Transitions

I came to college carrying a lot of baggage. I was 16 when I arrived at orientation at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY-B) in 1976. I brought my insecurities and inchoate self to campus with hopes of emerging confident, connected (to friends, a boyfriend would be good, too) and on my way to a successful career. An ambitious undertaking to say the least!

In the weeks before leaving, I went shopping with Mom for supplies. I got a real winter coat – winters were longer and colder than in Brooklyn (though I had no idea how much worse it would be!). I picked out towels and linens that had mountain scenes on them. I loved my new things. We packed up the car and left Brooklyn early in the morning in the middle of August. Orientation preceded the beginning of the semester, so when we drove out of Canarsie, I didn’t think I was coming back until Thanksgiving. I was excited and anxious.

My parents and I got to campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to College-in-the-Woods, the newest of the dorm complexes on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were brick-red cinderblock structures with a quirky layout that included large rooms, intended to be triples, where the door to the room was outside the building. Those rooms weren’t part of the rest of the floor. Not only was the room set apart, but in my case, it was located in back of the building. When I opened my door, I saw a small driveway, garbage dumpsters and then the woods.  There was also a door to the rest of the dorm across a short walkway. The room was part of the all-male basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga.

Dad saw the set up that first day and was furious. He thought it wasn’t safe. We sought out the resident director to see if anything could be done to change it. Dad made his case that it was isolated and appeared to be poorly lit. The director assured him that it would be fine.

My Dad, who in my eyes was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my full steamer trunk into the room. Mom helped me unpack and made my bed. Then, they got back in the car and headed home to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in and go with them.

My two roommates and I represented a microcosm of the campus. Sue was Jewish from Long Island. Sharon was Jewish from a suburb of Rochester. I was Jewish from Brooklyn. Jews were heavily overrepresented on campus, as was downstate. There weren’t many students from the local area, the Southern Tier, or from other parts of upstate New York. Despite the fact that I had traveled four hours from the New York metropolitan area, I was still surrounded by its people.

I hit it off better with Sue that first day. There were a lot of kids from her high school who lived in our dorm complex and she invited me to go meet them. I followed her to another dorm and was introduced to a well-built guy wearing a powder blue jumpsuit, platform shoes, his feathered blond hair styled like a male version of Farrah Fawcett, with impossibly white teeth. He was ready to hit the disco. I was wearing overalls, sneakers and was still fighting with my curly, out-of-control hair. I couldn’t think of a less appealing place to go than the disco. I was so intimidated I don’t think I made sensible conversation. After observing the scene for a while, I made some excuse and retreated to my room. This was going to be even harder than I thought.

Fortunately, there was a dorm-wide meeting where I spotted someone from my high school. Merle was a familiar face and though I didn’t know her well, our circle of friends from Canarsie overlapped. She was in a similar situation – tripled in a room that was outside the dorm. We bonded over our shared sense of feeling lost in our new surroundings; we found a lot to laugh about, too.

At that gathering we connected with two other girls, Alison and Dianne, from Island Park, which was on Long Island, a working-class suburb, more similar to our Brooklyn experience. The four of us became fast friends and spent a lot of time hanging out, listening to music and laughing.

Merle and I came up with a theory. The happier you were at home, the unhappier you were at college. If you came to Binghamton to escape a bad home situation or feeling like you outgrew high school, then college felt great. I made a lot of progress in high school, emerging from the pain of junior high, but I wasn’t close to outgrowing it. Merle’s experience was different in that she had a huge network of friends in Canarsie, some were going to Brooklyn College, some to other schools. Her boyfriend was at Brockport, hours away by car. She wasn’t accustomed to needing to make new friends. For both of us Binghamton proved to be a difficult place to do that. The combination of intense academic competition (so many students were pre-med or pre-law) and a pervasive sense of entitlement (born of their upper middle-class suburban upbringing) made it an unreceptive environment.

I found the campus atmosphere stifling. It felt unreal to me, not only was my room isolated, but the whole campus felt like an island. I couldn’t walk to a store. There was a commercial strip outside of campus, but it wasn’t very accessible on foot (there were no sidewalks) and there weren’t many shops like I had in Brooklyn (not that I had any money to spend anyway). I was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was accustomed to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable, we didn’t get NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected from the world.

My roommate situation didn’t help. Though I got along fine with Sue, we never moved much beyond that first day. Her social circle was not one I was going to join. Sharon, on the other hand, came to college not knowing how a woman got pregnant. She was naïve beyond belief. Sue offered her her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Though I was totally inexperienced in that regard (I had a lot to learn from Our Bodies, Ourselves, too), I at least knew the facts of life. Sharon was a very odd duck. One of the things that was unique was that she could burp louder than anyone I had ever known. Each time she did, I couldn’t help myself, I would go, “Woah!?!,” a mixture of awe and surprise. I was taught to keep all bodily functions as quiet and private as possible, so Sharon was a revelation. Beyond that habit, we also didn’t have much in common, and she seemed a bit troubled. During midterms, she scratched her own face in a fit of anxiety.

I had my own struggles that first semester. My writing, which was a source of pride in high school, was criticized by my Lit & Comp teaching assistant and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. In fact, I received C’s on the first two papers I submitted. I was reeling.

Perhaps because they knew I was struggling, or maybe because they thought nothing of a four-hour jaunt in the car, Uncle Mike, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara came for a visit. I took them on a tour of campus and then we went to get ice cream. One of the major positives of coming to the Southern Tier was discovering Pat Mitchell’s ice cream. It was a major draw if an on-campus event advertised Pat Mitchell’s – a far more appealing attraction to me than free beer. The store was located in Endicott, a solid 15-minute drive from campus, so it was a rare treat. Their chocolate chip ice cream was heavenly. It should have been called chocolate chunk – large milk chocolate hunks were surrounded by creamy, smooth vanilla creating the perfect spoonful. In a flash of inspiration, we asked them to pack up a quart in dry ice. I hopped in the backseat and we all headed back to Brooklyn to surprise my mother.

With my departure to college, my parents were empty-nesters. I wasn’t the only one enduring a difficult adjustment.

We all trooped into my parent’s house, me bringing up the rear. Mom was so shocked to see me, her jaw dropped. Then she sneezed. She didn’t stop sneezing for the 12 hours that I was home. The sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes actually continued after I left. It was the weirdest thing. We didn’t understand what happened, but Mom developed some kind of allergy that she never had before, and it returned each September for the next several years. We joked that it was somehow connected to the trauma of me, her baby, leaving for college. Or maybe it was that surprise visit that shook up her immune system.

After that little escapade, I returned to campus and went back to work adjusting to my surroundings.

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Four friends, forty years later

 

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 Tense Conversation

Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.

It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.

We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.

It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.

A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.

In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.

“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.

“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.

“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.

“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.

“Explain it, then.”

Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.

This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”

“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.

“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.

At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.

“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.

I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”

We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.

It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.

I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.

Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.

Some thoughts from Gary:

We all should pursue our own dreams.  Right?  That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation.  To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.

Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions.  How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms?  Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines?  On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream.  We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.

But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams.  And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem:  My father wanted it for me more than anyone.  And that left me with the dilemma.  Did I want it or was I doing it for my father?  And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me?  And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?

As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way.  It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful.  And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping.  As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.

But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin?  Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors.  The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits.  We tend to be anxious.  We tend to be driven.  We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did.  They were getting shot at.  I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt.  They didn’t have food.  I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.

Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.

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Graduation day from SUNY-Binghamton, May 1980 – we made it through to the other side of that conversation.