Category: Essay

So long, friends. How can I honor you?

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I said goodbye to two friends this week. Both official services took place in old New England churches and involved beautiful music and good memories. One friend is very much living; the other, sadly, has passed on.

Last Tuesday I attended an organ recital performed by a friend who is moving out of state. It was his way of saying goodbye (temporarily, we hope) and Thank You to all the friends he had made while he lived here. I had known him a long time before I knew about his musical background. He was working in an unrelated business and spoke only briefly about it. And so it was a delightful discovery to finally hear him make the music and talk about it. If you were listening carefully, you understood that you were in the presence of a Master, and the discovery was all the sweeter because of his humility.

Then, on Friday,  I went to a memorial service for a friend who died suddenly. I’d met him and his wife through a mutual friend almost 20 years ago. We’d shared meals together and evenings of lively conversation. He was amazing man who delighted in everything from the universe, to the angle of the winter sun, to the intricacies of a Mozart piano concerto.

It’s difficult to live near Boston and not encounter the “30-second rule.” I use this term to describe anyone who has a degree from an Ivy League college. If, when you first meet them, they can go longer than 30 seconds before referring to their Ivy League degree, I give them bonus points. Many of them fail this test.

Joe, however, was different. I never knew he had a PhD in Chemistry from MIT.

I currently work with a man who cannot stop himself from talking about his perceived accomplishments. No one is asking; he is just supplying the trivial elements of his life. We all agree that he is just too insecure and for no reason that we can identify: he’s friendly, he’s good at his job, he’s talented. Yet, he can’t let his work speak for itself.

In my own life, I have not accomplished anything to brag about. Instead, I am struggling with what I perceive as a lack of accomplishment.

Then I remind myself that I came of age when a woman in America had few rights that weren’t connected to her husband. I read old newspaper articles and am reminded that women did not even have first names as far as the newspapers were concerned. You were “Mrs. John Smith,” not “Catherine Hughes Smith.” Your credit cards were in your husband’s name and you signed the charge slips as “Mrs. John Smith.” And when Mr. Smith died, the department stores canceled your credit cards with no thought to simply transferring them in your name. Mrs. Smith didn’t matter much without Mr. Smith.

I tell you this not to brag about my respectable credit rating. No, I tell you this because I have seen prejudice first-hand; because I understand the code that people use to hold other people back, be it a young woman applying for her first job, an elderly voter suddenly turned away at the polls because of the new version of a poll tax on the poor, or a young black man simply walking down the street.

I have found my purpose in this teachable moment. Age does have some benefits. I would be remiss if I didn’t try to address this, not in this venue, necessarily, but in others.

Stay tuned.

Bread and Circus: So Long, NFL

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Full disclosure: (1) I know some NFL players. One of them grew up across the street from me. Another was a customer of a business I owned. (2) My uncle was an All-American football player. (3) An athlete from my hometown won the Heisman trophy. (4) I am an athletically-challenged female who was born in the US before Title IX of the Civil Rights Act became law.

My participation in most sports was as a spectator and at that I excelled. Since my father was an umpire at the local Little League Baseball games. I learned how to score a game when I was still in grade school. I was one of those geeks in the marching band in high school, so I attended every football game. I wrote skits for the pep rallies for the basketball and football teams.

They won more games than they lost. Sometimes they were league champions. There was an innocent, fun sense of community at all those games.

It was fun until it wasn’t.

I still remember that cold, damp September evening when a popular football player tackled an opponent. He lowered his head just before they made contact. It resulted in his permanently damaging his spinal cord in the process. He never walked again.

In college, women could participate in a few intramural sports such as field hockey, but we all knew that sports–the real sports–were for the men. Given how women excel at so many sports today, it’s difficult to understand the mindset of that time.

My attitude started to change when I saw what rock star status the college football players enjoyed. I questioned why they, who just kept repeating a course until the professor finally passed them, were attending college on scholarship. Why did these largely dim-witted men get to go to school for free? Where were the academic scholarships for women such as myself who would actually graduate and earn a degree?

I was still naive. I did not yet realize that it was all about the money. But I did realize that the National Football League had somehow tricked American colleges into becoming the de facto minor league for the NFL. The schools bought talented athletes with scholarship money, which translated into exciting football teams, which translated into increased alumni donations and, better yet, televised football games and the millions of dollars associated with that.

I used to look forward to the Fall months because it meant the start of football season. I watched the games but I ignored the enthusiastic female cheerleaders because I knew they were there just for the television cameras. Besides, they made less money than the vendors hawking popcorn. It was all about the players and their multi-million dollar salaries.

Why? I wondered. These men have not cured cancer, or devised a way to bring safe drinking water to the world. They have not negotiated lasting peace treaties among warring nations. No, they can run deftly or catch a football and, as difficult as that may be, those skills should not be worth much more than what those cheerleaders are earning. Except that they are, at least to the people writing the checks, because it is all about the money.

Then I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly about how the NFL fleeces taxpayers. It turns out that the teams are tax-exempt. They, who amass unfathomable profits, are listed as non-profit organizations under the US tax code. No wonder they can charge hundreds of dollars for a ticket to a single game. No wonder they can pay their players obscene amounts of money. They bribe cities to build new stadiums for them. They threaten to leave town if they don’t get their way. The late and much-hated Art Modell did, in fact, have a little hissy fit with the city and surreptitiously move the beloved Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, where they became, ironically, the Baltimore Ravens.

Which brings us to the Baltimore Ravens–and Ray Rice and Roger Goodell.

I have watched the videos of the player knocking his wife unconscious in the elevator. More alarmingly, I have watch the women attending the last Raven’s game wearing the Ray Rice jerseys and saying that the problem was Mrs. Rices’ because, after all, she spit on her husband so he was entitled to knock her unconscious and drag her part way from the elevator. Hey, it’s the woman’s fault. Isn’t it always the woman’s fault?

No, it isn’t.

The most appalling scene in last week’s NFL games, was the troubling number of women who chose to wear their Ray Rice jerseys to the Raven’s game. In interviews, they explained that they supported Ray Rice and that his now-wife was at fault for the altercation. Most alarmingly, she expressed her apology for her role in the  event. They were apparently drunk. She spit; he hit. So to these female fans, she is at fault.

Shame on you and shame on the PR machine that allows you to think this way.

There is more, much more that I could say. I will say this:

Shame on you NFL. I am done with you and your anti-female message. More importantly, shame on you for letting the colleges crank these football players through the system. Apparently, no one owns the responsibility for training them in what counts as a moral code. It is not alright for a man to hit a woman. It is not alright for a man to knock his wife unconscious or to hit his children with a switch. It is not right and I hold you, NFL responsible. You sign this raw talent and leave it raw.

Your entire business model is an insult to women and to these young men who aspire to be NFL players. I’m ashamed it’s taken me so long to get to this point but I am done with you. I won’t be watching another professional football game. I won’t be checking out the standings.

For you, it is all about the money. Let’s state the obvious: You have no use for women. And this woman, from this point forward, will have nothing more to do with you.

Our Charlie

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By the time my niece graduated from high school, I had perhaps 30 photographs of her — each slipped inside a Christmas card by her mother over an 18-year span–each one capturing a 1/60th of a second on her timeline: from infant to smiling schoolgirl with a missing front tooth to young woman. They are photos that I treasure.

Years later when she married and had her son, she began posting no fewer than a dozen photographs of him daily on Facebook. He is a cute little guy but by the time he was six months old, I’d lost interest, the way one tunes out a television commercial that has run a hundred times.

Less is more. Truly.

I think about this as I walk my dog in the cemetery near my house. It is a quiet place with old growth trees and a rolling terrain. There are benches along the paths to just sit and observe. We are not given much information here, so we must think.

The graves date from the early 1800s to the present. The names on some of the headstones are familiar to me because the streets and schools in our city bear their names. This is one more museum of the city–the history across centuries, now gathered together in areas across the grounds.

The war veterans are buried on a slight hill near the old stone chapel. Then, around a curving path, tall oak trees shade a group of identically shaped headstones. These are the graves  of the former residents of the Old Women’s Home. I read each name and nod an acknowledgement, wondering if they, like I, am offended by this final designation of an entire life. Were they not young girls once? Did they not once play games and laugh? Work samplers? Bake cakes? Get lost in a novel? Fall in love?

They were born at a time when the value of a woman’s life was determined by the wealth of her father or husband. The poor, the unmarried, were consigned to the Old Women’s Home.

I shake off the thought and move on, towards the front gate and the oldest graves. We steer towards a small lane in search of shade and approach a solitary headstone in an unusually empty area of the cemetery. The 8-word inscription is elegant in its simplicity:

Our Charlie
May 23, 1873
Oct. 3, 1873

There are no other headstones to indicate the presence of nearby graves. Perhaps his parents or siblings are buried nearby but I do not know that. I do not even know his last name.

All I know is that there is a solitary headstone for a 4-month-old infant who was loved, whose death was mourned. And here in this quiet place, over 140 years later, I tell him that his short life was not lived in vain. His life mattered.

And he is still remembered.

Another Mother’s Day Behind Me

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Despite all the talk about women making their own decisions to work or not work, to marry or remain single, to have children or remain childless, there’s not much discussion about the women who never had that choice to make.

And there is still an assumption that most women will have children. If you didn’t, there must be something wrong with you. (more…)

My Escape from Hell

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They lure you in to what looks like a safe harbor. It is clean and dry. You can stay as long as you like but when you go, just leave it like you found it, they tell you.

They know you wouldn’t be standing in front of them if you didn’t need the space, so they make you an offer you are too weak to refuse: the first month is free, or maybe just $1.00. They do this because they know how vulnerable you really are. They spotted that when you walked in the door.

“It’s just for a month or two,” you tell yourself. “I can get out of this easily.” So you agree. You hand over some money and then you begin your descent into that special ring of Hell from which only the very strongest can escape.

You rented a storage locker. (more…)

Audrey

Open Google today and be greeted with this tribute to Audrey Hepburn on what would have been her 85th birthday. She was my hero growing up–such style and elegance, and oh-my-goodness, the wardrobe. I’m not sure anyone can replace her.

My favorite movies were Charade, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Two for the Road.

What are yours?

Listen. Just listen.

Assistance (with clipping path)

The cries came through the closed windows. My neighbor, whom I have only said “Hello” to as I walked past her house, was crying out for her husband.

It depends on where you live and how you encounter him if you think him a good person or bad. They are owners of a successful family business around the corner. They have family living closer to them than I do who work there.

They are both quite elderly and have trouble moving about. Perhaps he is too deaf, I think. Maybe that is why he has never acknowledged me when I tried to say hello.

He yells. Loudly and repeatedly. If they are going somewhere and she cannot get out of the house quickly enough, he sounds the car horn until she arrives. Forever, it seems. Loud, obnoxious horn blasts.

Two blocks away, the mailman is shaking his head and laughing at the sound. I do not laugh. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but my first instinct is to not like him very much at all. (more…)

Who throws worse parties than I do?

I was once at a party where only four of the six invited guests showed up. Still, there were two couples who should have had a lot to chat about. However, the men decided it would be very funny to talk about how frigid their women were. Being one of the women in question, I did not find this banter amusing. Nor did the other woman.

The party was such a colossal disaster that I found myself plotting how I could leave early. Then I realized that I couldn’t leave: I was hosting the party.

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I used to think of myself as the queen of successful parties.

When I was in college, I could throw one together with just one or two telephone calls. They weren’t elaborate, of course, since we were poor college students, but I had a group of interesting, intelligent friends who never failed to make witty conversation. I added some music, snacks (not much more than bowls of popcorn if money was tight), something to drink, and we were off and running.

I always made sure to invite all my neighbors at the apartment complex where I was living. They usually declined the invitation (as I had hoped) but, once invited, they were less inclined to bang on their ceilings with a broomstick if the music got too loud–and that was precisely why I invited them.

I prided myself on being able to bring together an interesting mix of people. I could work the room and introduce strangers, pointing out something that they had in common. Then I would move on and leave them to their conversation.

If I met a student that I possibly wanted to date, I would put my friends on “standby party alert,” which meant we might have a party if he accepted my invitation. Sometimes he declined and we had the party anyway because they were just fun parties.

I was convinced I had the Midas touch when it came to social events. Then I graduated and joined the adult world and discovered that I was a flop at hosting a simple party.

There used to be a running gag on the old Mary Tyler Moore television show that her character threw the worst parties ever. No matter how hard she tried, they were always a disaster.

I loved that program and as much as I admired Mary Tyler Moore, the only thing I had in common with her character was the Failed Party Gene. (more…)

On firing a friend

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My office friends Robin and Leo were sitting in the kitchen when I came in for my morning coffee. Leo pulled a chair out for me to join them.

“Robin’s having problems with her house guests,” he said.

“They’re still there? How long has it been?” I asked.

Robin began to shred her napkin. “It feels like they arrived sometime during the Clinton administration.”

Her high school friend Amy had written to ask if she and her daughter could come to Robin’s for a visit. Robin was delighted. She told Amy they were welcome to stay with her but warned her that, since she lived in a one-bedroom condo, they would have to share a sofa bed.

“It was nice to see her again,” Robin said. “Then we went out to dinner the first night and Amy announced that they planned to stay for 11 days.”

“Did you ask her to sign a lease?” Leo asked.

“Oh wait, it gets worse. I told Amy I couldn’t possibly take that much time off work. She said not to worry, they could take the train into Boston and keep themselves entertained during the day. She even turned in her rental car.”

“They sound like low-maintenance guests,” I said. “That’s something, I guess.”

Robin scooped up the remnants of her napkin and dropped it in the waste basket. “Oh, it was fine the first two days.”

“Which is precisely the point when they should have been going home,” Leo told her.

“I know, Leo. If she had any sense, she would have been packing up. Instead she asks if she can drive me to and from work so that they can use my car during the day. Yesterday they drove to Maine so she could shop at LL Bean. This morning she brought me in early so they could explore Cape Cod. I lease that car. They are chewing up my mileage.”

Leo went to make another cup of coffee. “You have to throw them out, Robin.”

“But how? I hate confrontations and Amy seems tone-deaf to any hints.

“The really sad part is that I realize I don’t like her that much any more,” Robin told us. “We were friends in high school but don’t have that much in common.”

“She’s not your friend, Robin,” Leo said. “She’s using you to get a cheap vacation. Throw her out.”

“No,” I said. “Fire her. She can’t be your friend any more. Once she’s out of your house, stop communicating with her. Don’t answer her phone calls. Don’t respond to e-mails or voice mails. Even the dimmest bulb will eventually get the message.”

There is no protocol for this, no form to fill out or severance pay involved. The tipping point is this: If you met that person today for the first time and you knew them only as they person they are now, you would not choose to have them as a friend.

Shared history only goes so far–especially when your history ended when you were both 18, which was several lifetimes ago.

So, fire the parasites. Fire the narcissists. Fire anyone who doesn’t consider your interests.

The irony is that they probably won’t care if you do.

Beware of the dog, you spoiled brat.

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On the street where I grew up, we knew better than to misbehave because we had 30 sets of parents–60 pairs of eyes–who were keeping a watch on us. Any parent could correct another child’s behavior, followed up with a telephone call to the child’s parents to explain the circumstances. In loco parentis worked quite well on our street.

That is not always the case, however.

Many years ago, I was having lunch with my parents. There was a table nearby where two families and their children were having lunch. The adults were laughing and enjoying the moment and ignoring the children, who were done with their meals and playing a game of tag in the restaurant. We endured the annoyance for 15 minutes as they ran back and forth around the tables. Finally, when a little boy ran into our table, spilling the water from our glasses, my mother quietly looked up from her meal and looked him in the eye.

“My goodness,” she said quietly. “Aren’t you a little brat?”

She went back to her meal. The child stood frozen for a moment, then ran back to his place at the table.

I assumed he would whine to his parents that the mean lady scolded him, but instead he took his seat and sat quietly.

Fast forward to last year.

I was helping a friend move from  Florida to Ohio. She had most of her possessions loaded onto the van, but she needed help driving her dog and two cats, so I volunteered.

We arrived in town late and checked into a motel for the night. There was a restaurant — a burger joint, actually–across the street from the motel, so we walked over without unloading the car. It was winter but the car was warm. The animals would be fine in the car for a few more minutes while we ate.

I opened the restaurant door and we stepped into what looked like a food fight. There were chairs overturned, spilled sodas dripping onto the floor, half-eaten sandwiches strewn across the floor. Children running this way and that, laughing, screaming, throwing ice cubes at each other. One of the boys — a freckled redhead who reminded me of Opie on the old Andy Griffith Show–seemed to be the ringleader.

Four tables were pushed together.  At one end was the flotsam and jetsam of these maniacal childrens’ meals. At the other end sat a half-dozen adults engaged in lively banter. Laughing, sharing photos on their cell phones. Having a lovely time. What they were not doing was paying any attention to the children.

We thought about leaving but decided to wait them out. Mercifully, they did leave. When we went to pay the bill, we commiserated with the staff.

“They are here for a wrestling tournament. This is their second night here and we have two more to go,” the young man behind the cash register said. “The manager said we can’t refuse to serve them.”

He had to have been a high school student. I admired his maturity and restraint. As we spoke, the rest of the staff attacked the mess with mops and disinfectant. It seemed like an extraordinary amount of dedication to a minimum-wage job.

We went back to the rooms: she with the cats and I with the dog. Our rooms were on the first floor.

When you travel with animals, they usually reserve the first floor rooms for pets. It makes it easier to get he dog outside to do his business, but it also segregates the animals into one area of the hotel.

Apparently, unchaperoned children fall into that same category.

We were only a few feet down the hallway when we heard the familiar screams and laughter. Children in footed pajamas ran past us in the hallway. I spotted Opie and his friends.

We passed a room where the adult chaperones had congregated. They were half-in/half out of the room. The music was blaring; they were again  paying no attention to the children in their charge.

I went into my room and set my things down. The dog was going to need a walk before I could convince him that it was time to go to bed.

As we walked down the hallway towards a door, the children were still running about. I headed toward the exit door and came face-to-face with my old pal Opie, who was frozen in place. He was focused on the dog. He was, I realized, afraid of dogs.

I shortened the leash so that the dog could not possibly jump on the boy. (Not that this sweet dog would ever do anything other than lick someone.)

We walked towards the door and Opie remained frozen. As we walked past him in the hallway I said,” “Don’t worry. The dog only bites children who are very loud or obnoxious.”

Opie let out a gasp.

I took the dog out do to do his business and I cleaned up after him.

When we walked back into the motel, the hallways were clear and quiet and we enjoyed and good night’s sleep.

I have had meals, trans-continental flights, and theater performances ruined by children allowed to run wild while their parents ignored them. I certainly understand  the stress of raising children and having to get away from them a bit.

But I must ask: If you don’t want to discipline your children while you go out to eat, wouldn’t it be better to just hire a babysitter?

I, for one, would appreciate it.