In Focus

When my daughter was eight years old, she handed me a small spiral notebook open to a page with the penciled heading “What I Want to Be.” The list that followed included teacher, Olympic star, Supreme Court judge, psychiatrist, post person, President and mom. “The problem is,” she explained, “I just don’t know how I can do it all.” I agreed that would be a challenge but it didn’t surprise me that she would consider it possible to become whatever she wished if she set her mind to it, though Olympic star would probably be a stretch. What interested me most, however, was her sense of the need to make choices, which could flow only from an inchoate understanding that life is finite.

I have now lived 68 years, and practiced law for over 40 of them. Periodically I reflected on the quandary my daughter articulated decades ago: how to make room in life for all I wanted to do. Achieving the balance between mothering and lawyering, which consumed so many of my years, was not complex, albeit stressful on a day to day basis. Having undertaken to pursue both of those careers in tandem, the nitty gritty choices were quite narrow: whether to take a deposition or attend a school play. The process of deciding between the options profits little from anguish over the consequences of either choice, which did not of course, put an end to anguish. Faced with such conflicts day after day, one muddles through, sometimes tearfully, because one must – or else bug out on one or the other career. Of course, there is some fall-out along the way, as mothers overtly quit lawyering, or lawyers covertly quit mothering. But, like most, I bulled my way through it until my children were suddenly grown with children of their own.

Along the way, my list of obligations eroded. It became unnecessary to review homework or visit the pediatrician. Even more entertaining demands – wrestling matches and recitals – disappeared. And there came a time when I could also hand off depositions, trials and briefs to younger, more ardent colleagues. Thus, after some years, neither mothering nor law demanded my full time and attention. My choices were no longer circumscribed by my careers. Instead, at 53, I came nose to nose with freedom that led me to a new question: what did I want to do with the rest of my life?

I never answered that question. Chance became opportunity and I seized one to become a theatre producer for a few years. Another led me to develop a performing arts center. These were both exhilarating experiences that peaked and then concluded. I drifted briefly back into law practice, then into managing my father’s care and overseeing his foundation. It is, at the same time, too much and not enough.

I envy poets, painters, actors and musicians who are gripped by a passion so great that they can never turn away from their art. It is a difficult life for many of them, but it is a life in focus, which is what I covet. It is not, however, my lot to have a single life-defining passion. Nor is there a new career ahead, no unimagined talent to be discovered. Thus the question must be reframed: how can I make the most of the rest of my life?


Worker of My World

                     Labor Day is a fitting time to remember my grandfather, Daniel – Deszoe – Lang, born in Bodony, Hungary, in 1895. Dan was one of nine children. His mother, Fannie, died when he was 10, and his father – a Torah scholar – soon remarried a woman detested by her stepchildren. The feelings were evidently mutual – all the children were dispersed from home. At the age of 12, Deszoe was apprenticed to a locksmith. Four years later, he set out on his own from Debreczen, crossing Austria and Germany on foot. By 18, he had become a fervid socialist. Embroiled in labor agitation, he was soon persona non grata in Germany. He left for America in 1913, fluent in German, Yiddish and Hungarian, but speaking no English. He settled in Manhattan, got a job as a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and became a Wobbly – a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor movement founded in a cross of anarchism and socialism. ; In 1917, Dan married a Russian immigrant who had somehow managed to attend and graduate from Hunter College at the age of 19. They communicated in German, the only language they had in common.

                      Dan prized manual labor. He was proud of his educated wife, children and grandchildren, but critical and somewhat disdainful of their inability to make a living with their hands. His wife, a teacher, in return disdained his lack of formal education. They were an odd, but devoted couple. In time, they bought a few acres of land in what would one day become an affluent New York suburb but, in their time, were sandwiched between a pig farm and an abandoned orchard. My grandmother was not a fan of the farm, but he loved it, ultimately persuading her to retire there where he grew vegetables and bartered for day old bread from the local bakery. In the fall, we would pick apples from the adjacent orchard. As my six year old cousin’s efforts flagged one afternoon, my grandfather chided her, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Do you know what that means?” She thought, then answered, “If you don’t pick apples, you don’t eat apples.” She was rewarded with a shoulder carry.

                   My grandfather revered Eric Hoffer,, Emma Goldman; and, at one time, Marx and Lenin. (It was not until my father was in his 80’s that I thought to ask him why he was nicknamed “Lenny.”) Along with some Hungarian songs, he taught me a ballad about Joe Hill who lives on wherever “workers strike and organize.” Grandfather was a card-carrying member of the ACLU and gave me a membership as a grade school graduation gift. He was not a religious man, but believed God was manifested in the natural world. His philosophy ran to anarchism – it certainly ran against capitalism. He was not thrilled with my choice of a career in the law. His gift to me was a print of a picture of two litigants pulling the ears and tail of a cow, while a lawyer sat milking it. But his influence on me was nevertheless profound, as my practice came to focus on civil rights, and I continue to share his antipathy for guns, a distaste of wine and an aversion to waste. Lately I’ve developed a fascination for Emma Goldman.

                   There are two stories I love best about my grandfather. The first originates in his journeyman days. Crossing Austria, he found himself outside a convent. It was raining. Hungry and wet, he knocked on the door and was invited into the kitchen for a meal. Gratefully, he sat down but was dismayed when he was given a bowl of lentils, the one food he disliked intensely. When the nun who served him left the room, he undertook an act of desperation: he poured the lentils into an umbrella standing conveniently in a corner. He promptly said his goodbyes and left. Decades later, he roared laughing as he imagined the unfortunate soul who later picked up the umbrella and got a shower of lentils.

                   The second story is more sobering. It takes place in a movie theatre in New York in the 1930’s. A newsreel was showing Hitler, recently risen to power, and audience members cheered. Dan rose to his feet, shaking his fist, and thundered, “You damn fools. Don’t you know he is out to destroy the world?” The audience fell silent. Soon after that, he engineered the safe escape from Austria of all his brothers and sisters.

                   I will always be in awe of my grandfather. That he crossed the ocean to this country alone as a teenager, without a word of English, still astounds me. Was he even aware what courage that trip took? That he remained true to his beliefs and values throughout his life, speaking truth as he saw it and eschewing any luxuries, reminds me that, in Eric Hoffer’s words, The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” For all of this, Deszoe, Grandfather, I remember you today.