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 memorie 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?

Government by the People

If a politician runs on a platform that ridicules government, what can we expect of them if they are elected and take office? The first time I thought about that question, I was a state worker and George Pataki was running for governor of New York. His rhetoric at the time went beyond a belief in small government. I understood the notion that some thought that ‘government that governs least, governs best.’ I may not have agreed with the sentiment, but I understood it. And, as I saw it, that philosophy grew out of the streak in America’s history that idealized ‘rugged individualism,’ a belief in the primacy of individual effort and achievement. Pataki’s argument, though, struck me as qualitatively different. The statements he made demeaned state employees and made it sound like government was inevitably incompetent, that by its nature it was bad.

I felt personally insulted. While there were state employees who were lazy and inefficient, most that I knew were in it to do good things for people. I wondered what the impact of the rhetoric would be on people seeking to work for the state. Who wants to work for a CEO who seemingly doesn’t believe in the mission, or doesn’t have confidence in the workforce? It was demoralizing.

Pataki ran for governor for the first time in 1994 and he won. Since that time that rhetoric has become much more common, it has become ubiquitous and it has been amplified by social media. We elected a president who espouses those beliefs in the extreme. Trump has appointed personnel who are systematically dismantling their agencies. This raises a fundamental question: do Americans believe in government by the people, for the people? Or do Americans believe and trust in corporations?

I know what I believe. I don’t think either government or corporations are inherently good or inherently bad – both are made of people and people are people. There needs to be a healthy balance of public and private enterprise.

It used to be that we could argue about the size of government or the scope of the government’s role in regulating different areas of our lives (for example, health, housing, the environment); but not the basic premise that government could and should provide some services and oversee our safety. The differences between Democrats and Republicans, when I was growing up, centered on how active the government should be in regulating markets and in providing a social safety net. The pendulum swung back and forth a bit depending on who was in power.

Some elements of the culture wars of today were present then, too. There were differences in attitudes about reproductive rights and views of law enforcement, but it didn’t reach to the point of invalidating a role for government. Sometimes it feels to me as if the legitimacy of our government is at stake.

The incivility of the rhetoric is also markedly different. Personally, I am less concerned about that than I am about the beliefs that may underlie the incivility. Given the 24/7 news cycle and social media, people may need to be more outrageous to be heard. What is more concerning is this: do people really believe the things that they are saying/tweeting/posting?

Gary, my husband, has been talking about the damage Fox news has done to our country – he’s been pointing to that as a problem for years now. Former President Obama recently commented on the danger of living in different realities based on the media we listen to. It isn’t clear to me whether this is the source of the problem or a symptom of the problem. Are we listening to different sources of information because they conform to our ideas, or do those sources create our ideas? Either way, how do we change it?

Also, who will be willing to work for a government so disrespected, so disempowered? Who is going to get a degree in public administration if things continue in this vein? I believe we need professional, educated people to work for our government.

I have to believe that the tide will turn. I have to believe that Americans will not be willing to continue to cede power to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and those who think like them. We can continue to debate the proper balance of public and private, of regulation and unfettered markets. We can argue about social issues, too. Those debates are healthy. I hope 2018 proves to be a turning point. I intend to do my best to make it one. We must move away from the rhetoric that is undermining the very foundation of our union.

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Reflections on Newport

Note:  I know I said I was taking the week off, but then I felt like I needed to write this and share it. So, it’s Tuesday. It is my blog and I make the rules 🙂

Newport, Rhode Island encapsulates much that is great about our country and, at the very same time, much that isn’t. The duality that defines our history plays out there.

Today: Newport is beautiful. The views of the ocean, with ships of every size and shape dotting the water, are spectacular. Families enjoy themselves at the beach or strolling the streets, looking at the over-abundance of charming shops and restaurants. Old and young amble the cobblestone streets. A surprising number of folks speaking languages other than English. Though predominantly white, there were many people of color.

Today: As we walked by, a homeless man was sweeping the sidewalk that he claimed as his own. He had his meager things set up against the low decorative wall that separated the park from the street. It is hard to miss the income inequality so evident in Newport. The huge mansions, the extraordinary wealth of some – how much is enough? The conspicuous consumption, in contrast to those sleeping on a bench.

We took a trolley tour of Newport. The tour guide did not ignore the fact that the original wealth of Newport was built, at least in part, on the slave trade. She also acknowledged the role of Native Americans in assisting the colonists. It is a complicated history, filled with the duality that is our country’s history. Rhode Island was also the colony founded on religious freedom, but it profited from the slave trade and from piracy. These contradictory strands are not easy to reconcile.

We took a tour of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest temple in the United States (though I would’ve sworn that they said the same of the synagogue in Savannah). The synagogue’s founders were descendants of those who had escaped the Inquisition. I had not remembered a pretty significant event associated with the Touro Synagogue (Gary recalled learning about it, though I’m not sure if it was in Hebrew school or in American History), but learning of it made quite an impression on me, so I would like to recount it here (the photos below are of the exterior and interior of the synagogue).

 

After Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790, George Washington came to visit. He stopped in Newport before heading on to Providence and was greeted very enthusiastically. The leader of the synagogue, Moses Seixas, presented him with a letter. Here is the letter (I know it is written in a style that is difficult, but I think it is worth the effort):

Sir:

Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits – and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days – those days of difficulty, and danger when the God of Israel who delivered David from the peril of the sword, – shielded Your head in the day of battle: – and we rejoice to think that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate of these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: – deeming every one, of which Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine: – This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good. 

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under and equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men – beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: – And, when like Joshua full of days, and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort Rhode Island August 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden

We visited the synagogue just two days after the 227th anniversary of the letter. George Washington was quite moved by this expression of support and wrote a letter in response:

Gentlemen:

While I receive with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

George Washington

I think that the two letters are pretty damn impressive.  In Newport, they read Washington’s letter publicly every year on its anniversary. Though we did not attend, it was read on Sunday, August 20th outside on the grounds of the synagogue.

I recognize that Washington may not have been including women, African-Americans or Native Americans when he used the term ‘people;’ he was, after all, a man of his time. I am also not a believer in God as credited in these letters. But the ideas, of moving beyond tolerance and allowing all citizens the freedom of their conscience are still revolutionary and the letters remind me of that. These ideas are still relevant and timely in 2017.

When I was a child we learned American history in public school. I remember learning how different groups contributed to the founding of our country. A prominent person from each group (Crispus Attucks – African-Americans, Haym Solomon – Jewish-American, Baron Von Steuben – Prussian-American, Lafayette – French-American, Tadeusz Kosciuszko – Polish-American) was studied to show that the success of the Revolution was based on the contributions of many different groups. I felt proud of that history. I believed in the ideals of the Revolution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. My understanding of ‘all’ was more inclusive than our forefathers (and my understanding continued to expand as I became more educated), but I loved the idea of America. I felt pride when the national anthem was played, especially during the Olympic Games!

Something changed as I grew older. The pride I felt was tempered by the realization that we were not fulfilling our ideals, we were falling short of our promise. I have been especially discouraged since the election of Trump. Reading these letters, though, even in the context of their time and understanding the limitations, reminded me of our potential. They remind me of the ideals at the heart of our country. This is something to be proud of and to aspire to fulfill.

While I don’t subscribe to American exceptionalism (because it implies superiority), I do believe in our potential. Perhaps there is a parallel between Jews being the ‘chosen people’ and American exceptionalism. I was always uncomfortable with being labeled chosen, that idea could be translated as arrogance or supremacy. Instead, maybe being ‘chosen’ or ‘exceptional’ can be thought of as a responsibility to fulfill, not as a birthright; an ideal to work towards, not an entitlement.

I come back from Newport reminded of the roots of our country, both good and bad. I hope we all can agree on the merit and meaning of the values that were at the heart of our founding. I hope we find our way forward with a shared understanding of the potential of this country.

 

There Are No Sides

I cannot be silent. The president’s response to the tragedy in Charlottesville is not acceptable. He started off okay, but then went off track:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides…”

“…on many sides” What is he talking about? There are no sides when it comes to torch-bearing, Hitler-esque saluting men marching through the University of Virginia campus in support of white nationalism. Is there a side I am missing?

In the late 1990s, when I served on the school board in Guilderland, we reviewed a policy entitled ‘Teaching Controversial Issues.’ One of my colleagues on the Board wanted to include language that said that both sides of an issue would be represented in these situations. On the surface this sounds like a reasonable request. But, when you look more closely, it isn’t so simple.

The first problem is in defining controversial topics. To me, evolution is not controversial (just as being against racism isn’t debatable). A biology teacher is not obligated to present ‘another side.’ There is no other scientific side and schools (certainly public ones) should be teaching science.  In fact, the teacher would be doing a disservice to give class time to intelligent design. There is a small, but vocal, minority who are still arguing the validity of evolution. I think it is wise for a teacher, who knows or suspects that there are students whose religious faith may conflict with evolution, to note that their views will be tolerated (I am using that word purposely), but the information presented in class will be based on science.

The second problem is that there can be many more than two sides to a ‘controversial’ issue. Everything doesn’t break down into pro and con. As much as we might like to set up issues debate-style, for and against, most subjects are more nuanced.

The third problem is that all ‘sides’ are not equal. Do all views need to be given equal time? When we study American history there are interpretations on the far right and far left that are distorted. The curriculum and materials used should represent the consensus of historians, relying as much as possible on facts and original source documents. Teachers should encourage students to think critically about the material, ask questions and facilitate discussion. But, again, ‘all sides’ aren’t legitimate and don’t deserve attention.

Sometimes there is a right side of history. The Confederacy lost the war, thankfully. While it is useful, actually critical, to understand the issues that led to the Civil War and what the South was fighting for, that is not the same thing as endorsing its mission. There is no defense for slavery. We can understand its economic role, we can understand its historical roots, but that can’t be confused with sanctioning it in any way, shape or form.

One of the elements that led to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville was the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the removal of Confederate statues in his city in a powerful speech that was articulate, eloquent and right on point. In sum, he said that those statues belonged in history museums not city squares. (Please watch the speech! It didn’t get nearly enough national attention. Here is the link). We can’t and shouldn’t erase history, but monuments to individuals are meant to celebrate accomplishments and contributions, to remind us of our better angels. Robert E. Lee may have been a great general militarily, but he does not merit celebration.

When my well-meaning colleague raised the question of adopting a policy on teaching controversial issues, the Board decided it was better to remain silent on the subject. We had a healthy discussion and debated the various implications, but concluded that it was best to leave the issue in the hands of educators.

Interestingly, the impetus for her recommendation was her perception that the Vietnam War had been taught in a one-sided manner when her oldest children went to Guilderland High School in the 1980s. When we were having this policy discussion, it was the late 1990s and Vietnam was no longer controversial. I long for a day when the same can be said of the Civil War.

A Defining Summer – 1979

Growing up in Brooklyn in a tight-knit, large Jewish family created a kind of myopia. I didn’t know there were other ways that people lived their lives. Fortunately, I had an experience in college that helped lay the groundwork for having a broader perspective.

One might think that going away to college in and of itself, going from Brooklyn to SUNY-Binghamton in the Southern Tier, would have broadened my horizons. Given the demographics of the school, though, it really didn’t do much to expose me to diversity. Most of the students came from Long Island and the boroughs of NYC.

I was a political science major. In my junior year in 1979, Professor Weisband, who I admired greatly, announced to our international politics class that a summer research position was available. The National Science Foundation was offering funding to support a research project and would award grants based on an application process. It sounded like an exciting opportunity, so I applied. Much to my surprise, I was awarded the grant, so I spent the summer in Binghamton working for Professor Richard Rehberg, who was engaged in a project to study a ‘company town,’ where the company left.

Professor Rehberg was conducting community development research, in conjunction with a non-profit think tank, The Institute for Man and Science. Corbett, New York, located about 70 miles east of Binghamton, in the heart of the Catskills, was founded as a company town in 1912. The Corbett-Stuart Company established an acid factory there and the company owned the land, property and houses. They rented homes to the employees.

The acid factory went out of business in 1934, but the company held on to the property. Residents continued to live there, paying rent, but finding work elsewhere, cobbling together a life. In 1976, there were 170 residents in Corbett. The Stuart family, which still owned the town, put it up for sale. The headline in the classified section of New York Times read:  One small town for sale, fully occupied. The description went on to say: 130 wild acres; a cluster of 30-odd white frame houses, an abandoned schoolhouse whose black iron bell still hangs in the belfry cocked at an angle as if waiting to peal out a last ring; an abandoned general store with a Canada Dry sign on the door reading, “Glad You Stopped, Come Again”; an old horse barn with a blacksmith shop right next to it; and alongside the road, traces of the old rail bed where the trains of the Delaware and Northern Railroad used to roll when Corbett was a prospering acid factory town and a good place to live.*

Corbett was no longer a prospering town, part of the research project was looking at whether it could be a good place to live again. Although there were other interested buyers, the residents of the town teamed with the Institute of Man and Science (now known as the Rennselaerville Institute) to buy the town!

Part of the Institute’s arrangement with the residents included permission to do research on the process of community development. To continue to survive, the town would need physical improvements (to address water and other infrastructure needs). Given the economics of the area, the residents would have to do a lot of that work themselves. This presented a unique opportunity to study the process of the residents organizing to accomplish those goals.

In fact, the town developed a compact. The Corbett Compact included the following:

We, the members of the Village of Corbett and The Institute on Man and Science set forth on an adventure which requires our full cooperation and commitment. Like the passengers on the ship Mayflower we herewith draft and sign this compact setting forth some articles of common faith and agreement.

In so doing, we give our pledge to rebuild Corbett as a small community in which people help each other…in which we can get a good night’s sleep…in which our children can range safely…in which we can feel good about our town, our neighbors, and ourselves…in which we do not waste.

At the same time we seek a community in which people live and let live, respecting the rights of others to be different. We want people to grow. Some will grow and stay. Others will grow and leave. But for all of us, Corbett may always be home.*

All of this was incredibly foreign to me. I had never heard of a company town. The notion of a whole town being owned, not self-governing, was outside my frame of reference.  I was pleased to learn that this town was embarked on such a huge transition, and I was interested to meet the people who aspired to realize the promise of their compact.

Another element that was alien to me was the size of the town. I couldn’t imagine living in a place made up of only 170 people. There were more than 170 people living on my block in Canarsie.

Although my family had done some traveling in America, I described my reaction to driving through Wyoming in 1973 in another blog post, I had never come face-to-face with rural life in America. Corbett was rural America.

My job that summer was to assist in administering surveys to the residents and to do my own research on utopian communities. I would produce a research paper on commonalities among utopian communities that contributed to their success and failure. The idea was that, perhaps, I could uncover some lessons that might be useful to the Corbett project. Though Corbett was not conceived as a utopian community, it was endeavoring to be a planned community.

I remember my first visit to Corbett. I drove with a graduate student, Kevin, who was also working with Dr. Rehberg.  We drove country roads, up, down and around the lush, green hills. We passed reservoirs. We saw more cows than people, by far.

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We passed many views like this as we traveled from Binghamton to Corbett.

We turned off the two-lane blacktop onto a gravel road and found ourselves in Corbett. This was the definition of being in the middle of nowhere. It was warm and sunny, the air was clear except for the dust the car had kicked up. The only sounds were the wind in the trees and bird calls. I saw a modest, run-down home in front of us. We went up the two worn steps to the wooden porch and knocked.  Marcus, one of the town leaders, pushed open the screen door and welcomed us in. He was expecting us.

The house was shaded by the huge trees, so it was cool inside. Marcus made himself comfortable on a large recliner. Kevin and I sat across from him. Kevin asked the questions from the survey. While I don’t remember the particulars, the questions focused on quality of life and the resident’s satisfaction. As I recall, most of the people we interviewed were quite satisfied.

This was a revelation to me. To meet people who lived such modest lives (in my view at the time), but who were comfortable with it, came as a surprise. I thought happiness was much more complicated. One of the things I realized is that for some of the people who lived in Corbett, living closer to nature was a source of pleasure. Cutting wood, drawing water from a well, hunting and fishing, and repairing your own house brought satisfaction. Working with neighbors to revitalize their town, even if they didn’t all like each other, was rewarding. It is one thing to read about other ways of life, it was another thing to meet it, up close and personal. I was not ready to sign up for life in a small community, but I understood it better.

I had another, more minor, revelation that summer. Dr. Rehberg invited me to a gathering at his home. I felt awkward about attending since I was the only undergraduate, but I felt like I had to. I remember sitting on his deck, everyone was drinking beer and relaxing, letting their hair down, so to speak. Even though I was a college kid, and beer was the cheapest beverage, I never developed a taste for it. I was politely sipping one, trying to be sociable. I looked around and it hit me. These ‘grown-ups’ were not that different from me and my friends. After drinking a few beers (or in my case, a mixed drink or two), they were every bit as silly as we were. Somehow, I thought adults were different. It was a relief (and maybe a disappointment) to learn that they weren’t.

Dr. Richard Rehberg was a good guy. I would address him as Dr. Rehberg or Professor, and he would say, “You can call me Dick.” I was of a generation where Richards were called Richie, Rich or Rick. Definitely not Dick. He was perplexed by my refusal and I explained that I was raised by my parents to call adults Mr. or Mrs., which was true, but wasn’t the whole story. As much as I started to see him, and other professors, as human beings, and despite his gracious invitation, I would not call him Dick.

The summer of ’79 was a defining one for me. I had come off a difficult junior year because of a break up that was very drawn out and painful. I grew a lot that summer. Staying in Binghamton, doing the research, having the experience in Corbett broadened my horizons.

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Me, in front of the house in Binghamton, the summer of ’79. Can you find the glasses atop my head amidst all that hair?

I also met Gary that summer. That is a story for another blog entry.

 

*”The Catskills Mountains USA – Physical and Cultural Restoration,” Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, by Harold Williams, September 1986 (retrieved 7/22/17)