My maternal grandfather died in 1958 when he was 60 years old, although I remember him as an old man. I was ten when he died. My brothers – then eight and five – and I are the only ones now living who knew him and those memories capture only snippets of his life.
Until shortly before his death from lung cancer, he was heavy-set in a Santa Claus sort of way. His face was round, albeit clean-shaven, and I always envision him with a smile. He had a hearty, hoarse laugh and an intense Greenpoint, Brooklyn accent: I was his “goyl,” he used the “terlit,” and hailed from “Toyd” Avenue. I didn’t know anyone else in Queens who spoke that way. Nanny, his wife, was an immigrant from Ireland. Hers was a shrill Brooklyn-Irish accent, but Papa, as we called him, spoke pure Brooklynese. Even as a child, I suspected that it belied a poor education; much later, I learned he never finished elementary school.
Papa was a chain smoker. I seldom saw him without a cigarette in his hand or his mouth. He had the absurd idea that if he cut a cigarette in two, he could cut the cost of his habit as well. The halved cigarettes, all Pall Malls because he liked their ads, were stacked in a pyramid on his desk. I have no recollection that he or his room smelled like cigarettes but they must have. We didn’t worry about second-hand smoke in those days.
Papa also kept a glass bowl of pennies on his desk. When we visited the Rego Park apartment that he and Nanny then occupied, we were allowed to reach into the bowl with one hand and grab as many pennies as we could hold. When I turned nine, Papa would try to even the playing field for my younger brothers by shaking my handful of coins. This significantly reduced my take. I thought it wasn’t in the spirit of the game, but Papa laughed as the pennies slipped between my fingers.
As the oldest grandchild, I thought myself privileged to take several Greyhound bus trips with him and Nanny. There was one trip to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where I discovered Skee-Ball. I loved rolling those heavy balls up the alley at just the right speed to pop into a 20 or 60-point pocket, 100 points if I got really lucky. There were other boardwalk treats – I recall extra-large gumball machines – but Skee-ball was by far the best.
My favorite trip was to Pennsylvania Dutch country. Papa indulged my wish for an Amish-style bonnet made of gray and yellow printed cotton. I was quite taken with it, though I wore it only in my bedroom at home. The bonnet disappeared a long time ago, but I still have the small black lacquer footstool he bought for me. It’s painted with red and yellow flowers that are now slightly chipped. What tickled Papa was the stamp of origin on the underside of the stool: Intercourse, Pennsylvania. He pointed this out to my mother with some delight when we got home. Such were the amusements of the mid-1950’s.
One of the few things I knew about Papa before he died was that he was estranged from his two sons and a daughter. Only my mother remained in his good graces when I was a child. I didn’t know why, it was just how it was. When I heard much later how brutally he treated his sons, I understood, though I could never reconcile it with the gentleness he showed me.
Papa’s death in 1958 was the first I experienced. About two months earlier, shortly before Thanksgiving, he telephoned to speak to my mother. I answered the phone and heard him coughing and gasping. He didn’t ask “how’s my best goyl?” I called for my mother and, with a strong intuition of death, went to my room and cried in my pillow.
The eve of Papa’s passing, with my mother at the hospital, my father introduced me to several ideas of death. I remember only his explanation of reincarnation. It was clear to me that he wasn’t a believer, but he was kind to offer me a gentler option that appealed to my imagination, if not my spirit. I fancied Papa reincarnated as a squirrel, leaping from branch to branch, silly as that seemed to me even then. It didn’t mitigate the impact of my mother’s grief, however, which hollowed me out. Nanny cried, too, sitting on the living room sofa, and said, “It was awful sometimes, but I’ll miss him.” My mother told her not to say that around other people.
The next year, Nanny took me on a boat trip on the Saint Lawrence Seaway. She was chatting with a fellow passenger on the deck and mentioned Papa’s death, then lowered her voice and whispered “cancer.” Why cancer was a secret confused me and darkened my muddled feelings about his death.
There have been many other deaths in my family since 1958, including my remaining three grandparents, my parents, my two husbands, an aunt and two uncles, and a cousin. Each brokered a new grief, and the residual sorrow became cumulative and deepened. Each of them leaves a story, some well-documented by a trail of news clippings, letters or photos, amplified by fragments of oral histories. But there is little more than a few black and white snapshots, and an inch-long death notice, about Papa.
One endearing sepia portrait survives. He is pictured with his mother, a second woman, and two younger brothers, when he was, perhaps, five or six years old. He is wearing knee pants, a short jacket, and a peaked newsboy-style cap. He poses jauntily with a walking stick, and a broad, impish grin. This is the boy who, a half-dozen years later, left grade school to support his mother and two brothers by selling blocks of ice from a hand-pulled wagon. That boy in turn became a young man who upgraded to a horse-pulled wagon, and then an adult who built a rigging business in Brooklyn and bought a car when none of neighbors could afford one. But I can’t fill in the outlines of his life with feelings, beliefs, joys and heartbreaks that I never knew.
What is Papa’s share of the legacy my brothers and I, and our children and grandchildren, represent? He is as much a part of our DNA as the three grandparents who deeply imprinted their thoughts, culture and narratives on us. Papa is, in contrast, a short series of plot lines. I write this so that others will know, when they see that jaunty little boy in the sepia photo, that he is part of our story too.
In the summer of 2008, when the world seemed to be falling apart – in addition to the recession, my mother had just died – I began visiting an elderly neighbor each morning to walk her equally elderly dog. Neige, as he was called, barely tottered along while my own two-year-old pup strained at his leash. My neighbor, Mary Jane, had additional grief: she was recently widowed and had broken her arm in a fall. Despite our heavy hearts, however, or perhaps because of them, we began each visit with a sit-down to discuss the One Good Thing we each found in The Washington Post that morning. It could be a big deal or a little nothing — the pandas at The National Zoo frequently figured in these conversations – but it had to be good enough news to make us smile and feel glad.
I thought of those visits, now a decade ago, this morning when I read The Washington Post and the New York Times. Most days, I approach the papers with trepidation. The news typically ranges from disastrous to appalling and can be quite frightening. The occasional feel-good story is overwhelmed by wars, droughts, shootings and melting ice caps.
But today – April 18, 2018 – what a day! Here’s a list of Good News reports in no order:
- A baby gorilla was born and is thriving at the National Zoo.
- A Californian, Desiree Linden, won the Boston Marathon in teeming rain.
- A 19-year-old DC opera singer was offered a full scholarship to Juilliard.
- “Superagers” retain their intellect into their 90’s.
- Fashion takes to the runway in Saudi Arabia.
- Immunotherapy is successfully treating lung cancer.
- Stories are being dispensed (free!) from kiosks around the country.
- Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to some of our best and brightest.
Now isn’t that a splendid way to start the day? Yes, other news gives ample cause for angst and dismay, and David Brooks grimly ponders loneliness and the breakdown of social relationships. But, even so, at the risk of entering Steven-Pinkerdom, I feel grateful for this day and hopeful that there will be another one.
It means flesh and sand.
It is a moment, lasting six minutes, in the harrowing experience of crossing the United States southern border illegally. It is both silent and loud, always uncomfortable and, above all, confusing and frightening.
Reading facts and data about refugees (variously called migrants, illegals and aliens) fleeing from the violence and poverty of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is troubling, but experiencing it in virtual reality engages another dimension of understanding. Carne y Arena presents, in a VR experience without commentary or explicit advocacy, a fraction of the journey that refugees crossing the southern border of the United States endure to reach our country. It is the moment of apprehension and detention that is captured in VR.
After first sitting alone in a frigid holding room for several minutes amid assorted flip flops, boots, sandals and sneakers found in the desert, I stood bare-footed in harsh, gravelly desert sand, outfitted with a back pack, VR glasses and headphones. The desert scene stretched endlessly around me, desolate except for scattered shrubs and cacti; there seemed to be no horizon. Then others arrived, the migrants, adults and children, their angst and uncertainty palpable. In moments, suddenly, helicopters with their roaring blades and inescapably bright search lights hovered above us. Voices of Border Patrol agents thundered – drop your belongings, men to the left, women and children to the right – but even their voices held fear. Uncertain if I was supposed to comply, I absorbed the migrants’ confusion and fear. Agents and migrants swarmed around me and I instinctively backed up to avoid virtual collisions. A child called, Ayuda, Papa. A sense of helplessness and hopelessness pervaded the dark.
And then, it ended — for me. My backpack, goggles and earphones were removed. After, still shaken and confused by this VR encounter, I wiped the sand from my feet, retrieved my shoes and coat. In the adjacent Gallery, I read the words of refugees who survived the border crossing, superimposed on their activated photographs. They had contributed accounts of their journeys to the VR experience and here told their after-stories.
One woman worked 20 years to save $35,000 to bring her five children to her, one at a time. The youngest was three when she left; the child was a woman of 23 when she was reunited with her mother. In the interim, the mother cared for the children of American families, earning her living and saving money for the passage of her own kids. She wrote of gratitude. There was a young man who crossed as a child, and went on to attend UCLA, becoming an attorney and working for a non-profit. And another had traveled with his younger brother. Kept in a freezing cold detention center for ten days, he gave his shirt to his brother to help warm him. A guard gave him a blanket.
Transported by “coyotes” for sums up to $8,000, these men and women survived smuggling in vans and trucks, sometimes loaded like logs inside the trucks, barely able to take a breath. In one chilling story, a refugee featured in the Gallery recounted that a coyote abandoned a boy in the desert because his weakening condition left him unable to keep up. I heard echoes of the Auschwitz trains.
The ones in the Gallery are among those who survived, who have made good lives, working, going to school, learning, serving others. Their numbers grow still, but more slowly. Along with the number of legal refugees, the rate of illegal migration, as measured by detentions, has decreased materially month to month in recent years. But, while the rate of detention of border-crossers has dropped significantly since 2000, and even more rapidly since 2016, the rate of death of those crossing the border rivers and deserts has increased. The number of bodies recovered in the first quarter of 2017 nearly equaled the total for all of 2010. For the period from October 2000 through September 2016, 6,023 in-transit migrant deaths have been recorded in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. State officials leave no doubt that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more uncounted migrants who have died of dehydration, heat stroke and hypothermia, while escaping their violent and impoverished home countries. https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-us-canada-39505999; http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/unauthorized-immigration/; https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/04/us/texas-border-migrants-dead-bodies.html; http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-border-apprehensions-20170309-story.html?outputType=amp.
Print and online reports of these numbers, like those cited, are ubiquitous. But it is the VR encounter with flesh and sand that conveys most profoundly the transcendent courage, resilience, commitment and love of family that impel these migrants to seek a life in our country. Would that it also could awaken the compassion and courage to embrace them and their values as our compatriots.
I’d never read the Book of Esther when I was invited to speak on the subject last month at a gathering of congregants from both my Havurah and a Baptist Church. In an act of curiosity and non-Biblical faith, I agreed.
I read the Book twice, taking notes. It begins with drunken feasts and ends with murderous mayhem and more drunken feasts which are recreated annually for the Jewish festival of Purim. Embedded in the narrative between are stories of two women – Vashti and Esther — who stood up against autocratic authority, and a man – Mordecai — who enabled one of them. God doesn’t intervene in any of this. I think it’s fair to say there isn’t an explicit spiritual moment in the entire book. Nor did I initially discern a comprehensive theme. Perhaps, as some suggested, it’s simply an adaptation of Persian myth. But whatever the source, I felt confused about the meaning.
I resorted to character analysis, looking for individuals who offered examples that we might learn from. I quickly dispensed with the king – a vain and foolish man – and Haman – a vain and evil man who sought the death of all Jews in the realm. That left, apart from the eunuchs, three possible candidates for role models: Vashti, Mordecai and Esther.
The first woman, Vashti, stood up for herself. She directly defied the king’s command to display herself as a show girl to his fellow merrymakers. It was the king and his courtiers who saw in her behavior a larger and more insidious message that could lead other women to hold their husbands in contempt. She was banished for refusing to obey her man. The Book reminds us explicitly that the man is the king in his castle. This isn’t a message for these times and deserves to be dismissed. Moreover, given that Vashti is sent packing long before the story ends, her courage can’t be regarded as the central story.
Mordecai, a Jew, has a strong presence and dispositive influence in the Book of Esther. He had several moments in the sun. First, he’d been looking out for his younger cousin Esther for some time when we meet him. He continued to do so, even after she’s carried away to the king’s harem. I gave him points for family responsibility.
Second, he revealed a plot he overheard to kill the king. That was decent of him. His motive is unclear but, again, points for disclosing treasonous disloyalty.
Third, Mordecai stuck by his principles: he wouldn’t bow down to Haman, the king’s henchman. This might be regarded as an implicit reference to God for Mordecai knows that to God alone the knee may bend. He never said this, and the narrator never suggested this, but Mordecai lived his monotheism, even as he knew it was unlikely to end well for him. This, too, deserves admiration.
Fourth, Mordecai impelled Esther to save the Jewish people. Just in case she wasn’t swayed by principle, he made the case that, if she didn’t speak up for her people, and take the risk of incurring the king’s wrath, she would ultimately perish with her people under Haman’s edict. He effectively appealed to her sense of familial duty but shored it up with a reference to the reality of the situation, which was, at that time, in Haman’s hands.
But it isn’t the book of Mordecai – it’s the book of Esther and she is the third role model candidate. Esther puzzles and troubles me. She manipulated the king to get her way, never openly defying him. She spoke up, at her cousin’s urging, disclosed her Jewish identity, and asked the king most graciously to spare her and her people. (She noted, by the way, that she wouldn’t bother the king about this if her people were merely going to be sold as slaves. It was a matter of life and death, she pointed out.) This was courageous, although she also surely knew that, if she stayed silent, she too would die under Haman’s order. She succeeded at her high stakes game, partly because the king had a sleepless night which he spent reading about the goings-on in his realm. The plot thickened here, as the king suspected Haman also of importuning Queen Esther – was this Esther’s set-up to enrage the king? — and availed himself of the gallows that Haman had erected for Mordecai to hang Haman instead.
But when Esther asked the king to revoke Haman’s edict, he said it was impossible, that a king couldn’t revoke his own order. Dubious, but there it is. Instead, a new edict was written at Mordecai’s direction to permit Jews to fight back against any attempts on their lives and to annihilate their attackers – including their women and children. This apparently was readily accomplished because the people, we are told, were so fearful of Mordecai’s new power that no one took up arms against the Jews. As a result, 75,000 non-Jews were slaughtered. In addition to the 10 sons of Haman, whose hangings were sought by Esther personally, as well. And all of this was followed by great celebrations and feasts and joy which are reenacted annually to this day.
Putting aside all in the narrative that strains credulity, I was left with a sense that Mordecai and Esther ultimate failed us as role models when the tables turned. They became vengeful and murderous. Though the story of Passover includes compassion for the Egyptians who suffered and lost their lives, compassion is absent from the Book of Esther. Just unmitigated joy in the destruction of non-Jews and their families.
I’m glad it was Mordecai who ended up with the king’s signet ring, but I’m disappointed that Esther’s better self didn’t prevail. The hilarity of the annual Purim festivities seems misplaced to me. However, my perspective on Esther wasn’t shared at the gathering by either Jews or Baptists. The discussion was, nevertheless, fruitful. It led me to realize that there is a thesis in the Book after all: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even when good people are involved.
Abandonment was the theme of two news stories last week. The Washington Post reported on a Japanese man found in his micro-apartment in Kawasaki four months after his death. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2018/01/24/feature/so-many-japanese-people-die-alone-theres-a-whole-industry-devoted-to-cleaning-up-after-them/?utm_term=.28e61b3bf457 The focus of the story was the new “cleaning industry” that has taken root in Japan to tidy up after “lonely deaths” that go undiscovered until the landlord comes to call. The same day, the New York Times ran a story about the discovery of a six months old baby in China, left in her stroller with a note from her family that was unable to care for her and her epilepsy. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/world/asia/china-abandoned-baby.html These stories cry out for compassion, though the man, Hiroki, is beyond its reach. The parents of the baby wrote of their sense of shame for abandoning their daughter, but no one could be found to feel remorse for Hiroki’s lonely, unnoticed death.
They are not unique – in fact, they are legion, homeless in the streets of cities or refugee camps. But these two people, the unnamed baby and Hiroki – whose surname was ironically withheld to protect his privacy – speak to us as individuals, chosen people by the media. Like George Bell, who died alone amidst his hoarded belongings in Queens in 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/nyregion/dying-alone-in-new-york-city.html, they were abandoned not as a consequence of distant war or drought, but of circumstances that are familiar to the readers of the Post and the Times: the inability to care for our own.
Long term care for the chronically ill and the frail (and failing) elderly, and many who fit in both categories, in our own country is challenging even when family and money are available. When there is a shortfall of either, it becomes next to impossible. Planning and giving for elder care are both in perilously short supply. Median retirement savings for families with any savings is $60,000; the median for all families is $5,000. Private philanthropy provides no backstop: only 2% of institutional giving in the United States goes to aging programs, a proportion that has stayed the same for 20 years. Generations, Journal of the American Society on Aging (10.22.2015). Social Security and Medicare are the tenuous lifelines for our aging population, but we shamelessly ponder ways to reduce spending on the elderly, who are living so much longer than we expected, too long for us to be expected to care for them. Until “we” are “them.”
It has been repeated so often as to be a truism that America is aging; that the fastest growing segment of our population is 85+ years old; that the over 85 population will triple, from under 6 million in 2012 to over 18 million in 2050. Lynn, J., MediCaring Communities (2016), p. 14. Despite the handwringing over costs, there is still no sign that, as a nation, we are trying to come to grips with that reality. Issues about care abound: how many health care aides must we train and pay – and where will they come from? How will they get to where they are needed? In New York City, the number of home health aides has grown from 61,700 in 2006, to 151,700 ten years later. They earn an average of $25,000 a year and typically travel almost an hour each way to and from their work site, the home of their elderly patient. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/31/nyregion/health-care-worker-commutes.html How will we provide accessible, affordable housing? How will the elderly even be adequately fed? In Atlanta, just one example, thousands were on waiting lists for Meals on Wheels in 2014, the same year that organization delivered over 2.4 meals to seniors nationwide. www.MealsonWheelsAmerica.org ; http://www.myajc.com/news/thousands-waiting-lists-for-meals-wheels/O1HTQBFi0InPg9P4KVRlpK/ . In some places, seniors may wait a full year before they are served. Medicaring Communities at 70. As we indulge in the myth of aging in place, we ignore the isolation that comes with it, the absence of the pleasure, challenges and stimulation of the company of others. We remain ill-prepared to provide moral and practical alternatives to abandonment even in the face of a growing imperative.
It is all too possible that a “cleaning industry” will grow up in the United States as more of us outlive productive years by decades, and families continue to disperse in search of jobs, education, housing and the amenities of a good life. Hiroki, the man found dead in Tokyo, was not missed for four months, but four days would be too long to die unnoticed, like George Bell. Perhaps had Hiroki been found sooner, it would be less repulsive to us, the readers, but the real sadness here came weeks, months and probably years before his death when no one cared he was alive.
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit,” Willie Loman cries in Death of a Salesman. But Hiroki was. Medicare, thankfully, can provide us with doctors and medicine, but who will see to it that we take note of the frail elderly and provide care as if they matter? For they do. Not just because of who they were, but who they are, in their illness, their weakness, their dementia.
Friends marveled that my father celebrated his 98th birthday last year. Words like “wonderful,” “amazing” and “awesome” were offered as commentary. And, though he was deep in dementia before his death, these words were apt, for my father had outstanding home nursing care 24/7, a beautiful apartment, daily visits by family, friends and colleagues, the energy to walk in the park and occasionally a museum, food that he relished, a weekly concert in his home by student musicians. He had contentment in the context of his diminishment. How many of those millions among us who will live past 90 will have such a life? Who among us would wish for less?
Cultivating the lives of the elderly in a meaningful way is no less an obligation than educating our children. Failing to do so reflects on us as badly as if we’d abandoned them as infants. It is in a sense a higher moral obligation for we have nothing tangible to gain from it. Nothing but the gift of loving, the satisfaction of responsibility met, the pride in a civilization in which our endings are no less valued than our beginnings.
I worry that all my thoughts have been thought before by someone smarter, and written down in words that are more insightful than mine. If I worry enough about this, I don’t write what I’d like to say. Today, one week into the new year, I’m writing a few things that I k now have been thought and said before but, tant pis, I’m going to say it again.
The first is a word about grief. This thought is plainly second-hand. That is, it came from a dream that wasn’t even mine. It was my daughter’s. In it, as she reported it, I’m with my late husband and – this part is hard to believe – Kobe Bryant. My husband leaves and I say to Kobe, “I don’t want to forget that Paul was here.” “it’s not about forgetting,” says Kobe. “It’s about living your life.”
Really. Kobe Bryant?
I’ve considered the source and decided that it’s my daughter channeling Paul. And he’s right, of course. Grief is not the sole vehicle for remembering. Happiness isn’t premised on forgetting.
Second, there’s the matter of aging. Like grief, aspects of this subject have been the subject of my earlier posts. In fact, it’s inevitably a subject I confront every day, though not always thoughtfully. So, too, do a raft of other people, it seems, and many of them study it and write about it. More studies have surfaced that suggest that friendships and socializing contribute to longevity. Other researchers credit crossword puzzles, walking, non-smoking, red wine, cardiovascular exercise, a Mediterranean diet, learning and a positive attitude. I find all of these studies suspect as they tend to corroborate the expectation that the values of the researchers make for a long and happy life. In my close family, the sole member of the generation before mine is my 97-year-old aunt. She has dementia, aphasia, diabetes, a brain tumor, a towering white blood count and is obese. Twice divorced, she had no children and – how to say this nicely? – was not dearly beloved by her niece (me) and nephews (my brothers). She was always included in family events but didn’t make them happier. Indeed, the stories about my aunt’s snide criticisms and condescension are legion. As she became my responsibility seven years ago, I learned she had some friends from her teaching days and her volunteer ushering at Carnegie Hall. But they are gone now, and her companions are three aides who treat her with love and provide capable care, for which I am deeply grateful.
My aunt’s longevity puzzles me. Her lifestyle matched few of the predictive factors associated with old age (though she apparently was never a smoker and she did enjoy music). As her brother lived to be 98, perhaps there is some genetic component yet to be discovered that overrides all of the more obvious life style factors. Be that as it may, I will continue to avoid red meat, walk my dog, do the New York Times crosswords and cultivate optimism, whether or not validated by experience. These seem inherently good things, so I understand why researchers want them to matter statistically. I do too, as it enables me to believe I have some control in the matter.
Third, a word about my dog, Pippin. He is teaching me dog-speak. This is good not only because it fosters communication between us, but also because it demonstrates that, at 70, I am still in a learning mode. Which promotes longevity (see above). It has taken me three years to learn the language, in part because he’s still perfecting it. However, I understand the following: a whine with a sit means he wants to eat, preferably a treat; a bark, on his four feet, facing me, means “let’s go out.” (The urgency of this bark, understandably, varies.) A bark on the move signals someone or something at the front door. A whine on his feet facing me means “I’d like to sit in your lap.” Scratching on my wastepaper basket tells me it’s time to shut down my computer to play with one of his pitiful toys. This is quite an impressive vocabulary, covering, as it does, most of his life activities, and thus, many of mine. I’m trying to make progress with communication going in reverse. That is, when I say “come,” he should do that. This hasn’t met with great success. “Wait” seems to be meaningful to him and, fortunately, he correctly interprets “no.” He gets that he’s supposed to go up or down the stairs ahead of me when I say “go,” usually accompanied with a sweep of the hand. The rest, well, not so much. He’s quite adorable in his new sweater.
Fifth: family. I was reminded throughout the Christmas-New Year-Hanukah holidays, as we swept away the detritus of meals and gifts, that what remains is a family rich in its variables, experience and love. My extended family is Jewish, Catholic and Lutheran, black and white. We hail from the north and south, east and west of America and find our roots in Ireland, Russia, Hungary, Argentina, Israel, Canada, Germany and Africa. We are vegetarians, pescatarians and omnivores. We are second, third and fourth generations. We are married, single, widowed, divorced and partnered. We are toddlers, teens, middle aged and seniors.
We come from a nuclear family, an extended family, an adoptive family by acclamation. We are in-laws and, I’m forced to admit, some are outlaws. We are healthy, powerful, frail and failing. We are at the outset of our lives and contemplating the ending. We exasperate and exhilarate each other, we fail, we achieve, we advocate and protest, we leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we stumble. All in the course of a year.
We reach across continents to friends and relatives of four generations in Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Canada and Japan. We discover new friends around the corner in our new neighborhoods and treasure the friends of childhood where we once lived. We multiply faster than our losses. We are downsizing, we are expanding.
We are a family with new roles, new connections, new places we call home. We see ourselves differently than we did 70 years ago when few of us were living, but we repeat the stories of how we came to this country with awe. We reaffirm they are our stories and that this defines our core of courage, ingenuity, loyalty and love. Whether or not I see the torch pass again to the next keepers of our traditions, or recognize them in the next generation, what I see now is good and hopeful, free and alive to change. May the year ahead continue to grow our vision of who we are and extend the embrace of our family, remembering that who we become is a new iteration of who we were.
I hope the reader’s recognition of familiar thoughts and feelings, of gratitude and joyfulness, and perhaps a tinge of sorrow, makes up for the lack of originality. Happy new year.
The nerve-piercing pain of sciatica provokes this question: have you thought about how much time is spent standing around? I’m not counting walking or running or any kind of hopping and skipping. Just standing still, in one place.
Some small part of time thus spent is intentional. Attending a cocktail party or reception, for example. Or participating in a receiving line at a wedding or funeral. While these are some of the least satisfactory forms of social interaction, they are a matter of choice. Indeed, these occasions are all about standing about: it is integral to the nature of the event.
Standing is also intentional when it substitutes for alternative movement – such as standing in the elevator, on the escalator or moving stairway. In those circumstances, we choose to stand rather than to exert energy climbing or walking (which may not, in situations like a 65-floor building, be feasible). That could be said of standing on a bus or subway for that matter. However, though it is a choice, it is a means, not an end. Standing is not the essence of riding the subway. It is a collateral feature. One wouldn’t choose to stand on a motionless bus (though it does happen, in which case the intentionality of standing diminishes by the minute and feels more like coercion). It is only because the bus or train will get you where you’re going more expeditiously that you choose to stand around in its aisles.
When giving a speech or a lecture, standing is standard delivery, though not, strictly speaking, part of the act. (In fact, I’ve found that a request for a tall stool and a lectern will usually be honored.) A solo musician, say, a violinist, likewise appears in the venue, expecting to stand. A cellist, on the other hand, or a harpist, expects to be seated. The size and shape of the instrument dictates whether or not standing is required. Of course, the violinist could be seated (whereas it would be very difficult for the cellist to perform while standing). The violinist is in fact seated when part of an orchestra. But the solo violinist performs standing. It is standard, though not essential to the performance.
Which brings me to normative standing. We are expected to rise and remain standing for many rituals, for example, the opening of the Ark, the entrance of a judge, the singing of a psalm or the pledge of allegiance. Standing in such situations connotes respect. It may be perceived as a non-verbal affirmation of shared values or beliefs. And, though age or infirmity may excuse sitting it out, those who are not so excused but remain seated (or kneeling) typically will be regarded as oppositional or ill-mannered. There is an exception for sitting (or kneeling) as a religious or political statement, which is (usually, though not lately) respected as a form of free speech. This depends, of course, on who’s sitting and who’s standing, and their respective takes on the message conveyed by the conduct. Absent such personal circumstances and principles, however, the words “please rise” are generally met with compliance and we stand until told to be seated. On some occasions, this can be quite a while.
A new consensus has apparently been built around the standing ovation. The rule seems to be (based on personal observation) if more than 5% of the audience stands to applaud the performance or speakers, then everyone must do so. (On Broadway, standing is the least obnoxious audience behavior when the curtain falls.) Sitting it out, amidst frenzied clapping and stomping, exposes you to the quasi-hostile question: didn’t you like it? Moreover, it is impossible to get that last glimpse of the stage unless you rise with the masses. So, while a standing ovation may have a normative thrust, and increasingly feels ritualistic, it has a strong coercive element.
By far the most standing around we do is incidental: waiting your turn. Standing on line to buy a ticket or obtain a boarding pass. Waiting to clear passport control or security. To use the bathroom or the ATM. To pay for your groceries. Waiting for the light to change to cross the street. Waiting is the most aggravating form of standing around and the mere prospect of it may incite misbehavior, mendacity and rudeness, especially in competitive contexts.
The sight of a long line can provoke a normally fair-minded person to push ahead of scores of passengers waiting to board a train at Penn Station. It may induce a shopper to grab the first place at a newly opened register at Whole Foods, to beat out the half-dozen ahead of him at the one that’s closing. It may lead a bar mitzvah guest to reach in front of an older woman to grab the last pumpernickel bagel. If challenged, the line-breaker will usually respond self-righteously — something on the order of “everyone’s doing it” or “it doesn’t matter” or “I can’t eat sesame seeds.” I’ve heard variants of all of these explanations, fiercely spoken but ultimately feeble attempts to cover up that someone feels her time lost standing around is far more valuable than anyone else’s, or his discomfort is more significant than another’s.
This ill-mannered behavior is fed by a strong competitive element. Angst over the possibility that you’re actually losing ground, that others are gaining on you while you are stuck in place, can make standing around intolerable and create a combustible situation. Southwestern Airlines tries to curb the problem by corralling passengers in numbered lines, thereby mitigating the competition while actually prolonging the standing around (an excellent example of relieving a symptom rather than the condition that produced it).
Even in non-competitive situations, however, standing around to wait your turn may be construed as a waste of time rather than a contribution to social order. That, in turn, triggers high levels of anxiety and foolhardy conduct. It was such an anathema to my father that he’d risk life and limb to tear across Fifth Avenue against the traffic. The terror of seeing him dodge taxis has induced in me a healthy respect for red lights. Which is not to say I’m patient standing around on the street corner, but I have lived long enough to write about it.