Chai figures prominently in modern Jewish culture; the Hebrew letters of the word are often used as a visual symbol. Isolated collage from flowers

In just a few short hours, the final moments of the Jewish Days of Awe will commence. Our people of the Torah will catalogue our woes like we sort our socks into piles and populate spreadsheets with our monthly and yearly expenditures. The time to reflect and repent is nigh; there is no turning away as the gates close, the gates close.

How do I construct and deconstruct all that I have experienced both good and bad? How do I assess what I have transmitted to and quarantined from the world as I inhaled and exhaled in a year like no other? How can I be more than I was when I am at a loss for who I once was?

Three weeks ago, my mother died. What was once there at the end of that life-affirming umbilical cord or that telephone line of daily calls was gone with a single, last breath. As Paul Simon so eloquently put it: “No, I would not give you false hope/On this strange and mournful day/But the mother and child reunion/Is only a motion away.”

How do I take stock and do my annual accounting when I am left depleted by pandemic and deep in personal anguish?

My mother was both a boundless source of laughter and love, with fearless, frantic resolve and deep, debilitating fears. I was often confidant to everything she felt: happiness, pain, every trial and tribulation. Her catalogue of joy and woes was often mine to bear. In many ways, even as she lifted me up and tried to lighten my load, she hardened me so as to protect her against all the slights and strife life had sent her way.

So at this very moment, how do I let go of what was done to her while I atone for what I may have done to others?

I would desperately like to forgive those who those who wronged her; those who now want to celebrate her life while over a course of a lifetime chipped away at her days, years, decades. I know she would tell me to “let it go” as she slumbers toward her eternal sleep; yet, how do you free yourself when you’ve been steeled to protect the deep box of woes that grounded her?

I know this is the time: a new year to begin the slow, arduous road to spiritual healing in the physical fast of sundown to sundown. To begin as I sit in my new synagogue-ready sweatpants watching a biblical Zoom service constructed for these modern times of six feet apart or six feet under. To hit the pause button and start reviewing what has been, what is now and what may yet come to be.

And I will pray.

I will pray not only for the souls of my mother and father, grandparents and dear friends, but also for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the millions of black lives that matter. Those who are gone may not know the sweetness of the new year, but they will know salvation and vindication from the passionate voices that rise from our streets. I will join those collected voices for systemic change.

I will pray for Governor DeSantis to see the error of his unscientific ways, which kept me ultimately from being by my mother’s side as she took her last breath in hospice. One of my mom’s dying wishes was for me to get her a mail-in ballot so she could help change the current course of division and hate. The ballot didn’t arrive in time but she can rest in peace knowing her youngest granddaughters will carry her wishes forward, and vote. They will effect real change in a time of fake political leadership.

I will pray for the loss of my mother but also for Mother Earth. In our collective synagogue recitation of Unetanneh Tokef, we chant about life lost to “water and fire, famine and thirst.” This year, we are deep into Greek-named hurricanes and ash that blankets the sky. I will cast my own carbon sins in the rising waters of climate change, and work diligently for a world teetering on a razor’s edge.

I will pray that the words spoken by Ronald Reagan during his farewell address, “For we now consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of the people are upon us,” will not be buried in prophetical pronouncements of those who use faith as a weapon to destroy. This new year, liberals like my mom and I must fight against the illiberal thoughts of those who are illegally trying to steal an election and end this democratic experience called America. Change will come at the ballot box. Acceptance of dreamers, immigrants and the marginalized will come at the ballot box. The wishes of my mother will come at ballot box.

“The eyes of the people are upon us.”

On Monday night, as I dine on the tradition of lox and other salty smoked fish, I know it will mix with the salty tears of grief and loss. My mother is gone. There is no bringing her back for conversation or contemplation. The pains and tumult of her hard, loved-filled life embedded in a son’s heart will hopefully be silenced and soon forgotten as the shofar rings out across the land.

But as the sadness subsides ebbs like waves across the sand, I know her deep, unwavering belief in the goodness of people, that better days always lie ahead, will grow stronger and more resonant within me. As Jews, we believe in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. This new year, let time stitch together a better me, a better you, a better world.

“The naïve tirades hurled by a child at some game show were no match for the concrete-and-brick racism that formed the foundation of the people next door.”

Shadow silhouette of two people

Upside down shadow of two person on city sidewalk in black and white

As a child, I was mesmerized by the 1960s civil rights movement. I did a class report and diorama about Martin Luther King, Jr. On a class trip, to the chagrin of my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Goodstein, I led my schoolmates in a rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” I railed at our 25’ Zenith color TV set when black contestants lost on game shows. “Prejudiced,” I would scream at Art Fleming and Monty Hall. I was a licorice-licking liberal in knee pants.

But all this righteous indignation paled when it came to my Buddy. Not only did I have a black best friend at school, I had a black cousin. Six years older than me, Drew, who was affectionately called Buddy, validated me in a way I possibly could not even hope to understand as an elementary school kid. Civil rights was not just my calling bias out wherever I saw it, it was in my DNA.

To an overweight, bespectacled bookworm, Buddy looked as if he were bathed in warm, caramel light. A soaring oak, tall and lean with a glistening epic afro and broad smile. His laugh was big and boisterous, and when I looked at him, I recognized the Stromberg familial connection that made us one in the same. In my rose-colored, “black is beautiful” world, Buddy and I had to be kindred spirits.

One day, when I was 10 or 11, Buddy came to visit. After we all hung out for a while, my mom asked me to go to the local German deli to pick up whatever we wanted for lunch. As we stepped out the door, my excitement was palpable. I basked in the full stature of my teenaged cousin over those three short blocks to the store. I remember him laughing at everything I said, which gave me a false sense of my own importance. The people who peered from, behind their shades or viewed us from their front porches must be green with envy, I thought. There was no color on that walk — just two cousins hungry for sandwiches.

Upon our arrival, an unfamiliar chill suddenly interrupted that warm early summer day. The owners, usually friendly, worked briskly, unengaging and unwelcoming. There was none of the regular chitchat. They seemed intent on making our sandwiches, glaring as I asked Buddy if he wanted more and more stuff. If Buddy sensed anything awry, I did not know. We paid quickly and left.

As we walked back, I began to see the residents of my neighborhood differently. I suddenly noticed dark eyes not brimming with envy but with something unfamiliar and uninviting. The naïve tirades hurled by a child at some game show were no match for the concrete-and-brick racism that formed the foundation of the people next door. Had these people of the Diaspora forgotten the words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” The three short blocks bore down hard on my soles and soul.

If a ten-year-old boy could sense the unapologetic antipathy toward his cousin, what must Buddy feel? Had he become inured to it? He was a child of a Jewish mother and a black father. The pictures from his Bar Mitzvah were in my own home. Did he learn, even in those formative years, how to navigate the often-turbulent waters that exist between cultures, religions, even neighborhoods? I felt shell-shocked; I could not fathom what he felt or thought.

A year after that day with Buddy, my parents separated, and we moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t see Buddy again. Over the years, my mother talked about his achievements as a US Navy fighter pilot, his best-selling book and his family. The chiseled memory of the person I worshiped as a child only grew in significance.

Had my own story become anecdotal and genetically linked rather than radically relevant?

But though his memory and achievements remained intact, the recollection of my own impassioned belief in equal justice began to diminish as adolescence rolled right through me. In college, I sought out a Jewish identity and liberal arts libations, and left my thirst for the rights of others die on the vine. I discovered the world but within the ivory-tower confines of cerebral denial. Soon, the color-free world I had envisioned as a child was quickly replaced with the white, two-story colonial with black shutters. The daily grown-up pursuit of dollars and suburban scents shackled me to a system I thought long ago should break into a million pieces.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” AIDS walks and fundraising, meal programs for the homeless, synagogue committees, 5Ks for cancer and online charities. I’ve done them all. But what have I done to help people of color “overcome? Had my own story become anecdotal and genetically linked rather than radically relevant?

I can talk at length about my black cousin, my black friends, my black godson. But is that liberal armor to justify my mostly white life? I can watch MSNBC until the wee hours of the morning, shaking my well-coiffed head in agitated agreement. But outside the calm confines of my suburban life, am I willing to bridge any divide?

When Eric Garner was killed, I was appalled and sickened. But I did nothing. When Dylan Roof murdered those nine church members in Charleston, I cried. But I did nothing. Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and thousands more. I did nothing. No, that is not entirely true. I yelled “Prejudiced” at my TV like I did when I was eight. But those murders were no game. And you can find no consolation prize for doing nothing.

How did I fail the promise of a less racist world? How did I fail Buddy? Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “People only see what they are prepared to see.” But what happens when you mostly see things from behind the hedgerows of cultural complacency? Emerson was an anti-slavery advocate; nevertheless, he expressed opinions that were intrinsically racist. From the comforts of Walden Pond, it is easy to contemplate life when life is masked in the manipulated shadows of right and wrong.

What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Memphis and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia are not arbitrary aberrations of a system gone rogue but the systematic degradation and destruction of lives of color. Buddy and I are second cousins. Our grandparents were siblings. But to the people in that deli and on the stoops of early 1970s Brooklyn, we shared no lineage. The ancestral blood that ran through our veins was different. That perceived difference means that the spilling of one’s blood versus another creates justification for Sheriff Bull Connor’s attack dogs or a knee that bends your life to someone else’s will.

Maybe there’s still time for me. Time to take to the streets… not to power walk, but to change the power dynamic putting black lives at risk. Time to stop talking back at those talking heads that dominate the airwaves, and start taking down the systems that stain the American fabric. Time to accept my silent, middle-class adherence to the status quo and then pursue a deeper, more consequential understanding what it’s really like to be treated as other. Time to move from contemplative rage to committed action.

Because as Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

The doctor points to the cubes next to the hourglass

As we collectively and individually hunker down in COVID-19 self-quarantine, where everyone’s lives are on hold and a single hospitalized life hangs in the balance, it got me Web surfing and deep diving once again about my own mortality. Here’s what I discovered:

In 21 years, I should be dead. How do I know? The U.S. Government said so.

So, if I do the math based on that song from Rent, all that remains is 11,037,600 minutes. 11,037,600: Probably the number of people who know that song from Rent.

You may say—well, that’s the average. What if you beat the average? Most people successfully navigate pandemics, misplaced toys on the floor or parking-lot accidents. And I agree, that could be a real possibility. But I am a middle-aged, middle child, middle-management guy who got mostly Bs and B+s in school. I think I better be prepared.

21 years to go. I find it kind of ironic, though. When you are young, you aspire to milestone dates. When I was 13, manhood was mine (or so my rabbi told me). At 16, I could get my driver’s license. At 18, I could vote, or be drafted. But 21 was the big kahuna. It meant you were legal to do whatever you pleased … drinking, gambling, all the stuff a responsible adult aspired to do.

So, with the second hand counting down, how will I approach these next 11 million minutes? Will I construct another life, another existence to perfume the incomprehensible, or like the corporate man I am, use Excel to actuate, formulate and calculate the inevitable?

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

In the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot says, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Yes, coffee spoons but also morning alarms and daily showers. A year’s worth of commuting to and from work. Glasses half full, and half empty. Time clocked in, and life clocked out.

Again, how will this man, this middle-aged, graying me whose been measured by miles and mortgages, make these remaining 11,037,600 minutes matter?

I will work … a lot. I still have a kid in college and retirement funds are scarce. No trendy gold Apple watch for me. I will work until some millennial takes my job, which may be in a couple of weeks from now.

I will have “Big Chill” moments with my friends. Weekends of barbecues and boisterous banter. Disco, Doobie Brothers and Devo. Both Elvis’s – Presley and Costello. Dance all night and do nothing all day. Just be with the people who know me inside and out, and still like what they see before time runs out. And I will chip away at those diminished minutes, even hours, to recover… my joints require it.

“Nobody’s permanent, everything’s on loan here.”

I will construct no Facebook-fueled bucket list built for mass consumption. Instead, on a beautiful day in the hopefully not-too-distant future, my wife and I will fill our grandchildren’s buckets with sand as we erect towering castles and briny moats. I am confident the sands of time may trickle down a little bit slower in those moments of connection.

Instead of Tahiti and Tibetan treks halfway around the world, I want to transverse every note of the American Songbook. I want to read once again John Updike’s Rabbit series or even more Faulkner and Bellow, all from a veranda overlooking the ocean. I want glorious words, not whirlwind adventures. I am fine with Kerouac and Tom Wolfe serving as the tour guides of my mind.

And instead of a sports car where my thinning hair takes off with the wind, life’s remaining miles should be about traveling back in time and light years ahead. Eliot said it best: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future…”

Let there be no more baggage filled with regret and recriminations. Let me embrace big change as the strands of my life grow shorter. And let me keep up the good fight for what’s right with the remaining time I have left.

Two days before COVID-19 defined life as we live it, I buried a friend. He was 57. A year younger than I am now. He did not get his chance at even 21 more seconds or days, let alone years. There will be no Fountain of Youth for him, for me, for any of us. There’s only the truth. And sometimes that truth hurts, like when you lose someone way too soon or when you realize “nobody’s permanent, everything’s on loan here.”

So, if the numbers add up, and I only have these 21 years left, the 11 million minutes that cascade down as I write, let me play with the table stakes time has probably given me. If that means Solitaire or Two-card Monte now, let me be fine with the hand I have been dealt. Many, like my friend, are gone; but, I’m still in the game. Yes, we are all so lucky to be still in the game.

 

Bluer_Balls

(as appearing in The Good Men Project)

Today, Breast Cancer Awareness Month begins. Millions of women will take to the streets and the airwaves to share their stories. With pink ribbons affixed, tattooed and emblazoned, they’ll give voice to the memory of those lost and lift up the survivor.

And it won’t just be women marching down Fifth Avenue or racing for a cure in cities around the world. Husbands, sons and brothers will don the pink, give their time, raise money and hold their loved ones’ hands in a collective “rage against the dying of the light.”

I am one of those men. My mother has metastatic breast cancer. My stepmother has had breast cancer twice. My high-school best friend who is more sister than friend had a radical mastectomy in her ‘40s. My other friend has had fought breast and ovarian cancer for decades. I am sad to say I know more statistics about Tamoxifen, IBRANCE, neuropathy and stereotactic radiation than I know about NBA stats.

But here is one stat most men and women with their pink ribbons don’t know… while an estimated 286,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be in diagnosed for U.S. women in 2019, during the same period, 174,650 U.S. men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their lifetimes while one in nine men will receive a prostate cancer diagnosis. In 2019 alone, over 41,000 U.S. women and 31,000 U.S. men will die.

But for men with prostate cancer and for those who have survived, there often are limited corporate outreach programs or major ad campaigns. No ribbons to wear on our chests … or down below. We will march, run and race, but not for ourselves.

I am a prostate cancer survivor. I was diagnosed six years ago, at the age of 52 after a totally unplanned PSA test showed a score well above normal ranges. After another PSA, I was sent to a urologist for a biopsy. While I would never attempt to compare my experience to my wife’s stirrups-and-speculum gynecological exams, it was painful, humiliating and bloody. Less than two weeks later, without even a curt hello or the shutting of the office door, it was announced I had a Gleason score of seven. I had prostate cancer.

It has been suggested to me (with research indicating a positive correlation) that the same genetic blueprint that resulted in my mother’s breast cancer may have manifest as prostate cancer in me. BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are often high for people of Eastern European Ashkenazi heritages. So along with potential heart disease and a high propensity to enjoy chopped liver made with chicken fat, prostate cancer likely was my fate.

But as I soon found out after receiving my diagnosis, a thirst for knowledge and kinship was limited, at best. No Susan G. Komen or Avon Foundation for Women to turn to or click on. A weekend soccer tournament turned up no t-shirts promoting a cure for what ailed me. To be blunt, there were no pink balls for my balls.  “Pink out” left me out of the game.

While there were noted figures such as Joe Torre and General Norman Schwarzkopf who openly talked about their cancer, it wasn’t until two years after I put my “blue balls” on the proverbial digital table that I found someone in his ‘50s like me, Ben Stiller, telling his story. And it is only in writing this story that I found out about Movember. For the past six years, I have felt lost in a wilderness where if you fell, no one would hear you.

I know there are men like me who have received the news but know little beyond the diagnosis. In the past month alone, two close friends have confided in me that they have prostate cancer. Like me, these middle-aged men must now make difficult decisions about radical prostatectomies vs. radiation, active surveillance vs. unconscious denial.

And what do I tell them? Do I go into details about incontinence that lasts for years or that Cialis will cost them as much as their kid’s summer camp? Am I honest about the fact I lament not producing sperm or that you must calendar urinal time? Breast cancer survivors share their stories from podcasts to prime time. Prostate cancer survivors – millions of them from Ivory Coast to coastal California – often ponder penial purgatory in silence.

Olivia Newton-John says, “Men need to be aware of the health of their bodies, as well – prostate cancer and breast cancer are almost on the same level. It’s fascinating to me that the correlation between the two is almost the same – people don’t talk about it so much, but they are almost equal in numbers.” With prostate cancer being the second leading cause of death after lung cancer, and the most common form of cancer for men after skin cancer, maybe it is time for men to stop the covert chatter and start real conversations about the facts and fiction regarding prostate cancer. Maybe instead of a ribbon, we can start with sharing the fabric of our collective experiences. Over a beer, on the field or in the virtual world we inhabit.

This October, when you physically, politically and personally stand up and for the women in your life, and all the women who have died, survived and have yet to be diagnosed with breast cancer, stand up for yourself. Stand up for the 31,000+ men that will die this year from prostate cancer or the nearly 175,000 who have or will be diagnosed this year.

And when November comes, do more than forget to shave. Take the first step in our march to finding a cure.

overweight-pose-6

As I made my way to an aisle seat for my synagogue’s services, I noticed how my suit jacket hung so far from upper thigh. How I had to keep tugging at my belt to keep the pants from becoming low riders. Hmm, I thought, need to get this taken in.

My normal anxiety of whether my shirt and jacket were too tight, or that my pants would split if I dropped my prayer book and had to bend had dissipated. It’s amazing how losing pounds can add miles to your confidence, and hopefully life.

I took my seat, waiting for services to begin. Just then, I saw a man I knew from the gym. Our children had gone to high school as well as religious school together. He came over to say hello.

“Hi Brian, happy holidays.”

“Happy holidays to you. I guess there’s no gym for us today.”

“I know… tomorrow, after we eat a lot tonight. I must tell you. You look great. Really great.”

“Thanks. I’ve been dieting, and I try to work out at least five to six times every week. Just have to keep that portion control under control.”

“I can really see the difference. You’re doing an amazing job. Keep it up. See you at the gym tomorrow.”

My suit swelled with confidence, and my butt in my seat shrunk within the confines of the seat’s dimensions. I felt celestially high on these highest of holy days. All from my high-intensity workouts and low-carbs, high-protein diet.

As he turned away, I saw his wife marching toward me. The type of person who even as she talked to you was staring down the room for someone more congregationally desirable.

“Hey, you look amazing. Like a totally different person. It’s startling, the change. I hardly recognized you.”

“Hmm, thanks.”

“How much weight have you lost?”

I pondered the question. Not because I didn’t know but because I didn’t know if she really wanted to know.

“65 pounds,” I said with waist sucked in and chest puffed out.

“65 pounds?”

She scanned me up and down like I was someone at Customs trying to hide a block of imported cheese under my belt.

“You have to be kidding. I would have guessed at least 150 pounds!”

I looked at her agape. Had I really been that fat? Had I been an impending episode on TLC? Was I one degree of separation from Dr. Oz?

Suddenly, I had a nightmarish vision of the rabbi stepping to the altar, grabbing the microphone, and like a bad, Borscht Belt stand-up comedian, calling out to the congregation…

“Brian was SOOOOOOOOO FAT…”

And then the response…

“How FAT was he?”

I returned quickly to my conversation, hoping to end it with as much dignity and deflated waistline as possible.

“No, just 65 pounds. I plan to lose even more over the next couple of months. I’m almost there.”

“Well, you look great,” as she worked the room with her eyes.

Phew… conversation over. Tie straightened. Pride in place.

And then…

“Hey, I also thought you were taller than you are. You’re much shorter than I remember.”

God, grant me the strength…. Better yet, pass me a string cheese and a kettle bell.

internet-of-things-conceptual-illustration-a-data-exchange-between-vector-id858525896

Hmm… 10pm… time for my midnight snack.

What to eat? Cold chicken? Leftover spaghetti? A quick index finger through the peanut butter?

“Blueberries.”

“Or better yet… just a glass of water. You’re on a diet… at least, you were on a diet.”

This had better be a dream because my mother’s voice seems to be emanating from the refrigerator.

“Yes, it’s me. Don’t you recognize your own mother’s voice? Plus, it’s 10pm… I know where my child is… in front of the fridge overloading on carbs!”

This has to be a nightmare. My mother lives 1,500 miles away, not in my vegetable crisper. I must be hallucinating… what is friggin’ in Lipitor?

“Sweetheart, you’re not dreaming though I often daydream about how wonderful it would be if you visited more. But that’s guilt for another day. Tonight, I am your connected conscience!”

“My connected WHAT?”

“You’re the hi-tech marketer. I’m just a retiree hooked on edibles. But I did see a segment on The Today Show that said all appliances are now connected to the Internet. So, if I can’t be there in person to talk you down from that cake, I can at least mother you from the meat bin.”

“I know about the connected world, mom. Mobile ordering, yes. Mother’s voice ordering you to go to bed, no.”

(Or was this a new line from GE… Guilt Gear for the Wayward Child?)

“Would you rather talk to Siri or Alexa? They’re artificial intelligence, Brian. I am the real deal… and you should see the deal I got on bread at Publix today!”

“And by the way, tatala… I have an axe to grind but I will let the Vitamix talk for a while.”

“The Vitamix?”

“Yes, go talk to the Vitamix… it has something important to say.”

“Hello?”

“Why did you skip the burpees this morning? It was supposed to be ten burpees after the 25 sit-ups. And you need to get your pulse up… no pun intended.”

“Nick?”

“Who else would it be? Remember, three protein shakes tomorrow. Add extra whey.”

First, guilt shaming from the fridge and my now my personal trainer whipping me into shape. What was next… the electric can opener?

“Did you say can opener?”

Oh god, it was my therapist.

“Yes, Dr. Mendelson here. My job is to open your subconscious, exposing the tuna… I mean, your inability to rip away from your mother’s apron strings. Think of me as digital Freud.”

“What the hell is that discount store can opener talking about? I am a great mother. I made brisket on Tuesdays. I helped you make a diorama. Let me at that can opener!”

Holy moly… my refrigerated mother was about to rip apart Dr. Mendelson, the can opener.

“Everyone… I mean, everything calm down. All connected appliances unplug. I need to think.”

What was happening? I was in a virtual electronic minefield, taken cyber hostage by Viking.

I started to panic. What was awaiting me at the top of the stairs?

My nutritionist in the scale? (“Only two pounds this week?”)

My dentist in the electric toothbrush? (“You’re not flossing!”)

I stormed back into the kitchen, confronting the stainless steel with my steely glare.

“Okay… Time for some rules!”

“I will be here every night for a nosh. You have 15 minutes to cajole, criticize and kibbitz with me. There will be no intra-appliance feuding. Otherwise, I am hitting the circuit breakers and pulling the Wi-Fi plug.”

Lights off.

“Wah, Wah… tell it to the juicer!”

Puzzled Man

“How’s Kat?”

“They’re fine.”

“Who’s they? I asked about Kat.”

“They’re fine.”

This conversation with my eldest daughter was a millennial Abbott-and-Costello-routine gone bad. I was asking about “who” and instead was hearing about the whole infield: Who, What, I Don’t Know and I Don’t Care. I really was starting not to care myself.

“Why are you answering me in the plural when I am asking just about Kat.”

“I am answering you this way because that is how they refer to themselves now.”

The incandescent light bulb… I mean, the LED light bulb suddenly flashed above my head. I had entered a brave new world of gender identification. I quickly took a mental note to delve into Wikipedia the minute I got home.

“Dad, it’s hard to explain. I don’t always know the right words, myself. There are cisgender, genderfluid, z, agender… it’s hard to know how each person wants to identify.”

“And for you, it’s probably even harder especially when you’re coming at this from a place of white male privilege.”

“Whatcha talkin’ bout, Willis?”

(Note to self: It’s a potential comic minefield when you’re a 50+ suburban dad citing a young African-American catchphrase to a Gen Y or Z-er who most likely thinks Gary Coleman is a character from Avenue Q. Plus, my interpretation comes across more like Garry Shandling than the impish Arnold Jackson.)

As we drove in silence for the next ten to fifteen minutes, I started to experience my own proverbial seven stages of grief… not from the loss of life but about the undeniability of no longer being relevant or cool. So as we passed one exit after another, I began my mental journey toward acceptance of this anachronistic fate.

First stage: Shock.
The shock of using a Diff’rent Strokes reference to a person consumed with podcasts, NetFlix and YouTube. If anything, I should have been hip enough to quote The Office.

Next stage: Denial
Denial that I was being perceived as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal or, even worse, a Fox News sycophant. Heck, I voted for Hillary… don’t I get gluten-free brownie points for that?

Third stage: Bargaining
If I stopped and got my daughter some Starbucks, my “woke,” liberal mojo would be back as quick as a barista could whip up a no-cal, extra-foam mochaccino.

Fourth stage: Guilt
Oy, I had a millennium or two of that to spare. Plus, I had admitted to actually watching Diff’rent Strokes back in the day. (Oy, again… the guilty pleasure of using the phrase “back in the day!”)

Good… just three steps left: anger, depression and acceptance.

Since I was too depressed about the first four stages, I decided to move straight to acceptance. Plus, according to my daughter, I had “white male privilege.” What did I have to be depressed or angry about?

But as I tried to navigate through that curve straight into acceptance, a sudden, unanticipated anger rose from the very soles of my overpriced loafers to the tippy top of graying hair. “White male privilege?” What the f*** was she smoking? (ingesting… vaping? I was still stuck in the bong and bongo age!)

I abruptly pulled off to the side of the road.

“I DO NOT have white male privilege… YOU DO!”

“What?”

“I said, you are the one with white male privilege… the privilege of being an overindulged, suburban millennial with a latte in one hand and an iPhone in the other. All paid for by this middle-aged man driving you home from college”

My daughter looked at me aghast… well, I think she looked at me, in between her social media clicks and likes.

“That’s right… you have all the privilege and I have all the bills. While your donning your pussy hat and eating overpriced acai bowls, I’m precariously navigating a corporate ladder where low-cost, under 30 digital man-buns are trying to push me out. While you were traipsing across Italy last year on your junior year abroad, I was having a senior moment in the supermarket looking for buy one, get one free pasta! And while you’re waxing your eyebrows and getting highlights, the highlight of my week is a cortisone shot and a trip to Costco!”

I would not be stopped.

“Put down the phone and look at me! I am the first person in my family ever to go away to college… the first one to own a house… I lived on public assistance while you go to a private college with a vegan option. This 1960’s man with the alleged ‘privilege’ spends half his week taking out the trash and the other half dealing with corporate garbage. I got lifestyle creep up the yin-yang, and the creeping feeling I’m one step away from hip replacement.”

“And further more…”

I could have gone on for days, weeks, years, a decade or two. My middle-age rant spread like my stomach across my belt buckle. I was finally having my men-o-pausal moment, all hot and bothered with no way to cool down.

I paused to look at my daughter, staring at me with watery eyes.

“I’m… I’m so sorry, dad. You know how much I love you and appreciate everything you do for us. And… you’re right… I do have white male privilege. I just never thought of it that way. I am just as confused and scared as you.”

Seventh and final stage: Acceptance

Finally exhaling for the first time in a very long time, I pulled back onto the road and began the long journey home. To that one place where some things may need to be fixed, but nothing of real value is ever truly broken.

You know, sometimes acceptance comes when you least expect it, most often need it, and from someone far wiser and more “woke” than you. And that’s a privilege of fatherhood I fully embrace.

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Lost in Suburbia

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