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.

A Disturbing ‘Happy New Year!’

So, this happened: Gary and I were attending morning services at synagogue last Tuesday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when a man ran down the aisle naked from the waist down. The rabbi blocked his path as he was attempting to go up to the bimah (in our shul it is a raised stage where the rabbi and cantor lead services and where the Torah is housed). The rabbi yelled, “Get out! You can’t do this!” Four male congregants ran to assist the rabbi, escorting the man back up the aisle and out of the sanctuary. The naked man was yelling ‘Happy New Year!’ He did not resist the rabbi’s effort to block him or the men who led him out. The whole incident took only a minute or two. When the rabbi resumed services, he began by saying that though it is understandable that we react in anger to this disturbance, we must also remember to have compassion. There are broken people in our community, and we should have compassion for those who are.

I felt terribly sad. Gary and I stayed for the remainder of the service. I thought the rabbi handled the incident well. I thought his message was on point.

While riding home in the car, I learned Gary’s reaction was similar to mine. We were both aware that it could have been so much worse – from the man being aggressive or belligerent, to congregants overreacting and assaulting him, to totally disrupting the service. Gary told me he didn’t move to help because he thought the men who were closest had it under control – at a certain point if more people went over it would make matters worse. I agreed with his judgment. We were both unnerved that someone would do such a thing – we wondered what was going on in his mind.

When I got home, I looked at my phone (I had not brought it to temple) and saw that I missed a call from a friend who is also a congregant at our synagogue. Her voicemail asked me to call her back. I did. Our conversation shed a different light on the events I described above.

She had been at services and was in the lobby getting ready to leave because her husband was feeling uncomfortable about the man’s behavior. Let me give some context.

Probably a half hour to 45 minutes before galloping down the aisle with only a red Coca-Cola t-shirt on, the man was meandering through the pews wishing each congregant a happy new year. He stopped and shook each man’s hand and greeted each woman – Gary and I included. This is not the custom in synagogue. He was somewhat underdressed for the holiday wearing a plaid button-down shirt and beige corduroy pants (most men wear suits and ties). He was not wearing a tallit (prayer shawl which men typically wear on Rosh Hashana), but he did have a yarmulke on. I thought he seemed odd and I looked at him closely. I noted that he had a small hard cover book in his front pants pocket. I did not see anything that seemed menacing. Though his demeanor seemed off, I was not frightened.

After greeting each congregant, he climbed up the stairs to the bimah to see the rabbi – this was during silent prayer. The rabbi waved him off gruffly and the man turned around and climbed back down the stairs. Not long after, as he was standing in the aisle, a congregant, who I thought I recognized as a member of the temple board, approached him and invited him to sit next to him. He went willingly. They were seated a few rows ahead of Gary and me. I was very appreciative that someone reached out to connect with him. The two men appeared to engage in some conversation, and he stayed seated there for a while. Eventually he meandered away, but I didn’t see where he went.

The next time I saw him, he was loping down the aisle sans pants shouting happy new year, as I described above.

My friend’s experience was totally different. Her husband, put off by the man’s odd behavior, decided they should leave. He was uncomfortable and felt unsafe. They left the sanctuary and were in the lobby chatting with someone when they saw the man come back into the temple from a door that is normally locked. He was carrying a Husky tool bag (a small duffel bag). Alarmed, they quickly went down the stairs to the parking lot in front of the synagogue where a policeman was sitting in his cruiser keeping an eye on things. They told the policeman what they observed and urged him to go inside and make sure everything was all right. The policeman was reluctant to do so because he wasn’t supposed to intrude unless there was a call from inside the building. My friend and her husband were insistent. The policeman agreed and was walking toward the synagogue when another congregant came running toward them saying they needed help inside. Then the policeman ran in.

After the policeman ran in, my friend called 911 because she was concerned that a single policeman would be overmatched if the man had a weapon or weapons. The dispatcher assured her they were on it. She and her husband got in their car and went home.

As we discussed the incident, it was clear that my friend was very distressed. I understood that seeing the man come in with a duffle bag was very disturbing and I had not witnessed that part. If I had, I believe I would have done the same as she did in alerting the police. I also shared her concern about the door being unlocked.

Security at the temple has been a source of anxiety for years, not just as a result of the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric have flared up again and again over the years necessitating more elaborate security plans. There are volunteer ushers who greet congregants at the front doors (which are not locked) and stationed throughout the building. Their responsibility, as I understand it, is to greet members, help anyone who needs assistance, and keep an eye out (along the lines of ‘see something, say something.’) All other doors, other than the main entrance, are supposed to be locked. On ordinary days, when large numbers of people are not expected for services, even the front doors are locked, and you are either buzzed in or you have the code to punch in to gain entry. During holidays one or two police cruisers are stationed in the parking lot (last Tuesday there was only one).

While I agreed with my friend on some points, we had differences. She thought his behavior in the first instance, wandering about the sanctuary greeting everyone, merited more attention and perhaps a request that he leave. I wasn’t willing to go that far since at that point he hadn’t done anything wrong. My friend’s take was that a mentally ill person may be harmless, until they aren’t. My thought was that all people may be harmless, until they aren’t. How can we know?

The incident left me with so many questions:

What can the usher do? If I were ushering and a person came in with a duffel bag, would I ask them to leave it in their car? Would I ask them to explain why they needed it? Maybe I wouldn’t ask anything. Do we need metal detectors at the entrances of our houses of worship?

I can say with certainty that I do not believe that the answer is to arm the ushers!

If a person is acting oddly, is that enough of a reason to ask them to leave? What is odd behavior? I know it makes me uncomfortable if a person speaks too loudly for the circumstances, or exhibits vocal tics, or is seemingly disconnected, or highly emotional (without context).  That discomfort may correspond to an instinct that something is wrong or off, but that may not mean that the person is a danger to anyone. If we can’t know, do we err on the side of preserving our comfort (security) or the rights of that individual who may have a mental or physical disability? It is a painful choice to make. People struggling with these conditions are certainly deserving of compassion. As a society we don’t offer enough support in terms of treatment, prescription coverage or residential options.

Gary and I have processed this incident a few times since it happened. Yesterday we were discussing whether, if somehow we knew that the guy was going to get naked and run down the aisle, would we want him escorted out earlier. Gary said that he would – that he wouldn’t want us all subjected to that during Rosh Hashana services. I could see his point. On the other hand, if we could know that he wasn’t dangerous, was it really all that bad? Nobody got hurt. We both recognized, of course, that no one is clairvoyant and human behavior is unpredictable, so it was pointless to conjecture.

After my conversation with my friend, I wonder, if there was a congregation-wide conversation where these issues were discussed, would we be able to come to a meeting of the minds about the lessons learned from this incident? Would we agree on an approach for the future? Can we overcome our differences which stem from our respective values and fears? The frequency of mass shootings has frayed nerves and that makes it even more difficult to navigate these issues.

Please feel free to share your perspective by leaving a comment. Thank you.

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symbols of Rosh Hashanah

The Perils of Boredom

I was listening to a podcast the other day. The interviewer and the guest are both recovering addicts. The guest was talking about her recent relapse and how it all started with being bored. As a performer, she often has odd hours free. For her being at loose ends can be an invitation to drink. She will say to herself, what the hell, I can just have a nip.

Though I am not a drinker, this resonated with me. For me, faced with unstructured time and no particular task at hand leads to food. A well-worn pathway in my brain is triggered. One of my first thoughts is: what can I eat? I imagine for some that is a completely alien thought – as thinking about drinking is for me. But maybe it leads to some other self-destructive behavior – online shopping anyone? It got me thinking about boredom and its perils.

When I was a child if I went to my Dad and said I was bored, he had a singularly unhelpful suggestion, “Bang your head against the wall.” It was a quick way of dismissing me. It reflected his belief that being a parent didn’t include being an entertainer. We were expected to solve our own problems and make our own fun. I’m not endorsing that approach. I never used it on my children. But there is a legitimate point: there were always books to read or tv to watch. Sometimes that wasn’t appealing.

So, what is boredom? There are always things to do. Especially as an adult. Household chores await. Projects need starting. Paperwork is piled up. A closet can be cleaned out. Or, I can take a walk or call family or friends. Boredom must be a state of mind then.

Are there people who are never bored? My husband may fall into that category. His work life is so busy and all-consuming, in both time and mental energy, that the little free time he does have is critical for decompressing – exercise, gardening, communicating with our children and his parents. Not much is left over.

But some people who live busy lives can still be bored. Sometimes when I was at work, and my schedule was quite full, I knew I was going through the motions. I wasn’t really engaged.

Maybe that is the key – engagement. Finding activities, people, places, work that engage your brain so it can’t wander off into trouble.

One challenge to that is when you’re between tasks or appointments. Let’s say you have plans at 2:00 in the afternoon and now it’s noon. Do you start a project? Do you kill the time doing crossword puzzles? Do you continue eating lunch well past the portion you need for nourishment? This can even happen at work. There were countless times that I finished preparing for a meeting only to have it postponed an hour. Then what? A trip to the vending machine?

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Hmmm – what do I do next? A manicure perhaps?

This might not seem like a serious problem. There are real challenges in this world – many people are burdened with worries about money, safety, health, shelter, etc. But I’m thinking that being bored, being unfulfilled or not engaged, can lead to some of those problems. Just look at what started this whole train of thought – two recovering addicts talking about boredom as a trigger to use their drug of choice.

I know from my years of Weight Watchers that there are ways to disrupt that well-worn pathway to food. There are many other possibilities instead of snacks. The challenge is to stop long enough to change direction. I’ll keep working at it. As with many of life’s trials, I need to adjust my thinking.