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.

Awake to Possibilities

Young plant

I submitted a piece of my writing for publication. I sent an essay to a literary magazine that was soliciting work on the theme of ‘starting over.’ It was a topic that resonated with me, so, months ago, I sent it in. I haven’t been rejected….yet.

Over the last two years and three months (but who’s counting?) that I have been writing, I have summoned the courage to submit three times. Once to a different literary magazine, once for entry to a writing class, and this most recent time.  The other two times, I was rejected.

One of the lessons I took from my first writing workshop, in July of 2015 (which I wrote about here), was that not all rejections are equal. Our workshop leader said that a rejection that came with a personal comment, beyond the usual form letter, shouldn’t be counted as a rejection. Yes, ultimately it was a rejection, but, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. He also explained that if you were published one out of every ten times you submitted something, consider yourself successful. That helped put things in perspective – and I took his words to heart.

The first piece I submitted, I got an email rejection that said this (I ‘bolded’ the key sentence):

Although we do not have a place for your work in the special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization, we wanted you to know that our readers read your essay closely. 

We received several hundred excellent submissions, from which we are only able to select a handful. We are grateful to everyone who took the time to think, and write, about issues of race, racism, and rationalization and had to reject many very good pieces. We encourage you to consider submitting this piece to other journals. This is not a conversation that should be confined to special issues. 

Thank you for sending us your work

I wasn’t sure how to categorize this. Was this a partial victory? I was tempted to reach out to our workshop leader and ask him to rate it since I had nothing to compare it to.  I didn’t know if everyone got the same encouragement either.  Alas, I didn’t reach out to him. I didn’t submit it elsewhere, at least not yet.

One of the interesting things that I am learning is that to be a published writer, there is another skill set, in addition to writing, that one needs. You need to have the energy and wherewithal to research magazines, editors and publishers. You need to have the energy and wherewithal to network and promote yourself and, in the jargon of the business, ‘build your platform’. I think it is fair to say that I am deficient in this – in fact, I think the same deficiency stunted my career in education policy.

This may sound like one of those flaws that isn’t really meant as a flaw (like saying ‘I’m too modest’). But, it truly is a flaw. I find it very difficult to sustain the enthusiasm and confidence it takes to promote myself. What I want to do is write. But, I do want to be in conversation with others – which means wider exposure. My blog allows me to do that to some extent. So, the question is, do I have the will and the desire to pursue this? Do I have the energy to do the things that might expand the readership of my blog?

This process, of writing, blogging and submitting pieces, has opened my eyes. When I was a child, I harbored so many hopes and dreams. They ranged from aspiring to be an Olympic figure skater (I loved Peggy Fleming!) to curing cancer or finding a way to eliminate air pollution. Early on I realized I didn’t have an affinity for science and my flat feet made skating painful. I moved on to other dreams. I wanted to be Barbara Walters. The idea of being a journalist, someone who interviewed famous people, wasn’t as far-fetched. At some point, though, I stopped thinking about those things. I moved on to an adult life – busy with graduate school or work, children, family, friends, the quotidian chores of life. My ambition was gone. I barely noticed when it left.

When I started writing, something happened. A sense of possibility was reawakened.

In a couple of different instances, I think at a Weight Watcher meeting years ago and then maybe watching an Oprah episode, the question was asked: what are you hoping for? What is a dream you have for yourself? I couldn’t think of anything and it wasn’t because my life was so perfect that I couldn’t imagine more. It was that I had stopped thinking about possibilities. Other than wanting to travel more, which wasn’t really the kind of thing they were getting at, I didn’t have hopes for myself. At the time, I didn’t know what to do about that, or if I was, in fact, missing out. I was just managing my life day-to-day.

Waiting to hear if a piece I submitted is accepted is nerve wracking, but exciting too. I am awake to the possibilities. It seems there is always that tradeoff in life. If you love, you risk loss. If you try, you risk failure. If you hope, you risk disappointment.

For many years I thought that the absence of my ambition didn’t have downside. It hadn’t been a conscious decision to give up on accomplishing more. The need, the desire, was just gone. I’m not sure that it is back, but I’m considering the possibilities.

Reflections on Newport

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sir:

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

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

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

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

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

Moses Seixas, Warden

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

Gentlemen:

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

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

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

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

George Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There Are No Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer of ’79: Gary Enters the Picture

 

Note:  It seems particularly appropriate to be writing about this subject because yesterday was Gary and my 34th wedding anniversary. It has been wonderful to think back on the beginnings.

The summer of ‘79 was a defining one, on many levels. The research experience in Corbett was enlightening, but more importantly, the summer of ’79 is when I met Gary.

I moved off campus in my junior year (’78-79) with friends, Merle and Alison. They went home for the summer, but I stayed in our rundown apartment at 30 Haendel Street. Binghamton has a neighborhood where the streets are named after German composers and writers. The pronunciation of some of the names bore no relation to their German origins. For example, Goethe was pronounced go-e-thee!  30 Haendel was a three story walk up, with two apartments on each floor. We lived on the third floor, which was fine in the winter since warm air rises. Not so great in the summer, as I was about to learn. Forget air conditioning, I didn’t have so much as a fan.

Our apartment sloped down about 10° from the front to the back; if you put a marble down on the floor of the living room it would have rolled down the hallway, through the kitchen and out the back door. It was a wooden structure, with sagging porches and rickety steps. The building probably should have been condemned, but we were oblivious to that at the time. It had its charms – mostly it was cheap, and it was the first apartment for all of us.

Our friend Dianne sublet Alison’s bedroom for the summer.  Dianne, a psychology major, had a job for the summer waitressing at Sambo’s (yes, that was the name of the restaurant, as offensive as it was) and working at the autism clinic on campus, too. Dianne was an RA in College-in-the-Woods, one of the dorm complexes at SUNY-B, during the school year.

Dianne was friendly with a couple of guys, Mark and Russ, who were also psych majors. They were also spending the summer in Binghamton. Mark lived a few blocks away from us, on Schubert Street which sat between Beethoven and Mozart (more German/Austrian composers!). Dianne and I began the summer hanging out with them and Mark’s housemates.

Mark and his housemates talked about another guy joining them. I kept hearing that Gary Bakst was coming up soon. I had heard a bit about Gary before because Dianne was his RA (I’m sure Gary is wincing as he reads this), but I had yet to meet him.

During the previous school year, I had several conversations with Dianne about this guy, Gary, who was a bit of a thorn in her side. Her floor was made up of females, but there were males in the two suites. Dianne took pains to cheerfully decorate the bulletin board that displayed the cafeteria menu and other announcements. Apparently, Gary and his buddies liked to kick a soccer ball around indoors with complete disregard for lighting fixtures and the bulletin board. 19-year-old ‘boy-men’ were not particularly respectful of her artistic efforts. Hearing Dianne’s frustration was my first awareness of Gary Bakst. Dianne and Gary did come to a meeting of the minds before the school year ended, but it was a bit of a bumpy road.

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up in the car that picked him up from the bus station, but I was there when Gary arrived, and there was a lot of chatter about a problem. The house on Schubert Street was overbooked. Mark, had invited a friend, Jon, from another college, to spend the summer and offered him space in the apartment. Apparently, the other guys didn’t know anything about it, or maybe they did, it was all unclear. Gary was the last to arrive, though, and he was not okay with sleeping on the couch in the living room. It took a while to iron things out, there were some tense negotiations, but everyone ended up staying and Gary got a bedroom.

When I wasn’t doing field work in Corbett, I went to the library on campus and ate lunch outside the student union. Some of the guys from Schubert Street who were working or taking classes on campus, along with Dianne, would show up at the student union at lunch time, too. Whoever got there first would grab a big table and slowly it would fill up.  Sometimes Gary and I got there early and we would chat. We got to know each other. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we shared a lot of interests. We were both sports fans and interested in politics, conversation flowed easily. Gary was taking physics that summer because he was pre-med, but he was a political science major, like me. I was comfortable with him and he made me laugh. I was, however, seeing his housemate, Mark.

I don’t recall thinking at the time that I was interested in Gary ‘in that way.’ I was happy for his friendship, to be dating in general and to finally have separated myself from what had been a painful ending of a two-year relationship.

Unfortunately, I spent much of my junior year wondering what was wrong with me because the guy I had been seeing (exclusively on my end), kept choosing to date other people! Part of the problem was that he lived in Brooklyn, going to Brooklyn College, while I was in Binghamton. But, I thought it was my failing – I wasn’t attractive enough, I wasn’t interesting enough, etc., etc. I was ruminating on that to the point that my stomach always hurt and I was pretty miserable to be around. Frankly, I think my housemates were getting tired of it. Finally, Alison left me a note and a bottle of Di-Gel, reminding me I needed to take care of myself and move on. It was the nudge I needed. I stopped wallowing – not completely, of course, but enough so that I took steps forward.

That’s where I was at the beginning of the summer of ’79.

IMG_0633
Me, summer of ’79, attending dinner at Russ’s apartment

Dianne and I kept busy: we hosted Mark and Russ for a barbecue. They arrived in suits! They returned the favor and invited us for dinner. The whole group of us, including Gary, went out to dance at Power and Light, a disco (it was that era). Some weekends we went to a lake to swim. I played tennis with whoever was available. It was a good summer.

 As the summer wound down, Gary mentioned that he and two of his buddies were looking for an apartment for the fall. I knew the apartment across the hall at 30 Haendel was going to be available so I told him about it and gave him our landlord’s phone number. Before I knew it, Gary had taken the place.

One early August evening I realized I left a book in Dianne’s car, a two-door red Pontiac Le Mans. It was parked just across the street from our apartment. I quickly went down the three flights to the street.  I opened the driver’s side door and leaned in, but couldn’t quite reach the book on the floor of the passenger side. So, I sat down on the seat, one leg in the car, one hanging out the door. I stretched to reach and as I did the car door closed on my left foot. Ouch! That was one heavy door! I didn’t think that much about it, though. It was bruised, but I could walk. I finished out the last week of the summer in Binghamton, hobbled a bit, but doing what I needed to do.

Everyone went home for a couple of weeks before coming back for the fall semester of our senior year. I was happy that Gary would be living across the hall, but I didn’t think too much more about it.

Since I had a couple of weeks at home, I went back to work at the Perfumer’s Workshop. My foot wasn’t getting better, in fact it was getting worse. The subway ride was torturous. I felt the vibrations of the train as if electric shocks were shooting through my left leg. The pain traveled from my left foot all the way up to my thigh. After two days of commuting, I went to see Uncle Terry, who was at this point a practicing podiatrist. He x-rayed my foot and, lo and behold, I had a fracture! No wonder it was so painful!  He wrapped it and gave me a surgical boot.

I went back up to school for the fall semester still wearing the surgical boot. Merle and Alison had not yet returned, but Gary had. Each time Gary left his apartment he checked on me to see if I needed anything. While I could walk, I was minimizing the number of times going up and down the three flights of stairs with my bulky boot. One evening he unexpectedly brought me ice cream – a sure way to a Brody’s heart. I was impressed, he was very thoughtful. I was still seeing Mark, but we weren’t that serious. Now Gary was on my radar.

About two weeks into September, Gary asked me out on a date. We planned to go to Copperfield’s for dinner (a big step up from the usual places college students went to eat), and then to campus to see a movie. Sounded pretty mundane, but it didn’t turn out to be.

More to come next week 🙂

 

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)

‘That Girl’

Click on this link to hear the theme song and opening sequence: That Girl

I loved “That Girl.” I wanted to be Ann Marie, the lead character. She had great hair (I’ve written about my struggles with my hair before in Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful). Hers was shiny and straight with a stylish flip at the bottom. Her bangs were perfect. My bangs always curled – the least bit of humidity or sweat and my bangs were history, just frizz and curls. She also had a cute figure, like a real-life Barbie doll. She had a boyfriend who was devoted to her, despite her sometimes-exasperating adventures. She was bubbly and had a great smile. She lived in Manhattan and her loving parents lived in a nice suburban house. Oh, why couldn’t I be her?!

I was seven years old when “That Girl” first started airing. It was on for five years. No matter what I did, my hair would not look like Ann’s. No matter what I did, my body was simply too thick. I come from Eastern European peasant stock, after all. The closest person, in real life, that I knew who met that ideal was my Dad’s cousin, Carol. Somehow the peasant stock was noticeably absent in Carol. She was petite and had fabulous hair that she wore in the same style as Ann Marie. She lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she was a lawyer. I was in awe.

But, and this is big, she wasn’t married! While it is entirely possible she had a boyfriend, I was not aware of that as a child. This was a major problem, in my young mind. It confused me. According to my sophisticated world view, she should have either been married or had a steady boyfriend, since she was the epitome of what a woman should be.

The messages I received as a girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s were conflicting. I was paying close attention to the women’s movement and I bought in to the idea that women can and should have it all: career and family. That message turned out to be incomplete – maybe we could have it all, but not at one time. It was also unrealistic given the need for all of society to change – men, the world of work, families, our institutions. It was a tall order that hasn’t been fulfilled yet – 50 years later.

Even with those ideas about changing roles for women, my notion of romantic relationships remained quite traditional. I thought a woman should marry a man, have two children and a cat. The idea of having a cat may have been revolutionary, but otherwise, I was quite traditional.

I got the message that a woman should be attached, that something was amiss if she was without a husband. Even as a girl, I felt that pressure. I could not separate what was societal, familial or my own neuroses.

In my family, the dating status of single female adults was not spoken of. Generally, you had to be engaged to be married for the relationship to be recognized. And, while that is understandable, in terms of welcoming someone into the family, it doesn’t explain the silence on the subject. I took the silence to mean there was something wrong with being a single woman. In our extended family, there were a few who fell into that category. Oddly enough, there was only one single male, my Uncle Mike, and it was understood that he certainly wanted to be married (which he did, eventually). We had no ‘confirmed bachelors.’ In retrospect, I wonder if the silence around the women who weren’t married was more about wanting to avoid any conversation about sex.

All of this contributed to my great fear that I would not marry. If Carol wasn’t married, pretty as she was, how would I ever ‘catch’ someone. Why, as an adolescent, was I preoccupied by this fear?

I remember a conversation I had with my brother when we were teenagers. For a couple of summers, Mark and I worked at the same summer camp. One time there was talk on the girl’s side about a counselor, Robin, coming back to her bunk with grass on her back and in her hair. There was some joking and teasing about who she had been with. Rumor had it that she was with my brother. That was weird for me to hear. Some brothers and sisters may talk or joke about their dating lives, but that was not the case in our family. After hearing the scuttlebutt, alone with my brother, I asked him if he thought Robin liked him. He responded that he hadn’t really thought about it.

That was an ‘aha!’ moment for me. He hadn’t thought about it!! That is all I would have been thinking about. It was all I ever thought about when it came to guys: does he like me? Not, do I like him? I would worry about that once I knew that he liked me! Now, my brother may be unusual, actually, I know he is unusual. But I do think there was something to this. I spent endless hours with friends parsing words, body language, tone of voice to determine if the guy was interested. While I don’t doubt that guys were concerned with whether they were liked, I think their priorities were elsewhere – like: What’s for dinner? How did the Mets do? When would they next have sex? Maybe that is an overstatement, but I think there’s truth to it.

So much of my self-worth hinged on whether there was a guy interested in me. Or at least that’s what I thought during my teenage years and well into young adulthood. The irony is I came to learn that having a boyfriend or husband didn’t fix that self-worth issue. As author Anne Lamott said in her recent TED Talk (which I highly recommend watching here), that is an ‘inside job.’ No outside validation can silence the persistent voice in your head that tears you down. You have to find a way to do that yourself.