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bob_sketchRobert Lipsyte, host of Life (Part 2), is a former New York Times columnist, an Emmy-winning television host, and the author of many best-selling, award-winning young adult novels.  He also has written adult nonfiction, including his book, In the Country of Illness: Comfort and Advice for the Journey, which recounts his battle with cancer.

Lipsyte contributes to ESPN and USA Today, and he is currently at work on a new YA novel, and a memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter: Lessons from the Lockerroom.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My stepcat, Asia, died this week. I surprised myself by crying and kissing her goodbye as she drifted away in the vet's office. We had had a tempestuous life together, sometimes painful. For me.

Asia was born eighteen years ago in the parking garage of a major New York medical center. The doctor who rescued the litter gave one of the kittens to her friend, the writer Lois B. Morris, who named her Asia and became her mom, feeding her through an eye-dropper.  They were joined a few months later by a large black abandoned puppy. Lois named him Rudy.
Asia resented sweet, gentle Rudy for supplanting her. She attacked him for passing too close to her, for breathing in the same room. Sometimes, she planted herself in front of his bowl and dared him to step over her. He slunk away, hungry and hurt.

Six years later, I arrived, Lois' third pet, determined to be the alpha animal. Lots of luck. Rudy, huge by now, had to be wrestled out of bed every night, and Asia pushed carefully away with pillows. Rudy would never retaliate with anything more than a resigned look to make me feel guilty. But Asia's response, her claws, and her teeth were lightning fast. Usually, I escaped, sometimes with nothing more than a bloodless scratch. Over the years, there were also four courses of antibiotics for deeper wounds. In terms of reflexes, I was aging more quickly than Asia.

But there were also long, good times, particularly in recent years during Lois' frequent China trips when Asia and I snuggled in bed. Her gray, striped fur was lustrous and soft, and I had figured out her pleasures - long strokes down her nose - and when to stop. If she had to tell me, it would hurt. I came to realize that the only times she would attack me were if I didn't pet her when she wanted me to, if I petted her after she no longer wanted me to, if I coughed while I was petting her, if my big toe was in tantalizing range, or if she merely felt like it.

Rudy died three years ago, and during his final days she pawed him tenderly, too little too late, I thought, but a nice enough gesture.

When she became sick a year later, yowling in pain, unable to eat, we took her to an emergency city vet who relieved the symptoms - or just waited them out -  for about $3,000 and suggested for some fistfuls more we could find out if it was lymphoma or a bellyache. We took her home and she was her old self until a few weeks ago. Failing, she had no energy, dragged her back legs, stopped eating, became incontinent. I had hopes for her recovery until I realized there was nothing I could do - or not do - that would interest her in biting me.

In recent years, I have sat deathwatches for my parents, a former wife, and a best friend. Last May, Lois' sister died in a plane crash. I didn't think a dying cat would move me. The vet said it had to do with our feelings of responsibility toward pets. Lois and I wondered if it evoked the sadness of those other deaths. Or maybe, Asia had simply become part of my family and I came to love her, bites and all.

 

 

Friday, February 12, 2010

 

The dermatologist prescribed Bacoban, a small tube of topical cream, for a skin infection. When my wife picked it up for me, she was charged $71. My AARP drug insurance, she was told, didn't cover this non-generic drug. Insane, I thought. I've paid less for chemotherapy.

            I called the pharmacist. Hadn't the doctor indicated that a generic would be okay? Yes, he said, but the doctor had prescribed a cream, and the generic, Mupirocin, only came in an ointment.

            Cream, ointment, so?

            Big difference, said the pharmacist, but the best he could come up with was something about staining clothes.

            I called the doctor. I could almost hear him shrug over the phone. Ointment, cream, so?

            I went back to the pharmacist, returned the Bacoban for $71 and bought the Mupirocin ointment. My insurance kicked in. It was $7.

            This is no screed against Big Pharma (if you aren't up on that you probably haven't read this far.) It's just another early warning beep that all of us in LIFE(Part2) are hearing more often these days.

            My "condition" was basically an angry pimple. What if it were serious? What if I was weak or confused? What if a lot of money was involved? What if I was alone?

            This goes back to questions I asked on Show #6, Fighting Ageism. Why can't we organize, on both a national and local level, to push back against commercial and political forces taking advantage of us? Whatever happened to the Gray Panthers?

            For starters, how about an Elders Council in every community to help out people who need some advice about something daunting in their lives - medical, legal, financial, social? It could come out of a community center, a church group, a library. Just a neighbor calling up, confused, to ask what you know about creams and ointments.

 

Monday, February 1, 2010

 

Five of my favorite guests passed through New York last month, and I got to hang out and dine with each of them. Rare fun. Too often, even terrific TV interviews leave the feeling of a psychic one-night stand - when it's over, it's over. Happily, LIFE(Part2) is forever.

 

All-time fave Mary Ann Becklenberg was in town to do a spot for Good Morning America's website. She invited me along and I ended up on the podcast with its health correspondent, Meg Oliver. As you remember, Mary Ann, the star of Show #11, was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimers at 61. She was a hospice social worker at the time, a passionate and sophisticated advocate for her clients. Her devoted co-workers covered  for her lapses - she missed meetings, forgot information. Her LP2 interview, at 64, was riveting and heart-breaking - yet also inspiring. Her message was simple and went beyond her affliction- Treat yourself gently and concentrate on what you have, not what you've lost. Mary Ann and I had a good time at lunch after the GMA gig (she's still quick and funny); we promised each other to do it again even if she didn't remember. Her wonderful husband was along, and Mary Ann agreed when I dubbed him Saint John.

 

A few days later, at a risqué Harvard Club panel on Relationships, Dr. Marianne Legato (Show #5), Dr. Robert Schwalbe, (#8), and Suzanne Braun Levine (#1) mesmerized that over-educated audience with their hard-won experience. The hottest topics were how to deal with the children that a new partner brings along and that old standard, infidelity. Married for more than 40 years, Suzanne became an LP2 icon with her observation that "the first thirty-seven years were the hardest." On this night, when Suzanne described her husband's extended trips without her, Marianne jumped in to say that she'd never trust a man out by himself. Marianne is a single mom who was married long ago for ten years; she's had many satisfying relationships since, thank you, she said.

 

Robert, who mostly treats men, advised all not to jump into bed before establishing an intimate relationship. Dr. Jane Adams (#2, #5 ) an expert on intergenerational matters (she wrote the book I'm Still Your Mother) was in the audience to lend support and ask a few excellent questions.

 

I had a wonderful time at both events, lots of talk, food, and a reprise of my favorite television show.

 

 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I've already broken all my new year's resolutions, and feel much the better for it. They were the usual narrow promises, made under family duress, concerning food, drink, exercise, and being nice to jerks. The pressure to keep such promises is stressful and tinged with the hint of future guilt.

Now that they are broken and gone, I'm free to continue trying to keep the broader life-changing suggestions I overheard on Life (Part 2). There were three big ones, what I call the Three R's.

One - Put your Relationships ahead of your work. On the show, Billie Jean King talks about escaping into tennis as a way of putting off the real issues in her life. Once she stopped regular competition, she found herself substituting binge eating. She's been dealing with all that in therapy in recent years, she said. You don't need to face your fears when you can focus on the next match. Sometimes I wondered if I did that, too, as a journalist, escaping into the quest for the story. I saw a T-shirt at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. that summed it up: "Not tonight, honey, I'm on deadline."        

Two - Keep yourself open to the fresh ideas and possibilities that lead to Renewal. We did a number of shows that touched on renewal and reinvention, with one overwhelmingly common theme: Go back into your past to find your future. Most people who successfully renewed their lives reconnected with something that had once been important to them - music, jewelry-making, a sport, teaching, a business idea, etc. - that they had had to abandon. Rather than thinking "outside the box," reach way down into the box for something that's been there all the time.

Three - Don't stop Running. That actually means, don't stop shaking your booty in some way that gives you pleasure. I've quit actual road running (thanks to my back) but I'm a constant walker and biker. I'll even use the treadmill and elliptical trainer in the gym although I have to force myself to go. I'm always glad I did. But I also keep in mind Sherwin Nuland's advice which takes us back to number one. Given the choice between gym and a romp with kids and/or grandkids, go with the rugrats. My grandkids are 5 and 2, so it's not only more fun, it's more of a workout.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I wouldn't have considered L'Affairs Tiger as grist for the Life (Part 2) mill if I hadn't been reading Andre Agassi's compelling autobiography, OPEN, at the same time the scandal broke. Tiger Woods is not quite 34 years old, still in Part 1, arguably the greatest golfer in history and the richest and most successful athlete/commercial endorser. One wouldn't think Tiger needs one of our reinvention lessons quite yet. I think he does.

The overwhelming message of the Agassi book, the tennis star's hatred for his game and the life it had forced on him, made me wonder if Tiger might have come to some of the same feelings. Both men were child prodigies driven relentlessly by fathers who lived through them. At 21, already marked as the Mozart of the links, Tiger was complaining that he couldn't live a "normal" life. (Famously, Arnold Palmer told the kid that if he wanted to be normal, start by giving back all the money.)

This is no justification for infidelity (I hope we do a show on that in the next season) but it could be part of an explanation. How many men and women, feeling angry and trapped in their lives, find destructive ways to express themselves, to assert a false independence, to dare fate? And how many (think of the paper and voice mail trail Tiger left) ultimately want to be caught and saved from their lives?

There's certainly a lesson for parents in this. Whether you're pushing the kids to play a racquet or a violin, you have a responsibility to be sure they are loving the process rather than just processing your love. I've watched dozens of young athletes and musicians burn out. Some of them found bad behavior or injury as an escape from the expectations, the dreams they didn't share.

Almost twenty years ago, when I was writing a New York Times sports column, an old black golfer on a public course in Los Angeles told me to drop the story I was covering and track down this 15-year-old phenom who will soon overwhelm the game. The key to his success was the furious drive of his father, a former Army colonel. The defining moment had come when the boy was 5 or 6, and Dad, in civvies, took him to a military course. Two white admirals spotted the prodigy and said, ''That's some golfer you've got there, sergeant.''

By assuming Tiger's dad was an enlisted man because of his color, the black golfer told me, the admirals had reinforced Dad's determination to send his little tiger out to dominate the world.

Earl Woods, who died three years ago at 74, once said of his boy: "There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."

The taste we've gotten recently may be sour, but I'm hoping that when this public chapter in his life settles down, Tiger will be ready to reinvent his inner life in his own preview of Part 2.

 

 

susan jordan photo
Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, all of the good f-words - food, family, friends - and none of the obscene g-words - guilt, greed - that crop up at Christmas. This Thanksgiving, however, will be a bittersweet event, a celebration of a life that ended too early.

Susan Jordan, the older sister of my wife, Lois, died last May in the crash of a small, experimental plane in Utah. She was a pre-boomer, 67, but she epitomized the vital r-words of Life (Part 2) - running, relationships, reinvention.

Running, of course, is our short-hand for working out, staying fit in body and mind (connected, as you know). Susan ran, hiked, climbed, lifted, did yoga, swam. Something intense every day, sometimes twice.

As the matriarch on Lois' side of the family, she brought friends and family together for Thanksgiving at the Berkeley house she shared with her daughter, Jenny, and her husband, Ronnie Wong. It was a joyous Jewish-Chinese pilgrim festival of food and love, of relationships that were fostered and strengthened for the year. Jenny and Ronnie will host this one, which could be the last as they move on.

Susan's reinventions were epic. Chicago-born, she was a school teacher before she became a lawyer. And what a lawyer! One of her most famous cases was the defense of Inez Garcia, who killed the man who raped her. For the first time, the Battered Woman Syndrome was recognized as an affirmative self-defense.

And then a terrible set-back in her late forties. A medical malpractice left her unable to talk for long periods without pain, a crippling impediment for a trial lawyer. Another reinvention or two or three. While she continued to participate in major cases, she also became a yoga teacher and a practicing Buddhist in the Theravada tradition, sharing the benefits of her spiritual practice by organizing meditation retreats for lawyers and others.  Above all, in more ways than one, she pursued her passion for flying, often on missions to protect the environment.  She was the passenger in her friend John Austin's plane when it crashed in the Utah desert.

The summer before she died, Susan took me up in her own plane for a couple of hours over northern California. I had never seen this restless, willful dynamo at such peace, and so happy. Her joy and my pleasure in the flight is a vivid memory, a gift for all my holiday seasons to come.

 

 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Watching the Spirituality show, I thought of another spiritual moment of a different kind. Some years ago, my friend Gerard Papa needed a parish to sponsor his team in the Catholic Youth Organization's prestigious basketball program and found the Rev. Vincent J. Termine, at Most Precious Blood in Bensonhurst. A crusty, twinkly Brooklynite in his early 50s, a kind of movie priest - "Celibacy was never a problem," he told me once, "and I didn't take a vow of poverty. But obedience, ah...."

He helped Papa paint white lines on the linoleum floor of his bingo hall and erected portable backboards. They held open tryouts. Black kids from the nearby Marlboro projects ventured across Avenue X, the black-white borderline. When the team was assembled, it was more than half black.

Racial integration was never the primary mission, Papa has maintained all these years. Blacks, he told me, "weren't relevant to where I lived. I had essentially no contact with black people and I didn't really think about 'em too much." Papa just wanted a good team. He wanted to win. He says he was surprised when the neighborhood freaked. At the first integrated practice, a van screeched up and a gang of young white men piled out swinging bats. One of them was the son of the local "man of respect." The Flames piled into Gerard's Thunderbird and raced off to Coney Island, figuring correctly that their attackers would not follow them into a black neighborhood.

That season there were telephoned death threats, and Papa's tires were slashed. His black players were beaten and most white players were pressured to quit. But he refused to disband the team. He believed in his own righteousness. Apparently, so did Father Termine. Remembering a piece of advice from his own mother - "Better a dead priest than a bad one" - he stormed into the back room of the local social club. Cards and chips flew as Father Termine ("I can be dramatic when necessary") roared about Jesus and justice. When he was finished, the team and Papa were promised safe conduct.

That was more than 30 years ago. Father Termine is retired. Papa and the Flames are still beacons of integration and youth basketball in New York City.

 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

While I love every station that carries our show, WNET , Channel 13 in New York, which begins airing Life (Part 2) on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 3PM ET, has a special place on my dial.

Until I started hosting LP2, the most fun I ever had on air was on a show called The Eleventh Hour. It was on Channel 13 in 1989 and 1990. Great staff, engaged guests, important topics, new information.

What a thrill it's been to have all that evoked again. Talk about a second act!

Twenty-one years ago, while I was covering the Seoul Olympics for NBC News, I got a call from WNET. They had decided to start a nightly public affairs broadcast. It would be an intensely local show and they wanted a host with a local voice, someone who sounded like he was born in the Bronx, grew up in Queens, went to college in Manhattan, and raised his kids in New Jersey. Me. (As my friend Howard Cosell so often told me, affectionately I hope, I had a face for radio and a voice for print.)

I was thrilled, and if it hadn't been for the drug scandals and Greg Louganis' bloody high dive, it would have been impossible to keep my mind on the 1988 Games.

But then I got back to New York, and earth. No way out of my long-term contract with NBC. I went to see Tim Russert, then an NBC vice-president, and the network's rising star. This was the job I always wanted, I told him. A chance to do smart journalism in a place that could support and appreciate it.

Tim just gave me that grin. Go for it, he said. How could NBC sue you for going to PBS?  I've got your back. Just don't expect a goodbye party.

I've always been grateful to Tim, although it has occurred to me that maybe NBC wanted to get rid of me. And years later he told me he didn't actually have the authority to set me free. And there was a party.

I loved the Eleventh Hour, a nightly parade of engaged, passionate guests dealing with a city in crisis. There was a superb young staff.  We staged mayoral debates, we had everyone on from Trump to Tutu, and we even broke a story or two.

But after two seasons, Channel 13 decided to become more of a national presence. We were eventually replaced by a wider-ranging nightly talk show hosted by a national-sounding voice, a guy with a flower-sounding name, something like Charlie Tulip.

I wonder what happened to him. Maybe we could have him on our show someday and find out how his Life (Part 2) panned out.

 

 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A few weeks ago, I visited the Minnesota birthplace of Life (Part 2) and received a happy lesson on Generation Gaps, which also happened to be the topic of the show airing on TPT, our producing station.

The round-table discussion on the show tended to emphasize the differences among Geezers, Boomers, Gen X'ers and Millennials, as a way, I hope, of promoting the need for sensitivity and understanding, particularly in the workplace. But it also could be taken as cautionary - different ages can equal clashing approaches and sensibilities.

Toward the end of the discussion, the panelists seemed to agree that people of different generations working together could be more than the sum of their parts if they contributed their special qualities, be it experience, energy, unbounded confidence, prudence, technological savvy, etc. in a group effort.

And then I got to see two snapshots of how that could work.

At TPT, in St. Paul, I finally got to meet, face-to-face, 28-year-old Nick Watts, the web producer who promotes and manages our online presence, from this wonderful site to Facebook and Twitter. We had been communicating entirely by e-mail. After the dire warnings of our Gap show guests, I wondered if Nick would be a stereotypical Millennial, self-centered, ethically-challenged, unable to look me in the eye when we met. Would he have any empathy for a codger host.

Turns out, Nick is a tall, handsome, genial musician (he plays bass in a band called "Mines") who looks you right in the eye and sees his enormous tech skills less as an end unto themselves than as tools to spread the word and the picture on the show. He immediately felt like a colleague. My only regret was that I couldn't get to his band's gig that night.

And that was because I was off to Minnetonka, outside Minneapolis, to a fund-raising party for the show at The Marsh, a lovely spa and wellness retreat. Our host was the owner, 75-year-old Ruth Stricker Dayton. I knew she was married to Bruce Dayton, 91, a leading businessman, art collector and philanthropist in the state. Would they be stereotypical Geezers, frozen in their ways, which could include a flinty old take on everything, including our show?

Turns out, Ruth, fit and beautiful, filled the room with her energy and enthusiasm. She has been dealing with lupus for 30 years, which has led her seeking nature into explorations of Eastern movement and medicine which inform the spa. She's a booster of the show, as is, and an obvious role model for Boomers.

This is no Yankelovich sampling, I admit, and maybe it's the air out there or two remarkable people, but I came away encouraged. We need all generations working on a project, even if not directly working together, to make something worthwhile happen.                

 

Saturday, October 3, 2009

After inventing the lightning rod, bifocals and the Franklin stove - this was why he was too busy to be on Life (Part 2) - Benjamin Franklin invented what would come to be known three centuries later as the "Cougar," a middle-aged woman who dates younger men, usually in their twenties.

In 1967, the quintessential Cougar (although the term had yet to be coined) was Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, who seduced Dustin Hoffman, as "The Graduate." In this century, the actress Demi Moore was often portrayed as a fabulous feline who hunted down Ashton Kutcher, some 15 years younger. They married in 2005.

The movie and the marriage seem to be the main evidence that lots of Cougar and Cub coupling is going on. Women of a certain age and women's magazines of a certain sensibility spin this coupling into proof of a new female freedom and empowerment. While some shrink at calling women who date younger men "predators," they love the conceit that women control these relationships. They also see this as flipping the bird at all those middle-aged Old Lions who are chasing Kittens.

It's a nourishing fantasy for magazines, novels and TV shows, but I don't see that it does much for women in the long run, and it certainly is nothing new. In fact, the Cougar-Cub model was framed in Benjamin Franklin's famous 1745 letter to a young friend who was apparently afraid of commitment. He wants to be free to hang out with his friends, drink ale and watch sports on the colonial green. Franklin urges him to become a "complete Being" and get married.

"But if you will not take this Counsel," writes Franklin, "and persist in thinking that Commerce with the Sex is inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice that in your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones."   

Franklin outlines compelling reasons, including the superior conversation, sexual experience, amiability, and discretion of older women. And then his most famous reason: "They are so grateful!!"

If women want to think that Cougars are a 21st Century phenomenon growing out of their new social, financial and psychological muscle, that's cool with me. If women can feel younger, prettier and more powerful playing with a boy toy the way men play with girl dolls, what's wrong? Especially if the Cubs learn some moves for when they grow up and take Franklin's advice and become complete.

I only hope those Cougars aren't aping the Old Lions in their pathetic posturing, aren't fooling themselves into thinking that Cubs and Kittens are naïve pets, instead of savvy predators themselves. The Cubs I know are avoiding commitment and responsibility so they can hang out with their friends, drink ale and watch ESPN, and still have sex. Because they think, as Franklin wrote, "in the dark all cats are grey."