I walked into the Moose Lodge on RCA Boulevard feeling out of sorts. The scheduled Celebration of Life for Nanci was due to end in 20 minutes. Otherwise, it had been a usual Sunday for me, with a busy morning—a Garden Tour in Palm Beach with Patti and then lunch with Caroline and Sam. After dropping off Patti at her place I sped north on I-95. I pulled into the parking lot mostly filled with pick-up trucks and a few motorcycles. Outside were gathered a few smokers with beer bottles hanging loosely at their sides. The glances my way made me feel a bit uneasy. I walked through the entrance into a reception area with pictures of past Moose members. I then realized I didn’t really know why I was there. Nanci was one of the regular counter gals at Greens, my local pharmacy and lunch place in Palm Beach. Over the past 20 years I only knew her first name and that was from the nametag she wore. Not one to talk much she was always short on words and did her job—take her order and return to gossip with the other counter ladies. I was never successful in engaging her in a conversation. In fact, I was cautious not to call out my order to her until she was ready and standing at my table with her pen out and a note pad in hand. In hindsight I thought that perhaps by coming to her Celebration I might learn a bit more about her. She always seemed a bit out of place at the counter. She was tall and evidently had once been a “looker.” Who was Nanci and did I miss something or offend her in some way over the years? I never observed her in real conversation with any customer though, so maybe it wasn’t me. She was there to do her job and she did it well. Nanci would not know I was there to pay my respects, but I wanted the other counter ladies to know I do care. That was the point, I guess. I roamed the room, furnished with round tables decorated with printed logos of the Washington Redskins -now called the Commanders. Large photos affixed to the walls showed Nanci in various stages of her life: motherhood, partying in Key West, in a Redskins football jersey, and having fun with her many friends. The music played, country and western. The open bar had a line. There were homemade cookies and brownies. This was not an “eating” party. The beer and desserts must have been what Nanci would want. Someone had made a video of her life over the years and a few of us stood there watching it. The counter women from Greens sat around a table and I went over to say hello. I believe I was the only customer who showed during the Celebration. I felt a bit awkward speaking to them. I sensed they were looking at me and wondering “what is he doing here?” I walked around the room once more and saw a table with condolence cards made out to Nanci’s family. I thought perhaps I should have brought one. I looked for a guestbook to sign, but then I don’t think anyone really cared that I was there. I left as I came in, wondering why I had gone in the first place. I guess sometimes we do things for a reason that only make sense some time after the event. This was one of them. I am glad I went. I cared for Nanci.
Author: Lenny Ackerman
My Weekly Fix
Here Back East
By Lenny Ackerman
My Weekly Fix
I had been marinating over the theme of this column, wanting to write about some aspect of newspaper publishing. It took Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal to provide the inspiration with her recent article about The North Shore Leader, a local weekly from Long Island, New York. This small, hometown paper with “students and retirees on its staff” broke national news, exposing the fraud of George Santos, a recently elected representative for the Third Congressional District of New York. It was an explosive David and Goliath story with world-class investigative work behind it. I immediately subscribed to The Leader and, as a longtime reader and supporter of several weekly newspapers, was moved to write a few words in support of them. Toward this end, I decided to do interviews with two publishers of local weeklies: Carl Butz of The Mountain Messenger and Gavin Menu, co-publisher with his wife Kathryn of The Sag Harbor Express. Though on opposite coasts—California and New York—there are similarities: both newspapers have storied histories and have been in print since the mid-19th century, and both publishers face many of the same business challenges. The purpose of my interviews was to gather some insight into the motivation behind the incredible effort and energies necessary to produce and print a newspaper 52 times a year. I learned that they do it on tight budgets and against constant headwinds: the crushing effect of digital on print media, the spiraling costs of labor, paper, and distribution as well as the declining readership of local papers in general. According to research done by the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, “Since 2004, the United States has lost one-fourth – 2,100 – of its newspapers. This includes more than 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies or nondailies.” Both Carl Butz and Gavin Menu are energetic and enterprising journalist-publishers with singular drive, which is to provide information to their communities with a focus on lifestyle, local news and events, schools and investigative news—and despite the challenges, they are optimistic about the future of their papers.
In addition to The Leader, The Mountain Messenger and The Sag Harbor Express, I also receive the weekly The Houlton-Pioneer Times from Maine, and The East Hampton Star. My dailies are The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Palm Beach Post. I also subscribe digitally to The Washington Post which I tried in print but by the time it was delivered to my mailbox in Palm Beach the news was stale. Interestingly, Gavin informs me that his subscribers prefer the print edition of his paper, as do the majority of The Messenger’s readers. I concur. I actually enjoy having ink on my fingertips after finishing a newspaper, as well as the ability to fold it over and cut out articles for future reference. The Houlton-Pioneer Times is the local paper in northern Aroostook, where my fishing camp is located. This week I learned of the ice fishing conditions and about the closure of several movie theaters in the area. The Sag Harbor Express is watching over the local Zoning Board agenda and The East Hampton Star is keeping tabs on the closing of the Town airport. My view is that the future of some weeklies is in the not-for-profit realm similar to public television and radio. They stand a better chance of survival with support from private foundations and government grants. We all need to be informed of what is happening in our own backyard, whether it is the local politics in The East Hampton Star, the impact of climate change on the oceanfront by The Palm Beach Post, or even the new seasonal restaurant openings in The Sag Harbor Express. And it is always interesting to read the opinions and views of other people in your community. These local and weekly newspapers play an important role in our greater national conversation. Freedom of the press is, now more than ever, a special right and not just a privilege.
Overheard: The Gift of Yourself
At a recent dinner party, I overheard our hostess Chris share an incredible but true story at her end of the table. As she related it, three close, older men–retirees who regularly played golf together in Florida–were gathered at a memorial service for their recently deceased fourth golfing partner. During the event, they were informed by their late friend’s daughter that her father had made a special provision in his will for them: the three buddies were to enjoy a long-planned “bucket list” golfing tour of Scotland at his expense. He left them $100,000 to ensure a leisurely trip of a lifetime, playing all the top courses while staying at the finest hotels and luxury accommodations.
The three friends embarked on their appointed trip, and everything went according to plan. They had a spectacular time and were near the end of a month-long trek through Scotland, when they found themselves having dinner at a pub near St. Andrews. Seated at a nearby table was a young family of four speaking a foreign language amongst themselves. They were focused on one of the children, a boy of about 11, who was translating the menu for them in heavily accented English. At one point the golfers exchanged hellos with the family and initiated a conversation with the English-speaking child, who explained that he learned English in school and his family were refugees from the war in Ukraine. They had only been in Scotland for a few weeks. He described the family’s desperate plight, trying to find a permanent home and future in Scotland.
The golfers returned to their meals and quietly contemplated what they had heard. Before leaving the restaurant, they made a decision: since they hadn’t spent all of the money set aside for the trip, why not share the remainder with this family in need? How much was left? $40,000 – a life-changing amount. What was one more round of golf and another fancy hotel when it was so clear what they should do. So after a toast to their departed friend, it was done. I can only imagine that there was more than a monetary gift. I am certain these Florida golfers with years of experience in life’s ups and downs also offered invaluable advice to this stateless family about starting over in a new land.
Everyone at our dinner table had tuned in to this remarkable story. Afterward, there was some spirited conversation about various methods for giving to those in need, not just money but also personal advice. Subsequently my friend Bill and I had a talk about giving, both monetarily to those less fortunate as well as giving advice to friends and loved ones. We are both professional “advice givers” – I am an attorney, and he is a financial advisor—and both of us often work “pro bono.” I refer to this concept as the “gift of yourself.” If you have the extra money, it is easy to donate it. There is more effort in allocating the energy and time to advise, which requires one to stop, listen, and consider another person’s feelings, issues or desperation– and act in response. Too often I hear “I have no time” or “that is not my problem” as a reaction to someone in need of some basic human empathy. The Florida golfers received a gift and paid it forward when they didn’t have to. By reaching out they also gave of themselves. How many would have done the same? As with the homeless it is easier to walk around than to offer a hand.
For those who travel along the coastline in eastern Florida a train ride is usually Amtrack, which runs between northeast and southern Florida. I discovered a recent addition to this route: the Brightline, a new, modern short-run train between West Palm and Miami. Many of my friends recommended using this mode of transportation as a more comfortable means of travel than driving I-95, so when I had a business meeting last week in Coconut Grove, I decided to go by rail.
Settling back into my seat I closed my eyes and thought back to my first train ride with my mother on the New York Central from Rochester to New York City in 1954 to attend my brother’s engagement party. I was 15 years old and mom had brought a picnic basket of food to hold me over during the 8-hour trip. My parents were kosher so there was no thought to ordering anything in the dining car except soda pop. I recall distinctly as the conductor came down the aisle to retrieve our tickets, Mom said to me “Lenny, you slink down and don’t show how tall you are” – my ticket was for ages 12 and under. Dad had warned her not to pay extra for an adult ticket for me. The conductor was none the wiser and I passed for 12 on that trip though I don’t think the charade would have worked for much longer. My father was an experienced train rider having traveled alone in 1918 at age 12 from his shtetl in Russia to Hamburg, Germany, to board a ship to Argentina. He had a singular train experience and it was certainly not a fun one, but that is a story for another column.
There was no entertainment on the New York Central for a 15-year-old kid like me, but fortunately, I had a library copy of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to pass the time. When I tired of reading I ran up and down the aisles of the train cars. I was always a talker and I recall making friends with some of the other adult passengers in the general seating areas. The uniformed ticket collectors were entertained by me and gave me a tour of the various railcars. The kitchen car was the most fun. I watched the cooks in their sparkling white chef’s caps preparing delicious-looking meals of chicken, roast beef, crab salad, and strawberry shortcake–none of which I was allowed to have. The baggage car held an orderly assortment of luggage and boxes for delivery ala FedEx today. There was an open-top observation car that must have been First Class. I spent a lot of time peering out the windows at the miles of farm fields as we passed through central New York and then turned south at Albany towards New York City, finally arriving at the gigantic Grand Central terminal. Seeing the mighty panoramic Kodak “Colorama” in the lobby was thrilling to me. My brother Marty met us in the main concourse and hustled us through the underground tunnels to his parked car. It was my first, unforgettable train adventure to New York City.
I commuted by train later during my college years, between upstate and Newark, but soon I had a car –a Morris Minor –and drove the New York Thruway and New Jersey Turnpike back and forth to law school. Ultimately train travel ended for me and I like most people, except commuters and train enthusiasts, travel by air. The Brightline trip to Miami brought all these memories back and I thank that someone out there who created such nostalgia for me.
Fishing the Mitchell River
I fished a bit of the North Carolina-Virginia border last week. The Mitchell River near Dobson, North Carolina, is a short drive from Winston-Salem. A visit to my granddaughter Lilly, who is a freshman in college, provided me cover to take a day off to wet my toes and fingers in a cold, 40-degree trout stream. My trip started with a short plane ride to Charlotte and then a drive to Winston-Salem where I spent an afternoon at Wake Forest with Lilly. Lilly, our first grandchild, is a modern-day woman brimming with confidence and exuberance. Our time together reassured me that my concern for her happiness, which incented me to visit, was misplaced. Lilly has acclimated well to college life and is a mature young adult. I was comfortable taking a day away to fish the morning not so lonely with my guide Dave Bergman, a transplanted New Jerseyan who, like all fishing guides, dreams of having his own fly shop someday. We set out early morning with temps in the 40s. I was geared up with my Icelandic kit – long johns, flannel pants, thick waders and layers of outer wear. I was ready. We fished a 4-weight rod nymphing our way along the riffles. We scouted in vain for Browns and Brook but the Rainbow trout- 9” to 13” were plentiful that morning. The sky was bright. The farmland surrounding the river was cut bare. All the fishing paths to the water were devoid of fellow fishers. The air was clear and smelled of recently plowed-over fields of soy. I could have been in Maine, Pennsylvania or out west. I felt complete. My vocabulary was enriched by some new terms Dave taught me: “chowder” (rough water); “boogie water” (shallow, rocky water moving at a swift pace). There is something unexplainable for me about fishing the mornings. My mind is clear out on the water—a reminder of the times past before cell phones. In fact, there was no cell service where we were. Another reason to go back. My only thoughts are to my back cast—to not entangle my line– and to keep my frozen feet moving. Otherwise, I am happy and secure.
A dream of mine has finally been realized: Barnes and Noble is coming to the Hamptons. Seems the new owner, an English bookstore entrepreneur, is building out some 35 new stores throughout the U.S. and one is scheduled to open this year in Bridgehampton, New York. There are small, independent bookstores in Sag Harbor and East Hampton, but the scope and ambiance of Barnes and Noble will motivate me this summer to drive the backroads through Wainscott to the Kimco shopping center at Bridgehampton Commons. As you may know from my previous columns, I regularly roam bookstores in whichever city or town I may be in, such as Shakespeare & Co. on 68th and Lex in New York City and Classic Bookshop in Palm Beach. But Barnes and Noble is like a combination library-bookstore experience that reminds me of my early days when I first fell under the spell of books.
So many of my Saturday afternoons in Rochester were spent curled up in the aisles at Scranton’s Books on Main Street, which was adjacent to Louis’s Parking–my dad’s lot. I would pull down books at random and attempt to understand them despite my then undiagnosed dyslexia. In college, I spent endless hours at the Rutgers library not just studying but stretched out on the floor between the stacks just reading for enjoyment.
These days, in Palm Beach, I steal an hour between exercise and lunch to hide out on the second floor of the Four Arts Library with one of the several books that I am reading. I always have more than one book going at a time, all of them stored for convenience on the back seat of my car. I believe the book hoarding and reading multiple books simultaneously is a habit that I picked up from my brother Marty when we were growing up–this in spite of the fact that I never saw either of my parents pick up a book, nor did they encourage us to. My father only read the weekly Yiddish newspaper which was sold at a few of the kosher stores on Joseph Avenue and which, as a special delivery from New York City, was always a week out of date. My mother read the local Times Union and when I was very young, I would try to read with her, by her side. My brother’s visits home during his college years at Syracuse University were memorable for our outings together to Scranton’s, where he would fill up a shopping bag with books. I recall in later years, when I saw him in Connecticut and at his New York apartment, he was always surrounded by books, including a vast collection of art books. Yes, the younger generation of Ackermans would always have libraries in their homes–rooms dedicated to the pleasure of reading.
I am now building another library for myself, this one at camp in Maine, in my new office cabin. I shipped up at least a thousand books from my collection in East Hampton and shelving is being constructed now to house them. I decided on the Maine library so the books would be more accessible to me, as I spend most of the summer at camp. Also, the accumulation had grown beyond capacity in East Hampton. With the books up north, I can look forward to the rainy, non-fishing days, when I will settle in my office cabin in front of the electric faux fireplace to reread some of my old favorites, the warmth in the room almost matching what I feel inside when I open up one of those old volumes, cherished as they are like old friends.
The weather in Florida dropped to mid-forties last week. Out of storage came the heavy sweaters, socks, long pants, caps and fleece jackets, now the attire day and night. Patti and I bundled up and went for brunch in West Palm at Howleys Diner on South Dixie, an active street much like Second Avenue in New York City–lots of restaurants, simple fare and shops offering everything from clock repair to fancy, out of date furniture consignments. After a brief wait a table was available. Seated next to the entrance we felt a cold breeze each time the door opened. Our coffee had just been served when a disheveled young man wearing a dirty Santa hat entered. Unkempt beard, loosely hanging, tattered clothes, he had the appearance of too much time on the streets and not enough time cleaning up. He seated himself next to us and I instinctively pushed my chair away from him and closer to Patti. Not a peep from Patti, casual and unnerved as she can be. Anxious about his close proximity, I looked about and to my surprise there was the manager holding a large to-go cup of hot coffee. He set it carefully in front of the young man, who picked it up with both hands and sipped cautiously, not wanting to spill a drop of the precious commodity. The manager hovered over him and gently coaxed the visitor out the front door. I was relieved, but ashamed that I reacted the way I had, so ill at ease by his presence.
I have encountered homeless people in New York for years; they are more prevalent now, since Covid. I walk around them sitting or lying on the sidewalk in front of CVS on the corner of 68th street and Third Avenue. I fear many have burned bridges with family and friends and lack any support system. Mental illness pervades the homeless population. I have empathy and the desire to help and pressing some cash into an open hand temporarily assuages my guilt. I held out a sandwich once and was told “I don’t like turkey.” I offered what I thought was needed, but it was not what was wanted. Advocates for the homeless have a mantra: “We can’t take away their right to be homeless.” But what does “right to be homeless” mean? What about the right of the average person to feel unafraid when they pass a homeless person, given the number of recorded random attacks? Most homeless are not of sound mind, so are they capable of making decisions in their own best interest? If not, is leaving them on the street and labelling it as their “choice” or “right” morally wrong? Isn’t “homeless” a spectrum — from the single mom who has to live in a motel or in her car with her kids because she was evicted, to the violent, mental hospital patient released prematurely for lack of beds? If they are not capable of helping themselves are our politicians doing enough? I am troubled by the “homeless” problem and all of its implications and questions.
The weather has returned to the usual 80 degrees. I suspect the young man in the Santa cap found the shelter up the road on South Dixie. The line for a meal and a place to sleep starts snaking mid-day in Florida. I am going to seek out answers to some of my questions and do more to help.
Hard Stop – English (plural hard stops); Noun
- A definite time when someone must end a task in order to meet another time commitment.
- I have a hard stop at 4pm, so please try to cover everything in the meeting before then.
- Making time for yourself to do what matters most- taking care of yourself to restore and reset the body, mind and soul; to make time to spend with family and/or friends.
- I have a hard stop at 2:00 – we’re going to a concert with the kids
The phrase “hard stop” became part of my vocabulary during Covid lockdown. Working from my home offices in East Hampton, Florida and Maine during the period between March of 2020 throughout 2021, I felt strongly that I could not be fixed to a computer zoom screen 24/7. My practice is not a 9 to 5 routine. Client emails and calls come in from as far away as Malaysia and London and from all over the United States. My responsiveness is key to my client relationships so I am constantly drawn to the phone and computer. Hence, the need for regular mental health rest time. During lockdown, it was impossible to get away from the computer as it was never more than a few feet away. Thus the term “hard stop” came into regular use and practice and continues to this day. My office does not schedule calls before 9:00am or after 4pm. There is still business activity outside of those hours, but not generated by me or my staff unless it is a matter of utmost urgency.
My friend and colleague Thom took it upon himself to incorporate the term into dictionary format –and enshrined the phrase on baseball caps for everyone as holiday gifts. I think Thom’s definitions are good ones. We all need time off. Those of us in the service business – professionals, white collar, blue collar—are instantly accessible through cell phones and computers for work-related matters these days. No more letter writing to inquire. Just bang out a few words with “call me.” I cherish my time off. I now spend more leisure time playing tennis, swimming, painting and today– writing a column. I am no longer driven by meeting billable hour goals. I’m 83 years old – I can fairly say I am due some time off. Yes, I believe Thom really got the idea. Hard stop.
Out of the Mouths of Children
Much has been written of adult friendships and maintaining relationships. Recently, the New York Times ran an article extolling the benefits of friendship as a way to improve quality of life physically and mentally. It is a timely topic these days. Mental health issues may be more easily dealt with when there is a friend to talk to and commiserate with when feeling low. I find it encouraging that my grandson Billy confided to his mother about his own feelings of loneliness while he was at sleepaway camp last summer (Billy has okayed my sharing his experience):
“Sleepaway camp was my darkest days. I never felt so alone,” he confessed. “I had no friends. It was there I decided that I would never feel that way again.”
Billy was homesick and it was his first year at a camp. The other campers had long-established connections going back many summers and it was hard to break into the group. Billy has matured over the last year to a point to where he now feels free and comfortable enough to express his feelings. I was proud of him. I had encouraged him to go to camp. His father, who did not have a good experience at sleepaway when he was young, assured him he could leave if he didn’t like it, but Billy stuck it out. Billy was starting a new school in the fall and knew he did not want a repeat of his camp experience. He went out of his way and made a real effort to connect with the kids in his class. Today, at his new school, Billy has a bunch of new buddies, and his social life is almost as busy as his grandpa’s.
Billy related his experience in a recent Uber ride:
“I was driving up Park Avenue with my new best friend the other day and I looked out the car window and I said to myself, I did it. I’ve got a best friend, and everyone accepts me. My friends are cool and this was my goal. My Bar Mitzvah will be the best party ever.”
The New York Times article relates how keeping friends is not effortless. Billy concurs:
“You know it takes hard work to make friends. Finding real friends is not easy. Me and all my friends—all we do is laugh and do silly stuff.”
That’s my Billy-boy. I am looking forward to having Billy and his companions up at camp on the lake being silly.
What Would Mark Twain Say?
For the past several months I have been intrigued by author Mark Twain’s time out west. I came upon a book entitled Mark Twain in California by Nigey Lennon, which gave me insight into Twain’s early journalistic years on the Nevada-California border, and then in San Francisco where he wrote for the Morning Call. Prior to starting my research, I only knew Twain as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
His career as a frontier journalist began following a stint as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Samuel Clemens was his name by birth, but it was on the water that he gained his pen name, from the shouts in riverboat jargon for two fathoms –“mark twain!”– i.e. the safe water depth for steamboats. He headed west after the start of the Civil War and, failing at mining the Comstock Lode, took up writing for the local papers. This part of his life was of special interest to me because rumors have been circulating for years that Twain wrote for “The Mountain Messenger”– an assertion long disputed by Twain biographers and scholars, who allege that what appeared in the Messenger at that time under a pen name was only the reprint of an “unremarkable” piece he wrote for a San Francisco newspaper while “hungover.” Journalism at the time barely resembled the rigorous, present-day “All the News That’s Fit to Print” style of The New York Times. In fact, Twain wrote under multiple pseudonyms, including “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass” and simply “Josh,” among others, and his journalistic focus tended to be on barroom “squabbles the night before…usually between Irish and Irish or Chinese and Chinese, with now and then a squabble between the two races for a change.”
Notwithstanding the historical facts -or fiction-I thought it would be interesting to imagine, based on Twain’s own words, his view of current events if he were writing for the Messenger today. So, what would be Josh’s take on the current political climate? Today everyone is squabbling, especially between political parties as well as politicians of the same stripe fighting amongst themselves. Twain’s quip, “I breakfasted every morning with the governor, dined with the principal clergymen and slept in the station house,” might apply to Trump’s rapid decline in popularity among his own supporters after hosting controversial dinner guests at Mar-a-Lago. On other issues, Twain’s habit of speculation with mining stocks led to an observation which might apply to the crypto-fraud debacle of today: “The wreck was complete. The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it. I was an early beggar, and a thorough one.”
Twain was a frontier humorist who dealt on corrupt politicians. He finished his California journalistic career in San Francisco writing humor, philosophizing and moralizing. Twain would have found plenty to write about in the past year in America. We could use a bit more of his ethics – and humor– these days.