‘Love the One You’re With’??

Recently I watched a four-episode series on Netflix called Unorthodox. It told the story of a young woman who left (escaped might be a better word) her Hasidic family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin. Aside from being a compelling story, I found one scene particularly poignant and it resonated with me. It wasn’t my experience, but I could certainly relate to an aspect of it.

In a flashback scene, in preparation for her wedding, Esty is counseled about marital relations. All of the information is totally new to her. The woman guiding her explains how intercourse works. Esty looks at the woman in disbelief, saying that she had only one hole. She was sent into the bathroom with a hand mirror to examine herself. I was not nearly so ignorant, between my mother, books and school, I knew the facts, but I didn’t really know my body. It never occurred to me to look.

I was eleven years old when I got my period for the first time; younger than most of my peers. It didn’t terrify me; I knew what to expect. My mother had informed me, and I had read about the changes that were coming to my body. Despite that preparation, I still wasn’t ready to deal with it.

I understood that by beginning to menstruate I could become pregnant and have a baby. That idea seemed so crazy. I wasn’t even a teenager myself yet. I knew the basic biology of how that could happen, but it still seemed inconceivable, not to mention unappealing. At that age I knew I was interested in boys but not in a sexual way. I knew based on the fact that all of my crushes on stars, for me more likely to be athletes than actors or musicians, were male. I hoped that eventually there would be a boy that was interested in me, but that was the subject of fantasy, not real life and had nothing to do with sex. It seemed incongruous to have a body physically ready for something so momentous but to be so emotionally and mentally immature. I wondered why we were designed that way.

The message I received about sex from my parents was straight forward: wait until you’re married. Sex wasn’t presented as something dirty or shameful, but it was understood to be part of an intimate, committed relationship – which to my mom and dad meant being married. Not much else was said about it. My mother, to this day, describes herself as a prude. I can’t say whether she is or was, I can say that it was not something treated lightly by Mom or Dad. Off-color jokes were not part of our humor. I remember being surprised years later when I sat at my fiancé’s family’s dining room table and his brother made a ‘dirty’ joke. His parents, even his mother, laughed heartily. I wondered if my mother would have gotten the punchline.

While I was receiving my parents’ message about the seriousness and responsibility of having sex, society at large was changing. The moral code my parents offered was challenged by what I was seeing – love-ins, Woodstock, the women’s movement suggested that there were other ways to look at sex. It was confusing.

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Woodstock 1969

I became good friends with a girl in high school who had a different perspective about sex. I remember us having a conversation when we were in college about whether it was more intimate to have sex with someone or to reveal your fears or insecurities to that person. We looked at it differently. I remember saying to her that sleeping with a guy was the ultimate act of intimacy to me. She didn’t feel that way. She could be more casual about sex than she could about being vulnerable about her feelings.

Though I didn’t believe that sex should only happen in the context of marriage or only for procreating, I also didn’t think it should be treated as lightly as our other urges, like eating or drinking. I did internalize the values that my parents communicated:  that it should be part of a loving, committed relationship, it just didn’t need to be officially sanctioned by law or ceremony. I thought about my friend’s perspective, and the freer standards of the 1960s, but it didn’t feel right for me. I couldn’t be casual in that way.

I think my parents were good role models. Maybe I would have benefitted from more humor about it, a more relaxed attitude. But I can’t complain. I got a solid foundation. Dad showed respect for women. I never saw him ogle one when we were out and about. He never flirted with a waitress at a restaurant. I didn’t know men did that until I was an adult. To my knowledge he didn’t view porn, the idea of him doing that was preposterous to me. He didn’t subscribe to Playboy; I never saw him in possession of that kind of magazine. I knew those magazines existed – I knew of guys who were devoted ‘readers,’ but Dad was devoted to my mother, as far as I knew.  I respected that about him and wanted that in my own relationship. I was fortunate to find someone who shared those values and we offered those values to our children.

I still think about the idea of ‘love the one you’re with.’ Not with any sense of regret at having chosen the path I did, but wondering what is the healthiest way to view sex? Likely there is not one answer for everyone. Is it the same for men and women, heterosexuals and LGBTQ? Should it be? Are we free and honest enough to talk about it? Maybe the difficulties arise when the individuals involved are on a different page but don’t communicate their feelings. And, maybe that happens more often than we want to admit. As usual, I have more questions than answers.

Contradictions

Note: Some of the material in this blog appeared in a previous post, but I have added content, edited it and, hopefully those who have been reading all along will find it compelling. For newer readers, I hope you enjoy. This is part of a series of pieces I have written about searching for my identity as an adolescent.

Of course, being Jewish was only one part of me. Being a girl presented its own challenges. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just beginning and was quite controversial. On television women were burning their bras outside the Miss America Pageant, at the same time I watched Barbara Eden as Jeannie, in her skimpy harem costume, flirting with Tony the astronaut. She actually called him ‘Master!” Something I didn’t even notice at the time. I wanted to be Barbara Eden. It was confusing.

I wanted to behave like a boy: playing and talking sports. I watched football, basketball, and baseball games with my brothers and uncles. On occasion they let me play touch football with them. I kept the scorecard at their softball games. Title IX was enacted as I was arriving in high school – a bit too late for me.

I wanted to be petite, with long straight hair.  Instead I was built like a peasant; stocky and sturdy, with wiry curly hair. Girls were supposed to be demure and defer to males. I had strong opinions about things. My opinions flew out of my mouth before I could edit them. I wanted to please people which didn’t mesh too well with my headstrong ideas. My impulses were pulling me in opposite directions. It felt like a war inside.

I was full of contradictions. I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up, but I wanted to look stylish and attractive. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. I struggled with two competing thoughts: it is important to be attractive (and the only way to get a guy); it is shallow to want to be attractive. In my heart I didn’t believe I could be pretty, and it was easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

I knew that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures. Even when I was old enough to realize that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was 11 or 12, but well into puberty, and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me. I don’t know why that possibility was so humiliating, but it was.

I wandered the aisles, gathering the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak, and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I knew friendships were based on laughter, shared interests and kindness, not appearances. Yet, I weighed my looks heavily when I took stock of myself.

I would assess myself – I got these qualities from my mom (my smile and large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My Mom and Dad were so different from each other but they were each part of me. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like him. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up every day when she was getting ready for work. She appeared to defer to my father on most subjects. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern.

The mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist easily in me. I wanted to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing journey to womanhood.

My journey did include one successful rebellion against stereotypes. As I became more conscious of the Women’s Liberation movement, I brought it home. After years of feeling that there was an uneven distribution of chores in our house, I exercised my decisiveness when I was in sixth grade – I complained….loudly. My brothers didn’t have to do the dishes after dinner, I did them. It seemed to me their only chores were to take out the garbage, sweep the driveway and mow the lawn. Given that our lawn was the size of a postage stamp, it didn’t require much effort. And there were two of them, and only one of me! Their tasks weren’t required on a daily basis. I made my case to Mom and Dad. Lo and behold, much to my brothers’ dismay, I was successful. Mark made a huge deal about putting his hands in the dirty dishwater, but his argument held no sway. Poor boy! I was only sorry I hadn’t thought to make my case sooner!

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Me – at the age I staged my rebellion. Notice the huge lawn that needed attention!

 

Adventures in Puberty

Mom felt woefully unprepared for her own puberty. When she found blood in her underwear, she thought she was dying. Her mother, my Nana, had said nothing to her about the changes she could expect as she matured into womanhood. Determined not to make the same mistake, Mom was on a mission to provide me with the necessary information. She may have overcompensated.

Mom sat my brothers and me down to tell us the facts of life…at the same time. I assume this explanation was prompted by questions from my oldest brother. The problem was that I was four and a half years younger than him. I think I was five at the time. I wasn’t ready for the birds and the bees yet, at least not at the level that my almost ten-year-old brother needed. I was confused by the information and what I did understand sounded disgusting. Mom meant well, but it was a perplexing start to my girlhood.

Over those early years, I was all too aware of my mother’s menstrual problems. Mom and Dad referred to it as being ‘unwell.’ Dad would say to me, “Mom is unwell, you need to let her rest and…..” fill in the blank with a household chore or errand. As a result, I learned to prepare roast chicken and other meals as a youngster. Mom could be debilitated by heavy bleeding. She had several medical procedures to address it, culminating in a total hysterectomy when she was 42 (I was 16 at the time). She refers to that surgery as the happiest day of her life, exaggerating only a little. I now understand she had fibroids and endometriosis. As a young girl observing this, and for lots of other reasons, I wished I was a boy. But that was not to be – the inexorable maturation process did its thing. And, not only that, it did it on a much earlier timetable than my peers.

I asked Mom about getting a bra at the end of third grade. She seemed taken aback. I don’t think she noticed what seemed obvious to me and was making me very self-conscious. She took me to a store in our local shopping center and I was fitted for a bra. At the beginning of fourth grade, at the age of nine, I was beyond a training bra!

Since I was already afflicted with self-consciousness, being fully developed by fifth grade didn’t help. Even in seventh grade many of my classmates still looked like young girls. I would have given anything to have a flat chest! And, like my mother, I had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. I didn’t feel like I could talk to Mom about it, immersed as she was in her grief since Nana had only recently died.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). The girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have these issues, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. Dr. Holland asked a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room. He asked if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no; thinking to myself I’m 13! It made me wonder if girls my age were having sex.  Apparently, some did, or he wouldn’t have asked the question! Then he asked if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question. I almost asked him to explain but was too embarrassed. I just said no, again.  A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which was weird and uncomfortable but not traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Not everything was bleak during my junior high school years.  In 9th grade I connected with a few girls. We made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Gerri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out – everyone was supposed to eat in the cafeteria (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks away. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived, and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant as we hurried to Lisa’s house. We were walking down Avenue K when we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. Then I realized it was flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We shrieked and ran. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house –  laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. Some kids may have been exhilarated by the adventure, but I took it as a sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year.

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Nana and me. At the beginning of my journey to womanhood, maybe a year before Nana died.

Reality v. Entertainment

fullsizeoutput_d1cI just finished reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, for the second time. Since I don’t remember much about books I read, it may as well have been for the first time. Anyway, it is a coming-of-age story of a girl, Dolores, which begins when she is about 4 years old. Her first vivid memory is of that age because a television was being delivered to her house, a momentous and exciting event. Her family hadn’t owned one before.

The television comes to play a significant role in her troubled life as she uses it as an escape. Dolores retreats to game shows and soap operas when her own life became too painful. The book isn’t about the role of television in our lives, but it got me thinking. While I don’t relate to her behavior exactly, I do know that House Hunter’s International and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show got me through the Bush Administration, Dubya’s that is.

I have established a rule for myself in this new retired life I lead. I won’t turn on the tv until after 5:00 p.m. I think it is a good rule. I’m still not always productive, after all now social media can be a tremendous time waster, but knowing that I can’t turn to television makes the odds better that I spend my time constructively.  It is too bad I didn’t think of that rule when my kids were little (and there was no social media). Sometimes when I felt drained and unmotivated, I sat and watched talk shows, watching a whole day slip away. And, after watching, I felt yet more drained and unmotivated.

Thinking about television brought up another issue: the messages we are fed. My view of myself as a woman was certainly affected by the images presented. I have written about this before (here). I certainly couldn’t measure up to the standards of Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas – though I don’t blame them personally. We were inundated with unrealistic views of women (and men, too, I suppose) in programs and advertisements. I don’t know how much that has changed, though I think there has been some movement to offer more diversity.

But there is something else in the images that television offers that troubles me. We have read a lot about violence on tv and in video games and how that may desensitize people. But, we haven’t read, or at least I haven’t, about the portrait of the criminal justice system – particularly the police.

Gary and I, especially Gary, are fans of police procedurals – like the original Law and Order. We watched Hill Street Blues back in the day and NYPD Blue.  These days Friday nights are spent watching Hawaii Five-O (actually I just keep Gary company for that one, I do crossword puzzles) and Blue Bloods. I know that these shows, all of them, are not depictions of real life, though the better episodes can make me feel real emotion. I have been thinking lately about whether they do damage in how they manipulate you to feel that it is okay to rough up a suspect. They are counting on you to root for the cop, even as he (and it is most often a he) physically and/or mentally abuses a suspected perp (I picked up on the lingo over these many years).

I know we aren’t watching documentaries. But how much license are they taking? I realize that the writers are putting together a 60 minute episode (far fewer minutes with all the commercials) where everything has to be resolved. Actual cases take years to move through the system. That license, to compress events, is less troubling to me.

I don’t know which is worse. If the way interrogations are portrayed is realistic, then we have major problems with police abusing their power. If the picture painted is fabricated, then what is the impact on people’s beliefs about the police? I think the ideas we have about our world are shaped to some degree by the entertainment we consume. Attention, though not enough, has been given to stereotypes of women, African-Americans, and other minorities. Studies have been done on the impact of violent content. But, I’m not aware of discussion of this – is the depiction of the way the police do their work done responsibly on television and in movies? And, if it isn’t, what is the cost of that misrepresentation?

By the way, She’s Come Undone, where I started this blog post, doesn’t get into this question at all. But like all good books, it spurred lots of thought.

Sturm und Drang

Are you afraid I’m going to steal your lunch?” he asked.

I was hunched over the table in the cafeteria of my junior high school when some guy, who I didn’t know, asked me that question. My left arm encircled a Tupperware containing a small chef’s salad, while I shoveled a forkful of lettuce in my mouth with my right hand.

“No,” I mumbled.

I could see how it would look like I was afraid of that, given my posture. But, actually, I was trying to hide what I was eating. I was trying to keep to the Weight Watcher program I had begun six months earlier. Most kids didn’t bring salad to school. I wished I was eating one of those moon pies – a chocolate marshmallow confection of gooey goodness that they sold at school – but none of that for me.

I was humiliated by his question, though I didn’t think he meant to be cruel. He sounded more curious and bemused as he asked it. Still I was relieved that he moved on and left me alone. I continued eating, but tried to look less protective of my salad.

Junior high school was a challenging time. I was still recovering from the death of Nana a year and a half before. I was trying to find my way in my second year at a new school where I knew very few of the other students. The vast majority of my elementary school classmates were zoned for a different junior high. I made it through 7thgrade and now it was the beginning of 9th(I skipped 8thgrade as part of a New York City program that compressed junior high into two years instead of three) and while I was beginning to make some friends, it still wasn’t easy. (I wrote about one aspect of my junior high school experience, the boycott of schools caused by the busing plan in this blog post)

Making matters worse was the fact that I had matured early. I was fully developed which made me self-conscious. I also had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. My situation wasn’t as bad as my mom’s in that when she was that age she would pass out when she got her period. She told me that she had a friend assigned to keep an eye on her when she was in junior high school. Though she shared that story, I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my concerns. I wasn’t passing out, and the thought of someone being assigned to me was completely unacceptable. My goal was to fly as far under the radar as possible. At 13, if I could have blended into the woodwork at school, I would have been happier.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). If memory serves correctly, the girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want to be marked, I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have the issues I had, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I suffered in silence and muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. I remember Dr. Holland asking me a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room with me for that part. He asked me if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no (I was still only 13!). He asked me if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question, so I told him no, again. A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which wasn’t that traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Though I continued to struggle with my menstrual cycle, not everything was bleak during my junior high school years. Eventually I connected with a few girls. Toward the end of 9thgrade, a couple of us made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Geri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out –  everyone had to eat in the cafeteria, no one was allowed to leave for lunch (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks from school. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant and excited as we hurried to Lisa’s house. As we were walking down Avenue K, we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. I saw flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We started shrieking and running. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house – we were laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. We took it as some kind of sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year. I don’t think any of us did.

I ended my junior high school career on a high note. I was given an award – the Ben Ramer Memorial Award – for outstanding female athlete. When they told me about it, that I would receive it at the graduation ceremony, I was incredulous. The thing was there were no opportunities for girls to participate in sports, other than gym. There were no teams. We did the Presidential Fitness Program and we had physical education, but that was the extent of it. I couldn’t imagine how they determined I should get the award. I felt undeserving, but proud, nonetheless.

Mom and I went shopping for a graduation dress and found one that I felt pretty good wearing, which was saying a lot for me. Graduation day was humid with intermittent showers, which perfect for my hair! It curled just the way I wanted it to, the humidity calmed the frizz. I wore white platform heels and managed to walk across the stage without stumbling. After all of the Sturm und Drang of my junior high school years, things were looking up. I looked forward to a new beginning in high school.

Marital Moments (no, not that kind!)

It was 1990. We had just celebrated Daniel’s first birthday, and Leah was fast approaching three years old. I was working full time for the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review (LCER). Gary was finishing the first year of his Endocrine Fellowship. The kids were in daycare at Kidskeller. Those are the facts.

Gary and I were managing, barely. Financially the ends were just meeting, some months they weren’t. Emotionally we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Here was a typical day in the Spring of 1990:

We got up at 6:30 a.m., if we weren’t already awoken by one or both of the kids. If we were lucky we had gotten 6 hours of sleep, on a good night. We got ourselves and the kids ready for the day, packed up the bags for daycare, ate breakfast and got in the car (we could only afford one). We drove to Kidskeller, an easy ten-minute ride from the house. Each of us took one child and got them settled, then met back at the car. Gary drove me downtown (another ten minutes) and dropped me off in front of the Daily Grind where I would get coffee. He went on to work, parking the car at the VA Medical Center. I walked the rest of the four blocks to my office. At least two or three times a week I took a bus during my lunch break to look in on Leah and Dan at Kidskeller. Even if it was only 10 minutes each, it made me feel better to see them. Then I took the bus back and continued my workday. At 5:00 p.m. I went back through the revolving door of my office building, leaving every thought about work behind and caught the bus again. This time I went to get the car at the VA parking lot. I’d go pick up the kids and bring them home. I made us dinner and we ate. Usually around 7:00 pm I’d get a call from Gary that he was ready to leave work. I loaded Leah and Dan in the car and drove to either the VA or Albany Med to pick him up. We got home and began the bedtime routine. Then we did it all over again the next day.

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Gary in his office at the VA (sometime around 1990-91)

Given the demands of our lives, there wasn’t much margin for things going wrong. If the car broke down or someone got sick, we had to scramble.

This isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t joy. Watching Leah and Daniel emerge, their unique personalities flower, was a source of pleasure and pride. But, there wasn’t much time devoted to Gary and my relationship. There wasn’t much left at the end of the day, so perhaps the events surrounding this particular experience are understandable in that context (I can write that with 25 years of perspective between then and now).

On rare occasions my work required overnight travel. Fortunately, I would know long enough in advance so that Gary was able to coordinate his schedule, and/or we called upon family members to help fill in. This particular time I had a trip planned to Mineola (Long Island). Dan was still recovering from his second bout of Coxsackie virus, a particularly unpleasant illness that involved blisters on his lips and in his mouth. Gary was able to adjust his work responsibilities so that he was home that day. The plan called for me to arrive back in Albany by 5:00 p.m. so he could then go to the hospital.

My colleague, Debra, and I left the night before so that we could get to the office in Mineola bright and early, leaving us a full morning to conduct interviews and review files as the project required. We were scheduled to make a stop early in the afternoon at a Westchester office to conduct another interview and then go back to Albany.

We arrived at the Mineola office as scheduled at 8:00 a.m. We parked in the garage under the building, as we had been directed. We took the elevator up and began our work day. So far, so good. We were there about 90 minutes when an alarm sounded. An announcement came over the loudspeaker advising us that this wasn’t a drill, we needed to evacuate the building immediately. We left without our coats.

As we got to the street, we were directed away from the building. We were told there was a bomb threat. We heard a multitude of sirens and saw police cars blocking the entrances and exits to the building and its garage. We saw German Shepherds being brought into the building. We were told this was going to take a while. I looked at my watch, it was nearing 11:00 a.m. I felt panic rising. I thought I better call Gary (this was before cell phones – they may have existed, but I certainly didn’t have one).

Debra and I went in search of a pay phone. We crossed the street and found a department store which had a bank of phones. I scrounged change from my purse and placed the call. I told Gary about the bomb threat.

“I wanted to let you know what was going on. We’ve been evacuated from the building and I don’t know how long it is going to take,” I explained.

“You need to leave and come back home,” Gary replied.

“I can’t. The car is parked under the building.”

“I don’t care. Get in the car and leave.”

“I don’t have my keys either – they’re in my coat pocket which I had to leave in the building.”

“Go back to building…”

“What are you saying, Gary? You want me to go through the police barrier? Are you fucking serious?!”

Debra was standing next to me, listening to this conversation, making no move to leave and give me some privacy. I think she was enjoying the show.  I was angry and embarrassed. I put my hand over the receiver and asked her to go check to see if the building was still sealed off. Reluctantly she left.

Gary continued, “Well, if you aren’t going to get back in time, you better arrange a baby-sitter!”

“I’m on Long Island, for Christ’s sake! I don’t have phone numbers or enough change! You need to do it!”

“I’m not finding a sitter! I can’t not go in to the hospital, Linda, you know that! I need to round on my patients! You need to figure this out!”

“I might still get back in time. I’ll call when I know.” And I hung up.

As I took a few deep breaths, I rifled through my bag and found the number for the person Debra and I were supposed to interview in the afternoon. I called, apologized and told him I would have to reschedule. One less thing to worry about.

I left the department store and went to find Debra. I was none too happy with her either, but I had no choice. We needed to finish our assignment.

It was just after noon when we got the all clear to return to the building. We went back into the office and finished up our paperwork as quickly as possible. We got our things together and got on the road before 1:00 p.m. Assuming we didn’t hit crazy traffic, never a good assumption, I would get back in time.

The entire ride back, I stewed. I couldn’t believe Gary wanted me to go back in the building. I felt humiliated. This was not something I could ever tell my dad – he probably wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. This from the guy who had come over to my apartment with a baseball bat when he couldn’t reach me on the phone? That same guy wanted me to ignore a bomb threat serious enough to evacuate a building and call in search dogs?

We made it back to Albany with no further delays. I dropped Debra off at her apartment and drove home. I took a deep breath as I came up the stairs to our house. I opened the door and found Dan in his highchair while Gary offered him applesauce. Leah was also sitting at the table, starting to eat her dinner. I greeted the kids. Gary and I didn’t say much to each other, just exchanged essential information like when Dan had last had Tylenol. I took over giving Dan and Leah dinner. Gary left for the hospital.

Over the next days and weeks, we returned to our routines, going through the motions. I couldn’t just sweep it under the rug, though. Eventually, one day, after we dropped the kids off at daycare, we were in the car as Gary drove me to work, I brought it up. “I don’t understand how you could ask that of me,” I began. I expected an apology. I didn’t get one. Instead Gary described how demanding his work was, how stressed he was, how hard it was to meet the standards of his mentor, Dr. Goodman. I got out of the car feeling even worse.

I made a mistake in bringing it up when we had less than ten minutes to discuss it, since we both had to be at work. I arrived at my office upset, frustrated, angry and sad. Not a great recipe for productivity either.

I can’t tie a bow around this story. We didn’t come to a sweet resolution. We just kept going. Circumstances got better as time passed. Leah and Daniel got older and more self-sufficient. I went to a four day work schedule. Gary finished training and went into private practice. His hours were still long and the work demanding, but the financial strain slowly but surely relaxed. We found bits of time here and there to devote to each other. Damage had been done to our relationship. It took a long time to rebuild, and there were other low points (though not as dramatic), but we survived….together.

 

The Art (?) of Asking a Question

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Graphic from Signalvnoise.com

Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.

I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”

He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.

I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.

“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.

“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.

This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.

As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.

Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.

We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.

In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”

This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.

Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!

While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.

Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.

This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?

So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?