Sunday, February 22, 2009

a nod to Nora

Some time back, Nora Ephron posted a list of 25 things that continue to surprise people. So I thought I'd do the same.

1. Espresso has less caffeine that regular brews.
2. “Irregardless” is not a word.
3. It’s illegal to pump your own gasoline in New Jersey.
4. Old people have sex.
5. OTC drugs kill.
6. It gets cold in Florida.
7. Heart disease, not breast cancer, is the number one killer of women.
8. Hard work often goes unrewarded.
9. High school is no predictor of life success.
10.San Francisco has miserable weather.
11.There is no such thing as a “safe investment.”
12.It snows in April.
13. Hollywood couples divorce.
14. Politicians screw around (also).
15. “Reality shows” are fake.
16. Arranged marriages are as happy as love matches.
17. Our bodies age and betray us.
18. Iran once had a flourishing Jewish community.
19. Not all comics are Jewish.
20. Elite athletes take designer drugs.
21. The word “unique” requires no modifiers.
22. Very rich, really smart folk get taken by very rich, really smart con artists.
23. Our children heard what we were saying.
24. Just about everyone has taken a hit off a what?
25. Many otherwise sane intelligent people reject evolution.

And it would not surprise me if you could add 25 more...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Getting the photo

Whenever a tragedy, such as the most recent commuter plane crash, hits the airwaves I am grateful for my spot on the sidelines. The public has been shown in many studies to have little regard for us media types at such times. While it’s true my former profession has its major slezoids, even the most sensitive and ethical journalist has felt the sting of verbal abuse, slammed doors and threats.

The hard truth is that oftentimes journalists are the personification of misfortune. We show up when the last thing people want is to be asked questions or have a camera catch their countenance. I’ve taken my share of lumps at the hands of distraught victims who feel our mere presence as a violation. I don’t blame them. But almost everyone expects to read about such events and see images. How do you suppose they get into a newspaper? For every photo of a child whose life has been tragically lost there is a reporter given the dreaded assignment of getting the picture and talking with a grief-sticken family.

My first experience came on a frigid winter evening following a horrific accident. A school bus had run over and crushed a little boy crossing in front of it. To make matters worse, the child’s pregnant mother was watching, helpless. My experienced bureau chief, no fool he, assigned himself to the police station, sending me to the hospital morgue to “speak” to the parents. What the press is really after, though, is a photo of the victim, something to bring home the story to its readers.

The closer I got to the hospital, the more nauseous I became. How in the world was I going to do this? I thought seriously of turning the car around and turning in my press credentials, although it had taken me seven years to land a job on a daily newspaper.

I arrived at the hospital and stood shaking outside the swinging doors leading to the morgue, waiting. There was a TV on somewhere and I could hear strains of the “Jeopardy” theme. About 15 minutes later, a police officer came out. He noticed both my reporter’s notebook and my ashen face, took my arm and pulled me into a small private room.

“I’m here to see the parents and get the picture,” I stammered, looking him straight in the eyes. “Please, tell me they’re not here.”

Without missing a beat, he replied: “You just missed them.” (That family never did talk to the press, nor could the mother bring herself to testify in court.)

Several months later, it was a house fire started by a youngster who died in the blaze. This time, I managed to speak to the family and was given a framed photo fished from inside the charred remains of their home. Later, as I took the photo out of the frame to give to the photo lab, the smell of smoke was so overpowering I broke down and cried. It was the first of many such forays and tears. Without wanting to I became known as “someone who could get the photo” in instances of fatalities.

Young reporters are often advised to get to the family as fast as possible, that it’s easier for them while they’re still in shock. We also are told that most people really want to talk and that down the road, families often cherish these newspaper stories as a tribute to their loved ones. This may be so, but it never becomes routine for any of us. Many’s the time we frantically searched for a school yearbook or pleaded with a funeral director rather than come face to face with the grieving family,

It’s part of the job I relish leaving behind.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


A fountain pen is a time machine I can hold in my hand. Intimate and forgiving, the nib of a fountain pen is as far from a computer terminal as one can get.

As I wrap my fingers around its chunky body, I am once again 11 years old. a student at South Grove Elementary School in Syosset, Long Island. I live on the same block and walk home for lunch.

I am in the sixth grade. More importantly, I am in Mrs. Gold’s class. Mrs. Gold—a diminutive, exuberant woman of indeterminate age and unapproachable standards.

Those were the final days of penmanship, and Mrs. Gold believed its purpose could only be served by the banishment of the ballpoint pen. Of course, this was before the advent of the felt-tipped, roller ball ersatz fountain pens, all of which she would have abhorred.

In Mrs. Gold’s class, everyone wrote with a fountain pen. She felt it was the natural way to encourage proper writing form. For Mrs. Gold, form preceded function. She believed physical clarity would lead to mental clarity, and although I would have died rather than admit it at the time, she was right.

Today fountain pens have been relegated to a status item, pulled from a pocket or briefcase, its profile as recognizable as that of a Jaguar. What they contain in status, they lose in practicality. They leak into the pockets of custom-made shirts. They don’t work on the carbonless paper that clutters our life and times. They can’t send e-mail.

So what?

Picking up your fountain pen is like sliding into a well-worn pair of shoes. The wearing down of the nib is as individual as fingerprints. It not only fits; it fits only you. That’s not something to shrug off in this mass-produced world. As someone who made her living tied to a computer, I can say with some authority that it’s just not the same as taking pen in hand. Perhaps that’s why I still write my journal the old-fashioned way, by pressing pen to paper.

I can pick up a journal from any year and tell my emotional state just by the handwriting of a particular entry. Was I pressing down in a fury or skipping lightly across the page with joy? Was I rushed or wallowing in the luxury of time? I cannot imagine writing a love letter, a condolence letter or even a “Dear John” letter with anything else. Yet, at the same time, I could not imagine writing my newspaper column on anything but a computer, so I crank it up as I wait.

I find myself unexpectedly spending a Friday evening in February in the surgical waiting room at Princeton Hospital. They say my father’s emergency surgery for a bowel blockage should take about three hours. It takes in excess of four. As my mother leafs through a newspaper and fidgets nervously, I find myself shifting mentally back and forth in time. I’m not sure why I come up for air in Mrs. Gold’s class.

Maybe because it was the last time I felt really carefree, really sure of myself both physically and mentally. I awoke each morning sure of my place in the scheme of things. Mrs. Gold saw to that. And if I came up short, there was always that tall, strong and handsome dad who could make anything right.

Then came junior high and later the complexities and shades of the adult world. One in which fathers get old and frail, and where, if things are to be made right, it’s up to you to do it yourself. In that real world, things sometimes go too wrong for anyone to make right—even dads, even doctors. So, I cling to the illusion of a safe harbor, a quick trip back to Mrs. Gold’s class and the time in which certainty flourished.

The day after surgery my dad sits up in bed and kisses me goodbye as I leave for home. He is about to try and walk a few steps. I smile and wave as I walk out the door. I’m home about an hour when the calls start. One by one, his organs are shutting down, my mom says. Before I can return, I answer the phone to hear the surgeon’s distraught voice: “Roberta, I don’t know what happened. He’s gone.” At that very moment, all I want is to go back in time, to really give my dad a serious hug as he went into surgery, instead of shrugging off his emotional embrace. That was February 11, 1995. And in the past 14 years, these feelings have only grown.

What I need is a time machine, one I can hold in my hand. I need to go back to tell them--Mrs. Gold and my dad—thanks for the priceless gift of childhood security, a shield for all my days on this earth.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

25 random things about myself

As part of a fb informational game of "tag" this is my list of 25...Thought I would post it here also for you who opt out of facebooking.
1. My birth made medical history.
2. My brother & I were born exactly 2.5 years apart to the day.
3. When I was 11 years old, my parents overheard someone ask “Who is the new teacher?” as I narrated the 5th grade Christmas pageant.
4. I once accused Judy Garland of stealing my songs.
5. My first full sentence, spoken at a year old, was “Leave me alone, Bobby!” Bobby is my cousin.
6. I love the taste of burnt sugar, especially on the bottom of chocolate chip cookies, the result of a faulty oven when I learned to bake.
7. I continued to wear a size 36B bra years after I had outgrown it, because it never occurred to me I would wear a size larger than my mother.
8. I never reached my mother’s height, nor did my brother grow as tall as our dad.
9. I know an amusing insider anecdote about shooting the bedroom scene between Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in the film Don Juan DeMarco.
10. At age 13, attempting to go without my glasses, I said hello to a mailbox on the way to the pool at Kraus’ Bungalow Colony in the Catskills.
11. However, my vanity saved my sight, as later that morning, a stiff wind knocked a poolside umbrella into the corner of my eye, necessitating a bloody ride to the emergency room for 6 stitches into that spot with nothing to kill the pain. Doctors say if I been wearing my specs, I’d likely have lost the use of at least my left (my good—ok, my better) eye.
12. I never attended a high school dance of any kind, including a prom.
13. I hate scary amusement rides and films.
14. I once worked polishing brass at a refinishing shop.
15. The screen saver on my computer is a photo taken by my daughter of a rainbow over the boardwalk in Spring Lake, NJ.
16. My ancient TR3 sports car broke down so much I ended up marrying my mechanic.
17. I put sugar on my French Toast.
18. I can sing the complete score to scores of musicals.
19. I’ve had several benign conversations with Stephen King.
20. I rung up Ben Stein’s purchases which included several doggy magazines, and opened his mints for him. We exchanged pleasantries.
21. By this time of year I am desperate for a REAL rye bagel.
22. I scored in the 30% in clerical ability on my high school aptitude test. (This comes as no surprise to any of my former editors out there, who argued as to whether my typing was worse than my spelling or vice versa.)
23. I never make my bed.
24. I have always been a Yankee fan, even when I lived in Brooklyn with the Dodgers.
25. I taught drama, creative writing and a lit to film course as a part-time teacher at a private school when I first moved to Sarasota.

Your turn...

Monday, February 2, 2009


Just the word itself is among the most divisive we have here in the old U.S.A. For some of us it’s among the longest 4-letter words in history.

The release of that word from bondage became the first formal act of our new president, a significant yet mostly symbolic gesture. Yes, abortion counseling is now available to those outside our borders receiving U.S. aid dollars, but none of those greenbacks can be spent actually providing the legal service.

It got me pondering the subject once again.

When I was an 18-year-old freshman at Bard College in the 1960s, abortion was still an illegal, dangerous and often fatal whisper in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution. Even the newly minted birth control pill was no absolute safeguard.

I know this first-hand as I stood by and watched the agony of my roommate, who drove to Canada for the procedure. It so traumatized me that I stopped menstruating and had be given a shot to shock my reluctant hormones back into action.

I take note here of the recent passing of Constance E. Cook, 89, a former New York State assemblywoman who is not exactly a household name, but should be. In 1970, she co-authored the law legalizing abortion in the state three years before Roe v. Wade.

Thirty-six years later and the country has made little peace with it. Because even though an abortion is legal, it is not without consequences—and that isn’t necessarily bad.

One would think, that at my age, abortion would be an abstraction. That would be a mistake. Over the past year, I watched as two families close to me struggled under its weight.

In one case, tests showed an anomaly, the extent of which could not be determined until birth, but could have produced profound disabilities. This young couple, chose to end their first pregnancy with much anguish. And the sadness and grief reverberated up several generations

The other couple had one in-vitro child, and after much effort and failure with high tech reproduction found themselves pregnant with twin girls. Almost from the start, there was concern that one of the babies was Downs. The couple decided there would be no “selective reduction” regardless, so the only tests allowed were not invasive—yet, still cutting edge.

As the pregnancy progressed, each test (including a sonogram) revealed more evidence of the genetic abnormality. Weeks before the delivery, the last hopeful doctor succumbed to the “inevitable.” Peace was made within the family. Then came the birth—of two perfectly normal children who are continuing to develop as they should.

In matters of childbirth, one size does not fit any. The following column, written by a much younger and strident me, received many comments from both sides. I offer it here for your consideration:

My sisters: You have the right to remain celibate. If you give up that right, any and all sexual intercourse – protected or not – may result in pregnancy.

You have the right to an abortion, if you can find a physician still willing to perform this legal procedure.

You have the right to be escorted into an abortion clinic under a hail of insults and accusations. Once inside, you have the right to fear that some self-righteous fanatic with access to fertilizer may blow the place up.

You have a right to be demeaned by so called “abortion counseling” – whether you want it or not. At which time you will be informed of the “alternative” to abortion, which every female over 10 years of age knows is a baby. Perhaps you will even be treated to the sight of fetuses preserved in glass jars.

You have the right to be patronized by being sent home like an errant child for 24 hours to think it over, something which, of course, would not occur to you otherwise.

You also have the right to endanger your life by having medical decisions regarding late-term abortions interfered with by the state.

Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you? Before you say yes, think. Have you really considered the consequences of allowing this erosion of our right to reproductive choice?

If you are smart enough to shudder at the above, you have the right to seethe at the contemptible treatment women are receiving at the hands of our government.

Make no mistake. This isn’t about fetuses or medical procedures. Behind all the hysteria of the anti-abortion movement and the sophistry of our politicians lies a woman’s right to control her own life. It’s that simple.

All the equal-pay-for-equal-work laws, all the Title IX regulations, all the sexual harassment suits in the world mean nothing if we have no control over our own bodies. There is no freedom for women that does not have reproductive choice at its base. None. Nada. It’s kind of hard storming the barricades for equal rights while barefoot and pregnant.

This is an age-old battle. In the early years of this very century, delivering contraceptive information was a crime. Margaret Sanger went to jail for helping women whose destiny it was to conceive child after child until they died young and exhausted. (And I don’t want to hear any that “they didn’t have to have sex” donkey dust. Women were not permitted to deny husbands their “conjugal rights.”)

As far as I’m concerned, Sanger was among the first of the pro-lifers. She supported women already born, women whose very existence was endangered. So do I. I am pro-choice, therefore pro-life. I honor the choices that all my childbearing sisters

I respect those who believe abortion is wrong for whatever reason. They deserve the utmost in emotional and financial support--and not just until the child is born. Women who eschew adoption should not need to fear that they and their child will be abandoned. Our investment in a child’s life begins, not ends, at her birth.

Those who choose to end their pregnancies deserve to feel safe and supported, not hounded by those who disagree and hamstrung by government red tape. They should be respected as adults, not treated as children who need to be protected from themselves by bureaucrats.

The issue is not what decision is to be made, but who should make it. Those whose bellies and feet swell, whose backs ache, whose breasts harden with milk and whose wombs contract in labor have earned the right to make that individual choice unfettered. In that way, the hand that rocks the cradle can finally rule her own world.