Category Archives: children

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

“Who was that masked man?”

If you ever watched “The Lone Ranger,” a TV series that appeared from 1949 to 1957, you probably remember the question that ended every episode:  “Who was that masked man?”  The Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger turned vigilante who became a pop-culture hero fighting for truth and justice, wore a mask to obscure his identity.

The question seems more appropriate today than ever before.  With most of us donning masks—or another sort of face-covering—it’s impossible to see the entire face of anyone you encounter in the outside world.  We simply have to trust that we won’t run into any evildoers lurking near us wherever we go.  So far I haven’t felt that I needed someone like the L.R. to come to my rescue.

There’s another concern, however.  When I take my daily neighborhood stroll, I find it troubling that, although most of us are now required to wear masks in public, many people I encounter are walking or jogging sans mask.  The most annoying are the joggers, who don’t seem to care that they are exhaling a whole load of droplets every time they breathe, and heck, their droplets just might be contaminated with Covid-19.

In addition to wearing a mask, walkers need to keep at least 6 feet away from each other, and according to an expert quoted in The Washington Post a few days ago, joggers need to run at least 10 feet away from everyone else.  Although some of the people I encounter try to observe those distances, many don’t.

As I walk, I often mutter into my mask (usually a colorful scarf covering my nose and mouth), trying to restrain my irritation with those violating the current guidelines. [Please see my blog post, “Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers,” at https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/.%5D

My mask has actually turned out to be a great way to muffle what I’m not merely thinking but actually saying.  (Sotto voce, of course.)  A favorite:  “Jerk.”  Or worse.  And lately I’ve been borrowing the title of a hilarious children’s book, “The Stupids Die.”

When we were raising our two daughters in the 1980s, we enthusiastically read countless books to them.  Among our favorites were those written and illustrated by James Marshall.  Marshall is probably best known for his delightful series featuring two anthropomorphized hippos called George and Martha.  The series includes five books published between 1972 and 1988.

George and Martha were “best friends,” and one of the things we loved about them was that they were non-gender-specific friends.  So although Martha would sometimes be drawn wearing a hair bow or a colorful skirt, and George sometimes sported a casual fedora, both Martha and George liked to do the same things and go to the same places.  And no matter what transpired, they were always “best friends.”

But James Marshall didn’t confine his talents to the George and Martha series.  As an illustrator, he collaborated with the writer Harry Allard, who wrote a series of four books featuring a family called The Stupids.  Marshall’s colorful illustrations for these books, published between 1977 and 1989, are knee-slappingly hilarious.

The Stupids are colossally stupid, so much so that in “The Stupids Die,” the Stupids leap to the conclusion that they’re dead when a power outage makes their lights go out, turning their home totally dark.  The truth is revealed at the end, and the reader is left laughing at how astoundingly foolish The Stupids are.

The series had its critics, who griped that the stories promoted low self-esteem and negative behavior.  But most kids loved the stories, and copies are still selling to grown-up fans on Amazon.com.

As I witness the choice made by some walkers and joggers on my route–the choice not to keep the prescribed distance or to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from the potentially virus-saturated droplets in their exhalations– “The Stupids Die” keeps reverberating in my head.

Wearing my own mask has the unexpected benefit of allowing me to say whatever I want as I pass these non-mask-wearing and non-distance-keeping people, who are endangering their own lives as well as mine. So in addition to muttering “Jerk” and other expletives, I frequently mutter “The Stupids Die.”

If anyone should hear me, I can promptly explain that I’m simply recalling the title of a favorite children’s book.  And if they want to interpret those words as words that apply to them, I hope they will do just that.

I’m well aware that most victims of Covid-19 are very smart people who contracted the disease through no fault of their own.  I do NOT include them among “the Stupids.”  And I strongly condemn the violent assaults that have recently erupted, where mask-wearers have attacked those who weren’t wearing masks.

But I do judge harshly those in my own surroundings who don’t appear to care about others, and I declare the following:

To everyone walking and jogging, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine that surround us this May, please remember to wear a mask.  Please remember to stay the correct distance away from me.

And for your own sake, please remember that “The Stupids Die.”

 

 

 

 

Waiting for a Vaccine

 

While the world, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, turns to science and medicine to find a vaccine that would make us all safe, I can’t help remembering a long-ago time in my life when the world faced another deadly disease.

And I vividly remember how a vaccine, the result of years of dedicated research, led to the triumphant defeat of that disease.

Covid-19 poses a special threat.  The U.S. has just surpassed one million cases, according to The Washington Post.  It’s a new and unknown virus that has baffled medical researchers, and those of us who wake up every day feeling OK are left wondering whether we’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus or just damned lucky.  So far.

Testing of the entire population is essential, as is the development of effective therapies for treating those who are diagnosed as positive.  But our ultimate salvation will come with the development of a vaccine.

Overwhelming everything else right now is an oppressive feeling of fear.  Fear that the slightest contact with the virus can cause a horrible assault on one’s body, possibly leading to a gruesome hospitalization and, finally, death.

I recognize that feeling of fear.  Anyone growing up in America in the late 1940s and the early 1950s will recognize it.

Those of us who were conscious at that time remember the scourge of polio.  Some may have memories of that time that are as vivid as mine.  Others may have suppressed the ugly memories associated with the fear of polio.  And although the fear caused by Covid-19 today is infinitely worse, the fear of polio was in many ways the same.

People were aware of the disease called polio—the common name for poliomyelitis (originally and mistakenly called infantile paralysis; it didn’t affect only the young) — for a long time.  It was noted as early as the 19th century, and in 1908 two scientists identified a virus as its cause.

Before polio vaccines were available,  outbreaks in the U.S. caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis every year.  In the late 1940s, these outbreaks increased in frequency and size, resulting in an average of 35,000 victims of paralysis each year.  Parents feared letting their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak, and some public health official imposed quarantines.

Polio appeared in several different forms.  About 95% of the cases were asymptomatic.  Others were mild, causing ordinary virus-like symptoms, and most people recovered quickly.  But some victims contracted a more serious form of the disease.  They suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.  Many survivors were disabled for life, and they became a visible reminder of the enormous toll polio took on children’s lives.

The polio virus is highly infectious, spreading through contact between people, generally entering the body through the mouth.  A cure for it has never been found, so the ultimate goal has always been prevention via a vaccine.  Thanks to the vaccine first developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk, polio was eventually eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994.  It continues to circulate in a few countries elsewhere in the world, where vaccination programs aim to eliminate these last pockets because there is always a risk that it can spread within non-vaccinated populations.

[When HIV-AIDS first appeared, it created the same sort of fear.  It was a new disease with an unknown cause, and this led to widespread fear.  There is still no vaccine, although research efforts continue.  Notably, Jonas Salk spent the last years of his life searching for a vaccine against AIDS.  Until there is a vaccine, the development of life-saving drugs has lessened fear of the disease.]

When I was growing up, polio was an omnipresent and very scary disease.  Every year, children and their parents received warnings from public health officials, especially in the summer.  We were warned against going to communal swimming pools and large gatherings where the virus might spread.

We saw images on TV of polio’s unlucky victims.  Even though TV images back then were in black and white, they were clear enough to show kids my age who were suddenly trapped inside a huge piece of machinery called an iron lung, watched over by nurses who attended to their basic needs while they struggled to breathe.  Then there were the images of young people valiantly trying to walk on crutches, as well as those confined to wheelchairs.  They were the lucky ones.  Because we knew that the disease also killed a lot of people.

So every summer, I worried about catching polio, and when colder weather returned each fall, I was grateful that I had survived one more summer without catching it.

I was too young to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I later learned that he had contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  He had a serious case, causing paralysis, and although he was open about having had polio, he has been criticized for concealing how extensive his disability really was.

Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and it soon became a charity called the March of Dimes.  The catch phrase “march of dimes” was coined by popular actor/comedian/singer Eddie Cantor, who worked vigorously on the campaign to raise funds for research.  Using a name like that of the well-known newsreel The March of Time, Cantor announced on a 1938 radio program that the March of Dimes would begin collecting dimes to support research into polio, as well as to help victims who survived the disease. (Because polio ultimately succumbed to a vaccine, the March of Dimes has evolved into an ongoing charity focused on the health of mothers and babies, specifically on preventing birth defects.)

Yes, polio was defeated by a vaccine.  For years, the March of Dimes funded medical research aimed at a vaccine, and one of the recipients of its funds was a young physician at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine named Jonas Salk.

Salk became a superhero when he announced on April 12, 1955, that his research had led to the creation of a vaccine that was “safe, effective, and potent.”

Salk had worked toward the goal of a vaccine for years, especially after 1947, when he was recruited to be the director of the school’s Virus Research Laboratory.  There he created a vaccine composed of “killed” polio virus.  He first administered it to volunteers who included himself, his wife, and their children.  All of them developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine. Then, in 1954, a massive field trial tested the vaccine on over one million children between six and nine, allowing Salk to make his astonishing announcement in 1955.

I remember the day I first learned about the Salk vaccine. It was earthshaking.  It changed everything.  It represented a tremendous scientific breakthrough that, over time, relieved the anxiety of millions of American children and their parents.

But it wasn’t immediately available.  It took about two years before enough of the vaccine was produced to make it available to everyone, and the number of polio cases during those two years averaged 45,000.

Because we couldn’t get injections of the vaccine for some time, the fear of polio lingered.  Before I could get my own injection, I recall sitting in my school gym one day, looking around at the other students, and wondering whether I might still catch it from one of them.

My reaction was eerily like John Kerry’s demand when he testified before a Senate committee in 1971:  “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”  I remember thinking how terrible it would be to be one of the last kids to catch polio when the vaccine already existed but I hadn’t been able to get it yet.

I eventually got my injection, and life changed irreversibly.  Never again would I live in fear of contracting polio.

In 1962, the Salk vaccine was replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, an orally-administered vaccine that was both easier to give and less expensive, and I soon received that as well.

(By the way, neither Salk nor Sabin patented their discoveries or earned any profits from them, preferring that their vaccines be made widely available at a low price rather than exploited by commercial entities like pharmaceutical companies.)

Today, confronting the Covid-19 virus, no thinking person can avoid the fear of becoming one of its victims.  But as scientists and medical doctors continue to search for a vaccine, I’m reminded of how long those of us who were children in the 1950s waited for that to happen.

Because the whole world is confronting this new and terrible virus, valiant efforts, much like those of Jonas Salk, are aimed at creating a “safe, effective and potent” vaccine.  And there are encouraging signs coming from different directions.  Scientists at Oxford University in the UK were already working on a vaccine to defeat another form of the coronavirus when Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and they have pivoted toward developing a possible vaccine to defeat the new threat.  Clinical trials may take place within the next few months.

Similarly, some Harvard researchers haven’t taken a day off since early January, working hard to develop a vaccine.  Along with the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, this group plans to launch clinical trials in the fall.

While the world waits, let’s hope that a life-saving vaccine will appear much more quickly than the polio vaccine did.  With today’s improved technology, and a by-now long and successful history of creating vaccines to kill deadly viruses, maybe we can reach that goal very soon.  Only then, when we are all able to receive the benefits of an effective vaccine, will our lives truly begin to return to anything resembling “normal.”

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Maybe your father used some phrases you’ve caught yourself saying.  Because my father died when I was 12, I can’t recall any pet phrases he used, so I have none to repeat.

But my mother, who died when I was decades older–that’s a different story.

At the outset, you should know that Mom was very smart.  She yearned to go to college and become a teacher, but after her father died, her family didn’t have enough money to send her and both of her brothers to college. I’m sure you can guess the outcome.

Mom had many pet phrases.  More and more, I hear myself repeating them.  But not all of them.

Here are some of Mom’s best, along with the context that surrounds them:

 

One of Mom’s favorites was “Before you know it.”  She usually said it when we’d talk about something we expected to happen in the future.  For example, when we talked about a young child going off to college someday, she’d frequently say, ”Before you know it….”  Or when, in the dead of winter, we talked about how far away summer seemed, she’d say, “Before you know it…”  Her instincts about how rapidly the future would arrive were usually right.  Now I often repeat that phrase myself.

When Mom conceded that something wasn’t just right, she’d often add, “Still and all.”  I can hear her saying it over and over again.  The dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “nevertheless” or “even so.”  Although you don’t hear many people use it, still and all it’s a great phrase.  Maybe more of us could use it.

When Mom liked to be very sure of something, she’d tell me that she wanted to “make doubly sure.”  I love that phrase and really must remember to use it whenever it fits.

 

Mom had definite views about gender and gender roles. They were typical of her era, so I give her a pass on some of them. But not all. These phrases frequently annoyed me, especially as I grew older and much more wary of gender stereotypes.

For example, I’ve written previously about how she admonished my sister and me to act “lady-like.”  I’m sure she thought that was the appropriate behavior for girl children.  But although the phrase didn’t bother me when I was younger, it later began to irritate me, especially when I had two daughters of my own, and the term “lady” assumed connotations I disagreed with.  But I don’t think Mom ever changed her thinking on that.

Her views on boys were distinctly different and bordered on stereotypical.

When a little kid acted up in her presence (and it was generally a boy), she’d refer to him as a “holy terror.”  She rarely referred to rambunctious girls that way.  But she might have.  (The prime example: My older sister, who later in life self-diagnosed as being a hyperactive child.  I know her behavior often created problems for my parents.)

Mom would frequently describe little boys she encountered as “all boy.”  I’m not really sure what she meant.  And as the mother of two daughters (as she was), her choice of words always struck me as rather strange.  Were girls ever “all girl?”  When?  Why?  And what made boys “all boy” to begin with?  I never challenged her on her use of this term and would just let it go.  But it still makes me wonder how she came up with it.

 

Let’s leave the gender issue for now and move on to the weather.

Living in Chicago, where we constantly faced extremes of heat and cold, most of us welcomed a warmer day that came along in late winter.  But Mom would often say, “It’s almost too warm.”  I guess she found the occasional warm day somewhat jarring in the middle of a cold spell.  But I was always delighted by that sort of change in the weather, and that phrase often made me laugh.

 

Now, on to the subject of time.

When we traveled, especially when we were driving somewhere in a car, Mom always relished “making good time.”  She meant that we were getting to our destination efficiently!  An admirable phrase, no?

But on other occasions she’d say, “Slow down.  We’ve got nothing but time.”  I generally disagreed with this point of view.  Always pursuing one goal or another, I’ve never felt I had “nothing but time.”  Quite the opposite.  And I’m afraid I still have the same outlook today.  But…maybe Mom was right, and I should slow down!

Slowing down might keep me from meeting some of my goals, but it would probably benefit my health.  I should keep in mind that one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs begins this way:  “Slow down, you move too fast.  You got to make the morning last.”  Thanks, Paul Simon.  Mom definitely agreed with your thinking.

Speaking of “time,” Mom also liked to say that someone who wasn’t moving fast enough was “taking her sweet time.”  An example would be an employee in a retail store who helped customers in a poky fashion.  I sometimes think of that phrase when I see a pedestrian sauntering slowly across a busy intersection–sometimes looking at a cell phone instead of the traffic.  I’m often a pedestrian myself, and I resent careless drivers who barely let me cross an intersection safely before they make their turns.  (And I move fast.)  But when I’m driving, I find “saunterers” annoying.  They’re taking their sweet time!

I don’t think I ever encountered the “sweet time” phrase anywhere else…until I recently came across it in a short story, “Something to Remember Me By,” written by Nobel-prize-winning author Saul Bellow.  The narrator describes a character he’s watching this way:  “she simply took her sweet time about everything….”

That Mom and Saul Bellow used the same phrase doesn’t strike me as bizarre (as it might strike you) because the two of them were close in age, grew up in the same neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago (Humboldt Park, to be precise), and attended the same public high school.  Mom sometimes told me that she knew the Bellow family.  So when Bellow published Humboldt’s Gift (which I confess I’ve never read), I figured he chose the name Humboldt because of his origins in that neighborhood.  Maybe everyone who grew up there during that era also used the “sweet time” phrase.

 

Mom found certain things disturbing.  She and my father always followed politics, perhaps inspiring my lifelong interest in the political scene.  But Mom could get “all worked up” when things didn’t strike her the right way.  A devotee of daily newspapers and local TV news, she continued to follow politics into her 90s.  But she increasing got “all worked up” when she listened to officeholders orating on TV, stating policies she disagreed with.

Although I never used this phrase in the past, it resonates with me more and more. If I don’t hit the mute button fast enough and inadvertently hear the current occupant of the White House or his cohorts speaking on TV, I can easily get all worked up.

 

Other things that disturbed Mom made her feel “sick at heart.”  I haven’t used that phrase, but maybe I should.  It reflects the reality that disturbing events can make us feel deeply troubled, even affecting our physical well-being.

 

Switching topics:  When I would go shopping with Mom, usually on State Street in downtown Chicago (she always called that part of town “the Loop”), Mom’s admonitions came fast and furious.  A favorite was “Watch your purse!”  So from the time I was old enough to carry my own handbag, I would clutch it close to me.  The irony is that I never was a victim, but one day a thief opened Mom’s handbag on a CTA bus, and her wallet disappeared.  I remember collecting the wallet for Mom at the Woolworth’s store on State Street when it somehow turned up, money extracted.

In a way, this outcome wasn’t terribly surprising.  Despite her fear of thievery, Mom would carry the kind of handbag that could easily be opened.  Held over her arm the way the Queen of England invariably holds hers, it had the kind of clasp that could be flipped open in a millisecond.  I’ve always preferred shoulder bags with zipper closures that I can hold next to my body, making them difficult to pilfer.  Now I frequently wear crossbody bags that discourage thievery even more.

Another downtown phrase:  In the enormous women’s restroom on the 3rd floor (or was it the 4th?) of Marshall Field’s vast State Street Store, Mom would always say “Flush with your foot!”  I guess the toilets were the kind that featured a flushing mechanism one could operate that way.  Mom’s concern with bacteria was always front and center.

 

This concern related to household matters:  When I was older and my family and I had our own home, Mom would frequently visit us there.  She almost always made clear that she disapproved of my housekeeping (which admittedly has–throughout my lifetime–been abysmal).  Mom would offer to help, but as she got older, I wouldn’t let her do anything.  Accustomed to doing her own household chores with tremendous zeal, she would throw up her hands (figuratively), and after a while she’d tell me that she was “tired from sitting.”

Mom may have been onto something.  Research has shown that simply sitting is in fact unhealthy.  Mom’s instincts were right.

Mom also insisted that my daughters help me with household chores.  She would often tell them, “You can’t be lazy.”  This phrase relates to another literary reference:  In a story written by Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (published in a collection of stories titled The Power of Light), Singer sets the scene in an old-world home. He quotes an elder who explains his view of miracles:  “The truth is that miracles were rare in all times.  If too many miracles occurred, people would rely on them too much.  Free choice would cease.  The Powers on High want [people] to do things, make an effort, not to be lazy.”

So it seems that Mom was borrowing the wisdom of the elders when she told us not to be lazy.

Today, my older daughter and I repeat Mom’s phrase to her two daughters, my delightful granddaughters.  Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, they would prefer to lie abed and have someone else do things like laundry and straightening up.  Let’s face it, I’m very much of the same mind.  I do as little as possible to make my home neat and tidy.

But Mom’s phrase often comes back to haunt me, and I remind myself, as well as my granddaughters, that you can’t be lazy!

 

So…when you find yourself repeating phrases your parents liked to use, remember that a great many of them have stood the test of time and can be repeated today, as well as in their day, with the same positive effect.

Don’t be reluctant to use those phrases in your own conversation.  They may sometimes seem old-fashioned, no longer worth repeating because they’re out of date.

Still and all…they may say exactly what you want to say.

And before you know it, our kids will be doing the very same thing.

 

 

Giving Thanks

As our country celebrates Thanksgiving, this is the perfect time for each of us to give thanks for the many wonderful people in our lives.

I’m an ardent fan of a quote by Marcel Proust that sums up my thinking:

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

I’ve always been a fan of giving thanks.  I raised my children to give thanks to others for whatever gifts or help they received, bolstering my words by reading and re-reading to them Richard Scarry’s “The Please and Thank You Book.”

But guess what.  Not everyone agrees with that sentiment.  These nay-sayers prefer to ignore the concept of gratitude.  They reject the idea of thanking others for anything, including any and all attempts to make them happy.

What dolts!

Recent research confirms my point of view.

According to a story in The New York Times earlier this year, new research revealed that people really like getting thank-you notes.  Two psychologists wanted to find out why so few people actually send these notes.  The 100 or so participants in their study were asked to write a short “gratitude letter” to someone who had helped them in some way.  It took most subjects less than five minutes to write these notes.

Although the notes’ senders typically guessed that their notes would evoke nothing more than 3 out of 5 on a happiness rating, the result was very different.  After receiving the thank-you notes, the recipients told them how happy they were to get them:  many said they were “ecstatic,” scoring 4 out of 5 on the happiness rating.

Conclusion?  People tend to undervalue the positive effect they can have on others, even with a tiny investment of time. The study was published in June 2018 in the journal Psychological Science.

A vast amount of psychological research affirms the value of gratitude.

I’ll begin with its positive effect on physical health.  According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people.

Gratitude also improves psychological health, reducing a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.  A leading gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons, has conducted a number of studies on the link between gratitude and well-being, confirming that gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression.

Other positive benefits:  gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression (a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky), it improves sleep (a 2011 study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being), and it improves self-esteem (a 2014 study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology).  The list goes on and on.

So, during this Thanksgiving week, let’s keep in mind the host of studies that have demonstrated the enormously positive role gratitude plays in our daily lives.

It’s true that some of us are luckier than others, leading lives that are filled with what might be called “blessings” while others have less to be grateful for.

For those of us who have much to be thankful for, let’s be especially grateful for all of the “charming gardeners who make our souls blossom,” those who bring happiness to our remarkably fortunate lives.

And let’s work towards a day when the less fortunate in our world can join us in our much more gratitude-worthy place on this planet.

 

Another Benefit of Progeny

Being a grandparent?  It’s wonderful.  And I just learned about a benefit of spending time with my grandkids that I never knew.  What’s more, you don’t even have to be a grandparent to share this benefit with me.

If you’re lucky and you already have a grandchild, congrats!  Grandparenthood is an extraordinarily good thing.  Free of the challenges of parenthood, you’ve plunged into a whole new shimmering world. And unless you’ve had to assume parent-like responsibility for your grandchild, you’ll relish the many rewards you’re now entitled to enjoy.

Spending a day with my grandchildren is my idea of a perfectly splendid day.

(By the way, I don’t call it “babysitting”!  I view babysitting as a paid job—a job I did to earn money in my younger days.  By contrast, spending time with my grandkids is a joyful pursuit I welcome doing.)

It’s not always easy to become a grandparent.  We all know you can’t make a grandchild appear with the wave of a magic wand.

First, you need to have a grown child or two.  Next, that child must want to have a child or two of his or her own.  (Let’s just say her.)

That child must be able to produce her own child.  Several routes now make that possible: the old-fashioned way; new ways to conceive and give birth, thanks to medical science; adoption; or becoming a step-parent.  (If you know of any other ways to produce a child, please let me know.)

Sometimes you can wait a long time.  A savvy parent doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t offer advice.  You need to be patient and let your child achieve parenthood whenever and however it works for her.

If, at last, your child has a child of her own, you are now officially a grandparent.

I’ve been lucky to have two exceptional daughters who both have children of their own.  And I delight in their company.

But even though I’ve always reveled in my role as a granny, empirical research has now uncovered a wonderful bonus:  It seems that spending time with your grandkids can significantly lower your risk of dying sooner rather than later.

A research study, published in May 2017 in Evolution & Human Behavior, concluded that caregiving both within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver. This heartening conclusion seems to apply to every caregiver, grandparent or not.

The researchers from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia looked at data collected over two decades and focused specifically on grandparents. They concluded that “mortality hazards” for grandparents who provided childcare were 37% lower than for grandparents who did not.

Half of the caregiving grandparents lived for about 10 years after they were first interviewed for the highly-respected Berlin Aging Study, while half of those grandparents who did not provide childcare died within 5 years. These results held true even when the researchers controlled for such factors as physical health, age, and socioeconomic status.

What about non-grandparents and childless older adults?  The positive effects of caregiving also extended to them–if they acted as caregivers in some way.  For example, older parents who had no grandchildren but provided practical help to their adult children also lived longer than those who didn’t.

The results of this study are even more significant than they might have been in the past.  According to the federal government’s latest scorecard on aging, there’s been a drop in overall life expectancy. If your goal is to stick around as long as possible, you might want to think about providing care to others, even if they aren’t your own kids or grandkids.

No kids?  No grandkids?  Here’s my suggestion: Enhance your longevity by becoming a grandparent-surrogate.  Even if you think you might have a child or grandchild of your own someday, why not offer to spend time with other people’s kids or grandkids right now?

If you do, you can expect to see little faces light up when you arrive on the scene.  Parents will be forever grateful, and you’ll probably have lots of fun.

How long will each of us live?  Who the heck knows!  But you might as well do what you can to prolong your life.  Spending time with children and grandchildren, your own or others’, is a jim-dandy way to do it.