Yellow” was the worst thing you could be as a kid. I was always on the verge of yellow. I was kind of a frightened kid. But I had a childhood memory which I always felt vindicated me, my story of how sometimes it was good to be yellow. I hadn’t yet heard Kenny Rogers sing “The Gambler.”
Growing up in the Queensboro Federal Housing Project in Long Island City, there were four of us boys who lived in the building who always hung out together. Our main game was Follow the Leader. The first guy was the leader and whatever he did, we each had to follow. If you failed to do it, you went to the back of the line.
Jerry was always the leader. He was a bit older than the rest of us and far and away the most athletic. He was also the most talented. Jerry was allowed to go the movies at the Beacon across the street. I could see the marquee from our apartment window, but I wasn’t allowed to go so often. My mother didn’t let me go to anything “inappropriate”. She was very protective. There was always a double feature, plus newsreels and a serial episode, mostly dramatizations of our action comic’s characters, Blackhawk, about World War II fighter pilots, and Batman and Robin. I hated to miss an episode, but Jerry would come to our apartment right from the movies and act out the entire episode for me. I didn’t miss a thing.
When we played Follow the Leader, Sandy was always second. He lived on the first floor but I don’t remember anything else about him. Then came Robin and me, jockeying for last place. Robin was really a little kid, younger than the rest of us and smaller. I think he played with us because there weren’t other kids his age in the building. I was already embarrassed that Robin sometimes got ahead of me in line. We followed each other all over the projects, every day.
On this one memorable rainy day, we were playing inside the building. Jerry was leading, then Sandy, then me, then Robin. We were playing on the staircases when Jerry jumped a whole flight from the landing to the floor below. (Between floors there were two flights and a landing.) Sandy jumped. My turn. I was yellow, afraid of getting hurt. It was a long jump. But what if Robin jumped? I would go to the end of line. I didn’t jump. Robin jumped. Kind of made it. Landed in a heap with a broken leg. Robin didn’t come out to play for what seemed like months. I was so glad that I hadn’t jumped but I had my doubts. Jerry and Sandy made it. I was older and bigger than Robin. I might have made it. It wasn’t good to be yellow. But I was glad I didn’t break my leg.
When to Hold ‘Em
When I heard the Kenny Rogers song years later, the lyrics spoke to me directly.
You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
The lyrics made memorable what I had already caught a glimpse of. You don’t always “hold ‘em”.
A few years after the stair jumping, when I was ten, at eight-week sleep away camp for the first time, I was learning to swim. I was in a cabin with Dickie Castle and Howie Ende. There was a fourth kid whose name I don’t remember. Dickie and Howie and I were together for years. There was always a fourth kid but that kid never came back. That first summer the others had all passed the deep water test. They could swim out to the raft during free swim. I was stuck in the shallow water with the little kids. I was afraid to take the deep water test, to swim back and forth to the raft from the dock four times. The others were fed up with me. Dickie said he would beat me up that night if I didn’t pass the deep water test. I was scared of the swimming test but was more scared of Dickie. And I didn’t want to be yellow. Again. This time I took the risk even though I was scared. I passed. How great it was not to be yellow.
“You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.”
There have always been branching streams. Growing up the branching stream always seemed to offer a choice between courage and cowardice. How can we possibly know which stream leads where? Can we ever really know?
The Sandokai, written over 1500 years ago in China, is a seminal text of the Japanese Soto Sect and is chanted daily in all Soto temples. Soto Zen entered the United States through two principle pathways, the San Francisco Zen Center founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and the Zen Community of Los Angeles founded by Taizan Maezumi Roshi, both Soto priests and teachers. Roshi Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Community of New York was the first Dharma successor of Maezumi Roshi. Bernie was my root teacher.
Bernie provided a commentary on Sandokai in his Infinite Circle. A collection of Suzuki Roshi’s talks on the Sandokai have been published. Of the forty-seven lines in the poem, one was selected for the title of Suzuki’s book, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness.
Sometimes you hold ‘em, sometimes you fold ‘em. But how do you know which path to take? Branching streams flow in the dark. In the darkness, how can you possibly see where each stream leads? Perhaps it’s enough to just know that in every hand we’re dealt, in every hand we play, we have choices to make.
I think of major decision points in my life, the cards I’d been dealt or that I’d dealt myself, facing the question, hold ‘em or fold ‘em?
Hold ‘Em or Fold ‘Em?
During my junior year having transferred to Morehouse, a historically black college in Atlanta, in search of the Civil Rights Movement only to find that the movement had moved to Mississippi, I faced a big hold ‘em/fold ‘em moment. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I was fully conscious of the fact that I was facing a big decision point where I couldn’t figure it out. I could see my fear clearly, my discomfort. It was the first time in my life that I was living in a black community, one of very few white students. Was I just wanting to run from my discomfort? But Carleton College was still there in Minnesota. When I had first arrived there, I had felt frightened and uncomfortable too. Fellow students referred to it as “Carleton Christian College”. For the first time in my life, I had realized that there was no freedom of religion. I was not free to be Jewish or not Jewish. Despite my parents’ atheism and my lack of religious education or affiliation growing up, I was Jewish. And uncomfortable. A classmate from New Orleans patted my head without hostility or malice. He was just looking for my horns. He had never met a Jew before. But I adjusted. I found a niche in the theater. I thrived. But here I was at Morehouse, feeling so uncomfortable. Again.
I may have been the only white student at Morehouse. Certainly, I was the only white student in my dorm. The civil rights movement which had beckoned me was gone. Morehouse seemed totally Greek. My roommate was Zeus, very friendly, really nice guy, but what did we have in common? Zeus and his friends were committed to “catching up to Georgia Tech,” the high prestige college in Atlanta. Catching up with Georgia Tech and its nationally acclaimed football team was not my ambition. Carleton, the self-proclaimed “Harvard of the Midwest,” largely on the basis of its Congregational roots, was already way ahead of Georgia Tech academically. I had chosen Carleton in large part because it advertised itself as a school “without fraternities or sororities, without athletic scholarships.”
I called Casey Jarchow, the Dean of Men at Carleton. They would take me back, no problem, if I chose to return.
If I went back, was I just running from my discomfort? If I stayed, was I just frightened to admit that I had made a mistake in taking this leap? I went round and round with this hand. Hold it or fold it? I couldn’t figure it out. It felt so neurotic not to be able to make a decision, not to be able to figure it out. And then for the first time, I saw that it couldn’t be figured out. I just had to make a choice.
I folded that one. It was not a hand I wanted to play. Or it was a hand I was afraid to play. Strangely, as soon as I made the decision, I started to feel better, safer, more welcome at Morehouse.
Zeus was surprised when I told him I was leaving. “We all marveled at how at home, how comfortable you were here,” he told me, “so cool.” He mimed me casually slouching, cigarette dripping from my lips, hands in my pockets.
Benjamin Mays wanted to meet with me. He was the president of Morehouse, and he had heard that I was leaving, returning to Carleton. He wanted to make sure that I had been treated well, that I wasn’t leaving because of any unpleasantness. I reassured him, “No, everyone was very nice.” I don’t remember how I explained, -- was I homesick? – but the next time I saw Mays was on television. He was delivering the eulogy at King’s funeral.
Back to Carleton
That decision worked out well. I went back to Carleton and enjoyed the rest of that year and the following and went on to graduate school. I caught up with the Civil Rights Movement later at a number of points in my life. But I will never know how my life would have evolved had I played out my Morehouse hand.
A few years later, I folded another big hand. At Brookdale, I had my first big entrepreneurial success, bringing a highly innovative paraprofessional training program, conceived in the image of Frank Reisman’s New Careers for the Poor, to Brookdale. I walked away from the directorship. Bringing that program in had been a gigantic coup. I don’t really know how I found the gumption to pull it off. Having come up with the idea, inspired by Reisman, I had used the New York City Green Book to identify every city, state, or federal agency that had anything to do with labor force development. I wrote letters to everyone, outlining what I thought we could do at Brookdale. Here we were, one of the first Community Mental Health Centers in New York City, our staff was almost entirely white and we were serving what was then the poorest community in the City, almost entirely Black and Latino, a community with an extraordinarily high unemployment rate. We could, I proposed, create a Mental Health Counselor Training Program which would simultaneously address the employment challenges in the community while enabling Brookdale to improve mental health services.
I struck gold.
From all the letters that I sent out, there was one response, from two young guys at the City Manpower Agency. I think they saw that if we could do this, it would be a homerun for them as well. They provided the funding. Brookdale was thrilled that I had brought in the grant. The directorship was mine. I was thrilled. I wasn’t yet 30. I had never been the director of anything. But I jumped in. I hired an assistant, Ruzallia Ray, a Black woman, with much more organizational experience and much deeper connections in the community. Her father, Sandy Ray, was the Pastor of one the largest Black churches in Bedford Stuyvesant. She was super supportive but I was sure she would be a much better director of our program than I would be. I was sure I wasn’t ready to be the director.
I folded that hand too, walked away from the directorship. I have never doubted the rightness of that “fold”. I was so unready.
Around the same time, I was challenged during my first doctoral qualifying exam (which I failed) by what I think now was a well-meaning junior faculty member, “Why don’t you consider a doctorate in social work?” He might as well have suggested straight out that I fold my doctoral program hand.
Although I had never aspired to a career in academia, -- it was too much the ivory tower; I was too much the social activist, -- I was not going to be “bullied” into backing down. I refused to fold. But I did get the message: I wasn’t putting enough effort into the doctoral program. It was keeping me out of the draft, keeping me out of Viet Nam; but if I wanted to actually get the Ph.D., I was going to have to take it more seriously. It had to be more than the afterthought to my community organizing work at Brookdale.
Refusing to back down, I held my ground. I reorganized my life, taking a half-time position on the Brookdale inpatient unit where I spent the mornings talking to schizophrenics and auditing Brookdale’s new psychiatric residency program. On both fronts, it was an exciting education. And then I headed to NYU for the afternoons where, immersing myself in the graduate student peer group, I learned what was actually going on in sociology, nationally and at NYU, and even more importantly I learned how to sound like a sociologist. And I got excited about the possibility of a career in academia. Travelling during the summers, through towns in New England I had never been to before, I would discover colleges I had never heard of. Colleges everywhere. I wondered, might I end up teaching here?
It took three more years, but I got the Ph.D. in sociology that I had set my sights on. I even ended up teaching, first at Finch College and then at Sacred Heart University, before finally realizing that academia wasn’t the place for me. But what I learned, the discipline and skills I developed have served me well. I went back to mental health in a management role and then went on to a second career in public education, leading a team which created a flourishing network of charter schools on Staten Island. Certainly, the Ph.D. was a status symbol that helped to propel my career.
No regrets, but what would have happened had I folded that doctorate-in-sociology hand? I’ll never know. What if I had taken that infuriating advice years ago? I look now at my friend Martha Bragin. Martha was more of an activist than I ever was. She got her doctorate in social work and has had a stellar academic career. What would have happened had I folded that hand? What if I had switched to a doctoral program in social work?
Do you ever really know?
Four months ago, I retired as president of ICS, our charter school network. Although I was old enough to retire when the first school opened, had in fact already retired after a career in mental health, for almost all of that time, the second retirement was always five to ten years in the future. And then a few years ago, it was only five years in the future until last November when suddenly it was seven months away.
How did I know that the time had come to finally fold that hand, probably the best career hand that I have ever had?
I don’t know. What I do know is how fortunate I was. I chose my time to walk away. I hadn’t been told by my cardiologist that it was time. I hadn’t been taken out to lunch by the Trustees to be told, “We love you, Ken, but it’s really time for you to go.” My time. My call.
“You've got to know when to walk away and know when to run.” But how do you know? It’s not by figuring it out. I learned at Morehouse that I couldn’t figure it out. At NYU, I just responded. Last winter, I just knew it was time.
The great gift of Zen practice in my life has been learning to let go of figuring it out. In Zen, we say, “Not knowing is most intimate.” Some things can be figured out. It’s good to know how to do many things. But there are all these moments in life in which there is just no knowing. We just act and we learn from what we discover. And we never really know what we would have found, where our lives would have taken us, had we made a different choice.
Now I want to rewrite “The Gambler.”
You'll never know when to hold 'em,
Never know when to fold 'em.
You just got to live with that,
You’ve got to cherish that.
Branching streams flow in the dark. Not knowing is most intimate.  Don Schlitz, The Gambler  Boston and London: Shambhala, 2007.  Edited by Mel Weitsman and Michael Wenger. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.