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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Valentine's Day Weekend Prose Poem

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Love Sickness Healed

It started last weekend when I read Gary Shteyngart's reminiscence on
Falling in love with Becky (Scroll down) while reading *Tom Sawyer* at nine.
Flashed back and realized that I felt similarly moved...or maybe I fell in love with
Romantic love then. It was the literary version of the awakening I felt at 10 -- and
I've mentioned this here before -- when(ever) I heard Minnie Riperton sing, "Lovin' You".

Earlier this week, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard's "Come Together" in "The New Yorker" and
Identified with both the boy and the girl, but especially the boy, who was smitten with
The girl, but didn't know how to handle it gracefully. I identified with the girl because
I had been in hapless kissing situations with boys during bar mitzvah parties when we were
In middle school, where I felt I was supposed to count on the boy to know what he was doing.

Yesterday, a boy from my Modern Orthodox Jewish day school sent me email -- a boy with an
Identical twin brother, and whom I hadn't seen since I was 17, during my dad's funeral and
We didn't speak then, just mourned; we hadn't talked since we were 13, when we graduated and went off to different high schools. I called him and we had a warm conversation. I hung up,
Trying to remember which twin was the one who might have had a crush on me back then.
I felt sad. Wistful.

Why couldn't I have been heterosexual and have ended up with him, or my Israeli, male,
Childhood friend, or my high school/early-college boyfriend, or the new Lehigh alumnus I met
In New Rochelle at the Young Jewish Singles Dance the summer before my Junior year of college,
Or any of the men I met during my year in Jerusalem at 20? Why did I fall for Tom Sawyer's
Girlfriend? Why did "Lovin' You" feel like it was being sung to me? Why did I want to kiss my
Female day-school classmates more than my male ones?

Why couldn't I have been someone else? Isn't that what I'm asking? How ungrateful, if
Reasonably human-nature-ish. Suddenly, I feel the urge to find out which classic rock band
I am via a Buzzfeed quiz. (The Eagles.) And then I hear my beloved wife, laughing heartily
Downstairs. I'm drawn to learn more.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Here Comes the Rain Again"

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Wishing My Memories Could Rest in Peace

November 3, 1982: My first cousin Yanai and I are sitting on the back porch of the home where I grew up and where my mom still lives. He's distracting me from the events of the day by talking about a favorite book of his, *The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy* and about his interest in Space, as in "the final frontier".

What do people talk about at a shivah call with a 17-year-old whose father's the reason for the shivah? What do they talk about if they are among Georgetown's undergrads and on the proudly nerdy end of the late-adolescent spectrum?

There's a famous -- famous, among our family -- photo of Yanai and me in a bathtub with Mr. Bubble when we were two and four years old. And that was practically the last time I saw Yanai, till the shivah call in memory of my dad (z"l) 15 years later.

We didn't grow up together like first cousins sometimes do. And I didn't get to know his younger sister Sarit (Sari) till she was 22 and I was 27, when she called me one summer out of the blue: I was living in Chicago and her college boyfriend had moved there to attend U. of C. for grad school, so why not meet for dinner, the three of us?

It turned out to be a fun, sweet evening and I felt wistful that we hadn't spent more time together growing up. And then we did stay in touch and she met Pat, and we were invited to her wedding, and Facebook has served as a continual bridge to many of my cousins, including Yanai, Gail, Sari and her husband Barry.

Regret that I Didn't Get to Know Gail, or My Dad, Better

October 26, 2013: Nearly 31 years since that shivah call, it's my turn to pay a shivah call to Yanai; Yanai's dear wife Gail is gone due to cancer, as of yesterday.

My dad was 56 and Gail was 49. I was 17 and her kids are probably 14 and 16. Happily, we were at the kids' Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah, where we loved seeing Gail dancing and looking vigorous. Unfortunately, I didn't get to know Gail other than at such simchot or at funerals. I'm melancholy, seeing her Facebook wall now, and that she loved some of the same cultural things that I loved, including the book *A Separate Peace*, the movie *Airplane*, and the musician Melissa Etheridge.

We never learned what we had in common, really, other than the Siegel family. We never had a conversation other than about family, or about a bit of her high-tech work -- and she sounded talented at it -- but I'd rather have found out why she loved *A Separate Peace*.

What would my dad have put on his Facebook wall if Facebook had been around in 1982? Perhaps that he loved P.G. Wodehouse (particularly as a kid, my mom told me), George Booth, the "New Yorker" cartoonist, Georg Jensen, the Danish designer, and Letraset.

I don't even recall the music he liked, other than chamber music and Jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, and that he tolerated a couple of pop songs, "Moonlight Feels Right" because it mentioned Chesapeake Bay and my dad grew up in D.C., and "Sir Duke" by Stevie Wonder, which I adored; it was the only 45 he ever bought me.

On his Facebook wall, my dad might have Liked Max Schulman's books and "Popular Mechanics". And maybe the movie "Diner", which amused him; it was the last film my mom and I ever saw with him. And perhaps Breyers Rocky Road ice cream, though by now, he'd have discovered the many new brands and flavors. And if there were Facebook groups for paisley tie lovers or Carhartt overalls fans, he might have joined them. And he'd have specified that he was married to Edythe Siegel for 58 years, if he were still alive, rather than the 27 years they actually had due to cancer.... I'm pretty sure that Yanai and Gail had fewer than 20 years together.

How did we get from bubble-bath splashing to shivah chats too soon? From weddings and baby-births to Bat and Bar Mitzvot, to more shivah chats again too soon?

Parent Loss

While I'm confident that my mom can relate to Yanai's tragedy directly, I can't at this point, thank God, since Pat & I are both still alive and well k'ayn eyin harah. Instead, Yanai and Gail's kids keep coming to mind because like me, they've lost a parent in their teens.

Everyone grieves differently, but if they feel anything like I did, then it's practically more stress than anyone should have to bear: I was stricken at losing my dad while at the same time, experiencing the first ultimate assessment of my academic talent while yearning for love and romantic attention from my peers in parallel.

It was practically too much to handle. I'd work on my college applications in the hospital waiting room and then walk along the streets of Spanish Harlem, where the hospital was, wishing irrationally that I could get pregnant and have a baby to replace my dying father.

What do Yanai and Gail's kids feel along with their pure grief at losing their beloved mother? And how will they cope with their feelings? I spent nearly a decade coping mostly through junkfood and romantic fantasy accompanied by mostly disappointing reality. I want to say: "And then I got over it," but that's not at all true; I did give up the junkfood and the self-and-other-disrespecting romantic pursuits, but feel no less grief about my gone father than I did when he died.

Spouse Loss

This is territory I've not yet traveled, thank God, but my poor bubble-splashing cousin Yanai now has done so. How will he cope?

How would I cope? Would I go back to junkfood? Would I channel my grief through blogging? Would my remaining family comfort me? Would I find a great grief group or therapist? Would my synagogue community be a source of comfort? Would I swim more? How would I stay strong for my kids (in my case, two feline daughters)? What would I do to survive?

Please, God, help Yanai, Gail's and his kids, and the rest of their families to find life-affirming comfort. And help me not to be self-absorbed when I see them on Monday for the funeral and shivah; help me be usefully, compassionately present.... I guess this is what family is about -- the longevity to splash together in bubble baths, meet for dinner-fun, dance with one another at Bar/Bat Mitzvot celebrations and weddings, and comfort one another at shivot.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Unconventional, 70's & '80s, Pre-Teen/Teenage Dreams

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

And a Relatively Conventional Adulthood By Today's Standards

The year my dad (z"l) died, I distracted myself with letters from a young woman I wished would be my girlfriend, if only I hadn't also been yearning for a boyfriend in parallel -- to make society and my family happy -- and if only she were actually attracted to girls.

I'd run to the mailbox at the end of our long gravel driveway, even when it was snowing, hoping for a thick envelope filled with her lively handwriting and type-written poems. The poems were never about me, but I was encouraged that she said she thought of me every time she heard, "Always Something There to Remind Me" by Naked Eyes. I was 17. It was 1982.

During the eight weeks I lived with my cousins in Israel, I experienced my first bit of romantic experimentation with another girl. She introduced me to Brazilian music, helped me with my Hebrew and indulged me in my Disco rollerskating phase (which has never left me), facing speakers out her home's windows when her parents weren't there as George Benson insisted, nearly persuasively, "Give Me the Night" while I skate-danced in the village-street. Upon my return, I wrote her letters. Over and over. She never wrote back. I was 15. It was 1980.

Throughout the summer that I spent hanging out nearly daily at the beach in Stamford, Connecticut with my beautiful best friend, I felt so much less cool than she, especially whenever she wore her Yes rock band T-shirts. Once, I saw her gorgeous older brother sitting -- tan, broad-swimmer-chested and shirtless -- in the kitchen while his mom cut his gorgeous curly hair just a little shorter. The 7-Up he drank effervesced off his teeth as he smiled at me conceitedly.

Earlier that same day, his sister wrecked our friendship when she asked me to rub sun-tan oil onto her already golden back as she lay on a beach-chair in a white bikini, years beyond me in her physical development, except for our heights; relatively, I was a flat-chested giant. Unbeknownst to her, the tanning-oil request made my pulse beat in my ears -- made me undeniably conscious of my attraction to her, to girls. I was 11. It was 1976.

I could keep going, back to Mrs. Honan in 2nd Grade, in 1972, but you get the idea.

If only my best friend at 11 had had similar feelings, or the Israeli girl at 15, or my high school quasi-girlfriend at 17. If only it didn't feel like it had to be a desperate secret each time. If only my family and friends could have known explicitly and been supportive. If only I hadn't felt that I needed to put up a prissy, nerdy, aloof front to try to hide my emerging lesbianism.

By now, at 48, I've loosened up and have been out everywhere for the past 27 years. And my family, friends and colleagues have risen to my occasion. My wife Pat and I've also lived in a number of countries and several cities, but Stamford and Montclair, New Jersey hold the record for my long-time residence. As of this September I've lived in Montclair for longer than I lived in Stamford -- for more than 17 years. On the eve of New Jersey enabling same-sex couples to become legally married, I'm feeling relieved that my married life is finally legal in both my native and adopted home states, as well as recognized federally across the United States and also in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.

This post didn't go on to catalog my trials in college till I came out explicitly my senior year -- I've done that in other posts -- but as I consider our country's progress around same-sex marriage, I'm also reminded of our country's current college generation:

By contrast to how it still was when I was in college from 1983-87, our 20-year-old niece moved off campus this year at SUNY New Paltz, and during our second visit, Zoe mentioned that two of her four housemates are lesbian. "How cool that you have lesbian housemates!"

"On this campus, you wouldn't be cool if you excluded them," she said, and I smiled to myself; I guess that people like Pat & I really are becoming more de rigueur. Glad I've lived long enough to see these promising times. And I'm also happy that as secret and scary and disorienting as my pre-teen and teenage years were -- I know, everyone's are, no matter his or her sexual orientation, but -- all's well that's ending well.

Yet even as I feel celebratory about the improving times for lesbian and gay Americans, a piece of me will always feel sad when I think of the energy-sapping shame I felt during the times 30 and 40 years ago -- and still feel when I recall them -- when I felt love and desire for another human being and needed to try to hide my feelings. Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes", so popular when I was in high school, felt like it was written for and about me, and I still cringe whenever I hear it.

For me, the best way to transform the leftover shame is to help a new generation avoid it: I'm so pleased to be allotting my United Way contribution to HMI Newark, so that today's lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and questioning youth in metro-Newark at least might be less likely to need to wait 30-40 years to be able to blog openly about societal progress. And here's another reason why plowing through the shame and being visible has been important to more than just my own peace of mind: I learned about HMI Newark from a heterosexual Montclair friend, Tray Davis; Tray and his family are key sponsors of the program. If I weren't open about my life, I wouldn't be able to have such a great friend. Instead, I'd still be stuck in prissy, nerdy aloofness, and that was no way to live.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Being of Service for 10 Minutes at a Time

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Wondering what to do with myself on a lazy Sunday afternoon

While my darling cat Phoebe lies nearby, guiltlessly relaxing, I'm wishing there were an app that enabled me to do 10 minutes of volunteer work whenever I felt like it. Probably, there is, but I'm feeling too self-involved to get up and search for it.

During Kol Nidre on Friday night, Rabbi Kleinbaum spoke of the importance of expressing "Hineyni"/"Here I am" routinely, whenever called to action. She referred to Bayard Rustin, the 50-year-ago March on Washington organizer, who was being provoked by the press in the early morning of the march; they suggested that it was going to be a light crowd since no one was there yet (at 5:30 am).

While looking at a blank piece of paper that he'd taken out of his pocket (without revealing its blankness), he responded, "No, everything is going according to plan right now."

Rabbi Kleinbaum suggested that everything is always going according to God's plan, even if we don't yet know what the plan is.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Russian Jewry and Russian LGBTry

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

If my great, great grandparents and my grandparents hadn't left Russia to escape pogroms, I'd be part of both, and neither...

In her Rosh Hashanah drash last night, Rabbi Kleinbaum spoke of her Bat Mitzvah speech, which was devoted to the plight of Soviet Jewry back then. Rabbi Kleinbaum is my middle sister's age and they were in the same class at Barnard. In the speech, she said she spoke about Elie Wiesel's *The Jews of Silence* and how it referred to the Jews in the West, rather than to the Soviet Jews, since the Western Jews were silent about Soviet Jews' plight...until a brave and knowingly ill-fated scheme.

One warm fall night, in the '70s, I remember attending a rally for Soviet Jewry in the parking lot of our shul Congregation Agudath Sholom. We weren't silent at all...but it was certainly after the failed hijacking that it happened, I now realize, based on the timing. The plight of Soviet Jewry was the major theme of my Jewish childhood. I can still see the posters of Scharansky with black prison-bars superimposed over his photo. Just tried hunting in Google images to find the poster and couldn't. Did I imagine it? I don't think so.

Rabbi Kleinbaum wove a parallel to what's going on today in Russia, where she described how Russians who are not heterosexual and who express their gender in ways that defy the majority are the latest scapegoats and how we cannot afford to be silent. How tragic, it strikes me, that President Reagan staunchly, humanely helped with Soviet Jewish persecution in the '80s, but did the opposite of lending support for gay men suffering in his own country, from HIV and AIDS.

The transcript to which I linked above stated, "Every time Gorbachev would walk into meeting with Reagan by the mid-'80s, the first thing Reagan would do -- and we see this in memoirs and oral histories -- is Reagan would pull out a piece of paper with names of Soviet Jews who had been refused visas or had been somehow sent to prison for their activism and he said, 'Well if you want to talk, first we have to discuss these names....'"

Fortunately, thanks to social media, silence is less possible in 2013; found this helpful video, including an interview of journalist Masha Gessen.

Please, God, in 5774 (the new Jewish year), let sanity prevail worldwide and please prevent persecution and scapegoating of anyone. Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

My Pop Song Autobiography-in-progress

A Hit Song for Every Year of My Life So Far

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

1965

"Eight Days a Week" -- First song I sang along to in my oldest sister Deb's record collection

1966

"Summer in the City" -- From the first time I heard it, I could imagine New York all "hot and gritty"

1967

"Groovin'" -- La la la. La la laaaah...

1968

"Grazing in the Grass" -- My wife Pat told me she got to hear the group sing this song live in a University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh campus-concert

1969

"Leaving on a Jet Plane" -- If I remember correctly, Lisa Peskin's older sister could play this on a guitar

1970

"Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" -- Another sing-along song, and I felt like the singer when I sang it. This was a year prior to a phase where I cried daily, in 1st Grade

1971

"It's Too Late" / "I Feel the Earth Move" -- I used to turn on Deb's record and dance by myself to this, spinning around in our living room till I was so dizzy that I had to lie down and when I opened my eyes, I could see the earth moving under my feet, and the rest of me

1972

"American Pie" -- I knew a levy had to be wet, since it was dry now, but didn't know what it was.

1973

"Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" -- My best friend at the time, Alicia, and I hung over the back of her family's sofa, listening and singing along to this song upside-down.

1974

"Kung Fu Fighting" -- This was the first song other than "American Pie" that I felt told a compelling story.

1975

"Lovin' You" -- This hit was the first song that awoke romantic feelings in me. The birds, her high voice; I was transported

1976

"Love Hangover" -- I couldn't believe this song was allowed on the radio, but I loved it

1977

"Sir Duke" -- This Stevie Wonder tune was the only song my dad ever bought me, as a single, because I think he liked it, too

1978

"Le Freak" -- A prime rollerskating hit

1979

"Ring My Bell"

1980

"Upside Down"

1981

"Rapture"

1982

"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"

1983

"Sexual Healing"

1984

"Let's Hear It for the Boy"

1985

"We Built This City"

1986

"Holding Back the Years"

1987

"C'est La Vie"

1988

"Father Figure"

1989

"Buffalo Stance"

1990

"All Around the World"

1991

"Groove Is in the Heart"

1992

"We Got a Love Thang"

1993

"All That She Wants"

1994

"Streets of Philadelphia"

1995

"100% Pure Love"

1996

"Give Me One Reason"

1997

"Fly Like an Eagle"

1998

"Gettin' Jiggy wit It"

1999

"Man! I Feel Like a Woman!"

2000

"Shackles (Praise You)"

2001

"All for You"

2002

"Butterflies"

2003

"Beautiful"

2004

"White Flag"

2005

"Beverly Hills"

2006

"Black Horse and the Cherry Tree"

2007

"Party Like a Rockstar"

2008

"American Boy"

2009

"Empire State of Mind"

2010

"Teenage Dream"

2011

"Moves Like Jagger"

2012

"Call Me Maybe"

2013

"Get Lucky"

New Year Reflections

Prompted by Questions from Our Rabbi

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

In a Shanah tovah / Happy Jewish New Year greeting to congregants, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum asked:

Think back on the year since last Rosh Hashanah...Where have you been this year?

    • Geographically
    • Emotionally
    • Relationship-wise
    • Work-wise
    • Friendships
    • Family
  • Who have you lost this year?
  • Who have you become?
  • What makes you proud?
  • What makes you ready to face some changes?
  • How have you spent your time? Your money? Your love?
  • What would a chart of your year look like with highs and lows?
  • Where do you want to be next year at this time?
  • What relationships can be given a little help right now?
  • What phone calls are you putting off?
  • What cemetery visits haven't you done that you've wanted to do?
  • What conversations have you avoided?

Just seeing these questions reminded me of how I miss this blog. At its best, it lets me make sense of my experiences and re-live them through writing about them. And yet, I've gone from blogging an average of ~three times a week, 2007-2009, to a bit more than twice a month on average. And where I was tweeting, on average, at least once daily, as well as posting to Facebook daily, since mid-yearish, it feels like I'm tweeting three times a week and not posting on Facebook daily.

How do my reflections breathe air when I'm posting them less frequently? Am I talking more with people face to face, using photographs to express myself now more so, or am I reflecting less often? Maybe it's all of these.

The rabbi's questions tempt me to pray about my hopes in response to a number of them and I'll yield to that temptation here:

God, please help me to be visibly adaptable, appreciative, attentive, compassionate, fair, giving, grateful, useful, wise, idea-filled, receptive to others' ideas, resilient, healthy, hopeful and humorous. Amen.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Making a Difference Serendipitously

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Talking with One of the People Who Cleans Our Home Weekly

"Would you like to write a reference for me?"

Pause.

"Only if you want to."

"Sure. Who is the audience?:

"I'm not sure."

"It's fine. I need the spelling of both your names." (I forgot his first name, and he's been working in my home for nearly a year(!) Usually, I'm on teleconferences while he's here and don't ever really chat with him. In fact, didn't talk with him till he announced he was leaving to go to school and that this week would be his last week. Still, shame on me.)

I give it to him, google "quick study" and ask him to read the definition, and go get an envelope:

June 28, 2013

To Whom It May Concern:

Xxxxxx Yyyyyyyyyy is a quick study, both at work and in learning English.

Xxxxxx has worked with me, since September, 2012 and in that time he has demonstrated an excellent work ethic. He is client-focused, efficient and lovely to work with – always gracious and friendly.

I am sorry to lose his services, but happy for him that he is pursuing further education.

I am confident that Xxxxxx has the drive, intellect and personality to do very well in his studies and in his career afterward.

Sincerely,

Sarah Siegel

[Address]

[email address]

"Thank you. It's beautiful."

"I can only imagine what it's like to be an immigrant."

"It's hard."

"When I moved to Chicago, when I was your age -- what are you? Twenty-two?"

"Twenty-three and almost 24."

"Sorry."

"That's Ok."

"Well, I was a Literacy Volunteer and helped a family from Russia.... I used to think -- because my whole family is from Russia --"

"You're Russian?"

"Well, Jewish, so we didn't count." (On Russian passports, historically and perhaps still today, Jews were stamped, "Jewish" (in Russian), rather than "Russian".)

He nodded.

"And the family was Jewish from Russia, too. And I used to think, I could be her if I had been born in Russia and she, here. We were the same age."

He nodded again.

"I took her and her sons, both under five, to the public library and helped all of them get library cards. She was so depressed at the time, she acted like it was nothing special, but told me later that it was fantastically helpful. We're friends on Facebook now, in fact, and her two sons graduated from college and she became a nurse and her husband became successful, too. I know it's probably awful right now, but I believe you will be all right. Especially because you had the courage to be assertive and ask for a reference. That's just one sign."

He thanked me. "Do you want the door closed?"

"Yes, please."

A few minutes later: A knock on my door.

"Yes?"

"May I talk with you for two minutes?"

"Ok."

"I was thinking about our conversation and I'm...." (He stood there with his beautiful face, full of five-o'clock shadow, looking so vulnerable.)

"Gay?"

"Yes."

"I know."

He smiled with relief.

"And everyone knows I am, too," I said.

He smiled some more.

"I was so excited when I started working here because I saw that you were two women and you had a house and...."

"We were married legally two years ago."

"And married! I want to be someday, too."

"Do you want kids?"

He made a face. "First, I need to have money, and an education and a partner."

"Do your parents know, and are they kind?"

"My mother knows. I told her when I was 13."

"When you were still in Bulgaria?"

"Yes. And she listens to me tell her about boyfriends and...."

"So she's kind."

"Yes."

"And your father?"

"He probably knows, but they are divorced."

"Well, if you are like I was when I was in my 20s, I was miserable!"

"What is 'miserable'?"

"Very, very unhappy."

"Yes!"

"My older sister told me that turning 30 is like being let out of jail."

"I hope so!"

"You will be all right. You're cute!"

"Thank you," he said, smiling and looking at the floor.

"You are. You're very attractive, and lovely, so it will be all right ultimately. When I was your age, I had a bike -- not a motorcycle, but a bicycle."

"And now, you have a house and a wife --"

"Yes, and at first, I think Pat's mother might not have been happy because Pat earned much more money than I did, but for the past 10 years, I've been the primary provider."

"I thought so. You look like you... -- and that's good. That's how it should be with a couple. Nothing separate."

"Yes, I agree. So I hope you find a husband."

Smiling dreamily. "Me, too!"

"And with the Supreme Court decisions this week, you can marry and American man and become a citizen, depending where you live."

"I have a Green Card already."

"Oh, that's great!"

"Yes, my grandmother helped. And my father's already here."

"Terrific! You know, when I was growing up, I read the wedding section of "The New York Times" every Sunday, wishing that I could be in it and then once I knew I was a lesbian, feeling bad that I never could be. But then it began publishing same-sex wedding announcements and Pat & I got in! If you give me your email address, I'll send you a link to the announcement and to a little video we made -- less than three minutes, about how we met."

He wrote down his email address.

"Also, I'd like it if you kept in touch with me and let me know how you are doing."

He smiled and nodded -- seemed pleased.

He said goodbye to go back to work and I shook his hand.

I wrote the email:

Hi Xxxxxx. Thanks for our conversation.

Here are the two links that I promised to send:

Good luck with work and with your studies at Aaaaaaaaa Community College.

Please stay in touch with me.

Best,

Sarah

This time, he was the last of the three workers to leave and yelled to my closed door. "Ok. Goodbye!"

I opened my door and asked if I could give him a hug.

He hugged me sweetly. Our ears rested against each other for a moment. I walked him to the door.

"Thanks for sending me the email."

"It's already in your inbox."

We waved at each other.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My Disco Autobiography

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Inspired by Alice Echols' Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture

I was born in July, 1965 and can't recall when I began watching "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train", rather than going to shul on Saturdays -- probably not till I was 14 (which I am in the photo above), after my Bat Mitzvah and toward the end of the peak of disco -- but I had practically always listened to WBLS - 107.5 FM, the closest R&B station, out of NYC. My two sisters, five and a half and nine years older than I, could not relate; they adored Judy Collins, Kenny Rankin and that whole folk-guitar genre.

Before reading Alice Echols' amazing disco analysis, I just thought I was irresistibly drawn to disco, since my criteria for top music are: cheerful with a beat, and maybe that's still most of it, but I like knowing that unwittingly, in parallel, I was participating in "the Remaking of American Culture". Alice Echols talks about the Middle-Americanization of disco, that is, how it started among African-American and gay communities and made its way to the suburbs, but I represented a class she didn't mention -- the then-isolated lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens, who roller skated to the tunes on suburban lanes, by ourselves, dreaming of belonging -- feeling cool and even a bit glamorous while skating, then returning to real-life and feelings of vast difference when we took off the headphones and skates.

Sister-Influence - 1975

My middle sister writes a prose-poem on the bottom of a cylindrical, cardboard Morton salt container, including the words, "Fly, Robin, Fly" and in our living room, imitates some girls she's seen singing and dancing to it in the halls at Stamford High.

Waking Up - 1976

Brick's "Dazz" comes out, and (starting at 2:37 into this video) I'm entranced by the flute and I dance to the song whenever it plays on the radio. It is the same year I realize I'm attracted to my best friend and pick a fight with her to ensure the end of our friendship.

"If I Can't Have You..." - 1977

My mother and Mrs. Kraut take Claudia and me to see "Saturday Night Fever", covering our eyes during all of the racy parts. Soon afterward, Claudia tells her mother she doesn't want to be friends with me because I am too much of a tomboy; my mother doesn't share this with me till I am an adult.

Dance Contest Victory - 1978

My friend Amy decides she will choreograph a line-dance to this Michael Jackson tune and we will enter a Long Ridge School contest. We win 1st place. Later the same year, I'm in dance lessons with a boy from my class, who is eye-level with the upper region of my torso and we're learning Bar Mitzvah party dance moves, including spelling "YMCA" with our arms.

Roller skating - I Can Be Cool (By) Myself! - 1979

Capitalizing on the roller-disco craze, the toy company my dad (z"l) worked for wants him to design a teen roller skate bag. We go to Caldor and he buys me this pair of sneaker-skates as part of his "research"; he might as well have bought me a car for the joy and freedom these skates bring me, and I love skate-dancing to tunes like this one:

They Disagree With My Taste, but Love Me Anyhow - 1965-Present

My love of disco remains mysterious to my two sisters, and I need to acknowledge their ultimate indulgence of me: To honor my first teenage birthday, they take me into New York City to a free concert in Central Park, The Pointer Sisters! It's a heat wave and the group sings as though the day is pumping cool breezes on-stage, though it isn't. Guess who opens for the group? Kenny Rankin!

(Skate) technology has changed, but I remain enchanted with skating to music that is cheerful with a beat; here's a 16-second sample of me from a couple years ago:

And after my adolescent struggles, I manage to find an indulgent wife, too: She lets me sing along loudly whenever we hear a disco tune on the radio -- which is as often as I can find one. And even at 47, I still feel coolest, most glamorous and most like I belong whenever I'm skating to disco.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Life or Death, and Purpose

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Driving Back from NYC with Pat Last Night

"I turn to stone, when you are gone, I turn to stone," the radio sang as Pat and I turned onto the Allwood exit on our way back from a movie and dinner in the city with our friend Gerard.

"That's ELO. Caryn Lesnoy (z"l) loved that group," I said to Pat, "She was my friend who died of ovarian cancer when we were just 17, remember?"

"Ovarian cancer at 17! No one would even think to look for that at such a young age. Appendicitis, maybe, but...how unfair!"

"Yup, and she's buried right next to my dad (z"l). I thought it was awful to lose him when I was 17, but imagine if I'd lost my own life at that age! And how mad I was when one of our classmates came to my dad's funeral and just kept bawling while looking at Caryn's grave. She was stealing the show. Meanwhile, I had turned to stone. There was just shock, no tears."

Riding a Bus in Bangalore with a (Normally) Beijing-based Colleague a Few Weeks Ago

My Chinese colleague and I were discussing our parents' influence over our choice of universities by way of getting acquainted. My colleague said that she had no choice; she had gotten into a premier school and that is where her parents determined she would go through graduate school.

"My dad, who was dying of cancer at the time -- and our immediate family knew it -- wanted me to go to the University of Michigan for undergrad. 'Look, Sarah, they have a great newspaper that you could write for,' he said, holding up a copy of 'The Michigan Daily' and hoping to appeal to the part of me that wrote for my high school newspaper. I thought he was crazy. I was not interested in Michigan at all. I wanted to go to a different school, and to stay on the East Coast. I visited the college I wanted to attend and within two days, hated it; I recognized everyone on campus. It was too small. He was right."

My colleague looked at me and was smiling attentively. I wondered how culturally shocking it was for her to listen to me say that I was ignoring a dying wish of my dad, or any wish of a parent, given her culture's respect for parents in general. I continued:

"I also had a favorite teacher, Mr. McWilliams, who insisted, 'You must go to Michigan. You need to expand your vista.' I knew better, though, I told him, just as I had told my dad. The campus visit to the other school had not yet happened and then I did not let Mr. McWilliams know that I had changed my mind and opted to choose Michigan. Instead, I let it be a surprise; it was announced during the Senior Awards Banquet, along with a list of other honored Seniors. 'Sarah Siegel, University of Michigan.' And my dad was right. I did write a bit for the Arts section of 'The Michigan Daily' and it was the perfect school for me." And then I couldn't speak with her further, as inconvenient tears interrupted me.

Embarrassing! My Chinese colleague and I had just met and I was crying in front of her. She didn't say anything, but her expression changed and the compassion on her face urged me on:

"Both of them -- my dad and Mr. McWilliams -- were right and initially, I didn't want to listen." I held up a string of pearls that were lying on my neck and said, "No one else here will know this, but I wore these pearls today on purpose, so that my parents could be with me during the session I'm leading. On the day I graduated from high school, my father had already been dead for seven months. Before the ceremony, my mother handed me these pearls and a card that she had signed from both of my parents and said, "These pearls are from your father and me."

"Thank you for telling me that," said my colleague, with the reverence used for a secret that was revealed only to her. And then I swallowed and pulled myself together and returned to the present, feeling vulnerable, but grateful to my colleague. The session later that morning was lively and I felt that it was purposeful -- that I had been of service.

Calling Mr. McWilliams, Who Was Still Alive

Upon my return from India, moved by how moved I still was, recalling my father's and Mr. McWilliams' influence on my growth as a learner and person, I decided to be bold and phone Mr. McWilliams, to invite him to meet with me and catch up. We had not spoken since my graduation 30 years ago this year and his final message to me had been in my yearbook: "Just stay young long enough to grow old."

He had come to my father's funeral and shivah and told us that it was his first-ever funeral, let alone first shivah. I think my father-loss struck him as having adult-ized me overnight, and again, I did and did not heed his advice. After all, how could I not grow up instantly, losing my father at such a young age? In parallel, how could I ignore my well-established love of roller-disco, junk-food and the romantic yearning that practically any adolescent feels, including one who is experiencing a particularly complex version, struggling to accept her (secret, she hopes) lesbian sexual orientation?

Three songs from that time -- or their choruses, anyhow -- seemed to reflect perfectly what I was feeling then: "I Don't Need This Pressure On...", "Don't Drink, Don't Smoke. What Do You Do? Subtle Innuendoes Follow...", and "It's Like a Jungle Sometimes. It Makes Me Wonder How I Keep from Going Under...."

My feelings then: I don't need this pressure of having to complete college applications in the waiting room down the hall from my dad's hospital bed, of a dying and then dead father, of juggling a boyfriend and a secret girlfriend, of being the only one of my parents' children left in the house with my widowed, wild-with-grief mother, of having to continue getting good grades and taking AP courses, to ensure my place at a decent school....

My feelings then: If I keep busy, cultivating a prudish image and being a compulsive punster among my peers, I'll never have to be found out as the radical romance experimenter that I am...except, hearing this song, I worry that there's likely some crack in my veneer that I can't see, or that the song will give people ideas about me and dispel some/all? of the mystery.

My feelings then: This song reflects my fury at being trapped as a the too-young daughter of a dead father that I did not have enough time to get to know sufficiently. Life is a jungle that is thwarting me and urging me over the edge in parallel. Either I will either be trapped, or I'll lose my head.

Providing a 30-year Update Without Overwhelming Each Other

When I reached Mr. McWilliams the other day, his voice sounded older and the same, and I considered that I was likely older now than he had been when he was my teacher. Mr. McWilliams agreed to meet and then called back to postpone our meeting due to some doctors' appointments to which he needed to drive a friend.

In the meantime, between the first and second calls, I started trying to imagine what I would discuss with him.

To understand my investment in this conversation, you need to know that Mrs. Honan, Rabbi Kosowsky and Mr. McWilliams -- in that chronological order -- were the three most profound teachers I had from nursery school through my Master's program in Education. Mrs. Honan and Rabbi Kosowsky both were dead at a young age, by the time I was in high school. All three teachers were even better educators than all of my university and grad. school professors, and what they had in common was a belief in me and my creativity, and they encouraged both.

Mr. McWilliams was the person who exposed me to the fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Herman Melville, to that of William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson, among others. This was the person who taught me Creative Writing, and who took our class to Broadway on field trips, including to see "The Fantasticks" and "A Chorus Line". I think I learned to be empathetic through the stories he had us read and see, and I know I confided in him in the journal he had us keep for Creative Writing. Only in that journal -- that only he saw -- did I refer to my father's imminent death. I told none of my friends or peers. Just Mr. McWilliams. And just in writing.

My mother and Mr. McWilliams, and my cousin Gila in Israel who I nearly never get to see, are the only older people still alive from my childhood who remember watching a chunk of my development, from their adult perspective. Why haven't I contacted him prior to now? Because that was then? Because he was larger than life and not someone I ever imagined sitting down and having a human-to-human conversation with that didn't involve major literary themes? Because I might crack open from all of the memories he triggered for me? Of my early, awkward relationship with my sexual orientation? Of my early hopes of being a writer, which haven't materialized professionally? Of my father-loss and overnight childhood-loss? Isn't it easier to keep the sleeping dogs tranquilized?

Maybe, not to flatter myself, but maybe at a minimum, I'd also remind Mr. McWilliams of an era of his own life that he'd prefer not to revisit for whatever reasons. Maybe we won't end up having a reunion after all. We've rescheduled tentatively for June 8th.

Mr. McWilliams was so happy I was going to a Midwestern university and seeing a bit of the world; he was from Canton, Ohio originally. I recall that because during the first days of my freshman year in Ann Arbor, I went to a then-popular soda fountain/lunch place/candy store called Drakes and found that some of the candy-by-the-pound was from Canton, Ohio. That's all I [will ever?] know about Mr. McWilliams' early life. So far, he and I have stayed alive for many purposes, and only this week have they begun overlapping again. Even if we do not cross paths further, both of us have served our purpose to each other, I think. We did so back in 1979-83.

What I'd Want Mr. McWilliams to Know If and When We Met

  1. In 1983, I was the anonymous sender of the Valentine's carnation that read, "You are loved. -- Rex Humbard" [the name of a Televangelist that was popular then], though I think he already knew
  2. Somehow, the literature he chose for us to read and study and how we discussed it with him in class made me a more sensitive, better person, permanently
  3. Learning from him made me feel confident that I had creativity to share as a gift with the world and I am grateful for the confidence he helped me build
  4. Flannery O'Connor became among my favorite writers and was included among the authors in my undergraduate thesis, and he first introduced me to her
  5. I loved his sense of humor and ended up with a funny spouse, who is Irish like him
  6. I struggled mightily with accepting my sexual orientation, but the works he chose for us to read and see helped me, since a number of them dealt with gay, if not lesbian, themes
  7. I'm fundamentally using my creativity in my work
  8. Although I'm not a professional writer, I do blog and write routinely, as I feel compelled to
  9. His gruffness never fooled me. I knew he loved me and nearly all of his students
  10. I hope he lives for many more years, with good health.