Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Shame on you, you should be ashamed of yourself! I am ashamed of you! These are familiar phrases most of us have heard sometime in our childhood. Shame is an emotion not often discussed; but, of course, we all know that the Bible tells us that in the beginning there was no shame. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were both naked and were not ashamed; but after eating the forbidden fruit, they knew of their nakedness and tried to hide it. Shame thus came into existence.

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

Travel on a Time Machine

      I was ambling down an aisle displaying toys in a local store, looking for a present for a four year old friend. Suddenly, my eyes landed on a package of jacks, in a ziplock bag. They were made of hard plastic and they were of different colors. The bag also contained a small ball.

     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

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

So, I’m 95. It doesn’t seem very different than 85 or 75 — only when I look in the mirror and even then the image is so familiar. I’ve gotten used to the gradual changes over the years. It’s the same face, the same familiar expression. What does that expression convey? Why hasn’t it changed over the years? It seems to reassure me — tell me that I’m OK that I’m still a lucky lady — so get on with whatever you have in mind.
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!"

The Voice of the Siren

There are many voices within me that I have listened to in the course of my long life. I can trace them back to my early childhood. Their messages have been loud and clear and I’ve always listened to them with little resentment or conflict. I’ve been obedient to their content. "Be a good girl. Be kind. Be caring. Work hard. Reach for the golden ring on the carousel. Don’t envy others because you have so much to be grateful for. Be proud of what you do, what you are."
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.

How I Celebrated My 58th Birthday

We were enjoying a family lunch on a beautiful summer morning. My husband and I, my sister and brother-in-law and my parents were joined by my brother-in-law’s business partner, Ed Hirsh. Ed was what was known in those days as a bachelor, a single man. He was a frequent guest at my sister’s home and was particularly fond of her eight year old daughter. He often talked about the wish to have children of his own.
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.

Spin the Bottle

When I was ten years old, I lived with my parents, my sister and brother in Berlin. It was an exciting life, seeing new sights and having amazing experiences. However, I do remember from those many, many years ago something that disturbed me very much and that I did not understand then, as I do now, as a cultural difference. My mother let other men kiss her, not on her lips or her cheek as my father kissed her, but on her hand. I watched as a male friend bent slightly from the waist, my mother extended her hand, and that hand, my mother’s hand, was kissed, not only by one man, but a number of men on different occasions. I remember crying almost every time I witnessed this behavior.
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."

House Arrest

I grew up in my family’s brownstone house on East 10th Street. It was really white brick and one of about five adjacent houses, referred to as Doctor’s Row as all the owners were physicians as was my father. He had an office on the first floor and we lived above the office. One night we were having dinner when the doorbell rang, what seemed a demanding way. My father said, "I’ll get it. It’s probably a patient who’s come to the wrong floor. When he opened the door, there stood a policeman, a big, tall man. I wasn’t frightened because a policeman could need my father’s help, too. But he spoke in a gruff voice and demanded that my father take him to the basement. Gently, my father asked, "What is this about?" The policeman didn’t answer gently, but rather like some of the bullies at my school. There was some further talk and my father went out of the door with him. My sister and I began to cry. My mother tried to soothe us, "You’re father is a very smart man. He’ll take care of the situation." I was scared but I remember a feeling of disappointment that my father could be bullied.
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.

A Brush With History

On a recent visit, my son, who is interested in genealogy, showed me some census records of a house I had lived in as a child. It was many decades ago, but I remember it well. It was located in Manhattan at 297 East 10th Street (near Avenue A) directly opposite Tompkins Square Park. It was one of a row of small houses and, according to the census records, my father was the owner.
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.

American Airlines, Flight 15, May 16, 2008

A few months ago, I boarded and American Airlines flight to San Francisco. As I settled down in my seat it was announced that boarding was almost complete. At the last moment someone sat down in the empty seat next to me. He was dressed in the garb of an Orthodox Jew — white shirt, black pants, yarmulke and he had a long beard. His beard, unlike many other Orthodox Jews I have observed, was not white, but dark brown. Obviously, this was because he was a young man.
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.

Feeling Blue

I am in a hotel room in Philadelphia going over some notes in preparation for a talk I am going to give in the morning. Although this is not a new experience for me, suddenly, I feel very sorry for myself to be here alone. It’s almost dinner time. Is it better to order from room service rather than face the embarrassment of requesting a table for one in the good restaurant nearby?
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.

Keep in Touch

What do we mean when we say let’s keep in touch? Why do we talk about being out of touch? What do we mean when we say we were touched by an act of kindness or an expression of sympathy?
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.

Over The Hill?

There are many myths and misconceptions in the area of sexuality, but one of the most persistent is that menopause marks the end of a woman's sexual interest and desirability. Since the average age of menopause is fifty-one, it is around that age that she sees herself and fears that she is seen as "over the hill," sexually speaking.This misconception has been reinforced by our current society's message that sex is only for the young and beautiful, and young is being defined as younger and younger, and beautiful is being defined as more and more beautiful (and thinner and thinner). There is a frantic pursuit on the part of many women and men, too, for maintaining and recapturing youth and beauty.Anti-wrinkle creams, and who hasn't used them, fill shelves even in supermarkets. The newest is the promise of a stem cell product that will keep skin eternally young. There is a staggering increase in the demand for plastic surgery for every part of the body (the most recent in popularity is the reconstruction of the belly button).It is not only women who beat a path to the surgeon's operating table, but men too want to restore their youthful look and even improve on the original model. A popular procedure is "enhancing" and lengthening their penis, thus reinforcing another myth that "bigger is better."Although some motive for pushing back the clock to achieve a more youthful look may be that youth and beauty are valued in the workplace as well, much of the motivation seems to be to preserve and enhance a sexual image.Yet, there is no solid evidence that sexual interest and activity ceases and declines markedly as women and men reach fifty and beyond. As a matter of fact, evidence points to the contrary.In the 1950's, Alfred Kinsey, in his groundbreaking book, The Sexual Behavior of the Human Female, was the first to publish a survey of sexuality in older women. The findings revealed that women retain sexual capacity and sexual interest The most most recent study reported in The New York Times a short time ago found that most Americans remain sexually active into their early sixties, and nearly half continue to have sex into their early seventies.Of course, sexual interest and activity during the menopausal period and beyond is extremely variable, depending on many psychological and physiological factors, even on whether there is an available partner. There was a time at the beginning of the Twentieth Century when women died at an average age of forty-eight and did not even live long enough to experience menopause. It is not long since menopause was a word never mentioned until the feminist movement brought it out of the closet. With the Boomers now reaching fifty in large numbers, maybe they won't need to feel over the hill, but rather will climb mountains to a new definition of sex and beauty.

Bagging it!

Currently, women seem to be obsessed with bags - formerly referred to as pocketbooks, purses, or handbags. Like breasts and buttocks, they come in all sizes and shapes; and like many things in our society, the bigger the better! Some bags are so big that the people carrying them seem dwarfed in comparison and are less noticed than the bag.Why this love affair with bags? They are not the best way to carry around all the many things women seem to need to get through their day. They tie up the hand that is used to carry them; or, if they hang from a shoulder strap, a bag can slip or bump against a woman's body or the body of someone else. Maybe the bump may increase the wearer's body awareness of someone else's body. Bags can cause fatigue or backache because of their weight if carried around all day. They can be misplaced or lost or even snatched by a stranger, sometimes in a violent way! They my cause a moment of panic if an object being searched for seems lost in the bag's deep interior.Men don't have a great way to carry around their needed objects, but they definitely need much less. What they do need they stuff in their pockets, often having difficulty in remembering which pocket, and often ruining their pants over time. A rare man will sometimes use a bag, only to worry that his sexuality is being questioned. Men seem indifferent to the problem of transporting their stuff, but women seem to love their solution to the problem.Many bags sell at excessively high prices and thus serve as a status symbol of wealth and fashion know-how. What matters the cost if it serves to have men and women look at this extension of themselves with envy and admiration. But because of manufacturing technology today, women of lesser financial resources can also swing and sway bags almost identical to the original but at a fraction of the cost. No matter - real or knock-offs - women love their bags and their ability to draw attention to themselves. Added to their ability to do so, because of their size, it is the rainbow of colors they can choose from in selecting a bag. Black is no longer the color of choice - it's green and red, purple, turquoise, fushia, yellow...It's the grown-up delight with all those colorful crayons of childhood!The bags' only rival today is the knapsack, which both men and women use, but it has a utilitarian image. It doesn't swing and sway like breasts and buttocks. It doesn't call out to be noticed; its colors are dull and there is no hint of feminine secrets within. For the most part, they are used by younger women; however, the bags know no age limit.Undoubtedly, women will find another way in the future to carry their stuff. But one thing seems likely - there will probably be more stuff to carry around!

Frost/Nixon preview

I just saw a preview of Frost/Nixon on Broadway, a depiction of the famous interview that David Frost had with Richard Nixon during which Nixon more or less admitted his guilt about Watergate. I recommend it for all ages, particularly for those of us who were outraged by Nixon's conduct.
We live in a culture obsessed with youth and beauty. At the same time people are living longer than in any other period in history and as people age they are healthier, more active and more imbued with a zest for life.So, what's age got to do with it??