June 2019

The Story That Moved Me to Write

I didn’t think I wanted to be a weekly columnist until I read a column by comedian Mark Schiff. I’ve never told him this, but I’ll tell him now.

In August 2006, I had just moved with my kids to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood when, on a whim, I decided to write a column about our new life in this very Jewish ’hood. It was a one-off, just something to get out of my system, but the Journal asked whether I could do it weekly. I agreed to try, but I wasn’t sure my heart would be in it, week after week.

Then I read this poignant column by Mark Schiff. It was about his father who had died of cancer years earlier. Let me share some highlights.

When Mark found out his father was ill, he spent a lot of time in New York, where his parents lived.

“One of the good things about being a road comic is you can live anywhere and book yourself out of wherever you are,” he wrote. “Road comics have no office. So New York became my base.”

His father loved watching him perform.

“He thought I was the funniest person in the world,” Mark wrote. “I guess you are the funniest person in the world if someone thinks you are. My dad and mom came to see me at least a hundred times before he died in 1988. He would come and see me wherever I was doing a show. And he always got dressed up for the show.”

The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.

“The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.”

But there was a singular moment later in the column that especially moved me. Before we get to it, here is how the story unfolded:

“I remember when my dad had just gotten out of a hospice, and they sent him back home to die. The night he came home, I had a show to do. I said, ‘Dad, maybe I should stay home instead.’ He wouldn’t hear of it. ‘You go and be funny.’ I did.

“About three days later, I had this gig about two hours away in upstate New York. That afternoon, we were all sitting at the dining room table when my dad said in the weakest of voices, ‘Can I come with you tonight? I’d really like to see your show.’

“I knew what he was saying. He was saying: ‘I really want to see you one more time before I die.’ ”

This was the moment when I lost control of those little drops that sometimes come out of our eyes:

“So off we headed to my gig. It was a cold winter night, and a light snow fell for most of the drive. We didn’t talk much on the way up. As I remember, my dad slept most of the way, anyway. I kept looking at him as he slept in the car. I cried most of the way up, but that was OK; I was with my dad.”

For a while, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. A father and a son on a long, quiet winter drive at night, the father all dressed up to see his son perform one last time.

The father seemed to know he had just enough strength to see one more show, so he slept during the drive to conserve his energy. For the comedian-son, the only way to honor the moment was to cry.

It was a final show of fatherly love; a last effort to get joy and laughter from a son. And the son was preparing to deliver. 

A few weeks after reading the column, I bumped into Mark at the local Coffee Bean. I didn’t know him well. Our kids went to the same school and I would run into him here and there.

“I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father.”

It didn’t matter. I spoke to him like a best friend. I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father. I was in full Sephardic, over-the-top mode.

Mark, in his signature dry tone, just replied, “Hey, thank you.”

What I didn’t tell him that day in the fall of 2006 was that his story touched me deeply as a son and as a father, and that it moved me to come up with stories and ideas of my own that would also touch others.

So, from that day on, I never stopped writing.

Happy Father’s Day.

Great Catch, Champ

For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of watching my neighbor Aaron teach his kids how to catch a ball. When a father is playing catch with his son or daughter, there are few things in life that bring more happiness. It’s total enjoyment to the max. It’s amazing to see the smile on a child’s face when he or she looks into his or her baseball glove and unexpectedly sees the ball there. Then when they grab it and hold it up in triumph, it’s unbelievable. What’s better than that?

After a child learns how to ride a bike or catch a ball, life moves quickly from there. In a brief span of time, there’s a good chance my neighbor’s kids will be as good as, if not better than, he is at games they play. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Soon after teaching my kids pingpong, they were all beating me at the game. I rarely win when we play Rummikub, a tile-based game. I hate losing to them and they hate losing to me, so at least we are even. 

When my kids were little, on Saturday mornings, we would walk 15 or 20 minutes to shul, depending on how much fighting, crying and stalling took place. Fifteen to 20 minutes alone with my children — priceless. When your kids are older, how much private time do you get with them? Generally, not a lot. 

I know it’s a cliché to say childhood goes by fast, but it’s true. They are children for around 6,000 days (unless they go to college and graduate school, then maybe 15,000 days). In the blink of an eye, they’re all grown up. 

I have only sons and it’s hard to think of a better feeling than for a father to watch his sons grow up, become menschen and be able to take care of themselves. It’s beyond comforting and beyond belief. It’s one of those “maybe I did something right” moments. When they get married and you see them not only taking care of themselves but also helping care for another person, it is mind-boggling.

One of my rabbis who has nine kids once said to me, “There has to be a God. We could not have done all this on our own.” He meant that to raise a bunch of kids and shepherd all of them out into the world as good and decent people is a miracle and demands assistance from above. I believe that. 

I think the greatest thing I got from my father is that I knew, with every fiber of my being, that my father loved me. If you’re a young father and you transmit that to your kids, you’ve done a lot. Knowing a parent loves you can take you very far in this world. 

My father didn’t spend much time with me. He was busy working. But during the time we spent together, he was present. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of distractions. In the car, we had no cellphones, no iPads, no nothing. Our entertainment was looking through the windshield. When we got into the car, we had a subpar AM radio that broadcast something called “talking.” That’s how two people find out things about each other. Today, people do that on YouTube. 

Hey, young dads, I have an idea for you. Have what I call a 1960s day. Have a day when you leave all the electronics at home. Take the children out for a ride or to a ball game or a movie and lunch. Then maybe one day, your kids will look back and say to their kids, “One of my favorite things to do was when me and my dad left our cellphones at home and went out for the afternoon.” Then one day, they can get into their driverless cars, look through the windshield and see things they’ve never seen before.

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