Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Toast to John F. Greenman

This is not a dear-John letter.

Dear John,

I have been told to limit my toast on this occasion (your 70th birthday) to one flat minute, so I have set a timer on my clock; I give myself no more than one hour and fifteen minutes to write this brief homage.

I am tempted to review my earliest memories, but I have no time for that.

Let me just say, my earliest memory of you speaking to me directly was in Youngstown, Ohio.  You were living at home, in what came to be Matthew's room, over the garage and up a steep set of stairs from the kitchen.  Sunny, but set apart from all other rooms by two sets of stairs, yours was the most private, coveted, and secluded room in the house--wherefrom, you descended a few stairs, crossed a breach, and more stairs until arriving, finally, at the door to Marty’s room, where my mother and I were installed over the course of our holiday visit.

Your hair was thick, red, and curly, like mine.  If you were still in college, I was four or five years old--an age at which you and Arlo Guthrie were conflated in my mind.  You were Arlo, and Arlo was you.

At my house, my dad played "Alice's Restaurant," often.  We knew all the words.  On the cover of the album, Arlo sits half naked at a table,  utensils in his fists, impish beneath a halo of wild curly hair.

I felt very fortunate that we had an Arlo of our own.

I was peeling off the green felt vest and blue felt shoes of a big troll doll when you knocked on the door.

"Come in."


"Hi, Uncle John."

"How ya doin'?"


"Good. Listen, would you mind calling me John from now on, instead of Uncle John?"


"Great. Thanks."

"Okay. Bye."

I know I didn't say, "You're welcome, John," because that was going to take some getting used to.

I wonder why you didn't want to be called Uncle John. Did it sound too...avuncular?

Over the course of my life, I have spent less time with you than with your brothers Greg, Matthew, Mark, and Marty.  (Matthew and Mark would have been 12, and Marty 13 when you asked me to call you John.)

Though Mark passed away at the age of 21, until then, he had been my most devoted uncle.

And now that I am in my 50's and I have some perspective on things, I can look back and recognize that Mark was in fact truly exceptional and extraordinary, even at the age of 12.  He rode me around on his bike.  He took me swimming at the town pool.  He presented me with a bright green pig that he had won at a carnival.  He let me kiss his cheeks and muss his perfect hair as much and as often as I wanted to, which was constantly.  All I had to do to spend the whole afternoon with him was to listen to the Beatles and let him watch football on TV.

I can honestly say that Mark was perhaps the most joyous, compassionate, buoyant spirit I have ever encountered in my lifetime. I have never met the Dalai Lama, but I think that Mark was probably on the same wavelength as the Dalai Lama, broadly speaking.

I stapled his finger, once.  I literally used a stapler to put a staple in Mark's index finger.  I wanted to explore the limits of his goodness. How good could he be when in pain?  Especially, a totally unnecessary pain that he didn't deserve, and which I had caused him, willfully, though I loved him infinitely and would regret hurting him for the rest of my life.

Mark handled it exactly the way you would imagine the Dalai Lama would manage such a thing.  He didn't raise his voice.  He didn't tell on me. He might have asked for an apology, which I would have freely given.

Mark was good, radiantly good, through and through.

But this is not supposed to be a toast to Mark, and I only have ten minutes left.

While contemplating the theme of a toast in your honor, John, it became quite clear to me that you and I have a lot in common.

Not that this is about me, but, we are both Libras.  And while no one else in the family gives any credence to astrology, yet still we are Libras in the true Libran sense of the word.

We concern ourselves with balance and justice.  We consider various sides of any matter--surrounding the subject, as you like to say.  We can view things from different perspectives.

And thus, we are writers and editors, you and I.  We have spent our careers in publishing--yours, in journalism, and the recipient of a Pulitzer; and me, not in journalism.

So, there's that.

I know that you are a talented photographer--that you have an eye.  And I have an eye, too.  We literally see things from various angles, up close and from afar.  We see our world as we think about our world: from all different sides, and at varying degrees of intensity and depth.

A person's priorities are reflected in the choices that they make, and are a product of th process of weighing and measuring and balancing all of the stuff in their lives.

I think, and I have long believed, that your priorities are particularly daring and original.

Your choice to remain for many years in an affordable, unassuming home in wildly unpretentious Youngstown meant continuity with the people and locations that you knew best and cared most about: Alice, Michael and David, and your dad.

You didn't need to leave Youngstown, and you didn't need to go to Harvard.  You didn't need to prove anything to yourself, the way most people do.

You knew what you were made of.

A big fish in a reasonably well-filtered pond, you became the editor of the school paper at YSU.  I think of that photo of you, looking John Greenman and Arlo Guthrie, feet crossed on a big school desk, leaning way back in a tilted chair,  newspaper spread out across your lap.

You didn't need the imprimatur of an institution.  You were an autodidact. (I like to think I'm one of those, too.)

Mom told me you methodically prepared every single recipe in Julia Child's French cookbook.

You made a priority of champagne.

My semi-ascetic mother was stunned by your annual budget for champagne.

But I thought, to spend every evening sipping champagne with Alice?  You must really be in love. And what could be better than that?

There were years when you and Alice had to figure out how to balance your careers with your marriage...Alice's tenure at YSU, her love of teaching, as measured against your desire to be a managing editor for a city newspaper.

You found a way to accommodate both.

You rented a flat in Akron, and spent weekends in Youngstown.

I have always admired the time that you have been willing and able to give each other, whether alone or apart; the distances you can tolerate; the freedom you afford each other to pursue your dreams and civic commitments; and the trust you have in one another when apart.

Marriage, family, work, travel, learning, thinking, writing, and the pursuit of excellence in all its forms... I see these as your priorities.  In many respects, they mirror my own, with one exception.


Where you choose champagne, I choose cats, dogs, horses.

Neither champagne nor pets are necessary or practical, but they bring the lightness, the bubbles, the joy...

And to be conscious of creating space, budget, and time for such things suggests excess, bounty, balance, and wisdom, all at once.

We have crazy red hair, you and I.

Happy birthday!



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