Once, not that long ago, we were all out to dinner — extended family, some friends, everyone with their varying allergy and dietary issues. Midway through the meal, the waiter comes over. He lingers for a moment, careful not to interrupt. When there’s a lull in the conversation, he says,
Is anything alright?
It’s one thing to lose your dad. It’s another to lose your editor. I have sent my dad pretty much every essay, column, cover letter and memo I’ve written since high school. Writing this yesterday, he has never felt closer or further away. Maybe it’s “he’s never felt further away and yet closer.” Edits, edits.
Is anything alright?
That was my dad’s favorite joke that didn’t have one or more swear words in the punchline. It’s inscribed on this wristwatch. And it has been a common refrain over these last months. But I can still picture his editorial note, scrawled in the margin with a little carrot or inserted electronically through Track Changes.
Yes, dad, funny eulogy.
I always loved making you laugh, especially during difficult times. That’s why I volunteered to drive you to your ketamine treatments.
So … funny eulogy.
Here’s a one-liner that he would no doubt have convinced me to cut:
My dad was a true liberal — and on a broad range of issues, including parking spots and curbs.
And that is why it is so critical to have a good editor.
I can only remember one time where my dad said, “I am going to explain something to you so you will understand it.”
He was washing dishes with his starched Saks 5th Avenue shirt cuffed up to the elbows, paisley necktie tucked in between two buttons. He explained the proper order and manner to introduce people to one another, based on age and gender — up to and including the Queen of England.
When the queen died, I regretted that I had never had the opportunity to introduce her to anyone — or anyone to her? — but was unclear on the specifics of that lesson from years ago. What is clear is that, over the 41 years he was a father and long before that, Joe Falik was offering a quiet masterclass in menschdom.
Lesson one: come home in time for dinner, greet the dogs, put down your briefcase, ask everyone about their day — knowing that you might get too much information from one kid and not enough from the other — enjoy the hashbrowns or whatever crazy stuff mom puts on the salmon, then cuff up your sleeves, tuck in your tie and do the dishes.
My dad described a core skill in the practice of law as the ability to hold two competing ideas at the same time. To create space for conflicting theories, fact patterns or precedents. Don’t reflexively choose one and foreclose on the other, even if that might yield a quicker, simpler outcome. Instead, hold both long enough to cut through the noise and tease out the nuances.
Sometimes, despite the initial conceit, those two things are reconcilable.
My dad recognized mastery in any form — architecture, film, music, yoga, writing. He was not one for superlatives. If he described someone as “capable,” I knew it was high praise. If he was really impressed, he would say they were “no slouch.”
So, the recognition of mastery on one hand and, on the other, the value of trying new things and putting in the work to understand and improve — even when you have no expectation of fluency — piano, yoga, baking, Spanish, German, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Or maybe you hold two things long enough that you identify not only the right and just outcome, but also the path toward it.
When class-action plaintiffs sued GEICO in federal court — claiming it “knowingly and purposefully used occupation and level of education as proxies for the race of its insureds, leading to higher premiums for auto insurance policies charged to African Americans” — GEICO wanted GMAC Insurance to co-sign a supportive Position Paper.
General Counsel Joseph Falik identified right away that the practice was bound to discriminate and perpetuate institutional racism. He wrote to a colleague, “They might as well be advocating the freedom of insurers to use sickle-cell anemia as a rating factor, since it may correlate with the higher incidence of auto theft that occurs in African-American neighborhoods.”
He got pushback. But he knew better than to just push back. By holding open both possible outcomes and asking a lot of questions — just keep asking questions, he would tell me — he persuaded them that sanctioning this practice would be a serious business risk for General Motors.
The subject line of his note updating me, discreetly, that the motion to adopt the position paper was defeated: One for the Good Guys.
There’s an analog in Judaism for holding competing ideas. Two hundred years ago, Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: "I am only dust and ashes." When you’re feeling too proud, reach into this pocket, take out this note and read it. In the other pocket, a piece of paper saying: "For my sake was the world created." Feeling disheartened and low? Reach into this pocket, take out this note and read it.
Dad didn’t so much alternate between these notes as carry them together, holding space for both and their coexisting truths.
On one note, as his dad used to say to him, This — this is the hand life dealt you.
On the other, This? — this wouldn’t happen at Nordstrom.
With just the one note, Joe Falik would have had reason to believe that the world was indeed made for him.
To be born in booming post-war Detroit in 1950.
To attend Columbia College, audit classes taught by Margaret Mead and graduate magn— he never willingly shared the level of distinction accompanying his Bachelors in History, so let’s just say he graduated.
To go to Columbia Law and have Ruth Bader Ginsberg for a professor and advisor.
To return to Michigan, to have two handsome, talented sons, to make it to the C-suite at General Motors not 25 years after the snowy Christmas day in 1966 when you drove your father’s Corvair from your seasonal job at the Horn of Plenty on 7 and Wyoming to deliver a case of Johnny Walker to Mayor Jerome Cavenaugh on Parkside Street.
But he knew dust and ashes. He knew loss and grief. He knew depression. He knew addiction.
I remember him telling me, Life deals you blows.
He wrote me once in response to some listings for homes in the University District:
For years I rode the Country Day school bus through these neighborhoods, and it's not a big exaggeration to say that I had my nose pressed up against the glass. It wasn't just the grandeur; it was also the solidity of wealth, rendered in architecture.
Of course, that's illusory.
So now, the allure is more a matter of nostalgia for a time when one imagined that wealth had that power. Kind of like the world of Ralph Lauren and Restoration Hardware and Citizen Kane and (for some) Hendrie Blvd., and the novels of John O'Hara. And (I concede) Buick — the brand of choice for people who lived on Parkside back then.
So, let me be content with a Buick and tempt me no more with these incomparable streets.
According to Kabbalah, God created the universe through tzimtzum, a process of contracting or stepping back to make space for … anything and everything — space for us to be as human as divinely possible and as divine as humanly possible.
Dad was not “larger than life,” but our lives were larger because of him.
He made space for those around him to grow, explore and thrive. But he was always there and ready to support us.
He held the space for my mom to make works of art across decades and media. One year, that space was a wall of clay running the length of our family room parallel to the pool table that eventually became a permanent ceramic fixture at Jewish Senior Life’s Fleischman Residence.
And he held space for her to dance — a radius ranging from 6 to 8 feet depending on the song.
He held space for my brother to write and play music. Joe Falik was not in the core demographic for SlizZ or the typical of the clientele Outer Limits Lounge or The Old Miami, but he was there in his felt fedora and knitwear by A.J. to hear Sam and his band perform.
He did good, hard things that required both showing up for people and then tzimtzum, contracting so they could realize their potential.
Mediating meetings between schools and families through the Oakland Mediation Center to make sure students with special needs would receive an appropriate Individualized Education Program.
One-on-one adult literacy tutoring — for people who had to overcome both barriers to full participation in life and the stigma of even asking for help.
Serving as president of Temple Kol Ami and convening stakeholders to adapt both the building use and dues structure for sustainability
Volunteering for the Huntington Woods Long Range Budget & Planning Committee — planting seeds for trees that they might bear fruit long after he was gone.
But maybe that’s all preamble. Maybe the Troubled Asset Relief Program required GM to spin off GMAC so my dad could have one last hard, good thing to do as an attorney before getting to the important work of being Grandpa Joe.
I cannot begin to do justice to the sheer gravitational force between Judah and Phoebe and Grandpa Joe. When we would arrive up north and they’d find him outside — sitting in a comically low-slung lawn chair with the third volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson or some other light reading — it changed the trajectory of the sun off Lake Michigan.
But even more than his magic hat — or the inflation-prone currency he devised in which Judah and Phoebe each got 5 Oreos a day and could barter for other refined-sugar alternatives wholly unavailable to my brother and me growing up — it was picking them up after school, parking liberally and spending afternoons together. Simple afternoons like, and sometimes with, their friends Frog and Toad.
I could live to 120 and still wouldn't understand how, last year, he held in one pocket, a blessing for his grandson — who shared a name with, if wasn't quite named after his maternal grandfather Judah Schaeffer, a tailor who emigrated from Poland to Detroit, by way of Manchester and Brooklyn — on the day he became bar mitzvah and, in the other pocket, a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer.
Just how seismic was the impact of grandparenthood on my dad? I am aware of only two poems by Joseph Laurence Falik. The first was from January 2009. A.J., 28 weeks pregnant, forwarded an email from babycenter.com that the baby was now the size of a Chinese Cabbage.
"Suspense and Pride," a haiku for you
Mango to cabbage --
Will a honeydew be next?
It makes us so proud.
The sixth of November and I am sixty-one
What is it about watching
a little boy rolling in
a pile of oak leaves
when the light is golden
it hits you hard at 45 degrees
it makes the shadows long
the sky is very blue
he rolls some more
he throws them in the air
we stand around watching and talking
about nothing in particular
there was a time in Detroit
when you raked your leaves to piles at the curb
and set them on fire
you watched them
you breathed the smoke
it was legal
everybody did it
I was a kid
I sped through the smoke down streets of brick houses
once, later, I was given a poem like this
with a snapshot of a boy in a pile of leaves
it's here someplace
What is it about all this
that puts you on the verge of tears
and leaves you there for
Dad, we love you. We miss you. And, yes, anything is alright.