EXTROVERTED INTROVERTS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I learned a new phrase recently, ‘extroverted introvert.’ I’d never heard it before but I instantly recognized that it applied to me and even explained some things about myself that had always puzzled me.

I have extrovert qualities but at heart I always felt like an introvert – so I could never figure out where I fit  on the spectrum. I would often be disappointed in myself when I didn’t feel as outgoing and social as I thought I should. I would beat myself up when I craved down time before and after bursts of socializing.

But that’s apparently natural for extroverted introverts. In fact, extroverted introverts are defined by their periods of sociability coupled with essential periods alone to decompress and recharge. This defines me to a tee.

Some people at our marina can sit on the dock and chat for hours. But after a while, I have to excuse myself and spend some time reading or writing. Extended socializing can be exhausting for me and often when I reach my saturation point, I mentally check out. I used to be upset with myself when this happened and I would worry about whether other people saw me as unfriendly. But now I can just relax and enjoy the amount of chit chat that is comfortable for me.

Another characteristic of extroverted introverts is that we crave deeper connections, with real substance. We don’t do well with much small talk. This means we are happier with a few close, meaningful friendships rather than many superficial ones. We feel rejuvenated and fulfilled when we have rich conversations and feel an emotional bond with other people.

I always felt bad that I had so little tolerance for idle chatter, but now I understand that since it gives me so little gratification, I should forgive myself for wanting to avoid it as much as possible.

We extroverted introverts are therefore better in small groups rather than large crowds and we actually prefer one on one conversations. I’ve always thought of myself as basically shy and insecure, though you would not think that to meet me, and in a crowd, I’m a wallflower. I tend to listen and observe more than talk. I hang out near the food or near the person I came in with and I’m wary about approaching people and starting a conversation. I’m often the one who offers to help the hostess set up or clean up to get away from the group setting.

But once someone is introduced to me, I open up and blossom and can form friendships with people very quickly. Also, if I sense a connection with someone, I have no problem asking a person I’ve just met for their contact information and inviting them to meet for coffee. I’ve come to realize that this is not the norm and that many people are reluctant to ask a stranger to hang out. That surprised me because I’m usually not that confident. But I think that my desire for deeper connections with others supersedes my shyness and anxiety.

The flip side of extroverted introverts’ need to connect is the fact that we are naturally empathetic and make us great listeners, a great shoulder to cry on and someone our true friends come to for comfort and advice. I pride myself in being that ‘sounding board’ to many friends and to both my children. I’m told that I am truly non-judgmental and therefore make people feel comfortable opening up to me. I’m thrilled about this because it’s something I’ve always striven to be.

My grandmother was fiercely judgmental and my mother always stressed to me how important it is NOT to be that way. My Mom turned out to be very judgmental too, though much more subtly. But somehow I achieved my goal of accepting people as they are and acknowledging that other people have different standards and values than me and that neither of us are inherently better than the other.

One of my best friends complimented me by telling me that I am one of the least negative and least judgmental people she knows and how much she appreciates that about me.

I don’t think that anything will change now that I know I’m an extroverted introvert. But it’s comforting to know that while I don’t neatly fit into the larger division of humanity between extroverts and introverts, there is a subset that fits me pretty well.

There are lots of other people who straddle personality modalities like I do. So I realize that I will never be the life of the party, but I am the person my friends will confide in after the party. And that’s fine with me.

WOULD YOU PLEASE ANSWER THAT PHONE? – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The world can be divided in many ways – Republicans vs. Democrats, religious people vs. non religious people, cat people vs. dog people. Here’s another way – people who love the phone vs. people who hate it.

I love talking on the phone. I have many close friends who live far away now and it’s the next best thing to spending time with them in person. You can have real conversations that drift from one topic to the next. You can even interrupt each other! You don’t get the subtleties of body language that you get in person, but you’re actually engaging with the real person. You can remember why you loved this person in the first place.

Another important advantage of phones is laughter. We can hear our friends laugh at our jokes and our friends can hear us laugh at theirs. We get to laugh TOGETHER, which is huge. Laughter is a powerful bond. Most women list a sense of humor as one of the things they most value in a man. Sharing laughter is one of the great joys in life. You can’t get it in a text. Typing LOL is not the same thing!

When I was dating online, I discovered that liking someone’s emails was NOT a good indicator that I would like them in person. But liking someone on the phone gave me a pretty good chance that I would like them in person. That’s when I fully realized that writing and talking are on two separate planes.

Talking is personal. It reveals personality and connects people on an emotional, visceral level. You get most of what you get when you are physically with someone.

Emailing may tell you the writing style of the person but not their speaking style or their personal “je ne sais quoi.” In texting, people tend to write shortened sentences with abbreviations and even Emojis. So you don’t even get the “voice” or writing style of the person. The time lag with texts also annoys me. Write then wait. Read then write. Rinse and repeat.

Try watching a movie or TV show and hit pause for twenty seconds after each person speaks. Not very gratifying. In fact, it will probably drive you crazy.

To me, texting is great for short, immediate communications. Like: “In traffic. Running 15 minutes late.” OR “What time do you want us for dinner?” Otherwise, not really communications.

Nevertheless, I understand that some people are just not phone people. My daughter is a phonophobe. She would rather talk for an hour every few weeks and text in between to stay in touch. My mother hated the phone. When I was growing up, she would have me call people to change or cancel appointments for her so she would not get “stuck” talking on the phone.

My husband, Tom, is also not a phone person. When we were dating, it didn’t even occur to him to talk on the phone the nights we weren’t seeing each other. Once I started the pattern, he was fine with it. But he wouldn’t have done it on his own.

I think the younger generations are growing up totally immersed in texting and internet communications. They may never learn the pleasure you can get from a long phone conversation with a friend. They may not even have long conversations in person anymore either. From what I hear, kids spend time online even when they are really with other people. The art of the conversation may be dying out altogether.

I guess I shouldn’t be worrying about fewer people talking on the phone. I should be worrying about fewer people talking to each other. At all!

PEOPLE SAY THE NICEST THINGS! – Marilyn Armstrong

How often have you wondered whether you should say “thank you” or punch that person in the mouth? Insults I understand, but the compliments that really aren’t, baffle me. Is it personal ambivalence? Is it possible they don’t understand the difference between a compliment and meanness? Or, for that matter, an insult?

As a child, my mother comforted me with her classic lines. Somewhere in my head, I can still hear her. A lonely (probably odd) child, it took me a long time to find my social self. Mom would reassure me in her special way: “There’s someone for everyone,” she told me. “Even you.”

Then there was the clothing my mother made for me. It was gorgeous, fashionable. Far better quality than the other girls wore. The Mean Girls are nothing new and my schools were full of them. “Eww! Where did you get that ugly dress?” In later years, I realized their clothing was totally tacky, but at nine or ten, I didn’t get it.

As a young woman, I put on a lot of weight. Before I got rid of that hundred and fifty pounds, there were some great lines from friends who knew the perfect words to brighten my day: “You dress really nice for a fat girl” and “I don’t think of you as REALLY fat.” And let’s not forget “You are the first person of Jewish persuasion I’ve ever met.” Were they living in a fish tank or was it merely Uxbridge? Needless to say, Garry and I are THE integration for the town.

Later on, no longer fat, compliments have streamed in nonstop: “I thought you were a nun. Don’t you own anything that isn’t black?”

My all-time favorite came from the woman who was unsuccessful in marrying my first husband. Had he lived longer, she might have worn him down. She was baffled by my apparent popularity with men. “I’m very nice to them,” I said. “I make them feel special and loved.” There was more to it than that, but that was plenty. Snarkiest woman who ever trod the earth.

“I do that too,” she whined. (No, she didn’t.) “But,” she continued, getting ever more nasal, “How come they marry you?” I probably could have come up with a good line of my own.

Finally, the clincher. After I published my book, “It was much better than I expected.” What were you expecting?

Classic back-handed Compliments for every occasion:

“You look great, for your age.”

“I love your new hairstyle! It suits you so much better.”

“That’s such a difficult degree, I never thought you’d study that.”

“You look so good in photos, you always pose the same way.”

“That’s a wonderful photograph, you must have a really fancy camera.”

“I wish I could just let my kids watch TV all day like you do.”

“You have such a lovely smile, you don’t even notice the acne.”

In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to compliment Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (a woman) in a speech at Dhaka University on her terrorism policy.

“I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism,” Modi said.

It’s even better when it goes international.

THE SONG IS YOU – Garry Armstrong

One of the great pleasures in my life these days is our car radio. Marilyn, in one of the most thoughtful of her gifts in this past year of discontent, signed us – me really – for Sirius Satellite radio, highlighted by the signature “Siriusly Sinatra” station.  It’s all Sinatra, 24-7.

Not just Sinatra. It’s all of the songs and artists from Tin Pan Alley’s swing halcyon days. Sinatra,  Dino, Sammy, Crosby, Ella, Nat Cole, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, The Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Irving Berlin, Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Kahn, Cole Porter, Rosie Clooney and other legendary musicians who performed under the umbrella of “Standards.” It’s not just cob-webby LP music. The station also features contemporary artists covering the classics that span more than a century. You’ll marvel at the likes of Springsteen, Dylan, Lady Gaga and Pink riffing Mel Torme, Sassy Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee, Etta James, Doris Day, Ol’ Blue Eyes and other voices. Tunesmiths from our youth.

This leads me into the theme of singing in the throne room as I assume most of us do — far from the madding crowd of critics. I don’t possess the same musical talent as my two younger brothers. Hell, it’s a miracle if I carry a tune. Lately, I’ve been serenading myself as I shave (very steady hand!).

Usually, it’s older standard music on the Sinatra station. Or maybe something Marilyn remembers her Mom singing from her childhood.  Marilyn says her Mom usually only remembered one stanza from a tune and would repeat it over and over again. I chuckle along with Marilyn because I do the same thing. Maybe two or three lines repeated myriad times until I forget those lyrics or  I’m done shaving. Then, I move into the shower. The water covering more old songs with misremembered lyrics.

It’s all good for me. Surely, I am the winner of The Lipton Tea Talent Scouts Show with Arthur Godfrey smiling and congratulating me. I’m gonna be the next Nat “King” Cole.  As sure as the turning of the earth!  I just need to pick the right song to cover.

A song that’s me!

Decades ago (The early 70’s), I used to walk around singing the very somber love ballad, “All For The Love Of A Girl.” It was the flip side of Johnny Horton’s “The Ballad of New Orleans.”  I sang “All For the Love …” with deep, sorrowful emotion. On or off the melody? I don’t remember. A lady friend asked, “Garry, why do you always sing such sad songs”?

I replied, “Because I’m sentimental.”

My friend shot back quickly, “No, You’re NOT!” And, you’re also not romantic.”   I suppressed anger and the blemish to my sensitivity.

Years later, the same performance, different song and a similar conversation with Marilyn who echoed the “No, you’re not sentimental. You may like sentimental songs and movies. But it doesn’t make you sentimental or a romantic.” This would lead down a conversational road I didn’t like. The difference between musical tastes and my own personality and behavior,  especially with people who cared about me.  The singer, not the song. But, as usual, I digress.

I chose our Wedding Song.  It was Nat Cole’s “For Sentimental Reasons.”  Marilyn and I slow danced, as bride and groom, to the dreamy ballad. It was supposed to be the standard for my behavior as Marilyn’s husband and dependable mate through good times and bad. The song proved steadier than the groom in the ensuing years.

It’s difficult living up to the romantic lyrics of a popular song when you’re dealing with bread and butter issues like bills, home repairs, and health care and working in the news business which is about as unromantic as work can be. The song isn’t always you. A very hard pill to swallow when you carry yourself off as a romantic or sentimental fella. Recognizing the difference is part of the long road to maturity, awkward when your 78th birthday is just a few, short months away.

Maybe this is part of what Frank Sinatra was trying to explain when we met half a century ago — another story in a different post. I never asked, but Sinatra told me he often felt at odds with some of his sad songs, the love affairs which supposedly went sour in smoky three o’clock in the morning gin joints.  I was the twenty-something filled with the angst of old movies and songs about love found and lost.  I still didn’t have a clue about being a three-dimensional guy ready to take on responsibility with the sensitivity essential to any meaningful relationship.

It would take a long, long time and still hasn’t been fully achieved. I always label myself – “a work in progress.”  The old love songs don’t always cover that ‘sharing and caring’ stuff.  Play “Misty” for me!

Another time travel stop for me and music. Autumn of 1959. I was brash, newly minted enlistee at Parris Island, the legendary basic training camp for young gyrenes. I was one of a very few “boots” of color and a damn Yankee in the deep south where Jim Crow still prevailed. Most of the other clean-shaven Marine wannabees were from below the Mason-Dixon line, deep in the heart of Dixie. Their music was Rebel Rock ‘n Roll, tempered with obscenities and insensitivity to anyone who was not a card-carrying beer and grits lover.

The southern music dominated our downtime. I was off in my own private world, serenading myself with the likes of “Mona Lisa”, “Stardust”, “Too Young” and “When I Fall In Love.”  My musical choices bought me a lot of grief with the good old boys. A lot of reprimands from the drill Instructors who already didn’t care for my “attitude” and added my music to their list of things for verbal reprimand.  I just laughed at them when they screamed at me. No hits of the week for me.

I got lost in a time warp when hard rock, heavy metal, rap, and hip-hop took over popular music. I guess I began to sound like my parents and grandparents wondering what happened to the good music of my early years. What happened to lyrics and melodies you could understand?

My fallback in music is the same as it is in movies. My one and only public karaoke performance was our local Tex-Mex restaurant maybe fifteen years ago. It was not my best performance, even by local standards. The restaurant closed a few years ago but I am sure some people still remember the magical night when I got up on stage, decked in western garb, reaching for the stars as I grabbed the mic and the music began. My heartfelt rendition of “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” fulfilled a lifelong dream.  I sang for applause, free drinks, and some scattered “More, more, more.”

A musical homage to all my movie cowboy heroes.

That song is me, Pilgrim.

THE SURPRISING CHRISTMAS – Rich Paschall

A family plus one holiday tale

by Richard Paschall

72-Christmas Eve_013Kyle was coming home for Christmas. He was bringing with him his college roommate. The boys met during freshman year and became fast friends. Somehow they maneuvered the dorm manager into assigning them to be roommates for sophomore year. There was no one on earth Kyle would rather spend time with than Michael.

So, he was glad Michael agreed to come to dinner on Christmas Eve. This was in exchange for Kyle agreeing to go to Michael’s parents’ house on Christmas day for dinner. Michael was going to make a big announcement to his parents and of course Kyle had to be there.

Kyle’s father had slipped into a den on the east side of the house. All of the family noise was a bit more than his reserved nature could take. Kyle’s sister, Mary, who was 8 years younger than Kyle, was louder than usual, and no matter how many times grandma told Mary to “quiet down,” things didn’t get quieter.

The threat of Christmas carols by Mary and Uncle Roy was enough to drive dad into the den. There, he immediately made haste to the bar where a glass of sherry seemed to be in order. Dad only drank a sherry on special occasions and this certainly was one of them.

It was dark now and the neighbors across the street had turned on their Christmas lights. Almost everyone on the block had a nice display so the street was well-lit. Kyle’s dad was drawn to the window to see the lights, look at the gentle snow flurries and enjoy a moment of peace.

As he stood there sipping his sherry and waiting for Kyle to appear, he finally spotted his only son walking quickly down the street with another young man right behind. As they got to the walkway that led up to the house they stopped to exchange a few words. Then a sight took dad’s wondering eyes totally by surprise. Kyle kissed the other boy. It was not a short kiss, but long and passionate which they both seemed to enjoy.

Soon Kyle rang the doorbell just to announce their arrival before he put his key in the lock and opened the door. Off the entranceway on the left was a door to the den. Kyle’s father was standing in the doorway just staring at the two. Kyle’s mom came through a big archway on the right that led to the living room. Mary was close behind and eager to see her brother and his friend. Uncle Roy and grandma did not vacate their seats. They knew the rest would join them soon.

First Kyle walked over to his father and said, “Dad this is my room-mate, Michael.” The roommate held out his hand and the father shook it. “I am pleased to meet you, sir. Kyle says such wonderful things about the family.”

Kyle’s dad just sort of nodded at that, while studying this stranger in his home. The silence was out of character for the head of the household and a bit of a surprise to everyone except Michael, and that is only because Michael did not know him.

Then Kyle introduced Michael to his mother and his “little brat sister” Mary. Michael held out his hand to each in turn but the little brat held out her hand instead as if he was supposed to take it and kiss it, so he did and she squealed and ran from the room. At that Kyle’s mom offered to introduce Michael to the others. Kyle’s father then announced to all, “We will join you in a moment.”

With a more serious tone, father said, “Kyle, would you step in here for a moment, please?” This was not a question but rather a command of the type Kyle knew was not good. As the father retreated into the room Kyle followed. Before turning around dad said, “Close the door.”

last snow low contrast winter

Kyle only took a few short steps before his father turned around. He looked at him as if he had never seen him before. It was the strangest look Kyle had ever seen from his father. “Kyle, is there something you should be telling me?” the “official business” dad said in an odd businesslike tone. Kyle figured it was some sort of trick question but knew he should answer it anyway.

“No, dad. I don’t think so.” This clearly was the wrong answer. His dad did not say a thing but his body language spoke volumes and Kyle became as nervous as a first-grader who has been caught stealing Oreos from the kitchen. Now the master of the den, the commander of the car keys and the payer of his tuition walked slowly to the window, looked around the outside and turned to Kyle.

“You know, son, that there is a great view of the neighborhood from this window. You can see all of the beautiful Christmas displays across the street. You can see a nice Christmas snow flurry. You can see everyone walking down the sidewalk and turning up the walkway toward the house.” At that Kyle’s father fixed his sights squarely on Kyle and said, “So now is there anything you should tell me?”

Kyle stood motionless as his dad threw a stare at him that went right through and hit the door behind. It took Kyle almost an entire minute before he realized what his father had seen from the window of the den. All the while, that whole long minute of time, Kyle’s father stood there waiting.

Uxb Common Christmas Poster

Kyle wanted to begin “I’m sorry dad…,” but nothing came out of his mouth. He was so nervous and so afraid of his father’s reaction that he could say nothing. It is not that he wanted to be silent, he just couldn’t speak. Fear of saying the wrong thing paralyzed his tongue for the moment. Finally, Kyle’s father just nodded that same nod he gave Michael when he was introduced, walked around Kyle, opened the door and walked across the foyer to the living room.

Kyle was knocked off his spot when his mother’s voice came floating into the room. “Kyle, don’t be rude. Come join your guest.” Kyle shuffled across the hall and searched around the room for Michael. He did not look at anyone else as his eyes avoided everyone but Michael. At that moment, with a room full of family, he had no way of telling his mate that he needed a hug and he thought he might need to cry. After a little small talk by grandma and Uncle Roy, Kyle’s mom asked them all to go to the dining room. Christmas Eve dinner was ready.

“Michael, you sit right there next to Kyle and Kyle will sit next to me. I have this end of the table and Kyle’s father will carve things up at that end of the table. Uncle Roy will be there next to you and grandma and Mary will be on the other side.” At that, the little brat sister ran around the table and dropped herself on the chair opposite Kyle. She looked at him with a smirk as if she knew his little secret and was going to blurt it out if he did not stop calling her a brat.

72-GAR-Night-Uxbridge-121015_005

Everyone sat in silence until Kyle’s mother looked down the length of the table and said to her husband. “Sweetheart, will you say grace for us?” There was a long, awkward pause before he said, “No. Tonight Kyle will lead the prayer.”

At that instant, Kyle prayed that something, anything that made sense would come out of his mouth. All eyes were on him as he began, “Bless us, oh Lord…” The words that fell out of Kyle’s mouth were for blessing and thanksgiving, but in his heart, he was praying for acceptance.

That became the only gift he truly wanted for Christmas this year.

A NOSE JOB FOR MOM – Marilyn Armstrong

I don’t remember how many times my mother told me this story, or how many times I have told it to you. It bears retelling.

At age 22

My mother, like many young women of her generation, had wanted to attend high school. And college. But the family was poor, and there were many mouths to feed. In the end, she had to quit school after seventh grade to take a job. She worked as a bookkeeper. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

The first place she worked was in a music publishing house on the Lower East Side where she had grown up. She was there for seven or eight years and finally decided to get a better job.

Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. Of course, my mother had the additional burden of being female at a time when women were not considered equal. There was no “political correctness” to protect them. My mother was blond and green-eyed. At 5 foot 7 inches, she was tall for her generation. Her English was better than most of the family since she had been born “on this side” of the Atlantic and had all her schooling in New York.

She was ushered into a room to be interviewed for the job she wanted. A few questions were asked. A form was handed to her and she filled it out. When she came to the box that asked her religion, she wrote Jewish. The interviewer looked at the application, said: “Jewish, eh?”

He tore the application to pieces and threw it in the trash in front of my mother. She said that from that day forward, she wrote Protestant so no one would ever do that to her again.Finally, I made a leap of understanding. I connected this anecdote to an aspect of my mother I never “got.” My mother wanted me to get a nose job. When I turned 16, she wanted me to have plastic surgery to “fix” my nose.

“It’s not broken,” I pointed out.

“But don’t you want it to look ‘normal’?” she asked.

“It looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is the original model with which I was born.

Since the last time I told this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty enough. She was asking me if I wanted to not look Jewish. Remarkably, this thought had never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.

I know many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I know non-white mothers frequently sent their light-skinned children north hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until recently, did it occur to me my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.

I never considered the possibility I was turned down for a job because I was, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “too Jewish.” I always assumed it was me. I failed to measure up. I was too brash. My skills were insufficient.

I told Garry about my revelation. It was quite an epiphany, especially at my advanced age. I needed to share. It left me wondering how much I’d missed.

September 15, 1990 – My family at our wedding. I think most of us look a bit alike!

I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion to “get my nose fixed” was an attempt to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered anyone might not like me for other than personal reasons. I said I thought perhaps I’d been a little slow on the uptake on this one.

Garry said, “And when did you finally realize this?”

“Yesterday,” I said.

“Yesterday?” he repeated. Garry looked dumbfounded.

“Yesterday,” I assured him.

He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 72? That is a bit slow. You really didn’t know?” I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently, everyone else got it. Except me.

I AM THE APPLE – Marilyn Armstrong

It occurred to me I needed to see my spine specialist. When you deal with chronic pain, you learn to ignore it most of the time. Unless you want to wind up addicted to pain killers, it’s your only option. It’s a practical decision. Do I want to keep participating in life? Then I have to deal with what I have to deal with. That’s the way it goes.

Mom-May1944

Long-time ago, I was doing my mother’s hair. I liked fixing her hair. Hers was easy to style. Thick, silver and just a bit wavy. I asked her to turn her head to the right, and she did. When I asked her to turn her head the other way, she said: “I can’t.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Because my head won’t turn that way.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“My neck is stiff.”

“Um, mom? How long has it been like this?”

She thought for a while. “Fifteen years? Something like that.”

That stopped me. Fifteen years? “Have you seen anyone about it?”

“No,” she said. “I figured I was just getting old.”

At the time, I thought her statement was bizarre. It turned out she had treatable but advanced tendonitis and it got better. She hated doctors and hospitals.

Time marched on. I’m much older now than my mother was then. I fully understand her response. When I called the doctor for an appointment, I discovered the last time I’d seen him was more than six years ago.

To be fair, I’ve had a few medical crises since then and I got distracted. Besides, I know what’s wrong with my back. It isn’t going to kill me. I’ve lived with it most of my life. I’m used to it and do my best to ignore it.

Right to left: Aunt Pearl, my Mother (Dorothy), Aunt Ehtel (Uncle Herman’s wife), and Aunt Kate.

Recently, though I’m having trouble walking, even on flat surfaces and going up and downstairs is especially difficult. It crossed my mind there might be something he could do — some medical magic — to improve me without major surgery. I already know surgery isn’t an option.

My doctor is wonderful. The best. The only doctor who can look at my spine, not gasp with horror and immediately decide I need to be rebuilt with screws, pins, and bolts. He’s a minimalist, medically speaking. I appreciate that.

I made an appointment and got lucky because there was a cancellation. It usually takes five or six months to get to see him, but I only had to wait a few weeks. He’s the king of spines in Boston, maybe in the country. I would have willingly waited six months if I had to. Of course, as soon as I made the appointment, I had to make another appointment because I need new films for my spine. I also haven’t had a CT scan (I can’t have an MRI because of the magnetic pacemaker in my chest) in six years and he isn’t can’t see much without fresh films.

I wondered how come I hadn’t processed the fact I can’t walk normally? I suppose I wasn’t paying attention. I was busy ignoring pain.

I was being my mother.

She taught me to be a soldier. She didn’t use Novocaine when she got her teeth worked on. I asked her why. She said, “Pain is good for your character.”

Tree Silhouette in B & W

She meant it. I grew up believing that giving in to pain was a weakness. To a degree, it serves me well, but sometimes it can be dangerous. If you ignore the wrong stuff, it can kill you. One needs to find balance, but that’s not easy.

Watching a documentary on Ethel Kennedy reminded me of my mother, except without the millions of dollars.

Mom was an athlete and I know she was baffled at how she wound up with such a klutzy daughter. She played tennis. She rode horses, played ice hockey. She went bob sledding. She painted, sculpted, designed and made her own clothing. She also never got past seventh grade, so she made up for it by reading everything. She had a truly voracious appetite for life and knowledge.

After a radical mastectomy, she couldn’t play tennis anymore, so she played a ferocious game of ping-pong. She played savagely. She served so hard it was more like a bullet than a ping-pong ball.

As a family, we vacationed in dinky little resorts in the Catskills where there was no entertainment. The one thing they always had was a ping-pong table. So I played against my mother.

She didn’t believe in any of that “let the kid win” stuff. She was a competitor. You won or lost. Trying hard was irrelevant because she expected nothing less. She slaughtered me.

As I got older, I played better but she still always beat me. She told me she was giving me an advantage by playing with her left hand. I knew she wrote with her right hand, so I assumed she was a rightie. Until the day my aunt told me she had always played tennis with her left hand. My mother was psyching me out. Her own daughter.

I never beat her, but I beat everyone else.

She passed me her determination to never give up, to do everything I could as well as I could. Later in life, I realized I didn’t always have to be the best. Playing a game for fun is worth something too. Another lesson learned a bit late.

The older I get, the more I remind me of my mother.

So I went to my doctor and he told me there was nothing he could do. I needed to see a pain specialist. No fix. Progressive. Irreversible. I sighed and accepted it. I hoped there was something he could do. Nope.

We all miss stuff. Some of it intentionally, more accidentally. Sometimes, I miss something important because I’m busy ignoring something else.

I am an apple. Mom was my tree. I fell, but not very far.

FIRST, FORGIVE YOURSELF AND THE REST WILL FOLLOW – Marilyn Armstrong

One Sunday in church, Pastor’s sermon was about forgiveness. He asked everyone in the church to stand up. Then he asked those who had any enemies to sit down. Everyone sat down but one very old woman.

“You have no enemies at all?” asked Pastor.

“Not a single one,” she answered, nodding her agreement.

“Please, come up here and tell everyone how you reached such a great age without having any enemies,” said Pastor. A deacon accompanied the elderly woman to the pulpit and everyone in church applauded as she slowly made her way up the steps. The pastor adjusted the microphone.

“You must have done a lot of forgiving,” said Pastor. “Please, tell us your secret.”

The old lady smiled beatifically.

“I outlived the bitches,” she said.


Life marches on. You get older and after a while, you realize all the people you used to obsess over, the people who hurt you, are gone. By the time you pass 70, a lot of people have disappeared from your life. Good ones you loved and the evil ones you hated. The sickly ones with bad hearts.

Chickens come home to roost.

Crazy drivers meet their maker on a dark highway. Heavy drinkers, smokers, drug users find a sad end. It turns out that hating them was a waste of energy. Cancer, heart attack, and other diseases weed out people, the best and the worst, remorselessly and without no regard for personal qualities. Meanwhile, the older generation passes away, one funeral at a time.

Roaring Dam: Photo: Garry Armstrong

Time makes most of the fears and worries of living less important. It turns out, forgiveness is not about repairing relationships so you can be friends again. It’s all about letting go. Passing all that negative crap to your “higher power,” whatever that means to you. Acknowledging that you can’t fix everything and you might as well stop trying.

Realizing it’s not your job to fix it. It never was. Everyone told you that … even your mother, but you weren’t listening.

Shit happens. Some of it — unfair and unforgivable — happens to you. You can make it the center of your world and spend your life brooding and obsessing over it. Or, you can decide you won’t be defined by the worst stuff that happened to you — or the worst stuff you’ve done.

I know people who had wonderful careers full of honor and respect who lost their jobs and promptly declared themselves failures as if the one negative event — getting let go — negated everything which had gone before.

I know men and women who were abused as children who still define themselves as victims — 50 or 60 years later. They can’t let it go. I think — and I could be entirely wrong — that they are waiting for the chance to tell “the bad people” how awful they were. Get it all off their chest once and for all. The problem is, it doesn’t happen in real life. That’s movie stuff. In real life, the bad guys stay bad, never apologize, never admit they were wrong, never own up to anything.

Best choice? Love yourself. If you feel good about you, you can be pretty happy no matter what life throws at you. It’s that simple — and that difficult. If you begin the process of forgiving, forgive yourself first.

Forgive yourself for the mistakes you made, for the bad choices, the stupid decisions, the asshole(s) you married, almost married, allowed to mess with your head.

 

The jobs you screwed up, shouldn’t have taken, should have taken (but didn’t). The opportunities you blew. The unfinished manuscripts still lying dusty in the box in the basement, the unpublished stories that never went to an editor. The times you were wrong and didn’t apologize. Your failures as a parent, the books you didn’t read. All the “shoulda coulda woulda” you’ve accumulated.

If you throw it all out, you won’t eliminate all your problems. The money you don’t have won’t suddenly show up in your bank account. Youth and health won’t return. But, you don’t have to haul the past with you into the future and you can enjoy what you do have without obsessing over what you missed.

The sooner you do it, the better. Life isn’t forever, even if you live entirely on salad and never miss a day of exercise.

With a little luck, you’ll outlive the bitches.

SHARE YOUR WORLD – Marilyn Armstrong

Share Your World 11-4-19
QUESTIONS:
What is the meaning of true love?

I don’t know, but I think you know it when you find it. I could not possibly provide a definition. It’s different for everyone and even for a bonded couple, they will both give different definitions of “true love.” The one thing that seems to be true is bonding and loyalty … and sticking with it.

If you’ve got “a good one,” you will also have to put up with bad habits as well as love and the good stuff. You’ll find yourself say you’re sorry even if you’re not while remembering that your mate is doing the same for you. We all have to put up with stuff. No one is “made” for someone else. Some of us are barely made to be ourselves, much less for someone else.

I suspect it’s why second marriages are often more successful than first ones. We’ve gotten old enough to learn that it is never perfect, but if you learn to let things go, it can get pretty close.

Do acts of kindness have a motive? 

I suppose it depends on the individuals. Maybe some do, others probably don’t. I tend to be pretty generous when I can. But I may call in a favor because I need help and this is the person I think knows how to help.

If we live in a civilized world why do we see so many distinctions between rich and poor?

Because we have some really awful governments and far, far too many greedy corporations!

Do we love ourselves more in the virtual world than in the real world?

I don’t know what that means.

Our house on the square

Are you grateful?

For being alive and having a husband and friends I love. Dogs I love and a day and a comfortable place to sleep. There are many things about which I am a bit appalled, but on a personal level, we do okay.

Most of the time.

THE CLASS OF 1969 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Going to a 50th High School Reunion can be an exciting prospect – if it’s yours. I recently went to my husband, Tom’s 50th Reunion in Schenectady, New York, and, to be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I’m shy in big groups and pictured myself following Tom around and having nothing to say to a room full of strangers.

Tom’s ID badge with his senior photo

I was pleasantly surprised. We met three of Tom’s high school friends and their spouses at a local tavern before the official opening cocktail party. Everyone was delightful and friendly and we had a great time. Tom’s high school best friend, Stewie was there with his wife, Mar-C. In preparing for the reunion, Tom and Stewie discovered that they had been living an hour away from each other in Connecticut for over thirty years! We got together a few weeks before the reunion so I already knew two other people. And Mar-C and I had compared notes on what to wear to each of the reunion events so my comfort level was pretty good by the time we arrived in Schenectady.

Tom and me with Stewie and Mar-c

After our private dinner, we headed over to the party and mingled with the 130 members of the Linton High Class of 1969 who showed up. Everyone was easy going and so nice. I realized from attending 20th and 40th reunions of my own, that as we all get older, the whole high school dynamic changes. You don’t have the cliques anymore or the high school rivalries. People are no longer trying to impress everyone with their job or professional accomplishments, or, as time went on, the jobs and professional accomplishments of their children.

The main topic of conversation was – are you retired yet? If so, good for you and what are you doing to have fun? Most of us had reached the stage of life when we can wake up whenever we feel like it and spend the day doing whatever we feel like doing. Everyone I talked to seemed genuinely happy and fulfilled. No competition any more. Just stories of hobbies and grandchildren. Some people still did projects for work but on their own terms and schedules. Some people were traveling and having a ball exploring the world.

Class of 1969 yearbook and 50th reunion yearbook update

At the dinner the second night, there were fun games with prizes for the winners. Who’s been married the longest? 50 years! Who has the most kids? Six. Who’s kids are the oldest? 50! And the youngest? 23. I was thrilled that Tom tied for the coolest job – he was a CBS network news director and audio engineer and the other guy was a documentary filmmaker.

Tom was well known at his high school. He ran for student council every year against the guy who always won. So Tom’s campaign speeches were more of a stand-up comedy act, the comic relief. They were apparently greatly enjoyed and appreciated by the other students, so lots of people came up to Tom with big hugs and cheerful greetings. I was very proud of Tom, especially when he got up to introduce the three videos he created for the reunion. These were the centerpieces of the dinner presentations.

By the time we left, I knew lots of people by name and we had promised to get together again with the ones who live a reasonable car ride away. I really felt like I made new friends and Tom got to renew friendships from long ago.

Tom and Stewie

We left the reunion happy and wired – until our car died before we even got out of Schenectady. Luckily we broke down right at a service station on the NY State Thruway so it only took AAA a half hour to get a tow truck to us. We rode the 2 ½ hours home in the back of a truck with zero suspension. It felt like we were driving over cobblestones for the entire ride. We got home at 3 AM but even this unpleasant finale didn’t dampen our positive feelings about the weekend we spent in a time capsule. We captured time in a bottle and loved every minute of it!

Tom and me at the dinner

POLITICS AND RELATIONSHIPS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I recently read an autobiography by the Saturday Night Live actress, Rachel Dratch, called “Girl Walks Into A Bar…” I enjoyed the book, particularly the adjustment of a single 44-year-old woman to motherhood, a committed relationship, and co-parenting.

Rachel Dratch

Rachel started a long distance (California to New York) relationship with a lovely guy and after six months, discovered she was pregnant. This was a minor miracle at her age. There was no question that she wanted the baby. The open question was what kind of relationship she would have going forward with the baby’s daddy, John.

This guy sounded like a real gem and was wonderful to Rachel. He even stepped up and moved to New York City to be near Rachel and their unborn son. He wanted an active role in the child’s life once he was born.

My problem with this story is that Rachel is a New York City liberal and Democrat and John was an ‘independent’ who supported George W. Bush and the Republican agenda.

Would he also support Donald Trump today?

I started wondering if I could overlook someone’s political views and have a serious relationship with a Republican in today’s political climate. The answer, for me, is no. During the George W. Bush era, the comedian Janine Garofalo said that being a Republican was no longer just an opinion, but was ‘a character flaw’ which is many times truer today.

The problem I have with Republicans/Trump supporters today is not their ‘political’ positions. I have no issue with someone who has a different view from mine on deficits, trade policy, or interest rates. I’m beginning to question the judgment and relationship to reality of people who still believe in trickle-down economics after so many years of contrary, hard evidence that it does not work. That’s a side issue.

The problem I have with Republicans today is their morals or lack thereof. Anyone who is willing to accept and/or support Trump’s level of lying, corruption, bigotry, venality, narcissism, misogyny, mean-spiritedness, arrogance, ignorance, anti-intellectualism and overall lack of caring about anything or anyone outside of himself is not my kind of person.

Anyone who is willing to look the other way when Trump says there are ‘good’ Nazis, or when he separates immigrant children from their parents because they are seeking asylum in the U.S. has a major ‘character flaw’ in my book.

I can’t accept rationalizations or excuses for Trump’s words or deeds. I have no common values or perspectives with people who share these views– even though I understand that many of them are working with a different set of ‘facts’ than what I get from the mainstream media. If we can’t agree about the facts, there is no basis for discussion or agreement about anything else.

In 2019, who you identify with politically says a lot about who you are as a human being. I have to respect my partner’s mind and character. I don’t respect Republican/Trump supporters. I also need to feel that my partner is a caring, tolerant, compassionate person. There seems to be a compassion gene missing in most Trump supporters.

They have a strong bias in favor of corporate ‘rights’ — greed — at the expense of individuals. They appear to have a need to look down on all sorts of people. Equal treatment and opportunity, fairness, and helping the underprivileged, the sick or the disabled does not seem to even be on their radar. How can I believe in the dignity and rights of every human being if I give aid and comfort to those who want to take that dignity and those rights away?

I admit that Rachel Dratch’s partner, now her husband (I believe) seems to be an involved parent and a decent, supportive partner to her. But what values will he teach their child? What kind of world does he want that child to grow up and live in? I’m suspicious of his emotional makeup if he could ‘exonerate’ Trump’s outrageous behavior and cruel policies.

There is no moral middle ground anymore.

Either you want Americans to have affordable healthcare or you don’t. I have no tolerance for selfish people who don’t care about the quality of life of their fellow humans. I do believe these uncaring SOBs should get healthcare, a living wage, civil rights, equality and the right to make decisions about their own bodies even though they don’t believe that I should have any of these things.

Does that make me a ‘better’ person in my moral universe? Yes, it does.

GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY – Marilyn Armstrong

There are a lot of marriages that stay together and I have no idea why. It’s obvious that the two people don’t love one another. Sometimes, they appear to actually hate each other.

If you get one of them alone, they will give you the usual reason why they are staying together:

      • Children
      • We can’t afford to get a divorce (too poor or too rich)
      • He/she is wacko (and sometimes, he/she really is)
      • We run a business together
      • Religion
      • Drug abuse, gambling, alcoholism or any addiction
      • Fear by one party of the other; abuse is a lot more common than most people realize.

No matter how many ways you point out that there are solutions, they aren’t listening. Sometimes, something happens and one day, the relationship snaps.

The kids grow up. They decide money is less important than they thought and they can run the business, even unmarried. They do some minor religious switching and suddenly divorce is fine.

I always worry most about abused spouses because sometimes, when they snap, a partner dies. They may deserve it, but the killer doesn’t deserve what’s in store for him or her.

It’s not an easy choice, especially when there’s a good chance that if they try to leave, someone else is going to die — the kids or a wife, husband or any combination of the above.

Despite feeling strongly that people living in really bad marriages should do something about it, I grew up as a child in such a marriage. I understand.

I know how ugly the outcome of these divorces can be, especially for children. No how bad your parents are, the alternative can be worse. With all of the studies and statistics on how dreadful foster care is, we have yet to come up with a better solution. When you are a kid, you often feel you have a choice: live with the devil you know or get thrown into life with devils you don’t know who could be worse.

What baffles me more are people who basically have good marriages, but the first time something goes wrong, they are filing papers. I agree, for example, sex outside (monogamous) marriage is uncool.  I’ve heard conversations where everyone agrees that if such a terrible thing should happen in their relationship, all bets are off. It’s the divorce court. No conversation, no forgiveness, no discussion.

Why not?

Given the looseness of pre-marital relationships in this century, is there some reason to assume that this is going to entirely change because you stood up in a church or a registry office and vowed: “Till death do you part”?

Marriage isn’t a vow. It’s a process. It’s not dating. You don’t just hook-up until it stops being fun, then go to your next hook-up.  It’s when things get a little rough that the real marriage begins.

Half the time, the partner would never even know anything happened if the spouse didn’t have some sort of bizarre need to “confess.” I’ve always wondered what the point of that confession is supposed to be. Is it going to improve the marriage? Of course not. I’m sure it’s intended to do exactly what it does: break the relationship up.

You need to be honest? If you needed to be that honest, why did you do it in the first place? Since you’ve already strayed, live with it. Find a priest and confess. Find a shrink and confess. Find a complete stranger on a bus and confess. But leave your mate out of it and move on.

Also, a genuinely committed couple who have built a life should be able to cope with reality and maybe with a degree of dishonesty, too. Life in the real world is not life on television or Hollywood.

I’ve seen couples divorce because one of them was sure he/she could do better. A few do. Most don’t.

It’s not about the wedding or even the honeymoon. It’s working through issues, changing your behavior. Helping your partner change his behavior. It’s helping a partner get sober or quit gambling. It’s sticking with them if they fail. And them sticking with you when life isn’t going well.

Loving them when their hair falls out and they aren’t nearly as cool and dashing as they were 30 years ago … but you still think they are.

You don’t know what kind of relationship you have without the lumps, bumps, twisted ankles, and heart attacks. Without consoling them for lost jobs, broken backs, and twisted feet.

That’s when you know you have something that means more than pretty cakes and chapel bells.

NOT QUITE THIRTY – Marilyn Armstrong

We are about to celebrate our 29th  wedding anniversary. As I ponder the upcoming 29th — a year short of the big 3-0 — I hear distant bells.

I remember the wedding. The thrill of ultimate victory, the agony of getting there. How, by the time I got to the altar, I was a nervous wreck, but Garry was cool as the proverbial cucumber and looked dashing in his tuxedo.

After it was clearly established that we were definitely, unquestionably, without any doubt, getting married, it came down to details. Dates. Rings. Caterers. Bakers. Flowers. Music. Photography. Videography. And (trumpets) a ceremony.

I had been married twice before — okay, three times because I’d been married in a registry office in London, then the whole Jewish medieval ceremony in Jerusalem. Having been there and done that. I wanted to elope or maximum, go to city hall, have the mayor marry us. He would have. We knew the guy and still do.

We could have been married at City Hall, I’d toss a bouquet, someone would throw some confetti, and voilà. Married. After that, we and our actual friends could all go out for Chinese.

Garry wanted a Real Wedding.

He was 48 years old. Never married. This would be his one and only wedding and by golly, he was going to Do It Right.

“I want a real wedding. In the church in which I grew up. In New York,” says Garry. “And I want my old pastor to officiate.”

“Pastor G. is retired … like fifteen years ago.”

“I’m sure we can work it out.” When he said we, I thought he meant he and I would do this thing together. Because where I come from, that’s what “we” means. I was delusional.

“Why can’t we just do something in Boston? New York is 250 miles away. You haven’t lived there in 30 years. Everyone you know except your parents live in Boston or some other part of the country.”

Garry’s face was set and stony. He wanted a hometown wedding in the church he attended as a child. With the Pastor who ran the church when he was a kid. Who was very retired.

Did I mention my husband is stubborn? He is very stubborn.

“This is going to be a lot of work. It’s hard to plan a wedding long distance,” I point out. “And I have a full-time job. in case you’ve forgotten.” Garry is unfazed.

“We can,” he repeats, “Work it out.” There was that we again.

“Fine,” I eventually agree. “We’ll have a wedding. In New York. At your church.”

There were caterers to hire. Music to be arranged. A bagpiper (don’t ask). Battles over the guest list. A cake to be designed. The cake was my favorite part. It went like this. Having settled on a vanilla cake with lemon filling, we needed to decide on decorations.

“Do you want the bride and groom in white or black?”

“Can we have one of each?” No, we could not. In 1990, they do not have a mixed couple cake topper. I offered to take a marker and paint the groom black, but inexplicably, Garry found this objectionable. I suggested they take two sets and cut them in half, but it was deemed too complicated. In the end, I opted for wedding bells, the DMZ of wedding cake toppers.

So, Garry got his wedding. It was (for him) as simple as simple could be. Marilyn arranged the wedding. Garry showed up in a tux.

You see? We worked it out.

P.S. I eventually learned that “we’ll work it out” always meant “you’ll take care of it for me.” That included moving, packing, unpacking, cooking, arranging vacations, airline tickets, mortgages, and car loans. For Garry, it meant “show up nicely dressed and smile.”

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.

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.

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!