Author Archives: susanjustwrites

Declare Your Independence: Those high heels are killers

Following a tradition I began several years ago, I’m once again encouraging women to declare their independence this July 4th and abandon wearing high-heeled shoes. 

I’ve revised this post in light of changes that have taken place during the past year and a couple of new ideas I want to pass along.

My newly revised post follows:

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body. 

A few years ago, however, high heels proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press reported that two women, ages 18 and 23, were killed in Riverside, California, as they struggled in high heels to get away from a train.  With their car stuck on the tracks, the women attempted to flee as the train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly.” 

During the past two years, largely dominated by the global pandemic, many women and men adopted different ways to clothe themselves.  Sweatpants and other comfortable clothing became popular.  [Please see my post, “Two Words,” published July 15, 2020, focusing on pants with elastic waists.]

In particular, many women abandoned the wearing of high heels.  Staying close to home, wearing comfortable clothes, they saw no need to push their feet into high heels.  Venues requiring professional clothes or footwear almost disappeared, and few women chose to seek out venues requiring any sort of fancy clothes or footwear.  

But as the pandemic began to loosen its grip, some women were tempted to return to their previous choice of footwear.  The prospect of a renaissance in high-heeled shoe-wearing was noted in publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.   In a story in the Times, one woman “flicked the dust off her…high-heeled lavender pumps” that she’d put away for months and got ready to wear them to a birthday gathering.  According to the Times, some are seeking “the joy of dressing up…itching…to step up their style game in towering heels.”

Okay.  I get it.  “Dressing up” may be your thing after a couple of years relying on sweatpants.  But “towering heels”?  They may look beautiful, they may be alluring….

BUT don’t do it!  Please take my advice and don’t return to wearing the kind of shoes that will hobble you once again..

Like the unfortunate young women in Riverside, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whichever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave me cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were encased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself around the store.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride with pride to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I’d made.  When the event was over, I found myself stranded in a distant location with no ride home, and I started walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned three-inch high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing lower ones.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively, but I nevertheless managed to secure ample male attention. 

Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully and happily fended off the back pain, foot pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters often suffer in spades.

Until the pandemic changed our lives, I observed a trend toward higher and higher heels, and I found it troubling.  I was baffled by women, especially young women, who bought into the mindset that they had to follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy” by wearing extremely high heels.  

When I’d watch TV, I’d see too many women wearing stilettos that forced them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  I couldn’t help noticing the women on late-night TV shows who were otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wore ridiculously high heels that forced them to greet their hosts with that same ungainly walk.  Some appeared to be almost on the verge of toppling over. 

Sadly, this phenomenon has reappeared. On late-night TV, otherwise enlightened women are once again wearing absurdly high heels.

So…what about the women, like me, who adopted lower-heeled shoes instead?  I think we’ve been much smarter and much less likely to fall on our faces. One very smart woman who’s still a fashion icon: the late Hollywood film star Audrey Hepburn. Audrey dressed smartly, in both senses of the word.

I recently watched her 1963 smash film Charade for the eighth or tenth time. I especially noted how elegant she appeared in her Givenchy wardrobe and her–yes–low heels. Audrey was well known for wearing comfortable low heels in her private life as well as in her films. [Please see my blog post: https://susanjustwrites.com/2013/08/08/audrey-hepburn-and-me/….]

In Charade, paired with Cary Grant, another ultra-classy human being, she’s seen running up and down countless stairs in Paris Metro stations, chased by Cary Grant not only on those stairs but also through the streets of Paris. She couldn’t have possibly done all that frantic running in high heels!

Foot-care professionals have soundly supported my view.   According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a heel that’s more than 2 or 3 inches makes comfort just about impossible.  Why?  Because a 3-inch heel creates seven times more stress than a 1-inch heel.

A few years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle questioned a podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon who practiced in Palo Alto (and assisted Nike’s running team).  He explained that after 1.5 inches, the pressure increases on the ball of the foot and can lead to “ball-of-the-foot numbness.”  (Yikes!)  He did not endorse wearing 3-inch heels and pointed out that celebrities wear them for only a short time, not all day.  To ensure a truly comfortable shoe, he added, no one should go above a 1.5-inch heel.  If you insist on wearing higher heels, you should limit how much time you spend in them.

Before the pandemic, some encouraging changes were afoot.  Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, began to promote lower-heeled styles along with higher-heeled numbers.  I was encouraged because Nordstrom is a bellwether in the fashion world, and its choices can influence shoe-seekers.  At the same time, I wondered whether Nordstrom was reflecting what its shoppers had already told the stores’ decision-makers.  The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers were choosing to spend their money–-probably played a big role.

The pandemic may have changed the dynamics of shoe-purchasing, at least at the beginning. For the first year, sales of high heels languished, “teetering on the edge of extinction,” according to the Times.  Today, the pandemic may be a somewhat less frightening presence in our lives, and there are undoubtedly women who will decide to resurrect the high heels already in their closets.  They, and others, may be inspired to buy new ones.

I hope these women don’t act in haste.  Beyond the issue of comfort, let’s remember that high heels present a far more serious problem.  As the deaths in Riverside demonstrate, women who wear high heels can be putting their lives at risk.  When they need to flee a dangerous situation, high heels can handicap their ability to escape.

How many needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

Gen Z shoppers can provide a clue to the future. They largely eschew high heels, choosing glamorous sneakers instead–even with dressy prom dresses.

My own current faves: I wear black Sketchers almost everywhere. I occasionally choose my old standby, Reeboks, for serious walking. [In my novel Red Diana, protagonist Karen Clark laces on her Reeboks for a lengthy jaunt, just as I do.] And when warm temperatures dominate, I’m wearing walking sandals, like those sold by Clarks, Teva, and Ecco.

The Fourth of July is fast approaching.  As we celebrate the holiday this year, I once again urge the women of America to declare their independence from high-heeled shoes. 

If you’re currently thinking about returning to painful footwear, think again.  You’d be wiser to reconsider.

I encourage you to bravely gather any high heels you’ve clung to during the pandemic and throw those shoes away.  At the very least, keep them out of sight in the back of your closet.  And don’t even think about buying new ones.  Shod yourself instead in shoes that allow you to walk in comfort—and if need be, to run.

Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[Earlier versions of this commentary appeared on Susan Just Writes and the San Francisco Chronicle.]

The wage gap is still enormous

You’re probably wondering.  Wage gap?  Huh?

This isn’t a sexy topic, but it’s troubling, and it’s not the first time I’ve written about it.  There are certainly more compelling topics to discuss right now (e.g., gun safety, the persistence of Covid), but I want to focus on this today.

 Five years ago, in July 2017, I noted my concern with the CEO-worker wage gap [https://susanjustwrites.com/2017/07/31/random-thoughts-ii/].

What was bothering me?  The CEO “pay ratio” was standing at 271-to-1.

I was looking at the Economic Policy Institute’s annual report on executive compensation released on July 20, 2017.  According to that report, chief executives of America’s 350 largest companies made an average of $15.6 million in 2016, or 271 times more than what the typical worker made last year.

Yes, the number was slightly lower than it was in 2015, when the average pay was $16.3 million, and the ratio was 286-to-1.   And it was even lower than the highest ratio calculated, 376-to-1 in 2000.

But, as I pointed out, before we popped any champagne corks because of the slightly lower number, we had to remember that in 1989, after eight years of Ronald Reagan in the White House, the ratio was 59-to-1, and in 1965, in the midst of the Vietnam War and civil rights turmoil, it was 20-to-1.

In 2017, I wanted us to reflect on those numbers.  To think about how distorted these ratios were and what they said about our country.  I asked, “Did somebody say ‘income inequality’?”

Why am I writing about this issue again?  Because this week Andrew Ross Sorkin reported in The New York Times that the average pay gap between low-wage workers and the CEOs of their companies is still enormous.

Sorkin reported that, according to a brand-new study by the Institute for Policy Studies, the median pay for workers at companies that tend to pay low wages was, thanks to inflation,  up by 17 percent,.  But that raise was dwarfed by the rise in CEO pay, which rose by 30 percent at those same companies.  The lead author of the study “Executive Excess” noted, “this could have been a time when companies used rising profits to level the playing field.  Instead,” said Sarah Anderson, “we haven’t seen a very big shift in pay equity.”

Further, CEOs did even better at companies where salaries didn’t keep pace with inflation. The study looked at median workers’ wages at about a third of the firms in the study, firms whose wages did not keep pace with inflation.  The average CEO pay at those companies was up by 65 percent, or more than double the increase at all of the firms in the study.

One company in this group was Best Buy, where median pay fell two percent last year (to $29,999), while the CEO, Corie Barry, got a 30 percent pay increase to $15.6 million.  Barry may have done a bang-up job, but the huge difference in pay is pretty stark.

Hey, Best Buy, I just bought some stuff from you.  If I’d known that my purchases have led to this vast inequity in pay, I’d have thought twice about giving my business to you.  I don’t like to think that such a big chunk of your profits, including those derived from customers like me, went straight to your CEO instead of to your workers.

Is there any possibility for change?  There may be a glimmer of hope.  Sorkin’s report also noted that the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) could possibly move in that direction.  According to Sorkin, a group of former regulators (including two former SEC commissioners) have asked the SEC to issue new rules illuminating this disparity. 

The petition for this rule-change contends that “investors need more information about what companies pay workers,” and it urges the SEC to propose new rules requiring companies to disclose how much they’re investing in their workforces.

The two former SEC commissioners (Joseph Grundfest and Robert Jackson) have, in the past, often had opposing views.  They noted, “We differ in our views about the regulation of firms’ relationships with their employees generally.”  But, they added, “we all share the view that investors need additional information.”  The group stated that the current accounting and tax rules make “investing in machines more attractive than spending on humans.

Right now only about 15 percent of public companies disclose their labor costs. The proposed rules would require that companies disclose their labor costs (and no longer lump them in with other expenses).  They’d also require companies to provide detailed workforce compensation data, including information on the breakdown for contract, part-time, and full-time employees.

So we may be able to clearly see the current disparity in compensation.  If these new rules are endorsed by the SEC, we could see much more transparency in workers’ compensation because data revealing who earns how much would be revealed for everyone, including investors, to see.  

At least some investors could then make choices that would benefit workers’ compensation.

The goal is achieving greater equity.  I think that many if not most investors would welcome a move in that direction.  As Virginia’s Senator Mark Warner, who supports the petition, says, “No one can credibly argue that this type of disclosure wouldn’t be valuable or material to investors in a highly competitive, 21st-century, global economy.”

My Fight for Reproductive Freedom

Thanks to the recent leak of a draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court, the news has been filled with stories about the future of women’s reproductive freedom, guaranteed to American women since the 1973 Supreme Court opinion in Roe v. Wade.

As a young lawyer, I fought for reproductive freedom over 50 years ago.  My co-counsel and I (working as an attorney with the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictive 19th-century Illinois abortion law in February 1970. 

We argued for and won a TRO (temporary restraining order) allowing a Legal Aid client, a Black rape victim, to have a legal abortion in March 1970.  And after oral argument in September 1970, we ultimately won a hard-fought 2-to-1 decision by a three-judge court in January 1971.  You can probably read the court’s decision online.  Doe v. Scott, 321 F.Supp. 1385 (N.D.Ill. 1971).

In brief, the court held that the Illinois statute was “an intrusion on constitutionally protected areas…women’s rights to life, to control over their own bodies, and to freedom and privacy in matters related to sex and procreation.”  

I later filed an amicus brief in Roe v. Wade, arguing specifically on behalf of poor women. 

I’m currently engaged in a writing project that focuses on Doe v. Scott.  I plan to answer questions like these:  What led me to stand up for women’s rights, including those of poor and minority women?  How did my experience as a federal judge’s law clerk enable me to pursue a class action of this kind?  And how did our case actually proceed to victory in the conservative federal court in the Northern District of Illinois?

I still have a great deal of work to do to complete this writing project.  It will not be a commentary on the current direction of the Supreme Court, which appears headed to sweep away five decades of women’s reproductive freedom.  It will instead focus on what happened up until 1973, and it will stop there.

In the meantime, I plan to continue to add a new post to my blog about once a month.

PACIFIC BEACH: An unforgettable year (Part IV)

My baby was due in early May.  One Friday close to my due date, I underwent a procedure in my doctor’s office called amniocentesis.  It involved plunging a needle into me to extract fluid proving that my fetus’s lungs were sufficiently mature.  It was painful, briefly, and there was a danger of piercing the amniotic sac, but skillful Dr. Blank carried it off with aplomb.

I felt fine when it was over, and Marv and I took off for a beautiful afternoon in Balboa Park.  We strolled through the park until we came across the Spanish Village Art Center, a collection of small buildings designed like an old village in Spain.  It was originally built in 1935 for the second California Pacific International Exposition, and a group of dedicated artists had turned it into a permanent art center. Artists have continued to preserve and enhance it. 

We happily encountered a watercolor artist, Frances Steffes, who was showing some of her paintings, including one of La Jolla Cove.  After chatting with her, we decided to buy this watercolor, which captured the beauty of a spectacular spot in La Jolla.  The painting now hangs in the home of the baby I gave birth to two days later.

Dr. Blank had warned us that amniocentesis might hasten the birth, so we took it easy on Saturday.

I woke up around 4 a.m. on Sunday. The process had begun.  As a high-risk primapara, I was worried that things might not go smoothly, so I needed to get to the hospital right away.

Marv and I phoned Dr. Blank and left for the hospital.  At that time, Scripps Memorial Hospital arose in the middle of a still largely undeveloped tract of land in La Jolla.  We were ushered into a room where my progress was monitored by a rather brusque nurse until Dr. Blank arrived.  Although I had increasingly painful contractions, I was told that my labor didn’t “progress” well.  Because of my high-risk status, Dr. B didn’t want labor to continue indefinitely, and at noon he decided to deliver my baby by C-section.

Now we began to wait for an operating room.  I was in agony, wondering exactly what was causing the hold-up.  We were finally told that only one operating room was available on Sundays (that was somewhat surprising), and another operation was in progress.  A male baby had a “bleeding circumcision,” and we had to wait for it to be surgically repaired before I could be moved to the operating room.  The surgeon who had caused the flawed circumcision must have been desperate to repair it to secure his professional reputation. 

All this time, I was having intense labor pains, along with accompanying worries about my high-risk status, and the waiting seemed interminable.  (I could comment here about gender-bias, but I won’t.)

Finally, I was moved to the operating room. An anesthesiologist gave me a spinal injection that killed my pain, and he and I chatted while Dr. B deftly performed my C-section.  When Dr. B announced, at last, “You have a beautiful baby girl!” I burst into tears, deliriously happy tears running down my face.

As soon as I was moved to a room, Marv immediately rushed to my bedside (fathers weren’t allowed in operating rooms), joyfully telling me, “She’s the prettiest baby in the nursery!”  By this time, Marv and I had decided on a name in memory of his late mother.  I’ll call her Felicia. 

We were extremely relieved to learn that Felicia had no signs of diabetes (or any other ailment), and my own gestational diabetes had vanished as soon as she was born.  It reappeared only briefly during my next pregnancy and then once again disappeared.  I’ve been lucky to have been spared this awful disease.  So far, at least.

Mom arrived from Chicago to join our newly-created three-member family when we left the hospital.  Her cheerful stay was brief but helpful.  After she left, Marv and began to focus on our new life.  Tammy and Norm volunteered to be our first babysitters, and we took them up on it and left for a quick bite at Bully’s.

Breastfeeding, a/k/a nursing, was a challenge.  At the time, breastfeeding wasn’t universally adopted by new mothers.  But I was determined to try.  I constantly returned to another well-thumbed paperback by an author who strongly endorsed it.  Just as she warned, it was painful at first, but I persevered, and it was worth it.  I loved holding Felicia in my arms, nurturing her with milk produced by my own body.  I still think that breastfeeding is an astounding experience that every mother should at least attempt, and I was delighted that both of my daughters followed my lead and breastfed their babies.

At home with my baby, I was able to watch the televised impeachment hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee, which began on May 9th.  By June, Woodward and Bernstein had published All the President’s Men, its astounding revelations creating a firestorm.  Tricky Dick was clearly in big trouble.

Going for long walks with our baby smiling at us from her carriage, Marv and I began to look at houses. We weren’t certain that we had a future in La Jolla (he had only a one-year appointment as a visiting professor), but we thought we might as well look, right?  I remember seeing a house in La Jolla that listed for $40,000.  It was in a not-so-desirable part of town and probably wasn’t much of a house, but looking back even a few years later, I realized what a great investment any piece of property in La Jolla would have been. 

Unsure that we’d stay, we unfortunately couldn’t consider buying it.  We didn’t have a lot of spare cash, and we needed to save what we had for a future home, wherever that might be. 

Marv and I got adventurous, taking our baby to a restaurant for the first time.  Our choice was La Rancherita, a small Mexican place on La Jolla Boulevard.  Dinner there was a breeze.  Felicia slept through the whole thing.

We tried our luck again a few weeks later.  We headed for a terrific Italian restaurant in Pacific Beach.  But our luck had run out.  This visit was a near-nightmare. Although Felicia was a happy baby who almost never cried, here she cried the entire time.  The only positive thing that happened: A woman diner asked me her name, then told me she’d given the same name to her own daughter.  That made me feel a tiny bit better.

Aunt Sade and Uncle Sam reappeared, driving down from LA, and we ate at a splendid seafood restaurant in La Jolla called Anthony’s. While we ate, we all gazed at the entrancing Felicia.  I was delighted to see Sade and Sam again at our joyous reunion, and I looked forward to another one. 

Life was blissful.  Although we knew we might have to leave our magical life in La Jolla, the prospect was too awful to contemplate.  But one day Marv had to relate very bad news. 

We’d been hoping that his one-year appointment at UCSD would be extended.  But his mentor, an older professor who (as I recall) headed the math department (I’ll call him Jay), was leaving.  A native of the Netherlands, Jay had taught at American universities for decades.  But his second wife missed her home in Europe and was eager to return.  For whatever reasons, Jay accepted a position in Amsterdam. 

This was shocking news.  Jay had invited Marv to UCSD because he greatly admired Marv’s work as a mathematician and relished sharing ideas with him.  I think Jay would have made sure that Marv remained his colleague at UCSD.  But Jay was departing, and his influence no longer held much weight.   

So although Marv was at the top of his field (he’d already earned tenure at the University of Michigan), the rug was suddenly pulled out from under him when Jay announced he’d be departing for Europe. 

Marv began searching for another job in California.  But it was too late in the academic year to secure a new faculty position, and other attempts to find a meaningful position for someone of his academic stature didn’t pan out.

So together Marv and I bravely faced facts.  We’d have to leave our idyllic new life in La Jolla.  We knew that the math department at the University of Michigan would welcome Marv back with open arms, so it made sense to return to Ann Arbor for one more year. 

Our new baby was totally dependent on us, and it was imperative that the three of us stay together.  I sadly had to forgo the prospect of returning to my Legal Aid job in San Diego.  I knew that I would continue to pursue my own career, but I never for one second considered looking for a job that would separate me from my adored Marv or my beautiful new baby or both.

Together we would move back to Ann Arbor.

We began packing.   While we packed, we put Felicia, comfy in her baby chair, on the floor near us. We discovered that she liked to kick brown paper grocery bags, watching the empty bags move and listening to them make noise, so we placed bags where her tiny feet could reach them.  This effort kept her happy while we filled up cartons with our stuff.

As we packed, Tricky Dick Nixon faced his own grim future.  On July 24th, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to deliver tape recordings and other materials to the district court.  The walls were closing in on him.

Then, between July 27th and 30th, we learned of two other developments:  The House of Representatives issued Articles of Impeachment, and Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape was disclosed.

Around August 1st, Marv and I flew back to Ann Arbor (via Detroit) with our not-quite-three-month-old baby.

While we stayed at Ann Arbor’s Briarwood Hotel, looking for an apartment, we had one consolation for our move:  On August 8th, Nixon announced his resignation in a televised speech (he officially resigned and left the White House the next day).  Watching his humiliating speech on TV, Marv and I celebrated by ordering steak and champagne from hotel room service.

An even more significant and lifelong consolation:  Our baby.  Felicia sustained us through everything we dealt with during the next year in Ann Arbor.  Flooding my memory is the agony of pushing her baby carriage through daunting piles of snow and ice that winter.

This darling new person in our life sustained us until the following spring, when Marv accepted an excellent job offer from a university in Chicago.  Being in Chicago would be an exciting departure from Ann Arbor.  Soon we used our spare cash to buy a house in the leafy lakefront suburb of Wilmette. 

No, it wouldn’t be La Jolla.  It wouldn’t be Pacific Beach.  But our new home in Wilmette meant the beginning of a beautiful new life.

PACIFIC BEACH: An unforgettable year (Part III)

Something surprising happened in January.  Months before, I’d applied to work at the San Diego Legal Aid Society, but I’d never heard back.  Now I got a phone call asking me to come downtown for an interview. When I met with the program director, Steve H, I was visibly pregnant, but Steve liked my background working in Legal Services as a lawyer for low-income clients, and he decided to hire me part-time. 

I was thrilled.  I’d completed teaching Poverty Law at USD at the end of the fall term, reading final exams and papers and handing in my grades.  Starting a great new part-time job right now would work out perfectly.  Steve loved introducing me to everyone in the office, practically beaming because he, a steadfast liberal, had hired a pregnant woman.

I discovered that I could take a convenient bus downtown.  But when I met my officemates, one of them offered to give me a ride. Mike W, a single lawyer about my age, lived near me and picked me up on a corner close to my apartment. 

Mike W was a smart guy but totally unaware of how pregnancy worked.  Almost every time he gave me a ride, he fretted that I’d give birth in his car.  I had to keep reassuring him that first babies are never born that fast.  And of course mine wasn’t.

Working in the downtown office turned out to be a terrific experience.  I enjoyed my Legal Services work, interviewing clients and doing research at the downtown city library.  During lunchtime strolls, I was also able to explore downtown San Diego.  I discovered a great used book store and still own a vintage copy of Robert Burns’s poetry I found there. 

I also browsed at the big downtown department store, Walker Scott.  It reminded me of old-line department stores in other cities, like Chicago’s Marshall Field’s.  I remember the store was at that time promoting the forthcoming film, “The Great Gatsby,” featuring life-size photos of Robert Redford and Mia Farrow on full display.

One lunchtime, I entered Walker Scott feeling a bit tired, and I happily discovered a women’s lounge where I could put my feet up.  I returned there often.  One day I noticed a new mother nursing her baby, and I remember smiling and telling her how much I admired her.  At the time, I was busily reading up on how to nurse my own baby, and it was reassuring to see a new mother handling it so well.

Before I reluctantly went on leave from my job at Legal Aid (I’ll explain why below), the women in my office surprised me with a baby shower!  It was a true surprise because I never expected any of them to spend their precious time and money on me.  I think there was one other woman lawyer, whom I barely saw because she was so busy.  The other women were either administrative staff or secretaries, and most of them didn’t appear to have an extra dollar to spend this way.  It was a joyous event, and I treasured receiving gifts from these ultra-kind women.  A stuffed teddy bear from Mari became our baby’s first toy, landing in her bassinet as soon as she arrived home.  Another gift was a baby blanket, especially endearing because it had a noticeable flaw that identified it as a remainder purchased at a bargain store.  Buying even that was probably a stretch for my beautiful co-worker, and I loved her for it.

In March, I got some bad news.  A routine urine test revealed a high number for glucose.  I had to follow up with another, more serious, glucose test, requiring that I drink a revolting liquid.  The result was a shocker:  I was diagnosed with a complication of pregnancy, “gestational diabetes.”  

I didn’t even know that this complication existed.  It was NOT a complication described in my well-thumbed paperback copy of “Pregnancy and Childbirth,” written by the noted NYC ob-gyn Alan Guttmacher.  His book listed a whole lot of complications, but nowhere did Dr. G mention gestational diabetes.  (I do remember his advice for dealing with constipation:  Just relax on the toilet with a cigarette.  Oh, yes, his book gave that advice.  Luckily, I never needed to follow it.)

Dr. Blank sent me to a local specialist, an MD who was an expert on diabetes.  This man turned out to be a horrible practitioner of the medical profession. I had no problem with modifying my diet. That was no big deal.  But this MD also ordered that I begin having insulin shots once a day, and he arrogantly announced that I had to enter a hospital overnight to learn how to give myself injections.  Further, instead of trying to cheer me up, reassuring me that everything would go well, he warned me forebodingly:  “We’ve had some losses….”  What a miserable thing to say to a vulnerable pregnant patient.

My friends Lyn and Ted once again came to my rescue, dismissing the idea of my going to the hospital.  Instead, in their dining room, they taught me how to give myself insulin shots, using an orange as the substitute for my arm.  Former nurse Lyn told me that was how nurses learned to give shots.  I felt incredibly lucky to have Lyn on my side.

Marv lovingly took over giving me my needed shots.  But I was nevertheless depressed by the prospect of six more weeks of them.  Marv tried valiantly to make me feel better by reminding me of the biggest news story of the day:  Patty Hearst’s abduction in Berkeley six weeks earlier.  The shocking story had dominated local TV news.  “The time since then has gone fast, hasn’t it?” Marv asked me.  I had to admit that he was right.  Those six weeks had flown by.  I could survive six weeks of shots.

I had become and would always be a “high-risk primapara.”  Once I learned the meaning of “primapara,” a woman giving birth for the first time, I thought about writing a journal titled “Diary of a High-Risk Primapara.”  But I never got myself organized enough to do it.

Celebrating my birthday at the end of March became a wonderful break from our worries.  My nausea had lessened a great deal by that time, so Marv and I drove to Tijuana, where we had a scrumptious Mexican lunch and shopped at the outdoor vendors’ stalls.  Marv bought me a beautiful white crocheted shawl that I cherish to this day.  We then drove back to San Diego, where we devoured a delicious dinner at a fancy rooftop restaurant, Mister A’s.  (It’s still in business.)

Marv and I didn’t want to tempt the evil eye, so we put off shopping for baby clothes and furniture until just before my due date in early May.  But we anticipated needing a rocking chair for our new baby.  In a store near our apartment, we found a great Scandinavian-designed rocking chair, made with teak wood like the rest of our good furniture.  I later used it to rock my new baby, just as we planned.  I still own and treasure it.

In April, my diabetes diagnosis compelled me to take a leave of absence from my Legal Aid job.  The reason was borderline disgusting.  Please forgive me for describing it, and feel free to skip the following paragraph.

My doctors demanded that I collect my urine for 24 hours every day so it could be analyzed for a certain substance in it.  I was given giant glass jug-like bottles in which to save the urine, and I kept them in a bathtub in our apartment.  I was so dutiful in my collecting that whenever I left home, I would carry smaller bottles in which to collect smaller amounts, later adding them to the giant bottle. Usually accompanied by Marv, I would then drive to the UCSD hospital downtown to drop off the big bottles.  The whole process was exceedingly disheartening, but the final blow came when I began to lift a completely-filled bottle out of my bathtub, and the bottom fell out, spilling an entire day-long collection.  I sadly watched it all go down the drain.

At that point, I knew that I couldn’t keep up with both my job and all the medical demands on me, and it was the job that had to go.  My desire to give birth to a healthy baby overpowered everything else.  So I said goodbye to my Legal Aid office, assuring everyone that my leave was only temporary and that I planned to see all of them again after the birth of my baby.

Although my diagnosis of gestational diabetes was disheartening, and we couldn’t be certain of the outcome of my pregnancy, I felt pretty sure that the fetus growing inside me would put up a good fight.  This baby had to be strong.  It had survived all of my energetic dives into the hotel pool we’d shared with our friend Arlyn in Westwood.  (I’ve always believed that a weaker fetus might not have survived my vigorous diving.) 

The gap in my work-life balance was soon filled by another part-time job, one I could work on at home.  I’d already begun my leave of absence from my job at Legal Aid when I was recruited to bolster the Legal Writing program at USD law school.  I’d successfully completed teaching Poverty Law at USD at the end of the fall term, reading final exams and papers and handing in my grades.  Now a faculty member eagerly recruited me for this new job.  He brought me a big pile of student papers to review and grade by the end of the spring term.  I was happy to use my experience as a Legal Writing instructor at the University of Michigan Law School, a job I’d completed just before we left Ann Arbor for San Diego.  I dug into the USD student papers with relish, marking them up with my trusty red pen.  My hope, of course, was that my revisions and comments would help these students become better lawyers.

Meanwhile, Marv and I went back and forth, trying to choose a name for our hoped-for baby.  Picking a name for a boy was easy:  Marv’s and my father had both been named David.  But a girl’s name was much more challenging.  Almost every one that I liked Marv would veto.  While we continued to consider possible names, my friend Lyn gave me some useful advice:  Choose a name your baby will like.  She confided that she and Ted had named their son Ira Robert, but he was incessantly teased by other kids:  “I’m a rabbit, I’m a rabbit.”  They finally legally changed his name to Robert Ira.

                                                To be continued….

PACIFIC BEACH: An unforgettable year (Part II)

September brought a lot of changes. 

Just about the time I began teaching, I discovered that I was pregnant.  The relentless nausea convinced me.

I needed to find a doctor, an obstetrician I could like…and trust.  My new friends, Lyn and Ted, knowledgeable about health-care professionals, came to my rescue.  Once I confided my suspicions to Lyn, she immediately recommended a couple of doctors who practiced together nearby.

Nausea propelled me to make an appointment.  After a routine test confirmed that I was pregnant, I began taking a prescribed med, but it didn’t lessen my nausea very much.  So I began to resort to other remedies.  My best discovery was…date shakes!

Happily, I could get fantastic date shakes at a shack along La Jolla Boulevard where it bordered Pacific Beach.  Not only did I revel in the flavor and texture of the date shakes, but their cold temperature also chilled my interior, dramatically lessening my nausea.  So whenever I drove that route to USD law school, I’d stop for a shake.  Once I arrived at USD, I discovered something else:  As soon as I stood in front of my class, the adrenaline that kicked in also kept my nausea at bay.

I was thrilled to be pregnant, but I didn’t relish having “morning sickness” that usually lasted all day.  First thing in the morning, I’d toast English muffins and smother them with apricot preserves. They helped me face the rest of the day.  I also had a crazy craving for club sandwiches, and I remember phoning a bunch of local restaurants to ask whether their menus included my new favorite dish.

Like every ob-gyn, Dr. Blank (his real name) prescribed daily vitamins.  When I brought his Rx to the drugstore, the pharmacist handed me a bottle whose label instructed me to take four pills a day.  But the pills were gigantic.  I couldn’t bring myself to swallow more than one or two of them a day.  I just couldn’t.  But I worried about it.  Was I neglecting my future child?  During my next doctor visit, I revealed my dilemma.  Dr. Blank was appalled. The pharmacist had read his handwriting incorrectly!  I needed only one of those monster pills a day.  Phew! 

Marv and I began haunting Mr. Frostie, a venerable soft-serve ice cream shop on Garnet Avenue.  Soft-serve ice cream wasn’t as good as a date shake, but it was cold enough to work for a while.  Later I discovered a great place for maternity clothes: The JC Penney store on Garnet.

One more purchase on Garnet:  A sewing machine I bought at the Sears Outlet, where a kindly salesman cheerfully instructed me how to use it.  I’d actually first learned to use a sewing machine in junior high in LA when I was 12.  (I bought the fabric I needed at the May Co. store on Wilshire Boulevard that’s now the site of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.)  But my skills had eroded, and I was happy to revive them.  I proceeded to make easily-sewn creations like maternity tops, ties for Marv, and baby pants in a gender-neutral fabric.

That September, America witnessed an exciting event in the sports world:  “The Battle of the Sexes.”  Because the event was important in my own world, I wrote about it after seeing the 2017 film loosely based on the big event [https://susanjustwrites.com/2017/11/20/the-battle-of-the-sexes-one-more-take-on-it/].  Here’s a chunk of what I wrote:

When Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs on a tennis court at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, I was miles away in San Diego.  I’d just finished teaching a class of law school students about Poverty Law, and I was blissfully pregnant with my first child.

I was watching the clock, assessing how long it would take me to drive from the law school to our recently-rented apartment in La Jolla.  Waiting at home was my handsome and super-smart husband Marv, finished for the day teaching math students at UCSD.

We were both Professors Alexander that year, and I took delight in answering our phone and hearing a student ask to speak to “Professor Alexander.”  I’d respond:  “Which one?”

Marv had snacks and drinks ready for us to munch on and imbibe during the televised tennis match.  Nothing alcoholic for me.  Not because the medical profession had pronounced that alcohol was detrimental for growing fetuses.  I think that came later.  I avoided alcoholic drinks simply because I had no desire to have them during my pregnancy.

Was it instinct or just dumb luck?  When we later that year saw the film “Cinderella Liberty,” in which an often-drunk woman’s pregnancy ends in tragedy, my choice to avoid alcohol was vindicated.

I drove home with as much speed as I could safely muster, arriving in time to watch the much-hyped tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”  In the 2017 film, Emma Stone captures the Billie Jean King role perfectly, portraying not only King’s triumph over Riggs but also her initial uncertainty over her decision to compete against him and her continuing struggle to ensure that women’s tennis be given equal status with men’s.

Steve Carell carries off his role as Bobby Riggs in the film equally well, depicting the outrageous antics of the 55-year-old Riggs, who initiated the concept of the “Battle of the Sexes.”  But the focus has to be on Billie Jean, the Wonder-Woman-like heroine of her day.  By accepting Riggs’s challenge, and then defeating him, she became the mid-twentieth-century symbol of women’s strength and perseverance, advancing the cause of women in sports (and in American culture at large) as much as she advanced her own.  Watching the battle on TV, my hoped-for child growing inside me, I was ecstatic when Billie Jean defeated Riggs before 90 million viewers worldwide.

As my pregnancy advanced, I was frequently asked by complete strangers, “Do you want a boy or a girl?”  I’d answer “a girl” just to see the reaction on the faces of the nosey parkers who clearly expected another response.

I was in fact hoping I would give birth to a healthy child of either sex, but I knew that I would treasure having a daughter.  When my beautiful daughter was born about seven months after the Battle of the Sexes, and when her equally beautiful sister arrived three years later, Marv and I were on top of the world.

Did the endorphins circulating inside me as we watched Billie Jean triumph produce a feeling of euphoria?  Euphoria that led us to produce two Wonder-Woman-like heroines of our own?

Maybe.  Tennis, anyone?

Later that fall, thanks to an appearance by diva Beverly Sills on a late-night TV show, we discovered that San Diego had an opera company where Sills had performed, and we eagerly bought season tickets.  One evening, I shoved my nausea aside and dressed in an elegant long dress that still fit me and headed for “Le Nozze di Figaro” at a downtown theater. The performance was so thrilling that we rushed out and bought the LP the very next day.  The season was filled with four other excellent performances, but “Figaro” remained our favorite.

In November, Marv and I were invited to spend Thanksgiving in Chatsworth, a suburb of LA, with my Aunt Sade and Uncle Sam.  (I liked to call my sweet Aunt Sade my “half-great aunt” because that sounded funny, but she really was the much younger half-sister of my mother’s father.)  We drove to Chatsworth and devoured a turkey-and-trimmings feast with Sade and Sam, their son Sid, and his family.  We loved being surrounded by their warmth that day. Scrutinizing my belly, one of them bravely asked whether I was expecting.  I happily replied yes!

In December, my mother made a visit to La Jolla, a big deal because she rarely left her beloved Chicago.  Mom’s travel wardrobe featured her very first pantsuit!  After seven decades of wearing nothing but skirts, she finally gave in and bought some stylish pants.  Mom slept on the cot we had purchased for our friend Arlyn, and, like Arlyn, she swore that it was comfortable.

Mom’s visit led to a few surprises.  Everyone in the U.S. had just started pumping our own gas.  Driving Mom somewhere, I stopped at a gas station, jumped out of the driver’s seat, and began pumping.  Mom gasped.  She was startled not only to see me performing this fairly new task, but also that I was doing it while pregnant.  Shocking!

Another surprise:  When we escorted Mom to Sea World, one of San Diego’s prime attractions, she took a look at the walrus and other sea creatures and suddenly warned me: “You shouldn’t look at these ugly animals. Looking at them…it’s not good for your baby!”  What?  Mom was a savvy businesswoman who kept up with the news by reading the Chicago Sun-Times every day.  Her bizarre warning had to stem from Old World thinking she’d heard long ago from her own European-born mother.  I was startled because it was the kind of thinking I’d never heard her express before.  Securely in the 20th century, I quickly assured her that these creatures would have absolutely no impact on my fetus!

On New Year’s Eve, we celebrated by taking Mom to a charming Italian restaurant that featured singing waiters serving a festive meal.  I wore a brand-new glamorous green maternity dress for the occasion and thought I looked smashing.  But something I ate unfortunately left an ugly stain I could never get out, so my memory of that beautiful evening is somewhat tarnished.

After Mom returned to Chicago, Marv and I took off for a weekend in Ensenada, a gorgeous spot in Baja California about 80 miles from San Diego, 62 of them on a somewhat bumpy road along the coast.  We’d traveled there from LA before we got married, and I had glorious memories of that trip. 

Our return to Ensenada was blissful.  We loved the breathtaking scenery, the food, and the lively but laid-back atmosphere.  (It wasn’t yet filled with tourists arriving on cruise ships, as it is now.)  We browsed the outdoor displays of ceramic wares and bought a colorful planter for our terrace.  It never occurred to me that we’d done anything unwise. 

But when I next saw Dr. Blank and told him about our trip, he was horrified.  He told me we’d taken a big risk by traveling to a fairly remote part of Baja California, where medical resources were much more limited than those in the U.S.  I could have developed serious medical issues in a location with none of the up-to-date care I would be able to get in San Diego.  And any attempt to travel back to San Diego could have taken much too long.  I soberly realized our mistake and was immensely grateful that we’d luckily escaped a medical emergency in Ensenada.

                                                                                                                                                                             To be continued….

Pacific Beach: An unforgettable year

(Part I)

The other day, while strolling down Union Street, a charming shopping street in my neighborhood, I spotted a tall man of a certain age across the street.  I could see him well enough to notice his shirt, brightly boosting PACIFIC BEACH in large red capital letters.

I caught his eye and waved, calling out “Pacific Beach!”  He gallantly waved back, and I went on my way.

But when I returned home, I couldn’t forget his shirt, a colorful reminder of an unforgettable year, roughly spanning August to August a few decades ago, and it reawakened my memories of that remarkable year.

We landed in San Diego in early August after a cross-country road trip from Ann Arbor, Michigan.  My husband (I’ll call him Marv) had a visiting professorship lined up at the University of California in San Diego, and I’d lined up a professorship (as an adjunct) at the University of San Diego Law School.  They were totally different schools, one a branch of the University of California, the other a law school located on the beautiful campus of a Catholic university.  But those initials—UCSD and USD—were so darn close.  One of my alumni magazines got my school’s name wrong and published a blurb stating that I was teaching at UCSD’s law school.  The only problem:  UCSD didn’t have a law school.

UCSD’s campus was, and is, located on the fringes of La Jolla, a posh (then and now) suburban-style area that’s actually part of the city of San Diego—although it likes to pretend it’s a separate city.  Marv and I, ecstatic to have escaped our life in Ann Arbor, began our hunt for a place to live near Marv’s campus. He would be spending all day every day there, while my commitment to USD was far less.  In the fall semester, I taught only one class, Poverty Law, one afternoon a week.  Teaching it required substantial preparation, but I could do much of it at home.

While we apartment-hunted, we stayed in a small motel on La Jolla Boulevard, where the proprietor showed off the exquisite tropical flowers she cultivated.  And we discovered nearby Pacific Beach, which featured a delightful collection of small restaurants and shops.  An early favorite was Filippi’s, a great spot for pizza we returned to again and again.

Our apartment-hunt led to our leasing a place that seemed to be a pretty good fit.  But while we waited for the telephone installer to show up, the kitchen’s fridge emitted a loud din that filled the entire apartment.  We extracted ourselves from that lease and kept looking.

A couple of family friends who’d left Chicago were now living in a beautiful apartment development on La Jolla Boulevard, not far from Marv’s campus and downtown La Jolla but still close to Pacific Beach.  We loved everything about it, but our first attempt to rent there resulted in failure.  Our friends encouraged us to keep trying, and when we tried again, the universe smiled on us:  the perfect apartment was available!  Not only could we rent a cheerful two-bedroom apartment with a geranium-filled terrace, but the development also featured two swimming pools, a sauna, and a great outdoor parking space.  We moved in quickly and soon felt right at home.  Marv and I loved splashing in one of the pools and tried out the sauna as well.

At the pool one day, I met a charming new friend:  a newly-retired nurse (I’ll call her Lyn).  We’d chat while we splashed around together.  Later she introduced Marv and me to her husband, a semi-retired physician (I’ll call him Ted).  They went on to play an important part in our lives.

We also enjoyed spending time with our family friends, Chicago transplants Tammy and Norm.  They were fond of a nearby pub called Bully’s and enticed us to try it.  It turned out to be a great neighborhood spot where Marv and I liked to linger in one of its red vinyl booths, relishing a beer and a perfectly-grilled burger.  When Bully’s closed in 2008, it garnered a heap of online comments bemoaning the loss of a revered pub.

After our furniture arrived from Ann Arbor, Marv and I began watching the Watergate hearings on TV.  We’d earlier witnessed some of the most dramatic events during the hearings, which began before we left Ann Arbor. The testimony of John Dean and Alexander Butterfield was especially notable.  Soon we resumed watching the televised hearings in La Jolla.  Marv was busy getting to know his colleagues and preparing for the fall semester at UCSD, but I was able to watch a big chunk of the gripping hearings, which featured one Tricky Dick revelation after another.  

In Ann Arbor, we’d also learned that Harvard Law Professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as a special Watergate prosecutor.  Although I’d never taken a course with Professor Cox when I was a law student at Harvard, I viewed him as a remarkably kind person, unlike many of the other, often arrogant, members of the faculty.  Walking through the tunnels that ran under the law school buildings (used by students and faculty to avoid Cambridge weather), I would sometimes encounter Professor Cox.  I firmly believe that he intentionally nodded, smiling, acknowledging me as one of the few women students at the time.  I would of course smile back, fervently wishing that I could be a student in one of his classes.

Later that year, now in La Jolla, Marv and I followed the notorious “Saturday Night Massacre” that resulted in Cox’s outrageous “firing.”  Live TV news coverage made clear what was happening before our eyes. We weren’t shocked by anything the Nixon administration was doing or had done, but it was nevertheless absorbing to follow every despicable twist and turn.

Meanwhile, we were relishing our new life, feeling immensely lucky to be in an exciting city filled with colorful flowers and charming Spanish-style architecture, as well as glorious views of the ocean we could see all along the coastline.  We walked everywhere in the gorgeous sunshine, surrounded by the beauty of a city jam-packed with countless inspiring sites.  The contrast with Ann Arbor, where we’d faced long gray winters and hot humid summers in a city that was far too limited for us, was stunning.

We discovered the extraordinary beauty of Balboa Park, and we spent many hours exploring its museums, flower gardens, and other color-saturated spots.  We also relished shopping and eating at a variety of businesses on Garnet Street in Pacific Beach.  (La Jolla shopping was usually a bit too pricey for us.) 

I almost never did any cooking that summer.  But on one visit to a local supermarket, I came across a piece of meat that spoke to me:  a brisket of beef.  So, one afternoon, with great anticipation, I put the brisket in our oven and took off for the Fashion Valley Mall some distance away.  I figured I’d be back in plenty of time, but I spent too long searching for the perfect top to go with my new blue pantsuit.  You can probably guess what happened.  I got home much later than expected and…I burned the brisket.

I very much wanted to have my own desk in our new home, and one of our bedrooms had a corner with just enough room for one.  Strapped for funds, we found a slightly-damaged desk at a random garage sale.  We promptly bought it, soon matching it with a hideous dinette chair I bought at a bargain-priced store.

August ended with a terrific change of pace.  A wonderful law-school friend (I’ll call her Arlyn) traveled from NYC to visit us in La Jolla.  Marv and I happily showed her all around the city we already loved, including a trip to the famous San Diego Zoo (where I wore my new pantsuit with the Fashion-Valley-Mall top).  Arlyn slept in our second bedroom (usually used as Marv’s office) on a cot we purchased expressly for her visit.  She swore that it was comfortable.

The three of us then took off for LA, driving together to the city where Marv and I had met and married.  We stayed in a small hotel near our old haunts in Westwood, where I blissfully dove into the pool as many times as I could.  It was Arlyn’s first trip to LA, and we were delighted to show her many of our favorite spots.  Our great trip to LA ended when we dropped Arlyn off at the airport just before Marv and I drove back to La Jolla.

September was about to begin, and the whole month looms large in my memory.  

Just about the time I began teaching my class at USD, I began to feel nauseated.  Astoundingly nauseated.  And the nausea was relentless.  Nothing I did could make it stop.

Was I….?

I was.       

  To be continued….

Happy Valentine’s Day? Maybe

 Much of the world celebrates today, February 14th, as Valentine’s Day.

Are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?  I’m wondering just who among us is.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who have a loving spouse or an ardent beau, you’re probably celebrating this year.

I was a member of that fortunate group during my loving marriage to my darling husband.  Our blissful marriage came to a halt only because a terrible disease ended my husband’s life.  I like to think that we’d still be celebrating our love today if he’d survived.

Since he died, I’ve had one or two romantic liaisons with others, but at this moment I’m in a different place.  Today my kids and grandkids are my primary givers and recipients of valentine cards and gifts, red and pink hearts splashed all over them.

Of course, today is a bonanza for some commercial enterprises.  Americans spent about $21 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2021, and experts predict that nearly $24 billion will be spent this year, making today the fifth largest spending event of the year (after the winter holidays and Mother’s Day).  Will inflation and supply-chain issues affect these totals?  Valentine’s Day is probably inflation-proof, and delightful gifts can always be tracked down.

Benefiting the most are florists (about $2.3 billion), purveyors of chocolates ($2.2 billion), jewelers ($6.2 billion), and sellers of other heart-emblazoned cards and gifts. 

Which raises another question.  Aside from elementary-school kids, required to bring a valentine for every other kid in class to avoid any Charlie-Brown-style left-out feelings, is anyone still buying valentine cards this year

I hope so.  I’d hate to see an end to the decades-long practice of sending sweet wishes to loved ones and friends on February 14th

While we’re still stuck in the middle of a pandemic, confronting scary international events, and facing ongoing political divisiveness, I find it heartening to recall happier, simpler times.

Today I’m thinking about an old friend and the valentines he gave me many years ago.

My friend (I’ll call him Alan R.) grew up with me on the Far North Side of Chicago.  We were in a pack of friends who attended the nearby elementary school.  This was back when all of us walked to school, walked home for lunch, and walked back to school again for the afternoon.

In 5th grade, I acquired a handsome “boyfriend.”  (Although we thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” those terms simply meant that we had some sort of pre-teen crush on each other.)  My best friend Helene had a major crush on my boyfriend, but I was the lucky girl for whom he made a misshapen plastic pin when he went away to camp that summer.

By the fall, Alan R. had replaced him.

Alan was never one of the best-looking boys in our class.  He was tall for his age and somewhat awkward, and he tended to be rather hefty.  But he had a pleasant face and a pleasant way about him, and he became my 6th grade “boyfriend.”

In October that year, he invited a whole bunch of us to a Halloween party at his house.  Helene and I decided to don similar outfits—black t-shirts and skinny black skirts.  For some reason, we were trying to look like French “apache dancers.”  I wasn’t really sure what that term even meant, but I suspect that Helene’s savvy mother inspired us to choose that costume.  However it came about, we knew we looked terrific in our very cool garb.  We may have even added a beret to top it off.

Alan played the gracious host, and when the party wound down, he led us outside, and all of us paraded through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and yelling “trick or treat.”  It was a truly memorable Halloween, probably the most memorable Halloween of my childhood.

I don’t have a clear recollection of the next few months.  The days must have been filled with other parties, school events, and happy family outings.  But I definitely have a vivid memory of Valentine’s Day the following February.

When my classmates and I exchanged valentines, I discovered that Alan had given me two.  Not one.  Two.  And they weren’t the ordinary valentines you gave your friends.  These were store-bought pricier versions.  One was sentimental, flowery, and very sweet.  The other one was funny and made me laugh.

What exactly inspired Alan to show his affection for me that way?  We were fond of each other, but I don’t remember giving him a special valentine.

Looking back, I wonder about his decision to give me those two valentines.  Did he choose them by himself?  Did he have enough money saved from his 6th-grade-level allowance to pay for them?

As a mother, I can’t help wondering about the role his mother may have played.  Did she accompany him to the card store on Devon Avenue, the one where we all bought our valentines?  (A long-gone kind of neighborhood store most of us patronized back then.)  Was his mother standing next to him when he bought his valentines, offering her advice?  If she was, what did she think of this extravagance on his part?

I like to think that Alan came up with the idea and executed it all by himself.  He saved his money and brought it to the store with the firm intention to buy a valentine for me.  Then, when he saw the colorful display of cards in front of him, he couldn’t decide whether to show his affection with a flowery card or to try to make me laugh with a funny one.

So he bought one of each, and, head held high, he gave both of them to me. 

I hope I exhibited a response that pleased him.  I can’t remember exactly what I did.  But I know that his delightful gesture has stayed with me ever since.

Sadly, those valentines disappeared when my mother scoured our home one day and tossed everything she considered inconsequential.  But they weren’t inconsequential to me.  I still remember the thrill of receiving not one but two valentines from my caring beau.

Everything changed in 7th grade.  A new school, new boyfriends, and new issues at home when my father’s health grew worrisome.  As always, life moved on.

Alan R. died a few years ago, and I wrote this story about him then.  He and I had drifted apart long before he died, but his fondness for me during 6th grade never faded from my memory.

Did Alan’s flattering attention give me the confidence to deal with some of the rocky times that lay ahead?  Teenage years can be tough.  Mine often were.  But his two-valentine tribute stayed with me forever.

Thanks, dear Alan, for being a warm and caring young person, even at the age of 12.  Although our lives went on to have their rough patches, the valentines you gave me back in 6th grade have never been forgotten.

Try laughing

We’ve been going through a rough patch.  Name it:  Covid fatigue, our overly-partisan political scene, endless stories about Russia’s possible assault on Ukraine.

Can anything pull us out of the dumps?  The New York Times recently talked to a bunch of medical professionals who came up with a solution:  Try a little laughter.

A cardiologist at a med school in Maryland called humor not only a distraction from grim reality but also a winning strategy to stay healthy.  “Heightened stress magnifies the risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes,” said Dr. Michael Miller.  “Having a good sense of humor is an excellent way to relieve stress and anxiety and bring back a sense of normalcy during these turbulent times.”

Is there a scientific basis for the benefits of laughter?  Actually, there is.  Laughter releases nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, and decreases clotting.  At least two studies have demonstrated its positive effects.  In Japan, a study of older men and women confirmed that those who tended to laugh more had a lower risk of major cardiovascular illness.  And a study in Norway reported that possessing a sense of humor was associated with living longer, especially for women.

A neuroscientist at University College London, Sophie Scott, pointed out that laughter has been shown to reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, thereby increasing the body’s uptake of feel-good endorphins.

Ready for more?  There may also be cognitive benefits. According to a study conducted at Loma Linda University, watching a funny video was related to improvements in short-term memory in older adults; they also increased their capacity to learn.

The Times noted that some hospitals have initiated formal humor programs, making funny books and videos available to their patients.  One nurse-manager who works with chronic-pain patients has tried teaching them laughter-exercises and other ways to enhance positive feelings like gratitude and forgiveness.  Although the stress of the pandemic could make the experience of pain worse, she found that humor helped her patients “relax and release their grip on pain.”  She advised patients to set aside time for humor on a daily basis (much like setting aside time for physical activity).  She also recommended having “laughter first-aid boxes,” where patients can stash items like joke books and funny toys. Instead of their simply taking a pill, she liked encouraging people to “cultivate the healing power of laughter,” helping them to be in control.

Dr. Miller added that he was trying to bring a dose of comic relief into his own medical work, and he believed that his colleagues had begun to do the same.  “The culture is beginning to shift—injecting humor and humanity back into medicine,” he said.  If you can’t change the world around you, you can at least “change how you view it.  Humor gives us the power to do that.”

So…if you’re thinking about choosing something to read or watch, consider something funny.  It may be tempting to opt for anxiety-producing suspense or stories fraught with horror, but if you need a lift, you’re probably better off with humor. 

My choice?  I’m off to watch one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, The Marine Biologist.  “The sea was angry that day, my friends”–but I won’t be angry or stressed.  I’ll be laughing!

A Remarkable Friend

This is a brief tribute to a remarkable friend, Karen Ferguson, who died last month.  You can read more about her life in the following obits:

New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/business/retirement/karen-ferguson-dead.html
Washington Post  https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2021/12/29/pension-rights-karen-ferguson-dies/

Why was Karen remarkable? As the Times noted, she was “a Nader Raider, one of a legion of young public-interest lawyers who flocked to Washington” in the 1970s to work for Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who was at that time a heroic figure on the American political scene.  She chose to devote herself to working on pension law, an “unglamorous-sounding subject” that was actually full of human drama, where she was able to champion workers’ rights and effect enormous changes to benefit their future.

I met Karen and became her lifelong friend when we were both students at Harvard Law School in the 1960s.  I had just moved into Wyeth Hall, the women’s dorm, during my first year, and the delightful Karen Willner was in her third year.  Karen’s warmth immediately enveloped me, a lowly 1L. Happily for me, we stayed in touch after she graduated.

While I was finishing my three years at HLS, Karen married John Ferguson, who decided to attend the University of Chicago Law School, and together they headed for Chicago.  Karen wrote to tell me that she’d begun working at a downtown Chicago law firm, where she was the first and only woman lawyer. 

During my third year of law school, I actually interviewed with that firm.  Disillusioned with the D.C. of Richard Nixon (my original destination), I was thinking about returning to Chicago, my home town.  Although I hoped to get a clerkship with a federal judge, I also interviewed with several Chicago law firms.  After chatting for a while, the recruiter for Karen’s firm told me outright, “We just hired our first woman, and we’re waiting to see how she works out before we hire another one.”  (This interview took place after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the recruiter was violating federal law when he said that.)  I’ve told this story many times, to the amazement of most listeners, and I like to add that I knew who that “first woman” was:  Karen.

When I returned to Chicago, I began working for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman [please see “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” a ten-post series beginning at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/].  With both of us living and working in Chicago, Karen and I enthusiastically resumed our friendship.  Because John was busy with his law school studies, Karen and I saw each other many times in downtown Chicago.  And one memorable evening, Karen, John, and I went together to see “The Yellow Submarine” at a downtown movie theater. 

I was sad when Karen and John departed for D.C. after he finished law school (and began his career as an NLRB attorney).  But their departure led to Karen’s groundbreaking new chapter in her life as a lawyer:  her launch into helping people by reforming pension law, with fairness as her first priority. 

We managed to stay in close touch during the many years that followed.  My memory-bank is filled with happy memories of our long friendship, including wonderful times spent together in both D.C. and Chicago.

I loved following Karen’s career, deeply enmeshed in working on pension-reform legislation, including the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, signed into law by President Reagan, and the Butch Lewis Act, signed into law last year by President Biden.  I reviewed her excellent book, Pensions in Crisis (original title: The Pension Book).  My glowing reviews appeared in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on January 25, 1996, and the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 1996 (“Pension Problems Come Alive, Along with Practical Guidance”).

Karen’s never-failing efforts to establish a secure and adequate retirement system, on top of expanded Social Security, are still under discussion on Capitol Hill. 

I also loved learning about the wonderful family she and John created, including her son, Andrew Ferguson, a lawyer, writer, and law professor at American University, and his wife and children.  My review and discussion of Andrew’s important book, Why Jury Duty Matters, appeared on this blog in April 2013. [Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2013/04/03/does-jury-duty-matter/%5D

One more thing:  When I wrote my first novel, A Quicker Blood (published in 2009), I named my protagonist, a young woman lawyer, “Karen.”  I later brought her back as the protagonist in my third novel, Red Diana (published in 2018).  Was I thinking of my friend Karen when I chose that name?  I was. And all of the current nonsense focused on the name “Karen” infuriates me.  Although there may be a few women with that name who have acted inappropriately toward others, it’s totally unwarranted to pigeonhole all Karens that way.  Just think of Karen Ferguson and all that she’s done to make the lives of hard-working Americans more secure.  That’s in addition to her being a delightful human being, beloved by everyone who knew her.

In short, I was supremely lucky to know Karen Ferguson and to call her my friend for over five decades.  I’ve lost—indeed, we’ve all lost–one of the very best people on Planet Earth.