READ ME ... yeah, right. Right?

I'm sick of everyone else having on-line diaries. I want one too.

What is this all about? Maybe you should read the READ ME READ ME.

june 20, 1999:
father's day
(and the tales of 2 26-year-olds)

It's better not to have too many high highs and low lows.

fatherly advice I have never taken well

Recently I had a conversation with a 26-year-old millionaire. This young man, whom I'll call Nathan, graduated Stanford four or five years after I did, and was one of the earliest employees at Yahoo!. A few months ago he left Yahoo! to start a business of his own. The reason for that, he said, was that he was "hell-bent on proving that [he was] more than another Yahoo! lottery winner."

"You will never be able to prove that, Nathan," I responded, which might have hurt his feelings but nonetheless was and is true.

The fact of the matter is, like it or not, some of us simply get lucky. The question is not whether or not we deserved our good fortune, but rather, what we do with the luck that happened to land upon us. Nathan was lucky on many accounts: for example, he was lucky to go to Stanford, he was lucky to land an early job at Yahoo!, and he was lucky to make more money in his youth than the vast majority of people alive dream about making in their lifetimes. He should take his good fortune and do something good for the world, rather than selfishly pursuing answers to unanswerable questions.

I have been lucky as well. In fact, as I have written in the past, sometimes I am convinced that I am the luckiest person in the world. My most valuable piece of good fortune has without question been one thing: the family I was lucky enough to be born into, with two siblings, two parents, one living grandparent and an extended family whose love, support, generosity and wisdom I will never be able to prove that I somehow "deserved."

I thank them as much as I can for being who they are and doing what they have done, but that will never be enough. Since today is Fathers' Day, time seemed ripe to share a little of my father, one of the most principled, honest, sensible, supportive, brilliant, funny, loving and humble individuals a person could ever imagine.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I love you.

I. Banks, Grammar, Locks and a trip to Elsa's Diner

One thing that most people don't know about me is that I grew up in banks - - not literally, of course, but in more of a metaphorical, educational sense. When I was a young girl, my father used to take me to work with him almost every Saturday morning. At that time he was an attorney who represented banks in creditor matters, so his office contained many books on the subject (as well as a xerox machine that I thoroughly enjoyed playing with), and the dictation tape he was always recording contained many references to "parties of the third part" and "period, paragraph." To this day I believe that I learned the bulk of my grammar from what I then overheard.

In third grade, I had an assignment for "show and tell" to go somewhere and report on my experience to the class. While the other students chose places like amusement parks and museums, my father took me on a tour of a bank. A friend and client was the president of a bank in Milwaukee, and he escorted my father and myself through the building, explaining and pointing out things like the fact that "money does not get stored in boxes, rather it is lent to other people."

I relished every minute of the tour. When I presented my photographs and findings to my third grade class, I was too happy and thrilled even to notice whether or not anyone found my subject matter boring or odd. What I had learned at a very early age is that money is not a panacea, a demon, a deity or an object of beauty: rather, it is simply a tool to be handled carefully and with responsibility. It's not how much money you have, but what you do with it that matters.

Similarly, one Friday evening, when I was 12 or 13, my parents and I were enjoying our regular Shabbat dinner, when an unusual and memorable phone call interrupted our meal. Apparently, a local Milwaukee business, Lox, Stock and Bagels, I think, had been closed down unexpectedly during a heavy business time when one of its creditors put a padlock on the door.

Although my father almost never let his work take him from Friday dinner, this time he did, and, apologizing, he promptly whisked out the door. One hour later he returned, wearing a wide grin. He had succeeded in having that lock removed, allowing the restaurant to open again for business. I'm still not certain of what exactly he did, but I can tell you that to me then, and to me now, his powers seemed nothing short of magical.

Later I learned that I was not alone in that opinion. When my father ran for president of the local Bar Association, explaining that he was only running because he was asked to so that his challenger would not be unopposed, he ended up being elected, to his own surprise. The following year, he was appointed to the federal judiciary, and to this day works as a judge. A couple months ago, he was honored with a wonderful award: Marquette University's Law Alumnus of the Year.

More important than those awards, however, are the more subtle ways his many fans pay him tribute. One evening when I was still in high school, for example, my parents and I decided to eat dinner at a popular Milwaukee restaurant, Elsa's diner. Elsa's was (and maybe still is) famous for its clientele, which has often included congresspeople, local business leaders and artists and musicians.

As we walked through the door and were escorted to our table, virtually everyone in the restaurant recognized and warmly greeted my dad. What struck me most at the time was how their hello's seemed entirely genuine, and not a bit artificial. As person after person smiled and said hello, I remember thinking to myself, "One day I hope to be so respected and admired." It's a wish I still hold today.

I don't write about my father much, because he prefers not to receive the attention. As a judge, he holds his appearance of propriety in the highest regard. Ethical to the bone, he does not cut corners with respect to his principles. Thus I hope he does not object to my indulgence today.

Especially because I now have another story to tell.

II. A story, as written to me from my father.

Dear Rebecca,

Your mother for many years has rightfully kidded me about the photographs I take on our travels--why I take them, what we will do with them, and whether I ever look at them. That has never stopped me from continuing to take photographs, as I enjoy the creative process and enjoy spending part of our vacation taking photos. Your mother is always a good sport as I go about the work of taking photographs. I do have several photos on my office wall and one on our wall at home. A half dozen outstanding photographs in one lifetime at least so far is nothing for me to sneeze at.

This past Shabbat we had one of the most moving experiences we have had in years. David Israel is the seventh grade student at your mother's school who recently died of cancer. Your mother was told that David's grandparents were in town. They are holocaust survivors. The grandmother was at Terezin for about nine months during the end of WW II, and she heard that we were recently at Terezin and had some photographs. If that information was correct, they would greatly appreciate it if we would come over on the Shabbat to show the photos to the grandparents.

We could not imagine a more appropriate activity for the Shabbat. We went to the Israel home and sat with the grandmother for almost an hour, just the three of us. She looked at the photographs. The looks on her face and the narration and stories she told were enough to move a solid stone to tears. She spoke about the event without expressing great emotion, other than a little astonishment every now and then as to how things now looked.

She saw the building where she lived. The saw the area where she worked. She saw the hill where she went with friends to talk. She saw the train tracks where she was brought in on a slow train from Holland in 1944. We pointed out the "museum." She looked at it and said, "That's the children's hospital. That's where so many babies died because the women taking care of them took the food from the babies and ate it. It was criminal."

She saw the small river. She said, "One of my first jobs was to take ashes in small boxes from the crematorium and toss the boxes in the river. Are the boxes still in the river?"

She described the life in "the large fortress." She knew that there was a "prison" "a good distance away" where people were tortured and killed. She never know that the "prison," which was also called "the small fortress," was only about 700 meters from "the large fortress" in which she lived. That is how isolated they were kept.

She described the visit of the Red Cross to the camp. She would not venture an opinion as to whether the Red Cross people were extremely stupid, were bribed by the Germans, or just didn't care what they saw. For the day of the visit of the Red Cross, food was put in the one store. Faucets and basins were built. The day after the Red Cross left, all of the food was removed. The faucets never worked. Water never came out of them. The Red Cross never bothered to check. The Red Cross never bothered to check to see what was actually happening by talking with random people in private.

The grandmother never returned to the Czech Republic after the war. She never saw a photo of Terezin until she saw our photos. She was 26 years old at the time; she is now 81.

The grandmother's first husband was moved from Terezin to Auchwitz at the end of the war. During a forced march, he was shot and killed without any reason other than the meanness of the soldier who shot him. Her second husband was in Dachau during the end of the war. They have an excellent marriage. He was in synagogue and joined us for the last half hour of the visit. It was amazing to us that he could live through his experience at Dachau and still go to synagogue. We did not ask him any questions on that subject. The grandmother and the grandfather were permitted to enter the United States at the end of the war as part of the Dutch quotas. They settled in Shreveport, Louisiana, where they both worked and made a very difficult and small living.

And they came to Milwaukee to bury a grandson.

Every day, every minute, I am grateful for being as lucky as I have been. As a lottery ticket winner, I will never be able to prove it was anything "more." But I can try my best to use my luck wisely. Today specifically I hope that I succeed in living a life as generous, honorable, principled and loving as that of my one of my biggest heroes: my father.

Thank you, Dad. Happy Fathers' Day.


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