Facilitation 101

Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.

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One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).

I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.

He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.

He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”

In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.

My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.

I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.

All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.

He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”

Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?

“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.

Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.

“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”

There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.

“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.

It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”

As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”

I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.

I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.

Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.

The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.

Broad Shoulders

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One of my favorite pictures of me and my Dad – from the late 1990s

I was very lucky. I grew up with a father who made me feel safe and supported. Although I did not fully understand my good fortune until I was a young adult, I did know it long before he died. I appreciated him in his lifetime and I am grateful for that.

Dad had an imposing presence. He was a bit shy of 6 foot, which in my mother’s estimation wasn’t tall enough (she was over 5’7” before osteoporosis and age did its damage), but he was a good healthy height by the standards of most Jewish people of his generation. It might be different today, with hybrid vigor and all, but notwithstanding my mother’s family, my grandparents’ and parents’ generation tended to be short. More than his height, though, Dad had broad shoulders, both literally and metaphorically.

I came to a greater appreciation of my father’s broad shoulders when I was a freshman in college.

I remember the trip up to Binghamton to drop me off quite clearly. We were listening to the radio as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap in the early morning, which was scenic with its green mountains and shimmering waterways. The sun was shining – a good omen, I thought. Coincidentally, the radio was tuned to a station that was playing music around the theme of saying good-bye. That may not have been the best choice for listening under the circumstances.

I already had mixed feelings about leaving home to go to college. I knew it was the right thing to do. It had been drummed into me that it was an important growth experience. My parents lived at home when they went to Brooklyn College and wanted their children to have the opportunity to go away. But, I was only 16 and had never been one to embrace change easily, so it presented a challenge. While I made progress during high school, gaining confidence and more self-esteem, I still had a long way to go.

For my oldest brother, college away was a great fit. As my parents liked to tell it, Steven arrived at the SUNY-Brockport campus, unloaded his bicycle, hopped on and rode away without looking back. They didn’t know if he would return to say good-bye.

For my brother Mark, I think it was a bit different. I don’t think he felt particularly ready to leave home, but he seemed to adjust to life at Oneonta. He was two years ahead of me and was quite settled by the time it was my turn to go to Binghamton.

In late August of 1976, as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap, with the sad songs playing, I felt a mix of melancholy and hopefulness. It was a new chapter and I had no idea what to expect.

We arrived on campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to the College-in-the-Woods dorm complex, the newest of the dorms on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were a modern design, with a quirky layout that included large rooms, intended to be triples, where the door to the room was outside the building. Those rooms weren’t really part of the rest of the floor. Not only was the room set apart, but in my case, it was located in back of the building, so it was isolated. When I opened my room door, I saw a small driveway, garbage dumpsters and then the woods.  There was also a door to the rest of the dorm across a short walkway. The room was allegedly part of the basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga Hall. My new home.

Dad was not happy with my room. In fact, he was angry. We went to find someone in authority. Dad vigorously made the case that he thought it wasn’t safe for young women. In his opinion, the room should have been assigned to boys. There were no options for changing anything, though. They assured us that it was safe, there was adequate lighting and the RA (resident assistant) on the floor would be attentive. Reluctantly, Dad gave in, but not before putting everyone on notice about his concerns.

My Dad, who I thought was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my very full, heavy steamer trunk into the room. We all made several trips from the car to the room. They helped me unpack and my mom made up my bed. Then, they left and headed back to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in the backseat.

Orientation week began. I had major ups and downs. On the upside, I bonded with Merle (who was tripled in a similar type of room one floor above me on the other side of the same dorm), Alison and Dianne immediately. On the downside, I didn’t bond with my roommates and I found the campus atmosphere stifling. It felt unreal to me, not only was my room isolated, but the whole campus felt like an island. I was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was used to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable in those days, we didn’t get the NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected…and I was.

I called my parents regularly, often in tears, often feeling lonely. I would be apologetic, “I’m sorry I’m calling you so unhappy.” My Dad was reassuring, “You have nothing to apologize for. We want you to call us if there is something bothering you. You are not a burden.” Although he couldn’t fix things, he and my mom did make me feel better. He wrote me encouraging letters. He tried to help me navigate things with my two roommates.

The three of us were an interesting combination. Me, from Brooklyn, Sue from Long Island and Sharon from Rochester, NY. Sue and I got along fine, but we were from different worlds. There was a large contingent of freshmen from her high school and she socialized with them. They reminded me of the kids from the camp where I worked – and not in a good way. They were concerned with hair, make-up and designer clothes – and partying. They came across as entitled and monied. So, while as an individual Sue was fine, I didn’t enjoy her group and I didn’t hang out with her.

Sharon was from a suburb of Rochester and she was a completely different story. She came to college not knowing how a woman got pregnant. She was naïve beyond belief. Sue offered her her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Though I was totally inexperienced in that regard (I had a lot to learn from Our Bodies, Ourselves, too), I at least knew the facts of life. Sharon was a very odd duck. One of the things that was unique was that she could burp louder than anyone I had ever known. Each time she did, I couldn’t help myself, I would go, “Woah!?!,” a mixture of awe and surprise. I was taught to keep all bodily functions as quiet and private as possible, so Sharon was a revelation. Beyond that quirk, we also didn’t have much in common, and she seemed a bit troubled. During midterms, she scratched her own face in a fit of anxiety.

I had my own struggles that first semester. My writing, which was a source of pride in high school, was criticized by both my Lit & Comp TA (teaching assistant) and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. I was reeling. The weather in Binghamton in the fall and winter of 1976/77 was biblically bad – it literally precipitated for 40 days and 40 nights. There was snow on the ground from my birthday (October 3) through April – and we had snow flurries during finals in May. I had to steel myself, I hunched my shoulders and tightened my muscles each time I opened the dorm door to the bitter cold. Previously I didn’t know nose hairs could freeze, but they did when I walked to the classroom wing! Gray clouds were a constant. For someone prone to melancholia under the best of circumstances, this was a bad recipe.

In the middle of that fall semester, weird stuff started disappearing from our room – some money (mostly loose change), a robe, a pair of pajamas. Not major theft, but it was noticeable. I mentioned it to my Dad. He told me to report it to the RA. I did.

They did an investigation that included being interrogated in the RA’s room by the Resident Director, with a single lamp shining on my face, while I sat on the RA’s desk chair. After a few days, I received a letter (I think all three of us received the same letter, but my memory fails me on this) that said they knew who was doing this and that person was expected to go to Psych Services (the counseling center). I shared this with my Dad, who was incensed. I was totally perplexed. Who was doing this? It was more of an annoyance than frightening to me. He wrote a letter to the President of the University saying that the matter was being mishandled and that the letter I had received had better not be included in my official record and should be destroyed. Dad received a letter in return that agreed with him and assured us that the letter was torn up and was not part of my official record.

Shortly thereafter items stopped disappearing. It was all very strange. That incident certainly didn’t help my relationship with my roommates or connect me to my RA and the other residents of “The Pits.” It solidified the need for me to change rooms and roommates.

At another point in that semester I received a bill indicating that tuition had not been fully paid. I think it may have related to not getting credit for my Regent’s Scholarship. Once again, I called home. Dad told me he would take care of it, and he did. I didn’t receive another bill.

As painful as freshman year was, I learned a great deal. Aside from reading The Iliad and other classics, I made life-long friends. And, I came to understand how lucky I was to have parents who were there for me. Dad especially offered unconditional love and would help me sort out whatever issues came my way. Many of my friends were left to their own devices when bills came or were only able to rely on their Moms for emotional support. Recognizing my good fortune was more important than any academic lesson.

 

 

There Are No Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Date

Dating was in the midst of a sea change in the 1970s. Women’s liberation was in full swing and a nascent gay rights movement was getting some traction. The upheaval may have contributed to some of my difficulties in establishing romantic relationships, as opposed to friendships, with guys. In my mother’s era, dating was pretty straight-forward. That it isn’t to say it didn’t have its challenges, but I think the process was kind of black and white. A boy liked a girl, he asked her out for a Friday or Saturday night. The boy put on nice slacks and a button-down shirt. The girl would likely put on a dress or skirt. The guy, if he had a car, would pick up the girl. If he didn’t, he still went to her house to get her. A girl might go out on dates with several different guys, until a couple became serious. I’m sure I’m simplifying, but it was simpler! (I’m not saying it was better.)

When I was in high school and in college a lot of socializing was done in groups, girls and guys could be friends.  Mostly we hung out in someone’s basement or at the diner, dressed very casually in t-shirts and jeans. If we went into the city (which meant going into Manhattan), we might put on nicer clothes, but we’d all meet at the subway station and travel together. Or, if someone had a car, we all piled in without regard to seat belts. The groups were co-ed. The relationship boundaries were fuzzy.

It was the beginning of a time where girls could take the lead, though that was not something I was ever comfortable with. It was also the beginning of a time where there was more awareness of options in sexual orientation. We had not yet reached the point that people came out as gay when I was in high school, but that began to happen when I was in college.

I found the whole scene difficult to navigate. I wasn’t adventurous, I didn’t know how to flirt and, while I was clear about my sexual orientation, I didn’t feel feminine. I had no confidence in myself as a feminine being. And, while some around me were adopting a more relaxed approach, sex was not a casual thing to me.

I offer this as background to my first ‘date’ with Gary. We embarked on a transition from friends who hung out as part of a larger group to something else, and I was bringing some baggage. He was, too.

It was September of 1979, the semester was a few weeks old, when Gary asked me out. He borrowed a car from a friend who lived on campus. Since we were going to Copperfield’s, a nice restaurant in Oakdale mall, we each got ‘dressed up.’ Gary was wearing slacks and a sweater, which was a major change from his usual wardrobe of a faded t-shirt and very worn in jeans. While I don’t remember what I wore, I wasn’t wearing overalls, which was my daily uniform.

There was some awkwardness in conversation as he drove us to the mall. Somehow the formality changed things, but we were doing okay. We were shown to a table. The waiter came by and asked if we wanted a drink. Gary immediately said no before I even had a chance to respond. The waiter went away. I was disappointed. I said, “It might be nice to get a drink.” Gary’s eyes opened wide. “It didn’t occur to me, I’m sorry.”

While I didn’t come from a family that drank much, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to have a cocktail when they went out to dinner. Apparently, that was not Gary’s experience. It was outside his ken. He motioned for the waiter to come back, I think I ordered a white russian.

We enjoyed our dinner, discussed our families and learned about each other. Then we drove to campus, returned the car and went to lecture hall number 2 where Foul Play, with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, would be playing. A line was forming and we were close to the front.  After a minute or two, a curly-haired girl walked by to get on the line, but she stopped when she saw Gary. I did not recognize her. “Hi Gary!!” she said with enthusiasm. Gary said hi a bit tentatively, and turned to me and introduced me, “Linda, this is Cindy. Cindy this is Linda.” I recognized the name, if not the face. This was Gary’s ex-girlfriend. She was quite delighted to see him and find him close to the front of what was now a very long line.

“Gary, you look very nice,” she noted. “Do you mind if I join you?” Gary nodded his thanks in acknowledgment of the compliment. She may have taken it as permission to join us. She did. We all made some small talk, mostly I smiled. When we filed into the lecture hall, she sat between us! This was all very strange.

Fortunately, it was a very entertaining movie. I have always loved rom-coms (still do) – they are a great means of escape from reality. Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase made a very likeable duo. The movie made me laugh and that was a relief from the uneasiness.

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After the movie ended, we started to walk out and Cindy asked if we wanted to go out for a drink! She had a car; we could go get a drink and then she would drop us off at 30 Haendel. “It will save you from having to take the OCC (Off-Campus Community) bus,” she explained. I hoped Gary would say no, we had other plans. But, alas, he didn’t. “Okay,” said Gary.

Off we went to some bar, I have forgotten which one. We sat at a table and Cindy asked about various members of Gary’s family whom I had not yet heard of much less met, but she had. “How is Aunt Sophie?” she inquired. Cindy and Gary had been together for two years. One of the things Gary and I had bonded over was our similar relationship histories. Though his relationship with Cindy lasted two years, by his account it petered out, lost its momentum and died a kind of natural death, while mine involved more heartbreak (at least for me). Even with that knowledge, I certainly wasn’t expecting to share our first date with her.

Eventually, we finished our drinks and everyone decided not to get another (Hallelujah!). We went to her car. She drove us to 30 Haendel. We thanked her for the ride and started to go up the stairs. Neither one of us knew what to say, so at first there was silence. I think I broke it by asking, “What just happened?” We were on the landing of the third floor at this point. Gary was shifting his weight from foot to foot, looking down. “I’m really sorry,” he said. Then he said, “I kind of lost control of my nervous system. I didn’t know what to say or do. It was awful.” I looked at him, shaking my head, but feeling kind of sorry for him. “Okay, I guess,” I said. We agreed that we would talk about it the next day, rather try to figure it out right then and there. We said good night and went into our respective apartments.

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The next night, Sunday, Annie Hall was on television; this was before cable, it was going to be on ABC, a special event. I don’t remember how the plan got made, but Alison, Merle, Gary and his housemate, Glenn, and I gathered to watch it in the living room of our apartment. Annie Hall was one of my favorite movies of all time (it still is). Merle and I would quote lines from it to each other and we loved noticing all the little quirks, like the fact that Woody Allen and Tony Roberts call each other Max throughout, even though their names in the movie are Alvy and Rob.

We all watched the movie, laughing and chatting during the commercials. Gary and I had yet to discuss our date of the night before. As the credits started to roll, Gary and I volunteered to make a Dunkin’ Donuts run for everyone. Just as we were getting up to go, the phone rang. It was my ex! Annie Hall was a movie he and I had enjoyed together and, apparently, he watched it back in Brooklyn. We had a very brief conversation during which he said seeing the movie made him think of me. As he said that, I realized I had watched the entire thing without associating it with him! I had not consciously recognized, until that moment, that I had finally moved on.

Gary waited in the hall while I wrapped up the conversation. I joined him and we walked the few blocks to the Dunkin’ Donuts. We were finally ready to address the events of the night before. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, though I’m pretty sure I explained how difficult it had been for me to spend the evening with Cindy. I don’t think I was too hard on him, but I wasn’t letting him off too easy, either. We agreed to a do-over. We would try another date the following Saturday.

This time we went to a real movie theater, to see The Seduction of Joe Tynan, which I didn’t enjoy as much as Foul Play, but we didn’t run into or hear from any exes.

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38 years later I see the seeds of important elements of our relationship in those first dates. We were honest with each other, we tried to understand one another, we were forgiving and we were friends. It stood us in good stead.

 

 

A Defining Summer – 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

An Imperfect Sense

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Wisteria in Ronda, Spain – Fortunately, I could see it quite well, but I could not smell it 😦

Driving from Brooklyn to Champaign-Urbana, I was always the first in my family to know that a farm was nearby. I picked up the scent of cow manure miles away. Cow manure was in wide use as we drove Interstate 70 through the farmland of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. To some, who perhaps grew up on a farm, that pungent aroma may have evoked warm feelings, reminders of Spring, the earth and beloved animals. For me, with my city sensibilities, it reminded me of the elephant enclosure at the Central Park zoo. I held my nose until I thought we passed it, or until I absolutely had to take a breath.

When I was early in my pregnancy with Leah, it was autumn. The smell of moldering leaves followed me around, I think the odor took up residence in my olfactory system. Years later, whenever I caught a whiff of rotting leaves, it reminded me of my pregnancy – a strange, perhaps unfortunate, association.

I enjoyed pleasant aromas, too. Freesia was a favorite flower. I loved Jovan Musk, the perfume, when I was in college. Baking chocolate chip cookies or roasting chicken were wonderful kitchen scents. Many childhood memories are infused with scents: suntan lotion at Belle Harbor Beach, mothballs in a cabin in Harriman State Park, the mountainous landfill next to my Canarsie home.

The first time I lost my sense of smell and taste was in 1989. Dan was 7 months old and Leah was just shy of two and a half. I took a leave from my doctoral program, first to give birth to Dan, and then extended it to go back to work full-time. Gary was in the third year of his internal medicine residency with two years of an endocrine fellowship still to come. He was paid for his efforts, but it was a paltry sum – certainly not enough for our family of four to live on. I had a graduate assistantship to attend the PhD program, but it wasn’t enough to cover our expenses.

A professor of mine, who knew I was looking for work, informed me about a job opportunity with the New York State Legislature. I applied and got the job; I started in late September of 1989. I reported for my first day of work with a heavy cold.

I was assigned my own cubicle, which made me slightly less self-conscious about the constant nose-blowing and hacking. I had been to the doctor and was already on an antibiotic. After another week or two with no improvement in the symptoms, I went back to the doctor. She prescribed a different antibiotic.

One afternoon I was sitting at my desk at work and I took some M&M’s as a snack. I put a couple in my mouth and realized I couldn’t taste it. I could feel them dissolving on my tongue, but I didn’t taste any sweetness or chocolately-goodness. I took a few more, just to be sure. Nothing! How disappointing! I didn’t think that much about it, though, attributing it to the severity of my congestion.

That night, as I was reading to Leah before bed, I noticed I was a little breathless. I couldn’t read aloud as fluidly as I usually did, needing to pause every few words to catch my breath. I pointed it out to Gary, who put his stethoscope to my lungs and heard me wheezing. I had never wheezed in my life. I went back to the doctor the next morning.

The doctor sent me for a chest x-ray and then I went back to work. A couple of hours later I got a phone call telling me I had pneumonia in both lungs. I asked the doctor if I needed to go home. The doctor said, “Yes! And, let’s schedule you to come back in tomorrow.”

When I visited the doctor the next day, she looked at me and suggested that I go to the hospital. “You clearly can’t get the rest you need at home. And, we should try IV (intravenous) antibiotics for a day or two.” I agreed. My family rallied to help take care of Leah and Daniel.

Between the bed rest, IV antibiotic and, an inhaler, I turned the corner. Over time, my tastebuds came back and so did my sense of smell. Both senses may have been dulled a bit, but not that noticeably.

When the kids were young it felt like I was constantly battling ear infections, sinusitis and/or bronchitis, though I never had pneumonia again. I had another episode of losing my sense of taste, but after a course of steroids, it came back. Over the years, I don’t know if it was related to the recurrent respiratory issues or not, my sense of smell diminished. Fortunately, once Leah and Dan were done with elementary school, I stopped getting those infections, but my sense of smell got left behind.

Today, I no longer perceive skunk! The odor must be unbelievably pungent for me to get even a whiff of it. Not a huge loss, it’s true. But, I can’t appreciate the scent of flowers either. Even sticking my nose into a rose, I only get a hint of the fragrance. It is so ironic, having been born with such a sensitive nose.

Smell is such an important part of forming memories, such an important part of experiencing the world. It is funny how there are some things I can still smell, the sense isn’t entirely gone. I still know when the litter box needs to be changed, thankfully (or not)! The pungency of slicing an onion still brings tears to my eyes.

Earlier this Spring, walking in the woods with Gary, I sensed the freshness in the air, but not the sweetness. “Can you smell that?” he asked, as we hiked. “These white blossoms are really sweet.” I shrugged, “Nope.” We walked on. I appreciated the rich green carpet of ferns, the sun dappled leaves, the sound of the wind in the trees, the coolness of the shade. But, it felt a bit incomplete.

Yesterday Gary and I took a break from our car ride from New Jersey to Albany to check out the Walkway over the Hudson River. The walkway is a pedestrian bridge that links Highland and Poughkeepsie.

It was still warm, though the sun was setting. The air had cleared after a morning of heavy, hazy humidity.  We enjoyed great views of the Hudson north and south. Heading back, with a neighborhood of Poughkeepsie beneath us, my nose registered something! “I smell barbecue! Smells good!” I said. “You can smell that?” Gary asked happily. We found the source, a family cooking out in their backyard.

My visual and olfactory systems may be flawed, but I’ll enjoy what I have for as long as I have them. I’m sure others struggle with compromised senses. Smell isn’t often mentioned; I think it deserves some attention.

What is the Cure?

Note: I wrote the following essay about two weeks after the election of Donald Trump. I didn’t post it to the blog at the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to take the blog into the political arena since it is such a divisive subject.  But, I am continuing to experience anxiety related to Trump’s presidency – in fact, I was motivated to write a poem, which you’ll find at the end of this essay. So, I re-read what I wrote, and did some editing and decided to share it. I hope it offers food for thought.

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I am struggling. I have moments where I imagine I have the energy to do the things I need to do – laundry, cooking, planning stuff, paying bills, writing, etc. And then when I actually need to move to do them, I feel like I am in mud. My spirit is in quicksand and sinking slowly. Has it reached bottom yet?

I know that I need to move beyond that, but I am so profoundly disappointed. I feel drained. I’m hoping that writing this, as writing often does for me, will be a form of expurgation. Maybe I will be able to leave it on the page. So here goes….

In the wake of Trump’s election, I have been thinking a great deal about the people who voted for him and what they might believe.

Here are some beliefs I can accept, even if I don’t agree with them:

  • That government is not able to provide solutions to societal problems.
  • The primacy of individual responsibility, rather than “it takes a village.”
  • Big government is inefficient and incompetent.
  • American businesses and workers need more protection in global markets.
  • Religious faith, if one is a believer, should guide personal behavior and choices
  • Less regulated (or unregulated) capitalism is the best economic system.
  • Favoring national security over personal privacy.

Here are some beliefs I cannot accept:

  • That immigration policy or immigrants are the source (or even a major source) of America’s economic and/or societal woes.
  • That building a wall will solve any of America’s problems.
  • That people of color have too much power (or that white people have too little power) in this country.
  • That by sanctioning same-sex marriage, we are on a slippery slope that will allow bestiality or polygamy.
  • That government has a role to play in regulating reproductive rights (other than its role in approving drugs and licensing doctors, etc.)
  • That one individual’s religious faith can trump another person’s beliefs.
  • That Hillary Clinton belongs in jail.
  • That registering Muslims, or preventing immigration of Muslims, will reduce the threat of terrorism.

The above is partially in response to something my nephew wrote after the election. He wrote about how essential it is to be willing to talk with and listen to people with differing perspectives and not live in an echo chamber (not his words, mine). I see the danger in that. But, I also don’t think the ‘echo chamber’ is the root of the problem. I think that makes the problem far worse, but the divisions in our country, at their root, aren’t caused by the failure to listen to others. I think the division is about fundamental beliefs and, in some cases, willful ignorance.

No matter how much I talk to someone who thinks Hillary belongs in jail, they are simply not going to be able to convince me (and it is highly unlikely that I will change his/her mind). My mind is closed to that notion. Unless and until evidence of a crime is presented, and despite the extraordinary effort to do just that, it hasn’t happened.

Some beliefs may be born of ignorance, for example, climate change denial may be based on ignorance of the science. But to overcome ignorance, you must be willing to be educated and accept information (facts) that doesn’t conform to your mindset (if actual evidence of Hillary’s criminality surfaced, I would change my view).  The willingness to be educated is different than being willing to exchange ideas with someone. Yes, I can learn something by listening to another perspective, but at some point we need to agree to a body of knowledge or a set of facts about our world. I see that failure as the root of the problem.

When we are receiving information, it seems to me, we look at it through the lens of our belief system. I don’t see things in black and white, I see many, many shades of gray (which is sometimes a pain in the ass), but it generally makes me open to considering alternative ideas. When I receive information, I ask myself a number of questions: where did the information come from? Is it observable? Is it consistent with other known facts? It’s like when I used to read journal articles in graduate school – what was the methodology? Can the findings be trusted? Do others do that when they receive information? And if they don’t, what do we do about that?

I see most things on a continuum; values, beliefs, philosophies. Here are some of the belief continuums I see:

People inherently good—————————————–People inherently evil

Individualism—————————————————–Collective Responsibility

Capitalism———————————————————State-run economy

Isolationism——————————————————–Globalism

Unfettered Growth———————————————–Environmental Protection

Business Owners’ Autonomy———————————–Workers’ Rights

National/Personal Security————————————Individual Privacy

Closed US Borders————————————————Completely Open Borders

Gun-Owner Rights————————————————Repeal 2nd Amendment

Obviously within these categories there are many sub-issues.  But, I think this captures the major issues of our day. Am I missing anything?

Here’s where I would put myself:
X(midpoint)

People Inherently Good———-L——————————People Inherently Evil

Individualism————————L—————————-Collective Responsibility

Capitalism——————————-L————————–State-run economy

Isolationism—————————————L—————-Globalism

Unfettered Growth———————————-L————-Environmental Protection

Business Owners’ Autonomy————————–L———-Workers Rights

National/Personal Security————–L———————–Individual Privacy

Closed US Borders———————-L————————–Completely Open Borders

Gun Rights————————————————-L———Repeal 2nd Amendment

Can you place yourself on these scales? Where do you fall?

Maybe this is silly, but I tend to weigh things (not myself, if I can help it).

Can we have meaningful discussion along these lines? Would it be helpful? If we recognize our predispositions, if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps we can look at information more objectively.

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Six months later, I was driving up the Northway, with a too familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, as I listened to NPR report on the G-20 summit. Here is the poem that came to me:

His Presidency

What is that feeling?

My stomach grips

My arms are weak

I sigh deeply

 

Images and thoughts of our President flit across my mind

His signature hand gestures

His limited vocabulary

His callousness

It is unbelievable to me that he represents us on the world stage

 

I have physical symptoms

Of his presidency

What is the cure?