.

I’m not sure who walked in the bathroom, saw me and apparently walked out before the door even closed, but for a few moments I stood on that ice again, waiting for the ground to fall beneath my feet. In fact, I’ve been skating most of my life, and now I find myself by virtue of countless changes watching the cracks widen and waiting to land somewhere. And I’ve never felt so alive, so conscious of each moment and each step.

It seems I feel more secure when I’m least grounded. Or, another way to think of it is this: life has a way of forcing me to be in the moment, to be present, and that is fine with me, even if it comes at a cost.


22 Foot Putt



It is the quiet on a golf course that captivates me. It is the sound of a swinging club and the small smack of the ball. It is the smell of mowed grass and often honeysuckle on the breeze. It is pausing to watch some nearby bird, or to admire the slope of a fairway down to the right toward a pond or some woods. It is the sound of the ball falling into the cup which seals the emotional deal that keeps us going back out there.  

I started playing golf when I was about nine and my father and brother took up the sport. I naturally tagged along and we spent many days over the years teeing up at Timber Point Country Club on the South Shore of Long Island, then the courses around Virginia Beach. At home, we watched golf on weekends, and through the years that sport kept us connected. My brother and I play together when we can when we are in the same state, and my son and I have played consistently since he was a toddler. He, my father and I played together very often throughout the nineties and beyond.  Golf is a family sport, and more often than not it is about fathers and sons, it is the common ground we otherwise might not be able to find.

This week is one of my favorite times of the year; the Masters tournament begins. I think of my father, and I can still hear his quiet sigh of disappointment when someone misses a small putt. He would like watching this year in particular with Tiger being back in the game. He would be rooting for Tiger, especially if the odds were against him. He would love to see him come back to the top after so many years of struggle.

We didn’t have a lot in common, Dad and me. To be clear, we got along very well, and over the years we spent many evenings talking about different television shows we watched or how work was going for me. But beyond that we didn’t have much to say. Part of it was Dad was always a quiet man, and I was always on the go anyway. Oh, we never argued; it wasn’t like that. In fact we were very close; just not very much alike. I simply had different interests, different paths altogether. I was in the arts and Dad was a stockbroker; he was brilliant at history and an avid reader, and I, well, I wasn’t. However, he did feed my flames for some favorite aspects of life; travel and adventure through the books he bought me; sports through his passion for following everything from baseball and football to golf. He even followed tennis for a while when I was involved during my teens.

Once—and, yes, once is a lot in this case—Dad hit a hole-in-one on the 15th at Broad Bay in Virginia Beach many years ago, and while I was not there, I can visualize every part of that stroke in my mind from the oft times he repeated the story; and well he should have. For a man who loved being on the course, to hit a hole-in-one is a highlight in life. I loved when he talked about it, the way his face lit up.

But golf was the come-together activity. On the course we didn’t really talk about anything but being on the course and what club we used and how I might have “picked my head up” or how my putt “came up short.” But we were together, the two of us, or more often the three of us, early on my brother and in later years my son. It was the ultimate bonding—we didn’t have to talk at all, yet we connected completely. Sometimes when I’m on the course, if I don’t pick my head up I hit a better shot, but I also can imagine I’m ten-years-old standing on the par three on the Great South Bay, knowing I’ll never make it over the small patch of water to the green. Other times I’m on the third hole at Bow Creek in Virginia Beach knowing no matter how hard I try to avoid it, I’m going to hit the damn tree right in the middle of the fairway. The memories on a golf course are thick for fathers and sons. They are of laughter, and of learning to overcome inevitable disappointment. The lessons are laid out like long putts, and we pass them along like old clubs.

One of those lessons went like this: When I was in my late teens Dad and I played nine and an elderly man, an excellent player, joined us. This man was hitting the green on every drive. At some point I clipped a short shot right into the water and slammed my club into the bag. Looking back I’m sure I was embarrassing my father, though being as young as I was I doubted I noticed or cared. Then the man came to me and said, “Can I give you some advice?”

I sighed. “Sure.”

“You’re not good enough to get mad.” I looked at him, a bit surprised at his blunt comment. “Do you practice every day? Do you have new clubs and have you taken lessons? If so, then maybe you’d have earned the right to get disgusted. Otherwise, you’re just wasting energy.”

Cue the sound of angels singing. It was like a light went on, like something obvious which had been foggy suddenly became clear. I relaxed and from then on I played better, had a better time, laughed more, and enjoyed the time with my father so much more. Then I found that lesson translating into life; I became better at understanding those things in life from which I could claim better results and those things I simply had no right to comment about, complain about, do anything about except to try harder.

The summer before my dad passed away he, my son and I stopped at his old country club, Broad Bay, just to use their putting green. It had been awhile since he had the physical stability and presence of mind to commit to a round of golf, so going to the green was a good compromise and he was thrilled. He showed Michael again how to hold the putter, said hello to some golfers who recognized him and stopped to say hello, and smiled the entire time. He putt a few balls and then stood steady as a pro above a putt and let it go for twenty-two feet on a slight bank downhill to the left, and it sank in the hole, that familiar sound echoing in our hearts.

That was his last golf shot. It is strange how you never know when that last shot will be.

Watching the masters is a tradition I’ll always cherish, though sometimes I’m not sure if it is a pleasure or a heartache. All I can do is to keep playing. Michael and I will head out this week; and the next time I see my brother I hope we play. When my close friend Jonmark comes to town we’ll rip up some fairway to be sure. And in every case, Dad will be out there with me, telling me to keep my head down. 

pictures of dad 013