Great Grandfather, Great Grandmother, Great Depression

© 2008 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

As I detailed in the story How Grandmother Won Granddad in a Beauty Contest my grandparents met on a blind date in New York City in the 1920’s and decided to marry within a week.

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.

What to Think About How to Think

When discussing “math phobia” our neighbor, a psychotherapist, said, “I can’t think mathematically.”

My son said, “Then you can’t think.”

She was taken aback. “Of course I can think. I just can’t think mathematically.”

My son said, “See, you’re not thinking.”

The conversation ended there.

Do you see? My son understands logic, which is a subset of mathematics. He knows that to say, “I can think; I just can’t think mathematically,” makes no more sense than saying, “I can drive; I just can’t make left turns.”

Try picking the right room air conditioner or planning your retirement without thinking mathematically. You can’t do it. Of course, you can exist without knowing how to do these things yourself, but if you do, you will be having others do some of your thinking for you. This is fine in the case of an air conditioner but it can be disaster when it comes to your retirement. If the guy at the store sold you the wrong air conditioner, you’ll know by August but by the time you discover that your retirement planner got it wrong it will be too late.

I understood all this when I was 16 except that: 1) I mostly thought mathematically, and, 2) I wasn’t thinking about retirement at all.

Now I know better. I understand why colleges require both Math and Verbal SAT scores.

Just as you can’t think very deep mathematical thoughts without writing down numbers and mathematical symbols, you can’t think about much else without writing down words.

Don’t believe me? Try some experiments.

First, plan your retirement in your head without paper, computer or calculator. You might already have performed this experiment.

Now try planning your retirement with the aid of numbers, a calculator, some financial models and a bit of data. When you are done, compare your results to the first experiment. Scary?

Next make a major decision that doesn’t involve mathematics without writing down words: Should I go to college? Should I take this job? Should I quit this job? Should I start this business? Should I marry this person? Should I divorce this person? Perhaps you’ve already made a big decision without writing down your thoughts.

Now, just as an experiment, treat your next (or most recent) major life decision as if it were a serious writing assignment; something worthy of a semester’s grade in college. And not just any grade but an A+. A paper that prompts your professor to say, “Wow, you could base a life on thinking like that!”

Don’t just write down your thoughts but edit them. Write down the opposite of your thoughts and contrast them to your first thoughts and then decide which you want to keep. Sleep on it. Forget about it and go out to a party. Incorporate any 2 A. M. insights and then reconsider them when you’re sober. No bullet points. No PowerPoint. Full sentences only. Subject. Verb. Noun. Have you considered everything? Are your words convincing?

Then read what you wrote out loud. Does it sound convincing? If you believe it, try reading it to another person.

When you are done, compare your final version with to your first draft and then think back to how hard it was to get that first draft onto paper. The distance between where you are now and where you were before you started can be measured in thoughts; thoughts you couldn’t have kept straight without writing things down.

When you declare your essay complete; act. Keep your words around. Later, compare your predicted future to what is now your recent past. Did you write well? Probably not. Most things take practice. Repeat this experiment from now on and you’ll get better.

You might say, “I’m not going to write an essay on whether I’m going to marry my lover. We’re in love. It isn’t an essay topic.”

Fine. But you can still write things down. If you don’t think people can write about love then where have you been?

Write a love letter worth mailing. Then mail it. A love letter is not just a letter to your lover; it is a gift of love to your lover in letter form. If you are like me, you’ll find that you either love the process or you hate the process and your feelings about the process will vary depending on the lover. So it’s not the process at fault.

Describe your lover in the third person as if you were painting a picture of a newly introduced character in a novel. Show it to some friends who know your lover. Do they think you got it right? If not, you might be in for a surprise when you stop producing, or responding to, the dopamine that floods your brain when “in love.” (Scientists have shown that this will happen within 12 months, 18 at the max.)

Do you find it hard to express your feelings but you still want to get married? OK. When are you going to start working on that? Or do you think marriage has nothing to do with expressing feelings?

To say that you know how to think without knowing how to write is like saying you know how to drive without knowing how to turn right.

Do you want to go through life without control of the steering wheel?

If you don’t know how to think mathematically, then you don’t know how to think.

If you don’t know how write, then you don’t know how to think.

If you feel these statements are false then you are feeling but you’re not thinking.[1]


[1] I am open to the possibility that I am wrong on this so feel free to make your case and mail it to me.

(Note: A few months after publishing this a woman wrote to say when she first read it she was furious and convinced I was wrong. So she sat down to write a letter and after an entire weekend attempting to compose her thoughts she realized I was right.)

My Good Name

© 2008 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine
Republished in Folks Magazine on 8/22/09.

TwoBrookes
“Hello”

“Is Brooke Allen there?”

“Speaking.”

“I’m sorry, I have the wrong number.”

Click.

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?”

“Brooke Allen.”

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.

Of Parks and People

© 2008 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

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.

1. There is another group, about the same size, at http://www.hospitalityclub.org that is tied for First Place as having the Most Wonderful People.

2. Source: Catherine C. Lewis, Educating Hearts and Minds, Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education, p. 46, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

3. Years later I decided to investigate and discovered that the water was re-circulated up to this point from pond at the bottom of the hill.


Love is a Mother

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

After we decided to move to Tokyo but before we all did, I went by myself to find us a home. I started by looking at playgrounds and parks.

Arisugawa Park is a lovely place, named for a Japanese prince. It has a flowing stream that starts at the top of a hill and ends at the bottom with a fishing pond. Its wonderful playground had many barefoot children playing in the clean dirt and on an assortment of equipment.

I observed two mothers and their young boys.

One mother looked Japanese and the other American. Their sons were playing on the swings. The boys were trying to go as high as possible. After a few minutes of building momentum, the Japanese boy flung himself from the swing. His mother saw this yet seemed unconcerned but the American mom interrupted the conversation, ran to her own child, and began scolding him. “Don’t you dare do what he is doing! You will hurt yourself.”

She returned to her friend. They resumed chatting and the two boys resumed swinging. As the Japanese boy would fly from the swing the American boy would look at his mother pleadingly. Twice more she interrupted her conversation to remind her son of what harm might come to him if he were to attempt a similar stunt.

Her behavior was beginning to annoy her Japanese girlfriend.

Then something amazing happened.

The Japanese boy went flying farther than ever before. He landed on a tree root and fell forward. He cut his chin on the trunk.

He began to bleed and cry.

The American mom immediately started to run, but her Japanese friend grabbed her by the arm and pulled her behind a bush. The Japanese mom watched her son intently through the leaves. As the boy looked around frantically, it was clear that he had no idea where his mother was hiding. The crying lasted but twenty seconds and the bleeding perhaps another thirty. Soon he composed himself, wiped the blood from his chin, and returned to the swing. While he still would jump from it, he now seemed to be more interested in precision than distance.

Breaking free, the American mom ran to her son. Waving her finger, she said, “See. That is what can happen to you.”

The American boy stopped swinging altogether. Then he began crying.

The Japanese mom wanted to continue their conversation, yet her American friend was too upset.

I made a point of walking past them on the way out of the park. I overheard the American woman say, “But I love my son too much.”

If you believe that loving someone and protecting them from all harm are the same thing, then you can love someone too much.

Party Time

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

Have you ever held a party and had your first guest show up 45 minutes late? Did you have feelings of rejection and doubt? Perhaps nobody would come? Perhaps nobody likes you? Perhaps nobody ever did and they just got tired of being polite?

In some cultures, the feelings of others are more important than one’s own convenience.

John was a recent college graduate who was a member of my trading group when we moved from New York to Tokyo in 1992. The real estate market had recently crashed and with the housing budget provided by our employer, John was able to rent a three-bedroom apartment in Roppongi, the most desirable part of the city. Most Japanese “salarymen” could never aspire to live in such a place, even at the peak of their careers.

John decided to have a house warming party for himself.

He printed glossy invitations and handed them to everyone in the office. We were mostly Westerners and mostly male so, to balance the mix, he gave one to every beautiful young woman he ran across in Tokyo.

At 7:30 the doorbell rang. Fifty beautiful young women crowded the street in front of his apartment.

For more than an hour, John was the only male at his party and everyone felt a bit creepy, especially John. The women elected their best English speaker, “So, what is the deal? Is this party just all of us… and you?” John tried to explain that he’d invited lots of guys, but the ladies didn’t understand.

When the first male guest arrived after 9 PM he was greeted with a good deal of attention from the young women. By midnight, the sexes were fairly even and the party started to warm up. But John wasn’t having much fun because the females were shunning him.

In retrospect, John’s best tactic might have been to have a female friend play the role of host and for John to come to his own party at precisely 7:30. The women who arrived with him would not have viewed John not as creepy but rather as one of the rarest of all creatures: A Western male who was considerate of the feelings of others.

 

 

 

Arrive at the stated time. If you are the only one then you are either considerate or Japanese or both.

Mourning a Best Friend

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

The first time I saw my dad cry was when Tallulah died. She was named after Tallulah Bankhead, the actress, because of their similarity of voice and propensity to drink from inappropriate vessels.[1]

Just as the best therapy following a miscarriage or stillbirth is to work on a replacement, my folks went downtown immediately and picked up Pookie.

My sister and I loved Pookie. She had only one neurosis. While she was indifferent to cars, she hated motorcycles and whenever she would catch up with one, she would try to puncture its back tire with her teeth.

We buried her in the backyard. This time I cried.

Then there was Charlie Brown, as dumb as a coconut and if you knocked on the top of the head he sounded like one. It is ironic that we gave CB to some astrophysicists who moved to Colorado; you’d think they would want be around smarties.

Tramp walked into our lives from the woods in the back. He played dumb and he fooled us for a season. Minutes after you would walk away he’d be tangled in the rope around the tree. I caught him out one day by watching from inside the house instead of going to his rescue. After twenty minutes of pitiable whining and yelping he stopped abruptly and unwound himself. He spent the afternoon playing at the end of his tether. One day Tramp returned to the woods and we never saw him again. We probably weren’t smart enough for him. He should have been the one to go to Colorado.

My wife doesn’t feel the way I do about dogs. She will tell you that she likes your dog, but she is just being polite. She doesn’t mean that she will like your dog if you give it to her. You’ve got to walk them or they crap in the house. They don’t last forever so they eventually crap out on you completely.

Once we all went to see My Dog Skip, a wonderful movie about a young boy whose emotional life was rescued by a dog. At the end our sons and I were crying. Eve’s arms were crossed and her head was shaking, “We’re not getting a dog. We’re not getting a dog.”

I’m sorry that my sons never had a dog. Dogs love life and are genetically engineered to be your friend. They aren’t as durable as you so they are likely to kick off before you do.

 

You can learn a lot about living and dying from a dog.[2]


[1] Ms. Bankhead famously drank champagne from her slipper at the Ritz hotel in London.

[2] Thorton Wilder said it better, “Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday.”