October 10, 2003
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EULOGY for Neil Postman –
delivered on Wednesday, October 8, 2003, Parkside Chapel, Forest Hills, Queens
Thank you all for coming. I am Andrew Postman, one of Neil’s three children. I speak on behalf of my older brother Marc, my younger sister Madeline, and our mother, Shelley. I will be the only one speaking other than Rabbi Bernstein.
No one gave more poignant eulogies than my father. If you didn’t know the person he was eulogizing well, and even if you did, by the time my dad was done illuminating and celebrating what their lives meant, you wept partly for yourself, because you wished you’d known the deceased even better. My dad eulogized his mom, our mom’s mom, our mom’s dad, his aunt, and numerous others. People would line up after his eulogies to ask if he might be able to squeeze them in to do their eulogy. He really should have charged.
How sweet it would be if my dad were around to give at least one more of those.
It’s not customary to begin this sort of thing by pointing out a failing of the loved one, but I must. Years ago, my father taught us that you never modify the word “unique”—a fancy word for ‘one of a kind’—with the word “very.” You can’t be “very one-of-a-kind,” my dad professed. And in fact, over the past several decades, the Postman family has been one of only 23 families in the greater tri-state area never to have committed the grammatical faux pas of calling something “very unique.”
He also, of course, didn’t let us use “infer” when we meant “imply.”
But my father was wrong about the verboten phrase “very unique”—that someone couldn’t be “very one of a kind.” Every now and then, if we’re lucky, we encounter someone who is precisely very one of a kind. For their intellect, their talent, their spirit. If we’re very lucky, we meet maybe a handful of such people in a lifetime.
But what has made my family and my father’s countless friends and admirers, including all of us here today, so incredibly lucky is that, in Neil Milton Postman, we’ve all been blessed to be in the presence of the very-one-of-a-kindest of all.
You see, it wasn’t simply that my father loved being in restaurants and diners more than anyone else. It’s that he loved being in restaurants and diners more than anyone else and that, in his 72 years of restaurant-going, he ordered a grand total of 11 entrees, and 743,000 appetizers.
It wasn’t simply that my father was one of the most forceful idea machines of his or any generation. It’s that he was such a forceful idea machine who could not possibly have been more gentle about it.
It wasn’t simply that my father was the most down-to-earth person I, or many of us, have ever met. It’s that he was so defiantly down-to-earth, it didn’t matter whether he was dining with Vice President Gore or Bruno Bettelheim or Luciano Pavorotti or Camille Paglia. My father was determined to tell all of them that coming from Brooklyn gave you an automatic advantage over everyone else, and that whatever ridiculous French delicacy they might all be eating, it couldn’t hold a candle to the tuna salad on whole wheat with lettuce and tomato from Pop’s luncheonette on Kissena Boulevard in Flushing. If Al Gore didn’t agree? The hell with him.
It wasn’t simply that our father was unsurpassed for his generosity, a man unconcerned with money in those ways that really shouldn’t concern us. It was that, in the bygone era before EZ Pass, when my family went on vacations and passed through a tollbooth, my father would frequently pay for the car behind us—total strangers. When the lucky car was waved through by the tollbooth operator and finally pulled up alongside us, and everyone in their car would squint, trying to figure out where they must know their mystery benefactors from, my sister Madeline and my brother Marc and my mother and father and I would be smiling and waving at them like fools until the other car finally waved back, realizing that—what do you know?—they’d just had a very unique experience, and saved fifty cents in the process. By the way: I can hear my father asking, “What question is EZ Pass the answer to?” Sure, he’d say, it decreases the time you wait in line at the tollbooth. But, like all new technologies, there’s a Faustian bargain to it. Use an EZ Pass and you’ll never again know the pleasure of turning a mundane tollbooth trip into an occasion to connect with your fellow humans.
It wasn’t simply that my father was a tremendously gifted and graceful athlete. I’m sure many of you know of his accomplishments as a basketball player, which include once holding the record, when he played college ball at Fredonia, for the most points scored at the Buffalo Civic Auditorium – 42 – as well as averaging 25 points a game his junior year, while playing the center position at the gargantuan height of six feet. His athletic talent may have made him unique, but it’s not what made him very unique. What made him very unique was how simultaneously fierce and fair a competitor he was, and how aware he was that basketball or baseball or tennis was never the thing you were ever really competing at. Once, when I was a teenager, my dad and I drove to play basketball at a nearby court in Flushing, where we found three hotshot six-foot-four-inch guys shooting around. The first thing my father did—he often did this—was utterly to psyche them out. His first warm-up shot—he was a great shooter—was a total airball. My father, dim and serious, said to the studs, “Did that go in?” Smugly, they shook their heads no. My dad took a few more relatively benign shots, then asked if we could play against them. Sure, they said, but we needed one more. Sitting against the fence was a bunch of athletic but mostly uninterested looking teens, any of whom would have made a decent third to round out our team. A little further down the fence, though, was a boy, maybe twelve years old, not particularly athletic looking, not much bigger than the basketball he was hugging. My father pointed to him to come over and complete our team. A look of disbelief came over the boy and I think he must have turned around four times to see if my father was actually pointing to someone behind him. But finally he darted over, the three of us huddled, and my father came up with a plan. For those of you who have never seen Princeton run its famous backdoor play, I assure you it is no more fine-tuned than the ones we ran that day. The little boy, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, was in fact not particularly athletic. But my father constantly passed the ball to him in such a way that put him in position to play well, to feel good, and even to score a couple of gimme layups in that forest of men. I think we beat them something like 15-3, 15-2, 15-zip. My father never took off his blue cardigan the whole time. Our three smug opponents walked off the court, broken men.
I could talk forever about what made my father a great man—how he was the finest public speaker many of us have ever heard, what a gloriously unpretentious writer he was—clear, sensible, direct, yet always stylish—what a sensationally widely read man he was.
But I’m not here to boast that our father was so very one of a kind because he had greatness. What made him so very one of a kind, of course, was that he was, as well, just a good man, an ordinary man. He so deeply loved, and was so deeply loved by, his family. He was married for 48 wonderful, busy, productive years to Shelley, his adoring wife, the life partner who made his family run so smoothly and happily, whose strength and presence brought him the kind of peace of mind few people are lucky enough to experience. Their first encounter, more than a half-century ago, consisted of my dad, a counselor at sleepaway camp, noticing this hot blond counselor who wore her socks knee-high, like Arnie Ferrin of the Minneapolis Lakers. That emboldened my father to ask my mother if she had white shoe polish he could borrow for his sneakers (in those days, guys polished their sneakers).
He enormously loved his children—Marc, Madeline, me—and his grandkids—Alyssa, Claire, Sam, and Charlie. He loved his daughters-in-law Barbara and Alex and his son-in-law-to-be Scott; his late brother Sol, his brother Jack, his sister Ruth; his sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, his parents-in-law Faye and Manny, and of course his beloved mom and dad, Bea and Murray.
Yes, my father was a great speaker and teacher, but more than that he was an eternally regular guy who happened to be a tremendous schmoozer and kibbitzer. He was always at the center of gatherings. He loved to hold court—not just at NYU, but at my Aunt Ruth’s dining table, or at the Plainview Diner. If there was an invigorating conversation going on, it was almost certain my father was involved in it, or had at least incited it. When I asked my cousin Jessica what she would miss about her Uncle Neil, the first thing she said was, “He always quizzed you. He would test you.” My father once said you could measure how comfortable you felt with someone by answering one question: If you had to drive from New York to California with them, at what point would you run out of things to say? Chicago? Lincoln, Nebraska? We all know people who by the time you hit the G.W. Bridge, you’d feel like turning on the radio. With my father in the car—he’d be driving, of course—any of us here would be chattering with him all the way to L.A. And back. And back again.
He was a terrific storyteller. Both the way he felt about his family and his talent for telling stories was in evidence just yesterday. Nancy Silverman, my dad’s valued assistant, had come out to our house, and was sitting at the kitchen table talking with my mother when various family members started walking into the room. “Hi, Alyssa,” said Nancy. “Hello, Claire,” she said. “Hi there, Barbara.” Now Nancy had never met any of them before that very moment, but they were alive in her mind because my father, in telling so many loving stories about all of us, had already brought them to life.
It isn’t just that my father could tell a good story. It’s that he told stories whose point was human and helping, even if you didn’t get it at first. One of our alltime favorite stories of his was about the time his grade-school class went outside for a fire drill. My dad, walking along the street but not watching where he was going, bumped into an open garbage can and fell headfirst inside. Suddenly, he was upside down, in a very dark, echoey place. It was a few moments before the teacher realized that little Neil was gone. She found him—feet sticking straight up in the air— inside the garbage can, and lifted him out.
Now hearing this story as a kid, I thought it was funny. Period. Who couldn’t laugh at the cartoon image? But what I really loved about the story, without realizing it until much later, was how my father was the punchline. He was a mensch for making himself that. It made finding yourself upside down in a scary place a human, not so humiliating, even funny thing.
I think of the time our family went with our cousins to see a movie—maybe a sci-fi flick, I’m not sure. Just before the lights went down, my father asked my cousin Larry, who was maybe seven at the time and sitting next to him, “If I get scared, can I hold your hand?” I love that story so much, I’ve completely ripped off the idea and use it with my own sons, Sam and Charlie, to buck them up and make them feel strong.
That driving need of my dad’s—to make others feel better—was never more in evidence than on two of the worst moments of our family’s life—once, almost two years ago, when a doctor explained that my father had lung cancer, the kind you can’t operate on, and then again, exactly 30 days ago, when another doctor put up CAT scans that showed how much the cancer had spread. Both times I looked over at my father—the word “ashen” I’m sure doesn’t do justice to what I must have appeared at those two moments—heartbroken, I looked over at my father and he did something he’s only done twice in my life, at those two ghastly moments.
He winked at me.
My father loved war movies, especially World War II movies, especially World War II movies where lots of Nazis get killed. He loved herring and Devil dogs and coffee and chopped liver—but please: not just any chopped liver. Real chopped liver. He loved being a teacher and getting his students to learn how to ask better questions. He loved being a New Yorker; indeed, one of the hardest things is to imagine what this city will feel like without him. He loved knowing his children and grandchildren were okay. It’s funny—for a guy who could speak so well and often, he was never an enthusiastic phone talker; if he got on the phone, it was mostly to ask if we kids were okay. And if we were, then he was happy, and he could get off the phone—after which, of course, my mother would take over to get a much more extensive report on what “okay” meant.
My dad loved being Jewish. He loved being American. He served proudly in the U.S. Army. He thought Jackie Robinson was the greatest baseball player from the seventh inning through the end of the game. He loved the warmth of the Brooklyn community he grew up in; the excitement of discovering, at Fredonia, how much he wanted to be a teacher; he loved sharpening his mind at Teachers College at Columbia.
He was overly distracted by any kind of car problem, which caused him a particular brand of agita. His idea of eternal damnation was having to watch award shows on telelvision. He always wore too many clothes. He was not remotely handy. He had little appreciation for music—except maybe for Big Band Era music—and when my brother as a teenager set up a stereo in our room, my father’s reaction to this development was mostly to come in periodically and say “Turn that noise down.” When Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, paid homage to my father’s most famous book by titling one of his albums “Amused to Death,” I’m afraid the honor was almost completely wasted on my dad.
My father loved taking walks, especially on Jewish holidays. Every time my sister Madeline began a new adventure—another year at school, a new job—she and Dad would always take a walk together down Beech Avenue, and discuss the upcoming anxieties and opportunities. He always left her with a gem of worldly wisdom: “Make sure you have gas in the car.”
My father was bizarrely ambidexterous: He threw right-handed, and did everything else left-handed. He liked to wear jacket and tie even when no one else would. He looked dashing—halfway between a professor and a movie star—in his big beige winter duffle coat. He was blessed with a head of hair that put younger men to shame—though never his sons, who really couldn’t care less.
My father was oblivious to material things. Although he often didn’t wish to confront the dark side of life, he didn’t turn his back on it completely. When the Apollo 13 mission was in jeopardy, the ship and its three astronauts flailing through space, my father tried to prepare my brother Marc for the fact that the crew might not come back alive. Out of either greater understanding or maybe naivete, my brother pooh-poohed my dad’s warning. Happily, he turned out to be right.
My father had a silky handwriting, and he triple-spaced all his speeches. He wrote all his books on legal pads, with a felt-tipped pen. He spoke maddeningly, and mesmerizingly, slow; he expounded in that deep-voiced, warm, commanding, light-hearted but always serious-minded way. Indeed, he probably captured better than anyone I know how to live a serious life in a not so serious way. He knew how hard to push people—it depended of course on who he was pushing. If you happened to be in college—and there was no one he loved communicating with more than eager, confused undergrads—then he would have no mercy on your school—unless of course that school was NYU. The more Ivy League-ish the college you attended, the less mercy he’d have. I can’t tell you how many times he told me that he’d just read in the paper that morning the bad news that Yale had just lost its accreditation.
My father’s affinity for youth and the youthful bantering of ideas is evidenced in the fact that he never retired from NYU. He could have been a professor emeritus, but he never thought of himself that way, and neither do we.
As Nancy, his assistant, said: He always found the humanness in people. When, in the past two to three days, my family was trying to remember who else we needed to inform of my father’s passing, we joked that we really should contact the thousands of waiters and waitresses and gas station attendants and clerks that my father couldn’t help but strike up conversations with.
Certainly, there was no dialogue more enriching and ongoing for him than the near-lifelong love affair my father had with the entire New York University community—with students, faculty, administration. He loved, and was loved by, so many of them that I cannot hope to name you all, but we know how dear to him were Gabe Karras, Terry Moran, and Chris Nystrom, and everyone from Media Ecology and the Department of Culture and Communication and the School of Education. Former dean Ann Marcus has been a tremendous friend. I apologize for the obviously many, many Violets I have left out.
Of the countless things we loved and love about my father, what do we love most? My Aunt Gail loved how he would seek out the person in the room he knew the least, to find out all about them. Alex, my wife, said she most loved his dependably good spirit, and the fact that he always asked about you, to see what you were up to. My friend Nick said he loved my father’s example of doing such a good thing with one’s life. My cousin Douglas, who was so tremendously helpful to our family over the last two years, loved my father’s gentleness and his mind. My cousin Jeffrey admired that, of all the people he’s ever met, my father came closest to fully realizing his potential. It’s true: It’s not as if there was anything my father wanted to do but didn’t, anything he wanted to write or say and hadn’t. My cousin Michael loved the way my father was never satisfied with your first answer. Alyssa, my father’s first grandchild, loved that everyone, bar none, felt connected to her PopPop. Claire, his second grandchild, loved him for his tremendous sense of humor. My dad’s dear, lifelong friend Bernie Braun loved my father’s integrity, his devotion to family, and his set shot. Barbara, my sister-in-law, loved how my dad was interested in everyone—everyone. Indeed, he really was the original populist. My dad’s brother Jack told me recently—amazingly—that in more than 70 years, the two of them had never once fought. Can you imagine that? Brothers? Jewish brothers? From Brooklyn? Whose family was in the trucking business?
Another friend said that what she loved most was that my father made a difference in so many people’s lives. My mother loved most the sound of his key in the front door. My Uncle Norman disarmed me with his answer to the question. When I asked him, “What will you miss most?” he responded with one word:
How do we assuage some of the sadness? Perhaps my father himself provides some guidance.
Thirty years ago, I came home from day camp and immediately boasted to my dad that we’d slaughtered a rival camp in softball, 16-0, and that as leadoff hitter, I’d gotten to bat five times, I’d walked five times, and scored five runs, and wasn’t that amazing? Rather than be impressed, though, my father was somewhat scornful. “You’re not up there to walk,” he said. “You’re up there to hit, so hit. Take your whacks.” From that day on, I became a notorious first-ball hitter.
My father would tell us to swing away. It’s no accident that his children all did professionally exactly what we wanted to do—my sister’s a teacher, my brother’s an astronomer, I’m a writer. My dad’s favorite punchline was “I gave it my best shot.” He was a pure-bred optimist. He never lamented, never regretted, never wallowed in the dark land of What If. You can’t possibly do that and also write twenty books. Everything about my father’s being was about affirming life—be optimistic, keep your thinking fresh, do whatever it takes to make sure your family is well and loved; that they’re “okay.”
And then I realized, while lying in bed just two nights ago, that all these uplifting messages are already imbedded in my father’s books. I don’t mean in his books. I mean in the titles of his books. How many of his titles are gerunds? TEACHING as a Subversive Activity. BUILDING a Bridge to the 18th Century. AMUSING Ourselves to Death. Those are titles by a man with an active, positive, forward-looking view of life.
What else helps us on this miserable day? Well, perhaps the line of my father’s that’s quoted more than any other, from his book The Disappearance of Childhood: “Children,” he wrote, “are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” How beautiful. How right. The man who comes up with that line doesn’t simply put a positive spin on things; that’s a man with faith in continuity; that’s a man with faith, period. Once, when I borrowed money from my father and was plotting out for him exactly how and when I planned to repay him, he shushed me. “I am not a bank,” he said. “I’m your father. You don’t pay me back. The way you pay me back is by doing for your own children what I do for you.”
Toward the end of The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard says to the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much it loves, but by how much it is loved by others.” By all accounts, my father, who underwent emergency surgery almost two weeks ago, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, should have passed away ten days ago. But, even with bad lungs and the numerous other problems that necessitated the surgery, his phenomenal heart kept beating. And beating. And beating, until just before sunset, on Erev Yom Kippur, this past Sunday. Part of that I know is good genes. But part of that I also know is how gigantic a heart he had, thanks to all the people in his life—all of us—who loved him so much. My father lived a wonderful, full life, doing what he wanted, surrounded by people he loved.
My father had greatness, and I don’t know of anyone who was more widely admired. But even better, my father had goodness, and I don’t know of anyone who was more genuinely loved.
A couple of months ago, my wife was driving with our four-year-old son Sam, and Louie Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World” came on the radio.
“Mommy,” he said, “it brings tears.”
Today—the reason we’re all gathered here: It brings tears.