Conflict 101

“I would do it again. I’m just being honest.” This was the statement made by a participant in the workshop I was facilitating. It was disappointing (to put it mildly) to hear, three hours into a workshop that was designed to, in large part, change his perspective.

Although I am retired, I consult every so often for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), working with school district governance teams. The idea of the workshop, generally, is to strengthen the team and make sure they are on the same page. I have been doing this for more than ten years, with varying degrees of success.

Typically, a board will have one of these retreats when they are experiencing trouble. The specifics of the problem differ each time, but it usually boils down to lack of trust between the board and administration or among the board members themselves. Sometimes the breach is not too serious, and a healthy discussion and review of roles and responsibilities can get them back on the right track. Sometimes the divisiveness is deep and seemingly intractable. That was the case at this most recent session.

This Board had recently gone through a contentious process hiring an assistant superintendent. The Board, particularly the Board President, had been very involved in the selection. Best practice, as defined by NYSSBA, is a more circumscribed role for the Board, leaving more of the responsibility to the Superintendent. Without getting into the gory details, the relationship between some of the Board (it is a seven-member board) and the Superintendent had broken down. Two board members were uncomfortable with how things had gone and thought the team would benefit from some training. The full board agreed.

I was invited to help the team by putting together a program that would review their roles and responsibilities and walk through a hiring scenario so that we could discuss the issues. The goal was to have them, including the Superintendent, agree to a protocol moving forward. When the Board President made that comment that he would do it all again, it was crystal clear that he was not buying what I was selling (which was not a specific solution, but rather a definition of roles). We continued the discussions, going over other topics, but this was a case of mission NOT accomplished. Maybe I had spent too much time going over the details of what had happened; or maybe we hadn’t spent enough time and needed to dig in even deeper.

It got me thinking about conflicts in general. I know a great deal has been written about conflict resolution and I have read only a tiny fraction of the literature. Perhaps I should read more!! I’m wondering: how much should we hash out our conflicts? Do we go over all of the minutia? Or is it better to talk more generally and focus on moving forward? These questions apply to personal relationships, too.

Most people don’t like conflict, though I have come across a few who seem to crave it and are purposefully provocative. Fortunately, they are the exception. Other people are so steadfast in their desire to avoid it that too much gets swept under the rug resulting in a mountain of resentment. I guess the challenge is to find the sweet spot – to balance processing/understanding the differences with the need to move forward and not belabor the point. It isn’t easy to find – especially when emotions run high.

Plus, all parties have to be invested in finding resolution, not a given in many situations. In the case of the workshop I was facilitating, the Board President was intransigent, convinced of his rightness. Ultimately, we had to agree to disagree. I had the luxury of leaving it at that. In personal relationships you can’t necessarily do that.

I am thankful that in my marriage I can say with confidence that we are both able to see the big picture. We both want resolution and we want the other to be happy. We have some fundamental differences that pop up now and again, but we have been able to manage them.

I’m thinking, looking at our world rife with conflict, that more situations are like the one with that school board than my marriage. I’m thankful for what I have and wish it for others.

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Sometimes we need a bit of peace

 

 

Thoughts for a Monday Morning

I am not going to write at length about gun violence in this country. But I do want to comment on what I see as an irony after the two most recent mass shootings. As the majority of Americans get more and more fed up with and anxious about the frequency of mass murders, suicides and “regular” homicides (in sum the staggering rate of gun violence in this country), the more possible the great fear of the gun rights activists could be realized. If things get bad enough, maybe we will come for your guns, instead of common sense gun control legislation. The staunch unwillingness of the NRA to negotiate reasonable standards (background checks, allowing databases to talk to each other, outlawing high-powered automatic weapons) may create an untenable situation where the majority of Americans are willing to put even more limits on gun ownership. I certainly am.

I know most of my readers don’t enjoy my political writing much (judging by the number of views those essays get), so I will leave it at that and move on to other topics.

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As I work on my book, I asked my mother a few questions to fill in some gaps in my understanding of our family history. First, I want to note how fortunate I am to still have my mother to ask those questions! Her memory may not be what it once was, but she still has so much to offer. Since beginning this blog and undertaking my memoir, I’ve had many conversations with her that have enriched my understanding of events and of our family.

Recently I asked her questions about Zada (regular readers know Zada was my maternal grandfather, Mom’s father). Zada was the patriarch of the Spilken family. He was a lover of life and an optimist. Two of his children, my mother and her brother, Terry, were able to adopt that approach. His other two children…not so much.

Zada’s life was hard in many respects. I didn’t fully appreciate some of the challenges until Mom reminded me of some tragedies that I may have known about before but had forgotten or not thought about for decades.

Zada came to this country when he was three. His father was ten years younger than his mother! She already had three children by her first husband. Zada was the oldest of five more children. All eight were raised together in a tenement on the lower East Side. It was a hard life – everyone worked as soon as they were able. I recall Zada describing sleeping in shifts because their apartment was so small, and they had to take on a boarder to help pay the rent.

What I didn’t remember is that one of Zada’s sisters, Ruth, who was seven or eight at the time, was playing with friends on the roof of the tenement when she fell off. She was found dead on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the horror. But family life went on – I’m not suggesting that lives weren’t changed by the tragedy, but Zada was able to maintain his spirit. Maybe Zada was unique, but my sense of things is that in those days (this would have been early in the 20th century), people expected tragedy. Accidents and fatal illness were more common and as a result the death of a child was not so unusual.

I am glad standards have improved so that our expectations for our children are higher. But I do wonder if we could use some of the fortitude that our ancestors had. I can think of numerous examples of difficult times Zada endured. He lost everything in the hurricane of 1938 (fortunately none of his family died, but they lost their business and their home with most of their possessions). His sister, Lily, died as a young woman of tuberculosis. He went bankrupt when he was 60 years old and had to go to work in a commercial bakery at that late stage of his life. His wife, my Nana, died prematurely at the age of 56. So much loss to endure, but his spirit remained upbeat. He continued to be engaged with the world, even after macular degeneration took his vision.

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Zada and me next to his Toyota Corolla in Canarsie (1973)

I was thinking about this after our book club read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit in Alabama in the 1980s. He was on death row for 30 years until he was finally exonerated. The book follows his journey. It is a very powerful story. He makes a choice, while on death row, to reclaim his humanity instead of giving in to anger and bitterness. He chooses to establish relationships with fellow inmates and guards, he starts a book club, he escapes to his imagination. He has the love and support of his mother and one friend throughout. There is much more to the story, but I will leave you to read it.

During our book club we discussed whether we would have the strength to make the choice Hinton made. Some of us were pretty certain we wouldn’t have the wherewithal, others of us thought we would try. Of course, you never know unless you are tested. I hope to never be tested in the ways that Hinton or my Zada were. While my life so far has brought challenges, they have not been on that scale. I hope I will rise to whatever my future holds with the fortitude of my ancestors, especially Mom and Zada.

If…

If you want to find every bit of schmutz (translation: dust bunnies and other crumbs) in your house, have a 14-month old visit.

If you want to be reminded of the wonder of electricity, watch the face of a 14-month old when you flip a light switch on and off.

If you want to discover muscles you forgot you had, play with a 14-month old for two full days.

If you want to see the beauty of the wind in the trees, look out the window with a 14-month old.

If you want your heart to melt, get a hug around the legs from a toddler who nuzzles you when she is ready for a nap.

If you want to experience your heart in your mouth, watch that toddler walk like a drunken sailor past a glass and wood coffee table.

If you want to experience the full range of human emotion, spend 15 minutes with a 14-month old who goes from joy to frustration to laughter to curiosity to tears in that space of time.

If you want a smile, give a 14-month old a bite of a sugar cookie. Yum.

 

I had the pleasure of all of this, and more, over the past four days. It is also why my blog post is so late. I admit to being tired, physically, mentally and emotionally. I am also reminded that there is a reason we have children when we are young. But, it is all worth it. To be a grandparent is a privilege and I am keenly aware of that. I will treasure memories of these days.

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On a brutally hot day, she had the right idea! My precious one.

 

A Remembrance

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We didn’t see my paternal grandparents that often when I was growing up, especially compared to my maternal ones. Of course, it would be difficult to do that since we were basically living with Nana and Zada, while Grandma and Grandpa lived on the other side of Brooklyn. They didn’t drive and Canarsie was very inconvenient to get to by public transportation, so it was up to my Dad to drive us to visit. Dad had a strained relationship with them, but my mother believed that family connections needed to be nurtured. It was at her insistence that we visited them once a month.

They lived in an apartment on Prospect Park West. The huge park by the same name was right across the street from their building. We didn’t often venture into the park. On those few occasions when we did, we found the ground littered with shards of beer bottles, cracked pavement and only one working swing. Instead we amused ourselves inside, sitting next to the window counting cars by color or model, or watching TV. Grandma worried that we’d hurt ourselves on the marble coffee table in the living room so fooling around was kept to a minimum.

Grandpa sat in a club chair in the living room, reading the Forward (the Yiddish language daily newspaper) and smoking a cigar. He wore glasses and a hearing aid; even with that he didn’t hear very well. He didn’t initiate much conversation, but it was clear from his smile that he was delighted to see us. Grandpa was mostly bald and maintained a carefully groomed moustache, and overall appearance. Between his accent and manner, he offered a stark contrast to Zada. Zada was a storyteller and bon vivant. Zada was comfortable chatting with his grandchildren (or other visitors, for that matter) wearing only his boxer shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, sitting at the kitchen table having a meal in that state of undress. On the occasions that we slept over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Grandpa wore pajamas and a robe. I suspect he did that every night, even when he didn’t have guests. Grandpa was buttoned up in all respects.

The apartment on Prospect Park West had two bedrooms – one for my grandparents and one that used to be shared by my aunts. Dad, I think, slept in the living room or maybe on a cot in the dining room. I noted that, like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Grandma and Grandpa had twin beds separated by a nightstand. Another contrast to Nana and Zada and my parents, each of whom shared a large single bed.

Grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking, but we certainly didn’t go hungry. She had some specialties notably blintzes – rolled crepes filled with cheese or berries. She particularly enjoyed watching my brother Mark eat them with great gusto.

Grandma had a sharp mind. She could add numbers quickly in her head without resorting to pencil and paper, a skill I saw put to use any time we went shopping. She also had a good sense of humor, quick with a quip and a hearty laugh. My brothers and I spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with her and Grandpa. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were on television ringing in the new year. The highlight of the night was Grandma dancing the twist. It was so incongruous: Grandma was short and stout, she had no waist to speak of and an ample chest, but there she was doing this ‘modern’ dance. She was actually barely moving. We all dissolved in laughter. We would beg her to do it again. And she would.

Revisiting the Blackout of 1977

Note: This is an updated, edited version of an earlier blog post. I thought it was a timely subject.

This past Saturday, as it did 42 years ago to the day, the lights went out in Manhattan. I appreciated watching my Twitter feed showing the good Samaritans who were directing traffic while I was 200 miles away in my air-conditioned home. When it happened in 1977, it struck all five boroughs, and I was in Brooklyn for the summer after my freshman year at college.

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photo credit:  New York Daily News, July 13, 1977

In 1977 the power went out in the middle of a Met game at Shea Stadium. Do you know who was at bat when the lights went out?*[see below for the answer]  I didn’t until I did a bit of research to refresh my memory about the events.

I wasn’t at Shea that night. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie when everything went dark.

I have vivid memories of that evening. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.

It had been a hot, humid day and the commute home was steamy. Air conditioning in subway cars was iffy at best. I couldn’t decide which I needed more: food or a shower. I decided on food first. Then I went to rinse off.

It was unnerving to be plunged into darkness while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.

I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found a flashlight. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I spent much of the next hour on the phone talking to a friend, Ron, as I was doing regularly that summer. Though I knew him since elementary school, our relationship was changing as the summer progressed. I was nervous and excited about our burgeoning romance.

Fortunately, things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio.

Eventually my aunt and uncle got back and the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to find relief from the heat in the scant breeze. After a while we gave up, went inside and tried to get some sleep.

When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with Ron. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth that was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it.

A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends, Alison and Dianne. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the usual traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back to Canarsie unscathed– my only mishap was in bumping a garbage can while making a U-turn. We were exhausted from laughing so hard.

Despite my driving deficiencies, Ron and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that define hazy, hot and humid.

Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. This was in stark contrast to the blackout of 1965 when New Yorkers were helpful and law-abiding. This time some people took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. Over 3500 people were arrested. Electronics equipment stores were targeted by looters. There has been speculation that the 1977 blackout gave a boost hip hop. Having gotten ahold of turntables, speakers and other equipment, lots of DJs emerged from the lawlessness.

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The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air that left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.

It was a time of transition for me. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, paradoxically, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, a work still in progress, but I was headed in a healthier direction.

 

*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize J

A Book???!!!???

 

I feel pretentious saying this, but I am writing a book. After three years of blogging, my thoughts have coalesced around an idea for a book. At first, I thought it wouldn’t be too hard. I would piece together a number of my blog posts to form a narrative. Turns out it isn’t that simple. It is taking a great deal of thought, rewriting, new writing and editing. And, I am fighting with my lack of confidence.  It seems like a supreme act of chutzpah to undertake a book, especially a memoir. After all, I’m not famous and I am not in recovery (fortunately).

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Now these are some books!

I bounce back and forth between believing I have something worth sharing and then doubting that. I have been managing to stay ahead of the negative thoughts so far. I am surprised to find myself engaged in this process. It is challenging and interesting. And, I continue to do research which I enjoy.

For example, I watched the documentary The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, something I last saw in 1968. Once again memory plays tricks on me. I would have sworn that it included images of stacked cadavers in the concentration camps, but it did not. It reported on the camps, and showed footage of prisoners, but not the gruesome pictures of walking skeletons in striped prison uniforms that I see in my mind’s eye. I must have seen that at another time.

I would have sworn that the word Holocaust was used in the film to describe the tragedy inflicted on Jews in Europe, but, in fact, that term was not yet in wide use. To my surprise the documentary didn’t emphasize that Jews were in the camps either. The laws and persecution of Jews was covered but that wasn’t the focus in the segment about the camps. Research revealed that the word Holocaust came into more common usage to describe the Jewish experience in Europe under the Nazis after the airing of a made-for-TV movie in 1979. The word holocaust originated in the early 1800s but was not generally applied to these events until more than 30 years after the end of the World War II.

The research has been revealing. It is often the case that I have to arbitrarily decide to stop because it could go on and on. How much is enough? I’m not writing a history book, so I have to decide whether I have what I need or whether I should keep digging. So many decisions!!

It is also a challenge to figure out how to move around in time in telling my story. I am writing with knowledge I have today but reflecting on feelings I had as a child. Some of the point of the story is to share how I acquired that understanding. It can be tricky to determine how to present that process.

At this point, I have written over 150 blog posts. Some have nothing to do with the arc of the story I plan to tell in the book. Some are right on point and will clearly be included, but they still need to be shaped to fit the plot line. Others are tangentially related, so it depends on how things flow. Plus, there are pieces that need to be written because I have not yet addressed the subject on the blog. When I write those pieces, I then consider whether I should post it to the blog, or should I hold it back. Another decision.

I have to admit that I’m finding it difficult to sustain the blog while I work on this project. I want to try, though. I think it is good discipline for me as a writer to have that Monday morning deadline – even if it is one that I can adjust.

So, there you have it. Any writers out there have words of wisdom? I keep reminding myself that it is about the process. The meaning isn’t only in the end result. It is about exploring and understanding the threads of my life. I am choosing to share much of it on the blog. I aspire to produce a book, whether it gets published or not. Even if it doesn’t get published, I hope I will still feel that it has value.

Patriotism

All through elementary school we began our day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. I recall standing, facing the flag, hand over my heart, earnestly saying the words with my classmates.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,

And to the Republic for which it stands,

One nation, under God, indivisible,

With liberty and justice for all.”

I said those words with pride. As I got older, it became a rote exercise. By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, it was hard to hear the words over the general din in homeroom.

The process of it losing my attention, and apparently my classmates’, too, might have been a function of our age. Or it may have reflected something else – a change in our country as a whole.

Two things made me think about this. First was the controversy over Megan Rapinoe, the women’s soccer player who got called out by President Trump for not singing the national anthem. The second thing is that the 4th of July is upon us, a good time to reflect on patriotism.

Over the years a lot of athletes have stirred controversy by their behavior during the national anthem. The first roiling I recall was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That touched off a firestorm. I was only 8 at the time, but I remember being upset by it. I think what disturbed me most was that it was detracting from the competition. I loved the Olympics, I loved it when Americans won an event, and I felt pride hearing our anthem played in the stadium. It reinforced that we were the good guys – and it was the Cold War, after all. I didn’t want Carlos and Smith to upset the applecart.

But, even at 8 years of age, I stopped to think about why they were doing it. They were making a statement and I felt it was important to try to understand it. They were calling attention to the fact that Black Americans were not being treated equally at home. It was hard to deny that truth. The athletes felt they had to use their platform literally and figuratively. They paid for their actions – they were kicked out of the Olympic Village and banned from the rest of the games. They also received death threats. One can only imagine what might have happened if this occurred in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and social media frenzies.

The idea that our country was falling short of its foundational values became more evident to me as the years rolled on. The Vietnam War and Watergate took their toll on my faith; they were stains on our nation’s history.

I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t feel pride in being an American – I did and do. But it is tempered by an awareness that we haven’t always met our own standards. We need people like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick to keep us accountable. They raise legitimate issues. We can disagree with them. We can think that they are wrong. But they should be seen and heard.

I came to my own conclusion about the pledge of allegiance. When I became a school board member in 1997, I took an oath of office. It was simple and said the following:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office of school board member of the Guilderland Central School District according to the best of my ability.”

I recited and signed that statement with honor and seriousness of purpose. I thought about my responsibility to the U.S. and New York State Constitutions, and to the students and members of my school community. I kept that in the forefront of my mind during the nine years I served. But, I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance.

It was our practice, and I believe it is the custom of most school boards, to begin meetings with the pledge. I stood up out of respect for my colleagues and the audience, but I didn’t put my hand over my heart, and I didn’t repeat the words. I had two reasons. First, I felt uncomfortable pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is a symbol. I wouldn’t desecrate it, but I didn’t want to take an oath to it. I think it is beautiful waving against a clear blue sky, but my allegiance isn’t to the flag itself. If the pledge only said, “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,” that would be fine. I recognize the value of symbols, but we shouldn’t confuse a representation with the actual thing that we venerate. Sometimes I think the flag itself becomes more important than the values it represents.

My second objection was the phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954. I’m not an atheist exactly, I’ll call myself a doubter. Given that I grew up believing that one of the great pillars of our country was the separation of church and state, I don’t think those words belong. So, I simply stopped reciting it.

Funny thing is that for all the years that I didn’t say the pledge, no one noticed! The meetings were televised locally. We were covered by a local reporter. No one ever asked. I wasn’t interested in calling attention to myself, so I didn’t make a point of it. I made a personal choice. I wonder if it had been noticed, if it would have become a “thing.”

I wish people wouldn’t get so angry when celebrities or regular people make these kinds of gestures. Why can’t they be noted, and then people make their own determination as to whether they agree or not. If you don’t like Megan Rapinoe because of her behavior or her values, that’s fine. But we don’t need the vitriol – how did we get to death threats so quickly? We have enough real problems to deal with, we don’t need to dwell on whether someone didn’t sing or if they knelt during the national anthem.

As we celebrate the 4th of July, I hope we think about the values that are the foundation of this country as expressed in that pledge: liberty and justice for all. These are still aspirational goals that I readily embrace and work towards achieving. We can and should enjoy the symbols: our majestic flag, the fireworks, the patriotic music, the hot dogs and beer. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

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A house in my neighborhood – ready to celebrate the Fourth of July