Saturday In The Park

12 Jan

“Listen children, all is not lost.

All is not lost.

Oh, No, No…”

     -Chicago, “Saturday In The Park”, 1972

________________________________________________________________

Each week, I spend an hour or so of my Saturday morning walking our greyhound Dobi at Gedney Park.  Gedney is particularly beautiful during the winter when it is snow covered, and on the Saturday before Christmas, it was not only that but it was also sun-drenched on a rare 55 degree December day.   It was one of those gorgeous  mornings on which Gedney could be fully appreciated for everything it is and has represented to us since we moved to Northern Westchester 26 years ago—beauty, peace and tranquility, combined with children’s sports games during the fall and spring that create lasting memories for kids and their parents.

BEAUTIFUL GEDNEY PARK

BEAUTIFUL GEDNEY PARK

photo

DOBI PLAYING IN THE SNOW AT GEDNEY

DOBI PLAYING IN THE SNOW AT GEDNEY

I LOOK FORWARD TO MY WEEKLY WALKS WITH OUR GIRL

I LOOK FORWARD TO MY WEEKLY WALKS WITH OUR GIRL

It is a place where I feel I can really smell the roses, both literally and figuratively, even in the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy.  While walking in the wooded sections of the park, I think about what I have and what I’ve lost, as well as how much promise the future holds.  And I think to myself that if I had a dollar for every soccer and baseball game I’ve watched Jeff, Drew or Brett play in at Gedney, I could probably retire right now.

JEFF BEFORE A BIG SOCCER GAME AT GEDNEY

JEFF BEFORE A BIG SOCCER GAME AT GEDNEY

2013-12-22_1

As I look around the landascape here,  I think about how much Jeff loved growing up in Westchester.  While he certainly enjoyed going out in Manhattan over his last several years,  he always appreciated the atmoshere and beauty of the northern suburbs.

Jeff’s love of the country was paramount in his thinking about which colleges he wanted to pursue.  He had a clear vision of himself at a rural New England or upstate New York school with a beautiful campus, colorful scenery in the fall and tons of snow in the winter.  Not only was Jeff a great skier, but he also never lost that joyous childhood feeling of anticipating a big snow storm and a possible snow day off from school.

carey snow text

Jeff snow response to carey

From the beginning of his college search, Jeff set his sights on Colgate, the school at which Carey and I met as next door neighbors in our sophomore dorm.  If Jeff wanted a great academic institution with a drop-dead gorgeous campus and never-ending snow from October through April, Colgate was the place.

After visiting Georgetown, though, Jeff  began to think twice.  It was strong academically, it was in vibrant Washington D.C., and it had a close-knit alumni network that was known for taking care of its graduates when it came to job opportunities.  Carey and I also thought Georgetown would be a great choice for Jeff.  While he wrestled with the fact that the school just didn’t fit his vision of where he saw himself spending his college years,  he still decided to apply.

When the results came in and Jeff had been accepted at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Colgate and others, while being wait-listed at Middlebury, the real decision-making process began.   Jeff was so torn between Colgate, where his heart was, and Georgetown, which he thought might be the more practical choice for his future, that he was still undecided just days before the May 1st non-refundable deposit was due at the chosen school.

On Friday April 29th, 2005, the day before the envelope containing our deposit check needed to be postmarked to reserve Jeff’s spot (there was not an online payment option back then), he came to us and said there was only one way to make this decision.  I have written about the uniqueness of Jeff many times, and this might be the clearest example of what I mean.

Jeff informed us that he was going to roll the dice.  Literally.  He had gone into our collection of board games, taken out a pair of dice, and his decision about which college to attend would be based on one roll of the dice.  Rolling an odd number would send him down to D.C. and an even number would send him skiing up to snow-covered Hamilton, New York.  Carey and I were incredulous, but it was clear that the kid was serious.  This, in a nutshell, was our Jeff.  Unique.  Outrageous. Impulsive.

Jeff agreed to let me watch this dice-rolling ceremony in his room.  Carey, absolutely bewildered that this was even happening, chose to pass.  I watched as Jeff took a deep breath, did his cross, and rolled the dice hard toward his clothes dresser.  After crashing against the dresser, the dice lay there with the answer, but I couldn’t look.  Jeff did.

“I’m going to Georgetown, Dad,” Jeff said in a voice that made my heart sink, as I knew instantly that he simply should have gone with his heart.  I told him that this was a silly way to choose a college, but Jeff insisted that he had done his cross before rolling, and this must be meant to be.  He asked me to get the $900 check ready to send to Georgetown the next morning.  I was heartsick now, yet after several more minutes of unsuccessfully trying to persuade him that this was the wrong way to make this decision, I did what he asked, and the check was sent.

I had to leave for a business trip to Dallas on Monday May 2nd, but within minutes after landing there, Jeff called me and bellowed, “HEY!  I just got a call from Middlebury!  I was at the top of the wait list, and I got in!”  He went on to tell me that Midd was the perfect compromise between Georgetown and Colgate and he was certain that’s where he wanted to go.  This was now clearly the one that was meant to be- we all remembered the gorgeous views of the Vermont Green Mountains, and there would certainly be snow galore.  They had their own ski hill, the Snow Bowl, within minutes of the campus, and lest I forgot, Jeff pointed out that the school was academically impeccable.

SnowBowlSign

LE CHATEAU- MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE

LE CHATEAU- MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE

MEAD MEMORIAL CHAPEL ON MIDD'S CAMPUS

MEAD MEMORIAL CHAPEL ON MIDD’S CAMPUS

As Jeff rambled on, I was distracted by visions of my $900 non-refundable check floating through the postal system toward D.C.  But Midd was the snowy New England school Jeff had always dreamed of.  His decision had been made, and I simply congratulated Jeff on becoming a Middlebury Panther.  Yes, I said to myself, this was meant to be.  After he took a few days to cement the decision in his mind, another check went out, this time to Middlebury.  I never saw Georgetown’s $900 again.  I called and asked their Admissions office for my money back, but they refused.  When they said non-refundable, they meant it.

The rest is history—a highly successful academic career culminating in Magna Cum Laude status;  reporter, columnist and sports editor for The Middlebury Campus newspaper;  great friends and KDR brothers;  plenty of skiing;  Wednesday night Beirut;  intramural basketball, softball and tennis; a raucous celebration on campus the night his candidate Barack Obama made history in a landslide; mentoring a young boy from a troubled home in Vergennes for four years; and a semester abroad at UCL in London where he would make incredible friends who would one day shave their heads and raise thousands of dollars for a crucial cause in his memory.

Jeff playing beer pong

jeff snow day text 1

jeff snow day text 2

Jeff snow day text 3

Jeff Election Night with champagne

JK Rolling 2

And I remember parents’ weekend each fall, sitting in their football stadium overlooking the spectacularly beautiful scenery in and around Middlebury, including those legendary Green Mountains, and thinking that he had made such the right decision after all.

MIDDLEBURY'S YOUNGMAN FIELD

MIDDLEBURY’S YOUNGMAN FIELD

But in retrospect, was it really the right decision?  As painful as it is to write, with 20/20 hindsight, it probably wasn’t.  After graduating from Middlebury with a concentration in history and a minor in economics, Jeff either didn’t or couldn’t envision a clear path on which to travel to pursue any of his passions.  He became a job seeker rather than a passion follower, and that is how he ended up as a paralegal in a ruthless New York City law firm.

Had he spent four years at Georgetown surrounded by government and politics at every turn, and with the full force of Georgetown’s alumni network at his disposal, all kinds of outlets for Jeff’s passion for politics would have been staring him in the face.  The path would have been obvious.  In time, he easily would have found a government-related position that he could have gotten really fired up about, and who knows, maybe he would have found a way, through local connections he could have made, to land a position as part of Obama’s re-election campaign.

Staying in D.C. as a passion follower would have kept Jeff far away from what turned out to be the worst type of environment for him- the poisonous atmosphere of a cut-throat international law firm. It couldn’t have been more wrong for him than that place was.  If he had gone to Georgetown, he never would have ended up there, and I’m quite certain he’d be alive today.

I understand that it is a complete waste of my time and energy to ruminate over matters like this that are over and done with and are not subject to change.  But unfortunately, that is what bereaved parents do, and it is unavoidable.  I fight the urge to explore the “what ifs” but I usually lose the fight.

—————–      —————–   —————-   ——————-   ——————

The message of Chicago’s Saturday In The Park resonates loudly with me when I think of Jeff.  To me, the song is about people seeking balance, peace and beautiful moments, a break from life’s struggles, in a sanctuary where every day truly is like the Fourth of July.  In the song, people are living in the moment, smelling the roses, and enjoying life’s simple day-to-day joys.

“People talking, really smiling,
A man playing guitar,
Singing for us all.
Will you help him change the world?
Can you dig it (yes, I can),
And I’ve been waiting such a long time,
For today”

I sometimes think of the world as just a big park filled with people trying to find these small moments and these human connections that are the source of so much happiness and energy.  When you go to your own park, your own sanctuary, your gym, your church or temple, I think you tend to find that things aren’t as bad in your life as you may have thought, after all.  And while every day can’t, as the song claims, be the Fourth of July, we can at least try to approach each day with a passion that makes it feel that way.

“Funny days in the park,
And every day’s the fourth of July…

People reaching, people touching,
A real celebration,
Waiting for us all,
If we want it, really want it
Can you dig it? Yes, I can
And I’ve been waiting such a long time
For the day”

For 8 months, Jeff endured the paralegal job by surrounding those grueling weekdays with weekends spent in Manhattan and elsewhere up and down the east coast with his best friends.  Those weekends were his Fourth of July days, as were the weeknights at home watching and blogging about the NBA and the MLB.  But in his ninth month on the job, the hours became too many and the pressure too great, and Jeff quit.  Ironically, it all went down a few weeks after what would be his last and greatest July 4th, spent with many of his closest friends in Newport, Rhode Island.

jeff lobster dinner 2

Had he just accepted that life was tough and that the way to handle that reality was to go to his personal park and continue seeking out and mixing in those amazing moments with friends, life would have been just fine for Jeff. And the real tragedy is that, before the meds decimated his mind, he fully understood the therapeutic effect of achieving a work/life balance.  In his Notes From The Desk column in The Middlebury Campus from April 30th, 2009, the full text of which I previously published on July 31, 2011 ( https://kleinsaucer.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/jeffs-parting-words-to-the-middlebury-community/, Jeff wrote,

While I can completely understand the argument that furthering our education is a central reason as to why we are all here, I also know that so many other factors exist that contribute to a healthy, successful lifestyle that stretch beyond academia. Believe it or not, relaxing can be extremely productive, in so far as it reduces stress and gets you into a positive state of mind. Yes, it is definitely important to get that 15-page political philosophy paper done, but don’t discount the benefit of kicking back and watching a ballgame with a few friends.

So what exactly am I trying to say?… I guess if I were to identify the central idea that I’m trying to impart, it’s to keep everything in perspective and recognize that life is multidimensional.”

Jeff notes from the desk full

Jeff notes from the desk ending

Clearly, on April 30th, 2009, Jeff had the healthiest outlook on life that I could ever have wished my son to possess.  A little over 14 months later, misprescribed medication took it all away from him, and he lost sight of the park. He never found it again.

The song’s most important message, though, is that all is not lost.  It’s never all lost.  Sadly, increasing numbers of people in the U.S. are not absorbing that message.   This country’s suicide rate increased 16% from 2000 to 2010, and this plague has hit all age groups.  We have got to do everything we can to stop it–by building barriers on bridges to prevent people from jumping, by making guns harder to get, by raising awareness through talking about this issue openly with our friends and family, and by educating people about the extreme risks associated with taking anti-depressants.  There is always hope.  All is not lost, no matter how bad things may seem.

Next Saturday, I’ll be driving back to Gedney Park with Dobi while listening to “Let It Be” on the way.  Once there, I’ll watch her play and prance with the other dogs while she alternately smells the grass and the trees, and having been mistreated on the racetracks of Florida before we rescued her, she probably really smells the roses too.  I will follow her lead and take my weekly opportunity to smell the roses in my life, and there are many.  But even now, over three years from when we lost Jeff, I still can’t believe or accept that he is not here to smell them with us.  This park, like Middlebury’s campus, was the environment that he loved and cherished.  And if not for toxic cocktails of medication, he’d still be here– visiting us periodically on weekends, joining me on walks with Dobi, and reminiscing about all the glory days he had on the fields of the park that, in the cruelest irony, has become a healing ground for me in the aftermath of his death.

–Rich Klein

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One Response to “Saturday In The Park”

  1. James Rosa January 13, 2014 at 12:04 am #

    This post is so close to what I am going through now. Making hard choices that will ultimately direct the course of my life. This article is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing some of yours and Jeff’s wisdom and continuing to allow us to be on this journey with you.

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