Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cooking with Your Heart

We had another “big brother” moment two weeks ago when Netflix sent us a movie that we had never ordered. It seems that our queue had run out, so the company just chose a movie for us that matched what it considered to be our profile. That profile seems to involve indie movies with a comic or black comic edge. Not a bad call. In this case, we were sent a movie called “Today’s Special,” a comic look at families and restaurant dynamics. The star is Aasif Mandvi—one of the sardonic commentators on “The Daily Show”— who, this time, plays an Indian-American chef who has plans to go to Paris to study French cooking but ends up running his father’s rundown Tandoori Palace in Jackson Heights, Queens, instead.

Mandvi’s character is a chef who cooks using only his mind. That’s why he is passed over for a promotion and why he is fleeing to Paris. When circumstances force him to stay in Queens, he comes in contact with an unlikely mentor who explains that true cooking requires using your mind, your heart, your stomach, “and sometimes a place lower down.”  I will not destroy the plot any further for those who might have the movie in their queue, other than to say that an important part of the message of the movie is revealed when the mentor posts a sign in the restaurant window announcing Today’s Special as “Trust me.”   

I decided for a “trust me” cooking moment at a Chanukah party we hosted for close friends and family last week. My job was to make the latkes. I narrowed my recipe choices down to two: (1) traditional – grated potatoes, onion, egg, matzoh meal, lots of oil; or (2) calico—traditional with the addition of grated carrots and chopped scallions. I leaned toward choice 2, in part because the picture of the brown latkes with streaks of orange and green looked appealing and in part because I thought trying something different would be—er, different.

When I mentioned my idea to my mother, she did her best Queen Victoria imitation and was “not amused.”  “That sounds terrible,” she proclaimed. “Why would you do that to your company?” She would probably have felt even more justification for her negative opinion if she knew that located on the same page in Food.com where the calico latkes recipe was printed was one for “healthy shrimp jambalaya.”

Nevertheless, defying Jewish tradition, both in choice of recipe and in deciding not to listen to my mother, I proceeded to go ahead with my original plan. And it must have been a success. My potato, onion, egg, carrot, and scallion mixture filled a very large bowl, and I made more latkes that I figured our party could possibly eat. By meal’s end, however, nearly all of them were gone. Now, this is not necessarily the sign of a great latke recipe. In my experience, the number of latkes eaten by a group of people, and Jewish people in particular, is nearly always equal to the number of pancakes that emerge—warm, crispy, and glowing with oil—from almost any frying pan. But I did receive an email from our friends’ daughter proclaiming that the carrot-and-scallion latkes were excellent. Proof enough for me!

Just as in the movie Netflix chose for us, children—whether they be Indian, Jewish, or New England WASPs—all want to plant a sign in front of their parents that says, “Trust me.” At no time is that trust more necessary than when you choose to doctor up a traditional holiday dish with non-traditional ingredients. But even I don’t trust that there can really be something called “healthy shrimp jambalaya.” 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Watching a 3D Movie with 2D Eyes

Last night Audrey and I went to see “Life of Pi” at the Clearview Cinema in Ridgewood. It was a Tuesday night, and Optimum Reward customers (those who are beholden to Cablevision for nearly all of their communication needs) are able to see movies for free on Tuesdays. Except we had to pay $3.75 per ticket this time in order to see the 3D version of the film. I could have saved my money. Not because the movie wasn’t touching and beautiful. It was both. No, because I have discovered another defect in my body. I am unable to see 3D effects. Audrey and others in the audience were “ooo-ing” and “ahh-ing” as a parrot, snake, or tiger nearly jumped into their laps off of the screen. For me, the animals stayed in 2D, special glasses or no special glasses. I am a 3D dud, it appears.

Rushing home, I got out my trusty iPad and typed in “why am I unable to see 3D effects?” The answer came back quickly and in multiple entries (since I am obviously not the first person to ask this question). According to a site called MediaCollege.com I may be “stereo-blind.” My eyes often operate independently of each other in what is called monocular vision. Another website had this to say about my possible deficiency, “Monocular vision is not normal for a human with two functioning eyes, although it is normal for many animals like horses.” Oy!

Back to the MediaCollege site, I am warned that as television and movies move increasingly toward 3D as the norm, I am going to be in trouble or at least am going to feel visually challenged. (Something else to plague me in my advancing years.) What can I do about this: “You will probably be able to purchase glasses that convert 3D movies back into 2D.” Great, now I’ll be paying extra to go back in time, technologically-speaking. Maybe this explains why I didn’t like “Avatar.” And I thought it was because it was a silly story and everybody looked blue to me.

Giving new meaning to the question, "Am I blue?"

My eyes have long been an issue for me and for other people who meet me. I am convinced that everyone has at least one body part with which they have a love/hate relationship. For me, it’s the eyes. On the love side, I am told that my eyes are a beautiful color. They’re green with blue accents and stand out well from my dark complexion. I passed that combination along to my daughter Amanda too.

On the hate side, my eyes have a mind of their own, so to speak. When I was around three years old, doctors told my mother that I had weak or lazy eye muscles that let my eyes wander outward. They suggested two alternatives: (1) I could have an operation to correct the problem but would have to remain pretty still for at least two days until the healing could begin (I was never still in those days), or (2) I could train myself to turn my eyes inward and focus, particularly when I was reading. We chose the second alternative (though I don’t think I had a vote). And, as Frost would say, “that has made all the difference.” I became the child, and later the adult, with the lazy eye muscles. Of course, a lot of my other muscles are pretty lazy too, but that’s another matter entirely.

So what happens if you have lazy eye muscles? For me, it has meant often having to explain to people to whom I am speaking that I am really looking at them and speaking to them. They have doubts because my eyes seem to be roaming off into all directions but toward them. This can be problematic. Recently, I gave a presentation before a group of middle school students and took questions from the audience. Each time, I had to assure the student on whom I thought I was totally focused that I indeed was calling on him or her. It’s those damned 2D eyes at work!

In a real piece of irony, at my first appointment with the internist who has treated us for more than 30 years now, I was struck by the fact that he was really cross-eyed. Not to be outdone, he asked me, “How long have you had a problem with your eye muscles?” What’s that expression about a pot and a kettle? We quickly began focusing on issues other than eyes and haven’t brought up the subject again in all the years. Now, when we meet yearly, neither one of us looks the other directly in the eye.

Eyes were in focus in "The Great Gatsby" too.

Even if my eyes are slightly defective, I really do appreciate them. And I’m consoled by the fact that if I am asked in the future to shell out an extra $3.75 for 3D glasses to see a movie, I can invest the money in half a bag of popcorn instead.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Search for Peace

This story does not have a happy ending, so I will start there:

Exactly 27 years ago, one of my first friends in the world—my kindergarten girlfriend—committed suicide. I was nowhere nearby to stop her. I had not talked to her for several years. I had no idea where she was in her head or in her body. I only found out what had happened when a cousin from Savannah called on December 3, 1985, and told me to look at a certain page in that day’s New York Times. There, I read a nondescript blurb about a former Times reporter who had been found dead at her apartment on the morning of December 2, the victim of an apparent suicide.

The story didn’t end there, of course, for me or for her. I was left to agonize about her death and her decision to kill herself. And to wonder why I couldn’t have done anything to help her deal with whatever was going on. She was left to be a topic of gossip in conversations among people from Savannah and the focus of a New York Magazine article the following month that had a not-so-hidden agenda: to lord over the Times that one of its reporters had been so unhappy in both her personal and professional life that she had chosen to end them both at the same time.

Amazingly, I am still bitter about that article, which I accessed again via the Internet recently, and still frustrated and intensely sad about her decision after all of these years. I took out those feelings many years ago in a short story filled with corny jokes. The last joke involves my being whisked mentally to Savannah and to the cemetery in which both my father and my friend are buried less than 50 yards apart. I dig up her grave and she is inside erasing stories we have written together or that she has written herself. And when I ask what she is doing, she replies, with her usual smile, “Silly, I’m just de-composing.”

Writing that story was as a type of catharsis for me. I am not sure my friend would have appreciated the story, though she would have heartily booed at several of the jokes (certainly the last one), and she would have applauded my decision to blend my sadness with humor. It was her style too. The photos that accompanied the New York Magazine article all showed her smiling or laughing. “Is this the face of a depressed woman?” they seemed to shout or mock.

I might have let this anniversary of my friend’s death go by without any fanfare except that I recently read a memoir by William Styron called Darkness Visible, in which Styron explores the intense depression that overtook him and nearly led him to commit suicide. Ironically, Styron was going through his darkest period in the fall of 1985 and nearly ended his “struggle” with depression in December of that year. The coincidences in timing certainly disturbed me.

Styron’s “happy” book takes us through the progression of his own despair and on a journey into the minds of several writers, actors, or artists he had known who ended their own lives and what he had learned from their fate or wanted to impart to readers about their acts. The book was certainly not an enjoyable read, but it helped me understand one key point about those who commit suicide and our response to them. Styron refers to the “predictable reaction” we often feel: “denial, the refusal to accept the fact of suicide itself, as if the voluntary act—as opposed to an accident, or death from natural causes—were tinged with a delinquency that somehow lessened the [individual] and his [or her] character.”  He calls this reaction “the stigma of self-inflicted death.” We think less of the person because he or she didn’t gut it out.

In reflecting on his own ultimate decision not to act, Styron notes, “Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves, there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.” 

All of which should be helpful to me, but isn’t really. I understand, deep inside, that I wasn’t to blame and, for the most part, that my friend was helpless to act any other way than she did. But I am not really consoled. I am still sadder and lonelier than I was the day before she died.

I am not unique in the fact that several key people in my life have died—people with whom I chose to share important parts of me. What makes me sad, or mad, is that with each death vital lines of communication for me were severed.

Jews commemorate deaths with a series of prayers that are neither sad nor angry. They are, for the most part, the same verses we recite to praise God before and after different parts of each prayer service. Nothing maudlin or even sorrowful is implied. The words seem to suggest that ultimately we have no real control over life or death, so let’s focus on what we can control—the ability to recognize and appreciate nature, create our own beauty, and search for peace.

Dante searches for his own peace.
Styron accents his emergence from his personal darkness with a line from Dante: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” A good line, but not as appropriate as “Silly, I’m just de-composing.” 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Woody Guthrie’s Union Blues

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. We celebrated the milestone by attending a concert at the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The concert was actually a repeat of a 1957 event held in New York to help raise money for Woody’s hospitalization with Huntington’s Chorea disease. With Tom Chapin narrating and a group of talented young folk artists performing, the spirit of Woody Guthie filled the hall. And all of the issues that were so important to him—migrant workers, life during The Depression, government-sponsored work programs, the Pacific Northwest, working in California fields, trying to get together the “Do-Re-Mi” in order to survive—were sung about with a mixture of joy and nostalgia.

Google's Tribute to Woody Guthrie on July 4, 2012
There was a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about. There are many different ideas about Woody on which I could focus, but as minds often do, mine was drawn in a particular direction during the concert. What struck me most was Woody’s strong belief in working men and women and the role of labor unions in protecting them.

I can’t remember who sang Woody’s song “Union Maid” that night, but I know it got strong audience response.

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

Soon, everyone in the audience was loudly proclaiming that we were sticking to the union. I suspect that few in the room really would make that statement outside of a concert hall. Labor unions have fallen on hard times these days and have gotten a lot of bad press. There has been a lot of publicity about “evil” right wing governors, such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, trying to undermine or eliminate public sector unions. But evil governors are not the only ones who believe that unions have played out their time in America.

I don’t have much of a history with unions myself. Neither of my parents held manufacturing or public sector jobs, so they never joined a union or discussed any aspects of unions at our dinner table. The only one of my family who might have been a union member at one time was my mother’s mother, but I doubt it. She had worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory up until only weeks before the infamous March 1911 fire that cost the lives of more than 140 workers locked in the sweatshop in Lower Manhattan. That fire led to passage of a number of labor laws and to the growth of the International Lady Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Nana never discussed the fire, her time in New York, or labor issues.

My grandparents in New York around 1910
I can remember debating the Taft-Hartley Act in competition at BBYO conventions when I was in my teens. Our specific issue involved whether there should be closed shops that required workers to belong to a union to get and keep their jobs? The drafters of Taft-Hartley didn’t think so. Congress even overturned President Truman’s veto of the Act. I am certain that I didn’t really understand the debate issues very well then, even as I argued one side or the other, depending on the coin flip before each debate.

When I did have a chance to experience a union in 1971 while I was a teaching intern in Providence, RI, working on my master’s degree, I came under the influence of my department chairman, Iris Kinoian, whom I idolized. As she explained it, Iris did not join the teachers’ union because she did not believe that she could ever take part a teachers’ strike, for whatever reason. She never talked about any other purpose for the union, and I just went along with her thinking. When I started teaching in Teaneck, NJ, the following year, I didn’t join the union. That did not endear me to my fellow teachers, I would guess, though I never was confronted directly in the one year I spent at the school. I was too busy trying to survive in the classroom to worry about anything else at the time. And I was stubborn in my ignorance. I am not particularly proud of this part of my history.

I suspect that had I been a Woody Guthrie fan at the time or had more knowledge of labor history, I would have thought differently. I certainly do now. I have become more cynical in my growing age and less trustful that corporate executives and government leaders have the interests of workers high in their priorities. Shareholders and fundraisers, certainly, but workers not so much. Until that trust is restored, there is a need for both private and public sector unions to stand up for the workers. Most workers don’t know how to be successful negotiators in the labor realm. That’s where union leaders come in. Their role must be different from what it was in the past—because labor and economic conditions are different, but there is still an important role to fill.

Parenthetically, Major League Baseball union leader Marvin Miller died yesterday. No one did more to improve the life of professional baseball players than Miller, who helped push for free agency under his watch, which led to greater freedom for players and significantly higher salaries. You don’t have to agree with all of Miller’s actions, and you might feel that salaries are really out of whack now, but the sport is still alive and obviously profitable, even as players are getting to share much more equitably in those profits. So how is Miller treated by the baseball establishment for his role in modern baseball history? He was conspicuously not elected to the Hall of Fame during his lifetime. Perhaps it will happen after his death. If so, I think that will be hollow recognition.

There is a lot that scares us about debt and economic downturns these days. But I don’t think it is unions that should be scaring us or deserve so much wrath. Woody tried to tell us that many years ago. According to the narration at the anniversary concert, Woody belonged to more than 100 unions in his life. And his songs have inspired millions of working people. Count me among them.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Entering the New World, not so Bravely

This post is a logical follow-up to my last one about the darkness that enveloped us when “Superstorm” Sandy struck New Jersey and New York a few weeks ago—which is pretty remarkable since what I planned to be writing about is our decision to spend Thanksgiving in Vermont this year. 

Packing for the trip, we gathered up lots of food for our feast to augment what we planned to purchase in the quaint market near Mount Snow. We had already reserved a fresh Vermont turkey a few weeks ahead. What is so special about a fresh Vermont turkey, you may wonder? We discovered that one difference is cost. At nearly $4.00/pound, this one would be one of our priciest turkeys ever. Was the taste worth the cost? I can’t tell you, since I was eating tofurkey instead. (The vegan “bird” is really not a fair substitute for a turkey, but you can delude yourself into believing it is, especially when you cover it with the gravy provided in the package or with Johnny Harris barbecue sauce.) 

Into a small corner of the rear of our Jeep, we shoehorned shopping bags and a small ice chest containing the tofurky, applesauce (both store-bought and homemade), homemade cranberry bread, gravy base, various fruits and vegetables we had on hand that might spoil before we returned to New Jersey four days later, butter, cans of seltzer for Brett, food and toys for the dog, and a gallon jug of iced tea from Trader Joe’s. The rest of the space was occupied with suitcases, several items we planned to leave in Vermont, loose coats and sweaters, the dog’s crate, and a whole slew of electronic items—which is where the connection to the Superstorm comes in.

We had iPhones, an iPad, a separate speaker system for the iPad, at least one computer, several iPods, a small radio for me to listen to sports at night, and lots of charging cables. One cannot go anywhere these days without charging cables. As the number of bars decrease on our phones or the power indicator lines begin to descend on our other devices, we begin to quake with fear. Soon we will be cut off, we worry. And if we get cut off in the mountains of Vermont, boy, we are really going to be isolated!

This was the fear that overtook most of us in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy cut off our electric power. We could put on an extra sweater as the heat inside our houses went down. We could find prepared food if we were unable to cook. We could probably find a place to shower if our hot water heater stopped working. But we had to find a working electric outlet (or three or four) so we could recharge our electronics nearly every day. Brett tells me that the Verizon store in his neighborhood in Queens posted a large sign reading: “Free charging inside”—which seems like an oxymoron to me. In Glen Rock, the town hall (which mercifully had power) and many county libraries were opened to residents to come plug in. We found our life line by accessing working power lines.

Nothing could be more symbolic of twenty-first century survival than the ability to take charge of technology and modern communication devices. And that's what has me worried. I fear that I am already behind the times and falling back quickly, no matter how many charging cables I employ.

My formative years were spent in the second half of the twentieth century. I am old enough to remember when black-and-white television first gave way to color by the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was momentous for me not only because I could finally see that Lucy’s hair was indeed red but also because the change pushed my father into giving up the television and radio repair business he had established when my brother and I were little. My father knew tubes and wires—at least those in a black-and-white set—but he needed more training and costly equipment to deal with color sets, and he couldn’t afford the time or money to retrain and retool. He moved along to the grocery business, which meant working for other people instead of himself. I think the change took something out of him, though he never complained. That was not my father’s way. I think it was not the way that any fathers were expected to act in those days. It took us baby boomers to introduce vocal dissent and discontent into the fathering business.
My father learning about electronics.
He's the man on the right with all the hair
So, just as my father had trouble adapting, I am a little concerned that I too may be coming up short. I recently was required to take part in an on-camera preliminary interview in order to qualify for an in-person job interview. My relatively old desktop has no camera attached (something which can be easily remedied, I am sure), so I borrowed my wife’s new Apple laptop and went through the slow, painful process of responding to questions on camera. In this case, I could review my responses and replace any I felt didn’t show me at my best. (I did a lot of replacing, which explains why the interview was slow and painful.)  When I questioned my son, the 31-year-old job recruiter, about the necessity for going though such a process, he was very positive about it. “They want to see if you can live in the modern world,” he remarked, in those exact words or in something like them.

Hell, we’re talking about writing and editing print books, I noted. That’s a business as old as the hills. I have moved with that business from typewriters to electronic typewriters to computers with simple word processing programs to desktop publishing programs to large-scale electronic page-setting and editing. I am not a computer-phobe, but my learning curve seems to be increasing as the technology gets more complex. And my “worry quotient” is increasing, too.

This Internet photo is labeled "electronic device."
Could anything look more complex and imposing?

I am somewhat consoled in my worry about my electronic ignorance by the fact that I found my way to blogging using Google's program called Blogger and a print book called Blogging in a Snap. I have made rudimentary design changes in this blog (and plan to make some more), but I am a little nervous that my lack of sophistication shows through. Recently I needed to prepare some PowerPoint slides for a presentation. I recruited a 20-something former colleague to help me. In two hours she did what might have taken me two days. I am proud of the fact that I was able to edit a few of her slides and even added two new ones of my own, following her format. So I know I can learn. I just feel a little overwhelmed sometimes by how much there is to learn. (As you can see, my father may never have complained, but I have complaints aplenty!)

I did not intend this post to be about the clash between old and young ideas—what we used to call the “generation gap” in the '60s. I really meant to be writing about Thanksgiving in Vermont with high-priced turkey and a small but select group of family members who celebrated together in our house in Vermont and via Facetime from Helsinki (where Amanda was dining on reindeer meat or whatever the Finnish serve there on our holiday.) Luckily, our phones and pads were charged when she called in. Luckily, she had wi-fi and we had 3G and 4G to make the connection possible. Unluckily, I have no idea what any of those terms actually means. I am just going along for the ride in the 21st century. And I am hoping that the power stays on in both my house and my brain as long as possible.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Seeing the Light about Darkness

The Jewish morning service opens, each day, with a set of 14 blessings. The first of these blessings praises God for enabling his creatures—us people and everything else that lives—to distinguish between night and day. There are numerous other prayers that deal with light and darkness, some of which thank God not only for creating light but also for creating darkness (which is more than just absence of light, it would seem).

Classical poets and playwrights also focus a whole lot of their imagery on the interplay between light and darkness. I have read scores of these images and probably wrote more than one pedantic college paper on the “organic” interplay between light and dark in some poet’s work. But I never really understood any of this until a few weeks ago when “Superstorm” Sandy blew through New Jersey and literally blew out the lights in our house and in most of the houses in and near our town. For eight and a half days, we were in the dark. We were luckier than most, however, because our neighbors had power and generously ran an extension cord from their outdoor outlet to our house. I could plug in a refrigerator and save our food from spoiling and smelling and even charge my iPad and cell phone. We also had hot water and could light our stove burners with matches. So we could take warm showers, use our drinking water, and heat up food on the stove. All in all, we were doing pretty well.

What we didn’t have was light—from dusk to dawn every day.

Not surprisingly, the powerful storm had struck when the moon was full. What was remarkable, however, was that the cloud cover was so complete for over a week afterwards, that no moon or stars shown through at night. The sky was dark. The streets were dark. There was no residual light from street lamps or storefronts. It felt like a blanket had been laid over our neighborhood. Most movement and even car traffic came to a halt after dusk each day. This became even more evident within a few days when gasoline shortages led to even less mobility.

And our house was dark. We had four flashlights ready and put them to use. We had a series of candles that gave off a soft glow. We had a battery-operated FM radio for entertainment and news. So we weren’t really literally or metaphorically in the dark, but we were certainly disoriented.

No, this is not us huddled in the dark.
We just felt this way.

And the house got a little colder every day though we were never in any danger of freezing. But even our dog started huddling in closer and closer each night, trying to cadge a little of our body warmth, despite her having a fur coat that we envied. The three of us became very tightly bonded during the nine-day period. And we went to sleep earlier and earlier each night after the darkness became almost total. I joked with my children, saying that now I understood why farmers of old always went to bed by 8:30. Then I added that the early bedtimes might also explain why they had very large families. (I probably should have omitted the last part of my joke, which seemed to embarrass them, for some reason.)

And morning light was very welcome. It really did feel a little like the earth was being reborn when we could see without artificial light each day.

(Remember that blessing I mentioned above about separating light from darkness? Traditionally, religious Jewish males had a special blue thread included among the fringes on their prayer shawls. When it was light enough to distinguish the blue thread from the white ones, which is surprisingly impossible in darkness or even near darkness, it was time to chant the morning prayers, starting with that blessing I mentioned. After experiencing eight pitch-black nights, I understand that tradition and the blessing better.)

Our lives were disrupted somewhat but not really harmed in the aftermath of the storm. We didn’t even lose a tree this year, as many of our neighbors did. Of course, we had lost four large trees in the snowstorm that struck on Halloween last year, so there weren't many left to fall. We didn’t have flooding either or any of the other types of terrible destruction that we have seen on the news. So I have no real reason to complain. And, I’m really not complaining. I am just describing what it felt like to be blanketed in darkness for eight nights, starting at around 5:30 p.m. until around 6:30 the next morning. Vampires may be comfortable with darkness—and raccoons too—but not us.

When the power suddenly snapped on around 3:30 p.m. on Election Day, we felt literally (and punningly) light-headed. We watched the election returns. We reset our clocks. We reset our lives. Then, around 1 p.m. the following day, the lights went out again. Was this a cruel joke? I assured myself and shared my belief that the utility company was just making a temporary adjustment to bring more of the town online, which proved to be accurate. By 5 p.m., we had light and heat and cable—all the comforts of modern life.

Sometimes it takes a “superstorm” to really see the light when it comes to the power of darkness. We have put away the flashlights and the candles. We’re now trying to guess how changing weather patterns may be “clouding” our future. We’re even talking about generators and space heaters to keep our lives lit and warm in case those clouds do roll in.

Rubens' Prometheus gets his liver pecked out
each day by an eagle at the gods' command.
It is clearer to me now why the Greeks honored Prometheus for his gift of fire—a gift that helped bring light and warmth to people, especially in that scary period between dusk and dawn. But what I don't understand is why the gods made him suffer so much for sharing their fire with us. Should we be worried?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Power Politics in the Grassroots

When I was 17 years old, I got my first taste of “power politics.” In December 1966, my cousin David was running for Aleph Godol (President) of the Southern Region of BBYO (the B’nai Brith Youth Organization). Now, you may not think that Jewish youth organizations engage in power politics. You would be wrong. This was a cutthroat election, featuring David from Savannah in this corner and Goliath (-er Scott) from Atlanta in the other. Scott was Goliath because there were more attendees from the Atlanta Council at the Regional Convention, and thereby more voters. In modern political parlance, he had a larger base.

The official AZA Aleph Godol pin is at the bottom
Joel, a friend from Atlanta, and I agreed to become David’s campaign managers. No politicos ever took the role more seriously than we did. We began to formulate our strategy for overcoming the seeming voting edge that Scott held. We knew that the secrets to victory would lie in solidifying David’s base among the southeast Georgia and South Carolina contingents, appealing to the kids from Macon and Columbus to join our coalition, and getting some Atlanta kids to switch allegiance for the “greater good” of Southern Region. (We actually talked like that in those days. We considered ourselves budding James Carvilles or (heaven forbid) Karl Roves.)

We took the roster of all convention attendees and began working our way down the list, checking off those we knew were in David’s camp and crossing out all of those we knew we could never win over because they fell into one of these categories: Scott’s many cousins, his friends, friends of cousins, friends of cousins’ friends, or just plain Atlanta chauvinists. We looked at the numbers and felt a slight optimism. The counts of checks and cross-outs were close enough to give us hope. Plus David was a particularly nice guy known for his strong sense of responsibility and leadership abilities. So we sketched out a meticulous plan for winning over the names not yet committed. We were ruthless. We looked among our check marks for girlfriends or boyfriends of the non-committed and met with them one-on-one to ask for their help in cajoling votes from their beloveds. (Is using even implied sex for votes dirty politics? Not in our minds.) We met personally with other non-committed voters and probably made some outrageous promises. We got assurances of votes and added to our check marks. The night before the election, our counts of check marks and cross-outs were extremely close. This was going to be one tight race.

Joel and I didn’t sleep for two entire days and nights; we just campaigned and counted. We were walking zombies by election day, sort of like Diane Sawyer during ABC’s election night coverage last week. We both anticipated and dreaded the actual voting process. Had we gotten to every potential David voter? Could our vote count have been flawed in any way? Had we overreached?  We would know in just a matter of hours. Then we could sleep, either in joy or in frustration.

Now, it is probably pretty obvious why I am telling this story. As I watched the vote returns come in last Tuesday night and heard David Axelrod and David Plouffe discuss the Democratic strategy for winning votes in the nine toss-up states, I was drawn back to my truly grassroots political experience. Candidates make speeches and shake hands and even kiss babies. They get to approve those incessant messages. Political strategists stay in the background, pulling strings and tying ropes, if necessary. It’s a dirty job but so much fun if it works.

In 1968, I was one of the managers of the Humphrey-Muskie campaign on the Yale campus and was covering the Democratic Party side of the election for the Yale Daily NEWS. I even got to ride in the press bus when Edmund Muskie came to New Haven on a campaign swing and stood behind him when he made a speech to a large crowd of union workers who had taken a few minutes away from their jobs building a new Knights of Columbus tower not far from downtown. It was thrilling being one of those smiling faces you always see behind a candidate on television. No one suggested I should be impartial. I guess I would have fit in pretty well with today’s “reporters” on MSNBC or Fox News.

On election night, I pulled an all-nighter with my friend Bob Shapiro at our small campaign headquarters, watching the vote totals come in and hoping beyond hope for a miraculous Humphrey finish. After all, our man had been climbing steadily in the polls during the final week of the campaign, until he was almost dead even with Richard Nixon when the actual voting began. The miracles didn’t happen, of course, and when we finally got to bed, our sleep was pretty restless. If you remember 1968, you know it was a pretty tumultuous and scary year. It didn’t end well for those of us who considered ourselves idealists. Most of all, it didn’t turn out well for Hubert Humphrey, who deserved better from history than he has received.

But the Humphrey-Nixon campaign came nearly two years after the David-Scott battle for leadership in Southeastern BBYO. And, luckily, that campaign had a happier ending. The voting took place, the counting began, and a winner emerged—my cousin David was elected by a margin of perhaps two votes, almost exactly the result we were predicting. (We never got the official count, but that’s what we heard. And it’s the story I’m telling.) We had helped pull off a small upset. We were political geniuses!

David went on to get a Ph.D. in political science, taught college for a number of years in New Jersey, Washington, DC, and even London, England. Then he moved onto political activist roles in New York and Washington. I’d like to think I played a part in his early political development. After my disappointment in the 1968 Presidential campaign, I stayed true to my Democratic Party allegiance, though I didn't do too much campaigning until 2004, when a college floor-mate, Howard Dean, made his aborted run for the Presidency. I have stayed behind the scenes—voting, making small financial contributions, writing some letters, and shouting at television ads and speeches. And I was smiling last Tuesday night, particularly because I could actually watch the election returns on television since our power had just been restored after eight days of blackout  following Hurricane Sandy.    

In his victory speech, President Obama explained the value of politics to his supporters as he thanked them. He also connected politics idealistically with service. In my experience, politics also connects with long sleepless nights, lots of cajoling, and often bitter endings. But when your candidate wins, and when your efforts are a part of that win, it’s pretty magical. Some rabbits got pulled out of a hat last Tuesday. And my love-hate relationship with politics got renewed on the love side this time. But I plan to keep antacids close by because the next campaign is already starting.   

Monday, October 22, 2012

So Tall It Could Block out the Sun

Believe it or not, this is a story about a dance performance that Audrey and I attended Saturday night. But you’ll have to be patient. Some background is needed. . . .

When my brother and I stand next to each other, two things are clear: (1) We look a lot alike, and (2) he is much taller than I am. The first element I can attribute to our father; we both resemble him very much. The second element is one that has disappointed me since I was a child. When my brother, who is five years older than I, sprang up to over six feet tall during high school, I began dreaming that I too would reach such a height. Didn’t happen. Instead, I stopped off at just below 5’8”, perfect for looking my father directly in the eye, but coming up only to my brother’s nose. Alas. This, of course, gave me a handy excuse for not becoming a star at basketball, my favorite sport. A lousy jump shot and predilection for throwing errant no-look passes may also have limited my basketball success, but who is counting those?
Skippy and I with our mother. I'm the one with less hair.
So I have gone through life longing for extra height. I am almost ashamed to recall that period in the 1970s when stacked heels for men were the rage, and I indulged in some ugly brown monstrosities. And I can certainly understand the urge for young women today to wear those impossibly high heels that help them reach a whole new plane of vision and thought. Frankly, I’m a little jealous of their ability to soar. But I am stuck here at nearly 5’8” and fear that I am already starting to shrink as my age rises.

Am I getting to the dance performance yet? One more story first. . .

I once played a racquetball game during my high school years in Savannah against a very large and very athletic man named Bill Pickens. Pickens had been a small college All America basketball player at Georgia Southern University, not far from Savannah. He was 6’10” tall and was nearly as wide as a barn, at least in my estimation. There is an old expression about being tall enough to block out the sun. Bill Pickens could do that. (Parenthetically, I found a photograph with that title posted by someone in Australia . I am attaching it here.) 
(photo by Kim and Hayley)

Playing Pickens in racquetball was a little like trying to stay in the ring for three minutes with a boxing champion. He would place himself directly in the middle of the court and slam the ball against the front wall at whatever angle he chose. His opponent—me, in this instance—would have to figure out where the ball was heading by sound because you certainly couldn’t see it through the mountain of man strategically planted in front of you. I can’t recall if I scored a single point in that match. I can tell you that neither of us chose to play each other again. He probably considered me no challenge; I felt extremely challenged. And very small.

Flash ahead more than 45 years to last Saturday night. Audrey and I decided to attend an American Ballet Theater performance that featured an iconic piece choreographed by Twyla Tharp, one of Audrey’s favorite dance creators (and one that even I can enjoy). We had pretty good seats in the center of the rear mezzanine. Even better, up to one minute before the lights came down, the two seats in front of us were empty. That’s when a tiny woman and a man large enough to block out the sun began sliding into Row I. We were in Row J. “Oh, come on,” Audrey groaned more aloud than she planned, as the man turned to give her a look while taking his place directly in front of her. He seemed a little sheepish at being so impressively large, but what could he do about it? I gallantly offered to switch seats with Audrey, and she quickly accepted. It was amazing. As I sat back down, I realized that my head was at almost the exact height as the man's, and his seat was located at least 10 inches below mine! Plus he was wide, really wide.

From then on, the contest began. It was like playing racquetball against Bill Pickens again. I could move to my left and see a small piece of the stage on that side, perhaps one or two dancers. Or I could move to my right and see even less on that side. But the middle of the stage was off limits to me. Unfortunately, most dance companies utilize the middle part of the stage, and the ABT was no exception. What could I do? Assuming the position I often do at dance performances, I closed my eyes to concentrate on the music (and perhaps get in a little shut-eye). This time I had a real excuse. And the music by Philip Glass was exceptional; I am told that the dancing was, too. When the audience rose to their feet after the performance to offer a standing ovation, I too jumped up quickly. For a few seconds, as the large man slowly worked himself to a standing position, I could see the entire stage and the smiles of all of the excited and breathless dancers. They had put on a performance that had the entire theater buzzing. I had heard the buzz. The following morning, we discovered a video of an earlier performance of the piece on You Tube, and Audrey and I sat side by side to enjoy it. You know, it really was terrific, even if I had to see it second hand. 

Who knew this many dancers were on the stage together?
They say you should never look directly at an eclipse of the sun; it can damage your eyes. When the next eclipse occurs, I know whom I plan to be standing behind, just to be on the safe side. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jewish Re-cycling

Part of the secret of Judaism’s longevity is that key aspects of the religion get renewed every year. In the past week, my synagogue (and others around the world) ended the two-week High Holiday season in a joyful (but not too raucous) celebration, called Simchat Torah, that included circling the synagogue with all of our Torahs and even dancing a little with the holy scrolls, completing the reading of the last book of the Torah, and then beginning the reading of the first book just minutes later. We took only a brief break after chanting about the death of Moses and praising our strength in finishing that story before turning our focus to the tale of Creation and the emergence of people in the world.
There are special ceremonies that accompany this Torah recycling process, just as there are special ceremonies involved in most religious practices—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and others. And even if our faith (or at least MY faith) doesn’t always get renewed by these ceremonies, our memories do. Some of my strongest memories growing up are connected to the High Holiday ceremonies, and especially Simchat Torah. Marching and dancing around the synagogue, receiving candy from adults on each circuit, and, years later, enjoying several tastes of schnapps after being called up to the Torah to hear the last or first words read aloud. Imagine that…the first time I ever got tipsy was in shul! But it was a gentle drunk, filled with what I’d like to think was spiritualism. As I remember it, when I walked home from the synagogue that day, I wove a little from side to side, or maybe I just floated.

I felt a greater sense of renewal last Sunday, just five days after Simchat Torah, when I joined as a mentor to our 12-year-old students who are preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the coming year. We held the first of a series of Sunday services in which the students learn how to put on key religious garments—the prayer shawl (tallit) and phylacteries (tefillin). The items are of ancient origin, and they have made Jews stand out for many centuries, even when standing out was not always a good thing. There are stories of religious martyrs walking to their deaths wrapped in these garments. But we were certainly not focusing on martyrs last Sunday morning. We were passing along ancient practices that had been passed to us by our elders. And it struck me that I was now an “elder.” At least, I’m sure that the students considered me pretty old.

All of the students were very cooperative as, for the first time, they said the special blessings and went through the unusual rituals involved in donning the religious items. And they do seem pretty strange at first, particularly those involving the phylacteries. You start by placing the box part of one of the phylacteries on your bicep and then wrapping the long leather strap attached to the box around your arm seven times. The wrapping has to be tight; too much slack will cause the box to dangle off your arm. Then you have to start over. We veterans joked that the strap should leave marks on your arm that might be apparent for several hours. So the kids bravely wound the leather tightly, so tightly that two young arms began turning purple. That was quickly remedied. Jews often talk and teach about suffering, but that should not come from the religious ceremonies—except perhaps circumcision, which is another matter altogether.

Once they placed a second box containing parchment scrolls with ancient prayers on their foreheads and completed another ritual involved in wrapping the leather arm strap around their hands, they were finally ready to begin the morning prayers, which I’m sure seemed pretty anticlimactic. Was all of this ritual necessary? The students certainly could have learned about the traditions virtually; there are literally dozens of You Tube videos showing how to put on tefillin. Here is a link to the one created by my rabbi and posted on our synagogue’s website:

Or they could have forgone the rituals, as most Jews do. But here were fathers sharing the experience hands-on with their children. (Fathers, because so few women of my generation were allowed to experience the rituals. Maybe in the next generation mothers will also become mentors in this area, too.) Will most of the students ever repeat these rituals after they complete this special "growing up" year? I have my doubts. And that disturbs me somewhat. The important thing is that they have had the experience and learned a little more about the traditions of a religion that was, in effect, foisted upon them at birth. In the coming years, they can make their own choices about what to keep in their practices and in their memories and what they will pass along to their children. We elders just want to help them make more educated choices.

So you see it really is a cycle. Nature renews in the spring; Judaism and school systems renew in the fall. It is all part of recognizing that we will reap only what we sow.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ascent-u-ate the Positive

There is a risk to reuniting with people you have met on a biking vacation: Those people may be really into fitness and outdoor activity. The risk is exacerbated when the reunion takes place in an outdoor “wonderland” such as Lake George in upstate New York. When these outdoor fitness nuts see rocky wooded hills, especially near a pristine lake, they may be driven to climb the hills “to get the best views” of the lake. And they may drag those of us not as agile into climbing the hills with them, so that we too can experience the best views. Which is, of course, what happened this past weekend when we joined with three other couples we had met while biking in Holland last year for a reunion on one couple’s retreat on Lake George. The biking had been on flat land; the hiking, I feared, would not be.

I was enticed (and Audrey cheerfully agreed) to go on several ascents on which we started upward on a somewhat beaten trail, then climbed, then slithered through narrow rock crevices, then climbed over and around other rocks both stationary and loose (while trying to heed warnings to avoid piles of wet leaves or slick-looking rocks that might cause me to slip or roll Sisyphus-like back to the bottom of the hill to begin again). Our reward—as we were continually told—would be the amazing views we would have of the lake and of the property on which we were staying for the reunion. “Trust me, it will be well worth the effort,” Anne and Rich, our hosts, assured. But, just to be helpful, they passed out some adjustable walking sticks in case we needed assistance balancing, particularly on the way down. Ah, great, I thought, these people have a supply of walking sticks and probably some machetes if we need to blaze a new trail.

Describing these climbs later to our children, Audrey noted that they were pretty challenging for both of us: “Me because of my hurt knee and your dad because he’s your dad.” I guess that puts it all into proper perspective.  By the way, it did not help my psyche that, near the bottom of the trail we took the second day, there was a cemetery with 10-15 graves dating back to the late 1800s. I glanced at the headstones to make sure that none were of recent vintage and hoped that none involved climbing accidents. This isn’t the Alps, I told myself, as I planted my walking stick to begin the ascent.

The gravestones. . .coincidence or a bad omen?
 (photo from Jack Sobel)

I must say that what I lacked in grace I made up for in perseverance as we climbed. I gave out only a slight groan when we reached the first peak, and Anne announced that this was just the first stop; even better views awaited us a little farther up. She added that the next climbs would not be as difficult as the one we had just completed, but I only half believed her. So I chugged over more rocks and even resorted to the technique I sometimes use when we have a difficult uphill in cross-country skiing: I went down to all fours and crawled. I did experience one brief downhill roll but quickly got back to my feet and hoped no one else had noticed. Breathing just a little harder, I kept heading upward. 

The SAV on my hat stands for Savannah, not "save me."
The trail we traversed may have been beautiful, but I didn’t look up very much to admire it. Instead, I kept my nose to the grindstone, so to speak. At last the trail opened and we could rest and enjoy the views. I will admit that they were spectacular and were indeed a reward for the hard work. Then another thought hit me: We still had to get back down from here! I longed for a chairlift, even though I have assiduously avoided taking a lift downhill ever since an adventure many years ago in Colorado when we went skiing at 13,000 feet in mid-July. I still tremble at the memory of that descent.

The view from the top

I would like to believe that I was more graceful on the trip down. After all, I had a clear goal—to reach flat land so I could enjoy the view of autumnal trees from below rather than above.

Amazingly, when Anne and Rich suggested a new hike the next morning, I cheerfully joined the group. “This one is shorter than yesterday’s,” Anne remarked. The she added something about comparative steepness that I don’t think I heard right. So with walking stick in hand I strode toward what some would call a simple hill and I regarded as my own personal Mount Everest. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Gorgeous (Lake) George

A number of years ago, when I was managing communications for the American Society of Corporate Secretaries, I attended a business meeting in early October at Lake George. I can vividly remember coming over a hill as I approached the lake. When I reached the top, on my left was a steep wooded hill ablaze in fall color. Just ahead was a sun-speckled blue lake. The scene was so amazing that I had to pull over to the shoulder of the road and stop to admire it. Fall may be exciting in other parts of the country, but I don’t think you can top the Northeast. And Lake George has to be among the best places to be in early October.

Luckily, that is where we were this past weekend. We were invited to a special reunion of four families who had biked and barged together in the Netherlands in 2011. We had spent only a week with the other three couples in Holland, but it was a pretty intense experience, and we developed a warm relationship. So when Anne and Rich offered to host the reunion at their house on Lake George, we were thrilled to join in.

This is no ordinary house, by the way, even by Lake George standards. Anne and Rich had to negotiate for three years to purchase the property that juts out as a peninsula onto the lake. Previously, this piece of land had not changed ownership since the late 1800s. Land does not ordinarily change hands quickly or easily along this part of Lake George. We did hear one amusing story about how the deed to a section of the neighboring property was garnered many years ago from its previous owner—a noted reprobate— following a week of drinking and bonding with a Dutch “interloper.” The reprobate’s family, who still held much of the surrounding property, didn’t talk to the interloper and his family for many years following what they regarded as an act of theft.

But, of course, I am digressing.

Once Anne and Rich bought the property, they proceeded to tear down the decaying residence that had sat empty upon it for an entire generation. One younger neighbor, who came to visit over the weekend, noted that, as a child, she had often played in the “haunted” house against her parents’ orders. The floors were in bad shape, and large sections of the roof were missing. A long building process began, and the result was an amazing wood and stone structure that can comfortably sleep lots of people in several bedrooms, a large bunk-bedded loft, and an adjoining structure. The six of us visitors had no trouble finding great accommodations.

The Lake George house from ground level

and from an overlooking peak

But the real star of the property and the weekend was nature at autumn time and how it took hold of us. There was the lake that surrounded the property on three sides. The fourth side opened onto a meadow and then to a series of wooded rocky hills that were in their fall glory. (I’ll talk more about those “damned” hills in tomorrow’s post.) The lake was a little chilly for swimming but welcomed boaters and kayakers who are less apt to capsize than I (which is, of course, another story). The water was blue and crystal clear, and the lapping of waves onto the rocks along the shore was almost hypnotic. It would be hard to find anything wrong with our weekend home. And we didn’t.

Amid all of this beauty, we had the chance to share our pictures and stories of Holland, catch up on what we and our various children have been doing, and eat far too much. Audrey said I seemed to be in my element over the weekend, as the four males, in particular, pounded each other with puns of various degrees of “groan-ability.” That is often how aging males compete with each other, and it sure beats fisticuffs.

So we completed the first ritual of fall by going leaf watching in the supreme arena of the sport. In three weeks, we will experience ritual number two—picking out some of the ugliest and tastiest turnips in the world at the annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro, Vermont. I will proudly don one of my two festival t-shirts (which I wear proudly everywhere I travel, even in Holland) and schmooze up several farmers eager to sell me their wares. 

The turnips will later find their way into glorious soups and mashes. At least I will consider them glorious. It is fall in the Northeast. Even a Southern boy can appreciate how special that is!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cancer Can Be a Lonely Disease

At my cousin’s birthday party in Washington last week, I got to spend some time with Susie, an old friend from Savannah. After sharing childhood memories and a quick synopsis of family news, our conversation turned to health—which is pretty often the case with those of us over 60. Susie’s health has not been good. She is suffering from multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects the red blood cells and bone marrow. She has had a rough time, and continues on oral chemotherapy accompanied by steroids. The disease has forced her to quit her job as a synagogue administrator to focus on getting well, or at least on trying to build up her health. When I noted my own experience with chemo and steroids, she looked amazed. “You’ve had cancer?” she asked in a tone of surprise. I was a little surprised myself that she hadn’t known about my nearly 10-year-old bout with lymphoma. Of course, I had never talked directly to her about it. I just figured the news would have passed along the Savannah Jewish network and reached her.  

This got me thinking about the solitary nature of cancer. Millions of Americans are going through cancer or have experienced the disease. But no one really wants to talk about it. The word is scary. So we often use euphemisms when we refer to it. An excellent Showtime television show starring Laura Linney is called “The Big C.” And sometimes we don’t want to think about it. When I was going through chemo in 2003 and shaved off my thinning hair before it all fell out, a clueless colleague in my office said, “I think it’s great that you cut your hair off; bald is a good look for you. (Trust me, it wasn’t – as you can see below.)

You could go blind from the reflection off of that dome

Because we know how others feel about cancer, people going through the disease don’t tend to talk about it too much. I would discuss my experiences only through anecdotes that I tried to make as entertaining as possible. Like the time Amanda made me a CD mix, the first three songs of which were Bob Marley”s “Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright,”  The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” When Brett questioned the third selection, Amanda said, “But Daddy really likes Billy Joel.” My friend Steven Griffel suggested that maybe she was indicating that I wasn’t that good and therefore wouldn’t be risking an early end. Either explanation works for me.

The solitary nature of cancer gets some emphasis even in a very busy cancer center, such as the one I still go to at Hackensack Hospital (though only once a year now). We are moved efficiently through our blood work and weigh-in processes, one at a time. And we seldom look at the other patients in the waiting room with us. Our minds are on our own issues and vital signs. Out of the corner of my eye, I could spot the people who looked to be in far worse condition than I, but I didn’t really want to think about them. This was MY cancer.

(Not coincidentally, the cancer center has moved into a new building since I started my treatment. This one is much larger and quieter and more private. Patients don’t really confront too many others. Do we really want to?)

I feel guilty that I seldom focused on my children’s feelings when I was going through chemo. Were they worried, frightened, disturbed? I know that the caring fathers on TV shows would have sat down with the children for soul-searching discussions. We never went through those in my family. I was focused mostly on me. Audrey and I didn’t talk about it too much either. Luckily, I didn’t have a lot of nausea or negative reactions to the chemo. And I was always at work the Monday following my Friday chemo session. So we went along as if nothing was amiss (though the 800-pound gorilla was in the room to be sure). When I went through a blip, and the chemo seemed to have not been successful (and a bone marrow transplant might have been the next step), Audrey freaked out a little bit. She canceled a family gathering in Vermont, though I thought it should still go on. Since I continued to be in denial about the whole thing, I wasn’t that worried. Subsequent tests revealed that the “hot spot” that the PT Scan found in my abdomen was just a false positive, so my health was indeed on the mend. Audrey’s blood pressure returned to normal, and we could keep the cancer talk down to a minimum again.

It has now been nearly 10 years since my last chemo session. My oncologist says that I will graduate from his “class” next June and won’t have to see him again. I was tempted to add an “unless” to that last sentence, but I have decided not to do that. Instead, I plan to write some more anecdotes about the time in the distant past that I had cancer. Or I may share some symptoms with Susie and try not to top her stories with ones of my own. Instead, I’ll try to keep quiet and just listen to her—if she really wants to share.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Aging as Gracefully as Possible

In her waning years, my wife’s grandmother, Omi, would often say, “It’s no fun to grow old.” This was a woman who, until her middle 80s, worked as an inspector in the garment district. She would put on mostly black clothing and her black “old lady” shoes and take the subway downtown every day. On her way back home, she would stop on 181st Street to buy bargain-priced fruit and vegetables, the type that had only about a day’s shelf life left.

Her daughter, my wife’s mother, lived until she was 93 and was strong and independent and living on her own until the day she literally dropped dead while walking to our car after a birthday celebration for my daughter. These women taught us how to grow old gracefully, or as gracefully as possible. I hope we can follow their lessons.

Audrey's mom on her 91st birthday, alone

and with Audrey

This weekend, we had more occasion to think about the aging process, for several good reasons and a few not-so-good ones. We traveled to Washington for a surprise 60th birthday for our cousin Paula. It was a wonderful party and a big surprise. Paula moves in several different professional and social circles, all of which were well represented at the birthday, along with many of us family members. We ate and talked, touched base with cousins and old and new friends, and watched an endless loop of slides showing Paula and her children growing from their infancy to adulthood. Sure we complained about our aging knees and backs, but mostly we were celebrating growing older.

The birthday party was an interesting counterpoint to the discussion we had earlier that afternoon. The trip to Washington was also an opportunity for us to reunite with Audrey’s former classmate and close friend Terry and her husband Tom. Both are now retired after many years working for the federal government (FEMA in Terry’s case, and the Smithsonian Library in Tom’s case). They are currently going through a lot of stress as Terry’s mother—widowed in the past year after more than 65 years of marriage—goes through a terrible period of aging. Her hip is dislocated and cannot be repaired because she is too frail for any operation. She also recently fell and broke her wrist. Her eyesight is poor, and her mobility is pretty awkward. All of which means that Terry and her sister Nancy need to tend to their mother daily and even several times daily. Tending involves a lot of personal cleaning that, I am sure, is embarrassing to both the giver and the givee. They are being forced to confront a decision that more and more families face as our nation ages—how to provide the best care for an elderly parent. In some cases, this means looking outside the family for help.

Audrey and I have been very lucky on this front. As I noted above, Audrey’s mother went out the way she always wished. She was healthy until almost her final day, and she died without suffering and with her family nearby. My mother, who is approaching her 93rd birthday, has had some health issues in the past few years involving poor blood circulation and declining eyesight. Circumstances forced her to move temporarily and then permanently into an assisted living facility about nine months ago.

Luckily for the aged and for their family members, assisted living facilities today bear little resemblance to the nursing homes we dreaded in past generations (in part, because today’s elderly seem, thankfully, not as old as old people used to be.) This place, which was built and is run by the wife of our Rabbi in Savannah, is light and cheerful, and the staff seem just as cheerful and caring. My mother has the inclination and the facilities (as well as the facility) to cook some meals for herself, principally breakfast. In this way, she can get up when she wants each day and dine in the close company of her cousin and next-door neighbor Sara. The two of them can also avoid the community dining hall for at least one meal a day. While Sara doesn’t complain too much about the food, my mother does. They serve chicken about 17 times a week, she recently noted, and how can anyone screw up rice so badly!

The food is not her biggest complaint. Her real issue is with the bathroom floor tile in her room that she refuses to believe was installed just before she moved in. “It is filthy,” she insists and often asks (demands) that the cleaning crew mop it a second or third time. When we point out that her eyesight is not too good, she notes that it s good enough to spot the dirt hiding in plain sight in the corners of the room. “I want them to put in a rug over the floor,” she recently announced. “I’ve always had rugs in my bathroom, and this floor belongs in a barn!”

When I told this story to my cousin Richard at the birthday party we attended Saturday night, he said, “It’s good to see that Aunt Bea is still herself.”

My mom with Brett and Amanda

Cooking a last batch of jelly in her old house
I certainly hope that Audrey and I, too, will still be ourselves later in life. Though Audrey might hope for me to make a few needed changes by then. I’m sure she is making a list of those changes and will be only too happy to share them with me.

So this was a weekend for looking backward with joy and forward with a little trepidation. If may not be good to grow old, but it is fine to age with as much grace as possible. That’s my resolution for the New Year.