Adventures In Combating Complacency

And now for something completely different.

I’m going to swear online for the first time today.

Racist Nazi fucks don’t scare me.

You wanna fuck with black people and Jewish people? Good luck with that.

Here’s what does scare me: Complacency. I was out at a bar last night for a birthday party. I was talking to friends about Charlottesville. I then struck up a conversation with a stranger – a finance bro. (Now I don’t mean to belittle “finance bros” at all. But I said it, and now I bet you can visualize him better. I mean he probably dressed up as Patrick Bateman once for Halloween because he thought he was being “ironic.” I digress.)

The guy said he didn’t know what happened yesterday because he doesn’t watch or read the news. When I began to tell him what happened – Yes, Michael, by all means initiate a conversation about politics and Nazism with a stranger in a bar – he said he didn’t want to know.

Now I don’t post much on Facebook these days other than random questions and photos with vague song lyrics from the 90’s as captions. It’s just not a productive place for me. I never post news links and rarely write political posts. People who know me know this is not for lack of political or social engagement in the slightest. I simply prefer to focus my time on taking action offline, every day, with intention, engaging with people face to face.

But this conversation followed last night, which I quickly wrote down after it ended because it scared me so much. I felt the need to share it on social media because I believe there’s an even greater terror on our hands than this small population of racist Nazi fucks (many of whom, fascinatingly, if you check their Twitter handles, claim to be anti-Nazi, but we’ll get into that another time).

The greater terror, to me, is the complacency and apathy of every day Americans.

Our conversation continued:

So you don’t read the news either?

No.

Never catch it on a screen somewhere? Talk to friends about it?

Nope. I don’t want to know about it. I’ve never voted either. (He said PROUDLY.)

Why not?

One vote doesn’t mean anything. My vote can’t do anything. Let me tell you something – most people are scum.

Do tell me. Tell me more.

Most people are scum! And I don’t want anything to do with scum.

These men and women were marching with swastikas yesterday. These are the people who make death threats to synagogues and raid Jewish cemeteries. These are the people killing our black brothers and sisters in the streets.

See, I told you! Scum! But I’m never going to cross paths with any of them. So. They’re not my problem.

What about other people’s problems? What about empathy?

There’s nothing I can do.

There’s so much you can do! Volunteer, donate, call, e-mail, tweet at your representatives, raise your voice, engage, dialogue, march, protest…

Protests don’t do anything. Protests have never accomplished a damn thing. You’re wasting your time. Like I told you, most people are scum. It’s the way of the world.

…….

What kind of work do you do?

Investment banking.

Do you enjoy your work?

Naw. I hate it, honestly.

What would you rather be doing?

I don’t know. So long as I never have to go above 14th Street, I’m good.

—–

I smiled and walked away.

He’s wrong. Most people aren’t scum.

Yes, some people light the world up with their tiki torches from Home Depot while shouting “White Lives Matter,” completely devoid of the true irony that their weapon of choice is an American bastardization of a non-white symbol. (Let’s face it: Their hats were made in China too.)

No, most people aren’t scum. But some are. Some are willing to just standby and watch the world burn.

The amount of pain and wrongs done in the world every day is immeasurable and overwhelming. And yes, people have no legal or even human obligation to look after or take care of their fellow human beings. But that is not who I choose to be.

I choose to be someone who doesn’t turn the world off because it’s painful and overwhelming. I choose to be someone who strives every day to do what they can to learn, listen, and make a positive impact. And I’d say the people I tend to surround myself with have the same viewpoint. Of course, we can’t consume the 24 hour news media. We can’t desensitize ourselves to the point of no return. We have to take care of ourselves and our well-being first. But as someone who dedicates their life to storytelling, to building empathy in individuals and strength in communities, I won’t ever stop trying to get people to open up their hearts and minds and pay attention to the world around them. That’s not just how we’ll grow. It’s how we’ll survive.

Friends, instead of railing against Trump every day from your private Facebook accounts and posting another “But her e-mails” meme, please help me talk to these kinds of people face to face every day as respectfully as possible. Lord knows I’m trying. Listen to them. Challenge them. Engage them. I know it’s difficult. But try. You have to try. Our democracy, our world, our future is at stake.

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Adventures in Loss

She was the first artist I knew. She was a painter. She made her living oil painting over the portraits my grandfather, a photographer, took in his Brooklyn studio. Their business was called Vega Photography.

She was the first chef I knew. When I was a child, her visits were hotly anticipated. She arrived bearing the gooiest and most delectable rocky road fudge you could ever imagine. Frankly, you couldn’t imagine it. Human imagination could never grasp such godly, culinary ecstasy. The fact that she made rocky road seems apropos. She always found sweetness in and around hardships.

Janet was born in Harlem. Her birthday was my half birthday. My half birthday was her birthday.

She played basketball in high school. Baller. FullSizeRender

She began dating Robert, my grandfather-to-be, when she was 18 years old. He was a photographer in the Army. They met at a dance. He drove her home. When he leaned in to kiss her, she slapped him.

Shortly thereafter, they started dating.

Shortly thereafter, Pearl Harbor was hit.

Robert was to be sent overseas, except a funny thing happened on the way to war. At the end of his final medical check-up, the doctor hesitantly asked, “Robert, I’m not supposed to ask things like this, but are you by any chance dating a girl named Janet Axelrad over in Bensonhurst?”

“I am,” Robert said. “I’m gonna marry her, and we’re gonna start a family too. As soon as I get back from the war.”

The doctor subsequently diagnosed Robert with flat feet. Accurately, I might add. Robert was never sent overseas. Instead, he remained stationed stateside, first in Colorado Springs, then in Oklahoma City, then in Kansas City. The doctor ensured that Robert could stay with Janet, which he did, marry her, which he did, and raise a family with her, which he did.

The doctor turned out to be Janet’s cousin.

As for the ship Robert was meant to deploy on?

It was torpedoed in the South Pacific and sank.

Janet married Robert at age 20, and had my father, Lee, at age 22. Four years later, she had my uncle, Cliff.

She was a first generation American, the daughter of Polish immigrants Harry and Gussie Axelrad. Harry opened and operated Cathedral Bar & Grill on Christopher Street. It is now an Italian restaurant called Gaetana’s. The floor tiles Harry laid down a century ago remain. I often wonder if he imagined his great-grandson would one day stand on those very tiles.

Harry spoke Polish, German, English, and Yiddish. The usage of Yiddish would decrease with each passing generation, though my parents never failed to tuck me in without a Schluff Gezunt. “Sleep well.”

Janet was a Modern-Orthodox Jew. She kept a Kosher kitchen. As a kid, I could never comprehend why she had so many plates.

Janet and Robert left Brooklyn for West Palm Beach in 1983, shortly before I was born.

A few years ago, I visited Robert’s sister Annette, who was still living in the Brooklyn home where Robert grew up. In the basement, I stumbled upon my grandfather’s dark room, still intact from the 1950’s. I took pieces of paper off the walls with handwritten quotes, as well as hundreds of paper scraps that I later spent a year piecing together, forming both a 19th century Dutch shipping calendar, which I kept for myself, and an early 20th century map of Brooklyn, which I had framed and gave to my father on his 70th birthday. Annette passed away and the house was demolished shortly after my visit.

My grandfather called Janet “Red.” Her big red mane was unmistakable and unavoidable. I was a perpetual disappointment to her strictly because my own red hair became increasingly brown with every passing year. FullSizeRender_1

“Where’s your red?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“Are you dyeing your hair?”

“No, Grandma.”

“Why is your hair getting so dark?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“You know you really should stop dyeing it. It makes you special. Let your red come out to play.”

She never called me Michael. She called me, “My Michael.” I never knew exactly why. But I always liked the fact that she claimed some kind of ownership over me. I was in good hands.

I remember celebrating Janet and Robert’s 50th Wedding Anniversary at my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Robert died shortly before my Bar Mitzvah.

Unable to find a conservative temple in her area, Janet founded one herself. This is where she met her second husband, Harry Wolovitz. They were together for 5 years before he passed.

In 2010, due to declining health, Janet moved to California to be closer to my Dad. She lived in an assisted living home called Alma Via, a few doors down from the grandfathers of my friends Marissa and Jena. In her final days, she had dementia, one leg, and a tumor on her face. But she never complained. She continued to laugh. I loved her laugh. Her eyes would squint and her voice would crack and it was the cutest darn thing you ever did see.

The thing I’ll remember most about Janet is how we would look at each other from across a room. In the afternoons at Alma Via, Janet would park her wheel chair in the common area. Clusters of people in wheelchairs would surround her. While their eyes would glue to the TV screen, Janet’s eyes would gaze out the windows at the flowers and the sunshine.

Whenever I would visit her at Alma Via, I’d peek my head around the corner of the common area and stare at her until her eyes found mine. Sometimes it would take a few minutes, but it was always worth it. She would discover me, then stare at me blankly for a few moments. Then a smile would slowly creep across her face. Her eyes would twinkle. And we’d stay there for a few minutes, just smiling at each other from across a room.

The last time I saw her, we stared at each other for what felt like 50 years. Eventually I approached her.

“My Michael,” she said, slowly. “Where’s your red?”

I tapped my heart and smiled.

Then she tapped her heart and smiled.

Schluff Gezunt, Red.

____________________

Janet Axelrad Schwartz

1923-2017

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Adventures In Surviving 2016

Cheers To The Friends

friends

Cheers To The Gatherings

gatherings

Cheers To The Travel

travel

Cheers To The Adventures

adventures

And Cheers To The Memories

memories

2016 was certainly my most adventurous year yet, in every sense of the word. I am thankful for the opportunity to know so many incredible people and places around the globe. Let us all continue to combat insularity and hate and strive for a kinder, more generous, and more inclusive world.

Wishing excitement and prosperity, love and connection, strong hearts and open minds to all my fellow adventure addicts out there.

Adventures In Romanticizing Europe

In retrospect, it was the most formative month of my life. Eight Aprils ago, I performed Shakespeare in London. I got lost in Venice, Florence, Chianti, Cortona, and Rome. I drove the perimeter of Ireland, from Dublin to Cork to Kinsale to the Cliffs of Mohr to Galway and back to Dublin again. In Paris I had tea with Sartre and Seurat, and read the entirety of Alan Watts’ “The Wisdom Of Insecurity” in one sitting in the middle of the train station. I got off in Marseille, thinking I was in Nice, so I stole a pizza and placed a $90 collect call home crying, “Je ne parle pas français! Je ne parle pas français!” When I finally arrived in Nice at 3 am, I was greeted by the howling call of my Rosalind, all wild hair and wicked smile, through second story windows overlooking the water. We woke up the next day, purchased a bottle of red and a bundle of warm chocolate croissants, and we danced on the beach to Morrison and Joplin until the sun went down. The next day, we hopped a train to Barcelona, and when we arrived, we met with Gaudi and Picasso. We purchased local grains and produce, and cooked a meal in our hostel before attending a flamenco performance in one of the local “tablaos”. The next day, my Rosalind left me, and I continued on by myself to Madrid and Toledo. Those days were lore in my history books, full of endless magic and possibility. But I’d like to think that any day can be full of great wonder, if I let it. “We had our whole lives ahead of us” is such an inaccurate cliché, because we ALWAYS have our whole lives ahead of us. So if I ever need a reminder, I can just look at a picture, open a journal, or simply close my eyes, and dance with a beautiful girl on the beach in the South of France.

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Rosalind and I, atop Park Guell, Barcelona

Adventures In Love At First Sight

A couple years ago, I saw two strangers, a gentleman and a lady, lock eyes across a room, a heat and attraction so immediate and so intense that it threatened to destroy every notion that “it could only happen like that in the movies”, ironic considering we were at the premiere of the lady’s first film. With camera in hand, and having just purchased a new lens earlier that day, I slowly backed up into a corner and watched silently as the dashing gentleman cooly approached the resplendent lady, as if they were jungle mammals in some nature documentary narrated by Richard Attenborough. I quietly but quickly held my camera to my face, snapping up just one photo before the lady noticed her old friend being a creeper with a camera in the corner. Later that evening, I apologized to the lady, telling her I had taken the photo because I wanted their grandchildren to see the moment Grandma and Grandpa first met on that perfect Autumn day in New York City. But really, more so, a couple years down the line, when I would at long last gaze upon her sparkling ring finger…I just wanted to be able to smile and say to one of my oldest friends, “I told you so.”

I TOLD YOU SO.

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