High Anxiety

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I have always prided myself as someone in touch with their feelings.  I can usually pinpoint the source of my emotions. Frustration with a relationship, disappointment in an outcome, anxiety about a challenge, excitement about an upcoming new experience – I can usually identify what is going on. Lately that ability seems muddled – I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than usual.

I was driving south on the Thruway the other day, heading to New York City for something like the 5thtime in a month (I’m usually excited by the prospect of time in the city). This time I just felt nervous, my brain flitting from one thing to another, I was having a hard time concentrating.  Thankfully I was able to focus on the road – it would truly have been a really bad sign if I got lost. I can make the trip on autopilot at this point. I tried to think through what has been going on, why this unease? Why have I been feeling more overwhelmed than circumstances seem to warrant? Since I was alone in the car, I took the opportunity to try and sort it out.

I am well aware that I am very fortunate, my life is an embarrassment of riches. I try to keep gratitude in the forefront, but, oddly, I find that the more I have, the more I fear losing it. I’m not referring to things (though I do have a confusing relationship with things, I like them more than I should), but to people. Readers of this blog know that our daughter-in-law is expecting a baby any day now. I think humming along in the background of my brain has been an awareness of the risks involved for everyone. I am also well aware of the fact that I have no control over how things will go. If only I could wrap up my loved ones in a cocoon to protect them! Obviously, not an option. So, maybe one contributor to my heightened level of anxiety is anticipation of this big event.

It’s funny in some ways because we spend so much time wishing for things (both tangible things and situations/events) and then when they happen, you realize it isn’t quite what you thought. There are strings attached.

You hope that your child finds a partner in life. But when they do, it changes your relationship (in all sorts of ways, many positive, some unanticipated). You look forward to being a grandparent, but that brings new worries. You look forward to a trip, but then you deal with the aggravation of delayed flights or turbulent weather. You want the luxury of a swimming pool in your backyard, but then you have to deal with the maintenance (a seemingly never-ending source of aggravation in our case). These may seem like wildly different ‘things,’ but there is a theme. There is a cost that comes with the things we want. Perhaps that is obvious, but it makes me stop and think. There is virtue in simplicity. Maybe I should consider Buddhism! The way I understand one of its central tenets is that you shouldn’t become attached to things or ideas – you need to let go of expectations. I don’t know if I can do that.

Or maybe I need to figure out how to not let these things get to me; figure out a way to acknowledge the worry, but then set it aside, especially when there isn’t something to be done.

But, it is so easy to lose perspective. Over the last couple of months, we have been enmeshed in the process of buying a condo in NYC. That’s the reason for so many trips to the city. Filling out the paperwork for a mortgage and shepherding it through the process felt like a full-time job. How blessed am I that making this purchase is even an option? But it is also a source of anxiety. It is a huge investment, the numbers are scary. But then I would remind myself that if it fell through, there was no real loss. And, if we successfully closed on it, and it turned out to be too big a financial commitment, we could sell it. So why did it feel so stressful?

In part, I blame Trump. You may ask, what is the connection? As I was driving down the Thruway, mulling things over, I realized that another large piece of my anxiety came from worries about our country’s future. I happened to be reading a novel, Ready Player One, set in a dystopic future that was all too imaginable to me. I have no faith in Trump, he has appalling judgment and is intent on sowing seeds of hate and fear, and Congress isn’t willing to take him on. The threats of climate change, of civil unrest rooted in the growing divide in this country, of America losing its footing, are all too real. Not to mention the tragedy of gun violence. Making such a huge investment in a time like this feels like a leap of faith, but my faith is shaken.

This unsettled feeling about our future was reinforced by an experience I had on that trip. On the day I was driving, a video went viral of a white guy going on a rant in a New York deli because the employees were speaking Spanish. It is the type of thing that seems to be happening a lot more in this age of Trump and ubiquitous cellphones. One of the reasons I was making the trip was to be at the new apartment for the guy to install cable and wifi. The guy arrived, at the appointed time, and, as is often the case, it took quite a bit longer than expected for him to successfully get things running. He was there for a couple of hours. At one point, while we were waiting for technical support people (he was on hold with his office) to try and fix things on their end, his personal phone rang and he asked me if I minded if he answered it. “If I do, I will be speaking Spanish,” he explained. “Of course you can answer your phone,” I responded. He shrugged sheepishly, as he answered. I moved toward the kitchen to give him space.

As I reflect on this interaction, I realize that I would feel differently if he had been in the middle of explaining something to me, then it would be rude to take a personal call, regardless of the language he spoke. But at that point we were just waiting awkwardly. I had no problem with him taking his call. I thought it was a sad commentary that he felt the need to explain that he would be speaking Spanish. It was a personal call, it wasn’t my business to understand his end of the conversation anyway. When he got off the phone I said we had come to a sad place if he needed to ask if it was okay to speak Spanish. He gave a small smile and another shrug.

During my 2 ½ hour drive and as I continue to think about my state of mind, I have come to a better understanding of what’s been going on. Not surprisingly, most of the issues are out of my control. I decided I need to focus on what I can do to manage it.

These are the strategies I came up with:

  1. Avoid reading dystopic novels (at least for a while).
  2. Reduce the number of times I allow myself to look at Twitter and Facebook to two times per day. Look at blocking some of the more vitriolic sources from my Facebook feed.
  3. Find an organization or campaign that I can volunteer for that is in concert with my values. (Or, alternatively, assuming Dan and Beth will allow/need, help with the baby!)
  4. Devote more time to productive activities, whether it is clearing clutter in my home, doing research for my memoir or talking to friends, spend more time doing constructive things so I don’t dwell in worry.

I hope that isn’t too ambitious. It doesn’t seem like it should be.  If you have suggestions, please share. I’ll report back.

Flight 5 EWR to FLL

Note: Gary’s Dad was hospitalized last Thursday morning with difficulty breathing. Gary flew down to Florida to be with him and oversee his care. He wrote this on the flight down and gave me permission to share it.

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It is a trip I have taken before.  It is filled with dread and anxiety.  It is filled with a sense of obligation and duty and a sense of purpose.  Once again, my father is at a crisis point.  He is hospitalized and in some significant danger.  Each time, it is a bit worse than the previous episode.  Each time, yet another illness has been added to the list of threats to his survival.

I travel there as his son.  I am not his doctor but yet I am.  Every major medical decision is really made by me at this point in time.  I know too much.  He has multiple diagnoses each of which carry a very limited life expectancy, starting with him being 95 years old.

Add to that lung cancer, kidney disease, about 7 decades of hypertension, atrial fibrillation that used to be paroxysmal (coming and going) but now is chronic, diabetes, a monoclonal protein that could at any time turn into myeloma or other blood cancer, nodules on his kidneys, a large nodule on his prostate.  And now congestive heart failure.

I guess you could say the most surprising thing is that he is still alive.  He is, if nothing else, a remarkably determined man.  He is still, all these years along the road, inspiring to me.  He is not the man he used to be.  Time and illness have taken away much of his incredible vigor.  He is physically and mentally slower than he was.  But he still finds a way to love life and even to enjoy it.

He is not like me.  I am probably better in math and science than he is, but in the most important ways he is stronger and more resilient than I could ever imagine being.  He enjoys people.  He tends not to be overly possessive.  He doesn’t like to wait; patience is not his strongpoint.  He is beyond courageous.  He will not let terrible things make him unhappy; his will is immeasurably immense.

He trusts me and I feel like he has always trusted me.  At least for as long as I can remember going back to my childhood when I got to drive his car in the parking lot when he went to check out the refrigerated warehouse that held the cold cuts he was responsible for distributing to supermarkets.  He trusted me to drive the forklift at too young an age.  Both of those experiences were thrilling for a youngster and I was not going to crash and betray his trust.

I will not betray that trust today either.

In a sense, the flight that I am on, this trip to Cleveland Clinic Florida hospital, is symbolic of the larger, sad journey we have been on for some time now.  He will die at the end of it.  If we do everything right, he will die.  There will be pain and loss and sorrow.  If we don’t do everything right, there will be guilt as well.  There will not be guilt.

This journey is one variation of the journey most children ultimately take with their parents.  It is the journey Linda took with her father.  It is the way things are supposed to go.  The children bury the parents.  That is what happens when it goes the right way.  And if you are very lucky, you get 95 years, perhaps even a bit more, of meaningful life.  Of life that is by and large happy.  Even when your parent, your hero is less than he was.  Even when the limits of life are more and more closing in on him, when his wife, your mother, is no longer the person she had been in almost every way.

It is really the best you can hope for.  It therefore ought to be good enough.  It doesn’t feel like it is.

I am grateful for so many things.  For the tremendous efforts my siblings have made to arrange essentially everything in my parents lives so that they could go on and live out what remains in dignity and with as much independence as possible.  I am grateful for Linda’s eternal support and wisdom.  And for the endless good wishes and support from my children and my lovely daughter in law.

I have friends who are kind and a work environment that is flexible and understanding.  Nobody says anything more than good luck when I have to cancel patients at the last minute to take one of these emergency trips down to Florida.

But, despite this, I am still filled with the same dread.

Postscript: David was released from the hospital late Saturday afternoon. His breathing greatly improved. Hopefully with an adjustment in his medication, he will be stable and able to continue to enjoy his time in Florida. If all goes according to plan, Gary and I will visit Paula and David to share Passover with them. We are keeping our fingers crossed that there are no medical crises between now and then (during or after, for that matter).

The Wilds of Canarsie Revisited

Note: I originally wrote this piece about how I felt growing up in my particular enclave in Canarsie and posted it on the blog over a year ago. I have edited it with the thought that I would weave it into the longer narrative that I am creating. The edits are intended to allow it to follow the story of the haircut Nana took me to get (which is part of Nana’s Table).

I have added new material at the end that reflects on some of the insights that I have gained regarding perceptions of safety through my interviews of others who grew up in Canarsie. I have been reaching out to talk with others of my generation who grew up there. So far I have interviewed a dozen people. I hope to interview more. Please contact me if you would be interested in sharing your perspective.

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The ‘x’ near Canarsie Park is the house where I grew up – so you can see it in relation to the rest of Canarsie

As a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City, aside from the impossible beauty standards imposed by Madison Avenue and popular culture, I grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. That story of neighborly indifference, of violence, of the callousness and danger of living in New York City, was part of the air that I breathed. I now know that the story is far more complicated than originally reported; there weren’t as many witnesses as the newspapers said at the time, calls to the police were made and a bystander did actually help her. [A recent documentary, The Witness, released in 2015, explored this ‘new’ information]. But, that wasn’t the story that was embedded in my psyche at the time.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in March of 1964. The legacy of that crime was that I believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, and that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Add to that the nightly litany of violent crimes reported on Eyewitness News, and my fear of victimization was palpable. Perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for all New Yorkers.

As a consequence, I never liked when my parents went out for the evening, unless Nana and Zada were home. I would hear creaking, rustling and other assorted sounds – the usual sounds a house makes – and I imagined someone was trying to break in. It was hard to distract myself though I tried by watching television with the volume turned up. Of course, some of the television shows, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on story lines of break-ins and bad guys, so that strategy failed.

The feeling of menace was heightened by my physical surroundings in Canarsie. With the park on one side and “the weeds” on the other, it was easy to imagine sinister people lurking. “The weeds” were the marshy landfill that separated our block from the Belt Parkway. When I played with Susan, one of my two friends in the neighborhood, we would ride our bikes on the street that bordered the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, a dare I was not willing to take.

Our neighborhood was also in the flight path to JFK. Airplanes would skim over our roof. If you were on the telephone you had to pause in your conversation because there was no chance of hearing or being heard. If you were watching TV you had to hope you didn’t miss a crucial piece of dialogue. If anyone slept over, the roar of the jet engines took getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

It wasn’t just the sounds of Canarsie that could be problematic.  If the wind was right,  from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine the breeze carrying the scent of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was adjacent to the Belt Parkway, just east of our Rockaway Parkway exit, and the odors emanating from it trumped the fresh smell of sea air. The mounds of trash rose like a small mountain range on the south side of the Belt. Naturally I had a sensitive nose.

The dump also attracted scores of seagulls. The detritus and Jamaica Bay beyond were quite an attraction for all kinds of birds. The cries of the gulls were part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood. I needed only to see a few scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to make the frightening connection.

There was a fine line between the pleasures of the park, the beauty of the gliding gulls, the earthy smell of the marshes and ocean air, and the menace those same features held. All the elements, sights, sounds and smells, conspired to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.


Based on my interviews, so far, it seems that I was unusual in my perception of danger, my generalized fear of violence. Most of the people I have spoken to felt very safe in Canarsie. Some suggested that changed with the summer of the “Son of Sam,” which was in 1977, and introduced a level of fear that they had not experienced before. Some recounted specific instances of threats of being accosted, mostly at John Wilson Junior High School, or particular places they would avoid (for example, Seaview Park after dark, or particular bus routes where they felt threatened), but those didn’t shake their general feeling of safety in and around their block. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to commented on their strong sense of community, especially on their block or in their building in Bayview – that neighbors looked out for each other. I did not grow up with that sense at all. Fortunately, I had my grandparents, uncles, brothers and parents to provide that support.

In addition to discussing fears of violence, I learned a great deal from my conversations about race and ethnicity and perceptions of the boycott of schools over the busing plan.  I will continue to share what I’m learning as I go along. I also hope to put a piece together that summarizes it. I welcome comments and feedback either here on the blog or via email. Again, if you’d like to be interviewed, email me at lbakst.canarsie@gmail.com.

Awake to Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for sending us your work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broad Shoulders

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One of my favorite pictures of me and my Dad – from the late 1990s

I was very lucky. I grew up with a father who made me feel safe and supported. Although I did not fully understand my good fortune until I was a young adult, I did know it long before he died. I appreciated him in his lifetime and I am grateful for that.

Dad had an imposing presence. He was a bit shy of 6 foot, which in my mother’s estimation wasn’t tall enough (she was over 5’7” before osteoporosis and age did its damage), but he was a good healthy height by the standards of most Jewish people of his generation. It might be different today, with hybrid vigor and all, but notwithstanding my mother’s family, my grandparents’ and parents’ generation tended to be short. More than his height, though, Dad had broad shoulders, both literally and metaphorically.

I came to a greater appreciation of my father’s broad shoulders when I was a freshman in college.

I remember the trip up to Binghamton to drop me off quite clearly. We were listening to the radio as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap in the early morning, which was scenic with its green mountains and shimmering waterways. The sun was shining – a good omen, I thought. Coincidentally, the radio was tuned to a station that was playing music around the theme of saying good-bye. That may not have been the best choice for listening under the circumstances.

I already had mixed feelings about leaving home to go to college. I knew it was the right thing to do. It had been drummed into me that it was an important growth experience. My parents lived at home when they went to Brooklyn College and wanted their children to have the opportunity to go away. But, I was only 16 and had never been one to embrace change easily, so it presented a challenge. While I made progress during high school, gaining confidence and more self-esteem, I still had a long way to go.

For my oldest brother, college away was a great fit. As my parents liked to tell it, Steven arrived at the SUNY-Brockport campus, unloaded his bicycle, hopped on and rode away without looking back. They didn’t know if he would return to say good-bye.

For my brother Mark, I think it was a bit different. I don’t think he felt particularly ready to leave home, but he seemed to adjust to life at Oneonta. He was two years ahead of me and was quite settled by the time it was my turn to go to Binghamton.

In late August of 1976, as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap, with the sad songs playing, I felt a mix of melancholy and hopefulness. It was a new chapter and I had no idea what to expect.

We arrived on campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to the College-in-the-Woods dorm complex, the newest of the dorms on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were a modern design, 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 really 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, so it was isolated. When I opened my room 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 allegedly part of the basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga Hall. My new home.

Dad was not happy with my room. In fact, he was angry. We went to find someone in authority. Dad vigorously made the case that he thought it wasn’t safe for young women. In his opinion, the room should have been assigned to boys. There were no options for changing anything, though. They assured us that it was safe, there was adequate lighting and the RA (resident assistant) on the floor would be attentive. Reluctantly, Dad gave in, but not before putting everyone on notice about his concerns.

My Dad, who I thought was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my very full, heavy steamer trunk into the room. We all made several trips from the car to the room. They helped me unpack and my mom made up my bed. Then, they left and headed back to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in the backseat.

Orientation week began. I had major ups and downs. On the upside, I bonded with Merle (who was tripled in a similar type of room one floor above me on the other side of the same dorm), Alison and Dianne immediately. On the downside, I didn’t bond with my roommates and 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 was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was used to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable in those days, we didn’t get the NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected…and I was.

I called my parents regularly, often in tears, often feeling lonely. I would be apologetic, “I’m sorry I’m calling you so unhappy.” My Dad was reassuring, “You have nothing to apologize for. We want you to call us if there is something bothering you. You are not a burden.” Although he couldn’t fix things, he and my mom did make me feel better. He wrote me encouraging letters. He tried to help me navigate things with my two roommates.

The three of us were an interesting combination. Me, from Brooklyn, Sue from Long Island and Sharon from Rochester, NY. Sue and I got along fine, but we were from different worlds. There was a large contingent of freshmen from her high school and she socialized with them. They reminded me of the kids from the camp where I worked – and not in a good way. They were concerned with hair, make-up and designer clothes – and partying. They came across as entitled and monied. So, while as an individual Sue was fine, I didn’t enjoy her group and I didn’t hang out with her.

Sharon was from a suburb of Rochester and she was a completely different story. She 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 quirk, 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 both my Lit & Comp TA (teaching assistant) and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. I was reeling. The weather in Binghamton in the fall and winter of 1976/77 was biblically bad – it literally precipitated for 40 days and 40 nights. There was snow on the ground from my birthday (October 3) through April – and we had snow flurries during finals in May. I had to steel myself, I hunched my shoulders and tightened my muscles each time I opened the dorm door to the bitter cold. Previously I didn’t know nose hairs could freeze, but they did when I walked to the classroom wing! Gray clouds were a constant. For someone prone to melancholia under the best of circumstances, this was a bad recipe.

In the middle of that fall semester, weird stuff started disappearing from our room – some money (mostly loose change), a robe, a pair of pajamas. Not major theft, but it was noticeable. I mentioned it to my Dad. He told me to report it to the RA. I did.

They did an investigation that included being interrogated in the RA’s room by the Resident Director, with a single lamp shining on my face, while I sat on the RA’s desk chair. After a few days, I received a letter (I think all three of us received the same letter, but my memory fails me on this) that said they knew who was doing this and that person was expected to go to Psych Services (the counseling center). I shared this with my Dad, who was incensed. I was totally perplexed. Who was doing this? It was more of an annoyance than frightening to me. He wrote a letter to the President of the University saying that the matter was being mishandled and that the letter I had received had better not be included in my official record and should be destroyed. Dad received a letter in return that agreed with him and assured us that the letter was torn up and was not part of my official record.

Shortly thereafter items stopped disappearing. It was all very strange. That incident certainly didn’t help my relationship with my roommates or connect me to my RA and the other residents of “The Pits.” It solidified the need for me to change rooms and roommates.

At another point in that semester I received a bill indicating that tuition had not been fully paid. I think it may have related to not getting credit for my Regent’s Scholarship. Once again, I called home. Dad told me he would take care of it, and he did. I didn’t receive another bill.

As painful as freshman year was, I learned a great deal. Aside from reading The Iliad and other classics, I made life-long friends. And, I came to understand how lucky I was to have parents who were there for me. Dad especially offered unconditional love and would help me sort out whatever issues came my way. Many of my friends were left to their own devices when bills came or were only able to rely on their Moms for emotional support. Recognizing my good fortune was more important than any academic lesson.

 

 

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.

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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?

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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.

Anger

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

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

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

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

anger-iceberg-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living the Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture Clashes Real and Imagined

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I admit it: I was a New York snob (maybe I still am). My worldview was like the famous New Yorker magazine cover (above) that shows New York City looking west from Ninth and Tenth Avenue, where the city is a bustling metropolis and then the rest of the United States is a vast empty space, devoid of anything interesting. It was with that mindset that I moved to Pittsburgh in 1982. I was 23 years old, engaged to Gary.

The late December morning dawned gray and cold. Good weather for driving. We, my parents and Gary, were standing in front of the house in Canarsie, getting ready to say our goodbyes. My Dad pulled me aside. “How bout you go to a justice of the peace when you get out there? You can still have the wedding, as planned, in July. But this way you’d be married.” Dad looked at me with his big blue/gray eyes, questioning, hopeful. I was sorry to disappoint him, but said, “Dad, we aren’t going to do that. There’s no reason to. It will be fine.” I turned to put the last few things in the back seat of my cobalt blue ’72 Toyota Celica.

He didn’t want his baby girl ‘living in sin,’ even if it was only for six months. It was six months too long for him. Fortunately, he didn’t pursue it further. We all hugged, and Gary and I got on our way.

We drove to Pittsburgh with high hopes and some anxiety. Gary had successfully completed his first semester of medical school. Now I was going to join him. I needed to find a job. I had some savings as a cushion, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to drain it.

Pittsburgh was slowly on the rebound from the collapse of the steel industry. The landscape bore the scars of it. Buildings were soot stained. The Carnegie Library, down the block from our apartment, was gray sandstone heavily streaked with black, but the inscription, Free to the People, was still quite clearly etched over the main doors. Hulking mills, some vacant, some producing steel at reduced capacity, lined the river. The city remained the headquarters for a number of large companies that inhabited gleaming skyscrapers downtown.

Pittsburgh had the feel of the Midwest to me. I didn’t know geographically how it was characterized, but culturally it didn’t feel like an eastern city. The influence of its immigrant history, largely Polish, Germanic and Italian, was imprinted on the stores, restaurants and, most importantly, churches that dominated. Unlike New York City, which certainly had ethnic pockets but the sum of which was a hodge-podge; Pittsburgh felt more homogenous. It felt like there was a dominant culture and it was defined by the Catholic Church. While there was a Jewish community, it was quite small, and it felt small. This took some getting used to. After all, other than Israel, New York City is home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

After five months of pounding the pavement, I was about to register for secretarial work with a temp agency when a solid job opportunity came through. I had nearly exhausted my financial resources when I got a job with the city’s Finance Department.

There were some noticeable differences between the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Operations, where I worked before I left, and the Finance Department. The first was the air quality. I worked with several men who chain-smoked through the day. Offices and conference rooms didn’t usually include windows and there was nothing I could do to disperse the fog that permeated the air. Somehow there weren’t nearly as many smokers in New York City’s Mayor’s Office.

Another difference: when we went out for a drink after work, I could not keep up with my new colleagues (not that it was a contest)! People would take turns buying rounds. I almost never got a chance to buy (and it wasn’t a strategy to avoid it). My drinks would be lined up on the bar.

Aside from air quality and drinking habits, there were actually more important differences. I worked with very few women, and there was only one at the management level. Many of the employees were only high school graduates. I was an outsider by virtue of my age, gender, education, religion and, of course, as a New Yorker. Sometimes it felt quite lonely, but there were some interesting conversations, too, especially about religion and faith.

Some of the cultural differences were more imagined than real. Gary and I invited one of his classmates, and his fiancé, to dinner at our apartment. Budgets being what they were, we didn’t eat out often and most of our socializing entailed going to each other’s apartments, eating, watching football or basketball and playing games like charades. Alcohol may have been involved.

As I recall, Ron and Ann were the first people we invited over. They were both Pittsburgh born and raised. I planned a menu after considering various possibilities. I worried that Ron and Ann would think the food I prepared was weird.

Gary and I kept kosher in our apartment (we didn’t when we ate out), so we didn’t mix meat and dairy. I was worried if I prepared a meat dish they might ask for parmesan cheese. I was worried if I made a vegetarian dish they wouldn’t be satisfied. I thought they wouldn’t know what it meant to keep kosher. I settled on making a ratatouille with ground beef (no cheese) and then worried that they wouldn’t know what it was.

Turned out Ron and Ann were more worldly than Gary and I, which in retrospect wasn’t saying much. Ron had gone to Dartmouth as an undergraduate and, if I remember correctly, majored in art history! Ann had been an English major and worked as an editor. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of Gary’s classmates weren’t science majors as undergrads. Turned out Ron and Ann were quite comfortable eating my ratatouille. We had a great time, it was the first of many meals and laughs shared.

I realized I shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on where they came from, or any other single characteristic, for that matter. Of course I should have known better. When I stop and think about it, my Zada, who appeared on the surface to be a common laborer, was a self-taught Shakespearean scholar with the heart of a poet. Why would I buy into the stereotype implied by that New Yorker cover? But I did, and to this day, I need to check myself.