You Really Can’t Go Home Again

I made a speech in Boston yesterday and am in a state of shock. You see, I lived in the Boston area most of my grown up life. I hosted my own TV talk show there, was cultural reporter on the news, lectured at the Museum of Fine Arts, taught at Harvard graduate schools, bore and raised my three sons there, ate and laughed and played there — I really knew and connected with every part of that city.

But yesterday, driving in from the airport I thought “Wait a Minute! Where am I? What are those skyscrapers? What new highway am I on? What’s happened to my town!”

So I’ve been nursing my wounds — my sense of loss, of estrangement from what was basically “my home town” for so long. How could they do this to my distinctive wonderful city with its visible blend of the old and the new world? Those historic twisted streets of downtown laid out on old Indian trails, those still-standing brick symbols of our heritage, reminders of how our forefathers lived and hoped. All of these affected this New York city girl so deeply when I first moved there. I was in love with joining that legendary America I read about but could never really feel a part of as an apartment-dwelling, hard-driving New York City kid. See, I never fit my childhood books’ descriptions of a front door/ back door/attic/cellar/dog named Spot kind of life. That was really America, I thought, not where I was.

But moving to the Boston area meant I finally joined. Here was Beacon Hill, the old and new State House. Faneuil Hall with its speeches still echoing. Paul Revere’s church tower, the Tea Party harbor, Old Ironsides, Bunker Hill — I was finally a true citizen! How I loved driving into town, seeing the Custom House Tower, remembering that, historically, it was once the tallest building in the city. Every corner was so familiar to me.

But then the “building and improving” started. Sure we need to live in our time and what it can do — but that original Boston/history flavor was still so prevalent when I left that it still sang out–“here’s where it started. Here’s where our great human experiment took form.”

When I moved back to New York, my original home, those images stood fast in my mind. I was still connected to that savory taste of America and the roots I found there.

So what was it really that turned me on so- that made me feel such a part of, so connected to this place?

Symbols. Familiar icons. I guess we get all tied up emotionally in what we see in our daily lives, what we can rely on to be there – recognizable, comforting landmarks that stay stable and dependable and mark the visual corners of our lives. That will always show us the way home.

And what made me react so violently to the new Boston?

When I returned I expected all the old bells to chime for me — ah, there’s where we used to… here’s where that… how I loved the old… But wait a minute!!! What happened?

Overtaken. Boston got overtaken, dominated by what we can do now. See how high, how glistening, how round and square and miraculous we can make these gorgeous new towers? See how we can build new streets, highways, tunnels, create sweeping new landscapes? Everything I saw sang hymns of praise to our technical prowess and how Boston’s face now speaks predominantly of the future.

No, they haven’t torn down the major historic remnants. They’ve just overshadowed them, overwhelmed them — and made them seem little and irrelevant. Little hidden treasures you discover tucked away in the cracks between the new stately, dominant behemoths.

And why did I resent the changes so?

Well, first because it requires me to make adjustments. I had to let go of old familiar memories. To engage in thinking about “where is this? Where do I turn? Is this Stuart Street? Nah, can’t be”.

Then there is the sense of loss. Memories are so connected to places. Going to Theatre Row required eating at the Athens Olympia restaurant every time we went because it was the only real restaurant around there. Seeing the new Stuart/ Tremont Street neighborhood, all glitzy and grown up, meant letting go of pictures of my life — the stuff we all carry around in our memory bank. And in the process, taking a hard look at the march of time — the inexorable movement of life that keeps pushing you on to make room for others. Others coming along who will need to discover their neighborhoods, relate to their city, their version of home. And to create their memory banks.

The new icons and landmarks of Boston today will also change for them someday. And they’ll also feel that disarranged sense of loss as they look at what were their familiar icons and say “Hey! What’s going on? Where are my old buildings and hangouts!?

Lesson learned.

You can’t ever really go home again. No part of the world will stand still and wait for you while you move on in your life. Wait to reassure you about how it was. To help you feel safe and connected to stable earmarks. To let you know that your life was indelible and cast in solid matter.

Nothing told me more starkly about the journey. And what gets erased as you pass by.

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What Penn State Tells Us About Us

What’s the main takeaway from the Penn State child abuse horror? For me it’s all about taking a hard look at our accepted priorities — at what’s at the top of our societal list in terms of what matters, what needs to be preserved, what we’re proud of and care about. And how come we’ve ended up with this list.

Maybe it’s time to take that hard look at what slot the powerful domain of football holds, what it really stands for and what’s gotten pushed much further down.

That inviolate Sat/Sun magnet that overrides all other activities and media programming touches one of our most basic instincts. It’s really all about a field of battle and which side we’re on, playing into one of our most ancient, genetic instincts: to go forth on a field of battle with our cave (team) mates to best our enemies and protect ourselves, to fight for our territory, to survive and win. What else could stir more group passion? “De-fense, de-fense” — listen to the power, the unison of the onlookers. We’re all driven by that old need for a group win (be safe and strong), not a group loss (danger, weakness). We get deeply involved in the vicarious fight for territory — that old warring spirit, the good guys vs. the bad guys, the conquest, the defeat.

Tapping into such atavistic needs and feelings, the football practitioners — teams, coaches, colleges, media, money-makers — have an easy time gathering the force to carve out a high place on our list of passions and priorities — and create an unbelievably lucrative kingdom.

But we’re born with a whole bunch of instincts, all left over from the early days when we, as a species, were just trying to get a toehold on the earth and figure out what we needed to do to survive. The two overriding forces were:

  • not getting killed (battling for safety) and
  • procreating the species (protecting the offspring).

Well, that battle for territorial safety has surely changed and football merely re-enacts that ancient drama. But protecting our children? That’s real — as strong and firm an instinct as it ever was.

The passion for protecting the offspring is rule one throughout the animal kingdom — not just lioness and cubs but us, too. And since our offspring take much longer to develop and leave the nest, our instinct should be greater and last much longer.

How did football grow to such a station in our lives that Penn State’s officials and practitioners would go against such basic human nature just to protect the franchise?

To save the reputation and grooved machinery of the their football kingdom, we see grown men who train and develop, actually mold young athletes, whose powerful involvement in their lives also teaches them morals, values, standards and ways of playing life’s games. We see these men find no deeper calling than just saving the status quo — and the power and money it represents.

What was that assistant coach thinking when he came in and saw a grown man (allegedly) assaulting and sexually violating a child? What did he feel? Wasn’t he horrified? Didn’t he identify with the victim, not the perp? Wasn’t his first instinct to run forward and stop it? Isn’t that genetic? But the perp was a Penn State football coach! What would it do to the kingdom if he confronted and fought him, let alone tell on him? What overrode that first human instinct and made him leave and just call Daddy?

“Fight a coach? I could lose my job! I’d threaten JoePa’s football kingdom, ruin my future — and Penn State’s golden franchise!”

Result? Execs, coaches, those who could have put a stop to it laid low. Did the minimum. Passed it on sotto voce to the next in line, whispering in corners, no action taken. And let Sandusky continue his destruction of young boys’ lives. No sense of responsibility to anything above the good of that franchise. No higher priority.

And when the media finally moved in, (telling us about Syracuse and The Citadel, too) we got our noses rubbed in what has been raised to such a high position on our priority list. Not only that the law wasn’t followed but that a deep human instinct didn’t register with any of those people to want to prevent Sandusky from hurting any more children.

 So — let’s take another look at our priority list — and at where kids fit on it. What other kids’ needs are we missing besides safety and protection from fiendish adults? What priorities are we giving to education? To their health? To helping them grow into useful adults who will direct the future of our society? What other roles do adults need to play in their lives?

And maybe we’ll even start thinking — “Football? Great. But it’s still only a game.”

Put Down That Smartphone and Look at Me!

Hearing the inventory of Steve Jobs’ ground-breaking innovations, it made me think of what effect his genius has had on how we now relate to each other. What have we gained?

We can now make magic — we can bolt right over those old time/space barriers that made connecting with each other take time and physical effort. Now we can communicate with each other instantly, effortlessly — no seeing/hearing/touching/talking necessary. Our words fly through space and land just where we want them to with just the tap of a finger. And while we’re with one person we can even answer another’s demands and reach them too — putting the live, visible person we’re with on hold.

But what have we lost?

Communication science tells us that first impressions — the input that helps us learn and discern as we judge people — are made up of 55 percent experiencing your body language, 38 percent your tone of voice and that only 7 percent is your words. Seven percent of total information about anyone is what cell phones give us as we contact each other! Even less since we use acronyms — not even whole words.

So what is our new magic making us miss ?

Each other. The delight and surprise, the troubling demands, the enigmatic and fulfilling contacts we used to make with each other. The challenge of learning how to scratch the surface we all present. To recognize the human traits we all share. To experience each other, to see and learn how others are handling life and its issues — by looking and listening to them.

From the beginning, we used to invest ourselves personally in communicating. From painting pictures in caves to drums and smoke signals to developing language so we could get more specific to creating rites and rituals, plays, dances, songs — we were driven emotionally to reach out and affect each other, to share how we felt. To confirm and find solace in the commonality of our human condition.

It worked for centuries. As we moved on, we still treasured what had been said and done before because we continually recognized that the outreach of all the arts kept answering our questions, giving us other approaches to what we all still continued to live through and care about. And we kept seeking out the personal relating and responding, savoring the talking, the sharing — the contact. In every society, at any time in history, there were always family get-togethers, community celebrations, participation in events and intimacies with fellow humans. We saw and felt each other, reassured by the recognition that we’re not alone. That we do share the space and the life we all live.

Until now.

Yes — we still gather in groups. We still have family get-togethers. We still meet and eat with friends and colleagues. But the drive for contact? Eye contact? Verbal contact? Vocal contact? Reaching out to make personal, human contact? That’s fading. We’re now satisfied to share through little hand-held mechanical devices and solo finger exercises. Human contact is becoming theoretical. If the little device shows letters on a screen that means we’ve made today’s kind of contact. And it’s enough. Much easier and faster than talking. Safer too, since we can reconsider, edit and rewrite before reaching out. But what’s getting short-circuited in the creation of this unquestionably genius device? The looking, seeing, smiling, frowning, raising a voice, laughing a laugh — all those native people-gifts that we used to use for pleasure. And to instinctively judge, react to, understand and feel the human contacts we made.

Young people’s acronym-filled messages are now simply asking, “Are you still there?” waiting for the screen to say “Contact — I’m here.” We all use the new technology to fulfill more than just work tasks. The screen also answers “Who knows me?” “Do I matter” “Am I a player in the big game?” But the basic substance of life and how we live it is still human — not mechanical — and these extraordinary inventions are also starting to dry up our original communicative talents that always made reaching out to each other — though a little more time consuming — such full, rich, meaningful experiences.

So — what have we gained? Speed and ease and freedom in completing the circuits; in making technology do our bidding, short-cutting all the tiresome, time-consuming ways we used to use to accomplish our tasks. That’s good.

But what are we losing?

Those native human gifts we all own. Finding the individuality, the one-of-a-kindness that we can only discover by looking and listening, by interacting and processing live, at once, while we’re in real, personal contact with each other.

So — what am I asking for? Especially from the younger ones among us who grew up addicted to those devices. Put down those cell phones and go for being present. When you’re together with others, park the phone. Look. Listen. Perceive. Tune in. Treasure and use those inherent human instincts we used to be so good at when we needed to sense friend or foe, danger or joy, surprise or discovery. Notice. Touch. Breathe in. Feel what happens between people. Find out what we share before we lose those skills altogether. Discover what else you can learn about yourself and living – -not just the fact that we can now also make contact by tapping away.

Funny thing about us in Emergencies

If you read or listen to the news on a fairly regular basis you may have come to the conclusion that we’ve become a group of angry, divisive, name-calling sects, busily elbowing each other out of line, judging each other’s moral and mental capacities and losing that old, dependable sense of connection that used to mean being an American. Yes, we were always different from each other but we were always still related, allied, unified as Americans. Remember?

Then along comes Irene. And those hard, thorny, judgmental shells get peeled back to reveal— we’re all still connected. Connected by that most durable, eternal thread— our shared humanity. Everywhere we saw just folks rushing to rescue total strangers. Putting their own lives in jeopardy simply because they could feel the link. Their empathy and concern born out of the simple, innate human emotions we’re all born with. And suddenly we got to view that old American arm-in-armness that has been so sorely missing these last couple of years.

Of course folks like Rep. Eric Cantor couldn’t lose the opportunity to exhort us that FEMA – busy saving lives and property but spending money to do it —has to be considered one those evil government- spending programs that must be cut back in order to save money. Rather than asking the super-rich to kick in more revenue to solve our growing insolvency, certain politicians still see the human services our government provides as unnecessary, indulgent and only adding to the weakness of our economy rather than being the basic fabric of our society, grounded in our country’s founding principles.

So—does it have to take hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and blackouts for us to rise to showing the best in us? And what will it take to move the hearts of those members of Congress who worship the almighty dollar and the bottom line more than our universally basic human needs. Needs we all share, we who are lucky enough to be part of this country whose foundations were built on answering those human needs— freedom of speech and of worship ,from want and from fear.

Finding My Body Again

            Summer. Lenox, Massachusetts becomes home. And I’m surrounded by the glories of both the natural and the man-made world.

Nature? Trees, vistas, mountains, a lake outside my windows. Air so clear and fresh you actually notice what you’re breathing.  Silence at night. Stars so visible, so close. And a chance to see the sky without bending backwards.

Man-made? A host of theatres taking us with them on journeys of joy, of thoughtfulness and insight. Dance concerts bringing us the well-trained bodies of artists from around the world to show us what else we can say to each other. Tanglewood with the  Boston Symphony Orchestra  playing its heart out to adoring fans eating delicious picnics on the grass and reveling in the work of old masters and the new prophets.

But something else, too. A chance to stop the usual madness and focus inward. To not only listen to thoughts but to dare to try to recapture a passion. What was one of my strongest passions: I was a dancer.

Well, the years have rolled by, the weight has rolled on, the old muscle structure but a memory now. The skiing, the tennis, the dance, the physicality and speed with which I moved so naturally yesterday—all gone. New forms of my life took over. New focus, new skills developed  But wait. Up here I dared to open that door again.

I hied myself down to the local community center and started taking aerobics and Zumba classes. What an experience! Zumba is non-stop dancing for an hour to Latino salsa, mambo, meringue plus middle eastern and Indian pop music—all of it making me dance my heart out— all in time with a very fast beat and tunes blaring. No holds barred. And there’s no instruction. Just follow the leader. Copy. Figure it out as you go along. Recognize the steps and the patterns and just keep going! Fumbling the steps? Who cares. Just keep up with the music and move!

The first moments were shocking to me. I used to be a very good dancer. I could isolate parts of my body, think and move on several levels and also make my movement have meaning, both to me and to the audience. And here I was discovering, and needing to relate to, what felt like a lump of clay-like body. Sure I could keep time with the music, I HAD to keep time with the music—that’s one on my most basic instincts.  But to begin to move the sections of my body, to discover what I couldn’t automatically do, what wasn’t responding—all in an environment of a dance studio that was once my life!  What a kaleidoscope of images and feelings flashed through me!  But on I went, without the judging, the berating, the mourning over what I’d lost.

And there was this amazing new set of muscles dancing with me— my smile! I found myself grinning from ear to ear by the second day, when the body began using itself in the old ways. Improvising a little, putting my own style into the steps, recognizing and being able to repeat and enjoy what I’ d done yesterday.

Oh, my friends—what a glorious experience. I thought I’d lost her forever. I hadn’t seen or touched or heard from that Sonya in so long. And I found her again. She never left! And she was so glad to come out of the cramped little box in which I’d tucked her away.

Well- we’re back together again. Dancing every day among a group of people who aren’t every good at it, but, undaunted, they do it. They move and they enjoy it! And my old dancer, the old pro, is right in there with them.  Non-judgmentally- just moving . Having fun. Loving the chance to move again. And smiling.

When Insults Were Eloquent – Revel in the Juicy Language

 

     Have you thought about what’s happened to how we use language now? How we put messages and ideas we mean to get across? Since speed and ease are the big drivers in today’s communication,  I thought I’d take you on a visit to how something as tough as insults were creatively put by writers and speakers in days gone by.  Read these and enjoy the masterful way language was used.  Do they tempt you to re-think how you write those emails? 

A little levity helps put criticism in perspective, even though it’s sometimes hard to take.  I think you’ll enjoy these………I know I did.

He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.
………………………………………….Winston Churchill

A modest little person, with much to be modest about.

…………………………………………Winston Churchill

I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great
pleasure.
…………………………………………Clarence Darrow

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the
dictionary.
…………………………………………William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

Does he really think big emotions come from big words?
…………………………………………Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time
reading it.
…………………………………………Moses Hadas

He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.
………………………………………..Abraham Lincoln

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.
………………………………………. Groucho Marx

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved
of it.
………………………………………..Mark Twain

He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.
………………………………………..Oscar Wilde

I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a
friend, if you have one.
………………………………………..George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second if there is one.
……………………………………….Winston Churchill, in response to Bernard Shaw

He is a self-made man and worships his creator.
……………………………………….John Bright

I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it¹s nothing trivial.
……………………………………….Irvin S. Cobb

He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others.
……………………………………….Samuel Johnson

He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.
………………………………………..Paul Keating

He had delusions of adequacy.
………………………………………..Walter Kerr

There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure

…………………………………………Jack E. Leonard

He has the attention span of a lightning bolt.
…………………………………………Robert Redford

They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human
knowledge.
………………………………………..Thomas Brackett Reed

He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by
diligent hard work, he overcame them.
…………………………………………James Reston (about Richard Nixon)
In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily.
………………………………………..Charles, Count Talleyrand

He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.
………………………………………..Forrest Tucker

Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?
………………………………………..Mark Twain

His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.
……………………………………….. Mae West

Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.
………………………………………..Oscar Wilde

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts for support rather
than illumination.
………………………………………..Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

He has Van Gogh¹s ear for music.
………………………………………..Billy Wilder


How Easily We Forget

Well, the International Women’s Day was recently celebrated  amid  some press and fanfare and I sat there remembering the first ever Women’s Day declared in the U.S. in the 70’s — what the world was like then for women, how we felt and what’s come out of those fervent days..

There I was, in Boston, being the first woman to host her own talk show without the help of a male host, tackling the tough subjects of the day, and there were many —the women’s movement, the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate, the new consciousness-raising movements for both men and women. The Sonya Hamlin Show presented the first-ever birth of a child with natural childbirth on TV. We tackled the issues of homosexuality with gay men and women who dared, for the first time, to come forth and speak their names. We dealt with the school desegregation of Boston – a very bitter struggle – by my hosting members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizen’s Council to show Boston whom they were really dealing with. I interviewed all the leaders of the new young women’s movement, promoted their books, even launched every aspect of Ms magazine for a week on our air before it ever came out for the public on newsstands. And my station, WBZ, supported us and didn’t lay a hand on our programming. Truly groundbreaking broadcasting.

And then came the announcement of the first ever U.S. Women’s Day.

It meant “Stand Up and Be Counted”.  March down the streets of downtown, link arms, sing Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman, Hear me Roar”. It meant being open  and visible to each other as a group — not just as individual letter-writers to the editor or phone campaigns or passing petitions around.  What a feeling!

Our personal passions were suddenly multiplied and shared with so many others – we were live and visible. It was a little intimidating but so exhilarating. And so new… But then, as we marched, I saw and heard a bunch of hard-hat workers hanging out of an unfinished building, cracking the usual cracks, whistling  the usual whistles, telling us to go home and get in the kitchen, in the bed etc. and I was reminded again of the uphill climb before us.

What’s sad to me today is that the newest generation of women have no idea what that fight was like. They never think about how come they now have so many opportunities that didn’t exist for us, the first wave of women trying to enter the big world as equal participants. They have no idea how it felt to be the first women into the various jobs that seems commonplace. We needed to fight so hard to even get heard or taken seriously, to even be allowed to apply for and enter the new possibilities we were making happen. I remember having experts on my show talking about new work modes to accommodate women, like flex-time and shared jobs and the four- day work week –all now quite commonplace. We were ridiculed, especially by the established workplace.

So as I read about plans for the newest International Women’s Day I reflected on how social change happens—how hard it is, how exposed the early proponents are—and how quickly that painful struggle gets absorbed into the mainstream and never even thought of—the changes simply becoming part of what’s expected.

Wouldn’t really knowing the history of the women’s movement strengthen today’s young women? Not just to surprise them but also to deepen their understanding of what issues they still face and inspire them that it’s possible to make social change. And to discover the joy of finding each other and join again in pursuing common goals.