Little did I know almost 30 years ago that my "money job" would render one of the most important experiences of love and altruism in my life. Little did I know that it would birth not only a one-act play that got published but was never read in performance until this year, and that that experience would birth journalism in the form of this essay: "To the Hero on the J Train that Crashed on the Williamsburg Bridge 28 Years Ago.
Notes from a Crusty Seeker
In an editorial meeting at a spiritual magazine I used to work for, owned by a church, a senior editor proposed we do a feature on all the special knowledge about money known by Jews—have a Jewish writer do it. I gasped. So did another female Jewish editor. She was kinder than I was in her explanation of why this was not a good idea. I wanted to kill the guy. He was dumbfounded by "our" problem with his idea, but finally he gave it up.
Antisemitism is in the fabric of world history. It lurks in places you'd never expect it. The stereotypes, the belief that all of "one people" are one way—although the people who think this would laugh if you put them in such a category: all white people, all Christians, all women/men/children, etc.
People's stereotypes and extreme ignorance of this history of antisemitism, and therefore the experiences of Jews—religious Jews and people like me with no religious or cultural upbringing, but whose faces tell their heritage—remains astounding to me. When you assume that people are monsters for wanting to defend themselves, when you blame people whose children were butchered in front of them, whose families were abducted, you are being unknowingly directed by antisemitism.
I keep thinking about my first novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove. When I wrote it in the 1980s, I had no idea it would age and therefore morph as I have. First, it was a novel about war, then trauma, then seeing all the beautiful colors in the world, and in this particular moment, about the experience of being a person bombarded by other people's misconceptions of them.
My mother would be 102 today. I just read a letter she wrote to her brother in 1942 where she waxes poetic about a man she wanted to marry (not my father). "Don't let his last name fool you—" she writes, "he's one of us." Code that Jews know well, whether you grew up in the religion or not.
[This article first appeared in www.Rewireme.com in 2016.]
It's a scientific fact: experiences change markers on the DNA of traumatized people, and these markers can be passed to future generations—making them more likely to deal badly with stress. However, the good news is that since we know that this adaptive evolutionary process happens, we can consciously choose to use it in the opposite direction—creating a legacy of positive conscious change.
I am sitting in the cluttered office of Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., the very vibrant and very busy Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Director of Mental Health at the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Bronx, NY. I am here because of the results of two of her studies on the transgenerational effects of trauma on the DNA of the offspring of Holocaust survivors and mothers who were pregnant and traumatized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But I quickly learn that these studies are but stepping stones in a research journey that has been going on for decades. And it is the accumulation of stepping stones that has led Yehuda and her team to know how to interpret the epigenetics ("the study of the molecular mechanisms by which environment controls gene activity") of the Holocaust and 9/11 trauma legacy studies.
"We've been saying versions of [the study results] for a really long time," Yehuda says. But the irrefutable finding of a chemical mark on a gene that is passed from parent to child has given validation to something many people sense.
"There's no particular reason to believe that the findings would be limited to the populations that we've studied," explains Yehuda. "It's hard to imagine that if there were such a thing as transmitted effects of trauma or reactions of the offspring to parental trauma that this would only occur for some traumas and not others. So we've got to imagine that this is going to somehow be a universal phenomenon." However she emphasizes the need for more scientific studies in different groups of people.
"I think that people are resonating with [the findings]," she continues, "because they see it for what it probably is which is something more universal that explains a lot of things that have really not had the proper words by way of explanation. People do feel that somehow the experiences from their parents and generations past are meaningful in some way. Epigenetics gives us a language, a vocabulary to begin to talk about these kinds of phenomena.
"I think that people who feel traumatized know that something isn't what it should be, but sometimes they have difficulty connecting how they're feeling to an event. Or perhaps they feel that they're exaggerating or have an exaggerated response to an event. And what concepts like this—concepts of sensitization or things like that—have going for them is that they help us understand why our response to the environment isn't just a response to what's happening to us but may be more of a collective response to how we're looking at things based on events that might have occurred in prior generations. So maybe it's like an overwriting on the genes in some way."
So how can we use this information? Read More
I'm so pleased to have a new essay on Next Avenue. "Finding My Mother's 'Talk' in Her Handwriting."
Editor Julie Pfitzinger did a stunning job with the layout.
People say too many words. The talking heads on the news shows I'm addicted to, turning each event into "breaking bombshells!" Everybody on social media. Me.
That's the worst. The spasms to myself about what I did wrong, whatever is my frustration du jour, my judgments about what everybody else is doing — like talking too much. Too much talking is why I write. To get it succinct.
Read more at the linked title.
I've always preferred walking to taking transportation, so when I moved to NYC to be an actor in 1972, I walked to all my temp jobs. One day, I had to go to my temp agency first, and they were appalled by my black & white high-top sneakers. "You're NOT going to wear those, are you?" gasped my supervisor. No, I assured him. I just walk to jobs in them, and I showed him my office shoes.
About a year later, when there was a mass transit strike, everybody started wearing sneakers to walk to work. And they never stopped.
My point is: shut-downs birth new things. During the pandemic, we discovered Zoom for theatrical presentations. Dance companies invented new ways of presenting fabulous performances. As did musicians.
My big take-away from the SAG-AFTRA/WGA strike is that we must hold strong and SHUT IT DOWN—TV, movies—until artists get a fair deal. In the meantime, invent, invent. There are fantastic podcasts (Smartless), there still is theater, standup, and humans will create things we haven't thought about yet.
And if we don't hold strong, big companies will appropriate them and own them, and, once again, the artists who birth them will be relegated to being underpaid employees.
I have never felt more strongly that creators must own their own work. Let's find a way.
I love editor Chuck Reece's title and dek (line that follows a title) for my essay on Salvation South. I hope you enjoy it.
Take Off Your Shoes and Be Quiet
A meditation retreat shouldn't make you angry, right? But if it does, maybe you should simply wait, just a little longer.
Read it here: Salvation South
And check out some of the other articles on the site. In my opinion, at the hands of editor Chuck Reece, Salvation South is a New Yorker-calibre publication.
If it weren't an oxymoron, I might quip, "Loners of the world unite." And then I'd laugh, because I'm a happy loner with a sense of humor.
I like people. It's just that I don't need them around me most of the time. I have fun at gatherings. But one a week . . . or month . . . is sufficient. Conversations are inspiring, but silence feels like home.
Years ago I took the Myers-Briggs personality test and learned that my diagnosis is INFJ, which stands for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging—a rare type (estimated to be 1 to 3 percent of U.S. population) because our characteristics are apparently incompatible with each other. I find no incompatibility between my enjoyment of people and my preference to be alone; my ability to read just about anything emotionally and intuitively and my inimitable practicality, skepticism, and love of evidence-based conclusions.
In her wonderful memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama says that if you don't see your personal story in the cultural narrative, tell it.
As I said, I love practicality and that was a practical suggestion. So I did it.
I'm thrilled that my new essay "Walking Alone—Dangerous or Heroic?" is in the spring issue of Prairie Fire magazine, distributed only in Canada, but you can buy the issue online:
And here's a little video preview:
The Truth about Edna Robinson and The Trouble with the Truth—on the 33rd Anniversary of Her Leaving Her Body
It was February 2013. I'd been freelance book editing since losing my magazine job—on a day christened "Bloody Wednesday" in NY publishing—just before Christmas in 2008. Freelancing is a feast or famine deal, and I'd had close to a month of famine when a voice in my head whispered, "It's time. Pull Mom's manuscript out of the closet."
In 1957, when I was six, my mother, Edna Robinson, had written a short story called "The Trouble with the Truth." After it was published in the 1959 edition of the New World Writing book series, selected as one of the "most exciting and original" stories of its time by editors who had previously introduced the work of Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac, Edna's intensity became impenetrable. I remember watching her burrowed in her study typing. Why was she so mad, I wondered.
She wasn't mad. As a writer, I now understand the intensity. She was working her story into a novel of the same title. And when that novel was optioned by Harper & Row . . . and then dropped simply because it was about a single father with two peculiar children in the 1920s and '30s and To Kill a Mockingbird had occupied that territory, I believe something in my mother died.
When I first read The Trouble with the Truth in the 1970s, I loved it. The writing was gorgeous but I thought it needed some work. I wanted to talk about it, but Edna wouldn't discuss it. However, now it was 2013, Edna was dead, she'd left her manuscripts to me, and I was an unemployed book editor.
I pulled the crushed brown box out of the bowels of my closet and I'd barely begun to read the still-gorgeous prose on the old typewritten pages, when I realized this was a complete waste of energy. I was going to work on it, so why not read as I typed? And as soon as I began to do that, I realized there was a more efficient way: read as I edited and typed. And as soon as I began to see the timeline and fact glitches and all the undeveloped emotional underpinnings of the story, I decided to read as I doctored, typed, and yelled at Edna.
And I swear I heard her laughing. This was our dynamic when we were screenwriting partners: I'd yell, she'd laugh, I'd fix the mess, she'd write gorgeous lyrical circles around my straight-forward prose stage directions, and I'd say, "Thank you." Read More
From out of nowhere" a sound happens. "Someone sings a pitch" and "once someone starts, everyone wants to be a part of it." The sound of the national anthem resonates and "It's completely organic."
"We are not a nation of soloists, but a chorus of shared values that when joined together resonate like nothing the world has ever heard," says Steve Hartman in his conclusion to this feel-good story about students who "spontaneously" erupt in an elegiac rendition of the national anthem . . . and become part of a tradition of young people who do this every year in this Kentucky hotel.
I would agree, with a caveat: somebody starts the hum. One person decides to be first, and then others join.
I just finished reading an astounding, devastating, inspiring story of the first Jew to escape Auschwitz—a teenager who was driven to action in order to spread the truth of the industrial murder of babies, old people, men, women and children who had the misfortune by their ethnic heritage to be deemed less than human and a scourge to Aryan society.
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (Harper Collins, October 2022) by Jonathan Freeland reads like a page-turning novel, at times so brutal that you feel it viscerally. Its subject, Walter Rosenberg, was sixteen years old when he was captured and deported, and his unlikely survival in Auschwitz was due to two qualities: his conviction that if people knew that the Nazis' lies about this being a mere resettlement of people were a public relations act to conceal mass murder, torture, and cruelty as a sport, they would do something; and his paranoid personality that kept him skeptical and therefore safe from rookie mistakes.
Rosenberg and another inmate, Fred Wetzler, do the impossible by careful observation and calculation: where others see only that the Nazis are an efficient machine guarding the prison on two concentric fronts, Rosenberg and Wetzler, students of observation, realize that it is the Nazis' predictable actions that produce a loophole for escape. (Read the book to learn what this is.) Rosenberg learns from others in the camp the basics of what not to do. (Again, read the book.) He is meticulous and patient, but also desperate because he is privy to the Nazi plan to shortly deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Rosenberg and Wetzler want to get the news to them so they will rise up en masse and refuse to board the deportation trains. Read More
Happy New Year!
Thirty-one years ago, with the help of editor/filmmaker Steve Clarendon, my dog, Daisy, and my actor friend Shelley Wyant, I made this little film short that I had written to the score of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Long before digital technology, adding music from an LP became too cumbersome to attempt, so the VHS of the rough cut languished in a dusty bag on my top book shelf.
Recently, I had the video digitized and finally finished it with the help of Vivaldi, royalty free courtesy of John Harrison with the Wichita State University Chamber Players.
(Please excuse the frame counter; there is no way to eliminate it easily and cheaply.)
I hope you enjoy this love letter to New York City, seasons in Central Park, human and canine oddities, and angels in dog suits everywhere.
I sought this novel out after reading Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s perfect goose-bump of a short story "Address Unknown." That story, originally published in 1938, received much-deserved notoriety in its time and was later republished as a stand-alone paperback with an afterword by the author's son giving the back story of this riveting epistolary exchange between two Germans, one a Jew and one a budding Nazi, at a pivotal time in history. It is an international best-seller.
I'm guessing Kressman Taylor's son, Charles Douglas Taylor (who contributed back-of-book comprehensive and illuminating histories about and by the real man* on whom Day of No Return was based), was motivated by the short story's success to self-publish (through Xlibris) this 2016 American edition of this out-of-print novel that has only four reviews on Goodreads. I would like to remedy its unmerited obscurity.
Day of No Return, first published in 1942, is equally necessary and horrifying. And it should be read by Americans who love democracy and are frazzled by our current history. If you enjoy reading history, this novel may be for you. I'll explain:
I was not brought up with a religion and one of the good parts of that is that I have no sense of any religion being superior and am comfortable with a live and let live attitude. But this background has also made me obtuse to the dynamism of religious fervor and power and how it can be used to take over and demolish democracy. For all its flaws, our Constitution and the founders were absolutely brilliant in their proclamation of a republic with a separation of church and state—a separation which insidious forces are eroding as I type.
The similarities of the trajectory of Germany into a Nazi regime and what's going on now in the USA are unmistakable. But without the knowledge of the historical precedent, we Americans are missing the chance to do a course correction. Read More
Yesterday my book club discussed Jason Mott's National Book Award-winning hilarious, heart-breaking novel Hell of a Book, a story of an unnamed Black man's life in a world where he is never seen as who he knows himself to be. What was most meaningful for me was that by the end of our discussion, this white not-particularly-contemplative group of older women settled into a profoundly personal conversation about self-acceptance.
All fiction, when done well, forces you to walk in another person's shoes … or into deeper levels of the shoes you are already wearing. And because of this, fiction can take the reader on an emotional journey to healing or coping with pain that may seem intractable.
What the following ten stories have in common is accepting realities that are personal as well as historical. Racism, genocide, spousal abuse, and more. How do you accept these things? These books leave little alternative. And by dealing with what's true, there is a form of healing, or at least a path to coping. The human journey is just that—no matter what your race, gender, or status—accepting truth on all levels.
But what is truth in these days of divided definitions?
When I say "truth," I am referring to what Ernest Hemingway meant when he advised writers to ". . . write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." To me this means truth that comes from one's core. One's Essence—however you define that. It isn't about politics or disinformation vs. fact.
When a writer's Essence births a true story, it is told through true characters, and no matter how fantastical or removed from your life they may be, almost everybody can identify in some way and have a personal experience. That personal experience can sometimes be love or a refusal to love, which can manifest as an emotional aversion. If we hate, rather than blame the story, we can follow the aversion down to its root and perhaps learn something about ourselves—learn what we are refusing to accept. And if we can love the truth about ourselves, loving all the other stuff gets easier. Read More
It's 8:12 a.m. As I type, my body clock is confused but slowly readjusting to not lurching out of bed at 5:30 a.m. with my almost-16-year-old dog who would need to pee because she was getting daily IV saline drips for old-age kidney disease, to not timing everything from 5:30 a.m. on to her meds and pee and sun-downing blind frenzy that began each day around 5:00 p.m., to not really sleeping for the 15 months of her hospice care.
I do not regret one second of this exhausting schedule. It was an honor and what I wanted to do. The pandemic actually made my life easier—more acceptable. It was just Maya and me for the last year+ and I cherished every minute of it.
But Monday night, she let it be known she was done, and Tuesday morning Wendy McCulloch, DVM (Pet Requiem, LLC) came to the apartment, listened to my explanation about Maya's condition, and was an invisible angel, barely rousing Maya, who had uncharacteristically chosen to go back to bed after our early-morning ablutions, and sent my girl on her way. It was as peaceful and smooth a transition as I could imagine.
I'm being similarly gentle with my own transition to a solo life but I found myself twice yesterday declaring to people that I want the same treatment that I and Dr. McCulloch gave to Maya. And suddenly it seems very necessary to declare it in a public forum.
I am about to turn 71 years old and am in great shape due to daily exercise, a vegan diet, and my four flights of stairs; I can carry 30 pounds of groceries up them without panting. I am vaccinated and boosted because to me that seems like a no brainer, but since a debacle in 2012 that I will explain in a minute, I stopped going to doctors and have opted out of the regular preventive checkups relentlessly pushed by my ever-phoning health carrier, and since I think my medical care is my own business, I have refused to get into a conversation to explain myself to them.
I will now explain myself: Read More
WHAT I READ MATTERS
I mean this title sentence every which way you can read it.
I'm guessing most people will receive it with a glib, "Of course, what you read matters; it influences what you believe."
But I mean this sentence much more expansively: What I read, the physical form of it, really matters. As does reading it (as opposed to listening to somebody else read a text). I care who may have owned or touched the book before me, and any history I may know attached to the book affects my reading experience.
I spent this week reading a 75-cent, paperback of The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 novel about a 14-year-old relentlessly smart-alecky (and sometimes very funny) boy's picaresque adventures during 1849, following his pipe-dreaming gambling doctor father across the country to find gold in California.
If I were reading Jaimie McPheeters as an ebook, I might have abandoned it at the first mention of "darkies" because I just don't have the stomach for this in 2021. If I were reading a shiny new edition paperback, same thing. Yes, the writing is good, I might have reasoned, but why subject myself to casual racism and so many words? The book is of a bygone era and style.
But I'm reading the cracked brown pages turned and read by my father on his suburban commute to and from his job in New York City in 1960. I know this because I found his train ticket stub, used as a book mark, on the last page, and I know he loved this book because he once told me he did. Probably that's why I grabbed it from my mother's last house several years after my father's own pipe dreams and addictions imploded and he stuck a gun in his mouth. And it's why the book has stayed on the top shelf in my apartment since 1973.
I'd been eying it for months while I did my aerobic workouts. The spine drew me. I even got up on a ladder a few months ago to see what it was and when I saw, I remembered Dad's smile and joy when he said it was a really good book. I'll read that, I thought.
And it took until this week, months after the first beckoning, for me to pull it down and wipe off the dust bunnies.
When I lie on my couch and read this book, I know I'm touching something my father thought was good. I know that when he read this he was the sane, loving man who loved to read and loved the fact that I loved reading too, even though we had almost nothing else in common. Read More
A Rotten Foundation Unmasked
I wish everyone would read this short (43 pages), free, absolutely remarkable book (some memoir, a ton of facts, shocking and readable) by Pamela Wible, M.D.
If you want to know why our medical system . . . and the whole culture . . . is so screwed up, read this. It’s written for doctors and med students about their training, but you can effortlessly extrapolate to the problem that becomes a cancer when people ignore their inner moral compass because of peer pressure or for some outer gain.
There are some people who don’t know or care what’s right or wrong but that is not the majority of us. However when people en masse ignore what they know, we’ve got the mess we are in. The website for downloading the free pdf is here: IdealMedicalCare.org
The Precursor to Hilarity
To set up the bit that follows this one, I thought I'd mention this just-published NPR story about insane but normal medical charges. This REALLY happens.
And finally . . .
The more upset I am, the funnier I write. This just-published piece of satirical hilarity was borne of what I came to realize was a completely unnecessary breast biopsy on the day of Superstorm Sandy, on the eve of Obama's second election in 2012. On that day I experienced enormous relief that the test result was benign. But then the bills started coming: from doctors who had never identified themselves as out-of-network, and charges I never could have anticipated for a 15-minute needle stick—charges that were actually inflated due to the fact that my catastrophic medical coverage which did not cover them had higher "allowable fees" than the hospital would have charged if I'd had no insurance.
I'm happy to have finally found a home for this piece in a new online journal called Abandon. Read the whole thing at : Abandon Journal
There is a lot of rot in our human systems when we destroy one another and the planet. If I dwell on it too much, I become a floppy, exhausted lump of flesh who can't get off my couch. But when I manage to sit upright, I can remember that the solution to most every problem is first to see it, so we can then do something about it.