Friendship

When I arrived on campus at SUNY-Binghamton in August of 1976, I was 16 and emotionally fragile. I emerged from the disaster that was junior high school and had grown more socially competent through high school, but I was still a bundle of insecurity. Plus, though I didn’t understand this about myself yet, I was prone to depression.

Thankfully, when I moved in to Cayuga Hall, I met Merle. It isn’t really correct to say that I met her because that implies that I didn’t know her before. Merle went to my high school and we were in many of the same classes. But Merle was out of my league. She had a posse of friends. She was captain of the booster squad, co-leader of Arista (the honor society), in the top ten in our class. [Editor’s note: since I posted this, Merle called to thank me and also to correct me. She was not captain of the booster squad! She was just a member of it. I stand corrected. :)] She was pretty, petite and seriously smart. I may have given myself partial credit for being smart – at least in English and Social Studies (my grades in math and science were very average), but I was none of those other things. In fact, feeling unfeminine and unattractive was my Achilles heel.

So, though I knew Merle, at the same time, I really didn’t. Imagine my surprise when we bonded over our shared struggle to acclimate to campus life during college orientation. Thus, began a beautiful friendship.

I learned there was a reason Merle had so many friends. She listened attentively, she empathized, offered great insights and gave useful suggestions. And to top it off, we laughed our asses off. We took one class together – Anthropology. One time we disrupted the class with our laughter, the professor stopped and glared at us. We tried to rein it in.

I came to college so young and inexperienced – in every sense of the word. I was wound up pretty tight, afraid to try things. Merle was a whole six months older, maybe not much in the scheme of things, but she had a much more adventurous spirit. I needed to loosen up and she helped me do that.

Much of our time, in the beginning, was spent commiserating about our roommates. Both of us were tripled; both of us were in a dorm room that wasn’t connected to a floor (the door to our rooms opened to the outside – hers on the first floor, mine in the basement). One of her roommates was quite beautiful and knew it. She lounged naked. She entertained her boyfriend at night, thinking her roommates were asleep. Merle wasn’t. It made for lots of things for us to discuss, and more to laugh about.

We signed up to be trained as counselors for High Hopes, an on campus help line that mostly gave referrals to students if they had questions or problems. Merle, I think, had already decided to be a psych major. I thought it would be interesting and believed it was an important service. The training was great. They taught us to reflect (using Carl Roger’s approach) when listening to someone’s issues because it helped the caller to clarify what they were thinking and feeling. That was one of the most valuable skills I learned in college.

We also attended a lecture about homosexuality as part of the training. It was 1977, before AIDS, before gay characters were on television, most lived in the closet – mothers were still being blamed for it. The lecture opened our eyes to something we knew very little about. A mutual friend of ours was in the process of coming out. In fact, Merle’s older brother, came out to her around that time. I went with Merle to visit him in San Francisco in June of 1978. I have great memories of that trip. I learned so much about opening my mind and heart to differences. He took us to the Castro, and though I wouldn’t have articulated it quite this way at the time, I began to understand that love is love is love….

We also went camping in Yosemite. I had seen mountains beyond the Catskills when I went with my parents to Rocky Mountain National Park years before, but Yosemite Valley and the majestic Sequoias were sights to behold. Merle’s brother and his friends brought food, but it was mostly vegetarian. While it all tasted good, Merle and I snuck off to share a ham and cheese sandwich when we were at the gift shop. We were kindred spirits even if we inhabited very different bodies.

 

 

I write this today because yesterday was Merle’s 60th birthday. I am happy and proud to say that we are still friends. Through the loss of parents, the birth of children, the ups and downs of marriage and career, we have shared a lot. I still rely on her empathetic ear, her insights, her suggestions and her laughter. I hope I have returned the same.

I have learned countless lessons from my friendship with Merle. Not the least of which is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. All those years ago I was intimidated by the cover. It turned out that while she is all of those things, popular, beautiful, petite, and smart, she is also warm, kind, vulnerable and funny. Here’s to continuing to celebrate life’s milestones and being there for each other during life’s challenges. Happy birthday, my friend!

 

A Very Educational Trip

Whose fault was it? Gary’s or mine? I’m actually not sure. When we’ve told the story over the years, Gary has taken the blame. But I’m not sure that’s how it went. It doesn’t matter because the outcome was the same. We were almost stranded on a Sunday evening, in the middle of a national forest in Oregon, but with luck and the kindness of a stranger, we were rescued.

Gary and I took this trip in June of 1982. I had just finished my master’s program, before I started a full-time job, and before he heard that he was accepted to medical school. We planned it meticulously.  Gary had not yet been west of Amish country in Pennsylvania. I had traveled a bit more, as I have written about previously, with my family, but was hardly experienced. In celebration of my completing graduate school. we decided to go California. We would fly out to San Francisco, rent a car and do a loop, first heading south (but not as far as LA), then going north (up to Crater Lake, Oregon), then back down to the Bay Area.

Gary and I went to a travel agent recommended by his parents to plan the trip. In those days, I think you had to use an agent to get airline tickets. Maybe you could call a particular airline on the phone and make a reservation, but it was confusing and time consuming to compare schedules and prices. We didn’t have the tools we have now to do our own research. We were young and inexperienced. In short, we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t even have a credit card.

The agent was very helpful. We got a package deal that included two nights in a nicer hotel. We decided to use those nights during our stay in San Francisco. She knew we were traveling on a tight budget and she told us about Motel 6 – the cheapest place to stay, other than camping. We weren’t campers. We planned our itinerary, taking advantage of the all the Motel 6’s that we could find. We flew to San Francisco, drove as far south as Monterey, then east and north to Yosemite, on to Lake Tahoe, then Crater Lake in Oregon, and finally back down to the Bay Area. We made the loop in one week.

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Gary’s first experience of the Pacific Ocean – Pacific Grove, CA 1982

The trip was memorable for so many reasons. We learned we were compatible travelers: enjoyed the same level of hiking (easy), interest in the same sites, on the same page as far as our budget for activities and food. Early on we bought a large Styrofoam cooler and filled it with ice at each motel stop. We bought breakfast and lunch supplies. Once, in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove of the Redwood forest, we were chased back into the car by aggressive blue jays when we were picnicking. We were both cowards (hence the preference for a cheap motel over camping).

We had more success picnicking next to the Merced River in Yosemite. It was late Spring and the river was very high, white water rushing by, cooling and freshening the air as it went. I stored that memory, the pine scent, the sound of the water cascading over the rocks, and called upon it in Lamaze class years later. When asked to go to a peaceful place as part of the exercise, even though the water was anything but peaceful, I imagined our time next to the river. I felt relaxed and happy there.

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The Merced River in Yosemite National Park – June 1982

I wasn’t so relaxed on that late Sunday afternoon returning from Crater Lake. We saw signs for a natural bridge – formed from lava – in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It was about 4:00 and we were heading to Medford about 60 miles away. We took the opportunity to see something interesting. We pulled into the parking area, there were only a couple of cars. Locked the car – we are New Yorkers, after all, and our valuables were in it. We took the short hike to the bridge and wandered around. After about an hour, we went back to the car.

Gary asked, “Do you have the car keys?”

“No, I thought you had them.”

Gary was patting his pockets, then turning them inside out. I did the same. No keys.

Uh oh.

We walked over to the car and looked to see if the keys were still inside. Nope.

We head back the way we came, scanning the forest floor for keys, hoping the fading sun might catch the metal of the key. No luck.

Now it is about 6:00.

We go back to the car and look for ways to get in. We do manage to pop the lock.

Gary and I are good kids – we have no idea how to hotwire a car.

A couple of hikers pass by and we flag them down – explain our situation. They were as clueless as we were

We remembered that we passed a small town – and when I say a small town, I mean SMALL. Union Creek, Oregon. There was only one shop, but fortunately it was a gas station. We walked there, hoping it will be open, even though it is after six on a Sunday. It isn’t.

But, there is a pay phone. I call information and get the number of the rental car agency. After some more phone calls, fortunately we had change, I learn that if we get the car towed to an AMC dealership (we were driving an AMC Gremlin), they can make a copy of the key. They tell me there is a dealership in Medford. That was the good news.

Now, how do we get the car there? Gary and I assess the situation. We look around the gas station and notice there is a house right next door. Out of options, we knock.

Clearly, luck was with us. The owner of the gas station lived there and had a tow truck!!! He was willing to tow us the 60 miles to Medford for $100!  That was a lot of money to us, but we were in no position to negotiate – we were grateful. In retrospect, even considering inflation, it was more than fair. I think he took pity on us.

I don’t remember his name, I do remember his kindness. We climbed into the cab of the truck, chatted along the way, and took many deep breaths of relief. He deposited the car on the lot of the dealership. We said our good-byes, thanking him many times over. We walked to the Motel 6 and tried to sleep.

I called the dealership first thing in the morning to find out when they opened. We were there when they did. The rental car agency had given me the code for the key and they were able to make a copy.

We were back on the road again in no time.

Aside from learning we were compatible travelers during that trip, we got through a stressful situation without killing each other. I don’t remember either of us blaming the other, I think we behaved pretty well. Of course, I could be telling myself a story, but I tend to think it is true, since we are still together 38 years later to tell the tale. Perhaps Gary would care to comment?

Bittersweet

NOTE: I have changed the names out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

April 20th marked twenty years since the tragedy at Columbine High School. It was a watershed moment for many reasons. It is one of those times where I remember exactly where I was as the horror unfolded on live television. We were in the living room of our friends’ home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Memories come flooding back…bittersweet memories.

Memories:  Of flying kites on the beach, where we could count on a stiff wind to make it easy to get the kite to lift off, almost taking our children with it!

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Leah and Daniel on one of our early trips to the Outer Banks circa 1992

Of Daniel assuming the pose of a martial arts master to slay the waves. He also had a penchant for chasing sand pipers. I was so relieved when they flew away beyond the grasp of his small hand.

Of taking Leah and Christine, our friends’ daughter, to the pool – as older girls (four and six) they could swim. They amused themselves in the water for hours.

Of sunny early mornings, before anyone else was awake, sitting on the deck facing the ocean and reading whatever novel I had brought with me. Our time on the Outer Banks was often my only chance to read a book for pleasure and I relished it.

Of walking with some combination of our kids the couple of blocks to the shopping area where there was a donut shop. Breakfast was often coffee and a donut.

Of retreating from the midday sun to the cool of the air-conditioned house for an afternoon nap.

Of Gary, legs coated in sunscreen and sand, building elaborate sand castles with the kids.

Of quickly packing up everything and evacuating ahead of hurricane Hugo – which actually missed the Outer Banks and made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, but we couldn’t take chances with our children. We drove inland through the night and went to the Martins’ home in Maryland.

When we first went to the Outer Banks in 1989, we rented a house near Duck, we loved the name of the town. Wild horses could still be seen by the roadside. We drove down from Albany, an arduous trip, in our Camry station wagon. It was the first car Gary and I ever bought and we didn’t get air conditioning, thinking we didn’t need it living in upstate New York. Plus, we would save a lot of money, which was still very tight. That was a serious mistake and we paid for it in a myriad of ways, including on those trips. Neither Leah nor Dan appreciated hot air blasting through the open windows as we made our way south on the Jersey Turnpike.

I vividly recall arriving at the rental house that first time. It was a beautiful home – weatherworn shingles, with multiple decks and, of course, the smell of the ocean coupled with the unique scent of the Carolina lowlands. We went inside and I nearly burst into tears. There was a long staircase to get to the main living area. There were glass coffee and end tables. We had a 7 month old (Dan) and Leah was two and a half. A week of keeping Leah and the other kids safe from falling down those stairs, or banging into the glass tables flashed before my eyes. Gary and Evan, his buddy from medical school, ushered me outside while they quickly moved the tables and did as much baby-proofing as possible. I practiced taking deep breaths.

It turned out to be a great week and the beginning of something we would do for more than ten years.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 we were a few days into our spring break from school and our friends had, years earlier, bought a house in Whalehead (a newly developed area on the northern edge of Outer Banks). We were fortunate enough to be invited to continue our tradition of vacationing with them.

That afternoon, having spent the morning riding bicycles and playing mini-golf, we were hanging out in the great room on the top floor.  We happened to have the television on, tuned to CNN. We watched as events unfolded in Littleton, Colorado. After leaving it on long enough to understand that it was a school shooting, we turned it off and went about our activities. We didn’t want our children to be distracted or troubled by the images.

I remember being angry – at the gunmen of course, but also at the media coverage. They didn’t know what was happening. They were broadcasting live coverage from a helicopter – but the reporters didn’t understand what they were seeing, so they could only speculate. Like a car wreck, it was hard to look away, fortunately we did, eventually. I remember thinking that the speculation of the reporters seemed reckless.

That tragedy was a watershed moment in many ways. It was my first real understanding of the power and problems caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Since I was a school board member at the time, it represented a major change in the way we thought about school security. And, though it was entirely coincidental, our times going to the Outer Banks were also coming to a close.

Our children were growing up, beginning activities that would take time and commitment. The Martin children were doing the same. We would need to make difficult choices about how to spend our limited vacation time. There were always some stresses and strains between the kids, and in our friends’ marriage, that sometimes interfered with the fun. Those rough patches were outweighed by the laughter and adventures.  But then tragedy truly struck and things were permanently altered.

In April of 2003 the Martin’s oldest son, at age 15, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gary and I visited them in early August and found them shattered by the devastating prognosis. I came back and spent a week at the end of October, to help with their two youngest children (their oldest daughter had started college), so Evan and Amy could tend to their son. It was beyond painful. He died in January of 2004, just shy of his 16th birthday.

Not only had they lost their son, but their family was irretrievably broken.

While April of 1999 was not our last time vacationing together, we had one or two more trips, it felt like the beginning of the end of something. Somehow the terrible events of that day and the subsequent tragedy for the Martin family are forever linked in my mind.

 

Some Thoughts on Travel

I have just returned from an epic trip, as you likely know if you are a regular reader of this blog. I love seeing new places and it doesn’t have to be some exotic port of call. I get a lot out of seeing small towns in upstate New York. I still do some consulting for the New York State School Boards Association and that often requires driving 3-4 hours in various directions around the state. Anytime I can see a new town, I am interested. My most recent engagement took me to Warsaw, New York. The route to and from that town went through the Finger Lakes. On the trip out I took the most direct route, the New York State Thruway, which is not the most fascinating ride – partly because I have traveled the length of the Thruway many, many times over. On the way back, though, I took Route 20 part of the way so that I would drive past some of the lakes. I also made a stop in Seneca Falls to pay my respects to the courageous and visionary suffragettes.

I walked the Main Street of Seneca Falls looking at the shops and cafes. I went into the little museum and I walked along the river. I am always drawn to sculpture gardens and the local map indicated that there was a sculpture trail along the river. Who knew? I followed the trail and found some lovely spots.

I find the display of both natural beauty and human creativity very satisfying – it celebrates the best things in life. I had lunch in a small cafe and then got back on the road. I drove briefly on a rural route to get back to the Thruway and made my way home.

Travel is always a balancing act. The desire to see things and the desire to get where I’m going. Most often there are time constraints – appointments to attend, chores to be done, cats to be fed, responsibilities to meet. But sometimes it is the stress of knowing all that stuff awaits, rather than actually having a deadline. I feel the weight of a deadline, but there really isn’t one. I wonder if I can take more time to smell the roses, so to speak; make more stops along the road to see the unique and interesting places off the beaten path.

There are other things to balance when traveling. Gary and I took a tour of Spain a while ago, and again on this most recent Mediterranean cruise, where we spent a day in each city (not even a full day). There were quick hits. On the cruise we saw: Barcelona, Valencia (actually I missed Valencia because I was sick, but Gary saw it), Benidorm, Gibraltar, Malaga, Marseille, Villafranche, Nice, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples and the Amalfi Coast!! In less than two weeks!!! There are pluses and minuses to that type of trip. We saw so much. We got a taste of so many places. But there wasn’t much time in any spot – there is so much more to see in Florence, Rome, Malaga and Barcelona, in particular. We went to one museum – to see David by Michelangelo. In theory, in getting the quick hit, we can decide to go back to explore more, but given limited time and resources, is that realistic? Is it better to go one place and spend a week? Given how little vacation time most people have, what is the best way to go – see a breadth of places or have a more in-depth experience? Of course, there is no right answer, just a matter of personal preference, I suppose. And, I am well aware that it is a luxury to even be able to ask the question.

When we were walking along the seaside in Benidorm (which is on the Costa del Sol of Spain), my brother-in-law mentioned that he didn’t find resort towns very interesting. I could see his point. There is a beach, hotels, condos, shops and restaurants – not all that much different one from another. And resort towns aren’t really examples of how people in a particular country live, it is how they vacation. On the other hand, the flavor of each place is different. The landscape varies and is often beautiful (which is why people vacation there!). Some scenes of the Costa del Sol, the French Riviera and the Amalfi Coast:

How do you feel about that? Is it interesting to you, or would you rather skip those places (unless you are going to a resort for a beach vacation)?

There were other differences in approach to travel between myself and my brother-in-law. He would often make conversation with others in our tour group or with waitstaff. It isn’t my impulse to do that. I see lots of positives in chatting with other people, but I am not that comfortable doing it. I don’t think I’m unfriendly, but it isn’t my instinct to initiate a chat. This characteristic isn’t about travel per se, but it is more on display in that context. In my day-to-day existence, if I am waiting on line or when I was in that cafe in Seneca Falls, I don’t try to make conversation with people I come across. I guess I’m wondering if I would enjoy it if I made more of an effort, or if I am comfortable this way. I don’t believe there is a right a right or wrong, just pondering (as I often do).

I can’t wait for my next trip – wherever it takes me!

 

 

 

Greetings from the Mediterranean

I am still on a break from writing. But, I am taking in the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of traveling – so I will have more to write about in the future! In the meantime, here are some images from the trip so far.

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Benidorm, Spain
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Market in Malaga, Spain
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Barbary ape (actually a monkey), Gibraltar
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Mediterranean skies from the ship

I’ll be back next week.

One final reminder, please vote tomorrow!!!!

 

A Mix of Emotions

Somehow, after recounting the drama and trauma of my in-laws journey through an anti-Semitic landscape, the events of this past weekend are crushing to me. It is a terrible reminder of our need to be vigilant in the face of hate and violence. I can only hope that we, as a country, will turn the tide. I hope the coming election sends a clear message. Please vote – and please vote for change.

Although I have covered the broad strokes of the Bakst family’s story, I do have a few more essays to write on that topic. I have learned a lot in the process of researching and listening to David’s stories, and I have thought quite a bit about the meaning of his and Paula’s experience that I would like to share.

But, first, I am taking a short break. In fact, I write this from Barcelona, the first stop on a Mediterranean trip. Lucky me! Don’t worry, though, I voted by absentee ballot and so did Gary!

Some views of Barcelona: