I was born in Philadelphia in 1952. Back then my parents and all their peers saw no problem with my buddies and me playing “War” in the streets using very realistic looking cap guns and rifles with rubber bayonets.
My dad had fought the Japanese in World War Two. My mom and her father (but not her mother) escaped Fasist Italy in the late 1930’s. Everyone knew the difference between “make believe” and “for real.” And, they knew the importance of letting children play. It was a time and place of peace and sanity.
Things changed for me when I turned seven because we moved to rural New Jersey where I had no male friends. Sharon (a year older than me) and her younger sister Jo Ann were the only play pals that my sister and I had. This is what I recall of then:
The three girls want me to play “House” with them. The idea is that one of us will be daddy, another mommy and the remaining two are the kids. Then the “grown-ups” pretend they are the perfect parents that we wish we had and the “kids” pretend to be the perfect kids we wish that we were.
“That’s stupid,” I say. “Where’s the fun in that?” The rules are unclear and you don’t know when you win, if ever.
I explain that to play “War” all we have to do is try to kill each other. Whoever survives wins. I have cap guns, rifles and hand grenades enough for all of us.Obviously, a lot more fun and it’s clear who wins.
“Okay,” Sharon says. “Go ahead and shoot me.”
“What? It’s no fun unless you put up a fight.”
“I don’t want to fight. Just shoot me.”
So, I shoot her with my cap gun. She’s asking for it, after all.
“Oh my God,” Sharon cries. “I’ve been shot.” She grabs her gut and bends half-over. “What will happen to me? To us? Our children? I won’t live long enough for us to have children!”
Sharon stumbles forward, coughs up spittle; her eyes fill with tears. She collapses on the grass. She gasps for air.
I was working as a computer programmer at Rutgers University when I saw the perfect job advertised by American Airlines. It had everything that I wanted: interesting work, decent pay, and free travel everywhere American flew.
I sent a letter outlining my skills, and offered to write a resume if they found me interesting. They did not request a resume, but they did call me in for an interview. I thought that it went very well.
A month later, a “thanks but no thanks” letter arrived.
This was disappointing. I called Walter, the hiring manager and asked what was wrong, and why I didn’t get the offer. He said it was just a matter of competition; there was someone better.
I asked what I could have done to be better than the competition. He said it wasn’t likely there was anything I could have done. The person they hired came from the software vendor who had been servicing their account for years. He already knew their needs better than anyone else could have.
“So, why did you interview me?”
“Because the Human Resources department requires that we run an ad and interview three people before we make an offer.”
That made sense.
At the university, I wrote a computer column for a monthly newsletter. Every few weeks I would put out a document about some programming technique or software package.
I put Walter on the distribution list for all my publications. Then I forgot all about him.
Six months later he called me.
“I have a job for you.”
“There is only one thing.”
“Get me off that damn mailing list.”
“No problem. I can start in two weeks.”
“We can’t move that fast. It will take six weeks minimum.”
“We have to run and ad and interview three people. But the job is yours.”
If you don’t get what you want, don’t forget to ask why.
When I was 16, my dad told me to get in the car – we were going for a ride. We drove to Bolek’s Foreign Car Service. My dad told Bolek that his son needed to learn how to work and he would drop me there every Saturday morning. He told Bolek that I wasn’t worth anything so he shouldn’t pay me anything. He gave Bolek $100 as an advance against any damage I might do. Then he drove off.
Over the next year I learned to get my hands dirty, how to use tools, and how things worked.
– – –
When my dad had a problem, we went to visit Frank at Frank’s hardware store.
Frank was a problem solver and his store was a huge collection of tools and parts for solving problems.
“Looks like this is a job for a ¾ inch bit and a stove bolt.” “I’d use a rubber coupling and a hose clamp.” “An arc welder is better for that than acetylene.”
– – –
Decades later, I became a dad too.
– – –
I sat next to a four-year-old girl at a neighbor’s dinner table.
“I hate broccoli. How come I never get what I want? I hate you.” She began pounding the table and crying.
While her parents were in the kitchen making her French fries, I turned to her and asked, “Wow. How do you do that?”
Her crying stopped abruptly and she gave me a sly smile. “You want to yell and make a lot of noise. Don’t stop. It really helps if you can cry.”
“But, why do I want to do that?”
“Because that way you get what you want.”
A young boy was given a present by his divorced dad at Cub Scout camp.
“But mommy gave me two presents, and both of them were nicer than this.” He wrinkled his nose.
The dad frowned, “You don’t think this is the only thing I got you, do you?” That afternoon, the father left the camp to go shopping.
– – –
I sat on the abandoned lifeguard chair as I watched a young girl run across the sand.
She twisted her ankle and fell in a heap.
She began crying hysterically.
Suddenly she stopped, stood, and looked around. Her father was far away; out of earshot.
She collapsed again and bawled even louder.
She stood again. Her father had wandered off so she resumed joyfully running down the beach.
– – –
Today, I can tell you what everything in a hardware store is used for.
But I am terrible at getting other people to do what I want.
Teach your children to manipulate things, not people.
(And the best way to teach them not to manipulate people is to not let them manipulate you.)
My friend in college, Debra, asked me, “What are you?”
I did not understand the question.
“What are you? How hard can that be? I’m Jewish, what are you?”
I said I was not religious.
“Neither am I. Just tell me what you are?”
I had not been raised with a religion… in fact; it had not been mentioned, kind of like sushi. I was 25 before I had even heard of sushi.
I asked my parents, “What am I?”
My mom said, “Brooke.” She laughed.
“I know that, but what am I relative to you?”
“But what religion am I?”
“We don’t know. You haven’t told us.”
“How can I not even know what religion I am?”
“That is a personal choice – you will need to make it yourself. Or not.”
This was frustrating, “Ok, let’s make it simple. How about race? I’m not Black, right?”
My mom said, “I wouldn’t be too sure. There was a lot of fooling around going on. Everyone did it; don’t let them tell you otherwise.”
It was like sparring with a judo master who fades from every thrust.
In total exasperation, I said, “Look, my girlfriend is Jewish, and she wants to know what I am. Let’s start there… I’m not Jewish, right?”
My father became serious, “Do you want me to tell you what I want you to be?”
“Yes.” That would be a start.
“When they come to round up the Jews, I want you to be Jewish.”
My friend in graduate school, Mona Hakim, was born in Bethlehem. When she was young, her family moved to Lebanon to avoid threats against her father’s life. She was going to the American University of Beirut when the civil war started.
She told me that your identity card had your religion printed right on it. Thugs would stop your car, and if you were the wrong religion for that part of town, they would chop your head off and place it on a fence post. Muslims did it. Christians did it.
Some people began blackening out their religion on the ID card. That worked for a while. How could you kill someone if you didn’t know what they were?
It didn’t take long for the thugs to think up an answer. If you were Muslim, and you weren’t proud of it, you deserved to die. Christians felt the same about Christians. They couldn’t agree on much, but they did agree on that one thing… don’t say what you are, and we’ll kill you.
That is when she decided she had to get out of there.
I asked her, “So, what are you?”
She said, “I’m not telling you. I’m through with that shit.”
Turns out, she was Mona – good enough for me.
If you conclude that your problems are caused by members of another group, you had better make sure you are not one of them.
If those others are humans, then you are either one of them, or you are inhuman.
In 1981, I decided to create my own consulting company. It occurred to me that I must learn more about selling if I was to find clients and flourish. For this I took a short sales training class over a weekend. On my next vacation, I visited my grandparents in Cornwall, where we had the following conversation over lunch:
“Grandma, do you remember when my sister and I spent the summer here in 1966?”
“I sure do. That was a great time, wasn’t it?”
I paused for a moment. I wasn’t sure how to begin, “Well, I’ve taken a class on selling. Thinking back on that summer, I believe you were using sales techniques on us.”
“After dinner, you would say something like, ‘Do you want to clean up before dessert or afterwards?’ That is called the alternative choice close.”
She winked at me. “That’s true. Go on.”
“Then there was the time you made a list of all the reasons I should learn horseback riding even though I didn’t want to. Then you gave me the paper and asked me to list the reasons I should not. I couldn’t think of anything.”
She smiled, “That’s called the Benjamin Franklin close.”
“You would say things like, ‘After we go to the art museum, we’ll go for ice cream.’”
“Closing on a minor point.” She even knew the names of these techniques.
“We could never play you off against granddad like we could with our parents. In fact, it seemed to work the other way around. You might say something like, ‘If you promise to clean the table, wash the dishes, and put your clothes away, I’ll then go see if Granddad might take us out for dessert. But we only get this one chance to ask. Is it a deal?’”
She chuckled. “In my day we called that the MacAdoo close. I think it was named after someone called MacAdoo. Car salesmen use it all the time.”
I was stunned. She knew all these things I had just learned a few weeks earlier.
“That summer in 1966 was kind of weird. Ruth and I enjoyed doing chores for you that we hated to do at home. You seemed so appreciative.”
“We enjoyed your company so much and we did appreciate the help.”
“But grandma, you never worked as a saleswoman, did you?”
She laughed. “Well, there was the time that a builder gave us a house. First, he agreed to let us live in his model home. Then, since I helped him sell most of the other houses in the development, he gave us the house as a reward.”
She continued, “When your dad and his brother were very young we came to know Dale Carnegie. I learned a lot from him so I thought I’d apply his techniques to raising our children. They worked.”
What an amazing confession. “Don’t you think you were being manipulative?”
Her answer: “Not at all.” She paused. It seemed that she wanted to phrase her answer just so.
To persuade another of something is not manipulative if you are doing it in their best interests and not just your own.
In 1960, when I was eight years old, my parents bought a television. It was a black and white console model and it cost my dad about a month’s take-home pay.
It changed my life.
I could now entertain myself without friends, family, books or using my imagination. I could pretty much have fun without doing anything.
It started slowly but by the end of the decade that box had taken over our family. We would even watch television while eating dinner.
In September of 1970 I went off to college in Indiana. For nine months I did not watch one second of television.
While flying home I practiced the first words I would say to my parents, “I have lived the greater part of a year without television. I will stay the summer in your house because I don’t have enough money to stay somewhere else, but I warn you that I refuse to watch television with you. There are so many more important things to say and do.” After my time away, I had so much I wanted to discuss with my folks, and the thought of competing with Laugh In,Ed Sullivan and the Million Dollar Movie both scared and sickened me.
“Dad, there is something I must say to you.”
“Sure, son. But first, are you still into ham radio?”
“Yes.” There was an amateur radio club at my college and I’d remained active.
“Do you still keep a junk box?”
“Yes.” A junk box is a large chest in which electronics enthusiasts place old equipment from which they hope to someday cannibalize parts. In the ninth grade I had taken apart a discarded television and rewired it as my first short-wave transmitter. Using Morse code, I’d been able to contact people in every state and dozens of countries with that “homebrew” transmitter.
“I’m glad,” he said. “The television is in the barn.”
It was in pretty good shape except that there was a bullet hole through the picture tube.
My family had figured out the same thing I had. One evening, after dinner, my dad gathered my mom and my sister around the TV and he shot it.
Usually, the best way to end an addiction is cold turkey.
 Warning: Extremely dangerous — do not try this at home.
Granddad Tom was sent to Havana to open an office for United Press International. He became El Presidente Local for the U. P. I. in Cuba.
When he returned near the end of the decade he was handed a 40% pay cut even though the cost of living was higher in New York City than in Cuba.
If that wasn’t bad enough, in October of 1929, the Stock Market crashed and the economy began a long slide into what became the Great Depression. Granddad survived multiple rounds of layoffs by accepting further pay cuts.
Grandmother Anne realized that they couldn’t afford rent on Granddad’s dwindling salary, so she took a job as a receptionist with a developer who was building houses on the farm next to their rented home in White Plains. Soon she was managing four salesmen. She received 2 ½ percent in commission on every home sold.
To help care for the children, she found a lovely couple at the unemployment office. The wife was a nurse trained in Canada but without a license to practice in New York. Her husband was a handyman. She exchanged room and board for childcare and yard work.
Grandmother convinced the developer to build (at cost) a model home for them with an extra room for their tenants. She became a stellar saleswoman in her own right. Before long, her commissions had completely covered the construction costs, and the home was theirs outright.
Granddad wrote to a friend that the Great Depression had been unbelievably good to them. Before the Crash they had had high hopes, but owning a house ‘free and clear’ in just a few years was inconceivable. Where could they have found a trained nurse and groundskeeper simply by letting them live in a spare bedroom and join them for meals? Freed of the burden of paying bills, the young couple soon saved enough money working odd-jobs to buy a gas station and start their own business. Because most of his coworkers had either been laid off (or quit rather than take a pay cut), Granddad had no competition as senior positions became available. His career took off.
In the 1920’s my grandparents had had Great Plans.
During the Great Depression they just tried to survive.
Sometimes just surviving is the winningest strategy of all.
When I first moved to New York City a well-meaning friend gave me a book about surviving in the city. It served no purpose but to destroy all pleasure in life: When pushed in front of the subway, lie down in the ditch between the rails. Carry your wallet in your front pocket since your back pocket will be sliced open with a razor. And by all means, install three locks so the burglar finds your neighbor’s door more attractive.
Immediately after moving to the city, phone calls like the one above were repeated every week or two.
I was convinced that someone was casing my apartment and the instant I didn’t answer I would be robbed. What’s worse, since the caller’s voice sounded different each time it appeared there was an inexhaustible supply of crooks.
Two years into my torture one of my mystery callers explained it to me. There was another Brooke Allen who lived on East 88th street. Her number was unlisted and mine was.
I tracked her down. We exchanged phone numbers and thus began a long and entertaining relationship.
I would call her answering machine and play her messages on my machine.
I became comfortable acting on the various party invitations that arrived in my mailbox every so often.
“Who the hell are you?”
One year I held a Christmas party. My friend called to say, “I’m confused. My sister-in-law received an invitation from you for the same date but a different location.” It appeared we had both friends and party dates in common.
Eventually we just held a joint party: Brooke Allen squared. Everyone might as well meet each other.
She is an established writer. When her play, “The Big Love” with Tracy Ullman opened on Broadway, I taped her poster on my office door.
“I had no idea you were you were so accomplished,” a coworker would comment.
“There are many sides of me you don’t know.” Yea, like that I’m shameless and I’ve never written a Broadway play.
When I wrote a letter to the New York Times, she got the comments.
When she wrote an essay in the Nation called “Our Godless Constitution” questioning the Religious Right’s right to claim we were founded as a Christian nation, I got the threats.
When I went to register for my MBA at New York University, they told me I was unwelcome there. It appears Brooke Allen had once been pissed at NYU, told them to get lost and put a stop payment on a tuition check.
While I was on vacation with a girlfriend, a friend of hers called my apartment and was told by our house-sitter that “They are in Europe.”
That friend them met Brooke at dinner and told her of the stranger on her phone. Only after she and the policeman found her apartment untouched did it dawn on her.
Revenge comes to all those who wait.
So tell everyone you know about that great writer, Brooke Allen. Tell them to look up Brooke’s books on Amazon and order them. Just don’t tell them she is not me.
Take pride in, protect and promote your good name, particularly if you share it with others.
For this month’s Father’s Stories column I wrote a brief item about an incident in a park in Tokyo. I had wanted just one photograph of Arisugawa Park to illustrate my story but I could not find any.
So, I thought I’d write for help to some of the most wonderful people I know: members of http://www.couchsurfing.com (1.) I will tell you more about them in a future article, but for now just know that this is a group of people around the world (about 400,000 strong) who build profiles describing themselves, as you might find on Facebook or Myspace. However, these people are exceptional; they are not into making “virtual friends” but real ones. They will meet you when you come to visit, show you around, perhaps take you for coffee, even put you up and more likely than not, stay up into the wee hours talking about the meaning of life.
I selected some members who live in Tokyo and who clearly enjoy photography. I wrote to them late the other day asking if they had photos of the park or if they lived near enough to go take some. By the next morning, a few had responded affirmatively and over the next few days the pictures started coming in; more than we could possibly publish here.
So now I have everything I need to tell you about and show you Arisugawa Park and what it means to me and to so many others.
Let’s begin with an excerpt from the Ministry of Education’s goals for the Moral Education of Children in Grade’s 1 and 2. (2.) Under “Things Primarily Related to Relationships with Nature and the Sublime” it itemizes:
(1) Feeling intimate with the nature that’s near oneself; being kind-hearted in treatment of plants and animals.
(2) Having a heart that values life.
(3) Having contact with beautiful things and feeling ennobled by them.
And under “Things Primarily Related to Oneself” is:
(4) Leading a life that is relaxed and ingenious, not dishonest or deceptive.
Arisugawa Park is clearly designed to help with all of these things.
The first time I entered the park was from the top of the hill. The children in front of me took off their shoes immediately; they knew this park is best experienced barefoot.
A bridge crossed a small stream that mysteriously flowed freely on the right but was not to be found on the left. (3.) In a few short steps you were no longer in one of the busiest and most modern cities in the world. You felt like you’d come home to a time long ago.
There were birds to hear, trees to climb and hide behind, and flat open spaces for playing ball.
Then there was a playground. At first it looked like the playgrounds back home. But there was a difference. At home, the equipment was designed to avoid lawsuits; slides you can’t possibly fall out of, platforms with rails and all built on a rubberize pad.
It appears from the photos my Couch Surfing friends have sent that Arisugawa Park now has one of these too. This was probably inevitable given the number of Gaijin living in the neighborhood.
But I’m also glad to see all the old equipment is still there.
In 1990 the first thing I saw was a huge climbing frame with a tangle of children inside and on top. It is about 10 feet tall, and while you’d probably sprain an ankle jumping from it, your child would not. Kids are built to last.
You can watch children being ingenious and eventually you will learn that you need to relax.
The best place for a parent to park themselves is right in the middle on top. You can watch your child but you can not catch them when they jump. You can yell at them if you want but it will be purely for your own neurotic reasons since the other children will drown out your screeches. Soon you will discover that children are not idiots and they know what they are doing.
Then there are the swings. They look like swings in any other park in the world.
The difference between the swings here and the ones back home is evident only in the behavior of the adults. While tiny children can be strapped in to avoid injury, the bigger ones get a flat plank suspended between two chains that allow for some real fun.
On either side of the swings are some sort of painted metal pipes that seem to serve no purpose except to provide a hurdle to be cleared when a child jumps. Children soon learn that you can fly farthest from an upright position.
A path takes you down to a pond at the bottom of the hill.
Just looking at it is good enough for an adult but if you are a child you might want to go fishing. This is OK as long as you throw them back.
I wouldn’t try wading in if I were you. Nor would our sons; well – not twice.
Writing this story has been bittersweet for me.
Arisugawa Park, I miss you and I want to visit again soon.
I want to thank all the people from Couch Surfing who helped with photographs and suggestions for this piece: Niki, Yuval, Sarah, Aya, Mari, Alex, Jim, Takumi, Srini, Misaki, and Sylvie.