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Archive for May, 2010

Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about Community lately.  It’s a word I hear thrown around like a panacea, as in churches that refer to themselves as “a Catholic community,” or housing developments referred to as “senior communities” (under 55 not allowed!).  Such usages annoy me because they imply that if you become a resident (loosely defined) of that particular “community,” you will find the kinds of friendships that exist in real communities.  You rarely do.

It’s on my mind particularly at this time of year because it’s around this time of year that I had my first real brush with “community” in its best sense.  When my step-grandmother was a new wife, she lived in the Bronx.  As in, the “garden-spot” Bronx, not too far from what is now Yankee Stadium, which is pretty much a burned-out slum.  And 95 years ago, it was a slum, too.  All nationalities lives there, but what they had in common was poverty, and a hope in the New World.  So the Poles kept their distance from the Puerto Ricans and Italians who lived in the neighborhood, but they all shook down together.

Over time, Grandma and her family were able to save up enough to buy a house in what was then farm country:  the Brooklyn-Queens border.  They moved when my stepfather was thirteen, and that house is still in the family.  But Grandma never lost her ties to the Bronx, or her old Polish friends who lived there, and one Sunday, she asked Dad to take her over to the Bronx for a christening party.

In those days, boys could change into their play clothes as soon as they got home from church, but girls were expected to stay nice-looking “in case company dropped by.”  Sunday dinner was done, and I had a long, long afternoon stretching ahead of me with nothing to do but sit around Looking Nice, so I asked if I could tag along to this christening party.  My mother was reluctant, but finally gave in, on condition that I stay quiet.

And I did.  Frankly, when I got there, there was nobody I knew; these were all Grandma’s friends.  The neighborhood consisted of three-story apartment buildings with narrow corridors between them that led into courtyards at the back of the building; one apartment block looked just like another, and I was terrified of getting lost (at that time, I had no idea that the place was also a slum!), so I wasn’t going anywhere.  All the old ladies talked to one another in Polish.  All the young men were celebrating by getting drunk, and all the young women were cooking and handing out food.  It was its own controlled chaos, but it was a chaos I was used to, from the many family parties I had attended at home, so that didn’t bother me.

But what strikes me from this distance of time is the memory of all those old ladies–at this stage of my life, I’m probably older than many of them were then!–sitting around under the shade of the trees that grew around the courtyard, balancing plates of food on their laps and sipping beer from glasses that sat on the ground beside their chairs, all talking Polish at one another.  In our house, we didn’t speak Polish, so I had no idea what they were saying; but I remember watching them, fascinated by their connection with one another and with their home culture, as Polish music filled the courtyard from a radio station that played its Polka Hour on Sunday afternoons.  I didn’t know it then, but somehow sensed that it was a genuine slice of Polish life:  Sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, chatting with the neighbors about this and that, celebrating the latest addition to that particular community.

I never went back to that neighborhood again.  I found out some time later that the day after the christening, the baby’s father died of a drug overdose; even then there were junkies, and evidently he was one.  That wasn’t a wake that my grandmother attended, but I can see it now, that the same old ladies who had come to celebrate the christening of Jim and Barbara’s baby, flocked back to the house with pots and pots of food to see her through those first awful weeks of life without her baby’s father.

That’s Community.  When you come together to celebrate Life at its beginning and at its end.  When the way you grew up is a shared experience that you take with you into a strange and unknown world, and that shared experience sees you through all the ups and downs that Life throws at you.

All you Developments that call yourselves Communities–eat your hearts out.

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Maybe a month or two ago, I joined a site called Classmates.com.  I’m of two minds about this; on one hand, there’s an *awful* lot of personal information that I needed to give that site in order for my former classmates to be able to track me down, and I’m not awfully comfortable with that.  But on the other hand, it’s great to catch up with kids I haven’t seen in fifty years (did I just write that?!).

I keep getting mail from someone who thinks he knows me, but I don’t know his name at all; he graduated from my grammar school in 1956, so, four years before I did.  He might recognize my maiden name, since there are a ton of people with that name who graduated from that school — I am related to them all.  But it doesn’t follow that he would know me personally because of the name, because I was the first one with that name to go through that school, and I spent eight years sounding out a Polish name that, if you saw it, you couldn’t pronounce it, and if you heard it, you couldn’t spell it.

Anyway, I had a note from him today in which he mentioned the former pastor of that parish.  What follows is what I wrote him; I’ll add to it in a bit.  I’m posting it here because it’s important to me that this great, good priest be memorialized.  We hear so much these days about Catholic priests who are unworthy of the name — maybe — can we ever really know what has gone on?  There was at least one instance locally of a priest accused of sexual misconduct who was later found to be innocent, and then there was the Bishop of Chicago, Cardinal Roger Something-or-Other, who was equally falsely accused.

Now mind — Monsignor Kunig, the priest I’m writing about, could legitimately have been accused (though not at that time) of abusing children.  He was a terror; ranted and raved at us, genuinely believed that all children were spawn of the devil, and needed frequent beatings to become civilized human beings.  But there was another side to him:

Monsignor Kunig was a BAVARIAN (not an ordinary German)    😉    Don’t forget, St. Margaret’s was a parish started by German farmers, and in fact, Margaret of Antioch (since declared a “myth” by the Catholic Church) was the patron saint of farmers.  Anyway, Monsignor’s sermons were tough to sit through.  I was in sixth grade when he died, and totally astounded by the genuine grief among the adults — he was such a terror to us little kids!!  I remember one afternoon, shortly before he died, when we were all gathered in church for one of his interminable rants, and he yelled at a little first-grader who was whispering to her neighbor.  She, naturally, began to cry, and so help me, Monsignor said, “No, no, little girl, don’t cry.  Please don’t cry.”  We sixth-graders, farther back in the church, looked at one another in astonishment — if we had known the expression back then, we would have been saying, “Who are you, and what have you done with Fr. Kunig?!”  [Note:  I should explain here that every month or so, the entire school would be required to assemble while Monsignor Kunig addressed us, in his thick German accent, for a good hour on the subject of God Alone Knows What.  We certainly couldn’t understand a word.]

Many years later, my mother, who was NO friend of Germans, told me that Monsignor Kunig got his elevation (from pastor to Monsignor) because he had used his contacts in Germany to get Jews out of the country.  Nobody at St. Margaret’s knew about it during the War, of course, and he came in for a lot of grief because of his German roots and very German accent; but when he was made a Monsignor, the reason came out, and I guess that was when the adults came to hold him in such high regard.  He was also incredibly gentle in confession; I can remember being assigned to his line, when we would be taken downstairs for our monthly confessions, and every single one of us was terrified before we went into the confessional, and every single one of us, on the way out, would whisper to the rest of the line, “He really is nice!”  “Nice” wasn’t a word a child would associate with Monsignor.

But as I said earlier, the adults loved him.  Many wouldn’t consider going to another priest for their confessions.  Apparently he had a profound understanding of the human condition, and was able to give advice that was practical and down the pipe, but at the same time rooted in the spiritual life that used to be the hallmark of Catholicism before it got mixed up in Social Activism.  (I can picture what he would have had to say on that topic, hard-working German that he was.)

He died in 1958, and was buried in the cemetery across the street from St. Margaret’s, St. John’s Cemetery in Queens — yes, the one where John Gotti is buried, and if you watch Law & Order, you’ve seen it there, too, under the name of St. Nicholas Cemetery or some such.  But if you’re from Queens County, you know St. John’s Cemetery, and you know exactly where it is.  Monsignor’s grave is literally across the street from the parish he served for some 20 years, within view of St. Margaret’s Church.  I wish he had been alive during Vatican II, though I know that would have been impossible; he was in his eighties when he died, and he had suffered cruelly from arthritis for all the years after World War II.  I would have liked to get his perspective on the changes in the Church.  I can imagine what he would have to say about my having become Orthodox, or so many Catholics leaving for other religions, or birth control; but his advice was reliable and based on his awareness both of the Gospel and of human nature.  How many priests do we know who can make that boast?

That said, I must add that he genuinely didn’t understand why, when the new convent was built, the nuns needed washing machines — after all, his own mother had cared for how many children and had never needed one!  I don’t think it ever occurred to him that his own mother, regardless of how many children she had, wasn’t caring for sixty and seventy grimy little boys and girls while wearing a white wool habit….

Well, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.  If our weaknesses can provide others with affectionate amusement after we’re gone, thanks be to God that they don’t evoke rage and bitterness.  Memory eternal, Monsignor Henry P. Kunig!

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I have a problem:  I’ve decided that for my fourth novel, one of my characters has to go.  I’m not sure if it should be my hero or my heroine — at the moment, I’m leaning towards my hero — but it seems to be the only way I can bring their story up to date, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the present time.  Atrocity though the March bombing of the Moscow Metro was, looking at it from an author’s standpoint, it provides the perfect occasion to bump somebody off.

Those of you who were my beta readers for the first two novels:  If you’re still interested, the third novel has been completely revamped, and I would be interested in your comments.  But meanwhile, whaddaya think:  Should it be the heroine or the hero?  “The Lady or the Tiger”?

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“I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” ― Anna Quindlen

She’d love this house.

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That’s a serious question.  I have no idea how casseroles are made.  When I was growing up, it seemed like everybody’s mom made casseroles, except mine.  Mine was hampered by both a lack of imagination and five kids with varying tastes, so she came up early on with her Foolproof Menu Plan, which never varied, except on Sundays:

Mondays, leftovers; Tuesdays, hot dogs; Wednesdays, spaghetti; Thursdays, hamburgers; Fridays, something potato based, usually either french fries or potato pancakes.  Fridays and Sundays were Dad’s days to cook, so unless he’d been fishing, potatoes were the only game in town.  On Saturdays we had “mini-pizzas,” those English-muffin things with two strips of mozzarella covered with tomato sauce and a sprinkle of oregano.  Two per serving.

Sundays were really adventurous, since, as I said, Dad was cooking, and Sunday dinner was a big deal.  We often had stuffed cabbage — Dad’s recipe didn’t allow for niceties such as browning out the meat in advance or tomato sauce, so his stuffed cabbage was pretty gross, but we ate it.  Or Dad’s version of Chicken Fricassee:  dredge the chicken in flour and boil it.  Lots of meatloaf, of course, and when I was a teenager, Dad somehow discovered roast beef, which was to die for.

Nowhere on the menu was a casserole ever to be seen.

So I was going to ask, when I remembered that you can find out pretty much anything on the internet these days (scary thought).  So I looked up casseroles.  And I found this:  Pretty much every recipe starts with, “Brown the meat.”  Whatever the main course, you always start by browning it.  Then you put it into an oven-proof dish and add either potatoes, pasta, or rice, and a sauce.  Then you bake the living daylights out of it.

And I realized:  I’ve been making casseroles for most of my married life.  Just not in the oven.  Take tonight’s supper, f’rinstance:  Turkish Rice, a recipe I picked up while living in Germany.  Cook one or two large onions in olive oil until they’re brown, along with a couple of cloves of garlic.  Add ground beef, and cook until that’s brown.  Sprinkle in some thyme.  Add a small (8 oz.) can of tomato sauce, fill it once with water, and pour that in, too.  Then add in 1/2 cup of rice and a bouillon cube, and cook the whole thing for half an hour.  On the top of the stove.

Now I feel much better.  I haven’t missed the Great American Casserole Bake-Out after all.  I just don’t bake it.

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I had a call from my son yesterday for Mother’s Day — he wanted to know if I had received his card.  Well, no, I hadn’t, so I was especially glad to hear that he had sent one.  (I did, however, actually receive a card from my daughter.  That was a nice surprise!)

Once we got done with our Mother/Son conversation, I passed the phone to his father, who also loves to talk to him.  From remarks that my husband was making, I gathered that Chris had told him something good about work, so after the conversation was over, I asked about it.

It seemed that Chris’s train had had a surprise inspection from the Federal Railroad Administration — just a routine thing, but the thing is that the FRA is even more stringent in its requirements than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is the field my husband has worked in for all his working life; he got his start in OSHA.  The inspector actually complimented Chris on his safety practices, and Chris made note that he had grown up in a safety culture:  “My dad just retired as a safety inspector, so I’ve heard about this all my life.”  The inspector, he said, seemed impressed.

Now, over the years, my husband has put up with a lot of guff about occupational safety and health.  Bad enough when it comes from the public — when it was first enacted, the OSHA Act came in for a lot of criticism, and my husband was threatened several times with bodily harm — but over the years, thanks mostly to mucking around under various administrations, gradually OSHA came to be deprived of its teeth, and now has no real power to do anything proactive; it only comes to the fore after a life has been lost, which is a shame.  Be that as it may, dh has endured a lot of commentary from his various agencies about the “wussiness” (for want of a better word) of safety, with the implications that anybody who works in the field is little better than an old mother hen.  That kind of talk takes its toll on a man’s self-esteem, especially over a period of decades.

“I want you to think about this,” I said.  “For all the nonsense you’ve put up with about your career — for all the people who’ve been ungrateful about the fact that they will get to go home at night to their families, instead of to the hospital or the morgue — the one you actually reached was the most important one of all.”

My husband was already on a high over that telephone conversation.  When I said that, he positively glowed.  It makes a man proud when his son follows him into his own line of work; but I think it makes a man even prouder when his son takes Dad’s life lessons to heart.

I am a blessed woman, to have such a son, and such a husband.

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I was browsing through old posts today, with an eye towards deleting some that were a little too personal — do banks still ask for your mother’s maiden name as a password to your account? — and reading them, I could see how people could guess I was from New York anyway:  They read just like Seinfeld, “the show about nothing.”   Boy, I wrote a lot about nothing.    😉

Which serves as an introduction to this post, which is essentially about Nothing.  DH and I, approaching anniversary #41, really are incredibly alike in many ways.  We are both morning people.  We both like classical music, and did when we were dating, too.  Both bookworms.  Both Conservatives.  My mother once reminded me that at one point I had complained, “It’s like dating myself,” and although that was an unfair assessment (made with typically 18-year-old arrogance), I can see how I drew that conclusion.

So it’s always a bit of a shock to find that there are some things on which we completely disagree.  One of these is nutrition.  DH, being the child of a nurse, is completely in lock step with the medical profession.  Once he hears that “Doctors Say,” it’s carved in stone.  So, for example, for the past 19 years, ever since I became Orthodox, he has had a serious problem with my fasting — until, sometime this past winter, he heard that Doctors Say that eating fish is good for you.  And we ate fish throughout Great Lent.  Hey, I’m not complaining.  Doctors also Say that Butter Is Bad for You, so it’s anathema to him.  Meanwhile, my nutritionist is saying, “Don’t eat margarine — it’s one molecule away from plastic” (my cousin who’s an engineer says the same thing), and trying to wean DH off margarine has been, shall we say, Interesting.

I, on the other hand, had a healthy distrust of doctors even before the horrors of 2006, dating back to when my feet began to go bad on me  —  maybe 21 or 22 years ago.  Up to that point, I had done three miles a day without batting an eyelash, but suddenly I couldn’t walk from the bedroom to the bathroom without holding onto something, and doctors blew it off as “all in my head.”  A visit to a chiropractor revealed that one leg was an inch shorter than the other; when I tasked my doctor with it, he explained that doctors don’t consider that a problem unless there’s a 2-inch or more discrepancy.  Hey, when you’re five feet zip, lemme tell you, every inch counts.  So 2006 just confirmed my entire experience of doctors since, oh, about 1978:  They’re all boobs, idiots, and charlatans.

Then, as I have discovered this past week, there’s homeopathic medicine.  This past week, as I have groused on Facebook, I’ve had a cold.  Not an especially bad one, but you know what colds are:  With some of them, you’re afraid you aren’t going to die, and with some of them, you just wish you could crawl into a cave until it’s run its course.  Mine, this week, was the latter.  I had some Tylenol Multi-Symptom cold stuff around, and the expiration date hadn’t quite come due — barely — so I took some and confidently waited for it to do its stuff.  Nothing.  I spent Thursday and yesterday in complete misery, until I decided, Enough! and grabbed some stuff called Sinusalia, from a company called Boiron.  Herbal extracts in a little pill that you chew up, consuming two of them every two hours until your symptoms are gone.

And danged if it didn’t work.

For the cough, I’ve been knocking back a couple of Halls Naturals cough drops every few hours — “Harvest Peach” — same result.  So help me, if I could find an acupuncturist locally, I think I’d give it a try.  But then, lately I’ve discovered this “woo-woo” way of living, doing t’ai chi and eating vegan (Gee – I – wonder – why), and have come to the conclusion that there really are worse ways to live.  Including, in my never – so – humble opinion, putting a lot of chemicals into your body.  Regardless of what Doctors Say.

Thankfully, we have 41 years of living together behind us, so we’ve learned to roll with each other’s “idiot – syncrasies.”  I suspect that we will never come to a meeting of the minds on the subject of homeopathic medicine, and that’s just as well.  Otherwise, it’d be like being married to myself — a fate worse than death.

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