Thursday, December 22, 2016

Welcome to "Hey, You Never Know"

Welcome to “Hey, You Never Know,” a blog about sharing my reflections as much as it is about seeking more opportunities. Feature articles, columns, books... whatever!

Articles that follow cover such topics as recording dreams, the most famous musical no one knows, my mother's private journal,
Merv Griffin's agenda,  George Plimpton's liquor cabinet,  Romeo's doctor, a mad Irving Berlin, and many others. At the bottom right of every page there's a place to click for
 
Older Posts. I hope you feel compelled to do so. 
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The Dream Machine

 One day will we be able to record our dreams at night and play them back in the morning? But will we really want to? 


           Ask almost any neuroscientist if one day we will have a Dream Machine to fool around with—some sort of mechanism and aligned procedure to record our dreams at night and play them back the following morning—and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll tell you we already can do that.
I’ve asked, and that’s what I’ve been told.
But what I’m talking about is recording the actual dreams we dream, scene by scene, and playing them back as easily as plugging a flash drive into a laptop. That, alas, is not what the neuroscientists are talking about.
            Do I have a right to be annoyed at these highly trained science professionals? No, I do not. Their work is truly extraordinary and will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of the human brain which, in turn, will ultimately help our species in countless ways. And yet, here I am being annoyed. As one who finds dreams an endlessly fascinating universe unto itself, I have been envisioning a Dream Machine for at least the last 30 years—half my life. Which makes me think that I’m really annoyed not at the neuroscientists, but at myself, for refusing to fully appreciate what they have accomplished—or at least for giving what they have accomplished second billing to my own whimsical Dream Machine. How self centered can one man be?
            On the other hand, can you really blame me? After all, just imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning and replay the entirely sane conversation you had in your sleep the night before with the nutty grandfather who passed away 18 years ago. Or to see yourself finally decorating that enormous Manhattan loft you’ve been fantasizing about ever since attending a party in one when you were in college.
Of course, if we are going to imagine all that, we must also consider the possibility of seeing ourselves strolling naked through a busy hotel lobby. Or trying to understand why a tall, white-tuxedoed orangutan is walking down the street with his head down. Or enjoying a mutual full-body massage with, say, Diane Lane.
            Which begs the question: could a Dream Machine also be hazardous to our mental health? Or to our marriages? Are there reasons why it might not be a very good idea after all?
            Sadly, it is far too premature to even debate such questions simply because we are merely outlining the preamble of what will one day be an encyclopedic discourse on the wonders and mysteries of the dreaming human brain. We’re not there yet.
                                                                 

  The fact of the matter is that we don’t even know if dreams are actually filed away in any parts of our brain, such as (as would seem to be the most logical place) the parts that handle memory. Nor is there decisive evidence that we are actually dreaming what we end up thinking we’re dreaming, or that our dreams occur when we think they are. At least one leading researcher hypothesizes that dreams are created in our minds the instant we awaken—that a seemingly ten-minute storyline actually took less than a microsecond to unfold just before sleep ended.
            The only thing we know for sure is that at some time, and in some way, we do dream, and that our dreams appear to be stories made up of moving images. So at the very least it is reassuring for a Dream Machine dreamer like me to know that neuroscientists have been studying the brain’s relationship to images. That’s a vital step. It is equally important to note, however, that by and large these studies have to do with observing which parts of our brains get excited when we visualize certain ideas or are shown various pictures; the studies have not been designed to capture and record dreams. Put in ridiculously simplistic terms, neurons in our brain become more animated in response to certain images and ideas; documenting enough of this excitement while matching it to outside stimuli—photographs, for instance—allows scientists to guess what a person may be thinking about or what they are looking at the next time they watch his neurons go nuts. On the surface, that has very little to do with my Dream Machine—but then again, Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in 1961 was hardly suggestive of a manned moon landing eight years later, yet there is no question that Shepard’s flight paved the way. Perhaps paving the way is what today’s neuroscientists are doing for tomorrow’s Dream Machine.   

*

There are two projects in particular that the neuroscientists with whom I consulted were talking about when they unintentionally teased me with the existence of a Dream Machine. The projects were conducted by two sets of researchers, one in California and one in Japan. Both teams used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines—fMRIs—on willing subjects (including themselves) to build a map of where particular images likely reside, so to speak, in the brain. fMRIs are giant magnets that measure neural activity by detecting changes in blood oxygenation and blood flow. Parts of the brain that, for whatever reason, become more active than other parts consume more oxygen, which in turn requires more blood. fMRIs show where this happens. If a subject is shown a photo of, say, his beloved mother, the fMRI can detect which neurons become more animated when he sees that particular  image; then, if those same neurons become active again when the subject in question is merely thinking to himself without outside influences, it may be possible to deduce, without even asking, that at that very moment he is thinking about his mother.
            

            Not much beyond oxygenation and blood flow can be measured by an fMRI, rendering the technology’s further usefulness for something like a dream machine dubious at best.
In 2011, researcher Shinji Nishimoto, along with Jack Gallant, who now runs his own laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley where he studies the structure and function of the human visual system, worked on a series of experiments in which they watched movies while an fMRI scanned their brains. They correlated the brain activity patterns to the movie images, then fed the information into a computer. When Nishimoto and Gallant watched a different movie and scanned their brains at the same time, they instructed the computer to deduce what actions or images they were seeing. The results were reported as encouraging in terms of reconstructing correct images and ideas from their brain activity. The operative phrase, however, is reconstructing, not recording.
            Following the Nishimoto/Gallant experiments, on the other side of the world Yukiyasu Kamitani and his team at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto did similar experiments with fMRI imagery on people when they were sleeping. (Kamitani recently founded a new lab at Kyoto University.) The team monitored neural activity, and then, when an electroencephalogram (EEG) indicated that they may be dreaming, they were awakened and asked to describe what they thought they were dreaming. The researchers then correlated the subjects’ recollections with the fMRI scans to come up with a dream map, or what they called a dream-trained decoder. With this method they attempted to deduce what the people were dreaming even without waking them. It was reported that 80 percent of their deductions were correct—although still, all we have is their post-sleep recollections to go by, not an actual recorded dream.
Jack Gallant was quoted in the journal Science News for Students last year saying that “Although fMRI provides the best non-invasive measures of brain activity (and so the best decoding), it is an extremely expensive technique... Therefore, future brain decoding devices that are both portable and non-invasive will be based on other technologies such as MEG.” (MEG stands for magnetoencephelography, a direct non-invasive measure of brain activity that does not require magnetic fields; Gallant adds, though, that MEGs would not be terribly useful for anything involving imaging since it does not provide sufficient spatial resolution.)
            To my way of thinking, the question is not whether or not we’ll one day build a better decoding device, but whether or not we will discover where in the brain, and how, dreams are stored, if they’re stored at all, and whether or not there’s a way to get them out of there. Do brains, in fact, stockpile audio-video files of everything that happens in our lives, whether they happen consciously, like what happened at work the other day, or otherwise, like in a dream?
            “Everything is too strong of a word,” says neuroscientist Marvin Chun, whose work at Yale (in addition to teaching psychology) involves the study of how to improve memory, perception and decision-making. The brain, he says, “certainly forgets, and it certainly lets some things go; otherwise it would be chaotic. The brain has to maintain a balance, and has to be able to continue to learn new things while remembering old things.”
            Does that mean that the reason a Dream Machine might be unable to locate some of our dreams is because our brains self-clean? Is that why we don’t remember many of our dreams? Maybe there’s a good reason. “Do we want to interfere with that?” posits Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience and business at the Kellogg School of Management and the Long Island Jewish Medical Center’s Department of Neurosurgery. 
            Adding to the chorus of those who see the impediments to my Dream Machine is James Fallon, a professor of psychiatry & human behavior whose neuro research concentrates on stem cells, brain chemistry, and higher brain function. He asked me to imagine thinking about or even dreaming about a cup filled with wine. “There are ten places in the brain just to form [the image of] the cup,” he explains—in addition to a dozen other places in the brain that could have something to do with the cup’s relationship to the wine. “Pretty soon you’re involving thousands of connections—at a micro scale, millions and millions of them. So now you’re talking about a daunting problem,” the problem being the implausibility of doing the comprehensive measuring or mapping necessary to make full dream reconstruction precise, let alone to making dream capture possible.


Ian Wallace, an acclaimed Edinburg-based psychologist who specializes in dreams, presents the same reasoning for his skepticism of a Dream Machine: the sheer number of neural connections involved in dreaming. His doubt stems not exclusively from a technological perspective, but also on the way he believes that dreams are generated by the brain in the first place. “The brain is almost more active during dreaming than it is in waking life,” he notes. The parts of the brain most likely involved in the formation of dreams, he reasons, have an incalculable number of places to look and search for signals. “I think there are more neural connections in the brain than there are stars in the known universe. Literally trillions of them. Trillions of combinations.” Right now, even IBM’s Watson would have a hard time dealing with that in any endeavor to find, record and play back dreams. 
            What’s more, even if dreams are stored in the brain, individual elements of the story may jump from one part of the organ to another. That would make any attempt to record and replay a dream as difficult as recreating the exact pattern that a handful of pebbles makes when they hit the water after being tossed into a lake. Professor Cerf says we even recall daily experiences differently each time we think about them or retell them, for much the same reason. Something that was pleasant when it happened to you can end up being a terrifying memory. So who’s to say that if ever we get to record and play back our dreams, one that was pleasant when we first dreamt it won’t be a nightmare when we play it back? Do we really want to have a Dream Machine to offer decisive proof that that can happen? Isn’t life hard enough?
            Shinji Nishimoto, who worked with Jack Gallant and now studies visual and cognitive processing of the brain at the Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNET) in Osaka, offers further evidence of the infeasibility of tapping into dreams. “Given that we sometimes experience the same dream multiple times, there might be some neural mechanisms that induce the same (or similar) dreaming brain states,” he says. “Controlling such states, however, is beyond current technology.”  
            On one hand, the views and  remarks of professionals like Fallon, Wallace, Cerf and Gallant seem to suggest that I should go to sleep and say a permanent goodnight to my Dream Machine. On the other hand, there are several comments from a few of them, and others, that give me a snippet of encouragement. Fallon told me that the prospect of a Dream Machine does exist, though he also suggests that quite likely “nobody will ever pay for it,” simply because, as previously noted, the dreams potentially captured and replayed may not necessarily be the ones we originally dreamt. Who would want to invest in something that? That would be like investing millions of dollars in the Segue. Or Trump Steaks. Chun says that “With more advanced technology we will probably be able to pull out more [from the brain] than anyone is able to tell you or that is apparent. Yes,” he concedes, “this is logically possible as well.” And Gallant adds that any device ultimately developed “that records and decodes dreams will also be useful for other things, and in fact will be developed for those other things first.”

*

            Okay, so let’s say that my Dream Machine becomes a reality one day. Fine—but as previously discussed, there undoubtedly would be an excess of ethical problems to go along with it. Will recorded dreams be able to be used against us? In court, for instance? Should they remain entirely confidential as a way for individuals to privately remember people, places or things they have long forgotten yet long to remember? Would society—business, entertainment, healthcare, law enforcement—allow dreams to remain entirely private?  

          
  In some ways dreams are like movies: they are not real, but are based on elements of reality and possibly have a little internal direction, production design and editing thrown into the mix. It will likely surprise no one that movies come up often in any serious discussion of a Dream Machine. “All science fiction movies are inspiration for my research,” states Marvin Chun. James Fallon adds, “When I was a teenager I was into marine biology and other things, but then I saw ‘Charly.’ When I saw that, that put the hook in me. Watching that movie changed me.” That 1968  film, starring Cliff Robertson in an Academy Award-winning performance, was about an intellectually challenged man who undergoes experimental brain surgery that transforms him into a genius.
            Many movies that touch upon this subject matter actually deal more with memories than dreams. Although there are countless movies in which the audience is treated to someone’s dream, few if any involve recording them and playing them back. Two of the most recent films that touch on the subject, 2015’s “Self/less” with Ryan Reynolds and 2016’s “Criminal” with Kevin Costner, concern one person assuming the memories and emotions of another (which I suppose conceivably could involve dreams—though that isn’t covered in either movie). In the ill-fated “Brainstorm” in 1983 (Natalie Wood died in a drowning accident while the film was in production), a scientist played by Christopher Walken develops an equally ill-fated machine that enables a participant to experience the feelings, thoughts, fears and pleasures of someone else—including that someone else’s sexual tryst, the images of which are turned into the equivalent of a continuous loop that ends up being a nonstop orgasm. (Forgive this brief digression, but I'm pretty sure I have a friend or two who would love to combine that notion with a dream about Diane Lane.) A year after "Brainstorm" came a movie called “Dreamscape,” in which Dennis Quaid plays a character who, because of his psychic abilities, is recruited by the government to get hooked up to dream-sharing device to save the President of the United States. The device falls into the wrong hands, of course. The final dream in which Quaid participates, like the movie itself, falls into complete silliness as it reaches its inevitable conclusion.
            “I think dreams belong in the mind and not outside the body,” says stage and TV director Kenny Leon, whose 2014 Hallmark Channel film “In My Dreams” is about two people who have never met—except in their dreams, which makes them realize that they are destined to meet in real life. “I think trying to capture dreams and put them on a machine sort of takes away the beautiful part of dreams,” says Leon, who directed the 2004 Tony Award-winning stage revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Denzel Washington. “Dreams are a beautiful landscape.” But one, he implies, that should be relegated only to sleeping.
       

     If it wasn’t a movie that attracted a researcher to this topic, chances are it was one of those beautiful landscapes. 
            “I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, since I was a tiny child,” recalls dream psychologist Ian Wallace. “The first memory I have is of a dream. The reason I do what I do now is because there are so many misconceptions about dreaming.”
            I can find no solid evidence that anyone is currently looking for a way to find actual dream ‘footage’ in the brain and a way to hit a replay button of some sort. But that is not to say that neuroscience is standing still. Quite the contrary. The neuroscientists introduced above are still working on remarkable experiments, and there is also much work being done with AI (artificial intelligence) and thought control by such companies as Google (through its Deepmind Health initiative), IBM (through its WatsonPath project) and others. Since 2013, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the government entity formed after the 1957 launch of Sputnik in part to spark American innovation, has been involved with many brain initiatives, including projects that use ultra-miniaturized devices to help the human body heal itself, devices to help amputees feel natural sensations, and more.
            All this is exciting and important. But right now, and for the foreseeable future, seeing myself naked in the middle of a crowded hotel lobby will remain just a dream.
            And that’s probably a good thing. 

END
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Love Springs Eternal: The Story of Mom's Journal 

I thought I knew my mom. When she died in February 2016 and I read the journal she left behind, I realized there was another side to Renée Samberg I didn’t know very well at all. I wish I had; there would have been a lot more to talk about whenever we spoke on the phone.

Mom as a young woman
Mom was a devoted—and beloved—wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and a caring cousin and friend to many. (She had more than twenty first cousins, and through the years kept in touch with most of them.) She was funny, both by design and chance. Just ask anyone in my immediately family about the time she fretted because she didn't have a sweater when a tornado was on the way.  She was stubborn, exceedingly frugal and superstitious. She found it difficult to talk about sad things, and steadfastly refused to face harsh realities. She swam in clichés, sayings and adages. “What will be will be” and “This too shall pass” were not timeworn chestnuts she searched for to end a discussion, but part of her normal, everyday dialogue. She was a simple woman entirely comfortable in her simplicity.  

That’s the mom I knew. The journal, however, reveals a woman of much more reflection, insight and complexity. Fortunately, it also bursts with clichés, for without that, I might have thought she plagiarized the whole thing.

Mom began her journal in 1996, when she was 66 years old and still living in the house in which I was raised, in Westbury, Long Island. My dad, Jerry, had just sold his air-conditioning and heating business and was newly retired. When he passed away in 2008, mom moved to a senior condominium in East Meadow. Heart problems and other age-related ailments followed soon after. I wanted her to stay active, for the sake of her body and her mind. I tried to get her to join clubs, but she resisted. I begged her to start one of her own—maybe a genealogy club of some sort, I suggested, what with such an interesting family history to share: her parents were from a stetl in Poland; she had a poor but pampered childhood in Brooklyn; she married into an even poorer family whose patriarch, despite the poverty, had a few hit songs on the radio. I told her to write a book about her life, but she rejected the idea.

At the very least, I wanted her to enjoy her retirement savings. Mom had once talked of traveling to Israel, but after dad died, she refused to go. She blamed her health, but I knew it was the money. For her, nest eggs were to never be used. She worried the funds would run out one day—and that there would not be anything left for her family when she passed away.

As the years went by she obsessed more and more about the way she looked, and about the march of time. She knew that march was relentless and inevitable, but she fanatically despised it anyway.

With her health continuing to fail and all her beloved older relatives dropping like flies (a cliché I’ve decided to use out of respect for her memory), mom grew ever more dependent on my sister and me. For the last few months of her life I called her almost every evening (my home is three hours from East Meadow), but cut almost every conversation short. Why? Because I found it hard to accept the stubbornness and frugality without a fight, believing as I did that such traits prohibited her from improving her outlook, and therefore the quality, of her life. I cut them short because to me the clichés she loved so dearly were merely excuses for an unwillingness to delve deeply into ideas and opinions. The clichés seemed to feed the aloof persona which, being aware of her academic history, I knew was merely an adopted persona, not one inborn. I hung up quickly so that I wouldn’t get mad. She was too sweet for that.

Mom and her first great-granddaughter, Veronica
Mom died in February at the age of eighty-five, shortly after a stroke.

The journal—two spiral notebooks—was found buried in a desk drawer in her condo. It isn’t long; just 88 pages written in two- or three-paragraph bursts between 1996 and 2008. But within it are numerous examples of a mom who could tell wonderful stories, who admits to her romanticism about staying young and her obstinacy about what age has done to her looks, who raves unabashedly about her family and her grandchildren, all of whom she loved so dearly that it genuinely pained her not to be able to see them more often, and pained her even more when they were out of sorts.

What is not in the journal is the mom on the phone. Frankly, the one in the journal is slightly more interesting. Why did she relegate that one to the journal and not to our conversations? I don’t know. Perhaps only a psychologist can address that adequately. I’m trying not to let it bother me; after all, I never doubted how much she loved me and my family, and knowing who she really was is comforting. But I’m still a little confused by the whole thing, and sometimes I get upset.

But this too shall pass.

Here are some excerpts:

Count Your Blessings

Oprah says to keep a journal and list five things every day that you are grateful for. Well, obviously, the first thing would be my family. Another thing would be air-conditioning.

I wish I could write a script and have things go the way I wrote. Wouldn’t that be nice? But life isn’t like that. Somebody else writes the script and we have to go along with how it plays out. What will be the outcome? Who knows?

I would like to be able to paint, like Louise [her cousin’s wife, and one of mom’s best friends], or write a novel, or sing like Beverly Sills, or even cook like Martha Stewart. What talent do I have? None that I can think of. I can shop. I can clean. I can make a brisket. Maybe that’s enough.

Mom & dad on their wedding day
[My parents took the family on a few Jones Beach outings; here she refers to a chat between my daughter and my nephew.] I remember overhearing Celia asking David, conspiratorially, if he was “eating dinner over grandma’s house” as she was to do. It was like Jerry and I were the prize at the end of the day—to eat dinner at our house was such a treat! I will treasure those memories. I selfishly wish they could always think of us that way, but I know that’s not realistic. It was nice, though.

Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite

I have trouble sleeping sometimes. I worry. But that’s nothing new. Will Jerry and I be able to make it on just Social Security when our payments stop? Fear of the unknown. That’s what gets you.

I hope I live to see my great-grandchildren. [She did. Three of them--and was aware of two others on the way.]

I wish I could tell people how I really feel. But I can’t. I wish I could just say what’s on my mind. I’m not good when it comes to making my case. I probably could write it better than I could say it. Sometimes I feel like I can explode.

[My maternal grandmother, Sophie, was a towering presence in all our lives, and mom frequently talked about her.] Why do I wake up in the middle of the night and feel such panic? When I was a very little girl and would have nightmares some nights, I would cry for my mommy. Occasionally my mom would allow me to sleep in between her and my daddy. What an incredibly safe feeling that was! She always had this wonderfully soft feather quilt and the feeling of luxury and being absolutely protected was something I can never forget. When I was older and too big to sleep with mom and dad, I was still sometimes frightened by nightmares. I would lie there afraid to fall asleep again, until I heard the milkman clatter up the steps and leave the milk box by the door. Once I heard him, I wasn’t afraid anymore and could peacefully fall back to sleep.

Mom's journal
Now you have to worry about buildings falling down, and anthrax.

Please God, help me to be strong and healthy. I do not want to be a burden to my children.

Oh worry! Worry! Worry! Thy name is Renée.

Put on a Happy Face

For the past few days I haven’t been feeling my usual, happy, chipper self. Don’t know why, just feeling, shall we say, a little bit “down.” O.K. Snap out of it! Put on a happy face. Maybe it’s because sometimes there are times when I think I don’t look so bad. I have an enchanted mirror in my house. When I dress up and look in it I say, “Hey, not too shabby.” But then when I’m out and catch a glimpse of myself in a different mirror, I’m shocked. I can’t believe that old lady is me. Get a grip.

When I was in my twenties and thirties I knew I kind of was nice looking... On our G.E. trips [dad was a General Electric subcontractor] I had men flirt with me. It was a nice feeling. I kind of miss it. Sounds nutty, but it’s true. I’m so pathetic looking now, misshapen, wrinkled, yuk. I guess I’m mourning my lost youth. Oh well!! I just pray to God that we should all be healthy and happy, my family, my Jerry and myself.

My figure is so bad. Trying on dresses is the pits! I think back to when I was my granddaughters’ ages. Renée—get a grip!! Actually, I should get a girdle.

My cough is back. It was okay for a while, not too bad, but it seems to have gotten worse. The pulmonary doctor couldn’t find an answer for it. So after all the CAT scans and various doctors, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just an oddball. My cardiologist says my cardiograms are not normal. But they’re normal for me. My doctor says my blood tests are not normal. But they’re normal for me. My ophthalmologist says I’m borderline glaucoma. But that’s normal for me. My gastroenterologist says my colon is twisted in one part. But that’s okay for me. My cholesterol is high. But that’s my normal.
  
The Sands of Time

Did you ever see, in a movie, a calendar being flipped to show the passage of time? Well, that’s how I see the years going by... so fast....

When I was very young, in my childhood, I remember wishing the years away. I wanted to be out of school, which I hated. When did I start to realize that the years were going too fast? Was it when my children were grown and had children of their own? I guess the best answer is to make the most of what we have. Live each day to the fullest and all that baloney. I say baloney because there are days when there is just nothing going on.

Mom and her five grandchildren
I think back to my younger days when the children were young and life seemed so simple and innocent. I remember us all being in our car, going to the movies, or to a park. I loved those times. Where did the years go? You don’t appreciate what you have when you have it, as much as you do when you look back upon it.

I went to a Shalom Club meeting today. I was a little ill at ease because I didn’t know anyone except Kitty and Rudy [friends from the neighborhood]. But I met some interesting people. I looked at all those senior faces around me and tried to imagine how they all looked when they were young. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to these places. I see all these grey heads, wrinkled faces and old bodies and it dawns on me that that’s me, too. In my mind I don’t feel like them, but I know I am.

I really don’t think I’m growing old very gracefully. SHIT.  I look in the mirror and I look so old and ugly.

Do I look older? I know that it’s vain to think this way, but I realize that nobody has said to me, “Gee, you look nice” in a very long time. I guess because I don’t. But they can lie, can’t they?
                                                                                                                    
Life’s Greatest Blessing

I find it very hard sometimes to keep everybody happy. I wonder if it’s that way in all families. I suppose it is. I often feel like part politician, part psychologist, and part hall monitor.

The greatest joy I’ve experienced is watching and listening to my whole family, children, grandchildren, husband, sitting around the dining room table, talking, laughing, being silly, being loud, but having a good time

A grandmother’s love is unconditional

Sometimes I think that maybe it would be nice to live far away so that I don’t hear about the day to day trials and tribulations and assorted problems of the children and grandchildren. But then I realize that would not work out. My losses would not make up for any gain I might achieve. The thing is—you have to take the bad with the good and pray that the good greatly outweighs the bad. And so far it has, I have to say.

One of her journal doodles. A peek into her mind?
My heart is overflowing with love for all my grandchildren. Each of them has a special something that just melts me. Oh God. I want the very best for them. I want them to be healthy, happy, successful. I want that for all my family

It’s hard to describe the feeling of having your whole brood under your roof, but it’s a warm, safe, loving, satisfying feeling.

My Jersey crew is sick. [I lived in New Jersey at the time with my wife and three children.] I always feel crummy when I hear that. I hope and pray they get better fast, all of them. I think they are all too stressed out. Too much activity going on there. I wish I had the money to send them all on a nice Caribbean vacation so they could rest and soak up the sun. Do fantasies ever come true?

Hope Springs Eternal

I love this time of year. I know I’ve said this before, but I can’t help marveling at nature’s way of making everything seem so new and fresh. There’s just a hint of green in the trees, a promise of things to come. The yellow of the forsythia and the pink of the tree blossoms make it look like a baby’s nursery.

[Marilyn and Morty Goldstein lived next door to us throughout my entire childhood, and for years after that. They eventually moved to New Jersey.] Marilyn and Morty left me. But that’s alright. I know nothing stays the same. I’ll miss them, but I’ll get along. That’s life.

There is so much beauty in the world that sometimes it makes me cry. So many things that touch my soul.

I’m sitting here listening to Tchaikovsky and the music is stirring my soul. Oh God, it’s so beautiful. I am a dancer, leaping and swirling and feeling the music to my very bones. I feel the rush of cool air on my bare back as I move. The music engulfs me. There is such beauty in this world. There is also sadness, but that’s part of life too. Beauty, sadness, joy, love—all emotions of our lives.

New Year’s Eve was uneventful, but kind of nice. I really did not miss going out at all. It was nice being home in our warm house eating bought-in food (me, Chinese, Jerry, Italian). We wished each other  a happy New Year at 9 o’clock and Jerry went to bed. I got into my nightgown and watched television until the ball dropped. I felt very contented. And another year has slipped by.

Knocking on Death’s Door

I’ve started a new chapter in my life. My Jerry died on June 9th, 2008. He was in the hospital for three months and I sat with him every day of those months. Every day I told him I loved him and even when he couldn’t speak he conveyed to me that he loved me too. One day he pulled me down close to him and he kissed me on the nose. I will carry that with me forever.

Doris Day even made an appearance in mom's journal!
When you lose a spouse it’s like losing a little part of yourself. They say when you lose a limb you think you can still feel it. Well, that’s how I feel about Jerry. I can still feel him. Sometimes at night I think I hear him breathing. And when I get up in the morning I still can’t believe that I’m alone in the house. But where is he? Where’s his spirit, his soul? I’d like to believe it’s up in heaven—but where is that? Are we all just a bunch of molecules put together to form a human only to disappear when we die? There has to be more. There should be more.

I’ve lost so many people lately—my cousin Mike, Charles, Eleanor, Rita and Jack. My ‘golden circle’ has dwindled down to a dot. I miss them all and sometimes I think that grief just follows us around. But those of us still here, we just plod along as best we can.

Standing at the cemetery [at the funeral of her Aunt Helen], all of us freezing because it was so bitterly cold, I noticed how even in death the family is close-knit. All the graves of my aunts and uncles, my mom and daddy and my Jackie [her brother, who died in 1985], are so close together. I picture them all up in heaven looking down at us and commenting on who was there and how they looked. I often picture them in heaven at a big table, playing pinochle or poker, Uncle Ben, Aunt Betty, with Aunt Bertha, my mom and dad standing by kibbitzing and gossiping. Just like it used to be.
                                  
A Tale or Two Well Told

My mother used to do most of the driving. However, on the few occasions that my father did drive, she would constantly criticize him for this or that. “You’re driving too slow,” “You’re driving too fast,” “Stay to the right,” “Stay to the left,” “Start your turn...” My father, being the gentleman that he was, never said a word. I guess he got used to it. One day I had occasion to drive with him. Just him and me. He drove. We made small talk and it was a pleasant drive. When we reached our destination, he turned to me and said, “You know, you’re nice to drive with.” I knew what he meant, and we both shared an internal chuckle.
Mom and dad at my daughter Celia's wedding


[Grandma Sophie used to tell the story of how one of my mother’s teachers loved her so much that he gave her presents.] Okay, so you want to know the real reason my teacher gave me a present? I was in perhaps third grade, or thereabouts. We had a new man teacher, who I really didn’t care for too much. But he was new and I guess he was trying. I was always considered the smart one in the class. I never got below an A. One day we had a penmanship test. We had just learned to write in script. When we got to the R’s I wrote mine with a loop. This is how my mother taught me to write my name. My teacher wanted us to write it like without a loop. When he read off the marks and came to mine he said, “Renée: C,” or maybe it was a B, but it certainly wasn’t an A. The class immediately gave a collective gasp! The poor teacher looked alarmed. He thought he had made a dreadful mistake. Well, the next day, he hands me this present, a toy, I think, or a game. I thought it was kind of creepy, but my mother was ecstatic. So that’s the real story.
                                            
The Book of Renée

Age has the blessing of wisdom, which is not so great because very seldom is that wisdom taken hold of. We see mistakes being made and there’s not one damn thing we can do about it.

Look to the future! One day at a time! Count your blessings. And all that B.S.

Life is so fragile. That’s why we must embrace every day. 

I know what you’re thinking—that I should get a life! So I’m not on committees or in organizations. So what? I’m contributing by being a nice, law-abiding, pleasant mother, grandmother, homemaker. Not everyone can be president of Hadassah.

It seems to me I’m always complaining. It’s good I have this book to complain to.

[The following was written after we all returned from a vacation only to discover that my father-in-law had died while we were away.] Life is funny. One week you can be so very happy. Having fun. On top of the world. And then the next week you can be plunged into the deepest despair. 

There is such beauty in this world. There is also sadness, but that’s part of life, too. My philosophy is Live and let live. Don’t sweat the small stuff. People are not perfect, so don’t expect them to be. Be tolerant. Be happy. Be kind. Overlook the little faults. God, life is too short to be angry all the time.

                                                                              The End
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A Christmas Song Scrooge is Coming to Town

       The holiday season will soon be here. Forget about asking when the United States became a union of the insult tweets, unchecked narcissism, and conflicted national interests. Once the radio stations start getting into the holiday season it will occur to me yet again that an equally important question might be: When did Rod Stewart become the standard-bearer for great American Christmas songs?
    Last December I heard Rod on the radio singing “My Favorite Things,” "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and with Dolly Parton, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”.
       “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” is one thing. But pretty Christmas songs? Come on now. Rod's gravelly, meandering voice may have been perfect for “Maggie May” because it fit his personality and style. But you can’t say that about every song he puts on vinyl. (I know, I know, it’s not vinyl anymore; it’s bits and bytes. But I love saying the word vinyl. If you don’t like it, byte me.) If Rod wants to sing merry little Christmas songs, let him do it at home, in the shower, in bed with a big-bosom'd lady with a Dutch accent, if he'd like. But that doesn't mean the rest of us need to be subjected to it!
       I guess you can just call me a Christmas Song Scrooge.

 

                           

       Which brings me to my second Scrooge-like question: when did “My Favorite Things,” from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music,” become a Christmas song? Yes, I get it—it sounds like it's all about opening presents. But it's not! First of all, the show does not take place during Christmas. Secondly, in the original Broadway production, Maria sings the song in the church office of Mother Abbess, just before Maria is sent off to take care of the seven Von Trapp children. Maria and her boss are discussing things to think about to avoid trepidation and sadness; they are not discussing the joy of opening Christmas presents.
        Certainly that takes nothing away from the beauty of the song itself, at Christmastime or any other time of the year, for that matter. It’s just that when I hear it sung in a voice like Rod's (which sounds more like a lonely goatherd than a sophisticated crooner), I go a little nuts. After all, there are plenty of other versions to choose from. At last count there were about 40 recorded versions of “My Favorite Things,” including ones by Diana Ross, Tony Bennett, Vanessa Williams, Barry Manilow, Mary J. Blige, Luther Vandross and many others. Even the Carpenters recorded it—though their version never makes it onto the radio.
         Speaking of the Carpenters, that relates to my final bah humbug of the day: When radio stations do their Christmas song marathons, as they are doing now, we hear the same songs over and over and over again. Some of the most stimulating cuts are left out. When stations play the Carpenters, for example, we hear the same two or three songs that we hear every year--usually "Merry Christmas, Darling" and "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays." But the Carpenters recorded a few songs that are unique and intriguing that very few people know about. Like their ballad version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Stunning—but hardly ever heard on the air!
           I’d love to be a Christmas song consultant for a radio station.
           Then again, what the hell do I know? I would never have thought to put Bing Crosby and David Bowie together to sing a Christmas song. Yet, here's a YouTube clip with the two of them doing a duet on “Little Drummer Boy,” and as of this writing it has more than 4.6 million views! I might as well just sit in my car, shut up, and listen to one of the marathons. Because even Rod Stewart and "Merry Christmas, Darling" are better than the news and drive-time talk.

                                                     The End
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