In Memoriam

19 Jan

lost-overnight-in-woods

About two months ago—just before Thanksgiving—one of my closest and dearest colleagues died after a lengthy battle with cancer.   For a number of reasons I have not written about her untimely demise on my blog—until now of course.  First, there was my own medical condition and my new PET scan to discuss, which came up shortly after her passing.  Lazily, or selfishly, I figured that since the original purpose of this blog was to share my ongoing health saga with all of you, that topic took precedence over sharing my feelings on the loss of this extraordinary woman.  Perhaps of greater importance, though, until now I wasn’t quite sure what to say about her passing.  I have found so little comfort in my own encounters with loss, and while my religious tradition’s communal response to death provides a wonderful network of support, I find very little in Judaism that directly addresses how individuals can or should process the loss of loved ones. At the very least, those kinds of prophetic and rabbinic insights seem inaccessible to an interested, though undereducated, layperson.  Ultimately, the single most insightful commentary I have heard on loss in the past few months comes not from a rabbi or other sage, but instead from a recent viewing of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  In that musical’s finale, Sondheim reminds us that “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.”  That’s it.  No mystical or holistic reasons for loss, no majestic communion with the Almighty, no useful instructions on how to cope with the passing of a loved one, just a factual assertion that loss exists.

And yet I cannot shake the phrase from my head.  Day after day I sing the passage to myself, partly because of the beauty of Sondheim’s melody, of course, but also because I am beginning to believe there is great wisdom in this simple assertion—sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.  And while this may seem cold, though it is certainly not meant to be, I have come to see that any statement about a person’s passing is inescapably banal. Death is the one act we will all undertake someday.  To be sure, it can be a terrible and frightening thing to consider (it sure messes with my head), but it is also one of the most common events among living things, something we share with every being on the planet.  Plants die. Earthworms die. Dogs, lions, great blue whales…they die. And humans…we die, too.  What matters more, I think, is how we lived, and what that life has meant to those who surround us (I know, trite…but invariably true).  And so while I was first inclined to write about the great nobility and strength my friend demonstrated in her battle with cancer (and believe me, she was incredibly brave), I have come to see that any fitting tribute should recognize what a glorious and blessed coincidence it was that I should meet her in the first place and how, together, we did some really wonderful and meaningful things—actions and projects that have and will continue to have a positive influence on countless young people in Los Angeles and beyond.

While this may seem somewhat Pollyannaish, I can honestly say that it was a miracle my friend and I ever met—one of those everyday miracles we take for granted too often.  Had each of us followed the career paths we had envisioned for ourselves in our young adulthood, there was really no reason my friend and I should ever have met.  She came from a line of successful advertising executives and made a career for herself in that field.   I began my professional life (such as it was) as a singer and actor and had the kind of middling success that enables one to continue to perform for a little bit of money and still less recognition.  Had she continued in advertising, and had I achieved greater success on stage and screen, we never would have met.  But that’s not where life took us.  One day while working on the original ad campaign for the McRib (that’s right…McRib…I shit you not) my friend met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband.  It was love at first sight, he has told me, and apparently she must have felt the same way because the group dinner where they first realized their feelings for each other was arranged by my friend as a way to spend more time with her future husband (something she confessed to later in life).  After a year of long-distance romance—her in Chicago and him in LA—my friend moved to Los Angeles and within a few years was married.  I wound up in Los Angeles in the fall of 1990. My future wife and I came to the city after spending several years working in regional theater in the South.  She found work almost immediately as a scenic artist, and within a few months I had a long-running gig at Universal Studios.

So we were both in LA. Still, our career paths (those of my friend and I) were different and divergent. But parenthood changes everything.  As my friend’s children grew, she took an interest in arts education and developed an extremely successful arts program in her children’s school district. And fatherhood altered my career path, as well.  Over a few years I weaned myself off of show business and studied history, planning to teach the subject in high school.  After a series of twists and turns we both wound up at the Autry National Center, though initially at different times and in different departments  In 2009, though, when I was offered my current position, my soon to be colleague was already one of the most valued employees in our department, and I was about to be her boss.  Kismet!

And yet, as with all great buddy films, we really did not like each other at first.  My colleague was extremely driven, often to the point of being defensive and inflexible, and I, as I so often can be, was very full of myself and what I knew (or thought I knew) about how to run my department.  But within a few weeks, after I had observed her in action, I came to realize that I was fortunate enough to be partnered with a force of nature, an extraordinary educator, a caring and formidable mother, and over time a good, good friend.  As one coworker recently observed, no one who met this person could ever forget her.  She was a small, compact woman bursting with energy.  She had a missionary zeal for creating engaging and educational experiences for students of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. We both believed in the power of education to transform.  We both believed that children rise to the level of content and the expectations placed in front of them.  We both believed in the power of second chances, and we both believed that talented teachers were excited to find new ways to approach tried and true subjects.

My friend took a nascent partnership with eighth grade students at a local magnet school and provided the kind of forethought and scaffolding it required to become one of our more successful and respected programs–an award winning, living history program in which we trained our eighth grade charges to teach younger students (fourth-graders) about the life, labor, class, and gender issues on a 19th century Mexican rancho.  The program was popular, engaging, intellectually rigorous, and of greatest importance convinced students of the importance and excitement of research and teaching. Indeed, oftentimes our program was the only reason some of the poorest performing students bothered to come to school.  The structure and novelty of the project certainly played a role in the students’ love of the program, but I have no doubt that one of the most rewarding parts of their experience was the time they spent with my friend and colleague. She made those kids feel special, important, valuable, competent, and intelligent.  Indeed she made everyone she came into contact with feel that way.

Over our almost five years together, my friend and I took on new projects for the museum.  We partnered with an organization in LA that offers arts education to at risk youth, and my friend played an important role in training their teaching artists and providing support for their classroom teachers.  Together we hired an extraordinary staff of bright young people, many of whom continue to change the lives of the 50,000 or so students we see every year.  And though she had no previous experience in the field, my friend soon became the education lead on all exhibitions relating to the cultures and histories of Native Americans.  I assigned the task to her because I knew that she would immerse herself in the topic with extraordinary depth and passion.  Indeed, after my friend’s passing, I had to notify several members of the local Native community because she had worked so closely with them for so long.

And now she’s gone.  She left us halfway through the wood, with so many things to do and projects to oversee.  I know that she desperately wanted to stick around, and I know, as well, that she would give me a very hard time for the sentimentality (and length) of this post.  And so I will just close by saying that I miss my friend very much, and I hope that, over the coming years, my work will be a positive legacy to her memory.  And I hope, as well, that I will stumble into some new friend on this side of the wood and that we come out the other side together.

As always…stay tuned.

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I Live to Scan Another Day

9 Dec

Erik Hat

Good news from Los Angeles, my friends.  After a seemingly unbearable wait to learn the results of my most recent PET CT scan, I spoke to my doctors’ office and learned that he would not be in for two more days.  “If you would like to wait until Thursday,” the receptionist said, ” your doctor can contact you then.”

“Uhm, no, I cannot wait two more days for these results.  If they’re in, I want to know.”

And so another oncologist called me 20 minutes later with the news.

My mass appears to be a little smaller, which could just be the margin of error of the machine, but at least there’s no growth.  And the metabolic uptake, the hot spot in the scan, if you will, has gone down.

Good news!  And now, onto scantasia (our semi-annual post scan celebration) and to June, when we do this all over again.

Thanks to all of my friends, colleagues, and readers for continuing to support me.

As always…stay tuned.

My Return to Scan-Land

23 Nov

PET SCAN

This used to be a blog about health and well-being, right?  It is again, for at least the next few posts.  Two weeks ago, the calendar in my head clicked off a reminder about my impending biannual PET scan, and I got the scheduling process underway.  A quick text to my doctor was followed a few days later with a reply apologizing for the delay and an assurance that my paperwork was being processed.  Then, while I was in the middle of composing a lengthier post complaining about the ways that my medical group tends to delay these decisions, I got my approval in the mail.  All that remains is the scheduling, my abstaining from carbs for 24 hours, the injection of radioactive sugar into my bloodstream, the scan itself, and, of course, the results show. I’ve begun my journey down the rabbit hole into scan-land, and I won’t come out the other end for another week or so at the earliest.

When I first started writing this post I tried to craft some cute and funny stuff about the role these tests play in my life and about the frustration of knowing that no matter how I feel, I will have a scan of my thorax and abdomen every December and July for the rest of my life.  But you know what?  There’s nothing cute and there’s nothing funny about that.  It’s frightening and anxiety producing.

I’m not sure what to say concerning my expectations or feelings about what the scan may find.  I feel pretty good these days, but part of me, no doubt the Jewish part, is afraid to say anything positive or hopeful about the process for fear that the evil eye will sense my confidence and curse me with bad news.  What can I tell you? This is how my mind works.  And yet I can’t just run away from this and not do the procedure. Can I?  My, now, semi-annual PET scan is one of the few moments in my life where I actually face my fears and do the responsible thing.

I’ll keep you posted about the progress and results.  If the past is any prologue, I will find great calm and comfort in the good wishes of my many friends who read this blog or at least take a look at my status on Facebook.  I continue to appreciate your readership, friendship, and care.

And as always…stay tuned.

The Opera, My Father, and Me

31 Oct

About two months ago, I went to the opening night of the Los Angeles Opera, Verdi’s La Traviata, set in 1920s Paris.  To be clear, I’m not trying to brag, here.  I am not the kind of person who has the money or the inclination to purchase tickets for such grand and glamorous events.  I just lucked out. My colleagues at the opera offered me free tickets.  As I often tell my wife, every now and again there are perks to knowing me…and this was one of those rare occasions.  Truth is I haven’t been to the opera in years.  At one time, though, the opera was an integral part of my everyday life.  For many years, my parents were subscribers to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.  As well, some of you likely know that in my youth I studied voice at some of the nation’s most renowned conservatories (I failed out of those conservatories, too, but that’s a story for another time).  And so, sitting there at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, my mind was filled with countless memories about the opera, my on again off again love affair with musical performance, and, of greatest importance, my family.

Watching opening night of La Traviata, a powerful current of memory almost overwhelmed me, as I thought about uncomfortable childhood nights sitting in ill-fitting suits at the Met, watching productions that seemed overly dramatic and insanely long…at least that’s how they seemed to my nine-year old brain at the time.  I recalled my adolescence and my growing appreciation of the opera, of my interest in specific composers, singers, conductors, and directors.  I remembered, too, my brief and ill-fated career as a student of classical vocal repertoire and how uncomfortable I felt among the many talented hopefuls in New York’s classical music scene.  And, above all else, I remembered my father, the man who deserves much of the credit for my love and study of music.

My dad was an opera fanatic.  His passion for the art was remarkable and one of the more distinct and memorable features of his persona.  No doubt some of my childhood friends, as well as the friends of my two sisters, will remember my dad blaring the Met’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts as he whined along (he surely couldn’t sing) and conducted with his own baton, a birthday present from my sisters and me. In all likelihood, dad had been to the Met the previous Tuesday evening, and so there’s a good chance that he had already heard and seen the operas that blared throughout the halls of 56 Sterling Rd on any given Saturday.  Had he lived a different life, had he delayed marriage and family, I suspect that my dad would have found some way into opera research, production, or management.  He was just that passionate and knowledgeable.  Indeed, one of my fondest memories of my dad concerns a backstage tour we took of the Met many years ago.  In one of the scene shops (which used to be onsite in those days) we came across a sketched out backdrop of a colonial Boston street scene.  Everyone in the room scratched their heads as they tried to figure out what obscure work in the classical repertoire was set in Boston.  Indeed, even our guide was utterly befuddled. Then my dad observed that in the 19th century, European productions of Verdi’s Un Ballo en Maschera, a work that depicts the assassination attempt of a Swedish monarch, would often be set in colonial Boston.  Apparently depicting the assassination of a monarch was unacceptable in mid to late 19th century European productions, but the assassination of a colonial governor was just fine.  That was my dad.  He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the opera and an oversized love and admiration for the art form and its practitioners.

I, on the other hand, was less enamored of the opera.  Over time I came to enjoy it, of course, but I lacked dad’s all consuming passion for the art form.  And without that passion one really can’t succeed as a classical musician.  The careful study of scores, the daily practice, the intense care one must dedicate to protecting one’s voice, it was just too much for me, and there were others who were far more passionate, disciplined, and in truth, more talented than I was.  And so by my early twenties, I had stopped studying voice, taken up the study of acting, and, over time, the opera ceased to be a part of my life. Still, opera lives inside me.  I know the plot lines to most of the standard works in the classical repertoire, I can recognize countless arias after having heard just a few notes, and I still get a chill listening to Puccini’s La Boheme (Puccini was and continues to be my favorite opera composer).  My appreciation of the opera is a portion of my patrimony, a legacy forcefully and passionately bequeathed to me by my father. And so when offered the chance to attend the opera this fall, I went.

It was a great night.  It was nice to be at such a grand event with my wife and daughter. I saw numerous friends and colleagues.  The production was fun, and the music is still as beautiful and powerful as I remembered it.  Most rewarding of all, while sitting in that vast music hall enjoying the sometimes glorious, sometimes awkward, always exciting merger of grand music and grand theater I thought about the opera, my father, and me and the way in which the art form played such an important role in our relationship as father and son. Lost in that reverie, for a brief moment, I saw my father’s soul.

This last claim, my maudlin assertion that I could see my father’s soul, likely requires some explanation.  My father died in 2008, after a lengthy battle with melanoma.  Over the past six years, I have had a hard time recalling my father in any context other than his rapid decline in the two or so months that preceded his death.  To be sure, we all have wonderful stories about my dad, about his peculiarities, his temper, his sense of humor, his love of dogs and little kids, and, of course, I have photos of my father to remind me of what he looked like at different stages in his life.  But what is absent from my mind, is a recollection of the kinetic totality of my dad, of the way that words, and movement, and thought, and emotion, and other ineffable qualities combined to form his unique being, his essence, his soul. I have some vague memories of his bearing during his illness, of his labored breathing, his terrible frustration with his physical deterioration, and of his dips in and out of conscious thought.  But for years now I seem unable to capture in my mind some fuller sense of my father in his younger, healthier days…until I went to the opera.

As the lights fell and the overture began, a vision came to my mind’s eye, a vision of my dad sitting in a similarly darkened theater, his attention riveted on the stage, his occasional look over to me to confirm that I was still awake.  I recalled strolling across the large and beautiful plaza at Lincoln Center with its signature fountains.  I could see and hear snippets of my dad telling me the synopsis of this or that work—an experience that, as a child, I often found far more entertaining than the actual performance. And most specifically, I remembered meeting my dad for a pre-opera dinner one night on New York’s Upper West Side.  I was 23, living in Memphis Tennessee, and had just come into town for Christmas.  When I arrived at the restaurant my dad looked at me and smiled this big, genuine and loving smile.  Just writing about it makes me tear up a little bit. I saw all this and more, that night.  Throughout the evening I caught glimpses of dad as a young and healthy person deeply engaged in the one hobby he embraced more passionately than New York Giants’ football.  The whole experience was fulfilling and quite moving.

I had no idea that the opera had meant that much to me, that it had become an ethereal link between my earthly life and my father’s soul.  It has, though, and so I suspect it is time for me to return to it….not as a singer, of course, that’s just nuts.  No, I suspect it is time for me to embrace my father’s legacy.  To listen to more works of opera, to whine along with the arias I know and love, to conduct an invisible orchestra, and to close my eyes for just a minute and see my father.

As always…stay tuned.

Happy Anniversary?

26 Sep

Hat and Shades

It’s been a year….Or at least it will be.  By the time I post this piece on my blog, a year will have passed since I was first told I have a tumor in my chest.  This fall will mark other one year anniversaries, as well—a year since I was told the tumor was a cyst, a year since I was told “no, it’s lymphoma,” a year since my biopsy, a year since I was then told “nope, no lymphoma here,” and on, and on, and on.  Indeed, the next twelve months will offer up a full year of first anniversaries, each marking a variety of challenging, terrifying, motivational, and unforgettable moments of my life.  And In a bizarre twist of fate, the first of those coming anniversaries will take place during Rosh Hashanah (September, 26th).

I assume that practically everyone who reads my blog is either a) Jewish or b) friends with a sufficient number of Jews to know that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. What non-Jewish readers (and perhaps a few Jews) may not know is that unlike the American New Year’s traditions of going to an overpriced club, drinking to excess, trying desperately to have the perfect evening, and, ultimately, sitting on your couch and watching Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve (well, Ryan Seacrest these days, but the rest is pretty accurate), the Jewish New Year and the month preceding it are a time of intense self-reflection and prayer.  Through these practices, and through the powerful experience of Yom Kippur (a day dedicated to recognizing and seeking forgiveness for our sins in the past year) Jews hope to begin the New Year resolved to become better people—not unlike the New Year’s resolutions we adopt on January 1st but more focused on our souls and less on quitting smoking, losing twenty pounds, giving up cable TV, etc. My kind of holiday, right? After all, I’ve got this self-reflection thing down. The whole point of starting this blog was to report on my seemingly endless self-assessments of my health as well as my spiritual and psychological well-being.

And yet, recently I have spent a lot less time in self-reflection—or at least publically sharing my inner monologue of introspection and self-doubt. Part of that stems from my decision to expand the scope of this blog, which has given me the license to think about a range of topics, from this summer’s awful war in the Middle East to my privileged childhood in Westchester County, New York.  But it has also provided a kind of leave to stop thinking of and writing about my health for a little while. What a relief (for all of us, I’m sure)!

The truth is that for months, now, self-reflection has turned into self-condemnation, as I continually contemplate just how short I’ve fallen of the lofty goals I set for myself when I learned I did not have cancer (that is, the FIRST time I learned I didn’t have cancer….oy!). My mindful eating has become mindless and meaningless. My exercise regimen has dwindled to practically nothing (save for my continued practice of Tai Chi).  My meditation schedule, once something I was very proud of, has fallen from twice a day to twice a week (if I’m lucky!).  I feel dejected, defeated, and just plain bad.  And I am quite certain that this sense of defeat, along with other fears and concerns, has diminished my capacity as a father, a husband, and a human being. One thing is sure, in my quiet moments, the times when I am alone with my thoughts and undistracted by any other task, I heap blame and judgment on myself for my recent failures and wonder if I am capable of even the slightest efforts at self-discipline and self-motivation.  And now comes this anniversary, the first of many in the coming year, AND the Jewish holidays, AND the attendant introspection they demand. Tough times.

Still, the great thing about the High Holidays is the expectation that self-reflection (and even self-criticism) can open a path towards self-improvement. Despite the Jewish predilection for self-loathing and guilt (a broad stereotype that is, simultaneously, unfounded and completely true), at this time of year we are expected to make teshuvah, a word that literally means “return” but is more broadly translated as a kind of repentance and renewal, a “RETURN” to a better, more meaningful, and committed life.  And that time for renewal starts now, one year after I began the most terrifying, yet deeply meaningful, period of my life. I do want to return to the path I laid out for myself last fall, to fill my actions and thoughts with meaning, care, and decency, to become the person I dream of being.

There’s this prayer in the Yom Kippur service that my grandmother (my dad’s mom) always liked, though for the life of me I don’t know why.  It says, in essence, that on Rosh Hashanah, God opens the book of life and death and begins to write down our names (like a very gruesome naughty or nice list).  On Yom Kippur, S/He closes the book. Disturbing, no?  Melodically, it’s a beautiful prayer, and perhaps that’s why it still exists in our modern liturgy, despite its rather simplistic and creepy assessment of the High Holidays’ significance. Still, it poses a challenge to rabbis to explain this prayer to their congregations, and over the years I have listened to several clergy try to make sense of it. Perhaps the most heartening interpretation I’ve heard argues that the prayer speaks of a spiritual, rather than physical, life and a spiritual death.  In other words, at this time of year, through this process of self-reflection, prayer, and repentance we establish our spiritual path for the year—either one of engagement, meaning and life, or one of withdrawal, regret, and a kind of death.  That’s the interpretation that works for me and the one I’ll bring with me into the synagogue. The holidays are my opportunity to choose a life of meaning and spirit, and failing  to make that choice is to experience a kind of death, a frightful and terrible emptiness.  Faced with those two choices, I think my path is clear.

Shana Tova to You and Yours

And As Always…stay tuned.

Ferguson and Me….Kind Of

28 Aug

Ferguson

 

As I watch events unfold in Missouri these past few weeks, I am reminded of my youth and my own engagement with law enforcement.  I think back to my first years behind the wheel of a car and the freedom I had as a young adult.  Naturally, I can still recall the ways my parents prepared me for my new found freedom, warning me not to drink and drive, to avoid drugs, and, of course, teaching me how to behave around the police.  “Remember,” they said, “when a cop stops you, be polite and respectful. Don’t yell.  Don’t be aggressive.  Always ask permission to reach for your wallet or to open your glove compartment.  Remember, these guys have guns.”

Oh, wait a minute, that last part, the part where my deeply concerned parents warned me about appropriate behavior around the police, THAT NEVER HAPPENEND because I was a white kid from the suburbs. As the parents of a white male growing up in the wealthy suburbs north of New York City my folks never felt compelled to teach me how to behave around the police.  They assumed I would be safe, and they even evinced an antipathy towards local law enforcement that might have gotten them locked up or killed were they black and poor.  I am an attorney’s son, and throughout my youth, during which I behaved both responsibly and irresponsibly, I always knew that if I ever ran afoul of the law, my dad had my back.  I also knew (or perhaps felt, or… subconsciously understood) that I was safe, that no one would ever see me as a threat.  My lack of body building, my disinterest in black concert t-shirts and long hair (this was the late 70s and early 80s, after all), my distaste for weapons and physical violence, my non-threatening ride (a Volvo 240, which we all know to be the universal symbol of suburban whiteness), and, oh yes, the color of my skin, all projected a persona that assured any nervous officers on a traffic stop that I was harmless and simultaneously communicated to them that any effort to demean or harm me would be met by career-threatening litigation.  And so I never worried about my engagement with the police….ever—a sense of safety that I am sure was noticeably absent in the psyches of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and other black men (both young and old).

I’m sure my readers assume that since I am a white, middle class guy, my experiences with police have been uneventful.  And yet, those of you who have known me a long time know that I have been in jail…TWICE… for a grand total of some 2 ½ hours (maybe a little less, actually).  To be clear, I have never been arrested, never been charged with a crime—save for driving in rural Georgia with an expired license plate—and never actually served time.  Nevertheless, on two occasions police have put me in a holding cell.  Down in Georgia, which was my second time in the slammer, so to speak, the whole thing was very civilized.  An African-American cop stopped me for driving with expired tags.  He asked to see my ID, and when he noticed that I lived in Fulton County (which apparently meant I was a flight risk), he politely asked me to follow him to the station.  Once there, he asked for my belt and shoe laces, at which point I knew I was headed for a cell while I posted bond for my court appearance for the expired tag.  In essence, they wanted me to pay my fine prior to any trial and before they would let me leave Fayette County.  A petty and greedy move on the part of the police department? Yes, but throughout the experience the officer in question was extremely kind, respectful, and decent. Nobody hit me or searched me.  Everyone referred to me as sir, and they even came into my cell and lit my cigarettes (apparently matches were not allowed—for fear of riots and escape—but cigarettes were ok….go figure!).  To be sure, I was a cooperative participant.  When I realized I was going into a cell I whined a little bit, but I knew I would get out quickly.  As an acting intern in Atlanta, I personally had no money but I knew lots of people who did.  I got out of the lockup in time for my meeting with a local author (who actually bailed me out) and was home by 8 or 9 that evening.  But this was not my first time in a cell, and it was that earlier, brief detention that really illustrates just how privileged I was and continue to be.

My previous lockup was around 1985 in New York City.  My parents and I were stuck in traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel on our way to Passover Dinner at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey.  Our car, the aforementioned Volvo 240, stalled out and we could not get it to start despite the traffic cop’s continued insistence that we move.  After a minute or two, the visibly ticked off police officer walked over to us and demanded that we pull over to the side of the road.  Naturally, at that moment, the car started and we moved over to an area just outside the tunnel entrance.  A now enraged officer demanded to see my license and registration while my father, who was equally enraged, yelled at me to not show the officer anything.  He had no grounds to charge us with bupkes!  The damn car wouldn’t start.  After about five minutes of arguing, the cop demanded I exit the car, and then, suddenly, two officers grabbed me by the arms, swept me up, opened the door to a small office and put me in a holding cell.  They (the cops) were scared out of their minds.  My dad (an attorney) was standing in front of the door threatening to sue them, to have their badges.  My mom screamed that the cops were beating me. Hundreds of drivers entering the tunnel could see the whole thing. The police had no idea what to do.  Behind closed doors they threatened to arrest me if I couldn’t get my parents to calm down, and so that’s just what I did.  The cops opened the door to the office. I talked my parents down, pulled up my shirt to show that I hadn’t been beaten, and, just like that, we were back in the car on our way to New Jersey, me yelling at my folks for getting me thrown into a cell and my dad laughing about the whole thing and telling me to “relaaaaaax” (if you knew Gary, you understand what I’m saying).  Weeks later my parents met with Transit Police officials to vent their spleen and the whole affair was over.

My point in recalling these tales (which have, over the years, become funny stories about my “wild side”) is not to decry my treatment by the police, which in New York City was slightly rough but pretty uneventful, really, and ultimately empty and impotent. Rather it is to make clear just how much deference rich white people receive even in the midst of a very tense situation. On two separate occasions the police have seen fit to put me in a cell, albeit briefly.  Once, the officer allowed me to drive myself to the station!  And in the other instance my family and I challenged the police in an angry and aggressive way, and yet we weren’t beaten, or tazed, or arrested, and we certainly weren’t shot!  Not once did I believe that I would be thrown into a system designed to imprison me. Not once did I feel hopeless or particularly scared (well maybe a little scared, but not terribly frightened).  Not once did I fear for my life. Indeed, I would argue that at some point on that bizarre day outside the Lincoln Tunnel, my family was itching for a fight.  We couldn’t wait to have our day in court with the Transit police. After all, with my dad’s training, connections, and privilege we were sure those cops would be sorry they ever met the Greenbergs.  Actually I am sure there are countless waiters, auto mechanics, and others who wish they hadn’t met the Greenbergs either…but that’s beside the point.  The real point is that in Georgia and New York, with black cops and white cops, in the country and in the city, while cooperating and while disobeying, I was treated with respect, decency, and more than a little deference. I had white and middle class privilege to spare.  I knew it.  My parents knew it.  You know it.  Everyone knows it.  Wealthy (or even not so wealthy) white people are treated differently in all kinds of circumstances.  We can hail a cab without incident, ask for directions without people locking their car doors walk through a department store without being followed, and, most notably, we are allowed a much wider range of behaviors around law enforcement.

I think I would just close by noting that the kind of racism we are talking about here is not just a “police problem.” I know a few police officers, and I have found them all to be thoughtful, kind, decent, and committed people.  And as I noted above, even those police that I did not know personally, people I have met under less than ideal circumstances, have all been either good guys or pretty restrained…at least in the way they approached and handled me.  And if they can be that deferential to me, they can certainly show greater courtesy to others regardless of their race. No, the real issue in Ferguson, and by connection the entire country, is much bigger than one policeman or police force.  The horrible events of Ferguson, of the Trayvon Martin slaying, or of countless other acts of violence and death directed against people (especially men) of color in this country are driven by a belief system that establishes in no uncertain terms that I am worthy of better treatment than others who either look different from me or who have less money than I do.  I suspect that that belief system is so deeply embedded in our society, that it will take many decades to alter it and the misperceptions it engenders.  But we won’t make any progress at all until folks like me, and, I suspect, many of my readers, thoughtfully consider their treatment in American society and own up to the advantages of whiteness and of middle class status.  We don’t need to surrender our privilege, which, let’s face it, is pretty nice.  Rather, we need to extend it to everyone.  We need to demand (and perhaps of greater importance, expect) that police officers, office clerks, and the many other individuals whose jobs require them to regularly encounter the public give all people the benefit of the doubt and extend common courtesy to everyone.  They should address all new acquaintances as sir and ma’am.  Skin color should not determine one’s ability to get a cab, increase (or decrease) their chances of being stopped by the police, or determine whether or not a store detective suspects one of shoplifting.   Without those simple, universal expectations people like me will continue to live a life largely devoid of fear of arrest and/or detention, while other Americans, through no fault of their own, will constantly brace themselves for the onslaught of disrespect and mistreatment that accompanies our racial and class hierarchy.

I know what some of you are thinking.  That’s your answer, Erik?  Extend white privilege to everyone?  How the hell are we supposed to do that?  I don’t know.  If I had good answers to life’s persistent problems I would have called this blog something other than Limbo.  I don’t have answers, though, just beliefs.  I hope that many of you believe as I do, and I pray that someone out there has answers to what seems like an intractable, and is certainly a heartbreaking problem in American society.

As always, stay tuned.

Gratitude in Tough Times

4 Aug

 

keep-calm-have-an-attitude-of-gratitude

 

It’s been a tough summer…a tough summer in the middle of a tough, tough year.  War in Israel, mass slaughter in Syria, a passenger plane shot out of the sky—the horrible collateral damage of an ongoing war in Ukraine.  Here at home our government has devolved into hyperbolic political theater, as our Congress adopts a well-practiced posture of outrage and contempt, and our President seems quite incapable of stewarding the roll-out of his signature healthcare legislation (it’s true my liberal friends. I know too many young people who have had an incredibly difficult time with “Obamacare” to pretend otherwise).  On the personal side of the tough-times ledger there is my ongoing engagement with health, healthcare, and well-being.  I have a lemon-sized tumor in my chest, which fortunately is not cancer and has not grown but can still scare the bejesus out of me from time to time.  I am poked, and prodded, and scanned, by doctors on a regular basis.  I have developed a touch of arthritis in my spine (up around my neck) and must see a physical therapist once a week.  Beyond health and well-being I have experienced other types of personal challenge and sadness, as well.  Those who are regular readers of this blog know that recently an old friend was killed in a terrible car crash down in Texas.  And then, just a few weeks ago, another old friend died.  This death was not as shocking as the loss of my former classmate.  The person in question was a docent from our museum, and he was almost 90 years old at the time of his passing.  Still, he was a good guy.  I had known him for years, and I liked him very much.  He was kind, pleasant, charming, and baked cookies every week for the docent corps (and for me).  Such commitment to the culinary arts should not go unnoticed or unapplauded.  Like I said…a good guy.  When I learned of his passing, I turned to a colleague and exclaimed, “My God could this summer get any worse!!!???” 

As the words left my mouth I already regretted saying them.  First of all, things could, and have, gotten worse.  The war between Israel and Gaza goes on, bringing terrible loss of life and sadly sowing the seeds for decades of mistrust and anger on both sides. Syria has gotten no better.  Ukraine has gotten worse.  Fifty, some odd, thousand kids from Central America, some of whom will receive refugee status, others of whom will be sent home, live in a legal and existential limbo in detention centers near our southern border while the politicians continue to feign outrage and concern but do little else as they prepare their rhetoric for the coming election.  Then, last week, in a kind of cosmic slap in the face, a water main break at UCLA wasted some 10 million gallons of water—this in the midst of an ongoing drought in California (we’re at four years and counting). Like I said…tough times.

But my regret at having implored the heavens also emerged from a second reality that had nothing to do with these worsening circumstances.  I regretted asking if things could get any worse because to do so was to ignore the many blessings that exist in my life and the world.  My bizarre condition has not proven eminently dangerous, but rather a medical oddity that has put me in touch with some wonderful, attentive doctors and has generated expressions of kindness and concern from around the world.  This summer, I turned fifty, and that milestone has been marked by really wonderful celebrations in LA and NY, granting me the privilege of spending happy times with friends and family.  Indeed, just recently I spent the day with old friends from my high school days, people I haven’t seen in years.  We ate and drank to excess, shared stories about our lives and our children, and in general just had a good time.  I have a loving and supportive family, a rewarding and engaging job, two crazy dogs, and a host of other blessings that make me one of the luckier people on this planet.  Even the passing of my docent friend came with its own set of blessings.  He lived a long life.  His death was neither incredibly sudden (he kind of faded away over an 18 month period) nor cruel, painful, or prolonged (he was at the museum every week for all but the last few months of his life, and I understand that his passing was painless and peaceful).  I was lucky to know him for as long as I did, and he will live in my memory and the memory of countless others who toured the museum with him, knew him personally, or ate his cookies. 

In the wider world things remain pretty bleak, but there are still small signs of hope.  We have seen a kind of radical empathy emerge from the awful murders of the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers whose deaths signaled the beginning of this most recent war.  Some three hundred Israelis travelled to the home of the bereaved Palestinian parents to mourn their loss and let the world know that such heinous acts are unacceptable to many in Israeli society.  Across the globe, Jews and Arabs have participated in the “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies” initiative.  In America, tolerance and legal acceptance of and for marriage equality is on the upswing, and our nation’s damaging and expensive war on drugs seems to be winding down.  At the very least, the nation’s politicians are beginning to rethink the political calculus of the “tough on drugs” rhetoric and legislation that began in earnest in the 1980s.  And in a somewhat mixed blessing, football season begins soon.  While I continue to worry about the ways in which the sport has damaged the lives of many athletes, I still love the game and look forward to the season.  I don’t believe for one second that the Giants stand a chance of even making the playoffs, but to paraphrase a friend, with every new season there is new hope. 

Gratitude is tough in tough times.  I don’t wish to seem too Pollyannaish, nor do I want people to think that my appreciation of my good fortune blinds me to the very real suffering and misery that exists on this planet.  But what is any one of us supposed to do…spend our lives contemplating only suffering?  We need hope.  I am reminded of the story of how rescue workers at ground zero in Lower Manhattan would hide in the rubble so that rescue dogs could discover live bodies.  The dog’s trainers found that the endless stream of death proved too dispiriting to their K9 coworkers and the only way to spur them on was to offer some hope of life.  If a dog (a wonderful creature, but hardly the most sophisticated of thinkers) needs that kind of hope, we human beings must require at least as much and likely more.  And so in tough times I try my best to count my blessings every now and then.

Finally, please know that I am not writing this post to lecture or cajole my readers into appreciating the good that surrounds them.  The aims of my blog are much more modest than that.  I merely want to let any interested parties know what’s going on in my world, to share my thoughts publically in a relatively safe environment, and to see if and how they resonate with my readers.  If this posting helps you in any way, great.  If not, that’s fine too.  The fact that anyone reads these posts at all adds to my already considerable blessings, and I am grateful for that.  And I hope that my family, friends, and other readers have much to be grateful for, as well.

 

As always, stay tuned.