Tag Archives: personal history

Personal History – Epidemics in my Life – COVID19 #1

I was (sort of) born during an epidemic. I was born in 1949. According to an article I found, polio (infantile paralysis) was rife in the 1950s, and there were 60,000 cases in the United States in 1952. Three thousand victims died. How many more were left unable to walk and dependent on wheel chairs, crutches, etc?

One of my earliest memories was the arrival at my home of school aged children for tutoring by my mother. These were polio victims on the road to recovery. Some wore leg braces. My mother’s job was to help them catch up on their school work. She enjoyed teaching them. I was supposed to stay quiet and out of the way.

In 1955, Jonas Salk introduced a vaccine and thousands of children became “Polio Pioneers”, the first large group to be vaccinated. My sister, three years older than me, was vaccinated at school. I was too young for that cohort. My parents were worried. They arranged (somehow) for me to get the shot from a physician married to a friend of my mother. I was driven to his house one evening for the injection.

So polio was not an issue in my life after age 6! Very fortunate, since we lived need a lovely public park with an enticing pool. I would happily have played there all day, every day. Over time, I spent MANY summer days there, eventually joining the swim team, marinating in the chlorinated water and earning money for college working as a lifeguard. Once in a while, my mother would remark that it could have been different. That we could have stayed home all summer, fearing polio. Perish the thought!

Our public schools operated on a schedule that was supposed to “break up epidemics”. Instead of a long Easter break, we got a week off at the end of February and another week-long break eight weeks after that. Sometimes it didn’t work. I remember concerns over Rubella, aka German measles, which led to high absenteeism when I was in middle school. I never caught it, but thought I must surely have had a subclinical case. Nope. Decades later, when I told my OBG I wanted to start a family, I was tested and found to lack immunity. I accepted vaccination before trying to get pregnant. I remember controversies (1981?) over County Public Health testing employees for immune status and requiring vaccination of employees who worked with the public.

Growing up, I seemed not the get influenza when it was epidemic. I had at least two cases, one around 1961 and another in the summer of 1969. One year in college, I was wandering, dazed, through endless registration lines when my path was blocked by a person with a clipboard, demanding to know if I was allergic to chickens or eggs. Startled, I denied any allergy. Bang! Shot in the arm. An early influenza vaccine!

I suppose many of us are using our time in COVID19 “social distancing” quarantine to ponder our health histories and how they might have been different without various medical advances. I’m so glad my children have been spared at least five diseases from which I faced risk.

Personal History – Things I Believed When I Was Little

I stumbled across an internet post (was it on BuzzFeed?) in which people shared the crazy, impossible things they believed when they were kids. After all, some things just don’t make sense until someone explains. The anecdotes were roll-on-the-ground funny. So I decided to write up some of my own…

I used to think our neighbor’s house was painted BLACK inside. That’s how it looked from outside. (I was never invited in.) Finally one evening I glanced through a window and realized our neighbor had brightly colored wall paper and LIGHTS, just like us!

Once I heard my Dad greet the same neighbor by saying, “Hi, Oldtimer!” The only “timer” I knew anything about was that gadget in the kitchen that my Mom used to decide when food was fully cooked. I began to wonder about our neighbor. Did she TICK? Was she going to go PING? I watched. Nothing happened.

I was taken to the Yale University Museum to see the dinosaur exhibit when I was maybe three years old. For years after that, I assumed that dinosaurs had no skin or innards. Just bones. Scary! I might have been 10 before I understood about skeletons.

For several weeks in December, 1954, I believed the world was going to end. Seriously. We didn’t own a TV, but I watched a little at my Aunt Kay’s house. There was a program (early precursor to the Twilight Zone?) that showed an abandoned house with some weird “radiation” (like the sine wave on an oscilloscope) running through it. I thought it would happen at my house, come New Year’s Day, and that the vibrating wave was going to kill me! Why at New Years? No idea!

What about you? Any stories to share? I’ll probably think of more…

Memoir – the Columbine High School massacre, April 1999

I found this document quite by accident. My computer, like my house, is cluttered with “stuff”, and I’m trying to get rid of some of it. I don’t remember writing this, but I find it to be entirely accurate and painfully relevant.

Why post it NOW? I’m under a general request (from a family member) to share memories. Every once in a while, I come up with something odd or interesting. “Write it down!” says my son. Okay… Another reason is that violence, especially among and directed towards the young, continues to prey on my mind. I follow the news, worry over loved ones, and recently overheard a conversation that disturbed my soul. More about that later. Maybe.

This is what I wrote in May of 1999, a few weeks after Columbine, when my sons, ages 9 and 14, went off to public school daily. I have not edited it in any way:

Since the disastrous murders in Littleton, Colorado, I’ve been thinking hard about schools, and one direction my thoughts have taken is the path of memory. What was it like to be a teenager? What worked and what didn’t in the school system I traversed? How did we get along? Who were the disaffected? The successful? How tight were our cliques? How hurt were our outcasts? I found one memory that seems to be important. It’s very clear and coherent. And I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone.

I was thirteen, sitting in math class. I was the kind of kid teachers want in class, well behaved and easily able to learn. I wasn’t “popular”, but I had friends. I was a “brain” in a town where that was mostly OK. I wore glasses and was a little off-the-mark in terms of dress and hairstyle, but nothing drastic. I was supported and protected by a home and community that were reasonably consistent in their expectations. There is nothing wrong with this picture. The important memory is what, in that idyllic time and place, I was thinking about.

Unfolding in my head as I sat there in math was a violent fantasy. I was very systematically destroying the school. I smashed (with a baseball bat?) everything breakable, overturned desks, savaged textbooks, broke windows. I was very, very thorough. I must have spent lots of time on this fantasy, to be able to find it waiting so clearly in my head, 35 years later. What was I so incredibly ANGRY about?

I don’t find an answer in any of the expected categories – abuse, change in family structure, etc. I think my problem was junior high school. After seven years in what is now called the “self-contained” classroom, we switched to a seven period school day. Ten different teachers when you add in homeroom, gym, etc. Three minutes to get from one place to another. I know I bitterly resented the regimentation, but I think my anger was based on the fact that NO adult knew me. Not the way (for better and worse) my elementary school teachers knew me. A kid with high test scores and a good behavior record merited no particular attention. All my other traits – creativity, capacity to love, longing for adventure – were ignored. And I was furious. The sociological term, I think, is alienation. I had a bad case of it.

To me the message of junior high (or middle school) is “You kids are poison”. Too nasty to be around the cute little tykes and not big and smart enough to mix with the high schoolers. What kind of a message is this for children on the brink of physical adulthood? Meaningful adult contact is lost and the peer culture moves into the vacuum. It was luck, not good rearing, that kept me from serious trouble.

From this derives my first suggestion for school change. Bring back the K-8 school. If its necessary to shift students around to fit the expertise of teachers, do it so a student has three teachers, not ten. Everyone says teachers “should have noticed” something wrong in Colorado, but a teacher who sees more than 100 students each day just isn’t going to.  Make seventh and eighth grade special by adding privileges and (much more important!) responsibilities. By eighth grade every student should do meaningful work for the school, and in a K-8 setting opportunities abound. Play and read with the kindergartners, run flashcard drills and clean up after art with the second graders, work in the Library and office. Plant a garden. Organize classroom parties and put on good assemblies. Eighth graders can do all this.

What to do about high school? I’m open to suggestions here – it’s time to try anything and everything. We know specialized schools work well in cities. Perhaps we should regionalize and specialize. Make high schools smaller – how about a top size of about 1000? Move some teachers along with the students when they enter high school. Selected teachers could alternate between 8th and 9th grades to provide continuity. Look for other opportunities to keep student/teacher groups together for more than one year. Increase guidance counselors and reduce teaching loads until meaningful mentoring is available for every student.

Why I Support Medical Aid in Dying – death of a friend

I remember…

Karl (not his real name) was my friend from 1975 until he died in 1997. He was a retired Professor of Physics and an avid tinkerer, installing solar hot water on his house in 1976! We were neighbors, and in lived in identical tract houses. Whenever something went wrong at my house (plumbing, or birds nesting in the dryer outlet), I called Karl and he told me how to fix it.

Karl and his wife moved away in 1987, but we kept in touch. Karl was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease around 1990. It was treated with some success, but inevitably, over time, it progressed. Karl hated dropping things, and stumbling. He detested the idea of losing his independence and wanted control of his fate.

In January of 1997, Karl shot himself in the head. This action was carefully and thoughtfully planned, though not explicitly announced in advance. He made sure his wife was not alone when his body was found.

Karl died alone, and he died by violence. These two circumstances were in total contradiction to his life and values. Karl was sociable and extensively connected to family and friends, and certainly he was never violent. What a shame that he had no better choice. What a shame that my memory of him is darkened by the grim thought that at least he got it right on the first try.

Please, listen to that again.  At least he got it right on the first try. Something is profoundly wrong when this is the best that a dying person can hope for.

I doubt that New Jersey’s new (and still controversial) Aid in Dying law would have helped Karl. Would any doctor attempt to project the life span of a person suffering from Parkinson’s disease? Possibly not. But, as medical science continues to prolong life, we need to consider and reconsider how best to support human dignity and autonomy at the end of life.

 To brighten my dear friend’s memory, a cheerful anecdote: One day I spotted Karl in the restaurant next to the local Post Office, drinking coffee. I didn’t have time to stop for a cup, but I dashed in. “Karl, let me smell your coffee!” I inhaled deeply over his cup – wonderful! We exchanged 30 seconds of news and I rushed off. Unfortunately, I was recognized by somebody as “that lady from the Health Department” and a rumor started that there was something wrong with the water, or the coffee, or the restaurant! I had to reassure anxious neighbors that no health department ever evaluated drinking water (or coffee) by smelling it.

Childhood Fears – The Bomb, Driver’s Ed and Amtrak

My corner of the internet is busy debating the impact of “active shooter” drills and other safety measures on the mental health of children. One author asked if any other generation of American children has known so much fear. Symptoms of anxiety are becoming widespread.

I remember my fear of The Bomb. I was born in 1949. By the time I was in elementary school, the Cold War was in full swing. The arms race was hot. By age 8, I participated in “flash drills”. I was taught to “duck and cover”, but it wasn’t at all clear what that meant. Protect the back of my neck? When the local emergency siren sounded it’s weekly test (noon on Saturday), I flopped down with my face in the grass with my arms protecting my head. I wasn’t frightened.

Things gradually ramped up. I lived near Hartford, Connecticut, and I was told Hartford was probably a nuclear target because of an aircraft factory (Pratt and Whitney). I knew that bombs were delivered by airplanes, so the air traffic in and out of Hartford’s Bradley Field and along the northeast corridor frightened me. Then I was told that the planes that delivered bombs were up so high that we wouldn’t hear them. This didn’t exactly help. I was afraid of invisible radiation.

Things came to a head one day. My mother was cooking dinner using the pressure cooker. (Nothing like having a bomb in your kitchen.) The valve got blocked. Fortunately there was a safety valve, which popped loose. The escaping steam made a loud, horrible, screeching, completely unfamiliar metal-on-metal sound. Assuming we had been bombed, I panicked and headed for the basement at a dead run. My mother intercepted me, explained the problem in the kitchen and helped me settle down. I’m lucky. No one mocked me. I’ve shared this as a funny story from my childhood. But it wasn’t funny.

We lived with fear. My parents, survivors of the Depression and World War II, didn’t tell us everything was going to be okay.

How did I “get over” my fear? I learned denial! Hey, we all use it. If we really thought about all the things that can go wrong in life, none of us would get out of bed. Surely we wouldn’t get into automobiles or airplanes. Not today, we tell ourselves. Not in my town. Not me. I first utilized denial the summer I was eleven. I was going to Girl Scout camp for two weeks. It’s hard to explain how happy and excited I was! And I thought “The Russians won’t drop the bomb while I’m at camp.” So I forgot about it, set it aside, and went off to spend two weeks in a tent. It was great. What’s wrong with denial, if it makes it possible to live with something you can’t change?  I knew perfectly well nothing had actually changed between the US and Russia.

I remember the controversy, when I was in high school, over gory auto accident movies. My high school offered Driver’s Education. Some movies went to extremes – showing decapitation, etc. Some teachers insisted everyone had to watch all the blood and guts. Other teachers allowed some students to be excused. I don’t remember the details. I wonder what is current practice. I do know there’s some educational research that may help those who make these decisions. Does putting a wrecked car in which a young person died in front of the high school reduce that chance of prom night tragedies? I wish I knew.

Here’s another experience I want to share, from the perspective not of a child but of a parent. The threat in question was train safety. Amtrak, understandably, wants to keep people (especially children) OFF THE TRACKS. One of their approaches (early 1990s) was to show a safety movie, and one target captive audience was children in schools near train tracks, most of which are not fenced. (Never mind that NO child in our town crossed a track to walk to school.) My son was traumatized. The movie was very upsetting. As a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity to see the film, and, yes, it was shocking. After some general safety discussion (don’t walk on the tracks, look both ways if you must cross), the film showed two children on the tracks. One has boasted that he will stand on the tracks until the train “almost” hits him. Another child tries to pull him off. With a roar and screaming whistle, the train thunders toward them and the screen goes black. I’ll bet my son wasn’t the only child to get upset.

A school shooting is a different type of threat. Parents and teachers are straining themselves to the utmost figuring out how to help and protect today’s children.

So much to consider… children need to learn train safety, fire safety, pedestrian safety, and now, some things about firearms. Our responsibility as adults is to protect children and, over time, teach them to protect themselves. It’s not easy.

We all experience fear. Parents and educators face incredibly difficult decisions. We need to talk.

We are all in this together. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

My relationship to nature

Robin Kimmerle, author of Braiding Sweetgrass (see my review dated March 5, 2019) has a relationship to nature which is different from mine.

Anecdote:

One day I hustled my son out of church because I saw a tick crawling up his neck. Having dealt with it, I was later approached by someone who asserted that ticks had a positive role in nature, a purpose. Food for birds? Feeling flustered and disgruntled (a good Mom keeps ahead of the ticks), I snapped “The only purpose of ticks is to make more ticks!” End of conversation…

This sums up my view: nature is WHAT WORKS. Birds don’t eat berries IN ORDER to spread the seeds of trees and shrubs. Said shrubs don’t produce berries IN ORDER to feed the birds. The birds and shrubs are there (wherever they are) because they can survive there. So when someone describes nature as “generous”, I feel skeptical. Beautiful, yes. Fascinating. But neither kind nor malicious. I love nature. I don’t believe that nature loves me back.

Memories of high school English with Mrs. Gerhardt (1964-65)

One day my sophomore English class convened to find, on each desk, a blank piece of paper. Our teacher wore a serious expression. “Today is lottery day”, she announced. We silently shuffled our mental files, arriving quickly at Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery that we had read earlier in the year. We looked at Mrs. Gerhardt inquiringly. She told us to turn over our papers – she had one, too. A young woman had the black spot. Another pause. Mrs. Gerhardt crumpled her paper and threw it at the chosen victim. We followed suit, littering the classroom.

There was a collective sigh… Release of tension? Discussion followed. The “victim” was asked how she felt. “I knew you wouldn’t really hurt me.” My high school did not protect us from controversial and potentially upsetting literature. Wikipedia tells me that The Lottery (published in 1948) was so unpopular and notorious that it was banned in some jurisdictions, and Jackson received hate mail. Some would define the theme as “it can’t happen here”.

How many teachers can teachers can plan a class that you remember FIFTY YEARS later? Mrs. Gerhardt was a wonderful, stimulating teacher. She took us seriously as readers and writers.

Sophomore year was reserved for American literature, with the usual deviations. Every year, we read one play from Shakespeare (sophomore year, maybe it was MacBeth), worked our way through a grammar text identified only by the name of the author (Warriner), and gobbled up vocabulary from a book calledWorld Wealth. We got SO good at grammar and vocabulary! That left at least 70% of our classroom time for other pursuits.

What did we do? We read! Sometimes we read plays. I was cast as the mother in Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Two boys with theatrical inclinations performed Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. And once each semester, we had a “Folk Day”. We prepared and shared whatever we wanted, so long as it had some relationship to American folk culture. This was in the day of the “hootenanny”, of folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary, of Bob Dylan. Folk Day was wildly popular. A friend and I sang an old English folk song, a love ballad, accompanying ourselves with guitar and recorder.

Searching for something that didn’t require a partner, I stumbled on the book Over Their Dead Bodies – Yankee Epitaphs and History by T Mann and J Green. Great! It qualified for Folk Day. But I had a problem. One of the epitaphs struck me so funny that I couldn’t read it aloud without cracking up. I de-sensitized myself by repeating it over and over, until I could recite it with a straight face. This planted it permanently in my brain:

Under the sod and under the trees

Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.

He is not there, there’s only the pod.

Pease shelled out and went to God.

Really?! Was the author kidding us? Has anyone else got such a silly bit of drivel stuck in his/her brain from decades ago? Please share under comments. Using Amazon, I confirmed that this book was published in 1962. Used copies are available! Genealogy fans take notice.

I already wrote about the journals Mrs. Gerhardt required of us. See my blog entry of July 8, 2016. Fifty years of my journal writing has been consigned to a reliable archive.

Another activity from sophomore English was the Book of the Month competition. I think it actually happened four times a year. This wasn’t just an oral book report. You had to “sell” your book as the “best” book, make everyone want to read it. The class voted, and two books (there were two sections of Honors English) would be posted as winners. Once I went all out. I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and plugged it as exciting and patriotic. And I won! But the other class, in a fit of mischief, all agreed to vote for someone who did a terrible job on a perfectly awful sounding book. Mrs. Gerhardt, offended, posted my name and winning title/author in lonely splendor on the classroom bulletin board.

Rest in Peace, Mrs. Gerhardt! You enriched our lives and kept us busily occupied through a year of adolescence.

If YOU had a wonderful teacher in high school, please share!