Stories

There Are No Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

220px-foul_play1978

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

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

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

mv5bzdg1ogq4yzgtm2y2ns00nja3lwfjytctmdrlmdi3nwe1otuyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjuzoty1ntc-_v1_uy1200_cr7706301200_al_

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

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

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

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

bfec68b8fe65e07dff200789336bf1a2-meryl-streep-cinema-paradiso

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

 

 

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.

27skeldingweb2-master768
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.

fullsizeoutput_115
Me, in front of the house in Binghamton, the summer of ’79. Can you find the glasses atop my head amidst all that hair?

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

 

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

An Imperfect Sense

IMG_0125
Wisteria in Ronda, Spain – Fortunately, I could see it quite well, but I could not smell it 😦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Cure?

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

donald-trump-650-afp_650x400_61498283248

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some beliefs I cannot accept:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________

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

His Presidency

What is that feeling?

My stomach grips

My arms are weak

I sigh deeply

 

Images and thoughts of our President flit across my mind

His signature hand gestures

His limited vocabulary

His callousness

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

 

I have physical symptoms

Of his presidency

What is the cure?

 

Hugs/Kisses: Yes or No?

1843-10-tarjetas-de-hugs-and-kisses

Another family gathering was coming to a close and I was saying my good-byes. When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave.  I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.

I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, and I can’t explain it, I was always uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, loved our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?

As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s cousins, who went by the nickname “Knock,” his last name was Nachimow. He would cajole me, he practically chased me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting to me.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old family movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I may have been two years old in the film, which would have made him five (I was probably 30 when I last saw it). The way I remember the film, I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I got out. The film had no audio so I don’t know what was being said, and I don’t know who was holding the camera.  I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.

Watching our actions, I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?

I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I think I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my reticence about getting kissed, he told me had a secret for me and when I bent down to listen, he planted a kiss on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped, I was so surprised (I have always been gullible so falling for the ruse was no surprise.) “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.

In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face burning bright red and I retreated back to my seat. I hoped no one noticed.

When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. But, I don’t doubt our affection for each other. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.

But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at that recent family gathering, I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly give my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am getting my hug (unless we are ‘schvitzy’)! After that, it is all iffy. And, for me, there is still some awkwardness about it. With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek.  It is equally clear with my brothers, we will just wish each other well. But for some there is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m sure all my interactions with friends and family will be totally comfortable! No one will try to hug or kiss me ever again! I hope it doesn’t come to that. As with most aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away from it? Why am I still conflicted? The search for understanding continues.