These two lessons came when my sister and I would visit our bohemian uncle in New York City. He was an artist and writer/illustrator of children’s books. During the week we were with our parents in Westchester County in a very remote, wooded area. It was idyllic and peaceful but for some reason we would end up in the city on many weekends and often during vacations. I loved the country and built forts and wandered in the woods, but I equally loved the city! Maybe it was because our uncle always seemed so happy to show off “his” New York. Daily outings might include a bagel, dim sum or some other treat. Wollman’s Rink was on the going-out-list, as was Times Square, Chinatown, Zabars and a host of other places to eat including the automats (ask your grandparents what that is). On any given weekend we might end up in Brooklyn to visit Gram. On all these excursions we would walk, take the subway, then walk some more. Taking a cab was for the “swells” not for artists.
Each life lesson first began with a complaint. I clearly remember the protests for each one. As soon as our uncle gave his reply we never complained again about that particular issue. The first one was: why do we have to walk so much to get to the subway? Answer: Look down, you never know what you’ll find. It shut my sister and I up instantly. From then on walking became an adventure. Looking down while walking produced a bevy of finds like; ribbon, pens, sunglasses, a key, bandanas, a bottle opener, and other strange and wonderful bits of this and that. One day our uncle found, what he called “the ultimate yuppie garbage.” On the street buried in between boxes and bags of stuff, was a huge jar of coins. When he brought it home and counted it, there was about ninety dollars. He also started to collect flattened-rusted bottle caps since there were so many. He had the brilliant idea of making jewelry out of them. I still have my rusted-bottle-cap earrings and wear them whenever I have to go to an event I don’t want to go to. They are my anti-establishment pieces or the eff-u earrings and wear them with great pride! Since then, I have handed down the “look down” lesson to my children. They now present me with rusted bottle caps from around the world and boast of their street finds!
The second big life-altering lesson started by asking another age old question: how long till we get there? This was asked on one of the longer subway rides going uptown or back home to the country – I don’t remember exactly where we were going. But, our uncle leaned over and whispered: “Pretend everyone is sitting on the pot (that was toilet in uncle talk).” Of course we laughed and snickered but, that was the beginning of bus, plane and train-ride-entertainment! My all-time favorites were the business people on the commuter train. They would be leaning forward with elbows on their knees, grim tired expressions, while reading the newspaper (man-splaying, btw. We didn’t have a name for it back then). That was definitely a closed-stall-door-position and sent my sister and I over the edge. However, this really was more than just a time passing activity. This had lifelong applications where one could put this exercise into practice. For example: any time I had to give a presentation or teach a class, my audience, no matter how large or small the crowd, would sit there looking up at me with a kind of passive look awaiting my words of wisdom. There was always a twinge of expectation on their faces that could have been interpreted as gas. Then if I said something that would make them wince, cringe or grin – even better! Almost any expression was applicable to the toilet scenario and it all made for levity and fearlessness. How could I be nervous about public speaking to a room full of potty goers?
Of course there have been other memorable lessons throughout my life especially from the bohemian uncle. These two however, are the stand-out gems.