Friday, January 5, 2018

"Prelude" to Red Apple Rest

     I have a note Scotch-taped to my Mac Airbook. It reads: "Everything on this computer is a story."
     My computer is my companion. It knows my innermost thoughts, what I make public and what I jealously hold close in my heart. It has fragments of conversations I've overheard in restaurant booths, restrooms, parks, and airplanes. It holds memories of childhood: a grandmother's hard-as-hockey-puck cookies; the exhilarating, yet scary feeling of riding a two-wheeled bicycle for the first time as my father let go and I sailed free; the lash of a buckle across my arms as my mother hit me with my father's belt for some small transgression; my grandfather teaching me to play Go Fish or walking me to school when I was little. Ordinary memories, extraordinary moments.
     When I was a child I had a diary with a tiny lock and key. When I was older I kept spiral-bound journals with stiff cardboard covers. I always wanted to be a writer. It was an impossible dream, but I was determined to make it happen. This is my story.
     It begins with my father. He was the bearer of gifts in our family, and my window to the world. At holidays and birthdays, and in times in between, he might bring home a special toy or a book. I loved to read. As soon as I was allowed to, at the age of nine or ten, I would walk alone to the public library every week, returning home with an armful of books. I had no real notion of how someone became a writer until I read the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, published from 1940 to 1955. The books tell the story of three friends growing up in Minnesota, and begin when the children meet even before kindergarten. As the girls grow, the language of each successive book swells in sophistication, culminating in Betsy's adulthood when she becomes a writer and marries. As I matured along with Betsy, my own dreams became more vivid. Yet I saw no way to make them real. 
     In the sixth grade, for my twelfth birthday, I was given a Royal typewriter by my father. As with so many occasions, he was absent from the small birthday party but the gift was there: a used, but sturdy heavy machine with a spool of red-and-black ribbon. Intentionally or not, my father nurtured my dream and gave me a substantive, three-dimensional tool.
     We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn in a neighborhood called Crown Heights. I could walk to Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball. I could walk to the large nature preserve of Prospect Park, with its lawns and woods, zoo and carousel, lake that froze over in winter for ice skating, and concert amphitheater. Or I could take a short bus ride to the main library at Grand Army Plaza, where I'd later get my first job, or to the Brooklyn Museum, where I'd later take life drawing classes, or Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, where later, when I was fifteen, in love for the first time with a boy who played trumpet in the high school band, we kissed in the rain.
     My father was a taxi driver, a man who read a lot, but dropped out of school after sixth grade. I thought he was brilliant, and I wanted to be like him. Free, independent, and a lover of life. On weekends he'd drive us into Manhattan, the "City." We'd explore museums, historical places, ethnic neighborhoods, cultural worlds beyond Brooklyn. New York City was a wondrous place in which to grow up, in that time, a place with riches that even people who weren't rich could afford to discover and luxuriate in.
     My mother was a housewife. While she had graduated from high school, my mother's role, like so many women of her generation and social status, was predetermined. She was economically dependent on and mostly subservient to her husband. She spent her time cleaning, cooking, shopping, lugging laundry baskets down to the basement washer and dryer in our apartment building, and ironing my father's undershorts, her blouses, and dresses for my little sister and me. I didn't want to be like my mother.
     My parents fought whenever they were together, which wasn't that often. My father worked late every night. He was never home at dinner time, mostly arriving after we went to sleep. My mother was angry all the time, short-tempered, anxious. She suspected that my father had affairs, and she was right.
     At sixteen, I was a senior in high school. I had completed all my required coursework in the fall semester, and by the end of that year, 1957, my friend Susan and I had completed all our requirements for graduation, and were done. We planned to apply for admission to Brooklyn College. It was out of the question for us to go elsewhere. Neither my family nor Susan's could afford to send us to an out-of-town school. Neither could most of our friends in that working class neighborhood, unless they applied for and received scholarships.
     When I told my parents about my plan to go to college, they were not happy.
     Why do you need college? Just get a job till you get married and have a family, they argued.
     No, I said. I wanted to be educated, I wanted to learn. I wanted to be more.
     Then become a teacher. You'll have summers off, they said. And get a job, they added, because you'll have to support yourself.
     Support yourself. The words rang in my ears. Yes, to be a writer is to be independent. To be a free woman is to be independent. I didn't know any independent women. But I was going to become one, whatever it took.

A Moral Compass

A Moral Compass
by Myra Gross Schoen

         For years there was one America. It was post-World War II. After the Holocaust in Europe. After the McCarthy hearings. During the Eisenhower years, when returning GIs could buy a house, go to college, raise a family, get a job.
         It was "I Love Lucy," "The Perry Como Show," then Dick Clark and rock n roll. Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys. It was the start of the '60s. We all watched the same television shows, all heard the same pop hits on the radio, read the funny pages across the country.
         But something happened. An awakening. The Vietnam War shook something loose in our society. Young people, children of those who'd fought in the last great war, a war that was supposed to end wars, thought they had the right to speak out, to speak up. They didn't like the new war. Where there had been consensus earlier, a mainstream that described, defined, the United States, now there were factions, conflicts, diverse tastes, disparate ideologies, distinct and different dreams and visions of what constituted freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
         "Papa America..." In a sense this is the notion everyone believed in, respected, venerated, obeyed. But it had been shaken. Not everyone agreed anymore on what was patriotic, on what were the fundamental values of our society.
         And into the '60s and beyond, more and more subgroups broke from the mainstream. You could tell by their music, their artistic expressions, their life choices and goals. Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, hipsters, hip-hop.
         Civil rights, ERA, pro- and anti-abortion, birth control pills, AIDS, gays opening closet doors. The life-stream of America was changing. As it became more open, it also became more raw, more vulnerable, more fractionalized. The divide between the right and the left widened, grew more raucous and less rational, often denying the possibility of a civil conversation.
         With technological advances - cable television, the Internet - and almost inevitable globalization, life in the United States and around the planet has become increasingly more splintered. Populations are shifting, moving from inhospitable places to live more civilly and peacefully to other, seemingly more stable and safe, places.
         People rooted in their home places have become frightened of these displaced others, digging in, fearing that their own traditions and culture, their well-being, their security are being threatened by outsiders.
         Around the globe and here in the United States, the modern seat of democracy, life has never felt so anxiety filled. It's as if someone turned over a rock, and slugs and worms and bugs have been unearthed, causing an upheaval of apprehension, distrust, and revulsion. And this chaos is fertile ground for dictators.
         Gone it seems is the humanity and compassion, gentility and civility, kindness and charity that once defined our America. Where is that spirit that led us to greatness of being? Those core values that inspired other nations to find democracy? Where are our leaders? Who will bear the moral compass we so desperately need to make us once again the United States of Being?