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.

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A Clockwork Orange . . . Live!

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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.”

 

 

Green Curry for Christmas (reprinted from Medium.com)

I’m Christmas-ing in Thailand this year, and it’s a relief to be away from what Americans call holiday cheer. At the risk of being accused of crusading against Christmas, I find the holiday, as it has evolved in the US, to be gruesome and overbearing. The real celebration for me is being removed from the ubiquity of obnoxiously perseverating Christmas song in every public space, omnipresent guilt-mongering in the guise of advertising, oppressive overlays of faux cheer, and incessant arguing over how to greet one another.

No one has stopped me in the street to say, “Merry, er, happy, er . . .” Few even know that there’s a holiday going on out there. In Bangkok, except for the occasional paean to the Capitalist Christmas in the form of a display of goods for sale and a few saliently out-of-place reminders, there are few Christmas accouterments at all. It’s like Calvin Trillin’s observation that Christmas in Tibet would be a “place where folks cannot remember/That there is something special in December”(“Christmas in Qatar,” The New Yorker, 19 December,1994).

Absent is the apparent outpouring of hyperbolic Christmas spirit. Even though this is a cosmopolitan city, with strong ties to the West, a large Christian presence, and a decidedly multi-cultural persona, including a huge contingent of expatriated Americans, Germans, Belgians, Russians, et al, one is hard pressed to find reminders that joy has suddenly descended on an otherwise morose world.

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Christmas Eve, Lumpini Park, and not a Santa Claus or Christmas elf in sight (Photo by Stockton)

Some might attribute the absence of Christmas to the fact that Bangkok is 2,000 miles closer to the equator than is New York City, and December is a very hot month. Every time I emerge from an air-conditioned space, I feel like Tom Hanks’ character in Volunteers, descending from his plane into this country. “My God,” he moans. “We must be about a mile from the sun!”

But having lived in the Arizona desert for many years and having spent a few holiday seasons in Florida, I know it’s not the climate that’s to blame. People dwelling in warm climes might pay some lip service to the fact that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit without snow, sultry wintry wind, and delectable fires burning in their family rooms’ fireplaces. But they’ve adapted. No matter what the climate, people who want to decorate for Christmas will find ever more elaborate ways to deck their cacti – or palm trees, boats or sand castles – with boughs of holly and whatever else they can think of to connote the season. In Thailand, however, the landscape is bereft of palm trees disguised as Tannenbaums, of neon MERRY CHRISTMAS signs twinkling out of store windows.

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Amazing. Not a single Monitor Lizard wearing antlers! (Stock photo)

While there is no outpouring of zealotry for the trappings of Christmas, people here are eager to honor one another’s traditions. Among those people educated in the ways of The Other, there is a genuine attempt to honor the fact that some do celebrate a very important holiday on December 25.

In the lobby of my hotel the proprietors have chosen an mp3 loop to play endless celebrity covers of every Christmas song imaginable, and on the screen, a slide show of snow-covered New England and old England scenes that seem odd, out of context, dislocated. But the intent is sweet. Every staff member greets every western looking guest with a heart-felt “Merry Christmas.” But they don’t worry about offending me for not saying Happy Chanukah; they really are unaware that there is such a thing, and I would not expect it. I am touched that they wish me happy anything.

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Luckily, there are not a lot of Christmas displays in Bangkok, but they are not entirely absent. Photo by Stockton.

I doubt they’ll wish anyone a happy Kwanza, and certainly not because they are anti-Kwanza. There simply are no African-Americans staying here. Yet, I am sure that if there were or if a major Muslim holiday happened concurrently, they would be offering their best wishes with some customary acknowledgment, the equivalent of Merry Christmas. And when the time is right, they probably greet celebrants of Vesak or Diwali with appropriate greetings. There is no reluctance to call the day what it is, no fear of offending.

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The Chinese Pavilion in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, like the other temples and memorials, are devoid of Christmas accoutrements.

On Christmas Eve, in that same lobby, I returned from an outing to find banana muffins laid out on a table in front of a sign scrawled in a childlike cursive that said, “Free. Merry Christmas.” I smiled at the desk clerk and bowed with my hands together to show my gratitude in the Thai way. She grinned back at me, bowing and likewise holding her hands together, saying, “Christmas cake. Very good.”

I asked the clerk if she celebrates Christmas. “Oh, no,” she said. “New Year only.”

I have never been a fan of the flap over what to say in the holiday season. It’s absurd, at least. Christmas is a specific day, and on that day to say Merry Christmas seems totally appropriate, especially in our country, which has designated Christmas a national holiday. To wish Happy Holidays on that day, seems as absurd as wishing someone a Merry Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, when many holidays approach.

We could take a lesson from my hosts here in Bangkok. If we embrace each day and call it what it is, if we honor our collectivity by understanding that Happy Holidays is all-inclusive, we show our respect for one another, for the individual attributes that make each of us a person. We acknowledge our differences while accentuating our common humanness.

What can be bad about that?

See Me, Brother*

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A brother stopped me on the street Saturday.

I was headed east, across 125th Street, toward the Metro-North station, waiting at the light on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, when the man gently grabbed my arm and pointed me toward the group of Black Israelites handing out leaflets. On a milk crate, in the center of the group, a muscular young man dressed in a flamboyant imitation of the Biblical coat of many colors, shouted angrily into his amped-up mic.

“You really need to hear this,” my would-be Virgil whispered harshly without letting go of my arm.

It sounded like a threat. But I listened anyway. For as long as I could stand it.

“ Look around you, white man. See what you have done, you bitches and whores. These people are the sons and daughters of the slaves you persecuted. . . . you should feel ashamed. You should be consumed with guilt.”

Virgil stared at me and tightened his grip as I grunted and attempted to walk away.

“There is much to learn here, “ he insisted.

I nodded, and just as gently as he had grasped me, I pried his fingers off my arm and went on my way, shaking my head.

He was right. There was much to learn here, for all of us. But the lessons should not be about guilt. I could recite a litany of the myriad ways guilt has plagued me all my life, but guilt is irrelevant here. Except that I have learned all too well that guilt is destructive, and promoting guilt will do nothing to close the chasm that divides our union. To heal our country’s cancerous racism, we need to stand together, to learn to know one another, and guilt will only drive us further apart.

Besides, I am not guilty. I am responsible, yes. But my responsibility is to build cohesion, to encourage unity. I am not responsible for the actions of those who came long before me, reprehensible as they were. I am responsible to teach my students, to lead my grandchildren, to show my compatriots what I know about communion and cooperation. I eschew the condescension of tolerance, model equanimity. I care deeply that we humans treat one another with respect, kindness, empathy. But I am not to blame for those invading, marauding Europeans, who raped and ravaged Native and African Americans.

Since, to my knowledge, I wasn’t around in the bad old days of colonization, I hope that if some other iteration of myself was, she would have stood up against the forces of evil, would have argued for peaceful coexistence with the indigenous people, would have shared rather than stolen the land. And I hope that that earlier entity would have fought to abolish slavery, resisted the lynch mobs, fought for human rights, argued for true equality, made art or some contribution toward the effort to humanize — a notion nowhere near the same as to civilize — this country.

I am proud to say that my great-grandfather Hiram H. Terwilliger eagerly enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, long before the draft was imposed in 1863. He was already 27 by then, old enough to let younger men go ahead of him, and he was a Knickerbocker, a privileged member of the landed gentry with plenty of resources to buy a surrogate to serve for him. But he believed in the cause, abhorred slavery, had no patience for the abomination of white supremacy. He reenlisted after his first term and fought valiantly at the Second Battle of Bull Run, only allowing himself to be mustered out of service after he nearly died. In fact, old Hiram made medical history because of his foolhardy bravery. A minié ball split the bone of his left leg before it lodged itself on the outer side, and he kept fighting until, according to the surgeons who attended him, he was “struck again by a round bullet on the left side of his chest.” That bullet passed through him, grazing his lungs and liver, and left him miraculously in tact. Twice he was placed on the pile of corpses and would have been burned had he not groaned; he somehow managed to beat the odds by surviving yellow fever, sepsis and several surgeries without benefit of anesthesia, and then he returned to Ellenville, where, as a lay minister in his Dutch Reformed community, he preached for peaceful reconstruction and for universal voting rights till he died in 1920, at age 87.

While great Grandfather Terwilliger was fighting with Johnny Reb, my mother’s grandfathers, living in opposite corners of the Ukraine, were staving off Cossacks, defending their young sons from mandatory conscription and their daughters from molestation. To escape pogroms, both families migrated East to Poland’s Pale of Settlement. One of my great grandfathers was a rabbi, who stayed in Poland but sent both his male and female children to the university in Austria, and the other was an inn keeper, who dodged the Russians, rested in Warsaw, and eventually ran a hotel in Vienna. Surely neither of them or any of their forebears contributed to the travesty of early America.

I blanche whenever I hear myself called out for being White. I am no more responsible for the unfortunate accident of my color than is my black sister. I understand my privilege — though as a single woman nearing 70, who must work to survive, I have lost much of it — but am not ashamed. If anything, my color has made me more aware of what I can do, must do to eradicate intolerance. The color of my skin impels me to speak out, to rebuke hatred, to defend the rights of all. But it does not make me hang my head in embarrassment.

A student asked me last month if there could be such a thing as racism against whites. “If you hate me for the color of my skin,” I replied, “you are as racist as if I hate you for the color of yours. It’s that simple. Does that answer your question?”

How dare you, young man, make an assumption about me just because I am white? Would you not take offense were I to make an assumption about you just because you are dark? And what do you know about me? How do you presume to know my history? When I shake your hand, I have no preconceived notions. Why do you insist on harboring them as you refuse to shake mine?

We can work together to make police brutality go away, to promote equal rights and achieve the understanding that will stop the madness around us. But we can’t if you insist on labeling me and rejecting my sisterhood.

Truth is, you need me as much as I need you.

Those haters you think I’m one of? They have as much disdain for me as they do for you, and we can only beat them if we join hands and do it together.

*Reprinted from Medium.com

Cry the Beloved City

I didn’t sleep last night. For the fifth night in a row.

Since the end of June, my nights have been disrupted by neighbors whose disregard for others’ right to [quiet and to safety rule the streets. They are breaking the law, but no law blankets my neighborhood because the gated community that has become NYC sends its resources to patrol the blocks south of 96th, where the bulk of the tourists, who enable the ridiculous cost of membership, are cavorting. Up here even when you call the police, the eruptions go unchecked, and our nights go unquieted.

Those of us who are unfortunate enough to be captive in the city for the summer suffer this abuse through the month of July, but, for some reason, this Independence Day was more invasive, more intrusive, more unconscionable than ever before in the ten years I’ve lived here. The amateur blasting, the popping, the drunken shouting began before sundown and extended well into morning, waning only after the daylight had returned.

I admit that I’ve never much liked the July 4th rituals My idea of celebrating America is quieter; in an effort to refrain from becoming a statistic, I have typically stayed at home, where I have watched home movies of my family’s extensive cross-country explorations or documentaries about the bounties of natural beauty that define this amazing country.   Bombs bursting in air only fill me with dread, remind me that the country is populated by too many who worship weaponry, who perceive military might as right, who continue to craft an economy held hostage by the culture of war and its machinery.

But okay. I concede that fireworks can be lovely. And Macy’s foots the bill for the greatest show on earth. It’s free, and it’s close by, and I encourage all those who love the displays of color and light to seek them out. I heartily applaud my city for throwing such an elaborate, generous birthday bash.images

But the local ILLEGAL practices are a different story. It’s one thing if a group wants to throw a block party that provides a close-knit portion of the neighborhood to celebrate together. I can put up with noise for a few hours, and I am happy that people have a place to comingle. But to continue to make such noise that car alarms cannot be quieted, that keeps pets quaking and agitated, that robs us all of our right to our own preferred pursuit of happiness is no more than group solipsism, criminal entitlement. And it’s terrifying.

The awful disquiet went on throughout the night; the only sound missing was the sound of police cars or fire engines. The noises swelled, then subsided slightly, but they were never checked.

Sometime around 2 this morning, the sounds outside my window changed. Some of the changes were subtle, but they were apparent. The shouting was angrier, heightened a growing barrage of insults, name-calling, threats. The blasts sounded less like homemade duds and more like television violence. How can those of us who are subjected to the abuse discern the difference?

There will be no reports on the news – the news ignores us in Harlem until there is a great drug bust, and they can point to the confiscation of massive stashes to reassure the public that Harlem is under control. The news this morning reported fourteen shootings around the city, but not one was reported here in Harlem, where they happen all too often, where no one is really watching. I called 311 last night, and they told me I had to report my complaint to 911. The fireworks continued without interruption, the noise persisted unabated all through the night. The dispatcher was clearly amused by my report, but I was sure nothing would be done.

Why should there be? Who cares if some old and sick and very young Harlemites are kept awake by loud noises? Who really cares if some homes north of the tony Upper West Side are in danger of being burned, exploded, invaded in some way?

I have never felt so exposed as I did last night. I was as inconsolable as my daughter’s 6-pound Chihuahua, who seems, during this siege, perpetually on the verge of a stroke or worse. It feels like the demons out there, the ones the media won’t let us ignore or forget, are laughing themselves silly at how easy it must be to blend in up here, how simple it would be to hide their noise within the din that the city refuses to hear.

 

 

Eagles and Falcons and Hawks . . . oh My!

It was breathtaking. There I was, sitting on a bench at the top of Riverside Park conversing with a colleague, when the sky darkened , and a great swoosh of wings swept up a swirl of dust and leaves, and suddenly, we were in a scene from Jurassic Park. Or perhaps it was a post apocalyptic angel-of-death moment. Anyway, my heart stopped.  Any minute now, I thought, I’ll be grabbed by giant talons, carried away and gone in an instant.

I gathered my courage, looked up, and sure enough, there they were, directly overhead: two giant birds – great red-tail hawks – the larger in the lead, her wings stretching over four feet from tip to tip, her sharp claws pointing downward.

“Wow,” was all either of us could say as the birds flew away.

After a moment, when the wind had settled, and the sun had regained its prominence in the sky, was once more dappling the sidewalk through the leafy gobos, my friend sighed and said, “They’re all over the place all of a sudden. It’s amazing.”

I nodded. “It always surprises me that we are surprised. After all, reclamation is what nature does best.”

“But it feels like it’s happening all of a sudden. I mean, they’re taking over the parks. They didn’t used to be so commonplace, did then? Remember when everyone got excited about Pale Male and Lola, back in the late nineties?”

She was referring to a lone pair of hawks who famously chose a controversial nesting spot in a decorative neo-classical sculpture niche high atop a tony Fifth Avenue apartment house. Today Lola is long since dead, and Pale Male is twenty-four years old, a stalwart survivor, who has outlived at least eleven post-Lola mates, and he is no longer unique in the City. Which leaves city dwellers continually scratching their heads in wonder.

Or quaking in fear.

My daughter has an adopted apple head Chihuahua named Madhu. Though he is just simple enough to greet a falcon diving at him as a welcome invitation to play, he wouldn’t last long, as he weighs less than six pounds and would be easily transported to an urban aerie. My daughter, like her fellow small dog parents, will readily recount a tale, which may or may not be true, about a woman who was picnicking in a park near 125th Street when she looked up and saw a hawk carrying off a wailing, terrified Chihuahua. No protective screaming or rock throwing or batting away at the bird by the horrified pet’s family loosed the predator’s grip. They watched along with that woman and horrified onlookers as the great wings flapped, and the little dog’s pink leash, dangling from its already limp body, trailed off out of sight.

dog in the talons

Story from Out Walking the Dog, illustration by Charlotte Hildebrand

The woman is reported to have famously said, “I hate those birds, all birds of prey. If I had a rifle, I’d shoot them whenever I see them.”

Small pet people share this story with one another wherever they gather, warning one another to stay away from Riverside Park and Central Park and St. Nicholas Park and all the other parks in the city and to keep their guard up even on busy sidewalks – a small dog was nearly snatched from the sidewalk in midtown last week.  “What do you do if one attacks?” They ask each other, never sure there is a right answer.

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Madhu

Just yesterday, while walking with Madhu on our residential street, near the local elementary school, my daughter looked up in a tree and saw two hawks peering down. “I swear they were going to attack,” she averred. “I felt them staring.” She scooped Madhu into her arms and scurried home, grateful she had seen them in time.

Madhu notwithstanding, the birds are a miracle. Back in the 1980s, when populations of rats, pigeons and squirrels threatened to force humanity out of the city, poisons became ineffective in keeping populations down because the rapid evolution of the species enabled even more rapid mutations that rendered the rodents and pigeons impervious to the formulae. Birds of prey were introduced, but it was touch and go for a long time. Their sensitive systems were vulnerable to the potions their meals were ingesting, and because the poisons affected their abilities to reproduce, the birds’ evolution was slow.

Today the hunters are beginning to thrive. Not just hawks but also peregrine falcons, eagles, and other birds of prey. They are taking back the treetops, much the way coyotes and raccoons are taking back the bushes. Nature is reminding us she never went away, and we have to learn to live with all her creatures.

But being human, we don’t believe it. Or we choose to deny it. We expect, as we always have with all indigenous beings that we can tame them, bend them to our will,  round them up and put them in zoos and make them stay in their place. If they don’t, we can kill them. After all, we carry guns, and that gives us license to eliminate those we perceive as intruders.

But nature’s not lying down for us, and her minions are not waiting around to be eradicated. They are, like the restless people who are tired of being colonized, putting up a fight. They’re pushing back in small ways now, and perhaps they’ll lose in the short term. But in the long run, we lose by insisting on claiming superiority. Nature has a way of winning. Eventually.

If we kill off the birds here in New York City, we’ll be at the mercy of the disease and filth spread by the unchecked rodent and pigeon populations. We can kill them too, but they’re adaptable, and they will prevail; we stand to lose this island as we stand to lose the planet we have abused too long.

Ultimately, we are here at the mercy of the creatures who naturally inhabit this island. They have been erased before, and they have always found their way back. The alligator in Disney World was no accidental happenstance; one wonders how Disney could have been so blindsided, given their layered history with Captain Hook.  imgresOkay, it was a crocodile, but the point remains.  The swamps that were Florida before the marauding white man decided to tame them belonged first to the alligators. The Disney folk can kill them, but for every one they kill, a dozen will come to the funeral, and unless the humans figure out a way to co-exist peacefully and safely, the gators will be victorious.

The meek do not inherit the earth. The fittest do. Those who can survive on garbage and mud and each other, like gators and rats and pigeons and squirrels and bugs, will long live after us. They don’t need us any more than they need the sunlight or the clean air that we can’t live without.  The creatures will be more than happy to take what we leave behind. And then nature will regenerate, and evolution will replace us with new “higher” organisms.  But we won’t be here to greet them or study them or abuse for our pleasure.

We have to choose. Are we with ‘em?  If we’re not, they’ll most assuredly be against us.