Me and Dad

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom. ~Umberto Eco

I have the metal strongbox, where he kept the hatband from his days as a Naval officer, that he let me play with as a child. I have two volumes of Slipstream, the books that he edited for the Navy. I have his wings; his flight diary documenting every nighttime run he made over the course of three years; his Naval aviator diploma from Corpus Christie dated 1944; his letters home from the Pacific; his fountain pen; his dog tags; his gold flight ring that he had turned into a charm for my mother’s bracelet. I have his leather-bound looseleaf notebook that he let me use in junior high school, and his Bar Mitzvah books from 1936 inscribed A Gift From Mr. & Mrs. M. Kastoff and Family that he gave to me when I moved out of his parents’ apartment, which he kept renting even though they’d been gone for years.

I have the ties I bought for him when I was studying at Cambridge; his gold Hamilton watch on its alligator band; his black plastic aviators from 1970; his English duffel coat that he had to have tailored because his arms were short; his leather flight jacket with his squadron patch and gold wings sewn onto the breast. I have his robin’s-egg blue metal home movie screen; his Super 8 editing viewer; his cans of home movies; his bags of birthday cards he sent to his mother from the time he was a boy; his clipping of a famous wayward cousin’s obituary, which he stored in a half-gallon zip lock bag.

I have his crates of albums from the 1950s: his modern jazz, his Moiseyev, his Mohammed El-Bakkar, his Moishe Oysher, his Chopin, his Mahler, his Lenny Bruce. I have his 1962 copy of Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook; his Dione Lucas; his 1958 Arabicaware; his Carol Stupell plates; his electric carving knife; his mother’s end table.

I have his picture of me just hours old; his picture of me the day of my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah; his picture of us having burgers at the Shalimar Diner in Forest Hills; his picture playing tennis with my stepmother, the love of his life. I have his picture on a horse at his dude ranch; his picture walking down the aisle at his own wedding; his picture at his ad agency. I have, sitting in my desk drawer, his brown leatherette wallet that he was carrying in his back pocket on the day of his accident; his dry-cleaning stub for clothes he would never pick up; his ticket for laundry he would never wear; his library books he would never read; his AARP membership he would never renew; his Amex card he would never use.

I have his sense of humor and his ferocious temper and his chuckle; his curly hair and his fair coloring, although not his blue eyes. I have his love of travel; dry gin Gibsons; radio storytelling; English history. I have his love of the American West; his hatred of Schoenberg; his appreciation of Danish Modern furniture, expensive German medium format cameras, good advertising, and Swiss fondue. I have his fondness for bluegrass; big dogs; San Francisco; northern New England; Iowa; Penobscot Bay; John Muir; Thoreau. I have his affection for roast pork; silvertip beef; fried chicken; remoulade; cold lobster; Schlitz; Mallomars.

I have his belief in the sanctity of cooking, and his love of feeding people.

I have his hands; his feet; his shoulders; his crooked smile; his easy teariness.

I hear his laugh; his cough; his snore; his shout. I hear him, always: over my shoulder in the kitchen; on the phone on a Sunday morning; next to me in the car; taking a practice swing while I’m teeing up.

My father’s been gone for thirteen years; he went out to run an errand, and he never came back. He lives now in my heart and my memory. In my house, I have the stuff of him, the scraps of him, but not him.

In my house, every day is Father’s Day.




On Earth Day Ennui

April 22, 2015 · 8 comments


On April 22, 1970, I was seven years old. Mrs Kwartowitz, my first grade teacher, wore a brown suede poncho and hoop earrings big enough to shoot a basketball through. Her husband (Mr. Kwartowitz) looked a lot like Allen Ginsberg, and made it his job to tie-dye the jeans of every one of his wife’s students who provided him with a pair. (Gaga, my mother’s mother, thought it was a fabulous idea and ran to Alexander’s on Queens Boulevard, where she bought me a pair of Wrangler bell bottoms that were so stiff they stood up by themselves.) In preparation for the inaugural Earth Day celebration, which Mrs. Kwartowitz said was a very big deal, the entire first grade at P.S. 174 took up Save Mother Earth collections in little green UNESCO boxes; I have no recollection of where they were sent, only that mine was bursting at the seams like a small hippie Tzedekah box. Mrs. Watkins, a gorgeous Angela Davis-lookalike who taught the class next door to Mrs. Kwartowitz’s, showed us how to grow an avocado tree using an avocado pit and two toothpicks. But at home, my grandmother still used toxic Noxon on the silver; we drank Tab and Hawaiian Punch almost every day, and blithely tossed the empties out along with our voluminous industrial meat scraps down the incinerator shoot, which belched enormous black mushroom clouds of pollution into the sky above 98-05 67th Avenue. I begged my mother to get us some house plants — Mrs. Kwartowitz said they purified the air naturally — which she did: a Ficus tree that died when our Schnauzer repeatedly mistook it for a fire hydrant; and a Wandering Jew, which clung to life until the start of second grade, when my mother forgot to water it and it dried up like California.

Fast forward forty-five years and Earth Day (which seemed to be such a positive, tree-hugging thing to get people involved in back in 1970) sometimes feels depressing and aggravatingly futile, as if those of us who care about the planet are attempting to put out a forest fire with a thimble of water. I can’t quite remember who it was who first said that the planet is a living, breathing, sentient organism with a pulse and a temperature — like a hospital patient — and that if we essentially do to it what my Schnauzer did to my Ficus, it will die a protracted, painful death, which can be avoided (or at least slowed) by doing, among many, many others, two things: 1) Addressing in a serious way what appears to be the uniquely human propensity for entitlement on both the personal and public scale; and 2) Redirecting breathtakingly vast subsidies away from industrial monoculture and genetic modification geared to profit above all else, and pointing them instead toward food production and organic farming and permaculture practices that conserve resources, reduce water consumption, and ultimately, respect and heal the planet while feeding its inhabitants. This is an old, old story; point number 2 is self-evident. Point number 1 can best be described this way: We believe ourselves to be an entitled animal. We somehow feel a God-given right to manipulate everything and everyone around us, because we have thumbs and we have resources; if we don’t like it or it cramps our style or it doesn’t impact us directly, we change it or politicize it or kill it. Or, if we don’t want to discuss it at all, we simply pretend it doesn’t exist, like the elephant in the room: we’ll only talk about it if it serves our purpose, or if we want it for its tusks.

So, on the forty-fifth anniversary of my attempting to grow an avocado tree in a jar using toothpicks, I’m not feeling particularly sanguine about the health of the planet, or the inclination of its inhabitants to actually band together to do something about it. We’d rather argue and call each other names, which is often the most politically expedient thing to do, especially as we head into an election season here in the States.

My response has been decidedly more personal; over the last few months, I’ve taken to reading, listening to, and cooking from works that give me hope, energy, and no small amount of faith and stability when I find myself suffering from environmental ennui. To loosely paraphrase the great Terry Tempest Williams in her conversation with Krista Tippett, this is a time for people on opposite sides of the fence to sit down and figure out how to move forward together with the safety of the planet and our human community in mind

Here are my greatest Earth Day inspirations:

To Listen

Terry Tempest Williams, On Being

Wallace Stegner, Day at Night

Bill McKibben, On Being

Wendell Berry on Diane Rehm

Wendell Berry on Bill Moyers

Deborah Madison on Food Farmer Earth

Nikki Henderson at

Joanna Macy, On Being

Sylvia Earle on TED

James Balog on TED

Mary Oliver, On Being

Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman, On Being

To Read

Krista Tippett: Einstein’s God

James Krupa: Defending Darwin

Peter Matthiessen: The Snow Leopard

Wallace Stegner: Wolf Willow

Wallace Stegner: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

Terry Tempest Williams: Finding Beauty in a Broken World

Terry Tempest Williams: When Women Were Birds

Mike Tidwell: Rite of Passage

Gary Snyder: The Paris Review Interview

Gary Snyder: The Man in the Clearing

Mas Masumoto: Epitaph for a Peach

David Gessner: All That Remains

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring

Barbara Kingsolver: High Tide in Tucson

Elizabeth Kolbert: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Dan Barber: The Third Plate

Richard Payne: How Much Is Enough?

To Cook

Deborah Madison: Vegetable Literacy

Deborah Madison: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Sarah Britton: My New Roots

Heidi Swanson: Super Natural Every Day

Heidi Swanson: Near and Far

Viana La Place: The Unplugged Kitchen

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall: The River Cottage Cookbook

Paul Bertolli: Cooking By Hand

Bryant Terry: Afro Vegan

Alice Waters: The Art of Simple Food

Nina Planck: Real Food




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