The First Spring Day

Although ol’ man Winter tarried in the night (and night after night, week after week, it seemed), Spring came this morning.

(Forgive the bastardization of both a Biblical verse and an old Paul Robeson classic.)

The City was alive today.  If I did not ride the subways everyday, I might be astonished at all of the people who live in this City, who flooded Central Park today.

Flowers are budding. Boom-boxes on full volume. Sheep’s Meadow a sea of people. The promenades alive with children and parents, tourists and citizens.  A veritable celebration of, unquestionably, the first spectacular, sunny and warm day of 2015.

My sister and I walked through the Park, marveling at the City come alive again.

We wondered at warmth and flowers.  And their restorative effects on the soul.  A chance to grow with the flowers — maybe this year, to grow straighter or maybe lilt to a side, but whichever, maybe a little bit happier.

New bursts of energy to last until the lazy days of the long, hot summer.

Resolutions of healthy habits that will be dashed with tonight’s pain of that ill-conceived run or bike ride.

The true rites of Spring.  Rebirth and renewal. And, best of all , ecumenical.  

 

Beyond Queer

My son turned to me, in a loving voice, and said, “E-Mom, you are my father figure.  I mean that in a good way.  And, if you were younger, I would call you a tomboy.”

There is so much to parse in those sentences.  I, of course, thought, “waaaaait, I am not young?”

If you were to look the historical attributes of “father” — the predominant wage earner, the one who handles “big boy” problems (like girls, budding sexuality and buying Sports Illustrated swim suit editions), the one who works late, and the one who desperately wants to play sports with my son — then I fit.

Except I am not a man.  I am a woman.  And I don’t want to be Ward Cleaver, whether or not my son thought it was a compliment.

I think maybe he was trying to give me legitimacy as a parent in the paradigm of the traditional family, even though I am not a newcomer to him — I was there at conception (a doctor’s office) and present throughout these ensuing 13 years.

It struck me that, while we have seemingly endless vocabulary and theories about gender identity (there are apparently at least six) and sexual orientation (there are so many more than six), our community has not spent as much time or effort on the vocabulary for our queer marriages and families.

So many default to the terms, “wife” and “husband”.  And yet in same-sex families, we know that we don’t one of us called “Mom” and the other called, “Dad”.

I believe that my son was trying to tell me that: (i) I am old, (ii) I have a place, (iii) he struggles sometimes with the non-traditional family structure and may have had to defend his two-mom home, (iv) he is relieved that he can shoe-horn me into something uncomplicated, and (v) he loves me.

Maybe it isn’t vocabulary, but just society lagging behind marriage equality.

But some new vocabulary would help.

Sounds of Silence

I don’t usually wear headphones in the subway and I try not to look at my emails or texts.  I like to be “in the moment” with the chaos and the subhuman conditions of the New York transit system.

It was Friday evening around 7pm. Maybe the slog of a week of work, the intense cold, the endless winter, the bleakness of the gray-black ice still on the streets were heavy on most of the passengers in the subway car.

Those are my guesses, but I don’t really know why the West Side 96th Street station was quiet and the subway car, too, was quiet.  Silent, actually.  I could feel the silence because I was not connected by headphones to another reality.

It was a rare moment of peace in the City That Never Sleeps (or Shuts Up).  In fact, it was a cosmic anomaly.

And then this bubble of peace was punctured by a man with a nervous laugh and a too-loud voice saying to his co-worker (I was following the thread since 42nd Street), “It is literally so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.  Where did that saying come from?  The quiet is freaking me out a little.” [screechy giggle followed by senseless ramblings.]

Actually, dude, it wasn’t quiet anymore.  But your interruption of it made it so much sweeter by the contrast.

And the co-worker you were hitting on isn’t interested.  Just sayin’.

Memory

Study after study shows that eyewitness testimony is basically unreliable.  Why? Because a witness to a crime, let’s say, has seen a perpetrator for seconds at the time of the incident.  In a highly stressful and scary moment.  The witness then picks the person in a line up or photo array who looks as much like the person he or she saw in those few seconds.  Then at trial, that person identifies the defendant as the perpetrator.

Does the eyewitness remember the person from the crime or the line up/photo array?  Or is it a conflation of the two?  And if the witness were to testify, he or she has to convince him or herself that the memory is correct.  So, is it conflation coupled with rationalization?

This scenario happens all the time.  With eyewitnesses who are conscientious and well-meaning.

My college friends and I joke that whether or not we were at a particular event, it becomes a part of our collective memory and, in short order, we will remember it as if we were there.  And it is true.  When we were all in Cancun two years ago for a reunion, I remember distinctly that the concierge called us, “my lovely ladies.”  Except I wasn’t there; I was home in New York with the flu.

So, memory isn’t a moment in time burned into our brains — it is an evolving yarn that morphs over the years.  And it is our narrative of how we want to tell others about our past.

And we all like to remember ourselves as better than we were, or more courageous, or kinder, or more heroic when in great personal peril.

Mostly, it is our best version of the truth.

What happened to Brian Williams happens to all of us (except those exceptional people with the crazily accurate memories).  Especially as we get older and further away from the events.

Today, when I called Dad around dinner time, he told me about the wonderfully active day he had.

Except he didn’t.  Not today.  Three years ago, maybe.

Brian Williams apologized for a very human exaggeration.  I know he is a reporter and held to a higher standard of truthiness (to use an apt word coined for the G. W. Bush administration), but he probably really remembered it the way he recounted until someone proved to him otherwise.  Even if, originally, his account was accurate.  (Just listen to the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Ronald Reagan’s stories over time.)

Because memory isn’t a moment in time burned into our brains — it is an evolving yarn that morphs over the years. 

But don’t quote me on this.

Changes

Let’s be honest: hot flashes in the winter do not suck.  Except they rarely come when you are walking in frigid temperatures with howling winds that chill your bones.

No, they usually come at night in your already over-heated dwelling.

Or during a meeting where someone mistakes your sweat for fear.  Hell no, I don’t fear you.

In fact, I don’t fear anything when I am having a hot flash. I don’t have time.

Because I am too consumed by this and other indignities of aging that I wonder who are those damn happy retirees in the TV commercials?

And then I remember that the commercials are about erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, heart disease, having “to go” too frequently, not frequently enough, and dry-mouth. Ah, paradise.  Oooooh, dream weaver ad men, how you read my fantasies.  Right down to sitting in a random antique bathtub on the beach. [What is that in the Cialis commercial?]

SO, if commercials are to be believed [work with me here], then, in short order, I will be a diaper-clad, pill-popping, but, otherwise, extraordinarily healthy and vibrant looking, older woman who could wear a bikini if the hot flashes are really too much. No war on gravity; no arms that do the Hadassah-jiggle if I don’t work on my triceps for a few days. And I am driving my sports car.  Now that is the part of this advertisement debacle that doesn’t suck.

And you wonder why I am not responding to you.

Interrupt me at your peril.

 

Being Lunch Meat in the Sandwich Generation

I never thought of myself as liverwurst before, but it does connect and bind the two pieces of bread into a sandwich.  Or maybe vegemite.  Peanut butter is an aspirational concept.

I am a member of the sandwich generation.  The child that needs to provide for her parent(s) and her child(ren). I, and so many like me, are the spread between the pieces of bread.  We keep it all together.

Last week, Dad called, saying he was locked in his art studio and that he needed me to call the police.  He had his coat on and was cold.  I told him I would call him right back on his home line and if he answered that meant he was really at home and just momentarily confused.  He agreed.  But he didn’t actually hang up the phone so I couldn’t get through.  I called the home health aide and we agreed that I should come over and calm everything down.  We are only called in when the episodes lasts long enough to be totally freaky.

I came over, and Dad agreed to take off his coat, since I was doing the same.  Now, how to convince a scared man that he is really in his home?

“Dad, if this were your home, would you know where you keep the scotch?”

Of course,” he said as if I had impugned his very core.  [Ok, I guess that is good.]

Dad went right for it.  Score 1 for the older generation.

“Dad, if this were your home, where would your underwear drawer be?”

Dad found that, too.  Score 2.  While we were standing in front of his bureau, I asked:

“Dad, do you recognize some of the people in the pictures?”

He did.  Not all but most. Score 2.5.

“So, Dad, if this is not your home, then it is doing a good job of making you comfortable.”

“But you see all of the paintings . . . ” He was referring to the paintings and sculpture in the living room and dining room.

A-ha.  He doesn’t recognize that those are his and Mom’s.  This is a huge downward trajectory for Dad.  “Daddy, those are your and Mom’s paintings and sculptures.”

He seemed to start to understand.  But not yet.

“Dad, if this is not your home, then this is a great art studio.  I am going to have some wine while you have dinner in your dining room.  Join me?”

Dad ate a little and had a little wine (less alcohol than scotch).  We talked.  Mostly non-sense (as in I had no idea what he was talking about) but slowly he was calming down and returning to earth.  Finally he said:

“It is good to be home.  And so lovely to have you over for dinner.”

“Yes, Dad, it is a treat to see you midweek.  Now I am going home.”

We kissed good night.  I hugged his home health aide knowing that she allows me to have a life separate from Dad’s because she only calls in the cavalry when she cannot snap him out of it within a reasonable time and he is a flight risk.

I get home and hug and kiss my son.  We talk about the day and the weekend ahead, during which we will all attend a Bat Mitzvah.

“E-mom, remember, don’t hang around me during the Bat Mitzvah.  It will be embarrassing.”

“No problem, buddy.” What I wanted to say was, “I don’t want to watch you and tweenage friends behaving in a way that will make me skin crawl.  Besides, I am going to hang with the adults and behave in a way that will make you cringe from afar.”

But instead, I took my victory from the top bread and didn’t squeeze too hard on the bottom bread.

Maybe we could be a panini.

Belonging

When my grandparents came to these shores on a boat (in steerage), they were strangers in a strange land.  And they had nothing.  They remained that way their whole lives.

America.  Such a strange country, America,” is something my grandfather would say as he shook his head about something peculiar he read in the newspaper or saw in person or on TV (female wrestling was one such thing).

America.  Such a vondehful [wonderful] country, America,” is something my grandfather would say as looked at the success of, and integration of his children and grandchildren into, American society.

My grandparents were not of this country, although they were naturalized citizens.  They left their home countries to escape atrocities.  So, they were not of those countries either.

They were displaced people their whole lives.  But they felt safe here.  They were citizens here.  They loved this country.

Next to the pictures of Mom and Dad on their wedding day and our various graduation pictures, was a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act. 

Because a person could do anything and be anything in America.  And America took care of its people who worked hard and raised the next generation of contributors to society (and tax revenue).

My parents and we, their children, grew up with a sense of belonging.

We belong.  This is our country.  We are Americans. 

And, in this country, we have the luxury of a prefix — Chinese-, Japanese-, Polish-, Russian-, Anything-American — because 

We belong.

That is not to say that being Jewish or of Polish, German, Russian and Prussian descent was easy.  Educational and employment discrimination, fights and name-calling of my parents’ generation gave way to schoolyard name-calling and social discrimination in mine.

And, in the next generation, there is still anti-Semitism.  Because prejudice will always exist.  Because crazy people vandalize synagogues.

But we belong to this country and we can, and do, succeed in this country.  But we had to work hard and deal with stupid people and prejudice along the way.  That is a fact of life.  But because I am a citizen, I have the same rights as the bigots.  With education, I can make sure they don’t lord over me.

I think about the Algerians and other North African people in France or “guest workers” across Europe.  These individuals and their families can be two or three generations in Europe and still not be citizens.  Bigotry and malice can cripple their advancement.  They are effectively ghettoized.

In Europe, Asian and African immigrants cannot be citizens. Even when two generations have lived there and no where else.  Even when the grandchildren only know how to speak French, Dutch, German, Flemish, etc. and not the language of their grandparents’ country.

And so they DON’T belong. ANYWHERE.

And they have opportunities. NOWHERE.

And their country of birth claims them as citizens. NOT AT ALL.

And they have bright futures and integrate into the larger culture without losing their cultural and religious identities.  NOPE. NOT HAPPENING.

(This sounds like the story of the Jews in Europe (other than, ironically, Germany) up until just before Hitler came to power.)

I wonder what would happen if these immigrants and guest workers, or at least their children or grandchildren, could be citizens.  I wonder what would have happened in my parents’ and my generation didn’t “belong” to our great nation.

What if they belonged . . . .

Let’s all ratchet it down some

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/texas-congressman-labels-obama-worse-hitler-article-1.2076035

Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.) said it’s ‘appalling’ Obama didn’t travel to Paris for the unity march on Sunday.

Dear Congressman:

Do you know what Hitler and his henchman did? 11 million people died ghastly deaths. (And — as an aside — do you know about the spike of anti-Semitism in France?)

President Obama is Hitler?  That is so offensive to anyone who has a family member who perished in that genocide in Europe.  Most of my family came here after the first World War.  Those who remained in Europe, perished.  A lucky few went to Cuba in 1938, when our nation closed its doors to refugees.

But what this nation forgets is that US soldiers — my Uncle Willy among them — were sent to concentration camps after being captured in the Battle of the Bulge.  My uncle survived, but, yes, Americans died in the concentration camps.  And America forgot these soldiers.

And what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s was not a holocaust.  That is a ritual cleansing through fire.  What happened in Europe was a shoah, a CATASTROPHE. Not just for Jews but for 5 — yes, 5 — million more people.

So, call it the Shoah.  11 million humans were burned or starved.  Others survived, only to be scarred.

Shoah.  Shoah. Shoah.  SHOAH. Call it by its real name.

How dare you trivialize what Hitler did to Europe and its citizens. To families. To children.

And how dare you, by your comments, trivialize what happened in France this past week.  The terrorized citizens of that great City of Lights.  And, yes, especially the Jews among them.

President Obama should have sent someone to Paris. Bad decision. That is all. It isn’t mass murder.

The president should have been criticized for missing an opportunity to stand in unity with world leaders. The criticism should match the the offense.

What you said undercuts the validity of your criticisms of the president. It makes you sound rabid and crazy. There are very valid criticisms of President Obama (and I am a proud supporter of him).

But you have lost your credibility. Yes. Because you compared the president to Hitler. Because you sound crazy.  (Since our government started an unnecessary war in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands, would you call our former president or vice president Hitler?)

Try being the sane, loyal and temperate opposition to President Obama’s actions and even some of the president’s supporters might agree with you from time to time.

Why am I so flipped out? Because what you said hit a nerve. Maybe when all Jews who knew someone in a concentration camp are no more, then it won’t be as visceral. I imagine that every group that has survived a slaughter feels this way. We aren’t any different. Our scars are the same.

In the meantime, please brush up on your history.

~ a proud citizen of the United States of America disappointed with the vicious rhetoric

Shirley Hirsch z”l (1925-2014)

Shirley could have been in the New York Times year-end edition of the Lives They Lived.  As a tale of lost and found.

She was born into a poor immigrant family and was, as they used to say, “not quite right”.  After her father died (her mother died in childbirth with her younger sister), she was put into a public-assisted halfway house system.  She was thereafter “dead” as far as the family — her surviving siblings — was concerned.  Ultimately, she ended up in a public assistance psychiatric nursing home.

One of her nephews discovered her existence 60 or more years later and began, with his wife, visiting her.  Through their interest and kindness, she spoke for the first time in decades.  And she kept talking, but not like a made-for-TV movie — it was intelligible, although often guttural.

**************************************************************************************************************

We buried Shirley today.  Forgive the non-adherence to the Jewish 24-hour burial rule, but her nephew only found out two years ago that he was Jewish (for another blog) and is trying to integrate that knowledge into his otherwise Christian life.

In most other respects, we followed Jewish tradition.

The usual litany of readings and meditations didn’t fit this particular situation.  I talked with my cousins about what we would say about Shirley during the graveside service.

My cousin showed me the poem he wrote.  There were no better words.  Rest in peace, dear Shirley.  We will remember you.

For Shirley:

She a little left
a little different
and we a little right
perhaps indifferent
but was it right
to let a loved one
cling fast
to family long past?
we forgot that past
while she forgot this present

Finally we unlocked the door
and dove right in
to days left behind
all day into the night
hiding in plain sight
We found each other
Surely we were ignorant
but we were not
we ran away from each other
and surely that was not right

Reunited, we clung fast
she managed soft whispers
of that past long gone
we hung on every word
as we held onto her hand
soaking in precious moments
making up that lost time
when we went left
and she went right
a family come full circle

and surely this is right.

Amen.

New Year’s Day in the Coffee Shop of the Undead

Ah, life in the Coffee Shop of the Undead is, well, hanging by a string.

Back story: http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5641; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=4858; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5701; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=4435

Maybe not life, as much as sanity.  Ok, not sanity so much as functional insanity.  Life in the Coffee Shop of the Undead is measured by the functionality of those with dementia and other neurological disorders.

I guess it is also measured by physical compromise.  If you aren’t crazy, then you are most likely so enfeebled that, if you make it to the place from your house, you (actually, your home health aide) should do a victory lap around the (tiny) place.

So where else would Dad go to see his friends?  Regardless of Dad’s daily level of crazy, which hit the nuclear contamination levels today, he tips his hat to the elders already seated.  For over 50 years, some of them were just passersby on the street, but now that they are the surviving remnant, they acknowledge each other.  Others, like Marty and Joan (the kids of the group at mid-to-late 70s) get a real greeting.  Dad reserves the warmest greeting for Sam, his old friend.

But Sam wasn’t at lunch today. Always a worrisome sign.  Sam has Alzheimer’s and some other dementia diagnoses, but like any disease, he can function some days and not others.

After we left the coffee shop, we bumped into Sam just outside.  (I am grateful that Dad and he have known each other for so long that, even with his mental disease, he recognizes Dad (and us)).

We greet Sam.

Sam says, “I have some very bad news.  I was going to call.”

SOB and I hold our breaths.  Is it his companion, Norma?  Is it his ex-wife? His daughter? His granddaughter?

Sam continues.  “My brain is not working so well.  I have issues now.”

SOB and I exhale at the same time.  THIS IS NOT NEWS. EVEN TO SAM.  HE JUST CAN’T REMEMBER THAT IT ISN’T NEWS.

Dad — even with his nuclear-level dementia today — didn’t miss a beat, “if you would like company, we will come over or, food, we can bring it over.”

SOB and I marvel at the way Dad can summon the man he was for a friend in need. 

The man he was.  The totally addled man he is.  They live side-by-side in the same body.

That is why it is so hard to handle the bad days.

Because there will be good moments to give a child hope.

And then, a moment later, the child wonders where her daddy has gone.