Memorial Day Musing (from Medium.com)

The Second Battle of Bull Run, August 28–30, 1862–15,000 Union troops died in two days, and the Confederacy wond a decisive victory. Hiram Terwilliger fought valiantly and (barely) survived.

Memorial Day Musing

Insomnia plagued my childhood. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Europe, who never spoke outright about what had happened back there. Eavesdropping on the muffled conversations she had in clandestine German with her sisters and parents, however, I felt the anguish wrought by the dismal truths they shared. I inferred that some dark force was out there, still looking for us. When I closed my eyes, I pictured evil monsters, and I could not sleep.

In those days, my father was rarely home. He traveled around the country, representing, depending on the year, surgical supply or pharmaceutical firms. He repaired machinery, consulted with physicians, sold his products, and was often absent for weeks at a time. When he was at home, he was the center of my universe. In his presence, I felt safe. We had animated, prolonged family dinners. There were Sunday afternoon restaurant meals and bedtime stories that extinguished the nightmares.

Mom was not one to wait bedside until I drifted off to sleep, but Dad reveled in the opportunity to display his performance repertoire. It was a rich one that included Biblical episodes delivered with dramatic flourish, Chaucerian tales recited in crisp, Middle High English, a medley of Protestant hymns sung in a sonorous baritone, and, my personal favorite, tales of his grandfather’s Civil War exploits.

Hiram H. Terwilliger(1838–1935), ca. 1923

Hiram H. Terwilliger was my father’s maternal grandfather and the god of his idolatry. A gentleman farmer in the Catskills, Hiram was descended from a line of Dutchmen who had emigrated from the Netherlands early in the second decade of the 17th Century. By the time of the American Revolution, in which Hiram’s own great-grandfather had distinguished himself as a warrior patriot, they had begun to intermarry with English landowners and had taken their place in the highest echelons of Knickerbocker society. Dad’s narration of this family lore always had a pointed purpose: Terwilligers take heritage seriously. It defines how they are to live their lives..

A lay preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, my great-grandfather was a rabid abolitionist. He and his sister Sarah were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and the family farm was a relay station. Though passionately pacifist, when the purveyors of human beings refused to end their vile trade, Hiram enlisted in the Union Army, in 1861. He was wounded and sent home mere months after he joined. As soon as he was healthy again, he re-enlisted, this time elevated to the rank of Corporal and subsequently to Sargent.

Sarah Elizabeth Terwilliger Warren(1840–1940), ca 1940

In 1862, at the second Battle of Bull Run, Hiram was shot nine times, sustaining at least three wounds that should have killed him. He refused to fall. After retrieving the Union flag from the ambushed color guard, Hiram kept moving, leading his battalion into the fray. I can still hear my father’s tear-stained voice whispering, “He said he would not rest so long as all Americans were not free.”

Recovery from the wounds and from the subsequent surgeries was long and painful. Summoned to the hospital in Fredricksburg, where Hiram had been taken from the field, Sarah, who volunteered with the corps of battlefield nurses, cared for him until he was well enough to travel. She accompanied him back to the family homestead, where she dutifully nursed him for over a year.

Though they both married and lived separate lives, brother and sister remained to committed to the cause that nearly killed him.

Sarah, who lived to age 100, was a popular local heroine, known in Ulster County as Auntie Warren, her married name. She became a suffragette. Hiram marched with her. He preached universal suffrage from his pulpit and took his message to conferences and convocations around New York and New England. Toward the end of his life, Hiram suffered paralysis from his waist down but continued to preach from his wheelchair. Whenever he heard of discriminatory practices enacted against any of his neighbors, Hiram was there to preach equality. He had a special affinity for Native Americans and was a continual thorn in government’s side, writing letters and making sermons admonishing the powerful hypocrites, who betrayed the People with broken promises and violated treaties.

Dad would finish Hiram’s story with a grand flourish as he looked into my sleepy eyes with a singularly intimidating look. “And so,” he would whisper, “now you understand your responsibility.”

“My grandfather nearly died,” Daddy would whisper as he left the room. “So that what happened to Mommy’s family in Europe will never happen to people here”

Since Mommy had clearly suffered from whatever it was that befell her beloved home, I embraced his assertion. She had escaped the Nazis and had come to America because here she could be safe, and her children would be protected from discrimination.

Every year of my growing up brought new awareness of America’s salient truths. People were not safe here. Discrimination was rampant. My father’s best friend was a physician, who was forced to take maintenance jobs in order to feed his family he finally found a hospital willing to grant him admitting privileges. I spent a weekend billeted with a Mohawk family on the St. Regis reservation, and I was appalled to come face to face with what my white forebears had done to this proud, generous people. By the time I graduated from high school, I deeply understood the hypocrisy of the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, grasped the depth of the evil perpetrated on villages in Korea and Viet Nam in the name of American democracy. My great-grandfather’s story became my reassurance, my inspiration.

I attended Malcom X lectures, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., explored the beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, et al. I studied languages and traveled abroad so that I could obtain a deeper understanding of the world around me I believed that it was possible to be an American, and to uphold the rights of humankind, to extol the virtues of immigration, to embrace multiculturalism. I struggle now — a struggle exacerbated daily by new events, such as this week’s brutal murder of George Floyd and the idiocy of Christian Cooper’s encounter with a white woman’s performative fear in Central Park — to suspend my disbelief.

I miss the days when I bought into the myth of America. Once a year, I force myself to make a valiant effort to retrieve my faith.

Every Memorial Day, I doff my cynicism and think about old Hiram Hauslander Terwilliger and his sister Sarah Elizabeth Warren. While many of the principles they espoused are still unwon, their story reminds me that we can do better. Men and women before and since have given their lives to the belief that we will do better.

The future of this country demands that we must do better.

Corporal Hiramm Hauslander Terwilliger, 1861

A View from the Edge (Reposted from Medium.Com)

These days, my oldest grandchild, age 11, often telephones me from her home in Westchester. We have not seen each other since mid-March, and we are not used to so extended a separation. We normally spend at least a weekend a month together. So, she calls to tell me about her day, to ask for advice choosing the right word to complete a verse of the song she’s writing. Then she asks me to tell her what my day has been like here in the valley of the shadow of COVID-19. Last week, she issued a challenge.

“You should record your observations, Lala. Write down what you see, what you hear.”

I wish I had more to share with her. It embarrasses me to admit that, in truth, I am observing little. My sequestered life leaves me out of the loop, experiencing this crisis vicariously. Watching through the veil of social distance puts me at odds with my natural inclination to engage with the world around me.

In fact, I hardly know myself. At 72, I have always taken pride in being somewhat intrepid. Growing up in a remote region of upstate New York, I spent many teenage nights listening to the Milkman’s Matinee on WNEW in New York City. I would lie in bed straining for reassurance that the vigilant denizens of my emerald city were monitoring the myriad dangers that lurked beyond the mountains. I nurtured the delusion that confronting the things that threatened me meant I could control what happened to my family and me. Then I grew up and migrated to the city, became an insider at last. I traded my childish notions in on a thick skin, an existential shell that enabled me to be nosey, be involved, observe from the inside of whatever’s going on, to calmly assert myself wherever I might be relevant.

These days I am never free of the unfamiliar knot of anxiety in my stomach. At night, I succumb to sleep only after setting the timer on the television. Its mindless banter drones out the perseverating voices in my head shouting, “Run. Run.”

When I wake, I walk.

Each morning, sunrise finds me on the far west side of Morningside Heights. I dodge the occasional runner, sidestep the meandering drunks, race the sparse but speeding traffic and hike toward Riverside Drive. It’s a great time to be out. The eerie city is more like it was in olden days — two months ago — no emptier than it is on any predawn weekend morning I would venture into. Pink wisps of clouds linger over the Hudson, and a floral profusion of varicolored petals dance contentedly in the springcold breeze. Finches, cardinals, robins sing without restraint. For them the absence of people means the absence of danger.

I notice that there is little garbage to mar the pristine landscape, and the lifeless blue gloves strewn insouciantly about remind me why the sudden clean is as disturbing as it is delightful.

Too soon light begins to blanket the streets. The absence of cars, the desolation of sidewalks, the darkened storefront windows revive the irksome panic, and I hasten back to my little apartment, to my illusion of safety.

My seventh floor windows overlook a dormant Catholic Church and its tenants: a vacant parochial and empty charter school. Cars park in front of the buildings all day, all night, unencumbered by the “NO PARKING ON SCHOOL DAYS” sign. No steady stream of worshippers, no laughter of children at recess, no chatter of activity outside the corner bodega clutter the air. Occasionally someone plugs in a boom box and blasts loud rap while he cleans his car. Several times a week, a zealot with a microphone stations herself on a nearby corner to scream end-of-the-world warnings to the deserted streets and open windows. Sometimes at night a drunken cluster of errant youngsters gathers to blast music and throw bottles and chicken bones at the church walls. Until the FDNY arrives and points a megaphone blaring, “Please disperse . . . COVID-19. . . . “

Because there is nothing I can hope to control, because I cannot dive into the fray, I deliberately limit how much I take in. From up here, it’s easy to look away from the harbingers of disaster. I avoid electronic babble and listen mostly to my I-Tunes library, When I do seek something to watch, I am more likely to choose Larry David reruns than Governor Cuomo’s Dire-side chats.

What I see from my precarious tower is mostly a world torn between fear and disbelief. It is fear that governs the new abnormal, a fear exacerbated by the counter-intuitive way we are forced to respond to the crisis. It is the wont of most humans to lean on one another when we are threatened. This virus forces us apart at a time when we most need to cling to one another.

All around me fear expresses itself as derision or anger. A neighbor blurts obscenities then laughs maniacally because I don’t join her unmasked self in the elevator. When I pass her from my 6-foot distance, she scowls. On Amsterdam Avenue, fights break out over small disagreements. In grocery stores, beleaguered cashiers yell at customers who ask too many questions.

Everyone feels powerless. A weak imposter president, who would gladly sacrifice every one of us to the gratification of his ego, endangers us all. This reckless narcissist defies science and encourages the covidiots, who worship him, to flaunt their disregard for herd immunity. He suborns sedition by promoting rebellion against state governments that insist on sheltering. Our citizenry is caught between logic and farce, between sanity and idiocy. Confusion augments the fear and compounds the anger.

Few among us are free from financial concerns. Many in this time of Covid-19 teeter on the edge of an ominous precipice. One of the lucky few with a job I can do remotely, I am obligated to keep working. I cannot afford to be ill. No net is in place to catch me. Should the scourge erase my limited salary or eliminate my miniscule annuity, I would be left without resources.

I am not unique. Widows and divorcees in NYC are typically under-equipped for disaster. We comprise a confederacy of older New York women, who have cast ourselves adrift on an ageist, sexist sea of limitations. When I pass my cohorts in the grocery store or on the street, I can see my strain mirrored in their eyes, etched in their faces.

Also reflected there is the lingering doubt that we will ever see our progeny again. We are repeatedly told that we are at great risk. Who among us will get out alive?

Many of our children, now in their thirties and forties, comprise the essential work force and are constantly in harm’s way. My son’s wife, a fearless physician, who specializes in the care of newborns, is back at work in her hospital, having wrestled with the disease and won. My daughter’s husband, too, a pilot for an international airline, has probably been through an unconfirmed case. These two and sare emblematic of their co-generationists. Even as they protect themselves with maximum caution, will they be safe enough?

I hate to disappoint my granddaughter. Her mother the doctor would be a much more reliable narrator, were she less engulfed in the maelstrom of responsibility with more freedom to record what she sees.

The only light I am able to shed is a lesson I learned in high school French class, where first I encountered La Peste, Albert Camus’ chronicle of a plague year in Oran, Algeria in the 1940s. Frequent references to this book have been cited since the pandemic began. And for good reason. Though Camus meant his pestilence to symbolize the Nazi occupation of France, it is a perfect mirror of our current morass.

The Oran plague is allegorical, Camus’ exploration of what happens when The Absurd engulfs reality and renders it incomprehensible. A cautionary tale. There will always be, Camus asserts, diseased rats of one kind or another that will rise up and roust the world from its complacency. There is no antidote that can change uncertainties to reassurances, threats to promises. No messiah is on the way. Our only hope of vanquishing our foes is to find the best that is within ourselves and live with grateful enthusiasm in our present, providing the most comfort we know how to give to those we care about.

We can’t know what’s coming, and there is only so far we can go to stave off disaster. The rest is submission. Submission to the belief that all things pass. That there will eventually be sunshine or a rainbow. . . .

Or at very least a nice big puddle to jump into at the end of the storm.

Carla Stockton
18 April 2020

Motherless Child (Reposted from Medium)

Bad news from the Bronx. The virus has killed my student’s mother. He’s only seventeen. She must have been young. Horrifying the alacrity with which his world is disemboweled.

No preparation, no goodbyes, no final words of wisdom or instruction. Just here today hi-mom-i’m-home, gone tomorrow, empty house. COVID-19 wins. Mom is dead. She’s been murdered by an invisible assailant, abetted by the country’s evil leadership that refused to enact precautions until it had spread unchecked, until it was too late to prevent the catastrophe that is our Now. I am overcome with impotent rage. What must he be feeling?

In saner times, I could perhaps visit him, take the family a covered dish or a tear-moistened cake. Even if that were possible, he’d probably hate it. I would have at his age. But still I want to reach out. I want to tell him I know what he’s going through, I guarantee his life will get better, and he will prevail. Would I be lying? Not entirely.

Years ago, as a teenager, I learned out of nowhere that my mother wasn’t coming home. The message was brutal. An unlicensed driver had plowed head-on into the van she was driving. He was a blind drunk, they told me, who left her a mess of shattered bones, profuse bleeding. Her prognosis was bleak.

At first, I felt nothing. When the initial numbness wore off, I succumbed to a seething, bottomless anger that sharpened the pain. I thought the only way I would overcome my voracious ire was to kill the driver or kill myself. The impulses passed, and my story ended more happily than this boy’s.

My mother did not die.

We were dissembled, but she was alive. Further, the evil that upended my mother’s life had a specific shape, a recognizable form. My student’s mother’s assassin is an insidious, invisible monster, empowered by the administration of a Nation that should have been her refuge. There is no justice to be sought. No stopping the demon. No closure. I had that much.

The drunk driver was apprehended, fined, incarcerated. It satisfied me to know that his children would be kept from him the way I was kept from my mother.

For the first few months, I saw my mother intermittently, for brief intervals. I stood silent at the foot of her hospital bed as she meandered between the black void of her unconscious and the small, rectangular room. I didn’t try to talk. That would have been futile. She didn’t know me or any of her seven children. Even when she was awake, she was unable to focus for more than mere seconds before she lapsed back into her quasi -comatose state. Doctors could not be sure she would survive, but they were certain she was in imminent danger of losing her leg.

My anger turned inward as I shifted into ersatz adulthood. There seemed no other solution but to become my own mother and to care for my siblings. I was fifteen, at best a poor imitation, a second-rate surrogate. I failed miserably, which fueled my self-loathing. There was no one to lead me. My father, paralyzed by his fear of losing mom, sat endlessly by her bedside, holding her hand. He only occasionally left her to eat or to shower or to make perfunctory, fruitless attempts to find us assistance. I applauded, often assisted the demise of the erstwhile caretakers. Eventually, there was no other solution but to temporarily entrust the care of the younger children to friends and relatives.

For twenty months, mom lay between life and death. She survived the initial danger and then a second, the invasive surgery to save her leg. Once the kids were safely ensconced, I wandered dysfunctionally through my rudderless adolescence. I ate too much, read too much, cried too much and talked to no one. Without a mommy, I did not matter.

Still, I was the lucky one. Mother’s presence returned, and for a year, she commandeered our household from the hospital bed installed for her on the first floor. She martialed our activities, relying on me to potty train my baby brother, to quiet the restless quarreling and mischief of the others, to maintain order. I did laundry, cooked meals, and drove everyone to their appointed rounds. I was no better at it than I was before, but I did have guidance.

In the evening, when Dad was late returning from his sales routes and the kids were asleep, Mom and I talked. We argued over the symbolic implications of The Brothers Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor. We compared Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. We listened to music and planned for the week ahead. For the first time, Mom allowed herself to open up, to share the details of a life she had kept carefully concealed: her childhood in Europe, her escape from the Third Reich, her myriad losses. I felt trusted for the first time, almost her equal. Without realizing it, however, I had lost the ability to trust her.

I did not tell her about the man on whom I had a serious crush. Nor did I confess that I was terrified of the drinking among my peers, which defined all social engagements. She was impatient with my “scribbling,” the journaling I did on weekend mornings when chores needed doing, so I shared little of myself. I won speech contests, wrote prize-winning essays, starred in our class play, and she came on her crutches to applaud me. But I could not tell her that I was desperately lonely and, despite my outward extroversion, inordinately shy. I wanted to explain — but how could I without suggesting recrimination? — that those two years without her had robbed me of my ability to make friends because my carefully-constructed emotional walls blocked out the sunshine of healthy attachments. When I chose a faraway college I had never seen, I lied and said it was the only school that would have me. I could not find the words to confess that I needed to escape her omnipresent limp, the dizzying reminder of that devastating message: your mother’s not coming home.

My student’s predicament reminds me how grateful I should be.

That boy will never know the kind of reversal of fortune that was my gift. His mother won’t be there to cheer at graduation or help him buy the corsage for his virtual prom date or sign off on his AADA (American Academy of Dramatic Arts) loan applications. She cannot hold him now, wipe his tears, soothe his anguish. She’s never coming back.

If I am still ferreting through the damages wrought by my two years of aimless self-destruction, at least I have the consolation of an adulthood spent getting to know my mother as a woman, as a friend.

It’s my natural impulse to want to put my arms around this student, to offer him a shoulder or an arm or whatever support he might be willing to accept. But between Metoo and our absurd new Abnormal, contact is impossible. I can only send him virtual hugs, electronic condolences.

So I stand aside and hope he will be allowed to grieve as long as he wants. That he has the license to remain a boy until he is fully ready to be a man. That when the time comes, he will mature into someone who is without the weight of anger, someone who can, in the absence of justice, find his own closure.

4/1/2010

In Just Spring. . .

Melancholia visits me in Springtime. Every year since I was a child. Without fail. March and April drown me in my rising anxiety. Summer approaches

My malaise sprouts from multiple roots. Daylight Savings for one. An extreme morning person, who functions best between the hours of 4 and 11 am, I am never able to get enough sleep. The extended daylight delays my night slumber so that being alert and productive when it’s most natural for me to be so is nearly impossible. I dreaded DST when it would descend in April. Now they foist it on me in March, even before the season has officially sprung.

Heat’s another. Especially in the time of global warming, I shudder each time I  try to envision what to wear as I slog through sweaty days of teaching and social engagements. Never well shaped for scanty suiting, my body is most comfortable disappearing into layers of winter wear. Summer terrifies us.

This year, however, my despondency is exacerbated by the relentlessly untenable political reality in which our country is enmired. I’m already exhausted from the interminable campaigning. The orange imposter and the bloated goons who give him power have robbed me of the homeland I used to trust. The Democrats have turned discourse into hate-mongering.

And women have once again been relegated to the back of the bus. That’s where Elizabeth Warren has gone. And I am bereft.

What is it about America that its ship of state inevitably seeks to keep a Great White Father at its helm? Despite the fact that every one of them finds ways to deceive us as he happily manipulates us into believing he is good for the country?

Why are we so averse to having a woman lead this nation?

In this primary race, the single candidate who was everything America used to stand for was a woman. Smart and sensitive, educated and empathetic, powerful and personable, Warren had a progressive agenda that was no mere demagoguery. She really did have a plan.

And yet. . . . The progressive wing of the party put their weight behind a blustering windbag whose sound and fury signifies less than nothing. All he really offers, as far as I can see, is a penis. And a loud voice. (At least his single standing opponent in the race has Warren-like decency.  At least there’s that.)

Warren’s bid for the Presidency is the victim of sexism for sure. More hideously, it is proof that ageism, ubiquitous for women over 60, is kinder to men. Both remaining candidates are far more doddering than Elizabeth Warren will ever be. Still, here we are.

All of which puts me in a sadder state than ever this spring. The birdsong outside my window reminds me that my granddaughters are growing up in a society that is no more mature than the one that bred me. The one that believed that a new, slender cigarette was a sign that we’d come a long way, baby.

My sadness knows no bottom.

Travels With Grandma — Where Was Tina Fey When I Needed Her?

“What’d you think?” I asked my granddaughters as we made our way out of the theater. We had just seen Mean Girls on Broadway, had stood with the obligatory standing ovations, were still engulfed in the screaming appreciation from the audience. Typical Saturday on Broadway.

I wondered if my companions shared the enthusiasm.

“Well, it was good,” the younger one, who is nearly nine, proclaimed without a trace of self-consciousness. “I mean, the story was great. But what I didn’t like was there was just too much singing. Really loud singing.”

The kid’s got a future in theater criticism. She is the same granddaughter who, at age 4, left Lincoln Center declaring, in her loudest outdoor voice, that the children’s performance of the NYC Ballet we’d just attended was “. . . the worst show I have ever seen.” She was right then, and she’s right now.

The ballet was off the day we went; the choices seemed odd for a program targeting small children. And frankly, Mean Girls does have way too much mediocre music that is more shouted than sung. I kept wishing I could tell the Sound Supervisor that the balance was off, the overall effect totality deafening.

Also the show is preachy. Deliberately so. As the two misfit greeters tell us at open, “It’s a cautionary tale. . . . “ They ask, “How far would you go to be popular and hot? Would you resist temptation? You would not.” Clearly, we are here to be taught a lesson.

Normally, such a messianic tone would irritate me. Especially since I would never have chosen this particular experience had there been affordable tickets available for anything else a pair of preteenagers might like. Yet I found myself softening a bit as it coursed its way through, highlighting the best and worst in teenage girls, illuminating what they all need to know about themselves. In the end, I found myself tearing up.

Everyone in this made-up world learns their lesson. All the girls, every one a mean girl in one way or another, live happily ever after in the bosom of acceptance and empowerment. Why was there no Tina Fey Girl Power script for my generation?

How much different so many of our lives would have been – would be – were we encouraged to love ourselves, to seek success, to nurture one another. The messages we received sought to obliterate our self-esteem, our ingenuity, our independence. Some girls were lucky enough to have mothers who were unafraid to encourage them to defy the system, but for most of us, defiance meant dishonor. Mothers were embarrassed, fathers were angry, and teachers, like later employers, withheld the markers of success. We learned that we needed to play the game by rules the men made, and we needed to have their favor, which meant we were in competition with one another. No one undermined women more thoroughly than women.

Things haven’t changed much since then, which is why Mean Girls is so potent. Too many women still settle for second best, still acquiesce to standards that are beneath them, still seek to be whatever they think men want them to be, still undermine one another.

Thank goodness this vibrant musical is here to remind us (over and over) that 1) “It’s all fine till someone gets hurt,” and 2) “We’re all stars. . . . “

Unfortunately, as my pint-sized reviewer asserted, “They made music out of every little idea, even when there was almost no idea there. And the music wasn’t even that good.”

The songs are unmemorable – not one stuck in my head and had me humming my way out of the theater. Moreover, neither of the grandkids, both veterans of several school musical productions, who know everything on Spotify and the entire score of Hamilton backward and forward, left singing a single ditty.

Nowhere in this play is there a shred of subtlety. The instruments blare. The voices scream, even when they could whisper. The lyrics are simplistic, lacking grace. No poetry. Every message, every image is so emblazoned in neon it feels disingenuous.

Worst of all, it’s rarely funny. Tina Fey’s voice reading the “Turn off your cellphone” address just before curtain is the funniest thing in the show.

And yet, I warmed to the play. A little. And the youngsters in the audience – most of them girls – loved it. At the stage door afterward, 52nd Street throbbed with the excitement of well over a hundred females aged 6-20, waiting in the cold, screaming as each of the actors emerged from the theater, begging for autographs and selfies.

As my granddaughter said. It was pretty good.

——————————————————————

Mean Girls

Story by Tina Fey                     Music by Jeff Richmond                Lyrics by Nell Benjamin

Now playing at the August Wilson Theater, 245 W. 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019

 

 

Travels With Grandma . . . Winter 2019-20 Edition

New Normal

In 2003, I left my home, my marriage, my comfortable suburban life and set out to work hard, to experience setbacks, and to carve out a modicum of comfort that included the freedom to roam the world. Predictably, it took a while for me to achieve mobility. For the first seven years, I did all my roaming in the city of New York, guiding bus tours around the city I loved. The job nearly killed me.

I daydreamed my escape.

I’d envision myself venturing out to places I knew from my mother’s childhood stories – her birthplace in Austria and home in Croatia, her parents’ hometowns in Ukraine – and those I’d imagined my father’s people left behind in the 1600s.  Places like Utrecht, The Netherlands, Somerset, UK, Scotland.

But when my daughter relocated abroad, she coopted my travel plans.

In 2012, I reached the age my generation had targeted for retirement, and my child invited me to visit her world. At the time she was living in Thailand, a place I had never even considered for my bucket list. But it’s where she was, and I was keen to see what it was that held her there.  So off I went. First to Bangkok, a side trip to Bali, and then to Samui, the Edenic island where she lived and worked. In the intervening years since then, I have visited her three times in Thailand, once in Hong Kong, twice in Taiwan, and most recently twice in Turkey.

None of these were places I’d have sought. But each has mesmerized me in one way or another. Each has equally repelled me.

The people of Thailand are the gentlest, most personable people I’ve ever met, and the scenery in most of the places I’ve been is breathtaking. But the climate is far too hot far too much of the time for my taste. Poisonous snakes and soi dogs are never far from my consciousness. And the cities are antithetical to my desire to walk in that they have obstructed or nonexistent sidewalks and street vendors that impede all movement.

 

Hong Kong is – and I speak here as a New Yorker! – far too crowded, too overrun with teeming flesh and filthy refuse. Conversely, I find Taiwan too orderly, too polluted, too rules-driven; finding food there is a challenge, as it is expensive as well as often inedible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Turkey, well Turkey . . .

Is a confusing assortment of dichotomies and paradoxes.  I find myself excited to go there and aching to leave the minute I arrive. The people are warm, friendly. Or they are aggressive, willing to shove your car off the road in order to gain a few seconds of driving time or to avoid braking.  The food is delicious, but the spices can be shockingly voracious. Islam is the primary religion of the country, but stores, especially pharmacies, are closed on Sundays, and the liquor is as destructive to weekend calm as it is anywhere else. Gorgeous landscapes abound, punctuated by spectacular sunrises and sunsets. But they lie in the omnipresent, foreboding shadow of Musa Dagh.

Since my daughter and her family live in Turkey much of the year, and because I am absolutely addicted to the pleasure of my grandson’s company, I shall continue to return often.  I’ll learn to love being there.  Especially if I can learn more of the language.

Does it matter that I doubt I will ever feel entirely at home?

——————————————–

Fear Displacement

I get a real kick out of watching people’s faces when I say I’m off to Turkey. Again. Brows wrinkle, cheeks migrate upward, eyes show their pain by squinting.

“Well, then,” they’ll say in husky tones of genuine concern, “You be safe now.  Be careful.”

It’s never clear to me of what they feel the need to warn me. The same people, should I bid farewell and head to the subway or embark on a cross-park sojourn, would smile and wave without a moment’s dismay. Yet multiple dangers like armed druggies, hungry coyotes, angry raccoons lurk in the city’s parks and construction sites. These same folk would simply wish me a lovely good time were I to tell them I was heading for Walmart or the movies or, say, Houston or Orlando. Is it not true that mass murderers lie in wait in such hinterlands?

I have no fear of Turkey. I do admit to holding a bit of a grudge – I want the country to own up to the Armenian genocide. And there are cultural norms that I don’t understand. Yet I feel far safer in greater Istanbul or in the coastal villages near Izmir or Antalya I have visited than I do anywhere in America these days.

Well-armed, vigilant police patrol the cities, parks, public places. I’m a savvy city kid, and I know enough to be conscious of my surroundings to keep my valuables close. At least in Turkey, it is unlikely that suddenly, without warning, some enraged young man will jump from the shadows and aim an AK-47 at those of us unlucky enough to be in his line of fire.  Turkish roads are scary because drivers are impatient, reckless. But the kind of violent road rage I see on the streets and roadways of my country every day doesn’t exist in Turkey.  No guns sit on racks over windshields there. The military and the police are the only ones who can get away with packing.

When I go to the Istanbul Airport, I know that everyone who enters the huge open space must go through a metal detector, must withstand the scrutiny of a no-nonsense security check before they enter. When I’m at JFK or LaGuardia or Newark, I am always struck by how vastly unprotected the areas are, how easily the myriad people wandering in and out could get away with annihilations.

Ironically, the officials maintaining my safety in Turkey are far less intimidating than those at the gates in the US.  My prosthetic hip inevitably sets off the alarms, and the TSA folk at JFK and Newark too often treat me as though I purposely require that they pat me down, and they pat me down with a vengeance. It’s humiliating and often painful. I have never once been assaulted by a security person in Turkey. They apologize. They treat me respectfully. They are gentle.

A friend recently marveled at my willingness to travel to Turkey.  “It’s so far,” he said. “So foreign.”

“You’re going on an equally distant journey,” I posited. “I mean, Alaska . . . it’s far, and it can be pretty creepy, no?” I was thinking about the high crime rate in Anchorage, the recent shootings in Seattle, where my friend must catch a connecting flight. I envisioned airports open and vulnerable.

“Nah,” he said.  “It’s in the US.”

My point exactly.

 

——————————————-

Yemek (Eat)!               

In December, when I had booked my flight, I told my students that I would be flying to Istanbul the day after our final exam.  I expected them to be shocked or fearful. College freshmen are singularly self-concerned, and I thought they would worry that I might not get their grades in on time. Instead, they surprised me.

“That’s so rad,” said one boy.

“Lucky,” said another.

“Omigod.  You’re gonna get fat,” exclaimed a girl in the back row who had not spoken once all semester.  Everyone stared at her,  “I mean,” she stammered, “The Food.  It’s so incredible. You’ll be eating nonstop.”

Her mother, it turned out, is Turkish, and she visits her babaanne (grandmother) every year.

I smiled. Having summered there already, I was well familiar. The food is exceptionally delicious. At the same time, it can be a culinary adventure.

In the first place, the food is ipso-facto organic. Turkey is one of the few remaining countries in the world that is entirely self-sufficient when it comes to food production – if Turkey allows a foreign label to distribute food in Turkey, the product must be grown and processed in Turkey; farming is a major occupation country-wide, the life’s blood in more ways than one.

Industrial farming does not exist. Farms are owned, operated, maintained by close-knit extended families, who share clusters of multi-story living quarters at the farms. They eschew the use of pesticides and appearance enhancers, and they are opposed to genetic engineering.

As a longtime vegetarian –a vegan but for the use of honey and an occasional eggwhite – I especially appreciate the multivarious textures of flavor in the vegetables, flavors that titillate my taste buds. The distinctiveness in every bite is singularly unmistakable. Cucumbers are melony, tomatoes have a robust richness I remember from my mother’s long-ago garden. At the same time, however, I am constantly aware that there is likely to be a kick delivered from some sector of any given dish. Spices insist on surprising the palate. Eating is like riding in a car behind a seemingly mild-mannered hanim (woman) in a delicate hijab. Watch out lest she suddenly swerve or stop or make a turn in front of you. Likewise, peppercorns or a dried biber (pepper) show up on the tongue without warning to remind you not to be fooled by the prevailing air of relative calm.

While no restaurant has any dearth of vegetarian options in Turkey, it is clear that the people here love their meats, and I am told their meats are delicious. Like the vegetables, the animal protein sources are nurtured and maintained with loving pride. Farmers take care to provide humane and uncrowded conditions for the animals that sacrifice their lives. No chemical enhancements or antibiotics spoil the purity of the flesh or the integrity of the dairy products.

What saves me from the fate of which my student forewarned is that I am essentially not a sweets lover. If I were, then Turkey would indeed be dangerous. Especially at the sumptuous buffets that are laid out for brunches every weekend.  So many desserts, so little room to spread them out. Puddings and pies, Baklava, Tavuk gögsü (chicken breast pudding, which is often made without the chicken breast), cakes and sugary fruits, chocolate pistachios, Turkish delight (enormously popular rose- or orange-infused jellied candies),and the one thing I can be a sucker for: halvah(a thick, honeyed sesame paste), et al., present themselves for over-indulgence.

Luckily for me, I’m not easily seduced.  Even halvah repels when I remember the discomfort of the sugar rush it inevitably delivers. I am not fooled by the melt-in-my-mouth sweetness.  I know it will never really like me.

Then, too, too much of a good thing can be disenchanting. One week during my stay in Turkey, we went to a resort in Antalya, a hotel that operates like a giant, stationary cruise ship. Once checked in, a visitor need not want for anything.  Snacks and light foods are served 24/7 at various stations about the massive place. Drinks of all kinds flow endlessly. And three times a day, double doors swing open to a ballroom bursting with tables laden with food.

There are stations for every kind of culinary experience.  Hot foods – stews, casseroles, roasts, fried foods, side dishes – sequestered from the cold foods such as bean pastes, salads, myriad pickle options, olives, dolma, a panoply of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the endless tables of colorful desserts.  The first day we arrived, we marveled. We ate. We enjoyed. But the array never changed. And we found that the food was likely to be recycled, reused the next day; there was a staleness about it that made even the fresh rocket seem dull and tasteless by the time we’d been there a while.

It was a relief to get back to Istanbul, to the fresh produce in the markets, to our own home cooking, to the brunch buffets in the restaurants along the shore.

 

——————–

 

Toddler in Ephesus

Late December

My little grandson cannot wait to go to Kusadasi. He’s not terribly impressed by the fact that it’s the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing ancient Greece or with the notion of seeing the Aegean Sea or remnants of archaic worlds.  He loves to fly.  Airport? We’re going to the airport? “Let’s go!”

And a taxi.  We’ll ride to the airport in a taxi. “C’mon, Mommy.  Are you ready?  Hurry up, Gran’maw.”

In the taxi, he watches the road. His father is a pilot, and he has flown more often in his three years than most people fly in a fifty. Traveling to an airport in a taxi is as natural as breathing.

“Look out,” he warns our non-English speaking driver, who is blissfully unaware. “Red light.  You have to S T O P. . . . Oh, no, do you go that way, or that way?”

I remind him that the driver knows what he’s doing and deserves to be trusted.  He settles back and contents himself with counting buses, assessing cranes, watching for airplanes in the sky.  Then he falls asleep.  It’s an hour-long ride. His nap will serve us well.

At the airport, he climbs dutifully into his stroller.  “I can have a squeezie (a squeezable fruit treat he favors over candy) while we check in?”

At the gate, he counts the airplanes taking off, landing.  When our plane arrives at our gate, he jumps up and down.  “That’s our airplane.  We can get on.”

The flight reaches Izmir in forty-five minutes flat, and another cab takes us the remaining 80 km to our hotel, a lovely inn nestled in a tightly knit complex of shops, restaurants, hotels, fish markets, and bazaars on the Aegean Sea. The windmills and trucks, stoplights and birds along the way have kept the boy busy, and when we arrive at the hotel, he proclaims, “Here’s my home.”

The name Kusadasi means Pidgeon Island in English, and it’s not clear whether the name derives from the shape of the island on which its protective fortress lies or from the flocks of foraging birds that dominate the sandy beaches.  It hardly matters.

The town sits on a sandy lip of a beach that smiles wanly at the lapping waves shimmering teal-to-turquoise as the sun ambles along.  Fishing boats and yachts, kayaks and sailboats bob about beyond the breakers, and tourists meander the streets with no apparent imperative except soak in the warmth. It’s a peaceful place. Like a fantasy. For me, the perfect respite from current events that perseverate.  For my little buddy, it’s the perfect place to explore.

Each morning we set out on a mini-constitutional. Glee overcomes him the minute he sees a slide in one of the several playgrounds that dot the sea walk, and he dashes up the stairs chanting “Up the stairs. Down the slide” and makes himself giggle as his tush hits the ground.

Sailing insouciantly through the air in a swing, he makes up songs about flying and sailing that he combines with those he’s learned.  “Sing a song of sixpence pocket full of rye, I zoom to Bangkok (or Singapore or Timbuktu) on a bicycle built for two. . . “

Innumerable feral cats amuse him endlessly as they strut about the streets.  He crouches to touch each one that comes close enough, and he squeals with delight at the softness of their fur, the strength in their tails. The cats are remarkably well fed, with shiny, fluffy, healthy-looking coats. He offers the possibility of affection with the back of his unopened hand, and they oblige him by purring contentedly as he strokes the tops of their heads, tickles them beneath their lower jaws.

At an amphitheater on the main street, we watch as a bevy of homeless felines cavorts about, eating the food local people have left them, napping in the make-shift shelters someone’s built them. My boy is delighted but refuses to walk with me when I say we must back to the hotel. He wants to stay and watch his “friends.”

“Remember?” I prod him. “We saw a few cats living at the Chinese restaurant.  Let’s go say hello to them.”

“Stop for a muffin?” He asks.

“Of course.”

At Starbuck’s (Yes, Starbucks.  Sorry!) I lift him so his head is higher than the counter, and he tells the barrista that he’d like a chocolate muffin.  We sit while he eats it, and we discuss our plans for the day.

“First the cats at the Chinese Restaurant! Second my home!”

At first, he is testy. Why is the promised land not right ahead of us. I tell him to be patient, and he slyly invents a game. At every building, at every street sign his eyes dance with mischief. “Is this the Chinese Restaurant?” He laughs at his own cleverness, sufficiently amused until we reach the restaurant. It does not disappoint. Several large cats and a trio of kittens are there to entertain him, and he breaks into a symphony of laughter that takes us all the way “home”

After we return to Istanbul, he insists on visiting and revisiting the photographs. “Look at me – I following a duck. Hear me, Gran’maw? ‘Quack, quack.’” The video of at him riding a carousel dolphin in the indoor playground makes him thoughtful after his fifth viewing. “It was raining. Remember, Gran’maw?”

And then, “Oh, and look at this, Grandmaw. . . The cannon!” He is standing guard at the Kusadasi fortress. “ Look at me. A pirate – Hear me? ‘Ahoy, mateys, fire in the hole!’“ Gales of guffaws telegraph his pleasure.

His favorite photos are the ones we took the day we walked through centuries-old ruins. “Look ‘t grandmaw. ‘s Ephesus,” he crows. I wonder if he’ll remember that day when he’s my age. How we climbed stairways built by the Greeks in the 10th Century BC. How delighted he was to sit, giggling,  on a stone toilet in a communal outhouse dug first by the Romans and then modernized by the Roman Christians. As I marveled at the thought that Constantine might have defecated there, my grandson exclaimed, “Look!! People made poopie here!!!”

As though for his personal pleasure, regal cats adorn the remains of the 2nd C Library of Celsus. In the photos, they perch on pedestals like Egyptian gods, silky felines deigning to allow human contact. Power resides in their graciousness.

Clearly, that little boy in the photos is aware of his own potency as they respond to his touch by gently pressing their heads against his hand.”Haha. That tickles, gran’maw.”

In the photos, I am clearly breathless in the great amphitheater.

Imagining Dionysian competitions, Plautus comedies, Roman Olympic games. My grandboy cares only that I hold his hand so he can use the narrow stone walls as his balance beam. In my head there’s a joke about finding a seat – nearly 40,000 await here – but he distracts me, so enthralled he is by the colors in the masonry. Someday perhaps he’ll be impressed that he visited a theater that drew audiences from all over Europe and Asia for over 2,000 years. But at this moment he has his sights set on a hillside nearby, where a herd of sheep descends. Their collar bells clang in unison with their guide dogs’ barking. “I can barely see them,” he says, mimicking a phrase he’s heard far too often in his favorite video. “I hear them.  Hear them, Gran’maw?”

Just before he falls asleep in the taxi headed back to Kusadasi, he snuggles close and exclaims, “I like Ephesus. We have fun there!”

————————

Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained

Do people in the States go to private doctors these days? I mean, do the majority of the population, who are minimally insured at best, have a personal pediatrician on speed dial or a family GP at beck and call? I wonder if people more often look to Urgent Care facilities and HMO Clinics for sage advice.

I was fortunate as a young mom. I raised my little ones in two very different communities, and in each I relied on a wise pediatrician for counsel and guidance.  Each of those physicians was level-headed. Neither proclaimed a diagnosis without asking my opinion, and both were thorough and sensitive to the children’s concerns and fears. We all endured some harrowing health moments, through which these gentle heroes held my trembling hands and steered us out of danger.

In Turkey last month, I found myself wondering what most Turkish parents do when their children are ill  As outsiders, my daughter and I found ourselves in a position to wish either one or both those medical angels was alive. We most assuredly would have called him the second night we were in Antalya.

Let me backtrack and say that going to Antalya turned out to be a great choice.  But not for the reasons we expected it would be.  My daughter had booked a week in a luxury hotel, a kind of stationary cruise ship on the Mediterranean coast.  Though their massive water park and beach activities were shut down for the winter, the hotel offered a week of total relaxation, replete with three meals a day and a perpetually stocked minibar, for less than I might have paid for a room in the Tulsa, OK, Motel 6.

From our balcony, we had a spectacular view of the dormant water slides and the graygreenroyalblue Mediterranean just beyond them. If we looked left, beyond the hotel flanking ours, we could watch the snow accumulate on the tops of the several the Taurus Mountain peaks that tower over the region. On the first floor of the hotel, there was a children’s playroom with a small garden of colorful balls and a fast wooden slide designed to entertain a child if there should be rain. At the bar, wine, beer, and whiskey flowed freely . . . and at no extra charge.  An on-site spa with Thai masseuses stood at the ready from early morning till well after the dinner rush, and a footbath stocked with flesh-eating, skin smoothing garra rufa fish required no reservation. There were even family films screened nightly in the hotel cinema. Theoretically, a heavenly place for a true vacation.

What it turned out to be was the perfect place to wait out the flu.

On our second day in Antalya, my grandson seemed listless.  He wasn’t hungry.  The multiple tables spread with enticing confections that he’d found irresistible the day before were entirely uninteresting. All he wanted to do was lie in his mother’s or grandmother’s protective arms and watch videos or sleep.  Clearly not himself.

Overnight, he spiked a fever.  I knew it was not a dangerous fever, but it was high enough to send a clear signal that he was ill. The hotel, aware of its responsibility to be the compleat home away from home, advertised a doctor on board, in an office that opened at 9AM. We called at 9:01.

There was no doctor.  There was, however, a matronly nurse, who arrived in our room with the English-speaking guest relations representative(a person to whom we owe enormous gratitude). The “nurse” was very sweet, but I doubted immediately that she had any real medical training.  She took his temperature and immediately told us through our interpreter not to panic. She would, she assured us, prevent his having convulsions by wrapping him in cold, wet towels to reduce his temperature.  His temperature was not quite 103. He was in no danger. We eschewed the towel treatment and asked to be directed to a doctor.

They gave us the address of a private hospital that would accept my daughter’s ex-pat insurance plan, and we called a cab to take us there.  The hospital was nearly a half-hour away, and much to our relief, the cab driver waited to take us back.  A valiant gesture that turned out to be!

In the hospital, we waited endlessly in an open area, where coughing, vomiting  and the injured hordes came and waited or were directed to the triage room.  It was a cold day, and there was no heat in the building; attendants, nurses, doctors, and maintenance people were indistinguishable from one another as they all wore their outdoor street clothes.

When we were finally taken into a treatment room, our little boy was prodded and poked by several people, none of whom washed their hands or wore gloves.  I was embarrassed by my inability to speak Turkish and worried that we would know nothing about what ailed him.

Fortunately, the Attending Physician, who came to have a look, spoke English. She suggested we admit him for an overnight stay. In his room, she told us, they would strap him down, take his blood, and take him to a lab for a series of x-rays.

I know that, as adults, my kids are invariably embarrassed by my forthrightness, my unwillingness to do as I am told, my reluctance to accept advice I do not trust. But I wasn’t about to worry about whether I’d make my daughter blush.  I was unconvinced. “Why not do a culture first?” I inquired.

The doctor moved closer to examine my face before she replied. “Oh, yes, we could do a swab. But blood and x-ray would tell us more.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Let’s find out whether he’s got something bacterial or viral, and then you can prescribe medication. If, after a day or two he is no better, we’ll think about blood tests and x-rays and overnight stays in hospital.”

She agreed.  Reluctantly.  She wrote of my impudence in her report. Then we waited.

And waited. While we waited, we defended our screaming child from an attendant intent on forcing alcohol rubs on him. His fever was already responding to the ibuprofen we’d administered earlier and had dipped to below 101. There was no possible reason for any such treatment.

Another doctor entered. She repeated every step of the exam performed earlier. She, too, suggested a hospital stay, x-rays, blood.  Again I opened my NY Jewish mouth and said no, explained our agreement with the previous doctor. This doctor, a very young woman, was less skeptical. She smiled and nodded.

And sent us back to the outer corridor to the reception desk to pay for the swab. Then we waited and waited until a teenager – well, he looked like a teenager – wearing hat, coat, and mucklucks suddenly materialized in front of us.

Before we could ask who he was or what he wanted, the youngster timidly and awkwardly thrust a q-tip into the baby’s nose, pulled it out and smeared the wet cotton across a petri dish.  Then, in a scene that seemed ripped from my own 1960s childhood, he closed the dish, placed it in a plastic bag, put the culture into a glass cylinder, and popped it into a pneumatic tube. Off it went to some diagnostic lab in the sky, and off we went to find a warmer, less exposed place to wait.

Again we waited. An hour passed while we sat on a narrow bench in another wing of the hospital that was no less public but was slightly less crowded. We saw the doctor returning from her lunch break and asked her if she had the results yet. She promised to get them and, good to her word, brought them to us almost immediately.

“It’s flu,” she said.  “Influenza A.  I’ll prescribe an anti-viral. If he does not improve or if he has trouble breathing or if he does not get his appetite back in 48 hours, please bring him back.”

“Thank you,” my daughter said. “We’ll be sure to have him see a doctor if he’s not better by then.” She is very tactful. She never said what we were both thinking, that we would NEVER bring him back here.

We thanked the doctor, and then she warned that we still had a problem.  It was Sunday. The pharmacies – eczanes – were closed. Nationwide, in this predominantly Muslim country, for reasons we were unable to ascertain, pharmacies are closed on Sundays, even though most businesses operate as usual. “The receptionist will give you a list of those that are open,” our resident explained. “There you might fill the prescription.”

“You mean,” I asked, well aware that anti-virals only work if they are ingested in the earliest stages of the virus. “That there is no pharmacy here at the hospital, no dispensary where we might get a day’s supply to tide us over?”

“Unfortunately, no. Only in the stores on our list.”

The list lied. Not one was open. We returned to the hotel, and because our guest relations Godsend-of-a-staff-member was still there, she was able to pinpoint two eczanes that were possibilities. She called them. Only one was actually open, and they did not have the anti-viral in stock. Another pharmacy, closer to our hotel, opened early the next morning, and there we found the magical elixir.

Shortly after taking his first dose, our little patient was fever-free and hungry albeit still listless and weak. That’s when his mommy fell ill.

The rest of our week in Antalya was all about convalescence for everyone but me. I had a flu shot back in NYC.

[I later learned that people don’t tend to get flu shots in Turkey. Doctors don’t prescribe them. To have a vaccination, it is necessary to buy the inoculation from a pharmacist – not on a Sunday! – and take it back to a hospital, where a doctor administers it.  The H1N1 virus has made a decided comeback in Turkey, and there are myriad strains of flu circulating the country, but prevention seems undesirable.]

As the designated well person, I was truly able to appreciate our Antalya retreat. Being in that hotel made life easy for all of us.  The minibar attendant delivered water, juice, and seltzer every morning. The wait staff carried trays of food to our room three times a day. The maids kept our sheets clean, our towels fresh, our room spotless. The sunrises and sunsets enthralled us, relieved us of any reluctance to stay put in the room. Each day we opened the balcony door, and in rushed the wintergorgeous smell of the sea, the delicious reminder that we were on vacation.

On the Seventh Day, renewed and re-energized, we flew back to Istanbul.

 

 

 

 

 

Were that it Were

As a fan of the New York Times “Modern Love” feature, I eagerly binged through the eponymous new series on Amazon Prime. I wish I could say my fandom has extended itself. I cannot. Turns out to be just one more proof of how willingly pop culture aggrandizes schmaltz.

Schmaltz , in the colorful, metaphor-laden Yiddish language, means poultry fat and also hyper-emotion. Bathos.

I imagine the proliferation of melodramatic sentimentality is a reaction to the seething anger that surrounds us. Ugly racism on the Alt-Right and pandering on the Alt-Left leave no one safe from vitriolic accusations and slurs, physical jostling, social discomfiture out in the world. Whoever we are, wherever we go, we are assaulted in one way or another. Soppy, mindless nostalgia is a reasonable soporific. I wish it helped me. I guess I’m too cynical.

I’ve never been good at soporifics. They trigger anxiety. For me, hyper-emotional dramas are like post-op pain pills. They briefly soothe the symptoms, but when they wear off, everything hurts more than before the medication. Escapist entertainment reminds me how much work life requires, how much more pain there is when you expect none. Then too, it comes dangerously close to inspiring resentment.  Why can’t I find what these phenomenally lucky folks have found? What a colossal loser I must be.

I don’t enjoy being jaded. I am by nature an optimistic pragmatist. When at first I don’t succeed, I plod on. I want to believe I’ll discover gold in one of the veins I’m exploring, but if I don’t, well, the work’s its own reward.  That’s a lot harder to pull off when prevailing media offerings constantly suggest that everyone else can easily find what remains for me elusive.

Every episode of Modern Love tantalizes with elements of truth. The actors in the series are wonderful – not a bad one in the bunch – but the writing is shallow. Okay, the stories are based on essays that are 1500 words or less. But a screenwriter should be able to create fleshy characters, who talk like people talk. And am I the only one who notices that there is not one episode that follows someone who lives in a middle- or working-class world? That poverty is nonexistent here? Every one of the lovers here has a fabulous apartment that is fabulously decorated. They all have amazing jobs and work among titans. More reasons I should feel unworthy.

In the episode entitled “When Cupid is a Prying Journalist,” Katherine Keener plays an almost-believable character . . . an older woman giving advice to a thoroughly make-believe young genius (Dev Patel) millionaire (of course) about the pursuit of happiness. The characters in “At the Hospital” are so hopelessly hip their love seems fake and contrived. The heroine of “So He Looked Just Like Dad, etc . . . “ is boringly stupid. Is any young woman working in NYC (and living in such upscale digs) really naïve enough to think a leering, sex-starved older man would moon so unabashedly over a girl for whom he has only paternal affection?

Jane Alexander, an actor I deeply admire, plays a character who serves cheap baloney in “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap.” Up to a point, women might possibly imagine that being over 70 is romantic in some way, but we who have passed that Rubicon know better. And the actual probability of finding the kind of love Alexander’s character discovers is as likely as finding a clean spot on the subway floor.

Or is this just one more way of telling me how inadequate I am?

Older men who seek older women invariably look for someone to mother them, someone to listen to their monologues, someone to call 911. I would love to believe there is a man like James Saito’s character for each of us out there, a gentle man who listens enthusiastically, who shares interests but revels in each of the couple’s individualities. Forgive me if my experience makes me skeptical.

My most recent disappointment happened last month. I met a man who enticed me with what seemed to be a real interest in me and in my work. But the moment I ventured to get to know him – first by electronic messaging, then telephone, and finally on an actual date with him – he became a lecturer. He took to telling me what I like, what I look for, what I am. Assuming I knew nothing, he regaled me endlessly with his erudition. He asked me what I’m writing about, and before I got to sentence number two about the project I am struggling with, he was off on a tale of how he saved a woman writer he had been hired to edit.

On our date, when the monologue turned personal, and he was discussing his marriages or children or something, I made a comment about the complexities of motherhood, how women are easily eclipsed by childbirth and child-rearing. He interrupted with a story about how lucky his first wife was to have had him in the delivery room because he was able to relieve all her pain because he knew the right place to touch. That was immediately followed – without so much as a breath – by the story of how he sailed up the coast of Spain to save a woman who would have bled to death had he not liberated her and applied his EMT skills.

I took the advice of the Madagascar penguin. “Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.” I smiled – and nodded – and waved goodbye.

Every day for the following week, I received endless incoherent soliloquies or solipsistic PM messages on Facebook. Each time I replied and asked questions, he rejoined with yet another harangue. None of my questions or comments was acknowledged. I finally asked him point-blank if he had any interest in me. If so, I said, please demonstrate it. Call me, write me a question you allow me to answer, engage with me. Interact. I haven’t heard a word from him since I made that request.

If I were to judge myself by Modern Love standards, I would have to assume I am a ragtag reject.

If only life were so winnable as it is in the series. Would that playing tennis might have volleyed my marriage back to life as it did for Tina Fey and John Slattery’s characters in “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” written by Dennis Leary’s real-life wife Ann. Would that any one of the few boyfriends I have had since I divorced twelve years ago had been so quick to acknowledge their role in our absence of communication. At least this episode was honest in its depiction of the separate worlds we build when we are supposedly fused to one another. That was something.

The one episode I really liked was the one I expected to hate. I am not an Ann Hathaway fan, and I was put off at first by the specter of Hollywood glitz. But in “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I am,”  I was won over by the sensitive, detailed glimpse into the bi-polar world it provides. Hathaway, with no little assistance from the script, nailed both the manic hyper-high and the paralyzing despondency, the need for a truly accepting ear, the struggle to maintain the most basic of human relationships. Let alone love. Finally, a protagonist who doesn’t miraculously get everything she ever wished for in 50 minutes flat. Finally, an episode that ends realistically.  Hathaway’s character vows to stay on her meds and talk often to her physician. That is all. She is content.

And that is the best kind of happily ever after I can imagine.

 

A Brother’s Keeper

In 2004, Maurice Cohen, brother of Eliahu Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy, told me a story about love and patriotism    . . . a  story of heroism. About a man who loved his wife but loved his country more. . . so much more that he laid down his life to save it. I wrote the story and sold it to Moment Magazine. They published it in 2005.

Moment Magazine’s promotion of The Spy

In 2019, Netflix launched The Spy, a limited original series that borrows liberally from the Moment article. In the Netflix version, however, Eli Cohen is more anti-hero than hero. Here he is ruthless, inconsiderate, arrogant. Maurice spoke of a man with deep commitments, who would never willingly brutalize another human being. Somewhere between the lines of both lies the truth about the man Eli Cohen actually was.

Maurice Cohen, 2004

When I met Maurice, I instantly disliked him. He was cagey, strange. I had to accept him, even learn to like him – he and an old friend were engaged, and she was smitten. Maurice, she explained, was a fascinating man with a compelling past. “He was a spy,” she whispered, “Mossad. Retired.”

He shared his story with me, and I remained skeptical. At first.

“I could have saved Eliahu Cohen,” Maurice told me, shaking his drooped head in exaggerated shame. “My big brother. I could have stopped the hanging.” He inhaled deeply, looked into my eyes for the first time ever, and said. “I decoded his messages. I knew he was our man in Damascus, and I didn’t say a word. If I did, maybe he’d be alive today.”

“You can sell this,” he said. “It’s a story you’ve never heard.”

That was absolutely true. Even if he had embellished the story, it was saleable. And timeless.

Maurice worked for Mossad decoding and encrypting messages. His job was to receive and decode telegraph messages, which he then delivered to headquarters. He was never supposed to know the identity of the senders. He discovered Eli by a freak coincidence and told no one what he knew. Maurice was an old man plagued with guilt by the time I met him. Asking me to write the story was his act of contrition.

I queried Moment Magazine, and they were quick to send me an advance and a publication contract.

Nadia and Eli Cohen – from Moment Magazine, June 2005

Over the next several months, I became intimate with the details of Eli and Maurice’s story. Their parents’ emigration from Aleppo, Syria to Egypt; Eli’s underground activities in Egypt and their separate immigration to Israel. Eli’s great love affair with Nadia. His gift for languages, his recruitment into the Agaf ha-Modi’in, a branch of the IDF, and his subsequent transfer to the Mossad, where he was assigned, in 1963, by, to travel to Argentina. There he was instructed to establish the persona of Kamel Amin Sa’Abet, a rich Syrian expatriate hungry to return to Damascus.

A reckless risk-taker, Eli seemed fearless. Once relocated to Damascus, tirelessly smuggled valuable information from Syria into Israel. In 1965, he was caught and hanged. His work enabled Israel to prevail in their 1967 War, which they fought against the United Arab Republic, the combined, Soviet-supplied air forces and armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

Maurice (who died in 2006) carried with him deep remorse. “I should have told my mother. Or Nadia (Eli’s wife). They deserved to know. I didn’t even confront Eli. Maybe he would have come home instead of persisting in such a dangerous game.”

Eli Cohen’s story had been told and re-told. What made my article for Moment unique was Maurice’s perspective. His was an excruciating task. Duty to country required him to keep his brother’s mission secret, but his duty to family . . .. This was a story with what the film industry would call “legs.” It deserved to be turned into a film.

The week before I turned in the final draft of the essay I titled “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” while attending the Cannes Film Market, I told a producer friend what I was writing for Moment. “Let’s make that movie,” he said. “What a story!” We planned to announce our intent to make the film at an industry party the following night.

When we met for breakfast the following morning, our attorney greeted us with a small notice she’d read in Variety. Director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Sony Pictures Co-Founder/Director Michael Barker were in talks with Nadia Cohen, widow of Eli Cohen, to make a love story. Raising money for a film is a daunting enough task. We could never compete with Sony.

We scrapped our plans, and I rarely thought about Eli and Maurice thereafter. The Moment article was inaccessible online, so I couldn’t use it as a clip, and I began to doubt I ever wrote it at all.

Until my son suggested I check out Netflix’s original series about Eli Cohen. I watched the trailer and smiled. It’s about Nadia and Eli’s love story, the slant Pierce and Barker spoke about at that Cannes party. I binge-watched the show.

For the first four episodes, I really liked it. It had flaws – weak writing, absence of necessary exposition, choppy editing – but I was so close to the story that the holes didn’t bother me. Besides, it was largely the story Maurice told me to write. He was depicted transcribing messages as they beeped in from Eli in Syria. At Episode Five, when the fictional Maurice intercepts a message about the Singer sewing machine, I was sure that Moment Magazine article had to be a screenwriter’s source. I was the first to write about that incident. No one else has yet published another version.

How could I not be flattered? Someone actually paid attention to what I wrote. I Googled the essay at Moment, and there it was, on the web in a blatant pitch for Netflix. Underneath photos of the series star Sacha Baron Cohen and a link to the series’ page, the copy reads, “In honor of this Friday’s premiere, we pulled a Moment exclusive from the archives: Am I My Brother’s Keeper? 

I have my clip now.

I wish I liked the Netflix series more. There are so many omissions, so many ways the production fails to present a whole picture of the given circumstances.

In this telling, nothing explains Eli Cohen’s work. There is no end to justify his means. As the episodes progress, it must seem to the unschooled eye that he was simply an arrogant, evil man, who was used by a ruthless Israeli machine to spy on the unwitting, unsuspecting, innocent Syrians. In this version, Cohen worms his way into the confidence of the upper echelon of the Ba’athists in power and becomes a ruthless agent willing to betray everyone whose confidence he has won. He facilitates murder and mayhem. He enables Israel to take the Golan Heights. By the time he slowly mounts the gallows for his public execution, most of the audience must think he deserves to die in ignominy.

Israel comes off looking greedily aggressive. No backstory details the struggle for survival that threatened Israel from 1948 on. There is no mention of the fact that Israel’s Arab neighbors were (as they remain) sworn to eradicate the Jewish state. War was perpetually imminent. Syrians invested millions in building bunkers to hide their troops and weaponry. They armed Palestinians to wage guerilla warfare against Israelis. Syria, Jordan, and Egypt consolidated efforts to make war against Israel. In June 1967, they attacked. The result was the Six-Day War. 800 Israelis and 20,000 Arabs died in 132 hours of fighting.

Without Cohen’s intelligence, there is no telling how many days the fighting might have continued, how many more lives would have been lost.

Eli Cohen was undoubtedly a complex character. His love of country hardly justifies the hideous nature of the acts he enabled, and no patriotism could validate what his years in Damascus did to his family. I only wish that Netflix had taken the time and the care to explore his multiple dimensions. That it had allowed for more subtlety, more nuance. Then I would feel like I had contributed to a job well done.