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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Compassion or Charlie Brown, You’re a Good Man

How I loved them all.
We were ever hopeful.

In 1950 a shy guy from Minnesota by the name of Charles M. Schultz published a cartoon strip and rocked the daily cartoon world to its very core. For the first time a comic strip examined the interior lives of children who weren’t always happy in a world in which problems were not solved. This was no mischievous “Katzenjammer Kids” or “Little Orphan Annie” with her annoying endless pluck. “Peanuts” embodied by round-headed Charlie Brown, changed how we looked at children, ever after.

Lucy never stopped tormenting Charlie through his football.  In spite and in good measure perhaps, her pursuit of the temperamental musician Schroeder was never fulfilled. Fearful yet moral Linus couldn’t give up his security blanket. Snoopy used his Ace Pilot fantasy to fulfill his species-limited aspirations and Charlie Brown could never connect with his little red-haired girl. How fitting that Lucy set up court as the psychiatrist who didn’t help because she, pretending to be an adult, never listened. Rather than poke fun or belittle the hurts, fears and pains of childhood, Mr. Schultz honored them and in doing so, captured my heart and hearts of millions of baby boomers everywhere.  

The adults who populated this world in the charming television adaptations later produced by Mr. Schultz, were heard only as gibberish or honks to which the children responded to as sources of humiliation, rejection or exasperation.  They never helped.  

Those crazy Katzenjammers! 
There was a time in my life when I was not blessed with good health and as a part of my recovery process it was necessary for me to take a test, which measured my metabolism and was somewhat barbaric.  Over the course of about 9 months I went to the doctor’s office once every month in the morning and lay down on an examination table. The lights were then turned down low and I had to remain still for about an hour.  Once that time had passed, a large machine was wheeled into the room and I had to insert a breathing tube filled with fresh oxygen that had a rubber mouthpiece, which I wore for another 20 minutes or so and measured my metabolic rate.  I was 12 years old.  Today that test is long gone. There are much more efficient ways to determine if your thyroid is functioning properly.

It wasn’t invasive so much as disconcerting and uncomfortable and when the test was over I usually went to IHOP with my father, for he was assigned this task, for their Pancakes with boysenberry syrup.  I always felt rather fragile after the test and ravenously hungry.  On one of these occasions, instead of the IHOP in Millburn, my father took me to a coffee shop in South Orange Village.  I remember that he needed to pick something up from one of his business associates nearby. 

Death Eater Pose

We were seated in a booth by the window awaiting our food when an elderly gentleman entered. In some ways this character looked like a Death Eater from Harry Potter. His dark coat was tattered and hung off of his gaunt frame.  He wore a knit cap and he seemed to carry about his person a dark and undefined dusky aura. His face was bearded and surrounded by a wild white halo that looked evenly trimmed as with a scissor, but was much too long.  When he sat down at the counter of the coffee shop I was taken aback.  I had never seen an elderly person is such disarray or reflecting such a forlorn and poverty stricken position in life.  He took out a baby food jar from a pocket on the inside of his coat, twisted off the lid, and starting counting out coins, mostly quarters, on the counter.  The waitress came over and he began to order with gusto. He was directly in my line of vision and I gasped and started to cry.   My father noticed my tears and turned around to see what I was looking at.

He looked back at me and started to laugh. “Oh, I bet he’s getting some pancakes today too with all that money.  Looks like he’s loaded.”  And he continued to laugh, as though my compassion, my sorrow, was a silly thing. 

The waitress delivered our food and I was unable to eat. It just angered my father, the fact that I was wasting good food, wasting his money.   He told me to not be so damn sensitive. I did not yet know the term – “There but for the grace of God, go I”  --but I clearly felt it in that most fragile moment. I was just frightened by what I saw and did not know how to articulate those feelings but Charles M. Schultz did.  He understood how vulnerable and alone children felt when the adults around them didn’t know how to listen or help or chase away their fears. 

I am ever thankful for them

As we pass through this time of Thanksgiving, I cannot think of a better time to consider our own reality, how we could have walked the same path as those which we are so quick to judge and be thankful for all that we have been given, most especially Charlie Brown and friends.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Hippie Art! 
It swept across the country from Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967. Aretha called for Respect, Jim Morrison wanted his fire lit. And Van Morrison sang to me, his brown-eyed girl. No one was immune, the music was just too damn good and the truth was found to be lies. It was the summer I fell deeply, madly in love with a boy at our swim club. 

He was the son of a beautiful tall, bronzed brunette Italian mother with the ripe features of a Sophia Loren and a short Jewish father in the wholesale meat business who resembled a frog and not Kermit.  His older brother looked like the father and he, the object of my young obsession, took after his mother. He had dark blonde curly hair, an olive complexion, wide shoulders, a full sensuous mouth and he played the drums. (Collective sigh -- now.)  All that was missing were the flowers in his hair. I had seen him perform in a Battle of the Bands at the swim club junior dance and was from that moment, gone.  I was just 14 years old. He was 16. 

There was enough of an age gap at that time, compounded by my immaturity and his maturity, that the gulf between us was too wide. For two summers I just gazed with wonder at this fine specimen of young manhood with his beautiful clear skin, his sparkling golden eyes and sun bleached curls and felt absolutely worthless.  He was my Adonis. And in fact, might as well have lived on Mt. Olympus for all the interaction that took place between us -- precisely none.  

I was a big swimmer in those days at a swim club that held dances and parties and had a fantastic day camp we attended for years.  Monday through Saturday, Mothers with children in tow, came to the Club, had lunch and then delivered the children to the camp gates for the afternoon. The property was a rolling-hilled and rambling old dairy farm of about 300 acres and the youngest children all gathered in a huge red barn with a silo. Their camp area was fenced in with deep soft sandboxes filled with toys, a large toddler pool with a little fountain and wide wooden swings. There were large expanses of rolling grassy areas populated by ancient towering trees that provided ample shade.

The older children, the ones ready for competitive sports, had the run of the larger day camp area which was about 25 acres. Centrally located were 3 full-sized basketball courts surrounded on three sides by a grassy hill where groups of children sorted by age gathered with their counselors at the beginning and end of each day. There were freshly mowed fields on open acres for running and jumping and just being kids.  There were 4 softball/kickball fields, an Arts and Crafts dome, a Music Dome, a smaller swimming pool for daily lessons, covered areas for games in inclement weather, and for the oldest campers, a place for cookouts, when marshmallows were roasted in the lightening-bug filled twilight hours, when Color War activities extended our days.

While the children were in camp, weaving lanyards, playing sports, rehearsing the annual musical, and eating double stick ice pops that you could split and trade flavors with friends; the mothers played tennis or mahjong and watched fashion shows on the weekends where the models, strolled from cabana to cabana in the latest designer cruise and swimwear holding discrete tags with price information.

On the weekends the Fathers appeared and played paddleball and tennis or cards while the children and mothers baked at the pool and took their various lessons. Gracious members had small refrigerators in their cabanas stocked with ice and juices for mixing cocktails at their own bar. Drinks were served all day long. The club members were a tanned and fit, boisterous group of upper middle class Jews who were successful in a wide variety of businesses. This was not a collection of well-educated intellectuals though some were Doctors and Lawyers and most had attended or graduated from college; these were the young marrieds who were riding the crest of prosperity ushered in with the booming sixties. These were the sons of family owned businesses in the garment center, in the fur business, in the diamond district, and the manufacturing of auto parts and accessories.  They smoked and drank and enjoyed flirting with one another’s spouses.

My family had a large cabana with a private shower and dressing room in a row with families they spent every summer with. The club layout had 4 tiered and distinct areas with lockers and cabanas that were rented season after season by the same families.  The open area had another baby pool with a fountain and play park for infants, a large restaurant with great ice cream and burgers and fries that probably could seat 250 diners, 9 tennis courts, 9 paddle ball courts, 3 paddle tennis courts and teen area with a juke box and dance floor.

When you entered this wonderful club there was a huge raised slate patio used for Saturday night adult dances and Sunday family movie nights.  My first movie under the stars was a special screening of “Bye Bye Birdie” which we all watched eating ice cream cones in our pajamas.

The Hoff
But the true treasure, the greatest thing this club had was it’s amazing pool. It was a double Olympic sized pool with a low and high diving board, meticulously maintained by a large crew of zinc nosed lifeguards in red suits, long before Baywatch enshrined the look. They were perched in 6 elevated stations around the perimeter of this always shimmering, always perfect, always welcoming glorious pool. There was nowhere else in the world that made me happier. I would swim underwater the width, and eventually the length of this private wonderful world.  Down to the bottom and up again--sometimes tossing coins to retrieve, sometimes just pretending to do it, just for an excuse to be submerged in the warmth and sparkle of summer sunlight diffused by the subtle lap of the water.

Handsome, garrulous, tanned young men, home for the summer from good Northeastern colleges worked at the front gate parking cars and flirting with the prettiest girls. The next tier down on the social pecking order were the cabana boys, dressed in their blue and white club tee shirts and shorts, who swung their master keys and sat on deck chairs stationed throughout the club helping the little kids who would get locked out, or in, of their closet sized lockers and flirting with the mothers and their daughters as they emerged from their lockers in the latest swimwear.

I spent an entire summer in the company of a Dartmouth sophomore when I was 14, while the other mothers at the club clucked about it.  My own was oblivious. I even overheard them talking about me one day --- “Well if she had a proper role model” and “if her father just paid her the slightest attention, she wouldn’t be looking for approval from Bobby ”  -- my much too old for me, Cabana Boy.  Just thoughtless remarks made by thoughtless people and overheard by a much too sensitive girl. But what they didn’t understand was that he was my practice boyfriend and there was no danger of anything ever happening. My real boyfriend was the one with whom I never exchanged a word. It was after all, the Summer of Love.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ya gotta have friends, not Real Housewives.

My deepest wish is for good, honest, compassionate, loyal, clever, and empathetic friends for my offspring - is this too much to ask? Based on what I see on Reality Television and the participants on programs designed for teens, I am doubtful.  It seems the whole world has taken on entitlement and ignorance as their theme.  I find it maddening.

Soon to be Exes
What has particularly stuck in my craw this week is the whole Real Housewives Genre, if one can call it that.  I am specifically annoyed by the complaints of Mrs. Camille Grammer, soon to be former wife of Kelsey. I would like to confess that I have not actually seen any of these shows, will not watch them at anytime in the near future and nothing will convince me that they will provide anything my life is presently or will ever be missing.  But apparently someone is watching them, otherwise why would there be so many iterations?  (For the record, entering it’s 6th Season is Orange County, followed by New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, D.C., Beverly Hills, and apparently the soon to be aired Miami version.) 

Let me also add that everything I am objecting to comes from what I have read on the internet or seen on the same in a variety of video clips. Me thinks the woman doth protesteth too much and should keepeth her mouth closed. 

Camille is a former Playboy model, Club MTV dancer and obvious recipient of silicone enhancements, none of which I object to but when she says she is a very private person and objects to the media spotlight shinning on her crumbling marriage, I gotta say “What the ?? “  So prancing around and being photographed NAKED is an attribute of those who seek privacy? 

So Camille, I ask you, having witnessed the crumbling of marriages exposed to the scrutiny of the television camera since Chicken-of-the-Sea Jessica -- didn’t give you a clue as to what might happen when you signed up for this “Real” gig?     

Is it Chicken Jessica
Kelsey has made a career by playing pompous, unsympathetic, narcissistic, pontificating, unactualized men since he sat on a bar stool in “Cheers”.  His latest role, on Broadway, in the very boring "La Cage aux Folles" is no different. He plays a gay man as conceived by this straight
Jerry & his Drag Queens
Mame & Dolly

man -- singing poorly, much like Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins without the charm -- the dullest collection of Jerry Herman songs ever written. Mr. Herman has had an astonishing career on Broadway creating shows about drag queens even when the parts were played by women. 

And now, poor Camille, calls him “needy” and  “a big baby”.  He’s an actor for gods’ sake! What did you expect?

I just wanna be
So Camille, you protest that Kelsey persuaded you that little Bravo* TV would be a great place to show off your "talents" ?  Bravo would be a good place to expose the fact that your two children have four nannies or to make public that you actually chose not to bear the children, but used a surrogate so as not to stretch yourself both literally and figuratively?  Don’t you think your children will be delighted that you will be sharing this with the world on the set of a Reality TV show?

*Readers, this is the network that lost “Project Runway” and tried to duplicate its success with the completely unwatchable “The Fashion Show” with the haughty Iman and drooling Isaac Mizrahi. Pu-lease!  Has anyone else tried to watch this cringe inducing nasty bitch fest? 

Oksana before the lips
were added
Snooki and her bumps

I know I'm not the only one who finds women like Camille embarrassing. Bimbos embarrass me. You, Camille make Oksana and Snooki look deep and soulful.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Living a Life Half Full

I'm feeling a bit of the mid-term election blues and have decided to repost one of my favorites and short and sweet musings.  I hope this helps.

The thoughtful Anne   
I have the distinction of sharing a birthday with Anne Frank, author of the best selling work of non-fiction in the world so my bar is set rather high on the successful writer meter. I'd like to think that Anne and I share more than birthdays, that we share an unchanging belief in the inherent goodness of people, in spite of the raw deals we may have been dealt; hers certainly more catastrophic than my own.

There is somehow a great responsibility levied with this common link and I am not alone in considering the birth date of June 12 as somehow significant.

The Thoughtful Phillip
Phillip Roth's life-long obsession with Ms. Frank was in some measure what drove his pursuit of Claire Bloom, another June 12 Jewess. Surely she, in spite of Mr. Roth's brilliantly documented proclivity to fester in the dark side, must have believed that underneath his embittered vowels and Jewish self-loathing; must be a spark of the joy that is life. Surely she was an optimist, like Anne, in spite of the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Lovely Claire
If I examine my life on the world stage I am challenged to remain hopeful and positive. The relentless 24 hour News feed is enough to crush the spirits of the most blindly optimistic. Even reduced down to the small village raising my child, I have moments of despair. And yet in spite of those moments I chose to bring a child into this world.

I made this decision as a full-fledged adult of 40 in spite of not having the best role models (but who does?), to prepare me for this never-ending responsibility. This life-affirming step requires a belief in some kind of future, in some kind of ever-after.

Whether it is science or religion, Einstein famously opined that these two things were connected; each requiring a leap of faith, a leap into the unknowable. I would have included Parenthood as well. 

In choosing to become a parent are we not conveying a necessary optimism, a belief that our world is worth entering --- in spite of the mountains of evidence to the contrary?

PEN-Faulkner Award 

National Book Critics
Award Winner 
Pulitzer Prize Winner

Just a few of his little books…oh, to write just one. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Friday, November 5, 2010

You will read what you sow.

I will admit that my knowledge of Superheroes and Comic Heroes is both limited and relatively new.  Growing up, comic books were forbidden reading materials in our home except those Illustrated Classics Comics with titles like Arabian Nights, Prince Valiant, Hiawatha and Heidi, titles I am sure I would have rejected in any other format. After all they were “ featuring stories by the world’s greatest authors.” 

I remember knowing a little bit about Superman and Spiderman and reading a stray one or other at somebody else’s house. The irony is, had my mother known the ethnic roots of the comic book genre, she might have been welcoming of its inclusion in the myth-making of our childhood; she who was so approving of all that arrived stamped with “Jews were here.”       

The Madness of Gaines

 At some point, I was able to sneak Mad Magazines (also begun by a Jewish guy) in past this ever-watchful Gate Keeper and was enthralled by Spy vs. Spy and that awkwardly illustrated tri-fold back cover with the words that reconfigured to make some vaguely political statement that I mostly understood. To my young mind these magazines were the ultimate expression of subversive thinking.  Who didn’t love the clever cartoon parodies of popular movies and television shows?  What about the mini-cartoons that were done outside the lines! Weren’t these all just building the foundations of what would become the contemporary graphic novel, a genre with no limitations that continually astounds and astonishes when well done? 

I cannot resist a nod to WATCHMEN, a graphic novel that my 15 year old has read at least four times and his father and I have also read twice.  He even bought a copy for his 90 year old grandfather to read.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  It is remarkable.

Who says books have to be a certain thing? Clearly with all of the hubbub going on in publishing, with the advent of Ebooks and the very real possibility of books containing Advertisements to both defray costs and well as build brand loyalty within genres as well as support writers, there is much to consider. 

Just ponder the possibilities for a moment.  Think about your favorite writers.  Now pick a book.  What product would the reader of this book be likely to purchase?  For adult romance novels, what might be a better choice than a tip-in coupon for the Kleenex brand and perhaps a lovely sherry?  For Science Fiction books, Science and Natural History Museums promotions and a discounted subscription to Discovery Magazine? For Cookbooks, imagine a mini William-Sonoma catalog or Food magazine subscription solicitation.  In Westerns and International thrillers, we might find coupons for cigarettes and alcohol, even Dude Ranch vacations. In Historical Fiction, perhaps we would find Bombay Furniture brochures and local Antique Dealers Advertisements or packaged trips to visit locales mentioned in the book.

Books represent many things throughout our lives. And I remember in particular a pajama party at the home of my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Hirschhorn.  She was a horsy-faced spinster, who invited a small group of girls to her home to welcome Evangeline, our Native American just-off-the-reservation exchange student, to the girls world of fuzzy slippers and baby doll pajamas toting hair dryers with inflatable bonnets in round pink suitcases.  Mrs. Hirshhorn was sharp tongued and opinionated and in her class we endlessly conjugated sentences, memorized the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and how the boards did shrink, and listened to her chastise students who did not meet with her approval. 

She rather less than generously included me in the festivities, not for my attentive scholarly behavior I was informed, but rather that I seemed so well liked by the others which she found curious. Damned with faint praise and just beginning to understand the cruelty of adults, I packed my sleepover goodies nonetheless and attended.

According to another attendee, a bit of a rabble-rouser like myself, Mrs. Hirshhorm prepared chicken with a corn flake crust for dinner. I don’t remember that but I do remember wandering around the house after dinner with this same person and finding a copy of Jaqueline Susanne’s Valley of the Dolls, eagerly looking for the dirty parts and getting caught by Ms. Hirshhorn.  My mother certainly would not have approved of this, even written by the Jewess Jacqueline. 

This brings me to the subject of public schools and their current state of affairs.  Those who know me understand that I spend lots of hours in them and it’s really a conundrum to be an educator, parent of a public school student and a taxpayer. The solutions to the problems are not easy and are not just about money. But I think public schools are really missing the boat of the funding gravy train that so many others have figured out.

My simple answer to the financial shortcomings is corporate sponsorship.  Nike might underwrite Football and Basketball.  Nascar would sponsor the Driver Ed program. Apple would support Graphic Design courses. Microsoft could support the Engineering programs.  Goodyear would sponsor the school buses along with Geico Insurance or Progressive, thereby actually living up to their name.  The pharmaceutical companies would support the biology and chemistry classes.  It just seems limitless to me. Each Corporaton would decide what courses or programs they wanted to sponsor, draw up a budget and the funds would be distributed nationally based on the class subscription at the same rate per student.  Local taxes could come down, the corporate images would be enhanced and teachers might finally be paid a decent wage and be rewarded for their performance -- when merited.  Tenure can disappear because of competitive wages and rewards.

In the meantime, educational administrators could attend to the work of providing their beleaguered staff with more training for differentiation in the classroom and get the breathing room to restructure the system to fit the needs of our next century, which must include getting rid of the dinosaurs.