Books

Love Is Free: Thoughts on Raising Seven Adopted Sons

I’m an accountant’s son.  For supper on Wednesday nights, in Gloversville, New York (I say I was born in Vermont, where we moved when I was seven, the year Kennedy was assassinated) my parents fed us instant rice stirred with … Read More

By / October 6, 2009

I’m an accountant’s son.  For supper on Wednesday nights, in Gloversville, New York (I say I was born in Vermont, where we moved when I was seven, the year Kennedy was assassinated) my parents fed us instant rice stirred with tomato soup and mixed with sliced dogs.  Spanish rice, they said.  My Puerto Rican and Dominican sons don’t eat anything like that.  They go for arroz con gandules or moro, but don’t confuse the two.

I despised my mother’s Spanish rice. My father made it clear that’s what we could afford on Wednesday nights. My mom and dad worked together and grew us solidly into the middle class.  I got an education.  I married well and rich.  I made money.  I wrote a book.

I’ve wondered, what right do I have to live so well?  What I mean-when so many others right beside us don’t.  What right do you – at their expense?  That’s the point.

My son Morgan and I, we plan to have “father-son dinner” every Thursday.  He’s sixteen.  I’ve been away too long.  He says he’s lonely. Our house is empty.  I missed Yom Kippur at home, staying in Greensboro waiting for San Francisco – no one was there to insist Morgan go to shul.   I’m traveling now to bookstores, book fairs, Rotary Clubs, prisons, A Better Chance homes, any closet with at least another who’ll listen to me for half an hour or so and buy my book.  Or listen to me, act rapt and leave empty handed.  They’re okay, those people. They’re mostly old and remind me of Thoreau strolling around Walden, inspecting others’ farms.  I inscribe books: What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse.  Come to one of my Book Readings, I won’t bore you… I’m an expert (because I’ve written a book – a feel-good story, a strong narrative arc), I’ve been doing this for two months.

At our dinner earlier tonight, a Monday make-up, Morgan said, “It’s not about the past, it’s about the future.”  He said, “It’s revolutionary.”  He meant our ability to make the world better, if we try.  Improve lives.  Morgan’s young.

Randy Newman sang, Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why, for if the children of Israel were supposed to multiply, why must any of the children die?  So he asked the Lord, and the Lord said, “Man means nothing, he means less to me, than the lowliest cactus flower or the humblest yucca tree.” Emanuel Levinas argues that Cain wasn’t mocking G-d when he asked if he were his brother’s keeper, Abel buried in the ground.  Cain was instead discussing ontology, devoid of morality.  Yes, certainly! Morality resides, Levinas argues, in that we are YES all responsible: “All men [people] are responsible for one another, and I more than anyone else” (Pg. 107, Entre Nous).   Levinas yanks this asymmetry from Dostoevsky.  And… “I am in reality responsible for the other even when he or she commits crimes.  This is for me the essence of the Jewish conscience” (ibid.)  “Justice comes from love…  Love must always watch over justice… In Jewish theology (Levinas interjects that he isn’t explicitly guided by that theology, nor am I) G-d is the G-d of justice, but his principal attribute is mercy” (Pg. 108). And one last piece, because I sinned on Yom Kippur:  “The only absolute value is the human possibility to giving the other priority over oneself.  I don’t think there is a human group that can take exception to that ideal, even if it is declared an idea of holiness.  I am not saying that the human being is a saint, I’m saying that he or she is the one who has understood that holiness is indisputable.  This is the beginning of philosophy, this is the rational, the intelligible.  In saying that, it sounds as if we are getting away from reality. But we forget our relation to books-that is, to inspired language-which speaks of nothing else” (Pg. 109).

That’s not a Tweet, no disrespect.  It’s not a best selling book about a cute cat adopted in a library.  Or my doggie, Mr. Jenkins.  My nineteen-year-old Ripton could text the above in twenty or twenty-five seconds.  But read it.  Ripton, our oldest son, was born in New York in 1990, and Morgan, our youngest, in Grand Prairie Texas, in 1993.  We adopted each of them nearly at birth, converted them with brit and mikvah, and I have no idea where those paper certificates of Judaism are.  I hope my sons don’t grow older in a Jewish world where paper certificates matter.  But I’m not naïve.

In the summer of 1998, when he was nearly eight, Ripton walked us onto a blacktop baseball field in the small park across the street from our Lower East Side apartment.  He’d insisted we buy some baseballs and a bat, to be ready. He and I had brand new gloves, in case the boys in the sandlot game wouldn’t let him play.  Then he and I could toss the ball around instead.  That was my plan, a dad’s responsibility.

One of the captains (his team a player short) assigned our son to right field – the great emptiness of youth baseball (the grass of my Little League career).  The first game ended, boys gathered around home plate and the captains, one tall and Black, the other squat and Puerto Rican, both in their late teens, began picking new teams. Those two, the oldest, were the permanent captains.  What they said, the rest of that summer and the next, ruled the field’s skim coat of concrete and macadam to the surrounding chain link fence.  Baseball players and Polish-speaking indigents shared the space with skateboarders and half courts of basketballers  lining the far chain link.

My wife and I were the only adults watching the game, the only ones attached to children.  A half dozen men did keep place on the few benches bolted along the first and third base lines. They were Polish speaking, bloated, clutching brown paper bags narrowed around bottlenecks, passing these with blackened hands.  Leslie and I had never gotten close enough to them over the years, close enough to this place, to smell the urine baking up beside the benches, especially close to home plate.  Leslie and I sat there first, hoping for the premier view to watch our son bat when his time came. We ignored the urine as best we could but another scent bothered us, intermittent, dependent on the breeze, dog leavings we finally figured until I followed the green bellied flies landing on Leslie’s New York Times to a DayGlo swarm undulating on a brown mess beneath a bit of dirtied toilet paper.  We realized why none of the Polish speaking men were using the bench we were and moved farther towards first base, away from their latrine.

The captains worked from the older boys down to the younger. The squat captain finally pointed to Ripton, tall for his age.  “The White nigga,” he announced.

That is how we joined the Lower East Side, the diversity of our community, eight years after we moved here.  Yesterday I mentioned Rabbi Heschel’s thought about the difficulty of loving your neighbor when the poor and oppressed are hidden in ghettos (all the various ones we’ve invented).  Ripton invited his teammates home for video games and food after it got dark.  Ten or a dozen came.  That was our beginning of love.    I don’t mean the 1960s naivety – “free love.”  I mean responsibility for the other. Love without Eros.

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