Back on the Road With Grandma

This summer, it’s Istanbul, Turkey. I’ve never been here before.

Once upon a time I dreamed of seeing Istanbul-not-Constantinople and taking in Ephensus, the Topkapi Museum, et al. My imagination conjured encounters with all manner of exotic people, places, ideas. Even in my old age, I fantasized about meeting interesting people, perhaps a man? Preparing for my trip, I made a hypothetical list: The Blue Mosque, the Haga Sophia, a ride atop a double-decker tour of the city and the ancient ruins of Iconium, a cruise down the Bosphorus alongside the remains of the wall that protected Turchia. I figured that since I’d be in the city for three months, I’d have ample opportunity to learn some of the local language, soak up the essence of the culture.

Now entering my third week, I have adjusted my expectations. Mine is not the sojourn of a freewheeling youngster or a liberated retiree. I am here in the official capacity of Toddler’s Grandmother. Consequently, though I have happily partaken of the pide bread and acquired a craving for muhammara salad and vegan boreks, I remain more familiar with home-heated frozen French fries and chicken nuggets. While I’ve managed to board the ferry and visit the Isle of Heybellada, My experiences are filtered through a skewed lens with minimal focus. I see the world through the eyes of a two-and-a-half-year-old, who is fixated on construction vehicles with three doors that open and shut or on dogs sleeping in the shade or birds resting on low-hanging branches. Nothing else in Turkey matters nearly as much. A museum would be excruciating, and the Blue Mosque might shudder at the thought of my grand child running through.

I have yet to see the city by night. Bedtime is early in the world of a toddler.

None of this is in any way disappointing. I believe I will love the memory of this Turkish sojourn all the more for having shared it with my little miracle boy. A walk on the Bosphorus is as satisfying as any cruise when you’re throwing rocks to watch the ripples disrupt the calm and laughing at the boats seeming to race with one another, singing about wheels going ‘round and ‘round as a big green bus zooms behind.

Back in New York, I’ll hear in my dreams the five calls to prayer outside our window, but I will remember a sleeping boy rather than the responses of the faithful. Here I’ll content myself with vicarious visits to storied places. The beauty of Haga Sophia and Rumeli Castle resonates adequately from the page, and neither will age any less sublimely for want of my presence.

Much to my amazement, I have no need to further enrich my senses. Things that once seemed intensely important have lost their luster. The glories of the past are singularly unenticing because the future is in my arms.

My future has become irrelevant. Who knows what time I have left? Nothing is promised,. I have had already a long life that has given me much to be grateful for. I gladly turn my attention to what I will leave behind. Memories matter.

No matter what time is left, I will be a presence in this boy’s heart, even if only as half-seen a shadow casting stones on the water of the Bosphorus.

——————

Next up: How America looks from here . . . . Spoiler alert. It’s not pretty.

 

SAILOR AND FIDDLER: REFLECTIONS OF A 100-YEAR-OLD AUTHOR BY HERMAN WOUK

Reprinted from Bookslut, March 2016

I always thought of Herman Wouk as my own personal Virgil, and as much as I like to think my relationship was special, I suspect there are many of me out there, wayfarers who have depended on Mr. Wouk to show the way. Those of us born to families devastated by the tragedies of the Second World War, whose parents chose not to talk about their experiences, who felt the force of their survivor guilt without knowing from whence it came found succor in Wouk’s work.

He welcomed us with abiding love, guided us down to the darkest circles of the hell they’d escaped, showed us the purgatory of their immigrant experience, and then he illustrated their view of heaven for us. For me, because my mother, like many survivors of the horrors left behind in Europe, hid her Jewishness, which disappeared into my father’s very American blue-blood WASP persona, Wouk was an essential source. He led me to my deepest roots and taught me how to love them.

I learned about the tenets of Judaism and prepared myself to study more formally by reading This is My God, a straightforward, unembellished explanation of the beliefs, rites, holidays, festivals, law, and the many variations of the religion. From Inside, Outside, I learned that many of the idiosyncrasies I thought were unique to our family were, in fact, universal to the experience of first generation Americans. In Winds of War and War and Remembrance, I got close to characters who had suffered the fear, loss, separations and dislocations my mother and her loved ones endured, and I found a way to be more empathetic to and less judgmental of that same mother.

What Herman Wouk’s books also offer is insight into the nearly 101 years he has lived on this planet. His fictional characters, only minimally masked and altered, are the people he has loved, hated, known, observed, dreamed about, and the events he has chosen for set the action of his novels against are mostly events he lived through or had some relationship to. In a way, the body of his work is his autobiography, his memoir in fiction.

Which is essentially what he tells the reader in Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-year-Old Author, his rumination on the sixty-four years of his career as a bestselling author. Sailor and Fiddler is not so much a memoir as a remembrance of things past, a paean to the good fortune that has accompanied his professional life and a nod at the tragedy he prefers not to talk about. He identifies himself as a sailor, having spent World War II in the Navy, and a fiddler, a character from the Sholem Alecheim stories his father read to his children in Yiddish, stories that fueled Wouk’s desire to write.

Wouk chooses to minimize the memoir. He says his beloved wife, to whom he refers as “Betty Sarah Wouk, the beautiful love of my life,” discouraged his writing any memoir, saying that a writer’s life is not all that interesting. He agrees, and so instead, he zips his reader past his journey from working class Brooklyn to fame and fortune in mainstream American culture. He sketches out some of the milestones of his life, glosses quickly past the mention — the first, he says, in anything he has written — of his first son’s death by drowning, concentrating on his the frequent reiteration of the amazing charm his life has seemed to have.

From the moment he was accepted to Columbia College’s Class of 1934, every project Wouk took on succeeded beyond his own expectations. He worked as a gag writer for the giant star of radio Fred Allen, went to Hollywood to write screenplays and, by the way, wrote a hit play, published a series of bestselling novels beginning with his first, Aurora Dawn, which he says was actually enabled by his Navy salary. He credits his gag writing with keeping his novels snappy, funny, and easy to read, even when the material was dense and meandering, and he credits his Judaism with keeping him focused, earthbound.

Whether living in Hollywood or sequestered on an island in the Caribbean, Wouk remained tenaciously religious. He refused to eat non-kosher food, and he never missed a Shabbat service. Thanks to his religion, he was able to anchor himself in his family and remain circumspect, diligent, and, most importantly, grateful for his great good fortune.

For readers who haven’t met Wouk in his novels, this minimal volume will perhaps provide an incentive to explore the literature that consistently remains on bestseller lists of all kinds. But it will not enlighten those who seek to learn about the private Wouk, the personal encounters. What it will do is provide a key to how Wouk relates to his work, how he came to write what he wrote, what some of his influences were. It will introduce the reader to the novelist’s relationship with his creations, what he especially likes and what he dismisses, what he is most proud of, and what he discounts. Imbedded in the book is a glimpse into the times and events that shaped Wouk’s sensibilities — his birth into a family of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the post-WWI years in Brooklyn, the cataclysms of WWII, the McCarthy era, to mention a few. But everything that the book mentions is examined perfunctorily; Wouk writes neither for therapy nor to provide himself and his readers with profound revelations. The book is merely an old man’s musing on a long and prosperous career amid world and life events that the author assumes his reader knows plenty about.

What he hopes is that the “gentle readers” of this little book have already read and/or will soon read his work, and thereby know everything there is to know about him. He has recorded in his books all that seemed important to him, all that shaped his personal and professional life, and he wants to be known through those books.

As he says at the end of his discussion on writing The Hope and The Glory: “I told Ben Bradford I wanted to write two books before I died, one on Israel, one on my life’s story. By God’s grace, I have done both. And in this reminiscent glance, I have sketched how I did them.”

Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author by Herman Wouk
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1501128547
160 pages

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.

 

Last Note From the Temporary Curmudgeon

I’m home. Glad to be here. I missed family, friends, New York. Now I miss my daughter, my grandson, the colors of Bangkok. It feels good to be cold, to see blue sky. To breathe air that doesn’t choke me.

the homecoming was relatively easy. My flight was on time, arriving early on a Wednesday morning. Amazingly, despite the predictions of horror in the immigration hall, the line moved quickly. I thanked the officer who checked me in, and he squeezed my hand.

“Thanks.” He said. “That’s good to hear. Let’s just hope it ends soon. . . ” Then he looked wistfully at me and said, “Welcome home.”

Qatar partially redeemed itself on the return flight. On the first leg, from Bangkok to Doha, I was fortunate enough to have sitting behind me a loud, drunken Russian lout. He and three of his cronies were shouting with one another, drinking and singing disruptively. It was 8 in the evening, and I planned to sleep as soon as the cabin lights were turned off. So I donned my best NY ignore’emall demeanor and settled down to pretend he wasn’t there.

After the meal was served and cleared, and darkness enveloped the cold space, I leaned my seat back and wrapped myself in my winter layers preparing to drift off. The Russian behind me leaned forward and said, “No, madame. No no.” His voice was threatening. I could hear the mob vibrating in his growl.

Still in ignore’emall mode, I paid him no heed.

He kicked the back of my chair. I failed to react. He called the flight attendant. Then he called five more flights. He insisted that I be reprimanded for insisting on reclining my seat. Each of them insisted their turns that I had the right to do just that. They offered to move him to a bulkhead (premium) seat with more legroom. He refused, insisting yet again it was their job to make me stop reclining into his space.

They would not budge. Neither would he. It got absurd, and his friends were beginning to be audibly agitated. The scolded him but clearly worried that he might explode.

I offered to move. The Qatar people gratefully put me in the bulkhead. No reclining seat there. I sat awake for the entire duration of the seven-hour flight. The flight attendants stopped by begging my forgiveness, offering me food, drink, et al. I told them again and again that it was not their fault. I was fine.

In Doha, the security check I endured from one flight to the other was humiliating. The body checks one is forced to endure once one has a prosthetic limb or joint are intolerable. We have no choice but to put up with them. There is no avoiding them. Each time they constitute a moment of awful, and then you move on. This was among the worst. But no more than a moment.

When I sat in my seat in the NY-bound aircraft, I saw a chance for total retribution. The flight was empty. I asked permission and then moved across the aisle, where I prepared to spread out. A few minutes before take-off, a lovely young attendant came and asked me would I move to the middle seat so that a woman in a seat a few rows ahead could sit here. I felt tears bubbling as I looked at the young woman and said, “Let me tell you my tale of woe. If, after you hear it, you need my seat, I will relinquish. . . .”

When I wrapped the tale of the Russian thug, the flight attendant was overcome with emotion. “You can stay here,” she said, patting me on the shoulder. “If anyone insists that you move, you tell them I said you are to keep these seats all the way to New York.”

And that is just what I did.

Notes From A Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 6

6. Complacency and the Government Shut-Down

The most depressing spectacle to watch from my faraway perch was way the orange-faced toddler masquerading as a potus made a mockery of our Constitution. It is far from surprising that he throws bigger and louder tantrums, that he engages in increasingly disturbing manipulations. It’s what two-year-olds do. We can’t expect any better from him.

But why do we put up with him? We stand by wringing our hands and calling him names, laughing with the comedians who mock his outrageous idiocy. But we don’t do anything to stop his actions.

He shut down the government, putting our national security and the livelihoods of millions of our compatriots in jeopardy. We did nothing.

He reopened the government and simultaneously threatened to shut it down again. We laughed.

He suggests that unpaid government workers, the Joe Schmoes who are forced to live without income until the baby gets his way, should ask their churches and grocers for help when they can’t afford to buy food. We shake our heads in dismay.

Why is the country not out on a general strike? Every union in America, every group in this country should be refusing to work, refusing to carry on until the government is reinstated in full. It’s not a simple matter of establishing solidarity with the workers being exploited. We all have much to lose.

Many public servants, from teachers to street cleaners, stand to be cut off in many states that depend on aid from the National government. Railroad, airline employees, dock workers, and all manner of public transportation people could be expected to accept pay cuts at very least. Medicaid and Medicare will eventually suffer, as will Social Security.

Once the government gets away with eliminating paychecks, there is no barrier to ending others, to shutting down the country in myriad financial ways. They have the control. They can do it. None of us is safe.

We have given the little whiner well more than an inch. Who knows what he will take?

 

If we let him.

Notes From A Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 5

5.Watching American politics from afar  

So depressing. It is bad enough that the hideous behaviors of our current so-called administration are still supported by a healthy portion of the population. It’s bad enough that my taxes – taxes that have been realigned so that my income has fallen considerably — to keep children in cages, to fund ridiculous immigration policies, to enable the clown president and his evil henchmen, band of oligarchs, to rob the middle class from any possible hope of prosperity.

That the opposition cannot find common ground on which to stand to resist them is the most terrifying reality of all. It’s one the overseas world is pointing at. “This is what you call democracy?”

The women’s movement, which should be a unified effort by women in this country to take the power out of the hands of narcissistic males who would strip us of our reproductive and employment rights, is instead driven by the enmity between the Sarsour-dominated Women’s March Alliance and the NYC Women’s March. Through my cloudy telescope, the Alliance looked like a bunch of bullying thugs, equally as toxic as the patriarchy we should combine forces to overthrow. Women’s rights, even those we worked so hard to win, are eroding away all across the country. Slipping out of our granddaughters’ reach.

Instead of creating a united front to stand against the mansplainers who feel the need to dominate women, each organization is more concerned with having things one own way without the other.

Sad.