‘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.

 

 

 

 

Anger

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Is it socially acceptable for women to express anger? I have thought about this forever– long before Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was called to task for dropping the f-bomb in frustration the other day. My first reaction to Senator Gillibrand’s outburst was, “Way to go! You tell ‘em, sister!”

Anger is a mysterious emotion to me.  As a girl and then as a woman, it was/is difficult to express. There is a caveat to that. I have had no problem expressing anger with my mother or my husband. Aren’t they lucky?! While they might prefer it be otherwise, I choose to think of it as a mark of how comfortable I am with them. They are the recipients of the full range of my emotions. That is the positive spin I’m putting on it and I’m sticking with it. (Perhaps I’m letting myself off too easily.)

My children might say that I freely express anger with them, too. (Leah and Dan, you can take this opportunity to offer your first public comments on this blog, if you wish.) That may have been true when they were children, but it is much more complicated now that they are adults. The truth is, I don’t often get angry at them. More frequently I can be hurt or frustrated, emotions which are also difficult to express.

Which brings me to the question: what is anger? Isn’t it the result of fear, frustration or hurt? Is anger actually a separate thing? Turns out these aren’t original questions, as the image below reveals.

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I reflect on my Dad’s temper (which I wrote about previously here) when we were growing up.  I think 95% of the time his anger was a manifestation of frustration. Driving the car in New York City traffic, where other drivers did dumb things, where rubbernecking could cause endless delays, where the Van Wyck Expressway was under construction for my entire life, the aggravation sent him over the edge. Add Mark teasing me, telling me I was adopted or calling my shoes canoes, and me responding by hitting him or whining to my parents; it was a toxic mix. “Don’t make me pull over!” he screamed. Dad’s voice was deep and intense – in a small space like the car, the sound reverberated. We got in line quickly. Until the next provocation.

It also seems that some people are born angry. I don’t know if that was the case with my dad, but it seemed to be the case with my son. Perhaps it was low frustration tolerance, or over-sensitivity, but Dan was angry a lot. If something didn’t taste the way he expected, or if a fabric was rough on his skin, he objected strenuously. Gary and I tried various strategies to help him manage it and find outlets for it. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Dan, but by the time he was in high school he seemed to have a much better handle on it.

For me, anger was often expressed in tears and sometimes when I least wanted them. I couldn’t cry in grief, but I could cry in anger.

I was working for the City of Pittsburgh’s Finance Department in 1984. Computer systems were being implemented and there was resistance from staff. One of my jobs was to train the city’s auditors on the new system. The audit department was comprised of about 15 men (zero women), who had been doing their jobs, on average, for more than 10 years. I was 24, right out of graduate school, from New York City and Jewish. And, at that time many of the Finance Department employees, even in the audit department, only had a high school diploma. I was an outsider for many reasons and my message of change was very unwelcome.

I walked the group through the new system. I don’t remember exactly how it started to devolve, but it became a gripe session. They vented all of their anger and frustration on me. The department supervisor, a man at least 30 years my senior, stood by silently. I almost wondered if he was taking pleasure in the display, after all it was directed at me, not him. I tried to stand my ground, explaining how this was a tool to help them, explaining how I was not the decision-maker here but the messenger, how I would share their concerns with the higher ups. After a while, although I was angry, I got shakier and shakier, my voice cracking. Eventually some tears rolled down my cheeks. I wished I could have channeled my father’s rage. Finally, mercifully, the session was over.

I went to my office to collect myself. Then I went to see my boss, the treasurer. I told him he might hear some things about the training session and I wanted him to hear it from me first. While at that point I was composed, I was still shaky. The one thing that came from that meeting was that he spoke with the audit supervisor about his failure to step up and help, given that he was a member of the management team.

A few days later, I ran into one of the auditors on the staircase. He apologized for his behavior, explaining that I was the unfortunate recipient of their built-up frustration. I accepted his apology, but something about it made me uneasy. I felt like he was patronizing me. He was one of the most aggressive offenders at the training session –  his last name was Heckler.  Unbelievable! How appropriate.

It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last time that a workplace experience played out that way. If I felt that my integrity was in question or if criticism was unfair, it resulted in tears, rather than anger. I hated that about myself. Fortunately, the circumstances didn’t arise very often. I was in my late 40’s when I finally could stand my ground without tears.

Actually, standing my ground in the workplace, even without the tears, didn’t work out that well either. I never did figure out how to successfully express disagreement or frustration (if success is measured by changing minds of those in power).

As I got older and less concerned with what other people thought, I was freer in stating my opinion. This didn’t always go over very well. When I worked for the school boards association, if the organization was taking a position that I thought was not in the best interest of students or my fellow employees, I could be quite passionate in expressing my views. I wasn’t very effective in changing minds, which could reflect the weakness of my argument, or it could have related to how I delivered the message. I came to believe that it was at least partly because strong opinions expressed by a strong woman were not welcome.

Research, at least in one study reported on in Psychology Today,*  suggests that when women show anger, they lose credibility, while men gain credibility when they do. That finding is certainly consistent with my experience.

For both men and women anger is a tricky emotion to manage. But for women it seems to be a no-win situation. If you come across too strongly, it turns people off. If you are too meek, you get walked over or patronized. I don’t know how this will ever change, but I am hopeful that awareness is the first step.

*Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015). One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation. Law and Human Behavior, doi:10.1037/lhb0000147)

Living the Dream

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It’s no secret that I am trying to be a writer. I am not yet ready to call myself a writer, that would be too audacious. I’m not sure when I will be ready to assume the mantle, but this past weekend I took a step in that direction. I attended a writers’ conference!

I am a veteran of conferences – as an attendee and a presenter – but those were school board-related, where my identity was firm. I had a love-hate relationship with those conferences. I loved the learning – hearing experienced, knowledgeable professionals share insights gets my adrenaline going. I also enjoyed presenting information that I thought would educate and motivate school board members. The thing I hated about those conferences was the stress – juggling my stuff (I always seemed to have too many things!) without spilling coffee all over myself, making small talk with people I didn’t know, getting adequate sleep after exceptionally long days where I had to be ‘on’ for so many hours. The stress was a big part of the conference experience.

I wanted to further develop my writing, and improve my odds of getting published, so months in advance I ponied up the money and committed to spending Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh to attend the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ conference. I even paid extra to get a half hour one-on-one session with an agent. I thought I was ready to take the plunge.

One would think, given that I was so invested in this conference, that I would plan my time so that I would arrive fresh and rested, ready to maximize the experience. One would be wrong. Here was my schedule, of my own design, for the week leading up to it.  I drove with my brother, Mark, from Albany to New Jersey on Wednesday night so that we could escort my Mom to Florida on Thursday. We were in Florida to attend my aunt’s unveiling (a Jewish tradition where the headstone is unveiled at the cemetery about a year after a death). We flew back on Monday, arriving in Newark at 9:00 p.m. We drove back to Albany that night, arriving at 1:30 a.m. I had Tuesday to do laundry and get organized. On Wednesday I drove to New York City to leave my car with Daniel so he and Beth could visit Leah over the holiday weekend. I took Amtrak back to Albany on Thursday. Gary met me at the station and we left for Pittsburgh. We arrived in Pittsburgh at 10:30 pm. The conference started with breakfast at 8 a.m. on Friday.

Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep that well Thursday night. It was one of those nights where you wake up every hour and look at the clock. I finally fell into a restful sleep at about 6 a.m. When the alarm went off at 7:30, I was disoriented, to say the least.

I stumbled around in the hotel room (the room-darkening curtains worked a little too well), trying not to disturb Gary, and managed to shower and dress without injuring myself. I got down to the lobby and saw that it was pouring so I decided to treat myself to a cab even though the conference was only a 10-minute walk away. The doorman hailed me a cab. I took a deep breath and thought, “Okay, this is good. I’m on time. I can relax.” Not so fast.

The cab rattled and bumped down the potholed streets. The driver, in a muffled, raspy, unfriendly voice, warned me that I should buckle up or hold on. I did as I was told. In anticipation of walking to the conference I had set up the map function on my phone, so a voice was giving directions – directions which the driver wasn’t following. I said, “Oh, that’s just my phone,” thinking he’d be wondering about the disembodied voice. He said, sounding defensive and annoyed, “Oh, people do that all the time. They use their phones and say, ‘Where the hell are you going?’ Not realizing that I’ve been doing this for 30 years and might know a better route than the damn phone.” I started to explain that I wasn’t checking on him, but thought better of it. Fortunately, we arrived at my destination within minutes. I was relieved to get out of the cab.

I found my way to the conference registration desk and breakfast. I even managed to find some very pleasant women to sit with– one from Missouri (originally from Long Island) and another from Texas – who were newcomers to the conference. It seemed like things were settling down when it was time to go to the first lecture. The three of us trooped upstairs to the ballroom for the session and settled into seats. I reached for my phone to silence it and couldn’t find it. I went through my purse, my briefcase, the conference bag, my pockets… multiple times. I went back downstairs to where we had breakfast. I retraced my steps. No luck.

I went back up to the ballroom, where the lecture had not yet begun. My new friend from Texas offered to let me use her phone to call Gary. “Please pick up!” I repeated to myself, thinking Gary would ignore the call since he wouldn’t recognize the number. Fortunately, he answered. I explained my dilemma and said I had a feeling that the phone fell out of my pocket during that godforsaken cab ride. After consoling me, he readily agreed to try and track it down. I gave him as much information as I could (white van, cranky cab driver, etc.). We made up to meet at the hotel room after my consultation with the agent, which was scheduled from noon until 12:30.

I still had time before the talk began to go up to the front of the room and ask the conference organizer if she would make an announcement about my lost phone. She did. Although everyone was being very nice, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a sign that I didn’t belong at the conference. It didn’t take much to derail my inchoate confidence.

I tried to concentrate on the speaker. I took notes, writing down articles and books that were referenced as stellar works of creative nonfiction. Following the opening lecture, there were breakout sessions. I went to one on research and fact-checking. I barely had time to think about the meeting with the agent. It was quickly coming up on the time for that meeting. I left the breakout session early to try and gather my thoughts. What was it I was trying to accomplish with my meeting?

Though I wouldn’t allow myself to say the words to myself, let’s be honest. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the agent to be so bowled over by me, she would ask to sign me up right there. My logical brain knew that wouldn’t happen, so I did think of some questions.

Our conversation was cordial. I briefly described my blog and that I had two goals: growing my readership and developing a couple of themes from the blog into a book. She shared some insight into what an agent looks for. She told me that having 40,000 followers will get a blogger noticed. Okay, then. While I don’t know how to interpret the numbers WordPress provides, I know I’m nowhere near that!

I asked a couple of more questions, she gave me a couple of suggestions. We made some small talk about the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She commiserated over the loss of my phone, and she took my card, at least I think she did. Who knows if she kept it or looked at it?

We shook hands, she wished me luck. I gathered my things and walked back to the hotel to meet Gary. I was in a funk. I was bone tired, disappointed and worried about finding the phone.

I opened the door to the room to some good news! Gary, after persistently calling my phone, reached the cabbie. Gary was similarly unimpressed with his personality, but at least he agreed to meet at 4:00 p.m. at the taxi stand in front of the hotel. He asked for a cash reward. We weren’t sure that he would show up, but we had hope.

I filled Gary in on my meeting with the agent; he was philosophical about it. “You know what steps you need to take. You just need to decide whether you want to.” True. He also pointed out that I should take some time to process all that had happened. There were no decisions to be made immediately.

Part of me wanted to get under the covers and go to sleep. That would be a decision. I didn’t, though. We had some lunch, he filled me in on the particulars of tracking down the phone. I revived a bit and went back into the fray. Gary would message me on my computer, which I had with me, to let me know the status of the phone. I returned to the conference.

I attended the sessions, still not fully present, but better than the morning. I checked my computer at 4:15 and there was a message from Gary; he had the phone! What a relief! And, the day was almost over!

The last session of the afternoon concluded, I met Gary. We went out for a nice dinner. I had a cocktail and regrouped. I got a better night’s sleep and went back for day two.

I’m glad I did. I met some more interesting people, most were making a living doing something else, but wanted to write. I met a massage therapist, an airline pilot, several teachers, a nurse practitioner, a publicist, a researcher on nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan! On that second morning of the conference, I sat down to breakfast next to a young man from New Orleans. He is in the midst of an MFA program. He asked about my situation. I told him I retired two years ago to pursue writing. He smiled, “So you’re living the dream.” “I suppose I am.”

After listening to author after author at the conference talk about their journey, I learned just how daunting this endeavor is: getting published isn’t easy and even if you are lucky enough to get published, it doesn’t necessarily get easier.

After all is said and done, it comes down to this: do I want to tell stories? Do I want to work on the craft? Right now, the answer is yes.

A Year in Review

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Note: Today is Leah’s birthday. It is funny how Dan, Gary and Leah all have their birthdays on the same day of the week – this year it falls on a Monday – blog day! So, as has been my custom with Daniel and Gary, I dedicate this post to Leah. It is particularly appropriate because though the rest of my family has been supportive of this endeavor, Leah has been my biggest cheerleader and frequent editor. Her comments are always incisive and helpful. More than any of that, though, she is an inspiration to me. I admire her willingness to put herself out there by sharing her songs and expressing her creativity. It only took me until I was in my fifties, but she was a trailblazer for me J.  So, Leah, happy birthday! I love you hugely! I wish you love, health, peace and wonderful adventures – and everything you want for yourself, too.

Today’s blog post is my 52nd! A year goes by fast! Well, technically I skipped one week, but still, I think it is a good time to take stock.

First, some numbers. The blog has had over 6000 views and it has had 2,250 visitors. Believe it or not, there have been 50 views from Germany, 10 from Italy, even 3 from China (and some other countries, too)! WordPress provides these stats. I have no idea how to interpret them. Clearly my Mom has visited the blog many times, but not from Germany! I’m not sure how the system tallies these things. I’ve also had well over 100 comments on the blog itself, not counting what has appeared on Facebook, or what was conveyed to me personally.

Despite not knowing how to make sense of the numbers, or how to compare them to any standard or expectation, I am just pleased to have readers! I started this blog to share memories and start some conversations and I think it has been successful. Without you, dear readers, it would not have been possible.

The blog has also had some unintended consequences. One of the reasons I entitled it “Stories I Tell Myself,” was that I believed each of us has a narrative that we use to describe the events of our lives. I think we have experiences and we interpret them so that they fit into the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. For example, to simplify the idea, if a person thinks of themselves as a victim, then they might look for how a set of circumstances reinforces that belief. I think we can trap ourselves in our own narrative.

In my case, I thought of myself as an unhappy child who felt insecure. I felt like I never got the love and attention I wanted. That perception shaped my life in important ways. It has been an effort to move beyond that – an effort that fortunately became more successful the older I got.

Writing these stories, and then editing and rereading them, and receiving comments has been a revelation. In digging through my past, I found so much love and warmth. I think while I was living through it, I didn’t absorb it – I didn’t feel it. I can’t explain that. I think I was more focused on the painful or disappointing parts. But, as I wrote and as I uncovered more memories, I couldn’t help but notice the love that was the foundation.

As is often the case for me, a song lyric comes to mind. Jackson Browne (once again) wrote, in Fountain of Sorrow, “And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.” While I haven’t changed the past, and I wouldn’t describe the blogging process as easy, I think I have changed how I feel about the past.

I think the idea of ‘stories we tell ourselves’ is valid, even if, upon closer scrutiny, mine was a little off. Maybe that is the whole point. To discover whether the story is true! Not everyone would choose to examine their own stories in a public blog, but I think it has been helpful to get feedback. When people comment, for example, that the stories about my Nana and Zada make them feel warm and safe, it helps me process and amplify my own feelings.

Writing the stories was also useful. Describing the images in my head helped to clarify them. Having to choose adjectives to express an emotion, or paint a picture of Nana’s kitchen forced me to think more deeply about the memory and its meaning.

I don’t think I am done yet. I think there is more to uncover about growing up in Brooklyn in that time with my family. I think, too, there is more to explore about the beginning of my relationship with Gary, our early marriage and starting a family. I hope you will continue to share my journey and, perhaps, share some of yours. I have very much appreciated when Gary and Leah offered their own stories (and judging by the comments, readers have enjoyed their posts, too). Others are welcome to do that in the comments or in a guest blog piece.

I think it is helpful to examine our stories, our memories; expose them to the light of day. You may be surprised at what you find. I hope I continue to surprise myself.

Music

 

Music is so powerful in evoking emotions. During a recent visit, my Mom and Aunt Diane were recalling times when a piece of music brought tears to their eyes. Not tears of sadness, but tears inspired by the beauty of the sound. Aunt Diane recalled a time when she was driving home from work, on the FDR Drive, when she pulled her car over to listen without distraction. They were talking about classical music, identifying particular works of Bach and Beethoven that triggered the tears.

I have had occasions, especially with a live performance, where I have gotten shivers down my spine and my scalp prickled upon hearing something that touched my soul. Most often, for me, I’ve had that happen when voices harmonize and I feel uplifted. But even when I don’t have that physical reaction, I almost always have a response to music.

As a teenager and young adult music was central to my life. I think many people share that experience during that time of their life. Perhaps there are those for whom that isn’t true – my brother Mark comes to mind, but I think, not surprisingly, he may be the exception rather than the rule.

In high school, I have vivid memories of putting an album on my turntable, in my room the size of a closet, lying on my bed, and letting the music take me away. I didn’t do anything while I listened. Occasionally I may have read or done homework, but mostly I just listened…to Simon and Garfunkel, Seals and Crofts, Carole King, James Taylor. I put on my headphones, turned up the volume so that my head was filled with their voices, their melodies, their poetry.

The combination of the music and the lyrics in songs like Fire and Rain, The Boxer, Only Living Boy in New York, America validated my own feelings of alienation, loss and sadness. Sometimes it felt good to wallow around in my loneliness – I may have overdone that a bit as a teenager. But, the music could be hopeful or soothing, too. You’ve Got a Friend, Beautiful and Bridge Over Troubled Water reminded me that I did have connections, there was another way to look at the world.

Somewhere along the line I stopped doing that – just listening. Of course, life intrudes, especially when you work and have a family. But, I waste plenty of time – there could be time to do it. Concentrating fully on music, other than when I am in the car or at a concert, is just not something I consider doing anymore.

Music was a significant part of bonding with other people, too. We took it quite seriously. I remember going to my friend Cindy’s house (not the Cindy I played hooky with in elementary school, for those of you keeping track) to hang out. We weren’t long out of high school. She put on Turnstiles (Billy Joel) – a newly released album at the time. As she was setting it up on the turntable she turned to me and said, “Let’s not talk during it, ok?” I nodded in agreement. “And, I hope you don’t mind if I sing along to some of the songs, I really love James.” Cindy had already listened to the album many times over. It was still new to me. I was fine with her singing, she had a good voice. If we wanted to discuss a song, she paused the record so we could talk – we wouldn’t think of talking over it. This was one of many times that I bonded with someone over the shared experience of listening to an album.

At college, especially freshmen year, this shared ritual was an important part of establishing friendships. Merle introduced me to Jackson Browne and Dan Fogelberg. I remember sitting on her bed in her dorm room, we weren’t roommates yet, and she handed me the album Late for the Sky. “You have to listen to this,” she said. The evocative photograph on the cover, a solitary old car parked in front of a house as a day draws to a close with a still bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds, set the stage for the intense, searching songs that followed. We sat together and listened, cementing our friendship and a shared love of Jackson Browne. The same thing happened with Fogelberg’s Home Free. I heard the first notes of To the Morning and knew it was special to me. We eagerly awaited the release of their new albums, hoping one of us had the money to buy it.

Alison introduced me to Joni Mitchell. Aside from listening to Ladies of the Canyon, Alison played the guitar and we sang the songs. Again, a bond was formed that has withstood the test of time.

Music had another role in that time and place (the mid ‘70s). It was often used as a complement to getting high. I managed to make it through high school without trying pot. At times, I felt literally alone in that status. In college, I decided to relax my rules a bit and experiment (thank you, Merle, for getting me to loosen up!). One friend, Rob, fashioned himself as a kind of pied piper for those getting high for the first time. He liked introducing people to weed and I was one of his subjects. I went to his dorm room, where he had created an appropriately mellow environment with low lighting and wall hangings. He put on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and we rolled up. I admit it was kind of pleasant and relaxing. I remember walking back to my dorm in the dark and feeling like I was watching a movie where I could see the campus scenery as frames of film. Fortunately, it didn’t freak me out, I just took it all in. Although it was a positive introduction, I never fully embraced getting high. It was fine now and again, but not something I wanted to do regularly. I wonder if my feelings about pot relate to my failure to embrace the Grateful Dead, though that may be a ‘chicken or egg’ thing. Did I not like the Dead because I didn’t love getting high? Or, was it that I didn’t love getting high and therefore didn’t love the Dead? Either way, it wasn’t my scene.

Music was also an important part of my relationship with Gary. In our first year together we spent time listening to each other’s favorite albums. I had heard Bruce Springsteen before, but I didn’t fully appreciate his artistry until I listened to it with Gary. Our taste in music overlapped quite a bit, but Gary tended to like a grittier sound. I was drawn to prettier, more melodic songs. I remember playing James Taylor’s You Can Close Your Eyes for him, expecting him to be similarly moved. Gary said something disparaging about it. I’ve blocked out what he said – but he made fun of it.  I nearly broke up with him right then and there! His dismissive attitude cut me to the quick. We had a real fight (maybe our first?). We had to learn to respect each other’s taste in music – this was serious business. Clearly, we figured it out or we wouldn’t be here almost 38 years later (34 married).

There is one thing that remains different about Gary and me and our attitude toward music. Gary is happy to listen only to music from before 1980 – unless it is Springsteen or Jackson Browne. He listens to their new music. If something that sounds remotely like rap comes on the radio, he immediately changes the station or turns it off. I, on the other hand, like to hear new things, new musicians. While I’m not particularly interested in Top 40 or hip-hop, I do like trying out new artists. I listen to an alternative radio station. I’m still drawn to singer-songwriters, but I’m open to hearing new people. I listen to my old favorites, too, but I’m curious about new stuff.

As I write this and reflect on what music has meant to me, I have made a decision: I want to devote more time to listening, without distraction. Maybe I’ll borrow a page from my teenage self:  Put on a CD, lay on my bed and let the music envelop me.

Family Ties

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From left to right: Uncle Jackie, Uncle Morris, me, the top of my brother Mark’s head, Dad, Nana and Aunt Elsie. Jack, Morris and Nana were siblings. Aunt Sadie, their oldest sister, is not pictured. Aunt Elsie was Uncle Jack’s wife.

As a child your family is your world. At least it was for me. I didn’t question how we did things or how our family functioned. While I knew we weren’t perfect, I thought we were pretty darn close.

As the years went by, I came to understand that the people around me were in fact flawed. Even my beloved Nana. Nana was a mythic figure in our family. Her legendary status only grew after her death.

I have wanted to write about Nana for as long as I could remember. I started this blog as a way of exploring my memories of her, though I have strayed from that at times. I think I wanted to understand her better, to have a better sense of her life, from an adult perspective. I was 11 when she died, but she played such a central role in my life – from the time I was four until she died, I probably spent more time with her than my own mother. With that in mind, I wrote to her youngest brother, my Great-Uncle Jackie (Jacob, but we called him Jackie or Jack), in December of 2001, asking him to share stories about her. This was the first letter I received in response.

                                                                                                                        January 2002
Dear Linda,

Life on Rochester Ave was a most unique experience. Unlike anything else, it was a lesson in humanities, and your Nana was the ultimate professor.

The one block on Rochester Ave was a community in itself, it was a shtetl, an almost self contained mini state, which thrived for many, many years.

Nana was the leader of the pack. She could have been mayor of the block.

Her warmth and friendship was infectious.

It was not a put on. It was real. She exuded this very unusual human quality automatically – without effort, without exertion.

The block could have had a fence around it. The business establishments and owners were like a family in every sense of the word. It was a “mutual admiration society,” knowing each other, respecting each other, liking and supporting each other.

Quoting, with humility, Tevya proclaims that Anatevka (Rochester Ave) has its variety of ‘colorful characters.’

There was Max, the fruit and produce man next door to the bakery – there was Al the barber – there was Sam the butcher across the street – there was Julius the appetizing maven, Datz the pharmacist, Singer the hardware man – and two names that elude me, the luncheonette guy and the pastrami (king) on the corner.

Your Nana loved this kaleidoscope of rainbow hued people – and they loved her. This was most important!!!

It was a violation of every concept of law not to support each other, purchase from each other, or maintain a warm relationship with each other.

Bakery business is a complex business. A wholesale/retail operation is a 24 hour business.

Zada Chas., of course, was responsible for the production end.

Nana Ray was totally involved in the retail aspect of this very difficult business. Coming in contact with the immediate neighborhood customers required the patience of a saint – the wisdom of a scholar – the compassion of a person of the cloth – the wit of a comic.

Well, Linda, your Nana was all of those things and more.

She constantly transmitted a warmth and friendship to all.

Please be assured Nana was no saint – she was just a very special human being.

It was very obvious through the years that your Nana loved the business and loved the intimacy of her station behind the counter.

She was on call every minute the store was open, at a moment’s call, always in her uniform, ready to report for duty.

But – she seemed to love the thought of the sweets on display. If memory serves, she was ‘almost’ obsessed with eclairs, whip cream cake, brownies, Napoleons, etc., etc. That was bad – very bad. Your Nana was a diabetic – an out of control diabetic. She was in and out of the hospital more times than I can remember. I could almost swear that she liked the occasional stay in Unity Hospital, where she developed friendships with the medical personnel.

She was a star, a favorite Unity visitor.

Nana did not accept the fact that she could be a diabetic. She did not care for herself and, at the end, it may have contributed somewhat to her demise at such a young age.

Nana Ray was a joy to love, live with and is constantly missed.

Love,
Uncle Jack

Fifteen years ago, when I received that letter, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping for more detail, more specific information about her life. The letter reinforced the mythology of Nana. In our family Nana was the matriarch, the center from which love flowed, even 30 years after her death. Uncle Jack noted that Nana wasn’t a saint, but he chose not to illuminate her flaws. He did address her self-destructive eating habits, and unwillingness to take care of herself. Even about that he was as gentle as possible in his wording. At the time I was hoping Uncle Jack could offer some stories that would provide more dimension, or a fuller perspective on Nana.

Today I read the letter and I see the insight in it. I appreciate the description of the community around the bakery, the community that encompassed Nana’s life. I better understand how difficult the bakery bankruptcy must have been and the defeat inherent in moving to the apartment above ours in Canarsie. It explains a lot about the sometimes testy relationship that I observed between Nana and Zada.

My mother used to tell me that she thought Nana used her hospitalizations as a kind of vacation, to take a break from her responsibilities. Uncle Jack’s letter seems to support that, though clearly it was a self-destructive way to go about it.

In some ways, the letter says more about Uncle Jack’s relationship with his older sister than it does about Nana’s life. He so loved and admired her. He was 11 years her junior. Jack had a very painful growing up. Their mother died when he was very young and his father was unable to care for him. Jack was shuttled to different relatives to live. When Nana (Ray) was married and settled, she took him in. The 1940 census, when Nana and Zada lived in Jersey City, lists their household on Essex Street as including the following: Charles – age 35, Ray – age 26, Feige – age 7, Simma – age 3 and Jack Woltz – age 15. My mother grew up with Uncle Jack as an older brother, much the way I grew up with Uncle Mike and Uncle Terry. It is strange how that pattern repeated itself.

During World War II Uncle Jack enlisted in the Marines before he was even 17, or he tried to. I believe Nana had to give permission for him to serve. In later years he spoke with great respect and pride about his time in the service, despite the fact that he was shot down in the Pacific, a harrowing experience. He had a tattoo to commemorate his time in the Marines on his bicep, quite an unusual thing for a Jewish man at the time.

While at war he wrote letters to his nieces (my mom and her sister) that included cartoons. He was a talented artist. Those letters were shared at Mom’s elementary school and posted on a bulletin board for all to see. Uncle Jack came home, after recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed, a decorated hero, a bit shell shocked, but happy to return home.

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Mom and Dad’s wedding in 1954 – the cake was made by Uncle Jackie. Nana and Zada sent Uncle Jack to school for cake decorating and he was a master. This cake was just one example of his artistry.

I think it is fair to say that Nana functioned as a mother to him. Something he confirmed in a subsequent letter. As he wrote, referring to his place in Nana and Zada’s home, “As for me personally, it meant for the first time in my life I felt that I had a family, that I was a valued member of a family, a stability with shared love and responsibility. This responsibility came to pass only by the goodness of Nana Ray and Zada Chas, who were more than sister or brother-in-law – more like an interim Mother and Father, with the children more like brothers and sisters.”

I continued my correspondence with Uncle Jackie and in subsequent letters, at my prodding, he offered a fuller picture of Nana. Here is most of the next letter:

                                                                                                April 2002
Dear Linda,

…..Nana Ray had this thing for hosting parties. She invented the term for Webster, and they called it——obsession.

The family was always the center, the core of any party that was planned to her agenda. I’m emphatically stating that at times, it did annoy the Spilken/Woltz clans – but our rebellion was unacceptable and hopeless. Any previous plans made by the helpless had to be cancelled and rescheduled.

There were small parties, large parties, grand elaborate parties, significant and memorable parties never to be forgotten……

Listing Nana’s obsession with parties, and listing occasions would require one volume of an encyclopedia.

But briefly: birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, B’nai Mitzvot, weddings, uf rufs, going into service, coming home from service (a reunion that made Aunt Elsie your aunt), Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, and the list goes on and on and on and on….

This was your Nana. She was a class act, her most important cast members were her family. There didn’t exist an occasion too minor or too important for it to escape the opportunity for Ray to honor.

Before going further, I must inject a couple of relationship points.
Ray’s relationship to her (our) sister Sadie was, at times, confrontational and argumentative. But, make no mistake, the love was strong, unbreakable and absolutely devoted. That was Nana Ray, 100% pure love. They spoke almost daily by phone. If Sadie could not come to the party, we took the party to Jersey. Restrictions on time of day or day of week never existed. Zada’s car was loaded and we did travel.

The fun was wonderful……

Aunt Say always disagreed with Ray’s way of life. Aunt Say always felt that Ray enjoyed going out too much (and as such), neglected her business. She argued that Ray’s spending on her antiques was excessive and wasteful. Say felt that vacationing was excessive, and most of all, Ray did not take care of herself (reckless food eating). Sadie was even more angry at Ray for too frequent hospital excursions.

They were both business women. Ray always felt that Sadie was more like the country bumpkin, catalogue ordering farm girl. Sadie was more home oriented, financially frugal, never concerned with fancy clothing, jewelry or home furnishings.

In spite of the silly differences, they were both hard working in their businesses, while caring for their children.

But again, our journeys to Jersey were precious and priceless. We were a family, happy to be together, enjoying the time.

Another relationship worthy of mention is the closeness shared by Nana and Aunt Elsie. This was very unusual, far beyond a sister-in-law relationship, they shared a love, respect and closeness that was out of the ordinary. They shared ideas, thoughts, and were closer than sisters.

Zada Chas and Elsie’s parents shared that same feeling of warmth, love and affection.

                                                                     My love to you ——-Uncle Jack

The differences between the sisters that the letter describes and what those differences revealed about each of them, was news to me. I was not aware of any issues between the siblings. While it may be true that a child may not be privy to those particulars, my experience with my family was a bit different. I was often the proverbial fly on the wall. I liked the company of adults and I liked listening. In any event, while it is certainly possible, I don’t think the tensions were spoken about.

Therein lies a problem. In our effort to preserve a reputation, especially that of a beloved person, we may sweep a lot under the rug. I don’t think it serves us well. While I don’t think it is helpful to tear down heroes, or speak ill of the dead, I think if we ignore or whitewash their failings, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity to better understand the person, to learn about ourselves, to acknowledge human frailty and, perhaps, to be more forgiving of each other and ourselves.

These letters, more than anything, though, remind me of the lessons I took from Nana’s life: To celebrate when you can. The priority and value of family relationships, even when the people are flawed. To live in the world with kindness, generosity and love. Whatever flaws Nana had, and they may well have shortened her life, they pale in comparison to her legacy.

Note:  Members of the Woltz family, please feel free to comment, correct or add to this post. If any of you would like to write a longer piece, I’d be happy to post it. That offer extends to all family members who may have something that they would like to share. 

Sixth Grade Was a Nightmare

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From my sixth grade report card, my teacher’s comment: Actually I was unhappy and she contributed mightily to it.

Sixth grade was a nightmare. Maybe sixth grade is a nightmare for most – especially for girls since we’re all in different stages of puberty and it wreaks havoc on our bodies and emotions. Compounding that reality was the fact that I had a truly terrible teacher that year.

Mrs. Garner was the kind of teacher who seemed to take pleasure in humiliating students. She would call a student up to the board to do a math problem when she knew the student likely couldn’t solve it. I wasn’t particularly good at math, so I was one of her victims. She would also give back test papers from lowest to highest score so everyone knew how you did. This was especially embarrassing for me since my math test scores were dismal. It took me years, and better math teachers, to get over the damage done and realize that, in fact, I wasn’t actually that bad at math.

If that was her only flaw, maybe it wouldn’t have been that bad. But as that teaching strategy revealed, she was mean. I guess in a perverse way it was a good thing because, as a result, I bonded with some of my classmates. We had a siege mentality. It became an ‘us versus her’ situation. Cindy, my best friend, and I were united in our rebellion. We plotted various schemes, and shared lots of laughs in thinking of ways to get back at her. We thought we were pretty creative when we ordered a pizza to her house. We sent an insulting letter to her home, as well. I’m embarrassed to think of it now, but we didn’t know what else to do with our hurt and anger.

For the first and only time, I played hooky that year. Cindy and I hatched a grand plot. We, and another friend, were going to meet at Cindy’s apartment. Her mother must not have been home that day. I left for school that morning, as I usually did, but took a detour to the Bayview Projects where Cindy lived, which was conveniently located right next to our school. I went to Cindy’s building and, terrified that I would be seen by another classmate, I went up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Our other friend chickened out and went to school. Cindy and I spent the day baking (we had a food fight!), watching television and laughing.

Cindy’s older sister came home and threatened to tell. We cleaned up and vacuumed. I don’t recall if Cindy got into trouble, but since her sister knew I was afraid word would get to my parents, so I fessed up before that could happen. I told my mom and she had a very unexpected reaction. She told me she should have given me a mental health day off, and that I should talk to her first if I was feeling that desperate. I never played hooky again.

Mrs. Garner did another student more harm. This past August I went to my 40 year (holy shit! I’m that old!) high school reunion and was reminded of an incident that is illustrative of her character. I went to the reunion specifically to seek out classmates who had also been in my elementary school class. As part of writing this blog, I wanted to compare notes.

Clayton was one of two African-American boys in that class. Clayton and I had been in the same class three years running. He was the smartest kid every year. He could be talkative, more talkative than the teachers appreciated, but there was no denying his smarts. In sixth grade, toward the end of the year, the class was asked to vote to have a student representative who would speak at graduation. Our class voted for Clayton. Mrs. Garner gave the honor to a white boy, telling Clayton, that he didn’t enunciate clearly enough to deliver the speech. I don’t recall the class being offered any explanation. I can say that Clayton spoke perfectly clearly (as good (sic) as any Brooklynite, if not better).

When I went to the reunion, I asked Clayton about a different incident I remembered from fourth grade. He didn’t recall it, but he shared three other experiences that reeked of racism. When he told of the election described above, parts of it came back to me. Interestingly, I didn’t remember which student had been denied the honor, I only remembered my feelings of righteous indignation that the class choice had been overridden. I wouldn’t have remembered that it was Clayton who had been wronged if he hadn’t told me. It is so interesting what we remember, what makes a mark on us.

One of the things Clayton and I discussed at the reunion was that Mrs. Garner was the wife of the District Superintendent. In addition to having tenure since she was a veteran teacher, Mrs. Garner likely had no concerns about being rebuked by the administration for her teaching methods or actions.

Hearing Clayton’s story validated the intense dislike I harbored for Mrs. Garner. She may be long gone from this earth and I may have acted out inappropriately, but my 11-year old self knew she wasn’t a righteous person.

Note: In writing this blog piece I reached out to Cindy and Clayton. Both were helpful and generously shared their memories. To further illustrate the damage done, Clayton shared the following in an email:  …in addition to this slight, she then had me placed me in Class 773 in John Wilson (the lowest-ranked of the three “SP” classes in the upcoming 7th grade). Now, how you go from Valedictorian-elect to the lowest class of the SP program is beyond me, but it added to my frustration with school in general. I never again got inspired to do well in school–it just seemed not to be worth it. It wasn’t a meritorious system, it was one of politics and preferences–preferences I seemed destined to never receive. So, I have to say that in many ways, I never recovered from 6th grade.