RETHINKING WEDDINGS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My son is getting married for the second time. He had a big wedding the first time, complete with a beautiful service in a synagogue, bridesmaids and groomsmen and a formal reception in a local restaurant’s banquet hall with 100 people in attendance.

I helped his first wife find a gorgeous but not outrageously expensive wedding dress. We also found inexpensive ways to decorate the reception room and dinner tables and she cut costs wherever possible. But it was still an expensive undertaking.

With young people drowning in debt these days and with housing costs so high in many parts of the country, I wonder why people are still having big weddings. In addition to the cost, the logistics of organizing every detail of a ceremony and reception can be overwhelming for people who are already overworked and short on free time.

Maybe part of the problem is that it’s hard to find a middle ground between a large, complex, over priced affair and eloping. That’s what my son discovered this time around and he opted, in effect, to elope. He and his fiancé tried to be as frugal as possible in planning an actual wedding ‘event’. They were going to have both the ceremony and the reception at my home, saving lots of money for the venue and decorations.

But they would have to keep the guest list at 60-65 people and that proved to be a problem. Once you start down the slippery slope of inviting one relative, you have to invite them all. The same applies to circles of friends, once one is invited, you’ll hurt everyone else’s feelings if you don’t invite them too.

Then my son found out that it’s not that easy to plan a full meal for 65 people, even lunch. Some caterers are cheaper, but they just bring food, not dishes, glasses or silverware. Others will bring dessert but not coffee. Then there’s the problem of who’s going to set up and man the bar and keep the food platters full. And who clears the meal and sets up the dessert?

No matter how small and simple my son tried to be, the logistics and the costs still got out of hand. That’s why my son and his fiancé decided on a quasi elopement.

They are getting married by a Justice of the Peace (an old family friend), in their living room, with just immediate family and two close friends. There will be thirteen people in all, including the bride and groom. Then we’re all going to a restaurant for lunch. If they take a honeymoon, it will only be for a weekend since they both have to work.

They got beautiful and thoughtful wedding bands and the bride bought a lovely new dress for the occasion. My daughter is flying cross country, from LA, to be at the truncated ceremony. So it will be a special and meaningful day without months of headaches and piles of bills.

Unless a bride and groom have high paying jobs or a wealthy family, it doesn’t make sense to spend hard earned savings on a big wedding extravaganza. Especially if you have to go further into debt for it. And even if you have the money, why waste months and months of your life stressing over wedding details and dealing with the family strife that is usually created?

Weddings used to mark the point when two individuals moved in together to create a joint home and a new family unit. And wedding gifts used to be a way to help young couples stock their new home. Today, many, if not most, couples live together before marriage.

Their households have already been merged and their kitchens fully stocked with all the necessary equipment and tools. When my son moved in with his fiancé, they had to hire an organizer to help them make room for all of my son’s stuff in their small house. They had to get rid of tons of ‘duplicate items’, particularly kitchen items. They have no room for any more ‘stuff.’

Getting married is a big deal, even today. Maybe our traditions celebrating the event should change along with the times. Maybe a small, informal party for close friends and family should be the norm. Something more like a bridal shower but for men too. And instead of gifts, guests should give checks to pay down student loans or to go toward the down payment on a new house. The concept of tangible items as gifts should maybe go the way of the dowry.

I’m not sure what will evolve in the future, but at least for those not in the top 1%, I think wedding celebrations will begin to change in the next few generations.

ODD OBSESSIONS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve had some random and esoteric obsessions over the years. Only two have stayed with me for decades and are still going strong.

One is the Titanic and anything Titanic related. I saw the movie “A Night To Remember” when I was in elementary school. I then read the book the movie was based on and I was hooked. I continued to read other books that came out over time about the Titanic and her last hours.

Painting of the Titanic going down

I was fascinated by the series of ill-fated coincidences that sealed the ship’s fate. If any one of six or seven things hadn’t happened exactly as they did, the ship might have been saved or avoided the iceberg altogether. I also loved the stories of the people on the ship – from the super rich and famous down to the crew and the steerage passengers.

I passed my Titanic fever onto my daughter, Sarah. We watched the movie “Titanic” together over and over. We frequently flipped through our large Titanic coffee table book with lots of wonderful photos. Sarah has followed all the dives on the Titanic wreck even more than I have. Many of the unanswered technical questions about the sinking have now been answered and Sarah and I share each new revelation with relish.

Photo of the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor

My other long-term obsession is the British royal family. I always loved English history, particularly stories about the Kings and Queens and their families through the centuries. I started following Queen Elizabeth II and her young family when I was a pre teen. Charles is close to my age so I was particularly interested in him and his slightly younger sister, Anne.

When Prince Charles was looking for a wife, my soap opera antennae went into high gear. When he met Lady Diana Spencer, my interest became a real obsession. I read everything I could find about them, but mostly her.

Charles and Diana early in their relationship

The day of Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding, I woke up at 5 AM so I could watch the entire ceremony live. I had a one year old so I was up anyway. On this day, however, I stayed up. I also called my close friend in London and we watched the wedding together on the phone. I almost ended our friendship when I criticized the new Princess’s wedding dress. I thought it was overdone, too pouffy and unflattering. Most Americans shared my opinion. But most Brits, including my friend, absolutely loved the dress and took offense at any negative comments about it.

The infamous wedding dress

I followed Diana’s marriage closely. I applauded her more modern approach to being a royal, particularly after she became a mom. She wanted to be a hands on parent, which was a huge break with British royal tradition. I cheered her on, along with the rest of the world. I loved the new vibe she brought to the royal family. I also related to her increasingly dysfunctional marriage with a cheating husband. I mourned her tragic, early death.

I continued to read about Diana’s boys after her death, but not as avidly as I had when she was alive. When Kate Middleton came on the scene as Prince William’s love interest, I got my passion back.

William, Kate and their two children

Kate has continued the modernization and humanization of the young royals that Diana started. I am particularly taken with her easy, close and natural relationship with William. I applaud her involved parenting style and appreciate her and William’s accessibility. I follow news of her and enjoy photos of her clothes, as I did with Diana. I admire her style and taste and love most of her wardrobe, possibly even more than Diana’s.

Now I have a new royal couple to read about religiously. Prince Harry has announced his engagement to Meghan Markle, a poised, mature and charming biracial American actress. She seems caring and down to earth. She is already involved in international humanitarian causes on her own. She also has rescue dogs, one of whom has come to live with her and Harry in London.

Harry and Meghan announce their engagement

Meghan will be another breath of fresh air in the still stuffy royal family. She’s had a successful career and lived out on her own in the real world. Americans can relate to her and she can relate to the common man, just like her fellow commoner, Kate Middleton.

I don’t obsess over movie stars or pop stars, like many Americans do. I only know about a few of the ‘celebrities’ who appear in “People Magazine”. But I should have many years ahead of me of happy royal voyeurism following the two English Princes and their growing families.

WOMENS’ ROLES IN JAPAN – CHANGE AND STAGNATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Many things have changed in Japan since WWII but many things have also stayed the same. This dichotomy is creating unwanted trends and having far reaching consequences for the entire country.

Certain cultural expectations have remained static over time. Employees are still expected to devote most of their waking hours to their company. Working past 10 PM is the norm and men are often expected to take clients out for drinks after work. Rigorous targets must be met in order to get raises and promotions. This culture of overwork even has a name – “death from overwork.” It’s been argued that this demanding work environment leads to inefficiency and low productivity yet it still has a tight hold on Japanese work culture.

Another social phenomenon that has not changed is that women are still expected to care for the home, children and elderly relatives. They are also still given onerous tasks that they must fulfill to adequately perform their roles in the home. Cooking, for example, is a major job for Japanese women. They must prepare numerous, small dishes for their families every day AND the school lunches that they must prepare for their children have to be works of art!

Dishwashers are not as common as in the U.S and neither are dryers capable of doing large loads. So most women have to hang wet clothes on clotheslines outside, which dramatically increases the amount of time needed to do a family’s laundry.

But this is just the beginning. American women would be horrified at the volume of paperwork women have to do, every day, for their children’s schools and day-cares.

That’s right. Pre-schools demand meticulous and voluminous daily journals documenting their children’s temperatures, what they eat, their moods, conversations, sleeping hours and playtime activities. The elementary schools and after school tutoring classes, ubiquitous for older children, also require that a parent corrects and approves every page of their child’s homework. Women are thus swamped with household and bureaucratic tasks at home, which affects their ability to work outside the home.

Japanese elementary school class

Here comes the change part – now close to 70% of women 15-64 have jobs. Nevertheless, the heavy burden of domestic tasks holds women back from advancing in their careers. They can’t put in the crushing hours men do when they are on the promotion track. As a result, almost half of all working women only work part-time and often the other half are on temporary contracts. This creates a huge pay gap between men and women and also a shortage of women in management-level jobs.

Only 1% of the female workforce is in management. Yet women who work more than 49 hours a week typically also put in close to 25 hours of housework a week. Men typically average less than 5 hours a week, even when their wives work too. Thus Japanese men do less housework and childcare than men in any other of the world’s wealthiest nations.

This rigidity of gender roles at home has ramifications in the economy and society. Japan’s economic status in the world has stagnated and China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The Prime Minister of Japan has pledged to return the economy to steady growth, which means countering the severe labor shortage due to a declining as well as a rapidly-aging population. To increase the workforce and energize the economy, the Prime Minister’s goal is to elevate and increase women’s participation in the workforce. This initiative is called “womenomics.”

The problem is that for women to increase their impact on the workplace, everyone has to reduce the bruising hours expected at work so the women can begin to catch up to the men. In addition, the rigid and excessive demands on a woman’s time at home have to be reduced – and/or these tasks must be shared more equally by the husbands. But that would require a major change in social norms and entrenched gender roles, which is not likely to happen quickly.

However, social change is happening in Japan, just not in the way the government wants or society needs. The biggest trend in Japanese society today is the tremendous surge of women choosing not to marry at all! More and more women are rejecting the life of domestic drudgery that comes with marriage and parenthood and the concomitant drag on their career advancement.

The Japanese are exhausted most of the time

This is a problem because Japan is also suffering from a decline in population that politicians are frantically trying to reverse. The birth rate is the lowest it’s been since 1899 when record-keeping began. The economy can’t continue to grow if the workforce continues to shrink.

The statistics on women staying single are dramatic. In the mid-1990s, only 1 in 20 women in Japan had never been married by the age of 50. By 2015, 1 in 7 remained unmarried. In women ages 35-39, 10% were unmarried 20 years ago and now 25% are staying single. The number of couples getting married is at its lowest level since WWII.

There is some good news for the business world. A growing number of new businesses have sprung up to cater to this large market of single women. Single Karaoke Bars have women-only zones, restaurants market to solo diners, travel companies book tours for single women and photo studios offer photoshoots where women put on wedding dresses and pose for solo bridal pictures. There are even solo wedding ceremonies for women committing to their independence and their single, career-oriented lives.

Women no longer need husbands to ensure their economic security because if they stay single and avoid the cultural demands on wives and mothers, they can put in the hours to get ahead at work. They can also have the freedom to pursue hobbies, travel and cultivate large circles of friends. Many see this lifestyle as more rewarding than being stuck in the quicksand of the socially mandated gender role of wife and mother.

Until these domestic roles are redefined, Japan will see more and more women opting out of the domestic rat race. And the population will continue to decline along with the economy. I’m not sure how the government can mandate the kind of social change they need, but they may have to try. It should be interesting to watch how this social experiment works out.

MY GRANDMOTHER’S EARLY YEARS – By Ellin Curley

My Grandmother, Sarah, grew up in Minsk, Russia. Her father was one of the very few Jews there who were allowed to do business with the Russian Gentiles. Therefore he was relatively well off. Grandma remembers her mother taking baths in milk. Her mother was an aloof, Grande Dame and was treated like a queen by her family.

In order to stay in the good graces of the Christian Russians he dealt with, her father adopted their pro-Czarist beliefs. My grandmother, from early on, was an active socialist and anti-Czarist. She often clashed with her father over politics. The tension with her dad came to a head when Grandma took her mother and sister to a socialist rally with her. The rally was a set-up and was raided by the Czar’s troops. The troops crashed through the crowd killing and beating as many people as they could. Grandma was saved by a dead body falling on her and hiding her from the troops.

Grandma and her family in Russia. She is the little girl in the front between her parents

Grandma and her family made it home safely. But her father was livid that Grandma had exposed his beloved wife and favorite daughter (grandma’s sister) to such danger. It was decided that Grandma should move to America, and take her younger brother, Abe, with her.

Grandma and Abe had first class tickets on the ship to America. But Abe lost the tickets and last minute steerage tickets had to be procured. Grandma was not happy with her hapless brother. When they arrived in New York City, they were taken in by relatives who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Jewish section of the city. They were penniless.

To earn money, Grandma worked in a sweatshop, similar to and down the street from the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That factory caught fire in 1911 and trapped and killed 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women. It was the worst industrial disaster in city history. So many lives were lost because doors had been locked and exits blocked to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. The tragedy spurred the passage of safety laws for factories. It also spurred the birth of the labor movement and the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Sarah and her brother Abe

Grandma knew some of the girls who were killed in the fire. She became active in the pro-union movement. In later years, she would take my mother, even as a child, to union rallies and to speeches by socialist and union leaders.

Grandma met a first cousin of hers, named Abe, who had also recently immigrated from Russia. They were actually half first cousins because Grandma and Abe’s mothers shared a father but had different mothers. They married after a short courtship.

After my mom was born, Grandma took in sewing to make extra money until Grandpa could earn enough money to support the family. When my mom was still a young child, my grandfather, a hypochondriac, spent all the family money on fake cures and treatments. He also went to stay in special treatment “spas”, for long periods. During this time, Grandma took in boarders as well as sewing to make ends meet.

At one point she fell in love with a wonderful, socialist teacher who was boarding with her. But she refused to leave grandpa to go with this man. Her marriage to grandpa was adversarial and volatile. They had no interests in common and one was a socialist and the other was a Republican. Not a good relationship. But divorce was not acceptable in those days so grandma stayed.

When all their money ran out, Grandma and Mom had to move in with relatives. They had to go from one relative to another, sharing beds with different family members until Grandpa came back and started to make money again.

Grandma and Grandpa with my mom when she was about two

From that point on, Grandma was financially comfortable but never happy in her marriage. She was a devoted mother and grandmother. Her parents immigrated to America and settled in Stamford, CT. Her father became a respected rabbi and teacher there. Grandma was a devoted daughter as well till her parents’ deaths.

Grandma was also active in pro-Israel organizations and was a founder of the Women’s League For Israel. She was also on the board of many other Jewish charitable organizations.

Grandma was a huge influence in my life. She encouraged me to fight for justice, freedom and equality whenever and however I could. She never lost her passion for liberal causes and passed that on to me. Thank you, Grandma!

SNOOPY AS A ROLE MODEL – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I read a unique article in the Washington Post by a writer talking about something from her childhood that inspired her to be a writer as an adult. Her name is Ann Patchett and her title names the motivating force in her career choice. The article is called, “Snoopy taught me how to be a writer.”

That’s right – the Snoopy from Charles Schultz’s beloved comic “Peanuts”. The perpetual loser, Charlie Brown’s dog. Ann says she read Peanut compilation books, as I did, in her formative summers and was smitten by Snoopy. She says that she was a nerdy, uncool kid who saw Snoopy as the essence of cool. He even raised the totally uncool status of his ‘person’, Charlie Brown, just by being so quintessentially cool himself.

Snoopy was confident enough to let himself become totally absorbed in his fantasies – WWI Flying Ace, Soldier in the French Foreign Legion, figure skater, tennis star, astronaut, and so on. He brought everyone else along with him in his fantasies to the point that they too heard the imaginary bullets flying by and the roar of the imaginary crowds.

Most important, Snoopy was a writer. He let his imagination run wild here too and then he sat down on the top of his doghouse and typed. He sat at his typewriter and plinked the keys to form hackneyed and repetitive paragraphs that he knew needed ‘editing’.

He had confidence and sent his manuscripts out to editors. He got lots of rejections, like all writers, yet he kept on trying. The best thing about Snoopy was that even when he failed and his doghouse was riddled with bullets, he lost in sports or his manuscripts were rejected again, he was still cool.

His superpower was that he remained cool in failure as well as in success.

Snoopy at his typewriter

Anne says that Snoopy taught her how to survive the publishing process; to deal with rejections and then get over them; to ignore bad reviews and move on. Snoopy turned out to be her perfect career mentor and he also led her into a life with dogs who enriched and fulfilled her. She says she always assumed that her dogs have an active inner life and are always cooler than she is.

I was never inspired to write. I just always did and so did my parents. My school required creative writing and analytical writing as well as research papers from the third grade on. My high school papers are indistinguishable from my college ones.

My father published seven books and numerous articles in the field of psychiatry and anthropology, many before I was born. He spent every summer locked in his study, writing, Every day he would present his writing to my mother who would edit it and encourage rewrites when needed. There was a lot of heated discussion about content, organization and writing style throughout my childhood.

My father in his fifties

When I was around fifteen, I joined my mother and we became my father’s editing team. As he got older, his writing often rambled and went off-topic and it was our job to keep him focused. We often had to outline material for him and even rewrite sections ourselves when he resisted our ‘advice’ and insisted on his now more stream of consciousness style. That may work for fiction, but not for an academic treatise.

Writing has always been a part of my life. I went through a period of anxiety and insecurity in my own writing when I was in high school and my mother did for me what she did for my father. She helped me figure out what I wanted to say and the most effective and persuasive way to say it. She taught me how to organize my thoughts and present my ideas cleanly and clearly.

Me at seventeen

When I started writing short audio theater plays with my husband, I had to learn how to write dialogue, which is a totally different kind of writing. I was used to writing analytical prose, which is not the way people talk. Dialogue has to sound like someone is actually speaking, not reading aloud from a non-fiction book.

So my writing evolved and expanded to encompass a new format for me. It is amazing and gratifying to hear actors bring your words to life. It’s even more awesome to hear audiences reacting to your words by laughing and applauding.

Title page of one of our scripts

I loved Snoopy too growing up, but I identified more with Linus and Charlie Brown than with the fearless, adventuresome Snoopy. I can imagine that if Snoopy ever wrote short plays, he would picture the adulation of audiences and bask in their approval. I’ve had that experience, so in a way, I’ve had my ‘Snoopy moment.’

Even a nerd like me can feel cool. But never as cool as Snoopy.

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In 1987 I saw a play at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City that stayed with me for over 30 years. It affected me so deeply that when it returned to Broadway this year, I felt compelled to see it again. It was called Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, was written by Terrance McNally and in 1987 it starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham.

Add for the original production I saw in 1987

The current production on Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon and it lived up to my glorified memories. It’s an artfully written character piece involving a waitress, Frankie, on a one-night stand/first date with Johnny, the new short-order cook at her low-end restaurant.

Headshots of the two stars today

Everything about the play is simple and sparse – just two people in Frankie’s small, shabby and depressing apartment in New York City. The costumes are also minimal – a nondescript robe, a plain white shirt.

The play is a study of contrasts. The characters begin the play physically exposed but emotionally unconnected and end the play clothed but emotionally exposed and beginning to connect. The actors are magnificent in their portrayal of these lonely people and their gradual movement toward each other.

Scenes from the play

Frankie starts out closed off and defensive, pathologically afraid of commitment and forcefully pushing Johnny away. Yet McDonald manages to make you understand her and even like her, despite the walls she puts up to protect herself. Johnny is a bull in a china shop, openly expressing his need for closeness, crashing into her emotional barriers in his clumsy but persistent and sincere attempts to break them down.

He wears his neediness on his sleeve and she is all resistance and rejection. He desperately and poignantly wants to connect with her and she is terrified, fighting tooth and nail against opening up to him.

Scene from the play

The piece is beautifully constructed as a will she or won’t she mystery – will she eventually let him in? The first act ends with the audience wondering, along with Frankie, whether or not Johnny is a deranged stalker. By the end of the play, Johnny’s acknowledgment of loneliness and his desire not to be, seem more ‘normal’ than Frankie’s insistence that she’s not lonely and doesn’t need people in her life.

A scene from the play

The emotional dance is accompanied by a well-timed, musical dance of words, often laugh out loud funny. At one point, my husband whispered to me that he didn’t realize that this was a comedy. McNally writes so skillfully that even while the audience is laughing, it is also emotionally engaged. It’s one of the few plays I’ve seen that I also want to read so I can savor the language and the verbal sparring.

Everything about this production meshed beautifully. It was one of the most all-around enjoyable and gratifying experiences I’ve had in the theater in a long time.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE DOG-HUMAN BOND – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Did you ever wonder why dogs are the only other mammal that became universally domesticated and now lives with humans as part of their families? Well, there’s a scientific explanation and it’s called Oxytocin. The same chemical that plays a role in mother/infant bonding as well as in altruism and trust, is at work with humans and dogs.

There is a new study that shows for the first time, that there is actual hormonal bonding that goes on between humans and dogs. Dogs are the only other species with whom that occurs, which may explain why dogs are the primary animals that became household pets thousands of years ago.

Apparently, only the wolves who had this chemical bond with humans received care and protection and over time, they evolved into dogs. In exchange, the chemical reaction in humans decreased their anxiety and elicited a maternal bonding style reaction. This, in turn, improved the humans’ health and mental states creating a mutual gain in the evolution of the man/dog connection.

One of the effects of this special connection between our species is that dogs understand us in a way no other animals do. For example, if we point at something, a dog will look where we’re pointing. They intuitively understand that we’re communicating something to them. This may seem minor, but our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees, do not do that! Another example is that humans and dogs look into each other’s eyes when interacting, which is a sign of understanding and affection. In contrast, wolves see eye contact as a sign of aggression and hostility.

The study involves a small sample but the results were definitive. Thirty pairs of dogs and humans and domesticated wolves with their humans came into a lab and had their urine tested. Then the owners interacted with their pets for thirty minutes, petting them, talking to them and gazing into each other’s eyes.

Me and my dogs

After the interaction, another urine sample was taken. It turns out that mutual gazing had a profound physiological effect on both the dogs and their owners. With the pairs who had spent the most time engaging in eye contact, the dogs experienced a 130% rise in Oxytocin levels and the humans experienced a 300% increase! The wolf-human pairs showed no Oxytocin increase and neither did the dog/owner pairs that had minimal eye contact.

The way Oxytocin works with mothers and infants is that when a mother stares into her baby’s eyes, the baby’s Oxytocin levels rise, which causes the baby to stare back at the mother. This then causes the mother to release more Oxytocin and a positive feedback loop is created.

The same thing occurs with dogs and their humans. This explains why service dogs, companion dogs, and emotional support dogs are so helpful for people with all kinds of issues, illnesses, and disabilities, including autism and PTSD.

As Oxytocin may help explain the domestication process with dogs, it might also explain the dog’s ability to understand pointing.

A while ago, I read another study contrasting dogs’ and wolves’ interactions with humans. The animals were rewarded with food whenever they pushed a lever. Then the lever was nailed down so no matter what the dog did, they no longer got a treat. The wolves continued to hit the lever for long periods of time.

With dogs, after a few unsuccessful tries, they would stop and look up at the nearby humans, asking for help. The dogs understood they couldn’t solve this problem but humans could and would help them deal with the situation.

I’ve always known that petting my dogs and cuddling with them as well as talking to them — even walking them — makes me feel a rush of positive energy and emotions.

When I’m down, I worry that I’m annoying my dogs by showering them with endless loving. I think I always understood that in some way, my affectionate behavior to my dogs is a form of self-medication. I’m sure there are times they’d prefer to be left alone. I also sense they know that part of their mission in life is to be there for me when I need them.

It’s gratifying to me to know that there is a scientific explanation to my crazy, over the top love for my dogs.

I’m an Oxytocin addict!