One of my former partners used to tell a joke about the answer to the age-old and now politically hot-button question of "When does life begin?" The priest offers one view; the minister another; and the rabbi opines, "Life begins when the children leave home and the dog dies."
Well, politically correct or not-probably not-you do gain a different perspective once your children leave and begin families of their own. Where number one son goes to college or what daughter number two wears to the prom is less than irrelevant. What is now relevant and, more importantly, satisfying, are grandchildren. There's nothing better.
In any event, that is a lead-in to my recent out-of-town trip. Granddaughter number two, age 4+, is in some kind of cockamamie dance recital in Olney, Maryland. Three dance schools conspire to rent a high school auditorium for all day Saturday so all their classes, from beginners right up to the tap dancing teens can perform in public. Attending these things is like going to a swimming meet; there's lots of waiting for a single event that lasts a minute and-a-half. Timing is everything, though, and if you're lucky, the wait is short and the event shorter.
The beginners' class is always a hoot. Fourteen four-year-olds parade, single file, across a stage in tutus and, while a recording of a slowed down "Chopsticks" plays, they put each foot forward and back, turn around and occasionally hold their hands over their heads while Miss Judy or Miss Tiffany directs from behind the curtain. It's over in a flash and, you, like the mother in the cartoon of the line of marching soldiers, can say, "Look. My child's the only one in step." The kid thinks it's great. Her parents, your kids, do too. And, though you realize the Martha Graham Dance Company doesn't need to reserve a spot just yet, so do you.
Next stop, Arlington, Virginia. Granddaughter number one, age six, is going to sing something from "Annie" -no, not "Tomorrow"-in a talent show at a ragtag community rec center. She is listed about 10 th on a menu of twelve offerings.
I can't remember all the acts, but some stand out. The opening is three ten-year olds, one of them masked, flopping onto a stage in an imitation Mexican lucho libre wrestling match. Incomparable. Then, once the mats are removed, a nine year old tries some kind of magic trick with his mother as his assistant. It almost works. Another kid enters to display and describe his drawings of automobiles. [Hey, what do you want? It's a talent show and that's his talent, so sit back and watch.] A good idea gone bad. As the center's director holds up the first drawing, the kid is embarrassed and bolts, leaving the director to hold up seven separate drawings which the now-absent Picasso had completed.
But that's not all. Enter three pairs of Peruvian dancers. The boys-about 9, 10 and 11-are dressed in suits and ties, shiny black shoes and, the best part, white fedoras with black bands. The girls, same ages, wear traditional long white dresses. And interminably-for about 17 minutes-each pair holds a white handkerchief and performs some sort of pas de duex, the nuance of which can only be grasped by those born in Lima and points south. Next is granddaughter number one who sings her song perfectly in the wrong key, curtsies and exits to the wild applause of her New Haven relatives.
But the best is the last. Remember this is a talent show. The particular talent now to be displayed is the legendary stacking and unstacking of two sets of six fluorescent green plastic 16 ounce cups. The twelve cups are placed side by side on a table. Then, with the leger du main of a Manhattan three card monte conman, Maestro begins. He stacks the cups. First, two rows of three. Then each row topped by two and then those two each topped by one. But then, and this is where Maestro demonstrates his real skill, he unstacks. Making a sound like geese taking wing, he collapses them from the top down fitting each cup into another, creating four beauteous stacks of three cups each. Not once, but twice. A true prodigy. It's almost as good as the guy with the spinning plates on the old Ed Sullivan Show.
Now the point is, of course, that none of this, in either Olney or Arlington, is anything special in the great scheme of things. Kids are doing kid things that scads of other kids are doing at community centers and auditoriums elsewhere. But the real kick, as those of us who have been there know, is that for the kids, and especially for their adoring parents, it really is special.
And for grandparents it's special in a different way. It's not special for the talent, such as it is. It's special because we see our children and their children in an upbeat environment of optimism and enthusiasm. The future lies ahead.
The rabbi wasn't right, but he wasn't all wrong either.