Archive for February, 2014

Sleepy Dog

February 27, 2014

We didn’t see my mother’s brother and his family nearly as much as we saw my father’s sister and her family (and she was married to a close friend of my father’s).  They (my mother’s brother and his family) lived in Florida, my father’s sister’s family on Long Island.

But a gift my Uncle Herbie gave me when I was a toddler was at least as significant to my development as the Tom Lehrer album I just wrote about in my last post.

It was a huge stuffed animal, a large yellow dog with closed eyes and floppy ears.  I named him Sleepy Dog.

I kept him, I gave him to Jonas when Jonas became part of our family, and Sleepy Dog is among Jonas’ collection of stuffed animals stored in the basement.

I loved Sleepy Dog.  He was big enough to hug.  I could even ride him down the stairs, bump, bump, bump.  He was a great comfort when I lost at boardgames, or at anything else.  I went through phases when I brought him into bed with me, but he took up a lot of room, especially because one of his back legs sticks out.  I think he spent as much time in my doll carriage as my baby dolls.

Anyway, Sleepy Dog was also the sort of thing my parents would not have bought for me, and he was a great fit for me.  Thank goodness for extended family.  It’s an interesting phenomenon for me that although my uncle didn’t know me well, he brought me something I really loved.


Tom Lehrer, LPs, and my aunt

February 27, 2014

My father listened to opera.  A lot.  I will leave it at that.

His sister, who was about 18 months younger than he was, was as warm as he was reserved.  They were close, and she would tease him.

One of the manifestations of this aspect of their relationship was her gift to him of the Tom Lehrer album “That Was the Year That Was.”

My father didn’t listen to it, but my sister and I did.  We were in our formative years, I suppose, and the album made a big impression.

Part of the context in which we listened to it were the albums our aunt gave to us directly:  Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” Judy Collins’ “Recollections,” Peter, Paul, & Mary’s “Album 1700.”  We would not have been exposed to this music at that age without those gifts.

So the Tom Lehrer album also seemed to be a message smuggled in from the other side.   I think that is part of why I hear its ideas as background structure to much of modern civic discourse even now.  And, of course, it covered a lot of ground, with wit and compassion and sometimes scathing insight.

I still have that Tom Lehrer album.  It did not get stolen along with the many albums that did.  Our turntables at this point need repair, and the fellow in town who used to do that kind of work has disappeared.  But there is YouTube, and that allows one to read the facial expressions in the performance, so there is some added benefit to revisiting them there, even if I sometimes miss the particular renditions of the songs.

Whose brother or sister?

February 23, 2014

“’This isn’t the drug user of the 1970s. It’s your brother, your sister. It crosses all socioeconomic strata.’”

This is a quotation from “Max Sandusky, prevention and screening director for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod” and it comes from an article in The Boston Globe called “Opiates taking heavy toll on Cape,” by Brian MacQuarrie, dated February 22, 2014.

Years ago when a child in one of our sons’ nursery school class died from strep, and a few months later our son came down with scarlet fever, just two days after having been examined by his pediatrician, someone important in the public health sector in the state government told my husband that nothing would likely be done about what was going on in the nursery school until the child of somebody important died.

It was pretty clear that someone in the school was a carrier — there were many strep cases at the school in addition to Jillian’s and our son’s — but no testing could be undertaken, nor could the staff member who seemed to be the carrier be asked to take steps to protect the children.  As I recall it, she had a connection to the health sector, perhaps through a second job, and the hypothesis was that she picked up bacteria at the facility but didn’t become ill from them.  And if it wasn’t she, then some sort of testing of everybody might have revealed a different pathway through which there was such an on-going and severe presence of strep in the school, even after vacation breaks.

In other words, it wasn’t just a single event during which children passed strep germs to each other;  and the public health official knew that.

We withdrew our child and found a new school for the fall.

There’s that set of lines from Richard Shindell’s song “Transit” about how “car thieves and crack dealers, mobsters and murderers [are someone’s] husbands and sons, fathers and brothers.”

When we are still picking and choosing whose lives are more and less important, we cannot yet congratulate ourselves on being “superior.”  It’s a paradox, resolved, it seems to me, by withdrawing the ego and no longer seeing the world in terms of competing groups.  We become “superior” (in the sense of “more elevated,” not in the sense of comparative elevation to others) by realizing that we are not.

We may pay more attention to an important public health problem now that more “important” people’s lives are involved, but we will not be resolving a more fundamental problem, and its manifestations in our society, until we stop with this “four legs good, two legs better” (Animal Farm, by George Orwell) attitude.


February 9, 2014

I’m thinking of the mechanics of knowing.  How do I know what I know?

Yesterday I was in a conversation that included how the internal combustion of fire figures in my contemplation.  So last night, I decided to light a candle so I could have a flame to refer to during contemplation.

I chose a yahrzeit candle because I wanted a flame in a container.  I would have preferred a stone container, but I don’t have one, so glass was what I went with.

It was not easy to light.  The wick was low.  It had been lit before.  (I don’t let them burn if I’m leaving the house or overnight, whatever the religious rules might require.)  I am not the first to attempt many of the things I do.  I like being (only) one of many.

After I got the wick lit, and not just a match burning on its own in the wax next to it, it occurred to me to wonder if I was lighting a yahrzeit candle because it was somebody’s yahrzeit.  My dad’s had passed.  So I looked up the date on which I had given birth, and on which the baby also died, in late February many years ago, and sure enough, Friday, February 7, 2014 was the yahrzeit according to the Jewish calendar for that date.

I was a day late, but the coincidence seemed too strong to me to be just a coincidence.  My Friday had included upheaval on a number of fronts in my life, too.

So I started wondering about the engineering of what happened, the mechanics of knowing.

I don’t follow the Jewish calendar in general, I tend to celebrate yahrzeits (which I think of as Jahrzeits) around the date of death on the secular calendar and when the spirit moves me (usually a few weeks before the date on the secular calendar).

The only person I know, I think, who calculates yahrzeits properly according to Jewish rules and the Jewish calendar is a cousin who is sporadically in touch.  I am not sure whether he is aware of the birth and death, and it would not, in any case, be eligible for being marked by a yahrzeit observance according to orthodox Jewish rules, because she didn’t live long enough (she didn’t live 28 days, she lived less than one day).  So I am not picking up on somebody else’s observation of a yahrzeit, I don’t think, but, on the other hand, I wouldn’t have done this myself on my own, without any input from elsewhere.

I don’t have a sure explanation.

But the experience fits into my sense of what I need to do to transition into another phase in my life.  I need to be less interactive, at least for a while.  The image that came to me is that of a generic grandparent sitting in the corner of a library in an elementary school, and just reading.  To themselves, silently.   Not interacting with the children or the staff.

This may mean not blogging, this may mean not posting comments elsewhere.  I don’t know, but I think it means paying more attention to discerning between what other people are calling for me to do and what I actually feel called to do, and only participating in the latter, even if in the past I have heeded the calls of other people as part of what I felt called from a deeper place to do.  I don’t feel that way right now.

I feel a need to make change in my life unilaterally, having tried for some years now to do this through a process of negotiation — I need to get off a merry-go-round I feel I have been on.  While it is clear to me that there are contributing factors to this situation from other people’s misperceptions, it is equally clear that there’s nothing I can do about that, especially when it would involve their recognizing that their process is flawed and producing errors.

It’s hard for me, though, and I did post a comment on Nick Kristof’s blog (in connection with his column about our prisons having become de facto mental health hospitals) earlier this morning, because, as I wrote in it, I was disappointed there were none posted yet when I had looked.   I try not to be doctrinaire.  It’s always a work in progress.

M & Ms

February 8, 2014

They used to remind me of autumn leaves: red, yellow, two shades of brown, green for those leaves that hadn’t turned.

They discontinued the light brown, which I thought was a nice neutral tone to provide balance with the other, more vibrant colors.  I thought it looked friendly and warm in a low-key way.  They added blue, and I’ve read that the dye they have been using for the blue contains some disreputable substance.  The blue is much more exciting, I suppose, but it also changes the whole impression of the palette for me.  No more autumn leaves.

We used to arrange our M & Ms into groups — all the same color, one of each color — into lines, into shapes.  My mother served them in custard cups as a special treat for a snack.  We took them out of the little bowl and arranged them, I think on a plate, but sometimes on the kitchen table directly, which I think we were not supposed to do.

Now there are so many varieties.  I have on occasion inadvertently brought home some variety I didn’t want, and didn’t like, such as the pretzel kind (I trust people like my neighbor, who has a thing for chocolate-covered pretzels, may be the target market).  And the regular kind now seem to me to have a taste that is heavy on sweetness and light on chocolate.  I buy them thinking I like them more than I actually do anymore.

Which maybe is okay.  I have found that if I buy candy I don’t like, I eat less of it.

“Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses”

February 6, 2014

Someone in my family of origin used to say that as we got into the car after some sort of trying time — either what we were going home from had taken a long time and been arduous or unpleasant, or we had had to park far away and it had taken us a long time to get back to the car, perhaps in inclement weather, or we needed to get home quickly for some reason.  In any case, it expressed relief.

I can’t remember who said it.  I suspect it was my mother, and I suspect she said it regardless of whether my father was driving or he was not along on the excursion and she was driving.  It contained no condescension or disrespect, the way it was said and used.  As I said, it expressed relief.

It’s quite a different scenario from what Charles Blow describes in his column about his daughter trying out a princess routine when she was 7.  The role she had cast him in was unacceptable and so was hers.  He put an end to the script.  But the contrast of these two scenarios, along with others I have experienced, got me thinking about calibration, about how we are each calibrated emotionally and how that factors into how we perceive a situation.

When everyone’s expectations are the same, we probably don’t bother analyzing driving arrangements.  Sometimes one person prefers to drive and the other to navigate, and “who’s to navigate and who’s to steer” (Dan Fogelberg) is quite clear to both.  Sometimes one person supplies logistical support and the other supplies tactical support of a less concrete kind.  One drives, the other analyzes how to navigate difficult career situations.  In others words, there is specialization within the realtionship, and driving is just another specialized task.

Willy drove.  I did most of the snow shoveling, leaf raking, and lawn mowing.  It was not a “princess” deal.  But I’ve had people react to providing a ride for me, regardless of whether I’ve provided them with something else of equal or greater value, as if it was quite presumptuous of me, as if I were acting entitled in a very unattractive way.   For them my expectation felt that way.  For me it made sense.  For example, if it had been their idea to go to the event and I was coming along to keep them company.  No, I’m not going to do that and drive, too, especially if I don’t really have the time to go, I’m not all that interested in the event itself, and going will result in some amount of physical difficulty for me.  But they sincerely thought my expectation that they would drive was wrong.  It’s hard to argue with that.

Finally, people with narcissistic qualities regularly perceive any help they are asked to furnish, that does not profit them more than the person being helped, as an imposition.  That I’ve learned over the years.  They, too, I think, truly process a request others would find eminently reasonable, as an imposition by a selfish person.  Their well is dry, and that’s that.  What can you do?

So I try now to let go faster situations in which I and the other person don’t see the driving issue the same way.  If they don’t see that I contribute, or have contributed, something to their benefit and this driving would be a contribution to my benefit, well, then, I guess I goofed in thinking we could be on the same page.  That’s on me, disappointment or not.  I don’t berate myself for “allowing someone to take advantage of me,” either, I figure there might have been a way in which our interaction has served the greater good, whatever the likes and disappointments of my ego may be.

I did a lot for Willy and he did a lot for me.  We never weighed it out and discussed it, it just worked.  In retrospect, I can see it was probably more unusual than I had realized that it worked without discussion — I just took it for granted that it was the normal way people interacted with one another.


February 1, 2014

I wrote somewhere in a comment to what I think was probably a piece in the “Opinionator” section of the NYTimes, that I can see the story of Abraham’s hearing a call to sacrifice his son Isaac as a story about surrender, about having a willingness to serve without reservation, no strings attached, not even a caveat of “Just don’t hurt my children.”  I don’t see it as a story about child sacrifice.

But even more than this, I can see the story as a misunderstanding, as a misperception by Abraham.

I think he was being asked to grow up himself, to “sacrifice” his inner twelve-year old in order to grow into the mature adult he could become if he could emerge from the orientation toward the self that children harbor.

I certainly am aware of multiple aspects of myself.  Sometimes I’m in a situation, and I can discern that part of me is annoyed but another part of me really doesn’t take it personally and can just let the situation slide off of me.  In other people I can notice great wells of wisdom and perspective while the person is acting in a limited way nonetheless is other regards.  It’s kind of like different flowers in our garden and we don’t always tend every species all the time.  We really like to grow those sunflowers but we don’t always bother watering and weeding those bee balm plants, or we let those black-eyed Susans run rampant and spread throughout the garden.

Some traditions tell us that we all have the wisdom inside us anyway, we just need to improve our access to it.  I think, as well, that some people have already done that in previous lifetimes in some regards (or in most regards) but have lost the knack for accessing parts of themselves since then and are working on that in their current lives.

The idea of sacrificing Isaac might be a story to flag one of those situations, where there is a need to grow out of a childish stage in some way.