The Story of Me
Last updated May 2, 2000
Describing oneself out of context is always tricky, and one might argue self-indulgent, but it won't surprise anyone who knows me that I'm giving it a shot. To quote the Barenaked Ladies: "I have a tendency to wear my mind on my sleeve." (I also have a tendency to laugh at a funeral -- at least, the last few I've been to -- but I think that's as far as my describability by Barenaked Ladies song lyrics goes.)
Well, to know a man it helps to know where he comes from, so I guess that's a good place to start.
My parents arrived in the U.S. (well, New Jersey, which is close enough) in 1963, travelling from Cuba by way of Israel. Combined with my grandparents' migration from Turkey several decades earlier and my continued residence in the country of my birth, this defines a trend of smaller and less frequent relocations with every generation -- I hope it persists, as very little of the travelling has been by choice.
In late 1968, undaunted by the results of their first attempt (then a precocious 8-year-old boy), my parents conceive a second child. (Never underestimate the power of indiscriminate optimism in shaping history, personal or global.) On April 18, 1969 (2 PM, give or take) they succeed; I arrive.
Their first attempt thus became my brother Alberto -- "Berto" to his friends, "Zippy" to his customers.
It always seems to startle people that my older brother is a professional clown. For my part, it reassures me that for everyone there exists the perfect job.)Unrelatedly, my birthday was popularized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's highly fictionalized account of the Battle of Concord 194 years earlier:Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
They made me memorize that poem in third grade, but that's all I remember. I recall being somewhat flattered at my birthday being so famous, and later puzzled at the idea that a famous date and year could be hardly remembered by anyone. The flattery faded, the puzzlement remains. In fact, that's pretty much the story of my life.
Anyway, on later looking into it, I discovered that Revere never made it to Concord. They never taught us that in third grade. I guess "the midnight ride of Samuel Prescott" simply didn't scan. In any case, thanks to Longfellow everyone now commemorates Paul Revere for a ride he didn't actually complete. I think it's important to learn from history, and the lesson I've taken from this historical event is that I, too, want to be famous centuries from now for activities I never actually performed.
Other events on my birthday include the Great San Francisco Quake of 1906 and the 1984 carbombing of the American Embassy in Beirut. (I remember that one.) I'm not entirely sure what lesson to learn from those; I'm open to suggestions. I also take some pride in sharing a birthday with Clarence Darrow (also here and here), from whom I did not evolve, but about whom Lincoln Steffens once redolantly said that "His power and his weakness is in the highly sensitive, emotional nature which sets his seething mind in motion in that loafing body," a description I resonate with.
Vaguely relatedly, my Mom's birthday is April 15, three days (and thirty years) before mine. She tells the story of, shortly after arriving in the United States, seeing signs on the buses reading "Remember: April 15 is coming!" and wondering (albeit briefly) why everyone cared about her birthday. (For non-American readers: April 15 is the American deadline for filing income taxes.) Of course, this is also the date of President Lincoln's death (though not his assassination!) in 1865 and Leonardo da Vinci's birth in 1452.
Increasingly less relatedly, Elizabeth Montgomery was also born on April 15. She played Samantha the witch on the TV show "Bewitched", and her fictional husband Darrin later became the namesake of my mom's grandson Darrin. Thus is our destiny fulfilled.
My earliest memory (the first thing after all the things I've forgotten) is evidently of windowshopping with my mom when I was three, but it doesn't seem that way to me... my memory is that I was much older at the time, but my mom remembers the incident and assures me I was three or so. Anyway, the event I remember as being earliest (how does one correctly say that in English?) is in September 1973, my first day at the Yeshiva of Hudson County, a small parochial Hebrew school in Union City, New Jersey. It wasn't terribly noteworthy, which (come to think of it) describes my next eight years there as well.
I used to lead the tail-end of Sabbath services at my local synagogue, which makes me the Jewish equivalent of an altar boy, I guess. Many people who met me in college are startled at the depth of my indoctri-- er, familiarity with Judaism... a few months back a friend of mine met me at a mutual friends' shiva and after watching me during services remarked "Wow, I've never seen you be that Jewish!", which about sums it up.
While I'm pretty much a thoroughgoing apikorus these days, the early religious training shows through... I've been fascinated by questions of faith all my life, though I tend to consider all answers to them about equally misguided. The end result of a lot of wandering around in the turgid swamps and stark high country of theological and spiritual thought is what I consider a fairly pragmatic and deliberately inconsistent approach to issues of faith... when it comes to untestable propositions, I tend to believe whatever metaphysical model best suits my current plans, without trying to categorize the ineffable.
After graduating and spending the summer with family in Israel, I start (September 1982) at the much larger, more secular (thank God!) and nearby North Bergen High School. At first, the notion of no longer being a big fish in a small pond was anxiety-provoking, but I quickly discovered that even in a larger pond there's still plenty of water. Not until later did I realize that plenty of water is not always a blessing for a land mammal. The less said about those years the better.
Another graduation, another summer vacation, and arrival (September 1986) at MIT. At the time I was a physics major, which sounded good at the time -- I was good at science compared to the other folks in my high school, so of course that's what I wanted to do with my life, right? It continues to astonish me that anyone knows, or thinks they know, what they'll be doing with their lives at the age of 16.
Though looking back on it, my choice of major was not an especially --ahem-- significant factor in my college life. The things I remember most have to do with where I lived, and with whom. After an abortive term at East Campus I spent most of those years living at Fenway House , where I never did learn to juggle, though I learned a lot about working and playing with other boys and girls -- one girl in particular.
We got engaged some years later, but she ultimately turned out to be more particular than I'd thought and exercised her cancellation options. We kept in touch for a few years after that and I recently played the stock role of wistful ex-boyfriend at her wedding, but we've lost contact since then. It remains one of my main regrets in life, though enough time has passed to smooth down the edges of it.
The primary survivors of that relationship are several highly affectionate and animated stuffed animals - Claire, Jake, Luke, Trudy, Dusty, Beefcake, Bliss, and Blythe (if I've forgotten any of them I'm sure they'll let me know). Yes, I'm one of those geeks who talks to his stuffed animals and gives them voices and stuff... deal with it.
A related anecdote: The woman in question moved out of Boston, and came back several years later to visit while I was out of town. A friend of mine met her for the first time then, and her first comment was "Oh my God! You sound just like Claire!" Claire was pleased.
Along the way I also got fairly active in community service, interactive roleplaying, teaching, and college theatre, though never particularly good at any of them.
Oh yeah, and I took some classes and stuff. The physics thing didn't last, as my early love-hate relationship with mathematics shifted firmly to the right within a year. By 1988 I was a cognitive science major -- they promised they'd never make me solve another differential equation in my life, and that was all I needed to hear.
The primary academic lesson I take from my college experience is the hardwon knowledge that if I go to class once in a while, I'll know where it meets when exam time rolls around. Despite the inhibiting effects of an active social life on academic standing, and my repeated discovery that I can't necessarily learn everything about a given subject between dinner and breakfast, I somehow managed to graduate (June 1990).
Heck, nobody was more surprised than I was! It was thoroughly uncertain up till the Monday of that week, since I turned in my thesis about as late as physically possible. This caused my parents a great deal of bewildered anxiety ("What do you mean, you don't know if you're graduating next week?!?!") but luckily I was too exhausted to notice.
My undergrad thesis was, I believe, written by elves during a 72-hour marathon stupor in which I struck randomly at a computer keyboard. I celebrated by falling unconscious on my advisor's couch for about a day, then stayed up all night celebrating in a more traditional (though less admittable-to) fashion and slept through the ceremony itself. (I was there, cap and gown and all, sound asleep. I'm told I snored. Happily, a classmate woke me up in time to march and receive my diploma. As I had the dubious distinction of being among the last students to march, this involved my waking up abruptly in a sea of empty chairs on Killian Court. Disorienting, that.)
The following year was uneventful... I basically wandered around trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I suspect I never actually expected to graduate; certainly I never gave much thought to what comes next. This was followed by 1992, affectionately known as "The Year Dave's Life Fell Apart." My father died, my wedding plans fell apart, and I basically retreated into an emotional stupor. It took a summer away from it all and a dear friend from another country to sponsor me again for associate membership in the human race.
It's gotten much better since. Of course, the closer I get to the current day the harder it is to pretend that the unrelated threads of a real life fall into the neat patterns of a biographical essay. Still, among the recurring threads have been:
Which, I guess, brings me up to the now. And I'm not sure any of this helps as far as self-descriptiveness goes, but I suppose it will have to do. You wanna know more, you talk to me.