On the Ageless Beauty of Women

I have long had the unusual gift of seeing through age — recreating the youthful splendor of the women I know.

We’ve all observed someone who looks vaguely familiar but unidentifiable. We either figure out their identity, or we don’t.

But something odd happens if it is a woman I spot but can’t name, especially someone out of my past. If I observe her long enough, my mind’s eye plays a trick. The decades drop away, and she becomes the young person she was. Her name returns along with her youthful bloom.

My male friends also remain young to me. It is not a failure to notice a receding hairline or changed hair color. Instead, their quality of personhood remains. Seeing them again recreates their essence, their encompassing and lasting nature.

I am not alone in this magic trick. Robert Heinlein, the great science fiction writer, described it before me.

He also understood it better than I, including that some of us experience it more readily in women. Heinlein used the artistry of the sculptor, Auguste Rodin as an example:

As I reflect on Heinlein and Rodin — both great artists as I am not — I will risk a few more words.

I see the grace, the spirit, the kindness, and the sparkle in such ladies. The special ones create an aura of enchantment, and I am taken in.

I am not simply a flatterer if I tell them they are beautiful. They remain lovely to me.

That is all that counts.

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The top image is Gaze – 3, an oil painting by Rajeskharen Parameswaran. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Difference Between Winning and Losing

Much of the Western World preoccupies itself with winning and losing. Think of sports, getting the highest grade at school, job promotions, and making more money than your neighbor (though you’d never say so).

The woman featured in this essay wished to instruct us of an essential, uplifting difference between winning and losing as we tend to define these two easy words.

Gerda Weissmann Klein understood the importance of things on a scale we cannot imagine unless we endured her late teens and early 20s beside her. Born in 1924, the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 led to the loss of her family and a series of slave labor work camps, detestable treatment, and a starvation diet.

Forward-looking advice helped save her. Her father insisted she wear ski boots if the new authorities took her away from home.

The ever dutiful teen complied with her dad’s wishes despite the approaching summer. The youthful Ms. Weissmann otherwise might not have survived repeated below-freezing winters. Such circumstances predicted near-certain death for those without adequate footwear.

An imaginative, dissociative skill enabled her tenuous existence, too. Some days, she occupied her head with frivolous, trivial things like a party she’d host after the liberation.

Holocaust survivors speak of whether each prisoner fully faced the otherworldly horror show of their lives. It helped if one intuitively blocked a part of one’s psychological vision rather than reckoning with the frank catastrophe enveloping them without letup. These responses were a matter of natural tendencies, not a thoughtful choice.

Those who dissociated (as Gerda did when she planned her party) had some slight chance of survival if enormous luck was also on their side.

The depth of the abyss then lost some of its downward pull.

—–

This woman’s father also required another promise of her: never to commit suicide, no matter what.

That, too, would be tested.

Sometimes we stay alive for others, for promises made to them, and for lives cut down.

It would have been easy for a person robbed of the early years of her life, family, and friends never to forgive those responsible for the crime, including the country from which they came.

Not so for this lady. Shortly after her experience of slave labor began, she arrived at a factory producing fabric for the German Army. There she faced a 40-year-old female guard wearing black: Frau Kugler.

I never (before) heard a human voice that barked.

She had a face like a bulldog. But her looks completely belied what was underneath it all.

She turned out to be the hope, the inspiration, perhaps the knowledge that all Germans weren’t cruel. She was a warm, caring human being who’d been given the job obviously because of her looks and because she had worked at the factory before the war.

She put a lie to the lips of all those who said they had no choice.

On one occasion in the same installation, Gerda and three other young women awoke in their barracks almost too ill to move. Kugler came to them and tied Weissman’s shoes.

“Girls, get yourself together. It is life or death today,” dragging them to their work positions and propping them up at the machines they needed to operate.

The sick, weakened girl noticed a man behind her later.

He dispatched those unable to perform to Auschwitz, a place of even greater jeopardy — an extermination camp. The lady guard was not kidding when she urged and helped them get back to work.

—–

The group to which Ms. Weissmann belonged moved from place to place, subjected to the whims of their overseers. The killing could be arbitrary, disfiguring brutality just as random. When not laboring on textiles, they laid bricks and emptied coal cars.

Yet friendship was also part of her strange existence, and unexpected kindness could be a balm.

My friend Ilse Kleinzahler, who died a week before we were liberated, once found a raspberry in the gutter on the way to the factory. It was in Grunberg, one of the most miserable camps, and she saved it all day long.

Ilse carried it in her pocket. The temptation must have been incredible, (but) she gave it to me that night on a leaf. She had plucked a leaf through the barbed wire, washed it, and presented me with one slightly bruised raspberry.

Most people think of (the Holocaust) as unrelieved horror. I like to remember some of the things in camp, how people helped each other. I want to tell young people about that, that there was friendship and love and caring.

Still in those ski boots, a three-month, 350-mile forced winter death march represented this survivor’s final trial during the war. Those who tried to escape or were unable to keep up were shot.

That strange road of winter woe began for about 2000 young Jewish women, all of the camp’s occupants. Fewer than 150 survived.

As the conflict wound down, the enemy army recognized their own lives were in peril and fled the approaching Allied Armies. This was the day before Ms. Weissmann’s 21st birthday.

Gerda and the human remnants of the experience remained in an abandoned Czech bicycle factory after the soldiers took off.

Much luck is involved in all such stories as if some sadist throws dice to determine people’s destiny. A demolition device set by the Nazis to destroy the female population within the building failed to detonate.

Gerda was standing in the doorway of the factory when a U.S Army jeep could be seen in the distance.

The driver saw her and stopped. One of the men inside walked up to her.

I remember the aura of him, the awe of disbelief … to really see someone who fought for our freedom. He looked like a God to me.

The Lieutenant asked if she spoke German or English. Ms. Weissman nodded, then added, We are Jewish, you know.

The soldier stood silent for what seemed a very long time, his eyes hidden behind the sunglasses he wore.

So am I,” he said.

Kurt Klein, the man she talked with, later became her husband.

He continued, using a formal manner of address unused by the Nazis because they believed the incarcerated “not worthy of life” (Untermenschen): Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others, including their own mentally ill.

Instead of disrespect, Lt. Klein asked if she might take him to visit the other “ladies.Then, as they entered the factory together, he opened the door for her. His words and actions opened something more.

This was the moment of restoration of humanity, humanness,” she said in her post-war descriptions of returning to civilization.

The officer was overwhelmed by the sight inside. Women wasted away, near death, staring with vacant eyes.

With a sweeping motion of her hand toward the emaciated crowd, his white-haired, 68-pound, 21-year-old “guide” uttered a quotation she learned in school during the “before” times.

Noble be man, merciful and good,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet. They both shared in the grim irony of words they knew from a poem called “On the Divine.”

Gerda Weissman Klein became a public face in the United States for the survivors of the genocide and those less fortunate. Living in Buffalo, NY, and later in Phoenix, AZ, the couple had three children, eight grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Klein’s story is conveyed in her own spoken words and those of her husband in the 39-minute 1995 movie, “One Survivor Remembers.The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject and was based on her book, “All but My Life.

At the 1996 Academy Award ceremony, she was on stage beside the film’s director Kary Antholis as he spoke. Her turn came, but a musical cue to depart began just as it did, along with the gentle prodding of an usher.

Mrs. Klein remained silent at the microphone.

The applause and the orchestra stopped. She then offered words to an audience of people who had been thinking and talking all night about winning and losing:

I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day.

Since the blessed day of my liberation, I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here?I am no better.

In my mind’s eye, I see those years and days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.

On their behalf, I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do it in any better way than when you return to your homes tonight, to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.

Gerda Weissmann Klein passed away on April 3, 2022, aged 97.

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The top image is the early teen Gerda Weissmann during peacetime. It is followed by A Helping Hand, the work of Safiyyah Scoggins and Laura Hedien’s Alaska Road Sign, 2021. 

Finally, the U.S. Lieutenant Kurt Klein, who became Gerda’s husband, and her speech at the Academy Awards Ceremony in 1996. A Helping Hand was sourced from Wikimedia.org/

Recapturing the Joy of Childhood

Do you remember back when you were nine years old? How the prospect of turning 10 stood like a skyscraper, a monumental achievement, a towering number in two digits? You — yes, you — transformed into something larger, more important, closer to grown-upness?

For small children, imagination and reality exist on the same level. When you play a soldier, you turn into one. When you put on your Superman outfit, the fake muscles become real, and your thoughts take flight. A princess costume creates enchantment and elegance.

The magic mirror confirms, “You are the fairest of them all.

Playing these parts is unselfconscious, the pleasure joyous, the movements spontaneous. Summers seem endless, and the friends of every day never imagine a future without you.

Mom and dad demonstrate how to do things, read stories leading you to master the skill yourself, and are lovelier, brighter, and stronger than others who use the same pronouns.

The idea of illness never enters. The body housing you heals minor injuries in the time it takes for mom to give you a hug. Chicken soup and kisses serve as unfailing elixirs.

Limitless destiny carries the belief everything is achievable. Life (with the help of parents) offers gifts, birthday celebrations, prepared meals, and treats you like royalty. The guarantee of your guardians’ immortality and your own is never in doubt.


Gradually something happens. Imagination loses some of its footing while reality claims more of the ground. Spontaneity and uninhibited joy no longer arrive with the sunshine. Yet, the far side of childhood needn’t be as challenging as this sounds.

Yes, the magical healing power of mom’s touch has passed into yesterday, but other affections offer compensation.

Once middle-aged, long-standing friends don’t expect you to prove yourself. If you’ve done moderately well in pursuing your goals, achievements don’t insist on so much attention. Aches and pains may not be fun but are just the cost of living, companions reminding you to relish each instant.

Without childrearing responsibilities, more time exists to admire the sky and salute the moonlight. Meanwhile, experience has taught you the value of nature’s poetry and human kindness, evoking your gratitude. If you’ve largely escaped harm’s way, you recognize the life-enhancing necessity of giving something back, as well.

The delight of early life grows out of parental love, the dazzle of “first times,” and mastering the new world. In a sense, it also depends on the ignorance of life’s demanding adult future.

For those on the far side of youth, reclaiming joy requires something different. It asks for knowledge, not naivete: awareness of the inevitable end of things.

Recognizing that truth, all our remaining abilities and opportunities can grow in importance. We have the chance to learn and laugh, treasure precious friends and those we love even more, and savor nature’s beauty anew. They enlarge gratitude in what remains, so much of which was taken for granted before.

Life will never be perfect, but its imperfections provide perspective on what is essential at the day’s end. Chicagoans who remember Studs Terkel’s name will recall his gift of eliciting the best from the thousands he interviewed, the qualities we must seek for ourselves with age.

And, as if to remind us how to live, Studs always signed off his radio program with the words, “Take it easy, but take it.

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I am sure many of you have been moved by the human tragedies unfolding in Ukraine. Read more on how you can help Ukraine here.

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The sculpture is called Joy by Bruce Garner, located in Ottawa, Canada, as photographed by Jeangagnon. Beneath it is The Joy of Playing Together by Rasheedhrasheed. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Avoid Common Misunderstandings

 

We’ve all used the phrase “I assumed.It often expresses the disappointment of an expectation.I assumed” X, but Y occurred instead.

This implies that one person didn’t specify his meaning, or the other misunderstood or wasn’t paying attention. One or both believed an understanding had been created. Something obvious was not grasped, explicit or implied.

Years ago, I used the expression with a teenage patient, a quick-witted, sometimes rude young fellow. He responded, “When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.

Impertinent, but correct.

On another occasion, I taught a neighbor’s boy how to drive. He’d taken the relevant driver’s education classes and read the required material. The teen recognized Illinois permitted a right turn after a complete stop at a red light or stop sign.

Then one could turn, so he believed.

The young fellow didn’t glance left down the street to make sure he wouldn’t collide with the cross traffic. He “assumed” the stop alone allowed him to go.

Fortunately, no accident occurred. I took a deep breath, restrained myself from removing his head from his shoulders, gulped, and explained the danger.

Should we assume less than we do?

Think of words. Do people agree on the meaning of phrases like ...

  • I promise?
  • I’ll see you later?
  • I will do it soon?

What is a promise? When are broken promises excusable?

What do you mean by later?

When? Today, tomorrow, in a few days?

Most of us expect or hope for reciprocity in relationships. If we do regular favors for another, display generosity of time and attention, pay for food and drink, we anticipate occasional effort to provide consideration in return.

Not everyone gets this. Indeed, the nonreciprocal individual might be shocked if he were accused of selfishness.

Consider routine language combinations such as “next Tuesday.Does it mean the Tuesday of this week or next?

When you ask a person to telephone you tonight, what constitutes tonight? Or, perhaps, “Call me after dinner.Does everyone agree on when nighttime begins and when it’s too late?

We tend to believe ourselves reasonable and logical. As for the next bloke, we aren’t sure. Yet we “assume” the gentleman thinks as we do in everyday conversation: he conforms to our comprehension of words and “normal” conduct.

Since many find it uncomfortable to ask “when exactly” a task will be performed, another potential complication exists. When will the package delivery occur, when will the contract be sent, etc.?

Do your friends or acquaintances reason as you do? Would their understanding, the organization of logic and thought match your own? Do you recognize their blindspots? Do you know all of your own? How can you be certain?

When you reflect on your own knowledge and values, do you find yourself in sync with the people you socialize with? If you are perfectly aligned, you might reach a point of boredom in their company.

No matter how hard you try, how hard your friend tries, misunderstandings occur, epic or tiny. Fortunately, most are minor.

We can’t see ourselves from the outside nor get into another’s head. Each of us creates a universe through our eyes alone, not a reality. Though our realities overlap, no couple envisions the world identically. In your self-created cosmos, your unique conception of life informs every picture. No wonder the rhino/artist in the single-cell comic (above) paints everything the way he does.

The other’s “universe” is fun getting to know. Discovering another world makes life entertaining but complicated. We must strike a liveable balance between trying to interact with machine-like certainty and accepting everyone’s limits, including our own.

Nonetheless, I offer you some brief guidance to reduce your chance of misunderstandings and presumptions going wrong.

  • Consider how often mix-ups occur in your life. Are they repetitive? In what way? What might you do to cut down the number?
  • Make a list of past disagreements and how much assumptions played a part. Focus on the ones most common to you.
  • Recognize the types of persons with whom you tend to encounter troublesome issues. Are they bosses, teachers, lovers, or particular friends? Analyze the significant categories and ask yourself why this one and not another.
  • People of different generations and cultural or ethnic backgrounds follow the norms of their cohorts. For example, there are generational differences in the use of language. “I’m up for that” once was the equivalent of “I’m down for that.” For some, it still is.
  • One method of minimizing errant assumptions is to ask more questions.
  • Perhaps some of the acquaintances you thought you knew well have changed. Or maybe you have.
  • Find a place of comfort between constructing careless agreements and meticulous conversation, similar to a lawyer drafting a contract. Accept the small mishaps of life as the condition of human existence.
  • Be sure to allow some room for both you and others to change. As the 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes said when asked why his current ideas were inconsistent with past statements, he replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

If a friend moves from compulsive promptness to something more laid back, he probably doesn’t text you the news. 

Ah, the complexity of relationships! Make the best of them. You can make human contact smoother and perhaps laugh at some of the bumps along the way.

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The last image comes from a 1901 issue of Puck magazine. It was drawn by Samuel D. Erhart. The source is Wikimedia Commons.

Why I (Still) Write Blog Posts

I began this blog in 2009. The driving reason was to leave my thoughts to my children for whatever they might find worthwhile, especially after taking off for the great beyond if such a place exists. This was not my sole motive to scribble, however.

As they all recognize, writers write out of inner necessity, an activity so essential to their being they cannot do otherwise for long. Some hope for fame, but few outlast the memory of their name if that. I never embraced their goal.

Offering your written words to the reading world takes a small bit of courage since not everyone will agree with what you say. With few, if any, ideas not thought or said by the best minds of our past, one needs ego to believe your new material will stand out with anything new.

Part of what justifies the idea of presenting personal observations despite all the brilliant writers of yesterday is the time in which we live. Every human life exists within a unique moment and place, no matter the similarities to all the history preceding us.

A few decades ago, a Ford Foundation study concluded the daily New York Times contained more information to process than the average sixteenth-century man had to consume in his lifetime. Wow!

The thought is astonishing until one recognizes who the gentleman was: a creature who couldn’t read or write, never got far from home, lived and died in the blink of an eye, and performed the same repetitive tasks without end.

No TV, computer, Internet, either, not even choices of toothpaste. Just flowers at weddings to make sure the new pair didn’t overpower each other with an unpleasant odor.

We live in a moment when the speed of change leaves us dazzled, dazed, delighted, or distressed, depending. Thus, I can rationalize my words as fitting for the time you and I share.

I also write for other reasons. The first of these would be the help or enjoyment the posts give to some readers. The second is praise, though I’m pretty self-sustaining without it.

Another, and this is significant, the act of composing keeps my brain active and focused away from occasional dystopian reflections I can’t escape about the world’s current state. Furthermore, the task of assembling sentences gets my mind off the usual worries and personal concerns none of us can avoid without something else to do.

Many use drugs as a distraction to help with this. Lots of folks get comfort from prayer. In addition to writing, I employ meditation and study, conversation, human companionship, love, comedies, and helping those I can when I can.

An unexpected bonus has been the correspondence I’ve had with a handful of individuals. I took joy from meetings with four of them I didn’t already know. Homo sapiens fall in love online; why shouldn’t they fall into friendship, too?

Another reward was a surprise gift from a person I did know, who made a book for me out of my writings up to the moment she presented it. She is a dear heart, as I’m certain are many of those whose comments in response to my work reveal their humanity.

I now have two young grandchildren, boys. Like most of you who reproduced, the children’s health, not gender, was all I cared about. Yet, I’m glad I have the chance to watch these spirited souls grow up and to aid a bit in the process. Thus, I set down words for them, as well.

I am aware I repeat myself — duplicating points I made among the over 600 published titles you can find here in the Archives. Inevitable, I suppose.

I also change my mind or discover research findings not available when I started the compelling hobby. I’d argue the fellow who began 12 years ago has been altered by moving into a new version of body and brain as we all do as we age, aware or not.

Those changes of heart, soul, additional experience, and reflection will take you places you never imagined going. Therefore, my posts have also changed.

For those who continue to read me, I’m forever amazed and grateful to the people who’ve consumed about everything in these electrified white and black pseudo-pages. I’m pleased, too, new arrivals find their way here, despite my lack of presence on conventional social media.

So, my thanks to each of you for hanging out with me. I hope to be doing this for a while yet.

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Another person I met online: Laura Hedien, Storm Cloud Photography. With her permission, the two works used above are Supercell in Nebraska, 2021, and Sunflare, sunset in N.D, 2021. As always, I’m grateful to have made the connection with her and appreciate her generosity.

The Indirect Messages We Find Hard to Understand

There are many ways we are informed of our place in the world, where we fit in the lives of others. I’m speaking of relationships and work.

I imagine you’ve read about open body language, making eye contact, pleasing facial expression, and whether we ask another person about himself and his ideas. Such behaviors or their absence provide information about our standing.

I’ll mention a few more later, but the main attraction for today speaks to the question differently. Let me tell you a story.

Two white men chatted in a waiting room a couple of weeks ago, another gentleman and me. He spotted my Cubs hat and struck up a conversation. The time passed in an entertaining, cordial way until his turn came to enter the office.

The out-of-shape fellow employed a walker but had a most pleasant and engaging disposition. I’m guessing we belong to the same generation.

For sure, we shared our love of baseball. But the sports stories he related aren’t what lingers within me. Rather, he told a tale of early employment, unlike anything I knew.

This charming bloke labored in the building industry for most of his life, a muscle-taxing, manual way of making a living. Still a teen, his first job required him to dig a trench, a task of several days.

On the morning of his first day, a truck came by and stopped beside the dig site. The driver’s elevated position in the covered vehicle reflected a higher status since all the other employees engaged in physical challenges exposed to the summer sun and the heat.

The communication began:

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

“Thanks, but can I have a Pepsi Cola instead?”

The man behind the wheel turned away and drove on.

In the afternoon, the same truck showed up again. My chum looked up as the rig stopped. The now-familiar voice spoke:

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

The new guy on the job recognized his previous mistake.

“Yes, thanks.”

“What do you take in it?”

“Cream and sugar.”

“We don’t do that here.” So the big machine sped off.

When the workday ended, the rookie took a bit of time to reflect during his trip back to his parents’ house. He wondered what happened. The youthful chap was not stupid, though he had little experience outside of home and school. The second day found him more prepared.

The predictable arrival of the authority figure offered the unsurprising question.

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

“Yes, with cream.”

“Good,” came the reply, and, not long after, the creamed beverage appeared.

What do you believe happened between the older man and the younger one? Think for a moment before I tell you what I imagine.

In the world of beasts, birds, and the (so-called) civilized creatures on the planet, there is a form of ranking known as a “pecking order.” Here is an internet definition:

A hierarchy of status seen among members of a group of people or animals, originally as observed among hens.

To fit into the social world, one must learn where one stands, what behavior is acceptable, what is not, when to listen, when to speak, when it is your turn in the “pecking order.”

Thus, assuming my waiting-room companion wanted a tolerable place in the arrangement of laborers, he needed to discover how to behave. In effect, the coffee potentate trained him about his rank and the consequences if he didn’t accept without question the lowly station he occupied as “the new guy.”

If my temporary buddy wanted to continue working in this place, individualism was out. Unless he first blended in with the crowd and followed orders, no guarantees existed. To put it another way, the conditions demanded recognition of even unstated rules, to sink or swim without swimming lessons.

He learned to swim.

I could be wrong and, if you have a different interpretation, please tell me. But, to my mind, the youngster who is now an oldster received the unorthodox instruction — “know your place” — without the remark ever being made.

Bigots of the time said such things when talking or writing about black people.

The story I related took place over 50 years ago. These days, one might realize one’s standing with a “friend” if, for example, he makes you wait but not others or drops his attention to you when someone else enters the room.

Or maybe he engages in monologues without asking you questions about yourself, wants to see you only when he needs a favor, doesn’t respond to calls, texts, emails, etc.

Of course, we all fall short with friends on occasion, but some do it as a matter of routine. Were I to choose from these methods of communication, I’d prefer the method of the construction workers to that of the inconsiderate friend. But that’s just me.

We all have to do some wiggling to find a satisfactory spot in the world. At least for a while until we develop the confidence, strength, and character to say no to the person who imposes unfavorable conditions on us.

And then, if you also have economic security, you can set many of the guidelines and, I hope, be considerate to those around you.

My favorite comment on the role money plays under similar circumstances is best captured in the words of a famous, long deceased harmonica player named Larry Adler.

It is as eloquent as it is vulgar, so turn away if you must:

You should always have enough ‘fuck you’ money.

Sorry for that. No other phrase quite captures the sentiment.

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The top two images were created by Laura Hedien in May and reproduced here with her permission: https://laurahedien.com/

The first was taken Outside of Gail, Texas. The second displays a Sunset in Texas. The final image is the work of William Gottlieb, derived from Wikimedia Commons. It is a portrait of Larry Adler and his frequent collaborator, the dancer Paul Draper, in City Center, New York, around 1947.

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Please, HEAR ME!

We want to be heard by those who matter to us: known, accepted, cared about. Many people are wanted for particular qualities, but not the whole of them. Often their entirety — their essence — is neither recognized nor understood.

The essence is more than a pretty face, a powerful embrace, a tender or firm hand, femininity or manliness, or a sense of humor. The extent of this elusive thing isn’t sexuality, intelligence, prominence, money-making, the ability to protect, or the capacity to be a capable parent or housekeeper. It is all of these and more.

That which is to be embraced is everything, despite everything. It is their core and voice. We wish to be seen for more than can be seen.

Each of us hopes what we say and feel makes a difference. Not with everyone but with someone. Not at every moment, but often.

No fellow man or woman can fully understand us. Nor can we fathom the extent of our changing selves. Moreover, there is always an element of “seeming” as we move through life and its transforming interaction between who we are in this moment and who we are becoming.

Vision tells us the people standing before us are static, solid, and fixed. In truth, they are blurred, not constant. Time-lapse photography provides evidence of never-ending changes on the physical surface and points to the same ongoing process within. The mirror plays the identical trick when facing it.

Each one of us has had the goal or fantasy of being relevant, not a matter of indifference — not a replaceable part.

An old New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff offers a visual representation of what we don’t want. A woman seated near her husband interrupts him to say, “I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

What explains this failure to communicate, to connect, to be known by someone? What might account for a shortfall in understanding by the person we desire, love, care for, want to be with, want to be close to?

I’m referring to only the ingrained version of this common happening. Everyone gets misunderstood some of the time or falls out of focus and presence.

Here are factors to consider in conversation:

  • The speaker has real limitations in word usage. He can’t explain what he wants us to know.
  • The talker takes too long, circling whatever his concern is, not quite getting to the central message.
  • The pair find it hard to be unguarded in what they say.
  • Body language and facial expression interfere with the intake of words and their meaning.
  • Genuine hearing problems affect the listener.
  • The hearer is a habitual multi-tasker and doesn’t give his complete attention.
  • The twosome infrequently sits face to face in a quiet room when speaking.
  • Differences in temperament, history, knowledge, and gender create a gap language fails to overcome.
  • The infrequency of tender or open conversations increases the danger of big emotions (held back) now overtaking the couple.
  • One or both participants cut each other off.
  • The auditor assumes he received the same memo before, perhaps many times. He takes in the first few words and tunes out, filling in the rest from his catalog of familiar beliefs about the other.
  • One or both are in “attack” mode. The two people engage in accusations, not reflection.
  • Transference from previous relationships interferes with the individuals’ abilities to differentiate this person from someone else.

A match between two people in friendship or love requires maintenance. However, unlike an auto whose oil must be changed and tires replaced, the reasons for the work are a bit elusive.

Let’s begin with the duo’s beginnings. The initial affection and mutual interest tend to be motivated by a few appealing qualities: sexual allure, shared enthusiasms, the feeling of being desired, newness, or a temporary fitness between roles. An example would be one party’s search for a protector and the other’s joy in being appreciated for providing this.

Such attributes outshine and obscure other features of significance about the pair’s interconnection.

One of the surprises and challenges of grasping the “being” of the mate is the continual unfolding we go through as we proceed through life. Only a stone statue untouched by wind, water, or pollution remains unchanging.

Existence means transformation. In the best circumstances, this enables the possibility of growth.

A step toward improving our relationships is understanding that none of us are the same as we were. The partner, therefore, must attempt to “know” you — a living, developing, wavering soul moving through unending alteration — while he engages in a motion of his own and tries to understand himself anew. If the pair of friends or lovers can discover their nonsynchronous “becoming,” the endeavor to retain, recover, and recognize the companion may lie ahead.

Each of us loses his way at times. Still, much is possible if we recognize one of the greatest opportunities to be found in the search for friendship and love: to discover another who takes on the lifelong task of fondness, forgetting, and generous acceptance of human frailty, the better to become aware of another being who intends and attempts the same.

No wonder our delight when we come close to this closeness.

———-

The first photo is called Couple Talking by Pedro Ribeiro Simões of Portugal. The second is a A Reading & Conversation with Scholastique Mukasonga. The Moderator was Odile Cazenave. The photo was taken at the Boston University Center for the Study of Europe. Both of the images were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Best Meal I Had All Day” and Other Words of Wisdom

Emmanuel Terry, my Uncle Manny, is remembered by my brothers for something we heard from him whenever he came to dinner.

No matter the food he ate earlier, our gathering lacked completion until he said, “This was the best meal I had all day!” He smiled and we grinned at what became a necessary secular benediction at the evening’s conclusion.

Though we took his words as a joke, we might have better understood them as a true expression of appreciation, a thanksgiving for the feast and comradery of the moment.

Well before such festivities, Mr. Terry endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, psychiatric hospitalization, electroshock treatment, and service overseas in wartime. Late in life, he suffered the death of his wife, my Aunt Nettie. He knew loved ones and joyous reunions should not be taken for granted.

Uncle M. smiled a lot when we were together, drinking in the companionship and enjoying the laughter we all shared. And, yet, I am the inheritor of a few philosophy texts he read. Too bad I never thought to ask him what in those yellowed pages mattered to him.

Did they contribute to his gratitude?

This brings me to a friend (I’ll call him K), who is entering his 75th year on the planet, a bit longer than Manny achieved. On his birthday, the pandemic doing its worst, he wondered what he might wish for beyond the loving expressions of his children and friends.

While talking to his son-in-law a solution evolved. He planned to bestow some small benevolence on someone he didn’t know. But who, how? Close contact with people would risk lives, both his and the other.

K wasn’t deterred.

My buddy realized an acquaintance in another country might be useful in the endeavor. One owns an eatery in a city where bars and restaurants are open. He chose an establishment over 4000 miles away.

This longtime friend placed a call and asked the proprietor to serve a drink to every person in the place. His confidant would charge the tab to K.

The barkeep honored the anonymity desired by the benefactor of all the strangers. Thus the task was done.

My comrade suggested I take some similar action myself. I told him I would and, also write about his random act of kindness.

Perhaps you enjoyed a beer on my friend, but probably not. I’m guessing if he could have fed the world he would have. None of us can.

We can only do our small part.

Like Uncle Manny, K is a wise man and a grateful one.

It is no accident that these characteristics go together.

Such people make us better than we are.

———-

The adults flanking the young man at his bar mitzvah celebration are his Uncle Manny and Aunt Nettie. The gentleman seated at the right is George Fields. Yes, I am the boy in the middle. It was the best meal we had all day.

When One Person in a Relationship Changes

I discovered the social challenge of moving from one group to another in sixth grade.

First, let me situate myself. I was part of the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, a group for which the world was unprepared. Chicago’s school system, like others, discovered children like me flooding the narrow hallways of buildings used by our parents.

Why so many? The youthful soldiers returning from Europe and the Pacific attempted to retrieve lost time along with their young wives. My father’s letters across the ocean spoke to both his desire for my beautiful mother and the offspring they hoped for.

I’d spent the past year and a half in an overcrowded classroom shared with students one semester ahead. When my younger cohort came time for advancement to the level the older kids were completing, our teacher asked me if I wanted to “skip” that term.

Paul Friedman gave me this chance to proceed into seventh grade without finishing sixth. Thanks, Mr. Friedman, wherever you are.

The opportunity sounded fine to my parents and me, in part because I got along well with those a half-step up. The phrase “double promotion” applied to my more than ordinary educational boost.

Over the summer, I continued to hang around with my longtime, same-aged buddies, but Autumn turned out to be different. From the first day of class on Tuesday, September 2, 1958, the alteration, like a temporary shadow hovering over my life, greeted me with a frown.

I saw Lloyd and Roger, my old pals, talking, but when I tried to insert myself into the conversation, they acted aloof. Of course, I didn’t use that word, one absent from my vocabulary, but it described my puzzlement at the unsocial “distance.”

Continuing efforts to recapture our previous camaraderie produced the same result in the next few days. With no choice, those friendships faded as I found a place among my older classmates.

Life offers far more significant but somewhat similar challenges. Beyond moving out of your current neighborhood and going to new schools, think of changes in your profession, status ups and downs, leaping ahead or staying behind in terms of income, etc.

A daunting hurdle occurs when someone dependent on alcohol or drugs ends his addiction. Friends accustomed to joining him in drink or drugs say, “Oh, it’s only one drink” or “Come on, do you think you are better than me?”

If the newly sober fellow continues hanging around with the users, his sobriety is in danger. He has two problems now: abstinence from substances and finding new friends.

A political commentator, Kurt Bardella, describes leaving his occupational affiliation in 2016: the Republican Party. His writing doesn’t provide the most common answer to the question liberals ask, “Why do Republicans still work for Trump.” Rather, he speaks to the 1958 version of Gerry Stein’s experience on the playground. Here’s what happened to him when he left “the team.”

Candidly, I had no idea where my next paycheck was going to come from. I lived off my credit card. Fell into debt. The professional network of Republican operatives, consultants, and lobbyists I had spent a decade of my life in Washington cultivating was now gone.

Bardella no longer fit in. Changing religion might generate the same kind of exclusion. This also reminds me of something my mother uttered more than once as I grew up: “What will people think?”

In Bardella’s case, his professional and relationship community became unavailable to him. No other workplace niche existed for political operatives and conservative spokespersons who, like this man, self-emigrated.

Even such things as happiness and unhappiness can complicate relationships when they are not shared. If you are leaping forward in your career and an old buddy finds your glee overbearing relative to his modest success, one of you might decide he has tolerated enough.

More than a few of my patients worried their friends would grow weary of their degree of misery. They dared not exceed what they believed was an acceptable length and level of unhappiness. While they tended to overestimate the likelihood of rejection, I must admit it was never zero.

One might say the larger the discrepancy in the level of happiness, success, and misery between two friends, the greater the chance of a tear in the social fabric binding them. Part of relationship survival requires walking not too far ahead, nor falling too far behind. Some amount of self-censorship is also needed.

Fitting the pieces of your personal life into the jigsawed spaces of another’s existence isn’t a fully acknowledged human task. The good news is, most of us get at least passing marks.

We are complicated creatures, don’t you agree?

With all the encouragement we receive to be independent and tough enough to take on criticism, there are limits to this commonplace advice.

When my mother asked, “What will people think?” she displayed a wisdom one shouldn’t always ignore.

——-

The two photos are from my time in Minnie Mars Jamieson School. They show my third-grade class followed by my graduating class. I am lucky enough to remain friends with four members of the latter group: Ron, Jim, Steve, and Neil.

No prizes if you can spot me, though I am present in both pictures. Of course, the “High Potentate” of the Zeolites won’t have any trouble. Apologies for the inside joke.

If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone, Anywhere, Who …

Have you changed your mind in, say, the last nine years? How about the most recent six-months?

I hope so.

In 2011 I wrote a post about an invitation to a feast. Any reader might choose anybody to be his companion in my hypothetical scenario.

The possibilities were unrestricted. Any person alive or dead would qualify: If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone in the World …

What I didn’t consider in offering the challenge and posting responses was a thing called time. Time appeared a near-infinite concept. No one who responded to my query lived in the presence of Azreal, the Grim Reaper, so far as they or I knew. Infection did not stalk the earth.

People made bucket lists assuming the planet would be as open to them in, say, nine years, as it stood on the day my essay popped up on WordPress. The normal human concerns about money, romance, and work remained ... normal. My respondents weren’t locked down, mask-wearing, social distancing creatures.

If you wanted to hug someone you’d hugged 100 times before, you might reach for embrace #101 without a thought. No dread needed to fill your head.

The value of skin against skin hadn’t skyrocketed. Closeness wasn’t an existential issue. Your loved one didn’t carry Death’s scythe with which to harvest you.

Now we esteem lives in a different way. Some of us do, at least. Indeed, there is a partisan difference even in Americans’ sex lives: Sex in the Era of Coronavirus.

But overall, perhaps we understand, in a less abstract way than we did in the pre-pandemic era, nothing is guaranteed. OK, taxes and death, the old standbys. Nothing else. The topic today is the same one in the earlier article, but with a guarantee of safety unneeded then.

If you could have a meal with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be? In this imaginary opportunity, the food will be safe; the virus will be vanquished, no caution to keep six feet apart, or wash hands again and again.

Is the question too easy? Are the answers predictable? I’m guessing the list of people is more limited. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Surprise me. Or not.

—–

The first image above is Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/ The one below it is Grim Reaper obtained from FreeSvg.