Being away on a book tour for two weeks, I felt like I needed it. I missed home. I missed my wife and kids. I missed seeing trees with empty branches, houses with solid bricks and winter skies filled with snowflakes.
When I got home came another "whammy." I talk a lot about growing up in the 1970s, and there's nothing to make you feel older than to hear that Welcome Back Kotter's Juan Epstein, otherwise known as Robert Hegyes (a fellow Metuchen, N.J. resident, by the way), die of a heart attack.
I felt like I was just starting to get to know the guy. He's a celebrity in Metuchen, a native of this place where he went to school before he hit stardom. We just friended each other on Facebook; he was "in a relationship" with somebody, and I checked on her, too (her wall was blocked, unfortunately, so I'll never know).
Again, feelings of melancholy creeped in. I started to feel like I was on the plane again, impatiently waiting for every hour to pass until I could feel the descent into JFK Airport. I started to feel my palms sweat, as I usually do when I get nervous.
Or when I start to feel as old as I am, or even older.
The one thing I was asked often, at every stop I made - which included a stop at the Jimmy Carter Library (speaking of the 1970s) in Atlanta, where Rosalynn Carter greeted me - was: "How do you get through it? How do you deal with those feelings when they start to come on."
My best answer is here, and what I'm doing write now: Writing.
Writing is the best release of the soul. It's the outlet that allows your mind to problem-solve. It gives you the challenge of a puzzle, finding the right words to express your grief. After you express it, you still may feel like you don't have the right words.
So you read them again. And then you rewrite, and maybe rewrite again, until the sentences, the paragraphs take on the right form and shape.
You start to remember the reasons why you feel the way you do. You start to remember that whatever makes you feel depressed probably once gave you such joy.
I remember being 8 years old, and my sister telling me about this cool new show called "Welcome Back Kotter." I was pretty young for it, but I wanted to try it anyway.
I remember it being so different from what I've seen before. Sure, there was "All in the Family," and shows like it. But there were few that matched the sense of humor of the kids I knew from school. There were few shows that took on the form and shape of the juvenile life I knew.
Somehow, even in second and third grade, when I was going to an elementary school in Point Pleasant, N.J., I could find a kid like Barbarino, Horshack, Washington and Epstein. The show always made me feel at home, even after John Travolta hit stardom and the show "jumped the shark" creatively.
As I write this, I'm reminded about what makes me feel young again. That's what writing does - that's why I wrote the book about my family; that's why I traveled to Atlanta and San Francisco to promote.
And that's why, as silly as it may seem, I'm writing about Juan Epstein. Because Epstein, like writing, is an extension of my soul.