Were that it Were

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Thorn By Any Other Name . . . .

The nightmare never changed. It recurred as a terror that began just after I began Kindergarten, at age four. In each bad dream, the ominous wailing of European sirens would wake me from a sound sleep in my grandmother’s Bayside, Queens attic. As the sound of metal soles and heels marching on the suburban pavement reverberated around me, I would scream for my sisters and brothers and cousins to follow me. In German, a voice shouted from the street below. “You cannot escape a second time. We have found you. You will come with us to the camp.” I would wrest myself sweating and crying from the torture of sleep just as the uniformed robots were about to grab my youngest brother and throw him into the tank that followed their march.

Every detail of the dream was the figment of my imagination or of some phantom reminiscence. We had no television, and the only films my parents took me to see were Disney films. I search my memory for some clue as to how the sound of the jackboots and police cars found their way to my subconscious, and I find none. I do know why I was afraid of the camps.

I was born two years after WWII ended. Members of my mother’s large extended family, dispersed across the world, were just beginning to find one another. We received intermittent letters from sources I could not identify that provided cryptic updates. The word “camps” was omnipresent. So much so that when my parents sent me to Girl Scout Camp at age seven, I was sure they were sending me away forever.

The soto voce conversations about the correspondences were always dire. Like the members of my mother’s nuclear family, most of the mispacha had barely escaped. A few to the US, others to Brazil, Israel, Australia, Argentina, the UK. The displaced were the lucky ones. There were telegrams and official notifications bearing the saddest news – two uncles and an aunt gassed in a death camp with a garbled name. What a relief to learn that another aunt and uncle never suffered the same fate but were shot defending their clinic in the Stanislaw ghetto uprising. My mother would huddle with her sisters and parents in secluded corners of our communal home to read each missive aloud. I was not invited to hear, but I was an expert eavesdropper, and while I could not have told you what or who or why, I felt the effect of the camps that my mother and her sisters had narrowly avoided. Even the bits and pieces I surmised were enough to convince me I would never want to go to that place where the evil whose name was Nazi lived.

The pain, the fear, the agony of the camps bored a hole in my consciousness. As did the guilt my mother and her sisters, who never forgave themselves for running away, brought to America. I grew up wondering, as they did every day, if I might have made a difference if I had only been there.

Of course, the notion is absurd. Still, though they said – and genuinely believed – that no such horror could happen in America, they passed to me a sacred responsibility. Never again. Make sure. Never again. Be on your guard. Tolerate no persecutions.

That was the banner I carried in my heart when my cousin and I joined the marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge, when I sang my freedom songs in coffee shops, when I advocated for the end of the War in Viet Nam. Reading history made me cry. How could we enemies of oppression have perpetrated annihilation of the Natives, perpetuated slavery? The more I learned about how this country came to be, the more my inner voice chanted “Never again.”

No one in my circle of intimates ever suggested that there might be anything like comparative suffering. The internment camps that held native Americans all over the Southwest were no less horrific than those that held Japanese Americans during WWII. Inhumanity is inhumanity, Suffering is not a competition sport.

Genocide is genocide.

It follows then that a concentration camp is a concentration camp. Just because there are no gas chambers does not give a vile detention area, where children are tortured, a right to be called anything less brutal. Though the inmates of these camps are not in imminent jeopardy of extermination, ten children have died of their maltreatment.

How many deaths does it take to constitute a death camp?

Children forced to sleep on floors, left unclean, given no soap or water, encouraged to drink from toilets. Worst, children growing every day with no affection, no comfort, ripped from their parents’ love. . . .

 

 

Theresienstadt was a concentration camp. It was a showplace – a beard intended to prove to the Red Cross that the Nazis were humane. Here, like in the border camps, children died. Maltreatment, malnutrition, squalor are killers as lethal as gas and guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My people suffered great losses, yes. But we have no right to be precious about our pain. To be honest, I abhor the fact that we refer to our destruction as The Holocaust. There have been so many holocausts, murder and mayhem inflicted on human beings by fellow humans. Our losses are of no more significance than the losses incurred by our contemporary refugee counterparts.

We don’t own the torment. But we do own the imperative to fight to end our government’s insistence on perpetrating more of it. We will carry the sad karma wrought by the deplorable savagery being enacted under our flag. We must somehow take action, real action, to send this siege of evil.

The great challenge here is to stop the bickering among the converted. We must put our level heads together to figure out what that action is. We must have a unified plan, and we must cry out in a single voice.

Never Again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Judgment Call

Once upon a time, I chose to be confirmed in the First United Methodist Church. I was twelve years old and a singular outlier in a closed society. I joined, hoping that membership would foster a kind of belonging I hungered for. I needed to feel embraced and protected by a great, all-encompassing love. The Methodist Church promised me that all were welcome there. I believed.

It is clear now that my iconoclastic half-  Jewish self would not even be invited to join the United Methodist Church today. Having recently announced their decision to allow ministers and administrators to ostracize members of the LGBTQ communities, the church has tacitly granted their congregations a license to shun anyone with traits the church finds offensive. There is no way they would welcome me.

I stopped attending church and identifying as a Methodist some sixty years ago. But until the announcement, however, I harbored a feeling of warmth for what I believed were its precepts. Those I learned from my father, perhaps the noblest Methodist of them all, and they are rooted in a memory I have of a time he acted in a way that demonstrated what I still believe Christianity is basically all about. Long after leaving his church, I attributed his accepting nature to the education it had given him.

In the 1970s, my brother was about to come out to my parents. I worried at first that my father might be less than sympathetic.  

Daddy, a conservative, Iowa-born Republican, belonged to the First United Methodist Church in my small Upstate New York home town. He was known there for the dour parables around which his lay sermons were constructed and by the incongruently kindly manner with which he delivered his fire and brimstone messages to the seventh graders he taught in Sunday School. Though he treated all people with compassion and consideration, his attitude could be harshly judgmental toward people with ethical or moral standards that were not his.

From early childhood, Daddy had been taught that liquor, gambling, card playing, and dancing were sins, as was pre- or extra-marital sex. His sense of humor was corny, old-fashioned, chaste.  He allowed no swearing of any kind in his presence. I was reprimanded when I said, “Oh, gosh,” or “Jesumcrow,” the faux curses that punctuated our Adirondack lingo. In our home, there were no alcoholic beverages, no playing cards, no off-color books or art house nudes. All were banned, I assumed, because my father’s faith required that he disdain them. He seemed to have been indoctrinated by a kind of paradoxical orthodoxy. It was hard to predict how he would react to being the father of a homosexual.

In the first place, the news did not surprise him. And in the second, it did not faze him. “You are my son, and I love you,” he said to my brother. “Nothing could change that.” Not long afterward, my brother, newly mustered out of the Air Force and figuring out what to do next, moved in with my parents. The man who was his first serious partner moved in with him.

I needn’t have worried.

One evening, I arrived at my parents’ house to find my brother and his boyfriend intertwined and making out on the couch in the middle of the family room at the center of the house. More surprising than their unabashed PDAs was the fact that my father sat in the easy chair next to them watching television and eating watermelon. “This doesn’t bother you, Daddy?” I asked pointing to the lovers, who were oblivious to my arrival.

“Should it?” Daddy replied.

“No. Not at all,” I stammered. “But your religion. . . “

“My religion is Jesus Christ,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ Shall I be less open than Jesus, whose teachings define my life?”

“But the church, Daddy, won’t the church. . . .”

“The church would never defy our Lord’s teachings.” He stopped. His eyes were distant. He lifted his arms. He was in preacher mode. “The Church welcomes all.”

I accepted him at his word. And I trusted that his beliefs emanated from the doctrine espoused by the religion to which he had unfaltering allegiance. He never missed a Sunday service, never failed to participate in church programs, never refused to teach or to counsel or to take to the pulpit. He was a true believer. So I presumed – hoped – that this church, in which he had raised his seven children, was as accepting as he was.

Hence my shock and confusion when I read the church’s announcement. Traditions I was not aware of had superseded those I had inferred. Traditions of barring homosexuals from ordination, of refusing to sanction same sex marriage, of enforcing strict penalties against clerics who broke the rules and accepted the “gay life style” as a viable human alternative.

Luckily, the declaration is no more than an abstract annoyance for me. And an affirmation of my choice to leave the church all those many years ago. But what of the people – there must be many – like my father. . . the true believers, the ones who honestly see their church as the messenger of their Christ? Does this feel like a betrayal to them? Their church has rejected the notions of inclusion, of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, of refraining from a judgment that Jesus demonstrated by washing Mary Magdalene’s feet, by breaking bread with sinners, by feeding and healing the lepers.

Surely Jesus would be disappointed in this Methodist manifesto. I know Daddy would be.

 

 

L’Dor V’Dor – A Sports Team’s Gift (Reprinted from The Algemeiner)

Listen to the roaring whisper of a sports crowd. It’s compelling and mesmerizing. When it stops, when the crowd waits silently for the next spectacular move, there is no mistaking the powerful moment. The teams assembled hold every man, woman, and child entirely in their thrall. It’s a potent force that extends far beyond the confines of any single game or country and is free of the barriers of color, ethnicity, or age.

In the UK, Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich and his leadership team know the power that they hold in their hands.

Their Say No to Antisemitism initiative is a fist raised at hate-mongering, which, though targeted at Jews, has subtle, insidious consequences for all. By funding a variety of educational opportunities and experiences on antisemitism and race-based hatred, they plan to promote cross-cultural communication and understanding.

Say No to Antisemitism arrives just in time in the UK, where antisemitism is deep-seated, inbred, and, frighteningly, on the rise. And it’s a program that should be adopted worldwide because the UK is not unique.

Antisemitism, the oldest racism, is systemic. It is embedded in the DNA of nationalist and populist groups everywhere. It has been a fixture of countless societies since the Assyrians cast Jews out of the land of Israel in the eighth century BCE. This hatred of Jews is so deeply implanted in the world’s consciousness that antisemitism is under-reported and largely un-protested.

Despite the fact that it is open, virulent, and relentless, antisemitism remains the one form of discrimination that almost anyone — anywhere — can perpetrate with impunity.

Many of us, especially those whose parents and grandparents escaped the Holocaust, live with a persistent strain of PTSD when it comes to antisemitism. Some of us wonder if we too must flee. But where would we go?

No place feels safer than any other. Whom can we trust? No one group is responsible for the current proliferation of antisemitism. No one ideology espouses it. Hateful rhetoric on the political left is as without censure as it is on the right. Society is tacitly complicit by failing to condemn the Yellow Vests, bombs, swastikas, and threats that turn cafes, synagogues, colleges, cemeteries, streets, and sports arenas into danger zones.

We need a strong voice to rise above the hate-mongering din. The Chelsea Football Club and Abramovich understand that.

Under their program — in classroom settings, auditorium presentations, and group travel experiences — fans and players will listen intently and actually hear one another. Furthermore, the program is on the move.

NYU has incorporated the program into the Tisch Institute for Global Sports curriculum. Later this Spring, fans will learn more about the program when the Chelsea Football Club plays the New England Revolution in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Personal pledges of $1 million each from Abramovich and Revolution owner Robert Kraft, plus all proceeds from the game, will be dedicated to the campaign.

Those who fight antisemitism are aware that they’ve embarked on a journey that may be slow and ponderous. But they are committed. Slow or fast, Abramovich’s is a rare and special exertion of power. It’s a model for sports organizations throughout the UK, the US, and everywhere.

Carla Stockton’s writing has been featured in publications such as GuernicaMomentThe ToastThe Guardian, and others. You may visit her blogsite at carlastockton.me.

 

Notes From the Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 3

3. Being a mouthy, Western woman in Asia.

Every time I return to Asia – and I have been going periodically for the past seven years – I realize how entirely out of place I am there.

To begin with, I hate the climate and the air pollution over there. As soon as I step out of the airport in Taiwan or in Bangkok, I am reminded of Tom Hanks emerging from the airplane that has taken him to Thailand in Volunteers (HBO Pictures, 1985). “Oooh. Jeezuz H. Christ,” he moans, shielding his eyes from the glare above him. “We must be a mile from the sun.”

Bangkok p0llution this week

The air is hot and steamy, and the smog drifting in from China sits squarely overhead.Pollution index hovers characteristically in winter between red (horrible) and purple (get out).

 

“China is the single largest source of PM2.5 pollution, not motor vehicles or power plants. . . .”

I’m a New Yorker. My feet are my transportation of choice. I cannot walk in Asia.

Pedestrian travel is high risk. In the first place, sidewalks are rare. In Taoyuan, Taiwan, where my family lives, a beautiful, broad sidewalk will disappear at the end of a block, dumping the walker, trike rider, stroller pusher, or other intrepid walker into the narrow street. The oncoming drivers, especially those on motor bikes, hardly see anything that might impede them. They rarely notice anyone, least of all women on foot. They bear no obligation to observe caution and avoid colliding with the living beings clogging up their streets.

In Bangkok, sidewalks are equally intermittent and rare.

Those that do exist are too crowded for easy navigation. Street food vendors, priests and their sacred altars, resting Maylaysian workers, and full-sized trees in gigantic planters in the center of the walkway impede foot traffic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In both countries, the law has little or no bearing on drivers’ behaviors. In Taiwan, motorbikes swarm through red lights without so much as slowing down. In Bangkok, drivers customarily bend or break all traffic laws. Crossing a street there is no less dangerous than crossing the Grand Canyon on a tight rope.

In Asia, my northern European structure makes me feel like an abominable snowman publically, embarrassingly melting. I’m too big, too loud, too profane, too averse to obsequies. My feet are gigantic, and I galumpf into rooms where my dainty, demurely quiet Asian counterparts stare at the anomaly that is me. I. Me.

I try to hide my frustrations when I am unable to make myself understood, but my resting face insists on looking angry, and my voice insists on blaring above a whisper. I am incapable of delicacy.

Worst of all, I am a quintessential New Yorker. I voice my pleasure as well as my displeasure in every situation. I yell at drivers who try to kill me. That is not the custom in Asia. There, it is considered impolitic, uncouth to complain even in situations where there are legitimate reasons for complaint. I read recently that in the Buddhist community, complaining or scolding disrupts the karma of the person being addressed. I don’t want to hurt anyone, so I try to remember to bury my discomfort.

Which often whips up a perfect storm. If I hold back, I am frustrated. If I let go, I am embarrassed. Either way, I’m guilt-ridden.

I’ll never be compatible with that world.

The Hero – Dan Alon

 

Dan Alon, speaking at the British West Indies Collegiate School, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos, March 2017.

If I ever resented Dan Alon, it was because I failed him in a number of ways. Never deliberately, never with malice. I failed him by allowing myself to be cowed by the force of his persona. But I loved him almost from the moment I met him, when I recognized on him the mark of the survivor.

By the time I met Dan, a secret had been twisting inside him for nearly thirty-four years. Anyone who knew him knew he had been on the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Games in 1972. Anyone who stopped to consider would know he had survived the massacre. But as often happens with survivors, who walk away unscathed, his experience was of no consequence to anyone. He harbored a clandestine self-loathing, a remorse that he had not taken action against the terrorists who killed his eleven teammates. He felt dead inside. In truth, though he was hardly able to admit it to himself, he wished he had died.

All this he told me the first time I met him. At the behest of a mutual friend, a filmmaker who had read a story I had written for a former Massad agent, Dan came to the US from Tel Aviv to interview me. The film Munich returned the Munich Massacre to public consciousness, and Dan had recently been convinced to share his story as a cautionary tale. He was ready to broaden his audience, to make it available to the world at large. For that he needed a book.

In the first minutes, we established a kinship. His father had run from the growing darkness of anti-Semitism in Hungary to Zagreb, where he had been part of the Jabotinsky Youth movement. My mother, who was nearly the same age as his father, had lived in Zagreb until her family fled, and she, too, was a Jabotinsky follower. My mother’s father forced her to abandon her Zionist dream and come to America. Dan’s father went to Israel and joined the Ir Gun.

Dan could see that having been my mother’s first child, having watched her grow into her ability to share her experience, I knew a little something about what he felt. We talked about the way in which a survivor becomes a member of the walking dead. We talked about the way guilt and sadness block out all other feelings. Despite his great love for his wife and children, he had felt emotionally constipated. By sharing the story, he said, and by feeling that it was a worthwhile tale, he was reborn.

We worked for four years to finish the book. In the end, I should have hired insisted we hire an editor. I would have liked it to have been so much better than it was. Further, I failed to get Dan to open up and disclose the enormity of the self-deprecation, of the imposter anxiety that darkened his life, took him out of fencing, nearly usurped all his happinesses. He would not allow me to write about those, but those, I believed, would have served his audiences at least as much as the details of his escape and re-entry into the world.

He was a frustrating taskmaster. I knew I was right. But I didn’t know how to win the arguments. He paid me. He paid for all aspects of the publishing. He was in charge. I had no leverage. But it was clear to me I should fight. My acquiescence to his intensely masculine insistence that he control every word cost the book some integrity.

No matter. From 2005 until last year, Dan traveled doggedly around the world, sharing his tale with school groups and Synagogue elders, with athletes and intellectuals. On several occasions, we spoke together.

In March of 2015, he came to NY, and we appeared at a Chabad convocation on the upper west side together. He was already looking ill, and he was re-experiencing some of the PTSD symptoms that had abated. He told me he was tired. “You,” he said, “should be doing these appearances instead of me. I can’t do this traveling. It’s too much.” But whenever he was invited, Dan went. Even as his health was deteriorating.

In November of 2016, we were invited to be on a panel moderated by Bob Costas in a program called Torch Talks, a benefit for the Gerrard Berman Day School in New Jersey. Along with an auspicious complement of experts, we discussed the lessons of Munich. The evening was a tremendous success. Dan was exhausted.

Soon after, I was invited to interview Dan in Turks & Caicos, at an event sponsored by the Chabad rabbi there. The entire population of the islands was invited, and the rabbi succeeded in bringing a large, diverse audience to the hall for two sold-out presentations. The second was an especially brilliant last appearance for Dan. When the audience stood at the end of the talk, they stood with love and admiration for the hero he was.

A hero who was seriously ill. Who probably should not have made the trip. I asked if he had seen a doctor. “I have.” He sputtered. “He’s an idiot.” Dan was certain that the preliminary diagnosis of stomach cancer was a mistake, that the doctor was ignorant. His wife Adele, who had accompanied him on this trip, is a nurse. She shook her head. She knew the truth.

Despite the pain in his belly, despite the fact that his body was shrinking rapidly out of his clothing, despite his overwhelming fatigue, Dan’s message made its mark. After he wept through the details of his ordeal at Munich, he spoke of the need for tolerance, for understanding, for a spirit of community to replace the divisions that create enmities. His very presence was proof that in the aftermath of great disaster, human beings can rebuild and recommit to living. “You go on,” he said. “You prevail. That is your victory.”

Heroism is often defined as something grand like standing up to a despot or dashing into a burning building to save a neighbor’s cat. But true heroism is also quiet, introspective. It’s the resolve to make a life that matters, to give back to the world for the gifts it has doled out. Dan appreciated his renaissance. He knew how very lucky he was and never took that for granted. He carried the enormous burden of Munich wherever he went, and he showed his gratitude by teaching us all how to live with dignity.

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.