Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

…is Change, as the Change Gurus keep reminding us.  You know who they are:  those folks who muck around with our lives, tweaking this and altering that and causing general uproar, all the while assuring us that what they are doing is Normal, because “the only constant in life is Change.”

I keep waiting for someone to state the obvious, that it’s because Change Is the Only Constant in Life that we should dial it back wherever possible.  Think about it:  One day you’re a baby, the next you’re off to school, and a scant twelve years later, you’re old enough to vote, hold a job, drive a car.  Then you get married, and the changes start flying at you:  your own kids, your aging parents, mergers-acquisitions-divestitures at work, your spouse’s altering body (to say nothing of your own), and the next thing you know, you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

And those are just the unavoidable changes.  Then there are the changes you make so that your life runs more smoothly:  A new house, a new community, a different school, maybe a different career.  Some of us find God, others abandon Him.  Some of us change spouses like we change shoes.  (I’m not advocating that last one.)

And then along come the Change Gurus.  You go into work one morning thinking about all the projects you have to get done; you boot up, and say what?!  Everything’s different!  The IT Oafs have been at it again!  And just when you were getting used to the last changes!

Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7.  I-Pods, I-Phones, I-Pads, Kindle Readers, MP-3 Players.  Change is Good!  Why?  Because The Only Constant in Life is Change!

I was just thinking this morning that when I began my own career, I learned to type on a manual typewriter.  You really had to pound those keys, and a typing speed of 60 words per minute guaranteed you a good job.  Electric typewriters were just beginning to revolutionize the office scene, and a company that had a Xerox photocopier was progressive, indeed.  Then came the Selectric Typewriter, with the little ball that you could change for different typefaces — holy cow!  Then the electronic typewriter, then the word processor, and finally, the computer.  Who’d a-thunk that in thirty short years, we’d all be computer geeks?!

My stepgrandmother was born on a farm in Poland.  She never went to school, never learned to read or write.  When she came to this country, she hired out as a farm hand — in those days, New York City still had farms.  She lived to see a man walk on the moon, and a Polish Pope, whom she loved.  (No need to bring up which event was the more important to her!)

All of this came to a head for me when my husband ran into an old acquaintance at the supermarket.  They got to talking about one thing and another, and it developed that the acquaintance was in Human Resources (what a ghastly term) at Tufts University in Boston.  Talking about hiring people, he mentioned that age discrimination is a very real tactic in human-resource management; you don’t like to do it, but the simple fact is that people get to a point where they simply can’t absorb all the changes going on in the business world.  This really hit home with my husband, who retired two years ago:  It’s a shocking thing to realize that after forty or forty-five years of increasing productivity, of altering the person you were to fit in with the Change Gurus’ vision, you are suddenly unemployable because you’ve tapped out your Change Viability.  What’s left in life?!

I belong to a church that resists change for the sake of change.  This is not to say that changes don’t take place, only that there has to be a good reason for changing things up.  The joke goes, “How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?” and the answer is either, “Change?!” in a horrified tone of voice, or “Change?  What’s that?” in a tone of complete puzzlement.  This is known as Change-Guru Hell.

But it’s a perspective that I wish we could export to the modern world, the notion that Change isn’t always good, that you don’t fix what ain’t broke, that people aren’t just “resources” to be used up and thrown away, but of intrinsic value, whose rate of absorption needs to be respected until they can make a smooth transition to the place where they need to be, in order to advance spiritually.  That is a “change we can live with.”  More, that is a change we must accommodate, since it prepares us for the final and most critical change of all:  The change from temporal to eternal life.

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Somebody sent me the following, and I offer it here for any of my readers who may not be Orthodox, or who are Orthodox but have never read this.  Fr. Alexander was a highly respected twentieth-century Russian Orthodox priest, whose many writings cover nearly every aspect of modern life.  His son, Serge, has been a correspondent of the New York Times for many years.


The New Year: The Mystery of Time
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

On New Year’s Eve we feel the mystery of time more powerfully than at any other time. We feel, in other words, that its flow – in which we live and in which everything constantly vanishes as the “past” and constantly places us face to face with the unknown future – essentially contains within itself the main question that everyone is called to answer with their lives.

“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” asks the poet [Pushkin] in his immortal line. Indeed, it is enough for one moment to turn away from the cares that absorb us, enough mentally to stop the ceaseless waterfall of time, disappearing into the abyss, in order for the question “Why is life given and what is its meaning?” to rise from the depths of the subconscious, where we normally hide it from ourselves, and stand before us in all its implacability.

I was not, now I am, and I will not be; thousands of years passed before me, and thousands will come after… On the surface of this unimaginably infinite ocean I am but a fleeting bubble, into which a ray of life flashes for a split second, just to be extinguished and disappear then and there.

“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” What, in comparison with this only honest, rueful question do all the loud theories mean that seek to answer this with tiresome theoretics of a “bright future”? “We will build our new world. He who was nothing will become everything” [from The Internationale]… The most naïve, gullible, and dull-witted person cannot but know that all this is a lie. For both the very one “who was nothing” and the one who “will become everything” will disappear from the face of the earth, from this hopeless mortal world.

Therefore, regardless of whatever we were taught by pathetic prophets of a pathetic happiness, only one real question stands eternally before man: does this ever-so-brief life have any meaning? What does it mean, when compared with the boundless abyss of time, that this flash of consciousness, this ability to think, rejoice, and suffer, this extraordinary life that, however seemingly futile and random, is still looked upon by us as a gift?

Now the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s. And as long as it strikes life for twelve short seconds stops and pauses, and everything as it were focuses on what is now to begin, posing and responding to the same torturous question: what is this – another step towards a meaningless end and disappearance, or the unexpected flashing of a ray of renewal and new beginnings? In response come words from an infinite loftiness and an infinite profundity: That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth… And of His fulness have we
received, and grace for grace (John 1:9-12, 14, 16).

These are the words of the Evangelist John the Theologian in the very beginning of his Gospel. They are thoroughly imbued with the joy, confidence, and love of a man who has seen the light of true life, about which it is said that it shines in darkness and was not overcome by the darkness (John 1:5). Listening attentively to them, the very same joy, the very same confidence, and the very same love begin to be kindled in our own souls. Time is powerless if this light shines above us. Life is not vain, life is not chance, but is a gift from on high, from God, about Whom the same John the Theologian said that in Him was life, and this life was the light of man (John 1:4). And every man that comes into this world is once again set alight, is once again gifted this life, and the love of God is addressed to each one of them, and to each one of them is addressed God’s commandment: “Live!” Live, in order to love! Live, so that your life will be filled with
love, light, wisdom, and knowledge! Live, so that in your life darkness, meaninglessness, and eventually death itself will be overcome! For eternity already shines through this world and through this earthly life. This gift of life in the world and with the world is given us that eternal life with God and in God may become part of us.

Yes, suffering, doubt, trials, the bitterness of separation – all these have fully become part of our lot. How often we are weakened in this battle, and give up, and fall, and change! How often we are scared and lonely, how often we lose heart when we see how evil and hatred are triumphing in the world! But the One Who gave us this life and granted us freedom taught us to discern good and evil; He gave us the loftiest of all gifts: love. For He said, and continues to say: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). We, too, can overcome in this very world, and in it our lives can shine with that same light that once flashed forth and continues to shine – that light that the darkness has not overcome.

The clock strikes… Let this mysterious future come to us; for, whatever it might bring with it, we know and believe that God is with us, that Christ has not orphaned us, that He is faithful that promised (Hebrews 10:23). Here are the marvelous words of Vladimir Soloviev:

Death and time reign on earth,
Do not call them your masters;
Everything, whirling about, disappears in the haze
The only thing fixed is the sun of love.

Yes, this is our calling, our freedom as children of God: not to call “masters” those things whose dominions have been destroyed, and not to close ourselves from access to the Sun of love, faith, and hope.

The holiday will soon be over, and routine, labor, fatigue, and depression will begin. But let us not permit the daily routine to overpower ours souls! Just as sunlight penetrates through closed shutters, so too let the light of Christ, through this mysterious holiday, become present in our daily lives, rendering our entire lives an ascent, a communion with God – a difficult but joyful path to eternal life. For the Apostle John said: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

Happy New Year!
Translated from Russian

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It’s quite a few years back that I saw, in Reader’s Digest’s “Toward More Picturesque Speech,” something that ran along these lines:

“No sun, no flowers, no warmth, no leaves, no grass, no daylight — No-vember!”  Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

And yet…

Maybe it’s because I live on a Main Street, which means we get a lot of traffic through here.  And maybe it’s because of the biker bar down the street from where I live, so that all summer long we have motorbikes roaring through here at full throttle.  Maybe it’s the fact that a busy State road is less than a quarter mile away, just down the hill.  But I find that as I grow older, November has grown on me.

My favorite month used to be October, with its riot of colorful leaves; there’s something so exuberant about October.  Even on a rainy day, there’s a vibrancy about October — the leaves seem to glow even brighter when they’re wet.  By November, that’s pretty much history; most of the deciduous trees are bare, and those that are not, have leaves well past their prime, sad remnants clinging to the last dregs of dear life; sort of, “nursing-home leaves.”

But as I said, November has grown on me.  I like its quiet.  I like the way things seem to be settling down for a long nap.  The frenetic and eponymous Holidays are already trying to push their way into our consciousness, but they are comfortably far off enough that we can ignore the attempt for at least a couple more weeks.  November has its own rhythms, its own chores, its own demands:

Clean the garden tools, give the grass one last mow before it snows (something we actually didn’t have a chance to do this year, as a freak snowstorm blanketed all of New England), clip the hedge one last time.  Arrange to have the trees pruned.  Check the garden one last time for any stray root vegetables that we may have missed.  Rake the last of the leaves and pile them into the garden for mulch.

And oh, all right, start making out gift lists for Christmas.  Might as well.  That’s my chore, anyway — all that garden stuff belongs to the hubster, whose enviable green thumb is responsible for all the outdoor chores that get dumped on him.  Besides, he loves being out of doors.  I don’t.  Woman-like, I enjoy buying gifts for my family.  I enjoy it even more since the advent of online shopping; I’ve never been a crowd person.

And then there are the other delights of November.  “No light” means that we draw the curtains earlier, eat supper earlier, have more time to read, knit, or whatever.  Nothing else clamors for attention.  I can spend a good part of my day preparing the savory soups and stews that I love to make, that have no place in the summer; who wants to eat hot food in the summer?!  Summer’s bounty is stored or given away to our neighbors; now we all hunker down to enjoy the fruits of one another’s labors, as well as those of our own.

The Aran sweater I abandoned after May is calling me to finish it.  Pumpkin spice coffee is brewing.  National Novel Writing Month beckons.  (Not this year; I’m clean out of ideas at the moment, but there’s always next year.)  With it, too, November brings the memory of “Allerheiligen” and “Allerseligen,” All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated in the West on the first and second of November.  There’s just something about November that is consonant with remembering “those who have fallen asleep.”

Thank God for November.

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“Name one thing you wish you could go back and change about your education.”

Only one?

Considering how my life has unfolded, the biggest change I’d make is that I’d have gone to college right out of high school.  Back then — and I didn’t know this at the time — it didn’t matter what your degree was in, the main thing was that you had a college degree.  You could go anywhere with that magic piece of paper that had Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences on it.  Knowing that, I’d have chosen to go for Music; but back then, I thought you had to know what you wanted to do in life, and that college was supposed to be tied to what you did for the rest of your life.  And a career in music was the equivalent of a Bachelor’s in English nowadays:  I would have expected to spend my life singing, “You want fries with that?”

And yet, music is what I have spent my life doing, whether playing piano (badly — not enough lessons) or singing, or, for two exasperating and wonderful years, directing a choir.  If I had realized any of that, I would have let nothing stop me.  Particularly exasperating is that, having been brainwashed by the Cost of a College Education (even 50 years ago, it wasn’t cheap), I thought, what was the point in trying?  My family could never afford it.  It wasn’t until long after I was married that someone told me that the City University System of New York was absolutely free, if you went to the college of your own borough.  In my case, that would have been Queens College.

And, in light of that piece of information, I can’t help wishing that I had gone to a public, rather than a parochial, school.  We got a fantastic grounding in the English language — its mechanics, as well as putting together a coherent composition (not that you could judge by this post!) — but not in much else.  Again, I was an adult before I realized the importance of the Iroquois Nation in New York State history; what we learned, this being Catholic school, was, “The Iroquois were the bad guys because they sided with the English, who were Protestant, and the Hurons were the good guys because they sided with the French, who were Catholic.”  I hasten to add that the Hurons were up in Canada…  And this had what to do with New York State history???!  Our math and science education was also minimal, and the Arts were non-existent.

So yes, there is a very great deal I wish I could have changed about my education.  That said — it was still a better education than what my kids got, described by my daughter as “eleven years of brainwashing, followed by one year of real education.”  Both my kids took three years of Latin (and no foreign languages), and learned in three years what I learned in one.  (And I took three years of French, besides.)  Neither learned very much at all about European history.  In fact, I used to love it when my son would get suspended from school for fighting; we’d watch public television together and talk about what we’d seen.  One program focused on an island in the Netherlands where cars are banned altogether!

Foreign cultures, foreign ways:  Now that’s a real education (from the Latin “e”, “out of,” and “duc”, the root of the verb “to lead” — as in, “leading one out of one’s own experiences, and into a wider world).

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“Do you think you’ll ever try living in another country?” is one of the prompts suggested by the Post-a-Day project, and it’s one that speaks to my heart, particularly at this time of year.

I probably would not ever have thought in terms of “trying” to live in another country, but in fact — I did, a very long time ago.  Some people could argue that it wasn’t “legitimately” living in another country, since my husband was in the military and was stationed in Germany, but they would be wrong.  At that time, only career military personnel could live in base housing.  There were a limited number of flats “on the economy” that were contracted through the Armed Forces for junior officers (lieutenants and non-career captains who were married), and non-career enlisted personnel who were married were either separated for the man’s entire tour of duty, or they found housing on the economy for themselves.  We fell into this last category, since, for reasons I will never understand, my college-educated husband was enlisted.

Fortunately, he spoke German, so was able to find a place for us with no trouble.  I did not speak a word of German.  After three months of not understanding what was going on around me, I enrolled in an evening college course in German language and grammar.  It helped that my husband had also enrolled in an evening course, for his Master’s degree in psychology.

For the first year of our marriage, we did do many things on base, notably laundry and grocery shopping.  We never attended church on base; my husband just liked the German Mass better, and I came to appreciate the spare beauty of the hymns, and eventually, the theology expressed in them.  But half the time the base laundromat was out of order, and most of the time the “fresh” meat and produce at the commissary was plain awful, so bit by bit, I began transferring my business to a more local venue.  Grocery shopping was something we did together — my German was still very limited, at that point — but I could handle the laundry by myself:  I’d load my laundry basket onto the back of  my bicycle, secure it with bungee straps just like all the locals, and pedal off a mile or so into downtown where the laundromat was located.

I still remember when “the light bulb went on.”  I was sitting in the laundromat, listening to the ladies chit-chatting about whatever, and, bored out of my mind, I picked up a ladies’ magazine that was lying around and began to skim through it.  And suddenly it dawned on me:  I could read this.  I was actually understanding it!  Not all of it, of course, but enough that I began to buy this magazine for myself, and to skim through the articles, picking up more and more German on the way.  (It helped that there were great recipes.)

As my fluency increased, so did my social contacts; finally, during the last year we lived there, we were like any of the rest of the locals, commuting to and from work by bicycle, purchasing our groceries every day, spending our Saturdays at our favorite city haunts and our Sundays, after church, touring the countryside and indulging in Kaffeetrinken (afternoon coffee) before heading home.  One of our great pleasures was singing; not only were we members of the church choir, but we also joined a “Song Club” (Gesangverein), where I learned some of the most beautiful folk music I have ever heard.  How can you resist “the beautiful, shy hour of creation” as a description for the first hours of daybreak?  Or the fun of learning that although “the devil has many arts — he can’t sing”?

It took me twenty years to re-accustom myself to life in the USA.  And a corner of my heart will always consider Germany “home”:  It was where I came alive, came into my truest self.  It was where I learned to sing.

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Question: “What % of who and what you are is determined by genetics vs your own choices? Is it 50/50 or more or less of one? Or should there be three numbers: your genetics, how you were raised, and your own choices (33/33/33 or 10/40/50)?”

The old Nature-vs.-Nurture debate. For what it’s worth, I think that the second half of the question raises an interesting point, namely: Without Nature, and without Nurture, how could you make your own unique choices to begin with?

I definitely do not think that there’s an equal input into all factors, based entirely on my own experience. In the European panoply of cultures, there can hardly be two more disparate than Russian and Irish. For one thing, the countries themselves occupy the two extreme ends of Europe. For another, Irish culture is based to a large extent on the proximity of the sea, and the plethora of rocks in the soil, whereas Russian culture is very rooted in the rich earth that makes farming such an important part of its history.

So why, all my life, have I been drawn to the Russian side of my family? I can’t truthfully say that there has been no input from the Russian side; after my mother was widowed young, she married a Polish man the next year, and although Russian and Polish cultures do have their differences, there are enough similarities that I’ve always felt more comfortable around Eastern Europeans generally. This does not explain why the only attraction of Irish culture for me is the music.

Then there’s the question of your own choices. Here I do come down heavily on the side of Nurture. Both my husband and I are classical-music lovers — another of those inborn traits, since neither of our families cares much for it, and we both love it — so that’s pretty much the only music you will hear in our house. At one point in my life, I even worked at a classical-music radio station, and one day, one of the announcers and I were chatting about kids and music. “Even if your kids grow up to prefer rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, “they will only be able to choose good rock ‘n’ roll. The trashy stuff will have no appeal for them.” I was a little surprised at the notion that anybody could actually prefer rock ‘n’ roll, but I had, of course, forgotten the Rebellion factor; kids do tend to make at least some choices opposite their parents’ preferences, purely as a matter of asserting their own selves. And sure enough, both of mine prefer rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s the stuff even I can listen to without cringing.

However, I also think that Nurture helps to shape your own inborn tendencies. I’m thinking specifically of my own lifelong conservatism. Where we grew up, every house in the neighborhood flew the American flag every day of the Vietnam War, and picked up the practice again during the Gulf War (and, presumably, during these current Iraq and Afghanistan Wars — I haven’t been home in too many years, since nobody’s left from the old neighborhood). Yet, the Vietnam era was one of extreme turbulence and rebellion. So why didn’t I break away? Why did so few of us from the neighborhood break away?

I don’t think it was because we would have been shunned by every house on the block. If enough of us had done so, we could have formed our own subculture very easily; after all, in those years, and in that town, kids outnumbered adults on an average of 4:1. Yet nearly all of us either served in the military, or had a family member who was serving, or we loved someone who was serving. Those were our choices, insofar as we actively chose them; certainly the neighborhood culture had a lot to do with our patriotism.

But I’ve noticed something interesting over the years: We all stayed pretty conservative. Most of us were first-generation Republicans, and that had a lot to do with the 1968 Democratic convention, which repudiated the Vietnam War, something that Just Wasn’t Done in our hometown. Democrat or Republican, we all went to church on Sundays in our town, and nearly all of us continue that practice in our old age, even if we let it slip during our fruitful years. I firmly believe that the choices we supposedly made all on our own were implanted in us at birth — patriotism, community, put-up-or-shut-up — and nurtured all throughout our school years and into young adulthood. I’m not sure we could have chosen any differently, no matter how hard we tried.

So, my own ratio? 50% Nature. 45% Nurture. And 5% my own choices. And from what I can see, that’s pretty much how it falls out for everyone else I know.

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Topic Prompt: Do you think Shakespeare existed? Or are there just to many plays and sonnets credited to him to be the work of one person? The new film Anonymous questions his prolificity and his existence. If you think these claims against history are a waste of time, why do you think they are periodically raised by so many people?

You’re kidding, right?! I’m not gonna touch this one. For one thing, I have good friends whom I like on the other side of the pond, and I plan to keep them as friends. But for another — I mean, really, what’s this push to claim that the author of so much exquisite poetry never existed?! That some of the most enduring tales and poems ever penned, literature in the best sense that is still read, studied and loved 400 years later, was written — what? Anonymously? Don’t be ridiculous. Who’d shut up about knowing the author of “The quality of mercy is not strain’d”?!

As to why arguments “against history…are periodically raised by so many people,” look, there have always been iconoclasts. Some people lead such puny lives that they can’t stand the thought of true greatness, so they have to waste their time, and everyone else’s patience, making pointless and unproveable statements about the earth being flat, or questioning whether “unproveable” is spelled with or without an “e”. Or the works of Shakespeare were written by a committee.

People — get a life. I, in the meantime, have a life, in the form of a genuine snowstorm to deal with. Yes, in October. Not knowing when the power is going out, I also have a cake in the oven for breakfast tomorrow; we already know that church is out of the question, since the roads will not be treated in time to get us there. So, if we can’t get to church, we shall read our prayers at home, with or without electricity. And eat cake. And then read Shakespeare — by candlelight, if necessary — and feel sorry for all those pathetic nitwits who have to read something written by whomever they think Shakespeare was written by. As should be obvious from the quality of this post — it wasn’t me.

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Comments left on one of my earlier posts have led me to a point I’ve been trying to get to for a few months now:  “Describe the town where you grew up.”

Makes me think a little of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which was about a small New Hampshire town — ironic, when you consider that Wilder was from the South, and even more ironic when you consider that although I now live in a small New Hampshire town, the town I actually grew up in is in the Borough of Queens, in New York City.  Yes, New York does have small towns.  In fact, it’s really just a collection of small towns cobbled together into one large entity, and I never did find out how that came to be.

When I was growing up, it was just making the transition from a farming community to a City suburb.  In fact, there were still dairy farms in the next town over, and a large part of my childhood memories focus on the clank of milk bottles being delivered to our doorstep at around 4:30 in the morning (I’ve been a Morning Person from, oh, the day I was born — at 6:30 a.m.).

In our town, you not only knew where you belonged, you knew where you didn’t belong, and heaven help you if you were caught in a part of town where you didn’t belong.  Not that you’d get beaten up or anything, but thanks to the village grapevine, your mother would find out.  “What were you doing over on 79th Avenue?!” my mother would demand suspiciously, and of course, I’d wonder how on earth she’d found out.  In fact, I still don’t know.  We didn’t know anybody in that part of town who would have called her.  It wasn’t a bad part of town, not at all, but it Wasn’t Catholic.

The part of town where I belonged was very strictly defined.  I could walk the half-mile to school.  I could walk the half mile between home and the public library.  I could go around the corner to my aunt’s house.  I could walk over to the next street where my cousin lived, and I could walk a couple blocks past that to where my grandmother lived, along with her two sons and their wives (who were cousins of my mother’s).  That was it.  On no account was I to walk up The Avenue past the library, or near the cemeteries that defined the western and eastern boundary of town, and actually, I first ventured past the library when I was a teenager and wanted to purchase records at Bill’s Radio Shop.  My mother would purse her lips when I told her I was going to Bill’s.  Only when I was in my 40s did I learn that Bill, along with half of Metropolitan Avenue, was a frothing Communist.

Apparently there was a lot of Communist activity in our town in the 1930s.  My dad had a part-time job working at a hardware store at that time, and once casually mentioned that he covered the store on Wednesday evenings when the owner held his Communist-cell meetings in the back room!  If had known, when I was a kid, I think I would have called the FBI myself!  There was Bill’s, there were a number of haberdashers on the main drag, there was the movie, the toy store, a couple of drug stores — all, apparently, owned by Communists or Communist sympathizers, which was not a good thing to be in the 1950s, and heaven alone knows how those stores avoided being closed down:  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg weren’t neighbors, but they certainly could have been.

I always felt safe in our part of town, at least till after I was grown and New York became such a hotbed of crime.  There was always crime in other parts of the City, but it never seemed to touch our area, which was completely blue- and pink-collar.   The cops used to hate being posted to our town; they called it “the Little Old Lady Precinct.”  But that was probably because, as I look back, the whole neighborhood was inhabited by cops.  There were two on my block alone, four or five around the corner, my uncle who lived one block over, one of the uncles who lived with my grandmother, and there was another cop on his block.  Then there were the neighborhood kids who grew up to become cops.  In later years, the Mafia would take credit for keeping the neighborhood safe, but long before there was the Mafia, there were cops.

And in those days, there wasn’t any of this nonsense about “bribing” cops.  You took care of each other.  The cops didn’t patrol in cars, they walked beats, and if you invited the neighborhood cop in for a cup of coffee on a cold winter’s day, he didn’t take that to mean that you were looking for extra protection, and that wasn’t why you were offering him a cup of coffee.  It was cold, and the poor soul was half frozen, that’s all.  The whole dynamic of New York City changed when people began accusing cops of being “on the take”; it wasn’t neighborly anymore.

Was there discrimination?  There must have been.  In a town that was half Jewish and half German, where the Jews employed Gentile teenagers to work for them on the Sabbath and the Germans employed Polish farm workers, during the immediate post-war era — not to mention our little half-square-block of neither-here-nor-there Italian and Irish families — how could there not have been discrimination?  But we knew how to practice civility towards one another, and we knew that Jews didn’t speak to Christians and vice versa.  (And Catholics didn’t socialize with Protestants, and vice versa.)  The rules were never, ever spoken, but they were widely known and accepted.

As the Jews died off and the Germans moved out, the Italians moved in, and the neighborhood changed again.  One of my most vivid memories is of visiting my old neighborhood with my two children — actually, we were visiting my aunt, who still lived around the corner from where I grew up — and I wanted to take them on a trip down Memory Lane.  It was summer, and as we rounded the corner, we came upon a scene familiar to me from my childhood, all the housewives sitting out on the steps of their houses, chatting with one another.  As we walked down the street, all conversation stopped dead.  All the women stared at us, and the silence, and the stares, continued as we walked down the block and out of sight.  We had become the strangers.  Home wasn’t home anymore.  It was a powerful lesson in neighborhood dynamics, and I finally understood an event that had taken place not too many years earlier, when a black man was badly beaten in an Italian neighborhood (Bensonhurst).  Everyone assumed the beating took place because he was black.  But that day, I learned that it was because he didn’t Belong.

Now the neighborhood has changed again.  My aunt tells me that Romanians have moved into the neighborhood.  In a way, I wish I lived there again; I’ve had good experiences with Romanians locally, and being an Orthodox Christian, if I lived back home, I’d be attending the Romanian church, since it’s the only Orthodox church in town — down the street from where my grandmother lived, in fact, in a former synagogue.  (Frequent seismic activity in the area suggests a lot of Jews rolling over in their graves at the very thought.)  But in truth, I probably never will see Home again.  And if I did, it wouldn’t be Home; it has changed too much.  And so have I.

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“What’s one piece of technology you can’t live without?  (Bonus topic:  What technology do you wish would disappear from the world?)”

I think I decided to respond to this one more for the bonus topic than for the original one.

There are forms of technology I actually do like.  Anything that reproduces music, for instance; so much would be lost without the ability to record.  I have a set of Rachmaninoff playing his own piano concerti, and believe me, nobody plays it like the original.  He just books through the music, and in some places, it sounds like the orchestra is a fraction of a beat off because they can’t keep up with him.  How else would you know that if not for recordings?

And of course, my computer.  But then, I began my professional life as a secretary, anyway, and it’s still what I enjoy best, so having the ability to edit documents at the touch of a Delete button is still a delight for me (yes, I learned on a manual — with carbon paper that produced copies — and that little metal plate that you stuck behind each sheet of paper whenever you made a typo and had to erase it).  In addition to which, I’ve met so many wonderful people I would never otherwise have known — they come not just from around the country, but around the world, too.

But what do I wish had never, ever been invented?  The telephone.  Words do not exist to describe my attitude towards the telephone.  I’ll wait forever before I book an appointment by phone — I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to make the appointment in person.  I never call for information if I can help it.  I don’t know what it is about telephones that I can’t stand; maybe the fact that I don’t get a chance to compose my thoughts before I have to respond?

So you can imagine how I feel about cell phones.  I actually do have one, and it’s proved useful, now and again.  But people ambling down the street attached to this virtual umbilical cord just look silly.  That woman who fell into the fountain at the Pennsylvania mall?  She got what was coming to her.  Driving while talking?  Some day I’m going to get out of my car, grab the thing out of Donna Dimwit’s hand, and throw it into the woods.  Don’t you people ever take time out?!  The worst I ever saw was the guy in the restaurant with his teenage son, talking on the telephone while pretending to have lunch with his kid.  That’s just wrong.  That kid will be gone before you know it, and trust me, he won’t want to talk to you after he’s gone.

Put the damn phone down.  Turn it off, or unplug it.  (Yes, that is possible.)  Go outside and listen to the birds, or hunker down and listen to the sound of the rain/sleet/howling wind while you immerse yourself in a good book.  Life’s too short to spend it yakking about nothing.

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“If you could live forever, would you? Why or why not?”

Which immediately reminded me of the theme song to Fame!, hence the title of this post.

I can’t picture not wanting to live forever.  I mean, there’s so much left to do in life!  So much left to learn!  So much music I haven’t yet heard, so many books I still want to read, so many people I’ve yet to meet.

Still, I suppose it helps to define “living.”  As many of my readers know, my father-in-law died last week (a week ago today, in fact), and the life he has been living for, really, the past fifteen years has been mere existing.  He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t drive, missed his wife; he kept telling my husband how much he wanted to go to a bar and have a drink and see a movie, which doesn’t sound all that unreasonable until you consider that he was 98 years old when he died, and the bars and movies he had in mind have long passed into history.  I think a modern sports bar would have driven him into a complete breakdown, he’d have been so confused.  And how can you compare a John Wayne flick with Social Network?!  That’s not living at all, and I don’t know anyone who wants to live that way, period, let alone forever.

Of course, if you’re a Christian the matter is settled.  One way or another, heaven or hell, you do live forever.  Every once in so often I think of that Bily Joel song, Only the Good Die Young:  Apart from being a complete trash on Catholics and Catholic practices, it has one line that horrifies me every time I hear it:  “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, sinners have more fun.”  Yeesh.  This is obviously not a person who ever met an Orthodox monk, if he thinks saints don’t have fun.

Me, I do plan to live forever.  I live my life in the constant hope of attaining heaven — not the heaven of harps and halos, nor of streets of gold, but of something infinitely more interesting:   All the music I’ve yet to hear, all the people I’ve yet to meet, all the unanswerable questions answered — into infinity.

And the Presence of God.

By comparison, Fame is dust.

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