A Cousin is a Cousin for A’ That. . . .

Cousins!

“Someone had best pinch me,” Lesley said dreamily. “Never mind. I’ll pinch myself. This is all so unreal.”

I nodded. It’s the kind of statement I might otherwise have thought hyperbolic. Silly even. But at that moment I found it utterly appropriate.

Lesley is my second cousin. We had just met for the very first time at the home of our mutual (also second) cousin Nancy, in Columbus, Ohio. Until only recently, none of us was aware of the others’ existence. Nancy and I were lucky. We knew what had been lost. We had expected to find family members waiting to be discovered. Lesley, on the other hand, had no idea. Having grown up without an extended family, she had no inkling there were relatives of any kind anywhere. Pinching was definitely prescribed.

The preparations for our meeting actually began two years ago. Out of the blue, I heard from Nancy, a shadow from a part of my past I only vaguely remembered. We had a shared history, but it was fleeting, and I had to squint through my memory to recall her.

A month apart in age, Nancy and I played together as small children. We share great-grandparents by way of our mothers, the first cousins. Nancy’s grandfather Joseph was second and my grandmother Rudolfine the last of the ten children born to Chane and Hermann Zwilling between 1883 and 1899. In our early youth, our mothers were in close touch, but over time, distances grew between them, and Nancy and I grew up far apart from one another. Now, as age would have it, our heritage demanded that we reconnect and explore our common roots.

Chane and Hermann Zwilling were a storybook couple.

Chane & Hermann Zwilling, circa 1907

They were born, met and married in Ukraine during the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century. Unique among their peers, they lived happily ever after. Following the birth of their first child, they moved to Warsaw and from there to Vienna, all the while managing to escape or survive multiple tragedies, the tropes of Jewish History. Each of their ten children slipped past disease and hunger, infection and violence, through infancy into adulthood. All were gifted musicians, artists, thinkers, and their weekly reunions were effervescent celebrations of being alive.

Luckiest of all was that by the time of the Anschluss Österreichs, Chane and Hermann Zwilling had long since begun whiling away eternity in Vienna’s Zentral Friedhof, its largest cemetery. They never had reason to suspect the marauding madness of Nazism.

Their offspring, however, were endangered. All but Nancy’s grandfather, that is.

Joseph had left Vienna in 1910. His adamant support of Socialism and his refusal to serve as a soldier in the Hapsburg army led to a quarrel with Hermann. “The Hapsburgs do nothing but breed like rabbits,” he exclaimed, and with that, he entered self-imposed exile. In New York City.

By 1928, the rest of the tribe had begun gathering the resources needed to get out. Out of Vienna, out of Austria, out of Europe if possible.

My own grandparents actively began their process in 1929 when they moved to Zagreb, then Yugoslavia. Anti-Semitism was still more subtle there, and a Jewish man could earn a decent wage, save and prepare to get his large extended family to safety.

In 1939, a year after the Anschluß, Nancy’s grandfather and grandmother met my grandmother and her family at the docks in New York. It was Joseph who secured the Harlem apartment that was my mother’s first American home. Together, our grandparents continued to work toward helping the rest of the Zwillings to flee as well.

They scattered. Sisters Milka, Ella, and Cilli escaped to Palestine; from there, two traveled to Australia and the other to Canada. Brother Heinrich found a circuitous route to Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Adolph took his family to Genoa, Italy.

There would be no more family reunions.

Oldest brother Max and two more brothers Ferdinand and Franz were stranded in Vienna. Franz, who had embraced Catholicism to marry his Slovenian sweetheart Elsa years before, realized conversion was not enough to save them. By 1939, all three brothers knew their prospects were slim. But at least they knew that the children were safe.

By 1940, thanks to my grandfather’s insistence and some financial assistance, the cousins were safely out of Austria.

Max and his wife Paula had two teenage daughters, and Franz and Elsa had one son. All three were among the 100,000 youngsters who wound up in the UK through the Kindertransport, an organized rescue effort facilitated by the British government. The girls enrolled in a nurses training program in the west of England, and Franz’s son Herman went to a pig farm outside of London.

Franz and his wife had reason to hope they would be safe. However, Max and Paula were artists and intellectuals with few prospects for escape. Ferdinand, a bookbinder and a musician by trade, a small homosexual man with a seriously deformed back, was doomed.

Ferdinand’s passport was confiscated immediately after the Nazis took over. They refused to allow him to travel until February 1941, when they deported him to Mali Trostinec, a death camp outside Minsk. There is no date of death listed on Ferdinand’s transportation records. In all likelihood, as soon as the train reached the Mali Trostinec station, Ferdinand was summarily shot.

In May of the following year, Max and Paula were also sent to Mali Trostinec. Max was gassed on the first of June, and Paula followed him twenty-six days later.

Franz and Elsa seemed to have scored a better outcome. In 1940, they were granted permission to depart, and they arranged to reunite with their son. Despite the obvious dangers of the raging war, they set sail for England.

Once in London, the couple settled into a hotel to await their son’s arrival the next day. Overnight, the heater malfunctioned. When Elsa awoke coughing and choking, she found Franz dead beside her. He had been gassed. Carbon monoxide.

After the war, through the 1950s and into the 60s, the surviving Zwilling siblings reached out and let one another know where they had gone. By 1963, my grandmother had managed to visit Adolph in Genoa and Ella in Canada. Letters traveled back and forth for years between New York and Australia. She never knew what had happened to Franz or the precise fate of Max, Paula, and Ferdinand. She found comfort in knowing most of her nephews and nieces had escaped.

Except for one who died flying for the RAF, the next generation of Zwilling progeny were safe. They, too, all members of the same close-knit family that gathered so frequently to make music together, sought one another out. Max’s daughters immigrated to the US, and the younger of the two was married in my grandmother’s backyard in Bayside, Queens. But not all were able to reconnect.

The cousins in Brazil and Europe remained out of reach. As far as my mother knew, Franz’s wife Elsa and his son Herman had vanished. It was Nancy who discovered that the information was incorrect.

Nancy is an only child, whose mother was an only child. Since Joe and his wife had left all their effects to Nancy’s mother, it was Nancy who ultimately inherited the task of sorting through all her family papers and memorabilia. A child psychologist who has written two impressive books on the acquisition of language and numbers, Nancy is a brilliant researcher with a highly disciplined, organized mind and methodology. The first thing she did when she began the mission was to catalog her parents’ miscellany.

In the dizzying piles of paper and photographs, she found letters to her father from a Harry Willing. Who was this Harry Willing? And how did he know her father?

In 2015, when Nancy contacted me, she had just begun the massive task of clarifying the family history.

“Come to Columbus and help me with this thing,” she invited me. “I’ll share the cost of the travel because I could really use some assistance.”

I was intrigued.

“Really,” Nancy insisted in her most erudite academic voice. “I’ve hired a genealogist, a genealogical detective,” Nancy explained. “He’s searching in the ruins for all of them.”

Among the detective’s impressive discoveries was that this Harry Willing was the name Franz’s son Herman Zwilling took when he was confirmed into the Church of England. The letters to Nancy’s father began to make sense. Among them were photos of Franz and Elsa before Franz’s death and photos of Elsa and Harry thereafter. There were also photos of Harry’s family – he had a daughter Lesley and a son Martin. Both still live in London.

“Let’s see if we can make contact,” Nancy enthused, and she immediately wrote to the addresses her sleuth had given her. She was not able to find Martin, but Lesley was well within reach and thrilled to be contacted.

Last May, Nancy and her husband visited Lesley and hers in the UK. There is no way to capture the emotional impact that reunion had on all of us. For Lesley, it was most profound.

“I thought my father was alone in the world,” she told Nancy at that first meeting. “I never dreamed I had any kind of family but the one I’ve made.”

Lesley and I began corresponding. “I feel like I have to meet you,” she said soon after her day with Nancy. “I need more time with Nancy, and I need to see you.”

She was hesitant at first to venture over to the US. Though she and her husband are inveterate travelers, Lesley had never gone off on her own.

Luckily for all of us, however, Lesley was driven by her curiosity.

We converged on Nancy’s home and spent three days talking incessantly. We were awake each night well past our bedtimes, and for Lesley that meant staying up past a bedtime that was five hours earlier than Nancy’s and mine. We shared pictures, stories, observations. We crowed about our children, grandchildren, Lesley’s one great-grandchild. We compared medical histories, and we examined the emotional vacuums of our parents’ collective memories.

We are all nearly the same age, and we all grew up with parents who didn’t know how to convey the emotional depths to which their losses had taken them. They were unable to talk about where they’d been, what they’d suffered. I first unearthed the basic truths about the family’s ordeals when I was eleven and had read a novel set in and after the Holocaust. Animating the stories became my passion. Even so, there were things no one disclosed. As my mother’s older sister was wont to say, “There are things we just don’t talk about.”

For Nancy, the discovery came a bit later. She began to ferret out information when she was in college and later turned to a more methodical approach to learning about them. She could not ask her parents. She could only intuit how their lives fit into those she read about in the literature.

For Lesley, the past was a void. She told us she always felt there was something huge missing from her life, but she had no idea what it might be.

Franz Zwilling, ca. 1935

What she did know was that Franz’s death left a hole in her soul. Had he lived, she surmised, her life would have been far different from the one she knew. Harry and his wife were not warm, nurturing people, and Lesley was left on her own much of the time. There was among them little physical contact at all, no expressions of affection. As a shield, she held fast to the image of the distinguished, beautiful man depicted in the single photograph she had of her grandparents, and, “Somehow I knew that if he were alive, he would have loved me the way I deserved to be loved.”

 

 

 

 

When the weekend was over, Lesley, Nancy and I had bonded like sisters. Cousins. It felt as though we had begun to heal the great gash that persists in our family narrative. Someday perhaps we’ll have this encounter with the other second cousins scattered about the world, and we’ll close the circle.

In the meantime, our Ohio weekend was transformative.

“You’ve filled my heart,” Leslie sobbed as we tearfully hugged goodbye at the airport. “There was always a piece of myself I knew was not there. But I had no idea where to look for it. You’ve given it back. I feel complete.”

The Zwilling Tribe,1900. When their youngest child (on Chane’s lap) was born in 1899, she was named Rudolfine. “But, declared old Hermann, “we shall call her Fini. She is the last of my issue. With this one I am fini.” Behind the three,(l-r) are Ella, Joseph, Max, Milka. to Hermann’s right is Ferdinand; at Chane’s right is Cillia, and to her left is Franz. Seated in the front are Adolph and Heinrich.

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Im Not Getting Better . . . I’m Getting Older

Horsey: T S A ©2010 Hearst Newspapers

There are so many slings and arrows we become inured to as we age. Being shoved aside by youngsters bent on getting a subway seat. Receiving condescending rejection letters from potential employers under forty. Being addressed, like a hard-of-hearing toddler, in loud monosyllabic words. It sucks to grow old. But because the alternative is far worse, we simply tolerate the little insults and abuses.

Most of them.

I still get flustered when a TSA agent tells me, “I’ll have to pat you down.”

A pat-down is unnatural. Disconcerting. I try to make light – the way I do when the dentist is extracting yet another of my teeth – but a typical TSA agent has less sense of humor than any dentist. To make fun could land me in jail because to a TSA agent, I am a threat to national security.

All because of my titanium hip. Which I chose to have placed in me.

One bitterly cold February morning in 2006, I was out for a run in Fort Tryon Park. Looking upward, dazzled by the brilliantly cerulean sky, I failed to see the sharply pointed rock jutting out if the earth just in front of my toe. I tripped and flew a bit upward before falling down. My right hip landed squarely on that rock.

“It’s definitely fractured,” my surgeon affirmed, looking at my x-rays. “You must have fallen just right.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I was running faster than I’d run in weeks. I just got over bronchitis and. . . “

“You’ve got options,” he mumbled impatiently. “I could fix it. But you’ll have pain, and you’ll limp. Or I can replace it. Then it won’t bother you at all. Except when you fly.”

He was half right. It only presents a problem when I fly out of an American city. I’ve flown out of cities in Israel, Taiwan, Thailand, Italy, UK, Hong Kong, Turks & Caicos, among others, and I have never been subjected to so much as a second look. In fact, in most places, because of my age, I don’t have to wait on lines, and people go out of their way to be helpful. A body scanner readily picks up the hot spot near my groin, and other countries’ agents recognize the piece of metal that is my bionic hip. No problem. Off I go. But in the US, I’m treated with the care and respect reserved for foreign terrorists.

To be fair, some TSA agents are nicer about it than others. Some are even downright kind. At LaGuardia last month, the woman who responded to the request for a “Female Assist” was personable, friendly. She apologized and did her business quickly. It’s never fun, but in that case, the experience was not humiliating. I flew to Chicago without a single case of the willies.

The agent in Chicago at my return flight made up for the deficit by providing me with a full dose of creepiness.

It began with a bit of drama back at my hotel.

My room’s safe, where I had put my wallet for security’s sake while I attended a wedding on the South Side the night before, was so secure that it refused to open for me. The hotel had only one person with the key to open it, and he did not arrive to liberate my valuables until ten minutes after I should have headed to the airport. By the time I reached the airport, it was nearly time to board. Flights to NY that day were overbooked, and I wanted to get home. I knew, however, that if I gave the TSA people any inkling that I was in a hurry, I would irritate them.

“I need the body scanner – prosthetic hip,” I announced in the practiced, sing-song voice I’ve developed for the statement.

“Female Assist,” the cry went up.

A formidable woman appeared from somewhere else. Imposingly muscular, at least three inches taller than I, she sauntered toward me in her best John Wayne posture and looked down at me with disdain. I’ve come to the conclusion that the TSA HR looks for candidates with resting bitch faces and eyes that shout “NOTERRORISTWILLFOOLME.”

“Feet on the yellow,” she growled. “I said ON the yellow. Hands up. Higher. Hold still. Stand still.”

I emerged from the cell and waited. It took her at least a minute to get back to me. The picture in the scanner was exactly as I expected. Even though I was wearing no jewelry, no braces, no underwear, there was a dark spot on my collarbone and a large one in my hip and groin area. I have no idea what that is at my collarbone. It’s always there. The hip is self-explanatory.

“You’ll have to be patted down,” she growled again. This time she was clearly annoyed. It was my fault.

“I’m gonna have to pat you down on your breasts, your buttocks, your waist, your groin, your . . . “

“Could you just do it please?”

“Not till I’ve said what I need to say.” She started over, droning on about where she would be putting her hands. I think I groaned. She stopped and stared at me with an unmistakable death threat. “I can have you taken into a private room for this if you don’t like it here.”

“It’s okay,” I shuddered. “I was just thinking my plane is going to leave without me.

“We gotta do our job.”

“I understand.” She stood staring at me. I must have sounded sarcastic. No wonder. I should have just held my breath. Instead I said, “I never have this trouble anywhere but in America. Everywhere else, they. . . “

“Well maybe you should ’a’ stayed somewhere else then. You put our country in danger, we don’t want you here.”

I shut up.

She patted me down not once but twice in each of the specified areas. The second time she even pushed her gloved hand roughly down my pants. I closed my eyes so I could not see the other passengers, hurrying by on their way to their flights, stop to stare at the menacing old woman being detained at the TSA station.

When she was finally done, the agent made me endure a hand check. More waiting. Finally, she scowled at me and said, “You can go now. But next time? Maybe you should just stay home.”

 

Three Dead Men

It’s been a rough month for understanding emotions. In a rush of sudden departures, I have lost three complex men, with whom my relationships were equally complicated. What follows is my initial effort to rummage through the shadows and identify my most honest responses to their deaths. Not a simple task.

All three were remarkable. One narcissist, one divo, and one hero. All brilliant. All loving, hateful, kind, and even abusive. You were right Bobby Burns. 

The Narcissist

Urs in 2008 – He loved this image of himself

The first death notice was for Urs, a former lover and confidant, who died suddenly in Switzerland. After years of dickering about how and if, Urs and his brother were finally renovating the family homestead near Zürich. In typical Urs fashion, he was cavalierly riding atop a trailer loaded with trash. He slid off and fell under a tractor wheel, which instantly crushed him. My first reaction when I heard the news was a simple nod. Every time I walked or biked with Urs in traffic, I would beg him to observe caution, to obey street signs, to listen to oncoming traffic. He laughed. It was, he reminded me, his desire to go suddenly, without pomp. “I wish to be snatched into the void before I have time to think about it or to be a burden to my children,” he declared. Death by garbage truck became him.

A self-proclaimed polymath, Urs was a financial wiz, a legal eagle, a filmmaker, a photographer, a writer, a painter, a collector. He loved art and argument, music and mental mayhem. His self-absorption was peerless. In his mind, everything revolved around him. He imagined every eye was on him from morning till night. He owned enough pairs of glasses – he called them his mood measurers – to open a curiosity shop of eyewear and had closets full of clothing that would make the Kardashian women seem frugal. He cast all rules of engagement, suffered no fools, tolerated no dissension. I knew that if I didn’t agree with him, if I didn’t like what he chose or did or wanted, he was finished with me. That was all. And for reasons I hardly understood, I was okay with that. Perhaps it was because, at the same time, he could surprise me with his generosity. He arranged a career-changing job for me, and that job took me to London, where I was able to live for nearly three months, thanks entirely to his hospitality. He believed in the opportunity, and he believed in me. . . so long as I was in some way an extension of him.

Urs had a rapier wit, a deep appreciation for irony and The Absurd. He was expert at mugging, and his jokes were delightful. I lost myself in him, allowing his intellect to eclipse mine, encouraging him to void my will. He was an anomaly, and I might have fallen in love with but for his abject cruelty.

One day, as we walked in the NY neighborhood where my son and his family lived, we happened to meet up with my daughter-in-law. She was only a few weeks post-partum and was having her nails done in a local salon. Urs greeted her in the European manner, kissing her on each cheek before he announced imperiously for all to hear, “You look terrible. Did you know you’ve become quite saftig?”

That night, as we prepared for bed, I demanded that Urs apologize. Without discussion, he ordered me to leave. “It’s the middle of the night,” I whined. “You’ll have to walk me home or come down and hail me a cab.” Wordlessly, he pointed me to a mattress on the floor in an adjacent room. At first light, I went home. We were done.

Il Divo

No one was as able as The Coach to elicit genuine brilliance from young singers.

Next was “Dr. Coach,” my longtime collaborator and cheerleader.

I can still hear the sonorous voice that greeted me over the phone the first time I encountered him. “Hello,” it crooned. “Carla Stockton, this is __________, Ph.D., and I have heard so very much about you. I am calling to make an offer I know you won’t refuse.” I didn’t. How could I?

The offer was the job of artistic director for an educational summer theater program for which he was musical director. Ours became a fertile partnership. For several years, we created spectacular productions together – putting talented kids to work building sets, creating costumes, stage managing, acting, and singing for works such as Into the Woods, Most Happy Fella, Sweeney Todd, A Chorus Line, Pippin . . . .

People were astounded. The music we chose was challenging – highly operatic, written for seasoned performers – and the kids nailed it every time. That was all Coach. He could have coaxed music from a plank of wood, and his ability to evoke musical perfection from our charges, to motivate them to reach ever loftier goals, was nothing short of magical. I worked with many music directors over my years in educational theater. Never did I encounter anyone as effective a teacher as he was.

But he had a dark side. He was prone to mad bouts of depression during which he became surly, abusive. He berated me for every possible flaw, both real and imagined, I might have. “You spend too much time on the chorus scenes when we should be working the quartet. Let the idiots go, and focus on our stars.” “Your hair is getting too long, and I think you need a new look. Tell that skinflint of a husband of yours to get you a haircut and a new outfit. I’m tired of jeans.” “You’ll never understand this music. I sometimes think you have a tin ear.” He also had some troubling proclivities.

At the time, Coach was a 60-something-year-old man with a yen for school-aged women. Especially for the youngest, prettiest, most voluptuous, most gifted. Over the years I knew him, he never expressed interest in any woman older than 18. Fortunately, however, he was careful and self-aware, and I never worried he would do anything untoward.

During preparations for a show, he would call me after each rehearsal to share with me which girls he was lusting after. I think he did that to shield himself, to hear me say how absurd it was, what a ridiculous fancy. He never touched them, never crossed any lines of impropriety. I listened and chided him without scolding, encouraging him to continue confiding in me and to continue holding himself back. His passion seemed to enable him to be a kind of Pygmalion for the women he craved, breathing splendiferous life into voices they did not realize they had.

Before the first summer theater season began, I called on Coach to collaborate on a project at the high school where I was employed. I had been asked to direct the senior class production of Into the Woods. I knew there was no way I could pull that show off without a superior music director. Despite the fact that he was in the thick of his choir duties at his school, in addition to the performance he and his students were preparing to take to Washington, Coach eagerly added my project. In auditions, we were dumbfounded by the discovery of a young woman with a flawless soprano voice. She had never sung before, she said, but she already commanded a full three-octave range, and her high notes were the purest I had ever heard. Coach was instantly smitten. He threw himself into the task of coaching her to play the very demanding role of the Witch. She, too, immersed herself in the work.

Every night after rehearsal, Coach would call me and pour out his besotted fantasies. Every day we would go back into rehearsals, where he would maintain complete decorum. Their efforts resulted in a wondrous performance. I have never heard “Children Will Listen” sung as well as that child delivered it. The innocence in our witch’s crystalline voice resonated, gave the song added import. Children did listen.

In 1998, at Coach’s insistence, I wrote a successful grant proposal for a conservatory-style summer program that had an afterschool training component in Bel Canto voice and Shakespearean acting. The State of Connecticut gave us an unprecedented amount of money. We hired actors and technicians and instructors, artists to create seminars and field trips. We were able to produce four plays in repertory. We recruited students from all over the state, and we met in a classroom at a local university from September till May. Then, in the summer, we housed our students at the same campus and bused them to our host high school, where they attended classes and seminars, rehearsed the plays they were in, ate the three meals we provided. We were able to hire dorm supervisors and to take elaborate field trips. It was a golden year, and we were the talk of New Haven County. We could have become an institution. Until Coach lost his resolve.

Soon after summer rehearsals began, Coach realized he could not live without one of our stars. She was a delightful young woman, beautiful and innocent, with a glorious voice. At first, Coach kept his feelings to himself, controlled his cravings. But each day brought him new frustration, and by the second week of the three-week rehearsal run, he was telling not just me but anyone who would listen that he could hardly contain himself any longer. He even told his male students. He was in love, he moaned, and he just must, must, must tell her. At this point, my tolerance waned. “You can’t tell her. You have to stop telling your boys. And you cannot touch her. This has to stop NOW.” He curbed his hunger, but we were no longer friends.

I was sad to lose him, but I was diverted by personal concerns and paid no attention to what he was up to. He took advantage of my silence and spread nasty rumors. He told parents of some of our young techies that I had cheated them out of pay. He told the district I had pilfered money intended for buses. He told colleagues in the community that I had subverted the program, and his accusations ensured that our grant was not renewed. I only learned about the tales much later, by which time I had no desire to engage with him on any level. I settled into my life and assumed that we would eventually become acquaintances with memories of a very successful collaboration.

Sometime in 2006, and I saw him examining the produce in a local market. Spreading my arms wide, I declared, ”_____________, Ph.D., I haven’t seen you in forever!” He glowered at me for a millisecond, then turned his back and walked away.

The Hero – DAN ALON, his story follows in the next entry.

A Clockwork Orange . . . Live!

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 11.01.56 AM

My first thought when the gaggle of middle school-aged boys boarded my crosstown bus was how lucky that I’d be disembarking soon. They were without adult companions, clearly coming from an after-school activity, exuding the day’s pent-up exuberance. The two years I spent as an 8th-grade classroom teacher and my years in youth drama taught me well to expect noise and boisterous behavior. Nothing prepared me for what they actually brought onto that bus.

Nothing except perhaps Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange dystopia.

There were ten of them. The oldest looked to be a few months shy of his fifteenth birthday. Small, smooth-faced, and wiggly, they seemed adorable – all cherubic faces and cuddly little bodies. Giddy, silly boys volleying jocular epithets in half-changed voices that vacillated from soprano to crackling baritone.

“You call that a jump shot? Dude. He was just standing on tippytoes like he was spitting at the hoop.”

“Truth, man? I don’t give a &*&* about no jump shot. I’m down with the cheerleaders.”

“No shit! I’d be down with them. Literally. Like down in all that . . . .”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Suddenly, without warning, the banter turned brutish.

“You see Lilly this mornin’?”

“She looked hot.”

“Right? That’s some rack she’s carryin’ – and that booty. I just wanna. . . . ”

“I got plans for that one. Oh yeah. You c’n help. One of these days after school, we could drag her into the girls’ room. We cover her mouth so she can’t scream, and we . . . . “

The child went on to describe his plan for the girl in question, a plan that turned darker as his giggles grew more mirthful. In lurid detail, he shared the stages of a rape he had in mind. He and his friends bounced up and down like toddlers on a trampoline. Raucous laughter crescendoed to cheering as his words slithered toward the narrative’s climax. Shrill expletives pierced the bus walls with vile, violent language.

My fellow passengers and I sat stock still, afraid to look at the boys, afraid to change expressions. No one moved, no one spoke. Our heads down, we all struggled to conceal our collective grimace.

I escaped at the fifth stop. And as I caught my breath, my guilt set in.

I should have spoken up. I teach older students, and I have never been afraid of confrontation. Why was it that I was so intimidated, that we all were so intimidated by this group of changelings?

For one thing, the boys’ behavior was all too familiar. We see it on Youtube, on Facebook, in the news, in our midsts. Youthful aggressors testing their limits by whatever displays of disrespect they can muster. They carry amplifying devices in the streets and on public transportation, blasting their angry music in all directions. They push old people out of their way to take seats when the vehicles are crowded, and they lash out at anyone who gets to a seat ahead of them. A very fat girl pushed me aside so she could occupy three spaces on a crowded D-train one day, and when I scowled, she stomped on my foot to make sure I knew my place. We are unprepared for this madness, and so we are silent. These kids are empowered by forces we strain to understand.

In NY, quality of life laws have been thrown to the wayside, and the police are powerless to silence the noise or search for guns. It’s clear to those of us who live among the toughest ones that they are packing. We can see the firearms that are only perfunctorily concealed beneath hoodies and oversized sweatpants. But we can do nothing.

Who in their right mind would speak up? There are myriad stories circulating about the danger of dissent. So little as a disapproving face can incite an assault.

The country is led by a moronic bully, whose mentality is exactly like these boys’. He brags about his exploits, disrespects just about everybody, throws his considerable weight around without concern for anyone but himself, and he publicly uses language that makes him sound tough to adolescents. Our so-called president is an overgrown middle-schooler with no self-constraint, and he licenses our children to feel impervious. We can’t touch them. They are in control.

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From a parody by Hugh Atkins

These kids are even less sophisticated than Burgess’ droogs.* They navigate a real-life Orwellian Airstrip, speak mindless newspeak, and eschew reason. To them war is peace, hate is love, and respect is folly. They need fear no one. There is no consequence anyone dares dole that impresses them.

And therein lies my great despair. And guilt. How do we stand up to it all? To the evil empire that has the country in its grip? To the oppressiveness of racism and classism that holds us all down? To the bonds of overzealous liberalism that makes it impossible to protect a city from itself? To the mob mentality that has put us where we are and to the other one that holds us prisoners to political correctness?

There must be a way to drive America sane.

I just wish I knew what that way is.

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*members of street gangs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ME TOO

The “Me too” posts on social media have me feeling ill at ease. I recognize the courage of those speaking up. In the not so distant past, we were ashamed to admit aloud that we had been violated. As victims, we bore the blame and thus were silenced. This new openness is potentially promising. I want to believe that the phrase might become the refrain of a liberation anthem. But I remain skeptical.

Forgive me for this, my sisters, but “Me too” feels too pat. It seems like another in a series of earnest empty slogans. I fear we are too easily lulled into the hope that our words will ignite sudden revelation among those people – both male and female – who have long perpetuated the abusively misogynist old boys’ club that runs most of the institutions in this country. But I have a strong sense that once the system has slapped a few wrists, has made a great show of punishing a few Weinsteins, has vented astonishment, everything will simply revert to the way it was before. No consciousness will be permanently raised. No significant change will be affected.

Of course, I, too, have been assaulted, molested, discriminated against. So have my daughters and my sisters and my cousins and most of the women I love. Most of the women I know. Like them, I’ve passed up opportunities that were offered in the trade of self. I’ve been disrespected and denigrated, and I have been relegated to the status of chattel. Most recently, as an older woman, I have witnessed the same humiliation wearing a new mantle. Suddenly, my many talents and considerable intellect are deemed as unworthy as my body. Since I am no longer able to procreate, my ability to write, to think, to speak, to teach is no longer desirable. I see the hatred for my womanhood all around me. In the sneering faces of men who shove me aside on the subway or the angry stares shot at me when I raise my voice to dissent. I am blanketed in wrath and menace.

But I am a lucky one. I have never been beaten to within an inch of my life. Nor have I been raped in a way that left me consigned to a lifetime of PTSD. There are those who have. And my saying “Me too” implies that the ways in which I was trespassed against are equal to the more lethal ravishments suffered by my cohorts. In my mind, that homogenization of the brutality dilutes the urgency, belittles their misery. And belies the desperateness of the situation. Change needs to happen. Now. There is no excuse for the perpetuation of this hideous status quo.

Chanting “Me too,” we are a choir of outliers. We seek safety in the company of our peers, but who else is listening? Do the others – the guys in charge, the ones with the power to alter the circumstances – really hear? Our “Me too” seems to lack gravitas with them.In my mind is a pervasive image: We girls are gathered on one side of a great hall, the boys on the other. They are snickering.  They are pointing, saying, “There they go again, those girls. They think they’re making sense, but we know they only make whatever sense we say they make. Let’s wink at them, laugh, wave, nod, tell them they’re terrific. They’ll see we think they’re cute, and they’ll go back to doing their nails or whatever it is they were doing before this silly idea popped into their heads.”

I want more than a slogan, more than a chant, more than a refrain.  I want to see a true movement of women. One wherein women stop trying to undercut one another, stop vying for men’s attention, stop trying to trip their sisters as the sisters climb up the various ladders of achievement. I want a movement of women that offers true support to those who need the assistance of the sisterhood. A movement that empowers women and disempowers the male-dominated offices that disable us daily. A movement that stands up to the assaulters and the abusers and the disrespecters and makes it clear that we are not going to take it anymore. A women’s movement that is all-inclusive, that does not bar participation by ANY human being who identifies as a woman. Politics have no business in this movement. We need to form a circle and link arms and fend off the forces that would relegate us to a weaker sex, imprison us in our imposed inferiority.

Women need to see that there will continue to be “me too” generations till the end of time until and unless we women put a stop to it. By standing together, we could take over the system. We could do more than right the wrongs aimed at us. Our power could enact safer gun controls, create affordable universal health care,  reduce our collective carbon footprints, viably reform public education, etc. We could make life less terrifying for all.

With something like true unity, we could conceivably change the world.

That’s when I’ll pipe up with a “Me too.”

 

 

Julius, O Julius, Wherefore Art Thou Julius?

Shakespeare in the Park is irresistible because. . . Central Park (photo by Joan Marcus).

The main problem with the Public Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, now playing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, is that its frame is warped. Director Oskar Eustis has set the tale first in New York City then in Washington, D.C., in the time of our current great distress. He has dressed his Julius Caesar as a lean and hungry Trump, who struts and frets his overlong hour upon the stage as a great buffoon. This Caesar plunges stupidly into the senators’ trap, dying ignominiously in a moment closer to commedia dell’arte than tragic drama. His death is a relief to us all. The mayhem that ensues seems unmotivated.

It’s a silly notion from the get-go likening the Carrot-in-Chief to the second noblest Roman of them all. It is akin to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to JFK. We’ve studied Caesar in history, in literature. Anyone who took Latin read of Caesar’s exploits in his own words. We know Julius Caesar. That guy in the White House is no Julius Caesar.

The fault is not in the stars but in our President. The players have a firm grasp on their characters, but #45 is anything but the brilliant tactician, valiant soldier, and learned scholar Julius Caesar was. In his will, the real Caesar named the people of Rome among his heirs, and much of his property was turned over to the city. He was, in theory at least, a proponent of human rights. In Shakespeare’s version of the tale, he is a true patriot, whose vaulting ambition undermines his love of country. As trusted as a politician might be, that Caesar is an upholder of the Republic, a servant of the people.

The current American POTUS believes in nothing and in no one but himself. His ambition may sometimes pose as patriotism, but he abhors the body politic and disdains his fellow citizens. He is a narcissist, a pompous blowhard, whose rise to power is entirely the folly of the rabble that Marullus addresses at the top of the play as, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” These modern day “hard hearts of Rome” have raised up a feeble prince as their savior, and it is his inadequacy that destroys the current production at its core.

Theoretically, this play is an apt mirror unto our times. It’s about the corruption of power, about the way in which the fickle masses aggrandize false prophets, the way we easily relinquish our power to undeserving leaders. And what is art if not the means by which we see ourselves? As Brutus tells Cassius, “ . . . the eye sees not itself/ But by reflection.” If the play were the thing wherein to catch the conscience of a despot, then the slings and arrows of post-Pompey Rome should be the perfect foil for our present morass.

But Shakespeare’s play is lost in a jumble of ill-fitting implications. Having chosen to contemporize the play, Eustis could have preserved it and made it work in the way that some of our best popular entertainment works. Julius Caesar is as much Frank Underwood (House of Cards) or Don Draper (Mad Men) as he is the self-proclaimed Roman god. If Eustis had cast a Trump-ish leader without the multiple specifics that make this one exclusively Donald Trump, the play might have prevailed. It might have been set anywhere in the US, the title character played as any generic American politician. The satire would be obvious. The audience would extrapolate the underlying meaning without graphic detail. The writing is strong enough to work without the cartoonishly overblown visual references this director supplies. But Eustis doesn’t trust us.

His Julius Caesar is more about itself than it is about anything verging on what Shakespeare created. This JC strides the earth like a Donald-cloned Colossus, replete with the long red tie and the bright yellow pompadour. His Calpurnia (Tina Benko) walks with a sneer and speaks with an exaggerated Slovenian accent. There is no doubt who these two are. Eustis is so afraid we won’t get it, he even adds words to Caesar’s opening statements, having him directly address the good people of New York, telling them he is the greatest, that he will please them bigly. Then, just to be sure we haven’t missed it, he sets the scene preceding the murder in a bathtub full of steaming water. Calpurnia, rolling all her Rs and jumbling her sentence structure, almost succeeds in seducing him into staying at home on this dangerous Ides of March. But when the conspirators arrive and convince him he must to the Senate and receive his just rewards, this Orange Julius stands so that everyone can see his shriveled little appendage. Thanks, Mr. Eustis.

Calpurnia (Tina Benko) uses body language to dissuade her Caesar (Gregg Henry) from leaving his home on his fateful day. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The production definitely improved after Caesar’s death. But even then, it reminded me more of a high school theater’s attempt at satire. The addition of crowds chanting “We rise” and “Resist” and other all-too-recognizable standards was cheap, amateurish. The hand was so overplayed that the overall experience was numbing.

Which was too bad on many levels.

Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) seal their deal. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Some wonderful acting got lost in the melee. Corey Stoll’s brooding Brutus is a thoughtful intellectual. But played in the light of the stunningly farcical Caesar, he seems more like the supercilious guy from the SNL “Deep Thoughts” routine of years ago. John Douglas Thompson is a powerful Cassius, whose ardor and sincerity work well when he is in scenes with Stoll’s Brutus but look ridiculous when he’s anywhere near the other characters and the absurdity of the staging. Stoll and Thompson are in a play of their own. Whenever they must interact with the rest of the company, they are like characters from a Pirandello scenario experimenting with interpretations. Especially when they are playing scenes opposite this feeble Julius Caesar. Or Marc Anthony.

Elizabeth Marvel’s Anthony, with an on-again-off-again Southern accent, is as much a cartoon as the slain hero she mourns. She reminded me more of the television version of Wonder Woman than of anyone cunning enough to have led the retaliation forces that shape the play’s action. I love that a woman is entrusted with this role. I wish the actor, who has played so many powerful, strong-willed, charismatic leaders in her past, had had license to embody a soldier I might have believed.

Nor is Gregg Henry culpable. He plays Julius Caesar exactly as the production demands. Which makes for an overlong SNL skit – where he’d give Alex Baldwin some real competition – rather than anything close to real dramatic art. If this were a sketch by the Uptown Citizens’ Brigade, I’d give him a standing ovation. Alas, it’s Shakespeare in the Park.

And something I’m a bit unclear about here. When Julius Caesar is assassinated, there is no question that the man with the tight suit and the impervious swagger is the present POTUS. Which means that in essence, it is #45 who is stabbed in effigy. How is that not treason? How does this not cross the line? And when the line is crossed, how is the satirist any less officious and self-important than his subject?

It’s all well and good to time bend, gender bend, and story bend in Shakespeare. Two Verona gentlemen dancing blithely in ‘70s hip-hop psychedilia, a midsummer night’s dream transpiring in a floating phantasm of umbrellas, and Coriolanus as a Nazi general are easily acceptable. Each is a fitting transformation. Shakespeare wrote characters and stories that breathe universally over time and across any era. But in order for the re-juxtaposing to work, the basic assumption must be appropriate.

In the end, Julius Caesar is not a comedy of errors, and it doesn’t play well as one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Can We Not Resist? (reprinted from Medium.com)

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

That photo. The Syrian baby lying face down in the water.

I can’t bear to look at it, yet I cannot look away. That beautiful child, so like children I have loved, so very like my own grandchild now living in a faraway land, who will never feel welcome in her parent’s homeland.

As the child of immigrants, who would not exist had my family not figured out how to circumvent the ban on refugees in 1939 that deemed Poles too dark, too swarthy to be admitted, especially if they were Jews, how can I not abhor the implications of that photo? How can I not scream murder, now that the Predator-in-Chief has exercised his Executive Privilege and has broken the law by banning refugees from seven countries, including Syria, whose people are being massacred and cannot stay where they are.

In school, the lessons we learned in Civics classes taught us that America was not only the land of the free and home of the brave but also the land of Checks and Balances. We have three branches of government so that no one branch becomes too powerful. Why is the judiciary allowing this flagrant law breaking to happen? Why is the Legislature not standing up for the laws they have enacted?

It is clear that it is up to us, The People to demand that our Union be treated with respect. We cannot accept the abuse, cannot allow the current state of affairs to become normalized. We must defy this executive order that, like the other 44 that have been ramrodded through in the past ten days, defies understanding. And this executive order is the one that is the most indefensible thus far.

Because this order sets a precedent. It paves the way for more heinous implications. It puts every one of us in jeopardy though it is being advertised as a measure to protect us from interlopers. In truth, it is a measure to divide us, to terrify us, to make us look for bogeymen in our closets, under our beds, next door, in our communities.

And in time, it will allow each of us to be banned in our turn.

The bare truth is that not one American has ever been killed by anyone from any of the seven banned countries. Even 9/11, which was one of the few acts of violence enacted on American soil by outsiders, was not perpetrated by anyone from any country on the banned list. It was orchestrated almost openly, defiantly, by Jihadists in Saudi Arabia, a country with whom the Bushes were accused of colluding, a country with whom the Trump Koch oligarchs who want to strangle America have deep financial ties, a country saliently not included on the ignominious list. The countries listed are homes to some of the poorest, neediest, most endangered souls on this earth.

There is a pattern here, part of the pattern being woven domestically. The Oligarchy is moving toward hording all our resources. It will eliminate the poor and the working poor and the middle class by putting health care and assistance and ample education out of our reach. And it will circle the wagons to keep the poor out and let only the wealthy in

Yet Americans buy the Kool-Aid, drink it willingly, feel grateful that they are being protected from some encroaching danger that is aiming its slings and arrows at the core of our existences. It’s easy to stick the Muslims out. So many of us don’t comprehend who they are, what they represent, what they believe. Propoganda is powerfully effective, the sugar that sweetens our sadder realities.

Terrorism by Muslims makes up less than one-third of one percent of all murders in this country. A far greater percentage are the result of domestic violence, violence that this administration would like to decriminalize.

This same administration will make it increasingly impossible for gun safety laws to be enacted. Your neighbor’s middle-aged aunt in Somalia who needs a heart transplant may be blocked from entry to our country, but guns being transported from illegal points of distribution worldwide are under no such scrutiny. Any angry husband almost anywhere in America can find a way to get a gun to kill his family.

The current nominee for Secretary of Education suggests we need guns in schools to protect our children from grizzly bears though she cannot have possibly missed the fact that not one single child has been massacred in a grizzly bear attack. Many have, however, been cut down in far more grizzly attacks by disgruntled white teenagers or white supremacists or locally disenfranchised misfits, for whom assault weapons are easier to obtain than Twizzlers.

No single school at any level in any community of any part of this country has been attacked by terrorists from anywhere abroad. But since a heavily armed, sociopathic teen gunned down twenty six- and seven-year-olds plus six of their care givers and teachers, gun violence in schools continues its steady rise.

Somehow, it has become okay for white psychopaths to terrorize our families, but it’s not okay for the huddled masses to seek refuge in the arms of Lady Liberty.

Most shocking to me is that there is a faction of pseudo-religious zealots, who call themselves pro-lifers cheering for these Draconian measures, trumpeting their approval, insisting that our resistance should be put down. They claim to advocate for the unborn children who deserve to live.

How can this photo not move them to rise up against such blatant hypocrisy?

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photo by Aylan Kurdi