Tuesday, December 2, 2008
As if I were on a time machine, he and I were on a beautiful lake in the Adirondack Mountains. He was 18 years old and I was 16. We had just finished a long swim and we were slightly out of breath, watching the sun set. I could feel the wetness of my bathing suit, the sand on my feet and on my shoulders.
The majestic mountains surrounding the lake were like walls providing a private space in which the two of us seemed to exist. Private moments were in marked contrast to the busy, noisy action-filled days of our roles as counselors at a summer camp. So we rested quietly, only the singing of birds, breaking the silence.
He turned towards me, as if he wanted to say something. Perhaps it was accidental, because we had never touched each other before, but within a moment we were holding each other, caressing each other. I could feel the droplets of water on our bodies mingling together. A wonderful feeling erupted within me.
A short time later, the summer was over, and I left to begin my freshman year at college in Massachusetts. I never saw him again. For many months, he inhabited my fantasy life. I dreamed that we would be together, sharing the pleasures of new experiences.
And now I read that he was dead. I was 94 years old as I read that notice. But as I traveled on a time machine that morning, we were swimming in the cool waters of a beautiful lake–he was 18, I was 16–both of us joyfully unaware of life’s inevitable stages.
But this was different. Tim had moved in! It wasn’t just his physical presence around so much of the time. It was his clothes in her closet, his shoes and socks under her bed, and the new smells that permeated our place.
But it was the situation in the bedroom that disturbed me the most. I had always slept at the foot of my lady’s bed. Sometimes she’d pull me under the covers with her, hug me and shower me with kisses, and even let me stay next to her all night.
I had even discovered that certain situations led to her wanting me close. Sometimes it was because she was sad. I could feel her hot tears wetting my fur, sometimes she was happy and she’d hold me in the air and we would dance to her happy laughter. Sometimes she would ignore me, and I knew then that it was my job to comfort her. I learned how to be pretty good at that.
But since Tim moved in, things were different. True, he had slept over a few times before. I had been polite enough to our guest to let him have complete privacy. But that didn’t mean I was going to give up my proprietary rights.
When they were getting undressed, I jumped on the bed and waited till they got in. My lady would me pet me and kiss me good night and a few times she and Tim played with me under the covers.
But I couldn’t deal with it when I saw how close they got in bed. Often, they looked as if there were struggling, and I would growl and bark and jump on Tim to protect my lady.
At first Tim would laugh; but when I perfected my strategy to separate them, Tim started to pick me up and put me on the floor. Once or twice, he carried me out of the room. My lady would protest and tell Tim.
"He’ll get used to not being #1." But, will I?
One day we heard that Joe had been taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital, suffering from stomach pains. My father decided to visit him there. When he entered Joe’s hospital room, Grace, Joe’s sister, was there, glad to see a member of the family.
As a physician, my father was permitted to read a patient’s medical chart, which was attached to the bed, where Joe lay, pale and nervous in a hospital gown.
After reading the chart for some time, my father put it down and said to Joe in a gentle but firm voice –
"Joe, I want you to get dressed. You’re leaving the hospital with me." Joe looked at my father with astonishment.
"Uncle Louis, I love you and respect you, but what are you talking about! My surgery is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. I have one of the best surgeons in the city and the chief of surgery here."
"Joe," my father responded, "if you don’t get dressed, you’re leaving in your hospital gown!
And that is how the story goes ... My father led the parade, Joe followed him in his gown, his sister after him, carrying a beautiful plant she had brought as a gift. As she told it later, "so it wouldn’t be a total loss."
The three of them marched out of hospital. No one noticed them; no one stopped them.
Shortly after, Joe moved to California. He got a job at MGM, a major Hollywood studio, as a musician. He lived in California until his death at the age of 81. He never had abdominal surgery, nor did he suffer any abdominal pain after his march through Mt. Sinai Hospital in his hospital gown.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Well, first of all, like breasts, they come in varying sizes and shapes. They seem to vary somewhat from one ethnic group to another, providing variety to the observer. They also sway, move, and swing--providing variety that way as well.
The tight jeans of today's styles help to draw attention to that part of the body, but there is nothing new about that. Previous generations of women emphasized buttocks with heavy padding--and what about the bustle? But we've added the thong, and we all know that the thong is part of our history.
Interest in the buttocks often starts in childhood. It's a part of the body that can't be seen--it is a source of curiosity and sensual pleasure. Toilet training focuses a lot of attention on our rear ends. Children are told it's naughty and not to be tolerated if that part of the body is exposed, but it doesn't prevent them from trying and seeing the reaction.
Women notice men's buttocks too and men's fashions caters to that interest as well with tight jeans and low waistlines even exposing underwear and the "crack." What it all points to is an increasing recognition of the fascination of the human body. What's next? What will happen to fashion if nudity becomes the new new thing!
It meant the loss of the man who was the object of a generation’s first sexual stirrings. Who among us didn’t have a crush on Paul Newman? Who didn’t dream of him at night when the lights were off and the door was closed?
In those adolescent years, a fantasy lover was more satisfying than the pimply boy who made eyes at us in Algebra class or even the boy who didn’t now we existed. Even if we were attracted to one boy or another and we were lucky enough that he was attracted to us, there wasn’t much we could do about it in those days. Remember?
He couldn’t be in our bed, as the case might be today so that was when Paul Newman came into the picture. Not the large-screen moving picture, but that picture in our head, the wonderful imagery called fantasy. It was safe and exciting, and taught us so much about the pleasure our bodies could give us.
As we grew older and found partners in reality, real life and flesh partners, our fantasy life never completely disappeared for we had learned that fantasy could enrich and intensify our sexuality. So new images emerged from time to time. But for many, Paul Newman never quite disappeared from our fantasy life. Perhaps he never will!
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Rose came into our family life one summer at our beach house. We lived in a large, three-story house on the Atlantic Ocean. There were lots of us – my parents, my sister and brother-in-law and their daughter and my family – my husband and our two children. Although we weren’t all there at the same time, we wanted to be there – the house drew all of us like a magnet. From the perspective of time, I can say we lived together in relative, yes relative, harmony.
Although we all did our share of the work involved in running the house, most of us went into the city to work almost every day – so we needed some additional help.
So, along came Rose! A tall, soft-spoken African-American woman from South Carolina. She was 28 years old at the time.
The children hid under the porch the afternoon we met Rose for the first time; they didn’t want a stranger to join our family life, especially since she was going to "sleep in" – as the phrase went at that time. They managed to avoid her at first but were secuced by her fabulous cooking and heer willingness to satisfy any requests they made for their special favorites. They were also enchanted by her voice – she sang as she worked. Her repertoire was very extensive. Fragments of "In the cool, cool of the evening ..." and "Tenderly" ... " drift through my mind."
One of Rose’s unexpected areas of expertise was as a sex educator. Often, I would come home from work, expecting dinner was almost ready and I would find the children sitting with Rose around the kitchen table, evidently entranced with what they were hearing. Rose knew! Never mind that my husband was a gynecologist and I knew a thing or two, too, and we considered ourselves askable parents, Rose was the sex educator par excellence! She had a boyfriend they learned a lot about and even her sister’s sex life was material for discussion. I sometimes shudder to think what all this information added to their sex lives! But Rose’s talks remained pretty secret.
Rose was a passionate baseball fan, as we all were – Brooklyn Dodger fans. We felt as if we were part of their team because their business manager lived across the street from us. All the famous players of that time came to swim and relax on the beach – Jackie Robinson, who will always be remembered because he broke the racial barrier and because he was the first black player in the major leagues – Roy Campanella, Carl Erskine, Gill Hodges – Sometimes these legends in their own era even tossed some balls with the children on the block. Rose was right out there on the street with them. Often, she reported she couldn’t sleep at night because of her excitement at being so close to her beloved Dodges.
When Marc (the oldest child) was about 10, he and Rose made a $1 bet, witnessed and filed in the family safe. Marc bet he would be a major league baseball player. Rose bet he would be a doctor. Rose won the bet and collected the bet, figuring in interest and inflation. We had a party and invited Rose to celebrate Marc’s graduation from medical school. Rose wanted to cook a celebration dinner for us, but we insisted that she be a guest and we do the cooking.
We didn’t see Rose much after that party. There was the occasional visit and telephone call. Then, one day I made a call and I learned her telephone had been disconnected. I felt a sense of loss, almost as if I had heard that she died. Maybe she had.
But when Rose’s name is mentioned in our family, there are smiles, sighs, and a strong sense of nostalgia for the Rose that bloomed in our lives those many years ago. The bloom on the Rose has never faded.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Since then its been used in many cultures as a way of teaching children and sometimes adults acceptable behavior. Not unlike Adam and Eve, children are made to feel self conscious about exposing their bodies or losing control of bodily functions. Feelings of shame and humiliation take root.
There are even shame cultures like Japan after WW11, when their defeat left them with feelings of shame and humiliation. The Muslim culture can be described as a shame culture as well.
As we all know adults in our culture, at least in recent years, are not made to feel ashamed for exposing large areas of their bodies. The culture does however attribute feelings of shame to the aging body. What a shame--she used to be so pretty. He hasn’t got the strength to hit that ball the way he used to. As a society we are very self conscious about our bodies and much of our self esteem stems from a young, healthy, attractive physique, full of vim and vigor. It’s a blow to our self-esteem, what the psychologists call a narcissistic injury when our bodies start to show signs of aging, even as little as a few wrinkles or some gray hairs. Even when we fall ill, some of these feelings emerge. Animals hide when they get sick.
As I’ve grown older, being self-conscious about my physical self is certainly present, but is it shame I feel? I acknowledge that I “feel ashamed of myself” if I put on weight . Obesity is definitely a state that our culture makes us feel ashamed about.
What I have been aware of is that the need to occasionally ask for help, or be offered a seat on the bus, stirs up a feeling of self-consciousness, being yes, slightly ashamed of being perceived as needy.
But there is also the pride of the older person who is active and “doesn’t look her age.” It prompts me to tell my age, so that I can enjoy the response. “I can’t believe it!” You don’t look your age,” the older person’s highest compliment.
Perhaps some day as more people live longer and remain healthy and vigorous, being older will not be accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness, neediness, or shame.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
As if I were traveling on a time machine, I was onthe floor of a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains. It was one of the cabins of a girls summer camp on Schroon Lake. I was one of six eight year olds playing jacks. I could feel the rough texture of the floorboards tickling my bare legs, spread out so that the jacks are close to my body. These jacks are metal and not colored.
I could see the white shine of the shirts worn by my cabinmates as they sat in a circle around me, transfixed by my raised hand holding the ball. Some of their names flashed through my mind, the way a long forgotten melody sometimes appears. I could even see beyond the circle of girls, the narrow cots, the unadorned windows, framing the lush foliage of a summer day in the woods.
That eight year old girl didnt know or even think about the woman she was to become or the life she was to lead. But the woman she became has a special image of her in her memory and it only takes a package of jacks or some other trigger to bring her back to life for a bright, shining moment.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Would I want to have that image reflect a different Shirley? Of course, over the years, especially in my younger years, I hoped I would see a beautiful face, a face gazed on with envy by every onlooker.
Would I want that person I see in the mirror to have a different history, different memories? I don’t think so. I was born into a loving family, educated, easygoing, loving their lives and without any major problems or traumas.
Would I want to have chosen a different career? Definitely not! I chose the right one for a lifetime, with a moderate amount of success, and even had my fifteen minutes of fame!
But, come now, who are you kidding? Of course, you’d want your script to have had some different lines. Of course! I wish I had learned to play a musical instrument, been a talented tennis player, danced more under the stars, sung more songs, had more lovers, kept my husband alive to be by my side in my old age, had him next to me as we flew around the world one more time!
I wish I had had more impact on making the world a better place for my children and grandchildren as they grow old.
But as I look at the mirror one moment longer before I start on my 95th year, I sing to myself, to paraphrase Cole Porter's song, "Luck, be a lady today!"
But there’s another voice that has always been there, silent, making no demands, causing no trouble. I guess it never had a chance to be heard against those other voices, so clear, so confident. Lately, that other voice, silent for so long, has begun to murmur, to make its sweet voice audible.
"Come roam the city streets with me and try to catch the tender petals drifting from the trees. Come dance with me. Taste the salt in the ocean waves. Linger in your sensuous bed."
Now I listen for that voice, let it seduce me, let it lure me down unexplored roads, desire new possibilities. Now I welcome its siren call!
How fortunate I am that that voice is no longer silent and I can enjoy the pleasures it offers me, sometimes in reality, sometimes in fantasy.
At some point, I mentioned that I had a birthday the following week. Ed told us, excitedly, that it was his birthday, the very same day. "I’m inviting you all to celebrate next week at my favorite restaurant. They have dance music there and we’ll have a wonderful time."
The night of the birthday party arrived and we all met at the restaurant in a festive mood. Ed brought a guest, who I guessed was a professional dancer. The men in the party took turns whirling her around the dance floor.
We enjoyed a wonderful dinner and then a waiter marched to our table with a lighted birthday cake inscribed with my name and Ed’s. With a bow to all of us, murmuring "My pleasure" Ed got up to cut the first slice of the cake.
He held the knife high in the air, then suddenly it dropped and Ed fell to the floor. After the first moment of shock, my husband and my father, both physicians, bent down to examine Ed’s motionless body. After an interminable moment, they announced that Ed was dead. We all sat there, immobilized, unable to believe that what had just happened was true.
The management of the restaurant called the police and my husband and brother-in-law went with them to identify the body. The rest of us left for home, sad and silent.
Early the next morning, there was a telephone call for my husband, a very frequent occurrence in our household. This time it was not a patient. A woman identified herself as the wife of the man who had died in the restaurant last night, the man known to us as Ed Hirsch and to her as Tom Gilbert. The morning pages had written up the story of the way Ed had died and my husband’s name was mentioned in the article as the physician who had been present. The woman described that their family lived in Queens and that she and their two daughters had been expecting Tom home last evening and had prepared a surprise birthday party for him. She knew his work as a traveling salesman and said he was often on the road. She was completely unaware that he was a partner in a prosperous business.
There were many complex developments to this story, but that’s another story. This is the story of how I celebrated my 58th birthday.
Little did I know then, as I do now, that people kiss in different ways in different places in the world. Kissing the back of the hand was a common sign of respect in Victorian England as well as all over Europe in genteel circles.
The Eskimos, Polynesians and Malaysians rub noses rather than kiss lips as a way of showing affection and sexual interest. By the way, the Eskimos call making love laughing time. Among many Indian tribes, hand pressing was more a part of courtship custom than kissing. The Japanese male considered the nape of his partner’s neck more erotic than her lips.
Even in our own society, until TV and the movies glamorized kissing and gave everyone permission to copy what they saw, kissing was not as common among the less educated segments of society, whereas the more educated spent more time kissing and less in explicit sexual activity. Times have changed this!
The different ways in which societies view kissing certainly demonstrates the way sexual behavior is shaped by culture. If I had known that those kisses planted on my mother’s hand all those years ago were a sign of respect, rather than desire, my ten year old self would have been spared a lot of tears.
For those who enjoy the erotic pleasure of kissing someone they love on the lips, I say, "Vive la Difference."
My mother cuddled us until my father returned about twenty minutes later, chuckling. Someone had reported that there was a dead man in our basement. "It’s about that skeletal model that we brought home from Germany that I plan to use for my anatomy course at the hospital." The janitor had come across it and spread the rumor that there was a dead man in our basement. Until he left us, we gave the specimen a name, "Joe", and the friendly policeman would ask us how Joe was doing and saw to it that those bullies never came near us.
As a physician, he had his office on the ground floor, our family occupied the two floors above that and the top floor was occupied by my grandparents. The basement was rented to tenants unrelated to us. I have lived in New York all of my long life and remember all the various homes I’ve had, but none so vividly as the house on 10th Street.
Although he had heard the story many times, when he showed me his internet finding, I told Mare again some of my favorite stories of that house, often dramatically recounted by my father. This was a quiet neighborhood at that time, but, at one point, my father began getting complaints from neighbors about noise emanating from our basement. When he went down to investigate he found three printing presses and several printers hard at work on a publication. The head of the project was Leon Trotsky. I don’t know how my father dealt with the situation but he always implied that he had a role in giving Trotsky some safe haven in his exile. Later, of course, Trotsky went to Mexico where he was murdered in 1940.
While Mare was still visiting me, his son (my grandson) invited us to dinner on 7th Street and Avenue A, his favorite Greek restaurant.
After dinner, the three generations walked nearby to 10th Street and Avenue A. The house at 297 is still there, unchanged. To my astonishment, there’s a doctor’s sign exactly where my father’s sign used to hang.
There’s a real difference that came to my mind. The neighborhood is now a hot real estate location, dubbed ABC. 297 was probably purchased by my father for thousands, it now is valued in the millions. Unfortunately, only the memory, precious as it is belongs to me, not the house.
When we were in the air, I turned to him and said, "It’s bashart that I am sitting next to you." Bashart is a word I often use to mean fated or destined. It is one of the few words in my Yiddish vocabulary.
My seatmate turned to me with a smile and said, "Bashart is usually used to convey a mating situation and I don’t think you have that in mind."
We shared a laugh and then I told him what I did have in mind. My grandson, a graduate of the University of California, a 6’4" surfer, had joined a Yeshiva program in Israel and had become an Orthodox Jew. My family, none of whom were observant Jews, were all disturbed by this situation. When I referred to my grandson as Chris, my seatmate, who told me his name was Menachim, said he got the picture.
Menachim and I made a remarkable connection during the rest of our flight to San Francisco. We laughed, we talked, and we shared the food we had brought along. I paid attention when he prayed and he listened to my concerns. Nothing changed in the way I thought about the situation, but something change in my tolerance of it.
He e-mailed me several times to inquire about how I had enjoyed my trip and then came an e-mail "How are you with Passover, Shirley, we would be very happy to have you join our family for the Seder we are having in Brooklyn." I didn’t accept the invitation, but it warmed my heart.
A few weeks after, my grandson was visiting me in New York on his way to Israel after a visit with his parents. Menachim, his wife, Chris and I had lunch together. He came in his Orthodox garb, this time with a large black hat, which I’ve always ????????. His wife, a pretty woman, with blonde hair, which I later realized must be a wig, was fashionably dressed and I would not have identified her as Orthodox. She was interested and involved with us. Both she and Menachim had their blackberries on the table and received a number of calls. He told us he was leaving for Paris later that day.
What is my attraction to this man? He has charm, humor, warmth and is very present. He is a man of considerable energy, involved with his family, friends, synagogue and an active real estate developer in Israel, Russia and the Ukraine.
I think across the barriers of age, religion, background and world views, we genuinely like each other. But do I have a hidden agenda in involving my self in this relationship? I think so. In my fantasy, I think it’s bashart that in some way he’s going to rescue my grandson.
Why do so many of us assume people will look at us alone at a table or buying a single movie ticket and wonder what’s wrong with her that she’s alone. Doesn’t she know anyone who wants to join her?
Men don’t seem to be as vulnerable to this situation as women. Maybe because it’s assumed that they are alone by choice or business reasons explain it. True, more business women are on the move, but women still seem to feel more lonely in almost any situation on their own.
Where do these feelings of loneliness come from and why are we so reluctant to acknowledge the feeling? Some aspect of it can be traced to the fact that from the moment of conception we are not alone — we are part of another human being. When we emerge from that dual existence infants need the care and attention of another human being in order to survive. Long years of nurturing set the pattern for our future need for connection, with friends, lovers, children, and yes, even pets. The first step we ever take is away from our mother, or mother surrogate, with a feeling of joy and excitement, only to quickly return for refueling. In one way or another, it becomes the pattern of our lives — the pull towards independence and autonomy, the need for some refueling, connection, reassurance that we are not alone. The fear of being without the possibility of connection makes us anxious, which has been referred to by some psychologists as separation anxiety.
For most of us being lonely is a transient state. It makes us sad, uncomfortable or encourages us to find ways to deal with it. For others, it is more intense and a way to deal with it can be toxic — food, alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, withdrawal.
Fortunately, there are positive ways to deal with loneliness, too. One is to recognize its part of the human condition and our time alone can also offer time to be alone, to be free and self-sufficient, to fantasize, to be creative, time to compose a piece for this class.
I reflected on the word touch as my plane touched ground, my grandson made a touchdown in his school football game, my neighbor told her little girl not to touch the toaster.
There are so many ways in which the word touch is part of our everyday vocabulary. I wanted to touch base to find some thread to connect all these various uses of the word touch. And there it was it all refers to some kind of connection, some form of contact.
Even in utero we are connected with another human being. The first experience we have in life is being touched by another person. Our first exposure to love and pleasure is being held and stroked. Some baby animals die if the mother fails to lick and stroke them. Human babies do not thrive or even survive if they are not touched and held.
Toddlers, taking their first steps in exploring the world, run back to their caretakers to refuel, to touch and be touched. Young lovers spend countless hours touching and caressing each other. All the love songs of every generation say hold me, take me in your arms.
In any modern society, many circumstances require that we keep our distance — don’t touch! If strangers brush up against us, even accidentally, we feel frightened. At work, especially in the era of sexual harassment fears, we often act detached, restrained. For most of us, the only opportunity we have to touch and be touched is with our lovers, our mates, our children and their children and even in those situations boundaries exist. Many isolated older people have no opportunity for closeness, for connection, but the hunger for it persists.
Sometimes this hunger finds an outlet in a love affair with a pet, who in turn enjoys the fondling and warm response. Sometimes caring for an invalid or someone else’s children helps. Perhaps the popularity of spas is another way contact hunger is met — with massage, manicuring, shampoos — someone focused on your physical self. In a way, cell phones keep us in touch — technology’s way to help us connect.
So keep in touch seems to mean I need to feel connected, I need to touch base with you, perhaps not in the way it used to be in that lost paradise of our earliest connection. It seems we never outgrow our need to touch and be touched.