Archive for November, 2012

November 30, 2012

#49) Old friends, new faces, old feelings

In grade school, we were each others’ only friends.  In junior high and high school, we drifted apart but stayed in touch.  In college, we fought and excommunicated each other over–what else–women.  As young men, we lived separate lives on opposites sides of the country.  And now, as we approach our forties, we’re back together again, with a little help from Mark Zuckerberg.

After “friending” each other, we had a brief reunion last year at LAX, where he and his wife had a long layover on their honeymoon flight to Hawaii.  I practically had to fight him to allow me to buy them dinner as a wedding present – I held the check and growled like a pit bull.  On my recent trip to Boston, which happened to coincide with his birthday, we made plans.  On the phone, he sounded less like a father, husband and dedicated, successful employee of the Boston Food Bank than an insecure, awkward preteen fumbling for the right answer to a math problem, or to a bully’s taunt.

“There’s this new place in Brookline called Hops and Scotch,” I offered. “It looks pretty good.”

“We…could…go there,” he said.

“Is there another place you’d rather go?  I’m good with whatever.”

“Well, I’m here all the time, and you’re just in town this week…”

“Yeah, but it’s your birthday.  Where do you want to go?”

“Do you…like….Thai food?”

“Yeah, sounds good.  Which place?”

“Dok Bua.  But we can go to the place you mentioned.”

“No, it’s your birthday.  Dok Bua it is.”

We met at the Thai restaurant, walked in and sat down.  He was holding a large backpack.  I pointed to it and asked, thinking that perhaps he (like me, a hiker and lover of the outdoors) wanted to show me some new camping gear he’d picked up.

“Oh, that’s for the layers,” he said. “If its cold, I’ll need to switch layers of clothes.”

We ate (duck pad thai for me; chicken pad thai for him), caught up, and when it was time to go, he eyed the check nervously.  “You sure?  I can get it.”

“Dude, it’s your birthday.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t give you guys a wedding gift.”

I ended up winning the battle of the check, and after I signed for it, we headed out.  We walked up the hill on which we grew up, passing by both of our old houses, noting the additions that had been made.  Then we called it a night.

He has a heart of gold; he wouldn’t harm a fly.  Maybe that’s his problem, I thought to myself.  He’s still trying to be liked.

It was interesting to consider the way in which our paths had joined, separated and joined again.   As I thought of our lives now, I saw a lot of differences.  I’ve often told that (unlike before M. came into the picture) I photograph well; I show confidence and happiness.  When M. saw the pictures of my friend, she gave a piteous look and said, “Poor guy.”  I explained to her that back then, between him and I, was the cool one, to which she could only say, “Wow.”

But I started to wonder, how much had things really changed?  Was my friend the only one still desperate to be liked?  As I’ve looked back on the things I would have done differently in music, and perhaps in other areas, one theme comes up over and over: trying to be too many things to too many different people.  Trying to be nice.  Trying to be successful. Trying to be liked.

It’s kept me in bands that I should have quit.  It’s kept me accepting students that waste my time.  It attracted me to a string of women, broken only by the most recent one, who didn’t appreciate me.  I’ve often joked about how the “Darwinian” survival instinct in music, business and other aspects of life is a strong one; many people put up with a lot of crap for a six figure salary.  When M. expressed guilt about what she must have put her junior high music teacher through, I said, “Well, the guy probably had one hell of a mortgage.”

But I’ve realized that the survival instinct doesn’t just have to do with money.  It has to do with something far more powerful: ego.  Seeing the insecurity that my friend still feels–and recognizing that it still exists, however slightly, in myself–is something that I will keep in mind the next time I find myself tempted to give the wrong answer to a yes or no question.

November 30, 2012

#48) Book Review: “Tough Jews” by Rich Cohen

Most people don’t necesarily associate the words “Jew” and “Gangster”, and those who do probably think first of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.  However, in Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews”, he outlines the extensive history of Jewish gangsters in the early 20th century, mainly in Brooklyn.  As the famous Italian crime families such as the Gottis and the Gambinos were making names for themselves, many Jewish gangsters were experiencing parallel rises and falls.  Colorful names such as “Tick Tock Tannenbaum”, “Pittsburgh Phil” (who was not from Pittsburgh or named Phil) and “Kid Twist” abounded.

Cohen tells the story from an interesting perspective.  His father, Herb Cohen, author of “You Can Negotiate Anything”, grew up in Brooklyn listening to the stories of the old-timers.  His friends, including Larry Zeiger, now known as Larry King, eventually moved and settled in other parts of the country, but kept a part of Brooklyn with them.  As one of them notes, “Being from Brooklyn is a full-time job.”  The stories were handed down to Rich Cohen, who seemed intrigued by the idea that “for once, a Jew in jail didn’t mean white-collar crime.”  Thus, the younger Cohen sought to learn more of the history of the Jewish gangster.

The result is often entertaining, although disorganized.  Cohen’s voice seems to shift frequently from an authoritative source somewhat dryly reciting names, dates and places, to a star-struck kid, fascinated by even the mundane nuances of his heroes’ lives.  Cohen presents Abe “Kid Twist” Reles as a sort of protagonist, but isn’t able to infuse him with much detail, good or bad, to make him seem human, or at the very least to distinguish him from the dozens of other gangsters mentioned in the book.  Similarly, while “Tough Jews” follows a loosely chronological outline–beginning with the influx of Jewish imigrants to New York in the early 20th century, and how they rose to power, were influenced by prohibition, the Depression and World War II–there are some back and forth shifts which seem a little out of place, disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Cohen also sometimes treats somewhat mundane events with elevated importance; it’s almost as if he’s trying to show off his own writing chops.

Still, for those interested in learning about this time in American history, “Tough Jews” is an enjoyable read.  It paints a picture of a New York that at times resembles the world of Damon Runyon, but also focuses on the grim realities of the lifestyle it describes.  One can begin to understand why Herb Cohen, Larry Zeiger and the others who grew up only a generation removed from the gangsters have a certain admiration for them.  Even Brownsville’s Mike Tyson, as it turns out, loves the old Jewish gangsters–which probably explains a lot.

November 2, 2012

#47) Miss me?

I’m back.

Overall the vacation was successful: in separating myself from the day to day operation of Trail Head Enterprises, I learned a few things.  My biggest accomplishment was taking large steps in overcoming my fear of free time.  I realized that forcing myself to do busy-work, or doing work that I enjoy but know probably won’t get much in the way of long-term results, is really no different from spending time on unproductive activities such as TV watching and mindless internet browsing.  I also started thinking more about the future and where I see things going in a few years, concepts that had eluded me during my day to day grind of pounding out one task after another.

My resolve to not look at any statistics such as site traffic, photo downloads, etc. lasted two weeks – a personal record.  I was a little disappointed when I came back and saw that my numbers hadn’t gone through the roof, but overall the month ended up being pretty successful – more so in fact than September, when I was hands-on.

Perhaps the biggest take-away from the vacation was realizing that instead of using my income goals as a way to avoid what I don’t want, I should use them as a tool to get what I DO want.  Resenting work I don’t want to do doesn’t make me a slacker; it just means that perhaps I need to work on redefining my goals and how I pursue them.