Moral Clarity

Image taken from Apple.com

Moral clarity. Those were the words that came to mind when I learned that Rep. John Lewis had died. He had a moral compass and followed it. I asked my husband, “Is that a rare quality?” Gary thought about it for a bit and said, “I don’t know.” “It sure seems like it is,” I responded.

I can’t help but compare our current president, who clearly doesn’t have a moral molecule in his heartless body, to John Lewis. There is no comparison. In fact, I can’t bring myself to type Trump’s name in the same sentence.

 After thinking for a bit, Gary looked at me, “You have moral clarity.”

“Really?”

Wow, that’s a major compliment. I thanked him but know that I am not in the same category – it is embarrassing to even write this. My family gives me more credit than I deserve for doing the right thing. I fall short often.

Thinking about John Lewis’s life I can’t help but be awed by his courage, consistency and vision. If I have moral clarity, I have not come close to living it in the way that he did. Some people live big lives. John Lewis did.  Why? What is the difference between those that lead on a national or international stage and those that don’t. I’m thinking it is a combination of having a compelling vision, a willingness to step up, a calling to shoulder responsibility, and seizing the opportunity to act.

Maybe the truth is that we all have opportunities to act, and either we don’t step up or we try and fail. Perhaps we don’t have the courage required to put ourselves on the line  – there is so much to fear, from losing a job to physical harm. Or maybe we try but don’t have the leadership qualities that inspire others, or maybe we don’t offer a message that resonates. It is amazing to think that John Lewis was 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. So young and to already have ascended to that height! His willingness to put his body – his very life – on the line by participating in the Freedom Rides and the protests in Selma, among other activities, is awe inspiring.

I’m trying to think of times I have been in the presence of someone who had that kind of vision, determination and integrity. I can’t think of any. I can think of times I saw a speech on television that moved me. Mario Cuomo’s and Barack Obama’s convention speeches come to mind. But, again, that is different than a Black man sitting at a ‘Whites Only’ lunch counter and waiting for the painful consequences. Taking action is a different animal than soaring oratory. We need both to stir change. John Lewis did both – he used words and actions.

I think about my father who had a very strong sense of right and wrong and he communicated that in no uncertain terms to his children. The three of us benefitted from the clarity of his vision. He was a chapter chair in the teachers’ union and walked the picket line in New York City as a teacher in the 1960s, but he didn’t march on Washington or go to other protests. I wish I could talk to him about his choices. I’m not judging him – he lived an admirable life. I do wonder what he would say about leadership and courage, especially in this moment when both seem to be in such short supply.

We are living at a time where there is a paucity of leadership on the national level, certainly a lack of leadership that embraces an ethical code. We have a leader – we have a president. But he is so devoid of values, he has failed us miserably during this pandemic (and in addressing the systemic inequalities that the pandemic has made glaringly obvious).

I miss John Lewis already. Knowing his voice was out there gave me comfort. I know there are people doing good work, courageous work, trying to steer this country in a healthier direction. I hope leaders emerge who can bring us together. I am keeping an eye out for them.

Why Violence?

Night and day (Photo on left: AP/Alex Brandon; Photo on right: AP/Seth Wenig)

I watch with horror the violence and destruction that seems to accompany peaceful protest. I admire the protesters, the ‘wall of moms,’ and believe they are acting in good faith. Who is to blame for the fact that it devolves into riot? Is it because the response by the police and ‘troopers,’ (from whatever Federal agency they may come – which is another troubling issue) are so aggressive? Is it troublemakers who seize an opportunity? Is it both? Who is benefitting from the chaos? And, is it really chaos? How much violence and destruction is there really? These days, when where you get your information makes such a difference in your reality, it is hard to know what to believe.

I have attended a number of protests in my life. Gary and I went to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. I’ve gone to several Planned Parenthood demonstrations. I went to show support for our local Jewish Community Center after it had been targeted with anti-Semitic bomb threats. All of them were peaceful. None of them were held at night. Something seems to change at night. Why?

I continue to reflect on the role that law enforcement plays in our society. I wrote about it previously here. I have been thinking about my own experiences. I am my father’s daughter and that means that I have an instinctive negative reaction to authority figures – at least those who are heavy-handed. Dad left the Air Force as soon as he could; the culture of taking orders without question wasn’t a good fit.

Fortunately, I have had minimal interactions with police officers, other than a few speeding tickets. The blaring siren, the lights flashing in your rearview mirror and the realization that it is directed at me gets the adrenaline flowing full force, even though I know that I haven’t done anything seriously wrong. I have been envious of friends who have been able to sweet talk their way out the ticket. I don’t have that skill set. On those rare occasions when I have been stopped, I try to curb that instinctive resentment (sometimes not that successfully), minimize the interaction, obey their direction, and move on.

Once back in the late ‘80s, Gary and I were pulled over in Brooklyn. We were heading to a friend for Sunday brunch and wanted to pick up a cake or pie, so we were looking for a bakery or grocery store in an unfamiliar neighborhood. As a result, Gary was driving a little erratically – stopping and starting, pulling over to the side to see if shops were open. Next thing we know, we hear the siren from a patrol car and look back to see we were being flagged down. After the police officer explained why he stopped us, we understood his concern, but the officer was more than a little rude and condescending in questioning us. Gary was very respectful (more than I would have been capable of being), explaining what we were looking for, producing his driver’s license and registration. When the interaction was over, we breathed a sigh of relief. We agreed that the cop seemed to take pleasure in his power trip, he enjoyed seeing us quaking in our boots.

On the other hand, we had a positive experience with a state trooper in Pennsylvania. Our car broke down and we managed to pull over on the shoulder of the highway. It was cold and damp out. Within minutes a patrol car arrived. The trooper radioed for assistance and let us sit in his warm, dry car until the AAA tow truck came. We took the trooper’s name and Gary wrote a letter to the state police to thank him for his service.

In both of those instances, we did not fear for our lives. The two interactions were very different, but even in the case of the unpleasant police officer, we weren’t concerned that we would be arrested, abused or killed. I would not have labeled it as ‘white privilege’ at the time, but we both recognize it as such now.

My feelings about the police includes quite a range of emotion, including fear, respect, resentment and appreciation. I guess it depends on the circumstances.

Many years ago, when we lived in the city of Albany, we heard screaming coming from our neighbor’s house. Our house was set on higher ground so we could see into the apartment, the curtains were not drawn. Upon hearing the sounds of distress, I looked out our bedroom window and saw a woman being chased by a man from one room to another. I waited a minute or two to see if things calmed down. They didn’t – I thought she was in danger. I didn’t know the couple despite the fact that they lived next door. I called 911. Fortunately, they responded quickly, and it appeared that they successfully deescalated the situation. I was grateful to be able to call upon them. The incident was never repeated.

As far as I know, that was a success story. I know it doesn’t always go that way. The couple, by the way, were Black. That scenario raises a lot of questions. Is that the role of the police? Who would I have called if the police were no longer assigned that responsibility?  I suppose there could be another service, but what would that look like? There are so many unknowns in a situation like that. The man or woman could have had a gun; mental illness or drugs/alcohol could have had a role. Whoever responded to the call wouldn’t know what they were walking into.

I guess that is one of the problems at the root of this. We don’t know what we are dealing with and the situation can evolve. A peaceful protest may be proceeding without incident until it isn’t. A loud argument between people can turn violent. I attended a training for school resource officers several years ago where one of the presenters explained that police are taught to gain control of the situation – their mindset is to shut things down and get the upper hand. While that strategy makes sense in one way, in another it may be counterproductive, especially when someone is angry or desperate and wants to be heard.

It is clear to me that law enforcement needs to improve its ability to deescalate rather than inflame. In the meanwhile, as protest continues and may even be spreading, I pray it can happen without destruction, injuries or deaths.

The Dance of the Mask

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Masks ready for my next foray into a public space

As I understand the directive in New York State, you are supposed to be masked (nose and mouth covered) if you are in public when you can’t keep the appropriate physical distance (six feet). Seems simple, but it isn’t.

Some of the complexity I understand – I am confused by what it means in some circumstances (more on that in a bit). Most situations are crystal clear so when people aren’t masked inside stores then they are being defiant or selfish or both. I’m happy to report that the vast majority of folks I see when I go to the Price Chopper are doing it right.

I must confess that I don’t like wearing a mask. I am someone who, under ordinary circumstances, sweats a lot. If I walk around the block, I will be perspiring pretty much regardless of the weather. It is just a fact of my life. My forehead and face get damp easily. Wearing a mask makes it worse. I also wear glasses – contact lenses are not an option for a variety of reasons. The combination of these factors means that I am often looking at the world through fogged up lenses. I need a defroster. Someone should invent glasses that have that feature. Maybe windshield wipers?

Despite this inconvenience, I wear the mask. It isn’t comfortable, it isn’t pleasant, but I wear it. I don’t want to put others or myself at risk.

Now to the grey areas and questions I have…

Sometimes I see people driving in their car with their masks on. I wonder why. If they have passengers that would explain it. But many times, they are alone. I don’t wear my mask if I am alone in my car or if I am riding with my husband. Am I missing something?

The other day I stopped to put gas in my car. There were four other people getting gas at the other pumps. No one had their mask on. I did. Though we were outside, I didn’t think we were distant enough to go without. Again, am I missing something? Why weren’t others wearing their masks?

I wonder about the etiquette of mask wearing when outside in public. I don’t live in a densely populated area. When I go out to walk in the neighborhood, I am able to keep an appropriate distance even if I see someone else. Should I still be wearing my mask under those circumstances? Given that it makes me even warmer and that my glasses fog up, I prefer not to, but I also want to do the right thing. For all I know, my neighbors are grumbling, “why isn’t she masked?” Though, generally, when I see other walkers or bike riders on my street they aren’t masked either. Maybe I can stop fretting about this one.

If I walk in a more heavily trafficked area, I will have my mask on or at the ready so that I can mask up if I approach other people. I will give others a wide berth on the sidewalk and appreciate when others do that for me. Here is my question in this scenario: if all parties are wearing masks, do you need to still to be six feet apart? Can you just walk by each other without taking a detour into the street or onto the grass?

I got an estimate for some work to be done on our deck. The guy came to the house, he rang the doorbell and he backed away to keep an appropriate distance. I opened the door and asked him to go around back so we could talk by the deck. He was wearing a mask when he rang the bell, but it only covered his mouth. I wore my mask when I went outside to meet him in the backyard. I saw him adjust his to cover his nose and it stayed that way for about two minutes before it slid down. He didn’t fix it. I was wondering if I should say something to him. This is another etiquette question. I don’t feel comfortable correcting people on their mask usage. In this case, we were outside, and I could back away when his mask slipped, so I let it go.

To be honest, though, I have never asked someone to adjust their mask, even when I have been in a store. It is all so fraught. I don’t want to be in a viral video where someone goes nuts in response to being called out for not abiding by the rules. I don’t envy store employees who have to enforce the policy. What a thankless, and possibly dangerous, job. It is hard to believe we have come to a point where someone would actually pull a gun (this happened in a Walmart, of course) when admonished to put on a mask. It’s craziness!

I find it very stressful thinking about it all the time and trying to figure out the right way to handle each situation. As I said before, sometimes it is totally clear – other than when I am in my own house, if I am indoors, I am masked. But there are all these other situations where I do this dance. I worry whether I am doing it right and then I worry whether others are. I don’t want to think about it anymore! Maybe it would be simpler to just wear it all the time.

 

White Privilege

Not that long ago ‘check your privilege’ was being bandied about. A white male student wrote a piece in the Princeton college newspaper in 2014 calling attention to the use of the phrase. Some were resentful of the comment (including the writer of that column), some were confused by it and others welcomed the dialogue. That conversation seemed to be limited to college campuses, then the moment faded away. Now we are in another moment where this idea of ‘privilege’ has currency – maybe this time it will have more traction. The murder of George Floyd was the latest example of brutality inflicted on an African American man that would be very unlikely to happen to a white one. While it is troubling to label that difference in treatment a privilege because one would hope that any living being would be treated with more respect than Mr. Floyd was afforded, what should we call it if not privilege?

My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about that idea. “I wish there was another way to say it,” Gary commented. “People reject the idea of privilege immediately, like it doesn’t apply to them. They say, ‘no one gave me anything,’ or ‘I worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.’ It’s hard to get people to see it.” Gary was reflecting on his experience talking with a range of people who come through his office – not that it comes up that often, but when it does, he has found resistance. I know he isn’t alone.

People can only see things through their own experience. If they didn’t grow up wealthy, and then they achieved a measure of success after working hard, it can be hard to accept that they were still advantaged (if that can be a verb). We want to believe in a meritocracy and that we earned what we have achieved. But the advantages can be taken for granted, and there is no reward for calling attention to it. The status quo has a lot invested in protecting itself.

The first time I read about the ‘invisible knapsack’ (otherwise known as white privilege) was in 2001. I was participating in training to be a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in their World of Difference program. The World of Difference program is a multicultural awareness effort that had a number of components, some geared to schools, others to workplaces. I participated in five full days of exercises, each designed to examine our assumptions about all the ‘isms’ (racism, ableism, sexism, etc.) in our society. Though I had always been socially-conscious, or thought I was, I learned a great deal about the insidious ways that our biases impact our behavior. On one of the early days of the training, we were given an article to read (I highly recommend it:

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack).

 

That article was first published in 1989, 31 years ago. I read it 19 years ago. It is getting attention again now.

Interestingly, the same has happened with video from a PBS special, broadcast originally in 1976. That video (written about in an article in the New York Times recently (https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/100000006654178/rosedale-documentary-where-are-they-now.html or you can watch the original documentary here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv0n1xfNf1E&t=3619s) is from a Bill Moyers piece on Rosedale (Queens). Rosedale is the neighborhood where Gary grew up. Last week I reposted Gary’s essay on an incident that happened to him when he was a child.

On the one hand, I find this all very discouraging. We have been having the same conversation for most of my life and yet it still comes as ‘news’ to many. I don’t understand that. On the other hand, there finally seems to be more widespread acceptance of the existence of systemic racism. I am hopeful that maybe now we can finally make some meaningful change. In the course of a given day, my mood can shift from optimism on one hand to despair on the other.

I take comfort in the words of our former president, Barack Obama, when he points out that we have made progress – that for all the anger, pain and disappointment caused by continuing tragedies, we have made steps forward. Despite the setbacks, and reminders that there is still much work to be done, there are more opportunities for African Americans in America today than there was when I was born (in 1959). Of course, that isn’t enough, as we see every day, we haven’t made nearly enough progress.

One of the things I have realized over the course of my career as a school board member and as a trainer of school board members is that we need to periodically refresh our knowledge of the fundamentals. We think, since we are doing the work day-to-day, that we know the essentials. But the truth is, we forget, or at least lose sight of them. In the midst of whatever crisis, we are facing, or even when we are carrying out the mundane day-to-day tasks, we stop thinking about the fundamentals. We can easily lose our way. That is why continuing education is critical in every field – medicine, law, every workplace. It isn’t just that we need to learn about new developments, we need to be refreshed on the core values that inform our work. There is always more to learn and more awareness to be had – and this applies to being a citizen of a democracy. I hope Americans are willing to do the work.

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Thoughts on Neighborhoods and Change

Note: This is an edited and reworked piece that I thought was timely. I continue to struggle with what is happening in our nation. The combination of Covid-19 and racism is toxic. I can only hope that we come through it to a better place, having begun to reckon with our history. I will look for opportunities to do my part. I think writing about difficult subjects, which many find hard to talk about, is one way. I would like to have those conversations. I’m not sure how to go about doing it other than to post it here. I welcome other perspectives.

In 1980 I was in graduate school. I lived in a studio apartment on West 80th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan in a building owned by Columbia University.  Gentrification was taking place right before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working-class people were displaced. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered; boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer.

I commuted to campus by subway. I gave careful thought to my route to the station to avoid the junkies and panhandlers. My shoulders hunched, eyes surveying the street, almost always in daylight, I walked quickly. I welcomed the neighborhood changes that allowed me to relax my shoulders.

These issues of community change were being discussed in my grad school classes. The question was: Can the market provide low- and middle-income housing when there is so much more money to be made in high-end housing? What is the incentive to create housing for the poor and working class? Is the government’s role to create that incentive? If so, how should it do it effectively? Almost 40 years later, we are still grappling with those questions. Meanwhile gentrification has marched through other areas of the city, particularly Brooklyn, the borough where I grew up.

I had reason to think about the changes wrought over the last three decades in New York City when I did the Five Boro Bike Tour, cycling through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn in 2018. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were hollowed out, drug infested and crime-ridden. I wouldn’t have considered visiting either one, much less bike through them. In contrast, in 2018 I cycled past art galleries and craft beer breweries.

I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. Gentrification is understood to be a bad thing especially for poor, immigrant communities. Activists who fight it paint a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While there is truth to that portrait, I think it is oversimplified.

There isn’t one monolithic army encroaching all at once – there isn’t one homogenous group of rich, white people. We need to acknowledge that when demographics are changing, it is a dynamic process. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that contributes to the failure to integrate. Some may come to a neighborhood expecting their every need to be accommodated, without regard to those already there. But, not all come with that baggage. Some may come precisely to live and/or raise families in a diverse community.

I may be particularly sensitive to integrating across economic class based on my experience moving into a suburban development outside of Albany, NY. I grew up thinking suburbs were homogenous, but I learned otherwise as an adult. In my subdivision there were those who were stretching to their financial limit to live there, and there were others for whom it was very comfortable (my family fell into this latter category).

Our daughter became friends with a girl down the block. We made overtures to invite the whole family over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments, I came to believe that the Mom made assumptions about us because my husband is a doctor. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something more. They were of more modest means. We never got beyond neighborly friendliness. Eventually they moved away. An opportunity was lost to both of us. Economic differences can create awkwardness. It is something that is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about.

Economic status can be one barrier within communities, race is certainly another. Canarsie, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, underwent a huge change in racial composition. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification.

In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie.  My junior high school was 98% white. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan was received with tremendous hostility by white parents. A group was organized, Concerned Citizens of Canarsie (CCC), to protest. The choice of CCC as a name, which carried echoes of the KKK, was probably purposeful. The CCC slogan ‘neighborhood schools for neighborhood children’ seemed reasonable enough on the surface. A car, with a bullhorn on the roof, cruised through the neighborhood admonishing parents to keep their children home. The vast majority listened. Even though I was only 13, I believed that racism and fear was at the heart of their objections.

A boycott of the schools went on for weeks. I was alone in my 9th grade classes; just a teacher and me. I remember walking in the main entrance through a path defined by uniformed police and sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. My sense that the parents were racist was born out by their behavior.

Ultimately, the boycott failed and the busing plan was implemented. There was personal fallout; my friendship with Pia got caught in the crossfire.

Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to attend better schools and escape the violence. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them. After the boycott, Pia never invited me to hang out at her house again and she kept her distance at school.

In the aftermath, there was some white flight, but the neighborhood remained stable for a number of years. In 1972 Canarsie was about 10% black, by 1990 it shifted to just under 20%. By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. While the racial composition changed, its economic status remained stable as a middle class neighborhood.

Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians sought years before. According to a New York Times article from 2001, “Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family…”

These were shared values, but the white residents didn’t see it. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 after the firebombing of a real estate agency that was showing homes to black families. Ironically, the firebombing was intended to frighten blacks away, but white families left. The neighborhood became homogenous again – today it is over 90% black.

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Me in front of our house in the mid 1970s in Canarsie

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My block in Canarsie from GoogleMaps taken in 2018

In reading and thinking about the issue of neighborhood change, commonalities emerge. Problems start with assumptions based on stereotypes and ignorance. There aren’t effective mechanisms to get beyond that. We have no language to talk to each other about these subjects. Perhaps that is something we can remedy.

One essay I read analogized different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. Maybe neighborhoods can be helped to mature beyond the ‘toddler’ stage. Perhaps opportunities can be created, by local government structures or nonprofit organizations, to facilitate community conversations, to break down assumptions and stereotypes.

We must find ways to do better. Forty years from now, I hope we aren’t asking the same questions about how to integrate communities across race and economic status.

Reconsidering Hugging and Kissing

NOTE: I wrote a blog post years ago about my discomfort with hugging and kissing. In the wake of the pandemic, I am revisiting the topic. Some of the essay that follows is from the original post, but I have reframed it, added some memories and raised new questions. I also have new readers! I welcome everyone’s thoughts on the topic, so please comment!

It has been a long time since I hugged anyone other than Gary (my husband) or Roger and Raffa (my cats). In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I am lucky that I have a partner and pets. Many are not so fortunate. It is hard to imagine how lonely that must feel.

It may surprise long-time readers of the blog to hear that I am wistful for hugs. I have written previously about my awkwardness around, some may say reluctance to engage in, hugging. Having spent a solid two months without them, I am reconsidering my position.

The list of people I have been comfortable hugging and kissing is short: my husband, my two children, my mother and my two cats. I don’t understand my unease, but I can testify that it dates back to my earliest memories.

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Roger and me

When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave.  I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.

I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, I was uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, valued our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Did we have to touch? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?

As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s (my maternal grandmother) cousins. He would cajole me; practically chasing me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old home movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I was about two years old in the film, which would have made him five. I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I escaped. The film had no audio, so I don’t know what was being said.  I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.

I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?

I also have memories of my Dad negotiating with me for a hug. Dad was bald and he told us his hair fell off his head and grew on the rest of his body – he had a hairy chest, arms and legs. I believed his explanation far longer than I should have. I remember agreeing to the hug if he put on a shirt that covered the hair.

I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my discomfort with getting kissed, he told me he had a secret and when I bent down to listen, he planted one on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped. I have always been gullible (see the paragraph above!) so falling for the ruse is no surprise. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.

In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face turn bright red. I hoped no one noticed.

When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. I don’t, however, doubt our affection for each other. We visit often; we keep in touch. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.

But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at a recent family gathering (before coronavirus), I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly gave my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am giving them a squeeze! I can’t resist my granddaughter’s cheeks; they must be kissed (though I try to attend to her body language so that I don’t overdo it). With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek. Aunt Clair is quite explicit: “Give me a kiss, Sunshine,” she will say as she presents her cheek to me. It is equally clear with my brothers; we will just wish each other well as we smile and nod. After that, it is all iffy. There is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

When I first entered the workforce in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for men and women to kiss in greeting or at the conclusion of a meeting. Women weren’t often in positions of authority back then, more likely we were the secretary, an administrative assistant or low-level staffer. It is hard to imagine, in that setting of a business meeting, but I clearly recall the practice. By the end of my career that was no longer the case, unless the individuals were personal friends. If there was any physical contact, it was a handshake. Maybe that gesture will fade away, too, in the wake of coronavirus. Will anything be lost if it does?

As with many aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away? Why am I conflicted?

And, now, I wonder: will this period of enforced separation change how we feel about it? Will some be more reticent, fearing germs? Will others be starved for contact?

How will I feel the next time I gather with family and friends – when social distancing eases? I can imagine wanting to connect with a hug, to show my appreciation for the fact that we are together again. I may even have to consider the possibility of hugging my brothers! What a revolutionary thought! Would they be ready for that?

What Have I Learned?

NOTE: I want to give a shout out to my brother Steven. Today is his birthday. Happy birthday, Steve! I know your options for celebrating are limited given the pandemic, but I hope it helps to know that we Baksts are celebrating you! Enjoy your day. Now back to the blog….

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, as I frequently do during this time of quarantine. I came across an interesting tweet. Nate Silver, author of The Signal and the Noise and founder of FiveThirtyEight, asked the following poll question: “Okay, which of the following is closest to the mark for you?”

  1. I thought I was an extrovert, and social distancing has made me realize I’m even more of an extrovert than I thought.
  2. I thought I was an extrovert, but social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an introvert than I thought.
  3. I thought I was an introvert, and social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an introvert than I thought.
  4. I thought I was an introvert, but social distancing has made me realize I’m more of an extrovert than I thought.*

*Results are below

One thing about this strange time we are in, many of us have an opportunity to reflect on this kind of question. This one resonated with me. I wasn’t sure how I would answer it.

I considered whether I am an introvert or extrovert. I recall taking a survey once where I was characterized as an introvert, but with some extrovert qualities. I think that sounds about right. I am certainly introspective, as my blog entries probably make clear. But that isn’t the whole story.

If a person observed me at a meeting at work, they might think I am an extrovert. I was never shy about expressing my opinions to management– sometimes to my detriment. On the other hand, depending on the occasion, if you watched me at a social event, you might see someone struggling to connect. And, before that social event, you would see someone dreading the prospect of making small talk and having to be ‘on.’ But, you wouldn’t actually see that, would you? You wouldn’t see what was going on internally. You might look over and see me laughing and think “she looks pretty comfortable.” I’ve been told I have a hearty laugh and that may lead you to conclude I’m an extrovert. That isn’t how it feels to me, though.

When I was in graduate school, I became close friends with a fellow student, Sally. She once commented, “You’re so bubbly,” or something to that effect. I had never thought that was an adjective that would be used to describe me. Sally was quite reserved. When we finished school, coincidentally we took jobs in the same office. We would attend meetings and I marveled at how she kept a perfect poker face. I could not tell what she was thinking. I’m not sure if it was a cultural thing, her personality, a concerted effort on her part or a combination of all of that, but she did not readily show her emotions. I did, I can’t help myself. I’m either nodding along with what the speaker is saying or shaking my head in disagreement. From Sally’s vantage point, I may have been bubbly, but that also may have been relative to her own nature.

Some of what I struggle with in answering Nate Silver’s poll question is the difference between how others might perceive me versus how I see myself.

Another part of the problem in answering the question is defining what it means to be an introvert or extrovert. One way to think of it is to ask whether you prefer solitary pursuits or group activities. I would fall into neither category – my preference would be to do something with one or two people – does that constitute a group? I enjoy alone time, but I need social connection, too. I prefer that to happen in small gatherings, though.

Another way to look at the definition is whether you are a person energized by spending time with people or if that leaves you exhausted. I definitely need solitude to recharge. Again, I can enjoy a party, but only up to a point. Then I want to gracefully exit and be quiet. I am rarely the last to leave, even if it is my own house! I might escape for a walk or go up to my room for a few moments of peace. I am definitely not energized when it is over.

When this shut down first started, I admit feeling relieved. In the beginning it wasn’t dramatically different from my regular life. Since retiring five years ago, I spend a lot of my time reading and writing. One thing I have often struggled with is competing impulses. On the one hand, I like my solitude; on the other, I have a fear of missing out. I wanted to be part of the social whirl, to be part of the in crowd. But, then I didn’t, it exhausted me. When this enforced social distancing began, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I wonder when this is over if I will go back to fighting with myself, or if I will have reached peace.

So, what has this quarantine experience taught me about whether I am introvert or extrovert? My answer is not found in the choices Nate Silver offered. Instead, I would submit the following: I thought I was an introvert, and I am. But, I need social connection more than I was willing to admit and I need changes of scenery. For the time being I am satisfied by the social connection provided by technology. Visiting via FaceTime or another of the video platforms works pretty well for me. It doesn’t, however, fulfill my desire to hug my children and grandchild.

My craving for a change in scenery has been a revelation. This may not be exactly relevant to where on the continuum of introversion to extroversion I fall, but it is an understanding I’ve reached since spending so much time in my house. I love my house, but enough already! Even more than seeing people, I crave a day trip to somewhere, anywhere! And not just a ride in the car, or a drive to take a hike along a waterway. I want to go to another town, try a new restaurant, go to a museum or movie, wander the streets of New York or Boston. I took those possibilities for granted before – the freedom to get in the car or hop on Amtrak to go somewhere. The only thing I miss more than that freedom is hanging out with my children and granddaughter.

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The view out my kitchen window. I know I am lucky to have something so lovely, but I still need a change of scenery!

*Here are the results of Nate Silver’s unscientific poll:

Extrovert, extrovert    10.3%

Extrovert, introvert     12.7%

Introvert, introvert     51.1%

Introvert, extrovert     26%

Just under 40% have learned something different about themselves. It is interesting that such a large percentage said they were introverts. This is not a randomized sample. It may reflect that people who follow Silver’s twitter feed are more likely to be nerds (guilty! Sort of). But the results also suggest that a number of folks (26%) are figuring out that they have more of a need to be with people than they previously thought. Maybe that’s a good thing.

How would you have answered the poll question?  Have you had any surprises about yourself as a result of spending so much time home?

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I miss New York City! Hoping we can go back soon!

A Theater Experience and More

I went to the theater on Saturday night with my friend Deborah. We were celebrating her 60th birthday. We have been friends for about 57 of those years. Pretty impressive! I feel very fortunate to have a friend of such long standing. We grew up together; she lived next door to me in Canarsie.  Today we can speak in shorthand. If I mention a cousin, aunt or uncle, not only do I not need to explain who that person is, she likely has met them multiple times. And, she remembers my Dad, and my Nana and Zada.  If she talks about her aunts, uncles or cousins, I know them and usually know something about her relationship to them, warts and all. It is a special thing to share all of that history.

Which got me thinking. Sometimes on some interviews I see on television or podcasts I listen to, people will be asked about how long they have been friends with someone. They might respond, “A long time – 7 years.” I think to myself, that’s a drop in the bucket. My ‘newest’ friend is someone I’ve known for more than 20 years. Maybe that’s because I’m 60. If you’re 40, naturally you’d have friends of more recent vintage. But still, 7 years? Maybe it’s because my life is predictable – I’ve lived in the same house for 26 years, I haven’t changed jobs, etc. If your life is less rooted, then it makes sense that your friends would be ‘younger.’ Some of my peer group have moved to retirement communities and thus have made new friends.

I think something else might be at work, though.  I don’t make friends that easily. This has been true for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, if I talked to someone in class or ate lunch with them, I wondered whether that made us friends, especially if I didn’t see them outside of school. I still have those questions. Since I retired I have been participating in several writing groups that have brought me together with new people, many of whom I enjoy. But, I’m not sure I would say we have crossed the threshold to friendship. What marks that transition? That’s a whole other tangent, perhaps for another time.

Back to the theater Saturday night.

Deborah and I settled into our seats and there were four women in front of us, one was wearing a tiara adorned with a sparkly 50. Clearly they were celebrating, too. We exchanged pleasantries. This may not reflect well on me, but I looked at the women and thought, ‘we don’t look that much older.’ Then I wondered if I was deluding myself.

We saw the musical Come From Away. It is about the small town in Newfoundland, Gander, that took in passengers from about 200 planes forced to land there on 9/11. It is a remarkable story. The town’s population almost doubled when those planes arrived – they had 9,000 residents; they received 7,000 guests! Amazing that they were able to do it. The story is uplifting – a great reminder of the potential for human generosity, kindness and problem-solving.

The play acknowledges some of the complexity. This was a fraught situation, as would be expected in such stressful circumstances. People had no idea what was going on at first and then they didn’t know how long they’d be stranded. Both townspeople and passengers struggled with the uncertainty. But, they persevered. You couldn’t help but feel good seeing the best of humanity. There was a lot of humor and the music and staging added to the story-telling.

Of course, me being me, it also reminded me how the United States squandered so much goodwill. There is a brief scene in the play where the people of the town stop and observe a moment of silence, as that moment was being broadcast from the United States.  It was quite poignant. As I recall, so many countries in the world stood with us in the days after the terrorist attack. But, then, the Bush administration (I largely blame Cheney) invaded Iraq…and we know how that went (and continues to go). We turned the goodwill into resentment and worse.

But, that was not the point of the play so I will fight my impulse to dwell on that. Another theme of the play was that this cataclysmic event changed people’s lives. Though the people of Gander went back to ‘normal,’ the experience changed them, opened them up to different people and they learned about themselves. Even in the darkest of times, there is that possibility. I need to hold onto that thought.

Prior to seeing the play, I was feeling very anxious. With the coronavirus and the sorry state of our government leadership, I have been worrying more than usual. Something about having the shared experience of seeing Come from Away, in a theater full of people laughing and clapping together helped me let go of some of the angst. I will do what I can to be constructive, taking common sense health precautions, committing to helping whoever the Democratic candidate is (the Senate candidates, too), and, importantly, continuing to live my life. I know there is so much out of my control, but dwelling on fear and anxiety will not help.

 

More Dress Shopping…More Drama

Thinking back on my wedding has brought back a flood of memories. Once again it makes me wonder about memory. Why are some things vividly etched in my mind, while other periods of time are indistinct? Whatever the reasons, there are more stories to tell about planning the wedding.

Choosing bridesmaids and groomsmen was a bit complicated. We were balancing new friends and old, family and friends, and people who had already asked me to be part of theirs. Gary and I went big (see the photo below of the full group). We had eight women and eight men, and a flower girl. I had four friends and four sisters-in-law; Gary had his brother, my two brothers, two friends and three cousins.

Deciding on a flower girl was simple. Rachel, my cousin who was five years old, was the perfect choice. She was friendly, smart and adorable, with red braids and a big smile. I knew she could carry out the serious responsibility of dropping petals as she walked down the aisle with great aplomb. And I was right!

Choosing a dress for the bridesmaids was difficult. There were many different body types to consider. My four sisters-in-laws couldn’t have been more unalike. My brothers’ wives, Pam and Cindy were quite tall. Gary’s sisters, on the other hand, were quite short. It didn’t occur to me to let everyone pick their own. It was expected that they would wear the same outfit. My dress was very simple, I didn’t want their dresses to be too fancy. I was also living in Pittsburgh by this time and the bridal party was spread out, too. Coordinating shopping was tricky. Fortunately, people were agreeable to wearing pretty much whatever I picked, but my mother-in-law-to-be, Paula, had her own ideas.

I didn’t know Paula well yet, though Gary and I had been together for three years at that point. I had spent many an hour sitting at her kitchen table talking, but she was a private person. She was perfectly nice to me (offering tea with a shot of brandy when I had a sore throat), but there was a coolness. I sensed she didn’t fully trust me. I believed she didn’t think I was Jewish enough (I probably wasn’t given my ignorance of ritual, and the fact that I didn’t read Hebrew). I felt her keeping me at a distance.

I knew Paula was a Holocaust survivor and that she was a child when the Germans invaded her town, but I didn’t know her story in any detail. I knew she was an overprotective mother from stories Gary shared with me. I knew she was fearful – she would wait up all hours until her children came through the front door, even when they were adults, home for a visit. She also would not drive on the highway, so she made her way around Queens and Long Island using the streets. She navigated those streets with a great sense of direction, she also directed her husband, David, when he drove. I knew she kept a spotless home, cooked all the family’s meals, was an expert shopper (she knew the prices of items at various supermarkets) and could squeeze every bit of value out of things (she would re-use a tea bag over and over again, the same with a Brillo pad which she would tear in half before using it, she also altered and mended clothing). I was impressed with her skills and competence. Her strengths as a mother and homemaker didn’t overlap very much with my own mother. Paula was very precise; good with numbers and loved math. My mother was probably dyslexic when it came to numbers and precise wouldn’t be a word that would be used to describe her. My mom wasn’t a worrier. She worked full-time outside the home as a reading teacher, she was an excellent cook, she took pleasure in making sure family and friends were well-fed; and, we had someone come in to clean the house every other week. It was hard for Paula to trust someone in her house. My Mom didn’t like to shop and was far more interested in books, movies and theater than homemaking. Paula’s style of parenting was foreign to me.

I also didn’t realize that Paula’s perfectionistic streak would impact shopping for the bridesmaids’ dresses.

We settled on a date when enough of us would be available to shop for the dresses. I flew in from Pittsburgh one weekend. Dad drove Mom and I to Rosedale and dropped us off. My mom, Paula, Gary’s two sisters and I set out with Paula driving. In preparation for our excursion, I had found a dress in a magazine that I liked and located the store that carried it. I thought we would go there, have Rochelle and Doreen try it on, and, assuming it was good, we would order it. Not so fast! I came to learn that Paula would never purchase something that quickly, but I didn’t know that yet. She needed to be satisfied that there wasn’t a better dress or better price somewhere else. This was one of those experiences that illustrated the differences between our two families.

We spent the day going from store to store and eventually made it to the shop that had the dress I picked out. It was a gown in two pieces: a blouse with a ruffle down the front and a long skirt. The blouse was white with a short sleeve. We could pick the color of the skirt. I wanted mauve – pink, with a hint of purple. There was a thin ribbon at the neck that matched the color of the skirt. Doreen and Rochelle tried it on – I thought they looked great and they seemed fine with it. I was sure it wasn’t something they would have picked for themselves, but they didn’t show strong negative feelings. I thought it would work with my gown, would be flattering for all the bridesmaids and it had the overall feeling I wanted.

Paula didn’t seem all that happy with the choice. She wasn’t convinced. Despite that, we left the shop with what I thought was an agreement that they would go back another day and order it. I would share the information with the others who weren’t with us and we would move forward.

We got back into the car and went to the Bakst home in Rosedale. Everyone was tired, but we were in good spirits. My Dad would come from Canarsie to pick Mom and I up. I was exhausted but relieved to have gotten through it. We got to their house and went in the front door. David, my father-in-law-to-be, greeted us.

“How did it go?” he asked cheerfully.

“Fine,” I replied.

“Yes, we looked at the dress Linda picked, but I think we should look some more,” said Paula. “There are some stores we didn’t get to. There may be better choices, dresses that would be more flattering.”

I immediately burst into tears. All the stress, all the doubts I had about all my choices, poured out. My mother put her arm around me. The Baksts looked at me quizzically. David was flustered.

“Come, sit down. Don’t cry. Let me get you a drink,” he said as he ushered me to the couch. He busied himself pouring me a small glass of Cherry Heering.

I took a sip of the sweet liquor and tried to compose myself while everyone looked on uncomfortably. I managed to say, “I thought we agreed on the dress. I have to go back to Pittsburgh tomorrow. There won’t be time to shop again.”

“Don’t worry, Linda,” said David.

“It couldn’t hurt to look a little more,” said Paula. “Maybe we’ll find something that you’ll like better.”

I didn’t know what to say. “You know my dress isn’t fancy,” I reminded her.

Mom was patting me, murmuring words of comfort. I took a deep breath.

“Okay, I guess, you can look. But, if you don’t find something soon, we need to order the dresses. Right?”

Paula nodded in agreement.

“See,” said David triumphantly, “we can work things out.”

I was embarrassed by my reaction. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t in Paula’s nature to make a decision that quickly. We did end up ordering the dress I picked. The experience illustrated the learning process involved in melding our two families. It took time for me to feel fully embraced as a family member by Paula. But, once I was, her loyalty and support were ever-present.

Paula spoke an accented English, and her formal education ended much too early because of the war (I wrote about Paula’s Holocaust survival in a series of blog posts between August and October of 2018). She was self-conscious about her accent and thought her command of the language wasn’t strong. I told her many times that she spoke as well as any native-born American, she was quite articulate in sharing her insights or telling a story. Plus, she could speak at least four or five languages fluently, while I only knew one. It was always clear to me that she was highly intelligent, but I don’t know if she knew that. I was American-born, both of my parents were too, they had master’s degrees and were teachers. She respected that, but it may have intimidated her, too. It took time for us to understand each other. Providing her with grandchildren definitely helped.

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Postscript:

I shared this story with Gary and his sisters before posting it. I wanted to get their take on the events described, especially since it involved them. All three acknowledged that they respected my perspective, that it was my memory and prerogative to post it (I appreciate that they expressed that sentiment). Each had a slightly different view of it, though, and I want to relate what I heard. I think it is important to recognize the difficulty in reconstructing an experience from 38 years ago and to understand that we may assign different meaning to the same event.

Gary thought my portrayal of Paula, his mother, wasn’t very generous. In response to that I added more about Paula to give context. The version you read above includes that addition. But the truth is I didn’t feel very generous at the time. That’s part of the point. I didn’t understand where she was coming from.

Doreen didn’t recall going to different shops. Her memory was that we went to the one that had the dress, that they tried it on, and she was under the impression that the choice had been made. She didn’t recall being present for my breaking down in tears. She also had a feeling that my father was somehow involved and that it was distressing to her mom (Paula).

Rochelle didn’t remember the particulars but also recalled that my father was involved and that it had been upsetting to her mom.

Hearing what they remembered was really interesting. It is entirely possible that we only went to the one shop. I may have been exhausted and stressed out from travel and decision-making and imagined that we must have shopped for whole the day. It is also quite possible that Rochelle and Doreen were not in the living room when I started crying. They may have left to do other things – I don’t recall them reacting one way or another at the time so it may be that they were not present.

The memory of my father being involved is the piece that is most perplexing. I am thinking that when he came to pick us up, if indeed that is what he did, and he saw that I had been upset, his protective paternal instincts may have kicked in. I now believe, knowing my Dad, that after I left to go back to Pittsburgh, he called Paula and asked her to accept my choice. I knew nothing about that (or more accurately, I remember nothing about that) – I am surmising based on what I know of my father and that the issue just went away (as far as I knew) – all the bridesmaids ordered the dress I picked out.

Unfortunately, we cannot ask Paula or my father. I did ask my mother. She remembered the day, and my tears. She could not confirm whether Dad had called Paula after the fact, but she thought it was plausible. She also commented that if that was the worst of the disagreements we had during the planning of the wedding, we did pretty well.

There you have it. Is this an example of the ‘stories I tell myself’? Is it worth sharing these stories so I can process the memories and reality test it, or does it just make things messy? I am still pondering those questions. My motivation in sharing them is that it provides family history to my children and in examining my experiences, and sharing it with the public, it might resonate with others. It might spark insight or a sense of being less alone. That is my intention.

 

 

A Plea

There’s something I need to get off my chest. A thought has been percolating for well over a month and I need to put it out there. I was with a group of people and unfortunately discussion turned to politics. After some comments about the weaknesses of President Trump, a couple of people asked: But who can you vote for among the Democrats? Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am more than willing to vote for any of the Democratic candidates, except Bernie Sanders. I like a lot of the people running, actually. If Bernie were to somehow emerge as the nominee, I would either write someone else in or choose the Green candidate. Otherwise, I am prepared to vote for any of them. But that isn’t the point.

As I thought about that question I realized that I was angry about it. I don’t think that is the question at all. It is an easy out. The people asking were Republicans. They aren’t likely to support any Democrat no matter what. The question they should be asking is: Can’t our party (the GOP) offer a better candidate? Do we have to accept Trump as our candidate in 2020?

I recognize that we differ on policy matters. I’ve addressed this before on this blog (here). There is room for differences in ideas and beliefs about tax policy, immigration, environmental regulation, etc. But, it is impossible for me to believe that there are intelligent Republicans out there who don’t see Trump for the corrupt, dangerous person that he is. He is enriching himself and his family by virtue of his office. He has no ethics. He is a bully. Even if you like his policies, you have to acknowledge the harm he is doing – both domestically and internationally. His unwillingness to confront Russia about interfering in our elections is about his personal interests and his affinity for autocrats. The same can be said about Turkey’s President Erdogan.That should not be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. His willingness to enlist foreign actors to uncover dirt on his opponents is not politics as usual; he wants us to believe that everyone does the things he does. He appears to be counting on Americans’ cynicism or fatigue to get away with it. We can’t let that become the norm.

I don’t understand how the majority of Republicans aren’t demanding a change. I know that some, his base, like his style, like his bluster. They may even like his racism and misogyny. But I can’t believe that is the majority. Why are they, by and large, silent? I am aware that there are a few Republican columnists (Bill Kristol, David Frum) sounding the alarm about the harm Trump is doing. But I never hear from any elected Republican officials. And, more to the point, what about regular citizens who are members of the Republican party? Why aren’t they demanding either a change in his behavior or a different candidate for 2020? Where is the groundswell of anger that their party leader behaves so badly? People need to stand up to him – and that responsibility doesn’t fall to the Democrats. Republicans need to step up.

It is dangerous to accept that the ends justify the means. Even if you believe the US economy is doing well, can’t that be achieved with different Republican leadership? Mitch McConnell is willing to go to any lengths to put pro-life judges on the federal bench. Lindsay Graham is willing to sell his soul and whatever integrity he might have once had to be “in the room” of the powerful. I’m hopeful that karma (or their constituents) will deal with them. But what about everyone else? There must be someone who can champion the Republican agenda in 2020  – why does it have to be Trump?

I implore all Republicans with a conscience: demand an alternative to Trump! This isn’t about the Democrats at all. It is about the future of our country.