A Tense Conversation

Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.

It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.

We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.

It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.

A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.

In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.

“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.

“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.

“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.

“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.

“Explain it, then.”

Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.

This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”

“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.

“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.

At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.

“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.

I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”

We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.

It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.

I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.

Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.

Some thoughts from Gary:

We all should pursue our own dreams.  Right?  That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation.  To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.

Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions.  How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms?  Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines?  On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream.  We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.

But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams.  And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem:  My father wanted it for me more than anyone.  And that left me with the dilemma.  Did I want it or was I doing it for my father?  And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me?  And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?

As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way.  It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful.  And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping.  As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.

But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin?  Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors.  The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits.  We tend to be anxious.  We tend to be driven.  We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did.  They were getting shot at.  I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt.  They didn’t have food.  I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.

Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.

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Graduation day from SUNY-Binghamton, May 1980 – we made it through to the other side of that conversation.

 

 

 

A Miracle: Part II of David’s Story

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Berl Bakst, David’s father

When Gary and I got together a process of melding two very different Jewish-American families began. My parents were American-born (even my grandmothers had been born in this country); my Mom and Dad had master’s degrees; and, we weren’t religiously observant. Gary’s parents were European-born; formal education was abruptly stopped by the war; and, they went to synagogue every Sabbath, and kept a kosher home. It was this last piece, being observant Jews, that was initially most perplexing to me. Until I attended services with Paula and David, and until I understood the source of David’s faith, I couldn’t relate to keeping all the rules and regulations that Judaism requires. Turns out my father-in-law believes in miracles. It took a while for me to understand that.

I left off last week with the Russian invasion of Iwie. David and his family had been enjoying a peaceful and prosperous life until the Communist takeover. Not only did his father lose ownership of his home and business, but Berl was taken for questioning by the KGB repeatedly. He was subjected to interrogation nightly for weeks, with the family worried that he would be whisked off to Siberia, never to be seen again. People disappeared and rumors about being sent to the gulag pervaded the air in Iwie. Fortunately, after each interrogation Berl returned home.

As a result of being labeled ‘capitalists,’ David was shunned by friends. His fortunes, and that of his family, changed on a dime. Now they were almost destitute. Berl barely managed to provide, it was quite a fall in status. Berl’s business, which was comprised of a leather factory and shoe store, was still operating, but under Russian supervision.

Things went from bad to worse over the next few years. The Germans invaded as part of their plan to take Russia.  Jews from surrounding towns and villages were rounded up and sent to Iwie. A ghetto was created. The Bakst family lived in the ghetto, but were allowed to leave to work at the shoe factory. This gave Berl and David access to information and other townspeople. They heard rumors of ‘actions,’ actions were when the Germans would order the gathering of the Jews in the town square and either march them to the rim of a ravine and shoot them, or deport them on trains to concentration camps.

Upon hearing rumors of an impending ‘action,’ Berl, Rachel, David, Eli, Batya and Gussie (David’s sisters were born in 1927 and 1932) escaped to the woods. They tried to hook up with partisans (fighting groups that lived in the forests surrounding Iwie – and other forests in Poland). David remembered walking through thigh high snow in the bitter cold. His little sister, Gussie, was carried by Berl until the point of exhaustion when David took over. They weren’t successful in connecting with a partisan brigade. It was winter and they feared freezing to death. The Bakst family made rendezvous plans at a spot in the woods in case they got separated and had to run again in the future. They went back to the ghetto.

That first ‘action’ resulted in the killing of the leadership and intellectuals of the Jewish community in Iwie, others were spared, for the time being.

The adult Baksts continued working at the factory. Berl arranged for his wife and Gussie to be hidden in a farmer’s barn about ten miles outside of Iwie, thinking they would be safer there. They, along with about 10 other Jews, including David’s cousins, were crowded into a space under the barn floor. Food and supplies were brought to them.

At some point, perhaps because a collaborator reported them, or because the Germans saw unusual movements around that barn, they came to investigate. Normally the barn floor had hay strewn about. It was Spring and the floor was bare. A German soldier’s boot heel sunk into a hole in a floor board. A child underneath made a sound. The soldier tossed a grenade into the hole. One of David’s cousins tossed it back. Two cousins climbed out to fight and were shot immediately. The Germans continued to shoot as they set fire to the barn. The remaining people, including David’s mother and sister, were burned alive.

The farmer, who himself was now on the run, got word to Berl about the fate of his family.  No miracles saved Rachel and Gussie, but the remaining Baksts continued on. They still worked in the factory, but as the war dragged on and German fortunes were fading, their lives became more precarious. They wondered how long the leather/shoe factory would be continued. Berl would have David go across the street to the Polish shoe store to visit and try to gather information.

One day German soldiers came to the factory while David was at the store across the way. David saw the soldiers. The Polish storekeeper gave David an overcoat so that his yellow star would be covered. David put the coat on and ran out the back. Two soldiers saw him and gave chase, shooting at him. David remembers zig zagging down the alley, rolling and getting up, darting back and forth to escape. Gunshots sprayed around him, but none hit their target. He got away and went to the rendezvous spot.

Berl and Eli also escaped the factory that day. Eventually they showed up at the rendezvous spot to meet David. Batya didn’t come. Berl wanted to go back to find her. He felt he couldn’t leave his daughter behind. David argued that Berl couldn’t leave them either. In an emotional exchange that still pains David, he convinced his father to stay with them.

This time in the woods, they were able to join partisan brigades. David and Berl joined Iskra, a Russian regiment. Eli joined the Bielskis (a Jewish regiment, whose story was told in the movie Defiance).

David was a fighter in the regiment and Berl supported the group by repairing shoes and working with leather. David recalls various missions including sabotaging a German military caravan where they were able to capture weapons and ammunition.

Iskra also took measures against collaborators. When they became aware of Polish families who were cooperating with the Germans, they wanted to send a message that there would be consequences. The partisan brigade took vengeance on those villagers, and captured any food, weapons or other material that would be useful. At this point, David described himself as living like an animal –  there was no right or wrong, there was only survival and he did what he had to do.

While they were with Iskra, Berl and David got word that Batya was alive. She was in a camp outside Lida, which was about 40 kilometers away. With the assistance of the other members of the brigade, they came up with a rescue plan. Using coded messages, they managed to communicate with Batya.

Batya had a routine which involved crossing the camp to bring food to the German soldiers. This was done at the same time each day. One of the partisans, a Pole, intercepted Batya, ripped the yellow star from her clothing and covered her with his overcoat. Somehow, they walked out of the camp without being detected.

Batya joined David and Berl and became part of the Iskra brigade. To have his sister back was a miracle to David. That the rescue plan worked was unbelievable. David still gives thanks for it.

He would need more miracles to continue to survive.

Life’s Little Ironies

Random ironies I’ve been thinking about:

The thing you most need to do when feeling lonely or depressed is the one thing that is hardest to do: call someone, reach out to another person. Taking that step requires more energy than I can muster in those moments.

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Money makes money; the more money you have, the more you can accumulate. The system is unfair and conspires against those who don’t have it. I was struck by this, in a small way, when I went to the bank to get certified checks (bank checks?) for our closing the other day. As a perk of being a ‘privileged’ customer, I didn’t have to pay for the checks. There was a woman being served by the teller next to me who didn’t have a checking account and needed to get a bank check. She was charged – I think it was $5.00 per check. There’s an irony there. The person who could afford it wasn’t charged, the person who could least afford it was. I know why the bank does that, from a business perspective it makes sense. From an ethical perspective, perhaps another model would be better for society. What if bank customers with the financial wherewithal paid more for their services so that people with less resources paid less? Is that blasphemy in our capitalist economy?

Another example – a person with great credit and solid savings gets a low rate on a loan to buy a house. That person pays less for their house and can continue to save and build their financial resources. Another person, with a less strong credit history and less savings, gets a higher interest rate on their loan. They pay more and are likely to continue to struggle to make ends meet. What would happen if the system was reversed?

I can’t imagine the system changing given the vested interests in keeping it the way it is. And some might think it is fair the way it is – they may believe that the rich have earned their perks. I’m not so sure.

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I think she was just trying to be helpful, but she wasn’t. A woman was explaining to me how she manages her diet. She limits her carb intake, loads up on fruits and vegetables, virtually eliminates fats and makes sure she gets her 10,000 steps daily. I was nodding along. She is rail thin, I am not. When new information comes out about diet and exercise, she incorporates it into her routine. I think she was sharing her approach in hopes that I would see the light. As if I didn’t know all of that stuff.

For some of us, eating is mostly about fueling our bodies. Gary is able to approach it that way. That’s not what eating is about for me. Hunger has little to do with it. It is about comfort, boredom, frustration, grief, and joy, too.

Maybe I’m being unfair in assuming that it is easy for the rail thin woman. Maybe she is working hard – actually, I’m sure she is. But, the discipline of regulating her eating comes more naturally. Perhaps it is another of life’s little ironies – those of us who most need to separate emotions from eating, have the hardest time doing it.

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I came across a post on Facebook, from Julian Lennon, though I don’t think he wrote it himself:

Life is so ironic, it takes sadness to know what happiness is

Noise to appreciate silence and

Absence to value presence.

 

It seemed to fit with the way I’ve been looking at things lately.

Neighborhoods and Change

When I was in graduate school I lived on 80thand Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980. It was my first exposure to gentrification. I hadn’t heard the term before, but it was taking place before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working class people were displaced by wealthier folks. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered and boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I wondered where the displaced people went, but I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer, I could walk comfortably on more blocks. Though the ice cream from the new Haagen Dazs shop may have been expensive, it sure was delicious.

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The Upper West Side today.  Photo credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Time

Some lamented the changes, either because of the injustice to those of lesser means or because of the loss of authenticity (everything new, shiny and expensive was phony) or both. I certainly understood the former. The gap between the haves and the havenots was growing steadily, it was and is unfair. But, longing for the days when New York City was gritty and dirty, was bizarre to me. I didn’t enjoy being afraid. I was unsettled by the strung-out junkies hanging out on the stoops of those brownstones. That era, the 70s and 80s, when the city nearly went bankrupt, and the lack of support showed in crumbling buildings and overflowing garbage, is not romantic to me. (The website Gothamist ran a series of side-by-side photos of Central Park, showing the condition of the park back in the day. Take a look.)

More recently I had reason to think about the changes in the last decades in New York City when Leah and I did the Five Boro Bike Tour (which I wrote about here). We cycled through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the 70s and 80s, I wouldn’t have considered visiting either area, much less ride a bicycle through them. We rode past art galleries and craft beer breweries. Much like the gentrification of the Upper West Side, these areas in Brooklyn were now home to a wealthier professional class.

I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods and how complicated it all is, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. I did a bit of research, including reading a book, The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration and Ethnic Politics in a Global City (2012), edited by Judith DeSena and Timothy Shortell. The book is comprised of 16 scholarly essays, including one entitled, Revising Canarsie. (Note: I believe that the title was meant to be Revisiting Canarsie, not revising, because the premise of the piece was to take a look at the neighborhood and compare it to an earlier examination by Jonathan Rieder, entitled Canarsie: Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism(1985), a book I also read and found very insightful.)

The book, The World in Brooklyn, in general, makes the case that gentrification is a bad thing for the poor, immigrant communities. It paints a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While I believe there is truth in that picture, I think it oversimplifies things. The books presents the ‘gentry’ as one, monolithic thing – as if it is a homogenous group of rich, white people. The book doesn’t take into account that when demographics are changing, it is a two-way street. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that make true integration across economic classes (not just racial differences) impossible to achieve.

I may be particularly sensitive to this issue of integrating across economic classes because of an experience I had when we moved into our suburban neighborhood, which was a new development (new, developing neighborhood). As may be the case in many suburban neighborhoods, there was a range of economic circumstances. There were those who were barely able to make ends meet to live there, and there were those for whom it was very comfortable, and, of course, families in between. Though Gary and I were in the more comfortable range, we thought of ourselves as more modest people since we had grown up in middle class families. Leah, our daughter became friends with a girl down the block and they often played at the friend’s house. We became friendly with the parents and made numerous overtures to invite them over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments that were made, I came to believe that the mom made certain assumptions about us. Since Gary was (and is) a doctor, we were Jewish, we were from downstate originally, the mom, in particular, was not comfortable socializing with us. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something else at work. As Gary and I became more comfortable economically, I became more aware of how that can create awkwardness, even when trying to be sensitive. It is something that is difficult to talk about. We never did get beyond neighborly friendliness and eventually they moved. The experience, and others like it, made me more aware of economic factors that can create social barriers.

My experience growing up in Canarsie offers another perspective on neighborhood relationships in the midst of change. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification, it would appear to be just the opposite. I have written before about my experience in 1972 with the boycott of schools because of the plan to bus black students from East New York into predominantly white Canarsie schools (here). There was some white flight in response, but the neighborhood remained fairly stable for a number of years (my parents left in 1989 when they retired from teaching). In 1990 Canarsie was less than 20% black; in 2000 it was 60% black (and I use ‘black’ because many of the new residents were immigrants from the Caribbean who may or may not have identified as African-American). By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. Though the racial composition changed, the fact was that the economic status remained stable. The new residents weren’t poor and they weren’t uneducated.

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Typical block in Canarsie – Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

The Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians were looking for years before. According to a New York Times article:

‘A house to the Caribbean man is something very important,” Samuel E. Palmer was saying. ”He has to have a house, as opposed to an apartment. Whatever happens, the house comes first, so you can have a family and your friends can meet there. So, when I came here, the desire also was to achieve this house, this houseness.”

Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family. They were loyal to Brooklyn; they had no interest in Queens or Long Island. As Mr. Palmer put it, if you move, you have to build all over again: friends, neighbors, all that.

Canarsie is teeming with new and newly revitalized civic associations these days, many of them headed by newcomers like Mr. Brazela and Mr. Duncan, lobbying and agitating for improved street lighting, road repairs, better drainage.”

THE CENSUS — A Region of Enclaves: Canarsie, Brooklyn; ‘For Sale’ Signs Greet Newcomers – NYT, June 18, 2001

The essay on Canarsie in the book that I cited above, supported this anecdotal account with  research-based findings. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 when there were three bias incidents (against black families/businesses), including the fire-bombing of a real estate agency that was court ordered to show homes in Canarsie to blacks and Hispanic buyers. The neighborhood became homogenous again – now it is over 90% black.

In reading and thinking about the issues raised by changing neighborhoods, I think there are some commonalities. Problems seem to start with assumptions made based on stereotypes or ignorance or both. And, there aren’t mechanisms to get beyond those assumptions. We have no language to talk to each other about these issues. One of the essays in the World in Brooklyn analogizes different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who might play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. There is some learning about each other as groups coexist, but not true integration. Of course, there are exceptions, some individuals have successfully broken down barriers, but it doesn’t seem to translate to whole communities. The question is, how do we integrate across race, economic status, religion? What have we learned from our past experiences that can help us? How can we do better?

High Anxiety

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I have always prided myself as someone in touch with their feelings.  I can usually pinpoint the source of my emotions. Frustration with a relationship, disappointment in an outcome, anxiety about a challenge, excitement about an upcoming new experience – I can usually identify what is going on. Lately that ability seems muddled – I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than usual.

I was driving south on the Thruway the other day, heading to New York City for something like the 5thtime in a month (I’m usually excited by the prospect of time in the city). This time I just felt nervous, my brain flitting from one thing to another, I was having a hard time concentrating.  Thankfully I was able to focus on the road – it would truly have been a really bad sign if I got lost. I can make the trip on autopilot at this point. I tried to think through what has been going on, why this unease? Why have I been feeling more overwhelmed than circumstances seem to warrant? Since I was alone in the car, I took the opportunity to try and sort it out.

I am well aware that I am very fortunate, my life is an embarrassment of riches. I try to keep gratitude in the forefront, but, oddly, I find that the more I have, the more I fear losing it. I’m not referring to things (though I do have a confusing relationship with things, I like them more than I should), but to people. Readers of this blog know that our daughter-in-law is expecting a baby any day now. I think humming along in the background of my brain has been an awareness of the risks involved for everyone. I am also well aware of the fact that I have no control over how things will go. If only I could wrap up my loved ones in a cocoon to protect them! Obviously, not an option. So, maybe one contributor to my heightened level of anxiety is anticipation of this big event.

It’s funny in some ways because we spend so much time wishing for things (both tangible things and situations/events) and then when they happen, you realize it isn’t quite what you thought. There are strings attached.

You hope that your child finds a partner in life. But when they do, it changes your relationship (in all sorts of ways, many positive, some unanticipated). You look forward to being a grandparent, but that brings new worries. You look forward to a trip, but then you deal with the aggravation of delayed flights or turbulent weather. You want the luxury of a swimming pool in your backyard, but then you have to deal with the maintenance (a seemingly never-ending source of aggravation in our case). These may seem like wildly different ‘things,’ but there is a theme. There is a cost that comes with the things we want. Perhaps that is obvious, but it makes me stop and think. There is virtue in simplicity. Maybe I should consider Buddhism! The way I understand one of its central tenets is that you shouldn’t become attached to things or ideas – you need to let go of expectations. I don’t know if I can do that.

Or maybe I need to figure out how to not let these things get to me; figure out a way to acknowledge the worry, but then set it aside, especially when there isn’t something to be done.

But, it is so easy to lose perspective. Over the last couple of months, we have been enmeshed in the process of buying a condo in NYC. That’s the reason for so many trips to the city. Filling out the paperwork for a mortgage and shepherding it through the process felt like a full-time job. How blessed am I that making this purchase is even an option? But it is also a source of anxiety. It is a huge investment, the numbers are scary. But then I would remind myself that if it fell through, there was no real loss. And, if we successfully closed on it, and it turned out to be too big a financial commitment, we could sell it. So why did it feel so stressful?

In part, I blame Trump. You may ask, what is the connection? As I was driving down the Thruway, mulling things over, I realized that another large piece of my anxiety came from worries about our country’s future. I happened to be reading a novel, Ready Player One, set in a dystopic future that was all too imaginable to me. I have no faith in Trump, he has appalling judgment and is intent on sowing seeds of hate and fear, and Congress isn’t willing to take him on. The threats of climate change, of civil unrest rooted in the growing divide in this country, of America losing its footing, are all too real. Not to mention the tragedy of gun violence. Making such a huge investment in a time like this feels like a leap of faith, but my faith is shaken.

This unsettled feeling about our future was reinforced by an experience I had on that trip. On the day I was driving, a video went viral of a white guy going on a rant in a New York deli because the employees were speaking Spanish. It is the type of thing that seems to be happening a lot more in this age of Trump and ubiquitous cellphones. One of the reasons I was making the trip was to be at the new apartment for the guy to install cable and wifi. The guy arrived, at the appointed time, and, as is often the case, it took quite a bit longer than expected for him to successfully get things running. He was there for a couple of hours. At one point, while we were waiting for technical support people (he was on hold with his office) to try and fix things on their end, his personal phone rang and he asked me if I minded if he answered it. “If I do, I will be speaking Spanish,” he explained. “Of course you can answer your phone,” I responded. He shrugged sheepishly, as he answered. I moved toward the kitchen to give him space.

As I reflect on this interaction, I realize that I would feel differently if he had been in the middle of explaining something to me, then it would be rude to take a personal call, regardless of the language he spoke. But at that point we were just waiting awkwardly. I had no problem with him taking his call. I thought it was a sad commentary that he felt the need to explain that he would be speaking Spanish. It was a personal call, it wasn’t my business to understand his end of the conversation anyway. When he got off the phone I said we had come to a sad place if he needed to ask if it was okay to speak Spanish. He gave a small smile and another shrug.

During my 2 ½ hour drive and as I continue to think about my state of mind, I have come to a better understanding of what’s been going on. Not surprisingly, most of the issues are out of my control. I decided I need to focus on what I can do to manage it.

These are the strategies I came up with:

  1. Avoid reading dystopic novels (at least for a while).
  2. Reduce the number of times I allow myself to look at Twitter and Facebook to two times per day. Look at blocking some of the more vitriolic sources from my Facebook feed.
  3. Find an organization or campaign that I can volunteer for that is in concert with my values. (Or, alternatively, assuming Dan and Beth will allow/need, help with the baby!)
  4. Devote more time to productive activities, whether it is clearing clutter in my home, doing research for my memoir or talking to friends, spend more time doing constructive things so I don’t dwell in worry.

I hope that isn’t too ambitious. It doesn’t seem like it should be.  If you have suggestions, please share. I’ll report back.

Mystery of Memory

Writing this memoir blog has been revelatory in a few different ways. For one, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the mystery that is memory. Some of the readers of the blog have expressed wonder at the quantity and specificity of my memories. Some say they have no memories of their own childhoods. I find that hard to imagine given that my idea of myself is shaped so much by my memories.

My father maintained that he had no memories of his childhood, though there were a few stories (mostly about the presence of the mob in his neighborhood) that he liked to tell. I was left with the impression that he felt sad about his growing up years, that he felt neglected and unappreciated by his parents, and therefore, I assumed that he had repressed it.  Even without access to specific memories, he carried a narrative about his childhood that certainly shaped his adult persona. I wonder if it would have been helpful or hurtful to uncover specific memories, if he could.

My brother Mark is another person who professes to have little to no memory of his growing up years. But, based on his comments on the blog, I think he has more than he gives himself credit for. Perhaps my recounting of events awakened memories for him. I wonder if that has been a positive or negative thing for him. Sometimes his take on an incident (for example, when my cat, Cutie, jumped out the car window, which I wrote about here) is quite different than my own. In that case, I had no memory of Mark being in the car with us when Cutie took her fateful leap. He says he remembers it clear as day. So much for not having any memories of his childhood! And, so much for me being THE family historian.

As is often the case, I’m not sure how my oldest brother, Steven, would characterize his memory. He has shared some in response to the blog, but he tends to keep things close to the vest in many areas of his life, so I don’t know if that is the tip of the iceberg, if he doesn’t remember much, or something in between.

I knew before embarking on this memoir blog that memory was illusive, but as I write about childhood experiences and receive feedback, I understand that calling the blog “Stories I Tell Myself” was prescient. I’ve always suspected that we each have a narrative for our lives, one made up of selective memories and interpretations of those memories. That suspicion has been strengthened by my experience of writing this.

I have also come to realize that some of my memories are incomplete and/or unreliable (see the above referenced experience with Cutie the cat). In another example, I would have sworn that when I was in high school (I would have been 14 or 15 years old), as a stringer for a local newspaper, I wrote a story about a blind athlete who came from Yugoslavia. Turns out I wrote two different stories. One about a blind athlete and the other about a soccer player who had immigrated from Yugoslavia. Upon further reflection, the conflated memory made no sense because it was highly unlikely that the blind athlete, who I knew was named Andre Rodriquez, would have come from Yugoslavia! Somehow, in my mind the two became one, and that inconsistency was overlooked. When I realized the disconnect, I made up an explanation – perhaps his father was in the US armed forces stationed there. It wasn’t until I looked at my portfolio of clippings, and saw it in black and white, that I understood my error.

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The banners of the four Brooklyn neighborhood newspapers that I wrote for in high school – in my portfolio of clippings.

I don’t think this is cause to question all of my memories because the particulars aren’t necessarily that relevant to the meaning of it. But what is the meaning of the memory?

The editor of the local syndicated newspaper had asked me to interview Andre, who was going to participate in a Marine Corp track and field competition, despite his blindness. Andre was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. I set up an appointment with Andre through his coach. I went to the gym at the prearranged time, which was during practice. I located the coach among the various people running, stretching, lifting weights, who brought me over to Andre. I introduced myself, we shook hands. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of Andre: café au lait skin, long brown hair, slight frame, wearing a blue track suit. We went to sit on the bleachers so I could interview him. He was accompanied by a student who acted as his guide when they ran. The guide, I don’t recall his name, sat next to Andre during the interview. Within a couple of minutes, it became clear that the two were friends also. After a few preliminary questions, Andre leaned slightly toward his buddy and asked, as if I couldn’t hear, “Is she pretty?” I giggled, as I waited for the response. He smiled at me and said yes, which was very kind of him (of course, what could he say?). Andre responded, “I thought so.” I was confused. “What would make you think that?” I asked. “I could just tell.” I could feel my cheeks burning, they were probably hot pink. I was grateful he couldn’t see that.  I quickly changed the subject back to the interview.

It probably isn’t surprising that I stored that memory. Other than Nana referring to me as ‘shana madela’ (pretty girl in Yiddish), I was rarely complimented on my looks. Rarer still from someone not related to me. It was ironic that it took a blind person to see it.

So, did it actually happen that way? I have no way to know. It doesn’t merit tracking down Andre to check (nor do I imagine he would remember it). But, it fits with the way I understand myself.

It calls to mind something that happened when Leah was about six years old. Gary and I were a little late to realize that if we intended to raise our children to be Jewish we would need to enroll them in Hebrew school. Consequently, Leah missed the equivalent of Kindergarten. We did manage to sign her up for first grade. Fortunately, she was a quick study. She came home after a Sunday school class with an important question. Having heard the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, she asked, “Is it true? Did it really happen?” After thinking for a bit, I told her that I didn’t know if it was real, some people believed it was literally true, others didn’t. The important thing was what we learn from the story, that this was a story told for centuries and had value because of what it taught people through the ages. I suggested that when they read these stories in class, she should think about the lessons learned, rather than whether it was historically true. Lucky for me, she seemed satisfied.

Maybe our memories are like that, too: worth examining for what they reveal about ourselves, rather than the history they may reveal.

 

A Loyal Sport

In preparation for writing a blog post, I went through one of my many boxes of memories. I have stashes of letters, photos and mementos and periodically I go through them either looking for something specific or looking for inspiration. In this case I was looking for something specific.

I had a memory of a particular article I wrote about a blind high school athlete, Andre Rodriquez. I have a yellowed, tattered portfolio of articles I wrote when I was in high school and I wanted to see if I had that one. As I recall, that article was featured in the centerfold of the Canarsie Digest, a two-page spread. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it among the clippings. I wanted to write about the experience of interviewing Andre, but I didn’t think I remembered enough without finding the piece. I did find three other items, though, that sparked other memories. One was a pad on which I wrote thoughts on motherhood when Leah was a baby. I shared that essay last week on the blog. Another was a profile of a college soccer star, which I will use for a future blog post. The last item I found was another letter from Zada. Here is that letter:

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10/31/74

Dear Linda,

            I think you might be interested to know why you possess such a love for sports and sportsmanship in general. It all goes back to an event that happened a long time ago. It was my father, your great Zada, who performed an act so sporty, that I think that even the Marquis of Queensbury would have been impressed, had he known about it.

            As you know the Marquis of Queensbury rules pertain to boxing. Our present boxing rules, and the most important one according to the Marquis, was that you never hit a person when they are down. The custom in boxing is to allow the fallen one to take a mandatory eight count, and if he does not arise by the count of ten, it is considered that he has been knocked out.

            Well the year was 1921, your Uncle Sidney was about eight years old or young. The Spilkens owned a bakery on 3rd Street and Avenue C, in Manhattan. So let me try to set the picture for you. It is a Saturday morning, the street is void of pushcarts, and the street cleaners, as was the custom in those days, brushed the accumulation of garbage of the day before, into one spot opposite to where the bakery was. Then a dump truck would come by, and all the dirt would be shoveled into it.

            Now from that particular place, a wailing was heard, it seems that Uncle Sidney and other boys had provoked in some manner, the Super. (in those days, he was known as the janitor.) But, as usual, the only boy caught was Uncle Sidney. The janitor had struck him, and his cries reached great Zada in the bakery. I told you before, Zada believed that when you strike somebody, that somebody should be of your size. The expression, why don’t you hit a fellow your size? Evolved from that ruling.

            Well, Zada, as quick as a flash, was on the other side of the street, and began pummeling the poor janitor. After a succession of blows to the head and solar plexus, the poor man went down into the heap of rubbish aforementioned. But Zada being the sport he was, and pursuant to the Queensbury rules, picked the man off the ground, held him aloft after he counted to eight, and fearing the man would collapse if he waited until ten, began to belabor the poor fellow, until he thought (Zada) that he had taught the man a lesson, you don’t hit anyone unless he is of your size.

            I’ll never forget, for it comes to my mind often how sportsmanlike my father acted because he did not strike the man as he was lying immersed in garbage. But put him on his feet so that he could continue the punishment in a fair and square manner.

            I must not leave you with a wrong impression, Zada being a thorough sport, gave unto his son Sidney a thrashing the likes of which your Uncle Sidney would carry with him for a long time. You see he was certain that the janitor was plenty harassed by Sidney.

            In other words, he felt that the man was justified in hitting Uncle Sidney, but the way my father figured as I stated before, Sidney was much smaller than the Super.

            Linda, honestly there are so many stories I could tell you about great Zada and about your Uncle Irving. They will wait for an opportune time but being the sport you are please understand the moral of this story. Always protect and defend any member of your family, but do it in a sportsmanlike manner.

            Write to your Zada. I love to read your letters.

  CS  (He signed the letter CS – Charles Spilken)

The letter sparks many thoughts. First, I can’t say I see the connection to my love of sports. But I imagine Zada was taking literary license. Second, I’m not so sure I see this incident as a shining example of sportsmanship. Perhaps Zada meant it tongue in cheek? But, then again, maybe he didn’t. I do know he took quite seriously the idea that you don’t hit a man when he’s down. There is another family story in that vein that my mother told us. When she was a young girl, her father took her to a baseball game. Apparently, the pitcher had a terrible inning and as he was coming off the field, my mother yelled, “You stink!” (A tame epithet by today’s standards!) They were seated close enough to the action so that the pitcher heard her. Zada was appalled by his daughter’s behavior and was quick to point out that you don’t kick a man when he’s down. I believe he had her write a letter of apology when they returned home. Mom liked to tell us that story to impart the message that you don’t pile on, you don’t add to another’s misery.

I also note that Zada wrote that his father gave Uncle Sid a thrashing he would not forget. It is interesting because I don’t think Zada used corporal punishment in his disciplinary approach to parenting. My parents certainly didn’t. Of course, as I have written before, our Dad was an imposing presence, with a bad temper, so he didn’t need to use his hands to discipline us. The raising of his voice and the intensity of his scowl were enough.

The other moral of the story that Zada highlights in his letter is the idea that you defend any member of your family (even if they are wrong), as long as you do it in a sportsmanlike manner. This is a topic of debate in my immediate family. Gary totally subscribes to that philosophy. He will go to the wall to defend Leah, Daniel or me (or his siblings, etc.). There is no question. His first response if his child has been in a conflict is to want to do harm to the offender, who he assumes is not his child. He is nothing if not loyal. He also holds a grudge. Anyone who did Leah or Dan wrong, it could be 20 years ago (they could’ve been 8 at the time!), is still on Gary’s shit list. Okay, I could be exaggerating, but only a little. I see the pluses and minuses of this. His children know with the same certainty that day follows night that he will be there for them.

For better or worse, that isn’t my approach. I have been blessed or cursed with seeing the world in shades of gray. When Dan or Leah or Gary had a conflict with someone, I do ask, what did you do? What was your role in the argument? Sometimes they don’t want to hear that question. Certainly, they don’t appreciate it when it is the first question I ask (I try not to do that!).

The truth is, I don’t believe in blind loyalty. I do believe in unconditional love. If my children or other family members did something wrong, I would be there for them, to help them, to support them as they moved forward and made amends. Of course, wrong-doing can take many forms – from minor to major – and that makes a difference, too. In general, though, I would not look the other way and I would not cover it up. On the other hand, if my child or family member was done wrong, then sign me up, I’m ready to do battle on their behalf.

What do you think?  What does loyalty mean to you?