A LOT OF LITTLE THINGS

Am I the only one who has noticed how many hit and runs there are lately, as reported on the news?  Whether it is local news or city news, or national news, the morning bulletins always seem to include a hit-and-run injury or death. It makes me think about who was behind the wheel, who drove away. And sometimes I have a vague and uncomfortable sympathy, or even feel complicity, as if the driver could be me. How could it happen?  Could I ever do such a thing? I try to put myself in that driver’s place.

Once, in the Queens College parking lot I bumped the front grill of another parked car. No one was in it.  I looked around to see if anyone was there. (Why? Was I contemplating running?)  Eventually, I put a note on the windshield before I drove away, but believe me, it was a close thing. I wanted not to.  And another time, as a light changed from red to green, a kid ran across the street and hit the hood of my car.  Hear how I said that? He hit me.  In my eyes, I had done nothing wrong.  And he kept on going and looked as if he were all right.  So, how bad would it have been for me, convinced as I was that no one was hurt, and in a sense the “injured party” to have kept on going?

I didn’t. But was this “doing the right thing” or just “obeying the law?” (I’m pretty sure they are not always the same thing.)  Or, as a matter of fact, was it a third thing: Not getting caught.   I am also pretty sure that my actions were a combination of all those things.  How much of what we think of as good character is really about not getting caught, doing what appears to be the “right thing”? How much is a rather loose distinction between right and wrong?  And what makes one thing seem okay and another not?

When we were kids it was not unheard of for a group of friends to chip in so one of them could get into the movies, and that one would sneak down and open the Exit door for the others. Though it was certainly against the law, I’m pretty sure those kids did not think of it that way.  In their minds it was a “prank,” not an unlawful act. Maybe because it was fun?  Those same kids would be less likely to cheat on tests at school.

When I worked part time in a bookstore, I routinely helped myself to a certain raspberry marshmallow heart we sold around Valentine’s Day. I never fooled myself that I would pay for it later.  I never told my boss to take it out of my paycheck.  I confess, I called it a “whale of a sale.”  I took that raspberry marshmallow heart wholeheartedly, because I was hungry, it was delicious, I worked hard and I deserved it.  Yet if someone gives me too much change at the store, I return it, and if someone in front of me on the street drops a twenty, I tell him. What’s the difference?

Is it wrong if you run a stop sign when there are no other cars on the road and there is no one there to see you? When you don’t signal pulling into your own driveway?  Or tell the store clerk that you forgot your 30% off coupon at home when you didn’t get one?  Those are little things that don’t hurt anyone else.  But how about when you look away from something rather than having to see it and do something about it?  A friend of mine once said, when she went into the city one sweltering summer day and saw more homeless people than ever before in doorways, on sidewalks, and people averting their eyes and hurrying by, that she felt she was seeing the decline of civilization. A little thing to hurry by, but maybe a big thing, too?

What makes good character?  How do these little things end up making some people think it is all right to double bill their customers or overcharge their services, or keep a twenty that someone in front of them drops?

Certainly no one is pure, but it is hard not to see the slope, even as we slip down it, and I am wondering whether in our present time, we are less able to make distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad because we are, as a society, unhappy.  We are jumpy. A lot of us feel misunderstood, or angry, or deprived. Is this what blurs the line between wanting to avoid trouble and causing it?  Between aversion and aggression?   You can legislate a lot of things, but anger will out.  So is this what makes drivers drive like they are escaping from the law, or escaping from the misery of their lives?

What does character mean in the context of today?

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THE MORNING WALK

Once upon a time my friend, J, tried to get me to love long solitary walks.   I refused, agreeing with Max Beerbohm, the early 20thcentury writer who claimed taking a walk made one a dullard, and was to be avoided at all costs.  Once upon around the same time, my friend, P, was trying to explain the pleasures of owning dogs (as the dog munched on the arm of her living room couch).  I declined.

Now it seems I have reversed both of those refusals at once: I walk my dog. Every morning.  It is often the best part of my day.  Who knew?

Everything that happens to you teaches you something.  (Of course, there are things no one wants learn, like what it feels like to get struck by lightning, or step on a rusty nail or get lost at sea.)  But that being said, there are worlds within our world that we haven’t a clue about until something or someone opens them to us.

My walk is often solitary, which gives me time to think, and write in my head, and observe the general situation that as a former city dweller I still call “nature.”  Locate the woodpecker high up in one of the trees.  Worry about the neighborhood bear sightings. Appreciate the beauty of flowering weeds without wanting to know their names.

We occasionally meet friends and their humans and stop to socialize.

Sometimes, though, when it is quiet, the dog and I talk. He stops in the middle of the road.  His ears perk up.  He leans, straining the leash.  “What’s up, bud?”  I might say. Sometimes he answers with a low growl, but mostly he assumes I know he is onto something too faint for me to hear. My dog is a good listener, too.  If I need to rehash an argument, or bring up something I promised myself I would not bring up again, or verbalize a worry I won’t speak of with anyone else, he’s there for me.  The other morning, as we were walking the quiet country road, as I was explaining something about something to my dog (and I might have been vehement about it, waving my arms and gesturing), a car passed us, and for an instant I saw the passenger seeing me, doing what I was doing. I could imagine her saying to the driver, “Did you see that crazy lady talking to her dog?”  And maybe the driver said, “All sorts of nuts in the world.”

In a flash I remembered something from many years ago when I lived in Queens and worked at a bookstore.  I saw a woman walking an empty leash, talking to it. I saw this woman regularly, on my way to work.  She was middle-aged, slim, with a dark ponytail, and dressed casually, like someone who would go back to her apartment and stay there rather than someone who would drop the (dog) leash and go off to work. Crazy, I thought at the time. Crazy- lonely.  Had she once had a dog who ran away?  Gotten run over by a bus on the busy Queens street where the #77 ran?  The image, strange and sad, has returned to me often, usually as the germ of a story I will one day write.  Now, though, I suddenly felt the story change.  How?  I don’t know, but having a dog and walking a dog and talking to the dog has expanded my understanding of it in some way.

I still don’t have the answer to what happened to that woman.  But maybe “crazy” doesn’t apply. Maybe “crazy” as a delineation is too easy — almost a dismissal of the pain and love she might have felt for this once-dog at the end of her leash.   Maybe crazy applies less and less as I learn more and more?  Or maybe as long as I am implicated, it isn’t crazy anymore.   Feeling something as if it is something that may (or has) happened to me enlarges my view.  Maybe this can apply to other things in life, in the way I look at others?

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THREESCORE AND TEN

I had two conversations recently with two different people, about loved ones dying.  One has a relative in her nineties, who is experiencing the kind of breakdowns in health that are expected of a person in her nineties. So she is not really, specifically “dying” at the moment – it is just that “dying” is the general direction she is going in.  The other person is in his forties, and is dying now, of a specific disease, and long before his time.  It seems slightly upside down, doesn’t it?

I indulged in a moment of fantasy.   I asked myself whether, if I were given the power in my mid-nineties, in failing health and mind, to die immediately, in exchange for the restoration of health to a young person with a whole life before him, would I do it?

As we age some of us think differently about time, quality of life, and what a full life span is.  In the King James version of the Bible, Psalm 90 refers to “threescore and ten,” or seventy, as the expected lifespan. But thanks to advanced medicine and technology, threescore and ten is just about average these days. Ninety is the new seventy.  Which makes seventy the new fifty and fifty the new thirty.  (Does it follow then that thirty-somethings are like teens?)

And as the expected lifespan has grown, we have seen retirement change too, from rocking chair to golf course to skydiving, in as short a time.  Or retirement is deferred and people keep on working well into their eighth decades.  When life was once considered over, it is now considered still in progress.

So, I doubled down on my fantasy question with a series of other questions: how “failing in health” was I in this scenario? Was I in constant pain, or just slowing down? Could I still work? Enjoy food?  Was I just a little forgetful or quite out of my head?  And, was the young person I was restoring to health someone I knew and loved, or just someone?  If I could still enjoy a hotdog, and was just forgetful, I would be inclined to want to stay around, especially if the person I was “saving” was a stranger.   So then I turned the screws on the proposition: what if it were someone I knew and loved?  Well, all right, I would give up my life for one of my children, but I would have done that when I was young, as well.

I am far from ninety, but I am past threescore and ten, and in the last several years, I must admit, I have been feeling an intermittent sense of been-there-done-that about a lot of things. When I listen to the news, some days, I feel as though I have heard it all before. That there is nothing new under the sun.  When people say “there’s never been a winter like this,” I remember 1977. The new diet everyone is talking about?  I was on it twenty years ago. I don’t buy seventies retro fashion because I wore it the first time around.  New recipes are old recipes with new wrinkles.  New remedies are old remedies disguised.  I am irritated at the culture of Facebook, and regretful that I will probably never learn to swim. And I don’t believe in miracles, because most miracles are lucky breaks, and once you outlive one, you know the truth. So, if I am so jaded, why not say enough is enough?

Because I am still greedy for life. I must have forgotten for a moment, but to love life is to value each breath, whether the air is fresh or stale.  Every once in a while it takes a reminder, like the upside-down case of someone dying young.

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INSIDE A CULTURAL CAGE

I am not an authority and I am not a pundit, but I am a voter and here’s what I am thinking: During the first Democratic debate Kamala Harris called out Joe Biden.  She was eloquent in personalizing what bussing meant to her as a little girl growing up in a segregated California school district in the 1970’s; Joe Biden was defensive and claimed he was misunderstood.  Points were made, points were lost.  But really, what was gained?

The culture is what we live in.  It is our atmosphere, what we breathe, walk around in without even knowing it is there, like the air: odorless, colorless, without a tell most of the time.  But occasionally we get a whiff of something, or see something and we take note. Notes.  Information.  Which leads to new thinking, and eventually a change in culture.  You see it in child rearing sometimes.  Breast feeding gave way to bottle feeding in the fifties, when entrepreneurs advertised it as not only nutritionally superior but also culturally enlightened.  Then, when nutrition in pregnancy became a focus and more pregnant women were healthier, studies said that breast feeding was indeed better (and again, more enlightened).  If you grew up in the fifties, chances are you were bottle fed; in the seventies and eighties, breast-fed.  Nowadays, in this politically correct moment, the main point is that it is a choice.

And remember “spare the rod and spoil the child?”  In the early part of the 20thcentury spanking was considered a parent’s sacred duty, not a blessed relief after your kid threw a tantrum in Target. Then it was considered a parent’s version of a tantrum and a no-no.  Now I think they call it abuse.

The culture we grow up in, our atmosphere, is surrounded by a cage with invisible bars made up of the current givens.   And it takes somethingan anomaly, an egregious act, a whiff– to make the bars visible, to make us contemplate life outside the bars and then act to make it happen.

Slavery.  De-segregation.  Civil rights. Reproductive Rights.  LGBTQ rights.  Unbelievable that we ever believed what we believed when we don’t believe it anymore.    But it took someone to get a whiff, get a glimpse, make an effort to break through those bars.

When people hark back to the culture as it once was, it is either for perspective or nostalgia.  It is important to be sure which.   The longer someone lives the more the culture will have changed, and his actions and beliefs will have been right or wrong many times over.  What is the point of referring to something with the advantage of hindsight?  Will it help change things going forward? (That’s perspective.) Or is it for the limited advantage of indicting someone for having had the “wrong” view in light of today’s “right” view or praising someone for the opposite? (That’s nostalgia.)

If we take judgment out of it, the perspective we gain can benefit everyone. But that means no boast and no blame. Take the raw material of experience and use it to enrich all.

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DREAMS, HOPES, WISHES, GOALS

Dreams are both the most powerful and most passive of these. You could say they are the garbage disposal of the mind, grinding up the stuff we can’t or don’t want to think about when we are awake.  Dreams are colorful and crazy, magical realism flashing back and forward, jigsaw pieces and morphing characters, yet they make complete sense in our sleeping state and we live them out with conviction.  That’s the power.

The passive part: ordinarily, we don’t set them in motion. We don’t choose our dreams.  They happen uninvited, sometimes unwanted (which we call nightmares) and are erased by mid-day.  We may hang on to a few details for an hour or two before the dream fades and by the time it is time to dream again, it is gone.  (Unless we happen to be in analysis, and we get into the habit of writing the dreams down before they fade and then we and our analysts pore over the details like Holmes and Watson).

Hopes are sort of passive, too. “Dear so-and-so, hope you are feeling better.” “I hope you will forgive me.”  “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

Wishes have more urgency attached to them. “Wish you were here,” betrays a kind of yearning. Hope stands up straight, but wish leans in. Sometimes when you wish something, you set a goal to achieve it.

We are talking about words, here, but more.  On this weekend that my beloved eldest grandson is getting married this phrase keeps going through my mind: “Did you ever dream, when he was that little boy…?”

Dream what?  That he would grow up? That he would move beyond chicken nuggets for lunch with grandma and become this adult mensch about to marry a sweet and beautiful young woman? Of course not.  That’s not how dreams work.

But as I count down to the day and prepare for it in all the practical and ordinary ways that families do:  what to wear, when to have the haircut, where to board the dog, what time the pictures will be taken, I think about this magnificent family of mine, and the fact that through my life there has been a preparation of a kind, too, an assembling of intentions and acts that make up what is the opposite of an “accidental” life. It is more than a hope, isn’t it?  And more than a wish, and not even a conscious goal.

But pitching in, giving a hand, lending an ear, making a loan, babysitting, holding them close, letting them go: how many of us have done all that, yet having reached moments such as these, think “I never dreamed…”

It had to have begun with a dream, unremembered, unfathomed, and magical – the way time takes us, awake and asleep.

 

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FACING HER FACE:A Cautionary Tale

 

We live in a culture that values youth and beauty above all and we don’t like people who don’t measure up, especially women.  We spend tons of money and time on trying to change or improve our looks, as if America was one long runway.   I read recently that women and even teenage girls are having plastic surgery in greater numbers and at younger ages than ever before.  But it is not a new phenomenon.  Here is a true story about a woman I know:

At nine, when her naturally baby blond hair began to darken, her mother leaned her  over the kitchen sink and with a stinging mix of peroxide and ammonia made her blond again.

For her thirteenth birthday, she had her first plastic surgery.  (She might  have preferred a sweater set?) But her mother said her ears stuck out too far from her skull, and they had to be pinned back. (Unfortunately, she developed keloids—overgrowths of scar tissue– which pushed them forward again and she had to have the surgery again the next year, and then a course of radiation treatment which, in the dosages they gave in those days, might end up killing her sometime in the future).

At sixteen she had a nose job. By then she was convinced her mother was right: if she wanted boys to ask her on dates, she needed a better nose.  When she said goodbye to the plastic surgeon (who had done her two ear surgeries  too), he said it was only ‘til we meet again, because as long as she had the same mother, he was sure she’d be back for a different chin.

She didn’t go back.  But she kept bleaching her hair and worrying about how she looked.   On meeting her future husband, her reaction was not just stars in her eyes, it was a crisis of color: She made an emergency appointment at the all-night beauty salon and had the color of her hair changed, sure he would only fall in love with her if the color of her hair was right.

She battled her mother’s values, but believed in them, too.  She said true beauty was on the inside, but worried about the outside, dieting, tweaking her hair color and judging her appearance, waging a secret war between herself and herself. The battleground was a mirror.  She knew how little what she looked like mattered to the people who loved her. Her epitaph wasn’t going to be “What a nose!”  Yet the early message was still there, etched deeply.

As she approached middle age, she began to see her mother’s face in the mirror – -not its lines or wrinkles, but its expression.  The corners of her mouth turned down, like she disapproved; her smile was strained and her eyes looked frightened.  She thought what she was seeing might be influenced by seeing it, so she tried to catch herself unawares, but her expression shifted in a flash and she was never fast enough. That was when she decided she had better make friends with what she saw in the mirror before it was too late.

She began looking in the mirror often, and smiling. It felt awkward at first, but then the whole thing struck her funny, and every time she looked she laughed. When she laughed her whole face participated.  The eyes narrowed, the skin beside them wrinkled, the cheekbones plumped, the tip of the fixed nose pointed down, the upper lip went up.  Not pretty.  Happy.

Now and then she relapsed.  One day a Bloomingdales makeup salesperson told her that her eyelids were awesome for a woman her age, and it went to her head (eyelids! her heart sang).  But then she wondered what age the salesperson meant, and whether saying that had influenced her to spent the extra eighty bucks on eye goo, and by then she was laughing so hard she didn’t even worry if laughing would make her eyelids crinkle too much, and disturb their awesomeness.

At long last simple logic set in. She came to understand that the people in her life knew who she was: how old, what she looked like, so if she looked different they would still know her as herself, only herself-with-an-eyelift or a chin tuck.  So then, she asked herself, who would all this fixing up be for?   Strangers she passed on the street?  Were they worth the trouble and pain? Would they want to be the cause of it, if she told them?

When I see beautiful young women as young as teenagers altering their appearances surgically, or injecting stuff into their brows and lips and cheeks, it makes me want to cry.  When I see older people, insecure about themselves because they have wrinkles and grey hair, I want to tell them to stop.  Look in the mirror.  Know who is there.  And laugh. But, of course, even as young as teenagers, most of the imprinting has already been done, and no one may be in a laughing mood.

 

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DA CAPO:go back

The other night my friend, A, and I were watching the movie remake of the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “South Pacific.”   As young music students, we had the entire score memorized: lyrics, syncopated beats, all the little vocal quirks and flourishes of the original stars, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.  And here we were, some sixty years later, singing it again, beaming at each other, delighted at the triumph of recall and the sweet memories it brought back; we sang the whole score to each other, making our own flourishes, laughing and crying at the feat and the time gone by.

And I got to thinking, if it were for entertainment alone, it would be easy to live in the past. And not so bad.  There are revivals of the great Broadway musicals everywhere, live and on tv.  You can Google anything.  And Youtube?  Youtube is the absolute motherlode.   You can kill days, nights, weeks on Youtube if you’re not careful.

Case in point: The day after “South Pacific” I Googled the musical genre “salsa” because my friend and I were talking about Larry Harlowe, (el Judio Marvellioso – the marvelous Jew famous for his salsa sound) with whom we went to high school.  Google sent me to Youtube and I found and listened to some cuts from the Latin Legends/ Fania All-Stars album and while I was listening, I was reading the strip of attractions down the right side of my screen.  It included Dick Cavett’s interview with Groucho Marx, which reminded me of the famous Cavett interview with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer so I watched both of those and on the strip of attractions on another page I saw Miles Davis, so I listened to some Miles, which reminded me of  Chet Baker so I listened to him, and on the side of his page was Peggy Lee so I looked up some Peggy Lee and after listening to her sing “Black Coffee,” I got to missing Sarah Vaughan, so I listened to some Sarah Vaughan.

“How fabulous,” I thought, “You can find anything on Youtube!”  Which made me wonder if you could really find anything, so — not to watch, mind, because I had already spent too many hours watching too much—but just to prove that I could indeed find anything, I went looking for the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” bit, which just popped into my head, and sure enough I found it, and as long as it was right there, I figured I might as well watch it, and I did.  And watching that made me think how much I preferred old comedy to new comedy and that brought me to Richard Pryor, so I looked up Richard Pryor, and George Carlin and Buddy Hackett and…well you get it.  A day gone.   But it was pleasurable without much fuss, like bathing in  re-runs of Seinfeld instead of pulling against the tide of Meet The Press.

Watching stuff we’ve seen before is soothing.  The music plays as we heard it play before; the talk is talk that mattered urgently once but maybe not so much right now; the comedy is still funny but not so cutting edge anymore.

The present comes at us with surprise and relevance, and though that can be exciting and stimulating, it also unsettles. So bring on the re-runs.  And old musicals.  And Youtube.   Sometimes living in the past is a temporary cure for the present and the anodyne to thoughts of the future.

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